Ktismatics

14 August 2007

Gadamer and Bildung

Filed under: Culture, Psychology — ktismatics @ 3:08 am

Gadamer wasn’t interested in studying humanity as it is, through empirical methods adapted from the physical sciences; he wanted to discover what humanity could be. Toward that end he drew on the concept of Bildung, defined by Herder as the rising up of humanity through culture. Bildung entails the proper cultivation of one’s innate capabilities in order to move progressively toward universal consciousness. Says Humboldt: when in our language we say Bildung, we mean something both higher and more inward, namely the disposition of mind which, from the knowledge and the feeling of the total intellectual and moral endeavor, flows harmoniously into sensibility and character. And then Gadamer again: the rise of the word Bildung evokes the ancient mystical tradition according to which man carries in his soul the image of God, after whom he is fashioned, and which man must cultivate in himself.

Bildung isn’t a technique to be mastered, nor does it strive toward some predefined goal; it is a continual way of being in the world that has no end other than itself. Bildung demands restraint in the pursuit of immediate pleasures, but it’s only through cultivating universal awareness that one gains freedom from the object of desire. Only by reaching beyond the particular to the universal, by trying to understand the wholly other, does one come to understand oneself. But Bildung isn’t reserved exclusively for the cultural elite: in acquiring the language and customs of our own culture we are continually extending ourselves beyond ourselves.

An individual praxis for moving beyond raw animality and egocentrism and cultural bias toward universal consciousness: the idea is appealing. The question is whether it “works.” Though it aspires to self-transcendence, Bildung is essentially a refinement and cultivation of the self. Taste, judgment, insight, self-consciousness — these are the distinguishing features not of universal culture but of the cultured individual. Since at least Greek times the cultivation of disinterested reason has distinguished the character of the true aristocrat, the man on whom wealth and power by rights ought to fall. Rather than constituting the imago Dei, might not Bildung be regarded as a kind of “secret handshake” by which the ruling class identifies one another?

Besides, how do those who practice Bildung know that they’re moving toward the universal, rather than immersing themselves ever more deeply inside their own culture? Empirical science presents itself as a method for moving progressively toward universal understanding, yet Gadamer and others regard it as a cultural byproduct of modernity, motivated by the desire to control nature, artificially separating the scientific observer from the field of study, alienating subject from object. Instead of method, Bildung relies on a kind of inner resonance between the cultivated mind and the appearance of Truth in the world. But by buffering this resonance from methodological scrutiny, Bildung can be confirmed only through intersubjective agreement among others of acknowledged good taste and good judgment — which again seems like just another way of reinforcing the biases of the elite.

It would seem that the only way to move beyond cultural bias toward universalism is for the individual practitioner of Bildung to disregard intersubjective validation altogether, moving progressively out of the orbit of the collective into the rarified atmosphere of individual transcendence. This is the direction that Nietzsche took Bildung: only the genius can claim to be a true practitioner, and genius by definition transcends all recognized standards of the community. No longer a universal capability open to all who would pursue it, Bildung becomes the exclusive province of the Supermen. And since the cultivation of individual genius means leaving existing standards of excellence and good taste behind, there can be no assurance that the practitioner of Bildung will arrive at anything like universal awareness. He or she is just as likely to arrive at a position of total otherness and uniqueness. But this sense of the idiosyncratic genius pursuing the unparalleled and lonely course into the ether: isn’t this too a cultural bias, the valorization of extreme individualism characteristic of Western modernity?

Is it necessary to abandon Bildung as a praxis hopelessly enmeshed in individualism and cultural bias? If so, what’s left to us as an authentic way of being in the world?

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13 Comments »

  1. I may be mistaken, for it’s been a while since I read any of this stuff, but I think that especially in later 19C German philosophy there was a lot of interest in certain forms of oriental evolutionary thinking. Something like the idea that when we realise our true selves, we realise that we are evolving ‘naturally’ towards a state of universal oneness. This is in fact qualified (self qualified?) by being able to be ‘advanced enough’ to realise that we are evolving!

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    Comment by samlcarr — 14 August 2007 @ 12:20 pm

  2. This was pretty much Hegel’s position — that intense self-awareness is the flip side of universal consciousness, like two sides of a moebius strip. I think Gadamer stays pretty true to Hegel in his view of Bildung: coming out of yourself in order to know the other means getting to know yourself more intimately, cultivating your own self-awareness leads to universal awareness. This seeming paradox operates incrementally and dialectically. His hermeneutics works this way too I think: identify places where you don’t see the world the same way as the other, and it brings you greater awareness both of yourself and of the universal harmony where both positions, self and other, are reconciled.

    The question remains, however: how do you know whether you’re really moving toward universal oneness, or just entrenching yourself ever more deeply in a culturally limited way of looking at things? Gadamer regarded Bildung as one of the “guiding concepts of humanism,” along with common sense, judgment, and taste. Humanism gets criticized from the evangelical crowd as being overly impressed with unredeemed human reason. On the other hand, the left and the postmodernists criticize humanism as just a secularized version of the Greco-Christian tradition. Ultimately there’s an optimistic determinism that drives Bildung: that there is a single true convergence of all divergent positions, and that humanity is through fits and starts gradually moving in the right direction.

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    Comment by ktismatics — 14 August 2007 @ 2:20 pm

  3. Interesting. When this post first started, it sounded like Buddahism. Or at least the Buddahism aspect of my New Age friends. Then you went in the direction of Greece.

    Anyway, toward the end, I was asking myself if this universal Bildung fella took on like a totally transcendent otherness or if in his universality could or did immerse himself in any and ever culture. Interestingly, I got to thinkin’ those thoughts, and you said: “And since the cultivation of individual genius means leaving existing standards of excellence and good taste behind, there can be no assurance that the practitioner of Bildung will arrive at anything like universal awareness. He or she is just as likely to arrive at a position of total otherness and uniqueness.”

    Then I started reading the comments, and Sam mentioned the orientals.

    The following seems to support what samp pointed out about oriental evolutionism: “Ultimately there’s an optimistic determinism that drives Bildung: that there is a single true convergence of all divergent positions, and that humanity is through fits and starts gradually moving in the right direction.”

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    Comment by Jason Hesiak — 14 August 2007 @ 4:00 pm

  4. Ktismatics comment:
    Ultimately there’s an optimistic determinism that drives Bildung: that there is a single true convergence of all divergent positions, and that humanity is through fits and starts gradually moving in the right direction.
    post:
    Besides, how do those who practice Bildung know that they’re moving toward the universal, rather than immersing themselves ever more deeply inside their own culture?

    If one considers the fact that Gadamer was around when his fellow Germans (and good buddy Heidegger, in particular) were swept up into the heinous and despicable actions of the Nazi party I think that we can safely rule out the fact that Gadamer was a naive optimist. I think your concern of a culture “immersing themselves ever more deeply inside their own culture” would not only be theoretically recognized by Gadamer, but also felt at a very personal level after living through the Third Reich and seeing the aftermath of WWII and the results of the regime.

    A central tenant of Truth and Method (TM) is the need for openness toward the Other – the priority of the question. I think this would certainly apply at a cultural level, don’t you? And not just for an individual who is engaged in the task of understanding? That is, I can see the idea of openness/questioning being extrapolated such that an entire culture must be open to the Other. Would this address your concern and temper the dangerous possibility that Bildung could simply become a “secret handshake” for the elite?

    Finally, you ask:
    Is it necessary to abandon Bildung as a praxis hopelessly enmeshed in individualism and cultural bias? If so, what’s left to us as an authentic way of being in the world?

    It almost seems as though towards the end of your post you start to criticize Bildung as something that might not be airtight or secure enough to deliver – kind of like the U.S. tax laws where there is always a loophole. I would simply suggest that Bildung was probably not meant as a mechanism of this sort. That is, it seems to me rather obvious that Bildung is, in fact “hopelessly enmeshed in individualism and cultural bias”…..ah, but perhaps not “hopelessly”…you see my point? Isn’t it the nature of the search for authenticity that we must do so (necessarily and always) through the rudimentary tools of individualism and cultural bias? How else would we get there?

    Some of my Christian brothers/sisters develop some sort of escape mechanism and seek to bypass the process by developing an over-ambitious theology of sanctification whereby the Spirit is in the continual process of lifting them beyond themselves and their culture to some sort of Seventh Heaven of spiritual enlightenment. But I think that they are simply fooling themselves. My spiritual experiences are such that God works using the rudimentary tools.

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    Comment by Jonathan Erdman — 14 August 2007 @ 4:40 pm

  5. “That is, I can see the idea of openness/questioning being extrapolated such that an entire culture must be open to the Other.”

    Yes indeed, but from Gadamer’s opening salvo he’s not asserting the incommensurable difference of every other. Rather he seems to propose that the self-other differential can be reconciled at a level that enfolds us both in the universalizing embrace, that differences are synthesized through the Hegelian dialectic leading toward a single all-encompassing consciousness. However, if you leave behind Gadamer’s optimistic expectations of reconciliation and retain irreducible otherness, then you have to decide what sort of thing Bildung becomes. Is it a cultivation of otherness without synthesis and universal progressivism? Like learning to like each kind of music or cuisine on its own terms, without trying to identify the universal standards for taste that embraces all world cultures?

    “I would simply suggest that Bildung was probably not meant as a mechanism of this sort.”

    Mechanism is the code word here, and certainly that’s not Gadamer’s intent. However Bildung is a non-technological praxis, a way of being that is to be cultivated in oneself, like becoming a connoisseur of fine wines. What interests me about this is Bildung’s potential as an alternative to self-help or goal-setting or all the rest of the instrumental feel-good psychology of America. I’m not prepared to cast it aside if it doesn’t lead to universal truth. I do, however, want to know what Bildung becomes when we recognize the difficulty, and probably the impossibility, of the humanistic ideal of universalism. Maybe you just disconnect the self-cultivation from the idealistic rationale and struggle on.

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    Comment by ktismatics — 14 August 2007 @ 5:11 pm

  6. I’m left wondering whether there is a sort of innateness-evolutionary facet to where Gadamer and Heidegger in particular thought humankind was eventually headed. It’s a short step to go from the possibility to linking it up biologically with race-culture, i.e. these are the expressions of that same innateness, fatedness to being superman (eventually).

    The Hindu version is actually somewhat similar but in practice relies on a backward integration to prove the superiority: we are the race that came up with this theory in the first place (supposedly in the Vedas). Theoretically race is not a factor (all humans have this potential) though in practice only ‘the chosen ones, those predisposed, etc. will actually be capable of the self-realisation that is a necessary first step!

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    Comment by samlcarr — 14 August 2007 @ 5:26 pm

  7. Erdman, what “rudamentary tools” were you referring to?

    “Some of my Christian brothers/sisters develop some sort of escape mechanism and seek to bypass the process by developing an over-ambitious theology of sanctification whereby the Spirit is in the continual process of lifting them beyond themselves and their culture to some sort of Seventh Heaven of spiritual enlightenment. But I think that they are simply fooling themselves. My spiritual experiences are such that God works using the rudimentary tools.”

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    Comment by Jason Hesiak — 14 August 2007 @ 7:19 pm

  8. Ktismatics: if you leave behind Gadamer’s optimistic expectations of reconciliation and retain irreducible otherness, then you have to decide what sort of thing Bildung becomes. Is it a cultivation of otherness without synthesis and universal progressivism? Like learning to like each kind of music or cuisine on its own terms, without trying to identify the universal standards for taste that embraces all world cultures?

    I see what you are getting at, but this is beyond my understanding of Gadamer and his conception of Bildung.

    Based on my readings of TM and extracting some of Gadamer’s thought from that and applying it to this scenario I would say the following:
    Gadamer tends to be more descriptive of process rather than prescriptive of correct methodology. As a result, I see much of Gadamer’s thought as something of a dialogical method with himself! This naturally leads to charges (not entirely unfounded) of inconsistency and contradiction. In regards to textual meaning he will say that the meaning of the text is both relative and will also speak of a one, singular meaning of a text. He will also speak of getting at truth through the text.

    As such, I want to say (speaking for Gadamer, but perhaps more for myself) that the cultivation of otherness does not resist the tension that you have highlighted. So, to use your example, taste for wine/music might be both a) contextual and b) universal. It is contextual because a taste for a wine/music is connected and bound up with the context in which it is produced. Hence, one can cultivate otherness for music such as Pearl Jam by understanding the Seattle grunge scene and the angst and depression that were produced as a result of rejection of the lifestyle and politics of the bourgeois – and (perhaps more to the point) the rejection by the bourgeois of the so-called losers that eventually produced grunge music that, in a fascinating twist of irony, actually went mainstream to be bought up by little bourgeois teeny children.

    Yet, on the other hand, we can also speak of the universal sense of appreciation. We can speak of this music/wine being “better than” that music/wine. But isn’t this always, already bound to context. That is, I must now justify my standards. And this is usually a move back to context.

    One might find one’s self unable to settle – that is, perhaps we are always involved in something of a dialectic between other-awareness and universal-judgment. But this is a tension that Gadamer seems content to live with. He would rather speak idealistically of both and risk contradiction and inconsistency than to settle for a situation that is not a good description of the process of understanding, or in this case Bildung.

    [The length of this post is dedicated to the memory of Hesiak]

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    Comment by Erdman — 14 August 2007 @ 7:27 pm

  9. I am still here. The breadth of this post is dedicated to the PRESENCE of the Derridaian Erdmanian Tornado :)

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    Comment by Jason Hesiak — 14 August 2007 @ 7:51 pm

  10. Very enlightening about the Hindu idea, which I don’t know well but does correspond with what I know of Bildung. It was interesting for me to read the beginning of Gadamer’s book to see in what broader context he embeds his hermeneutics. Jonathan, thanks for your thoughtful elaboration and speculation about where Gadamer takes this. I was enthused to see that my reading of Genesis 1 fits within this notion of Bildung as an ever-expanding consciousness that constitutes the image of God in man. It’s attractive as a personal praxis because it’s a way of cultivating the self that progressively leads you further out of yourself. I suspect that certain kinds of difficulties result from not cultivating Bildung, while pursuing Bildung leads to a different set of problems.

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    Comment by ktismatics — 14 August 2007 @ 10:02 pm

  11. Gadamer explicitly embeds his thought in the humanistic branch of the Enlightenment, as opposed to the mechanistic branch. He remains committed to the ideals of the Enlightenment that preceded the split between the sciences and the arts: enlightenment with a small “e,” progress at both the individual and the societal levels, and accepting/including the other. I’d say, then, that Gadamer consciously and purposely positions himself within Modernism. I don’t regard that as an indictment. I think that a lot of the so-called postmodernists share Gadamer’s intentions of finding a way to continue the modernist agenda by finding a way around some of the impasses it has encountered.

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    Comment by ktismatics — 15 August 2007 @ 6:19 am

  12. Ktismatics: I was enthused to see that my reading of Genesis 1 fits within this notion of Bildung as an ever-expanding consciousness that constitutes the image of God in man. It’s attractive as a personal praxis because it’s a way of cultivating the self that progressively leads you further out of yourself. I suspect that certain kinds of difficulties result from not cultivating Bildung, while pursuing Bildung leads to a different set of problems.

    Yes, as you can probably imagine, I like this line of thought though I am perhaps a bit more optimistic (naively so?) in that I don’t know that I see the “problems” of which you speaks as being so, well, problematic.

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    Comment by Erdman — 15 August 2007 @ 10:16 am

  13. Ktismatics: I’d say, then, that Gadamer consciously and purposely positions himself within Modernism. I don’t regard that as an indictment. I think that a lot of the so-called postmodernists share Gadamer’s intentions of finding a way to continue the modernist agenda by finding a way around some of the impasses it has encountered.

    I would temper this by noting that in TM Gadamer explicitly criticizes both the Enlightenment (capital “E” – probably of the German variety) and what he calls “Modern” thinking. On the other hand, G has nothing but praise for Heidegger whenever cited.

    And, by the way, I don’t view that as an indictment either.

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    Comment by Erdman — 15 August 2007 @ 10:19 am


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