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MA Social and Political Thought – Text and Critique (946M1) – 50655

How has Jürgen Habermas developed his mature theory through an

engagement with hermeneutics?

The essay is structured as follows: (1) a general account of Habermas's arguments in Knowledge and

Human Interests, with particular attention to his treatment of Dilthey and the practical interest, then

psychoanalysis and 'depth hermeneutics'; (2) an account of the Habermas-Gadamer debate and the

principal issues involved, discussing the revisions in Habermas's programme as a result; and finally (3) a


Habermas's Knowledge and Human Interests

Knowledge and Human Interests is for Habermas a turn away from the form of historical narrative he

famously presented in Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere in 1962. In this work Habermas is

building upon the contemporary debate within German sociology now known as 'the positivist dispute', in

which Habermas himself made a number of interventions (alongside Theodor Adorno). The primary objective

of Knowledge and Human Interests is the tracing of “the pre-history of modern positivism” 1 , in order to

criticise the scientism that he sees as present in the then current dominant forms of theorising. Habermas

reads this emergence in terms of an abandonment of reflection; that is, Habermas reads positivism as a

body of thought that has forgotten its origins (thus the need to reconstruct its history of emergence) and also,

crucially, has forgotten the conditions of its possibility. “That we disavow reflection is positivism” 2 .

For Habermas this project requires a return to epistemological issues, as opposed to what we can call the

attempt to surpass or overcome them. He interprets what may be considered the Marxist project – of which

he can be said to identify – not as the rejection of traditional epistemology in favour of the study of political

economy, the 'natural science of man', which Habermas insists is a misunderstanding (admittedly

perpetrated by Marx himself); but, rather, as the radicalization of epistemological reflection through social

1 KHI p.vii

2 KHI p.vii

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theory. In short, Habermas is seeking here to find a 'materialist' basis for a radical critique of knowledge,

which he claims is necessary for a critique of the dominant forms of theorising in social science, those which

reduce philosophy to methodology. (Habermas consistently reads the thinkers he covers in the book – Kant,

Hegel, Marx, Peirce, Dilthey, Freud – in a double movement: first, he identifies a critical potential in their

thought, according to the aims of Habermas's project, but then, second, and especially in terms of the last

four, he gives an account of the positivist or 'scientistic' self-misunderstanding that these thinkers had of their

own work.)

Habermas goes about his project by equating positivism in the social sciences with a false 'objectivism',

which he wants to account for by looking back over the abandoned stages of reflection in epistemological

inquiry, or to be far more specific, the 'communicative' preconditions for what can count as objective

knowledge. In contrast to the objectivist social investigator who seems to presume her own absolute

separation as a subject from the object of inquiry itself, Habermas wants to reconstruct a transcendental

framework of what he calls the particular 'cognitive interests' in knowledge, that is, to reconstruct those

preconditions for the establishment of objective understanding. This deliberately Kantian transcendental

framework, whereby these cognitive interests determine the aspect under which reality can be made an

object for us, is 'anchored' by Habermas not in the individual subjective consciousness (the Kantian

transcendental ego), but intersubjectively – meaning, here, in those processes which govern the

development of the 'natural history' of the human species. Habermas's strategy is to combine the realm of

the transcendental with the realm of the empirical, founding a uniquely 'quasi-transcendental' theory of

knowledge that seeks to reconstruct the a priori conditions of knowledge as they are rooted in the “logical

structures that materialize under empirical conditions”; that is, in “specific fundamental conditions of the

possible reproduction and self-constitution of the human species” 3 . Habermas reverses the German Idealist

tradition of conceiving interest in reason, seeing instead reason as inhering in interest 4 .

The three quasi-transcendental cognitive interests themselves are: 1) the technical interest, 2) the practical

interest, and 3) the emancipatory interest. For our purposes, it is the second and third of these that are of

3 KHI, p.194-6

4 Habermas writes “The proposition that interest inheres in reason has an adequate meaning in reason has an adequate meaning only within idealism, that is only as long as we are convinced that reason can become transparent to itself by providing its own foundation. But if we comprehend the cognitive capacity and critical power of reason as deriving from the self-constitution of the human species under contingent natural conditions, then it is reason that

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most importance, since it is in their concrete differentiation from the first that allows Habermas the theoretical

basis to dispute the reduction of Reason tout court to the exclusive claim of the first category. Habermas

employs hermeneutics precisely in order to argue that reason is also essential to successful social

interaction, operative through the practical interest, and not simply in the scientific/technical manipulation of

nature. Yet, even within the account of the technical interest – which Habermas builds through his particular

reading of Peirce's pragmatism – Habermas already works to undermine positivism, by looking at the ways in

which the real-world operation of empirical-analytic inquiry presupposes social communication (within the

community of natural scientists) cannot itself be grasped conceptually within the framework of empirical-

analytic science. “The dimension in which concepts, methods, theories and so forth are discussed and

agreed upon” is in actual fact grounded in symbolic interaction, in a “framework of shared meanings, norms,

values and so on” 5 .

Habermas's principal engagement with traditional hermeneutics comes, in his formulation of the practical

interest, in his appropriation of Dilthey's work. Habermas distances himself from Dilthey's self-understanding

of his own project, as the 'psychologistic' setting up an alternative objective methodology 6 , in order to provide

an understanding of that dimension of intersubjectivity that provides the basis for mutual understanding and

discussion between people. This basis is found – in an observation of the utmost importance for Habermas's

mature work – in ordinary language communication. In this move, Habermas sees Dilthey as grounding the

theoretical basis for hermeneutical investigation 'naturalistically', in everyday human practice. Dilthey

constructs what may be termed a holistic understanding of language and practice – in the 'community of life

unities' – whereby social communication is considered through three particular classes of 'life expressions',

where each are integrated with and mutually interpret one another. These 'life expressions' are, firstly,

linguistic expressions; secondly, actions; and, thirdly, non-verbal experiential expressions (such as gestures,

nervous glances, blushing etc.)

Dilthey's point here is that the meaning of communication, broadly conceived, cannot be reduced to the

formal rules of language, that is, ordinary language “does not obey the syntax of a pure language”; it

inheres in reason” -- p.KHI p.287

5 McCarthy, p.69

6 McCarthy writes: “Dilthey's psychologistic approach to Verstehen – as a self-transposition into the life of the author or agent – eliminated its practical relation to life in favour of a contemplative model of scientific objectivity” (p.170)

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“becomes complete” only when it is “enmeshed with interactions and corporal forms of expression” 7 .

Ordinary language, embedded in socio-cultural life must be in itself 'reflexive', it must incorporate within itself

the resources for the failure of mutually agreed meaning or for the repairing of failed mutual understanding,

where such failure has the effect of blocking the reciprocity of behavioural expectations (leading to a

breakdown in forms of social interrelationships, or 'communicative action'): each form of 'life expression' that

Dilthey outlines serves as a sign or indication of intended meaning when the others alone prove insufficient.

“In this sense, ordinary language is its own metalanguage” 8 . The transcendental framework of knowledge, to

return directly to the epistemological issues, is governed not by formal linguistic rules 'beneath' the ordinary

way language is used – rather, the transcendental framework is already operative at this level of ordinary

usage – the role of the transcendental framework is played by the grammar of the 'language games'

themselves. This necessarily means, for Habermas, that the hermeneutical sciences – contra Dilthey's own

later retreat into positivism – cannot be captured in the objectified form of a scientistic methodology, since

hermeneutic inquiry is rooted within specific forms of life. And, as has been alluded to, such interpretive

inquiry into social meaning is governed by a specific cognitive interest – in this case, the practical interest in

“maintaining the type of open intersubjectivity and nonviolent recognition on which communicative action

depends” 9

In terms of the context of the later development of Habermas's mature theory of communication, this early

encounter with hermeneutics is telling in a number of ways. Habermas's interest in the quasi-transcendental

functioning of ordinary language, engaged with here systematically for the first time in Habermas's published

work, continues right up to the present day, forming the background to and most notable aspect of

Habermas's oeuvre. Habermas has always been very clearly indebted to hermeneutics, without an

understanding of which it is surely impossible to be at all attentive to the issues Habermas is trying to

navigate in the gradual unfolding of his theories. Most notably, in his Theory of Communicative Action,

Habermas employs a completely transformed hermeneutical conception of the Husserlian 'lifeworld'

constructing it firmly along practical, intersubjective lines (avoiding the pitfalls of the 'monological' approach

of a phenomenology that concentrates instead on subjective consciousness). But, crucially, while retaining

the previous emphasis on ordinary language itself, Habermas carefully distances himself from what he

7 KHI p.168

8 McCarthy, p.73

9 McCarthy, p.73

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regards as the limits of this kind of hermeneutics. He constructs instead a formalistic theory of

communicative competence, in which to combat what he sees as the implicit conservatism of the

hermeneutical approach itself (and the latent conservatism, or tendency to consolidation, of the lifeworld).

We will return to this later in the coverage of the debate with Gadamer, where the possibility of such a theory

comes to the fore, and the claim of the conservatism of hermeneutics (in terms of the uncritical acceptance

of the normative validity of tradition) is further advanced by Habermas, in what I conceptualise as a social

turn in his theory, which leaves him with an increased ability to deal with the political issues that he attempts

to deal with originally in the radicalization of epistemology

What, then, are these political issues, and how can this discussion relate back to them? We can here make

explicit what is implicit within all that has been said above: Habermas identifies, in this new theoretical

system, the technocratic-scientific cognitive basis for what in the Frankfurt School was critiqued as

'instrumental reason'. Habermas turns to the radicalization of the critique of knowledge, in his treatment of

positivism, to open up this alternative front against the increasing dominance and self-legitimation of

instrumental reason in the governance and management of modern society. Seen in this way, we can

conceptualise Knowledge and Human Interests as building upon his early work on the (rise and) decline of

the public sphere, offering an epistemological counterpart – in the theorising of a second cognitive interest, in

practical reason – to the competences required of those historical individuals taking part in discussions in

and through the public sphere 10 .

To finish this section, we can reformulate the basic terms that have now been explained in terms of the split

between 'work' and 'interaction' that Habermas draws in his reading of Hegel's Jena writings 11 . So, work or

labor is roughly 'mapped' with the 'technical' human interest in instrumental reason, the prerequisite

knowledge for which is advanced through the processes of inquiry or discovery as exemplified in the natural

sciences; and, 'mapped' to 'interaction', the 'practical' human interest in communicating with others in the aim

of reaching a mutual understanding, which is exemplified in processes of inquiry that Habermas terms the

10Andrew Elgar writes, for instance, that “the confinement of rationality to instrumental rationality leads to decisionism” and that that observation is mirrored in Habermas's account in Structural Transformation, which “charts the erosion and marginalization of” interpretative and communicative competences, as “the bourgeois public sphere collapses into the decisionistic plebicites of modern democracies” (p.58). And then, from this first work, through to the our present work, then on to Habermas's main Theory of Communicative Action, where the political dimension of this social trend can be very roughly translated into its warning of the dangers of the 'colonization of the lifeworld' 11 'Labor and Interaction: Remarks on Hegel's Jena Philosophy of Mind', in Theory and Practice

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'historical-hermeneutic sciences'. To link this back to Marx (and the new construction of a general theory of

social evolution that Habermas later moves on to, reworking traditional historical materialism), Habermas

criticises the tendency in Marx's theoretical remarks to regard the development of the human species as

transpiring solely in the dimension of social labor or 'work', that is, in processes of production. But, in his

historical investigations, Marx always took account of the organisation of individuals through their social

interrelations, interaction subject to norms. But to this end, with the addition of a practical interest to explain

the natural history of the species (necessitating an investigation into the forms of hermeneutical inquiry)

Habermas then sees it as necessary to incorporate a number of Freudian elements into this new theory of

social evolution – based on Freud's own theory of civilization – in the awareness that the character of such

integrative norms can become highly problematic, and will require critical analysis through a separate form of

inquiry not covered by what is meant here by 'interaction'.

So, this look at the practical human interest has allowed us to see the ways in which Habermas utilises

hermeneutical inquiry in the critique of positivism, always in the intention of influencing practically the

dominance of instrumental reason in modern life. Yet crucially, as we will now see, Habermas has to develop

his theory on from this engagement with hermeneutics – which he does through his appropriation of Freud

and psychoanalysis – when dealing with the third human cognitive interest in emancipation; or, we might say,

the intellectual interest in enlightenment that is necessarily and inextricably linked with our interest in political

emancipation (what is, as has been remarked, a strongly Fichtean movement in Habermas's theory).

In accounting for this emancipatory interest, Habermas conceptualises the transference of the model of

philosophical self-reflection into the practically engaged (and linguistically based) critique of ideology. This is

viewed in terms of the contemporary postmetaphysical framework, the collapse of the claims of

Ursprungsphilosophie, where philosophy 'passes over' into critique: as Habermas succinctly puts it,

“philosophy remains true to its classical tradition by renouncing it” 12 . It is worth briefly stating that this claim

for the possibility of a the direct translation of philosophical reflection into ideology critique, the result of an

overlysimplistic (because routed in an epistemology that is still too Idealist in structure) linkage between a

universalistic demand of reason and the struggle for an enlightened form of life, has been severely criticised

12 KHI, appendix, p.317

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in the literature 13 and is now acknowledged as indefensible by Habermas himself. It is the argument of this

essay that Habermas comes to this awareness following Gadamer's criticisms of the appropriateness of the

psychoanalytical model for the purposes of social critique.

For our purposes, we will look now in terms of Habermas's drawing upon the 'critically oriented science' of

psychoanalysis in order to provide a model for such a critical social theory, which is done through

Habermas's particular hermeneutical appropriation of Freud. Habermas develops here a 'depth-

hermeneutics 14 , in a sense relating it to the socially interactive form of traditional hermeneutical inquiry,

building upon Dilthey's ideas, but strongly divergent from them in many important ways. Both Dilthey and

Freud are concerned with the 'autobiography' of their subjects 15 , but Freud is concerned – in the analyst-

patient relation – with systematic blockages and distortions in the recollection of memory. This remains a

hermeneutical enterprise – it is still social interpretation – yet it follows an essentially analytic procedure,

meaning it “does not coincide with the norms of textual understanding”, and more importantly, does not

follow “the 'open' character that the hermeneutic circle provides” 16 . It does not take place in a 'free' dialogue

within the structure of everyday communication.

Habermas begins the most important piece in his exchange with Gadamer – 'On Hermeneutic's Claim to

Universality' – by continuing with his appropriation of psychoanalytic theory, here in terms of Alfred

Lorenzer's understanding of psychoanalysis, who – as Habermas himself puts – “thinks of the depth-

hermeneutical deciphering of specifically unintelligible objectifications as an understanding of analogically

related 'scenes'” 17 (which Habermas then simply refers to as scenic understanding). This reads the Freudian

distinction between the conscious and the unconscious as, starkly, that between public and private language.

To recount the process: in neurotic cases, the 'inner exile' that Freud talked of is formed as a 'language

content' that is excommunicated from public usage, whereby the excommunicated part becomes

13 McCarthy covers the main objections, principally those from Karl-Otto Apel and Dietrich Böhler

14 The first usage of this term appears to be KHI p.218

15 Elgar, p.94, who references KHI itself at p.215. Thomas McCarthy also explains Dilthey's ideas here – that he postulates the 'community of life unities' as defined by, firstly, a dialogic relations and mutual recognition with others, but secondly – in what Elgar seems to mean by autobiography – as ego-identity and the process of self- formation.

16 Teigas p.153

17 Habermas, 'On Hermeneutics Claim to Universality'

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incomprehensible and inaccessible to the author himself, precisely because it is privatized (Habermas seems

to be invoking Wittgenstein's famous argument against private languages). This results in the internal split

within the patient, through the discrepancy between the 'I' which participates in every communication, and

this 'inner exile' who is restricted in this privatization. The goal of the analyst's working with the patient,

through depth-hermeneutical inquiry, is to 'decode' the meaning of incomprehensible 'objectifications', which

appear according to Lorenzer as symptomatic expressions of 'scenes'. The analyst attempts to interpret the

meaning of the symptomatic scene, but does analytically and not through a simple 'translation'. Scenic

understanding aims at the reconstruction of an 'original' scene, by which the initial conditions for the

emergence of the communicative distortion can be reconstructed, with the aim of explaining the emergence

of the symptomatic scenes that the analyst witnesses in the patient. In this way a 'resymbolization' and

reintroduction into public use of the excommunicated content is attempted. The reconstruction of the analyst

has to be validated through the self-reflection of the patient – it has to be accepted in order to work, and this

is in a sense the retained reciprocal element in the process, the 'therapeutic dialogue' – but the

reconstruction itself works though a theoretical semantic analysis, looking at problematic latent meaning that

escapes normal public communication patterns. Scenic understanding, as Habermas realises, differs sharply

from simple hermeneutic understanding, since it is based on “theoretical presuppositions which are in no way

the spontaneous outgrowth of the natural competence of a native speaker” 18 .

Habermas uses this language-based articulation of psychoanalytic theory as a model for the critique of

ideology, now obviously turning to the investigation of social distortions. What is important for Habermas, in

working at this level, is to explain what he calls systematically distorted communication – that is, generalized

patterns of distortion in communication that necessarily escape traditional hermeneutic awareness, which

can only cope with a separation of pathological speech from normal colloquial speech. Hermeneutic 'repair'

can deal with such relatively contingent or accidental failures, but is blind to distortion inherent within the very

language structures of what is considered normal communication itself. Habermas takes his challenge to

hermeneutics, wielding this psychoanalytic model, in his debate with Gadamer and the newly philosophical

hermeneutics in his Truth and Method. Habermas's general orientation does I think stand up against

Gadamer's (counter-)charges, but the debate in question brings into contention aspects of the particular

theoretical apparatus of Knowledge and Human Interests, requiring a shift from epistemological 'reflection' to

18 Habermas, 'On Hermeneutics Claim to Universality'

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empirical-analytic rationalisation, and therefore, from depth-hermeneutics to a more explicit sociology

The Habermas-Gadamer debate

The faults that Habermas charges Gadamer is oriented along three main axis of dispute, which may be listed

as follows: first, in terms of the relationship of the theorist to tradition (and authority); second, in terms of the

way language is understood within theory; and, third, the legitimacy of Habermas's employment of the

psychoanalytic interpretive model.

Habermas criticises in Gadamer (something already identified to a certain extent in Dilthey) what may loosely

be described as the 'conservative' tendency within hermeneutics, which is far more apparent in Gadamer's

philosophy. This takes the shape of Gadamer's concept of effective history 19 , which stresses the historically

embedded nature of all understanding. Gadamer elaborates a philosophical theory of truth, in what might

even be described as an account of the experience of truth – modelled strongly on Heidegger's notion of

truth as 'disclosure' – which serves as an alternative to the typical Enlightenment equation of truth with the

results obtained through the 'objective' application of scientific methodology (Truth or Method, to put it

crudely). This warning about the reduction of 'truth' to science bears many immediate similarities to

Habermas's project, and there is even considerable room for agreement when Gadamer goes on to gives his

account of human understanding: which, Gadamer believes, takes place against a background of prior

understanding (and involvements) – what Gadamer calls, rehabilitating the concept, 'prejudice' – that is

'effective', meaning it has an enabling an effect upon present consciousness 20 . Gadamer, in his fierce

criticism of the easily drawn Enlightement subject-object distinction, instead reworks Heidegger's almost

existentialist structuring of the 'hermeneutical circle', which sees a reciprocal play between our background

understandings (prejudices) and our 'foreground understanding', that is, everything open to reflection,

judgement and interpretation.

Despite obvious sympathy, Habermas feels that something is missing here – this being, the potential for the

19 A very brief glossary of Gadamer's terms such as 'effective history', which I have found extremely useful, is published in Chris Lawn's Gadamer: A Guide for the Perplexed.

20 Lawn sums up well this 'effective' functioning of prejudice: “


are made possible not by an abstract and

neutral reason but a set of pre-reflective involvements with the world that stand behind judgements and make them possible” p.23

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critical reflection on societal traditions as a whole, rather than simply the renegotiation of particular individual

aspects of traditions. Habermas here then sees the need for his psychoanalytic model of ideology critique, in

order to identify systematically distorted communication, which allows for a much more robust opposition

between Enlightement and tradition than Gadamer can (or wants to) grant. For Habermas, an admission of

the historically grounded nature of understanding is simply no necessary justification at all for the authority of

tradition, which Gadamer himself seems insufficiently aware of (as he writes on the idea of 'dogmatic

acknowledgement' - “what, however, is dogmatic acknowledgement, if not this: that one concedes to

authority a superiority in knowledge and judgement?” 21 ). As Thomas McCarthy summarises, the identification

of hermeneutic inquiry simply with the continuation of tradition is “to place a one-sided stress in participation

and dialogue over distantiation and critique. In critical reflection we reject as well as accept traditional validity

claims” 22 .

Habermas is especially unhappy, secondly, with Gadamer's ontological project; that is, the way he develops

hermeneutics and cultural interpretation into a general explanation of the meaning of human existence,

which he sees in terms of the essential linguistic nature of all experience. Gadamer essentially recounts the

nature of Dasein in terms of a 'history of language', specifically embedding his portrait of human infinitude in

terms of a narrative of the linguistic historicity that enwraps our entire culture 23 . Needless to say, the Marxist

in Habermas has no real interest in this kind of sentimental existentialism. The whole intention behind

Habermas's original appropriation of hermeneutics, we may recall, was to differentiate a series of cognitive

interests in an effort to restrict the influence of positivism in the social sciences. This philosophical

absolutizing – by way of ontologizing – of hermeneutics, seems to result in a Idealist 24 , a prioristic

devaluation of the methods of social science, which is clearly not what Habermas wanted to do at all. This

means that, on top of the 'linguistic turn' in contemporary philosophy – which in Habermas's early theory

takes the form of the grounding of hermeneutic inquiry in the practical human interest in sustaining

communicative interaction - a second 'social turn' must be added, the need for which is exemplified most

clearly in Gadamer's philosophy 25 . Developments in the spheres of social labour (of production), and in the

21 Gadamer, 'On the Scope and Function of Hermeneutical Reflection'

22 McCarthy, p.182

23 Mueller-Vollmer, p.40

24 Mueller-Vollmer's comments here are enlightening: “In Heidegger's existential ontology Habermas perceives but another version of traditional Kantian philosophizing in a priori principles” p.43

25 This idea comes from McCarthy, p.91

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socio-political forms of communicative interaction, can themselves produce great revisions in dominant forms

of social interpretation

So far, the debate has admittedly been presented solely on one-sided terms. But, despite the generally

convincing nature of the points Habermas raises against Gadamer, the debate allows us to see latent

ambiguities with Habermas's theory. These are, first, what becomes the problematic hermeneutical

grounding of Habermas's psychoanalytic model of social critique, given that it is supposed to be grounded in

the historically constituted 'lifeworld', yet able to reject tradition, leaving the obvious question of the criteria

for choosing what to accept and what to reject (given that this criteria is supposed to go far beyond the self-

reflection available through Gadamer's hermeneutical circle alone); and, second, of what it is in Habermas's

work that can adequately deal with this 'social turn', given that in Gadamer's philosophy the 'linguistic turn'

slips into an Idealist notion that language itself is somehow the constitutive condition of human existence.

Habermas's theory of cognitive interests – his radicalized epistemology – doesn't seem equipped for such a

task (itself rather uncomfortably Idealist in structure). In these two senses, it can be argued that Habermas's

response to Gadamer is the clearest available window through which to anticipate the shifting trajectory in

Habermas's own programme

In contrast, the third axis of dispute – Gadamer's criticism of Habermas's appropriation of the psychoanalytic

model – brings up in explicit detail the problematic ambiguity in the concept of 'depth-hermeneutics', which

ends up cutting right through the Habermas's very core idea notion of emancipatory interest. Gadamer

basically claims that psychoanalysis, whatever its merits, cannot be generalized as a model for the critique of

ideology; this is done precisely by arguing that Habermas's addition of a form of causal explanation within a

framework of hermeneutic understanding in this form of inquiry endangers the bedrock itself. Gadamer is

concerned with the 'methodological alienation' of psychoanalysis, which can take the form of the way in

which the particular case or life history of the patient can be affected by the anonymity that the application of

a 'scientific' understanding can take. It is not difficult to see where Gadamer is going with this, as the

proposed psychoanalytic model is generalized for the a critique of the consensual basis of society as a

whole. The confidence in the theoretical insights available to the analyst becomes, on a political level, runs

the faint risk of becoming a license for the exercise of force by dogmatic elites, claiming their own insight into

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a truth unavailable to fellow members of society – they would forget, in Gadamer's famous phrase, the

'dialogue we are'. The analyst cannot escape the fact that she is a member of society and relies upon the

consensus which forms the dialogic situation of her community. Gadamer seems to ask, in a very simple but

quite obvious way – when an individual could benefit from psychotherapy, they behave in symptomatic ways

which the analyst is trained to recognise, but what do these look like in a society that could benefit from

ideology critique? How does one recognise systematic distortion in communication that is otherwise

pathologically inconspicuous?

There are two interrelated requirements of Habermas in order to address these substantial objections.

Habermas needs an account of normal communication to know when 'intervention' is appropriate, as a

necessary supplement to ideology critique. What is ideological or distorted communication can only be

identified and criticised through a corresponding conception of what is 'normal', or we might say 'ideal',

communication (and this cannot be achieved hermeneutically). This requirement leads directly into the

evident need – alluded to earlier – for the two stages of (philosophical) reflection and critical self-reflection to

be analytically distinguished. This is the moment in which Habermas embarks on his fundamental break with

hermeneutics 26 . He differentiates, when addressing various criticisms of the work a few years later, between

'critique' and rational 'reconstruction'. The former encompasses the practical side of reflection, the legacy of

what was intended in central thrust of the emancipatory interest: Criticism “is brought to bear on objects of

experience whose pseudo-objectivity is to be revealed”, and is “characterized by its ability to make

unconscious elements conscious in a way which has practical consequences”. Reconstructions, on the other

hand, “explicate correct know-how, i.e. the intuitive knowledge we acquire when we possess rule-

competence, without involving practical consequences” 27 . This opening up of 'reconstructive science' meets

both requirements of Gadamer's critique, by both furnishing 'criticism' with the formal generative rules of

linguistic competence required for practical, contextually engaged critique – and, in doing so, 'reopens' the

split between theory and practice 28 , in a 'separation of powers', that avoids the political problem in the

26 Axel Honneth writes: “From the beginning of the 1970s, Habermas was no longer content with a hermeneutic interpretation of his scientific claims for the elaboration of his theory. Whereas in Knowledge and Human Interests he had reconnected critical social theory to the practical frame of reference for a historically unique context of experience and, hence, had given theoretical critique the status of a temporally limited and practically engaged project, in his debate with Gadamer he develops for the first time the idea of a theory of linguistic communication that is situation dependent and contextually neutral” (my emphasis) p.281

27 A Postscript to Knowledge and Human Interests

28 See Habermas's introduction to the first english edition of Theory and Practice

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generalizing of the analyst-patient relationship throughout society. Rational reconstruction now plays the

central role in Habermas's mature theory, which sees him employ this kind of systematically generalized

theoretical-empirical knowledge in numerous avenues


The main argumentative thrust of the essay has been, in summary, that it has been through the engagement

of hermeneutics in Knowledge and Human Interests, and then the rejection of the ontological, Heideggerian

hermeneutics of Gadamer, that best allows us to account for Habermas's transition from his previous

epistemological concern with the (positivist) philosophy of social science, to a more adequate theoretical-

empirical programme in his critical theory, via a rational reconstruction of preconditions of the possibility of

ideology critique.

Habermas, in making such a transition, has done so principally for reasons of theoretical progression,

answering the criticisms of opposing thinkers (we look here at Gadamer), and appropriating various features

of the work of others when he believes it offers him valuable insights. His thought now generally advances at

a more abstract and less practically engaged level than it did before, so how is it possible to argue that – at

least in an important way – he can now better address his original political concerns? It was asserted during

the presentation of Knowledge and Human Interests that Habermas, in providing two cognitive counterparts

to the human interest in technical reason, now only one cognitive interest among two others, was providing

something of political weight to the growing concern with the encroaching impact of instrumental reason on

otherwise 'communicatively' organised social life. This contribution remains important: Habermas has never

distanced himself from this early work, and his later strongly theoretical-empirical approach to social inquiry

does not rest on a rejection of its quasi-transcendentalist framework, but rather develops it in a new direction

in the form of 'rational reconstruction' (the critical difference here being that the later advance in a

hypothetical attitude; where proposals for understanding the preconditions of universal or species

competences are reconstructed a posteriori, on the basis of empirical data).

Yet despite this, in Habermas's later, main work – Theory of Communicative Action – 'reconstructive science'

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allows for an overarching normative framework that can integrate Habermas's hermeneutics with a critique of

ideology, as we have seen in this essay (based on a underlying reconstruction of the prerequisites of

everyday linguistic competence), and also with a generalised analysis of social systems, and then built with a

reconstructed framework of social evolution (building upon the cognitive developmental theories of Piaget

and Kohlberg), through which social theory can investigate the conditions under which patterns of

interpretation and of action develop and change through history. This increased sociological capacity, which

comes through this theoretical development, does seem to allow one a better purchase in explaining the

socio-economic and political causes of domination and unfreedom within society.

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MA Social and Political Thought – Text and Critique (946M1) – 50655


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