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History Does Not Belong To Us But We Belong To It

hermeneutic cirlce

Because an experience is itself within the whole of life, the whole of life is present in it too.” — Gadamer

Hans-Georg Gadamer is associated in particular with one form of philosophy: “hermeneutics.” Derived from the Greek world hermeneuo, meaning “interpret,” this is the study of how humans interpret the world.

Gadamer studied philosophy under Martin Heidegger, who said that the task of philosophy is to interpret our existence. This interpretation is always a process of deepening our understanding by starting from what we already know. The process is similar to how we might interpret a poem. We start by reading it carefully in the light of our present understanding. If we come to a line that seems strange or particularly striking, we might need to reach for a deeper level of understanding. As we interpret individual lines, our sense of the poem as a whole might begin to change; and as our sense of the poem as a whole changes, so might our understanding of individual lines. This is known as the “hermeneutic circle.”

Our understanding is always from a particular point in history.

Our prejudice and beliefs, the kinds of questions that we think are worth asking, and the kinds of answers with which we are satisfied are all the product of our history. We cannot stand outside history and culture, so we can never reach an absolutely objective perspective.

Reading historical texts often highlights our own cultural norms and prejudices.

If I pick up a book by Plato, and read it carefully, I might find not only that I am deepening my understanding of Plato, but also that my own prejudices and biases become clear, and perhaps begin to shift. Not only am I reading Plato, but Plato is reading me. Through this dialogue, or what Gadamer calls “the fusion of horizons,” my understanding of the world reaches a deeper, richer level.

— Quotes via The Philosophy Book