By suggesting that Bildung occupy the place in the humanities which method occupies in the sciences, Gadamer means that initiation into the study of the humanities is not so much initiation into any techniques as into the tradition with which we are concerned in the humanities. Our primary aim is not to find a way that will enable us to achieve objectivity, but rather a sufficiently activated subjectivity, a sensitivity to our historical situation and all that has contributed to it …

Andrew Louth, Discerning the Mystery. An Essay on the Nature of Theology, (Oxford: Clarendon, 1983) 43.

Louth continues his discussion of Gadamer’s work on engagement with tradition by comparing it to the different ways in which conversation works. The first kind of engagement does not allow any conversation at all, for the other remains simply an object. Gadamer considers this kind of “conversation” to be analogous to the social sciences in which people are units operating under laws which need to be discovered. The second form of engagement, which allows a more real conversation, attempts to understand the other person, but does not directly listen to what he or she is saying, seeking rather to read between the lines and understand the other’s background and what is not said. Gadamer considers such a conversation analogous to the concern with “historical consciousness” which seeks to know others better than they know themselves. However, by seeking to elide his or her own historical reality, the one seeking understanding is in effect seeking to master the past. The third form of engagement, that of a genuine conversation, is one in which

I not only recognize the otherness of another, but also recognize his claim over me and listen to what he has to say to me. I am not trying to ‘understand’ him and thus dominate him; I am seeking to understand what he has to say, I am open to learning something from him. Here there is genuine listening, genuine openness to another. And this is analogous to the true way of seeking to understand the past, which Gadamer wants to commend. ‘I must’, he says, ‘allow the validity of the claim made by tradition, not in the sense of simply acknowledging the past in its otherness, but in such a way that it has something to say to me. (41)

Louth proceeds to highlight Gadamer’s use of the concept of Bildung as occupying the place in the humanities that method occupies in the sciences. “Bildung – or we could use the Greek word paideia, education, though there is no word in English which corresponds with it very closely – is what one has to undergo in order to grow up, and also what it is that one grows up into.” (42) This emphasis on formation means both acquiring the common sense, sensus communis, of what a group, but also what all of humanity has in common, and it also means acquiring eloquence which means not just speaking well, but, more importantly, learning how to say the right thing in the right way at the right time. It is the acquiring of practical wisdom, phronesis, as opposed the universal wisdom of sophia.

Bildung is then a fashioning of the individual. Instead of seeking an illusory escape from prejudice, it initiates us into our prejudices so that we are able to see that which they shed light on.


Two things struck me in relation to Louth’s use of Gadamer’s concept of Bildung. Firstly, as I have been reading Saint Irenaeus, I was struck by the kinship of the idea of Bildung or paideia to Irenaeus’ idea of humanity having been created as a child who still had to grow up and whom God had to form and mould to its full stature in Christ. Related to this is Louth’s footnote noting the origin of the German word Bildung in German mystical literature in the notion of humanity as the image of God, Bild Gottes, and the refashioning of humanity into that image.

Secondly – and it may be a bit dangerous for me to venture into territory involving Greek! – the suggestion that Bildung is related to phronesis, in Aristotle’s sense of practical wisdom, reminded me of a quote I posted a while back from Father Florovsky in which he spoke of acquiring the Fathers’ “mind”, their phronema. This does seem to be the fundamental challenge for all genuine formation.