If we accept the implications of this – that interpretation of the past is not an attempt to transcend tradition, but rather an engagement with tradition; that the one who seeks to understand the past cannot himself step outside his own situation but is seeking an understanding of the past in the present, a present which bears upon him in ways of which he cannot be objectively aware; that this engagement with the past is not simply a process whereby we understand the past, but equally a process of self-discovery which can never be complete – if we accept the implications of this, we can begin to see what is involved in any process of understanding within the humanities. It is a process of revising our preconceptions, not seeking to escape from them. It is a growing into what we learn from tradition. The movement in the process is a movement of undeception: as a result of experience and growing understanding we see that we have been deceived and so are freed from deception. It is thus a growth in truth and a growth in openness towards new experiences.

Andrew Louth, Discerning the Mystery. An Essay on the Nature of Theology, (Oxford: Clarendon, 1983) 36-37.

Central to the development of the scientific method was the ideal of reaching objective truth independently of the one who knows this truth. Thus the aim of experimentation – which needed to be open to repetition – was to elide the subjectivity of the researcher. This is however much more problematical when applied to the humanities in which humanity itself is the object of study and in which there is a “connaturality that exists between the author and his interpreter.” (30) By seeking the reconstruction of the original historical context, the original intention of the author and a meaning that exists independently of any interpretation, the historical-critical method forgets that both the original author and the interpreter belong to history and that both are more than simply isolated individuals.

Louth highlights both Gadamer’s critique of the Enlightenment’s illusory ideal of presuppositionless understanding, which only serves to disconnect us from history and to see us as isolated individuals, and his rehabilitation of the notion of prejudice which is necessary for any genuine understanding. In contrast, Louth, following Gadamer, argues that “a truer theory of interpretation, which does not seek to elide the historical reality of the one seeking understanding, sets the interpreter himself within tradition. … Understanding is an engagement with tradition, not an attempt to escape from it.” (33)

By engaging tradition we are confronted with the mystery of human freedom. This is a mystery in which we participate, unlike our confrontation of the mystery of natural laws. Tradition, for Gadamer, is the context in which we can be free. We do not need to try and forget our preconceptions and prejudices, but we do need to be open to having them challenged. Louth comments:

… we find in the process of seeking to understand that it is not simply a matter of our putting questions to the tradition, but of our being subject to questioning by that tradition itself. As we ‘make the text speak’, we hear what it has to say, and what we have to say, as we hear it, addresses us and calls us into question. If we are not open to that, we are not open to understanding. (39)


The importance of Gadamer for Louth’s specifically theological argument is further developed in later chapters. For now I should note that my own response to Gadamer seems to have shifted somewhat from when I read him (or works on him) twelve to fifteen years ago. Then I was concerned with his arguments in rehabilitating tradition and of tradition’s ability to be self-critical in a rather abstract way. Now his work strikes me as having a rather ascetical tone to it, it enables an encounter with the tradition as that which seeks to purify us, a purification that works at a number of levels, including the intellectual. I suppose that this was there all along and I was just blind to it, or at least orientated to other things. But it is perhaps partly also due to Louth’s reading of him which highlights the transformative potential of his work and which will, in later chapters, situate it within the context of our call to holiness.

In a following post I will discuss tradition’s role in formation for Gadamer.