A Kind of Integrity

Jonathan Barnes

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.

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