Monday, June 22, 2009

Gadamer, Collingwood, and Barth on asking the right questions

"We can understand a text only when we have understood the question to which it is an answer."
- That's H.-G. Gadamer in Truth and Method (1960, repr. Continuum, 2004), 363, paraphrasing the English philosopher and historian, R.G. Collingwood.

Collingwood puts it like this in his intellectual autobiography:
"By now meditation on the Albert Memorial had taught me a second [rule], namely, 'reconstruct the problem'; or, 'never think you understand any statement made by a philosopher until you have decided, with the utmost possible accuracy, what the question is to which he means it for an answer."
- R.G. Collingwood, An Autobiography (1939; repr. Oxford, 1982), 74.

To my mind, Gadamer's paraphrase is better worded than the original, though Collingwood's engaging and readable autobiography is way more accessible than Gadamer. Here is another variation from Collingwood's, An Essay on Metaphysics (Oxford: 1940, repr. 2002), 23, which I have not read:

"Every statement that anybody ever makes is made in answer to a question."

Not that the basic idea was original to Collingwood. Karl Barth says something similar in the preface to the second (1921) edition of his Romans commentary:
"Criticism (κρίνειν) applied to historical documents means for me the measuring of words and phrases by the standard of that about which the documents are speaking--unless indeed the whole be nonsense. When documents contain answers to questions, the answers must be brought into relation with the questions which are presupposed, and not with some other questions."

But Barth goes on to speak specifically of theological exegesis:
"And moreover, proper concentration of exegesis presses behind the many questions to the one cardinal question by which all are embraced. Everything in the text ought to be interpreted only in the light of what can be said, and therefore only in the light of what is said. When an investigation is rightly conducted, boulders composed of fortuitous or incidental or merely historical conceptions ought to disappear almost entirely. The Word ought to be exposed in the words. Intelligent comment means that I am driven on till I stand with nothing before me but the enigma of the matter; till the document seems hardly to exist as a document; till I ahve almost forgotten that I am not its author; till I know the author so well that I allow him to speak in my name and am even able to speak in his name myself."
- Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans(Oxford: 1968), 8.

1 comment:

Tyler Smith said...

This is why Jeopardy is still in buisness! Nice post David.