What do phenomenologists mean by "Horizon". I thought I understood it from the context when I first saw it, but every time I see it I get more confused. Now I have no idea.

Can someone explain what it is?

  • 1
    What kinds of places are you coming across it?
    – Joseph Weissman
    Apr 18 '14 at 23:43
  • @JosephWeissman I'm reading Heidegger at the moment, that's when it stopped making sense.
    – Lucas
    Apr 19 '14 at 11:29
  • @Lucas Providing a cite and a quote will help others to answer your question. Aug 14 '18 at 21:58

I think Shane aptly describes the concept on a basic level, so I'm just going to supplement that by trying to address how the concept is supposed to benefit us and the value it is supposed to add.

Even though Gadamer is the big name for hermeneutics, "horizons" is a concept that we can trace back to at least Heidegger but perhaps further to Hegel and Kant. I will start with therelevant image in Heidegger's Being and Time -- the hammer. There, Heidegger distinguishes between Vorhandenheit and Zuhandenheit often translated as "presence/being at hand" and "read to hand" respectively. The relevant difference is that what is presence/being-at-hand is the sort of objects we think about, i.e. it's the dot in "consider the red dot." What is ready-to-hand by contrast are the tools we use regularly. In "consider the red dot", it is say the computer screen through which we are looking at the example. Whence horizons? Horizons are the backgrounds that determine how something is ready-to-hand for us. For instance, is garlic ready-to-hand as a spice for food or as a vampire-ward? Horizon is supposed to stand for the sort of cultural and background ideas that make this possible.

Moving backwards towards Hegel, we could say that horizons are the structures of thought through which we have environment where there are objects at all. Stepping back to Kant, we are working within a framework where each and every object involves the use of our thinking categories (our hermeneutical tools) to appear before us as something.

Phenomenology is an inheritor of all of these systems of thought, and the idea of much recent phenomenology is that differences in our experience of the same thing are traceable to differences in the horizons through which we experience them. So for instance what is happening in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine is open to interpretations that will determine what sort of events "riots" "uprising" "rebellion" "revolution" is actually happening.

  • I'm only a little way in to Begin and Time, but Heiddeger speaks about Being being in one sense closest to us (it is employed in everything), yet furthest away in another (it's illusive when we inquire about it). Does this fit in with the notion of a Horizon at all?
    – Lucas
    Apr 19 '14 at 11:44
  • 1
    The talk of Being does in some senses relate, but not in Being and Time. Being will become a major theme in his later works as will Ground and Earth. Basically, horizon is somewhere between ground and earth or rather it is deeply related to the process grounding... Really too complicated to answer in a comment beyond that.
    – virmaior
    Apr 19 '14 at 14:30

Like many terms in continental philosophy, this one is a little elusive. Imagine you are on a spaceship looking down on earth. Now imagine a person standing at one point on the surface of the earth. That person's "horizon" will be all the thing things that she can see--the region that contains the horizon will be a circle so many miles in diameter. Note that this person's horizon can move--if the person moves 10 miles the the west the circle that circumscribes her horizon changes as well. Hence new things come into the horizon and other things fall out of it.

Now as Gadamer uses the the metaphor of the horizon is that it is supposed to understand what it is for two people to understand something. He wants to say that x understands y when there is a "fusion of horizons" and I take it that he means something like x is able to see the same thing, or some of the same things that y does. Suppose x and y were both hikers going to see Mt. Blanc. x approaches from the east and y approaches from the west. both of them see a different profile of the mountain and if they were to try to describe what Mt Blanc looks like to one another they would be talking past one another. They wouldn't be able to recognize the different descriptions they give as descriptions of the same mountain. They are only able to come to this recognition when they are standing sufficiently close together to be able to recognize that what they're talking about is in fact the same thing. That is a "fusion of horizons"--x and y can recognize they are each speaking from their own perspectives, but about the same subject matter.

How to cash that metaphorical description of a horizon out as a genuine explanation of how such recognition works is a much, much more difficult issue and I'm afraid I don't how to tell that story.


Because Heideggar is familiar with Swabia and the poet Hoelderlin the concept of horizon takes on a deeper meaning as it comes into context with the phenomenon of distance and "the coming toward and opening up" of the horizon. The nuance of meanings with the term comes directly from landscape painting and aesthetics in addition to poetry.

  • That sounds interesting. Do you have any references you could add to your answer so I could get more information? This would also strengthen your answer. Aug 11 '18 at 19:38

In relatively recent work, there is also JJ Valberg's concept of the personal horizon -- "what this world would be internal to if this were all a dream" -- from his 2007 book Dream, Death, and the Self. That concept on one hand lines up nicely with the concepts discussed in other answers, and on the other hand is very phenomenological in nature (as is the entire book).

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.