Juergen Habermas and Hans Georg Gadamer
The intellectual battle between the Gadamer-Hermeneutics school and the Habermas-critical theorists is well documented. Hermeneutics claiming a universal applicability stating, being that can be understood is language1, and the critical theorist claiming a reflective reasoning process that goes beyond hermeneutics. The battle has been aptly stated in the rather public disagreements between Hans-Georg Gadamer and Jurgen Habermas, in a series of essays written in the late sixties and early seventies. Gadamer has never really been interested or competent in explicit political or moral philosophy, rather his interests were to discover the mode of human understanding and experience and their subsequent examination in the human sciences. Gadamer states as much in his introduction:
The hermeneutics developed here is not, therefore, a methodology of the human sciences, but an attempt to understand what the human sciences truly are, beyond their methodological self-consciousness, and what connects them with the totality of our experience of world.2
Thus, Gadamer seems to be trying to develop a value neutral or ideological free theory of how human beings understand and interpret reality, garnering it universality in the process. Habermas oppositionaly maintains that hermeneutics is insufficient for human understanding, due to power dominations emanating from ideology and socio-cultural systems (including language itself). Rather, as Habermas maintains, language itself can be used to thwart understanding and thus a critical reflective reason must be used to overcome linguistic inadequacies. Habermas, as a champion of reason, suspects the ideological uses of language that are used to distort and destroy communication and understanding. Instead, a critical reason free from ideological constraints must be used. Habermas is thus a critical theorist in the school of the enlightenment. He values reason highly and disagrees with many postmodernists who tend to be suspect of reason as just another tool of power. This essay will attempt to explicate their agreements and differences, by first chronicling their intellectual heritage and tradition and then focusing on their ideas. The essay will be structured along the same lines of the Gadamer-Habermas debate, explaining first hermeneutical theory and then the critical theorist response. As well, an attempt at contextualizing their two respective theories for ethics and socio-political thought will be positioned. The ending summary will show the prominence of these two philosophers for western society and potentially history.
To understand these two men properly, perhaps an understanding of their intellectual backgrounds is in order. Hans Georg Gadamer was the most successful student of Martin Heidegger, the renowned philosopher and author of Being and Time. Heidegger stressed the finitude of man and dealt with existential issues. In many ways, he was seen as Nietzsches heir, with his bombastic and passionate style. Gadamer as an intellectual, seemed ignorant of current events and retreated to his studies. A friend once asked if Gadamer had read anything on current events, in which Gadamer replied, I basically read books that are at least only two thousand years old.3 Gadamer maintained his reputation through WW II and eventually settled in Heidelberg where he would write his momentous volume Truth and Method in 1960. Habermas, conversely, came from the Frankfurt school, the home of Marxist-Freudian critical theory. After WW II, he strongly opposed Gadamers teacher Martin Heidegger and other right wing thinkers he deemed dangerous to the fledgling German democracy.4 In recent years, Habermas has moved away from his radicalism and helped the left reconcile itself to liberal democracy in the unified German state.5 What remains interesting between these two intellectuals is their academic genealogies, Gadamer, a student of Heidegger and in the line of Nietzsche and Habermas, in the line of Karl Marx. Both intellectuals come from different streams of the German intellectual tradition. It is to be seen how much this will account for their agreements and disagreements.
To analyze the differences and similarities of the two thinkers, it is important to curtly examine their respective theories. Because Gadamer wrote primarily about human understanding and communication, we will focus on these elements of their philosophy. However, we will also attempt to examine some of their ethical and socio-political philosophy. Gadamers philosophical hermeneutics proposes that being itself is understood through language, whether that language be the written word, art, speech, or body language. This is the universal aspect of human being. Gadamer states this as such:
We can now see that this activity of the thing itself, the coming into language of meaning, points to a universal ontological structure, namely to the basic nature of everything toward which understanding can be directed. Being that can be understood is language italics his, bold mine.6
The being that Gadamer speaks of is a linguistic understanding that comes about from the famous hermeneutic circle. The hermeneutic circles arises when a persons prejudices (e.g. a persons inherited linguistic tradition) are used to confront new data or experience and are then critically analyzed with the above result of changing the persons prejudices.7 Prejudices in Gadamers system are not suspect but rather we must acknowledge the fact there are legitimate prejudices.8 This process is also called the fusion of horizons9, where understanding and reflection are achieved. Gadamer criticizes the enlightenment project, which attempted philosophy and self-understanding in an historical vacuum. Rather:
Long before we understand ourselves through the process of self-examination, we understand ourselves in a self-evident way in the family, society and state in which we liveThat is why the prejudices of the individual, far more than his judgments, constitute the historical reality of his being italics mine.10
Gadamer stands against the enlightenment epistemology that attempts philosophy and social sciences as an objective science, within the same parameters of experimental science. Understanding and knowledge, are therefore passed down from a shared set of principles in which the interpreted text or person becomes known from previous unknowing, through his own prejudices, the other loses his/her alieness and thus a fusion of horizons absorbs the once unseen, unknown, or alien knowledge/understanding. Understanding then stands somewhere between subjectivity and objectivity, subjective through the individuals prejudices and inherited cultural and linguistic tradition and objective through some sort of understanding between the two dialoguing parties (e.g. a reader and the text, an audience and a play, or two persons conversing).
Habermass own understanding of language and knowledge takes on a decidedly Marxist-critical tone. Unlike Gadamer who speaks of tradition(s) and authority, Habermas uses terms like language games11 and reflective reason12. Habermass epistemology is distinctly based upon reason. However this reason, tends to be a dialectical Marxist reason, not the linear reason expressed in early Anglo-Franco enlightenment thinkers. However, Habermas and Gadamer do not seem completely apart on this issue. One author has noted that, Habermas uses the language of reason, where Gadamer tends to use the language of being.13 While these terms are not used in parallel, there does seem to be some linkage to similarly expressed ideas. Gadamers ontological tutelage under Heidegger and Habermass Marxist-Freudian heritage would seem to explain some of the differences. However, Habermass own views seem to be very much in parallel to many of Gadamers. First Habermass own theory of communicative action relies on a very dialogical approach to understanding, in which both participants dialogue using rational discourse to a satisfactory conclusion (ethical or otherwise)14. This parallels the hermeneutic view of dialogical understanding and appropriation very well. Second, Habermas shares with Gadamer a rejection of the positivist view of language. Positivism asserted that language much like science is fixed and meaning is objectively known through linguistic utterance. Conversely, Habermas, like Gadamer, maintains that language contains a dialectical element, in which it acquires new meaning through the life world that accompanies it. Language is porous not fixed. Third, Habermas shares with Gadamer his belief that language enables us to be a part of a historical tradition.15 We appropriate meaning and can reflect upon it through the inheritance of that tradition. However, unlike Gadamer, Habermas does not agree with the universalism of the hermeneutic understanding. This topic will divide them, along with Gadamers conservative intellectual heritage, thoroughly suspected and rejected by Habermas.
Hermeneutics claims a universal applicability. This universal claim mimics Derridas own deconstructionist claim that There is nothing outside the text.16 While Derrida and Gadamer have their own issues and debate, the universality of texts is not one of them. G. B. Madison notes this universal life hermeneutic stating, Hermeneutics insists that both the general theory of human understanding it embodies as well as the practical implications italics mine which follow from this theory (as regards, for instance, ethical and political issues) have universal relevance or applicability.17 This universality troubles many postmodern thinkers. The universal or absolute has often been used to denigrate and subjugate different peoples in a host of manners. Whether it be the colonial Christian missionaries stripping Natives of their culture under the guise of an absolute Christian gospel or the once universal claim to male supremacy, the universal is a term used to silence the other(s). Claims of universality have an intellectual weight and aggression not found in other theories. John D Caputo has even accused Gadamer of having a closet essentialism, a foundationalism that asks us to bend our knee to the authority of linguistic tradition.18
Habermas has also been accused of foundationalism, against his claims of being post-metaphysical.19 However, the universalism that Habermas rejects in Gadamer is not Habermas aversion to universalism, like Derrida, for Habermas himself claims universality for his communicative ethics. Rather, Habermas is rejecting the claim that hermeneutics is sufficient for (proper) human understanding. Habermas relates this, saying:
Gadamer fails to appreciate the power of reflection that is developed in understanding. This type of reflection is no longer blinded by the illusion of an absolute, self-grounded autonomy and odes not detach itself from the soil of contingency on which it finds itself. But in grasping the genesis of the tradition from which it proceeds and on which it turns back, reflection shakes the dogmatism of life practices.20
The shaking of dogmatism and tradition are key features in Habermas thought. Critical theory is about going beyond the traditions and recognizing that language is also ideological.21 He states in a later interchange with Gadamer, that, Hermeneutical consciousness is incomplete so long as it has not incorporated into itself reflection on the limit of hermeneutical understanding.22 Habermas is concerned about the lack of critical reflection in hermeneutics. He also seems concerned of Gadamers fondness for historical authority and tradition and dislike for enlightenment reason. Habermas relates this, saying:
This experience of reflection is the unforgettable legacy bequeathed to us by the German Idealism from the spirit of the eighteenth century. One is tempted to lead Gadamer into battle against himself, to demonstrate to him hermeneutically that he ignores that legacy because he has taken over an undialectical concept of enlightenment from the limited perspective of the German nineteenth century and that with it has had adopted and attitude that vindicated for us (Germans) a dangerous pretension to superiority separating us from the Western traditionThe right of reflection demands that the hermeneutics approach restrict itself. It calls for a reference system that goes beyond the framework of tradition as such; only then can tradition also be criticized23. italics mine
Habermas is concerned here about not only Gadamers theory but also about his potential pretentious German spirit. One must wonder that he is referring to Heidegger and Nietzsche in this regard, especially given his own workings against Heidegger after WW II. These concerns echo a deeper concern of Habermass: Gadamers closet conservatism (not to be confused with neo or social conservatism), an orientation that follows Edmund Burke in rejecting the revolutionary impulses of enlightenment and an exaltation of tradition and historical continuity. Habermas instead advocates a critically self-aware hermeneuticsone which differentiates between insight and delusion and enabling dominance-free communication, which assimilates the metahermeneutical knowledge concerning the conditions which make systematically distorted communication possible.24 One could state the issue as such: Habermass theory of communicative action involves the disembodiment of self-interest, cultural and historical aspects of the persons involved.25 However, Gadamers hermeneutics quite insistently maintains that a person cannot do this, that is, his being is historically constituted, evident through the socialized, linguistic life world that he/she finds him/herself.
Habermass ideological and socio-politico views are quite known, as a Frankfurt school adherent. However, Gadamers are less so. He has always described himself as a political liberal in interviews.26 While his reputation remained relatively unscathed over WW II, some authors have questioned his actions during this period, suggesting some Nazi sympathies.27 However, since then Gadamer has consistently denounced the Nazi regime. Gadamer himself wrote an article entitled, On the Political Incompetence of Philosophy, in 1998. Recalling the unsavory involvement of his mentor Martin Heidegger with the Nazi regime, Gadamer notes the incompetence of philosophy and philosophers in politics. He wrote poignantly that, The philosophers gaze, which probes every question down to its basic and ultimate generality, does not seem predisposed to view correctly the possibilities and concrete circumstances of social and political life.28 The philosopher so concerned with realities oft times disconnected from real life, seem unable to make correct political judgments. It is with this trepidation that Gadamer has remained out of ideological, ethical and political conflicts.
Despite Gadamers lack of political, ideological or ethical writing, one could glean a certain ideological disposition in his writing. As aforementioned, Habermas has denounced some of Gadamers work as being in the line of Edmund Burke and conservative reactionaries against the enlightenment. Burke vehemently rejected the French revolution and its excesses, instead focusing on peaceful and historical continuous means to reform, in the example of Great Britain. Gadamers insistence on historical tradition and authority would seem to echo Burkes thought. One sentence in Truth and Method displays this: What makes classical ethics superior to modern moral philosophy is that it grounds the transition from ethics to politics, the art of right legislation, on the indispensability of tradition. By comparison, the modern enlightenment is abstract and revolutionary.29 Gadamer and Habermas in a Canadian context could be associated with Red Tories and social democracy respectively. Despite socialism, liberalism and libertarians internal battles, they seem to share a distinct and fundamental common epistemological locus, reason (albeit applied and conceived of differently). Gadamers conservatism exhibits an older ideological struggle. In this context, the debate between the two could be seen to be a carry over from the 17th and 18th centuries, in which the enlightenment and conservative forces vied for the mind and heart of western civilization.
Gadamer and Habermas remain two of the most important German philosophers in the post-WW II era. Their respective philosophies show many commonalities, as well as disparities. So, what do these two intellectual giants, if they are indeed giants, have to provide the western intellectual tradition? (i.e. Why are they important) Many have criticized modern scholarships ivory tower abstractions as useless and grassroots workingmen and women, as well as political and corporate leadership, seem completely ignorant of much contemporary scholarship. The answer would seem to be complex. For while it is most assuredly true, that the average person would not have a clue about Gadamers hermeneutic circle or Habermass theory of communicative action, these two people do shape the way the western tradition interprets and guides itself. It steers intellectual leaders in value judgments and reality potentialities. Philosophers real life influence often comes years after their death, as in the case of John Locke and the American Revolution. In some ways, Gadamer and Habermass influence has yet to be written. Time will tell of their importance. However, in current philosophical, ethical, and sociological research and impact, these two have had great influence. It is for no reason that an encomium written on Gadamers ninety-fifth birthday described him as, the most successful philosopher of the Federal Republic of Germany.30 Habermas, as well, could have been the receptor of such a accolade. Perhaps the answer to the above stated question is, that it is an unfinished story, with the beginning chapters looking very promising, and an ending sure to surprise.
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1 Hans Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, p474 (henceforth, all references to Truth and Method, will be made by the inscription, TM).
2 TM, xxiii.
3 Richard Wolin, Untruth and Method, The New Republic, May 15/00 v222 i20, p.36.
4 No Author Given, The Court Philosopher of Berlin, Wilson Quarterly, Summer 2001 v25 i1, p101.
5 Ibid, p101.
6 TM, p474.
7 TM, p277-307.
8 TM, p277.
9 TM, p378.
11 Jurgen Habermas, A Review of Gadamers Truth and Method, Hermeneutics and Modern philosophy, p248.
12 Ibid, p268.
13 Alan How, The Habermas-Gadamer Debate and the Nature of the Social, p.122.
14 Erin Kelly, Habermas on moral justification, Social Theory and Practice, v26 i2, p225-226.
15 Alan How, The Habermas-Gadamer Debate and the Nature of the Social, p.123.
16 Jaucgues Derrida, Of Grammatology, translated by Gayatri Chackrovorty Spivak, p.158.
17 G.B. Madison, The Philosophy of Hans Georg Gadamer, Hermeneutics Claim to Universality, p.349.
18 John D. Caputo, Dialogue and Deconstruction: The Gadamer-Derrida Encounter, Gadamers Closet Essentialism: A Derridean Critique, p.263.
19 Erin Kelly, Habermas on moral justification, Social Theory and Practice, v26 i2, p223, 234.
20 Jurgen Habermas, A Review of Gadamers Truth and Method, Hermeneutics and Modern Philosophy, p.268.
21 ibid, p272.
22 Jurgen Habermas, Hermeneutics and the Social Sciences, Festschrift (1970), p.302.
23 Ibid, p270.
24 ibid, p314.
25 Adi Ophir, A Plea for a Hermeneutic Ethics, Hermeneutics and Critical Theory in Ethics and Politics, p114.
26 Richard Wolin, Untruth and Method, The New Republic, May 15 2000, p.38.
28 Hans Georg Gadamer, On the political Incompetence of Philosophy, Diogenes, no182 1998, p.3.
29 TM, p281.
30 Richard Wolin, Untruth and Method, The New Republic, May 15 2000, p36.