What Is Reparative Reasoning? Jürgen Habermas’ Philosophy, Practical Reasoning, and Theological Hermeneutics

Jacob L. Goodson
The College of William & Mary


Recently, both Nicholas Adams and Peter Ochs have employed the phrase “reparative reasoning” in order to describe how reason functions for corrective or therapeutic purposes. [1] On its own, reason might identify significant problems. Reparative reasoning identifies problematic situations and provides a plan of action for addressing the problem identified. In this essay, I address the questions: what is reparative reasoning, and how does it work as a form of practical reasoning? In order to address these questions, I turn to the work of the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas. Jürgen Habermas is a self-described secular thinker, who (surprisingly) makes a place for Scripture within his conception of practical reasoning. By doing this, Habermas provides a model of theological hermeneutics. This model for theological hermeneutics organically arises within Habermas’ conception of practical reasoning primarily through his reflections on the relationship between reason and tradition. In his book on Habermas’ philosophy, Nicholas Adams addresses Habermas’ reflections on reason and tradition. [2] However, Adams does not recognize the significance of the role of Scripture within Habermas’ conception of practical reasoning. In this essay, I argue that the model for theological hermeneutics that comes out of Habermas’ conception of practical reasoning helps us better understand what reparative reasoning is and how it works. I begin with the American philosopher John Dewey’s argument concerning the relationship between reason and tradition, because it provides a helpful framework for Habermas’ reflections on the relationship between reason and tradition. [3]

Does John Dewey Have a Conception of Tradition?

In his description of the “pattern of inquiry,” John Dewey displays the details necessary for beginning to think about a conception of tradition. In particular, Dewey shows how an “ontology of peace” needs to be a part of a conception of tradition. What follows here, then, is an analysis of Dewey’s “pattern of inquiry” for the purpose of outlining some of the details of his conception of tradition.

In Logic: The Theory of Inquiry, Dewey argues that inquiry is how one gets from an indeterminate situation to one that is both determinate and unified. [4] Dewey’s description of the “pattern of inquiry,” more specifically, provides both the rules for inquiry and the spontaneity of inquiry. The rules for inquiry are both the antecedent conditions for inquiry such as an indeterminate situation and the conditions for inquiry during the process of inquiry such as the institution of a real problem. The spontaneity of inquiry involves the “flashes,” or the moments of inspiration, that help determine possible solutions for the real problems in and of an indeterminate situation. The rules themselves, then, are not possible solutions but are the conditions for possible solutions. Likewise with the “flashes”: spontaneity, itself, is not a possible solution; rather, it is the condition that renders the rules contingent on the situation itself instead of on necessary conditions free from context.

The antecedent conditions of inquiry involve the indeterminacy of a situation. Dewey lists several descriptions of what characterizes an indeterminate situation: ambiguous, confused, disturbed, obscure, and troubled. An indeterminate situation cannot be made determinate simply through argument or “by manipulation of our personal states of mind.” [5] An indeterminate situation can, at best, be named as such and then, at most, lead to inquiry. Indeterminateness is a condition of inquiry, the only necessary condition of inquiry for Dewey, and is not a part of the pattern of inquiry itself.

The identification of a problem begins the pattern or process of inquiry. In order to institute a problem, there must be an actual situation that is indeterminate. In other words: for the process of inquiry to be valid, there must be an actual situation for which a real problem can be instituted. The institution of a problem becomes dependent upon an actual situation that is indeterminate and that indeterminate situation being identifiable as having a real problem.

The determination of a problem-solution usually comes as a “flash,” a moment of inspiration, and involves five important elements. (1) A situation that is completely indeterminate cannot be instituted as a problem without the constituents of that situation being defined. There can only be a “flash,” then, if the constituents of the indeterminate situation have been defined. (2) A possible solution is suggested through an idea, and ideas are predictions of what will happen if other events occur under certain conditions. Ideas are concrete possibilities for solutions to actual problems in real situations and not abstract possibilities for solutions to conceptual problems in the mind. (3) Ideas are possibilities. As such, ideas differ depending on the stage of inquiry. At first, ideas are vague and occur only as suggestions – which come from the “flash.” Suggestions, then, are determined by “flashes” and only become ideas when they become functional as a logical prediction of a possible solution to a given indeterminate situation. (4) The meaning of a suggestion-turned-idea must be embodied symbolically because ideas that are embodied symbolically are the only kind of ideas that are capable of being objective. (5) Concepts and percepts function correlatively with one another in the sense that percepts locate and prescribe the problems while concepts provide possible methods for solutions to the problem. [6] Without percepts, problems cannot be known. Without concepts, solutions are not imminent. Without “flashes,” the determination of the problem-solution is not possible. In sum, the determination of a problem-solution is typically as follows: having a “flash,” figuring out the constituents of the indeterminate situation, making suggestions, turning suggestions into ideas, embodying ideas symbolically, and keeping conceptions and perceptions together.

Reasoning is reparative, for Dewey, in the sense that reasoning does not take place for its own sake. [7] Reparative reasoning has to be a part of the process of inquiry and not be the acceptance of mere suggestions. An idea can be accepted for the purpose of repairing a problem but only when the process of inquiry has taken place. Reasoning in the process of inquiry will be reparative if a conclusion is finally reached which is clearly relevant to the problem in the indeterminate situation. That is to say, only those ideas that become plans for action are the ones involved in the reparative reasoning of the process of inquiry. [8] Thus the reasoning involved in the pattern of inquiry is the kind of reasoning based upon the logic of ideas being “operational” as plans for action and not abstract possibilities in the mind. Moreover, the reparative aspect of reasoning is a repair of a problem in an indeterminate situation with ideas as plans for action for the purpose of “an ordered whole,” a unified whole, or unity in general. Therefore, reparative reasoning involves the recognition of a problem and a plan for action as a solution to that problem. [9]

For purposes of reparative reasoning, the importance of constituents in an indeterminate situation is that a real repair cannot take place for that particular community or in that specific tradition if one does not locate what is good and right about the situation. Dewey, therefore, concurs with Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas that agreement is a necessary condition for genuine disagreement. Recently, this sort of argument has been called an “ontology of peace” because the location of constituents in an indeterminate situation assumes that agreement and peace are fundamentally more basic than disagreement and violence. The word “ontology” is tricky for Dewey, though, because it is used to make a logical or methodological point and not strictly a metaphysical one. Perhaps, for Dewey, an ontology of peace becomes a kind of post-metaphysical ontology of peace. According to Nicholas Adams, Jürgen Habermas offers this kind of post-metaphysical ontology of peace. [10] But can his post-metaphysical ontology of peace be described as an extension of Dewey’s conception of tradition – as detailed through Dewey’s description of the pattern of inquiry? The burden of the present essay is to affirm this question and show how Habermas continues this post-metaphysical ontology of peace.

Philosophical and Theological Criticisms of Habermas’ Hermeneutics

Both James K. A. Smith and Nicholas H. Smith criticize Habermas’ conception of tradition in general by criticizing his hermeneutics and interpretation theory. Their criticisms are not necessarily wrong, though they may be in places, so much as they need to be tested in order to gain a fully developed understanding of Habermas on reason and tradition. Addressing and testing these criticisms will enable me, with the help of Nicholas Adams’ work on Habermas’ philosophy, to develop Habermas’ conception of practical reasoning in relation to Scripture and tradition.

James Smith’s Theological Critique of Habermas’ Interpretation Theory

In James Smith’s The Fall of Interpretation: Philosophical Foundations for a Creational Hermeneutic, Habermas’ theory of interpretation is identified as one of the philosophical theories that prohibits a “creational hermeneutic.” [11] The thesis of Smith’s book is that interpretation itself is not part of the sinfulness of creation but rather a part of the goodness of creation. Interpretation is part of the goodness of creation and needing mediation through interpretation is part of our goodness as God’s creatures. Interpretation, therefore, should not be overcome but acknowledged and named as one of the good aspects of God’s creation.

Both Gadamer and Habermas, according to James Smith, “share a common interpretation of interpretation that in the end…posits an overcoming of hermeneutics and the restoration or accomplishment of immediacy.” [12] Smith wants to maintain that interpretation and mediation need not be overcome. Such attempts to overcome interpretation and mediation, as is the case with both Gadamer and Habermas, fail to appreciate and understand the goodness of interpretation and mediation. [13] The “limit of hermeneutics,” for Habermas, is the fact that there is a distortion to tradition: “If the tradition is distorted, hermeneutics will never permit one to recognize that distortion.” [14] According to Smith’s reading of Habermas, the distortion of tradition is what limits the use of hermeneutics within a tradition. The use of hermeneutics alone cannot get one outside the necessary distortions of tradition.

What is needed, then, is someone from outside the tradition “to point out the distortions; that is, these [distortions] must be pointed out from outside the conversation – outside the hermeneutical context.” [15] Citing Habermas’ “On Hermeneutics’ Claim to Universality,” Smith continues:

If hermeneutical consciousness were truly universal, as it claims to be, then we would “have no universal criterion at our disposal which would tell us when we are caught up in the false consciousness of a pseudonormal understanding.” [16]

If hermeneutics were universal, if it is interpretation qua interpretation all the way down, then there would be no universal criteria to determine when a part of the tradition becomes problematic or breaks down. Habermas’ word for the occurrence of such a problem is “distortion.” Part of the “distortion” of tradition is that it can create a “false consciousness of a pseudonormal understanding.” [17] Habermas wants to safeguard against this “distortion,” and he thinks that the claim to universality in hermeneutics fails to offer such a safeguard.

Habermas argues that Gadamer’s emphasis on tradition points toward a kind of consensus, which Habermas thinks is good, but also renders that consensus to be “beyond critique,” which Habermas thinks is bad. That is to say that tradition, for Gadamer, cannot be distorted or have problems – a position that I consider a conservative understanding or Romantic conception of tradition. Instead, Habermas offers a theory of interpretation that is more critically self-aware. “This critically self-aware hermeneutics,” according to Smith, “finds consensus not in a standing agreement with what has been handed down but in the universal/shared principles of communication.” [18] These principles “are the basis of all communication and…transcend every conversation.” [19] Because “these shared principles transcend communication, they also stand independently of and outside our context and hence make critique possible.” [20] Habermas, according to Smith, accounts for a “critique of the tradition” that comes from outside of the tradition. The critique of tradition can avoid, then, the distortions of that tradition. A critique from within tradition, according to Smith’s understanding of Habermas, cannot avoid the distortions of that tradition because the distortions are inherent within the tradition.

Furthermore, according to his understanding of Habermas’ interpretation theory, because tradition cannot escape its own distortions, language itself “is constituted by a systematic distortion; the negative effects of interpretation are structural elements of hermeneutics and are not accidental.” [21] Smith continues: “But the overcoming of such systematically distorted communication is envisioned in the future, in the realization of the ideal community in the kingdom of God, where a universal consensus is effected, eliminating the distortions inherent to interpretation.” [22] This universal consensus of which Smith speaks in his reading of Habermas, the consensus “which is required for critique,” will be achieved only under idealized conditions found in the establishment of “universal/shared principles of communication.” [23]

James Smith’s understanding of Habermas, then, makes Habermas’ theory of interpretation seem like interpretation itself is not part of the goodness of creation. In the realization of the ideal community, there is neither interpretation nor mediation because there are no distortions. On this reading of Habermas, interpretation and mediation are needed only because of the systematic distortion of language and tradition. Universal and shared principles of reason and communication, free from particularity and tradition, need to be assumed in the meantime and will be realized in the end. The theological critique of Habermas concerns how interpretation will be overcome and thus is not part of God’s good and created order. Smith wants interpretation as interpretation to be part of God’s good and created order; on his reading of Habermas’ theory of interpretation, Habermas does not get him there. As a result, Habermas’ work remains insufficient for Smith’s own interests and purposes.

Nicholas Smith’s Philosophical Critique of Habermas’ Hermeneutics

In Nicholas Smith’s Strong Hermeneutics: Contingency and Moral Identity, Habermas is identified as having a “deep hermeneutics” – which Smith contrasts with both a “strong hermeneutics” and a “weak hermeneutics.” [24] Representatives of a “strong hermeneutics” are Gadamer, Paul Ricoeur, and Charles Taylor while representatives of a “weak hermeneutics” are Friedrich Nietzsche, Jacques Derrida, and Richard Rorty. The differences between them are the following: “weak hermeneutics” thinks that the possibility for knowledge is only found in individual interpretations free of both science and tradition; “strong hermeneutics” thinks that the possibility for knowledge cannot escape interpretation but does not equate interpretation with individual interpretation, like “weak hermeneutics” does, but rather within tradition or a given set of assumptions as in science; and Habermas’ “deep hermeneutics” thinks that the possibility for knowledge is beyond interpretation and free of science and tradition. Smith’s book is a defense of “strong hermeneutics.” In what follows, I rehearse Smith’s criticisms of Habermas’ “deep hermeneutics.”

According to Nicholas Smith, the difference between Habermas’ “deep hermeneutics” and the “strong hermeneutics” of Gadamer, Ricoeur, and Taylor is that Habermas does not think that the “strong hermeneutics” position sufficiently promotes ” emancipation “: “According to Habermas, the possibility of subjecting inherited horizons of meaning and capacities points to a further cognitive interest, unacknowledged by hermeneutics, in emancipation.” [25] It becomes Habermas’ task to offer emancipation through a process of reflection and developing self-awareness similar to that of psychoanalysis. “Hence the famous controversy between Gadamer and Habermas – which centres expressly around a constellation of methodological claims concerning the scope of and function of ‘hermeneutic reflection’….” [26] Nicholas Smith’s presentation of Habermas’ hermeneutics involves an in-depth overview of this debate.

Nicholas Smith suggests that Gadamar and Habermas disagree concerning the question of how the possibility for reflection is limited to “the scope of language itself. And the scope of language is universal.” [27] Habermas remains “unable to accept the contention that hermeneutic reflection is universal in its scope” because his “main worry is that by assigning universality to hermeneutic reflection, Gadamer forfeits the critical potentialities of reflection.” [28] For if “reflection is bound by the traditions and prejudices of the hermeneutic situation, it remains hostage to structures of domination and relations of power that are legitimated through these traditions and that are opaque to hermeneutic reflection within them.” [29] It is both possible and necessary, for Habermas, “to break out of the linguistic tradition that defines the hermeneutic situation.” [30] Habermas finds psychoanalysis as a model that helps in breaking out of the linguistic tradition.

As a model, for Habermas, “psychoanalytic self-reflection acquires its explanatory power in virtue of combining hermeneutical interpretation of apparently incomprehensible behavior with empirical scientific insight into the causal origin of that incomprehensibility.” [31] It is not only “explanation” that Habermas wants, according to Nicholas Smith, but also “critique”: “The motivation behind deep hermeneutics is to correct deficiencies in given horizons of self-interpretation as repositories of explanation and critique.” [32] Smith continues, “A corrective is necessary because otherwise, Habermas fears, supra-linguistic causes of disturbance in self-formative processes remain hidden and criticism remains vulnerable to the ideological effect of such disturbance.” [33] Smith finds Habermas’ understanding of both “explanation” and “critique” problematic for the following reasons.

Habermas’ understanding of “explanation,” based on his model of psychoanalysis, is problematic because it becomes too demanding for hermeneutics and is ultimately “incoherent.” Using all of the Habermasian terms, Smith offers the following critique of Habermas’ hermeneutics: In the act of deep hermeneutic self-reflection, the two moments of the rational reconstruction of communicative competence and self-transfigurative, productive interpretation are supposed to be joined. But…, this synthesis creates tensions in Habermas’ model of deep hermeneutics. …Habermas…will attempt to resolve the ambiguities in his deep hermeneutic model by seeking out the contingency-transcending constitution of…hermeneutics. [34]

Habermas’ theory of interpretation, according to Smith, demands too much for hermeneutics because it unnecessarily joins together what ought to be a first step of understanding and a second step of application. This demand makes his theory of interpretation incoherent because he seeks to overcome contingency in hermeneutics without recognizing that hermeneutics itself is contingent on interpretation and tradition.

Nicholas Smith, therefore, believes that Habermas’ “deep hermeneutics” cannot do the work that it claims to do. By using the model of psychoanalysis, it demands too much for hermeneutics because it joins together understanding and application and requires interpretation to be transformative in a way other than interpretation simply being interpretation. And by necessitating “critique,” it seeks to overcome the contingency of hermeneutics. Hermeneutics, itself, remains contingent on interpretation and tradition because hermeneutics is based on the practice of interpretation within a particular tradition.

Testing the Philosophical and Theological Critiques of Habermas’ Hermeneutics

In order to test these critiques of Habermas’ hermeneutics and interpretation theory, I will raise some basic questions that are part of both James Smith’s and Nicholas Smith’s concerns with Habermas. The questions can be outlined roughly in the following ways. What is tradition for Habermas? What is reflection, and what is Habermas’ technical use of reflection? Why does Habermas find psychoanalysis a good model for his own theory of interpretation? What is universality, and in what sense is universality unavoidable for Habermas? Is universality necessarily contrasted with tradition for Habermas, as James Smith thinks it is? What is distance for Habermas, and in what sense does one need to gain distance from one’s tradition? What does Habermas’ claim about the distortion of tradition entail? Finally, does Habermas offer a method of interpretation that avoids the problems Nicholas Smith names? In order to answer these questions, I seek help from Nicholas Adams’ book on Habermas’ philosophy because Adams addresses these basic questions. Answering these basic questions is crucial for understanding Habermas’ conception of tradition.

Habermas on the Question of Tradition

What is Habermas talking about when he talks about tradition? James Smith does not take this question into account in his discussion of Habermas on tradition. This question is important because it may be the case that Habermas is against only one particular understanding of tradition; if this is the case, then there might be a concept of tradition that Habermas does not think needs to be overcome.

Adams observes that when Habermas “speaks of tradition, in the sense of something that he believed should be superseded by modernity, it often appears to have many of the fantasy characteristics attributed to it by conservatives.” [35] Adams does not clarify what these “fantasy characteristics” actually are, but he says enough to get at what Habermas has in mind when he attacks the concept of tradition: any account of tradition that (actually or conceptually) begins with “once upon a time…” counts as having “fantasy characteristics” on Habermas’ standards!

Therefore, Adams argues, “any attempt to rescue [traditions] from their fate in Habermas’ theory has also to rescue them from conservative fantasy and restore their messy, contradictory complexity.” [36] To constructively engage Habermas on the question of tradition is not to assume that tradition, itself, necessarily comes with some kind of universal or univocal meaning; rather, we ought to clarify how tradition should be defined and understood. Once we understand the category of tradition in a particular way, then we can properly engage Habermas’ conception of tradition.

Habermas’ Technical Use of Reflection

What is Habermas’ use of reflection? According to Adams, reflection is central to Habermas’ account. “Reflection” is a technical term in German philosophy: it means the process of becoming conscious of something that previously one did or thought unconsciously.” [37] The technicality of reflection is an important part of the hermeneutical process, then, because it is what happens when someone becomes “conscious that their interpretation is an interpretation, rather than being something intrinsic to the text” and thus “produces a different attitude to the interpretation, one that might even potentially call a particular interpretation into question.” [38] Reflection, for Habermas, involves the recognition or self-awareness of an interpretation being exactly that: an interpretation. While James Smith does not discuss Habermas’ use of reflection, Adams’ version of Habermas’ use of reflection actually has family resemblances with the argument for the goodness of interpretation. While Adams does not suggest that Habermas thinks of interpretation in terms of its goodness, Adams emphasizes how becoming aware of an interpretation as an interpretation is part of what Habermas wants to gain from the hermeneutical process. This is why Habermas employs psychoanalysis as a model for hermeneutics.

Universality and Its Unavoidability

What does Habermas mean by “universality,” and in what sense is it unavoidable? James Smith contrasts Habermas’ use of universality with that of tradition, but is that necessarily the way that these terms works for Habermas? Adams reminds us “that Habermas does not claim that there is a universal language, or that there is a context neutral perspective from which to judge languages.” [39] What does Habermas claim with his use of universality? “Rather, he wants to show that some notion of universality is implied in analysis of particular languages,” like his claim to “the ‘unavoidable presupposition’ of universality in all particular practices of ethical argument.” [40] So Habermas claims neither a universal language nor a “context neutral perspective,” but he does claim that there is “some notion of universality” that is “implied in analysis of particular languages.” These particular languages could be understood as traditions. If that is the case, then it is not that Habermas contrasts tradition and universality himself (as James Smith does for Habermas) but rather that some kind of universality is implied in the analysis of traditions.

Universality is thus unavoidable in the sense that analysis is unavoidable: to talk about language or tradition is to analyze it in some respect, and to analyze them is to assume some sort of universality. The unavoidability of universality in hermeneutics is like the unavoidability of universality in ethics. [41] Universality arises from analysis. [42]

The Relationship between Distance and Distortion

What is “distance” for Habermas, and why does one need to gain it from language and tradition? James Smith claims that distance from tradition is needed for Habermas because it is the only way to recognize the distortions of tradition: distance must be gained from tradition in order to name the distortions within tradition. The distortions of tradition can be neither named nor recognized within tradition because to do so would be to name or recognize those distortions with distortions. It is only when one gains distance from tradition that one can identify distortions within a tradition without the distortions being involved in the identification of those distortions.

However, according to Adams, Habermas claims that one is “never enclosed within a single grammar. Rather, the first grammar that one masters also enables one to step outside it.” [43] Why “step outside it”? “This ‘stepping out’ is not the occupation of a neutral space,” and he clarifies this “ambiguity by stating explicitly that ‘we cannot step out of an objectively given horizon of interpretation at will’.” Rather, there is the potential to “travel from one place to another.” [44] It is not that one needs distance only for a negative reason (as James Smith suggests), which cannot be achieved at will. There is also a positive reason: so that one can engage or learn, “travel from one place to another.”

James Smith does not tell the whole story in his discussion of Habermas on the need for gaining distance from tradition in order to critique it. While what James Smith says of Habermas on distance might be true, it is not representative of what his purposes are for such an argument. His purposes are not to gain distance from tradition for the sake of gaining distance but rather for the sake of engagement with grammars outside of one’s own tradition.

Returning to Reflection via Gadamer

Adams clarifies the technicality of reflection and does so in a way that suggests, in James Smith’s terms, the goodness of interpretation: “To understand that a worldview is a worldview, and not the world, is to be ‘reflective’ in the technical sense…. It is the same as understanding an interpretation as interpretation rather than as the thing interpreted….” [45] Reflection names the goodness of interpretation because reflection enables one to recognize an interpretation as interpretation and not to confuse an interpretation with a text or the world in and of themselves.

Reflection is a result of a kind of freedom one has within language use:

The act of reflection is significant. To be aware that languages are languages, worldviews, particular ways of interpreting things, is to discover ‘a certain freedom with respect to language’ (Gadamer, Truth and Method, 441). This is not to be able to escape from language: that is unthinkable. Rather, it is to be aware that language is embedded in tradition. To put it reflectively, it means to understand tradition as tradition rather than as the only reality there is. Reflection makes one aware that there are other traditions and other world-views…. [46]

Reflection, for Habermas, is significant because it makes us aware that our interpretations are interpretations and not reality. James Smith accuses Habermas of wanting to overcome interpretation for the sake of some kind of immediacy, but Habermas does not want immediacy. Habermas’ technical use of the concept of reflection does not allow for such immediacy.

Because of his use of reflection, traditions are recognized as traditions and not as the only reality that there is. While Habermas’ “talk of ‘destroying’ and ‘purging’…is drastic,” it “essentially repeats Gadamer’s point that interpretation/translation presupposes a ‘freedom from language’ that is not inherent in only one language but rather transcends every particular language. Like Gadamer, Habermas is interested in the results of reflection.” [47] So Adams admits that Habermas’ rhetoric suggests the problems identified in James Smith’s understanding of Habermas’ interpretation theory, but Adams reminds us further that to substitute the argument with the rhetoric is to miss the point of the argument. If James Smith had taken into consideration Habermas’ technical use of the concept of reflection, instead of merely critiquing his problematic rhetoric, then he would have found a commonality – in Habermas’ theory of interpretation – with his own proposal concerning the goodness of interpretation.

Nicholas Smith does not think that Gadamer’s theory of interpretation is too demanding because Gadamer has a “strong hermeneutics” – which, according to Nicholas Smith, does not fall into the same errors that Habermas’ “deep hermeneutics” does. However, if Habermas’ theory of interpretation is too demanding then Gadamer’s is as well! Why? Because there are substantial similarities between Gadamer’s and Habermas’ hermeneutics. Habermas borrows from Gadamer the argument that there is an “immanent connection between understanding and application”: “The immanent connection between understanding and application can be seen in the case…of theology” in the sense that in “a sermon, the interpretation of the Bible…serves at the same time as an interpretation of the application of the facts in a given situation.” [48] Habermas clarifies: “Their practical life-relationship to the self-understanding of those addressed, the congregation…, is not added to the interpretation afterward. Rather, the interpretation is realized in its application.” [49] What a preacher does in a sermon serves as a model for the relationship between understanding and application. [50] Nicholas Smith is right: Habermas joins these two steps together. But he is also wrong: joining these two steps together is not too demanding but is a good use of the hermeneutical process.

Adams connects Habermas’ method of interpretation with the pragmatic method: “Using terms from C. S. Peirce…, one might say that the interpretation of scripture in a sermon is not merely a plain-sense reading but a pragmatic reading.” [51] Adams clarifies: “A plain-sense reading would interpret the text in a straightforward way and would make sense of the actions described more or less on their own terms.” [52] Adams, then, applies his clarification to what Habermas does:

For Habermas, a sermon does not do this. Rather it interprets the text so as to orient the congregation in some way to a contemporary situation. The text is interpreted in the light of, and for the purpose of addressing, a question posed by the community of readers. Habermas suggests that this is not a two-stage process, with interpretation followed by application, but a complex single action in which the text is interpreted for application to the reader’s situation. [53]

The hermeneutical process, for Habermas, is a single act of understanding and application. Understanding is not real understanding if it is neither applied nor used. In order to have understanding, one has to be able to apply that which one claims to understand.

Then Adams adds a surprise:

Gadamer’s account, which Habermas follows closely, makes it clear that not just any old text will do. The situation that calls for judgment, for ‘practical knowledge’ (Aristotle), cannot be addressed by selecting some text at random and hoping that an interpretation will yield assistance. The text needs already to be acknowledged as authoritative for this purpose. To be a member of a tradition, for Gadamer, is to recognize the authority of certain texts, the validity of certain rules for interpreting them and the competence of certain persons to use these rules in a way that is potentially binding on that community. [54]

Because Habermas follows Gadamer so closely on this argument, Adams argues that it is not out of the question to think that Habermas allows for certain texts to be authoritative in a particular tradition. Remarkably, what follows from this argument is that Habermas supplies us with an account of Scripture within his conception of practical reasoning. [55]

Scripture, for Habermas, would be a text that is “acknowledged as authoritative” for the purpose of “practical knowledge” – that is, for situations that call for judgments. Adams fails to follow through on his argument for Habermas having an account of Scripture when he accuses Habermas of not allowing for different traditions to be determined by different scriptures. [56] However, Habermas does allow different traditions to be determined by different Scriptures. For Habermas, Scripture becomes functional within a tradition. Its function is to be the basis for practical knowledge. I further develop Habermas’ account of Scripture in my description of reparative reasoning through a logic of Scripture, which comes in the section entitled “How Habermas’ Conception of Tradition Works.”

It also follows that if certain texts are authoritative within a particular tradition, then it is likely that those texts hold solutions to problems that arise in the tradition. Gadamer calls his own argument for this the “fusion of horizons,” and it is typically understood (mistakenly so) that such an argument is exactly what bothers Habermas about Gadamer’s hermeneutics. Adams’ presentation of Habermas’ philosophy suggests that Habermas finds such an argument possible, and that it is so because understanding and application remain a single act for Habermas. [57] So if Adams and Nicholas Smith are right about Habermas joining together understanding and application in the hermeneutical process, then it follows that the interpretation of an authoritative text for a particular tradition involves applying that text in ways that can serve as possible solutions to actual problems in that tradition.

Distance from Tradition and Distortion in Tradition

As a way of response to James Smith’s criticisms of Habermas’ theory of interpretation as wanting distance from language and tradition, it is important to note how Habermas uses distance and tradition in constructive ways and actually offers a positive use of distance and a positive conception of tradition. Adams argues that Habermas reconstructs distance and tradition in ways that include the encouragement of distance by tradition and the results of reflection as part of tradition.

By way of comparison and contrast with Gadamer, Adams develops Habermas’ use of distance and its purpose:

Habermas will make much of this [‘distance’] in a way that will bring him into conflict with Gadamer. Habermas wishes to describe the possibility of the reflective agent placing himself or herself at a distance from any particular tradition, thus discovering resources for critique of that tradition. By contrast, Gadamer refuses to associate the ‘certain freedom’ from language with distance from the authority of tradition. The freedom from particularity is a purely formal consequence of reflection: one can only gain a perspective on a tradition by occupying some other tradition. To put it differently, Habermas and Gadamer disagree about the effect of discovering that reason is embedded in tradition while simultaneously suggesting the transcendence of tradition. [58]

Gadamer and Habermas agree that we transcend tradition in some way, but they disagree over the way “that reason is embedded in tradition.”

Furthermore, according to Adams, Habermas

insists that reason’s absoluteness produces a ‘distance’ from tradition. But he is more reluctant to acknowledge that reason’s embeddedness in tradition produces something like a ‘nearness’ to reason in so far as it is thinkable. This would mean saying something like ‘distance from one tradition is possible only because of nearness to another’ or ‘appeals to reason are always particular, and thus, as appeals, are not absolute’. [59]

Distance from one tradition is only possible because of other traditions, and Habermas’ use of reason is not universal but rather is an appeal to reason – which, as an appeal, is necessarily particular. Finally, concerning distance, Habermas

thinks it is also true that even the closest of traditions are somehow increasingly distant because of the reflective attitude that their members are able to take. It is this question of emphasis that generated the exchange between Habermas and Gadamer regarding the balance between the critique and the authority of tradition. [60]

The better a tradition works as a tradition the more distance one will have with that tradition because the tradition will encourage reflection. This argument is astonishing because distance itself is understood now as a result of being aware that one is a part of a particular tradition. If reflection is a result of distance, and tradition encourages reflection, then distance from tradition is not a negative response to tradition but rather a positive result of participating in a particular tradition.

For Habermas, the question “is thus how one orients oneself to a tradition once one becomes conscious of the vulnerability of its binding character.” [61] Adams answers his own question when he says, “Habermas insists on the possibility of taking up a reflective orientation to the very tradition to which one belongs, and this changes everything” in the sense that when “one reflects on the history of one’s tradition, on its origins and development, the descriptions of the world and the practices that embody them are ‘shaken’.” [62] In what sense “‘shaken'”? “There are doubtless many ways in which convictions and practices embedded in tradition are shaken; Habermas is most interested in the loss of authority they wield.” [63] So it is “‘shaken'” in the sense of a loss of authority. For Habermas, “even if norms survive the process of questioning, that process itself now marks the tradition, shapes the characters and practices of its members, and leads to such norms being ‘shaken’.” [64] This version of tradition is very far from James Smith’s understanding of Habermas on tradition. Habermas has a very interesting concept of tradition, which shows how the process of questioning itself becomes part of the tradition. Moreover, according to Adam, “Habermas agrees with Gadamer that action precedes reflection: only once one has been educated in a tradition can one question it from within. But once that questioning gets underway, it unleashes considerable power” [65] such that authority can be repaired of its abuses and misuses of itself.

The common reading (James Smith is not alone!) of Habermas’ essay entitled “On Hermeneutics’ Claim to Universality” is that Habermas critiques the idea that one needs to be a member of a tradition in order to properly critique it. But Adams here is suggesting otherwise: one has to be a member of a tradition to properly critique it because action – which is tradition bound – precedes reflection – which ought to be encouraged by tradition. [66]

Tradition is complex. Tradition is complicated. Tradition is messy. Habermas does not critique tradition per se, but he critiques a particular understanding of tradition. He offers a less conservative, Romantic notion of tradition – one that includes the complications, complexities, and messiness of tradition in the concept of tradition itself. The distance one needs from this understanding of tradition is not a distance for the sake of distance but rather, assuming that Adams’ reading of Habermas is correct, a distance that is encouraged by tradition through the practice of reflection. One does not overcome tradition in the practice of reflection, but one becomes more grounded in the tradition if the tradition is encouraging the kind of reflection that it ought to be encouraging.

How Habermas’ Conception of Tradition Works

The sum result of Adams’ understanding of Habermas on distance, reflection, and tradition as well as his presentation of Habermas’ method of interpretation can be described as the practice of reparative reasoning through a logic of scripture. [67]

Reparative reasoning is necessarily triadic in the following sense: it is a repair of x by y for z. It is a repair of a problem in an inherited tradition (Christianity, for example) by some authoritative source of that tradition (Scripture) for the community that both sustains and is sustained by that tradition (the Church). Reparative reasoning is not critical of the inherited tradition for the sake of being critical; it is critical only for the sake of displaying or expressing that which needs to be fixed. Reparative reasoning certainly is not dismissive of the inherited tradition. What is used to fix a particular problem in an inherited tradition? Usually, authoritative sources within that tradition provide the necessary resources for fixing particular problems. Why? Because the repair is for a community that both is determined by that tradition – which is how a community is identifiable as being a part of a particular tradition – and sustains the tradition by embodying the practices of the tradition. In order for the repair to actually fix the brokenness of the community, it is best if the repair remains at home with or shares in the tradition of that community. Otherwise, the members of the community might not recognize the repair as a repair but rather as a replacement or substitution from outside of their tradition for an aspect of their respective tradition. It risks, then, no longer being a repair for that particular community – which makes it dyadic and not triadic.

Reparative reasoning through a logic of Scripture is thus one way to understand Habermas’ method of interpretation because it is in Scripture, as Habermas rightly recognizes in his use of the example of sermons, where possible solutions to problems that arise in the tradition will be found. Habermas’ method of interpretation, therefore, in a sense becomes a logic of Scripture because it offers criteria for understanding a text; it provides a functional (rather than, for example, propositional ) account of Scripture. [68] Understanding a text, for Habermas, occurs only when that text is applied and used. In order for understanding to actually occur, what is claimed as understanding must be worked through as an application of the authoritative text within a particular tradition. What does this accomplish? Understanding through application fixes particular problems within a tradition.

This account of reparative reasoning through a logic of Scripture raises some important questions. In particular, how are problems in a tradition recognizable and named as problems, and who is able to recognize them and has the authority to name them?

Because of his technical use of reflection, Habermas’ use of distance can be described quite accurately in Dewey’s and Peirce’s terms of first- and second-order reasoning. Second-order reasoning is that reasoning which reflects on the practices and reasons of the first-order, what Dewey and Peirce call habits. In Habermas’ terms, first-order reasoning concerns what we do or think “unconsciously” while second-order reasoning involves “becoming conscious” of those practices and reasons. [69] Reflection “names the process of becoming conscious of something that previously one did or thought unconsciously.” [70] Distance becomes the result of this process, of reflection.

Distance, for Habermas, does not necessarily name a distance from tradition but rather names the experience of reflection itself. We can explain Habermas’ conception of practical reasoning in these terms: first-order reasoning is the habitual (unconscious) aspects of what one does in a tradition, and second-order reasoning is the distance one gains from the first-order in the process of reflection (“becoming conscious”). Distance, for Habermas, is not necessarily distance from tradition (though his rhetoric suggests that it may result in that) but what occurs when reflecting on tradition. Habermas calls it distance because the experience of the process of reflection generates or produces a distance from the first-order practices and reasons. Such a distance may in fact be needed if the first-order has broken down or has developed problems.

Herein lies the difference between Habermas, on the one hand, and those who have a kind of conservative or Romantic conception or understanding of tradition, on the other hand: for the former, problems in the tradition are usually assumed whereas, for the latter, the working assumption is that there are not problems in the tradition. While Habermas’ use of the word “distortion” makes it appear that problems are inherent within a tradition, there is no logical reason why that would be the case for him. Rather, Habermas simply assumes that it remains more likely for problems to continually arise within specific traditions. This is why his conception of practical reasoning contributes to the notion of reparative reasoning.

Again, distance does not distance one from a tradition but rather from what has broken down or become problematic in the first-order, in the practices and reasons of a tradition. The second-order is considered a part of tradition but also names the reflection on tradition. The problems of a tradition are considered a good part of tradition, because they encourage reflection on that tradition. Distance, then, is not distance for the sake of distance; it is for the repair or possible solution of what becomes broken or remains problematic within the first-order, in the practices and reasons of a tradition. The force of Habermas’ use of the word “distance” is thus the naming of part of the process of the practice of reparative reasoning: identifying what needs to be fixed or repaired in the tradition.

Habermas also addresses the question of who can name such problems. For Habermas, those people who go through the process of reflection are in a position to name the problems in a tradition. Additionally, anyone who experiences the break down or brokenness of the first-order and seeks ” emancipation ” (Habermas’ word) from those problems also can name those problems. A key strength of Habermas’ conception of tradition, then, is that it privileges neither the elite in a tradition (those who have the time and place to reflect) nor the oppressed (those who experience more concretely the brokenness and problems of the tradition). Both are needed, with the goal in mind for the oppressed to have “emancipation,” and both have a voice in and for the practice of reparative reasoning.

Habermas and the Ontology of Peace

Given that Habermas’ conception of tradition involves understanding that the complications, complexities, and messiness of tradition are a good part of tradition, does that mean that Habermas has a violent conception of tradition? In other words, does a conception of tradition that includes complications, complexities, and messiness assume what some call an “ontology of violence” – that is, that violence and disunity are necessary parts of that which seeks peace and unity? Are the complications, complexities, and messiness ways to describe violence as an inherent part of tradition?

Adams offers ways to negate these kinds of questions, and he gestures toward a similarity between Habermas and the Christian theologian John Milbank that would be unexpected by most readers of both Habermas’ and Milbank’s work: both share an ontology of peace, which is Milbank’s phrase, [71] in that both think that peace is more basic than violence. In what sense, for Habermas, is peace more basic?

In Theory and Practice, Habermas discusses the different political theories of and shifts between Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, and Thomas Hobbes. Aristotle is found at the beginning of Habermas’ account because of his argument concerning the necessity of agreement in order for there to be real disagreement, and Habermas thinks such an insight can be applied to society in general. Aquinas has an ontology of peace in that he makes peace both the basis for and the goal of society. Hobbes, while making peace the goal of society but not in a way similar to Aquinas, makes violence the basis for society in his theory concerning the “state of nature.” [72] Then, almost in MacIntyrean fashion, Habermas presents an option: Aquinas or Hobbes? [73] Habermas’ ontology of peace is found in his concurrence with Aristotle and Aquinas that agreement or peace is a necessary condition for disagreement or non-peace.

There are three aspects of Habermas’ understanding of Aquinas that serve my purposes here. First, Habermas finds Aquinas appealing because Aquinas talks about society in general. The basic good of society, for Aquinas, is domestic peacefulness. Habermas says, “The opposition of polis and oikos has been reduced to the common denominator of societas; and this is interpreted by analogy to the patriarchally organized domestic life.” [74] The peacefulness of the family, then, serves as an analogy for how the peacefulness of society works. It is an ontology of peace because the criterion for civil order is not the freedom of the citizens, as it is for Aristotle, but rather peace itself.

Second, Aquinas combines his use of society with that of dominion in a way that avoids the problems with Hobbes’ combination of the two. Hobbes thinks that dominion safeguards “the system of contracts between those who have commerce in societas.” [75] However, Aquinas provides a kind of ordinary language use of dominion and argues that it is simply those who rule society for the sake of the peace of society, like the father of a family rules his family to keep the peace. The problem with Hobbes’ combination of the two is that he combines them so that peace is a possibility whereas Aquinas combines them in order to maintain the peace that is always already there. [76]

Third, Aquinas’ privileging of peace-keeping rather than peace-making comes to the fore in his natural law. Natural law is the basis of order, for Aquinas, and it is thus how “cosmic and social lawfulness are intertwined.” [77] How is natural law known? It is known through the Bible, particularly the Ten Commandments. Habermas summarizes Aquinas’ biblical ontology of peace rather well:

Thomas [Aquinas] finds his solution for this construction of the social order…in an order of virtue: the lex naturae is the basis of the order of the civitas as societas both ontologically in terms of the coherence of the cosmos and at the same time in terms of the correspondence of this cosmic lawfulness with the commandments of the Decalogue. [78]

The problem with Aquinas’ use of the natural law is not that it is the basis of order, not that it is ontological even in terms of the coherence of the cosmos and correspondence of this cosmic lawfulness, and not even that it is based in the Bible. The problem with Aquinas’ use of the natural law, for Habermas, displays the most important aspect of Habermas’ reparative reasoning: that the reparative part of reasoning must be practical, that reparative reasoning remains a concrete form of practical reasoning. The problem with Aquinas’ use of the natural law, according to Habermas, is that the context of “the social relations under which…it can maintain credibility [is]…shattered.” [79] It is not that Aquinas, himself, is wrong; it is that his argument is untenable “because the social conditions no longer render [Aquinas’] claim…about the world plausible.” [80] So how does Habermas share in Aquinas’ biblical ontology of peace despite his recognition that the social conditions may not be able to maintain such an ontology?

Before addressing that question, some may wonder: why is Habermas attracted to Aquinas’ biblical ontology of peace at all? Why does Habermas not simply say that it is wrong? Further, what does this have to do with Habermas’ conception of tradition? Unlike most theorists of Aquinas’ natural law, Habermas does not flinch in saying that Aquinas’ natural law is based in the Bible and the Ten Commandments. In fact, he finds the strength of Aquinas’ natural law to be that it is not too abstract but grounded in a particular biblical tradition of reasoning about the law. [81] Habermas does not think that current disagreements with Aquinas’ theory of natural law should be based on the claim that Aquinas’ natural law reasoning is wrong; rather, and more simply, the difference in historical and social context between Aquinas and us renders it impossible to sustain Aquinas’ account of the natural law. While he does not lament it as MacIntyre does, Habermas is in basic agreement with MacIntyre: this particular tradition of reasoning is now lost. [82]

Habermas thinks that Aquinas’ natural law is not only plausible in Aquinas’ own context but serves as an example of how reasoning can avoid being too abstract because his reasoning is grounded in a particular tradition: the biblical tradition. This argument alone shows, contra most of the theological scholarship on Habermas’ philosophy, that he neither thinks that reason ought to be understood as independent of tradition nor that tradition ought to be dismissed for the sake of being tradition. [83] Furthermore, Habermas thinks that Hobbes’ use of the state of nature comes at a high price: “the abandonment of the practical orientation of classical politics.” [84] Habermas discovers this emphasis on practicality within politics in Aquinas’ work, which he thinks is lost within Hobbes’ moral reasoning. Adams summarizes the difference between Aquinas and Hobbes within Habermas’ analysis:

…the natural law of Aquinas is based on scripture and an intensely complex theology of reconciliation, whereas Hobbes’s is based on a ‘scientific’ account of human nature. Instead of the scriptural narrative of social peace…, Hobbes asserts the realpolitik of the war of all against all. …Habermas recognizes that the philosophies constructed by Aquinas and Hobbes are structurally very similar: what differs is the ‘revelation’ (not Habermas’ term) they seek to interpret, and the rules for testing such interpretations. [85]

The differences between Aquinas and Hobbes, perhaps not surprisingly, are theological: revelation, Scripture, and the rules for the interpretation of Scripture. Such differences seem like they would lead Habermas, a self-described secular thinker, to side with Hobbes. Although Adams makes it sound like Habermas takes that side, it actually is not the case. Adams makes the following argument:

…he [Habermas], like Hobbes, abandons scripture and theology in favour of the ‘scientific’. This leaves him in some difficulty in accounting for how he has learned what the world is like and how he proposes to teach others in turn. His account of the rules for testing his interpretation (but of what?) is also non-theological, in that instead of subjecting the interpretation of scripture to the tests of prayer, he subjects validity claims to the tests of communal argumentation. Nonetheless, theologians may appreciate Habermas’ insight that Aquinas’ account of natural law only has the normative sense he intends because it is rooted in scripture. [86]

According to Habermas, obtaining knowledge does not take place through scripture; rather, for Habermas, knowledge is obtained through science. [87]

As a response to Adams’ analysis, I should add that there is a difference between Habermas and Hobbes on their understanding and use of the scientific [88] – which is that Hobbes reduces politics to science and thus has a kind of scient ism whereas Habermas wants no semblance to any kind of scientism. [89] In fact, I would argue that Habermas and Aquinas actually have a more similar starting point than Habermas and Hobbes do because Scripture and theology for Aquinas function as a kind of science – a science of God – and Habermas’ non-reductive understanding of science has no grounds to dismiss such a science a priori. [90] The scientific, for Habermas, is not limited to what it is for Hobbes; [91] rather, the scientific, for Habermas, very well could be the science of God that remains grounded in Scripture and theology. [92] While it is certainly true that prayer is the practice that tests interpretations of Scripture for Aquinas, it is true also that Aquinas subjects the interpretation of Scripture to the tests of communal argumentation – what Aquinas would call the theological tradition, the communion of the saints. [93] This model of argumentation has its broader, modern, more pluralistic representative in the German secular philosophy of Jürgen Habermas. [94]

Habermas’ conception of tradition is at work within these three elements of his engagements with Aquinas’ work as well as his preferential option for Aquinas over Hobbes. Aquinas and Habermas, as well as John Dewey, all share an ontology of peace. While it may be metaphysical for Aquinas, the emphasis is more on the logical and methodological for Dewey and Habermas respectively. Habermas’ point is right and well taken: Aquinas’ biblical ontology of peace comes to us from a different historical and social context. [95]


Nicholas Adams’ contribution to the scholarship on Jürgen Habermas’ philosophy is found in Adams’ emphasis on how Habermas invites the deepest reasonings of religious traditions within public, secular debates. In order to understand this aspect of Habermas’ work, I explained how the categories of Scripture and tradition play a significant role within Habermas’ conception of practical reasoning. In short, I argued that Scripture provides the sources required for reparative reasoning to take place within religious traditions. Habermas recognizes this in his conception of practical reasoning, and he sides with Thomas Aquinas against Thomas Hobbes concerning how agreement and peace are more basic than disagreement and violence within politics and society. For Aquinas, and for Habermas, this means practical reasoning remains possible within religious traditions. In other words, both Aquinas and Habermas recognize that an ontology of violence makes practical reasoning impossible because disagreement and violence become normative within politics and society – which renders argument, communication, and reasoning unachievable and unattainable. While Habermas disagrees with the modern intelligibility of Aquinas’ natural law theory, Habermas appreciates how Aquinas’ practical reasoning remains grounded in Scripture for the purposes of keeping peace and maintaining agreement. Within modern society, Habermas wants us to focus on repairing the aspects of our own religious traditions that become broken or remain problematic. The claim of this essay is that, perhaps surprisingly for a modern self-described secular philosopher, Scripture functions as a potentially fruitful source for repairing these aspects of religious traditions. In this way, Habermas’ conception of practical reasoning becomes quite promising for addressing the question of what reparative reasoning entails.


I am grateful to Deborah Allen, Morgan Elbot, David O’Hara, Quinn McDowell, Rebecca Rine, Catherine Robey, and Simeon Zahl for their helpful comments on the final version of this essay.


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[1] See Nicholas Adams, “Reparative Reasoning,” in Modern Theology, vol. 24, issue, 3, (July 2008), pp. 447-457; see Peter Ochs, “Reparative Reasoning: From Peirce’s Pragmatism to Augustine’s Scriptural Semiotic,” in Modern Theology, vol. 25, no. 2, (April 2009), pp. 187-215.
[2] See Nicholas Adams, Habermas and Theology, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006).
[3] Why turn to Dewey’s theory of inquiry within an essay explaining and expositing Habermas’ work? I have two reasons. First, I seek to contribute to the discussions on Dewey and Habermas found within the collection of essays entitled Habermas and Pragmatism (New York, NY: Routledge, 2002). Second, I took a graduate seminar at the University of Virginia with Nicholas Adams and Peter Ochs (Spring 2006) where Dewey’s Logic: The Theory of Inquiry served as our final text for discussion. I learned how to read Dewey’s Logic from Adams, who actively connected Dewey’s Logic to Habermas’ philosophy.
[5] Tom Burke summarizes Dewey’s theory of inquiry succinctly when he says, “The most we can say in general terms is that inquiry is directed toward determining a course of action which stabilizes the dynamics of a given situation,” (Burke, Dewey’s New Logic, [Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1998], p. 143-144).
[6] John Dewey, Logic: The Theory of Inquiry, (Carbondale and Edwardsville, Illinois: Southern Illinois Press, 1991), p. 110.
[6] Dewey is following the Kantian formula that concepts without percepts are empty, and percepts without concepts are blind.
[7] Michael Eldridge summarizes Dewey’s reparative reasoning succinctly when he says, “for Dewey thinking was not an end in itself, but a means of transforming problematic situations into more satisfying ones,” (Eldridge, Transforming Experience: John Dewey’s Cultural Instrumentalism, [Nashville, Tennessee: Vanderbilt University Press, 1998], p. 40).
[8] Notice the connection between Dewey’s use of ideas as plans for action and the general “pragmatist” use of beliefs as rules for action.
[9] Peter Ochs offers a helpful formulation of reparative reasoning as well when he argues that proper inquiry is “reasoning for the sake of repairing errors in a given practice” (Ochs, Peirce, Pragmatism, and the Logic of Scripture, [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998], p. 189).
[10] See Adams, Habermas and Theology, pp. 237-238; I hesitate to offer specific page numbers referencing Adams’ book on this point because the whole of the book can be read as Adams trying to account for how the logic of Habermas’ philosophy shares in an “Augustinian account of reality, an ‘ontology of peace'” (237).
[11] James K. A. Smith, The Fall of Interpretation: Philosophical Foundations for a Creational Hermeneutic, (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2000); I am grateful to Margaret Adam for pointing me toward and helping me understand this book.
[12] Smith, The Fall of Interpretation, p. 77.
[13] Smith’s criticisms of Gadamer and Habermas on this point require a caveat: Smith makes a theological assumption that is not necessarily shared by either Gadamer or Habermas. That assumption is that the incarnation can be and is determinative for thinking about hermeneutics in the sense that God becoming human in Christ makes mediation “good” because it is Christ that then serves as the mediation between humanity and God. The burden of Smith’s book is the application of this theological argument to questions concerning interpretation and mediation in the discourse of philosophical hermeneutics.
[14] Smith, The Fall of Interpretation, p. 81.
[15] Ibid., p. 81.
[16] Ibid., p. 81; quoting Habermas, “On Hermeneutics’ Claim to Universality,” in The Hermeneutics Reader, ed. Kurt Mueller-Vollmer, (New York: Continuum, 1985), p. 303.
[17] This kind of argument and phrasing in Habermas, I realize, screams for more explanation; I leave it as it is here, though, because I want to keep going with Smith’s understanding of Habermas and save my own explanations of Habermas’ arguments and phrasing for later in the essay.
[18] Smith, The Fall of Interpretation, p. 82.
[19] Ibid., p. 82.
[20] Ibid., p. 82.
[21] Ibid., p. 83.
[22] Ibid., p. 83.
[23] See Ibid., p. 83.
[24] Nicholas H. Smith, Strong Hermeneutics: Contingency and Moral Identity, (London and New York: Routledge, 1997); I am grateful to Charles Taylor for pointing me toward this book.
[25] Ibid., p. 25.
[26] Ibid., p. 26.
[27] Ibid., p. 27.
[28] Ibid., p. 27-28.
[29] Ibid., p. 28.
[30] Ibid., p. 28.
[31] Ibid., p. 28.
[32] Ibid., p. 29.
[33] Ibid., p. 29.
[34] Ibid., pp. 101-102. Though Habermas uses psychoanalysis as a model in his essay entitled “On Hermeneutics’ Claim to Universality,” Smith references and critiques Habermas’ use of Freud in his Knowledge and Human Interests, trans. J. Shapiro, (London: Heinemann, 1972), especially pp. 216-271.
[35] Adams, Habermas and Theology, 50.
[36] Ibid., p. 50.
[37] Ibid., p. 51.
[38] Ibid., p. 51.
[39] Ibid., p. 53. See Habermas, Postmetaphysical Thinking: Philosophical Essays, trans. W. M. Hohengarten, (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1992), p. 139.
[40] Adams, Habermas and Theology, p. 53.
[41] The best treatment of this question within ethics is Craig Boyd’s A Shared Morality: A Narrative Defense of Natural Law Ethics, (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2007).
[42] This point may be one of contention for some philosophers and theologians who prioritize the “particular.” All I want to say here about that is that prioritizing particularity risks making particularity the only universal, even if it is only a functional universal. I think Habermas is right to say that the logic of analysis assumes some version of universality, and I would add to that the understanding that it may not yet be clear what that universality is or what universality entails.
[43] Adams, Habermas and Theology, p. 53. See Habermas, On the Logic of the Social Sciences, trans. J. Stark & S. Weber Nicholson, (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1988), p. 143.
[44] Adams, Habermas and Theology, p. 53; Adams quotes from Habermas, The Theory of Communicative Action, Volume II: A Critique of Functionalist Reason, trans. T. McCarthy, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1987), p. 77.
[45] Adams, Habermas and Theology, p. 55.
[46] Ibid., p. 55; Adams here refers to Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, 2nd ed., trans. D. Marshalls & J. Weinsheimer, (New York: Continuum, 1989), pp. 441-442.
[47] Adams, Habermas and Theology, 55-56.
[48] Habermas, On the Logic of the Social Sciences, 162. The ellipses omits Habermas’ inclusion of legal reasoning as well for his overall point, which I leave out for the purpose of keeping the present essay focused on the relationship between practical reasoning and theological hermeneutics.
[49] Ibid., p. 162.
[50] As psychoanalysis serves as a model for hermeneutics, for Habermas, sermons serve as a model for the relationship between understanding and application.
[51] Adams, Habermas and Theology, 57.
[52] Ibid., p. 58.
[53] Ibid., p. 58.
[54] Ibid., p. 58.
[55] See Habermas, On the Logic of the Social Sciences, p. 163: “Consequently…, practical reason cannot be gained without presuppositions, as theoretical knowledge can; it has to be connected to a structure of prejudgments.” This argument from Habermas comes as his way to agree with a quote he offers from Gadamer, which includes the following claim: “the text, whether law or gospel, if it is to be understood properly, that is, according to the claim that it makes, must be understood at every moment, in every particular situation, in a new and different way” (quoted in Habermas, On the Logic of the Social Sciences, p. 163) – which is to say, in Habermas’ terms, that the text of law or gospel is to be understood as that which provides practical knowledge for every particular situation. Habermas, therefore, generalizes Gadamer’s understanding of the text – in this case – as Judeo-Christian Scripture to whatever might provide “a structure of prejudgments” for practical reason to actually work as practical reason. This “structure of prejudgments” is the way Habermas accounts for the function of scripture within a tradition, and this functional understanding of scripture is what I call the “logic of scripture” later in this essay.
[56] See Adams, Habermas and Theology, pp. 237-238.
[57] See Habermas, On the Logic of the Social Sciences, pp. 163-170.
[58] Adams, Habermas and Theology, p. 56.
[59] Ibid., p. 57.
[60] Ibid., p. 57.
[61] Ibid., p. 63.
[62] Ibid., p. 63.
[63] Ibid., p. 63.
[64] Ibid., p. 64.
[65] Ibid., p. 64.
[66] The question usually is over how much Habermas thinks he shares with Gadamer’s argument in his own presentation of Gadamer’s hermeneutics. The common reading is that Habermas only presents Gadamer’s argument so as to disagree with all of it. But I think it is possible to read Habermas’ presentation of Gadamer’s argument in a way that suggests there is more agreement than disagreement between the two theories, even according to Habermas.
[67] The language of a “logic of Scripture” comes from Peter Ochs’ groundbreaking study of Charles Peirce’s philosophy: Peirce, Pragmatism, and the Logic of Scripture. For my introduction to Ochs’ book, see “Repressing Novelty?: William James and the Reasoning of Scriptural Reasoning,” in The Journal of Scriptural Reasoning, vol. 8, no. 2, (August 2009).
[68] See George Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1984): “For a propositionalist, if a doctrine is once true, it is always true, and if it is once false, it is always false” (16). For Habermas, Scripture’s “truth” is based upon its function within those traditions that claim Scripture as a source for practical knowledge.
[69] See Adams, Habermas and Theology, p. 51.
[70] Ibid., p. 51.
[71] See John Milbank, Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason, (Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell, 1990).
[72] In relating Habermas’ and Milbank’s work, Nicholas Adams clearly states Habermas’ presentation of these differences: “In the case of John Milbank it is the desire to elaborate a philosophy based on the presupposition that reality is fundamentally peaceful and the puzzle is violence/distortion, rather than the contrary view that reality is fundamentally violent and the puzzle is love/healing. …Milbank and Habermas are equally insistent on the priority of peace, and they both mount critiques of Hobbes’ ‘state of nature’…and for similar reasons” (236).
[73] I am thinking here of Alasdair MacIntyre’s challenge in After Virtue: “Nietzsche or Aristotle?” (see MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, second edition, [Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984], pp. 109-120).
[74] Habermas, Theory and Practice, trans. John Viertel, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1989), p. 48.
[75] Adams, Habermas and Theology, p. 111.
[76] This claim, as Eugene Rogers pointed out to me, needs a caveat. While it is theologically true that peace ” is always already there,” it need not be used to discourage dissent. Real peace, the peace that ” is always already there,” is a peace that can and should foster and nourish dissent without dissent necessarily erupting into violence. Such peace can be found if an ontology of peace is taken to be methodological and not strictly metaphysical because then it can nurture disagreement (dissent) within a logical assumption of agreement (commonality) that is not metaphysical but rather methodological – that is, that we recognize the agreements and commonalities as ones developed by us over time rather than the way the world is independent of us. So we might be wrong about our assumptions of agreement and commonality, and that possibility does not violate an ontology of peace if understood as methodological because – as my reading of Habermas shows – such disagreements and dissents can become part of the tradition.
[77] Adams, Habermas and Theology, p. 110.
[78] Habermas, Theory and Practice, p. 49.
[79] Ibid., p. 49.
[80] Adams, Habermas and Theology, p. 123.
[81] If it is based in revelation (the Bible and the Ten Commandments), then how can it still be considered natural? Craig Boyd provides an impressive answer to exactly this kind of question in his A Shared Morality where he shows how the theory of natural law developed out of the Genesis narratives and the Decalogue; at one point, he says: “My concern here is not to read natural law theory into the biblical texts but to show how the Bible served as an important resource for the development of natural law theory” (p. 48). Boyd’s book, overall, offers a very thick description of Aquinas’ understanding of the relation between natural law and revelation – which names what Habermas finds so compelling in Aquinas’ understanding of the natural law. In this sense, Boyd fills out the details for Habermas’ insight concerning Aquinas’ theory of the natural law.
[82] See MacIntyre’s diagnosis of our historical and social context in After Virtue, especially pp. 1-35.
[83] Habermas’ appreciation of Aquinas cannot be missed and should not be ignored. He writes, for example, “Reading Aquinas’ Summa Contra Gentiles, I am struck by the complexity, the sheer degree of differentiations, the gravity, and the stringency of a dialogically constructed argument. I am an admirer of Aquinas. He represents a form of spirit that is able to ground its authenticity from out of its own resources” (Habermas, “A Conversation About God and the World,” in Religion and Rationality: Essays on Reason, God, and Modernity, ed. Eduardo Mendita, [Cambridge, Massachusetts: Polity Press, 2002], p. 152; italics mine). Notice the importance for Habermas of Aquinas’ ability to ground his authenticity in the sources of his own tradition.
[84] Habermas, Theory and Practice, p. 108.
[85] Adams, Habermas and Theology, p. 113.
[86] Ibid., p. 113-114.
[87] As I suggest in the next paragraph, Habermas’ rejection of knowledge taking place through Scripture does not necessarily entail that he favors science over Scripture and theology in an absolute way.
[88] The difference between Habermas and Hobbes on what constitutes the scientific is the difference between Peirce and the modern empiricists on all methods that lead to the validation of belief: “Among all methods that lead to validated beliefs, the method of inquiry has proved itself to be the most successful in fact. Besides scientific method, Peirce discusses three other methods. He calls them the method of tenacity, the method of authority, and the a priori method. All of them have advantages, but they are surpassed by the scientific method if the only criterion of evaluation is in what way can we best arrive at definitively valid beliefs – in other words, beliefs that all future events will not render problematic but rather confirm? It is on this criterion that the meaning of the ‘validity’ of the conclusions produced by the process of inquiry depends” (Habermas, Knowledge and Human Interests, p. 119). Hobbes, with the modern empiricists, tends to deny that all of these methods have advantages; neither Peirce nor Habermas, following Peirce, deny this a priori but only descriptively – within modern science itself.
[89] See Habermas, Knowledge and Human Interests (especially chapter 3).
[90] By this I mean that neither Aquinas nor Habermas begin with a positivist understanding of science. See Habermas, Knowledge and Human Interests : “Philosophy’s position with regard to science, which at one time could be designated with the name ‘theory of knowledge’, has been undermined by the movement of philosophical thought itself. Philosophy was dislodged from this position by philosophy. From then on, the theory knowledge had to be replaced by a methodology emptied of philosophical thought. For the philosophy of science that has emerged since the mid-nineteenth century as the heir of the theory of knowledge is methodology pursued within a scientistic self-understanding of the sciences. ‘Scientism’ means science’s belief in itself: that is the conviction that that we can no longer understand science as one form possible knowledge, but rather must identify knowledge with science” (p. 4). Habermas argues that positivism results from this scientistic self-understanding of science (see pp. 71-90).
[91] Habermas’ expositions of Peirce’s philosophy of science provide for some of the clearest descriptions for what Habermas thinks constitutes science. See, for example, Knowledge and Human Interests : “We term information scientific if and only if an uncompelled and permanent consensus can be obtained with regard to its validity” (p. 91), and “the structure of scientific method guarantees both the revisability of all individual statements and the possibility in principle of an ultimate answer to every emerging scientific question” (p. 92).
[92] I am not suggesting that Aquinas’ and Habermas’ understandings of science are the same. Rather, I am claiming that Habermas, in Knowledge and Human Interests, strongly challenges the kind of scientism found in Hobbes’ philosophy. I believe that Habermas’ understanding of science is closer to that of Aquinas’ than Hobbes’, because both avoid (Aquinas non-intentionally, Habermas intentionally) scientism. I am, therefore, only challenging Adams’ suggestion that Habermas remains closer to Hobbes on what constitutes the scientific.
[93] It is important to note that Aquinas provides an account of the scientific:

“Sacred doctrine is a science. We must bear in mind that there are two kinds of sciences. There are some which proceed from a principle known by the natural light of intelligence, such as arithmetic and geometry and the like. There are some which proceed from principles known by the light of a higher science: thus the science of perspective proceeds from principles established by geometry, and music from principles established by arithmetic. So it is that sacred doctrine is a science because it proceeds from principles established by the light of a higher science, namely, the science of God and the [saints]. Hence, just as the musician accepts on authority the principles taught him by the mathematician, so sacred science is established on principles revealed by God” ( Summa Theologiae, translated by Fathers of the English Dominican Province, [Allen, TX: Christian Classics, 1981]).

Clearly, Thomas Aquinas is not an anti-scientific thinker; he does not work within a dichotomy between science and theology. For the best explanation of Aquinas’ understanding of theology as the science of talking about God, see Victor Preller’s Divine Science and the Science of God: A Reformulation of Thomas Aquinas, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1967).
[94] Adams recognizes that in Habermas’ reflections on tradition he too refuses scientism (see Adams, Habermas and Theology, 61-62), but Adams does not apply his own observations to his later discussion on the question of Habermas’ understanding of science.
[95] It does not follow from this point that Aquinas’ biblical ontology is irrelevant or out-of-date.