Why we need hermeneutics

By hermeneutics, I understand the ability to listen to the other in the belief that he [sic] could be right.

— from a 1996 interview with Hans-Georg Gadamer, “Die Welt als Speigelkabinett: Zum 350. Gerburtstag von Leibniz am 1. Juli 1996,” Nicholas Halmer, Das SalzburgerNachtradio (Osterreichischer Rundfunk); quoted in Jean Grodin, Hand-Georg Gadamer: A Biography (New Haven, Conn.: Yale Univ. Press, 2003), p. 250.

Gadamer lived through the Nazi nightmare in Germany, and was rector of the University of Liepzig in 1946 after the Soviets had taken charge of what later became East Germany. He had, therefore, directly experienced how ideologues can restrict public discourse. Yet he affirmed the importance of scholarly independence and, more importantly, openness in dialogue.

In the United States today, we are in a situation where liberals, conservatives, and the far right each hew to set of shared assumptions. If you question the assumptions of liberals, conservatives, or the far rightists, you cannot expect open and respectful dialogue; instead, you will be subjected to ad hominem attacks, and immense pressure will be brought to bear upon you to conform to one or the other sets of assumptions.

For example, if someone were to question the validity of the #MeToo movement: liberals would condemn that person as a Neanderthal sexist and demand acceptance of the essential goodness of the #MeToo movement; conservatives might affirm that person for standing up to “political correctness”; and the far rightists might latch on to that person for upholding “family values” and assume that person was also affirming the right of men to be sexual aggressors. None of these groups would listen to anything that was said beyond the initial questioning of the validity of the #MeToo movement. But I have heard liberal feminists question the #MeToo movement on the grounds that it is in effect a vigilante movement, and that while vigilante movements might be inevitable in situations like this where the rule of law does not adequately protect some individuals nevertheless we should always be extremely wary of vigilantes; furthermore, when we look at our past we find that one of the largest single groups of U.S. vigilantes was white lynch mobs carrying out summary justice against African Americans, and that’s probably not a tradition that we want to carry forward.

The current situation in the U.S. is one where everyone has been rubbed raw by the intolerance of the public sphere; everyone has become an ideologue, sure of their narrow beliefs, not tolerating any challenge to those beliefs. Everyone has their own truth. By contrast, Gadamer calls on us to develop the ability to listen openly to others, aware that I might not always be right and that I can get closer to truth by listening to others. These days in the hyperindividualistic U.S., everyone thinks they can have own truth. Gadamer challenges us to listen to think about the possibility that there may be truth that extends beyond the narrow confines of one’s own self; and that by entering into open dialogue with someone we disagree with, we might actually learn something.