Tradition and transcendence in the critical theories of Gadamer and Habermas

W. S. K Cameron, Fordham University


If the "hermeneutics of suspicion" has undermined Descartes' project of founding reason, it also revealed an antinomy between tradition and transcendence that has dominated philosophy ever since. For if we admit that our methods and intuitions are constituted in tradition, does this not imply that we cannot know another--the most basic form of self-transcendence? The question is abstract, but we must pursue it if we hope that violence is not the only possible response to difference. Gadamer and Habermas are among the most important Continental contributors to this debate. Both have well-developed views on the nature and limits of reason, and neither admits that reason can be completely de-legitimized. But if they first appear as allies, each highlights a difference he sees as a flaw in the other, and despite all efforts their debate has remained unresolved for thirty years. I begin from the debate's most entertaining feature: the frequency with which each hurls the same epithets in the other's direction. If both deride the other as prejudiced, idealistic, romantic, or positivist, must they not share much ground? I argue that Gadamer and Habermas are talking past one another, and attempt to show that each thinker's position is not only consistent with, but actually requires the other. Obviously I differ from those commentators who reduce one to the other and from those who claim that the two are incompatible. I am closer to Richard Bernstein and Paul Ricoeur, who both argue that an "inner dialectic" pushes each toward an intermediate position. Yet in the end, I differ from them both interpretively and substantively: interpretively, because each misses Gadamer's critical side, and because their critiques of Habermas are no longer adequate to his latest work; and substantively, because while they discern a dialectic pushing each thinker to the other, I argue that each one's position is already explicit in the deepest commitments of his opponent. By highlighting the dynamic tension within and between them, I hope to contribute to the debate about reason by suggesting a path between a politically impotent deconstructionism, and an imperial, unselfcritical social theorizing.

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Recommended Citation

Cameron, W. S. K, "Tradition and transcendence in the critical theories of Gadamer and Habermas" (1996). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI9628329.