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Gadamer's Account of Friendship as an

Alternative to an Account of Intersubjectivity

David Vessey

Published in Philosophy Today (Vol. 49/5, 2005, 61-67)



Michel Theunissen, in his classic work The Other: Studies in the Social Ontology of Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre, and Buber, distinguishes two kinds of theories of intersubjectivity: transcendental theories and dialogical theories.[1] Transcendental theories focus on the way an alter-ego is present to the ego in perception and reflection; dialogical theories focus on the I-Thou relation, the second person relation realized only in dialogue.[2] On Theunissen's taxonomy Hans-Georg Gadamer would seem to be dialogicist as he emphasizes that conversation rather than perception is the locus of intersubjectivity, and he argues that dialogue holds a distinctive place in the formation of the subject. Other elements of his theory would also support this view. In a1928 article "I and Thou" he wrote "[f]or the concept of the human individual the 'Thou' is obviously of constitutive significance. The being of the person is fundamentally determined in its mode of being through the relationships in which it stands to other people."[3] Almost twenty-five years later in Truth and Method he wrote that "tradition is a genuine partner in dialogue, and we belong to it, as does the I with the Thou,"[4] and discussed in detail three ways of experiencing another as a Thou. Almost forty years after that he said he "moved the idea of conversation to the very center of hermeneutics" and approvingly quoted Hšlderlin, "We are a conversation."[5] Finally, Gadamer credits Martin Buber and other dialogical thinkers for bringing to his attention Kierkegaardian critiques of Hegel and Neo-Kantianism, so we know he was familiar with the dialogicists and appreciated their insights. It's understandable, then, that in a recent book on feminist interpretations of his views he is praised for emphasizing "addressive rather than observational" inquiry.[6]

Yet Gadamer has consistently distanced himself from I-Thou accounts of intersubjectivity.  He writes,

To say "the I" and "the Thou" seems to us, at least since Wittgenstein, no longer quite allowable. Heidegger too points us towards the fact that, in such a use of speech, there hides a mystifying substantialization—thus blocking us from getting at the real problems. É It seems to me an important modification that now one does not only avoid speaking of "the Thou," É one speaks of the Other. Immediately, there is brought in a change in the state of the I and Thou. Every Other is at the same time the Other of an Other, as one may learn from Michael Theunissen's book. I myself have taken the measure of the ancient teaching on friendship in this regard.[7]

If Gadamer holds many of the basic views shared by dialogical thinkers, but rejects the I-Thou account of intersubjectivity, then what is his view of intersubjectivity?  He points to it in the last sentence of the quotation, "the ancient teachings of friendship." In a handful of essays written late in his life Gadamer attempts to recover a version of Aristotle's theory of friendship as an alternative to an account of intersubjectivity.[8] Here I will look at why Gadamer thinks I-Thou accounts are unsatisfactory, how he thinks a recovery of Aristotelian friendship avoids the mistakes made by I-Thou accounts, why he thinks any account of intersubjectivity may run into problems, and finally some of the new problems that arise with Gadamer's account of friendship as an alternative to an account of intersubjectivity.

Gadamer makes four arguments for speaking of the Other rather than of the I-Thou. First, the I-Thou relation creates an asymmetry such that the I is not necessarily the Thou's Thou. The directionality towards the Thou implicitly prioritizes the I over the Thou for it is the I that initiates the relation by saying "Thou." In contrast Gadamer emphasizes the way we are called into conversation by others and the symmetry between interlocutors in dialogue. Second, I-Thou relations embody a "mystifying substantialization." Dialogical approaches invoke "the Between" as the space of the encounter between I and Thou; a space that cannot be grasped intellectually. Gadamer's view is that this mystification precludes the level of clarity needed for a phenomenological analysis of relations between persons. The creation of such a super-subject mediating between the two interlocutors is a remnant of the view that meanings need to have a unitary source: if it is not in one or the other of the subjects, it must be in "the Between." But this view is mistaken. There can be genuinely social actions–actions where the outcome of the action is not properly ascribable to with participant—without needing to posting a mediating thing that is the source of the action.  It is one thing to speak of a between to avoid certain dichotomies; it is something else to ascribe agency to a between. Third, the I-Thou relation is insufficient for establishing an account of community. Gadamer writes, "By taking the function of the Thou as a basis, instead of the role of friendship, one is missing the objective communicative nature of the state and society."[9] By privileging the I-Thou relation, one cannot properly spell out the broader shared bonds that establish solidarity and community across many people. Ironically, these bonds of culture and language are the same bonds that make dialogue possible in the first place. Finally, Gadamer argues that any account of intersubjectivity implicitly or explicitly depends on an account of subjectivity. "Behind the concept of intersubjectivity stands the concept of subjectivity; one might even say that the concept of intersubjectivity is only comprehensible once we have expressed the concept of subjectivity."[10] When we seek to understand the way the subject as subject is shaped by its relation to other subjects—that is, when we address issues of intersubjectivity—we are starting from a particular notion of the subject. Different conceptions of the subject will lead to different theories of intersubjectivity; so given an account of intersubjectivity, we can usually discern the account subjectivity latent in the view. For example, if the key feature of subjectivity is self-awareness, an adequate account of intersubjectivity would have to show the way that our relations to others inform or constitute our self-awareness.  If subjectivity is understood in terms of the possibilities of agency, intersubjectivity becomes understood as ways in which our actions and possibilities for actions reflect our recognition and interrelation to other agents. In the case of I-Thou intersubjectivity, it is primarily a relation between two individuals—Gadamer points out that "only the individual human being has a Thou."[11] The latent sense of a subject as an individual leads Gadamer to write, "the modern way of talking about 'the problem of the Thou' is based on the fundamental primacy of the Cartesian ego cogito."[12] So on his view the I-Thou account of intersubjectivity preserves, rather than overcomes, a mistaken account of subjectivity.  Gadamer will go even farther and argue that once we follow Heidegger in eliminating talk about subjectivity, so too may we arrive at a point where we will not talk about inter-subjectivity either. That is why I refer to Gadamer's recover of Aristotle's account of friendship as an alternative to an account if intersubjectivity.

               The general mistake behind taking the I-Thou relation as the primary intersubjective relation is the failure to acknowledge the shared, especially linguistic, background that shapes persons such as to make the dialogue possible in the first place. Dialogues take place in language and thus intersubjective elements are already in place as a condition of these dialogues. Gadamer writes,

We say, for instance, that understanding and misunderstanding take place between an I and a Thou. But this formulation "I and Thou" already betrays an enormous alienation. There is nothing like an "I and Thou" at all—there is neither the I nor the Thou as isolated, substantial realities. I may say "Thou," and I may refer to myself as over against a Thou, but a common understanding always precedes these situations. We all know that to say "Thou" to someone presupposes a deep common accord. Something enduring is already present when this word is spoken. [13]

To say "Thou" is to acknowledge a level of familiarity between the interlocutors and to be willing to open oneself up to the other in the exchange. As such, it occurs only on the basis of a well-established, intersubjective relation. In addition, there must exist already an intersubjective impetus for engaging in dialogue. Gadamer locates this in our basic interest in seeking understanding through language, our "linguisticality."

Gadamer's connects his account of linguisticality with two of Aristotle's statements about human nature: "All men by nature seek to understand" and "humans are zoon logon echon." He follows Heidegger in translating "logon" as language, so humans are distinctive in their possession of language and their use of language to facilitate understanding. Like Heidegger, Gadamer regularly returns to the Greeks to arrive at insights into solutions to contemporary philosophical questions that avoid some of the errors of modern thinkers. For an alternative to an account of intersubjectivity that avoids "the fundamental primacy of the Cartesian ego cogito" Gadamer turns to Aristotle's account of friendship, and, by connecting it to dialogue, presents it as a version of a dialogical account of intersubjectivity.

               Consider what Aristotle argues are the minimal conditions for any kind of friendship: goodwill, mutuality, and recognition. All three are present in any dialogue so long as we understand dialogue as Gadamer does: collaborating to come to a shared, articulate understanding about a subject matter. If acknowledging the otherness of the other requires keeping oneself open to dialogue, it means one must embrace situations of mutually recognized goodwill. But Gadamer doesn't rest with the minimal conditions of friendship, he looks at four additional Aristotelian features of friendship: friends live together; friendship is based on self-love; friendship is possible with anyone; and friendship is a shared pursuit of the Good. Now to our modern ears these all sound implausible as necessary conditions of friendship. Living together is too extreme of a requirement for friendship; self-love undermines friendship; differences often limit friendships; and pursuing the Good is hopelessly idealistic and overly metaphysical. Gadamer will have to give a fresh interpretation of each to make his view plausible as an account of friendship, much less an account of intersubjectivity.

Gadamer argues that by "living together" Aristotle simply meant the shared participation in the communal aspects of life.

Friendship reaches far beyond the pleasure experienced when an individual who gives himself to the other in eros and philia rises above the narrow sphere of self-concern; it points to that ultimate dimension of things that we share, on which social life as a whole depends and without which no institutional system of communal life—whether constitution, legal system, or bureaucracy—is able to fulfill its function. An old maxim of the Greek ethics of friendship says it all: "among friends everything is common." Ultimately it means not only the world of goods, of possessions and enjoyments, and not just reciprocal sympathy and inclination, it includes the solidarity that exercises a dominion extending far beyond everything conscious, everything desired, into trade and business, political life, and work life, as well as into the intimacy of family and home.[14]

Gadamer connects the living together of friendship with Heidegger's Mitsein, the with-character of ourselves that both provides the groundwork for all dialogue and is made conscious and articulated in dialogue.[15] He combines Aristotle and Heidegger when speaking of the "lived with-one-another" that characterizes dialogue.[16]

Gadamer reinterprets the necessity of self-love for friendship by connecting self-love, or self-concern, with the classic command to "know thyself."

In any case, it belongs to the deepest consciousness of a human being that he needs to know about himself, that he is no god. Reminding us of this was the point of the Delphic oracle's imperative. When Aristotle appeals to it here, he intends it merely in the practical sense that someone who follows this admonition will be open to intercourse with others and to the "good." É From this cognizance of one's own limitations, however, immediately follows that the other, the friend, signifies an accession of being, self-feeling, and the richness of life.[17]

To love oneself is to recognize limitations in oneself. In Truth and Method Gadamer argues that a truly experienced person is also a truly open person, for to be experienced is to recognize the fruitfulness of encountering new views.[18] Being experienced and being open go hand in hand; likewise self-love and openness go hand in hand. If self-love includes the concern for self-perfection, and conversation and friendship with others is necessary for self-perfection, then self-love leads one to seek friendship and functions as a condition of friendship.

               Although Aristotle makes clear that the best forms of friendship are only available to the best people, when he discusses friendships of inequality he says that anyone can be friends with anyone else—even masters with slaves—because even with a slave (considered as a human, not as a slave) agreement is possible.[19] So too differences may make communication difficult, but they never exceed what we share to such an extent that dialogue can't take place. One might argue against Gadamer that differences, especially intellectual differences, establish inequalities and authorities, not dialogues. By recognizing that others may have things to teach us, we acknowledge their expertise and replace dialogue with the listening acceptance that accompanies granting authority. Gadamer replies that "only friends can advise."[20] The willingness to grant authority is the precondition of dialogue, not the end of dialogue; and friendship is the willingness to grant authority, as it is the willingness to be open to learning from one another.

               Finally, Gadamer's account of what it means to be oriented toward the Good is complicated and is extensively spelled out in his many books and articles on Plato.[21] I can only provide a sketch here. The goal of conversation is to come to an articulate understanding of the subject matter. Gadamer sees this activity as mirroring the ideal of Platonic dialogue where each interlocutor presents him- or herself as a model for one another. This he believes is the key to friendship as expressed in Plato's Lysis. Friendship is friendship when it works to bring out what is best in each other. Gadamer writes,

Via another, a person becomes one with himself. The other, the friend, means much to the person, not because of the person's need or lack, but for the sake of his own self-fulfillment (arte). The other is like the mirror of self-knowledge. One recognizes himself in another, whether in the sense of taking him as a model, or—and this is even more essential—in the sense of the reciprocity in play between friends, such that each sees a model in the other—that is, they understand one another by reference to what they have in common and so succeed in reciprocal co-perception. Friendship leads to an increase in one's own feeling of life and to a confirmation of one's own self-understanding, as implied in the concept of arte.[22]

The concern for the truth founds friendship and becomes most realized through friendship in the shared articulation and shared understanding of a subject matter.

So according to Gadamer, friendship reveals the relation between persons that makes conversation possible. It is the condition for dialogue, and is most realized in dialogue. Friendship embodies goodwill, a shared concern for the good of understanding, a recognition of one's own limitations, and a recognition that we share enough with others that they may have understandings that we lack, that they can teach us about a subject matter, and that, in the end, they are the condition for self-understanding. The conversation is the realization of the friendship and the relation that is unique for producing articulate insights. He writes, "Only in conversation É can friends find each other and develop that kind of community in which everyone remains the same for the other because both find themselves in the other and find the other in themselves."[23] Moreover this account of the relations between persons avoids the problems of I-Thou accounts of intersubjectivity. It avoids the mysticism of positing the Between; it makes clear the reciprocity between friends; it shows how community comes to fruition in and can be built upon the relation of friendship; and it doesn't rely on recourse to an indefensible account of an individualized subject. Above all, it presents the shared, especially linguistic, background that shapes persons such as to make the dialogue possible in the first place.

Yet, even if it avoids some of the problems of I-Thou accounts of intersubjectivity, the view has problems of its own. I see three problems. First, the account of friendship rescued from the Greeks does not fit well with contemporary understandings of friendship, so it's not clear that Gadamer has actually provided an account of friendship, as opposed to an account of, say, philia. Not only does the word seem out of place, but his reading of Aristotle seems both selective and without precedent—certainly it is at odds with the dominant readings of Aristotle on this point. Second his account of intersubjectivity as friendship is an explicitly normative one. By this I mean that friendship is a success term—to have a friend is to succeed in a certain way, it is to realize a certain sort of relationship that is not always realized. But intersubjectivity is not a success term. Intersubjective relations are at work even when we are not aware of them. How can friendship provide the basic model for intersubjectivity if the bulk of intersubjective relations do not seem to be ones of friendship, in either the Greek or the modern sense?[24] Finally, Gadamer cannot avoid the question of his concomitant account of subjectivity.  Just as an account of subjectivity can stand of fall based on the account of intersubjectivity that accompanies it, an account of intersubjectivity includes commitments to an account of subjectivity. And that account must be satisfactory for the account of intersubjectivity to be plausible.

For Gadamer, what is the proper way to characterize those beings that engage in

friendships? What kind of being has friendships? Gadamer's answer is "persons."

[T]here arises a completely different conceptual tradition [from that of "subjectivity"] and one might ask to what extent it may help us. I mean all that relates to the concept of person. As is well known, this expression, like its Greek parallel prosopon, is an expression for the masks of actors and hence also for the roles played by the actors in Attic theater—and likewise by anyone in the theater of the world.  The same goes for its Latin equivalent (persona). É Another highly significant Christian teaching stands along side this one: the application of the term to the Trinity. At issue here are the three persons of God, which are understood at once as a unity and a trinity.[25]

Gadamer seeks to replace the terminology of "subjectivity and intersubjectivity" with "persons and friendship," but he has very little to say about personhood. The success of his account of friendship will depend on the success of spelling out a satisfactory account of a person. Yet given his criticism of I-thou relations as involving "mystifying substantializations" it's difficult to see how using the Trinity as a model is going to help us understand personhood. As much progress as Gadamer has made in providing a dialogical account of intersubjectivity that avoids an I-Thou ontology, work remains to be done.


David Vessey

                                                                                                                                                      University of Chicago


[1] Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1986

[2]  Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, and Jean-Paul Sartre are Theunissen's examples of transcendental theorists; Martin Buber is his main example of a dialogical theorist, though Gabriel Marcel and Mikhail Bakhtin could be included.

[3] Gesammelte Werke, vol. 4 (TŸbingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1987), 234. This is a review of Karl Lšwith's  Das Individuum in der Rolle des Mitmenschen.

[4] Truth and Method, 358. 

[5] Gadamer in Conversation, ed and trans. Richard Palmer (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2001), 39.

[6]  Feminist Interpretations of Hans-Georg Gadamer, ed. Lorraine Code (State College, Penn.: Penn State Press, 2002), 9.

[7] "Subjectivity and Intersubjectivity; Subject and Person" Continental Philosophy Review, 33:3 (July 2000): 282.

[8] The main essays are "Friendship and Self-Knowledge" and "Ethics of Value and Practical Philosophy" in Hermeneutics, Ethics and Religion (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999); "Freundshaft und Solidaritūt" in Hermeneutiche EntwŸrfe: Vortrūge und Anfsūtze (TŸbingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2000); "Logos and Ergon in Plato's Lysis" in Dialogue and Dialectic (New Haven, NJ: Yale University Press, 1980); and "Subjectivity and Intersubjectivity; Subject and Person."

[9] Truth and Method, 536.

[10] "Subjectivity and Intersubjectivity; Subject and Person," 276

[11] Gadamer in Conversation, 58.

[12] Truth and Method, 535.

[13] "The Universality of the Hermeneutic Problem," in Philosophical Hermeneutics, trans. David Linge (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976), 7. It helps to keep in mind the German word for "thou" is Du, the familiar form of the second person, personal pronoun. The English "Thou" is particularly misleading as nowadays it is both antiquated and formal sounding.

[14] "Ethics of Value and Practical Philosophy," 117. Although Gadamer's concern here is with Greek accounts of friendship, the Latin root of "conversation," conversari, means to keep company with or to live together.

[15] Though he argues that the concept of miteinandersein is preferable to mit-sein. In a recent interview he said that "Mit-sein, for Heidegger, was a concession that he had to make, but one that he never really got behind. Indeed, even as he was developing the idea, he wasn't really talking about the other at all. Mit-sein is, as it were, an assertion about Dasein, which must naturally take Mit-sein for granted. I must say that conscience—having a conscience—not, that wasn't terribly convincing. 'Care' is always concernfulness [ein Besorgtsein] about one's own being, and Mit-sein is, in truth, a very weak idea of the other, more a letting the other be than an authentic "'being-interested-in-him'" (A Century of Philosophy [New York: Continuum, 2004], 23). Heidegger used Miteinandersein up to right before Being and Time, but then settled on Mit-Sein (although continuing to use Mitseinandersein, just not as a technical term). Ludwig Binswanger explicitly distinguishes Miteinandersein and Mit-sein along lines Gadamer might be sympathetic to in his Grundformen und Erkenntnis menschlichen Daseins (ZŸrich: Niehans, 1953).

[16]  In "Towards a Phenomenology of Ritual and Language" (in Language and Linguisticality in Gadamer's Hermeneutics, ed. and trans. Lawrence Schmidt [Lanham: Lexington Books, 2000]) he writes "The true conversation is a lived with-one-another, in which the one and the other unite themselves" (45).

[17] "Friendship and Self-Knowledge," 137.

[18] I owe this insight to Lauren Barthold's paper, "An Exposition of Friendship as a Paradigm Case of Hermeneutical Truth," presented at the 2002 annual meeting of the Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy.

[19] "Qua slave, then one cannot be friends with him but qua man one can; for there seems to be some justice between any man and any other who can share in a system of law or be party to an agreement; therefore there can also be friendship" (Nicomachean Ethics 1161b5–7).

[20] "Praktisches Wissen" in Gesammelte Werke vol. 5 (TŸbingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1985), 239. See also Book 2, Chapter 1 of Aristotle's Rhetoric where Aristotle talks about the receptiveness of those who are feeling friendly. The connection between friendship and rhetoric is central to Gadamer's interpretation of Aristotle, but it would take us too far afield to spell it out here.

[21]  See especially The Idea of the Good in Platonic-Aristotelian Philosophy, trans. P. Christopher Smith (New Haven, NJ.: Yale University Press, 1986).

[22] "Friendship and Self-Knowledge," 138–39.

[23] "Die Unfūhigkeit zum Gesprūch" in Gesammelte Werke, vol. 2 (TŸbingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1986), 211. He also writes "One recognizes oneself in others and the other recognizes itself in us" ("Freundshaft und Solidaritūt," 63).

[24] A preliminary answer might be to argue that friendship is broader than we normally think it is and intersubjectivity is narrower than we normally think it is. After all, not all relations between individuals are intersubjective relations. But this will require extensive elaboration and the broader his notion of friendship, the less it looks like what we would call friendship.

[25]   "Subjectivity and Intersubjectivity; Subject and Person," 283.


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