Friday, March 30, 2018

A Gadamer Cake

I began Hans-Georg Gadamer's Truth and Method in 2008, read a little over 100 pages, and stopped (evidence: here, here and here). The tome languished in my personal library graveyard for unfinished books until this January, when I picked it up again. Completing the final 450 pages almost a decade later feels like an accomplishment worth celebrating. t. suggested a cake, and the conversation quickly turned to what a Gadamer Cake would be like: Dense, I said, and layered. No, not a fruit-cake. It's more substantial than that. It has to be taken in small servings, and it really does a number on your system.

The translator's preface puts it this way: "The book is powerful, exciting, but undeniably difficult. Published when Gadamer was sixty, it gathers the ripe fruit of a lifetime's reading, teaching and thinking."

The book must have been healthy too--Gadamer was born in 1900 and died in 2002. What follows is an excerpt from the 25-page Afterward, first published in 1986 with Gadamer's collected works. This dessert course warns of the dangers of a "scientific" over-reach that forgets its and humanity's own epistemic limits:
"In a time when science penetrates further and further into social practice, science can fulfill its social function only when it acknowledges its own limits and the conditions placed on its freedom to maneuver. Philosophy must make this clear to an age credulous about science to the point of superstition." (556)
The same goes for the social sciences:
"However uncertain are the factual bases on which rational management of social life might be possible, a will to believe impels the social sciences onward and drives them far beyond their limits." (557)
I recall an atheist Canadian New Testament scholar who, rather too conveniently, dismissed hermeneutics as in effect a cover for "theological obscurantism." I expect a similar approach is common to the scientism of the new atheists. Gadamer responds that such a dogmatic refusal to consider the limits of the scientific method is irrational:
"A philosophy of the sciences that understands itself as a theory of scientific method and dismisses any inquiry that cannot be meaningfully characterized as a process of trial and error does not recognize that by this very criterion it is itself outside science. ... By raising 'critical rationality' to the status of an absolute measure of truth, empirical theory of science regards hermeneutic reflection as theological obscurantism. ... What is remarkable is that, for the sake of rationality, theory of science here abandons itself to complete irrationality .... It fails to recognize that it is itself complicit with a much more fatal immunization against experience--for example, against that of common sense and the experience one gains in living. It always does so when it promotes the uncritical expansion of scientific management beyond specific contexts--for example, when it assigns responsibility for political decisions to experts." (558-9)
Quotations are from the second revised edition: Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method (London: Continuum, 2004).

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