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diacritics 33.3/4 (2003) 19-35

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Of Horizons and Epistemology

Problems in the Visuality of Knowledge

The philosophical concept of horizon has had a varied life in twentieth-century German thought. Phenomenology, hermeneutics, and reader-response theory have all drawn upon the visual vocabulary of horizon to clear ground for new critical programs. Engaging and often contradicting one another, questioning or relying on assumptions about visual processes introduced by the concept, these currents of German thought have used horizon to give form to debates about human understanding. But in employing horizons to make the conjunction between the optical and the epistemological, between seeing and knowing, Edmund Husserl and Hans-Georg Gadamer, German thinkers of the tradition that concerns us here, revisit problems encountered by Renaissance painters when they used horizons to model their understanding of the optical image.

What Italian painters called "l'orrizonte," known today as the vanishing point, the pictorial space toward which represented objects recede to produce the illusion of depth, was more than a technical problem in the sixteenth-century Italian art world. Weighing in on a simmering debate about where a horizon should be placed in a relief of the Annunciation at a Milanese cathedral, master architect Vignola suggested, "[i]n my opinion, I would place the vanishing point not as low as it should lie according to reason, but rather higher, in order for the work not to slant too much—though I rely on your moderation and good judgment" [qtd. in Panofsky 145; my translation]. Articulated to reason (ragione), discretion (discrezione), and judgment (giudizio), as Vignola tells us, horizontal images gave form to Renaissance debates about representation and understanding. How and where to put horizons, or more technically, how to represent visual experience, was a fundamental problem of understanding for it meant not only representing objects but, as Palladio, like Vignola another Milanese expert, argues, it also meant knowing the "natura delle cose" [qtd. in Panofsky 143].1

Nearly four centuries after Vignola, we hear in Hans-Georg Gadamer's Truth and Method inflections of the earlier Italian debate about the relationship between correct horizons and understanding. Speaking from the context of philosophical hermeneutics, Gadamer writes:

"to have a horizon" means not being limited to what is nearby but being able to see beyond it. A person who has an horizon knows the relative significance of everything within this horizon, whether it is near or far, great or small. Similarly, working out the hermeneutical situation means acquiring the right horizon of inquiry.
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While drawing on the same visual language, the problems of representation that motivated the Italian debate are absent from Gadamer's formulation of the philosophical concept of horizon. But present are the connections between horizon and good judgment (buon giudizio), knowing "the relative significance" of things, as Gadamer puts it. Present are the crucial associations between having the "right horizon" and achieving understanding, knowing the "natura delle cose."

Though addressing related concerns, Gadamer's consideration of horizon does not draw directly on the Italian masters; rather, he builds on the conceptual foundation put down by Edmund Husserl in his Ideas: Introduction to Pure Phenomenology. Husserl developed horizon as a philosophical tool to enable his phenomenological investigations of the structure of experience. Adapting horizon from a phenomenological to a hermeneutical category, Gadamer employed it to give his account of the process of understanding. Husserl's phenomenology and Gadamer's hermeneutics are twentieth-century reexaminations of experience and knowledge that rely heavily on the conceptual work done by the horizontal image. Enabled by horizon, phenomenology and hermeneutics have provoked serious rethinking of the nature and source of knowledge in the humanities.

This article is an essay about horizons, or, better, it is about debates concerning the relationship between experience and knowledge that take the concept of horizon as their central image. How can we be sure that knowledge arising from subjective experience is objective and true? The works examined below address this fundamental epistemological problem through the concept of horizon. What follows is a comparative study of...