In Truth and Method, philosopher Hans Georg Gadamer explained how people come to understand texts. This is an ancient problem; philosophers have long known that you can’t fully understand the individual sentences of a text until you understand the whole text—the context in which they occur. At the same time, however, you can’t understand the whole text unless you understand the individual sentences. Gadamer solved the problem—called the hermeneutic circle—by realizing that the meaning of a text does not come from the text. Nor does it come from the reader. Nor does the text’s meaning come from trying to figure out the author’s intentions. Like an emergent property, meaning arises from an interplay, or dialectic, between the reader and the text. Because both you and the text exist in time and space, you start reading the text with some dim understanding. The words shape your understanding and your understanding shapes how you interpret the words. The interplay of your initial understanding and the text leads to deeper understanding. You do not find the text’s “true meaning,” because it does not exist. Instead, you achieve understanding, which is the ability to apply the text to new situations.

Take, for example, the children’s book The Little Engine that Could, the story of a small switch engine that is called on to pull a big freight train over a mountain. The engine doubts its ability to carry out the task, but bucks itself up for the effort by saying, “I think I can, I think I can.” The meaning of this text for a child may involve her using “I think I can” to help her overcome self-doubt and take on increasingly challenging tasks.

Two things follow from this observation. First, it shows that your actions can have effects that last. Actions have an ever-expanding cone of meaning and, therefore, can create results that echo through time. When a town in Massachusetts named itself Franklin, to honor Benjamin Franklin, Ben thanked them by giving them a library. This library was the foundation of Horace Mann’s education. Mann became the first great advocate of public education in the United States, and widespread public education has been a primary driver of American prosperity for over a hundred years.

Second, meaning exists in application. If you learn something and never apply it, then in practice it is no different from never having learned it. Among other things, this means that the quality of the anything you read exists outside of the text. It exists in you, in what you do with it, and in how you use it to do something important, because, as British historian Thomas Carlyle posited, “The best effect of any book is that it excites the reader to self-activity

Gadamer, H. 2004. Truth and Method. Translation revised by J. Weinsheimer and D. Marshall. New York: Continuum.
Piper, W. 1976. The Little Engine that Could. New York: Platt and Munk.

Excerpted from Lasting Contribution: How to Think, Plan, and Act to Accomplish Meaningful Work by Tad Waddington

Author's Bio: 

Tad Waddington says he achieved literacy while getting his MA from the University of Chicago’s Divinity School where he focused on the history of Chinese religions. He achieved numeracy while getting his PhD from the University of Chicago in measurement, evaluation and statistical analysis and as a research director for the Gallup Organization. He achieved efficacy as Director of Performance Measurement for Accenture. As for achieving a legacy, well, that is a work in progress, but his book, Lasting Contribution: How to Think, Plan, and Act to Accomplish Meaningful Work, has won five prestigious awards so he’s off to a good start.