Stanford University

Gadamer’s Aesthetics (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

1. Art as Interlocutor

Gadamer’s aesthetics fosters an attentiveness towards the mystery of
the given and its unexpected folds of meaningfulness. Gadamer’s
arguments are varied, ushering the reader towards an aesthetic
attentiveness rather than making iconoclastic declarations about what
the aesthetic is. They embrace close readings of the poets Rilke and
Celan as well as broad strategic manoeuvres which defend the cognitive
status of aesthetic and hermeneutical judgements. Hermeneutics (the
art and discipline of interpretation), of which Gadamer is one of the
twentieth century’s most formidable exponents, is deeply involved in
philosophical disputes over the legitimacy of claims to understanding
in the visual and literary arts. It does not oppose
“scientific” modes of knowledge but resists their cultural
privileging. For Gadamer aesthetics stands on experientially
accumulative modes of learning (Bildung) which orientate and
ground sound judgement in the arts. Conversation and its unpredictable
turns is, appropriately, a central thread within hermeneutical
aesthetics. A late exchange between Carsten Dutt and Gadamer (Dutt
1993, 61–67) offers a gentle point of entry into how
philosophical hermeneutics approaches art and aesthetic

Gadamer insists that a picture or image that is worthy of being
called a work of art, has the power to affect us immediately. (GW 8,
374). Art addresses us. The claim that a work of art “says
something to someone” (Palmer 2001, 70) alludes to the surprise,
shock and, sometimes, dismay at being directly affected by what is in
a work and of being forced to reflect on its claim so that it becomes
more understandable to both oneself and others. Gadamer argues that
“the experience of art is an experience of meaning, and as such
this experience is something that is brought about by
understanding” (Palmer 2001, 70). To this extent, then,
“aesthetics is absorbed into hermeneutics” (Palmer 2001,
76). This distances Gadamer from more conventional justifications of
the aesthetic as offering a special kind of pleasure. The
essay The Relevance of the Beautiful suggests that “the
mere onlooker who indulges in aesthetic or cultural enjoyment from a
safe distance, whether in the theatre, the concert hall, or the
seclusion of solitary reading, simply does not exist” (RB
130). A person who takes himself to be such an onlooker,
misunderstands himself. “Aesthetic self-understanding is
indulging in escapism if it regards the encounter with the work of art
as nothing but enchantment in the sense of liberation from the
pressures of reality, through the enjoyment of a spurious
freedom” (RB 130). These remarks divorce Gadamer’s thinking from
Dilthey’s Erlebniss-Ästhetik in which artworks are
proclaimed the site of intense but momentary experience enjoyed for
their own sake independent of their cognitive content. The hedonistic
personalisation of aesthetic response has two alienating
consequences. On the one hand, the judgement that aesthetic experience
is purely subjective severs the individual from communal networks of
meaning capable of illuminating personal experience from the
perspective of what is socially shared. On the other, attempts to
render subjective experience academically legitimate by presenting it
as a social product further estrange the individual from his
experience, by translating it into third-person terms he or she may
not endorse or recognise: individual experiences of beauty can
suddenly become embodiments of class prejudice. In contrast to Dilthey
(1833–1911), Gadamer defends
an Erfahrungs-Ästhetik which claims that like
significant life-experiences, our relationships with artworks are deep
and ongoing: we revisit them and in doing so understanding is
continually renegotiated. Gadamer speaks of the
“interminability” of such experience (die
Unabschliessbarkeit aller Erfahrung
, Palmer 2001, 66). It is
forever open because of its cognitive movement. The cumulative nature
of such experience is an instance of Bildung (formation and
learning through experience) and is, as such, a living process of
becoming (Werden).

Gadamer’s aesthetics is strictly anti-Kantian. It abjures
phenomenalist disinterestedness for the sake of phenomenological
involvement. It is also anti-idealist. It refuses the idea that in
aesthetic experience we perceive “a pure integration of
meaning”. His aesthetics is consequently
anti-representationalist. There is in the artwork something which
Gadamer describes as its resistance to integration, to being reduced
to a concept (Palmer 2001, 25). He contends that Hegel’s definition of
the beautiful as the “sensuous appearing of the Idea”
presumes that aesthetic experience is able to reach beyond the
specific type of appearance to its underlying idea. In this model,
aesthetic experience becomes the expectation of a semantic
fulfilment. Once the idea behind the appearance is grasped, “the
whole of its meaning would have been understood once and for all and
thus ‘brought in to our possession so to speak’”
(Palmer 2001, 71). The work of art becomes a carrier of meaning, to be
abandoned once the lead story has been grasped. But, Gadamer argues,
“our understanding of artworks is manifestly not of this
type. Everyone knows this from his or her own encounters with art,
from concerts, visits to museums, and from his or her reading”
(Palmer 2001, 71). This denial of idealist aesthetics is at the basis
of his claim that an artwork is essentially enigmatic.

Gadamer’s opposition to aesthetic idealism is supported by the
claim that art “cannot be satisfactorily translated in terms of
conceptual knowledge” (RB 69). A work does not simply refer to a
meaning which is independent of itself. Its meaning is not to be
grasped in such a way that that it can be simply transferred to
another idiom. Indeed, because it invites many interpretations, an
artwork acquires an ideality of possible meanings which cannot be
obviated by any possible realisation (RB 146). The work has,
therefore, an autonomy which cannot be substituted by anything else
or, to put it another way, the work is always in excess of its
readings, its meanings are always more than its interpretations. This
is congruent with Gadamer’s theses that Being exceeds knowing
and, similarly,that linguistic Being transcends linguistic

An important consequence arises from this, namely, Gadamer conceives
art as presentational (darstellen) rather than
representational (vorstellen). In the essay “Word and
Picture” (1992), he claims that he tries “to undermine the
idea that the picture is a mere copy” (GW 8, 374). As a work
does not represent anything other than itself, the meanings it carries
can only come to the fore in its self-presentation. Yet the emergent
meaning is never given in its entirety nor obviated by any
realisation. This is consistent with the eventual nature of
art. “When a work of art truly takes hold of us, it is not an
object that stands opposite us which we look at in hope of seeing
through it to an intended conceptual meaning … The work is
an Ereigniss—an event that ”appropriates
us“ to itself. It jolts us, it knocks us over and sets up a
world of its own, into which we are drawn” (Palmer 2001,
71). What is revealed, however, remains but an aspect of the work
which when it appears drives others into the background. Disclosure
and hiddenness are not contraries in Gadamer’s aesthetics, but
mutually dependent: the disclosed reveals the presence of the
undisclosed in the disclosed. “It is in the sheer being there
(Da-sein) of the work of art that our understanding
experiences the depths and the unfathomability of its meaning”
(Palmer 2001, 72). The claim that a work’s meaning can never be
completely fulfilled is supported by a linguistic analogy concerning
the speculative. Art has a language in that its signs and symbols
function like semantic units. Gadamer comments on the living
virtuality of meaning contained in each word, an inner dimension of
multiplication. Accordingly, language is not the representation
(mimesis) of a set of pre-given meanings but a “coming
to language” of a constant reserve of meanings (Palmer 2001,
67). The finitude of linguistic expression is such that no utterance
can be complete. Nothing comes forth in one meaning that is simply
offered us (PH 103). “The only thing that constitutes language
… is that one word leads to another, each word is, so to speak,
summoned, and on its side holds open the further progress of
speaking” (Palmer 2001, 67). No meaning can be completely
revealed. Because we can re-visit artworks repeatedly, the meaning
disclosed initially can be expanded or changed. The partial nature of
any given meaning disclosure enhances rather than diminishes the
possibility of meaning within a work. “The work of art consists
in its being open in a limitless way to ever new integrations of
meaning” (PH 98) and furthermore, “the inexhaustibility
that distinguishes the language of art from all translation into
concepts rests on an excess of meaning” (PH 102).

Gadamer’s conversation on aesthetics paints its bolder themes: art is
interrogative by nature, artworks work through a disclosure
of meaning, disclosures of meaning establish art’s cognitive status,
the cognitive content of art is partly intelligible and partly
enigmatic, and artworks are always open to re-interpretation. These
are, however, not free-standing arguments. Gadamer’s position is
hermeneutical not because of an underlying thesis which goes
unremarked but because it is informed by a constellation of various
arguments which shape the central position. To the broader arguments
we now turn.

2. The “Substance” of Aesthetic Subjectivity

Gadamer’s determination to reveal the cognitive content of aesthetic
experience requires him to expose the ontological grounding of
subjectivity. To approach artworks solely on the basis of subjective
responses to them or, to read them only in terms of an artist’s
intentionality, is, for Gadamer, always to miss the
point. Hermeneutically speaking, the philosophical focus should be on
what shapes subjectivity and guides its expectations. This initiates a
speculative refiguring of aesthetic subjectivity. In Truth and
he writes,

All self-knowledge arises from what is historically pre-given, what
with Hegel we call “substance,” because it underlies all
subjective intentions and actions, and hence both prescribes and
limits every possibility for understanding any tradition whatsoever in
its historical alterity. This almost defines the aim of philosophical
hermeneutics: its task is to retrace the path of Hegel’s phenomenology
of mind until we discover in all that is subjective the substantiality
that determines it. (TM 302)

In The Relevance of the Beautiful Gadamer elucidates
substance as follows:

“Substance” is understood as something that supports us,
although it does not emerge into the light of reflective
consciousness, it is something that can never be fully articulated,
although it is absolutely necessary for the existence of all clarity,
consciousness, expression and communication. (RB 78)

Uncovering the ontological foundations of aesthetic experience does
not undermine the primacy Gadamer gives to art’s immediate
address. The aim is to demonstrate the cognitive legitimacy of
subjective experience by revealing how aesthetic experience is both
involved in something larger than itself and, indeed, reflects
(speculum) that larger actuality within itself. The ability
of aesthetic experience to express trans-individual phenomenological
structures explains what is meant by substance and his speculative
attitude towards it. Gadamer’s aesthetics is properly concerned with
experiencing what underlies its more abstract concepts. This
is not a matter of naming or describing the reality which manifests
itself in aesthetic experience but of trying to say something about
the experience an individual has of it. Gadamer’s reflections commence
with the immediacy of art’s claim, its contemporaneous nature, and
then explore what influences the experience of that claim. The aim is
seemingly paradoxical: to understand that which shapes, lies beyond,
but only “shows” itself in aesthetic experience.

3. The Contemporaneous and Art Experience

Of all things that speak to us, it is the artwork that does so most
directly (PH 95). The phenomenological immediacy of art which
initiates Gadamer’s hermeneutic enquiry into aesthetic experience may
not seem a promising starting point from a hermeneutic perspective. It
declares an unconventional hermeneutical approach to art: “if we
define the task of hermeneutics as the bridging of personal or
historical distance between minds, then the experience of art would
seem to fall entirely outside its [hermeneutics’] provenance”
(PH 95/97). However, Gadamer does not define hermeneutics this way. It
is not the reconstruction of artistic intention which forms the object
of his enquiry, but the question of what informs the immediacy of an
artwork’s claim. The artwork is an object of hermeneutical
investigation not because of any provenance in psychological events
but because of the fact that it says something to us (PH
98). Hermeneutic involvement is required because the meaning
transmitted can never be fully complete and unambiguous. It demands
interpretive involvement. Hermeneutics is required wherever there is a
restricted transposition of thought. The historical finitude of
meaning and the fact that no meaning can be given completely
necessitates hermeneutical involvement in our experience of an
artwork. The task of interpretation is to probe the possible meanings
held within the experience of a work, and by drawing on them to bring
that experience to greater completeness.

It should be noted that Gadamer’s talk of integrating the alien into
what is understood as meaningful is not to be grasped as subsumption
within the same. Assimilation is not the equivalent of translating the
alien into a stable set of meanings which do not change as a
consequence of that subsumption. Integration implies a reciprocity:
the integrated changes its character as well as the character of the
whole within which integration occurs. Furthermore, whatever is given
in subjective consciousness as contemporaneous has dimensions of
meaning that transcend what that consciousness initially
grasps. Gadamer is concerned to probe the ontic dimensions of
aesthetic experience. The thesis that experience of the
contemporaneousness of art involves us in more than what we are
presently aware of (i.e., the “substance” of underlying
and on-going trans-individual linguistic and cultural practices) is
supported by the three arguments from analogy concerning the character
of play, the festival and the symbol.

4. Play

Gadamer’s discussion of the relation between art and play should not
be equated with any argument that art is a trivial game or pastime. He
follows the precedent of Schiller’s Letters on Aesthetic
which contend that artworks are dramatic in that
they place something in play. The underlying motif is that
aesthetic consciousness is far from self-contained but is rather drawn
into the play of something much larger than what is evident to
subjective consciousness. The analogy with drama and, indeed, sporting
events, implies that art is eventual, an occasion that consciousness
surrenders to and participates in. Spectatorial participation (like
much art research) demands immersion in that which cannot be fully
anticipated or controlled by individual consciousness. The game and
the artwork are both forms of self-movement which require that the
spectator play along with what they bring into being (RB 23). Gadamer
asserts the “primacy of the play” over consciousness:
“the players are merely the way the play comes into
presentation” (TM 92, 98). Participation takes the individual
players out of themselves. The individual subject is that upon which
success, satisfaction or loss is imposed from within the game. By
analogy, the work of art is also “the playing of it”. An
autonomous event comes into being, something comes to stand in its own
right which “changes all that stand before it” (RB
25). Like the ancient theoros, the spectator not only
participates in the event which is the artwork, but is potentially
transformed by it (RB 24).

The game analogy also serves to undermine approaches to art which are
exclusively intentional, material and conventional. First: the
subjectivity of an artist cannot be an appropriate interpretive
starting point. Grasping what transpires in a player’s consciousness
does not reveal the nature of the game being played. Reconstructing
the conscious life of an artist, pace Dilthey’s hermeneutics
of nacherleben (re-living), may reveal interesting aspects of
an artist’s intentions but it does not uncover what informs that
subjectivity. Second: as with the game, art is not to be understood
by reference to its tools and equipment alone. Art requires materials
certainly, and an appreciation of how a specific tool might be
used. Yet neither game nor art is constituted by its equipment. Third:
comprehending a game or an artwork requires an appreciation of the
appropriate rules or conventions. What constitutes fair or foul play
depends upon a set of pre-understood principles just as what is
esteemed excellent in art requires normative expectancies of
appraisal. Yet art’s vitality clearly does not reside in the following
of conventions.

The overall argument is not that game or artwork cannot be reduced to
intention, material or convention but rather that each of these
elements comes into their own when taken up within the
playing of the game or in the practice which is
art. It is the playing that draws spectator, player, intention,
equipment and convention into the one event. This promotes an
interactive view of art as a communicative event. It lends a
dialogical dimension to art. An artwork involves more than one voice
as, indeed, the word inter-pretation implies. Furthermore,
the conception of art as an event requires a different ontological
structure to those standard accounts of aesthetic experience grounded
in subjectivity alone. An artwork is not an object completely
independent of the spectator yet somehow given over to the spectator
for his or her personal enjoyment. To the contrary, the game analogy
suggests that the act of spectatorship contributes to enhancing the
being of the artwork by bringing what is at play within it to fuller
realisation. The spectator just as much as the artist plays a crucial
role in developing the subject-matters that art activates. The
aesthetic spectator is swept up by her experience of art, absorbed in
its play and potentially transformed by that which spectatorship helps
constitute. Though Gadamer’s argument distances itself from
traditional subject-object paradigms, it does retain certain features
of Kant’s aesthetics.

Whereas Kant attributes a non-purposive rationality to the aesthetic
attitude, Gadamer attributes it to the playful process of art practice
itself. Both art and the game share a to-and-fro movement not tied to
any specific goal other than to fulfil themselves for their own sake
(TM 103): no one knows how a game will end and no one knows to what
end an artwork works (Lawn 2006, 91). However, what is clear is that
it is what occurs when the artwork or the game is in-play that
matters. Often contrary to their own willing and doing, the spectator
is taken over by a substantial and consequential event that transcends
the boundaries of everyday consciousness and which has no purpose
other than to bring something forth.

5. The Festival

Conventional accounts of aesthetic experience stress its intense and
individuating nature (Erlebniss). Yet despite its intimacy,
Gadamer emphasises that within experience (Erfahrung) one is
always participating, perhaps unwittingly, in something beyond
oneself. Aesthetic involvement is in some respects, therefore, a
communal activity. The analogy between aesthetic experience and the
festive is telling.

Work is something that separates and divides us. For all the
cooperation necessitated by joint enterprise and the division of
labour in our productive activity, we are still divided as individuals
as far as our day to day purposes are concerned. Festive celebration,
on the other hand, is clearly distinguished by the fact that here we
are not primarily separated but rather gathered together. (RB

Gadamer’s thinking here betrays a further Kantian inflection. The
Kantian conception of aesthetic pleasure, as a variety of experience
which arises only where the egotistical interests that constitute the
commerce of everyday life are not in play, suggests the possibility of
a community forming around shared non-hostile pleasures. Gadamer’s
account of aesthetic experience is not concerned with a putative
kingdom-to-come but with rediscovering and forging the communality
that we are. Despite this difference, aesthetic experience establishes
for both thinkers a meditative space in and through which something
can be occasioned. The underlying point remains. Whereas for Kant it
is a change in the disposition of subjective consciousness (i.e., its
adoption of an aesthetic attitude) which initiates a better
disposition towards the community, for Gadamer it is the participation
in a trans-subjective event which effects a change in subjective
dispositions towards the community.

When Gadamer argues that “the mystery of festive celebration
lies in this suspension of time”, he refers to how festivity
suspends work-time. This initiates that “play-time” in
which another order of events emerges. It is in such time that an
artwork “comes to stand” irrespective of whether it is a
painting, drama or symphony. The festive “represents a genuine
creation, [for] something drawn from within ourselves takes shape
before our eyes in a form that we recognise and experience as a more
profound presentation of our own reality” (RB 60). This
distances Gadamer from the view that aesthetic experience is a
solitary subject’s personal response to an artwork. In the
festive—an analogy for the communal dimensions of aesthetic
experience—the individual subject comes to stand differently in
its relationship to others. Just as the artwork comes to stand in the
festival, so too does the artwork bring its spectators to stand as a
community: “in the festive the communal spirit that supports us
all and transcends each of us individually represents the real power
of the festive and indeed the real power of the art work” (RB
63). The festival occasions individuals surpassing their everyday view
of themselves as potentially hostile competitors and coming to see
themselves as a community formed around a shared interest in what the
artwork brings forth. This is an analogy for something more

Instrumentalist conceptions of language persuade us that the spoken
and written word are but communicative tools, but for Gadamer
participation in language acknowledges that an individual is located
within a substantive horizon of meanings which transcends subjective
consciousness. Pragmatic concerns encourage the forgetting of such
interconnectedness but when such individualism is suspended by the
festival or, indeed, by the adoption of an aesthetic attitude, the
re-discovery of oneself as belonging to an extensive community of
shared meanings and involvements becomes possible. The artwork’s
communicative capacity awakens the realisation that in as much as I
understand myself as being addressed, I must acknowledge that I
already belong to something larger than myself. The artwork
festivises: it reveals our personal indebtedness to past and
future communities of meaning. The thesis that we belong to a
hermeneutic collective which is the effective underpinning of art’s
ability to communicate is further elaborated in Gadamer’s discussion
of the symbol.

6. The Symbol

A discussion of the symbol forms the third aspect of Gadamer’s case
that aesthetic experience involves an ex-stasis of the aesthetic
subject. It provides a further analogue for the speculative dimension
of aesthetic experience. The word “symbol” is a Greek term
for a token of remembrance (tessera hospitalis) that could be
broken in two so that should a descendent of a former guest enter his
house, the co-joined pieces would kindle into an act of
recognition. (RB 31). The symbol connotes (explicitly) what we
recognise implicitly (RB 31). It is associated with the fragmentary
and a promise of completeness which “in turn alludes to beauty
and the potentially whole and holy order of things”
(RB 32). The symbol is associated, then, with notions of repetition
and the hope for an abundance of meaning. Its connection with the
speculative is best appreciated by reference to the sign.

If the sign’s proper function is to refer to its referent, it is
self-cancelling. The road sign that is so attractive that it distracts
from the danger it refers to and causes a new one by prompting drivers
to pull up and admire it, does not function properly. The symbol,
however, does not refer to something outside itself. It presents its
own meaning. The material symbol is, indeed, the place where that
meaning becomes present. Yet the symbolically delivered meaning is
never given completely. Its meaning is indeterminate. References to
the symbol as fragmentary nevertheless anticipate the possibility of
wholeness. The speculative dimension of such reasoning resides in the
premise that every stated meaning involves bringing forth more than is
actually spoken. Resonance and depth depends upon animating the
statement’s hermeneutic Hintergrund, lighting up unstated
meanings or revealing anticipated ones. The “speculative”
capacity of an image or word concerns its ability to sound out or
insinuate the unstated nexus of meanings which sustain a given
expression but which are not directly given in it. The speculative
power of an image or phrase has something in common with the sublime:
it illuminates in the spoken or visual image a penumbra of unstated
meanings whose presence can be sensed but never fully grasped or
conceptualised. Hence, an artwork can always mean more, that is,
insinuate a transcendent dimension of meaning which though never
exhausted by the symbols which carry it do not exist apart from the
symbols that sustain it. The symbol is resonant with the suggestion of
meaning because it constantly invokes what is not immediately
given. This not-given does not exist apart from the given but is
inherent within it. Hence, the hermeneutical sublime, the excess of
meaning, the promise of meaning more and meaning something different
which is made apparent by the symbol, is held within, is immanent in
the given.

7. Presentation, Representation and Appearance

Gadamer’s account of the symbol establishes that artworks are
presentational rather than representational. Presentations occasion
the meanings they invoke and do not represent a meaning independent of
themselves. The argument effects a profound and significant change in
the meaning of aesthetic appearance. The representational view of art
relegates art to a secondary status: the artwork brings to mind
something other than the artwork, an original state of affairs, a
specific meaning or reality. Art’s objective co-relative is,
accordingly, positioned outside the work so that the work becomes the
mere appearance of something else. The presentational account of art
is consistent with Gadamer’s phenomenological orientation. If the
meaning invoked by a work is not independent of the work that summons
it, the work is the occasion of the coming-into-appearance of that
meaning. Appearing becomes synonymous with original
creation. Aesthetic appearance is not secondary to reality or truth
but is the medium through which the work’s truth shows/presents
itself. Even as presentation, appearance does retain a certain
negativity, though in Gadamer’s hands it has a positive
quality. Appearance always hints at a semblance of something incomplete
or not yet fully realised. Gadamer’s ontology openly reinforces if
not requires such negativity. The claim that each artwork has its own
temporality implies that each will never reveal itself completely. The
claim that the reception of all art is contemporaneous dictates that
what appears to us as meaningful is not necessarily what appeared to a
previous generation as meaningful. Like the symbol, appearance is
always partial. However, appearance, when considered aesthetically,
has the cadence of the symbolic: it alludes to something beyond itself
but which nevertheless inheres within it as the

Such arguments support Gadamer’s conception of the artwork as that
which stands-in-itself. That which comes to stand is intelligible as
the presentation of a certain meaning, but because of the
indeterminacy of that meaning it retains something of the
enigmatic. This eminent quality—a genuine work can never be
measured against the original way it was shown (RB 146)—Gadamer also
refers to as its hermeneutic identity. The truth of an artwork is not
its simple manifestation of meaning but rather the unfathomableness
and depth of its meaning (PH 226). Its truth embraces a tension
between revelation (what appears) and what is concealed (what has yet
to be shown). The artwork does not simply offer “a
recognisable surface contour” but has an inner depth of
self-sufficiency which Gadamer calls after Heidegger a
“standing-in-itself”. In short, the mark of a substantial
work is that it veils possibilities of meaning. Such resistance is a
stimulus to further interpretation. Substantive works, like
significant symbols, have an opaque aspect.

The symbol and its reticence about revealing the withheld aspects of
its meaning do not connote something utterly alien to us. The
yet-to-be revealed is a dimension of meaning overlooked, forgotten, or
not perceived within what has already been shown or grasped. In other
words, the power of the symbol resides in its ability to reveal that,
unbeknown to ourselves, we are in communion with something much larger
than ourselves, that is, horizons of meaning which implicitly sustain
reflection and which can, when made explicit, bring us to think quite
differently of ourselves. The mystery of the symbol is its promise of
transcendence: an effective and affecting symbol reveals that we
belong to a hermeneutic community always larger than we envisage. The
analogy of the festival, once again, is telling. In the festival,
individuated work roles are renounced as we rediscover communal
ties. Gadamer’s arguments about play, festival and symbol serve, then,
as the basis for his claim that aesthetic experience, our experience
of art, is a demonstrable instance of how subjectivity is informed by
a substantiality that transcends an individual consciousness.

8. The Issue in Question

Gadamer’s aesthetics involve a variety of interlocking arguments, one
of the most significant of which concerns the Sache
. The term is difficult to translate, but it refers,
loosely speaking, to a work’s subject matter, to what it addresses or
to what issue has been placed in question. Philosophical usage of the
word evokes phenomenological notions of intentionality: what a work is
directed at or points toward. The Sache is not a determinate
concept but an area of significant meaningfulness, a constellation of
concerns which orbit the affective, conative and cognitive
complexities of subject matters such as grief or love. The
Sache underpins Gadamer’s claim that aesthetic experience has
a significant cognitive content. Subject matters may transcend an
individual work in that no one work can exhaust their significance,
but as ideas Sachen are not independent of the body of works
that exemplify them. If they were ontologically distinct, the idealism
Gadamer rejects would be forced on him and he would be compelled to
argue that art is representational, refers to a concept beyond itself
and, indeed, disappears into that concept once evoked. Art becomes
philosophy once more. If, however, art is presentation, as Gadamer
insists, a work’s meaning is not independent of it. Art does not
therefore copy and thereby represent a subject-matter, but configures
a visual or literary space in which a subject-matter can be
summoned. Gadamer counters an ancient line of argument that regards
art as secondary to, inferior to, and a corrupter of, the real. Contrary
to the Platonic tradition, his argument implies that art adds
to the reality of its subject-matters. Gadamer’s evaluation of the
aesthetic contrasts vividly with Kant’s in this respect. Kant
considers aesthetic experience to be indifferent to whether or not its
object is real (cf. TM 89). A work’s credibility does not depend on
its relationship to an original object or co-relative. Whether what is
represented exists or not is inconsequential. What matters is the
aesthetic merit of the work, not the strength of its likeness. Should
the artwork be harmed, the being of the correlative is
unaffected. Gadamer’s presentational aesthetics is, by contrast,
profoundly anti-Platonic: a work’s disappearance diminishes the
reality of that which presents itself through it.

Although subject matters transcend the individual works which embody
them, they do not exist apart from their historical embodiments but,
unlike Platonic forms, they do not transcend history but mutate and
develop ever new permutations. Any diminishment of art diminishes the
historical effectiveness of a given subject-matter. Were John Donne’s
love poems all lost, our understanding of the exquisite joys and pains
of human love would be irreparably diminished. A semi-Platonic
argument about mimesis reinforces a discernibly non-Platonic
argument concerning the historically fluid character of subject
matters. The argument that artworks direct us to a subject matter
irrespective of whether they be realist or abstract constructions,
suggests a moment of return and repetition. An issue, question or
subject-matter is recognised.

Where something is recognised it has liberated itself from the
uniqueness and contingency of the circumstances in which it was
encountered. It is a matter of neither of there and then, nor of here
and now but it is encountered as the very self-same. Thereby it begins
to rise to its permanent essence and is detached from anything like a
chance encounter. (RB 120)

This passage strengthens the presentational approach to art but its
reference to essences requires clarification.

It is part of the process of recognition that we see things in terms
of what is permanent and essential unencumbered by the contingent
circumstances in which they were seen before and are seen again. What
imitation reveals is the real essence of the thing. (RB

It is not suggested that we see repeatedly the same essence in a work
of art. Were this to be suggested, works would become dull and
uninformative and make no new contribution to a genre. Gadamer’s
insistence is that works should speak directly to and, indeed,
transform our self-understanding. Such transformative power implies
recognising in a work what was previously understood of a
subject-matter, but transformed, as if seen for the first time. The
life of a subject matter is one of change and
development. Gadamer’s mimesis argument claims that through
repeated re-working and re-interpretation a subject matter not only
accrues more aspects but also, in so doing, they allow that
subject-matter to become more fully what it is. “A work of art
belongs so closely to what it is related to that it enriches the being
of that as if through a new event of being” (TM 147). The
“joy of recognition is rather the joy of knowing more than is
already familiar”. Artworks allow subject-matters to become more
what they are. In conclusion, Gadamer’s phenomenological aesthetics
effectively destroys the Platonic separation of art and
reality. Artworks are the sites in which trans-individual both present
and transform themselves. Whereas, as we have seen, for Kant the
destruction of an artwork has absolutely no bearing upon the
objectivities it represents, we can now understand why Gadamer is
committed to the opposing view that the destruction of an artwork
diminishes the reality of the subject-matters that come forth through

9. Art and Language

The strategic centrality of language in Gadamer’s aesthetics is beyond
doubt. The ability of artworks to bring things to mind and to hint at
unseen meanings is reason to claim that in its speculative capacities,
art functions essentially like a language. Yet he acknowledges that
linguistic means of expression are inadequate to the task of conveying
what occurs within an experience of art.

Language often seems ill-suited to express what we feel. In the face
of the overwhelming presence of works of art, the task of expressing
in words what they say to us seems like an infinite and hopeless
undertaking … One says this, and then one hesitates (TM

Two claims underwrite this scepticism: words do not readily capture
the sheer complexity of aesthetic experience, and the finitude of
language itself prevents it from capturing the totality of such
experience. In other words, the experience of art always just eludes
theoretical containment. These are not difficulties with language
per se, but rather reflect the limited capacity of the human
mind to grasp the totality of its involvements. Yet in Gadamer’s
thought these negative aspects incentivise further hermeneutic
involvement in aesthetic experience. The incompleteness of any
interpretation of an artwork opens us to the possibility that there is
always something more or something else that can be said. The temporal
nature of experience and its interpretation prevent closure or, in
other words, both are by nature always open to further ways of
thinking and speaking about art. The argument reinforces the claim
that art and its interpretation extend the being of the
subject-matters addressed and, furthermore, that aesthetic experience
itself has a temporal continuity which is linked to its cumulative
character as a mode of Bildung.

The issue about the relationship between art and language is not
one of linguistic capture but of finding the appropriate words to open
the content of aesthetic experience. What is meant by the notion that
an artwork addresses us with a meaning? Although an agent of the
linguistic turn of the twentieth century, Gadamer’s reflections on
language run counter to many semiotic theories. According to
Weinsheimer, “the dualism of signifier and signified has no
phenomenological basis” for Gadamer “since in speaking we
have no awareness of the world as being distinct from the word”
(Weinsheimer 1993, 162). Gadamer speaks of the perfection of the word
as being the disappearance of any gap between sense and
utterance. Poetry would be the “paradigm case” of an
artwork with a clear and immediate presentation of meaning. Yet this
is seemingly inconsistent with the notion of a work that
“stands-in-itself”. If aspects of its meaning are
withheld, sense and utterance are once again separated. The word, it
would appear, signifies something beyond itself after all. There is,
in other words, a tension between Gadamer wanting to hold that the
work of art and the world that comes forth within it are indivisible
and saying that the world which a work invokes is larger than the work
itself. The poetic word, insofar as it is poetic, stands-in-itself;
and yet as word it invokes something beyond itself. Gadamer’s
speculative account of meaning collapses, it would seem, into a
referential account of signs. Speculatively charged words refer to
other signs or patterns of meaning beyond themselves. This suggests
that words are self-negating signs: when they function as they should,
they disappear into what it is referred to. To conclude that words
operate as representational signs seems quite contrary to the account
of art functioning in the manner of a symbol. Closer inspection
suggests that Gadamer’s account of the speculative account of meaning
is presentational after all. Let us restate the question.

If the artwork is an autonomous entity that stands-in-itself and does
not refer to anything outside itself, what of art’s speculative
capacity to refer to other complexes beyond its immediate horizon? The
theological notion of a host can dissolve the inconsistency. On the
one hand, for an artwork to have a speculative capacity, it must
invoke perimeters of meaning which transcend its own immediate
circumstance. Without this, an artwork cannot connect us with
frameworks of otherness. Yet this argument threatens to turn Gadamer’s
aesthetics into an idealism referring specifically to the
idea which the artwork was invoking. Art would once again be
subordinated to a vehicle of philosophy. On the other hand, there is
something within the constitution of an artwork that makes it resist
theoretical reduction. Its invocation of an excess of meaning resists
conceptual capture. This brings us to the crux of the matter. Does
the excess of meaning which a work can speculatively invoke exist
apart from the work that summons them? The speculative dimensions of
art suggest that an artwork is indeed a host for that which lies
beyond it and yet, at the same time, the transcendent dimensions of
meaning (its excess of meaning), remain immanent within the work that
invokes them. The presence of the transcendental only manifests itself
through the work that hosts it. To put it another way, it is in the
work that the transcendental set of meanings achieves its
presence. The full resonance of a subject-matter which of course
extends well beyond any one work is nevertheless only discernible in
the works that host them. Indeed, subject-matters do not exist apart
from the works that manifest their presence. Ontologically speaking
they inhere within the work. The work is the occasion in which these
dimensions of meaning appear and they command the attention of the
viewer so long as the work holds them in play. In other words, with
regard to the tension between representation and presentation in
Gadamer’s position, the speculative charge of artworks does indeed
suggest that they function as representational signs always referring
beyond the given meaning. Yet this is another way of saying that,
ontologically speaking, artworks function as symbols. Considered as
a referential sign, what the artwork refers to is not a world
independent of the sign but another set of signs. However, such other
configurations of meaning may mean more than the signs that invoke
them but they are inherent within those very signs. In other words,
the very signs which refer speculatively to other dimensions of
meaning also function symbolically in that the other horizons of
meaning invoked are immanent within the work’s autonomy. As a symbolic
host, the artwork holds that which refers beyond itself within

10. Tradition

Art seems to solve the riddle of the temporal core of truth
(Adorno). A work that proves itself a “classic” through
the ages and remains constant in its effect remains binding, no matter
how the interpretations and the criteria of evaluation change in the
course of time. (Habermas quoted by Krajewski 2004, 20)

What binds us to a tradition, according to Gadamer, is not a misplaced
conservatism but the questions a canon or body of work asks of
us. However, the question of tradition is one of the most
controversial within Gadamer’s philosophy. It arises because of the
way Gadamer establishes individual and collective learning on the
acquisition of accrued experiences (Bildung) and practices,
rather than upon any methodological norm. His argument exposes the
Enlightenment prejudice against prejudice. The liberating and
universalising aspects of reason tend to marginalise and chastise both
the culturally different and the historically particular as divisive
and irrational. Gadamer contends, however, that such an unqualified
hypostasisation of reason and its methods has the unfortunate
consequence of condemning as methodologically groundless the very
valuations that ordinary linguistic and experiential practices are
based on. Gadamer is not unsympathetic to Nietzsche, who rejects the
claim that humanity is shaped by external necessity. Our existence
within the world and our place within it is, metaphysically speaking,
utterly contingent. If there is no metaphysical necessity that governs
human practices, why should we even ask for a methodological
grounding, when language has neither required nor functioned with such
a license? Like Wilhelm Dilthey before him, Gadamer insists that
nothing justifies and gives meaning to life other than life
itself. This is not the invocation of nihilism, for life does not
occur in a vacuum. Creatures such as humans, which have no
pre-determined essence, only survive by both remembering what has
worked well within a practice and by constantly testing it against
contemporary needs and circumstances. There is a constant tension
between acquired experience and the need to stabilise its lessons and
the need to question and thereby destabilise the tried and the
tested. All expressive practices depend upon an inheritance of insight
and valuation. They are dependent upon accrued learning and
experience. Such observations agitate Gadamer’s critics, who see in
the unreflective acceptance of the given an irresponsibly conservative
privileging of the received, and a wilful blindness to possible repressive
or exclusionary practices within inherited modes of operation. In
response to such scepticism, it must be acknowledged that inherited
practices can, logically speaking, have negative entailments. However,
a commitment to tradition, is not a commitment to remaining the same,
and nor is it indicative of a wilful refusal to confront the negative
entailments within what is transmitted historically. Traditions which
are incapable of changing risk becoming outmoded. Traditions are not
founded upon core and fixed identities. As vibrant religious and
artistic traditions demonstrate, those which are in constant debate
over aim and direction often prove engaging and
influential. Traditions capable of subjecting their self-understanding
to critique constitute continuities of conflict. The importance of
received understanding for Gadamer is not its historical provenance
but how it opens us towards and engages us with issues in a community
of debate. The Cartesian project of subjecting all beliefs to
sceptical examination until they can be methodologically affirmed is,
in Gadamer’s view, nihilistic. The project is implausible since the
range and depth of pre-understanding is so extensive as to be
untheorisable. To condemn pre-understanding as unjustifiable because
it cannot be methodologically grounded is highly dangerous as it
devalues those very insights upon which our initial world-orientation
depends. It is not that these insights are instrinsically valuable but
that they are essential staging posts in the journeys of understanding
they enable. It is the continuous debate and dialogue over practice
that enables participants to move on, widen and transform acquired
experience. Movement and development is intrinsic to the German word
for tradition: Überlieferung has the active connotation
of both transmitting and handing something on. What a tradition
transmits from age to age are questions, problems and issues. The
importance of canonic works is not that they are peerless exemplars of
an idiom or style but rather that they raise issues and difficulties
in an exemplary way. Traditions can check their self-understanding
against their own historical projections. A commitment to tradition is
not a commitment to an academic antiquarianism. It is, essentially, a
commitment to a field of debate. Tradition is presented as a resource
and a provocation for thinking and creativity: whereas sameness is the
currency of a conservative conception of tradition, instability,
questions and the challenge of otherness are the drivers of Gadamer’s
more dialogical concept of tradition.

It has been argued against Gadamer that his revaluation of tradition
does not really bring its content to a point of critical
reflection. He acknowledges that like any other temporal phenomenon,
not all of its vistas can be adequately thematised or
articulated. This does not mean, however, that tradition is beyond
critical appraisal. Traditions can, as Pannenberg argues, check their
normative assumptions against their self-projections. Other critics
suggest that Gadamer’s approach to tradition and aesthetics is overtly
Classical in its preoccupation with forms that maintain a continuity
through time rather than radically alter themselves. It does not allow
for those radical intrusions or revolutionary interjections which
alter the perceptual paradigm of an age. The counter-objection is not
only that the charge overlooks Gadamer’s embrace of Heidegger’s quite
radical phenomenological reworking of the Classical tradition, but
also the fact that for one paradigm to replace another, there must be
a certain relation between them. One must address an absence, fulfil an
unseen possibility or a lack, within the other. Cubism, for example,
implies a visual orientation quite different from realism, but both
idioms belong to a common tradition in that they strive to show us
something of the real. Without a degree of continuity with tradition,
any radical emergence would have no bearing upon the received and
thereby lack the ability to call into question received notions and
understanding. It is, however, precisely the challenge of the
different and the other which is the driver of Gadamer’s dialogical
conception of tradition. It is a conception which is in part
modernistic: tradition is presented as being in constant debate with
itself. Its renewal demands change and transformation. Furthermore, a
virtue of this dialogical conception of tradition is that it is not culturally
specific. Because its main focus is on the subject-matters which
different cultural practices address, it offers a model of cognitive
engagement that can operate between distinct traditions rather than in
just any one.

11. Paradox of the In-between

There is a creative tension at play within Gadamer’s aesthetic
thinking. On the one hand, Gadamer stalwartly defends the autonomy of
the artwork and, on the other, despite his resistance to any
subsumption of art within philosophy, he insists that
aesthetics should be absorbed within hermeneutics, which is for the
most part understood as a theoretical enterprise. This tension
replicates aspects of the so-called hermeneutic
circle. Schleiermacher, for example, argues that it is only possible
to grasp an individual’s personal utterances if one can understand the
general structure of the language which that individual operates
within. Conversely, general structures are only intelligible in terms
of particular exemplifying utterances. Wilhelm Dilthey operates within
a similar part-whole structure, namely, an individual’s personal
experiences will mean little to the reader unless they can be
contextualised within a historical context. A movement between part
and whole also takes place in Gadamer’s thinking. The artwork is
initially presented in its singularity. But then, the particular is
illuminated by being brought under a subject-matter. To engage with
artworks discursively is to bring generalisations about a work to
bear, placing it in a wider context of associations. The movement to
the wider level of generalisation also returns the spectator to the
particular, since generalisation enables an understanding of what is
singular about a work by locating it within a broader background. This
double hermeneutic movement is highly characteristic of Gadamer’s
aesthetic. It recognises that the cognitive dimension of aesthetic
experience is like all linguistic experience both centrifugal and
centripetal in nature. When a work addresses us its impact is
centrifugal: it upsets and transforms what we customarily
recognise. It awakens us to the hermeneutical sublime, to what lies
beyond but nevertheless shapes our normal range of
understanding. Thus, Gadamer can argue that, “something is a
poetic structure when everything pre-structured is taken up into a
new, unique form … as if it were being said for the first time
to us in particular” (GW 8, 62). Yet this estranging moment initiates a
centripetal return, a homecoming. “The poem and the art of
language generally as a heard or written text is always …
something like a recognition in every single word” (GW 8,
62). Yet the question remains: is the passage from the immediacy of
the given artwork to theoretical contemplations about its subject
matter not an instance of moving from the particular givenness of a
work to a more abstract level of reflection about its subject-matter?
Does not the contemplative movement away from the work betray its
particularity and suggest that the sense of a work lies beyond it, in
its concept? Were Gadamer to have fallen into this impasse,
an idealist and representationalist account of art would be forced
upon him. The vehemence of his resistance to these stances suggests
that something other than a simple shift from the particular immediacy
of a work to a theoretical contemplation of its content must be at

The accusation of inconsistency requires the assumption that the
aesthetic experience of a work on the one hand and its contemplation
on the other, are separable. However, it is in Gadamer’s mind part of
an intense experience that it impels us towards seeking to bring it
into words. Experience endeavours to bring itself into words. These words
will by virtue of their semantic associations place the experience in
a wider context (the centrifugal) and at the same time these words
will because of their poetic capacity for singularity make the
experience clearer and more distinct.

Experience is not wordless to begin with, subsequently becoming an
object of reflection by being named, by being subsumed under the
universality of the word. Rather experience itself seeks and finds
words that express it. We seek the right word—i.e., the word
that really belongs to the thing (or experience) so that in it the
thing comes into language. (TM 417)

This suggests that Gadamer is not applying a hermeneutic method to
aesthetic experience but seeking to expose the hermeneutical movement
from part to whole within aesthetic experience. In other
words, the claim that aesthetics should be taken up within
hermeneutics is not an attempt to reduce aesthetics to another
idiom. It announces an endeavour to articulate the hermeneutic dynamic
of aesthetic experience itself. Let us briefly recapitulate the

The tension in Gadamer’s position arises from (1) asserting art’s
autonomy and (2) demanding that aesthetics be subsumed within
hermeneutics. Undoubtedly, the weight of argument is on the latter. He
systematically criticises Kantian aesthetics for its narrow-minded
concentration on the subjectivity of momentary pleasures and offers in
its place a substantial reconstruction of the cognitive content of
art’s address. In other words, Gadamer switches the status of autonomy
from the sensible irreducibility of a work to its hermeneutic
autonomy. This entails the argument that a work which challenges our
outlook does so because it is enigmatic by nature: it gives rise to
difficulties of meaning and interpretation which cannot be explained
away by a more fundamental level of understanding. The autonomous work
that stands in itself is a work that both presents a meaning
and at the same time holds something back. It is in other words always
pointing beyond itself but within itself. This substantiates
Gadamer’s claim that the hermeneutical constitution of an autonomous
work resists theoretical reduction. In the essay “Word and
Picture”, he expresses sympathy with Schleiermacher’s remark,
“I hate all theory that does not grow out of practice” (GW
8, 374). However, as has been argued, the transcendent dimensions of
meaning which a work speculatively invokes are not outside the work
but immanent within it. In other words, we do not need a special
hermeneutic method to access the withheld but just a deeper, more
attentive contemplative acquaintance. When Gadamer speaks of being
attentive to what an artwork says, of discerning its enigmatic quality
and of becoming aware of its speculative resonances, he is indeed
speaking in a hermeneutical idiom, but this is most clearly not a case
of Gadamer submitting aesthetic experience to an externally derived
theory. To the contrary, Gadamer is trying to draw out the
hermeneutical dynamics of aesthetic experience itself. Thus the
tension between the immediacy of experience and reflection upon the
content of that experience is not a tension between experience on the
one hand and theory on the other. It is a tension within aesthetic
experience between what an artwork invokes of its subject-matter and
how what is invoked changes the character of that which invokes
it. What hermeneutical reflection reveals of aesthetic experience is
nothing extraneous to such experience but a further disclosure of what
is held within it. To conclude, if aesthetic experience is
hermeneutical in that artworks speculatively illuminate meanings
beyond what is immediately disclosed, hermeneutical experience should
equally be taken up by aesthetics in that subject-matters only
manifest their presence in the singular and particular.

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