Michael Oakeshott referred to philosophical reflection as “an adventure.” He probably wasn’t thinking an adventure of the Henry Morton Stanley variety. Still, who hasn’t had a moment in their education when they were introduced to something new that seemed to open up a whole range of new, exciting possibilities? An adventure is as good a way as any to think about the process of learning, when it is going well; a journey in which the goals and destination are continuously revised in light of what is discovered along the way.
Our guide today will not be Oakeshott, but Hans-Georg Gadamer. Our goal will be to encourage both optimism and humility in what you can accomplish in your self-education these days, in light of the vast amounts of texts and other media that are always just a few clicks away.
Gadamer’s Framework: Horizons, Prejudices, and Holism
Imagine a book that has Spanish on each right page, with the English translation on each corresponding left page.
Now imagine three people: someone who is only fluent in English, someone who is only fluent in Spanish, and someone who is bilingual.
Gadamer would say the bilingual person has a broader horizon than the monolingual people. Not only does his horizon encompass theirs—in that he can read the Spanish and the English—but he can go yet further, judging the quality of the translation in terms of communicating the meaning of the Spanish.
A successful encounter with a text, according to Gadamer, involves translating the meaning of that text into a form that we can understand from our particular standpoint. But such a translation necessarily transforms that standpoint; in encountering the horizon communicated by the text, our own horizon is (hopefully!) broadened.
What exactly is this horizon?
Gadamer, following his teacher Martin Heidegger, asserted the centrality of the hermeneutic circle in understanding. This circle is a holistic relationship in which a part can only be understood in terms of the whole, but we only learn about the whole through its parts. Gadamer’s take on this is actually much less circular that this might sound.
For Gadamer, our horizon is a provisional understanding of the whole, and our prejudices are in turn our provisional understanding of a given part that we encounter.
To make this concrete, consider a novel. After finishing a given chapter of a novel, we no doubt have certain expectations about what the book as a whole will be like, based not only on the chapter itself but on our understanding of the genre conventions the novel is operating within, maybe even of our familiarity with the author herself or what other people have insinuated about the book. Once we have completed the novel, however, our understanding will have changed—not only of the novel as a whole, but even of a given chapter and its significance. Rereading the novel, we may find the chapter discloses things to us that it didn’t the first time—and these new disclosures, in turn, inform our understanding of the whole novel. In this way, even after we have read the whole book, we can learn from parts of it.
The role of prejudices and our horizon are important to emphasize here. If we weren’t already literate in a language, if we hadn’t read other novels or been exposed to any fiction in film or animation, we would find it very hard to approach the novel at all. While many authors might like to think they’d be better off if their readers came without presuppositions, in fact it is those very presuppositions from exposure to many other works of fiction which make their work approachable, and any surprises in it more potent.
Our horizon is what you might think of as the totality of our perspective right now; what we’re even capable of seeing. Our prejudices are what we expect to see when we approach something specific. Prejudices are not bad. They can be bad—they can be distortive, to use Gadamer’s terminology. But even these are a necessary starting point. Without prejudices, understanding isn’t possible. When we read a text that surprises us, and we remain open to the questions this experience poses to us (a critical condition), our prejudices—which may not have been visible to us previously—are brought into play. We examine them and the text in light of the question the text poses to us. And we may find that they need to be revised in order to understand the text.
Learning is thus an adventure in which we make a series of provisional judgments about the nature of the whole and the parts, and revise them along the way. In short, it’s not circular at all—we don’t need to know everything to know anything; we start with horizons that are pretty narrow and then get to work broadening them.
A Call For Humility
It feels like every day you could encounter someone who has read a single book on a subject and thinks of themselves as an expert.
Granted that, for Gadamer, we can never interrogate all of our prejudices, distortive or not. And the journey to broaden our horizon is never ended—it could be that someone with a relatively narrower horizon nevertheless has a particular standpoint that allows them to understand a specific text, problem, or idea better than someone with an otherwise much broader horizon. The radical incompleteness of our horizons and our understanding of the whole, in Gadamer, does bring the expert and the amateur, the teacher and the student, closer together to a certain extent.
Nevertheless, there are broad horizons and there are narrow horizons. Someone whose entire exposure to probability theory and the Stoic tradition is a book by Nassim Taleb is not in a very good position to understand texts about either of those subjects compared to a statistician or a philologist.
Before taking the one thing you’ve read on a subject and universalizing it and then turning it into a tool to beat up on people you disagree with, remember that it’s very likely that:
- All obvious criticisms have been made.
- All obvious criticisms have been responded to.
- A back-and-forth has occurred and the conversation has moved forward.
If you’re really interested in what that Taleb fellow had to say about the Stoics, maybe you should try to read some of the books by actual Stoics. And if you have trouble following the particulars of those, maybe you should read some secondary material on the matter, to see how most people interpret those texts, and how those interpretations have been criticized, and so on.
Don’t look for easy answers. Look for conversations that can help you expand your horizon; whether in probability, in Stoic philosophy, in literature—or whatever it is. Look for a place to begin your adventure, not a single destination you’ll never have to move from again.
A Call for Optimism
I’m sure the below video speaks to many of you.
Or to quote a post by fellow Sweet Talker David:
“Look,” she said. “If you want to learn how to play Beethoven on the piano, you’ve got to start with Bach on the lute. From there you have to learn to play the harp, then the harpsichord, and after that, you can finally take a seat at my luxurious Steinway concert grand piano.”
“Now look here,” I started to say, but she handed me a history book, so I said, “What’s this?”
“A history of the Napoleonic Wars,” she said. “This is the context in which Beethoven wrote his music.” And then she exclaimed, “Oh!”
“What?” I said.
“Do you have a prior knowledge of the effect of secular humanism on the works of J.S. Bach?”
Look, you don’t have to read Being and Time, in the original German, as well as Kierkegaard, Kant, and Hegel, in order to really understand…the existentialists, Gadamer, 20th century philosophy, whatever it is. You don’t have to understand the history of the Napoleonic wars in order to learn to play Beethoven.
You are entitled to start from somewhere—indeed, that is all you can do, if you’re to start at all! And moreover, the truths you encounter in the beginning are legitimate. Hopefully they will point you forward—by raising questions that require you to seek out answers elsewhere.
But as said in the previous section, even the expert—in German philosophy, say—has an understanding that is forever incomplete. A novel no doubt discloses many things to a literary critic who has read an enormous number of them across many genres than it does to someone who hasn’t read many at all. But there is still a lot that can be gained from simply reading the book all the way through, and, as mentioned before, yet more that can be disclosed from reading it again.
In fact, I have often heard the more experienced and well read express envy for those coming to a subject fresh. “There’s so much you can learn,” they’ve said, with a touch of awe in their voices. I doubt that these people wish to lose their experience and expertise, so much as they wish that they could relive the excitement of encountering the subjects they’re currently experienced in for the first time.
So don’t despair! All experts began as beginners (to put it tautologically). And the process of gaining expertise is, in many ways, the most fun part. There’s definitely a diminishing return to learning—a sense in which it gets harder to expand your horizon (within a given subject anyway) the more you’ve invested in learning about it. It’s not that the experts are never surprised once they become experts the way that beginners are, it’s that it becomes a much rarer event, and so the excitement of a big discovery which opens up new vistas also becomes equivalently rarer.
Rather than despairing, you should rejoice. Maybe it will be a while before you can command a lot of respect for your understanding of a given subject. But the actual fun part of learning is directly in front of you.
It has never been a better time to be an intellectually curious person, if you’re willing to approach the matter with humility and optimism.
You don’t even have to read a whole book, to start. There are essays and papers on every subject under the sun. There are people on just about every social media that are professionals in those subjects and enjoy talking about them to anyone who is interested. To combine the two points, if you find a paper by someone who is currently alive, they invariably have an email address and are often flattered that someone cared enough about their paper to ask about it.
I have always found that writing about what I am learning helps me wrestle with the ideas. I think a lot of people blogging out there are doing just this. Frankly I think a lot of professional reviews and essays amount to this—which I don’t intend as a criticism. This very post could be considered an attempt to better understand Gadamer by applying his thought (he himself argued that all understanding involves application).
But everyone has their own process. And some are uncomfortable with writing publicly, though I don’t think that should stop them from writing privately. In any case, simply finding people to talk about it with can make all the difference. Which is the beauty of the Internet—whatever its other faults, it has become so much easier to find people who love to talk about whatever it is that you love. Almost trivially easy.
An education in any topic is out there for the taking, if taking it is what you really want. Get out there and look into something that interests you! It doesn’t have to be for your career, or for school, or for anything. We live in a wonderful time to pursue learning the way it should be pursued; as an adventure.
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