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Gadamer's concept of experience

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posted on 2023-05-27, 10:56 authored by Jarvis, TMB
Montaigne maintains that the thirst for new experience is a sign of vigour in life. To rest content with what one already knows and understands, to remain only within what one has experienced before, is a sign of exhaustion or decline: it is to be only half alive. The pursuit of experience is boundless: 'its food is wonder, the chase, ambiguity'. Apollo, he says, revealed this clearly by speaking obscurely: we have to be kept interested! What is most exciting is not to be confirmed in what one knows, but to have what one knows contradicted, to have new and unexpected directions suggested. To have what one knows contradicted not only leads us to understand better, but it also teaches us of the fallibility of our judgement, which is the more important lesson: 'When I find myself convicted of a false opinion by another man's reasoning, I do not so much learn what new thing he has told me and this particular bit of ignorance ‚Äö- that would be small gain ‚Äö- as I learn my weakness in general, and the treachery of my understanding.' I have begun with Montaigne, but all of the foregoing could, without misrepresentation, be attributed to Gadamer, his fellow humanist. For Gadamer, our understanding of things is always in danger of becoming too settled, too comfortable with itself ‚Äö- and the risk is that it will then simply exclude what is other to itself. To really seek to understand is to seek contradiction and provocation. In the following, I present an analysis and critique of the concept of experience that is central to Gadamer's hermeneutics. In the foreword to the second edition of Truth and Method, he tells us he has used the term hermeneutics to mean 'a theory of the real experience that thinking is' and that the chapter on experience 'takes on a systematic and key position in [Gadamer's] investigations'. He tells us that his inquiry 'asks (to put it in Kantian terms): how is understanding possible?', and it asks it 'of all human experience of the world and human living'; the term 'hermeneutics' is used to denote 'the basic being--‚ÄövÑv™in--‚ÄövÑv™motion of Dasein that constitutes its finitude and historicity, and hence embraces the whole of its experience of the world'. What I will show in the following is that the concept of experience is central to understanding not only the function of 'prejudices', but also the connection between 'understanding' and 'genuine experience', and what the 'truth event' is and why Gadamer's account of truth cannot be understood simply as correspondence, coherence or adequatio rei et intellectus. Further, a particular kind of picture of Gadamer emerges by putting his concept of experience in the foreground: not the ponderous Gadamer some commentators paint, who overrides difference in his insistence on agreement, but a Gadamer enamoured of the startling and the different. But what is his concept of experience, and what is its structure? Gadamer's concept of experience is not unitary, but tri-partite. The first to surface in Truth and Method is 'Erlebnis', which is what I will call 'heightened' experience. This Gadamer opposes to 'Erfahrung', which he terms 'genuine' experience. ('Hermeneutical' experience, as we will see, is a sub--‚ÄövÑv™species of genuine experience.) Finally, there is a kind of experience which remains largely unthematised through Truth and Method, but which is presupposed by the other two kinds, which we can term 'ordinary' experience.

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