And now for the dramatic (ahem) conclusion of last time’s post. Just a quick refresh, I was ranting about Gadamer, Truth and Method, and you should read the previous post.
I need to elaborate on the fore-meaning. Normally speaking, this is a mostly unconscious process. Gadamer wants us to bring this fore-meaning to consciousness, to hold it next to the text while reading it. Also he requires us to remain open to new insights, which allows the fore-meaning to change into something that will help you understand the text better.
The fore-meaning can be however odd, the interpretation of a text can not be random. For example you can think about France as a fairy-tale land full of unicorns, but a historical text of France does not permit the same conclusion. Meaning is fluid for Gadamer, but they are not random. The text tries to tell us something, and this limits the extent the reader can relativize things. Importantly, hermeneutics is the questioning of things, and as such is committed to question both text and fore-meaning. This makes for a solid base for interpretation.
Part of the fore-meaning is prejudice. Now, originally this word didn’t have the negative connotation it now has. It could be either positive or negative: Prejudice was a neutral term. It is derived from the Latin praejudicium, a verdict that was made before all the elements that determine a situation had been finally examined.
Under the influence of the Enlightenment, prejudice became bad, because, simply put, it wasn’t based on reason. Rationally, you would need to have all the evidence before coming to a conclusion.
A distinction was made between two prejudices: human authority, and over-hastiness. Let’s apply this to texts. A text written by a professor has more authority than one written by a village idiot, and the sloppy reading of texts leads to wrong conclusions. The Enlightened minds wish us to discard our own opinions and relate only the facts.
When Romanticism came along, it presented itself as Enlightenment-critique. This, according to Gadamer, resulted in the same problem. Romanticism bases itself on the Enlightened principles, but reverses them: it validates the old, because it is old. It is the other extreme.
We can’t trust the texts completely: according to Gadamer, texts have a sort of inherent authority that complicates the interpretation, because we must be aware of the possibility that the written word could be wrong.
What should we then do? We should integrate our prejudices in our method. We can’t escape our intellectual tradition, but we can become conscious of it, so that we can interpret a text as good as we can. Reason is also dependent on historical circumstances, that is why an interpretation can never be final. The integration of prejudice and history leads to an ever-changing meaning and understanding.
We arrive now at another problem concerning understanding, namely that the understanding of matters is not direct, but mediated via language.
Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method (1960; London & New York, 2004).