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Gadamer and Harkness

by Stephen Hebert on Tuesday - 29 December 2009

in Education

As mentioned previously, I am working through some hermeneutical issues, and, thanks to Merold Westphal, I am particularly interested in the work of Hans-Georg Gadamer. In reading Westphal, I came across this quote from Gadamer’s Truth And Method:

To reach an understanding in a dialogue is not merely a matter of putting oneself forward and successfully asserting one’s own point of view, but being transformed into a communion in which we do not remain what we were.1

This quote comes from a section in which Gadamer is likening the art of interpretation to conversation. As such, I find it appropriate to think about in the light of Harkness.

Because Harkness, at its core, is about self-discovery and conversation, students interpreting a text on their own and sharing their ideas with each other, I found Gadamer’s idea of conversation to be enlightening. Sitting at the Harkness table, our goal should not be to lord our superior opinions over those of our neighbors. Rather, we should seek understanding.

The first step in this process is to be assertive and put forward our thoughts. The process toward understanding does not end here, however, nor does it end with a successful defense of our own thoughts. Instead, the next step is to enter into communion with our interlocutors in hopes of understanding all points of view. The end result is not necessarily a consensus, though sometimes it may be. Instead, the result is that we are changed by this communion. We have successfully listened, heard, and understood those around the table, and we have come away changed by the experience.


  1. Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth And Method, trans. Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall, 2nd ed. (New York: Crossroad, 2004), 371. Thanks to Merold Westphal, Whose Community? Which Interpretation?: Philosophical Hermeneutics for the Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2009) for pointing me in that direction.

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