Some Untidy Reflections on the Betti–Gadamer Debate

Lars Vinx

The debate between Emilio Betti and Hans-Georg Gadamer1 - a debate that began with Betti’s attack on Gadamer’s hermeneutics in the text presented in English translation in this volume — is characterized by a surprising reversal of role. Betti, the jurist, defended a conception of hermeneutics as a general method of the human sciences, one that takes inspiration from the hermeneutical strategies of what Germans call Geschichtswissenschaft, the science of history, and which treats juristic hermeneutics as a mere special case. The philosopher Gadamer, on the other hand, argued that the structure of all hermeneutics, properly understood, is juristic. Juristic hermeneutics interprets norms that purport to set down how we, as subjects of the law, are to behave. If we assume that the law has authority over us, the results of juristic hermeneutics will tell us what it is that we have an obligation to do. Historical hermeneutics, as Betti portrays it, taking his cues from Schleiermacher and Dilthey, has altogether different aims. Its interest is ultimately theoretical, not practical. It aims to achieve a correct understanding of the meaning of acts of expression produced by historical actors, whether these be verbal, written, or consist in mere behaviour, so as to arrive at a descriptively accurate account of the past. It aims to find out, in Rankes famous words,‘how things actually were’.[1]

What is at stake in the debate between Betti and Gadamer, in the first instance, or so the jurist argues, is the very possibility of a science of history and of human sciences in general. Betti, like the key proponents of the German romantic hermeneutical tradition he champions, is of course well aware that history, if it is to be a science, must be a science unlike the natural sciences. It does not discover natural laws that would allow us to predict future events, given certain initial conditions, or to explain past events by subsuming them under exceptionless causal regularities. It recognizes that much of the material it investigates, unlike natural objects and events, is meaningful, as it is the product of intentional human action and, in many cases, of explicit communicative behaviour. The method of the science of history must therefore be hermeneutic as opposed to causal-explanatory. Its claim to the status of a science hinges on its ability to nevertheless attain knowledge of the past that is objective, in the sense that Ranke alludes to. If history is to be a science it must be able to tell us ‘how things actually were’, and not merely how we would have liked them to be, or how we assume they must have been, given the interests we have and the convictions we hold.

If history is to be scientific, Betti believes, it will need to employ a hermeneutical method that leads to accurate understanding of the meaning of the perceivable representative forms which the historian encounters in the course of their research, an understanding that is untainted by prejudices, biases, and practical interests which the interpreter himself might be tempted to read into the historical source.’The historians goal must be to reconstruct as exactly as possible, in his own mind, the semantic content that the historical agent in question intended to express. Objectively correct understanding is achieved, Betti claims, in case the mental process of understanding an utterance, a meaningful gesture, or a written statement, in the mind of the interpreter, constitutes an exact reversal of the productive process in the mind of the speaker, writer, or agent whose meaningful acts are to be understood.[2]

According to Betti, representative forms have meaning because they express thoughts in the mind of their producer. What meaning they have, Betti suggests, is in all cases an objective matter of fact, since it is a matter of objective fact what ideational content the producer of a representative form intended to convey with it. It follows that there is always a fact of the matter for an interpretation to be right or wrong about. An interpretation either manages to accurately capture, to reproduce in the mind of the interpreter,

Some Untidy Reflections on the Betti—Gadamer Debate xiii

the intended sense of an expression or it does not. Ranke’s idea of the objectivity of the science of history, in this view, translates straightforwardly to hermeneutics. An interpreter’s goal is to not to judge or to learn from the thoughts of those whose expressions he seeks to understand, but to find out what they actually thought.

As should be evident, it will often be difficult for the historian to accomplish this task of understanding; s/he may be confronted with very fragmentary remains, produced by human beings who lived in a very different world and held beliefs and convictions very different from her own. Betti’s general hermeneutics responds to this difficulty with the promise that there is a method or technique of interpretation which, though it cannot guarantee accurate reproductive understanding, will nevertheless facilitate the achievement of such understanding. In the text presented here, Betti summarizes that method, by laying out four fundamental canons of hermeneutics.

The first of these is the canon of the hermeneutical autonomy of the object of interpretation.’The objects of interpretation are to be understood according to the law of their own formation, that is, in the context in which they were produced, and in accordance with the intentions and purposes of the producer, whom Betti refers to as a ‘demiurge’, and not in light of an extrinsic purpose that might suggest itself to the interpreter.1’The canon of autonomy, as should be clear, flows from a demand for objectivity of understanding. Meaning is not to be imposed on the object by the interpreter. Rather, the interpreter is to find the meaning the producer of the object intended to express.

Betti’s second canon of interpretation, the canon of totality, addresses the circular structure of interpretation.[3] It demands that the meaning of any particular object of interpretation be elucidated in its proper context. A particular spoken phrase, a written sentence or sentence-fragment, a particular gesture form part of a wider discourse, of a larger text, or a more extended performance. Though the meaning to be attributed to the discourse, the text, or the performance as a whole depends on the meaning of its constituent parts, the meaning of the constituent parts, in turn, can only be determined in light of the meaning of the whole. Our assumptions about the meaning of the whole and the parts must inform each other, they must, at the end of the process of interpretation, to borrow a Rawlsian phrase, stand in reflective equilibrium. Any application of the canon of totality in the process of interpretation, needless to say, will have to

determine which context, precisely, is relevant for achieving the best possible understanding of a particular representative form. In line with the romantic tradition from which he takes inspiration, Betti argues that the ultimate context within which any particular representative form is to be interpreted is the totality of the life of the mind of the person who produced it. It is this biographical context that must be privileged if we assume that the task of interpretation is to reproduce the content of the expressive intention of the producer of a representative form in the mind of the interpreter.

The third canon is that of the actuality of understanding.[4] It acknowledges that interpretation cannot be purely passive. Successful reconstruction of the meaning expressed in a historical source requires that the interpreter be able to relate the content of that source to his or her own experiential background. She is called upon to translate it into the actuality of her own life through an effort of sympathetic understanding. The canon of actuality contains a concession that understanding cannot be presuppositionless. To understand, say, a philosophical or legal text, we must be able to reason with the ideas expressed in it, to see how they might be applied to cases, scenarios, or instances not explicitly discussed in the text itself. To understand meaningful behaviour, we must be able to understand what purposes or ends it might have been intended to serve, which requires that we be able to attribute purposes and ends to the general pattern of observed behaviour that we are to interpret. This task of sympathetic identification will hardly be possible unless the interpreter can recognize the object to be interpreted as the product of the activity of an agent whose beliefs, concerns, and goals are intelligible to the interpreter.

The fourth and last of Betti’s hermeneutic canons, that of adequacy of meaning, builds on the insight that an interpreter must be able to put himself into the shoes of the person whose speech, writings, or behaviour are to be understood. Bettis description of this canon has clear moral undertones. What is required for successful interpretation, he argues, is not merely that the interpreter have a desire to understand. It is necessary, in addition, that the interpreter exhibit‘a spiritual open-mindedness’as well as‘unselfishness and humble self-effacement, as they are manifested in the sincere and decisive overcoming of personal prejudices’. In effect, the canon of adequacy is the subjective equivalent, on the interpreter’s side, of the first canon of the hermeneutical autonomy of the object of interpretation. It demands a frame

Some Untidy Reflections on the Betti-Gadamer Debate xv of mind that enables the interpreter to respect the autonomy of the object, to listen to what the source has to say.

Betti’s four canons of interpretation, obviously, are not free of internal tension. The third canon, that of the actuality of understanding, in particular, puts pressure on the demand to respect the hermeneutical autonomy of the object of interpretation (as well as its subjective counterpart, the demand for adequacy of understanding), and thus on the ideal of objectivity that Betti’s hermeneutics is intended to safeguard.This tension comes to the fore most visibly in juristic hermeneutics. At first glance, this claim might be surprising. Juristic hermeneutics, after all, is concerned, paradigmatically, with the interpretation of laws, with statutory commands, enacted by a sovereign lawgiver who is assumed to have the authority to enact rules subjects are bound to obey. What could be more important, in this context, than to make sure that the meaning of the objects of interpretation is understood in precisely the way the producer intended them to be understood?

The problem, of course, is that laws are general commands that require application, to cases not foreseen by the legislator or not explicitly regulated in the statutory command. Even Hobbes, when addressing the problem of legal interpretation, was forced to admit that juristic hermeneutics must rely on an idealizing method that does not aim to track the actual psychological intentions of the lawgiver, but rather to ensure that the application of laws to particular cases leads to reasonable outcomes: ‘The Intention of the Legislator is alwayes supposed to be equity: For it were a great contumely for a Judge to think otherwise of the Soveraigne.’[5] What is required of the interpreting judge, in this view, is much more than a sympathetic but respectful engagement with the actual intention of the legislator. Since it is the legislator’s task to implement basic practical principles that Hobbes calls the ‘laws of nature’, a judge must interpret laws as though they were made with that intention, and then apply them in light of his best understanding of what the laws of nature do, in fact, require. To do otherwise would be disrespectful to the sovereign, as it would suggest that the sovereign’s actual intention differs from the intention that flows from a proper understanding of sovereign role. It should be clear that Hobbes’s view ofjuristic interpretation violates the canon of the hermeneutical autonomy of the object that is to be interpreted, and this violation is only more pronounced in some influential modern accounts ofjuristic interpretation. Dworkin’s interpre-tivism explicitly claims that juristic interpretation must attribute to some legal practice that point or purpose which is best suited to morally justify

the coercion-backed decisions produced by legal institutions, irrespective of what the actual intention of the legislator might have been.[6] Juristic hermeneutics, so understood, clearly cannot be objective in anything like the Rankean sense.

A defender of a scientific hermeneutics will respond by pointing out that juristic hermeneutics is a special case, for the reason that the demand for actuality of understanding takes a peculiar form in the juristic context. We apply legal rules not merely to satisfy our theoretical interest in understanding what they mean or what their producer intended. We do so to determine what it is that we are legally obligated to do. The law makes a claim, according to both Hobbes and Dworkin, to be morally justified in imposing its demands on us. The legal interpreter assumes, that is, that the fact that the law demands of its subjects that they act in a certain way suffices to put those subjects under an obligation so to act, even before threats of punishment come into consideration. To interpret the law from an idealizing perspective that engages the interpreter’s own convictions as to what purposes it would be reasonable for law to pursue is necessary to sustain the law’s normative claims. But this pull towards a practical perspective does not hold, it might be argued, if the interpreter’s aim is merely to understand, as accurately as possible, the meaning the producer of a representative form intended to express. In historical research, we simply want to find out ‘how things actually were’, and we do not attribute any practical (or, for that matter, theoretical) authority to the sources that we aim to understand in order to give ourselves an objective picture of the past.

It is at this point, as I pointed out at the beginning, that Gadamer and Betti clash head-on. Gadamer thinks that juristic hermeneutics provides a general model of interpretation, though his understanding of juristic interpretation differs in some important respects, as we shall see, from Hobbes’s or Dworkins. What makes juristic hermeneutics a general model, Gadamer argues, is precisely that it explicitly recognizes that understanding involves application. Gadamer argues that to understand an object of interpretation aright always requires a critical engagement on the part of the interpreter, an engagement in which the interpreter will have to evaluate (and perhaps to re-evaluate) both his or her own convictions and those expressed in the source.

The gist of Gadamer’s position, which cannot be discussed here in all its details, can be brought out by focusing on a claim to which Betti takes

Some Untidy Reflections on the Betti-Gadamer Debate xvii particularly strong exception. In presenting his understanding of the problem of the hermeneutic circle, Gadamer argues that any interpretive endeavour must be guided by what he calls a ‘ Vorgriff der Vollkommenheit’ or anticipation of perfection.[7] Gadamer’s hermeneutic circle is not to be understood, as in Betti’s canon of totality, as a relationship between the parts and the whole of the discourse, text, or life that is to be interpreted. It involves the interpreter’s beliefs and convictions. To understand the object of interpretation, we must assume that it is understandable to us, that is, that it has been created and been endowed with meaning by an agent whose beliefs, convictions and intentions are intelligible to us. The interpreter and the agent whose expressions are to be understood must therefore belong to a common horizon, to a historical continuum or tradition that is characterized by the fact that both the interpreter and the agent share a fair number of beließ and convictions about the world and about what is valuable and interesting. It is only on the basis of the assumption that there are such shared beliefs that it is possible for the interpreter to anticipate the meaning of the discourse or text that they are to understand, and without such anticipations the process of interpretation cannot get going. Gadamer concludes that ‘the prejudice of completeness, then, implies not only [...] that a text should completely express its meaning - but also that what it says should be the complete truth’.1” This anticipation of truth can only ever be partially disappointed, Gadamer claims, if understanding is to be possible at all. To disagree with a source or to question the truth of one of her claims is possible only against a background of far-reaching implicit agreement.

Instances in which the anticipation of perfection is partially disappointed are nevertheless of pivotal importance for Gadamer. They are opportunities, he thinks, to test our own convictions and beliefs by way of confrontation with the tradition’s claims. We may find, in some cases, that the claims made by the source are, from our point of view, misguided or irrelevant, to be explained away historically, by the use of the techniques of textual critique or of historical psychology or sociology. But Gadamer argues that some claims that are implicit in the tradition and that stick in our craw will turn out to be justified and to survive our critical questioning. We must therefore be ready to learn from and to defer to the authority of tradition, to abandon some of our own beließ and convictions in an encounter with the object of interpretation. The encounter with the tradition, then, affords us with the opportunity to test and to slowly transform our own prejudices. But this

process must be piecemeal if it is not to foreclose the very possibility of understanding.[8]

We can now see in what sense Gadamer can be said to generalize the model of juristic hermeneutics to all interpretation. For us to be able to understand the object of interpretation, Gadamer thinks, we must attribute epistemic and, in case the source makes practical claims, practical authority to the tradition. As has already been pointed out, Gadamer does not argue that the claims of tradition are beyond criticism. Any criticism of the claims of tradition, however, will have to be interstitial. That we acknowledge that the claims of tradition are by and large true is a condition of the very possibility of adequate understanding. Just as the juristic interpreter must presume that the claims of the law are reasonable, so the historical interpreter must presume that the claims of tradition are accurate. The anticipation of perfection thus corresponds to the juristic assumption that the laws enacted by a sovereign conform to the law of nature or, to put it in Dworkinian terms, that the decisions that flow from a legal practice can be given an interpretation under which the public violence these decisions license turns out to be morally justified.

It should be noted, however, that Gadamer’s adaptation puts a particular twist on the juristic model. To bring out that twist, let us consider again Hobbes’s claim that an interpreter must assume that the legislator intends to enact legal rules which are equitable. Hobbes is decidedly not of the opinion that the question whether some rule enacted by the sovereign can, indeed, be regarded as equitable is to be regarded as settled by the fact that the rule in question has been enacted by the sovereign or been laid down in precedent. Though a judicial interpreter of the positive law would, of course, have to defer to the sovereign’s authority should the latter, in his capacity as supreme judge, decide a doubtful case himself, for the reason that deference to direct instructions issued by the sovereign is a condition of the preservation of the state and the avoidance of civil war, sovereign authority - or, for that matter, the authority of precedent - can never, in Hobbes’s view, make a substantively inequitable decision equitable. Interpreters are to use what wiggle room they have to make sure that, going forward, legal practice comes to approximate true equity, as determined by practice-independent standards of natural law, ever more closely. The interpreter’s understanding of these standards is not to be defined by tradition, by past judicial and legislative decisions. Deference to positive law, whether it be statutory or take the form of precedent, is to be demanded only on pragmatic grounds. Positive law exercises a settlement-function that is

Some Untidy Reflections on the Betti-Gadamer Debate xix conducive to social peace. But the interpreter is not to assume, as Gadamer would have it, that the value judgments expressed in past decisions are to be presumed to be true for the reason that they have become embedded in a historically extended legal practice or tradition. Gadamer denies, while Hobbes affirms, that there are practice independent standards of moral judgment, standards that are not themselves presupposed by and intersti-tially tested and refined in the hermeneutical process. As we have seen, Gadamer is careful not to advocate for a runic traditionalism, but his view is much closer to the ideology of the common law that Hobbes was concerned to attack than to the model of juristic hermeneutics one finds in Hobbes, or, for that matter, in Dworkin.

We will have to return to this difference in conceptions of juristic hermeneutics at a later point. For now, we need to note that Gadamer’s understanding of juristic hermeneutics is as inimical to Betti’s general hermeneutics as Hobbes’s or Dworkin’s more radically constructive approach. Both require the juristic interpreter to violate the canon of the hermeneutic autonomy of the object and to enter into a critical and evaluative interrogation of the object of interpretation, so as to ensure that the outcomes of the process of application have contemporary relevance and are defensible as true. If Gadamer is right to argue that all interpretation, and not merely the interpretation of legal materials for purposes of application, must follow this scheme, then there can be no objective, detached understanding of the sort of advocated by Betti’s general hermeneutics. In trying to understand, we can never merely try to find out what it is that the producer of a signifier wanted to express. We can never answer that latter question without entering into a dialogue that raises the question of the truth of both our own claims and of the claims of the historical source that is to be understood.

In the work presented here, Betti aims to defend general hermeneutics, as a method of the human sciences, against precisely this challenge, in a lengthy excursus on Gadamer’s argument in Truth and Method. It cannot be said, however, that the considerations that Betti puts forward to address Gadamer’s critique of general hermeneutics are altogether compelling.

The main reply Betti makes to Gadamer is to argue, in effect, that if an interpreter does not follow the four canons, they will not be able to attain objective understanding, of the sort that could sustain a claim that the humanities are sciences. In Bettis analysis, Gadamer’s hermeneutics, and in particular the anticipation of perfection, carries the danger of eliding the difference between finding and imposing meaning and is thus likely to encourage violations of the canons of hermeneutic autonomy as well as (on


See Betti, Hcrmencutik als allgemcine Methode (n. 1), pp. 38-52 [pp. 45-61].

the side of the interpreter) of hermeneutic adequacy. Gadamer’s hermeneutics, Betti suggests, will simply have the interpreter read his or her own values or beliefs into the object that is to be interpreted. As a result, its outcomes must fail to understand the source in its own terms, in terms that accurately reconstruct the intentions of the producer. Betti makes it clear, in a discussion of Bultmann’s existentialist theological hermeneutics, that he is not so naive as to fail to recognize that the hermeneutical process inevitably engages the interpreter’s practical interests. Appealing to the authority of Max Weber, Betti concedes that the interpreter’s interests usually guide the choice for and the delimitation of a particular subject of hermeneutical inquiry, but he argues, like Weber, that such judgments of relevance need not undermine the hermeneutical distance between interpreter and object of interpretation that is demanded by the four canons.

These responses to Gadamer are problematic for at least two reasons.The charge that Gadamer undermines the distinction between finding and imposing meaning, and thus undercuts the possibility of suitably detached and objective understanding, would appear to beg the question against Gadamer. Gadamer argues, to recall, that understanding, the attribution of meaning, is possible only on the basis of far-reaching agreement in belief between the interpreter and the source. If the anticipation of perfection was to run into systematic disappointment in the attempt to understand, the interpreter would simply be unable to attribute meaning to the source. Shared prejudices are a condition of the possibility of successful communication. If that claim is true, it follows, apparently, that the distinction between finding and imposing meaning is unsustainable, at least if it is meant to be understood in a suitably radical way that suggests that full understanding is possible under conditions of complete detachment from the truth-claims made in a source. To argue against Gadamer, one would have to show that the latter’s portrayal of the conditions of the possibility of understanding is mistaken, and Betti does not offer any critique along those lines.The appeal to Weber flounders for the same reason. Weber may well have been right to argue that the fact that practical interests determine what questions a social scientist will ask does not entail that the answers to those questions must themselves vary with the interpreters values. But that insight falls short of a response to Gadamer’s argument, as the latter is concerned, ultimately, with the conditions of the very possibility of linguistic understanding.


See ibid., pp. 24—27 [pp. 27—29]. Betti’s reference is to Max Weber, ‘Koscher und Knies und die logischen Probleme der historischen Nationalökonomie*, in Max Weber, Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Wissenschaftslehre, ed. by Johannes Winckelmann (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1951), pp. 1-145, at pp. 119—122.

Betti’s charge that Gadamer’s hermeneutics will lead the interpreter to impose meaning on the source, though it is ostensibly driven by a concern for objectivity of understanding, has certain moral undertones that echo the romantic dissatisfaction with the historiography of the enlightenment. To judge claims made in a source in light of one’s own values and beliefs, Betti intimates, is a form of disrespect, a refusal to try to understand the source on its own terms and to listen to what it has to say. It is to presume one’s own superiority, in cognitive insight, moral judgment, or civilizational attainment, over those whose thought is expressed in the object of interpretation. To criticize Gadamer in these terms seems rather beside the point, given that the latter, as we have seen, rejects the view that the interpreter has access to tradition-independent standards of judgment. Gadamer is concerned to vindicate the authority of tradition, and emphasizes the idea that we must, if understanding is to be possible, be willing to revise our own prejudices as a result of the hermeneutical encounter with the past. To aim for detachment from the source’s claim, Gadamer argues, is precisely not to respect its claim to truth, but to disregard it.

The crux of the debate between Betti and Gadamer, then, is whether Gadamer is right to argue that his Vorgrijflis a condition of the very possibility of understanding, of the ability to interpret a source, to assign meaning to it. This question cannot be discussed here in extenso. Some brief remarks on Betti’s theory of meaning, however, are nevertheless in order. Betti’s theory of meaning, as it is presented in the text published here, employs an expressive model. An expressive model of meaning assumes that the meaning or semantic content of externally observable representative forms derives from the semantic content of the thoughts in the mind of the producer which they are intended to express.Thoughts, in turn, as inner events, are originally meaningful or intrinsically representational, they carry semantic content even if they are not expressed. For Betti, the correctness of hermeneutic understanding, as we have seen, hinges on whether the interpreter succeeds in reconstructing the content of the thought the producer of a signifier intended to express. All that is required in order to interpret successfully, Betti might well have replied to Gadamer, on the basis of this theory of meaning, is for the interpreter to find out what that thought was, and not to judge whether it is true or well-warranted. The claim that this pairing of inner thought with observable representative form is possible only if we presume that all or most of the thoughts whose expressions we are trying to understand are true seems mysterious and unmotivated. We are perfectly capable, after all, to understand false thoughts as well as true.


See Betti, Hermeneutik ah allgemeine Methode (n. 1), pp. 7-13 [pp. 4-13].

A Gadamerian is likely to point out, in reply, that Gadamer’s Vorgriffhas been vindicated by arguments put forward in analytical philosophies of language and meaning, which have increasingly come to emphasize the public and social character of meaning and to reject the view that inner mental states can be regarded as intrinsically meaningful. One development of this theme that is particularly congenial to Gadamer’s hermeneutical claims, at least at first glance, is Donald Davidson’s theory of radical interpretation.[9]

Davidson asks how it would be possible for us to translate or to interpret the utterances of speakers of a language that is, initially, altogether unknown to us. The only data that we could appeal to so as to develop and test hypotheses concerning the meaning of sentences of the unknown language is the observable linguistic behaviour of its speakers. We might, for instance, observe that speakers of the unknown language tend to utter the words ‘Yagmur yagiyor!’ when it is raining, and come to conjecture that they are to be translated as 'It is raining!’. In doing so, however, we must make a number of assumptions that cannot be falsifiable if the project of interpretation or translation is ever to get off the ground. We must assume, for instance, that speakers of the unknown language, when they utter the words ‘Yagmur yagiyor!’, aim to describe their surroundings, the situation they are in fact in, and that they are making a statement about it which they hold to be true. What is more, we must assume that the utterance they make is indeed true, for we would otherwise be unable to treat it as a description of the state of affairs that we concomitantly observe to obtain, i.e., that it is raining. Radical interpretation, Davidson concludes, must be committed to a principle of charity. If we are to be able to interpret an unknown language, we must assume that what speakers of that language say is by and large true. Disagreement or the attribution of mistake are possible only against a background of agreement.

It might appear, then, that Betti’s hermeneutics is little more than a historical curiosity, a belated attempt to defend the romantic tradition in hermeneutics, associated with Schleiermacher and Dilthey, which rests on an unsustainable theory of meaning. What I would like to suggest by way of conclusion is that it would be grave mistake, despite its philosophical deficiencies, to discard Betti’s hermeneutics and to score the debate a victory

for Gadamer. Betti’s four canons encapsulate an understanding of the real challenge of understanding that is in some important respects more productive than Gadamer’s.

To see why this is the case, we need to note that Gadamer’s adaptation of what he takes to be the juristic model of hermeneutics is subtly ambiguous. Gadamer’s key claim is that the acknowledgment of the authority of tradition, of the truth of its claims, is a precondition of understanding. On one reading of this claim, Gadamer is putting forward a purely descriptive thesis. It is a fact that we do understand each other, and the challenge that Gadamer’s hermeneutics intends to meet is that of explaining how this understanding is possible. The answer that Gadamer gives to the question is similar, in broad outline, to Davidson’s. When we understand or interpret, we apply a principle of charity, whether we are aware of it or not. We assume, unless there are specific reasons to think otherwise, reasons that presuppose successful interpretation, that what speakers (or authors of historical sources) tell us is true. Disagreement can at best be local.

The problem with reading Gadamer along these lines is that the reading does not sustain his apparent normative claim that tradition has an authority to which we ought to be willing to defer, in cases where the claims of authority stick in our craw. A claim to authority, attributed to tradition, could become relevant only in situations where we, as implicit addressees of the claims of the tradition to which we are held to belong, understand what the tradition claims but fail to be convinced by the claim or even disagree with it. It may well be true that such disagreement could only occur against a backdrop of far-reaching agreement with the beliefs embedded in tradition. When it occurs, however, it cannot be overcome by appeal to the conditions of the possibility of understanding. The very fact that we disagree, and understand what we disagree about, shows that the precondition of agreement that makes understanding possible has already been satisfied.

Perhaps Gadamer wants to claim no more than that it might turn out, when we meaningfully disagree with the claims of tradition, that the claims of tradition are true while ours are false, but this observation, while undoubtedly true, is rather banal and does nothing to show that we have reason to attribute epistemic or practical authority to tradition. It seems clear that Gadamer is interested in raising a stronger normative demand on behalf of tradition. Claims of tradition, or so Gadamer suggests in his discussion of ‘the classical’, are to be granted a presumption of truth or bindingness, even in the face of what seems to be meaningful disagreement, if they have survived a long series of hermeneutical encounters or re-appropriations


Compare Betti, Hermeneutik als allgemeine Methode (n. 1), p. 51, n. 118 [p. 60, n. 4].

without having lost their hold on us.[10] This suggestion strikes me as deeply problematic. It appears to imagine that the recurring hermeneutic re-appropriations of tradition that have turned out to preserve the authority of its claim(s) have all taken place in the context of a freewheeling Habermasian dialogue, one that gave equal recognition to the claims of all participants and the outcomes of which turned on nothing other than the forceless force of the better argument.The point that the traditions to which we may be taken to belong have not usually been maintained in this way needs no further elaboration.

Gadamer’s understanding ofjuristic hermeneutics, what is more, unduly mystifies the authority of law. Many legal theorists, to be sure, argue that law possesses practical authority, or at least that it necessarily claims such authority, but this authority is commonly explained by appeal to what I have above called the ‘settlement-function’ of positive law, not by appeal to the view that law, since it purports to be binding, must be presumed to communicate practical truth. We clearly can understand what a law requires of us, and even recognize its bindingness, without having to believe that those who made it were possessed of privileged moral insight. The proper practical attitude towards law, or at least towards law that indeed serves a socially useful settlement-function, is ‘to obey punctually; to censure freely’, not to defer unquestioningly.

I pointed out above that Betti resists the imposition of meaning onto a source, at least in part, for what appear to be moral reasons. To impose meaning is to disrespect the source, to refuse to understand it on its own terms and to listen to what it has to say. We have seen that this charge does not really apply to Gadamer’s hermeneutics, which aims to vindicate the authority of tradition. If anything, Gadamer goes too far in his demand for respect for the claims we might encounter in tradition. One can listen, at least once there is enough background-agreement for understanding to be possible, which is the case wherever we can meaningfully disagree, without attributing authority to the claims one finds expressed in an object of interpretation.

The mixture of detachment and sympathetic engagement that the canons of Betti’s hermeneutics demand of the interpreter may well point towards a more productive way to deal with hermeneutical encounters of this kind. A claim we find puzzling, that sticks in our craw, though we believe we understand it, calls for a more conscious hermeneutical effort than is involved in ordinary understanding, one that brackets both the

Some Untidy Reflections on the Betti-Gadamer Debate xxv claims of tradition and, as far as possible, our own prejudices. What such bracketing promises, and what good history delivers, is an experience of profound difference that nevertheless remains intelligible. It also provides us with a sensibility to the fact that historical processes, including the ones that have formed our present, were often driven by power and violence as opposed to suasion. What nevertheless permits us to understand other cultures or historical epochs is our shared humanity, not the fact, as Gadamer would have it, that we and the object of interpretation are already enclosed within the same horizon, within a particular tradition which constitutes our own historical existence and lays rightful claim to our allegiance. The hermeneutical tradition for which Betti spoke may need to be rethought as far as its philosophical basis is concerned, but its emancipatory potential should not be abandoned lightly.

  • [1] See Emilio Betti, Hermeneutik als allgemeine Methodik der Geisteswissenschaften (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1962), pp. 38-52 [pp. 45-61 in this volume] as well as the response in: Hans-Georg Gadamer, ‘Hermeneutik und Historismus’, in Hans-Georg Gadamer, Wahrheit und Methode, vol. 2: Ergänzungen (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1993), pp. 387-424, at pp. 392-395. 2 Leopold von Ranke, Geschichten der romanischen und germanischen Völker von 1494-1535, vol. I (Leipzig and Berlin: G. Reimer, 1824), pp. ix-x [my translation]: ‘Some have endowed history with the task to pass judgment on the past, and to educate the world for the benefit of years to come. The present essay does not lay claim to an office as high as this: it only wants to say how things actually were.’
  • [2] See the discussion of Bultmann’s hermeneutics in Betti, Hermeneutik ah allgemeine Methode (n. 1), pp. 22-35 [pp. 25-41]. 2 See ibid., pp. 7-13 [pp. 11-22].
  • [3] See ibid., pp. 14—15 [pp. 25—26]. 2 See ibid. 3 See ibid., pp. 15-19 [pp. 27—33].
  • [4] See ibid., p. 19-20 [p. 21]. 2 See ibid., pp. 53-54 [pp. 62-63]. 3 Ibid., p. 53 [p. 62].
  • [5] Press, 1991), p. 194.
  • [6] See Ronald Dworkin, Lam’s Empire (London: Fontana Press, 1986). 2 See Betti, Hermencutik als allgemeine Methode (n. 1), pp. 48-52 [pp. 57-611. 3 See Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, transl. by Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall (London and New York: Continuum Press, 2004), pp. 320-355.
  • [7] Ibid., p. 294. The English version of Wahrheit und Methode translates ‘Vorgriff der Vollkommenheit’ as ‘fore-conception of completeness”. 2 Ibid.
  • [8] See ibid., pp. 278-285. 2 See Hobbes, Leviathan (n. 11), pp. 192-195.
  • [9] See Donald Davidson, Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984). 2 Davidson, ibid., p. 137 puts the point as follows: 'If we cannot find a way to interpret the utterances and other behaviour of a creature as revealing a set of beliefs largely consistent and true by our own standards, we have no reason to count that creature as rational, as having beliefs, or as saying anything.*
  • [10] See Gadamer, Truth and Method (n. 14), pp. 286—291. 2 Jeremy Bentham, A Fragment on Government, ed. by F.C. Montague (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1891), p. 101.
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