The term ‘hermeneutics’ embraces both the art and the philosophy of understanding, a praxis and a theory. It is through the influence of German thinkers like Gadamer and Habermas that in the last decade interest in hermeneutics has flourished among philosophers and literary critics in France and America. The books under review are a pressing invitation to the British reader to find out what it is all about. Not only are they in a sense complementary to each other in that the Habermas volume is a contribution in its own right to the hermeneutics debate, but both are evidence of the continuing rejection of Europhobia in philosophy. Their purposes differ: the first levels acute criticism at Habermas’s contention that an emancipation extending beyond philosophy into political engagement can be founded upon a new analysis of rationality; the second aims at being an anthology representative of the main currents of thought in hermeneutics since its modern inception in the eighteenth century. The Hermeneutics Reader follows in the excellent series published by Blackwell providing collections of essential background material for a particular field, useful too as general introductions. Habermas and Modernity shows the awareness, international in scope, that is becoming characteristic of the recently founded Polity Press. Together the two books are challenging for British readers in that they bring out the relevance of this debate to the question of what sense should be given to our guiding concept of modernity. Anyone who sets out to define the modern is making a bid to define the future. In Habermas and Modernity a group of writers from the fields of philosophy, history, psychoanalysis and sociology consider his attempt to ground a hope of escape from the threat of over-systematization in a new theory of rational communication. It could be said to be a politicizing of hermeneutics, the forging of a link between hermeneutics as a theory and a praxis. Although Habermas asserts his dislike of philosophies that seek a unifying theory based on
transcendental concepts, particularly that of a transcendental self, he has put forward a theory which courts scientific endorsement and is thus presumed to have universal application. There is, of course, a Marxian analogy here, since it is a claim which, though avoiding utopian optimism, nevertheless appears to show that those who are seeking emancipation from what Weber called the ‘iron cage of bureaucracy’ find a given in the very mode of human intersubjectivity which predisposes it towards that emancipation. Habermas would be the first to deny that there was any historicist inevitability built into his scheme or that a totalitarian result is necessarily out of the question. But there is no doubt that a central motivation for his hope can be found in the discovery that the rationality of language has a built-in progressiveness. Truth, truthfulness, intelligibility and sincerity, four validity-claims, never realized in ideal perfection, are considered to be the underlying essentials of social communication and form the necessary ground of all human interaction, in that anyone seeking to influence his or her partners in any enterprise through argument where the rhetorical positions are free of constraint must perforce set about establishing his or her right to make such claims. This is Habermas’s ‘ideal speech situation’, never fully achieved, as he says, but always ‘anticipated’. The message is that, once ‘symmetrical’ relations on the rhetorical board have been set up and all coercion has been removed, the force of the ‘better argument’ must make itself felt, and herein lies deliverance from the rigidities of system.