Gadamer and the game of understanding: dialogue- play and opening to the other
A breakdown in genuine dialogue and understanding increasingly plagues communication today, in both political and personal contexts. The popular sense that we simply cannot understand each other because of differences in gender, race, class, religion, sexual orientation, political afﬁliation, etc. discourages us, more and more, from even trying to communicate with those we consider to be our ‘Other’. This leads frequently to the abandonment of dialogue, and to either a kind of isolationism or resort to force as a response to conﬂict. Considering the ever more global nature of our society, and the need to ﬁnd ways to fully understand and act upon shared concerns, the abandonment of dialogue has become all the more troubling. We are thus faced with the pressing questions: What causes dialogue to break down? And what do we do once it has broken down? Hans-Georg Gadamer’s philosophical hermeneutics offers a philosophy rich in resources for grappling with questions surrounding communication, understanding, and the varying approaches we might take to others whose lives and ideas are considerably different from our own. While Gadamer’s magnum opus Truth and Method (originally published in German in 1960) explicitly concerns itself with discovering how understanding works and what makes understanding possible, it simultaneously offers a distinctive philosophy of genuine human engagement in which true dialogue and understanding can be achieved. It is in the concept of play (Spiel) that we ﬁnd the key, in Gadamer’s philosophy, to understanding how it is that we must approach ‘the Other’ for dialogue to be a fruitful and transformative event, in which interlocutors truly communicate with each other and develop a higher shared grasp of the subject matter at hand. It is by focusing on what is required to create and sustain the back-and-forth linguistic play-movement between human beings, which represents the very process of understanding itself for Gadamer, that one can best see the ethical conditions1 for genuine dialogue and understanding, and grasp what happens when the game of understanding goes right, versus what happens when it gets blocked or breaks down. Gadamer’s phenomenological (descriptive) account of genuine play – that dance of presenting and recognizing meaning – is ultimately meant to serve as move us past the recurring blocks to dialogue we set for ourselves, and move us towards the sorts of interpersonal engagements that best facilitate mutual understanding for our common good. I say ‘for our common
good’ because I ﬁnd in Gadamer’s philosophical hermeneutics an implicit lesson that preserving an authentic engagement in dialogue-play with the Other is crucial for our education, development, and our very existence as human beings. Implicit in Gadamer’s philosophical hermeneutics, I ﬁnd an ‘ethics of play’ in three senses. First, Gadamer’s phenomenological analysis of how understanding works in terms of play reveals to us that there are crucial ethical conditions that must be met for genuine dialogic play to succeed. Second, there is an implicit value claim in Gadamer’s work that genuine play with the Other is ultimately good for us, as the interactive path of our development as human beings. Third, Gadamer’s theory of understanding as a process of play is meant, as practical philosophy (in the style of the older Aristotelian tradition), to guide our concrete dialogical relations with others so that we may understand better, and – insofar as understanding is conceived by Gadamer as our very mode of being and developing in the world – so that we may come to live better.2 This chapter begins with a discussion of what play means for Gadamer and how it relates to the process of understanding in all its forms. It then develops the ethical conditions of dialogue-play by focusing on how it is that we must approach the Other for genuine understanding to occur. Finally, the chapter illuminates how Gadamer’s philosophy is itself a practical philosophy in the Aristotelian sense.