Notes and Quotes from Jurgen Habermas; On Hermeneutics’ Claim to Universality

June 6, 2012 — Leave a comment

Part 1

Habermas starts out by grouping hermeneutics (the art of understanding) with linguistic communication.

“Understanding of meaning focuses on the semantic content of speech, but also on the meaning contained in written forms of expression or in non-linguistic symbol systems, so far as such meanings can, in principle, be ‘recovered’ in speech.” (p294)

“Philosophical hermeneutics is a different matter: it is not an art but a critique – that is, it brings to consciousness in a reflective attitude experiences which we have of language in the exercise of our communicative competence and thus in the course of social interaction with others through language.” (p294)

Habermas is separating out a natural hermeneutical capability we as humans have, which is linguistic, from a philosophical hermeneutics which is critical, and also an extension, or clearer, second tier philosophical hermeneutics that is an inquiry into the structures of colloquial communication.

A fundamental assumption in philosophical hermeneutics is that natural language is sufficient to clarify the meaning of any configuration of symbols. We can translate from any language into any other.

Here he makes a comment on history, worth making a note of:

“We can place the objectifications of the most remote period and the most alien culture in understandable relationship to the familiar (that is, previously understood) context of our own surroundings.” (p294)

With regards to cultural distance:

“The inter-subjectivity of colloquial understanding is in principle as limitless as it is fragmentary: limitless, because it can be enlarged at will; fragmentary, because it can never be exhaustively constructed. That is as much true of contemporary communication within a socio-culturally homogeneous language community as it is of communication which takes place over the distance between different classes, cultures and time periods.” (p295)

Habermas is very wordy in his description of the reflexive nature of language and its potential and ability to permit ad hoc stipulation and commentary on individual statements:

“For every natural language is its own meta-language.” (p295)

Next comes the observation that such freedom of movement in language is dependent upon linguistic tradition itself, and so language competence is dependent upon a context which has been dogmatically transmitted and implicitly pre-established. This has clear links to Heidegger and developments in linguistic philosophy, and soon follows with mention of understanding being unavoidably biased. Here the Gadamer debate hones into view:

“in the process of learning, he merely forms a new preconception, which in turn becomes the reigning preconception at the next hermeneutical step. That is the meaning of Gadamer’s statement: ‘effective historical consciousness is inescapably more existence than it is consciousness.'” (p296)

Here the Heideggerian foundation can be detected in acknowledging that subjectivity is the natural state of consciousness, therefore existence. Habermas will undoubtedly employ logic and language to reason against this ‘outcome’ of investigating understanding, but his own ideological frameworks must always be kept in view. To what extent does a Marxist/materialist outlook hold validity if we accept the proposition of subjective existence?

Habermas argues that in the reverse order communication, convincing and persuading, colloquial language also shapes and alters attitudes which inform behavior. (p296) This is a structuralist argument and one can see a conflict arising with unescapable subjectivity. For if subjectivity is shaped by language, then subjectivity can be changed if language is changed. There is also an argument about the social framework of society here regarding decisions that are made about normal behavior, standards etc. Such decisions are arrived at via convincing speech:

“[…] practical questions can be decided only through dialogue and therefore remain bound to the context of the colloquial language.” (p296)

Habermas next turns to the individuals capacity to influence a ‘corporate’ body of men, and the obverse of this power, the powerlessness of the subject vis-a-vis familiar language games:

“[…] the grammar of language games must become a constituent part of the personality structure.” (p297)

Language games are a clear reference to Ludwig Wittgenstein.

The next element of consideration for the speech/language experience is actions and gestural forms of communication. Skillful speech has power over practical consciousness due to the fact that a natural language cannot be adequately grasped as a system of rules for semantically meaningful expressions. It is dependent on its context i.e. body language:

“The rhetorical experience thus teaches us to see the connection between language and praxis.” (p297)

Language and behavior interpret each other reciprocally.

“The grammar of language games, understood as a complete life-praxis, governs not only the combination of symbols but the interpretation of linguistic symbols through actions and expressions.” (p297)

This reciprocal power relationship between language and praxis will be the site of Habermas’ critique of Gadamer’s dialogic approach to knowledge (my conjecture at this early stage in reading).

How is hermeneutics different from linguistics?

“Reflexivity and objectivity are as fundamental to language as creativity and the integral relationship between language and life praxis.” (p297)

Hermeneutics means to investigate the structures of natural language, and engage in a ‘reflective use of communicative competence.’ Linguistics is limited to ‘linguistic competence’, as distinct from communicative competence. This linguistic competence refers to the ability of an ideal speaker who has full command of the abstract rule system of a natural language. (Chomsky) Linguistics is concerned purely with langue (the deep structure that produces our ideas), whereas hermeneutics takes into account the dimension in which langue is transformed into parole (a specific instance of speech or writing).

“Further, the goal of linguistics is a reconstruction of the rule system which underlies the production of all the various grammatically correct and semantically meaningful elements of a natural language, whereas hermeneutics reflects on the principle experiences of a communicatively competent speaker (whose linguistic competence is tacitly presupposed).” (p298)

Hermeneutics brings to light for the knowledge seeker his inherent freedoms and dependencies with regards to language. However, philosophical hermeneutics cannot define communicative competence. This is the task of linguistics. This means, according to Habermas, that the subjectivity of the speaker remains fundamentally untouched in the field of hermeneutics.

Two ways in which hermeneutics is significant:

1) “Hermeneutical consciousness demolishes the objectivistic self-conception of the traditional human sciences. Given the bond between the interpreting scholar and the hermeneutical situation from which he starts, it follows that impartiality of understanding cannot be secured by abstraction from preconceived ideas, but alone through reflection on the effective historical relationship in which the knowing subject always stands to its object.” (p298)

2) “hermeneutical consciousness calls to the attention of the social sciences problems which arise from the symbolic ‘fore-structuring’ of their investigation field.” Essentially, all observation is theory laden and must be treated as such with regard to the scientific method. (p299)

3) “[…] natural language always plays the role of an ‘ultimate’ metalanguage for all theories expressed in formal language […]” This explains the epistemological rank of colloquial language in the research process.

4) “[…] the translation of momentous scientific information into the language of the social world at large.”

This is a new territory for hermeneutics argues Habermas:

“Hermeneutical consciousness originates in reflection on our activity within natural language, while the interpretation of the sciences for the world at large must mediate between natural language and monlogical language systems.” (p300) By monological language systems Habermas is referring to sciences characteristic ability to produce knowledge and make statements about things by proceeding via controlled observation, where the ‘mirror’ (reflection) of human speech needs no attention.

Habermas questions the validity of hermeneutics claim to universality:

“Is it possible to have an understanding of colloquial configurations of symbols themselves that is not bound by the hermeneutical presuppositions of context-dependent processes of understanding, that in this sense cheats the natural language of its role as ultimate meta-language? Since hermeneutical understanding must always proceed ad hoc and cannot be developed into a scientific method (can at most reach the level of an art through discipline and training), this question is equivalent to asking whether there can be a theory appropriate to the structure of natural languages which provides the basis for a methodologically ensured understanding of meaning.” (p301)

Habermas suggests two avenues of inquiry to find an answer to this problem: 1) the application of hermeneutical understanding is limited by undertakings of explanation by psychoanalysis and critique of ideologies (in so far as it involves collective behavior), and 2) the search for a universal theory of linguistics, which amounts to the reconstruction of a rule system which would adequately define universal linguistic competence. Of the first, the primary suggestion is that the subject who expresses himself is unaware of his own intentions:

“A theory of colloquial communication, consequently, must first open the way to pathologically buried meaning. If the claim to produce such a theory were to prove valid, an explanatory understanding were then possible which would be able to pass beyond the limits of hermeneutical understanding of meaning.” (p301)

Of the second, the goal is to assign a structural description from the theoretical language unequivocally to every element of natural language. The structural descriptions expressed in the theoretical language would be able to take the place of hermeneutical understanding of meaning. (p301)

This comes into direct contact with the philosophy of science, through which both ideas are basically refuted. First of all, Popper’s assertion that both psychoanalysis and political criticism (such as Marxism) are pseudo-sciences due to their mutable/adjustable natures. Secondly, that science (whether you be a realist or anti-realist) is in a state of change, paradigm and constant falsification. This is the character of science and in so being is unsuitable as the basis of a system of structural descriptions to be applied to natural language.

Habermas asserts that psychoanalysis is a critical science. On this I invoke Karl Popper and simply disagree. These are not good options to replace universal hermeneutics as they appear as attempts to assert control and systemization over the language game, rather than artful engagement with it. It seems that Habermas seeks to replace the problem of subjectivity and structure of language as a dominant force, with a system of analysis, which in turn equals a system of analysis control.

Part 2

Habermas invokes the concept of pseudo-communication – where unintelligibility results from a faulty organization of speech itself (as opposed to disturbances which might appear in psychotics, outside of normal speech). In pseudocommunication disruptions of speech are not noticed by parties involved. hermeneutics does not put a universal criterion at our disposal which would tell us when we are caught up in the false consciousness of a pseudo-normal understanding. Following this point comes an analysis of Freud who thoroughly explored systematically displaced communication, of which the dream is the normative phenomena. Freud extends this from conception of systematically distorted communication to the hidden pathology of entire social systems. What follows is a complex account of Freudian speech analysis. It has to be said that this needss to be treated with caution considering Habermas’ claim that it is a critical science.

Part 3

“Indeed, the implicit knowledge of the determinants of systematically distorted communication, which is presupposed by the depth-hermeneutical use of communicative competence, is enough to call into question the ontological self-conception of hermeneutics which Gadamer explicates, following Heidegger.” (p313)

Hermeneutics (via Gadamer) is context-dependent. It is supported by tradition and develops constantly a new preconception.

Quote Gadamer in Habermas:

“Is the phenomenon of understanding adequately defined if I say: understanding means avoiding misunderstanding? Does not, in truth, every misunderstanding presuppose the existence of something like a standing agreement?” (p313)

“Gadamer, if i am correct, is of the opinion that the hermeneutical elucidation of unintelligible or misunderstood expression must always refer back to a prior consensus which has been reliably worked out in the dialogue of a convergent tradition. This tradition, however, is objective for us, in the sense that it cannot be confronted with a claim to the truth on principle. The inherently prejudiced nature of understanding renders it impossible – indeed, makes it seem pointless – to place in jeopardy the factually worked out consensus which underlies, as the case may be, our misconception or lack of comprehension. Hermeneutically, we are obliged to have reference to concrete pre-understandings which, ultimately, can be traced back to the process of socialization, to the mastery and absorption into common contexts of tradition. None of the contexts involved is off-limits to criticism as a matter of principle, but none of them can be called into question abstractly. That would be possible only if we could look at a consensus produced through mutual understanding from the sidelines, as it were, and could subject it, behind the backs of the participants, to renewed demands for legitimation. But we can make demands of this sort to the face of the participants only by entering into a converstaion with them. In so doing, we resubmit ourselves to the hermeneutical obligation of accepting for the time being – as a standing agreement – whatever consensus the resumed conversation may lead to as its resolution. The attempt to cast doubt, abstractly, on this agreement – which is, of course, contingent – as a false consciousness is pointless, since we cannot transcend the conversation which we are. From this, Gadamer infers the ontological precedence of linguistic tradition over criticism of all sorts: we can, it follows, bring criticism to bear only on given individual traditions, since we ourselves are part of the encompassing traditional context of a language.” (p313)

This is where psychoanalysis can serve to undermine Gadamer’s proposition: that is, if the consensus is worked out in pseudo-communication, on a set of miscommunication. Also, the conversation that ‘we are’ implies an experienced reality of a communication distorted by force:

“The enlightenment demands that reason be established as the principle of unconstrained communication.” (p314)

The conversation that we are is also a nexus of force and for that very reason not a conversation.

“Gadamer has used hermeneutical insight into the prejudicial structure of understanding to rehabilitate prejudice. He sees no antithesis between authority and reason. The authority of tradition, he says, does not prevail blindly but through the reflective acknowledgement of those who, standing within the tradition, interpret it and continue its development through application.” (p316)

Gadamer’s response to Habermas:

“Granted, authority exercises force in countless forms….But this view of the obedience rendered to authority can never explain why it should express itself in power structures and not in the disorder which characterizes the exercise of force alone. As I see it, then, there are compelling reasons for viewing acknowledgement as the determining factor in true authority relationships….One need only study representative instances of the loss or decline of authority to see what authority is and whence it derives it life. Not from dogmatic force, but from dogmatic acknowledgement. What, however, is dogmatic acknowledgement, if not this: that one concedes to authority a superiority in knowledge and judgment.” (p316)

Habermas’ main point of contention is to question the use of force in establishing authority. He argues that Gadamer presupposes that acknowledgement and agreement in which authority is grounded is brought about without force. He goes further to suggest that force “achieves permanence through precisely the objective illusion of freedom from force which characterizes a pseudocommunicative agreement.” (p316)

Once again, if psychoanalysis can be argued to be invalid as a critical science and therefore speculative, this whole argument becomes speculative. What of Gadamer though? To what extent does the use of force matter in the establishment of social consensus (if there is force)?? And what of the illusion of freedom? Surely there are tangible qualities of freedom regardless of pseudo-communication.


Habermas, J., “Hermeneutics and the Social Sciences”, in The Hermeneutics Reader, K. Mueller-Vollmer ed., Oxford: Basil Blackwell 1986, 293-319


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