The Gadamer-Habermas Debate

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  • Topic: Hermeneutics, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Martin Heidegger
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The Gadamer-Habermas Debate

Hermeneutics is a topic that has been debated about for many years and two philosophers that have impacted the thought on hermeneutics are Hans-George Gadamer (1900-2002) and Jürgen Habermas (1929- ). In this essay I begin by providing a brief history of hermeneutics and then I go on to explain Gadamer‘s philosophy followed by Habermas’ philosophy.

The debate between Habermas and Gadamer began in 1967 after Habermas’ review of Gadamer’s famous work, Truth and Method (Jay, 1982). By explaining their philosophies I introduce their critiques of each other and discuss this renowned Gadamer-Habermas debate. Thereafter I explain why I believe that Gadamer’s thoughts inspired me to believe that understanding through dialogue is important and possible. I do this by showing that it is possible for philosophy to stay within the hermeneutic circle of understanding and still give rational principles as the conditions for the validity of specific acts of understanding.

Hermeneutics has its origins in Greek mythology. It is named after the Greek God Hermes who was considered to be the God of bringer of messages (Jay, 1982). Hermes was responsible for taking messages from the Gods and delivering them to the mortals or humans. In the middle of the seventeenth century Protestants needed to find a way to interpret and understand hidden meaning or messages in holy texts. This practice of biblical exegesis[1] became known as hermeneutics. Later hermeneutics took on other meanings as well such as interpreting, translation and explaining (Jay, 1982).

The approach to hermeneutics changed after philosophers like Schleiermacher[2], Dilthey and Droysen attempted to establish a better meaning for the word and use it to understand human beings. Wilhelm Dilthey broadened hermeneutics by taking it as a methodology that would cause us to better understand ‘human’ or ‘historical’ sciences, the Geisteswissenschaften (Malpas, 2003). The age-old question of human existence was the centre of concern. These philosophers tried to explain human existence in terms of scientific methods and rules. This methodological approach proved difficult, as human beings cannot be described by scientific terms as we are not the same as plants and animals.

Heidegger realised this problem and attempted to overcome it by first finding an intuitive definition of human beings, which he terms Dasein (literally meaning being there). Heidegger did not write in depth details on hermeneutics, as he was concentrating on the concept of Dasein in his great work Being and Time (Grondin, 1994). In fact he only mentioned hermeneutics briefly in this masterpiece. Although the attention to hermeneutics was so limited in Heidegger’s work, it still played an important role in future research into the topic. Heidegger influenced many philosophers to further research this new approach to hermeneutics.

Gadamer was a student of Heidegger’s and he took direction from many of Heidegger’s thoughts. A central element in Gadamer’s thought is that of phronesis (Malpas, 2003) which can be thought of as practical wisdom, which are wisdom or knowledge gained through taking part in and living life[3]. All your experiences in life lead to phronesis. Phronesis can also be seen as a dialogic conception of understanding. These two concepts (phronesis and dialogue) are the starting points for Gadamer’s philosophical hermeneutics (Malpas, 2003).

Heidegger’s ontological[4] conception is taken up by Gadamer. Here Heidegger claims that for us to understand anything at all, we must fist have some innate knowledge of the thing. We must ‘be’ or ‘see’ ourselves in the world to which the object (that we must understand) and we belong to. This is Heidegger’s hermeneutic circle, whereby for us to understand something we must know something about the whole of that object of understanding, and for us to understand the whole; we must understand that small part (the object) of...
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