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?