Heidegger, Gadamer and the work of archaeology

Philip Tonner

Archaeology has, over the course of the 20th Century and into the 21st, become aware of the contribution that theory can – and does, whether explicit or not – make to its enterprise of understanding the human past. What I’d like to do in this short article is to introduce two thinkers from the phenomenological and hermeneutic tradition in European philosophy who’s writings are incredibly suggestive for archaeological theory and, ultimately, for archaeological practice. The thinkers in questions – Martin Heidegger (1889–1976) and Hans-Georg Gadamer (1900–2002) – each have something to say about how we might understand human engagement with the world, past and present, and how we might
approach the archaeological record. With Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger was one of the central thinkers to have contributed greatly to the development of phenomenological philosophy in the 20th Century. His early masterpiece Sein und Zeit (Being and Time [1927]) had a formative influence on the ‘existentialists’ and his other works, particularly on art and language, have been crucial to the development of hermeneutics and deconstruction in the hands of Gadamer and Jacques Derrida.


Heidegger’s influence shows no sign of letting up and this influence is not confined to philosophy: most recently Heidegger’s thought has begun to influence archaeologists and anthropologists in the English speaking world who have started referring to what they call the ‘dwelling perspective’. This perspective builds upon Heidegger’s account of human Dasein who ‘poetically dwells on this earth’.
Hans-Georg Gadamer is the central figure in 20th century hermeneutics. Born in Marburg in 1900 Gadamer completed his doctorate on Plato under Paul Natorp (1854–1924) and Nicolai Hartmann at the University of Marburg in 1922. Marburg at that time was the seat of Neo-Kantianism. The neo-Kantians sought to recover a genuine task for philosophy in the wake of the departure from the earlier German Idealists, particularly Hegel. In the hands of the neo-Kantians philosophy became a (transcendental) critique of the scientific programme (KIM 2003, 2; MORAN 2000, 255).
Neo-Kantianism formed the background of Gadamer’s early philosophical training. However, it was phenomenology – principally in the figure of Heidegger – that initially inspired him.
Heidegger’s thought combines both a phenomenological and hermeneutic dimension. Phenomenology was, for Heidegger, the method of philosophy and philosophy was construed as ontology: phenomenology
promised Heidegger a method for accessing the traditional problem of philosophy, the question of the meaning of being. Partly because of this emphasis on meaning phenomenological description will be hermeneutic, involving interpretation, but it is also hermeneutic in the sense that it involves the movement from the firstperson description of how things appear to a particular observer to a general understanding of how things can become present per se (CAZEAUX 2000, 68). Both of these dimensions of Heidegger’s thought take their point of departure from the fundamental reorientation of inquiry toward the description and interpretation of our basic state as Dasein, and that is, of our being-in-the-world.
Heidegger’s magnum opus Being and Time (1927) was tasked with raising the question of the meaning of being (die Seinsfrage), the question of ‘that on the basis of which beings are understood’ (DREYFUS/WRATHALL 2005, 3). Heidegger never completed Being and Time but he did suggest toward the end of the volume that time is the ‘horizon’ (the upon which; that on the basis of which something is understood) of all being: most of the extant volume is taken up with what Heidegger called ‘fundamental ontology’, the analysis of our mode of being as Dasein.
This inquiry is, in an important sense, provisional to raising the question of being adequately. Heidegger argues that ‘being’ means the relatedness to our understanding and interest that things can have for us (SHEEHAN 2003, 107) and it is this being so related that is the ‘that on the basis of which’ beings are understood (DREYFUS/WRATHALL 2005, 3). All beings – including animals, objects and events – are intelligible just in terms of their relation to our understanding and interest; and understanding the archaeological record will involve relating our inquiry to the ‘interests’ of past peoples. Coordinately
to the term ‘being’, the notion of the ‘world’, as Heidegger understands it, is the basis on which the beings/entities that we meet in our experience can be involved with one another and with us, and it is our acquaintance with the world in this sense that makes it possible for us to be engaged with (to act on, to think about, and even to experience) the manifold of entities that we encounter in our experience.
Our action in the world today, just as the actions of past peoples that we infer from their material remains did for those peoples, reveals our general understanding of how things relate to each other. It also reveals how we take things to relate to our possibilities; my action reveals the general ‘know how’ (both in the sense of action and in the sense of “knowing how” things hang together) that inhabits my (and the other people that make up my ‘culture’) understanding.
This is not a matter of an explicit conceptual grasp on things but is rather a matter of engaged practical agency: our understanding, in Heidegger’s sense, is manifest in our ‘projecting into’ or ‘pressing into’ the possibilities for action that are afforded to us by how things in general are related to each other as a meaningful whole (DREYFUS/ WRATHALL 2005, 6).
One cultural practice that is central for both Heidegger and Gadamer is art. For Heidegger art is fundamentally historical and his account of it is holistic: all the aspects identified are taken to be equally basic. For Heidegger ‘art’, the broad general social practice of art, is the origin of both works of art and of the artists who produce them, and we can hope to understand art only if we understand this social practice. Heidegger is interested in the effect that art has, what art does that distinguishes it from other practices; this is one sense of the ‘work’ of art that he employs in his discussion of it. The central work that art accomplishes for Heidegger is the ‘setting-into-work of truth’ (WARTENBERG 2001, 150).
Important to understanding Heidegger’s take on art is his claim that being – in the sense of the basic general structure of what is there in the world – is only ever revealed to agents who are engaged practically within a particular socio-historic context. The truth in art is evident when art displays what Heidegger calls the strife between world and earth (which is his way of expressing the tension between disclosure and concealment as aspects of the work of art) (WARTENBERG 2001).
The notion of world that is in play here invokes the sense of a context of significance. So, the notion of the world that Heidegger is employing is the notion of the world that you come across in statements of the form ‘the world of the student’, ‘the world of the shop keeper’ where the notion of the world takes in the basic features and dimensions of the lives of those shop keepers and students: works of art reveal historical worlds to us as a hermeneutic totality including the basic character of the beings met by the agents who make up those worlds. Historical epochs are constituted by different worlds in Heidegger’s sense, and the succession of different worlds is accounted for by the fact that the earth continues to resist our collective attempts to subdue it and to incorporate it wholesale into a particular historical world (WARTENBERG 2001, 154).
With reference to this general framework art takes on a political role: non-representational works, such as Temples and Cathedrals, gather together the different narrative possibilities that are possible for a particular historical group. Works of art illuminate the style of a particular cultural-historic world (DREYFUS 2005, 414).
Hermeneutics, for Heidegger, is not just a method to be deployed in order to understand language, texts or the human sciences. Heidegger’s hermeneutics is bound up with his phenomenological ontology and fundamental ontology of Dasein’s being-in-theworld. It was Heidegger’s insight that understanding (Verstehen) is the central dimension of being-in-the-world that Gadamer took as his starting point. Verstehen, so far as Gadamer is concerned, carries with it the sense of ‘standing in for someone’ or of ‘holding a brief for someone’ in the way that a lawyer or other representative might do and so understanding has a sense of openness to the ‘other’ (MORAN 2000, 249). Understanding is not just a subjective event and it is always challenged by agents’ situatedness in history, within a culture: as Moran puts it, understanding operates across historical and cultural distances (IBID. 248 f.). The world that Dasein inhabits is a world that is encountered and interpreted only by virtue of language and for Gadamer, hermeneutics is just this never ending, continuous process of understanding that is characteristic of finite human existence and of the phenomenon that he calls ‘linguisticality’ (Sprachlichkeit) (Moran/Mooney 2002, 311 f.). As he puts it in Truth and Method (1960), his central work, ‘language is the medium
of the hermeneutic experience’ (GADAMER 1960, quoted in MORAN/MOONEY 2002, 312).
As far as Gadamer is concerned, phenomenology and hermeneutics are connected in that both are tasked with the description of the emergence of meanings, and all human constructions – including such things as tools, languages and art works – that embody meanings reflect a cultures’ particular orientation toward the world. By this view Gadamer upholds the phenomenological thesis that all things – including animals, objects and events – are given order and meaning by human beings in terms of their possibility for interaction or appropriation into a human task or project: such animals, objects and events are understood in terms of our involvement, or possible involvement, with them and they exist only as part of a ‘network of possible encounters’ wherein things refer to, or relate to, or point at, other things within the network (CAZEAUX 2000, 77).
As much as it was for Heidegger, our experience of art is a paradigm of genuine cultural
understanding for Gadamer. In fact our experience of art is the best case of understanding through which to describe the experience of understanding. Understanding a work of art involves bringing our faculties into relation with the culturally work. Clive Cazeaux (IBID.) puts this very well as follows:

To apprehend an artwork is therefore to bring our faculties into relation with the ideas and judgments which shaped the work. The ‘what is said’, the ‘what could have been said’, the ‘what they wanted to say’, and the ‘what was impossible to say’ of both the artist’s frame of reference and our own interact to generate new chains of interpretation.

From an archaeological perspective informed by this approach, what is true of art is also true of the entire archaeological record. Material culture (‘objects’ created by [human] agents) embodies the style of cultures; and by bringing our faculties into relation with such items we will be able to gain a sense of the cultural milieu that produced them. For Gadamer, art is the experience of experience, construed as the experience of the distance between ourselves as historically situated agents and the artist who created the work, who is another historically situated agent. Such distance between agents is necessary for the hermeneutic conversation and dialogue to happen at all and an appreciation of such distance reveals to us in the present the contingent and historical nature of our – and, from an archaeological perspective, of past peoples – manner of perceiving the world (IBID.).
Mutual understanding is an event that Gadamer calls the ‘fusion of horizons’ (Horizontsverschmelzung). Our understanding is both enabled by and conditioned by our prejudgments (Vorurteil) and these prejudgements are in turn formed by what Gadamer calls ‘effective history’ or ‘history of effect’ (Wirkungsgeschichte): this is that process by which the historical effects of actions, events and objects unfold over historical time, and with which we are inescapably involved by virtue of our cultural inheritance (MORAN 2000). Objects and events are always enveloped by the history of their significance for us, and any objects or events ‘effective history’ or ‘historical effectedness’ is just those meanings that the object or event has accumulated over time; this includes what that object has come to mean for us in our present situation. Thus, the ‘effective history’ of objects is `the history of the influence’ of the object on `human communities’ (MORAN 2000, 252) and part of the archaeological enterprise is to disclose such influences as these have unfolded for past peoples to us in our present situation.
Such ‘effective history’ is not something extrinsic to the object but rather it is something essential to it and to our relationship to it in the present. Our understanding in the present, for both Heidegger and Gadamer, is limited by the horizon of our outlook: our understanding takes place within a particular horizon and it is limited by that horizon. Nevertheless, on Gadamer’s account, such horizons are not sealed and they are not mutually exclusive. Our horizons are open to others’ horizons – including past horizons – to such an extent that they actually overlap.
The ‘fusion of horizons’ is that event wherein our understanding of the present and of the past, or of our horizons and the others’ horizons, is transformed; through this process our understanding of both past and present, our horizon and the others’ horizon, come to influence and qualify each other in distinct ways: mutual understanding is arrived at by an overlapping consensus and the merging of horizons rather than by the abandonment of one for the other horizon (MORAN 2000, 252; 2002, 312).
When we approach the archaeological record, or the individual work of art, in a museum, for example, we approach it in a more or less clinical environment. However, shaped understanding that created the lesson of Heidegger’s and Gadamer’s approach for the archaeologist is that even though when we approach such an artwork or object, that was produced by a more or less alien culture in a more or less remote time and space, in a more or less clinical setting in the museum, it nevertheless makes a claim on us whereby we respond to it, despite its divorce from its original context where it was produced. By dwelling with the object we bring our horizonal understanding into a critical relation with the object or art work. As Moran describes such an encounter: ‘we respond to it [the object] by a kind of total self-involvement whereby the world of the object and the world of the subject merge’ (MORAN 2000, 252). In this moment our understanding in the present of the past/remote culture that produced the object is transformed: in this ‘moment’ we have brought our faculties and our archaeological endeavours into relation with the historically negotiated understanding that created the work. Heidegger and Gadamer have something to say to us as archaeologists: our understanding is finite and conditioned by history; and understanding the other – from whatever period – involves selfunderstanding in the present as much as it does understanding of the past.

Dr. Philip Tonner
University of Glasgow
Department of Philosophy
Glasgow G12 8QQ, Scotland, UK
email: p_tonner@hotmail.com

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