Fred Dallmayr


Philosophy's relation to the world of lived experience (the life-world) is complex and controverted. In traditional vocabulary, the issue is whether philosophy's habitat resides inside or outside the Platonic cave. The issue has not come to rest in our time. While "analytic" philosophers prefer to externalize or distance their targets of analysis, Continental thinkers (at least since Heidegger) refuse the comforts of this spectatorial stance. Like sensitive seismographs, European thinkers register the subterranean tremors which in our time affect the (once solid) underpinnings of Western culture: the pillars of subjectivity, of the cogito, and of rationality seen as a means of mastery over nature. What emerges from these seismographic soundings is an experience of dislocation or ontological decentering, blurring the boundaries between subject and object, between self and other, and between humans and nature (the former res extensa). As it happens, this experiential tremor is accompanied in our time by a broader geopolitical dislocation: the displacement of Europe from center stage and her insertion into a global welter of competing cultures and countercultures. To be sure, Europe (and the West in general) still forcefully asserts its hegemony; but the self-assurance of this hegemonic position has been irremediably lost or at least placed in jeopardy. The present pages seek to explore this double move of dislocation by attending to one particularly prominent and reliable seismograph: the work of Hans-Georg Gadamer. Born in 1900, Gadamer has been an astute participant and reflective witness (not just a spectator) throughout the entire course of our troubled century.

The adopted focus of these pages can readily be further justified. Since his early writings on dialogical politics-that is, a politics not dominated by a totalizing ideology--Gadamer's reflections have continuously concentrated on the porous relations between self and other, between reader and text, and between speaker and language; to this extent, his work has served as a beacon for several generations of students now, illuminating the dimly lit landscape of refracted identities and of a selfhood infected with otherness. At the same time, his work resonates deeply with larger global concerns. As the foremost contemporary representative of European humanism, Gadamer has persistently reflected and commented on the significance of European culture, alerting us both to its intrinsic grandeur and to its tragedy or possible limitations. Thus, I want to argue, Gadamerian hermeneutics is not just a parochial ingredient of Continental thought, but an important building stone in the emerging global city and in a dialogically construed cultural ecumenicism.