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It was sixteen years ago, in 2000, that I wrote this week’s post. It was a short paper submitted for Francis Fiorenza‘s class on hermeneutics, on the debate between Jürgen Habermas and Hans-Georg Gadamer. I post it (unedited) because it was something of an intellectual milestone for me, moving away from the more radical Marxist-influenced view I had been holding up until that time. I was surprised as I wrote the paper that I found Gadamer’s more traditionalist view more persuasive than Habermas’s quasi-Marxist social-scientific rationalism.

Since it was written for a professor who knows both Habermas and Gadamer well, it assumes some knowledge of the two thinkers (as well as of Hegel, on whom they both draw) and may be tricky for someone unfamiliar with them. References are to articles by Habermas and Gadamer in Gayle Ormiston and Alan Schrift’s anthology The Hermeneutic Tradition (HT), and to the second revised English edition of Gadamer’s Truth and Method (TM).

My sympathies in this debate certainly lie primarily with Habermas. I also find that in many respects Habermas and Gadamer are very close to each other. Nevertheless, overall I find Gadamer’s position the more compelling of the two, because I am convinced by his argument that we cannot ultimately reject tradition.

Authority, tradition, prejudice are certainly unappealing words — although more so, I think, in English than in German, especially in the case of prejudice. (Vorurteil has at least some positive connotations.) Gadamer’s attempt to rehabilitate them feels quite unwelcome to me. Prejudices say that interracial children like me should not exist; authority keeps women in unhappy relationships and out of the workplace; tradition frowns on unconventional sexuality, or in some cases any sexuality at all. What could there be to rehabilitate here?

Gadamer’s answer, of course, is plenty. There is more to all of these concepts than those negative aspects I have just described. Through tradition and authority we learn what we are; and what we are is constituted by our prejudices or prejudgements. As the child of a postcolonial Marxist intellectual and a 1960s student hippie, I have my own prejudices, my own traditions, including above all the tradition of critique. My skepticism toward tradition itself comes out of this tradition.

Moreover, I am always, and must always be, applying my tradition(s) to myself. Gadamer takes law (and theology) as his paradigm for humanistic interpretation, saying with emphasis that “legal hermeneutics is no special case but is, on the contrary, capable of restoring the hermeneutical problem to its full breadth…” (TM 328) And how does legal hermeneutics work? “A law does not exist in order to be understood historically, but to be concretized in its legal validity by being interpreted.” (TM 309) In interpreting the law, lawyers do not see the law as a historical relic or curiosity alien to them, but rather as having a binding power on action. They may provide a new interpretation of the law; they may become politicians and change the law; but they — or anyone else living within a state — canot escape the law. This is the way in which Gadamer sees tradition.

The legal paradigm also serves well to illustrate Habermas’s suspicions of Gadamer’s hermeneutics. For what is law, after all, but the enforcement of political power? Habermas says that language — which for him includes cultural tradition — “is also a medium of domination and social power; it serves to legitimate relations of organized force.” (HT 239; italics in original) Social power can dominate tradition. Seeing tradition this way, through the critical eyes of Marx, Freud and Nietzsche, changes our relationship to tradition dramatically: “Hermeneutic experience that encounters this dependency of the symbolic framework into actual conditions changes into critique of ideology.” (HT 240)

This critique of ideology is, for Habermas, something that requires a level of objectivity beyond that which Gadamer provides. Habermas is involved in a rehabilitation of his own; he wants to rehabilitate the Enlightenment project. Throughout his articles here one can hear echoes of Kant’s “What is Enlightenment?”, with its motto of “dare to be wise” and its emphasis on the power and value of reason over tradition. What is at stake for Habermas, in a sense, is modernity itself.

To make his critique, Habermas argues for a distinctly Enlightened kind of reflection, which “proves itself… in being able to reject the claim of tradition. Reflection dissolves substantiality because it not only confirms, but also breaks up, dogmatic forces.” (HT 237) For Habermas, reason is superior to, prior to, authority; it goes beyond traditions, which are “profoundly altered by scientific reflection” (HT 236).

Gadamer replies that Habermas misunderstands tradition as static. Gadamer has no doubt that traditions are “profoundly altered” by scientific or any other reflection. In fact, for Gadamer: “Alteration of the existing conditions is no less a form of connection to tradition than is a defense of existing conditions. Tradition exists only in constantly becoming other than it is.” (HT 288) Although we cannot reject the claim that tradition makes on us, we can nevertheless change it — again, as lawyers would deal with laws. I am reminded here again of Hegel’s contrast of Sittlichkeit and Moralität. Habermas seems inspired by a Kantian ideal of an ethics (Moralität) of “pure reason”. This Kantian approach, says Hegel, ends up being simply empty, with no content, if it is taken on its own. Moralität only makes sense within the given morality (Sittlichkeit) of a community or a tradition, which endows it with substance; the role of Moralität is then simply to make an immanent critique and change the Sittlichkeit. I think Gadamer is trying to treat Habermas in the way that Hegel treats Kant.

But, as is ever the case in hermeneutic philosophy, matters are not that simple. For Habermas is no unreconstructed Kantian, and the idea of immanent critique (critique emerging within tradition) is itself very Habermasean. Habermas specifically states that his kind of reason — “reflection that is developed in understanding” — “is no longer blinded by the illusion of an absolute, self-grounded autonomy and does not detach itself from the soil of contingency on which it finds itself.” (HT 236) Habermas, in other words, also recognizes that Moralität has its roots in Sittlichkeit, that reason is firmly rooted in tradition even if it eventually turns against tradition.

So I would say that Habermas and Gadamer, like objects in a rear-view mirror, are closer than they appear. Both argue for a critique of tradition that has its roots within the tradition. The difference, I think, is that Habermas argues that the claims of a tradition can (and often should) ultimately be rejected, whereas Gadamer argues that they can only be changed. For Habermas, the consensus embodied in tradition is often based on “systematically distorted communication”, and escaping this distortion requires a “meta-hermeneutic awareness” (HT 267), an awareness that goes beyond tradition. The consensus embodied in a tradition is not a true consensus; a true consensus would be one “which was achieved under the idealized conditions of unlimited communication free from domination and could be maintained over time” (HT 267) — conditions which Habermas also calls an “ideal speech situation”.

Now Gadamer correctly argues that the concept of the ideal speech situation itself “presupposes that legitimizing recognition can come into play both without force and without the agreement that is the foundation of authority.” (HT 287) And this presupposition, Gadamer says, is exactly the one that Habermas has criticized Gadamer himself for making in the concrete situations of historical tradition. Gadamer says, in an ironic way, that it seems a “dogmatic prejudice” to say that authority must rest on coercion in all the concrete cases that have not yet reached the ideal.

I think Gadamer is right that we cannot wait for an ideal speech situation to accept the authority of a tradition. While keeping a critical eye out, we need to do so as is. For I do not see how truly going beyond tradition (as opposed to merely going beyond the givenness of a tradition in its existing state) is possible. I don’t see, that is, how our awareness could be “meta-hermeneutic” rather than simply hermeneutic — unless we stood from the perspective of the disembodied Cartesian/Kantian subject that Habermas claims to reject. Sittlichkeit isn’t just prior to Moralität in the sense that it comes first; it must continue to exist and to be binding for Moralität to have meaning. So while I think Habermas’s emphasis on the critique of tradition is a vitally important one, I nevertheless find that Gadamer has a fuller grasp of the context in which that critique can take place.