Gadamer was born in Marburg, Germany, as the son of a pharmaceutical chemist who later also served as the rector of the university there. Gadamer resisted his father's urging to take up the natural sciences and grew more and more interested in the humanities. He grew up and studied in Breslau under Hönigswald , but soon moved back to Marburg to study with the neo-Kantian philosophers Paul Natorp and Nicolai Hartmann. He defended his dissertation in 1922.
Shortly thereafter, Gadamer visited Freiburg and began studying with Martin Heidegger, who was then a promising young scholar who had not yet received a professorship. He thus became one of a group of students such as Leo Strauss, Karl Löwith, and Hannah Arendt. He and Heidegger became close, and when Heidegger received a position at Marburg, Gadamer followed him there. It was Heidegger's influence that gave Gadamer's thought its distinctive cast and led him away from the earlier neo-Kantian influences of Natorp and Hartmann.
Gadamer habilitated in 1929 and spent most the early 1930s lecturing in Marburg. Unlike Heidegger, Gadamer was strongly anti-Nazi, although he was not politically active during the Third Reich. He did not receive a paid position during the Nazi years and never entered the Party; only towards the end of the War did he receive an appointment at Leipzig. In 1946, he was found to be untainted by Nazism by the American occupation forces and named rector of the university. Communist East Germany was little more to Gadamer's liking than the Third Reich, and he left for West Germany, accepting first a position in Frankfurt am Main and then the succession of Karl Jaspers in Heidelberg in 1949. He remained in this position, as emeritus, until his death in 2002.
It was during this time that he completed in magnum opus Truth and Method (in 1960) and engaged in his famous debate with Jürgen Habermas over the possibility of transcending history and culture in order to find a truly objective position to criticize society from. The debate was inconclusive, but marked the beginning of warm relations between the two men. It was Gadamer who secured Habermas's first professorship in Heidelberg. Another attempt to engage Jacques Derrida proved less enlightening because the two thinkers had so little in common that it proved impossible to find common ground, but after Gadamer's death, Derrida has called this one of the worst debacles of his life and expressed, in the main obituary for Gadamer, his great personal and philosophical respect.
Gadamer's philosophical project, as explained in Truth and Method, was to elaborate on the concept of "philosophical hermeneutics", which Heidegger initiated but never dwelt with at length. Gadamer's goal was to uncover the nature of human understanding. In the book Gadamer argued that 'truth' and 'method' were at odds with one another. He was critical of two approaches to the human sciences (Geisteswissenschaften). On the one hand, he was critical of modern approaches to humanities that modeled themselves on the natural sciences (and thus on rigorous scientific methods). On the other hand, he took issue with the traditional approach to the humanities, stemming from Wilhelm Dilthey, which believed that correctly interpreting a text meant recovering the original intention of the author who wrote it.
In contrast to both of these positions, Gadamer argued that people have a 'consciousness affected by history' and that they are embedded in the particular history and culture that shaped them. Thus interpreting a text involves a 'fusion of horizons' where the scholar finds the ways that the text's history articulates with their own background. Truth and Method is not meant to be a programmatic statement about a new 'hermeneutic' method of interpreting texts. Gadamer intended Truth and Method to be a description of what we always do when we interpret things (even if we do not know it).
Truth and Method was published twice in English, and the revised edition is now considered authoritative. The German-language edition of Gadamer's Collected Works includes a volume in which Gadamer elaborates his argument and discusses the critical response to the book. Finally, Gadamer's essay on Celan (entitled "Who Am I and Who Are You?") is considered by many -- including Heidegger and Gadamer Himself) -- as a 'second volume' or continuation of the argument in Truth and Method.
In addition to his work in hemeneutics, Gadamer is also well known for a long list of publication on Greek philosophy. Indeed, while Truth and Method became central to his later career, much of Gadamer's early life centered around studying the classics. His work on Plato, for instance, is considered by some to be as important as his work on hermeneutics.
- Nothing exists except through language.
- I basically only read books that are over 2,000 years old.
- In fact history does not belong to us; but we belong to it. Long before we understand ourselves through the process of self-examination, we understand ourselves in a self-evident way in the family, society and state in which we live. The focus of subjectivity is a distorting mirror. The self-awareness of the individual is only a flickering in the closed circuits of historical life. That is why the predjudices [pre-judgements (Vorurteil)] of the individual, far more than his judgements, constitute the historical reality of his being. (Gadamer 1989:276-7, tr.)
- The more language is a living operation, the less we are aware of it. Thus it follows from the self-forgetfulness of language that its real being consists in what is said in it. What is said in it constitutes the common world in which we live and to which the whole great chain of tradition reaching us from the literature of foreign languages, living as well as dead. The real being of language is that into which we are taken up when we hear it — what is said. (Gadamer 1976:65, tr.)
- Hans-Georg Gadamer: A Biography. By Jean Grondin. Yale University Press. 2004
- Philosophical Apprenticeships. By Hans-Georg Gadamer. MIT Press. 1985 (Gadamer's memoir)
- Hans-Georg Gadamer at Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
- Hans-Georg Gadamer website
- Chronology (in German)
- Works by Gadamer