Understanding Tradition: Georgia Warnke on Gadamer’s Hermeneutics

Image“For Gadamer, the importance of the image of a hermeneutic circle lies in its characterization of our ‘historicity.’ The texts we most fundamentally need to understand, in one way or another, are the narratives in which we find ourselves. The interpretations we project onto these texts are not our own autonomous creations, however, but are rather bequeathed to us as part of the narratives themselves. These already possess specific vocabularies, plots, and sets of issues and insofar as we are ‘thrown’ into the narratives, their languages and trajectories necessarily provide the contours for our understanding of them. The range of our possible understandings of the texts that constitute our historical lives is thus conditioned in advance by our implication what Gadamer refers to as effective history (Wirkungsgeschichte). As historical beings, we find ourselves in historical and cultural traditions that hand down to us the projections or hypotheses, the prejudices, in Gadamer’s terminology, in which we approach them. The hermeneutic circle is a historical one in which our understanding is oriented by the effective history or history of influences of that which we are trying to understand. 
Of course, this description makes the hermeneutic circle sound less historical than simply ‘vicious.’ If we project understandings on the narratives in which we are involved that are themselves a product of those narratives, how is new knowledge or understanding possible? Indeed, why is it necessary? The image of the hermeneutic circle captures not only the circular character of understanding, in Gadamer’s view, but also it’s temporality. When we try to understand ourselves, our past and our future, we do so from a constantly changing temporal position. Moreover, we do so from a temporal position effected by a history that reflects understandings other than our own. The narratives in which we are involved and which we have to understand in one way or another not only continue even as we try to understand them, but also they continue as a confluence and even conflict of different interpretations of different narratives.” 

–Georgia Warnke, “Hermeneutics, Ethics, and Politics,” in The Cambridge Companion to Gadamer, pp. 80-81.

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