Gadamer and political authority

The rehabilitation of the concept of authority is one of the more contentious positions advocated by Gadamer in Truth and Method. Habermas in particular challenged the universality of Gadamer’s hermeneutic project by presenting this rehabilitation as a conservative legitimation of prevailing prejudices which truncates the role of critical reflection. Given that Gadamer’s primary focus is upon the ramifications of the Enlightenment dichotomy between reason and authority for historical hermeneutics, however, and that his examples are drawn primarily from educational domains, the extent to which his account of authority sustains a political interpretation is far from self-evident. In this article I argue that Gadamer’s account can nonetheless make at least two important contributions to contemporary philosophical debates on political authority. Following a brief exposition of Gadamer’s account of authority in Truth and Method, I examine his suggestion that the basis of legitimate political authority is to be found in the normative status of the right to be authoritative, rather than in the factual status of being in a position of authority. This account, I suggest, places in question the abstract dichotomy between theoretical and practical authority which informs much contemporary debate on political authority. I then demonstrate how Gadamer’s emphasis upon the historicity of tradition offers important insights for discussions of the relation between political authority and moral autonomy
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DOI 10.1177/1474885112473722
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