Gadamer's Hermeneutics

Hermeneutics is the art of understanding; it is also a wide field of different approaches associated with scholars such as Friedrich Schleiermacher, Wilhelm Dilthey and Martin Heidegger (Maclean 1986; see also Johnsen and Olsen 1992: 420–423, 429f.). In the context of this work, most relevant is the hermeneutics of Hans-Georg Gadamer, outlined in his magnum opus Truth and Method (1975).

Understanding as interpretation with a temporal distance

Most importantly, Gadamer has made it abundantly clear that, to him, hermeneutics is not a method for understanding but an attempt "to clarify the conditions in which understanding takes place" (Gadamer 1975: 263). Among these conditions are, crucially, prejudices and fore-meanings in the mind of the interpreter. Understanding is always interpretation, and it means to use one's own preconceptions so that the meaning of the object can really be made to speak to us (Gadamer 1975: 358). Understanding is thus not a merely reproductive but a very productive process, and interpretations will always keep changing during the reception history of what is being understood.

One of the main problems Gadamer is faced with is how to distinguish 'true prejudices', by which we understand, from the 'false' ones, by which we misunderstand. He suggests as a solution to develop a 'historical' self-awareness which makes conscious one's own prejudices and allows one to isolate and evaluate an object on its own: however, I am uncertain how this can work and, more importantly, how one can ever be certain, given Gadamer's position as a whole (see below), of looking at an object 'on its own' (Gadamer 1975: 266f., see also 269f.; cf. Maclean 1986: 133f.).

Another important condition in which understanding takes place is temporal distance. For Gadamer, past and present are firmly connected and the past is not something that has to be painfully regained in each present:

"Time is no longer primarily a gulf to be bridged, because it separates, but it is actually the supportive ground of process in which the present is rooted. Hence temporal distance is not something that must be overcome. This was, rather, the naive assumption of historicism, namely that we must set ourselves within the spirit of the age, and think with its ideas and its thoughts, not with our own, and thus advance towards historical objectivity. In fact the important thing is to recognise the distance in time as a positive and productive possibility of understanding. It is not a yawning abyss, but is filled with the continuity of custom and tradition, in the light of which all that is handed down presents itself to us." (Gadamer 1975: 264f.)

The role of effective-history

The prejudices and fore-meanings in the mind of the interpreter which make understanding possible, are not at the free disposal of the interpreter, but linked to a 'horizon' and an 'effective history' (Wirkungsgeschichte).

"Understanding is not to be thought of so much as an action of one's subjectivity, but as the placing of oneself within a process of tradition, in which past and present are constantly fused." (Gadamer 1975: 258)

Gadamer argues that the 'true' historical object is not 'an object' at all, but a relationship which comprises both the reality of history and the reality of historical understanding. This he calls the 'principle of effective-history' (1975: 267). Not only does the power of effective history determine in advance what seems us to be worth enquiring about, but we also find that, by following the criterion of intelligibility, the other presents itself "so much in terms of our own selves that there is no longer a question of self and other" (Gadamer 1975: 268).

An essential part of the 'hermeneutical situation' in which we find ourselves understanding is the 'horizon' which limits our very possibility of hermeneutical vision, or understanding. The horizon includes everything that can be seen from a particular vantage point, and nothing more. Gadamer does not, however, argue that for historical understanding, ultimately, we need to place ourselves into the different horizon of a particular historical situation, because this would be an impossible and absurd task (Gadamer 1975: 269–273). We can neither leave our own horizon, nor would it be desirable, as the effective-history of a continuing tradition depends on constantly new assimilations and interpretations (Gadamer 1975: 358). Gadamer denotes this boundedness to the contemporary hermeneutical situation by the much-(mis-)quoted expression of the 'fusion of horizons':

"The projecting of the historical horizon, then, is only a phase in the process of understanding, and does not become solidified into the self-alienation of a past consciousness, but is overtaken by our own present horizon of understanding. In the process of understanding there takes place a real fusing of horizons, which means that as the historical horizon is projected, it is simultaneously removed." (Gadamer 1975: 273)

An anecdote told by Steven Kemper (1991: 136) may exemplify what Gadamer means:

"..restoring sacred places created a 'fusion of horizons' in quite a literal sense. I began to think about this fusion after visiting a relic mound with a Sinhala friend. When I asked him whether the place was ancient, he said 'Yes, it was restored just last year'."

Following Gadamer, the aim of my research could therefore never be to reconstruct later prehistoric meanings of monuments, but only to make them intelligible as what they are today, in our own horizon and in the light of the effective-history of these (and other) monuments. All interpretations of historic objects are necessarily undertaken from a particular effective-historical position which determines our prejudices about these objects and enables us to understand them in the first place: "Understanding is, essentially, an effective-historical relation" (Gadamer 1975: 267). As Michael Shanks put it (1995: 31):

"The ruined fragment invites us to reconstruct, to exercise the work of imagination, making connections within and beyond the remains. In this way the post-history of a pot is as indispensable as its pre-history. And the task is not to revive the dead (they are rotten and gone) or the original conditions from whose decay the pot remained, but to understand the pot as ruined fragment."

Hence an interpretation can be made richer not only by continuous study of the object, but also by a better understanding of the themes and issues of its effective-history. This is one important rationale for investigating the reception history of monuments.

In this work, I try to make the post-history, or effective history, of ancient monuments such as megaliths in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern explicit, by making direct connections between later prehistoric receptions, historical and present-day receptions, and related case-studies from other areas and ages. Not all of these themes and topics are necessarily contained in every present-day understanding of ancient monuments, but to explore and make use of them will enrich our understandings of these monuments and their role in later prehistory.

Gadamer's Hermeneutics in Archaeology

Even though he did clearly not propose a methodology, and said so explicitly, Hans-Georg Gadamer's approach has in archaeology occasionally been mistaken for a methodological guideline (e.g. Hodder 1991; Tilley 1991: chapter 9; cf. Karlsson 1998: 144–147). In one case, Gadamer's hermeneutics was even employed to legitimate the use of "generalized anthropological principles and/or direct ethnohistorical evidence" in order to gain "an entry point into meaning" (Tilley 1991: 126). Michael Shanks and Christopher Tilley (1992: 105–107), Harald Johnsen and Bjørnar Olsen (1992: 430) as well as Mika Lavento (1995) and Håkan Karlsson (1999) have recently explored what a true Gadamerian hermeneutics could mean for archaeology. Possible direct consequences for archaeology include

Michael Shanks emphasised Gadamer's work in his account of the character of archaeology (1992: 45):

"We cannot transcend the located nature of historical understanding. It is always historically located itself, from the viewpoint of whoever seeks to understand, understanding in the light of subsequent events and unintended consequences of people's actions... there can be no pure reception of a 'raw' past. Rather, understanding an object from the past is always understanding it as something. The act of looking and sensing the object always involves an intentional act of giving meaning. This is a pre-judgement. And according to Gadamer, all understanding is so pre-judiced.... So the prejudice of the archaeologist's social and personal situation is not a barrier but the medium of understanding the past."

Such an archaeological hermeneutics is part of what has been termed an 'interpretive archaeology' (see Shanks and Hodder 1995: 15–17).


Gadamer, Hans-Georg (1975) Truth and Method. London: Sheed and Ward.

Hodder, Ian (1991) Interpretive Archaeology and its role. American Antiquity 56 (1), 7-18.

Johnsen, Harald and Bjørnar Olsen (1992) Hermeneutics and Archaeology: on the philosophy of contextual archaeology. American Antiquity 57 (3), 419-436.

Karlsson, Håkan (1998) Re-Thinking Archaeology. Gotarc Series B, no. 8. Göteborg: Göteborgs universitet, Arkeologiska institutionen.

Karlsson, Håkan (1999) The 'play' will continue... Things and their 'effect-in-history', as seen in the youth-biography of a Swedish passage grave. In: A. Gustafsson and H. Karlsson (eds) Glyfer och arkeologiska rum - en vänbok till Jarl Nordbladh, pp. 401-9. Göteborg: Göteborgs universitet, Arkeologiska institutionen.

Kemper, Steven (1991) The Presence of the Past. Chronicles, Politics, and Culture in Sinhala Life. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press.

Lavento, Mika (1995) A hermeneutical approach to archaeological truth based on Hans-Georg Gadamer's 'Truth and Method'. In: M.Tusa and T.Kirkinen (eds) Nordic TAG. The Archaeologist and His/Her Reality. Report from the fourth Nordic TAG conference. Helsinki 1992, pp. 45-50. Helsinki Papers in Archaeology 7. University of Helsinki: Department of Archaeology.

Maclean, Ian (1986) Reading and Interpretation. In: A.Jefferson and D.Robey (eds) Modern Literary Theory. A Comparative Introduction, pp. 122-144. 2nd edition. London: Batsford.

Shanks, Michael (1992) Experiencing the Past. On the Character of Archaeology. London: Routledge.

Shanks, Michael (1995) Archaeological experiences and a critical romanticism. In: M.Tusa and T.Kirkinen (eds) Nordic TAG. The Archaeologist and His/Her Reality. Report from the fourth Nordic TAG conference. Helsinki 1992, pp. 17-36. Helsinki Papers in Archaeology 7. University of Helsinki: Department of Archaeology.

Shanks, Michael and Ian Hodder (1995) Processual, postprocessual and interpretive archaeologies. In: I.Hodder, M.Shanks, A.Alexandri, V.Buchli, J.Carman, J.Last and G.Lucas (eds) Interpreting Archaeology. Finding meaning in the past, pp. 3-29. London: Routledge.

Shanks, Michael and Christopher Tilley (1992) Re-Constructing Archaeology. Second edition. London: Routledge.

Tilley, Christopher (1991) Material Culture and Text. The Art of Ambiguity. London: Routledge.

© Cornelius Holtorf