Gadamer, Nationalism and a Reductive view of Enlightenment and Romanticism

These thoughts come from an MA class from the Methodology course I give for the MA in Political Science in the Department of Humanities and Social Science where I am employed.

Truth and Method famously rehabilitates the concept of ‘prejudice’ as a term of legal process rather than as a negative term referring to a bad opinion based on poor reasoning. The use of ‘prejudice’ as a necessary first stage of a legal process is combined to Germany. Gadamer contrasts German usage with other usages going back to the Latin. What he does not do is consider various contextual issues in history and theory of law: Roman Law and Customary Law (which still existed in Germany in the era of Enlightenment and Romanticism), Roman Law and Common Law (English style law which gives a strong role to judicial precedent and innovation); and all consideration of law not based on a convenient German example. The section on legal hermeneutics has rather more to do with hermeneutics than law, leaving us with Gadamer’s privileged example.

The German orientation is also present in his account of Enlightenment. French and ‘English’ Enlightenment are presented as sceptical in contrast with the historically grounded German Enlightenment. The fşrst point to make her is that the ‘English’ Enlightenment is better described as ‘Anglo-Scottish’ since the greatest figures were David Hume and Adam Smith. Other notable Scottish contributors include Adam Ferguson and Thomas Reid. Looking at the great philosopher in this context, David Hume, scepticism is a strong theme in Hume but it has an end. The end is in the habit, or custom, of the mind which provides a reliable basis for knowledge and ethics, though they cannot be based on determinate knowledge. Custom and habit also exist in history, in the accumulation of science, culture and morality. Something Gadamer could have taken into account.

The Italian Enlightenment is also pushed out of account. Vico is put in his place, by suggesting that he has failed to adopt the Hermeneutic method of moving between part and whole. Vico apparently leaves an unbridgeable confrontation between the individual and history as a whole. Another way of looking at Vico is that he shows the individual becoming more universal through history. Somehow Gadamer overlooks Vico’s work on language, literature and law, which would disturb his extremely schematic contrast between Enlightenment and Romanticism. His presumed sharp separation ignores the way that Enlightenment includes the centrality of sensibility and imagination. These may have been initially conceived in mechanistic terms but that is something that is always breaking down, particularly if we consider the simultaneous development of the novel of sensibility. Gadamer claims that Romanticism is nostalgic, but the Jena Romantic Ironists in some sense invented Modernity as a value. They opposed the sentimental, romantic, modern novel to the naive, classical, antique novel in non-nostalgic terms.

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