Gadamer and solidarity

After Truth and Method, Gadamer shifted from writing about tradition to solidarity. Both concepts relate to deep-seated agreements about the way things are or should be, but solidarity bears an element of forward-thinking, of future aspirations with a basis of ethical and/or political values. This turn presumably helped Gadamer to address criticisms that the ideas in Truth and Method were focused on the past and lacked relevance to the future.

Gadamer held a clear belief in the idea of moral progress, which he described as an extension of inclusivity; an emphasis of similarity over difference. We often think of left-wingers as more inclusive than right-wing thinkers; of having a broader definition of ‘us’, but I found myself thinking yet again about that time I went to the Conservative party conference to talk with delegates and get to know about their lives and values. I found them surprisingly willing to talk with me, and I *did* feel that they wanted to find common ground, which was an interesting contrast to the them-and-us mentality I experienced while among the protesters. A similar pattern was found in a study by the Public Religion Research Institute in the US that looked at following and unfollowing on social media – liberals were much more likely to unfollow those with different views, and did so faster. It’s a very interesting conundrum that has been chewed over a thousand times in the press since the EU referendum and the US presidential election; made even more complex by the suggestion that the ‘winning’ voters are being manipulated and lied to by the powerful. Jonathan Haidt writes about these phenomena in this book The Righteous Mind, as does Joshua Greene in Moral Tribes. Haidt theorises that moral judgement plays a role in helping us to form communities. We may like to think that morals are just about justice and equality, but authority, sanctity and loyalty not only come into play, but often matter more.

On first reading, Gadamer’s ideas about moral progress seemed to contrast sharply with another philosopher I’ve been reading for fun recently; Peter Sjöstedt-H, who writes about metaphysics and meta-ethics in the context of psychedelic phenomenology. Sjöstedt-H attempts to dismantle any idea of a universal morality, arguing that morality is more akin to fashion than technology, and that in the absence of a God/creator, humans have no prescribed purpose, therefore our characteristics and behaviours cannot be described as supportive (‘good’) or undermining (‘bad’) of any such purpose. He challenges egalitarianism, contractarianism and utilitarianism, giving examples of individuals and cultures that value valour and adventure over peace and stability. Like Gadamer, Sjöstedt-H links morality to power, but he focuses on how moral prescriptions (what we ‘ought’ to do) merely express a desire for one to change the behaviour of another (the authoritarial aspect of prescriptive morality discussed by Haidt).

But what links the two authors is that Gadamer’s moral progress relates to descriptive rather than prescriptive morality. Towards the end of his long career Gadamer became preoccupied with what, like Zeldin, he saw as a major defect in public life; our tendency to emphasise the different and disputed. Our political system is set up for confrontation as a default; our historical education and entertainment media focus on conflict. Like Hogan, he asks questions about specialisation and its tendency to drive us apart, claiming that instrumental reason seeks a control of language and the world that would be impossible to realise.

I’ll close with a passage from Misgeld & Nicholson’s (1992) book Hans-Georg Gadamer on Education, Poetry and History, as I feel it encapsulates what I’m trying to achieve with my EdD thesis:

I am convinced that even in a highly bureaucratized, thoroughly organized and thoroughly specialized society, it is possible to strengthen existing solidarities. Our public life appears to me to be defective in to far as there is too much emphasis upon the different and disputed, upon that which is contested or in doubt. What we truly have in common and what unites us thus remains, so to speak, without a voice. Probably we are harvesting the fruits of a long training in the perception of differences and in the sensibility demanded by it. Our historical education aims in this direction, our political habits permit confrontations and the bellicose attitude to become commonplace. In my view we could only gain by contemplating the deep solidarities underlying all norms of human life.

Hans-Georg Gadamer in Misgeld & Nicholson 1992, p.192

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