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Disconnecting Intersubjectivity and Ethics

David Vessey

2006 Central Division APA, Chicago


Since Hans-Georg Gadamer's debates with Jürgen Habermas in the 1960s, one repeated concern has been that his emphasis on the pervasiveness of tradition rules out, or at least undervalues, our ability to be critical of our inherited views.  Gadamer stresses the role of language for grasping ideas, the power of our pre-judgments for shaping our judgments, and the centrality of classics for guiding our criteria of excellence. Habermas takes exception to all these points, as have numerous philosophers since him.[1] Axel Honneth's recent essay, “On the Destructive Power of the Third:  Gadamer and Heidegger's Doctrine of Intersubjectivity,”[2] carries on this tradition of argument, but shifts the focus away from Gadamer's theory of judgment and theory of interpretation to Gadamer's theory of intersubjectivity and his ethical theory. Honneth’s shift is significant: much of the intuitive pull of the Habermasian critiques is the moral concern that traditions may systematically oppress marginalized groups and that maximizing our critical resources is, above all, a matter of justice. Honneth address the moral issue directly, at the same time noting Gadamer's lingering dependency on Martin Heidegger's "provincialism"—Heidegger's view that any course of life appealing to shared, social norms must be inauthentic. According to Honneth, Gadamer so emphasizes the immediacy of I-Thou relations realized through dialogue that he consistently fails to see how reason—informed by shared social norms—could play a productive role in shaping authentic relations to others.  Instead, Honneth argues, there are universal social norms that could guide our dialogues with others, helping us to distinguish those dialogues likely to be fruitful for greater understanding and those likely only to reinforce established and unjustified prejudices.

            I think Honneth is mistaken, however, both in his interpretation of Gadamer—Gadamer doesn’t hold an I-Thou dialogical account of authentic relations to others—and more importantly in his implicit assumption that theories of intersubjectivity bound ethical theories. Honneth’s general confusion is thinking one’s theory of how humans are aware of and related to others exhausts the resources available for one’s moral theory. For example, if one wants to emphasize the role of reflection in moral reasoning, then one needs to show that our ability to reason develops out of our interactions with others.  Jürgen Habermas tries to do just this.[3] Or one might argue that since our relations to others are not relations of reason, reasoning does not belong to an account of moral responsibility. Emmanuel Levinas makes this argument.[4] They and Honneth see theories of intersubjectivity and theories of ethics interlinked such that the elements of one’s ethical theory must be traced back to one’s theory of intersubjectivity. But this need not be the case, and Gadamer doesn’t make that mistake.

In his bringing forth what Gadamer lacks Honneth links two terms from disparate philosophical traditions: “the third” and the “generalized other.” The “third” is a term developed in postmodern philosophy, especially by those influenced by Levinas.[5] Levinas focuses on the relation between an individual and a particular other, a relation dominated by the incessant call to be responsible before the other. The idea is that in the presence of an other whom we always fail to comprehend, we are called out of our self-interest into a concern for the other.  “With the appearance of the human—and this is my entire philosophy—there is something more important than my life, the life of the other.”[6] The summons to respond to the face of the other Levinas presents as the original impetus to ethics and the origin of responsibility. Since there is never a point at which the alterity of the other becomes exhausted, so too is there never a point when we are absolved of moral responsibility. Given this intensely interpersonal account of moral responsibility, it's difficult to see how any political philosophy—or any understanding of oneself as belonging to a general community—could arise without it negating the ethical demand of the other.

            Levinas claims that we avoid being trapped into being concerned only for those immediately present by the presence of “the third,” by the recognition that there are other others who also demand responsibility from us. With the advent of the third, “It is consequently necessary to weigh, to think, to judge in comparing the incomparable.  The interpersonal relation I establish with the Other, I must also establish with other men.”[7]  In the presence of the third, which he says is always present, “the self, the I, cannot limit itself to the incomparable uniqueness of each one, which is expressed in the fact of each one. Behind the unique singularities, one must perceive the individuals of a genus, one must compare them, judge them, and condemn them.”[8] The third, then requires us to ask general questions of justice and to use our responses to these questions to guide us in how we respond to the inexhaustible demands of the other. A new intersubjective relationship makes possible a new kind of moral reasoning we would lack without it.

            Honneth equates the third with the “generalized other.”[9] This is surprising because the concept of the "the generalized other" has its origin in the social theory of George Herbert Mead, a philosopher working in a very different philosophical tradition from Levinas, but the one Habermas draws on to develop his account of intersubjectivity. Mead holds that in interaction with others we instinctively project reactions of others and use those projections as guides for our actions. We come to understand ourselves through internalizing the reactions of others. Moving beyond individual others, we also internalize, and see ourselves through, the expectations of the social group as a whole. This is the generalized other, “[t]he organized community or social group which gives to the individual his unity of self.”[10] Through adopting the norms of the generalized other we are able to consider general questions of justice.[11] Both the generalized other and the third are presented as relational impetuses for introducing abstract reflection into moral thinking (though the conception of the subject they are built upon is very different). They both function to explain how our relations to others become the means for asking general questions of justice or rights. In both cases our ability to raise concerns about partiality and bias that may arise in our face-to-face relations itself emerges through interactions with others. That is, essential elements of both Levinas’s and Habermas’s moral theories are related back to their theories of intersubjectivity.

            Honneth sees Gadamer, like Levinas, arguing that any introduction of general concerns of justice or equality interfere with the immediacy of the I-Thou relation. Unlike Levinas, though, Honneth thinks Gadamer fails to acknowledge the importance of the sense of justice and equality that arises with the third. Gadamer can only see its destructive power, and in this sense Honneth believes Gadamer has equated the third with Heidegger's Das Man, “the they.” For Heidegger when we are fallen into “the they” we live generically doing as “they do” or as “one would do.” Becoming authentic only occurs once we have freed ourselves from such leveling, everyday thinking and learned how to be who we are.[12]  The third (or the generalized other) and the ability to reason it engenders distorts our proper relations to others and our selves.

            Honneth builds his criticism of Gadamer on Gadamer’s discussion of kinds of I-Thou relations. In a key section of Truth and Method Gadamer analyzes the nature of hermeneutic experience, that is, the distinctive character of experiencing a historical idea in such a way as to legitimately come to understand it. “Hermeneutic experience is concerned with tradition,”[13] he writes, and he hopes to clarify our proper relation to the meanings passed on to us by considering tradition as a “Thou.” He models our relation to tradition on I-Thou relations; specifically he equates three ways in which we can take up ideas handed down in tradition to three ways we can relate to others as Thous. In the first case we can see the ideas as belonging to a type, a category of ideas, and so avoid considering their truth or falsity. It is simply what Thomists think, or what empiricists think, and since we are neither of them, the ideas do not require our engagement. In the second case we see ideas in their uniqueness, not as a type, but in historical context playing a unique historical role in the development of current ideas. To treat tradition in this way, however, suggests we’ve progressed not only to being able to fully understand the idea, but to understanding the idea better than its author, for we understand how it became historically modified into ideas we now embrace. We recognize its historical place and limitations, in the process neglecting our own historical contingencies. Like the first approach, again we are not engaging the idea for there is nothing to be learned from it today. The third, and according to Gadamer appropriate way to encounter ideas from the past is to see them as possibly true and as worthy of being learned from. We should be open to the truth of the idea; even more, we should interpret the idea in such a way that it can be see how the idea might be true, and how what we previously held might be mistaken.

            The three ways of encountering ideas of the past—as a type, as a unique historical moment, and as posing challenges to us—parallel three ways of relating to others as a Thou. We can see others as types. In that case we have “a kind of experience of the Thou that tries to discover typical behavior in one’s fellow men and can make predictions about others on the basis of experience.”[14] We can see others in their uniqueness establishing a mutual, dialectical relation in which we recognize each other for who we are. However the claim to know the other person, even as unique persons, distances one from the relationship. Gadamer says,

One claims to know the other's claim from his point of view and even to understand the other better than the other understands himself. In this way the Thou loses the immediacy with which it makes its claim. It is understood, but this means it is co-opted and preempted reflectively from the standpoint of the other person. … [One accomplishes this by] withdrawing from the dialectic of this reciprocity, in reflecting himself out of his relation to the other and so becoming unreachable by him. By understanding the other, by claiming to know him, one robs his claims of their legitimacy.[15]

In Gadamer’s criticisms of the second way of relating to a Thou we can see Honneth’s concerns about the distorting effect of reflection. The third way of relating to a Thou Gadamer presents as the only one capable of creating a “genuine human bond” and as analogous to “the third, and highest, type of hermeneutical experience.”[16] In this situation we are aware of our finitude and are “open” to the Thou in the sense that we recognize we may have something to learn from the person. “Belonging together always also means being able to listen to one another…. Openness to the other, then involves recognizing that I myself must accept some things that are against me, even though no one else forces me to do so.”[17] Engaging the other person, as opposed to distancing oneself from the other person through reflection, is the only way of relating to another as a Thou at the same time taking seriously one’s own limitations. 

Honneth summarizes Gadamer’s view: “the ‘highest mode’ of the experience of historical tradition must be able to be conceived in conformity to that particular form of intersubjectivity that is characterized as a ‘genuine human connection,’ in the mode of ‘openness to one another.’”[18]According to Honneth, emphasizing engagement at the expense of reflection abandons critical resources that may help us to properly contextualize the views of the other. Honneth claims Gadamer holds that

beyond simple togetherness there is no reflexively universalized form of intersubjectivity that does not bear the blemish of distortion or distanciation. What cannot be imagined is thus the possibility that two subjects meet one another in the commonly shared perspective of a generalized other without having already removed the individual particularity of the other.[19]

Honneth continues in his criticism of Gadamer arguing that Gadamer has confused “morality and authentic experience” by making the I-Thou relation not only intersubjectively normative, but morally normative.

            At this point enough of Honneth’s argument is on the table to see the ways he has misinterpreted Gadamer.[20] Above all, Honneth has taken a discussion of ways of approaching others as Thous—a discussion meant to clarify the ways we could relate to historical ideas—as if it were presenting Gadamer’s account of authentic relations to others, as if it were Gadamer’s account of intersubjectivity. But it is not. Regularly Gadamer criticizes I-Thou accounts of intersubjectivity on grounds that Honneth would be sympathetic to. For example in Truth and Method Gadamer writes that “the modern way of talking about ‘the problem of the Thou’ is based on the fundamental primacy of the Cartesian ego cogito”[21] and that “[b]y 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.”[22] He also writes

To say ‘the I’ and ‘the Thou’ seems to us, at least since Wittgenstein, no longer quite allowable.… It seems to me an important modification that now one does not only avoid speaking of ‘the Thou,’ …  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 ….  I myself have taken the measure of the ancient teaching on friendship in this regard.[23]


Gadamer points to a related set of problems surrounding I-Thou accounts of intersubjectivity. First, they begin with an account of a singular subject, an account he thinks is indefensible.[24] Second, they fail to appreciate the reciprocity between interlocutors in dialogue. Finally, they fail to acknowledge how much is shared as a condition of dialogue; the I-Thou relation is supposed to be immediate, but in fact is mediated by culture, language, and the presence of shared virtues. Instead of starting from a modern account of the subject and then compensating for its limitations by positing the importance of a Thou, Gadamer thinks we need to recover the ancient account of friendship and the sense of the ethical community it is founded on.[25]

            The relations between friends include the openness he provides in his account of the relations between I and Thou, for friendship, like dialogue, is based on reciprocal, shared recognition of the value of seeking the good, the willingness to listen to each other, and treating each other as bearing insights of the good. Reflection is not a distortion of friendship but constitutive of the relation in friendship as they share good judgment. Phronesis, the virtue most valued in friendship and most encouraged in the highest friendships, is at the heart of Gadamer’s account of ethics, and is only derivatively part an account of the openness to others in dialogue.[26] Gadamer’s moral theory draws on wider resources than only those given in his theory of our relations to others. In fact, our relations to others help us to expand our moral judgments, not constrain them.

This is also why Gadamer criticizes Heidegger on precisely the point Honneth tries to connect them—Gadamer takes Heidegger to task for seeing others as simply limitations on our ability to be authentic rather than sources of insight about our own cultural and historical limitations. If, as Honneth, argues, Gadamer is concerned about the way reflection interferes with our openness to others (and he is), it is not because Gadamer is working with a theory about the I-Thou relationship as the highest, most authentic way of relating to others, nor because Gadamer sees no role for reflection in practical reasoning. It is simply because he is concerned about clarifying what is essential in hermeneutic experience, which is a separate issue from moral judgment.

Honneth makes a general mistake, one made consistently in phenomenology. He holds that a philosopher’s ethical theory is bound by his or her theory of intersubjectivity. That is, the ways we come to be aware of other subjects as subjects, and come to be shaped as subjects ourselves through our relations to other subjects, establish and exhaust the resources for moral reasoning. Given this presumption, it makes full sense to argue that a philosopher is incapable of providing a defensible account of ethics given what the philosopher says about intersubjectivity.  That is the form Honneth’s argument against Gadamer takes. If Gadamer only acknowledges I-Thou relations as genuinely intersubjective he will be constrained to such relations when developing an ethical theory, and thus his moral theory will lack the critical resources that reasoned, abstract relations to others might provide. Mead and Levinas, by recognizing the generalized other and the third respectively, can introduce themes such as justice in their moral theories. But how it is we arrive at an awareness of others need not be the only way others are considered. Once aware of other subjects we can ask ourselves whether we should see others first and foremost as limitations on our freedom, whether we should think of them in terms of the radical differences between us, or whether we should let questions of justice—questions we are capable of asking, not because of a third, or a generalized other, but because we can recognize features across subjects and reflect on these features—guide our actions. The descriptive character of our awareness of others always underdetermines the normative reflection ethics demands, which is why the resources for moral reasoning are not limited to the resources provided by a theory of intersubjectivity.

[1] The criticisms have become standard fare, regardless of consistent protestations by Gadamerians. Some recent versions can be found in Feminist Interpretations of Hans-Georg Gadamer, ed. Lorraine Code (University Park, PA: Penn State Press, 2003).

[2] Philosophy and Social Criticism, 29:1, 2003, 5–21. Hereafter “Honneth.”

[3]  See his Theory of Communicative Action Vol. II: Lifeworld and System: A Critique of Functionalist Reason (Boston: Beacon Press, 1987) and “Individuation Through Socialization: On George Herbert Mead’s Theory of Subjectivity” in Postmetaphysical Thinking: Philosophical Essays, tr. William Mark Hohengarten (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1992).

[4] See especially Section 1 of Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority (Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University Press, 1969).

[5] See Silva Benso’s “Politics of Witnessing: History, Memory, and the Third—Beyond Levinas” (Studies in Practical Philosophy, 3[2], 2003: 4-18); Robert Bernasconi’s "The Third Party: Levinas on the Intersection of the Ethical and the Political" (Journal of the British Society for Phenomenology, 30 [1], 1999: 76-87); Willam Simmons’ “The Third: Levinas' Theoretical Move from An-Archical Ethics to the Realm of Justice and Politics” (Philosophy and Social Criticism, 25[6], 2003, 83-104); Roger Burggraeve’s “The Ethical Basis for a Humane Society According to Emmanuel Levinas” (Ephemerides Theologicae Lovanienses 57, 1981, 5–57); and Adriaan Peperzak’s  To the Other: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas (West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press, 1993), 167–84. 

[6] “The Paradox of Morality: an interview with Emmanuel Levinas” in The Provocation of Levinas: Rethinking the Other (New York: Routledge, 1988). Honneth discusses Levinas and Derrida’s views in “The Other of Justice: Habermas and the Ethical Challenge of Postmodernism” in The Cambridge Companion to Habermas, ed. Steven White (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985).

[7] Ethics and Infinity: Conversations with Philippe Nemo (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1985), 90.

[8] On Thinking of the Other: Entre Nous, tr. Michael B. Smith and Barbara Harshov (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), 229.

[9]  For example he writes that for Gadamer “as soon as two subjects come upon one another as ‘I’ and ‘Thou’, the assumption of the standpoint of an impartial third party always already signifies a reflexive step, through which the previously existing dependence is irrevocably destroyed. It seems as if for Gadamer, too, all the features of ‘das Man’, to which Heidegger in Being and Time had let the standpoint of a generalized other dwindle, adhere to this ‘third party’” (Honneth, 18).

[10] Mind, Self and Society (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1934), 154.

[11]  Mead says, “Our thinking is an inner conversation in which we may be taking the roles of specific acquaintances over against ourselves, but usually it is with what I have termed the 'generalized other' that we converse, and so attain the levels of abstract thinking, and that impersonality, that so called objectivity that we cherish.” Mind, Self and Society, 191–2.

[12]  The key discussion is in Division I, Section IV of Being and Time (Albany: SUNY Press, 1996). In this part of his discussion Honneth is drawing inspiration from Jürgen Habermas’s ‘Urbanizing the Heideggerian Province’ in Philosophical-Political Profiles (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1983), 189-98.

[13] Truth and Method (New York: Continuum, 1994), 358. Italics his.

[14] Truth and Method, 358.

[15] Truth and Method, 359–60.

[16] Truth and Method, 361.

[17] Truth and Method, 361 playing on gehören, belonging, and hören, to listen.

[18] Honneth, 6.

[19]  Honneth, 17–18.

[20] Honneth also looks at length at Gadamer’s 1927 review of Karl Löwith's Das Individuum in der Rolle des Mitmenschen. Here Gadamer writes that, “respect in Kant's sense is respect before the law, which is to say, however, that the phenomenon of respect contains in itself a universalization of the human and not the tendency to the recognition of the 'Thou' in its particularity and for its particularity” (Gesammelte Werke, Vol. 4 [Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1987], 239). To treat others as being worthy of respect in virtue of being autonomous is to treat them not in their individuality, not insofar as they differ from others and can contribute to the dialogue in virtue of that difference, but in their status as belonging to the community of human beings. It is to relate to the abstract, general properties of the person rather than the invidividuating properties of the person. But it is as an individual with distinctive viewpoints that makes people capable of contributing to a dialogue and makes them worthy of understanding. For by appreciating them in their individuality we come to understand our own individuality and the limitations that may place upon our interpretations. The mistake Honneth makes is treating Gadamer’s discussion of what activities are best at revealing our limitations as a full account of Gadamer’s moral theory. Understanding our limitations is useful for informing our moral judgment, but does not replace moral judgment. Honneth also draws on the fact that Löwith consistently criticizes Heidegger, yet Gadamer does not take up that criticism in his review. In fact, as we will see, Gadamer is very sympathetic to Löwith’s criticisms.

[21] Truth and Method, 535.

[22] Truth and Method, 536.

[23] “Subjectivity and Intersubjectivity; Subject and Person,” (Continental Philosophy Review, vol. 33, no. 3), 282.

[24] In Gadamer in Conversation, ed. and trans. by Richard Palmer (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001) he points out that “only the individual human being has a Thou” (58).

[25] See in particular his essays "Friendship and Self-Knowledge" and "Ethics of Value and Practical Philosophy" in Hermeneutics, Ethics and Religion, ed. And tr. Joel Weinsheimer (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999); "Freundshaft und SolidaritĢt" in Hermeneutiche Entwürfe: VortrĢge und AnfsĢtze (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2000). Gadamer takes friendship in the Aristoteliam sense would extend to all those capable of entering into conversation as that defines the community.

[26] Consider this long quote from a late interview. “Determining what is rational in the specific, concrete situation in which you find yourself—which certainly can have many parallels to other situations yet remains the specific situation in which you stand—is something you must do for yourself. What is rational in the sense of the right thing to do in this situation is not prescribed to you in the general orientations you have been given about good and evil in the same way that the instructions for use that come with a tool that tell you how to use it.  Rather you have to determine for yourself what you are going to do. And to do this you have to arrive at a comprehension of your situation, reach an understanding with yourself about it. In other words, you have to interpret it! This then is the hermeneutical dimension of ethics and practical reason.  Hermeneutics is die Kunst der VerstĢndigung—the art of reaching an understanding—of something or with someone. I think you can see immediately that this ‘coming to an understanding’ of our practical situations and what we must do in them is not monological; rather, it has the character of a conversation. We are dealing with each other. Our human form of life has an ‘I and Thou’ character and an 'I and we' character, and also a 'we and we' character. In our practical affairs we depend on the ability to arrive at an understanding. And reaching an understanding happens in a conversation, in a dialogue” (Conversation, 79). Our ability to see the proper way to act in a situation, our ability to reason practically, is shaped and informed by our relations to others, but it is not thereby restricted to the immediacy of the I-Thou encounter. This is partially because we are related not only to particular others—our ‘I and Thou’ character—but to a generalized other—our ‘I and we’ character—and related as members of communities to other communities—our ‘we and we’ character.


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