On being more than we are: reflections on Gadamer’s use of Bildung

I feel like so much of my life is an attempt to reattempt. From a skeptical perspective I could see this as little more than failure. I’ll choose instead to see it as a willingness to learn. I remember a day when I was starting to get serious about mountain biking. I was with a group of riders whose technical skills were beyond mine, and we had just embarked on a cross country path that was riddled with roots and stones. There was a large rock to the left of the trail that could have easily been avoided, but I tried to ride over and hop off of it. I fell on the first couple attempts, and a few members of the group stayed to see if I could pull it off. After 3 or 4 more attempts they encouraged me to just move on and forget about it, but I was now angry and determined. I told them I would catch up. Twenty minutes later I was still trying to clear the same rock. Each time I would fall, pick myself up, walk the bike back, remount it, and try again. I had smashed my right hand to the point where it was hard to work the brakes and hold the bike steady. I had long left rationality behind as I blindly repeated the same futile pattern. I can’t now recall if my friend came back to force me out of my insanity or if I gave up on my own, but I never did clear it. Were I there now I would try it again.

In On Music and Passion I start by saying there are works I’ve started countless times, never to finish. Gadamer’s Truth and Method is one of those. Curiously, I feel like I have an advantage now that I did not have when I first attempted it, one that is counter-intuitive. He incorporates a great deal of historical analysis into his writing, and at the time I was somewhat familiar with many of the writers he referenced: Dilthey, Herder, Hemholtz, Kant, Hegel, etc. I fell into (what I see now as) the trap of taking each reference as a call to go back to the original source, to make sure I understood each thinker on his own, on my own. That way I could judge Gadamer’s argument better, for if he were misreading his sources I would have an easy way to counter him. I would subsequently lose myself in their texts (often ones that had little to do with what led me to them in the first place), only to repeat the same mistake: for they too would reference thinkers that I felt compelled to go back and read. All the while I never realized I was simply aiming my bike at so many impassable rocks, never progressing down the trail I started on.

Now, many years later, I realize that I don’t have the faintest idea what Herder and Helmholtz said, and only the foggiest of Kant and Hegel. And yet there is something liberating about it, for as I read Gadamer I’m now, perhaps for the first time, paying attention to him. Not that I necessarily understand him; I’m certain I barely do. But I have a sense of the path, and at the very least of what to avoid along the way. This is not to say a deep knowledge of the writers he bases his arguments on is without value. I firmly believe such a reading would be infinitely more useful than mine. But given where I am, not to me. We must start where we are and glean what we can with what we have. Where comprehensiveness is wanting we must rely on acuity, and not a little guesswork.


This prelude is also to the point at hand, for I found myself intrigued by Gadamer’s discussion of Bildung. He is concerned with freeing the human sciences from the model of natural science that took hold in the 19th century, and it is his starting point: “The concept of Bildungmost clearly indicates the profound intellectual change that still causes us to experience the century of Goethe as contemporary, whereas the baroque era appears historically remote.” (9) Many of us with whom this resonates take terms like “art, history, the creative, worldview, experience, genius, external world, interiority, expression, style, symbol” as “self-evident”, without realizing the “wealth of history” behind them. (10) Or to put it another way, through the movement of Bildung, whether we’re familiar with the term or not, we may find ourselves drawn to works from periods of history or other cultures without even understanding what it is that draws us.

Gadamer gives Herder’s basic definition of Bildung as a starting point: “rising up to humanity through culture.” (10) Of course, that’s much nicer than the vague notion I’ve always had of it being a kind of self-development, though it presents many problems at the outset. What is the ideal of humanity, is it something like a Platonic form? Is it singular, such that all people should, in the end, come out in the same place? Is it attainable by all people, or, as is often the case with these ideas, really geared toward the philosophers and mystics? Why the metaphor of rising, does that suggest (again) a Platonic notion of the visible world being somehow a shadow and reflection of a higher ideal world, and thus, less true, less real, less valuable? And what exactly is culture? Do we distinguish between high and low culture, popular and refined, and all the modernist baggage that goes along with it? And yet, there is something powerful, even seductive, about this starting point. Something that makes one want to at least make the attempt, if only to see the definition fail.

While the concept is certainly connected with a basic idea of developing one’s talents and capacities, it is not limited to that, and in some key ways, is significantly different. There is a mystical element reaching back to the idea of the imago dei in each person, and the need to let it transform one’s life. This process, this reconciliation between our lives as they are and what they should be, is its own end. Unlike developing a talent, the goal of which is to be used for some other purpose, Bildung serves itself by serving our very nature. Though he doesn’t mention it, it’s hard to not think of Aristotle’s argument that happiness is the only goal that is both final and self-sufficient. If Bildung is final, it would make it a close second to, and foundation of, happiness. As such the process is continual. It is less like a finished state and more like an orientation, but more on that later. The last thing to note here is that this involves a kind of preservation of the elements in our lives that shape us: “In Bildung, by contrast, that by which and through which one is formed becomes completely one’s own. To some extent everything that is received is absorbed, but in Bildung what is absorbed is not like a means that has lost its function. Rather, in acquired Bildung nothing disappears, but everything is preserved.” (11) What does this transformation look like? How are these events preserved in us as they change us? If this is true then there is something both mysterious and beautiful about it.


To say there needs to be a reconciliation between our lives as they are now and how they should be is to suggest a break: “Man is characterized by the break with the immediate and the natural that the intellectual, rational side of his nature demands of him. ’In this sphere he is not, by nature, what he should be’—and hence he needs Bildung.” (12) It’s tempting to think that only those of a more reflective sort keenly feel this break and then spend their lives wrestling with a way to mend it. But I wonder if that’s not true. That is, isn’t it more likely that almost everyone feels this break at some point in their lives, if not often, but have different ways of reconciling it? I’m thinking of Peirce’s four models in “The Fixation of Belief” (see my summary here). Some may come to a point in their lives where, upon feeling the break again, bury their heads in the sand and tell themselves they way things are is fine—the break, and thus the danger—is not real. Others will let those in authority resolve the dichotomy for them, be that parents, teachers, religious guides or even a sense of fate. The more reflective sort, then, simply deal with it in one of the remaining two ways (the a priori being more sophisticated, but based on the same flaws as the more popular methods). All that is to say, I’d wager that most people are familiar with the break that precedes Bildung, but fewer there are that see this as a way to bridge the gap. Even then, I’m loathe to say the majority do not themselves have a concepts of humanity and culture and a way to rise to who they are really meant to be, and this will serve as a necessary check against falling into the philosopher’s trap of seeing contemplation as the true means and goal.

Gadamer sees this by not limiting Bildung to our theoretical lives alone. Instead, it is found in both the practical and theoretical sides of rationality. On the practical side, addressing the break requires a sacrifice of our particularity, a restraint of our desire. This seems counter-intuitive at first, for how can one develop through sacrificing and restraining her very individuality, even if only in small ways? This is because at the heart of Bildung is our ability to find ourselves in a new way by losing ourselves (in a sense) to something else, something universal. In this sense even one’s profession has an element of Bildung to it. Work requires us to set our desires and particularity aside for something greater, even if it’s something we enjoy:

Work is restrained desire. In forming the object—that is, in being selflessly active and concerned with a universal—working consciousness raises itself above the immediacy of its existence to universality; or, as Hegel puts it, by forming the thing it forms itself. What he means is that in acquiring a “capacity,” a skill, man gains the sense of himself. What seemed denied him in the selflessness of serving, inasmuch as he subjected himself to a frame of mind that was alien to him, becomes part of him inasmuch as he is working consciousness. As such he finds in himself his own frame of mind, and it is quite right say of work that it forms. (13)

In this way “every profession has something about it of fate, of external necessity; it demands that one give oneself to tasks that one would not seek out as a private aim”. (13) And yet, it is precisely in this setting aside of what we think we need that are able to be formed in ways we would have never imagined. That which stands before us as a limit is allowed to constrain us, but by incorporating us into a new universal returns us to ourselves as those without the original limit. This reconciliation with ourselves through that which is foreign (in this case, the demands of work), is at the heart of both kinds of Bildung and is what drives us toward its theoretical expression if we’re open to it:

Theoretical Bildung leads beyond what man knows and experiences immediately. It consists in learning to affirm what is different from oneself and to find universal viewpoints from which one can grasp the thing, “the objective thing in its freedom,” without selfish interest. That is why acquiring Bildung always involves the development of theoretical interests….To recognize one’s own in the alien, to become at home in it,is the basic movement of spirit, whose being consists only in returning to itself from what is other. (14)

Gadamer believes we do not have to be tied to Hegel’s notion of absolute spirit for this to be true, nor share his prejudice for the classical era. And yet it’s hard not to be drawn to both. The jump from a belief in our own spirits to that of absolute spirit is alluring, if not irresistible. Similarly, it is hard to not elevate the classical thinkers to a realm far above our own, if for no other reason than that they have endured, and it is to them that countless generations have returned and continue to return. (Which would argue for something like Bloom’s notion of canon, to which I am partial.) But we do not have to commit to that much. All that is required is an other that is far enough removed to allow us to find ourselves in it and return to ourselves in a new way.

What does it mean then that that which is acquired through Bildung is preserved? It is incorporated, in both a literal and metaphorical sense, and in such a way that it is adapted to our nature. This adaptation is not a simple reproduction or record, but something more like a fusion, in which the universal transforms our individuality, producing something new. It is not that we approach life and record our experiences the way a computer stores data. Rather, our very experience of it, if we are open (and perhaps even if we are not?), alters the very matrix of our being. To this degree memory must be seen not as a mere faculty of accurately capturing so much data for later recall, but as an act of appropriation, in which our ability to forget is as important as that to recollect:

Memory must be formed; for memory is not memory for anything and everything. One has a memory for some things, and not for others; one wants to preserve one thing in memory and banish another. It is time to rescue the phenomenon of memory from being regarded merely as a psychological faculty and to see it as an essential element of the finite historical being of man. In a way that has long been insufficiently noticed, forgetting is closely related to keeping in mind and remembering; forgetting is not merely an absence and a lack but, as Nietzsche in particular pointed out, a condition of the life of mind. Only by forgetting does the mind have the possibility of total renewal, the capacity to see everything with fresh eyes, so that what is long familiar fuses with the new into a many leveled unity. (16)

I am often struck by how awful my memory is, at least in the sense of mechanical recall. And even the things I think I remember I find are really just a fantastic reworking of what others would say occurred (cf. Didion’s “On Keeping a Notebook”). But if Gadamer is right this is how it must be. That which I forget I forget for a reason. This is not to say it would do me no good to remember. But perhaps it is only good to “remember” when it actually occurs, when I am open to it. Memory demands receptivity, vulnerability. To remember is to embrace the limits that the memory imposes. A forced memory is just a projection. How much of our lives are wasted in just this way?

Gadamer sees memory as a kind of sense, not unlike vision:

The universal viewpoints to which the cultivated man (gebildet) keeps himself open are not a fixed applicable yardstick, but are present to him only as the viewpoints of possible others. Thus the cultivated consciousness has in fact more the character of a sense. For every sense—e.g., the sense of sight—is already universal in that it embraces its sphere, remains open to a particular field, and grasps the distinctions within what is opened to it in this way. In that such distinctions are confined to one particular sphere at a time, whereas cultivated consciousness is active in all directions, such consciousness surpasses all of the natural sciences. It is a universal sense. (17)

The viewpoints of possible others…If this is right, and let’s pretend it is, then Bildung is more of a disposition than anything. It’s a receptivity, a willingness, a (shall we say it? are we ashamed to?) passivity. But not of the defeatist kind. Something more like a Daoist sensitivity to the movement of life—an openness that requires the greatest strength.


Is this an attempt to trace the outline of Bildung or is it mere temptation to want to believe it to be true? (cf. Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, §42). I accept either. I have to believe there is a purpose, a way to grow beyond the seeming banality of events. It’s not simply a question of doing good in this life, but of being good, being better, being something greater than what we feel ourselves to be now.

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