The following post is by Cynthia R. Nielsen. She is currently a doctoral student at the University of Dallas and an adjunct professor of philosophy at Eastfield Community College. Cynthia blogs at percaritatem.com.
According to Gadamer, experience, including hermeneutic experience, is a process which is essentially negative. By “negative,” he means that our expectations of what something is or means are regularly disappointed and disconfirmed. But if we begin with an expectation, a hope, then hope is always prior to experience and is its condition. As we move through our disappointments and struggle to understand—in light of our shattered expectations or dislodged assumptions and biases—the person or subject at hand, new expectations/hopes arise. Thus, hope both precedes and follows disappointment and disconfirmation. Experience, as Gadamer understands it, is characterized by alternating cycles of hope and disappointment, which is why it should be understood as a process rather than a staticized end. Gadamer is not denying that our experience of history leads to (historical) knowledge. However, as Weinsheimer explains, “in his consideration of hermeneutic experience he is concerned to reverse the normal line of thought—that is, he conceives of knowledge in terms of experience and process rather than conceiving of experience in terms of knowledge and result” (Gadamer’s Hermeneutics, 202). The theory of induction is an example of experience conceived in terms of result or conceived teleologically. For example, I look for patterns in my experience that produce the same results. When I do X, Y results. From various similar experiences, I abstract a general concept that now applies to all such experiences. Thus, the need for further experiences of this kind is eliminated. Weinsheimer puts it nicely,
“Inductive experience is fulfilled in the knowledge of the concept—which, in both senses, is the end of experience. Thus, in the teleological view, experience finds its fulfillment in its extinction. The theory of induction implies that confirmation is the primary and most important aspect of experience. The process of experience is essentially an experience of repetition and the identity of experiences” (Gadamer’s Hermeneutics, 202).
Instead of an exclusive focus on confirmation as the important element of experience, Gadamer highlights the disappointments and disconfirmations of experience (which is not to exclude the role of confirmation) in order to show how “the negativity of experience has a curiously productive meaning.” Here Gadamer follows Hegel in affirming the dialectical character of experience. For Hegel, “experience has the structure of a reversal of consciousness,” and this reversal results in the emergence of a new object, as we come to see that our former understanding was either misguided or inadequate. This new object is not entirely new, however, because it “contains the truth about the old one” (Truth and Method, 354). Yet, both the original understanding and the object encountered change, which also means that we change. Up to this point, Gadamer agrees with Hegel’s account of experience. However, he rejects Hegel’s idea that “conscious experience should lead to a self-knowledge that no longer has anything other than or alien to itself” (Truth and Method, 355). For Hegel, the goal of experience is knowledge, and “his criterion of experience is self-knowledge. That is why the dialectic of experience must end in that overcoming of all experience which is attained in absolute knowledge—i.e., in the complete identity of consciousness and object” (Truth and Method, 355). As we’ve seen, for Gadamer experience does not find its consummation in something that overcomes or staticizes it; rather, experience is a process and the experienced person is not someone who already fully possesses knowledge or even knows more that others. He is
“someone who is radically undogmatic; who, because of the many experiences he has had and the knowledge he has drawn from them, is particularly well equipped to have new experiences and to learn from them. The dialectic of experience has its proper fulfillment not in definitive knowledge but in the openness to experience that is made possible by experience itself” (Truth and Method, 355).
Experience in this sense is tied to what it means to be a historical, finite being. It means having one’s expectations upset, overturned, unsettled. Gadamer is not expressing a pessimistic view of life; he is highlighting the fact that experience and growth by way of experience—so long as we maintain an attitude of openness—involves constant confrontations with our own assumptions and convictions. When confronted with new information about a person or event, or when we are able to genuinely “see” an issue or subject matter from a different perspective, we put ourselves at risk. Why? We allow questions to be put to us, questions that can expose our own (negative) biases and misguided assumptions. Putting ourselves at risk in this way means that we are open to exposure, open to considering what it means, for example, that we hold certain views about people group X. The realization that we have been operating under counterfeit assumptions, and the uprooting and relinquishing of our former beliefs that follows, is, though necessary, often unpleasant. If we are honest, it’s actually painful. Yet, if Gadamer is right, and experience (including hermeneutical experience) is characterized by repeating cycles of hope and disappointment, then hope is on the horizon and awaits a new “fusion.”
 Weinsheimer, Joel C. Gadamer’s Hermeneutics: A Reading of Truth and Method. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985), 202.
 Gadamer, Hans-Georg. 2004. Truth and Method, 2nd ed. trans. and rev. Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall. (New York: Continuum), 353.