Language, work and hermeneutics

In Gadamer’s Hermeneutics and the Art of Conversation. LIT Verlag. pp. 201-220 (2011)
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Abstract

The essay reflects on Gadamer’s ambiguous legacy for the philosophy of work. On the one hand, there are times when Gadamer reproduces the problematic distinction between language and labor which short-circuits the very idea of a hermeneutics of work. This is particularly evident in Gadamer’s reflections on technique and craftsmanship in the central sections of Truth and Method, as well as in his descriptions of the “art” of dialogue and the tasks of hermeneutics that separate them emphatically them from the sphere of “making.” I raise some questions about the adequacy of the distinction Gadamer draws between techne and phronesis that structures this account. I argue here that Gadamer’s characterization of the learning process involved in the mastery of a technique, as well as his conception of the instrumentality and monologicality of technical knowledge, is difficult to sustain, especially in view of recent research in the psychology and anthropology of work. I then go on to point out that elsewhere in his oeuvre Gadamer himself is critical of the conception of work that emerges through the lens of the techne / phronesis distinction. Indeed, on these occasions he hints at a conception of work that points beyond the Arendt / Habermas conception towards a critical hermeneutics of working life. This alternative approach to work is particularly apparent in Gadamer’s appropriation of Hegel’s dialectic, in his understanding of play, and in some of his later diagnostic reflections on the spirit of the age. In section four, I offer some suggestions for explaining how the tensions evident in Gadamer’s approach to work came about. Here I am interested in what prevented Gadamer from embracing whole-heartedly the project of a hermeneutics of work that he himself helped to lay the foundations for. I conclude with some brief remarks on why we should seek to build upon these foundations and renew the project of a critical hermeneutics of work today.

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