Strauss, Gadamer, and the Problem of Relativism

Conservative political theorist Paul Gottfried has sparked new interest in the work of the controversial Leo Strauss in his new book, Leo Strauss and the Conservative Movement in America: A Critical Appraisal. Gottfried, who has been respectfully critical of Strauss throughout his career, notes that a driving influence behind his project is his critique of “relativism”. This line of reasoning is now very popular in contemporary neo-conservative political rhetoric, and it is often leveled at those who assume a hermeneutical disposition towards matters such as politics, theology, and culture in general. For a project of incarnational humanism, then, it is extremely important to deal with this issue articulately.

But what is relativism, and why have Strauss and other figures associated with the neo-conservative movement in North America taken such a critical stance towards it? Put simply, relativism is a theoretical position that holds any understanding of truth to be entirely constituted by contingent factors in history–thereby undermining any claim to universal legitimacy. Classic examples of these contingent factors include favorites of postmodern discourse: namely, race, class and gender, among others. In a thoroughly relativist paradigm, then, something is not true because it corresponds to reality in any sort of univocal or direct sense. Instead, the word ‘truth’ simply names a set of historical circumstances that create certain speech acts.

In a fascinating correspondence with the great hermeneutic philosopher, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Strauss offers the following thoughts:

I believe that you will have to admit that there is a fundamental difference between your post-historicist hermeneutics and pre-historicist (traditional) hermeneutics; … I cannot accept a theory of hermeneutics which does not bring out more emphatically than yours the essentially ministerial element of interpretation proper which is concerned with understanding the thought of someone else as he meant it.

Against Gadamer’s emphasis on the circumstantial horizon of the reader as a constitutive element of meaning, Strauss envisions the primary task of hermeneutics as an investigation of “the thought of someone else as he meant it” or “authorial intent.” It is Strauss’ contention that the objective content of meaning is the substantive issue of interpretation–not the reader’s subjective disposition towards the text.

From a humanist perspective, Strauss and others are certainly justified in their wariness of an absolute relativism. If things like truth and meaning are really just peculiar manifestations of different interpreters’ horizons of expectation, then it is extremely difficult to sustain a particular reading with conviction. In fact, if what is “true for me” is no more convincing than what is “true for you”, then there is very little motivation for dialogue in the first place. Thankfully, a more charitable reading of Gadamer does offer an alternative to this troublesome stance.

Following another founding father of contemporary hermeneutics, Martin Heidegger, Gadamer problematizes modern metaphors of a subjective interpreter over against an objective reality. This picture resembles a sort of withdrawn, disinterested activity in which isolated individuals examine a set of static things in the world. Against this model of interpretation, Gadamer emphasizes that human beings are always-already involved in the world which they interpret. Meaning is not something that can be simply located and possessed by an interpreter or knower, but it is rather a manner of being in that world. As he remarks in his classic book, Truth and Method: “someone who understands is always already drawn into an event through which meaning asserts itself” (490). As Jens Zimmermann puts it in Humanism and Religion,

[H]istoricity, for Gadamer, does not at all necessitate ‘historicism’ or relativism. Even though Gadamer rejects grounding things in the ultimate referent of a divine mind, his equal reluctance to embrace a nominalism indicates his preference for a participatory connection between universal and particular. Against historicism, Gadamer asserts that the historical emphasis of hermeneutics has to be understood as proximity to ‘prehistorical hermeneutics’, with which modern hermeneutics shares at least the essential structure of application. Application, as we have seen, describes the interpreter’s existential and affective involvement necessitated by the action-oriented nature of every real question posed in interaction with tradition.

A Christian humanist response to the question of relativism, then, is not simply a retreat into pre-historicist, finalized categories of meaning which exist entirely apart from the interpreter’s activity in the world (i.e. Plato’s Forms). Instead, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer remarks famously in his Ethics, “the world is relative to Christ” (207). If this is true, then truth and meaning are different ways of being like Christ. Far from the “your truth/my truth” difficulties of relativism, this model demands an integration of theory and practice under the dynamic reality of actually being in the world–as opposed to merely “thinking” in a detached way. To know the truth is to be in the truth, and to be in the truth is to be like Christ.




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