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Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 42 (2011) 372380

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Studies in History and Philosophy of Science


journal homepage: www.elsevier.com/locate/shpsa

Hermeneutical contributions to the history of science: Gadamer on presentism


Oscar Moro Abada
Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. Johns, NL, Canada A1C 5S7
Instituto de Filosofa-CSIC, Albasanz 26-28, 28037 Madrid, Spain

a r t i c l e

i n f o

Keywords:
Presentism
Whig history
Philosophical hermeneutics
Gadamer

a b s t r a c t
This article examines how Hans G. Gadamers philosophical hermeneutics can contribute to contemporary debates on the concept of presentism. In the eld of the history of science, this term is usually
employed in two ways. First, presentism refers to the kind of historiography which judges the past to
legitimate the present. Second, this concept designates the inevitable inuence of the present in the
interpretation of the past. In this paper, I argue that both dimensions of the relationship between the
present and the past are explored by Hans G. Gadamer in Truth and Method and other texts. In the rst
place, Gadamers critique of historicism calls into question the anti-presentist ideal of studying the past
for its own sake. In the second place, Gadamers thesis that all understanding inevitably involves some
prejudice poses the question of the inherent present-centredness of historical interpretations. By examining Gadamers hermeneutics, I seek to provide historians with new arguments and perspectives on the
question of presentism.
2011 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

When citing this paper, please use the full journal title Studies in History and Philosophy of Science

1. Introduction
During the last fty years, the concept of presentism has been
extensively used by philosophers and historians of science. In the
case of the history of science, presentism is a polysemous word
which can adopt different meanings depending on the context.
For instance, the notion of whig history, which is often equated
to that of presentism (e.g. Mayr, 1990; Pickstone, 1995, p. 203,
pp. 301302; Hull, 2000, p. 71; Jardine, 2003, p. 125), can refer
to the distortion wrought by describing and evaluating past science from the perspective of present science (Hardcastle, 1991,
p. 323), to the imposition of our categories on the deeds and
works of past agents who lacked such categories (Jardine, 2003,
p. 126) and to the belief that any historian who becomes professionally interested in current problems commits the sin of being
a Whig historian (Graham, 1981, p. 5). While not seeking to deny
the polysemous nature of presentism, I have distinguished two
primary ways in which historians have used this concept: (A)
Presentism as a kind of historiography and (B) Presentism as an
inherent trait of historical research (Moro Abada, 2009, p. 55). In
Address: Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. Johns, NL, Canada AIC 5S7.
E-mail address: oscar_moro_abadia@yahoo.es
0039-3681/$ - see front matter 2011 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
doi:10.1016/j.shpsa.2010.12.003

the rst place, presentism is a term generally employed to designate and denigrate the kind of historiographical approach in which
past science and scientists are judged and evaluated in the light of
modern knowledge. In this setting, presentism, whig history and
anachronistic history are frequently considered as synonymous
(e.g. Kragh, 1987, p. 93; Nickles, 1995, p. 151; Stocking, 1968
[1965], p. 4; Trout, 1994, p. 39). Furthermore, most historians agree
that the best way to counteract this kind of presentism is studying
the past in its own terms. In the second place, presentism also refers to the many ways in which the present inuences the interpretation of the past, including the fact that historians are constricted
by the linguistic, conceptual and cultural codes of their time. In this
case, specialists also use the notions present-centredness and
present-mindedness to refer to this condition of historical research (Ashplant & Wilson, 1988, p. 253; Brush, 1995, p. 220;
Cunningham, 1988, p. 367; Wilson & Ashplant, 1988, p. 11).
In this paper I argue that the analysis of these two dimensions of
the relationship between the present and the past is at the heart of
Gadamers hermeneutical project. Hans G. Gadamer (19002002)
was a central gure in the development of philosophical

O.M. Abada / Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 42 (2011) 372380

hermeneutics, a version of hermeneutics also explored by authors


such as Paul Ricoeur and Gianni Vattimo. Professor of philosophy
at the universities of Leipzig and Heidelberg, Gadamer presented
his main ideas in Wahrheit und Methode, a book translated into English under the title Truth and Method in 1975 (Gadamer, 2006a
[1960]). He also devoted numerous papers, talks and interviews
to explain his views on hermeneutics. Most of these materials were
compiled in the second volume of Gesammelte Werke (Gadamer,
1986) and appeared in English scattered throughout many books
and readers1. While philosophical hermeneutics has been the object
of many remarkable analyses (e.g. Dostal, 2002; Figal, 2000; Figal,
Grondin, & Schmidt, 2000; Grondin, 1994 [1991], 2003 [1999];
Malpas, Arnswald & Kertsche, 2002; Palmer, 1969; Wachterhauser,
1985, 1994, 1999), there is little scholarship on Gadamers contribution to presentism. Furthermore, most papers on this topic do not
cite Gadamer (e.g. Ashplant & Wilson, 1988; Graham, 1981; Hall,
1983; Hardcastle, 1991; Hull, 1979; Mayr, 1990; Pearce Williams,
1975; Pickstone, 1995; Russell, 1984; Tosh, 2003; Wilson & Ashplant,
1988; see, however, Jardine, 2003, p.135; Moro Abada, 2008, 2009).
This omission is surprising given some evident analogies between
Gadamers hermeneutics and contemporary debates on presentism.
A couple of examples can illustrate this point. During the same years
that Thomas Kuhn proclaimed that insofar as possible the historian
should set aside the science that he knows; [he/she] should try to
think as they [past scientists] did (Kuhn, 1977 [1968], p. 110),
Gadamer argued that every historical moment must be understood
in itself and cannot be submitted to the measures of a present which
may be extrinsic to it (Gadamer, 1979 [1963], p. 120). Similarly,
some of the arguments put forward by historians of science in the
1980s and the 1990s to demonstrate the inevitable presentcentredness of historical inquiry had been extensively examined by
Gadamer in Truth and Method (Gadamer, 2006a, [1960]). For instance,
the idea that the conceptual apparatus available to historians will be
(or include) that of the present (Pickstone, 1995, p. 205) is reminiscent of Gadamers belief that the historian is a child of his time who
is unquestioningly dominated by the concepts and prejudices of his
own age (Gadamer, 2006a [1960], p. 397; GW I, p. 400).
The central purpose of this article is to analyze philosophical
hermeneutics through the lens of the presentist debate. In particular, I seek to determine the similarities and differences that can be
established between Gadamers approach to this question and that
of the historians of science. To do so, I examine Gadamers position
on the two main problems posed by the concept of presentism. In
the rst part, I relate the denition of presentism as a misleading
historiographical approach to Gadamers critique of historicism. To
begin, Gadamer does not dispute the fact that controlling the prejudice of our own present to such an extent that we do not misunderstand the witnesses of the past is a valid aim (Gadamer, 1976
[1966]: p. 6, GW II: 222). On this point, Gadamer was not far from
the new history of science that, in the 1960s, rejected whig history and called for an approach seeking to understand past texts
in their historical context. However, Gadamer diverged from these
historians in the way in which he considered the accomplishment
of such a task. In fact, Gadamer called into question the historicist
ideal of studying the past in its own terms for such a model presupposed that in understanding history one must leave ones own
concept aside and think only in the concepts of the epoch one is
trying to understand (Gadamer, 2006a [1960], p. 398; GW I, p.
400). This positioning is not only impossible but manifestly absurd (Gadamer, 2006a [1960], p. 398; GW I, p. 400), for historians
cannot go beyond their own time. To illustrate Gadamers critique
of historicism, I reconstruct his dialogue with Dilthey.

373

In the second part, I compare the different ways in which


Gadamer and historians of science in the 1980s and the 1990s
posed the question of the present-centredness of history. I argue
that in both cases the emphasis on the present-mindedness of historical practice was, up to a point, a reaction against the excesses of
historicism. In the case of Gadamer, he argued that the historicist
ideal of understanding the past in its own terms was impossible
to achieve for all understanding inevitably involves some prejudice (Gadamer, 2006a [1960], p. 272; GW I, p. 274). For instance,
Gadamer argued that historical interpretations are prejudiced by
the tradition in which they take place, the language in which they
occur and, of course, the present from which they emerge. In this
point, Gadamer was certainly close to those authors who stated
that the historian, in seeking to study, reconstruct and write about
the past, is constrained by necessarily starting from the perceptual
and conceptual categories of the present (Ashplant & Wilson,
1988, p.253). However, Gadamer differed from these historians in
that he did not interpret this conditionedness as a limitation of historical knowledge. On the contrary, he sought to rehabilitate the
concept of prejudice and acknowledge the fact that there are legitimate prejudices (Gadamer, 2006a [1960], p. 278; GW I, p. 281). In
other words, according to Gadamer, the fact that history is inevitably present-prejudiced is not an obstacle for historical understanding but, rather, it is the condition of historical knowledge.
I conclude by arguing that Gadamers philosophical hermeneutics can encourage historians of science to think about presentism
in new and productive ways. First, Gadamer develops in great detail some of the arguments used by historians to evoke the many
faces of presentism. In this sense, philosophical hermeneutics
can be a source of inspiration to think more critically about this topic. Second, Gadamers perspective on presentism is not that of a
historian, but that of a philosopher. For this reason, Gadamers
viewpoint can inspire historians to think about presentism beyond the limits dened by their own tradition.
Before proceeding to the analysis, two methodological notes are
in order. In the rst place, this article establishes a systematic comparison between Gadamer and the historians of science, the latter
divided into two groups according to the denition of presentism
they endorse. I appreciate that the broad category of historians of
science implies a monolithic and simplistic representation of
much more nuanced views (for instance, some of the authors I include in this group are not historians of science, but philosophers
of science). However I consider this reductionism justied for
two reasons. First, I cannot analyze each historian of science separately in the parameters of a paper. Second, the authors mentioned
in this paper endorse one of the two aforementioned denitions of
presentism. The second consideration refers to the fact that the
comparison between Gadamer and historians of science can sometimes produce the erroneous impression that they established a
veritable dialogue. However, as I explain in the conclusion, this
interpretation is not accurate. For this reason, it is important to
remember it is I who compares the ideas of Gadamer with those
of historians.
2. Gadamer on Whig history: the critique of historicism
The rst usage of the concept of presentism among Englishspeaking historians is inextricably linked to the emergence of the
new history of science in the 1960s. It was at that time when a
new generation of Anglo-Saxon historians dened an innovative
program characterized by a number of features, including a focus
on the paradigms or worldviews orienting scientic research, an

1
In this article, I refer both to Gadamers original publications and to their English translations. Following a long-established convention, I use in this paper the abbreviation
GW to refer to Gadamers Gesammelte Werke (Gadamer, 1986) and GS for Diltheys Gesammelte Schriften (Dilthey, 19591968).

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O.M. Abada / Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 42 (2011) 372380

emphasis on the biased nature of science and, of course, an unrelenting antipathy to presentism or whiggism (Hull, 2000, p. 71;
see also Graham, 1981; Jardine, 2003, p. 128; Nickles, 1995, p. 151,
pp. 34). By the beginning of the 1970s, British and American historians employed these two terms simultaneously to denigrate
grand narratives of scientic progress (Jardine, 2003, p. 127). In
this sense, presentism and whiggism did not designate a specic
trait of the old history of science, but a number of historiographical problems associated to such historiography. Among these
presentist malpractices, new historians identied the anachronistic use of modern categories to dene the works of those who
lacked such concepts (Jardine, 2000; Jardine, 2003, p. 127128),
the radical distinction between those who contributed and those
who opposed scientic progress (Russell, 1984), the use of the history of science in contemporary debates (Graham, 1981), and the
description of the history of science as the inevitable conquest of
myth by truth (Stocking, 1968 [1965]). Indeed, most of these critiques were not new. For instance, the term whig history had been
used in 1931 by Herbert Buttereld to call into question the tendency among several British political historians to write on the
side of the Protestants and Whigs, to praise revolutions provided
they have been successful, to emphasize certain principles of progress in the past and to produce a story which is the ratication if
not the glorication of the present (Buttereld, 1973 [1931], p. 9).
Similarly, in the 1930s, French historians of science such as Hlne
Metzger criticized traditional positivist approaches which judge
the value of an outdated science in the shining light of our contemporary theories, considered as denitive acquisitions (Metzger,
1974 [1930], p. 6). However, it was only in the 1960s, under the
inuence of Kuhns work, that the critique of presentism became
commonplace among Anglo-Saxon historians of science.
To counteract presentism, new historians of science adhered
to the old historicist principle of studying the past in its own
terms. The term historicism (Historismus) was rst used by Friedrich Schlegel in 1797 to refer to Winkelmanns work. According to
Schegel, Winkelmanns Historismus had introduced a new epoch in
recognized the immeasurable distinctness and the unique nature
of Antiquity (Iggers, 1995, p. 130). In Schegels initial denition,
the concept already referred to the uniqueness of the past as distinct from the present. Later historicism was applied to the nineteenth- and twentieth-century German Historical School of Ranke
and Dilthey (Iggers, 1995, p. 142). This tradition was closely tied to
the view that human ideas and values are historically conditioned
and, therefore, they must be understood in the context of their own
time. This principle was adopted by many twentieth-century historians, including the aforementioned Buttereld and Metzger. In the
case of the history of science, it became fashionable for the Englishspeaking historians of the 1960s and the 1970s to assume the historicist commitment to understand past science without reference
to the present. It was at that time when renowned historians and
philosophers made historicist statements such as today we try
to establish [. . .] what the meaning of what they themselves wrote
was for Galileo, or Boyle, or Theodor Schwann (Hall, 1969, p. 220),
if we do not understand a problem in its own terms as it was seen
in a different period [. . .] then we shall lose the benet of transcending our own assumption and our current vantage point
(Young, 1966, p. 19), and the historian may rightly be more interested in the coherence of the alien systems in its own terms than in
interpreting its truth in our terms (Hesse, 1976, p. 269). In short,
this generation praised all-round historian[s], interested, not only
in analyzing the contribution to science of the gure [they are]
studying but also in placing his scientic thought in the context

of the philosophical and religious ideas informing his general outlook (Yates, 1973, p. 286).
To understand Gadamers position on presentism, it is important to keep in mind that his main project was to clarify the conditions in which understanding takes place (Gadamer, 2006a
[1960], p. 295; GW I, p. 300)2. In fact, he did not intend to determine
the rules guiding the right understanding, but to discover what is
common to all modes of understanding. To do so, Gadamer focused
on the analysis of the human sciences (Geisteswissenschaften), a kind
of knowledge in which research questions are motivated in a special way by the present and its interests (Gadamer, 2006a [1960],
p. 285; GW I, p. 289). It is in this context that he posed the problem
of historical understanding and, in so doing, the question of presentism. To begin, I posit it is not an exaggeration to state that Gadamer
would have shared with the new historians of science a rejection of
whig history. In fact, Gadamer dened the historical sense (sens
historique) as the talent for understanding the past, sometimes even
the exotic past, from within its own genetic context (Gadamer,
1979 [1963], p. 110). Acquiring an historical sense, then, requires
two complementary movements: First, it involves overcoming the
presentism related to the natural naivet which makes us judge
the past by the so-called obvious scales of our current life, in the perspective of our institutions and from our acquired values and truths
(Gadamer, 1979 [1963], p. 110). Second, it equally implies an
endorsement of the legitimate demand of historical consciousness
of understand[ing] a period in terms of its own concepts
(Gadamer, 2006a [1960], p. 398; GW I, p. 400). This demand is nothing more than the application to historical understanding of the old
hermeneutical principle that a text must be understood in its own
terms (Gadamer, 2006a [1960], p. 292; GW I, p. 297). In short,
Gadamer supported the historicist claim to see the past in its
own terms, not in terms of our contemporary criteria and prejudices
but within its own historical horizon (Gadamer, 2006a [1960], p.
302; GW I, p. 308).
The question is, of course, how this hermeneutical principle can
be fullled. Here, the divergences between Gadamer and historicism began. To understand Gadamers critique of historicism, I will
rst reconstruct his dialogue with Dilthey, an author to whom
Gadamer devoted a close reading in Truth and Method. Wilhelm
Dilthey (18331911) was best known for his project of establishing
the human sciences (Geisteswissenschaften) as equally scientic
and as rigorous as the natural sciences. To accomplish such a task,
Dilthey did not propose a supercial adaptation of the method of
the human sciences to the procedures of the natural sciences but,
rather, he explored a genuine community between both methods
(Gadamer, 1979 [1963], p. 123). In other words, while Dilthey
established a sharp distinction between the natural and the human
sciences, he also discovered something common to both sciences:
the aspiration to attain objective understanding beyond the contingencies of purely subjective observation (Gadamer, 1979
[1963], p. 123).
This scientic commitment to objectivity is at the heart of Diltheys critique of historical reason. According to Dilthey, historians
main aim is to describe how the relative concepts of value, meaning and purpose of a nation and epoch [. . .] have expanded into
something absolute (Dilthey, 2002 [1910], p. 310, GS VII: 290,
my emphasis). This search for the absolute is, however, determined
by the fact that we are historical beings before being observers of
history, and only because we are the former do we become the latter (Dilthey, 2002 [1910], p. 297; GS VII: 278). In other words, the
condition for the possibility of historical science is that the one
who investigate history is the same as the one who makes history

2
There is a fundamental difference between Gadamers and the historians respective aims. On the one hand, Gadamers main project was to explore the conditions of
understanding and of historical knowledge. In this sense, his project can be considered Kantian. On the other hand, this perspective clearly contrasts with the historians concern
with the truthfulness of their account of the past. In this sense, their project can be considered Rankean.

O.M. Abada / Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 42 (2011) 372380

(Dilthey, 2002 [1910], p. 298; GS VII: 279). At stake then is how


historians can satisfy the demand for objectivity if they are constrained by their own historicity. Dilthey suggests that this task
is possible because historical knowledge is rooted in what he called
Erlebnis or lived experience. Diltheys Erlebnis refers to the idea
that what historians understand is always an expression of human
life that emerged from lived experience, i.e. from the connectedness that exists in ones own lived experience and has been experienced in innumerable cases (Dilthey, 2002 [1910], p. 234; GS
VII: 214). Lived experience is historians point of access to the past
(Makkreel, 2003, p. 496) and, therefore, is what they re-create in
historical understanding. On this point, Dilthey argues that transposition and re-creation are the two dispositions involved in historians work. In the rst place, historians have to make use of their
sympathy in order to transpose themselves into the past. It is
through sympathy that they can, up to a point, overcome the limits
of their own time. In the second place, the process of transposing
oneself into the past has to be fullled with a fully sympathetic
reliving [which requires] that understanding go forward with the
line of the events themselves (Dilthey, 2002 [1910], p. 235; GS
VII: 214). This reliving means that once historians have transposed themselves into the past they must re-create it in the present. This understanding is the understanding of minds, or, less
grandiosely put, of the thoughts, feeling and intentions of human
beings (Rickman, 1960, p. 310). This re-creation is not mere a
reconstruction, but a re-experience that produces something new
and completes the fragments of a course of events in such a
way that we believe them possess a continuity (Dilthey, 2002
[1910], p. 235; GS VII: 215). Diltheys example of a poem illustrates
this point,
A lyrical poem makes possible, through the sequence of its
verses, the re-experiencing of a nexus of lived experience- not
the real one that stimulated the poet, but the one that, on its
bases, the poet places in the mouth of an ideal person (Dilthey,
2002 [1910], p.235; GS VII: 214).
Gadamers critique of historicism is pointed at Diltheys conceptions of sympathy and transposition. According to Gadamer, Diltheys view of history was based on the former theory that
historical understanding is possible because of the homogeneity
of human nature (Gadamer, 2006a [1960], p. 226; GW I, p. 236).
This homogeneity refers to an idea that Dilthey had already expressed in the Introduction to the Human Sciences (1883): I myself
[. . .] am a constituent of this social body and the other constituents
are similar to me and are thus for me likewise comprehensible in
their inner being (Dilthey, 1989 [1883], p. 89; GS I: 37). Given
the unity of human thought, Dilthey argues that historians could
transpose themselves into past circumstances by using their sympathy, i.e. by using their capacity to putting themselves in the
place of historical agents. According to Dilthey, understanding depends on sympathy (GS V: 277) and it is on the basis of sympathetic transposition that arises the highest form of
understanding in which the totality of psychic life is active: recreating or re-experiencing (Dilthey, 2002 [1910], p. 235, GS VII:
214). Gadamer suggest that the main problem of Diltheys theory
is that he assumed that by means of sympathy historians can
overcome the accidental limits imposed by ones own range of
experience and to rise to truths of greater universality (Gadamer, 2006a [1960], p. 227; GW I, p. 237). In other words, Diltheys
schema presupposes that the historian can disengage himself
from his own historical situation (Gadamer, 1979 [1963], p.
120) and, therefore, it neglect[s] the essential historicity [. . .] of
the human sciences (Gadamer, 1979 [1963], p. 126). In the end,
what Dilthey was justifying was nothing other than the grandiose
and epical self-effacement practiced by Ranke (Gadamer, 1979

375

[1963], p. 120). However, according to Gadamer, we can never


transpose ourselves into the past because we are the children of
our time (Gadamer, 2006a [1960], p. 397; GW I, p. 400). In fact,
when we try to understand a text, we do not place ourselves in
the authors inner state; rather, if one wants to speak of placing
oneself, we place ourselves in his point of view (Gadamer, 1988
[1959]: 69; GW II, p. 58). What Gadamer reproaches in Dilthey is
that his idea of transposition presupposes that we can transcend
the limits imposed by present time, something that is not only
impossible but manifestly incompatible with the fact that we are
ourselves historical beings (for a critical view of Gadamers and
Habermas interpretation of Diltheys theory of re-experiencing
see Harrington, 2001).
According to Gadamer, Diltheys contradiction is also at the
heart of Collingwoods theory of the re-enactment. This theory suggests that historical knowledge is the re-enactment in the historians mind of the thought whose history he is studying
(Collingwood, 1967 [1939], p. 112). In other words, Collingwood
proposes that history is nothing but the re-enactment of past
thought in the historians mind and, therefore, the historians
proper task is penetrating to the thought of the agents whose acts
they are studying (Collingwood, 1949, p. 228). For Gadamer, the
theory of re-enactment is incompatible with Collingwoods thesis
of radical historicism, when he rightly sees [. . .] that the historian
himself is a part of the process he is studying, has his own place in
that process, and can see it only from the point of view which at
this present moment he occupies within it (Gadamer, 2006b
[1965]: p. 515; GW II, p. 397). In Gadamers eyes, Collingwood is
trapped in the same paradox as Dilthey: his thesis of penetrating
into the thought of past agents implies that we as historians can
step outside the historical conditions in which we are situated
and in which we understand (Gadamer, 2006a [1960], p. 368;
GW I, p. 381). This idea is, however, a pure illusion (Gadamer,
2006a [1960], p. 369; GW I, p. 381).
In sum, Gadamers critique of historicism reects his position on
the rst denition of presentism. To begin, Gadamer endorsed the
historicist claim that understanding the past cannot be a matter of
imposing our present views on the historical agents. However, the
call to leave aside the concepts of the present does not mean a naive transportation into the past (Gadamer, 2006a [1960], p. 398;
GW I, p. 400). In fact, it is just a relative demand that has meaning
only in relation to ones own concepts (Gadamer, 2006a [1960], p.
398; GW I, p. 400). The essential point for Gadamer is that we cannot transpose ourselves into the past because we are historical
beings dominated by the ideas and prejudices of our own age.
For this reason, to think historically always involves mediating
between those [past] ideas and ones own thinking (Gadamer,
2006a [1960], p. 398; GW I, p. 401).
3. Gadamer on the inevitable presentism of history
Gadamers view of history assumes that the interpretation of
the past is inevitably inuenced by the present. This perspective
became widespread among historians of science during the
1980s and 1990s, when many of them suggested that history is
unavoidably presentist because the present cannot be expunged
from our account of the past (Pickstone, 1995, p. 208). In the eld
of the history of science, this new denition of presentism as an
inherent condition of historical research was, I argue, a reaction
against the anti-whiggism and the historicism prevalent during
the previous decades. In the rst place, the 1960s and the 1970s
had been the years of consolidation of the history of science as
an academic discipline. In such a context, the attacks on Whiggishness were part of a strategy seeking to establish a critical distance
between the history of science and the teaching and promotion of

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O.M. Abada / Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 42 (2011) 372380

the sciences (Jardine, 2003, p. 128). In other words, antiwhiggism played an essential role in the establishment of
professional standards of scholarship. However, by the 1980s,
many authors argued that the discipline has achieved its maturity
and, therefore, that the doctrinaire anti-whiggism was no longer
necessary (Graham, 1981, p. 4; Nickles, 1995, p. 151). In the second
place, the 1960s and the 1970s had been marked by the historicist
claim that the historian must attempt, insofar as possible, to put
himself literally in his subjects place (Pearce Williams, 1975, p.
246). This commitment posed a fundamental dilemma to the next
generation of professionals: How far can historians go in the reconstruction of the past for its own sake? The exploration of this
question led many historians to realize that the account of the
past [. . .] is inevitably inuenced by the changing present (Hall,
1983. p. 48). In this setting, the ambition of studying the past from
the viewpoint of historical agents was considered as unrealistic
and undesirable (Winsor, 2001, p. 235).
We can distinguish a number of arguments put forward by historians of science during the 1980s and the 1990s to refer to the
present-centredness of historical practice. To begin, many authors
pointed out that the interpretation of the past is conditioned by the
historians language in several ways. First, historians are necessarily limited by the conceptual apparatus available to them (Hull,
1979, p. 6; Hardcastle, 1991, p. 322; Pickstone, 1995, p. 205). In this
sense, historians always impose their linguistic or conceptual
framework upon their accounts of the past (Hardcastle, 1991,
p. 322). Second, historical understanding is a translation process
(Hardcastle, 1991, p. 334). In fact, whether the historical text is
written in a foreign language or in an earlier version of the historians own language, he/she begins by translating their utterances
into his [/her] own language (Hull, 1979, p. 6). For this reason,
presentism appears as an integral part of historical science
(Hardcastle, 1991, pp. 338341). Third, the people about whom
a history is written lived in the past, but the historians and his
readers live in the present (Hull, 1979, p. 5). The historian shares
a language with his/her readers that makes possible for him/her to
communicate successfully with them (Hull, 1979, p. 5). In this
sense, it was suggested that there is an unavoidable presentism
[. . .] in the communication of historical knowledge (Hardcastle,
1991, p. 342). Linguistic arguments were not alone in referring to
the impact of the present upon interpretations of the past. Historians also mentioned a number of additional reasons to explain the
present-centredness of history writing, including that each historian brings with him his own set of biases (Hull, 1979, p. 653);
that historians cannot avoid the burden of superior knowledge
(Hall, 1983, p. 57; see also Tosh, 2003, p. 653) and that selection
has to be at work in the constitution of any and every piece of
investigation; and such selection is necessarily based upon some
prior pattern or set of principles (Wilson & Ashplant, 1988, p. 7).
Most of these arguments were explored in depth by Gadamer in
Truth and Method as well as in several papers. In fact, the idea that
history is present-minded is related to Gadamers primary thesis
that all understanding inevitably involves some prejudice
(Gadamer, 2006a [1960], p. 272; GW I, p. 274). According to
Gadamer, a prejudice is a judgment that is rendered before all
the elements that determine a situation have been nally examined (Gadamer, 2006a [1960], p. 273; GW I, p. 275). Gadamer
distinguishes several ways in which historical interpretations are
prejudiced. In the rst place, he argues that historical understanding is always conditioned by the tradition to which it belongs. This
tradition denes the questions that can be asked and those that are
excluded, the themes to be investigated and the legitimate forms of
understanding. The important point here is that, according to Gadamer, tradition cannot be equated to something belonging to the
past for there is a constant effect (Wirkung) of tradition in the present: We are always situated within traditions, and this is no

objectifying process [. . .] it is always part of us (Gadamer, 2006a


[1960], p. 283; GW I, p. 286). In fact, tradition lives in the present
and it is incorporated in the family, the society and the state in
which we live (Gadamer, 2006a [1960], p. 278; GW I, p. 281). For
this reason, Gadamer argues that historians must recognize the effect of tradition over historical research (or the principle of history
of effect, Gadamer, 2006a [1960], p. 299; GW I, p. 305) and should
inquire about its hermeneutic productivity (Gadamer, 2006a
[1960], p. 284; GW I, p. 287).
In the second place, understanding is always prejudiced by the
language in which it occurs. This is what Gadamer calls the linguisticality of understanding (Gadamer, 2006a [1960], p. 391;
GW I, p. 393), a question to which he devoted the third part of
Truth and Method. Gadamers starting point was that language is
the universal medium in which understanding occurs (Gadamer,
2006a [1960], p. 390; GW I, p. 392). This proposal has a number
of implications. First, it implies the fundamental priority of language or the fact that language forces understanding into particular schematic forms which hem us in (Gadamer, 2006a [1960],
p. 402; GW I, p. 405). Language in other words is always the pregiven content (Gadamer, 1994b [1957], p. 39; GW II, p. 50) of
understanding and therefore, that our interpretations are necessarily constrained by the whole complex of possible meanings in
which we linguistically move (Gadamer, 2006a [1960], p. 397;
GW I, p. 399). Second, the essential relationship between understanding and language also involves that understanding always
includes interpretation (Gadamer, 2006a [1960], p. 400; GW I, p.
403). Gadamer suggests that an objective understanding of a text
is unattainable, but that there are many possible readings related
to the interpreters linguistic universe. For this reason, he claimed
that interpretation as a whole is made up of a thousand little decisions which all claim to be correct (Gadamer, 2006a [1960], p.
402; GW I, p. 404). On this point, Gadamer was certainly not far
from those historians of science who maintained that writing history requires translation [and] translation requires interpretation
(Hull, 1979, p. 8).
In the third place, Gadamer stated the conditionedness of all
knowledge by the historical and social powers that move the present (Gadamer, 1994a [1953], p. 27; GW II, p. 39). This conditionedness explains, for one, the precarious situation of sciences in
Western societies: In a thoroughly organized society [. . .] each
eld of research has to fear for its freedom and even the researcher
in natural sciences knows that it can be hard to establish his
knowledge-claims when they are injurious to the ruling interests.
Pressure from the interests of the economy and society weights
heavily upon science (Gadamer, 1994a [1953], p. 30; GW II, p.
41). This pressure explains why scientists are often tempted to
say [. . .] that the truth is in reality what public opinion or power
interests of the state dictates (Gadamer, 1994b [1957], p. 34;
GW II, p. 44).
Furthermore, interpretations are prejudiced not only by the tradition in which they stand, the language in which they occur, and
the interests of the present in which they emerge, but also by the
way in which understanding works. i.e. by the fore-structure of
understanding (Gadamer, 2006a [1960], p. 268; GW I, p. 270). This
modus operandi is also called the hermeneutical circle or the circular structure of understanding. Following Heidegger, Gadamer
establishes that a person who is trying to understand a text is always projecting. He projects a meaning for the text as a whole as
soon as some initial meaning emerges in the text. The initial meaning emerges only because he is reading the text with particular
expectations in regard to a certain meaning (Gadamer, 2006a
[1960], p. 269; GW I, p. 271). Stated differently, understanding always begins with fore-conceptions that are revised and replaced
by more adequate ones, i.e. by interpretations that are borne out by
the object of interpretation itself. In short, understanding operates

O.M. Abada / Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 42 (2011) 372380

by proposing and revising, in a back-and-forth movement, projections of meaning that have their origins in the interpreters own
prejudices.
In sum, Gadamers thesis that all interpretation is prejudiced led
him to explore many of the arguments put forward by the historians of science about the present-mindedness of historical research.
However, there is a fundamental difference between Gadamer and
most of these historians concerning the very meaning of this present-centredness. In fact, historians have the tendency to conceptualize this sort of presentism as an obstacle for attaining historical
knowledge. For instance, they refer to the present-centredness of
historical research as a far wider set of problems inherent in the
activities of each and every historian (Wilson & Ashplant, 1988,
p.11), as something that cannot be totally eliminated of the historical accounts of the past (Mayr, 1990, p. 6) and as the origin of a
misapprehension consisting in looking at the past with both eyes
in the present (Cunnigham, 1988, p. 367). Some of these historians
argue that until the historian can, in some way, get out of the
present, then the history he or she produces can never be (or be
known to be) authentically about the past and true to what happened in the past (Cunningham, 1988, p. 367). Other authors suggest that present-centredness of this sort should not be regarded
as a problem [for] its methodological consequences are minimal
(Tosh, 2003, p. 647). In this case, presentism is not considered
an ultimate obstacle for historical research, but remains conceptualized as a constraint or limitation of historical knowledge.
Gadamer differs from these authors for he considers the conditionedness of understanding as a productive possibility for historical research. Gadamer argues there is no interpretation which does
not bring into play the interpreters own prejudices, whether or not
we are conscious of these or are so arrogant as to think we can begin without presupposition (Palmer, 2001, p. 45). For this reason,
Gadamer stresses the need for self-understanding: The important
thing is to be aware of ones own bias (Gadamer, 2006a [1970], p.
271; GW I, p. 274). The recognition of the conditionedness of
understanding does not mean, however, that historians are denitively constrained or limited by their own preconceptions. On
the contrary, the concept of prejudice is where we can start
(Gadamer, 2006a [1960], p. 273; GW I, p. 276). On this point, Gadamer distances himself of the normative denition of prejudice as
an unfavorable opinion formed beforehand or without reason. In
fact, Gadamers aim was to restore to its rightful place a positive
concept of prejudice (Gadamer, 1976 [1966], p. 9, GW II, p. 224).
According to Gadamer, prejudice does not necessarily mean a
false judgment, but [. . .] it can have either a positive or a negative
value (Gadamer, 2006a [1960], p. 273; GW I, p. 275). Gadamer distinguishes then between false prejudices (i.e. beliefs without basis
that, when confronting to the object of interpretation, are discarded) and legitimate prejudices (i.e. preconceptions that are
conrmed by the object of interpretation itself). In so doing, Gadamer is not only suggesting that there are genuine prejudices
but, more importantly, that these presumptions are the very condition of historical understanding. There is a signicant difference
here between the historians of science and Gadamer. While the
former often seek to neutralize [their] own preconceptions (Hull,
1979, p. 7), the latter states that the constant task of understanding is to work out the proper, objectively appropriate projections
(Gadamer, 1988 [1959], p. 72; GW II, p. 60). In other words, for
Gadamer, the historians aim is not, as David Hull suggests, to decrease the bias that ones own conceptual scheme can introduce
(Hull, 1979, p. 7), but to nd out which of his/her pre-opinions
are genuine, i.e. are conrmed by the things themselves
(Gadamer, 2006a [1960], p. 270; GW I, p. 272).
Another fundamental difference between Gadamer and the historians of science refers to the meaning of the temporal distance
separating the past from the present. Historians of science have

377

the tendency to conceptualize the temporal distance either (a) as


a gulf that historians need to bridge in order to understand the
past, or (b) as a barrier that historians cannot overcome for being
imprisoned in their present. In the rst case, historians seek to
understand the past, as completely as possible, in its own terms
(Jones, 1974, p. 355). In the second case, historians state that
the discipline is inherently present-centred [for] its boundaries
are determined, in part, by judgements inaccessible to the historical actors (Tosh, 2003, p. 647). In both cases, the temporal distance is negatively connoted. This view contrasts with Gadamers
thesis of the hermeneutic productivity of temporal distance
(Zeitenabstand),
Time is no longer primarily a gulf to be bridge because it separates; it is actually the supportive ground of course of events 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 transpose ourselves into the spirit of the age [. . .] In fact the important thing
is to recognize temporal distance as a positive and productive
condition enabling understanding (Gadamer, 2006a [1960], p.
297; GW I, p. 302).
The productivity of temporal distance is twofold. In the rst
place, as Paul Ricur has pointed out, the reason for the fecundity
of temporal distance is the persistence of the effects of the events
themselves in spite of and across the distance, persistence that
Gadamer refers to by means of the phrase history of effect (Ricur, 2002, p. 239). For Gadamer, the distance separating the past
from the present is not an empty abyss, but it is lled with the continuity of custom and tradition. For this reason, he argues that the
study of an historical event is not only concerned with the analysis
of the event itself, but also with the exam of its effects in history.
This continuity between the historical event and its subsequent effects leads Gadamer to speak of the genuine productive of the
course of events (Gadamer, 2006a [1960], p. 297; GW I, p. 302).
In the second place, the productivity of the temporal distance also
lies in the fact that it permits us to distinguish the true prejudices,
by which we understand, from the false ones, by which we misunderstand (Gadamer, 2006a [1960], p. 298; GW I, p. 304). The temporal distance allows us to designate our opinions and prejudices
and qualify them as such and, in so doing, it grants the text the
opportunity [. . .] to manifest its own truth, over and against our
own preconceived notions (Gadamer, 1979 [1963], p. 152). For
this reason, Gadamer argues that the historians task does not consist in covering up the tension [between the present and the past]
by attempting a naive assimilation of the two but in consciously
bringing it out (Gadamer, 2006a [1960], p. 303; GW I, p. 309).
He argues that historians must renounce to the naive dream of
transposing themselves into the past. Instead, they have to bring
to light the differences between the present and the past or, in
Gadamers words, between the interpreters prejudices and the
texts claim to truth.
To undertake such a task, Gadamer proposes the concepts of
situation and horizon. According to Gadamer, all understanding
occurs in the hermeneutical situation, i.e. the situation in which
the interpreter nds himself/herself with regards to the text that
he/she is trying to understand. In the case of historical understanding, the idea of situation is correlative to that of horizon.
Gadamer denes this term as the range of vision that includes
everything that can be seen from a particular vantage point
(Gadamer, 2006a [1960], p. 301; GW I, p. 307). He then distinguishes between the horizon of the present (Gadamer, 2006a
[1960], p. 305; GW I, p. 311) and the horizon of the past (Gadamer, 2006a [1960], p. 303; GW I, p. 309). The former refers to
the standpoint from which the historian sees the past, and the

378

O.M. Abada / Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 42 (2011) 372380

latter to the historical context from which the past text speaks. At
this point, it is important to remember that for Gadamer the idea of
a horizon that is supposed to enclose a culture is an abstract concept (Gadamer, 2006a [1960], p. 303; GW I, p. 309). In fact, he
argues that the continuity between the past and the present makes
it impossible to consider the existence of well-dened horizons.
Furthermore, horizons cannot be clearly delimited for they are always in motion, i.e. they are something into which we move and
that moves with us (Gadamer, 2006a [1960], p. 303; GW I, p. 309).
Therefore, Gadamers distinction between past and present horizons does not refer to two separate entities but, rather, to the
experience of a tension between the text and the present
(Gadamer, 2006a [1960], p. 305; GW I, p. 311). This experience occurs in the hermeneutical situation in which the historian stands
between the strangeness of the text and the familiarity of his/her
viewpoint. The task of historical understanding is, precisely, to
mediate between strangeness and familiarity, between past and
present: Then and today are mediated in the researchers workthe historical heritage with which he or she is dealing is mediated
through his or her own present time (Palmer, 2001, p. 48). This
process of mediation is what Gadamer calls fusion of horizons
(Horizontverschmelzung, GW I, p. 380). Such kind of fusion involves
the formation of a new context of meaning in which the interpreter
is able to integrate what is otherwise foreign. In this sense, the new
horizon is neither that of the present nor that of the past, but it is a
new space dened by the agreement between the present and the
past. This agreement, which can only be reached through the
medium of language (Gadamer, 1994b [1957] 45; GW II, p. 56),
constitutes genuine understanding.
4. Conclusions
I have sought to demonstrate in this article that there are significant similarities between Gadamers philosophical hermeneutics
and the prevalent discourse of the historians of science on presentism. For instance, Gadamer shared with the new historians
of the 1960s the antipathy towards any kind of history that judge
the past to legitimize the present. Similarly, he agreed with those
historians of science who, during the 1980s and 1990s, established
the unavoidable role of the present in constituting historical
knowledge. However, there also exist important differences in
the ways in which Gadamer and the historians of science thought
about the relationship between the present and the past. For example, Gadamer calls into question the historicist ideal, so widespread
among most historians of science during the 1960s, of studying the
past for its own sake. Similarly, Gadamer differs from the historians of science of the 1980s and the 1990s on the meaning of the
inuence of the present in the interpretation of the past. Gadamer
argues that historians present-centredness is not an obstacle for
attaining historical knowledgeas many historians of science suggestbut a condition of historical research.
Given these analogies and differences, one can legitimately
wonder why Gadamers work is rarely invoked by historians of science and, vice versa, why Gadamer never became interested in historiographical debates concerning presentism. The answer to the
rst question is likely related to the reception of Gadamers work in
England and the United States, the countries in which discussions
on presentism have been more intense. In fact, the reception [of
Truth and Method] in the English speaking world was slowed and
complicated by the fact that the work was rst published in English translation in 1975 and that this rst [. . .] edition was marred
by numerous errors and omission (Dostal, 2002, p. 4). Furthermore, Gadamers thought has had a much broader impact on philosophy, literary theory, theology and biblical criticism than on
the eld of the history of science. In this latter area, the problem

of interpretation is often invoked with little or no explicit mention


of philosophical hermeneutics. For instance, in 1977, Thomas Kuhn
argued that, consciously or not, historians of science are all practitioners of the hermeneutic method (Kuhn, 1977, p. xiii). However, he immediately added that, in his own case, the term
hermeneutic [. . .] was no part of my vocabulary as recently as ve
years ago (Kuhn, 1977, p. xv). The divide between the AngloAmerican and the Continental philosophical traditions explains,
according to Kuhn, the minor impact of hermeneutics among the
English-speaking historians of science. The second question refers
to Gadamers lack of interest in historiographical debates on presentism. This situation is probably related to Gadamers view of the
history of science. According to Gadamer, if we examine the history
of research, we note the difference between the human and natural sciences with regard to their history (Gadamer, 2006a [1960],
p. 284; GW I, p. 288). In the case of the human sciences, Gadamer
argues that we cannot speak of an object of research in the same
sense as in the natural science for the theme and object of research are actually constituted by the motivation of the inquiry
(Gadamer, 2006a [1960], p. 285; GW I, p. 289). For this reason,
the history of human sciences cannot be understood teleologically
in terms of the objet into which it is inquiring (Gadamer, 2006a
[1960], p. 285; GW I, p. 289). The case of the natural sciences is,
however, different. Gadamer argues that the history of natural sciences can be adequately described in terms of the concept of progress. While Gadamer does not deny that certain elements of
tradition -such particular lines of research- can eventually affect
the natural sciences, he clearly states that research in these sciences derives the law of its development not from these circumstances but from the law of the object it is investigating
(Gadamer, 2006a [1960], p. 284; GW I, p. 288). For this reason,
It is not just historical naivete when the natural scientists
write the history of his subjects in terms of the present state
of knowledge. For him errors and wrongs turnings are of historical interest only, because the progress of research is the selfevident standard of examination. Thus it is only of secondary
interest to see how advances in the natural sciences or in mathematics belong to the moment in history in which they took
place (Gadamer, 2006a [1960], p. 284; GW I, p. 288).
Gadamers whig interpretation of the history of natural sciences
explains, up to a point, his lack of interest in the history of science.
In fact, he considered that for the history of science the hermeneutical problem was of less consequence than for the human sciences.
For this reason, and even if he was certainly aware that the publication of Thomas Kuhns work had called into question the Whig
model (Gadamer, 2006a [1960], p. 374; GW I, p. 288; see also Gadamer, 1979 [1963], p. 109), he paid little attention to debates on
presentism.
Despite the lack of communication between Gadamer and historians of science, I am persuaded that philosophical hermeneutics
can provide historians of science with new ideas and perspectives
to think about presentism. In the rst place, Gadamer explored
many of the arguments put forward by the historians of science
to refer to the different dimensions of presentism. For instance,
during the 1980s many historians of science argued that historical
knowledge is linguistically determined. In particular, they often
evoked W. v. O. Quines thesis of the indeterminacy of translation
to demonstrate that the meaning of a text is always conditioned by
the interpreters language (e.g. Hardcastle, 1991). As I have mentioned in this paper, Gadamer put forward a very similar argument
in Truth and Method. However, his idea concerning the fundamental priority of language did not come from analytical philosophy,
but from the hermeneutical tradition. In particular, it was related
to Friedrich Schleiermachers romantic hermeneutics and,

O.M. Abada / Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 42 (2011) 372380

especially, to Heideggers idea that language speaks (die Sprache


spricht). As this example illustrates, Gadamers hermeneutics can
help historians to explore, from a different standpoint, some of
the arguments they put forward in the presentist debate. In the
second place, I have argued elsewhere that there is a historians
way to think about presentism, i.e. a recurrent way to approach
this question in the eld of the history of science (Moro Abada,
2009, p. 69). This approach is dened by the tension between the
two dimensions of presentism that I have explored in this paper.
In the 1960s, most historians reacted against the view of the history of science as the inevitable conquest of error by truth. Instead,
they called for an approach seeking to understand past scientists in
their historical context. This claim posed the problem of how far
historians can go in their aspiration to put themselves in the historical agents position. The examination of such a question made
the next generation of historians fully aware of the presentcentredness of the historical knowledge. This historians way to
approach the question of presentism is dened by a number of
traits, including the acceptance of the historicist ideal of understanding the past in its own terms (whatever that might mean),
the denition of the temporal distance as a gulf that historians
need to bridge in order understand the past, and the conceptualization of historians present-mindedness as an obstacle to attain
genuine historical knowledge. As we have seen in this paper, Gadamers philosophy is dened by calling into question some of these
tenets. For instance, he rejects the historicist claim to show what
actually happened (wie es eigentlich gewesen). Similarly, he criticizes the representation of the temporal distance between the
present and the past as an abyss that historians need to bridge.
In other words, Gadamer calls into question many of the historians
axioms concerning historical interpretation. In this sense, philosophical hermeneutics can encourage historians of science to think
about the very meaning of the principles structuring their ideas
and practices. This constructive criticism can be, I suggest, the
main contribution of Gadamers hermeneutics to the history of
science.
Acknowledgements
Research for this paper was supported by Memorial University of
Newfoundland (Canada) and the Instituto de Filosofa, CCHS-CSIC
(Spain, Project: Una nueva losofa de la historia para una nueva
Europa, HUM: 2005-02006/FISO). The author thanks Concha
Roldn for her invitation to discuss this paper at the Instituto de
Filosofa (Madrid). The nal version has beneted from the comments of those who participated in that seminar, especially Johannes
Robbeck, Thomas Gil, Antonio Gmez Ramos and Jean Leveque. The
author especially thanks James Bradley (Memorial University of
Newfoundland), Maria G. Navarro (University of Amsterdam) and
Antonio Gmez Ramos (Universidad Carlos III) for their critical reading of the manuscript. The author dedicates this article to Claude
Blanckaert and Alain Schnapp for their constant support.
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