Sauk Valley Community College

Humanities 210

Hermeneutics (Herman Who?) pt.2

© 2001   Kris A. Murray



Fusion of Horizons

Everyone one of us inhabits our own "world," a "world" made up of everything that we know and have experienced. But because none of us have experienced exactly the same things or know exactly the same things, none of our "worlds" are exactly the same. How we react to things, how we feel about things, what we are interested in, are all affected by what our own "world" is like. This even extends to how we use language. One of the hardest lessons to learn as we go through life is that we don't all use words in the same way. That is, because words can have different shades of meaning, and these shadings are affected by our experiences, we don't always mean the same thing as someone else by the same word. If you want to try an interesting experiment, ask five different people what their definition of the word "loyalty" is (or choose any word you want). You will quickly get a sense of how different our individual "worlds" can be! Gadamer refers to our "worlds" as horizons. By using the word horizon, he helps us to see that our "worlds" are perspectives- that is, vantage points- from which we view what happens to us. Think of looking "off into the horizon." Here in Illinois, our horizon doesn't extend very far because of the slightly rolling land and the trees. Our perspective on the environment around us is, therefore, limited. But the horizon for someone who lives on an ocean extends as far as their eye can possibly see so their perspective is much larger than ours. This is what Gadamer means by horizon, then- the perspective on what goes on around us which our "worlds" provide. When we think of it that way, we realize that some people's horizons can be small while other people's horizons are large. For example, someone who grew up in a very small town, didn't have access to TV or radio, wasn't encouraged to read, and went to work right out of high school is not going to have a very large horizon. That is, anytime this person runs into something that needs interpretation, he is going to have very little information and very few experiences to compare the new information or experience to. Those of us lucky enough to have access to certain parts of the world through TV and radio, to be able to go to college, and to enjoy reading, will be able to learn new things and appreciate new experiences more completely and with less effort because our horizons are larger. Also, all of the new things we experience or learn help us to expand our horizons yet again, which then makes it easier to learn and experience even more new things. (In fact, the idea of expanding our horizons is sort of like the hermeneutical circle.) The process of expanding our horizons is what Gadamer calls the fusion of horizons. Again, this is something which happens all the time. For example, you and a friend are having a conversation. She is telling you about a book she has just finished reading about the poet Rimbaud. You jump in and tell her that Rimbaud was the poet that Jim Morrison read all the time and modeled his song lyrics after. She continues to tell you about Rimbaud and you tell her about Jim Morrison. When the two of you are done talking, you both know more than when you started- that is, your horizons fused and ended up being expanded. There is another aspect of the fusion of horizons to be found in this example. But to understand this other aspect, we need to understand that books also have "worlds." That is, as we read, we help to recreate the "world" that the author envisioned when she wrote the book. So your friend fused her horizon with the horizon of the book, just as you fused yours with the source of your information on Morrison (or whoever or whatever you may enjoy reading about). Let's use the following passage as an example-

The tall, blonde-haired man, casually swinging a tennis racket, was smiling intently at the short, dark-haired woman a few feet away from him as she crouched down to tie her shoes.

"So, you really think you can beat me at tennis?" he said as she stood up.

Slowly, without saying a word, she picked up the racket that lay at her feet, and walked back to the service line. After bouncing the ball a few times, she tossed it high into the air, coming through it with the most perfect service stroke the man had ever seen. The ball whistled past his shoulder as he watched it skim the net and catch the corner of the service area. After he had recovered from his shock, the man turned, walked off the court, and into the club- house, leaving the woman to watch after him, standing with her hands on her hips. The smile was now on her face.

As you read this, you created a mental image of the description. You saw a man and a woman, a tennis court, two tennis rackets, and tennis balls. This is what we mean by the "world" or the horizon that is created by literature. If we didn't do this when we read, there would really be no point in people writing novels and poems and short stories. There is always a horizon contained in literature. But, how completely you saw the details of the scene depends upon your own horizon. If you have never played tennis, or have never watched it being played, then you would have to rely upon the few scenes of tennis games you may have seen on TV or in a movie to help you fill in the details. But if you had played tennis before you would not only see the scene with more detail but you would also "feel" the woman serving, or "hear" the plonk of the ball as it hit the court. In other words, what your horizon contains can make the fusion of your horizon with that of the text more detailed or less. However, regardless of how detailed that fusion is, it still results in an expansion of your horizon. And it will effect how you interact with future tennis experiences, whether they be actual or through a story or poem or painting. This is what Susanne Langer was getting in "Art and Culture" when she told us that

"..language will formulate new ideas as well as communicate old ones. Symbolic expression, therefore, extends our knowledge beyond the scope of our actual experience."

This is her way of talking about the fusion of horizons. But notice that she says "Symbolic expressions... extend our knowledge." As we also learned in "Art and Culture," language is not the only symbol system. Paintings, music, movies, sculpture, in fact, any art form, are also symbol systems. Therefore, they all have their own horizons, horizons which we fuse with when we interact with them. Music, after literature, is probably the next easiest art form through which to see this process of fusing horizons. Certain styles of music with certain rhythms and certain instrumentation (choice of instruments) can make us react in ways that can be connected to experiences we have had. For example, movies rely greatly on this fact when the composer of the background music chooses certain rhythms or certain chords to make us feel excitement, fear, or sadness as we watch a movie. The reason we react to music in this way is because of previous experiences we have had with other movies. In other words, throughout our lives, we have been conditioned to understand that certain kinds of music go with love stories, certain kinds with adventure stories, certain kinds with horror movies. So when we hear sad music, we know it is sad because of previous experiences, but those previous experiences also contribute to the experience we are currently having. That is, the horizons of the music we have heard in the past have expanded our horizons so that we more quickly and completely fuse with the horizon of our newer musical experiences. Unfortunately, there is a down side to this example of fusion of horizons. Hollywood film makers know that this is what happens when we hear movie music, so they purposely "cue" us with the music. That is, they make sure we know that this scene or that is supposed to be exciting by playing exciting music underneath the scenes. But, the music influences us so much that we often don't notice that the scene wasn't really all that exciting. (In fact, a few years ago, some sociologists did an experiment where they showed the movie Top Gun to a group of young adults but left the music track off. The majority of the moviegoers who had never seen the movie before thought the movie was "OK, but nothing special." But the biggest surprise was that the guys in the audience thought that the flying scenes were a little too long and, in some cases, boring! That is how powerful the influence of movie music can be. It can actually make us think that a movie is better than it is. However, now that we understand about the fusion of horizons, we all can be more sensitive to those kinds of things and make better decisions about how to interpret something.)


As mentioned before, Gadamer likes to compare understanding to a conversation. Not only is the back and forth, or dialectical, movement of a conversation like the hermeneutical circle, but, as mentioned before, a conversation is also a fusion of horizons between ourselves and someone else. Each person's own horizon contributes to the outcome and this outcome results in each person's horizon being expanded to one degree or another. So the concept of conversation is a pretty useful metaphor for many of Gadamer's ideas. It is also another way of talking about how we interact with art. Again, the most obvious example is literature, although this time we will consider all pieces of writing, not just fiction or poetry. As we saw, when we read, we have access to the horizon of whatever it is we are reading. Part of that horizon is the images that are described in the writing- the people, objects, surroundings, and so on. But another part of that horizon is the voice of the implied author. The implied author is that person we imagine to have written the text which we are reading. The reason that person is referred to as the implied author is that we can never truly hear the "real" author's voice in the text. There are many reasons for this, not the least of which is that the real author may be purposefully writing as though he or she believed things that are different from what they really believe, just for the sake of the story. But we also cannot really know very much about the real author from the text simply because we are never given enough information. But it is still a normal part of our reading to assume that there is a person controlling the words which we read, that is, the implied author- and, in essence, when we read, we are having a conversation with that person. For many people, this is a one-sided conversation because they don't realize that they are in a conversation. But we are, so it makes sense to "hold up our end" and "get in our two cent's worth." For example- Think back to when you first read the opening paragraphs of this essay on hermeneutics. For many of you, it was the first time you had heard the word hermeneutics. Do you recall what you thought to yourself as you read-- "That is, you were trying to interpret the word, to understand it in relation to something you already know"? If it made sense to you, you may have said "Oh, I get it," and if it still seemed strange you may have said "I don't get it." Either way, what you thought to yourself was your end of the conversation. Or- what if you were reading a magazine article and came across the sentence-

"All college students are spineless weenies."

I'm sure you would have a reaction to that. You may even go so far as to think through an argument against the idea contained in the sentence. In other words, what we read causes reactions in us and those reactions are the very same reactions we have in live conversations. The only difference is that if someone you knew said that all college students are weenies, you would have an immediate opportunity to present your argument and try to change that person's mind. But in the case of the article, you would have to write a letter, which would take a little longer, but the result could potentially be the same. Now I am not suggesting that we need to write letters every time we read something that causes us to react in one way or another. But what I am saying is that the stimulus to respond to what we read is the same as that in a conversation. It causes us to think about things in a new or different way-- and by responding, we make our response clearer to ourselves.

There are two aspects to having a conversation with a text which need to be commented on. The first is that we should not be afraid to interact with what we are reading- we should write our responses in the margins (there is even a word for what is written in the margin-  ma rginalia ) or underline the ideas which intrigue us or irritate us or confuse us. In fact, most people who are in the habit of writing marginalia have symbols that they use which stand for certain reactions. Some of my symbols include-

gq, which means "good quote," that is, a sentence or group of sentences which I think say something in a really neat way;

!!!, which means, to me, "this is new and exciting:"

bs , which means-well, that one should be pretty obvious;

Ø, which means "This is the main point."

I have several others which are more difficult to reproduce in typewritten form, but you get the idea.

( A practical comment- I have been told by many students that the reason they don't write in their books is that they were always told not to in high school. This obviously had to do with the fact that the books didn't belong to you. But- now they do. Also- the bookstore will take them back even if they have marginalia or highlighting in them. In fact, I always look for a used textbook with marginalia in it so that I can benefit from someone else's previous conversation with the implied author.)

The other aspect of having a conversation with texts is that some implied authors make it easier than others to have a conversation. Textbooks, for example, are famous for using what is known as the institutional passive voice. This style of writing tries to erase any sense of an implied author. This tactic is used to make the information in the text "more convincing-" that is, because it doesn't seem to be written by a person, the information seems more reliable because no one's opinion is at work. But, guess what? The author's of textbooks are just as opinionated as anyone else. Also, they have their own perspectives, just like any one else, and the information they are imparting is colored by that perspective, just like all information. Does this mean that textbooks sometimes contain inaccurate or false information? In a word- yes. But because the style seems so "institutional," we never think to question it. But then that's their goal. As the educational psychologist Jerome Bruner tells us-

Each fact we encounter comes wrapped in stance markings [the style of writing of the textbook, for example]. But now take the next step. Some stance markings are invitations to the use of thought, reflection, elaboration, fantasy.....[But] if the teacher [or textbook] wishes to close down the process of wondering by flat declarations of fixed factuality, he or she can do so.

In other words, the "institutional passive" doesn't mean that the information is more reliable, it just means that someone doesn't want you to question it. That is why we are using the materials that we are in this class. In fact, there may well be, from time to time, ideas which you may not agree with. But the point is to feel free to disagree with them and support your own ideas or interpretations. Finally, the point is, just as conversations with people prompt us to think new thoughts, we can also have conversations with paintings, music, sculpture, and so on. But when we begin to talk about having a conversation with art forms, we need first to explore Gadamer's notion of question.

The Question of Question

Gadamer's concept of question can be looked at several ways. But the most important aspect of this idea, for Gadamer, is the understanding that, in order to have a fusion of horizons and particularly to have our horizon expanded, we must stay open to whatever experience we are having. That is, we must try and put our previous experiences and opinions on hold and let the new experience take place without trying to make it fit whatever expectations we may have. One way we can help to do that is to ask questions, for in order to ask questions, we must be open to the experience. But Gadamer also likes the idea of questions because questions are part of conversation. They are part of the dialectical movement of conversation and are a large part of what keeps one going. And when good questions are asked, new knowledge can be produced. There is one other aspect of question which is also important for us. This is as a way of interacting with art. By asking artworks specific questions, we learn much more about the piece than if we just look, read, or listen. Asking a question of a work of art is also a way of making it respond to us instead of us always responding to it. The first question we should ask any work of art is "What question brought this work into being?" In other words, what question was the painter, composer, choreographer, etc., trying to answer by producing this piece? This may also be asked as "What problem was the artist trying to solve when she produced this work?" Although these questions are similar, they will produce at least slightly different answers. And sometimes they will produce very different answers. However, they will both serve to guide how we look at, listen to, or read works of art. For example, go back to the first article, "Art and Culture." Reread the first page or two with the question in mind "What question brought this text into existence?" (besides the obvious one of "What is Art." Think a little broader than that.) See if you don't come up with at least some sort of a question. We might also ask this same question of this painting-- Vincent's Bedroom At Arles by Vincent Van Gogh. Why would Van Gogh want to paint his bedroom?

Bedroom at Arles















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