Category: Persons

Schleiermacher, hermeneutics and Plato

Despite their respective philosophical and methodological differences, Schleiermacher and Gadamer bring to the fore, each in their own distinct way, the dialogical character of Platonic philosophy. They also direct one's attention to the characteristics of dialogue as a fundamental way of this philosophy's development and mode of expression.

Romanticism and Schleiermacher

Friedrich Daniel Ernst Schleiermacher (1768-1834) was a versatile and charismatic personality. Starting as a theologian and preacher, he was active in the fields of philosophy, classical philology, pedagogy and political theory. The historic import of his contribution lies in the grounding of modern hermeneutics as well as the translation of Platonic dialogues into German.

As regards the two parallel and partially intersecting intellectual currents of his time, Romanticism had a wider impact on Schleiermacher than German Idealism. His involvement with Platonic philosophy was triggered through contact with his friend and associate Friedrich Schlegel (1772-1829). Schlegel had expressed his sincere admiration for Plato's dialogues, which he treated as versions of a philosophy of perpetual pursuit wherein the internal dialogue of the soul played a determining role. Platonic dialectics became deducible to the dialogic element, which was made to confront the -dominant at the time- pursuit of a systematic unity: "a philosophical conversation cannot be systematic because then it would cease to be a proper conversation", while "Plato had a philosophical rationale, but not a system."

A new theory on dialogue

Sharing this outlook, Schleiermacher along with Schlegel took up the task of a German translation of all Platonic dialogues. The planning is traceable to the years 1799-1803. However, along the way, Schlegel distanced himself from the project and the whole burden fell on Schleiermacher who came to translate the biggest part of Plato's dialogic corpus from 1804 to 1828. He left out the Laws, Critias and the Epistles. In his famous Introduction of 1804 Schleiermacher laid out the basic elements of his outlook. The most important principle concerned the dialogic form. It was neither a formal sheath nor a chance invention, but rather, a substantial component of Plato's philosophy. The renowned unity of form and content came eventually to serve as a cornerstone for many Platonic scholars. This way, Schleiermacher launched a new paradigm for Platonic studies which replaced the up to then dominant neo-Platonic approach. The burden of tradition was lifted off Plato's texts. They themselves subsequently turned into the exclusive focus of study with questions arising as to their authenticity, structure, chronological placement, dramatic structure and artistic quality. In general, Platonic philosophy could then release itself from the shackles of "Platonism"and break free from a mode of criticism less concerned with the philosophy itself than its own inflexible metaphysical anchorings.

However, in contrast to Schlegel, Schleiermacher recognised that the Platonic dialogues hosted a comprehensive and coherent philosophical outlook. Faced with the common interpretative question as to the relation of part to whole, he transferred into the Platonic body of work his own concept of a perpetual hermeneutic circle that has to be traversed in its entirety so that its parts become comprehensible through the mediation of the totality and vice versa. This way he treated the body of work as an organic totality developing on the basis of a purposeful plan initially drawn up by Plato himself. The particular chronological placement of the dialogues was seen in terms of an intentional setting of stages / stations along a centrally organised conceptual trajectory allowing for its reconstruction in its entirety. Schleiermacher placed Phaedrus at the starting line of this trajectory with the rest of the dialogues following as concrete stages of a unified process with pedagogical qualities for the reader.

This interpretative schema collapsed soon, and with the realisation that Phaedrus belongs in Plato's middle period. The view of Plato as a "philosophical artist" was proved to be equally misleading. Most of Schleiermacher's analyses were generally seen to fall short of the standards and demands of contemporary research. A special facet of the criticism directed against him came from the representatives of the Tübingen school. They charged him with completely suppressing mention of the Platonic unwritten doctrines. Nevertheless, the impetus that Schleiermacher gave to Platonic studies still stands. As for his translations, despite the reservations that he himself experienced when he noted that "in fifty years someone else might do it better" they continue to serve -200 years after their creation- as not only a basic means of reception of the Platonic dialogues in the Germanic world, but also as a preeminent sample of German prose.

The existence of a separate, distinct platonic teaching [...] had been taken for granted from antiquity till the beginning of the 19th century. It was Schleiermacher's authority that demolished within a short time this well established perception of things. It is quite odd to see how he managed [...] with a mere ten pages in the Introduction to his translations to determine for more than a century the experts' view of the matter. (H.J. Krämer, Arete bei Platon und Aristoteles. Zum Wesen und zur Geschichte der platonischen Ontologie, Heidelberg 1959, p. 18).

Contrary to Schleiermacher, who sees hermeneutics as a methodology called upon to contribute to the established practices of sciences such as theology and classical philology, Hans-Georg Gadamer (1900-2002) sought to ground it in terms of a "philosophical hermeneutics." He saw it as a theoretical pursuit posing the question of the conditions and presuppositions of theoretical understanding as such. Starting from the concept of the linguistic situatedness of human knowing as an all-encompassing condition of knowing, philosophical hermeneutics obtains characteristics of a wider ontological project.

Dialogue is seen as the basic form of knowing / understanding in its particular form as a relation between a question and an answer: "Whoever wishes to know has to look behind what has been spoken. One has to understand what is said as an answer through a question to which what has been said constitutes the answer." The dialogic character of the hermeneutic project concerns especially our relation to the history of philosophy. Deeply influenced by the great philosophers of historicity, his mentor Heidegger and Hegel, Gadamer turned towards the philosophical tradition seeking not a glorifying stock-taking, but a philosophical confrontation opening up the possibility of a continuing production of new meaning. The central position that Plato occupied in this dialogical process emanated from the kinship that the founder of modern philosophical hermeneutics felt he had with Plato's philosophy.

Having studied for years with the great Platonist Paul Friedländer (1882-1968) , Gadamer completed in 1929 his renowned Habilitationschrift on "Plato's dialectical ethics" in Philebus. His intensive involvement with Platonic philosophy lasted until the end of his life and took up three entire volumes of his Collected Works. Gadamer did not reject the existence of the unwritten doctrines but sought instead to stress the concept of the Indefinite Dyad (i.e., the indeterminate and incomplete character of reality) rather than the One. These traits lend dialectics an "inability to reach completion" and do not allow its definitive evolvement into a science. They also render human knowledge incomplete and approximate. The unwritten doctrines themselves are seen to suggest the priority of dialogue and the necessity to focus on their own structure and movement. Getting to understand them coincides with the hermeneutic reproduction of this internal movement encountered within them since the dialogues constitutively invite the active interpretative involvement of the reader. Platonic dialectics, along with Gadamer's own hermeneutic method, does not constitute a typical method but a dynamic becoming whose essence lies in its dialogical performance / implementation.

The development of Platonic philosophy into a dogmatic metaphysics of "two worlds" is a by-product of a later neo-Platonism. While keeping his distances from Aristotle's critical stance towards this redoubling of reality, Gadamer sought to prove that the two philosophers were closer than was commonly held. On one hand, Gadamer defends the necessity of the Platonic ontological separation of the Idea of the good from "human good", while, on the other, he shows that Plato's perception of the good lies close to Aristotle's concept of phronesis and paves the way for it. Gadamer's attempt to disentangle Plato from the tradition of a dogmatic Platonism constitutes, among other things, a defense of Plato in the face of Heidegger or Nietzsche, who saw Plato' work as the foundational beginning of the entire Western metaphysics and the dogmatic inflexibility that it brought about. The attempt of this disentanglement resituates Plato within the Socratic tradition, an attempt that was recently described in terms of "regaining Plato over to Socrates."

Gadamer's infuence on Platonic researches in the past few decades has been of particular importance. The renowned interpretation of Gadamer's student, Wolfgang Wieland, on the "non-decidability" of knowledge is characteristic : the dialogic form constitutes the outcome of the realisation that the knowledge of Ideas has a non-decidable character, i.e., it cannot be summed up and expressed in the terms of a common proposition.

Author: Panagiotis Thanassas
  • Gadamer, H.G. Gesammelte Werke,τόμ. 5-7. Tübingen, 1999.
  • Gadamer, H.G. Archives de Philosophie. 1969.
  • Gadamer, H.G. Dialogue and Dialectic: Eight Hermeneutical Studies on Plato. New Haven, 1980.
  • Renaud, F. , Gill, C. eds. Hermeneutic Philosophy and Plato. Gadamer. Sankt Augustin, 2010.
  • Kobusch, Τ. "Die dialogische Philosophie Platons (nach Schlegel, Schleiermacher und Solger)." Mojsisch, B., Kobusch, T. eds. Platon in der abendländischen Geistesgeschichte. Darmstadt, 1997.
  • Krämer, H. "Fichte, Schlegel und der Infinitismus in der Platondeutung." Deutsche Vierteljahrschrift für Literaturwissenschaft und Geistesgeschichte 62 (1988)
  • Lamm, J.A. "Schleiermacher as Plato Scholar." The Journal of Religion 80 (2000)
  • Renaud, F. Die Resokratisierung Platons: Die platonische Hermeneutik Hans-Georg Gadamers. Sankt Augustin, 2010.
  • Schleiermacher, F.D.E. Über die Philosophie Platons. Hamburg, 1996.
  • Szlezák, T.A. "Friedrich Schleiermacher und das Platonbild des 19. und 20. Jahrhunderts." Wenz, G., Rohls, R. eds. Protestantismus und deutsche Literatur. Göttingen, 2004.
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