Meaning, Metaphor, and Multivalence: The Hermeneutical Journey in Gadamer, Ricoeur, and Keats

/ /

W.H. Auden, in his “In Memory of W.B. Yeats,” remarks, “For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives . . . / A way of happening, a mouth.”[1] This evocative image—poetry as a mouth—can be extended to encompass any artwork and perhaps best encapsulates the hermeneutical fields in which we live. Just as gravity curves the fabric of spacetime, leaving permanent marks in it—the so-called gravitational memory effects—so do Auden’s mouths from the past, which are best preserved in art and writing, impinge on our reality, creating fields of meaning. For these mouths not to descend into mere unintelligible grunts, they must use language, rendering the hermeneutical event a linguistic one. In Part III of Truth and Method, Hans-Georg Gadamer explores the intimate relationship between hermeneutics and language, arguing that the subject-matter, die Sache, is presented to us via language and places demands on us. For Gadamer, though, language not only discloses die Sache, but also conceals it. As Gadamer puts it, “every word, as the event of a moment, carries with it the unsaid, to which it is related by responding and summoning.”[2] “Responding and summoning” imply that an engagement with die Sache brings about a liminal space, whose fecundity does not yield absolute knowledge. A mysterious being confronts us in the hermeneutical event, one that takes us on a journey of infinite discovery.

Crucially, there is no reality and no meaning apart from language for Gadamer, no pre-linguistic or post-linguistic reality. Gadamer writes, “All understanding is interpretation, and all interpretation takes place in the medium of language that allows the object to come into words and yet is at the same time the interpreter’s own language.”[3] We are logos makers, creatures without access to a reality independent of language. Our world is a world that comes into focus through language. The subject-matter is made known through language; however, there is always an excess or unsaid that remains hidden in every linguistic disclosure. As Joshua Kates comments on Gadamer, “language as language always involves bringing forward something other than language. . . . language is . . . not a tool of any kind, but [is] what lets the matter at hand be at hand and appear.”[4] Rhetoric, then, is not an exercise in futility or in telling lies. In fact, those who use it that way reveal their vacuity and their misunderstanding of the subject-matter perhaps because they are a recalcitrant audience, one with hearts of stone, not flesh. The true logos makers employ rhetoric so as to foster a real encounter, a hermeneutical event in which language serves as the guide to the subject-matter. Moreover, Gadamer underscores that “all human speaking is finite in such a way that there is laid up within it an infinity of meaning to be explicated and laid out.”[5] Hence, the task of hermeneutics never ends because there is always more to discover about the being of die Sache.

Paradoxically, it is our limits that ensure the limitlessness of hermeneutics. As finite beings, we cannot comprehend everything there is to know. I cannot read William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, for instance, and walk away thinking I have grasped its entire meaning. What hermeneutics requires, then, is a radical openness and a willingness to listen to the voice of the other. As Lawrence K. Schmidt argues, “The encounter with the meaning of the text is like a dialogue between an I and a Thou.”[6] To approach the text as a “Thou” demands a willingness to relinquish mastery over die Sache, no matter how many times one reads the text. If language both presents and conceals the subject-matter, then a posture of attentive receptivity is paramount to the hermeneutical experience. Of course, Gadamer does not subsume every kind of writing under the rubric of tradition, but only that which Carolyn Culbertson identifies as “the kind of writing that appears to us, as we write, to be its own end.”[7] A hastily scribbled note to a spouse or a grocery store receipt does not constitute a hermeneutical event. For writing “to be its own end,” it must engage with a serious subject-matter, one that demands that we change our lives in response to it.

Just as Hegel and Heidegger do, Gadamer views poetry as the highest form that language can attain. Its “mouth” confronts us with a subject-matter that insists on throwing us off-kilter, on giving us—metaphorically speaking—a limp by dislocating our hip. Language of this type, then, is the proper locus of hermeneutics and the proper vehicle for understanding the world. Such a hermeneutical engagement cultivates hope: humans are not mere robots who can learn by rote the right ideas and then implement them as automatons, but creative beings with a capacity for profound depth—intellectual or otherwise. A musical performance of Beethoven’s Symphony no. 5 need not appeal solely to the musician who can read the score; similarly, a Shakespeare play or a Hopkins poem can affect someone who has never taken a rhetoric class or who does not have the faintest clue about sprung rhythm. However, because of our finitude and historicity, the possibility for going deeper, so to speak, is always present. Furthermore, since understanding and meaning are not absolute but always hospitable to new glosses, hermeneutics allows for each generation of humans to add its own unique interpretive note to the symphony of tradition, even though hindsight may reveal that note a dissonant one.

Hermeneutics does not undermine the existence of or the quest for truth. By insisting that “there is dialogue between tradition and its interpreter,”[8] Gadamer argues that hermeneutics brings about a genuine event, a real happening, one that profoundly changes the hermeneut. This phenomenon is possible only because “the word that has come down to us as tradition and to which we are to listen really encounters us and does so as if it addressed us and is concerned with us.”[9] Since the hermeneutical event creates the conditions in which tradition can question me and my presuppositions—in fact, it demands that I bring them to the hermeneutical table, as it were—it reveals the multifacetedness of truth. The subject-matter commands our attention so as to lay claim on our life. However, since this happens in language, it challenges the notion of absolute, once-and-for-all truth: “Language and thinking about things are so bound together that it is an abstraction to conceive of the system of truths as a pregiven system of possibilities of being for which the signifying subject selects corresponding signs.”[10] Reality is not mere correspondence between words used as signs and the objects to which we attach them (e.g., the word “lamb” for a young sheep). Such an idea misconstrues the fact that “a word has a mysterious connection with what it ‘images’; it belongs to its being.”[11] Because there is no world apart from language, language creates the world. For Gadamer, signs and signifiers become fused in a creative relationship that engenders meaning.

Paul Ricoeur’s reflections on translation echo Gadamer’s insight about language as a medium of ambiguity. In “The paradigm of translation,” Ricoeur begins from the empirical observation that translation happens all around us and has been happening for thousands of years. People have always sought to transcend linguistic boundaries for the sake of understanding. Whether motivated by commercial incentives or moved by a poem’s beauty, the desire to translate springs from deep within the human psyche. Hence, “the desire [itself] to translate” is, for Ricoeur, “more tenacious, more profound, more hidden” than any other reason for translating, such as usefulness or constraint.[12] Not to translate, then, is to experience a kind of amnesia that causes a succumbing to the inhuman, a rendering of the world to mere environment. But, as Gadamer puts it, “Whoever has language ‘has’ the world.”[13] For Gadamer, as for Ricoeur, language elevates nature to culture. No longer are we bound by mere biological and physical laws when we use language (although these are never eradicated), but we enter into the realm of art, poetry, and myth. Yet language is not simply a private affair, but also a public event. If language is to give one the world, one must exercise it in concert with others—hence, the need for translation in the first place.

Ricoeur insists on the non-existence of an objective, third text against which one can compare one’s translation; to have recourse to such a text would cause the enterprise of translation—and by extension, language—to become a stilted endeavor, a mere finding of equal terms. As Ricoeur puts it, “there is no absolute criterion for good translation. . . . a good translation [then] can aim only at a supposed equivalence that is not founded on a demonstrable identity of meaning. An equivalence without identity.”[14] Ricoeur’s thought, similar to Gadamer’s, protects the multivalence of truth and by extension averts the possibility of weaponizing truth. His insight, moreover, stems from his acceptance of human finitude, which by definition suggests the need for retranslation as generations succeed one another in a kind of linguistic Ferris wheel that requires a double movement of progress and regression. In other words, our human limits are the ones that ensure that translation never ends. Yet this project in which humans are engaged involves a process of mourning, of “renouncing the very ideal of perfect translation.”[15] Such an ideal reveals a nostalgia for an original language that never existed, an angelic desire to transcend human capacity in order to inhabit the realm of the intelligible. It is, to put it differently, an escapism from matter, a flight into an infinite of no limits. Ricoeur frowns upon such an endeavor since it refuses to acknowledge “the impassable difference between the peculiar and the foreign.”[16] It is the opposite of what he calls “linguistic hospitality,”[17] of accommodating the foreign into the familiar, which, paradoxically, allows for the familiar to regain its foreignness. To translate, then, becomes a labor of joy, of reacquainting ourselves with our own language. The sounds of the familiar regain their original strangeness, which calls us to a transformation of our capacity for hearing. Or, as Ricoeur rhetorically asks, “without the test of the foreign, would we be sensitive to the strangeness of our own language?”[18] It is the meeting of two worlds, hence, that takes place in the act of translation, worlds whose horizons become broadened by an encounter that does not threaten annihilation.

Ricoeur offers a new paradigm for translating, namely, that of faithfulness versus betrayal, which ensures the integrity of both language and translator. Ricoeur notes that “each of our words has more than one meaning, as we see in the dictionaries. We call that polysemy.”[19] A word’s connotations are just as important as, if not more than, a word’s denotations. Such ambiguities lead to the need for translation even within one’s own linguistic community, which requires “that we reformulate, that we explain, that we try to say the same thing in another way.”[20] Such need for reformulation reveals the obscurity inherent in language, its “propensity for the enigma, for artifice, for abstruseness, for the secret, in fact for non-communication.”[21] It is language’s revealing-only-to-hide proclivity that requires the faithfulness/betrayal paradigm, a possible way out of “[George] Steiner’s extremism.”[22] Language’s desire for obscurity need not paralyze us, even though there are certain words that will remain untranslatable (for example, dor and doină in Romanian). Similar to the universe’s makeup, which consists of 85% dark matter, we can understand if we approximate, if we look for relationships. Just as astrophysicists calculate that galaxies would behave differently if dark matter did not exist, so can we gravitate closer to the untranslatable by seeing how its neighbors, so to speak, behave and thus approach ever closer to the untranslatable’s event-horizon without being squished into its black hole. Or, as Scott Davidson puts it, “[T]he etymology of translation would suggest that it is analogous to the activity of trading, in which the translator is like a trader who transports ideas from one language to another one. . . . this crossing over or exchange does not occur without also bringing about a shift or transformation in what gets carried over.”[23] Translation is a sword that cuts both ways; in serving two masters—the foreign language and the native language—a translator both betrays and remains faithful. Traduttore, traditore, then, is the essence of every translator. Gadamer calls this phenomenon a “highlighting.”[24] To Ricoeur’s faithfulness/betrayal paradigm, Gadamer offers the concept of “constant renunciation”[25]—renunciation of our desire for perfection, for the ability to master. Only Lucifer futilely insists on bending the world to his will.[26] As bounded creatures—bounded by matter, by time, by history, by language—we do not have access to a kind of knowing that bypasses the finite. Our recourse is hermeneutics, a Gadamerian transcendence-within-immanence.

John Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn” offers a poetic image of performative hermeneutics-in-action, shedding light on how one ought to engage with the subject-matter. Even though the speaker does not engage with a written text, the final product, so to speak, is one. Thus, the poem mimetically displays the birth of the written tradition, at whose root is a real encounter with the subject-matter. The first stanza underscores the capacity of the object’s being, its otherness, its Ricoeurian foreignness, to decenter the subject.

Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness, Thou foster-child of silence and slow time, Sylvan historian, who canst thus express A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme: What leaf-fring’d legend haunts about thy shape Of deities or mortals, or of both, In Tempe or the dales of Arcady? What men or gods are these? What maidens loth? What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape? What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?

The speaker’s encounter with the Greek vase stumps him; he can only address it as an “unravish’d bride,” a “foster-child,” and a “sylvan historian.” The epithets used—“unravish’d,” “foster,” “sylvan”—indicate the otherness of the object and only evoke unsettling questions. Why is Time, the ravisher of all mortal things, impotent when it comes to the urn? Why does it adopt the urn as its “foster-child”? Why do silence and time team up in an effort to protect the vulnerable urn from the ravages that both inexorably impose on the finite realm? And where are the woods of which the urn is presumably a historian? The urn is thus shrouded in mystery, yet one that impinges on the poet’s being—and in his openness, he grasps that the urn can “thus express / A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme.” The poet intuits that he is in the presence of a subject-matter that dwarfs his poetic faculties. This insight—of the superiority of the vase to express the inexpressible in its soundlessness compared to the speaker’s verse—shows that the vase has enlarged the poet’s world. The speaker apprehends the wholeness of the object in a moment of astonished self-forgetfulness. He forgets himself because he is confronted with something bigger than himself.

Almost as soon as this happens, however, reason catches up and begins asking the kinds of questions that signal the desire to present the experience of the urn to the mind as mere historical information that can be molded into a coherent, rational-only pattern. The frenzy of questions at the end of the first stanza points to the poet’s need for a specific kind of answer from the urn: “What leaf-fring’d legend haunts about thy shape / Of deities or mortals, or of both, / In Tempe or the dales of Arcady? / What men or gods are these? What maidens loth? / What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape? / What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?” All of these “what” questions indicate a preoccupation with origins: the speaker wants historical answers to his queries. As Helen Vendler observes, “All of Keats’s early questions in the ode . . . could be given their ‘true’ answers, he thinks, if only he knew the lost legend that the dead sculptor presumably had in mind, and here illustrated.”[27] The speaker in this part of the poem, then, attempts to understand the totality of the subject-matter by turning to the past as his guide. This kind of inquiry, though it will yield some fruit, will not be entirely successful since the urn, while from a clearly specific historical period, now impinges on the poet’s world from a different realm. Furthermore, as Louise Cowan remarks, “we cannot be certain of our facts. . . . The rational mind cannot know certain essentials about the urn.”[28] Knowledge of origins and historical circumstances alone, therefore, never produces complete understanding since our factual knowledge will never be exhaustive. Or, as Gadamer puts it, “A written tradition is not a fragment of a past world, but has already raised itself beyond this into the sphere of the meaning that it expresses.”[29] The Greek vase is not calling to the speaker from an inaccessible, remote past, but from a linguistically-constituted hermeneutical event.

In the second and third stanzas of the poem, the speaker moves from historical questions to projecting his personal experience unto the urn; yet this kind of mapping, too, while essential in a person’s maturation, falls short of apprehending the totality of the urn.

Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on; Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear’d, Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone: Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare; Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss, Though winning near the goal yet, do not grieve; She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss, For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!

Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu; And, happy melodist, unwearied, For ever piping songs for ever new; More happy love! more happy, happy love! For ever warm and still to be enjoy’d, For ever panting, and for ever young; All breathing human passion far above, That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloy’d, A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.

The speaker notes melancholically that the “happy boughs” can never “shed / Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu”; the “Bold Lover,” although thwarted in his attempt to kiss his beloved, should not despair since “She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss, / For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!” The “happy melodist” is always “unwearied / For ever piping songs for ever new.” The “happy, happy love” is “For ever warm. . . For ever panting. . . for ever young.” In other words, the muted paintings indirectly testify to time’s devastating effects on humans. The poet engages here in fantasizing about a world of immortality. The speaker can relate to what he sees on the urn precisely because he has interpolated his experience onto its plane. As Vendler explains, “He does not . . .  address the maiden as he does the male lover and the male piper; the two males are fantasy-figures for himself as bold lover and unwearied melodist, and his empathy joins them, not her.”[30] In an attempt to understand the urn’s mystery, the speaker relates to the two male characters on the urn, which can only yield partial knowledge since the speaker cannot identify with the “maidens loth” or with her who “cannot fade.” This approach, therefore, will not make the urn divulge its secrets; the urn is beyond the mere self-centered concerns of mortals, as these do not allow it to shine in all its splendor. The speaker’s fanciful notions here parallel the longing for a perfect translation that Ricoeur explores in his essay. If treated merely as a receptacle of projected fantasies, the subject-matter will remain hidden, and we will not find the hermeneutical key that allows us to translate it into language.

Even though these approaches—historical and personal—are limited, they provide crucial lessons to the hermeneutical neophyte, as they help delineate the limits of methodology. It is not that Gadamer opposes history or historical inquiry—on the contrary, he insists that ours is a “historically effected consciousness.”[31] What he does oppose, however, is an extreme form of historicism, which dictates that meaning must be sought only in the historical periods in which a piece of art or literature was produced. This type of stance hampers hermeneutics, ossifying into sterile methods. As Joel Weinsheimer writes, “What distinguishes method from hermeneutics . . . is that method responds to alienation with alienation. . . . Instead of homecoming from the condition of Fremdheit, method strives for dominion over the world. It aims not to understand the world but to change it.”[32] The method Weinsheimer refers to is that of the natural sciences, which Gadamer criticizes for infecting the humanities. The mode of knowledge the arts promote is fundamentally different than the one the scientific method champions. To dissect an object, to reduce experience to experimental repeatability, is the contrary of Gadamer’s emphasis on the multiple interpretative possibilities for any Sache of the human sciences. To stumble in the dark—away from mere repeatability—is the path on which a true subject-matter naturally sends the receptive subject. Elaine Scarry argues that beauty “ignites the desire for truth by giving us, with an electric brightness shared by almost no other uninvited, freely arriving perceptual event, the experience of conviction and the experience, as well, of error.”[33] Her insight applies to Gadamer’s understanding of die Sache of texts and works of art as well: in dialogue with them, one inevitably flounders. How one deals with error, with the limits of the finite, with one’s Ricoeurian betrayal, determines how much the subject-matter discloses of itself. The subject-matter, then, effects Weinsheimer’s homecoming via indirection, displacing the desire of the subject for domination.

Keats’s poem reveals yet another hermeneutical truth, namely, the tradition’s dynamic existence. It is no accident that Keats employs phrases he gleans from his favorite poet: the ‘mad pursuit’ of the first stanza echoes Shakespeare’s Sonnet 129. As Culbertson remarks about Gadamer’s understanding of language, “When language infuses our understanding, which it always does, interpretive traditions infuse our understanding as well. . . . interpretation . . . proceed[s] through a language that is laden with tradition.”[34] Language does not have a beginning for us; we are born in medias res, so to speak. This fact ensures our dependability on the past to understand ourselves and the world, but it cannot remain there. Merely to parrot what tradition hands us down robs language of its lively character, sealing off the text’s or artwork’s ability to communicate in new ways. To put it differently, to be born means to inhabit a world not of our own making. To attempt to recreate the world in our own image, which amounts to a desire for marking the beginning, requires the kind of sovereignty that only a deity has. To become seduced by a quest for such total control belongs to someone other than the hermeneut, who submits himself or herself to the desire of an other whose nature is to be inconspicuous.

The fourth stanza of Keats’s poem depicts a subject who, when consistently presented with his linguistic inhospitality, discovers the kinds of questions reason must ask to move into the next phase. These questions highlight the kind of imagination that is hospitable to the subject-matter and that allow the hermeneut to discover, in Ricoeur’s words, his or her “own language and . . . its resources which have been left to lie fallow.”[35]

Who are these coming to the sacrifice? To what green altar, O mysterious priest, Lead’st thou that heifer lowing at the skies, And all her silken flanks with garlands drest? What little town by river or sea shore, Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel, Is emptied of this folk, this pious morn? And, little town, thy streets for evermore Will silent be; and not a soul to tell Why thou art desolate, can e’er return.

As the poet views yet another image painted on the urn, he wonders about the identity of the “mysterious priest” and the “little town” that “Is emptied of this folk, this pious morn.” Unlike earlier, however, he no longer tries to determine the exact location (“Tempe or the dales of Arcady”) of this “little town.” As Vendler comments, “the speaker has ceased to ask it those historical and extrapolatory questions which it is not equipped to answer. The urn is only a ‘silent form’ when the wrong kinds of truth are asked of it.”[36] It is at this point in the poem, then, that a new understanding dawns on the speaker: the urn is a thing unto itself. It is above mere methods—historical or otherwise—and the poet’s initial frantic search for geographical clues in hopes they will reveal the urn in its totality is misplaced. Meaning-making, the poem suggests, is circumscribed by questions. In Gadamer’s words, “interpretation is a circle closed by the dialectic of question and answer.”[37] Reality is dialogical. Only when we are open to the subject-matter is dialogue possible, which leads to our recognizing that it ultimately questions us—not the other way around. The hermeneutical experience, in this way, “has its own rigor: that of uninterrupted listening.”[38] We discover that the subject-matter brings about the “tradition’s addressing us,” which address demands that we change our lives.[39]

The final stanza of the poem portrays a speaker who, armed with this insight, reaches a point of relinquishing his hold, ready to let the urn become his teacher, molding him into the kind of poet who can achieve in language Gadamer’s transcendence-within-immanence.

O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede Of marble men and maidens overwrought, With forest branches and the trodden weed; Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral! When old age shall this generation waste, Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

The speaker finally addresses the urn as an “Attic shape,” a “Fair attitude,” and a “Cold Pastoral”— terms that make clear he has grasped the numinous nature of the Grecian urn. Although “Attic,” it is no longer simply defined by a past that is closed off to us; it has gone on to join Gadamer’s “public sphere of meaning” from where it can still speak to mortals with ears to hear. When it does speak, it does so in an antimetabolic utterance, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” an enfolding in on itself. As Vendler writes, “Keats’s choice of a circular frieze, rather than a linear one, confirms the urn’s self-enclosing and self-completing form.”[40] The urn, thus, is self-referential. Despite the seeming finality of the urn’s words (“all / Ye know . . . and all ye need to know”), its use of a circular rhetorical device bespeaks a different possibility: the urn hints at the hermeneutic circle itself. As Weinsheimer notes, “The hermeneutic circle is designed in part to replace the linear model of inductive understanding.”[41] The urn’s words, then, must be approached cautiously, not as delivering absolutes, but as encouraging reflection. After all, the poet does not go home satisfied he has heard the urn speak. Rather, he writes an entire ode about his experience. The act of writing itself, in this way, becomes part of the hermeneutical experience. Even though Gadamer shows preference for the spoken word, Nicholas Davey uses Gadamer’s own logic to include the process of writing as a tool in the hermeneutical shed. He writes,

It is this process of struggling to bring into expression the thought one is in quest of, which unwittingly draws one towards the revelation that the thought pursued has a universality greater than that which had been hitherto expected. The practice of writing subjects the writer to the hermeneutically real and external in exactly the same way as that the living voice is able to.[42]

To entrust something to writing, then, precludes the idea of absolutes. Writing does not capture entirely the thought one chases, if Davey is correct, which ensures the perpetuation of the hermeneutical journey. It is up to those who come after us to discover more of the thought we were pursuing.

Despite the fact that the urn cannot be fully understood until allowed to be itself, to speak on its own terms, it does not desire to be left alone. After all, the poet describes it as “a friend to man.” As Cowan concludes, “[The urn] has been looking for a poet. The wedding for which it has been intended takes place in the language of lyric.”[43] It is poetry that is the pinnacle of language, of the written word. Poetry in particular and writing in general allow die Sache to develop new meanings beyond its historical context. This is so because the “understanding of something written is not a repetition of something past but the sharing of a present meaning.”[44] The text or artwork may come to us from the past, just as the urn does, but hermeneutics allows it to become part of the present conversation in a way that it can still effect change. Metaphor, synecdoche, and obliquity become the proper vehicles for translating the subject-matter. As Gadamer writes, “the concern of hermeneutics . . . belongs traditionally to the sphere of grammar and rhetoric.”[45] Rhetoric and hermeneutics are properly interlinked not simply because understanding takes place in language, but also because— and this is perhaps more salient—one can always say something better. As Ricoeur observes, ‘[T]hese sequences of sentences . . . are textures which weave the discourse into longer or shorter sequences. Narrative is one of the most remarkable of these sequences, and is particularly interesting for our talk insofar as we learned that we can always tell a story in another way by changing the plot, the fable.”[46] If we can tell “a story in another way,” then hermeneutics becomes a never-ending process, expanding the familiar to include the foreign, and thus to broaden our horizon.

This type of repetition does not become the kind that scientists look for when they perform experiments in the laboratory in part because Gadamer insists that the being of the text or artwork is structured by Spiel, which can be translated as both “play” or “game” in English. He writes, “Language games exist where we . . . rise to the understanding of the world. . . . the game itself . . . plays, for it draws the players into itself and thus itself becomes the actual subjectum of the playing.”[47] Language is a game not in the sense that it is not serious (games tend to be taken seriously by all different sorts of players, anyway). Rather, language is a game in the sense that it is performative, and the subject-matter interacts differently with different players. As Cynthia R. Nielsen puts it, “Hermeneutic identity is characterized by an ongoing interplay of identity and difference owing to the artwork’s performative being. . . . Each new performance, enactment, or interpretation brings forth new and, consequently, different aspects of the work.”[48] Because language both hides and discloses, each retelling of a story, each new engagement with a poem, will yield new and oftentimes surprising insights. Scientific repeatability, then, is not open to the humanities.

It should perhaps come as no surprise that hermeneutics is a journey, as it takes its name from and occurs under the tutelage of Hermes. Hermes descends where no other god dares to go (i.e., Hades)—the river Styx, after all, served as a powerful curse for the gods, who never dared break oaths that invoked Styx’s name. Furthermore, Homer records that Hermes is the friendliest of gods to humans. As Zeus puts it, “Hermes, . . . to you beyond all other gods it is dearest / to be man’s companion, and you listen to whom you will” (Il. 24.334-35).[49] It is Hermes who brings together the two mortal enemies Achilles and Priam. He guides the old man through the enemy camp, a perilous journey, taking him to the hero’s tent in the middle of it, which has the greatest protection. Kissing the man-slaughtering hands of Achilles, Priam pitifully asks for his son’s corpse. The old king’s request is met by Achilles’s tears, as he is reminded of his own father. He agrees to release Hector’s body and give the Trojans time to mourn their best warrior. To give back the body of Hector reveals Achilles’s realization that the foreign is not the proper locus of one’s anger. It is a recognition of the humanity of the foreign. One of the greatest reconciliation scenes in imaginative literature takes place under the watchful eye of Hermes. And if Achilles and Priam can find common ground, can respect each other’s otherness, then there is hope that the Hermes-art, hermeneutics, can beget the same in those whose hearts and minds are open. Hermeneutics, then, brings disparate realms together, effecting an encounter that is at times fraught with danger but also that promises amity. We cannot forget, though, that Hermes is also the trickster in Greek mythology, which renders the hermeneutical terrain open to error, one that may not be corrected for generations.[50] This side of Hermes, however, is no cause for despair since it protects truth from our desire to master it, possess it, and weaponize it.


[1] W.H. Auden, “In Memory of W.B. Yeats,” Collected Poems (New York: Vintage International, 1991), 249.

[2] Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, trans. Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall (London: Bloomsbury, 2021), 474.

[3] Gadamer, 407.

[4] Joshua Kates, A New Philosophy of Discourse: Language Unbound (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2021), 156.

[5] Gadamer, 474.

[6] Lawrence K. Schmidt, “Experience,” The Gadamerian Mind, ed. Theodore George and Gert-Jan van der Heiden (London: Routledge, 2022), 108.

[7] Carolyn Culbertson, Words Underway: Continental Philosophy of Language (London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2019), 48.

[8] Gadamer, 477.

[9] Ibid., 477.

[10] Ibid., 434.

[11] Ibid, 434.

[12] Paul Ricoeur, “The paradigm of translation,” On Translation, trans. Eileen Brennan (London: Routledge, 2006), 21.

[13] Gadamer, 469.

[14] Ricoeur, 22, emphasis in the original.

[15] Ibid., 23, emphasis in the original.

[16] Ibid., 23.

[17] Ibid., 23.

[18] Ibid., 29.

[19] Ibid., 26, emphasis in the original.

[20] Ibid., 25, emphasis in the original.

[21] Ibid., 28.

[22] Ibid., 28.

[23] Scott Davidson, “Ricoeur’s later thought: From hermeneutics to translation and back again,” Philosophy Today, vol. 57, no. 1 (2013): 61-71, 65.

[24] Gadamer, 404.

[25] Ibid., 404.

[26] Ibid., 464. In Paradise Lost, John Milton’s Satan poetically embodies Gadamer’s insight when he questions his beginning:

That we were formed then say’st thou? . . . Strange point and new! Doctrine which we should know whence learnt: who saw When his Creation was? Remember’st thou Thy making while the Maker gave thee being? We know no time when we were not as now, Know none before us, self-begot, self-raised By our own quick’ning power. (5.853, 855-60)

By claiming to be “self-begot,” Satan essentially undermines not only the being of the Son, begotten of the Father, but he also rewrites creation. Put differently, Satan’s desire is to refashion the world in his own image. To refuse to accept that one has a beginning, then, is effectively to mark oneself as the beginning and therefore to expect the world to conform to one’s will.

[27] Helen Vendler, The Odes of John Keats (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983), 119.

[28] Louise Cowan, “Keats’ Pilgrimage: The Five Great Odes,” The Prospect of Lyric, ed. Bainard Cowan (Dallas: Dallas Institute Publications, 2012), 138.

[29] Gadamer, 408.

[30] Vendler, 138.

[31] Gadamer, 407.

[32] Joel Weinsheimer, Gadamer’s Hermeneutics: A Reading of Truth and Method (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985), 15.

[33] Elaine Scarry, On Beauty and Being Just (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999), 52.

[34] Carolyn Culbertson, “Gadamer’s concept of language,” The Gadamerian Mind, 128.

[35] Ricoeur, 29.

[36] Vendler, 132-33.

[37] Gadamer, 407.

[38] Ibid., 408.

[39] Ibid., 479.

[40] Vendler, 133.

[41] Weinsheimer, 23.

[42] Nicholas Davey, “On the Other Side of Writing: Thoughts on Gadamer’s Notion of Schriftlichkeit,” Language and Linguisticality in Gadamer’s Hermeneutics, ed. Lawrence K. Schmidt (London: Lexington Books, 2000), 103.

[43] Cowan, 144.

[44] Gadamer, 410.

[45] Ibid., 402.

[46] Ricoeur, 27, emphasis in the original.

[47] Gadamer, 505, emphasis in the original.

[48] Cynthia R. Nielsen, “Gadamer on play and the play of art,” The Gadamerian Mind, 141-42.

[49] Homer, The Iliad, trans. Richmond Lattimore (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1951).

[50] For a positive description of the trickster figure in world mythology, including Hermes, see Lewis Hyde’s Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth, and Art (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998).