A Comparison and Contrast of
Juergen Habermas and Hans Georg Gadamer


History 104


The intellectual battle between the Gadamer-Hermeneutics school and the Habermas-critical theorists is well documented. Hermeneutics claiming a universal applicability stating, “being that can be understood is language[1],” and the critical theorist claiming a reflective reasoning process that goes beyond hermeneutics. The battle has been aptly stated in the rather public disagreements between Hans-Georg Gadamer and Jurgen Habermas, in a series of essays written in the late sixties and early seventies. Gadamer has never really been interested or competent in explicit political or moral philosophy, rather his interests were to discover the mode of human understanding and experience and their subsequent examination in the human sciences. Gadamer states as much in his introduction:

The hermeneutics developed here is not, therefore, a methodology of the human sciences, but an attempt to understand what the human sciences truly are, beyond their methodological self-consciousness, and what connects them with the totality of our experience of world.[2]

Thus, Gadamer seems to be trying to develop a value neutral or ideological free theory of how human beings understand and interpret reality, garnering it universality in the process. Habermas oppositionaly maintains that hermeneutics is insufficient for human understanding, due to power dominations emanating from ideology and socio-cultural systems (including language itself). Rather, as Habermas maintains, language itself can be used to thwart understanding and thus a critical reflective reason must be used to overcome linguistic inadequacies. Habermas, as a champion of reason, suspects the ideological uses of language that are used to distort and destroy communication and understanding. Instead, a critical reason free from ideological constraints must be used. Habermas is thus a critical theorist in the school of the enlightenment. He values reason highly and disagrees with many postmodernists who tend to be suspect of reason as just another tool of power. This essay will attempt to explicate their agreements and differences, by first chronicling their intellectual heritage and tradition and then focusing on their ideas. The essay will be structured along the same lines of the Gadamer-Habermas debate, explaining first hermeneutical theory and then the critical theorist response. As well, an attempt at contextualizing their two respective theories for ethics and socio-political thought will be positioned. The ending summary will show the prominence of these two philosophers for western society and potentially history.

To understand these two men properly, perhaps an understanding of their intellectual backgrounds is in order. Hans Georg Gadamer was the most successful student of Martin Heidegger, the renowned philosopher and author of Being and Time. Heidegger stressed the finitude of man and dealt with existential issues. In many ways, he was seen as Nietzsche’s heir, with his bombastic and passionate style. Gadamer as an intellectual, seemed ignorant of current events and retreated to his studies. A friend once asked if Gadamer had read anything on current events, in which Gadamer replied, “I basically read books that are at least only two thousand years old.”[3] Gadamer maintained his reputation through WW II and eventually settled in Heidelberg where he would write his momentous volume Truth and Method in 1960. Habermas, conversely, came from the “Frankfurt” school, the home of Marxist-Freudian critical theory. After WW II, he strongly opposed Gadamer’s teacher Martin Heidegger and other right wing thinkers he deemed dangerous to the fledgling German democracy.[4] In recent years, Habermas has moved away from his radicalism and helped the left reconcile itself to liberal democracy in the unified German state.[5] What remains interesting between these two intellectuals is their academic genealogies, Gadamer, a student of Heidegger and in the line of Nietzsche and Habermas, in the line of Karl Marx. Both intellectuals come from different streams of the German intellectual tradition. It is to be seen how much this will account for their agreements and disagreements.

To analyze the differences and similarities of the two thinkers, it is important to curtly examine their respective theories. Because Gadamer wrote primarily about human understanding and communication, we will focus on these elements of their philosophy. However, we will also attempt to examine some of their ethical and socio-political philosophy. Gadamer’s philosophical hermeneutics proposes that being itself is understood through language, whether that language be the written word, art, speech, or body language. This is the