When neither
tries to impose their side.

We gently ebb and flow
with words and ideas.

If entered into openly,
without agendas,

every conversation
can create a common language.

You and I can speak together,
and be together.

Hans-Georg Gadamer reasoned that there are conditions of participation in a dialogue:

“To conduct a conversation means to allow oneself to be conducted by the subject matter to which the partners in the dialogue are oriented. It requires that one does not try to argue the other person down but that one really considers the weight of the other’s opinion.”[1]

Expanding, Gadamer asserted three conditions regarding conversation:

  1. One must allow the subject matter of the conversation to dictate the flow of the conversation, and that one should not enter into a conversation with a pre-determined goal if one wants to have a genuine experience.
  2. One must remain open to what the other actually gives within the conversation, and hence respond to those opinions and not just what arises in one’s own thoughts.
  3. “Every conversation presupposes a common language, or better, creates a common language.”[2]

With these three conditions in place, Gadamer believed a ‘successful conversation’ could take place where both participants “come under the influence of the truth of the object and are thus bound to one another in a new community.”[3] There is much force here in Gadamer’s reference to community, because he tried to articulate that we should be open rather than stating that we should just be – the Heideggerian position.

“Conversation is a process of coming to an understanding. Thus, it belongs to every true conversation that each person opens himself to the other, truly accepts his point of view as valid and transposes himself into the other to such an extent that he understands not the particular individual but what he says. What is to be grasped is the substantive rightness of his opinion, so that we can be at one with each other on the subject… Where a person is concerned with the other as individuality – e.g., in a therapeutic conversation or the interrogation of a man accused of a crime – this is really not a situation in which two people are trying to come to an understanding.”[4]

Understanding through conversation, therefore for Gadamer, requires that each person regard the other’s opinion and not just the other as an object. A stunningly obvious truth, but one that absolutely needs stating. A friendly Gadamerian, David E. Linge, repackages this idea so that we might dwell upon it further, in case we all too rashly dismiss it due to its simplicity and bumble blithely ever onwards:

“The dialogical character of interpretation is subverted when the interpreter concentrates on the other person as such rather than on the subject matter – when he looks at the other person, as it were, rather than with him at what the other attempts to communicate.”[5]

The necessary realisation being that we need to stop looking at, and start looking with, if we want any actual understanding to emerge, because understanding comes through participation not observation as far as Gadamer is concerned.

[1] Gadamer, H-G. Truth and Method, second edition. Translated by Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall, Sheed and Ward, London, 2001, 367.

[2] Ibid., 378.

[3] Ibid., 379.

[4] Ibid., 385.

[5] David E. Linge. ‘Editor’s Introduction’ included in Hans-Georg Gadamer, Philosophical Hermeneutics, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1977, xx.

Published by Dr Jim Walsh

CEO of Conway Hall Ethical Society and author of 'Ethics Starts With You'.

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