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On Gadamer and the Question of Divinity

ID III.2.r1


On Gadamer and the Question of Divinity
- Ernest Wolf-Gazo (American University in Cairo)

Walter Lammi, Gadamer and the Question of the Divine. New York andLondon: Continuum Books, 2008, $130.

In the first decade of the twenty-first century Gadamer appears to re-cede into the pre-internet age. He certainly was a thinker of the “Gutenberg Galaxy,” to use Marshall McLuhan’s term, and the last representative of the nineteenth-century academic world. Although his life spans one century, the entire twentieth century, the topic s and the style of presentation in his books and articles remind the reader, at least the one still acquainted with the Great Books or the classics, of the grand tradition of nineteenth-century classic German philosophy as well as the famous Humboldt University cur-riculum, Freiheit der Lehre und Forschung (Freedom of Teaching and Re-search). He is the last classic representative of the German Geisteswissen-schaft tradition in the age of on-line mass communications and Wikipedia “take away knowledge.” However, unexpected events from 9/11 to interna-tional fundamentalist religious frenzy have upset the ideal world of indefi-nite progress. There is skepticism about the future as a world without injus-tice, suffering, hunger, and nasty power games. Multiculturalism, parallel communities, and tolerance towards those who are different are waning. Ugly passions, revenge, and humiliation seem the order of the day. Insecu-rity and angst have grown since the global financial crisis. We may ask: what does it all add up to?
Walter Lammi, associate professor of philosophy at the American University of Cairo, Egypt, has published a work that seems, at first sight, tame; but a second look reveals that his topic, Gadamer and the question of the divine, appears highly relevant. Professor Lammi, a member of the 1968 generation, has given us a work of insight, supported by superb schol-arship, and sound judgment, using the foliage of Gadamer’s philosophical panorama, spanning from classical Greek philosophy via the classics of German idealist philosophy to the revolutionary movements of the twentieth century, such as the phenomenology and existentialism embodied by Martin Heidegger. For a long time Gadamer was treated as the shadow of Heideg-ger until, slowly, the student emerged as a master in his own right. Despite the relatively well-known story about Heidegger-Gadamer circulating among historians of philosophy, the specific aspects of that philosophic rela-tionship are unclear to many. Lammi presents us with something that delves into one of the unknowns of that relationship, specifically the question re-garding the nature of the religious and the divine. Despite the enormous bulk of secondary literature surrounding Heidegger and, to a lesser degree, Gadamer, the religious question has hardly even been raised in the case of the latter. Lammi has done the philosophic academic world a great service by producing an outstanding scholarly work that can be used as a platform for further research. His book introduces the Gretchen Frage directed at Gadamer: how do you stand on the religious question? We read in the in-troduction, “How do we conceptualize the non-conceptual? What happens when we make the divine an object of thought?”
Gadamer earned his doctorate on Plato under the supervision of the neo-Kantian Paul Natorp at Marburg University in 1922. That same year he was to meet, fateful for his entire life, Martin Heidegger, who was, as one of his most famous students, Hannah Arendt, put it, the new emperor in the realm of philosophy. Gadamer was to follow Heidegger to Freiburg for a few semesters, to hear him as well as the older master of the phenomenol-ogical method, Edmund Husserl. Returning to Marburg, as Heidegger em-barked upon his masterpiece, Sein und Zeit (Being and Time), Gadamer found himself plunged in doubt: in which direction should he pursue work and research? Since meeting Heidegger, Gadamer was in perpetual crisis and anxiety. Yet this turns out to be a catalyst to find his self, in the long run. He joins the circle called “Graeca” around the Protestant theologian Rudolf Bultmann, along with his friends Karl Löwith and Gerhard Krüger. The methods of classical philology open the door to the chamber where Gadamer can feel secure and independent from the master. Thus, he con-joins rigorous classical language study with the phenomenological method he acquired from Husserl and Heidegger. The stage was set for the long process that was to end up with Gadamer’s own masterpiece, Wahrheit und Methode (Truth and Method), published in his sixtieth year (1960). He was to be the successor of Karl Jaspers at Heidelberg University, alongside his old friend Karl Löwith. Heidelberg was to become one of the major centers of philosophy in post-war Germany. Gadamer’s own charming autobio-graphical work entitled Philosophische Lehrjahre (1977) and the more comprehensive Gadamer biography by the Canadian scholar Jean Grondin (1999), give us a good introduction to a German academic world that no longer exists. This writer had the good fortune to meet Gadamer personally in 1996 during the German Philosophy Association meeting at Leipzig, sit-ting at the table alongside his student Jürgen Habermas. It was an aesthetic and intellectual delight to listen to the two thinkers who have, after Heideg-ger, influenced German philosophy, perhaps even philosophy on a global level, substantially during the latter part of the twentieth century. Lammi himself, during the time of intensive research on Gadamer, had the opportu-nity to visit Gadamer in Heidelberg in 1998 and was able to get a sense of the practice of hermeneutic philosophy.
Lammi’s book makes it clear that in speaking about the divine we do not necessarily deal with philosophy of religion; rather, we deal with reli-gious experience. In order to deal with human experience and transcen-dence, our conceptual tool box is not sufficient, a point already made by Nicolas Cusanus in the fifteenth century. Lammi’s book reminds us that we need to rediscover the question of the divine, not simply because of the reli-gious resurgence in our time, but in order to clarify our understanding in a time of acute cultural crises, globally. He suggests that we need to reexam-ine the possibility of human experience in terms of the religious, the tran-scendent, the divine, without the Marxian prejudice of modern jet-set intel-lectuals, that the religious is a Tylenol (extra strength) for the laboring classes. Lammi’s book traverses myth and logos, the tension between Greek philosophy and Christian theology is explored, while Gadamer’s ap-plication of a phenomenological hermeneutics is selectively exhibited, foremost in pursuit of the question of the divine.
Every reader of Lammi’s book will be well served by the excellent scholarship, not only from English translations, but from original sources in German and French, which make up an extensive and very useful bibliogra-phy. The reader should take congnizance of the Notes that provide exten-sive explanations of scholarly interest and finer points of interpretation. The book is to be recommended as a first introduction to the topic at hand and provides a solid basis for further research into the question of the divine as understood by Gadamer.