Horizons — Looking inwards or seeing outwards?

Shifting outlook from the inward looking processes involving prejudices, Gadamer catapulted his thinking outwards as far as the eye can see to re-evaluate another common term in day-to-day use: horizons. And, in the course of such appraising, he introduced a radical metaphor for how we engage with the world around us.

Cutting to the chase, Gadamer’s new perspective was the realisation that the level of consciousness we have been able to attain so far is analogous to a personal horizon. Whereby we find ourselves, as he put it, with a “range of vision that includes everything that can be seen from a particular vantage point.” Which, because Gadamer was focussed upon hermeneutics — the study of understanding — translates into consciousness having a fixed point around which it perceives the world.

At this juncture, it is important to note that in order to have more than just a limited consciousness one needs to have a horizon. Without such a horizon one finds oneself somewhere between a goldfish and a sty-bound pig. As Gadamer illustrated, “A person who has no horizon does not see far enough and hence over-values what is nearest to him”. Rounding it all out, the near-sighted person, if one follows Gadamer’s logic, has little actual consciousness. Heads up then if we want to have a respectable level of consciousness beyond the merely conscious. Look up and look around.

So, having an horizon means that we can see a wider picture and are not limited purely to considering what is in front of us. Possessing a horizon gives us consciousness beyond that of the piscine and the porcine — something to which we can all aim at and hopefully master. However, we are limited by what we can see within our horizon and advancing beyond it requires a shift in consciousness. This should not present too drastic an obstacle though, because by the very fact of having the horizon — an important first step — we are also able to comprehend that there are sights beyond our current vision.

To my mind this is rather like taking a walk with Gadamer on a sunny day. Doing up our shoelaces, we leave the aquatic and animal kingdoms behind as we stroll out into the farmer’s field next-door to meander through his little patch of heaven and wheat, which we have gazed upon everyday from inside the cosy double-glazed and arm-chaired paradise, we call home. Thrashing between the golden stems of wheat, we scare the crows we have watched so often from our window settling down to munch on their delicious free meal full of starch, fibre and natural goodness. The farmer’s combine-harvester is parked next to his barn on the left, just as it always is when we have looked out in-between feasting ourselves on Gadamer’s nutrition packed, well maybe just tasty, plum jam sandwiches.

The point being that by wandering into the horizon we have seen so many times before we still only really see the same old things we used to cogitate upon before we set a single shoe-clad foot outside our door. Gadamer, though, unbeknownst to me has got his hiking boots on.

Gadamer, you see, has realised that there is something beyond our own familiar vista, something beyond our horizon that could be explored. So, by concentrating our efforts and shifting our lumbering consciousness up we push through the last of the wheat to emerge at the far side of the farmer’s field. A tall hedgerow bounds the horizon that we have so far managed to see, with who knows what on the other side. Wishing that I had thought to wear a thicker coat to protect me from the thorns I plunge into the thicket after Gadamer.

Previously unknown territory slowly comes into view as I adjust my glasses and brush off the common knapweed, st. john’s wort, and butcher’s broom to say nothing of the wild fauna that seems to have wormed and wiggled its way down my back. A lunar landscape does not appear, although, how would I know that one such a scene was not there to greet me, seeing as how I have never gone beyond the comfort of my horizon before? Instead, there is a rather worn out country lane with a pub peaking out from round the bend on the left. Gadamer, possibly in need of refreshment, has already started walking in that direction. It’s almost as if Gadamer knew that if the vantage point changed then so would the horizon!

Over the hedge a whole new horizon comes into view and I’m glad Gadamer persuaded me to explore. As I sit next to him sipping at a cool refreshing cider, apparently local as the barman has informed us, It seems that by altering my vantage point I am achieving a genuine new horizon where new levels of understanding can be gained. I mention to Gadamer that maybe after we finish our pints we could continue to explore and possibly find slightly more erudite arenas into which we can cast ourselves.

The point being that not only am I enjoying going beyond my traditional horizon, I am also open to such shifts in my vantage point from where I can conceive and create new horizons of experience. So, even though our own personal horizons may be “limited and finite,” as the nice Gadamerian chap, Richard J. Bernstein observed, they are also “essentially open”, or, as I have described, able to lumber and charge through hedges. Achieving openness though, as many eastern philosophers will tell you, is not effortless. Would I ever have got beyond my horizon limit, the hedge, if it weren’t for Gadamer? Mind you, I was open to the prospect and that’s key to Gadamer’s concept of individual horizons.

Moving on, there is a second critical stage to Gadamer’s work on horizons and how we think, understand and engage with the world. The introduction to this next stage of Gadamer’s horizon metaphor can be a little tricky, but it is navigable.

For Gadamer, understanding per se is something that is “historically effected”. Our consciousness is not something that has popped out of nowhere, it has evolved throughout our lives and been effected by our own personal history and gives us our own unique horizon from within which we understand and process the world. As Gadamer said, probably repeatedly, but in this instance in conversation with Carsten Dutt, “no one is a blank sheet of paper”. Consequently, each of us is different and sees the world through our own “historically effected consciousness”, or ‘horizons’. Now, the tricky bit is how we bump our horizons together.

Gadamer, rather obliquely, rolls these issues of horizon bumping and “historically-effected consciousness” together: “The task of historical understanding also involves acquiring an appropriate historical horizon, so that what we are trying to understand can be seen in its true dimensions.” So, what does that mean? The umbrella consideration of ‘appropriate’ is a useful starting point because I take him to mean that we need to be self-aware and understand ourselves as individuals that have been affected by our history: we are not objective gods, we are unique subjects. And as unique subjects we are limited and finite in our current understanding. However, in-built within each of us is the capacity to mature, adapt and grow intellectually. As well as recognising our own capacities, though, we also need to regard that which we survey in its “true dimensions”, by which I understand Gadamer to mean that we need to have respect for that which we observe from our own horizon. And, this is the absolutely critical bit. We must take seriously, to the point of imperative, how the other — that which is not self — is to be incorporated within the metaphor of our personal horizon.

In order that we do not objectify the other, or their claim, we must avoid trying to assimilate them into our horizon as it stands, but also we should not attribute an alternative horizon to them into which we transplant ourselves whilst ignoring our own horizon. Instead of objectifying them, as in the former, or indeed objectifying ourselves, as in the latter, we need to recognise the fluidity of ourselves with the other and attempt to achieve what Gadamer termed a ‘fusion of horizons.’ Exciting and stimulating as this ‘fusion’ sounds, Gadamer very quickly grounds this concept before it takes flight in a flurry of naïve enthusiasm that conjures images of brightly adorned dancers grinning and singing vacuously about their mutual love for each other and the planet. Gadamer, after all was neither a hippy nor a Hollywood hack but a careful and methodical philosopher who instantly after he evoked the wonderful phase “fusion of horizons”, determined that the most important application to this idea would not be musical fervour but order, discipline, and restraint.

For Gadamer, the “fusion of horizons” required regulation, and this he saw as the task of a “historically effected consciousness.” Again, in talking to Dutt, Gadamer said “we must take the encounter [the potential fusing of horizons] seriously” because “one of the most essential experiences a human being can have is that another person comes to know him or her better.” Isn’t that what we all want — to be understood? To have someone that listens properly to the wit and wisdom we have to bestow whilst also appreciating the depths of our torment and highs of our joyful responses to the world.

A personal ego masseuse or oral amanuensis, however, was not Gadamer’s end-goal here. Rather, he realised that a dialogue needs to be created in order for there to be a fusing, as opposed to a swamping, of horizons. One-way traffic really isn’t going to cut it in Gadamer’s world. This is because he deeply believed that, just as we are each finite up to any moment of time, we are also each capable of being shown more than we can see within our own personal horizon. Or, as he said to Dutt, “Through an encounter with the other we are lifted above the narrow confines of our own knowledge… because there is always something about which we are not correct and are not justified in maintaining.” There is always another horizon to be shown or explore, and another hedge to be pushed through.

The regulation of any “fusing of horizons,” for Gadamer, as we have seen demanded seriousness, however, it required much more. As far as Gadamer was concerned such regulation would be given the principle focus of his attention because, for him, it was “the central problem of hermeneutics.” The application of such a fusion, therefore, was given no small role within his Magnum Opus, Truth and Method. Gadamer, warming to his theme, insisted that the crux of understanding compelled the avoidance of any objectification of the other, or oneself, in order to allow each to entwine with the other, in a fluid movement that generates understanding. One has to say that surely Gadamer is right when he commits himself to this steadfast position. How many times in our intellectual awakening and broadening, when chewing the fat with a close friend, colleague or family member, have we stumbled upon either a shared eureka moment or personal insight from one to the other. The process of openly fusing our horizons in a dialogue of trust and respect can yield dramatic shifts of vantage points in our consciousness.

So much was Gadamer enamoured with this “central problem of hermeneutics” that he spent most of his adult life eagerly entertaining interested parties, from near and far, in debates and conversation. A famous example of his desire in this area was his wish to converse with Jacques Derrida. Unfortunately, it seems that the respect and trust was not there from Derrida’s side when they finally met publically at the Sorbonne in Paris in 1981. Derrida, Gadamer analysed subsequently in conversation with Dutt, was not “capable of engaging in genuine conversation” and saw “both Heidegger and myself as part of the logocentrist camp.” It appeared, to Gadamer, that Derrida didn’t want to play Gadamer’s game — which one could tell would have caused Gadamer great inner turmoil. To be able to converse with the great French Deconstructivist and probe each other’s horizons could have led to great things in Gadamer’s mind, whilst also, by the very fact of conversing, giving his version of philosophical hermeneutics implicit validity. Instead, we are left with Gadamer’s rather mournful and tragic encapsulation “Whoever [Derrida] wants me to take deconstruction to heart and insists on difference stands at the beginning of a conversation, not at its end.”

Perhaps, in Derrida’s case, Gadamer chose badly because Derrida had to stick to his own guns and not be lulled into what he presumably saw as some kind of trap. Or, maybe as Gadamer suggested in his conversation with Dutt, dialogue just wasn’t Derrida’s strength. Derrida apart, who possibly had a variety of other things going on, it is really not too hard to see that Gadamer was onto something ethically in trying to regulate the “fusion of horizons,” by cultivating trust and respect. Indeed, it is testament to his belief in his project that he had the conversations with Dutt when he was ninety-three years old when he was “genial, direct, and never at a loss”. Quite a powerful message in terms of zest for life and also thirst for what he believed in: people can converse and, together, they can constructively (Derridean pun intended) push the boundaries of each other’s understanding. An ethical thirst, n’est pas?

These are my personal views on ethics and they are not intended to represent the views of Conway Hall Ethical Society.
 Dr. Jim Walsh

Jim Walsh, Gadamer, Truth and Method, horizons, Carsten Dutt, Richard J. Bernstein, historically effected, consciousness, marmalade sandwiches, Jacques Derrida

Originally published at conwayhall.org.uk on June 6, 2015.