Archives For Foundations of Interpretation

Phenomenology is typically said to be:

a return to things in themselves
a descriptive method (not explanatory)
centered on the use of intuition
the study of appearances or ways of appearing
the study of the structures of consciousness
based on a method of reduction
opposed to naturalism (viewing everything in scientific terms)

Existentialism is typically said to be:

concerned with concrete/individual subjects
deny that there is a fixed human nature (‘existence prior to essence’)
emphasize personal freedom and responsibility
consider the meaningfulness of human life
be concerned with individuality and self-fulfillment (as opposed to mass identity)
highlight the transformative power of certain kinds of subjective experiences/emotions (anxiety/nausea) or extreme situations
be ‘anticartesian’

These terms are not particularly illuminating and it seems evident that no two philosophers would discuss any of these labels in the same way. Never-the-less, a starting point for building a map needs to come together. Something to attempt as I go on to read the various Phenomenologists (Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty) is to map out the similarities and differences between them; searching for connections. What’s the connection between Phenomenology and Existentialism??

In his Introduction to the Second Volume of the First Edition of his Logische Untersuchungen (Logical Investigations 1900 – 1901) Husserl speaks of “the phenomenology of the experiences of thinking and knowing”. He is discussing the need for a wide-ranging theory of knowledge. Husserl is treating ‘experience’ in a complex and new way:

“This phenomenology, like the more inclusive pure phenomenology of experiences in general, has, as its exclusive concern, experiences intuitively seizable and analysable in the pure generality of their essence, not experiences empirically perceived and treated as real facts, as experiences of human or animal experients in the phenomenal world that we posit as an empirical fact. This phenomenology must bring to pure expression, must describe in terms of their essential concepts and their governing formulae of essence, the essences which directly make themselves known in intuition, and the connections which have their roots purely in such essences. Each such statement of essence is an a priori statement in the highest sense of the word.”

Dermot Moran describes this project as an ‘a priori transcendental science of pure consciousness”. (p2) Husserl argues for a ‘reduction’ wherein the subject suspends or brackets the everyday natural attitude and all intentional acts which assume the existence of the world. The practitioner is led back into the domain of pure transcendental subjectivity. Importantly, this has to be more than a psychology of consciousness which suggests consciousness as a ‘tag end’ of the world. The philosophical practice has to stem from consciousness unassuming of the real world. Dermot Moran frames phenomenology as a thoroughly modernist outlook as it has its origins in the newly emerged science of psychology (Franz Brentano).

So to study experiences in such a pure form with regards to the experiencer, phenomenology’s first step is to avoid in advance all misconstructions and impostions (relgious, cultural traditions – language as with Gadamer, time as with Heidegger). Phenomenology aims at gaining perspective over the history of philosophical questions. Husserl and Heidegger believed that the real philosophical issue in the traditional skeptical worry about the existence of the external world was not the need to find rational grounds to justify our natural belief in this world, but rather to explain how this kind of worry could have arisen in the first place. (p4)

“But experience is not an opening through which a world, existing prior to all experience, shines into a room of consciousness; it is not a mere taking of something alien to consciousness into consciousness… Experience is the performance in which for me, the experiencer, experienced being “is there”, and is there as what it is, with the whole content and the mode of being that experience itself, by the performance going on in its intentionality, attributes to it.” (Husserl, Formal and Transcendental Logic)

This quotation comes close to painting a picture of what Husserl seeks to posit as experience and consciousness and the relationship between the two terms, but still manages to be elusive. He suggests that there is a directional element to conceptualizing phenomena: that is, we do not consider experience as information from the pre-existing world entering into a pre-existing consciousness. This much is OK. More clarity is needed on experience as ‘being there’ and what performance actually means.

(Introduction to Phenomenology: Dermot Moran Routledge pp 1 – 6)

From The Ontology of the Photographic Image

other blog posts on Bazin click here

“Today the making of images no longer shares an anthropocentric, utilitarian purpose. It is no longer a question of survival after death, but of a larger concept, the creation of an ideal world in the likeness of the real, with its own temporal destiny.”

If death is but the victory of time then art has been mankind’s counter offensive. A ‘last word’. This pertains to the celebration of the human form in Greek sculpture, the religious iconography of the symbolic arts of the medieval period, or the hieroglyphic narratives of ancient Egypt. Present also in these ‘last words’ is time itself: the temporal map traversed by the images of the hieroglyphs, the sense of movement in Greek sculpture, or even the ancestral history told by the temporal structure of the totem pole as found in numerous cultures across the world. The symbolic plus the temporal gives us our victory over time. In the age of digital video and YouTube such a case still stands up.

“If the history of the plastic arts is less a matter of their aesthetic than of their psychology then it will be seen to be essentially the story of resemblance, or, of you will, of realism.”

So the present-day approach to an exposition of the history of the arts, and the interpretation and criticism of texts might be a more varied palette than ever before, hence the need to separate out the parts and analyze and understand them individually (refer Gadamer Truth and Method and his attack on materialist views of history and interpretation).

According to Andre Malraux: the beginnings of plastic realism were first manifest at the Renaissance, found its completest expression in Baroque painting, and finds its furthermost evolution to date in the Cinema.

The Mechanical System of Reproduction and the Epistemological Split

“Thenceforth painting was torn between two ambitions: one, primarily aesthetic, namely the expression of spiritual reality where-in the symbol transcended its model; the other, purely psychological, namely the duplication of the world outside.”

This quest for the duplication of the world outside (the epistemological question of the subject and objective relationship with the world-out-there) consumed the plastic arts. Perspective (I believe developed in the Renaissance) solved the problem of form and only went so far. The problem of movement prior to the 20thC was monolithic and the goal of artists was to find some way of giving dramatic expression to the moment. We can see in other cultures from other corners of history that this same problem of temporality consumed and defined expression. In fact, seeing as from a sociological/psychological perspective plastic expression is born of the awareness of the temporal and therefore finite nature of things in the world, it fits that temporality be the primary concern of plastic expression.

In a contemporary debate one could take this argument and argue for montage over 3D as the aesthetic glue of the effect of the screen on the audience. One might argue for Michael Mann or Terrence Malick over James Cameron or Peter Jackson.

Boh faith in the image and faith in the montage have their place in the aesthetic construction of a film, though it is a question of hierarchy.

“[…] photography has freed the plastic arts from their obsession with likeness.”

However, cinema and the photograph do not solve the quest for realism. Subjectivity is the inescapable condition of mankind.

The A Priori

September 26, 2012 — 2 Comments

Notes from Lemos’ An Introduction to the Theory of Knowledge

A priori knowledge or justification is independent of experience. It is knowledge that is justified by an argument of some kind.

Examples of a priori knowledge:

all swans are swans
all squares are rectangles
whatever is red is colored
7 + 5 = 12
if some men are Greeks, some Greeks are men

These proposition do not need arguments, nor is their truth inferred from other sets of propositions. They are self sufficient claims. Our knowledge of these propositions is not based on what we know through sources such as perception, memory or introspection. These propositions are reasonable and internally consistent. Such propositions are known as basic or immediate a priori justification.

Nonbasic or mediate a priori justification is inferred from basic a priori justification or knowledge. For instance, Pythagorean Theorem is not basically justified, but can be justified for us to believe a priori through deducing or inferring from other propositions that are justified for us a priori.

In this regard, a priori justification seems to have a foundational structure.

Kant approaches a priori knowledge by asserting that it is knowledge or justification independent of experience. See his Introduction to The Critique of Pure Reason.


S is justified a priori in believing that p = Df. S’s belief that p has some degree of justification that does not depend on any experience.

Therefore, a priori is different from empirical justification. However, Lemos points out that one might have both an a priori and an empirical justification for believing a proposition. The idea of justification that does not depend on experience becomes problematic and is the source of critique i.e. one needs some experience in order to form the concept of square, even if that concept becomes self evident consequentially.

A priori justification is a problem for coherence theories of knowledge. Pure coherence theories hold that all beliefs are justified solely in virtue of their relations to other beliefs. Hence, no beliefs are justified on the basis of experience. If this were true, then all justified beliefs would have some degree of justification which is not dependent on any experience. Therefore all justified beliefs are justified a priori. In this context, pure coherence has a problem as it seems that some knowledge and justified belief does depend on experience.

Another context and criticism of the above logic is to show that a priori depends on reason alone. The above logic is an unsatisfactory negative account; it asserts what justification does not depend on. Also, one could assert that a priori does depend on experience, as reason is a certain sort of ‘purely intellectual’ experience. In this way, to take reasoning or self-evident justification as things that ‘seem’ to us to be true, ‘seeming’ itself is an intellectual, phenomenological experience.

The Analytic-Synthetic Distinction

“Traditionally, it has been characteristic of empiricism to hold that our a priori knowledge and justification is confined to analytic propositions. In contrast, rationalism holds that there are some nonanalytic, or synthetic, propositions that we can know or be justified in believing a priori. Empiricists thus hold that the scope of our a priori knowledge and justification is narrower than rationalists take it to be.” Lemos, p193

An analytic proposition is where the subject and predicate are the same: all swans are swans


where the predicate is conceptually contained within the subject: all bachelors are unmarried

If a priori justification is confined to analytic propositions, it is a narrow field of justification. Any proposition that is not analytic is synthetic. Thus, all swans are white is a synthetic proposition.

Those who believe this, and those who do not, have no common ground of discussion, but in their view of their opinions they must of necessity scorn each other. Plato

What are the implications of this with regard to empathy and understanding, social awareness and compassion; those catch cries and mantra’s of the contemporary ‘value creation’ zeitgeist? The zeitgeist of the rejection of traditional values, the decay and fragmentation of cultural institutions and as Popper asserts, the era of irrationalist doctrine seems to be the fruits of the German influence on the West. (see Alan Bloom, Nietzsche, Heidegger and the Frankfurt school)

“One of the components of modern irrationalism is relativism (the doctrine that truth is relative to our intellectual background, which is supposed to determine somehow the framework within which we are able to think: that truth may change from one framework to another), and, in particular, the doctrine of the impossibility of mutual understanding between different cultures, generations , or historical periods – even within science, even within physics.”
Popper: The Myth of the Framework

This could be framed as a problem directly related to Gadamer’s hermeneutics. Does the ‘framework’ correspond to Gadamer’s horizons? At the outset it seems as if this will become a question of degree; of determining a sensible approach to moral standards and judgments. To what extent is Gadamer’s hermeneutics outcome driven? Does he seek just to describe the state of man’s existence in the world and ability to interpret events/texts/reality? Or does he seek a normative approach to seeking truth? (this will determine the character of his relativism)

“The proponents of relativism put before us standards of mutual understanding which are unrealistically high.”
Popper: The Myth of the Framework

What is a realistic level of mutual understanding? The proponents of relativism are thus asserting that mutual understanding is impossible, which seems a contradiction to the mantra of ‘understanding’ delivered by the ‘socially aware’ social elites. Popper argues that such impossibility is not the case and that common goodwill can lead to far reaching understanding. This is a very different picture to mutual understanding. Mutual understanding asserts an equality of understanding for ones own set of beliefs (frameworks) and the others. Far reaching understandings asserts that ones own set of beliefs can maintain a hierarchy of priorities/values/ethics/morals whilst still ‘seeing’ or empathizing with the other. Common goodwill implies cultural institutions and traditions, as it is through these that the ‘common’ find expression.

“Furthermore, the effort is amply rewarded by what we learn in the process about our own views, as well as about those we are setting out to understand.” Popper: The Myth of the Framework

This has correlation to Gadamer’s fusion of horizons.

On tradition:

I hold that orthodoxy is the death of knowledge, since the growth of knowledge depends entirely on the existence of disagreement.Popper: The Myth of the Framework

Popper goes onto an exposition of the importance of culture clashes in the development of the intellectual characteristics of Western civilization. He sees the ‘framework’ as a direct opposition to the notion of argument and discussion. The ‘framework’ asserts that there is no access to the truth so therefore discussion and critical evaluation of reality is arbitrary.

The Myth of the Framework defined by Popper:

“A rational and fruitful discussion is impossible unless the participants share a common framework of basic assumptions or, at least, unless they have agreed on such a framework for the purpose of the discussion.” Popper: The Myth of the Framework

Popper is defending a directly opposite thesis:

“that a discussion between people who share many views is unlikely to be fruitful, even though it may be pleasant; while a discussion between vastly different frameworks can be extremely fruitful, even though it may sometimes be extremely difficult, and perhaps not quite so pleasant (though we may learn to enjoy it).” Popper: The Myth of the Framework

Cultural Relativism

Relativism is the result of over-optimism concerning the powers of reason – that is, the over-optimistic expectation concerning the outcome of a discussion. When it is discovered that a discussion doesn’t lead to victory for truth of one side over another (the chaotic and random nature of our existence and relations in the world), over-optimism turns to a general pessimism. This observation of Popper’s seems to me to fit perfectly with the pessimistic view of mankind put forward by those who embrace cultural relativism, especially those of the environment movement. On one hand you hear words of compassion and understanding (code for cultural relativism, and a particularly arrogant view; as if no one else has compassion or understanding) and on the other that mankind’s ascent from the darkness of deep-time is a malignant cancer on the earth (total pessimism). This also accounts for the psychology of the mistrust of the marketplace by the far-left.

In terms of difference between people and cultures, some are arbitrary. Fashion, music, language, arts etc, even what side of the road you drive on, comes down to gradual integration of the more appropriate and popular ideas (formats for cultural life). However, Popper introduces the elephant in the living room: institutions, laws and customs.

“Some countries and their laws respect freedom while others do less, or not at all. These differences are most important, and they must not be dismissed or shrugged off by a cultural relativism, or by the claim that different laws and customs are due to different standards, or different ways of thinking, or different conceptual frameworks, and that they are therefore incommensurable or incomparable. On the contrary, we should try to understand and to compare. We should try to find out who has the better institutions. And we should try to learn from them.” (Popper, p46)

This is crucial to the confusion of today’s discussion on issues such as multiculturalism and the vision for how our societies demographics are to play out over time. It seems to me that multiculturalism usually gets discussed by the (biased and often completely out of touch) media in terms of two extremes, neither of which anyone actually wants in reality. On the one hand, a totally culturally relative vision in which no critical thought or discussion between two different cultures is to take place, usually propped up by misguided accusations of racism, (this is the desirable mode for the countries media and politically correct) and on the other hand, an exclusive closed door culture (which I’m yet to be convinced actually exists). These are the terms of the discussion as they appear on the front page of the average newspaper.

“Cultural relativism and the doctrine of the closed framework are serious obstacles to the readiness to learn from others. They are obstacles to the method of accepting some institutions, modifying others, and rejecting what is bad.” Popper, p46 The Myth of the Framework

Cultural relativism also has to conclude that morality is identical with legality, custom or usage. popper relates this to Hegel, for whom truth itself was both relative and absolute. Hegel is followed by Marx, who (obviously) asserts that each mans conceptual framework is determined by his ‘social habitat’. Marx also asserted a difference between ‘bourgeois’ science and ‘proletarian’ science.

So, where to if the insight asserts that all things are relative, yet we need to be able to exercise critical judgements?

“Thus to the fallibilist the notion of the truth, and that of falling short of the truth, may represent absolute standards – even though we can never be certain that we are living up to them. But since they may serve as a kind of steering compass, they may be of decisive help in critical discussions.” Popper, p48 The Myth of the Framework

Notes from the Stanford Encyclopedia

Reliabilism has to do with truth-conduciveness. Reliabilism looks for truth-indicating properties.

“It is generally agreed that a person S knows a proposition P only if S believes P and P is true. Since all theories accept this knowledge-truth connection, reliabilism as a distinctive approach to knowledge is restricted to theories that involve truth-promoting factors above and beyond the truth of the target proposition. What this additional truth-linkedness consists in, however, varies widely.”

Can be thought of as such: a belief is knowledge if it is true, certain and obtained by a reliable process.

Non-inferential belief: a belief that is not a logical consequence of another belief (i.e. a belief which acquires its truth value via experiences in nature)

From Noah Lemos: An Introduction to the Theory of Knowledge

In “What Is Justified Belief?” Goldman contrasts ‘faulty’ belief producing processes, processes that typically produce unjustified beliefs, with those that typically produce justified belief. Things that cause faulty belief systems: confused reasoning, wishful thinking, reliance on emotional attachment, mere hunch, guesswork, and hasty generalization. Thus the task is to uncover the truth-conducive qualities of the belief.

Goldman distinguishes between belief-dependent and belief-independent processes.

Belief-dependent process: starts with some beliefs and yields other beliefs. Reasoning involves belief in a premise followed by belief in a conclusion.

Belief-independent: no inputs that are beliefs. Might include certain basic perceptual and introspective processes. “I believe that I am in pain.” (non-doxastic)

Conditionally Reliable processes refer to the idea that systems of beliefs derived from a set of propositions that are true, are likely to be true, and likewise false, if the premises are false.

Lemos summarises:

S‘s belief that p is justified if and only if (i) S‘s belief that p is produced by a reliable cognitive process, and (ii) there is no reliable or conditionally reliable process available to S which, had it been used by S in addition to the process actually used, would have resulted in S‘s not believing p.” (p89)

However, the idea of ‘availability’ throws up issues. What counts as an available process, and surely there must be room for unforeseen procedures i.e. undiscovered laws of physics in science.

Three Objections:

(1) the new evil demon problem

This refers to the Cartesian demon which (Matrix style) tricks you into thinking you perceive. For instance, Cogito ergo sum, might be a deception from an unknown force. The new evil demon problem suggests a possible hypothetical world with a person who has been caused to perceive experiences just like ours. His perceptual experience is phenomenologically indistinguishable from ours. On this basis he forms a system of beliefs about his surroundings. However, due to the premise of the deceiving demon, these beliefs are false. Many philosophers would argue that these beliefs are epistemically justified. For instance, a coherentist could argue that the beliefs are coherent amongst themselves regardless of the faulty ‘foundation’. Reliabilism however asserts that due to the deceiving demon this is an unreliable process. Therefore, if this is to be taken as justified, reliable process is not a necessary condition for justified belief.


A is a normal person
B is a brain in a jar connected to a very powerful computer (commonly ‘a brain in a vat’ in texts)

The computer stimulates B in such a way as to cause it to have perceptual experiences.

A and B have the same perceptual experience. They both believe they have two legs, two arms, are sitting in a lecture hall and listening to a lecture.

B‘s beliefs about its environment are totally false.

Many would argue with sound logic that because both A and B have the same perceptual belief, and A is true, then B is true as well.

(is there space here for a relativism discussion, moral and cultural?? Perhaps the same ideological forces that shape philosophical views about relativism shape epistemological views as well)

Reliabilism asserts that B’s perceptual experiences are not reliably produced and therefore not justified. This is the simple point of contention between reliabilist’s and non-reliabilist’s.

(2) the problem of unknown reliability

From BonJour:

“Norman, under certain conditions which usually obtain, is a completely reliable clairvoyant with respect to certain kinds of subject matter. He possesses no evidence or reasons of any kind for or against the general possibility of such a cognitive power or for or against the thesis that he possesses it. One day Norman comes to believe that the President is in New York city, though he has no evidence either for or against this belief. In fact the belief is true, and results from his clairvoyant power under circumstances in which it is completely reliable.” (Lemos, p92)

BonJour holds that this is not justified belief even though it is reliably produced. The belief needs to be ‘cushioned’ in a set of other justified beliefs. Thus, according to BonJour, reliability is not a necessary condition for justified true belief.

(3) the generality problem

The problem here is identifying the process which leads to the belief. Lemos takes the example of looking out of a window at night and seeing a full moon. Thus proposition A: There is a full moon tonight. There are 4 possible processes:

a) perception
b) visual perception
c) visual perception at night
d) visual perception of a brightly illuminated object

It seems reasonable to believe that (d) is more reliable than (c). (d) will mean that the belief is well justified. (c) will mean that the belief is not as well justified. Reliabilism needs to be able to tell us which processes are relevant to justification. This remains an unclear area of reliabilism.

A thought and a connection:

I would like to address the issue of how one knows whether belief B has been reliably produced or not. Surely there is always a wider view to which one has not been exposed. Take the concept behind Gadamer’s fusion of horizons. Interpretation is a dialogical process, which grows and moves in unpredictable and unknown directions, and to which there can be no applied method. Is the regress to a foundation, or search for a reliable production line, or system of inter-connected justifications (coherentism – which to me at this stage is looking the most robust) not a similar metaphor and phenomenological case as Gadamer’s hermeneutical horizons?

Part 1

Habermas emphasizes linguistic structure and analytical reason with regards to the pluralism of language games. What does this mean? Perhaps that languages can be translated into one another? First of all, the distance of theoretical language from normal language. Second, ordinary language grammar itself transcends the language it determines since it can be translated across languages. This second point describes a unity of word and thing, linguistic structure and world-conception.

There is a reflexive element that Habermas is driving at:

“For we become aware of the boundaries drawn for us by the grammar of ordinary language by means of the same grammar.” (p336)

“Hermeneutic experience is the corrective through which thinking reason escapes the spell of language; and it is itself linguistically constituted…To be sure, the multiplicity of languages with which linguistics is concerned also poses a question for us. But this is merely the single question: how is every language, in spite of its differences from other languages, supposed to be in a position to say everything it wants? Linguistics teaches us that every language does this in its own way. For our part, we pose the question: how does the same unity of thought and speech assert itself everywhere in the multiplicity of these ways of saying, in such a way that every written tradition can be understood?” (Gadamer, Truth and Method, in Habermas, p336)

Analytical reason: Habermas is saying that reason is transcendent over language. Hermeneutics mistrusts any mediatizing of ordinary languages and refuses to step out of their dimension. Linguistic practice has a tendency of self-transcendence embedded in it of which hermeneutics makes use.

“Languages themselves possess the potential of a reason that, while expressing itself in the particularity of a specific grammar, simultaneously reflects on its limits and negates them as particular. Although always bound up in language, reason always transcends particular languages; it lives in language only by destroying the particularities of languages through which alone it is incarnated.” (Habermas, p336)

It seems that through a complex unpacking of the nature of language interactions (conversations, translations, learning to speak at all) Habermas is driving at the need for a dialectical structure (citing Wittgenstein) and the need for conversation partners to find a common ground, a consensus in language usage. There is a conflict between Wittgenstein and Gadamer: for Gadamer the life-worlds that determine the grammar of language games are not closed forms of life (open horizons), Wittgenstein suggests a monadological language experience where understanding is limited to the virtual repetition of the training through which native speakers are socialized.

On tradition:

“Tradition, as the medium in which languages propagate themselves, takes place as translation, namely, as the bridging of distances between generations. The process of socialization, through which the individual grows into his language, is the smallest unity of the process of tradition….With the first fundamental rules of language the child learns not only the conditions of possible consensus but at the same time the conditions of possible interpretations of these rules, which permit him to overcome, and thereby also to express, distance.” (p339)

Wittgenstein sees language practice as the reproduction of fixed patterns; ‘as if socialized individuals were subsumed under a total system composed of language and activities.’ (p340) This is a positivist outlook.

Part 2

On Gadamer’s fusion of horizons:

Habermas first gives an account of Gadamer’s conception of the fusion of Horizons:

“The interpreter is a moment of the same fabric of tradition as his object. He appropriates a tradition from a horizon of expectations that is already informed by this tradition. For this reason we have, in a certain way, already understood the tradition with which we are confronted. And only for this reason is the horizon opened by the language of the interpreter not merely something subjective that distorts our interpretation. In opposition to theoretically oriented language analysis, hermeneutics insists that we learn to understand a language from the horizon of the language we already know.” (p343)

Habermas here is recognizing that Gadamer’s fundamental assumption is that humans have a set of rules, or habits, to which they conform in the knowledge building process. In a sense, a tradition of socialization (learning language, learning body language, how to relate etc).

“Hermeneutics avoids the embarrassment of a language analysis that cannot justify its own language game; for it starts with the idea that learning language games can never succeed abstractly but only from the basis of the language games that the interpreter has already mastered. Hermeneutic understanding is the interpretation of texts in the knowledge of already understood texts. It leads to new learning processes out of the horizon of already completed learning processes. It is a new step of socialisation that takes previous socialisation as its point of departure.” (p344)

Habermas seems to agree with Gadamer on the flaws of an objectivist (historicism) outlook.

“From the perspective of hermeneutic self-reflection, the phenomenological and linguistic foundations of interpretive sociology move to the side of historicism. Like the latter, they succumb to objectivism, since they claim for the phenomenological observer and the language analyst a purely theoretical attitude. But both are connected with their object domain through communication experience alone and cannot, therefore, lay claim to the role of uninvolved spectators.” (p344)

“What Habermas will eventually try to show is that we become rational by conforming to the true nature of language. The objectivity of reason is restored but in the form of communicative reason. But in his first major work, Knowledge and Human Interests, this idea, though present, is not developed. Here his defense of reason against the pessimism of his predecessors in the Frankfurt school takes the form of a defense of reflection. The enemy of reason is what he calls positivism, by which he understands the view that only genuine knowledge is scientific knowledge. The claim that scientific knowledge is the only knowledge is not itself a scientific claim. It is scientism. Positivism is a refusal to reflect, because to make this identification excludes the possibility of asking how knowledge is possible.” (p163)

So the overarching philosophical question becomes ‘how is knowledge possible?’ (epistemology). This is one key area of the philosophy of Kant. Habermas has taken to linguistics to investigate, adopting structuralism as the foundation of understanding all conscious phenomena. For perspective, it is important to remember here the presence of Habermas’ Marxist interests, and Derrida’s critique of structuralism, that structuralism is not radical but merely a substitute for epistemology and other schools of philosophy. That is, structuralism makes the claim that there is no center to understanding, but structuralism itself becomes the new center.

“For a critical philosopher any adequate conception of knowledge must take account of the ‘subjective conditions of the objectivity of possible knowledge’. We can in a sense form the idea of a mode of knowledge that is not ‘ours’ but we associate a meaning with this idea only to the extent that we can derive it as a limiting concept from a kind of knowledge that is possible ‘for us’.” (p165)

Habermas promotes reflection on two cognitive models of knowledge: knowledge as an instrument, and knowledge as a medium. This brings to light a series of implicit presuppositions of the Kantian critique of knowledge which should be rejected:

1) a normative concept of science
2) the assumption of a complete, fixed, knowing subject
3) the separation of theoretical and practical reason

For Habermas reason is intrinsically practical. This is shown through his focus on linguistics. Our engagement in language games is where reason arises and finds form.

Where does Marx fit in?

Habermas is reacting to scientism and positivism. He is trying to reinstate epistemology, in order that these ‘isms’ do not claim authority over knowledge and the understanding of how knowledge is possible. This is a philosophical goal I believe most serious thinkers should be sympathetic to, in that science has proven itself to be fallible, just as any political system, and via the philosophy of Kuhn, also social and cultural in its paradigmatic operations. It is an illusion to take a ‘scientistic’ approach.

“Marx follows the strategy of detaching the exposition of consciousness in its manifestations from the framework of the philosophy of identity (the identity of thought and being, subject and object). Whereas for Hegel mind or spirit (Geist) is the absolute ground of nature, for Marx it is the other way around. This is not, Habermas claims, coarse materialism. Hegel’s phenomenology is given a materialist interpretation in the sense that the changing forms of consciousness are seen as the reflection of changes in modes of material production. The phenomeno-logical construction of the dialectically unfolding forms of consciousness is reinterpreted by Marx as ‘an encoded representation of the self-production of the species’.” (p166)

Materialism in Marx can be seen as having an equivalent in Habermas’ ordinary language communication. Interestingly, Habermas recognizes Marx’s positivism in approaching ideology as itself a science, in the order of the natural sciences. He does not however take the same view on psychoanalysis. An appropriate area for discussion opens up here with regard to Popper who argues the pseudo-scientific status of psych-analysis and non-scientific status of ideology.

Habermas and Gadamer

“If Gadamer’s account of the conditions of the possibility of understanding is correct, then it is not clear that such a project is even possible. Critical theory as Habermas understands it depends on our being able to give a rational grounding of certain norms. The linguistic, cultural, and historical dependence of all our thought and knowledge, which Gadamer’s hermeneutics seems to imply, would apparently rule out the possibility of such a rational grounding.” (p173)

Habermas enthusiastically endorses certain aspects of Gadamer’s philosophy:

linguisticality of tradition
situatedness of understanding
the in principle translatability of every natural language into every other
the self-reflexive character of ordinary language

“What Habermas does oppose is what he calls the ontological self-understanding of Gadamer’s hermeneutics. This is the claim of hermeneutics to universality, which as we shall see he links to the idea that it is not possible to go behind the understanding of ordinary language.” (p173)

Habermas claims that Gadamer’s hermeneutics is a form of ‘idealism of linguisticality’, that it is unable to deal with the phenomenon of ‘systematically distorted communication’, and, finally, that it does not allow for the rational criticism of tradition. (p173)

“Habermas accepts that ordinary language is a kind of meta-institution on which all social institutions are dependent. This is because social institutions depend on social actions and social actions are constituted in ordinary language communication. However, it is also the case, he thinks, that language is part of a complex that is constituted cojointly by language, labor, and power.” (p174)

For Gadamer, the linguistic component of this complex determines the material practice of life. For Habermas, these extra linguistic factors, power and labor, are equally determinate in the outcome of the material practice of life. The communicative power of language is affected by such ‘real’ factors: modes of production and relations of power. Language is at once the fabric of social consensus and mutual understanding, and, a medium for social domination and power. Gadamer refutes this by observing that power is acknowledged through social consensus. Also, Gadamer cites power and means of production as sources of prejudice and therefore proper objects of hermeneutic reflection. This concedes to Habermas that theses extra linguistic factors are present, whilst maintaining a hierarchical order of the structure of hermeneutic philosophy. He prevents it becoming materialist. For Gadamer, labor and power do not fall outside language and tradition (remembering that tradition is not fixed, but is mutable via each generation).

Habermas argues that there is ‘distorted communication’ when language is used ideologically. There is surface meaning (intended meaning) and ‘true’ meaning. This requires critique, which once done, will reveal ‘true’ meaning. Gadamer points out that there is a false assumption that only intended meaning can be understood. The experience of meaning, for Gadamer, has a broader scope than this. Habermas strengthens his argument by introducing psychoanalysis and critique of ideology. These two fields of criticism reveal systematically distorted communication. This is heavily explored in Habermas’ essay ‘On Hermeneutic’s Claim to Universality.”

At this stage in this narrative of Habermas vs. Gadamer it is clear that Habermas is making a valid point on the nature of language and its relation to the material and social experience of people. However, by invoking psychoanalysis, Habermas takes a mis-step that can be highlighted by Popper’s critique of psychanalysis: namely, that psychoanalysis is purely speculative and creates an invalid power-relation between researcher/philosopher/scientist and participant (remembering that it may yield results in the case of psychotic patients and doctors, but this is not a model for the rest of the world).

“Habermas follows Alfred Lorenzer, who treats psychoanalysis as a form of linguistic analysis. The neurotic’s symptomatic expressions are seen as belonging to a deformed language game that has been privatized and split off from the public language game. By tracing the private language game back to a childhood trauma the analyst seeks to draw up a lexicon whereby expressions in the private language can be translated into expressions in the public language. A meaning which had previously been inaccessible to public communication but which determined the neurotic behavior is now made accessible.” (p176)

To use this psychoanalytic process as a comparison to hermeneutic inquiry is to compare an individual engaged in ordinary language games to a neurotic or psychotic, coupled with placing the academic researcher in a position of power akin to that of the doctor to neurotic patient. This is a contradiction to Habermas’ foundational critique’s of positivism and its form of scientism.

“Hermeneutic understanding we have seen is essentially dialogical in character. The aim of dialogue is reaching an understanding, an agreement, about a subject-matter (Sache). It is clear that the form of communication which takes place between analyst and patient is not that of a dialogue between equals, but a contrived mode of discourse which ‘fulfills experimental conditions’. But the main reason why such a case is supposed to call into question hermeneutics’ claim to universality is that it shows that the meaning of the systematically distorted expressions can only be understood by showing how the systematic distortion comes about. And this requires a theoretical framework which goes beyond hermeneutic understanding. It shows that we are able to transcend the dialogue that, according to Gadamer, we are.” (p176)

The analyst in this argument is as context dependent as anything or anyone else and therefore has no validity as an objective observer of the language games of ordinary people. This is a contradiction to the rejection of positivism.

Habermas promotes an ideal to get around this: the existence of a counterfactual community in which communication is unlimited and free of force. This is essentially positivist. Habermas’ determination to critique prejudice has ironically illuminated the intense presence of his own prejudice. For Gadamer this is fine as prejudice is part of hermeneutic inquiry; it is the state of existence. Habermas does a lot of work to find a position in which he can legitimately critique and deconstruct tradition but finds himself the subject of Gadamer’s reasoning that all understanding is theory-laden and prejudiced.