19. Gadamer’s Communication


“That ‘something can be held in our hesitant stay’ – this is what art has always been and still is today.”1
Hans-Georg Gadamer citing Friedrich Hölderlin

In Aesthetics and Hermeneutics, Gadamer had another stab at an idea we first saw in his thoughts on prejudices:

“We cannot understand without wanting to understand, that is, without wanting to let something be said… A kind of anticipation of meaning guides the effort to understand from the very beginning.”2

So, for understanding to happen an “anticipation of meaning” is constructed whereby we place ourselves in a position of readiness to absorb what is being given to us. To illustrate, we have all experienced the situation where we believe that we know already what will be stated or given when a friend or colleague announces ‘I’ll tell you what I think’. Such a necessary pre-cursor to understanding however, all too often, follows through during the giving procedure and actually overrides what is given, due to the strength of what was first anticipated. In the example of the friend or colleague we quite often continue our anticipated meaning internally and miss what they actually say. Gadamer’s implicit claim being that any “anticipation of meaning” can potentially block new meaning and understanding from occurring because it can prevent what is said from being heard.

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The importance of Gadamer’s thought here is that when we block something/someone from speaking to us, we effectively stop ourselves from having new, real, experiences and subsequently gaining self-understanding from those experiences. Looking back to his thoughts on art, and reminding ourselves of the importance he gave to art and its ability to have a personal impact, we can begin to trace this new route in his thinking:

“The work of art that says something confronts us itself. That is, it expresses something in such a way that what is said is like a discovery, a disclosure of something previously concealed… To understand what the work of art says to us is therefore a self-encounter… the experience of art is experience in a real sense.”3

The experience of art for Gadamer, as we have learned in previous posts, has the capacity for generating self-understanding due to its ability to unlock or provide potential thoughts, ideas or emotions that can be absorbed by us. There is a difficulty, though, as Gadamer perceives because our “anticipation of meaning” might follow though or dominate so as to block what the work of art is able express or unlock within us. Such an impasse needs, obviously, to be overcome if we are to actually experience the work of art and not sabotage our potential understanding. For Gadamer, a ‘locksmith’, which I shall call ‘openness’, arrives in counterpoint to his notion of “anticipation of meaning”.

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The way that such a counterpoint operates is for us, quite simply, to be present when we are experiencing something new. Essentially, openness is required when experiencing, as in this case a work of art. The production or requirement of openness, however, is something that comes from us. We must produce and manufacture our own openness in counterpoint to the other production we generate: “anticipation of meaning”. For us to experience and thereby understand something new our openness must succeed in overriding our “anticipation of meaning.” Therefore, As Gadamer summarises in Aesthetics and Hermeneutics the onus is upon us “and what we will allow to be said” because “understanding does not occur when we try to intercept what someone wants to say to us by claiming we already know it.”4 Being open and overriding “anticipation of meaning”, though, is not easy. Gadamer recognised this problem and tackled it within a later essay of entitled, The Relevance of the Beautiful. In lieu of an easy entrée into this text I want to present you with a charging rhinoceros.

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In terms of our instinct-led need for survival, evolution has spent considerable time tuning us so that we are able to recognise that a charging rhinoceros is a very real threat and that we need all the time we can get to run away. Dithering about, trying to recognise if the wild beast accelerating towards is a threat or not will quickly eradicate the species Homo Sapien. Consequently, over many generations, it may be safe to assume, evolution has gifted us an ability to recognise objects swiftly and to anticipate meaning. In this case, the object to recognise is a charging rhino and the meaning to anticipate is that it would not be prudent to stick around and see what damage 1,500 kilograms of rushing muscle, bone and gristle might do to us with a long, spiky, horn up front.

Gadamer’s proffered instance in The Relevance of the Beautiful is perhaps more pertinent, if a little less exciting:

“It is the case that when we look at non-objective art, we can never escape from the fact that in our everyday experience of the world, our vision is oriented towards recognising objects. We also hear the concentrated expression of music with the same ear with which we otherwise try to understand language.”5

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Less exciting it might be, but Gadamer gets the message across. However, he also takes the thinking a stage further by recognising that the notion of aesthetic appreciation is hampered, because of its reliance on senses that are tuned to more primary qualities of recognition. Gadamer shows that survival instincts and evolution have hard-wired us to use our senses in order to understand and recognise first before any supplementary appreciation in the aesthetic dimension can unfold. The validity of such Gadamerian pseudo-science is of course highly questionable, but the likelihood remains that Gadamer might just have a point. So, let’s try and see it.

I think Gadamer recognised that there is a difficulty that presents itself when we try to allow ourselves to be receptive to our surroundings and subsequently play with or appreciate them, such as when we look at a work of art. Taking the Gadamerian idea for a walk a little further, it seems as though we need a secure environment within which to overcome our survival based sensory approach to the external world in order to allow those same senses to be tuned towards aesthetic or playful criteria. The summation being that we cannot come to a work of art with anxiety hanging over or around us, our senses simply won’t let us be capable of being open to it. Can one really get their aesthetic on if they are anxious, nervous or stressed? Such inward priorities for our mind are evolution’s way of ensuring that we are kept alive. Charging rhinos might not exist for many of us as a day-to-day problem but our ‘evolved’ coping mechanisms still need to flex their muscles and this flexing puts all other mental activity, such as aesthetic appreciation, firmly into the position of runner-up. There is, of course, as with most of Gadamer’s illuminations, the passing sweep of light on a darkened corner that really deserves a longer study and deeper focus. However, such study and focus must fall to others, because it is not within my particular gift to carry out such interesting and potentially rewarding work when, as we stand today, there is as yet no actual acknowledged space that has been cleared in readiness for the commencement of such activities. So, this primary duty is my charge, which I gleefully accept, scythe in hand.

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In addition to the need of coming to something/someone with inner anxieties (which I use in a broad sense to cover all mental pre-occupations) held at bay, I’m prompted to realise that when we converse with one another there are a whole raft of other potential adrenaline/hormone fuelled possibilities that can leap to the fore-front of our being. The potential experiences that we allow to permeate through our primary-function-tuned hearing and sight senses also have to run the gamut of our physicality being tuned to the fight or flight of adrenaline induced reactions to situations or people. Just as primitively, we can also find ourselves caught up within hormone led situations of sexual desire or otherwise, whereby our ability to relax and focus with a calm and open persona can be severely compromised.

Evolution, as Gadamer suggested, has spent a long time ensuring the survival of our species and concentrated that effort in a multitude of ways to prolong our existence. Consequently, by being physical endowed beings we might not always approach one another neutrally with the philosophical purity of intent to engage at a meaningful level. Sometimes we are just base creatures and cannot get over that simple fact. The task for our aesthetic side, of course, is to try and quieten this base side when it is not required and to listen to what is being said by the other. And this listening is not to be ring-fenced to only aesthetic appreciation because as Gadamer said in Aesthetics and Hermeneutics “Whatever says something to us is like a person who says something.”6 The ethical dimension of listening to what is said to us by someone else is just as much an endeavour as ‘listening’ to the work of art.

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Drawing his findings to a close in The Relevance of the Beautiful, we can imagine Gadamer coming near to the end of his voyage and steering into what looks like a familiar harbour as we observe him turning, somewhat implicitly, to Heidegger:

“To sum up the results of these brief reflections: in the experience of art we must learn how to dwell upon the work in a specific way. When we dwell upon the work, there is no tedium involved, for the longer we allow ourselves, the more it displays its manifold riches to us. The essence of our temporal experience of art is in learning to tarry in this way.”7

‘Gadameidegger’ as the philosophical synthesis might be, recommends that one learns to ‘tarry’ or ‘dwell’ within the experience of art so that it becomes “a question, therefore, of allowing what is to be.”8 However, as if to distance himself, at this moment, from Heidegger and also demonstrate exactly what he contributed, Gadamer makes crystal clear his thinking on the subject of “allowing what is to be”:

“But this ‘letting be’ does not mean the repetition of something we already know… The work of art transforms our fleeting experience into the stable and lasting form of an independent and internally coherent creation. It does so in such a way that we go beyond ourselves by penetrating deeper into the work.”9

In such an experience of a work of art, whereby we go beyond ourselves and allow ourselves to grow experientially, the statement by Gadamer concerning the work of art having its “true being in the fact it becomes an experience that changes the person who experiences it”10 can finally begin to resonate meaningfully within us. Turning off his torch and bringing us smoothly to the quayside, Gadamer cites Hölderlin: “That ‘something can be held in our hesitant stay’ – this is what art has always been and still is today.”11

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Having docked us back to dry land, after a providing a thrilling Gadamerian journey that enlivened much philosophical thought within us, I’m aware that there could possibly be confusion as to where we intended to land and where we now seem to be. Didn’t we buy a ticket, which had as its destination other people and don’t we now appear to find ourselves alighting at the port of art? Fear not weary travellers because although your sleepy heads may feel slightly woozy and light, you yourselves know that you have been brought to where you needed to go. However, a little explaining as to why the ticket and arrival point don’t appear to match would be nice, would it not? A friendly Gadamerian is required. Gerald Bruns, a hidden gem among critics and engagers of philosophy, is our chap because his is an all too rare voice of understanding regarding the importance of Gadamer’s wisdom. However, before Bruns has his chance to shine, I want to take us next to Hell, courtesy of an old friend of mine called Jean-Paul.

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  1. Gadamer, H-G. ‘The Relevance of the Beautiful’ included in Hans-Georg Gadamer, The Relevance of the Beautiful and Other Essays. Edited by Robert Bernasconi. Translated by Nicholas Walker, Cambridge University Press, 1994, 53.
  2. Gadamer, H-G. ‘Aesthetics and Hermeneutics’ included in Hans-Georg Gadamer, Philosophical Hermeneutics. Translated by David E. Linge, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1977, 101.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid., 102.
  5. Gadamer, H-G. ‘The Relevance of the Beautiful’ included in Hans-Georg Gadamer, The Relevance of the Beautiful and Other Essays. Edited by Robert Bernasconi. Translated by Nicholas Walker, Cambridge University Press, 1994, 58.
  6. Gadamer, H-G. ‘Aesthetics and Hermeneutics’ inlcluded in Hans-Georg Gadamer, Philosophical Hermeneutics. Translated by David E. Linge, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1977, 101.
  7. Gadamer, H-G. ‘The Relevance of the Beautiful’ included in Hans-Georg Gadamer, The Relevance of the Beautiful and Other Essays. Edited by Robert Bernasconi. Translated by Nicholas Walker, Cambridge University Press, 1994, 45.
  8. Ibid., 49.
  9. Ibid., 49 and 53.
  10. Gadamer, H-G. Truth and Method, second edition. Translated by Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall, Sheed and Ward, London, 2001, 102.
  11. Gadamer, H-G. ‘The Relevance of the Beautiful’ included in Hans-Georg Gadamer, The Relevance of the Beautiful and Other Essays. Edited by Robert Bernasconi. Translated by Nicholas Walker, Cambridge University Press, 1994, 53.

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