Gadamer was born in Marburg, Hesse-Nassau, as the son of a pharmaceutical chemist who later also served as the rector of the university there. He resisted his father's urging to take up the natural sciences and became more and more interested in the humanities. He grew up and studied in Breslau under Richard Hönigswald, but soon moved back to Marburg to study with the Neo-Kantian philosophers Paul Natorp and Nicolai Hartmann. He defended his dissertation in 1922.
Shortly thereafter, Gadamer visited Freiburg and began studying with Martin Heidegger, who was then a promising young scholar who had not yet received a professorship. He thus became one of a group of students such as Leo Strauss, Karl Löwith, and Hannah Arendt. He and Heidegger became close, and when Heidegger received a position at Marburg, Gadamer followed him there. It was Heidegger's influence that gave Gadamer's thought its distinctive cast and led him away from the earlier neo-Kantian influences of Natorp and Hartmann.
Gadamer habilitated in 1929 and spent most of the early 1930s lecturing in Marburg. Unlike Heidegger, Gadamer was strongly anti-Nazi, although he was not politically active during the Third Reich. He did not receive a paid position during the Nazi years and never entered the Party; only towards the end of the War did he receive an appointment at Leipzig. In 1946, he was found by the American occupation forces to be untainted by Nazism and named rector of the university. Communist East Germany was no more to Gadamer's liking than the Third Reich, and he left for West Germany, accepting first a position in Frankfurt am Main and then the succession of Karl Jaspers in Heidelberg in 1949. He remained in this position, as emeritus, until his death in 2002 at the age of 102.
It was during this time that he completed his magnum opus Truth and Method (in 1960) and engaged in his famous debate with Jürgen Habermas over the possibility of transcending history and culture in order to find a truly objective position from which to criticize society. The debate was inconclusive, but marked the beginning of warm relations between the two men. It was Gadamer who secured Habermas's first professorship in Heidelberg. Another attempt to engage Jacques Derrida proved less enlightening because the two thinkers had so little in common. After Gadamer's death, Derrida called their failure to find common ground one of the worst debacles of his life and expressed, in the main obituary for Gadamer, his great personal and philosophical respect.
In 1968, he invited Tomonobu Imamichi for lectures at Heidelberg, but their relationship became very cool after Imamichi pointed out that Heidegger had taken his concept of Dasein out of Okakura Kakuzo's concept of das-in-dem-Welt-sein (to be in the being of the world) expressed in The Book of Tea, which Imamichi's teacher had offered to Heidegger in 1919, after having followed lessons with him the year before. Imamichi and Gadamer renewed contact four years later during an international congress.
In contrast to both of these positions, Gadamer argued that people have a 'historically effected consciousness' (wirkungsgeschichtliches Bewußtsein) and that they are embedded in the particular history and culture that shaped them. Thus interpreting a text involves a fusion of horizons where the scholar finds the ways that the text's history articulates with their own background. Truth and Method is not meant to be a programmatic statement about a new 'hermeneutic' method of interpreting texts. Gadamer intended Truth and Method to be a description of what we always do when we interpret things (even if we do not know it): ‘My real concern was and is philosophic: not what we do or what we ought to do, but what happens to us over and above our wanting and doing’ (Truth and Method (2nd edn Sheed and Ward, London 1989) xxviii).
Truth and Method was published twice in English, and the revised edition is now considered authoritative. The German-language edition of Gadamer's Collected Works includes a volume in which Gadamer elaborates his argument and discusses the critical response to the book. Finally, Gadamer's essay on Celan (entitled "Who Am I and Who Are You?") is considered by many -- including Heidegger and Gadamer himself -- as a "second volume" or continuation of the argument in Truth and Method.
Gadamer also added philosophical substance to the notion of human health. In 'The Enigma of Health' Gadamer explored what it means to heal, as a patient and a provider. In this work the practice and art of medicine are thoroughly examined, as is the inevitability of any cure.
In addition to his work in hermeneutics, Gadamer is also well known for a long list of publications on Greek philosophy. Indeed, while Truth and Method became central to his later career, much of Gadamer's early life centered around studying the classics. His work on Plato, for instance, is considered by some to be as important as his work on hermeneutics.