Gadamer and the Greeks

Moving house means moving possessions and, amidst the upheaval this has involved, I’ve found a few spare moments to reacquaint myself with some possessions I haven’t paid much attention to in a while. Tucked away in a bag of books, I discovered the other day a hardback I once received as a gift, way back around 20 years ago, which I’ve barely looked at since.

The book is a series of interviews with the philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer, a thinker whose ideas struck a chord with me when I first read about them as a teenager. I found in Gadamer’s ideas an attractive alternative to the deconstructionist philosophy of the philosopher Jacques Derrida, whose writings – which I didn’t warm to – were very much in vogue at the time (and still are, to some extent). I particularly liked Gadamer’s concept of the ‘fusion of horizons’ (described briefly here), which represented a more optimistic alternative to Derrida’s radical hermeneutical pessimism.

But this book – Gadamer in Conversation – I remembered as something of a disappointment: for the teenage me, Gadamer was really too impenetrable a thinker, and his reflections on his career frankly didn’t hold all that much meaning for me. So the book was filed away and left pretty much unopened – until now.

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I think it’s fair to say I’m in a better position to enjoy Gadamer’s conversations today than I used to be. And, on opening the book, I immediately noticed a chapter – ‘The Greeks, our Teachers’ – which caught my attention. The chapter takes the form of an interview between Gadamer and the classicist Glenn Most – and in it, Gadamer makes a number of interesting arguments and comments about the nature and influence of ancient Greek philosophical thought, some of which caught my eye. What follows now is my attempt to do them justice.

Although Gadamer is known chiefly for his book, Truth and Method, he mentions that his training was in ancient Greek philosophy (and in Greek and Latin): he wrote his PhD thesis on Plato and his early publications were all on subjects in ancient Greek philosophy. For Gadamer, ancient Greek philosophical practice can be favourably compared, in some respects, with the practice of modern philosophers.

The cardinal emphasis placed by many Greek philosophers on writing protreptikoi (works designed to encourage people to follow a particular school of philosophy), and of intervening in the life of the state, are things he approves. The contrast between these Greek practices and certain dominant tendencies in the present, where philosophy – particularly analytic philosophy – has become very professionalised and encapsulated, and relates only to itself, is described by Gadamer as a ‘real danger’. The danger here, presumably, is of a move toward an increasingly solipsistic philosophy which stands further and further aloof from what might be labelled ‘public reason’.

A striking phrase Gadamer uses when he appraises the way the Greeks did philosophy is this: ‘discovering contradictions is a good weapon for a lazy reason [Vernunft]’. This is a point that appeals to me for several reasons.

As a teenager, I used to love to test out the strengths and weaknesses of arguments and to (try to) rip into what I considered silly claims. Of course it is important to be able to dismiss silly claims with good reasons – but, at the same time, I remember feeling that I’d made a real step forward when I encountered a (university) teacher who wanted to force me to make (only) constructive arguments in my writing, and to minimise my inclination to spend time on paper exploding others’ not particularly silly claims (this could almost always be done, I came to see, either implicitly, or gently in footnotes). So Gadamer’s words chime on that front.

They also chime because, just as Gadamer doesn’t have ‘a very high opinion of the denials of the unity of reason that have become stylish in this age of narrowed rational perspectives’, neither do I. What Gadamer describes as a style of thinking that sees ‘everything as embroiled in contradictions’ is a style of thinking that is a pretty normal feature of the postmodern modes of thought that are observable in some quarters in contemporary western societies: for Gadamer, this is a style of thinking ‘that does not see far enough beyond its own contradictions’.

And when some fellow philosophers show signs of a commitment to this sort of view, Gadamer avers, they depart from the example of the ancient Greek philosophers, for whom the unity of reason was never in doubt. Of course they may do this self-consciously: they may even locate ‘what is ‘modern’ precisely in being doubtful about the unity of reason’ (in Most’s words). This sort of position really takes off with Nietzsche – and it flies in the face, Gadamer thinks, of ‘the rich cultural heritage’ (not only that which stems from the Greek philosophers!) we have – and could do a better job of enjoying.

In spite of the fragmentation of academic research into different subdivisions and specialisms which is characteristic of contemporary intellectual life, Gadamer nonetheless maintains that ‘our whole image of the world, and also the turn to mathematics [in modernity], rests on the [ancient] Greek view of a numerically harmonious world’. And in spite of modern science’s instrumental use of mathematics, Gadamer argues, ‘research today still remains oriented to the Greek visions of a simplicity, unity and beauty’ in the world, ‘a world ordered and regulated in itself’.

Gadamer’s claim here is that, in spite of the fragmented nature of contemporary academic study and, for that matter, in spite of the presence of the Nietzscheans, the Greek tradition that links together natural science, ethics and aesthetics, and insists that a unity of reason is possible among them, in a sense persists. Moreover, although academic disciplines may indeed be increasingly subdivided and fragmented, Gadamer notes that we nevertheless face a situation in which ‘the modern world is gradually coming together into a functional unity through science and technology’. The move toward functional unity, I myself suspect, may yet prove fatal for even the stubbornest exponents of what might be labelled postmodern Nietzscheanism.

So what role will the study of Greek philosophy have in shaping world culture in the future? In all likelihood, a very significant role, Gadamer thinks, because he knows of ‘no substitute for the immediate conceptual power of Greek as a spoken language’. There is a polemical edge to this comment – ‘all modern languages of international exchange are becoming bland’, he adds. But, really, what Gadamer wants to argue is that, through coming to know the ancient Greek language and ancient Greek convictions about the unity of reason, points of solidarity may be created and discovered among future people.

This is a nice idea, but Gadamer is certainly not naively expecting a sort of Greek renaissance. He expects that there may also be things in the traditions of ancient India or China that will rival the Greek tradition, and that discovering these things will be good for (our understanding of) the ancient Greek sources – and perhaps good for ‘us’ too.

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