I grew up just outside of Minneapolis, Minnesota in its northwest suburbs. Throughout my childhood, I would excitedly climb into the car ready for a trip to “the city.” I can still close my eyes and see the twist of the highway that would reveal the sparkling cityscape of Minneapolis slowly climbing higher into the sky as I approached. When I grow a bit homesick, this is the Minneapolis I long for. But, this is not the only “Minneapolis.” If you come in from the east, the city that appears is much different than the Minneapolis of my childhood; from that angle there is the mighty Mississippi and fluffy-white of the Metrodome at the forefront of the city, both of which are hidden coming in from the west—but, it is the same city. And, of course, there is a real Minneapolis, which, if someone claimed contained a mountain range in the distance or rivaled the size of Chicago, the city would be able to “bite back” and insist that this description is simply a very bad one.
In similar fashion, I think we approach the world of ideas, texts, human relationships—really the entirety of the world as world—perspectivally. There is simply no way we can come at anything from more than one direction at a time. The twentieth-century German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer helpfully describes this premise as one of horizons. “The horizon,” he writes, “is the range of vision that includes everything that can be seen from a particular vantage point.” As particular people in particular places at particular times, each one of us comes to the world from a particular horizon. And, in the same way that it is human nature to grow, change, develop and learn, so too does our horizon change, expand and become enriched through conversation (i.e. engagement) with another.
Gadamer believed that the place for understanding is in the place of in-between-ness. Understanding is a fusing of past understanding with new potential information. (It would be like the first time I drive in to Minneapolis from the east; the Minneapolis before me would immediately push me beyond my past understanding of the city I have known. It would not simply replace my past understanding, though. Instead, I would come to understand Minneapolis by bringing into dialogue my past knowledge and this new data before me.)
There is a real beauty to this as it does several things for the way I engage with the world around me. First, it forces a kind of epistemic humility. If I am located then I cannot know everything—right now—in this moment (surprise, surprise). And from this incomplete place a second result arises: a growing appetite for outside stories and perspectives. Rather than a seeming cacophony of opinions, a plurality of voices becomes an opportunity to know more and know better. Third, there remains something to be known. One of the greatest elements of Gadamer’s idea of horizoned understanding is that we do come to know something. The world, Gadamer asserts, is the “common ground” for understanding, “trodden by none and recognized by all.” We are never unhinged from our horizon and come to the “city” all at once, yet we all come to the “city.” We all gaze upon it. In our particularity we not only do not see this or that, but we do see fine detail that another eye cannot catch. And the hopeful result is that through conversation, we help one another see better. We realize that we understand best when we are not understanding alone.