Published: 12:05AM BST 04 Apr 2002
HANS-GEORG GADAMER, who has died aged 102, was a philosophical Nestor, indeed a Methuselah, who preserved the finest traditions of German culture during the Third Reich, and did much to rebuild his country’s reputation thereafter.
Not until the age of 60 did his magnum opus appear: Truth and Method, a vindication of hermeneutics, or the study of interpretation, a classic of 20th-century philosophy. Gadamer traced his intellectual lineage back to Plato and Aristotle, but even as a centenarian he was alive to the challenges of modernity.
At the heart of Truth and Method lies Gadamer’s defence of the concept of prejudice. Only the Enlightenment, he argues, with its “prejudice against prejudice” gave the concept its present negative connotation. Romanticism, especially in Germany, reversed the Anglo-French Enlightenment’s priority of reason over myth, but perpetuated the same dualism.
For Gadamer, by contrast, “the prejudices of the individual, far more than his judgments, constitute the historical reality of his being”. It is impossible to understand the world we live in, let alone our place in it, without authority and tradition. “History,” he declared, “does not belong to us; we belong to it.”
Gadamer’s philosophy passes seamlessly into classical philology and the history of ideas. “Our historical consciousness is always filled with a variety of voices in which the echo of the past is heard,” he wrote. “Only in the multifariousness of such voices does it exist.”
Though Gadamer’s thought might seem to be remote from the linguistic, scientific and logical thrust of Anglo-Saxon philosophy in the 20th century, in fact he was fascinated by all these realms, in particular language. For him, language is being made audible; it is the horizon which bounds our understanding. Truth and Method concludes with the insight that, just as “there is no understanding that is free of all prejudices”, so “the certainty achieved by scientific methods does not suffice to guarantee truth”.
As the last of the German mandarins, the professors who had held sway over the universities for centuries until the student radicals of the 1930s and then the 1960s undermined their status, Gadamer was a profoundly conservative figure. A defender of the ideal of academic life as the disinterested pursuit of truth, firmly rooted in the medieval, renaissance and enlightenment past, Gadamer fundamentally disagreed with the Nazi and Marxist cult of “commitment”.
On this cardinal issue, Gadamer parted company from his most important teacher, Martin Heidegger. As a young man, he fell under Heidegger’s spell. But in 1933 Heidegger, as Rector of Freiburg University, compromised himself utterly by subordinating himself and his institution to the Nazis, and attempting to instal himself as academic Fuhrer and chief ideologist. Though such trahison des clercs was anathema to Gadamer, his personal loyalty to Heidegger was unshaken. In his autobiography, Philosophical Apprenticeships, Gadamer glossed over Heidegger’s lapse, and after the war worked hard to rebuild his master’s shattered reputation. But they remained, temperamentally and intellectually, polar opposites. It is doubtful whether Gadamer ever fully understood the incompatibility of Heidegger’s radically subjective grasp of reality and his own Olympian detachment.
Born on February 11 1900, Gadamer grew up in Breslau (now Wroclaw) in Silesia, “more Prussian than Prussia” as he later described it, as the son of a professor of chemistry. The First World War and the revolution having somehow passed him by, Gadamer went westwards to study in Marburg. There he encountered a range of exotic intellectual influences, from the flamboyant disciples of the poet Stefan George to the less dandified but brilliant, rackety and demoniacal phenomenologist Max Scheler, who asked him: “Don’t you think that philosophy is something like pulling puppets on a string?” His doctoral thesis was written for Paul Natorp, a leading representative of the prestigious neo-Kantian school of Marburg.
In 1923, and by this time married, Gadamer fell victim to polio. Recovered, he spent a semester at Freiburg studying under Heidegger, who immediately recognized his talent. A photograph of this period shows Gadamer and Heidegger sawing logs together, and their bond owed much to the romanticism of German youth, sitting around camp fires in the Black Forest; the narcotic effect of the new existentialist way of thinking; the theatricality of Heidegger’s irruption on to the academic scene. For the next 15 years, Gadamer led the precarious existence of a private lecturer, obliged to earn his living from pupils’ fees. He pursued other linguistic studies alongside philosophy, and was close to classicists and literary critics such as Karl Reinhardt and Ernst Robert Curtius.
In 1933, Gadamer later recalled, “the wave of revolutionary consolidation (of evil memory)” transformed Marburg University, bringing with it the Hitler salute, the Nuremberg race laws and the Fuhrerprinzip (“leadership principle”).
Gadamer dealt with the problem not by joining the party, but by enrolling for a course of political re-education at a “rehabilitation camp” near Danzig. There he had to participate in nationalist songs, gymnastics and other uncongenial activities, but he managed to retain his scholarly integrity. In Leipzig, where he took up a chair in 1938, he found the Nazi presence less obtrusive. He even ventured risque remarks in lectures. A soldier on leave asked him what Plato might have said if a criminal tyrant had become the Fuhrer of a state. Gadamer replied: “Of course he would have approved the murder of such a tyrant.”
At the end of the war, Leipzig was first occupied by the Americans, but the city belonged to the Soviet zone and soon the Russians moved in. Though he was appointed rector of the university, Gadamer realised that he had exchanged one tyranny for another and in 1947 decided to move to the West, where he had been offered a chair in Frankfurt am Main. Just as he was about to leave Leipzig he found himself arrested. It proved to be a Kafkaesque experience: “I assumed that anything could happen – being left in prison forever, for example – but I was determined to survive.” He did. Interrogated for four days by Soviet officers without knowing what the charges were, who had denounced him or why, Gadamer managed not to lose his composure. Offered a cigarette by a colonel, he replied: “So long as I am not free I do not smoke.” As suddenly as he had been arrested, he was released. Wisely refusing a car, he walked home on foot through the woods and made good his escape to the West.
Gadamer’s sojourn in Frankfurt proved brief: in 1949 he moved to Heidelberg, to take up the chair of Karl Jaspers, Germany’s most celebrated existentialist, apart from the temporarily disgraced Heidegger. And there, for the second, far less eventful, half of his life, Gadamer remained. Over the next half century Gadamer became as much of an institution in Heidelberg as Kant had once been in Konigsberg: a familiar figure on the cobbled streets, walking and talking, always in his corduroy jacket, always convivial, fixing his interlocutor with a penetrating gaze. Having survived the Nazis and the Communists, Gadamer found no difficulty surviving the 1960s, during which he engaged the thinkers of the Frankfurt school, especially Jurgen Habermas.
The revival of Heidegger’s popularity in the 1950s owed much to Gadamer; it inevitably led to the rediscovery of his Nazi past in the late 1980s. Heidegger’s death in 1976 left Gadamer pre-eminent.
Gadamer’s works, which in the complete edition (Gesammelte Schriften) published to mark his hundredth birthday run to 10 volumes, belong to the distinctively German genres of Geisteswissenschaften and Geistesgeschichte, inadequately translated as human sciences and intellectual history respectively. Though both were eclipsed in Germany after 1945 by the social sciences, Gadamer succeeded in transcending academic fashion. In retirement he acted as an impressive cultural ambassador for Germany in the United States, where Truth and Method became an influential text.
Gadamer was married and had two daughters.