A Kind of Integrity
- Philosophical Apprenticeships by Hans-Georg Gadamer, translated by Robert Sullivan
MIT, 198 pp, £13.95, October 1985, ISBN 0 262 07092 8
- The Idea of the Good in Platonic-Aristotelian Philosophy by Hans-Georg Gadamer, translated by Christopher Smith
Yale, 182 pp, £18.00, June 1986, ISBN 0 300 03463 6
Hans-Georg Gadamer ranks as one of Germany’s foremost philosophers. He occupied a chair at Heidelberg for quarter of a century, during which time his lecturing skills and a steady flow of publications brought him a reputation and a following second to none. Since his retirement he has divided his time between Germany and North America. Many of his writings have been translated, and the English version of his major work on Truth and Method has helped to extend his fame. His thought now enjoys a considerable vogue in the English-speaking world.
Gadamer was born in Breslau at the turn of the century. His father was a chemist and a Philistine who despised the more speculative disciplines. But it was his father’s paperback copy of Kant’s Critique which first introduced the young Gadamer to philosophy, and in 1919 he went to study the subject at Marburg, the centre of the dominant neo-Kantian school. He was taught by Paul Natorp and Nicolai Hartmann. In addition, Stefan George had a hidden importance, Max Scheler was a strong influence, and Paul Friedlaender later supplied a training in Classical scholarship. But the mystagogue of Gadamer’s philosophical initiation was Martin Heidegger. He first met Heidegger in 1923 and was captivated: Heidegger’s seal – to change the metaphor – was pressed deeply and firmly into the soft wax of Gadamer’s mind.
Philosophical Apprenticeships, a book of memoirs interspersed with brief biographical sketches, gives vivid and amiable accounts of those early years and early influences. There are humorous touches. Scheler ‘was always a lover of beautiful women (but only three times married)’. Gerhard Krueger ‘could say the most amazing things to your face while simultaneously and carefully probing himself’. Rudolf Bultmann made scholarly compilations of the jokes his pupils were required to tell him. Heidegger himself was at least once involved in a joke – a joke about herrings which remains, alas, as incomprehensible as the rest of Heidegger’s jovial philosophy.
Intellectually, life was intensely stimulating. It was also exacting – the more so in that Heidegger would lecture at seven in the morning, while Hartmann never rose before midday and only flourished after midnight. Moreover, the circumstances of a young privatdozent were severe: a meagre salary had to be eked out by tuition money, and tuition money depended wholly on the skill of the tutor in attracting pupils. In any case, the Weimar years in Germany were economically grim.
The Third Reich brought a turn for the better. Although ‘our circle thinned and our situation became difficult,’ Gadamer and his friends were determined to survive. ‘It remained difficult to keep the right balance, not to compromise oneself so far that one would be dismissed and yet still to remain recognisable to colleagues and students. That we somehow found the right balance was confirmed for us one day when it was said of us that we had only “loose sympathy” with the new awakening.’ This ‘loose sympathy’ with the Nazi regime amounted, in concrete terms, to this: Gadamer declined to ‘spout Nazi nonsense from the podium’, but he was prepared to give the Hitler salute.
A long-standing friend of Gadamer’s, Richard Kroner, taught philosophy at Kiel. In 1934, Gadamer reports, ‘fate intervened to throw Kroner off track’: that is to say, Kroner was sacked because he was a Jew. Gadamer took his job.
Despite this little success, further balancing acts were still required, and in 1936 Gadamer voluntarily registered at a Nazi ‘rehabilitation camp’. Doctrinally, life in the camp was mild and undemanding, and Gadamer satisfied his examiners without difficulty. He was also able to join in the ‘gymnastics, competitive games, and marches with nationalistic singing’, which enriched the emotional life of the inmates. During his training, he was fortunate enough to catch a glimpse of the Fuehrer himself, who impressed him ‘as being simple, indeed awkward, like a boy playing the soldier’.
The rehabilitation paid off. In 1937 Gadamer attained the rank of professor. In 1938 he was called to a chair in philosophy at the University of Leipzig. ‘The new beginning in Leipzig’ happily ‘pushed the gloominess of the world situation into the background’, and Gadamer could concentrate on his philosophy. The war came. The gloom thickened. Leipzig was bombed to rubble. Gadamer lectured on. He survived. And when the Americans occupied Leipzig in 1945 they made Gadamer what in another context would be called a trusty. He was, after all, ‘uncompromised’ (the description is his own), and he came to play a major role in the post-war reorganisation of the university.
Vol. 9 No. 6 · 19 March 1987
SIR: Jonathan Barnes’s review (LRB, 6 November 1986) of Hans-Georg Gadamer’s Philosophical Apprenticeships, which I translated, is nothing if not character assassination. Perhaps it is better to steer clear of this low road, but such proves impossible given Mr Barnes’s relentlessness.
The coming of Hitler’s Germany, we are told, brought a ‘turn for the better’ for Gadamer. Really? How so? Why did Gadamer, already 33 years old in 1933, have to wait until 1938 to get the call to a professorship? Could it be that he was not co-operating and hence was not being rewarded by the Nazis by being put on the fast track? Mr Barnes will have none of this. Gadamer was, according to him, ‘prepared to give the Hitler salute’. Well, perhaps: but if it matters at all to Mr Barnes, this is not what Gadamer says in his autobiography. In the passage presumably referred to (p. 75), Gadamer is describing what was done among reluctant German academics, and the practice was a grudging half-salute, more like a flick of the wrist from the hip, that was designed to demonstrate refusal rather than the kind of enthusiasm Mr Barnes insinuates. But Mr Barnes has an agenda, and it quickly – dare I say predictably – leads up to this: Professor Richard Kroner ‘was sacked because he was a Jew. Gadamer took his job’. Well, yes and no, and true as far as it goes etc, etc, but Mr Barnes neglects to mention that this taking of Kroner’s job was only a one-year replacement (p. 76) and that the presumed NSDAP enthusiast somewhat inexplicably remained lifelong friends with the Jewish professor (Kroner returned to Heidelberg to visit Gadamer in 1962). Mr Barnes might also have mentioned that Gadamer brought Karl Lowith, another Jew forced to leave Germany in 1933, back to a permanent position in Heidelberg in the early Fifties. But of course this story would not fit Mr Barnes’s agenda, and so it is omitted. Finally come characterisations that might have alerted the reader to the problems in Mr Barnes’s scheme: after the war Gadamer became the ‘trusty’ (read: ‘convicted criminal’) of the Americans in their brief occupation of Leipzig and then was named Rector (read: ‘trusty’) of the re-opened University by the Soviet authorities when they replaced the Americans in late 1945. However we take these actions by the Americans and the Russians, they might at least have suggested to Mr Barnes that Gadamer had in fact come through the Nazi period uncompromised. Yet Mr Barnes manages to turn even this on its head: uncompromised becomes ‘uncompromised’ in telling quotation-marks.
Let me suggest what I think is at the bottom of Mr Barnes’s character assassination of Hans-Georg Gadamer. The Nazis were manifestly reprehensible morally. Therefore it is easy to believe that if one did not oppose them, one must have been in favour of them. Gadamer clearly did nothing to oppose the Nazis, and this annoys Mr Barnes. Therefore, he concludes, Gadamer must have favoured the Nazis. Does Mr Barnes actively oppose the Thatcher Government? If not, may I conclude that he supports it?
Given the job done on Gadamer’s character, little can be expected of Jonathan Barnes’s treatment of Gadamer’s thinking, and, true to form, he has little to say. Indeed, his best sentence is the following: ‘I do not understand much of this …’ Such a startling revelation occurs in reference to a quotation which, upon careful reading, is a forceful, eloquent and concise statement of Gadamer’s thinking (and well translated to boot). But since Mr Barnes understands so little of what he reads, he is constrained to go on and invent his own version of Gadamer’s thinking. ‘I guess,’ says he, and then what follows is just that, a guess at what philosophical hermeneutics is. He gets it for the most part botched. Ironically, however, when he comes to Gadamer’s key relationship to Platonic texts, he very nearly gets it right. But he still does not understand it. Mr Barnes claims that Gadamer is not interested in what Plato is about. But this is true of all Gadamer’s writings on Plato. Such a distinctly positivistic interest would work to turn Plato into a historical object in the distant past, and it is precisely this distance that philosophical hermeneutics strives to overcome. Gadamer is, rather, interested in the lively, provocative ability of Platonic texts to spark a response in us, and this suggests a passion to collapse historical distance and make Plato part of the modern present. Gadamer indeed would enter into conversation with Plato. This, in a nutshell, is effective, really effective, historical consciousness, but Mr Barnes is incapable of recognising it.
Aside from Plato, what bothers Mr Barnes about philosophical hermeneutics is its potential for moral relativism. Yet, amazing as it first seems, it is precisely the possibility of avoiding moral relativism that gives philosophical hermeneutics its attractiveness. Put differently, if Gadamer’s thinking has an absolute commitment, one that is nowhere relativised, it is to ‘conversation’, a term which here functions as the layman’s version of what professional philosophers like to call ‘procedural rationality’. The attraction of procedural rationality is that it responds to the bankruptcy of foundationalism in modern philosophy. If all fixed, fast-frozen principles have been called into question, melted into air, as Marx might say, then why not privilege the question? Is this not what the Platonic Socrates did? If I may, for the sake of dramatic impact, redeploy the terminology of Thomas Kuhn to fit Gadamer’s project, let me characterise philosophical hermeneutics by saying that it is not ‘normal philosophy’, which always proceeds axiomatically on the basis of unquestioned givens. Philosophical hermeneutics is rather ‘revolutionary philosophy’ because it proceeds by dissolving all historical axioms into hypotheses to be tested in conversation. In this manner, it collapses history, which after all is a kind of establishment of axiomatic positions. This is philosophy for the few, as Nietzsche might put it.
John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University, New York