Philosophy and Social Criticism 26 (1):51-70 (2000)

Critics of Hans-Georg Gadamer maintain that his philosophical hermeneutics is unduly conservative: supposedly, Gadamer too readily accepts tradition and too quickly assumes that a text has a unified and understandable meaning. Critics of Jacques Derrida, meanwhile, declare that deconstruction leads to nihilism: if the meaning of every text is undecidable, then a text can mean anything at all - no one meaning is better or worse than any other. And if there is no ground to stand upon, these critics add, then how can we normatively evaluate others? In this essay, I respond to the critics of both Gadamer and Derrida by arguing that philosophical hermeneutics and deconstruction should be understood as complementary postmodern philosophies, as mutually supportive descriptions of the hermeneutic situation. As such, deconstruction counters the charge that philosophical hermeneutics is conservative: instead, a Derridean view uncovers the radical political potential that resides within Gadamer's philosophical hermeneutics. Meanwhile, philosophical hermeneutics counters the charge that deconstruction is nihilistic and cannot support ethical or political critique. A Gadamerian view explains how deconstruction assumes the possibility of understanding meaning and maintaining values that can engender critique. Key Words: deconstruction • Derrida • Gadamer • hermeneutics • justice • philosophical hermeneutics • postmodernism
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DOI 10.1177/019145370002600103
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