Date on Master's Thesis/Doctoral Dissertation


Document Type

Doctoral Dissertation

Degree Name

Ph. D.



Degree Program

Humanities, PhD

Committee Chair

Allen, Annette

Committee Co-Chair (if applicable)

Wiggins, Osborne

Committee Member

Wiggins, Osborne

Committee Member

Blum, Mark

Committee Member

Owen, David


Ontology; Metaphysics; Gadamer, Hans-Georg, 1900-2002--Criticism and interpretation; Woolf, Virginia, 1882-1941--Criticism and interpretation


Overall, the point of this project is to plumb the affinities between Gadamer’s notion of hermeneutic ontology and Virginia Woolf’s novels—how these affinities illuminate and contribute to an improved understanding of Gadamer’s philosophical hermeneutics and Woolf’s novels. For their part, Gadamer and Woolf belong to a similar cultural and historical milieu, each, in one way or another, a participant in the intellectual and artistic movement known as Modernism. This movement arose in response to the encroaching impersonality of scientific objectivity: both Woolf and Gadamer recognized the pitfalls of this objectivity, as it necessarily discounts the interpretive opportunity and responsibility of the individual. In Virginia Woolf’s novels, we witness an intensification and enactment of one’s interpretive imperative. In their structure and thematics, we encounter narratives that emphasize interpretive experiences and concepts—in them there is a heavy accent on those experiences that are binding, those experiences that shape consciousness and determine one’s interpretive horizon. Hans-Georg Gadamer’s philosophical outlook is especially useful for an analysis of these novels because his philosophy concerns the interpretation of day to day existence as it relates to the interpretation of a literary text. For its part, this philosophical framework hinges on the primacy of language—its universality and our unconsciousness of it—our belongingness to art—its ability to engage the meaningfulness of our perceptions and alter them too—and the dialogical situation in which all language use occurs—every utterance belongs to an occasion, its meaning only understandable as it relates to its context. Woolf’s novels, for their part, highlight and emphasize these hermeneutic and ontological precepts. In these narratives, we encounter characters who interpret their existence; this interpretive dynamic—and the philosophical precepts that undergird them—are decisive for the significance and impact of these novels; interpretation and meaning are, in fact, the primary subject matter. I will argue that—as others have noted—a philosophical approach is useful for understanding these novels in their full scope, that there is a philosophical undercurrent that runs through these narratives, but that the philosophical scholarship on Woolf fails to fully appreciate the hermeneutic and ontological underpinnings that are decisive for their meaning. Instead of reading these novels through a lens of radical interpretation and questionability, the present scholarship relies on static concepts such as world, self, and reality. My argument is that these concepts are not static, that they are in movement as the individual engages with language, with art, and with others. In many ways, these novels are defined by this movement—how one’s understanding and horizon is shaped by this engagement—and the consequences and implications therein. In relating Woolf’s novels to Gadamer’s philosophical hermeneutics, the reader acquires an improved sense for the reference of the words that populate her novels, words that determine the meaning of a world and the characters who inhabit it: these narratives include characters who strive to understand, who either fail or succeed based on their willingness to privilege and engage with experiences of language, of art, or dialogue with others. Now, in relating Gadamer’s philosophical hermeneutics to Woolf’s novels, the reader encounters an enactment of Gadamer’s philosophical outlook: interpretation is inescapable—whether reading or living an average day, the world and its meaning are forever in motion and it is up to the individual to respond in kind.