Archives For Gadamer

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.

Philosophy of science is going to be an invaluable tool in analyzing this argument as it is hermeneutics claim (as represented by Gadamer) to universality that Habermas points out leaves no room for criticism in the social or natural sciences. If we are subject to our horizons of prejudice and preconception, how can science or social science critique? Gadamer claims that this state of being is not normative, it just simply is. To what extent would Popper or Kuhn, or even Einstein, agree?

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

“In the ‘Influence of Darwin’ essay, the obvious justification for tracing the background to Darwin’s innovation is to show how much of an innovation it was. In contrast to over two millennia of philosophical commitment to the priority of fixed forms and permanent ends, of over-arching design and pre-established constraints, and a companion denigration of change, the merely experiential and chance, Darwin’s work marks a momentous shift in point of view regarding reality.” (Browning, p8)

“The new approach in philosophy is itself transitional, in process, today and for the foreseeable future. It is not one, at least in 1910, of providing firm hypotheses, much less final answers, regarding the large philosophical problems it faces.” (p14)

“The Darwinian revolution, Dewey declared, had opened the way for a transformation of ‘the logic of knowledge’.” (P18)

“The new proposals regarding knowledge in the first essay and regarding truth in the second were formulated by Dewey concisely, yet meticulously. A specific case of knowing is an experience that, as such, intends or points to another experience, not itself immediately present, but as one which would become fully and immediately present were certain operations carried out. So understood, a knowing upon which one relies in predicting or attempting to control a future experience may be disappointed and, therefore, assessable as misleading. And the truth of an idea (or judgment, proposition, belief, etc) consists of its ‘effective capacity’ to ‘make good,’ that is, to lead to the completion or achievement to which it points by means of the operations and actions it proposes.” (p18)

Writing about John Dewey’s famous essay “The Influence of Darwinism on Philosophy” in The Influence of Darwin on Philosophy and Other Essays in Contemporary Thought: John Dewey, Larry A. Hickman, Douglas Browning

These thoughts point towards an understanding of reality that is itself transitive. This sounds as if it would be in conflict with historicism, as defined in the early 20th century, and the logical positivists. It sounds resonate of Gadamer and Heidegger.