My dissertation, Hermeneutics of the Mitwelt: The Concept of the Political World in Arendt and Gadamer, is concerned with the interrelation of politics, culture, and tradition in Hannah Arendt’s phenomenology of the political world. Drawing on the work of Hans-Georg Gadamer, I argue that Arendt’s concept of the political world belies a hermeneutical ontology, and presupposes, implicitly, hermeneutical concepts of tradition and culture, which serve to mediate her distinction between the purely productive (work) and the purely political (action/speech). The political world is the hermeneutical space within which what is reified in culture and passed down in tradition is deliberated and judged by a plural community, in dialogue with each other within a shared public realm.
Arendt’s primary emphasis in The Human Condition is the novelty of individual action, but she also insists that actions take place before others, who serve as narrators and storytellers. It is only because of this corollary process of interpretation that actions, otherwise ephemeral, can become meaningful contributions to the fabric of the political world, outliving their agents and serving as the basis for historical continuity. She goes so far as to say that judgments about the world and about action result in culture, which occupies the space between the political world and the fabricated world. Despite the importance of this interpretive activity, it remains underdeveloped in Arendt’s work. What is the relationship between action and interpretation of an action by others? And further, how is it that these “stories” or narratives come to constitute culture and thereby contextualize future action and interpretation?
On this point, Hans-Georg Gadamer’s hermeneutical philosophy is a helpful resource. The first question above deals with the possibility of dialogical understanding: How does understanding overcome difference without reducing it to the same? And the second deals with tradition: How does the present world and present action relate to the world and actions of the past? Thus reformulated, these questions reveal why Gadamer’s hermeneutics is well-positioned to fill out a phenomenology of the political world: it accounts for understanding with the context of dialogue, and, skeptical of emancipatory accounts of knowledge, recognizes historical tradition as determinative for present-day understanding. By revisiting Gadamer’s phenomenological account of the appropriation of tradition and dialogical understanding, this project both expands on the latent hermeneutical elements in Arendt’s political theory, and develops the political ramifications of Gadamer’s hermeneutics, insofar as it describes the way various traditions within a given political community interact and come to constitute dominant meanings, narratives, and discourse.