On Beauty and Being: Hans-Georg Gadamer’s and Virginia Woolf’s Hermeneutics of the Beautiful

by Małgorzata Hołda (Author)
©2021 Monographs 310 Pages


The book is an exploration of the affinities between Hans-Georg Gadamer’s philosophical hermeneutics and Virginia Woolf’s philosophy of beauty and Being embodied in her oeuvre. The study addresses beauty as a mode of being rather than a mere adornment of human existence. Tracing Plato’s legacy in the two authors, it espouses the proximity of truth and beauty, and argues for beauty’s restorative capacity discerned in the repetitive patterns of the universe. Showing the poetics of Gadamer and Woolf as mutually interpenetrating, it encourages to see the beauty of the poetic word as a gateway to Being. This meditation on beauty and Being contests the prevailing ways of thinking about the (in)dependent fields of literature and philosophy.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • List of Abbreviations:
  • Introduction
  • Part One Beauty as a Mode of Being
  • 1. “Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty:” Gadamer’s Hermeneutic Aesthetics
  • 1.1 The Belonging- together of Beauty and Truth: Gadamer’s Retrieval of Plato
  • 1.2 The Suddenness of Beauty: Radiance and the Experience of Art as Erfahrung
  • 2. The Forgotten Unity of kalon and aletheia Revitalized
  • 2.1 Beauty, Truth and Love: Plato’s Symposium and Woolf ’s Banquet
  • 2.2 Beauty, Mrs. Ramsay, and the Metaphysics of Light
  • 2.3 Understanding, Self- understanding, and the Beautiful
  • 2.4 Fragility and the Beauty of Being- in- the- World as Being- with
  • 2.5 Creativity as the Catalyst between kalon and aletheia
  • 2.6 Melancholy Beauty, Restoration, and Modernity
  • 2.7 “Contemplating the Beautiful and Knowing the True:” the Intersections between Gadamer and Woolf
  • Part Two The Restorative Capacity of Beauty
  • 1. Beauty in the Repeatable: Gadamer’s Philosophy of Play and Festival
  • 1.1 Play as the Hermeneutic Model of an Aesthetic Encounter
  • 1.2 The Being of an Artwork and an Increase in Being (Zuwachs an Sein)
  • 1.3 An Aesthetic Experience: Effortlessness and Purposelessness
  • 1.4 Beauty, Festivity, and the Performative ‘Existence’ of Art
  • 2. Beauty, the Cycle of Life and the Moment of Being
  • 2.1 Eternal Renewal: Structural and Conceptual Doubling
  • 2.2 The Ecstasy of the Moment, Finitude, and the Beauty of Authenticity
  • 2.3 The Persistence of the Beautiful: Everydayness
  • 2.4 The Present, the Past, and the Cyclical Time
  • 2.5 The Intersections between Gadamer’s Ontology of Art and Woolf ’s Eternal Renewal
  • Part Three The Beauty of Poetry as a Gateway to Being
  • 3. Dwelling Poetically and Being- not- at- home- yet: Gadamer and Woolf on the Poetic Word
  • 3.1 Thinking and Poetizing: Gadamer’s Appropriation of Heidegger’s Poetics
  • 3.2 Home- seeking and the Redefinition of Narrative through the Poetic Word
  • 3.3 The Waves: The Lyrical Novel par excellence
  • 3.4 Return to “the Whole of our Experience of the World” and The Waves
  • 3.5 The Confluence of Language and Being: Woolf ’s Poetry of Existence
  • 3.6 Beauty, Transcendence, and the Language of Poetry
  • 3.7 The Intersections between the Poetics of Gadamer and Woolf
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • Index

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This book came into being as an expression of my profound belief that beauty is not a mere embellishment of human existence but is in ontological oneness with Being and is a mode of being. Engaging human contemplative powers, beauty issues a continuous call for hermeneutic investigation. The process of creation of this book orchestrated hermeneutic interrogations of the beautiful which emerged in my conversation with literary and philosophical texts, but also embraced insights coming from a lived experience of the beauty of a human being’s being-in-the-world.

I am greatly thankful to all those who inspired me to continue my interdisciplinary research into the hermeneutics of the beautiful. I express my deep gratitude for the various ways in which their knowledge, discernment, and enthusiasm accompanied my writing.

Łódź, February 2021

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List of Abbreviations:

TM – Truth and Method

TRB – The Relevance of the Beautiful

TTL – To the Lighthouse

MD – Mrs. Dalloway

TW – The Waves

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Beauty enters human existence in its unspeakable gentleness and awe-inspiring power. The dialectic of subtlety and forcefulness aptly expresses its ambiguous and unfathomable character. Frail like the airy, delicately embroidered, net curtains and potent like the wind which blows them into the room in Andrew Wyeth’s painting “The Wind from the Sea,” beauty exerts an inevitable and unforeseeable impact on our lives. Perceptively alive with motion and imbued with rich symbolism, Wyeth’s picture of the window is a metaphorical image of an aesthetic experience: a new opening in which the human self undergoes a change. Depicted in art, thematized in much great literature, conceptualized in philosophy, beauty presents itself as an enigmatic quality, relentlessly arresting the human mind. Like Jeanne Hébuterne’s melancholic gaze captured by Amedeo Modigliani in the innumerable portraits of his beloved, beauty intrigues and holds us under its spell, never releasing its mighty claim on us. Wrenching at our heartstrings, the beautiful comes as the complete other, one which captivates and makes us unspeakably vulnerable to its enticing power.

Human imagination has always been engaged in an incessant conversation with beauty. To understand, to define, and to put it once and for ever into a neatly constructed system of aesthetics seems unlikely since beauty escapes any rigid or fossilized ways of naming and classifying, perhaps being even more resistant to easy pigeonholing than her sister qualities: truth and goodness. The countless and versatile answers to the question of beauty offered by differing systems of thought do not exhaust the beguiling, mysterious, and ever resurfacing matter of the beautiful (Cf. e.g., Scruton 2011, x– xii). The intricate nature of beauty manifests itself in the manifold theories of aesthetics, also riven by internal contradictions.

To not speak of beauty’s gratifying effect, to not contemplate it, seems to be impossible. As both a philosophical question, and a literary theme which has engendered innumerable studies, beauty nurtures our imagination and makes us see the world we live in as a place which we can make into our ‘home.’ Yet, at the same time, it is a transcendent quality which persistently directs us to the ‘home’ which is not-yet, to the absoluteness and completeness which we cannot experience in the earthly existence. Anticipating the ‘home’ we are heading for, beauty beckons us down the path and illuminates the way ahead. Like the gorgeous smoothness and immaculate whiteness of the lily, or the delicate scent of the rose, the beautiful partakes in the descent of the transcendent to the earthly.

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Issuing its continuous call to uplift our souls and minds to that which is above and beyond, beauty is as much a faithful companion as it is bewildering in the human longing for transcendence. The tormenting desire for the infinite cannot be satisfied in a facile and trivial way, thus, beauty is an invaluable gift which, when received in humility and joyfulness, can transform our lives, and direct us to wholly unexpected realities. Repeatedly uttering its irresistible invitation for us to ascend to the noble and the glorious, beauty in its unearthly charm can be compared to love’s affirming force awaiting a response. If requited, it blossoms and makes us grow. If rejected, it belittles our humanity and leaves us with in the void of unfulfillment and sorrow.

Satiating our senses and stirring our souls, beauty speaks to us its countless messages as the hues of the seawater from the royal blue to emerald green, greyish, and golden if basking in the glow of the setting sun. It takes us on a journey to appreciate our being-in-the-world in its fullness. Astounding us like bizarre mosaics of the seaweeds and pebbles – the most precious sea jewels – beauty moves beyond the visual and speaks to the metaphysics of human existence. By the same token, residing in the heavenly harmony of Mozart’s concertos, beauty transcends the audible and makes us ceaselessly ponder on our being a human being, on our roots, our existence, and telos.

Displaying a propensity for expanding the soul and the mind, beauty communicates important messages. The unique unrepeatability of the aesthetic encounter opens a possibility of a different message for each one of us. Beauty can mean something new each time we contemplate it, and it can possibly mean something different to someone else. The expansion of our minds that we experience is felt as an unveiling of something which we would not be able to understand otherwise. Furthermore, we can experience amplifications of the beautiful by sharing the ways in which beauty impacts us as individuals. If we reflect on the imagery of a fabulous sunset, the picture of the sky unfolds layers of meaning of the beautiful. The mystery of beauty is an outlet which we register powerfully with our senses and which leads us to not only understand the image itself that we are passionately contemplating, but that which is within us.

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The imagery of the sky, with its symbolism of heaven, deeply rooted in many cultures, can serve as an epitome of the theological insight into the beautiful which propounds that the divine speaks to us through the world of nature. The theological perspective, however, does not fully explain what happens to us when we contemplate beauty. It could even be understood as reducing the wide-embracing phenomenon of aesthetic experience, even if transparent to many of us (Crosby 2010, 144). An encounter with the beautiful invites us to turn inwards, to withdraw into the most intimate recesses of our hearts. The movement towards the inner self aims to reveal something crucial about being a human being and brings about an alteration of the way we are. The hermeneutic aesthetics in its non-reductionist quality, including the theological, the philosophical, the literary, and other angles of vision, provides an all-encompassing possibility to engage the beautiful.

Embracing the whole of human experience, beauty is a hermeneutic phenomenon which calls for interpretation and understanding. Understanding, as pertaining to an aesthetic experience engaged the hermeneutic sensibility of Hans-Georg Gadamer (1900–2002) and became the source of his hermeneutic interrogation into understanding in human sciences. Significantly, Gadamer begins his seminal Truth and Method with a discussion of the ontology of art in Part One: “The Question of Truth as it Emerges in the Experience of Art” (TM, 1–178). Reflection on an aesthetic encounter is, for Gadamer, the point de départ in furthering his hermeneutic enterprise. The experience of beauty in its multifaceted nature nourished the literary imagination of Virginia Woolf (1882–1941) and evolved into outstanding embodiments of beauty in her poetic narratives. To investigate the affinities between Gadamer’s hermeneutic aesthetics and Woolf ’s meditation on beauty is inasmuch challenging as exhilaratingly possible as the two great intellectuals of the twentieth century develop their philosophies of beauty as resting on the ontological oneness of beauty and Being.

Although Woolf is not a philosopher, her approach can be viewed as hermeneutically underwritten and expressive of hermeneutic sensitivity. The nuanced layers of meaning in the interactions between philosophy and literature inspire us to align Gadamer and Woolf as equitably concerned with beauty and Being. The inquiry into the encounter between Gadamer’s hermeneutic aesthetics and Woolf ’s philosophy of beauty takes us on a far-reaching and more liberating engagement with the potentialities of the hermeneutic endeavor, one which embraces both literary and philosophical discourse. Challenging the blunt interpretation of Woolf ’s fiction in light of Gadamer’s philosophical hermeneutics, which would place such reading solely within the framework of literary criticism, the present study regards her lyrical prose as a form of philosophy.

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Instead of interpreting Gadamer’s hermeneutics of the beautiful as substantiated by Woolf ’s novelistic achievements, this book addresses his philosophical writings and her fictional imaginings to shed new light onto the modern conceptions of Being and beauty afforded by hermeneutics. Whereas Woolf ’s sophisticated ruminations on beauty and Being enshrined in her lyrical novels manifest her ‘doing philosophy’ in her own distinctive way, Gadamer’s philological and literary background contributes greatly to his unprecedented philosophizing. The responses to the questions of existence and beauty cannot be taken independently of philosophy, and, equally importantly, since they are thematized in literature and its interpretative practices with great profundity, one cannot think of those issues as detached from a literary discourse. Seeking analogies in the philosophies of Gadamer and Woolf precipitates an extension of the areas which the modern hermeneutic enterprise contains, as well as advances a recognition of hermeneutics’ usefulness in conducting comparative studies of literary and philosophical works.

Bringing Woolf and Gadamer into dialogue with one another ensues from their discoveries which unfold as convergent paths and generate involving prospects of understanding beauty and Being in a more profound way. Crucially, they both believe that to uncover any ultimate truth in relation to the matters in question is impossible. Meeting on the ontological level, the two intellectuals embark on a journey to illuminate Being and beauty to the effect of sensitizing their readers to the most recondite aspects of those entities. Gadamer and Woolf pursue the unfolding of the human existence as existentia hermeneutica with a parallel zest.

Intriguingly, as a belles lettres writer, Woolf poses questions relating to philosophical hermeneutics. The central concern which encourages an analysis of her fiction from the angle of her input into ontological hermeneutics is her overwhelming and genuine concentration on the evocation of the moment of being. Her essays, bearing the telling title – Moments of Being: A Collection of Autobiographical Writing (1976), are a valuable instance of this approach. Insofar as they go squarely to the heart of the novelist’s ontological investigation, her fictional imaginings are portrayals of a deepened, passionate, and intense sensing of Being. In her poetic novels, Woolf articulates her understanding of Being, which is of great relevance in unveiling the metaphysical backdrop of her thinking. In the ingeniously evoked moment of being, Woolf encapsulates her philosophy of existence and contributes to ontological hermeneutics per se. The moment of being is the sensation of an entrancement and has the quality of an aesthetic experience. Its arresting concision is a thing of beauty. The refined aesthetic experience which Woolf educes coincides with Gadamer’s assertion of the captivating force of art. Clearly, what brings Woolf ’s literary embodiments of the beautiful close to Gadamer’s hermeneutic aesthetics is their similar preoccupation with the ontic structure of the experience of beauty.

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The two intellectuals focus on the visionary moment. The seizing of beauty’s captivating force, which is the pivot of this study, invites to recognize the profundity of the momentary illumination as lying both in the ontological and the aesthetic. The search for its essence has inspired thinkers and writers alike throughout the centuries. Juxtaposing Gadamer’s aesthetics, which draws extensively on Heidegger’s Augenblick, with Woolf ’s notion of ‘the moment of being’ yields noteworthy observations. Heidegger’s notion of Augenblick, “the look of resolute disclosedness in which the full situation of an action opens itself and keeps itself open” (Heidegger 1983, GA 29/30 224/148), can be traced back to Kierkegaard and to Luther’s translation of St. Paul’s kairos – the opportune moment. Explaining Heidegger’s Augenblick, Michael Watts highlights that it is “an expression of resolute Dasein’s sharpened sense, and authentic understanding, of the ‘moment,’ the pulsing heartbeat of time” (2014, 277). Woolf ’s ‘moment of being’ is an instant of intense beauty and awareness, and above all, it is a moment of authentic being as opposed to ‘non-being’ – the daily trivialities – the differentiation about which she writes in “The Sketch of the Past” (Woolf 1976, 83–84).

The moments of being, as Josiane Paccaud-Huguet explicates, are “moments of contact with the whatness of the thing, pressure points with the pulsating substance of the real. At such moments, the veil of our symbolic fictions (what she calls the cotton-wool of everyday life) tears open – hence the two associated affects: ecstasy and dread” (2006, 3). By extension, the close connection between Woolf ’s ‘moment of being’ and Heidegger’s notion of Augenblick, ‘the moment of insight,’ calls on us to interrogate the parallels between ‘the moment of being’ and Gadamer’s appropriation of Heidegger’s idea. Not only does Woolf ’s understanding of the moment of being resonate with Heidegger’s accenting the authenticity of Dasein which reveals itself in the moment of vision, but potently with Gadamer’ assertion of the revelation of truth which happens in an aesthetic encounter.

Woolf and Gadamer’s similar ontological and aesthetic views stem to a great degree from their shared interest in Plato’s thought, and his idea of beauty and truth (kalon and aletheia) as belonging together. Gadamer’s focus on beauty as epitomized in play and ritual corresponds to Woolf ’s insistence on the cycle of life as the origin of the human experience of beauty. The novelist’s evocations of the repetitive incantations of the waves, the incandescence of the recurring sunsets, the seasonal joys of the seascape, or the cyclical, mundane occurrences of the urban life bring to the mind a sense of unspeakable beauty whose genesis is the rite of repetition.

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Gadamer’s hermeneutic aesthetics differs considerably from the conventional conceptions of the beauty which endorse the tradition of Kant and Hegel.1 Most significantly, Gadamer does not view pleasure as the central category pertaining to aesthetics. He diverges from the more customary perspective rooted not only in Kant and Hegel’s aesthetics,2 but also to a certain degree in Plato’s. The influence of the latter needs to be discussed separately, as Gadamer’s reflection on beauty is close to Plato’s in its avowal of beauty and truth belonging together. Instead of advocating a pleasure-oriented paradigm, Gadamer follows the path of phenomenological hermeneutics while exploring the beautiful. As Nicholas Davey emphasizes, Gadamer: “dismantles elements of the grand tradition of Platonic, Kantian, and Hegelian aesthetics and yet offers a phenomenological reconstruction of many of the central insights of that tradition to demonstrate its continuing relevance to our contemporary experience of art” (2016, 1). Gadamer propounds an aesthetics which disavows an attitude detaching art from Being and treats the realization of art in a moment as central. His hermeneutic aesthetics focuses on an engagement with the ‘being’ of art on the ontological and phenomenological level.

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Gadamerian aesthetics is pervasively dialogical. His understanding of an experience of art rests on a dialogue which happens between art and its addressee. What he means is the interpretative process in which art comes to its realization. The conversation that art occasions is indissolubly related to its event-like character. This contention is of seminal importance. Gadamer speaks of the viewer’s game-like involvement in the artwork as the true texture of our experience of art. For Gadamer, art and beauty cannot be viewed as existing statically. On the contrary, their inimitable feature is movement. The unending nature of art as an event is relatable both to the very way art exists, and to what happens when we perceive it. Gadamer contends that: “all encounter with the language of art is an encounter with an unfinished event and is itself part of this event” (2013, 90). In a similar vein to Gadamer, Woolf acknowledges that an aesthetic encounter occasions a meaningful change. Her fictional imaginings manifest the event-like (performative) character of beauty, which becomes a pervasive feature of her aesthetics.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2021 (April)
aesthetics art modernism ontology Plato’s philosophy poetic novel
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2021. 310 pp.

Biographical notes

Małgorzata Hołda (Author)

Małgorzata Hołda, Assistant Professor at the Institute of English Studies, University of Łódź, Poland. PhD in British literature, Nicolaus Copernicus University, Toruń; PhD in philosophy, The Pontifical University of John Paul II, Kraków. Junior Associate Fellow of the International Institute for Hermeneutics.


Title: On Beauty and Being: Hans-Georg Gadamer’s and Virginia Woolf’s Hermeneutics of the Beautiful
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312 pages