History of the Human Sciences 24 (3):47-63 (2011)

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Abstract
There has been a long-standing and acrimonious debate in the human sciences over the role played by classic texts. Advocates of the classic insist its value is timeless and rests on the intrinsic superiority of its cognitive insights and aesthetic virtues. Critics, by contrast, argue that the respect accorded the classic is spurious because it conceals the ideological assumptions, tensions and discontinuities of tradition. This article seeks a solution through the account of ‘the classical’ brought by Hans-Georg Gadamer in Truth and Method, which acknowledges a text’s ‘eminence’ as well as its ‘historicity’. Following the introduction, the article divides into four sections. The first section notes that the hermeneutic account of tradition describes it as being open to challenge rather than closed and unchangeable, and that the classic, as grounded in tradition, will conserve difficulty as readily as comfortable certainty. The second section focuses on the idea that in the classic we find matter ‘properly portrayed’, while the third notes the importance of ‘application’ for an understanding of classic texts. It is noted that both ‘proper portrayal’ and ‘application’ depend on recognizing the role of the fusion of historical horizons in generating classic texts. The final section challenges the criticism that the classic is no more than a reflection of the institutional power wielded by the canon, arguing instead that the classic and the canon are different entities, and conflating them in favour of the latter, misleadingly reduces classic-ness to being no more than an effect of canonicity.
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DOI 10.1177/0952695111405277
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