Hermeneutics is a topic that has been debated about for many years and two philosophers that have impacted the thought on hermeneutics are Hans-George Gadamer (1900-2002) and Jurgen Habermas (1929- ). In this essay I begin by providing a brief history of hermeneutics and then I go on to explain Gadamer‘s philosophy followed by Habermas’ philosophy. The debate between Habermas and Gadamer began in 1967 after Habermas’ review of Gadamer’s famous work, Truth and Method (Jay, 1982). By explaining their philosophies I introduce their critiques of each other and discuss this renowned Gadamer-Habermas debate.
Thereafter I explain why I believe that Gadamer’s thoughts inspired me to believe that understanding through dialogue is important and possible. I do this by showing that it is possible for philosophy to stay within the hermeneutic circle of understanding and still give rational principles as the conditions for the validity of specific acts of understanding. Hermeneutics has its origins in Greek mythology. It is named after the Greek God Hermes who was considered to be the God of bringer of messages (Jay, 1982).
Hermes was responsible for taking messages from the Gods and delivering them to the mortals or humans. In the middle of the seventeenth century Protestants needed to find a way to interpret and understand hidden meaning or messages in holy texts. This practice of biblical exegesis became known as hermeneutics. Later hermeneutics took on other meanings as well such as interpreting, translation and explaining (Jay, 1982). The approach to hermeneutics changed after philosophers like Schleiermacher, Dilthey and Droysen attempted to establish a better meaning for the word and use it to understand human beings.
Wilhelm Dilthey broadened hermeneutics by taking it as a methodology that would cause us to better understand ‘human’ or ‘historical’ sciences, the Geisteswissenschaften (Malpas, 2003). The age-old question of human existence was the centre of concern. These philosophers tried to explain human existence in terms of scientific methods and rules. This methodological approach proved difficult, as human beings cannot be described by scientific terms as we are not the same as plants and animals.
Heidegger realised this problem and attempted to overcome it by first finding an intuitive definition of human beings, which he terms Dasein (literally meaning being there). Heidegger did not write in depth details on hermeneutics, as he was concentrating on the concept of Dasein in his great work Being and Time (Grondin, 1994). In fact he only mentioned hermeneutics briefly in this masterpiece. Although the attention to hermeneutics was so limited in Heidegger’s work, it still played an important role in future research into the topic. Heidegger influenced many philosophers to further research this new approach to hermeneutics.
Gadamer was a student of Heidegger’s and he took direction from many of Heidegger’s thoughts. A central element in Gadamer’s thought is that of phronesis (Malpas, 2003) which can be thought of as practical wisdom, which are wisdom or knowledge gained through taking part in and living life. All your experiences in life lead to phronesis. Phronesis can also be seen as a dialogic conception of understanding. These two concepts (phronesis and dialogue) are the starting points for Gadamer’s philosophical hermeneutics (Malpas, 2003). Heidegger’s ontological conception is taken up by Gadamer.
Here Heidegger claims that for us to understand anything at all, we must fist have some innate knowledge of the thing. We must ‘be’ or ‘see’ ourselves in the world to which the object (that we must understand) and we belong to. This is Heidegger’s hermeneutic circle, whereby for us to understand something we must know something about the whole of that object of understanding, and for us to understand the whole; we must understand that small part (the object) of the whole. Only by acknowledging one’s place in this hermeneutic circle can one correctly approach truth (Jay, 1982).
Heidegger and Gadamer view the hermeneutical circle as something more than merely a matter of procedure, and Gadamer brings this insight into his notion of effective historical consciousness, which provides him with an alternative to objectivism and relativism. Both begin with the idea that there is a gap between the subject and the object. Objectivism argues that this gap can be overcome through careful adherence to methods and rules, whilst relativism maintains that we are condemned to a plurality of language games. This implies that we are not able to effectively communicate with each other.
Both these positions, according to Gadamer, give the wrong impression of hermeneutic experience. He suggests that understanding can be better described as a dialogue between the interpreter and the text. This dialogue encompasses our own self-understandings and the understanding of the matter at hand (Malpas, 2003). Gadamer insists that no matter how foreign the text might be, there will always exist a common basis or some form of shared history. In other words, there is no situation that can be entirely new or foreign to someone. Furthermore, any misunderstandings can come to light through further dialogue.
In Weberman (2000), Gadamer is quoted: “…the idea of an absolute reason is not a possibility for historical humanity…Reason exists for us only in concrete, historical terms… In fact history does not belong to us; we belong to it. ” This emphasises the importance of history in Gadamer’s philosophy of hermeneutics. By recognising these misunderstandings and coming to an agreement with the other in dialogue results in a fusion of horizons, which can be thought of as establishing a common framework or “horizon”. This results in further understanding and the formation of new meanings of what is foreign and of what is known (Malpas, 2003).
The process of understanding through dialogue is therefore a continuous engagement in an activity that never achieves complete elucidation. Thus our historical and hermeneutic situation can never be made completely transparent to us. Gadamer’s work (elaborated from Heidegger), provides a radically new look at hermeneutics that breaks away from tradition by representing a hermeneutical framework that provides a more accurate ground for understanding while still rejecting attempts at attaching rules and methods to understanding.
This must not be mistaken as a rejection of the importance of methodological concerns; instead he simply wishes to bring to light the limited role of methodology. Gadamer’s own philosophical hermeneutics is described by him as an attempt to take up and elaborate on Heidegger’s later works on truth, art and poetic language. He does this by concentrating on two important aspects; first is the focus on art and the connection of art with truth; second is the focus on truth itself, as an event of concealment or unconcealment, in which we are involved with and cannot be made transparent (Malpas, 2003).
Gadamer was able to develop an alternative to subjectivism by referring back to art and the concept of truth as “prior and partial disclosure” (Malpas, 2003). Understanding is therefore possible because of prior experience or involvement. The concept of ‘play’ has an important role in Gadamer’s work. Gadamer believes that play is the basic clue to the ontological structure and truth of art. The structure of play is also connected with dialogue, phronesis and the hermeneutical situation. All these concepts are essentially directed towards one basic conception, understanding.
This is a major topic in Gadamer’s famous written work Truth and Method, where he explains that prior knowledge does not create a barrier, but rather conditions our understanding (Malpas, 2003). Gadamer considers understanding (Verstehen) and interpretation to be a practical mode of insight that cannot be taught by any set of rules as it is dependent and relative to the situation at hand. He believes that in understanding anything, objectivity is not a good model because there is no absolutely correct interpretation of the event under observation.
Understanding is rather a combination of the past, the present, the objective and the subjective (Weberman, 2000). The fact that our understanding is dependant on our experience and out prior knowledge can be viewed as a subjective prejudice. Gadamer believes that these prejudices are what assist in opening us up to understanding (Malpas, 2003). These prejudices are, in Gadamer’s work, pre-judgements of understanding. Since understanding is an ongoing process that can never really be completed (as mentioned above), Gadamer argues that there can be no basic technique or method to achieve understanding or establish a truth.
This proves that Being or the existence of being cannot be described according to scientific measures. This is where the basic model of understanding, in Gadamer’s Truth and Method, arrives at conversation (Malpas, 2003). A conversation takes place between partners that seek some sort of agreement about a certain matter. This activity is an exchange of ‘information’ and this exchange will never dominated by any one of the partners as it is centred around the topic of discussion. Conversation is dependent on language as it always takes place through language. For this reason Gadamer views understanding as linguistically mediated.
Language plays an important role here for Gadamer, since conversation and understanding involve attaining some sort of agreement; they have to do so through a common language even though that common language is formed through the process of understanding. Language, according to Gadamer, is not merely a tool or instrument by which we are able to interact and engage with the world. Instead, it is the medium for such engagement. It is through language that we able to be ‘in’ the world (Malpas, 2003). For Gadamer, all human reality is determined by its linguisticality, this is the first lesson he learned from Heidegger (Jay, 1982).
This dependence on language does not imply that we are trapped within language. Rather, language is the means by which anything that is intelligible can be comprehended. It is also the way in which we come to know others and ourselves. Language is a sociable factor in that it always involves others, as it cannot take place without others. Hermeneutics, for Gadamer, is centrally concerned with our being-in-the-world, and this leads to understanding as a basic phenomenon in our existence, since understanding is ultimately directly related to hermeneutics.
It is not possible to go back to ‘behind’ or ‘before’ understanding as that would imply that there is a mode of intelligibility that is prior to understanding. This therefore results in hermeneutics being universal, with regards to all understanding and knowledge. It is here that I introduce Habermas. Gadamer’s claim to universality of hermeneutics was one of the main points of debate between Habermas and Gadamer. Habermas focused mainly on the study of society itself in his philosophy of hermeneutics. His interest in hermeneutics was initially inspired by Gadamer’s work.
Due to this fact, he agrees with most of Gadamer’s thoughts in that they both disagree with the view of language as an impartial description of the real world, agreeing instead that it is a practical activity between subjectivity and objectivity Jay, 1982). Language, for both these thinkers, is not merely an imitation of writing rather it is, as Gadamer describes it, a “self-estrangement of speech” (Jay, 1982). They are more concerned with the parole of language rather than the system (such as vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation) of language.
Habermas, in his revision of the Critical Theory, focused on the ideological control of the means of communication. The Critical Theory is concerned with the unmasking of ideology in order to reveal its effect on language. It can also be understood as practicing a hermeneutics of suspicion and demystification. However, Habermas comes from the Frankfurt School of Thought and as such inherited his mentors’ distrust of Heidegger’s philosophy (which was the foundation of Gadamer’s philosophy).
The feud between existential philosophers (Existenzphilosophie) and Critical Theorists is the foundation for the disagreement between Gadamer (existentialist) and Habermas (critical theorist) (Jay, 1982). Thus began the debate. The debate between Habermas and Gadamer began in 1967 after Habermas’ review of Gadamer’s famous work, Truth and Method (Jay, 1982). Gadamer opposes Hegel’s thought and elevates the power of authority and tradition to a place in knowledge, which the Enlightenment denied it. For Gadamer, tradition inspires the flow of ideas on which we rely on for understanding.
This was the reason that Habermas first critiqued Gadamer, as Habermas retains Hegel’s thought on the rationality of history as a whole (Jay, 1982). Habermas also criticises Gadamer on his adopted ontological view of hermeneutics as he believes that Dilthey’s thought of hermeneutics as a method of cultural sciences is more accurate. Habermas believes that natural scientific knowledge is based on an instrumental use of language. He elaborates on this by claiming that hermeneutics can only take us so far, even in understanding society. This is because he believes that language is also a means of domination and social power.
One participant is always in control of the conversation and this distorts language (in terms of understanding). Habermas claims that by insisting on participants having some ground of mutual or context-dependent understanding, Gadamer does not allow for the participants to escape everyday consciousness. Even his emphasis on the pre-judgemental nature of understanding causes one to doubt the legitimacy of the conclusions reached through hermeneutical discourse (Jay, 1982). This makes it impossible for Gadamer to distinguish between authority and reason causing a distortion of language, communication and understanding.
This distortion can create irrational or illegitimate consensus (Jay, 1982). Habermas criticizes Gadamer on this as indicative of his ideological conservatism. He believes that the restraint of the Enlightenment and the freedom from the illegitimate structures of authority is lost in Gadamer’s theory. Gadamer simply viewed it as a correction to the over-reaction against these ideas that occurred during the Enlightenment (Malpas, 2003). The Ideal Speech Situation introduced by Habermas explains that there can ever be an ideal situation (for Gadamer’s philosophical hermeneutics) in which all participants in discourse have an equal opportunity or equal power to initiate and direct the conversation. This is because there will always be one participant that dominates the exchange as our inherited competence in communication is influenced by concealed interests in domination and power (based on the psychoanalytic theory). Thus communication is distorted by unequal opportunities for dialogue. This is the result of the fact that one cannot detach one’s consciousness and claim to be entirely objective.
Gadamer’s concentration on pure linguistic importance in understanding cannot account for this distortion and thus falls back into an idealised or perfect model that has the potential for assumed perfect communicability. He therefore, misinterprets ideology to be cause by linguistic misunderstanding whereas it could be caused by the interaction of linguistic power and other economic factors (Jay, 1982). Habermas puts effort into attempting to find a vantage point outside of the hermeneutic circle in order to escape the conservative implications of Gadamer’s position.
Gadamer believes however, that Habermas’ attempts to escape the hermeneutic circle are in vain. Gadamer replies to Hambermas’ critiques by emphasising once again the ontological quality of linguisticality (Jay, 1982). Gadamer replies that society cannot exist outside of language. All social activities have to be performed under the aspect of language and since one is entirely dependent on society and communication, one cannot find an Archimedean point outside the hermeneutical circle (Jay, 1982). Furthermore, Gadamer claims that Habermas blindly submits to tradition’s belief that authority is always slavish and wrong.
This need not be the case in that authority that is willingly accepted may be free to rule as this leads to better insights. This means that some are willing to allow one person of authority (or of better knowledge) to dominate the conversation as they feel that more can be revealed and understood than if someone of no authority or knowledge dominated the conversation. On this note, Gadamer adds that it is not possible for everyone to hold the position of authority at once. In order for understanding to take place everyone in the conversation may ominate the dialogue at relative given time. This way more is understood. Another important point is that Gadamer believes that the range of hermeneutics can be used to deal with ideology since it is able to deal with prejudices. Habermas however, believes that prejudice and ideology is not the same thing since ideology is not contained implicitly in texts/societies, but expressed in a way that is difficult to identify. Similarly Habermas argues that when trying to understand societies, hermeneutics cannot do so without its language.
Gadamer replies by stating that by critiquing self-understanding of a society, it is difficult to define “normal” and hence the critical theory itself can be seen to reflect the prejudices of a certain group. Thus in order to critique something you have to make use of language. Finally Gadamer argues that there is no link between the ideal speech situation (which he believes is unrealistic as it is only possible in a ‘perfect world’) and the pledge to power-related material conflicts.
The reason for this is because Gadamer believes that Habermas’ psychoanalytic encounter is based on individuals that who share an interest in the neuroticism of one of the participants. Social interaction on the other hand, consists of people who are not able to remove themselves from the situation. Because of this it is expected that individual interests will clash. No amount of rational validity testing will lead to a perfect concluding agreement. In this essay I have introduced important terms with regards to hermeneutics.
I have also discussed Gadamer’s thoughts and theories along with Habermas’ critiques of some of these theories and I have given a brief discussion of Gadamer’s replies to these critiques. I have also highlighted the importance that language plays in both these philosopher’s theories. It is important to note that Gadamer has never claimed universality for his position. He also does not say that we will never understand anything at all; he simply says that we will not have complete and full understanding. That is, the understanding that we have is limited in that we can always earn new things and elaborate on present understandings. I believe that the hermeneutic circle is an important aspect of our existence as it explains how we are able to come to an understanding of our experiences (even if it is in a limited sense). Habermas’ false attempt to escape the hermeneutic circle only strengthens this view. We can only understand things by understanding the whole and we can only understand the whole by understanding the individual parts of life, thus we learn about life and understanding. Language is also central to hermeneutics and understanding. On a closing note, in every circumstance there will always be a person in dialogue and this dialogue cannot happen without language. Word Count: 3096
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