Jurgen Habermas, the Last Philosophe

His lamp is lit and he wanders the intellectual landscape

CounterPunch editor Jeff St. Clair kindly sent me a recent interview with Jurgen Habermas in Eurozine (Michael Foessel and Jurgen Habermas, “Critique and communication: Philosophy’s missions,” October 16, 2015). No great philosopher has given so many interviews as this giant thinker of our time. I’ve read many of them, but I bet there are lots hidden in some obscure European journals.

Philosophe is French for philosopher. Perhaps the flamboyant dandy Voltaire is the iconic representative of this unique creature who moved boldly into public spaces to illuminate and interrogate (with wit and elegance of course) existent viewpoints in many areas of learning and state affairs—including theology, philosophy, history, science, politics, economics and ethical issues—through the application of reason. Today philosophers mostly are stowed away in the holds of their academic ships.

Jurgen Habermas can be honorably given the title of the “last philosophe.” No single scholar in the 20th and 21st centuries has so singularly articulated the “Enlightenment Project” for our time. And he accomplished this defense of reason in the face of torrential postmodern rains, harsh skeptical headwinds and bitter medicine of post-democratic conditions.

Now eighty-six, Habermas is a battle-scarred old thought warrior for some version of critical theory in the aftermath of totalitarianism, the holocaust and total wars (I. Katznelson, Desolation and enlightenment: political knowledge after total war, totalitarianism, and the Holocaust [2003]). Habermas rages into the dark night. His lamp is lit and he wanders the cultural and intellectual landscapes in search of flickers of light and possibility.

No modern thinker has synthesized such a massive number of thinkers and ideas into a system offering a way of seeing the travails and hopes of modernity and its beyond. But the sheer scope of his writings means, inevitably, that he strikes discordant notes that jangle the nerves of various scholars—from sectarian leftists, epistemologists, theologians and political scientists to specialists on Heidegger to endless commentators on the fate of the EU.

Never reluctant to dive into the scholarly world to carve out guide posts for critical theory and emancipatory practices, Habermas has resisted the intellectual curse of relativism. His defense of a procedural form of reason has staked out his territory and riled numerous opponents.

He has reasserted the Kantian notion of universal morality and resisted reducing scientific truth claims to infinitely variable narratives. Habermas has not been reluctant to step into swampy marshes where predators of the enlightenment lurk to confront the world as it is with the way it ought to be (norms versus facticity).

In recent years, the defense of deliberative democracy has suffered from attacks that argue that the “empirical evidence” for deliberative democracy does not hold out much promise. For Habermas, however, our hope lies with our capacity for speech; our first utterance presupposes that we can reach understanding. This is the foundational intuition of Habermasian critical social theory.

That is, since deliberative democracy depends on citizen knowledge of public affairs, and research reveals the extent and depth of voter ignorance, Habermasian theory is left mostly with an impotent ought. It is also true that Habermas has not focused enough attention on the way crippling inequalities within the capitalism disenable “unhindered debate within civil society” (W. Scheuerman, “Between radicalism and resignation,” in P. Dews (ed.), Habermas: a Critical Reader  [1999]).

Thus, not everybody buys into his far-ranging thought and diagnoses of our time. His theory of deliberative democracy has evident weaknesses, ranging from critics who wonder where the empirical evidence to support his claims to those who are aghast at some of Habermas’ arguments for supporting the EU. But let’s give the Master Thinker praise for charting some of the essential themes and issues we all should be talking-about.

The enlightenment’s predators know that the actually- existing factual worlds can slide far, far away from the beautiful idea of deliberative democracy or an authentically democratic European Union.

Habermas is not a banjo player in a small nightclub somewhere. He works like a conductor of a huge orchestra with hundreds of musicians who he has invited to perform a highly intricate and unsurpassed complex work called Critical Social Theory. But it seems that different parts of this Great Composition are not harmoniously integrated into the whole. There are too many jarring sounds and off-tune instruments.

Since Jeff so kindly sent me the interview, let me share some of the eighty-six year old philosopher’s recent thoughts on a multitude of intersecting crises. And raise a few criticisms of dimensions of Habermas’ thought.

Screen Shot 2016-02-19 at 10.18.51 AM

Habermas finds philosophical orientation with the Frankfurt School

Habermas’ route to the Frankfurt School of Brainy Thinkers in 1956 was circuitous and indirect. In fact, when he arrived at the University of Bonn to do his doctoral dissertation on Schelling, German universities between 1949 and 1954 had professors who had either once been Nazis or kept their mouths shut. Thus, Jurgen did not arrive at Frankfurt and start immediately breathing the fresh air of critical theory. His left-wing convictions were brewed in earnest discussions of literature and theatre with student companion in student beerhalls. His profs were mostly dead-beats.

Jurgen did gain access to the writings of Marx and Engels during his gymnasium days. But he was captivated by historical materialism at any early age and later extrapolated a developmental sense of history from these revolutionary giants. Although Habermas knew the “thoroughly ‘dark’ theory” of Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment, when he read Adorno’s Prisms 1956 he was electrified.

Adorno’s sparkling essays on thinkers such as Oswald Spengler, Karl Mannheim and Thorston Veblen pierced like diamond icicles into the “clotted climate of the Adenauer era.” Adorno dusted off some Marxist categories; his complex “dark style” illuminated the opaque moment in post-war German history, riddled as it was with hush-hush tones and timid thinking. Lucky for Jurgen, Teddy Adorno read a few of his youthful essays and invited him to come to the Institute for Social Research.

Nothing could hold him back—so he told interviewer Michael Foessel—and Habermas’ wife said that he rushed there with “banners flying.” He became Adorno’s first assistant in 1956. Habermas needed to re-educate himself and discover how philosophy could be retrieved from the clutches of the likes of Heidegger’s irrationalism.

Habermas tells Foessler that “Kant and the French Revolution are decisive for my understanding of democracy…in the light of the fractured history of German democracy. This infected my generation with a deep self-distrust. We began to search for those nagging anti-Enlightenment genes that had to be hiding in our own traditions.” One can imagine the raging debates that followed Habermas from the 1950s regarding precisely what one retrieved from German intellectual traditions!

Indeed, Habermas believed Germany’s descent into the “abyss of fascism” had severed the possibility that German traditions could simply be transmitted to the next generation without question. They could only be “acquired reflexively. Everything had to be passed through the filter of rational examination and reasoned approval!”

And fatefully, that included the reception of Heidegger in Europe. By the early 1950s Habermas’s bloodhound nose had sniffed out a fascist sensibility in Heideggerian language. When Habermas wrote his first critique of Heidegger in a newspaper article in 1953, “Thinking with Heidegger against Heidegger,” he was unaware that Heidegger had written anti-semitic letters to his wife as early as 1916.

By 1933, Heidegger was a convinced Nazi; and that he remained, an unrepentant Nazi spin-doctor. Habermas detests him. Yet, despite this harsh judgment, Habermas recognizes major philosophical accomplishments in Kantian scholarship and brilliant assimilation of American pragmatism in the impossibly difficult text, Being and Time (1927). Just too many hyphens for me!

One of Habermas’ critics of his treatment of Heidegger (N. K0mpridis, “Heidegger’s challenge and critical theory,” in P. Dews (Ed.), Habermas: a critical reader [1999] acknowledges that Heidegger is a “moral cripple”, but accuses Habermas of binding reason too tightly to argumentation that is grounded in validity claims. Truth can stream in upon us in different ways not subject to strict argumentative logic and form.

Worried that “world disclosure” reveals itself without (or beyond) argument, Habermas thinks Heidegger’s thought carries us into murk, mysticism and heroic assertion. Heidegger cedes too much and argumentation collapses.

This worry is also manifest in Habermas’ recent writings on religion and post-secularity, where he urges communities of faith to learn to translate their faith-affirmations into rational statements understood in public spheres by secular citizens.

Habermas faces off against the anti-Enlightenment proponents

Foessel asked Habermas for his thoughts on the fierce intellectual disagreements regarding the Enlightenment. This is a hot topic! Immediately the cagey Habermas brushes aside the easy critique of the Enlightenment bouncing around academic circles that the Enlightenment played an “indisputable ideological role” in “western modernity.” Ok, but is that the last word?

The idea here is that “western standards of egalitarian and individualistic universalism” covered up the “practice of double standards—both in the hypocritical justification of repressive regimes, and in the imperialistic destruction and exploitation of foreign cultures.”

For Habermas this isn’t what the dispute is actually about. Rather, it has to do with the “correct philosophical explanation of this fact.” Those who know Habermas’ style of thinking can predict, I think, that he would argue that the criticism of “hypocritically selective application of universalist standards” depend on this very universalism.

Kant himself knew that one could not criticize one’s own position if one remained trapped inside its “fixed perspective.” In fact, Habermas accuses Schmitt of advocating a “political universalism” that rigidly applies its own standards to everything foreign. Like ancient empires, everything outside its borders is barbarian.

In a now famous (aptly so) formulation, Habermas affirms that “only those standards can withstand criticism that can be justified from a shared perspective developed in the course of an inclusive deliberation requiring the mutual adoption of the perspective of all those affected. This is the discourse-ethical interpretation of a universalism that has become self-reflective and no longer assimilates the other to oneself. Universalism properly understood proceeds from the premise that everyone is foreign to everyone else—and wants to remain so!”

Habermas does, however, bemoan the fact that Foucault died before he could understand his implicit standards underpinning his discourse theory of power.

Foessel asks Habermas about his foundational text, The structural transformation of the Public sphere (German publication, 1962)

What Foessel wonders about is the extent to which this seminal text has distanced him from orthodox Marxism. In a fascinating remark, Habermas tells Foessel that he was never tempted by orthodox Marxism with its centerpiece of political economy. This controversial standpoint, I think, gets Habermas into trouble decades down the road. It also—if Wolfgang Streeck is correct in his recent critique of Habermas (“What about capitalism? Jurgen Habermas’s project of a European democracy,” Verso web-site)-shapes his attitudes to the crises of the EU.

In the 1970s Habermas thought, in fact, that the rise of the welfare state no longer required a central focus on political economy. Capitalism and democracy appeared to have reconciled. In Streeck’s commentary on Habermas’ latest book, The Lure of Technocracy (2015), he accuses Habermas of granting immunity to a “globalized capitalist economy by redefining the interests vested in it into ‘problems’ calling for technically correct ‘solutions’.

Habermas treats “really existing politics—the rough and tumble of local, regional, collective interests, histories, languages, experiences, identities, hostilities, cultures, idiosyncrasies and passions—as non-substantial illegitimate impediments on the way to democracy as it should be: universalistic, dispassionate, global, deliberative, cooperative, and apparently without any need to override obstinate interests in the unlimited accumulation of capital by use of collectively mobilized power and legitimate force (that is, of the very state capacity that Habermas, for whatever reason, denies his European democracy.”

Habermas’ theory of Communicative Action which sets out the grand dualism of the System and the Lifeworld is vulnerable to reducing capitalism to the instruments of the market as it orients itself to efficient production. For Streeck, this blinds Habermas to seeing the EU and the Euro not as deficient democracies for the time being, but, rather, as the political form taken by neo-liberal capitalism in our day.

“For Habermas,” Streeck argues, “the enemy is not capitalism but technocracy, and only as long as its congenital insensitivity to popular sentiments endangers the project of European de-nationalization.”

In other words, Streeck insists that the problems of the “democratic deficit” and “electoral accountability” and the “plight of the Mediterranean countries under the Euro regime” must be understood as an integral part of “pro-capitalist neoliberal intention or as a concession to growing capitalist powers.”

The great philosopher, so in love with a united Europe and the surpassing of nationalism, cannot see what stands in the way. For Streeck, the EMU is not a proto-democracy. It has divided Europe into hostile national camps. It has imposed a unitary monetary regime that suits Germany at the expense of the others. It is just what the neo-liberal governing elites desire.

Habermas combats the “battle of the gods” and “value relativism”   

Foessel queries Habermas regarding the way in the Theory of Communicative Action (1984, 1987) he strives to find his way out of Max Weber’s “battle of the gods” and “value relativism” as premier ways of characterizing modernity. He wants to know how Habermas thinks we can avoid the impasses of modernity.

Habermas does not think that the “battle of the gods”—evident everywhere in our world—can be “reconciled with arguments” as long as it remains a conflict between one identity-building self-conception of people” and that of another. As Habermas has reminded us many times, the “good or successful life” can only be answered from the first person perspective.

But disputes about moral universalism concern “issues of justice; and these issues can in principle be resolved when all parties are prepared to assume the perspective of the respective other in order to resolve the conflict in the equal interests of all sides.”

Responding to Foessel’s question pertaining to today’s condemnation of instrumental reason, Habermas addresses in remarkable fashion the collapse of the social democratic welfare state in the last four decades. For him, financial capitalism has “gone wild and is beyond all political control.”

Habermas certainly acknowledges that from a long-term historical perspective a kind of “clotted second nature” emerged within capitalist society: namely an “economic system that regulates itself by obeying exclusively the logic of a profit-orientated self-utilization of capital.”

What a mockery indeed! Habermas admits—as do Wolfgang Streeck, Claus Offe and many others—that the days of a “tamed welfare state” are over. Now in our interdependent but fragmented world, global financial capitalism has taken on a “life of its own” and “still largely escapes the grip of politics.” Political elites, says Habermas, hide behind “democratic facades” and “technocratically implement” market imperatives “almost without resistance.”

He states provocatively: “Trapped in their national perspectives, they have no other choice. Thus, they prefer to uncouple the political decision-making processes from the political public arenas, which are in any case dried out and whose infrastructure is crumbling.

This colonialization of societies, which disintegrates from within and takes-up right-wing populist positions against each other, will not change as long as no political power can be found with the courage to take up the cause of achieving the political aim of universalizing interests beyond national frontiers, in only within Europe or the Eurozone.”

Although Habermas recognizes that “financial capitalism” may have taken on a life of its own, he nonetheless thinks that the problem lies essentially with political elites who must take the bull by the horns and press political formation beyond the nation-state.

But this option edges the neo-liberal form of capitalism off centre-stage, and situates elite political actors in the centre of the Euro-integration. It also makes us wonder how Habermas’ vision of a de-nationalized Europe actually departs from technocracy.

Michael Welton retired from Athabasca University.  His recent books include Unearthing Canada’s Hidden Past: a Short History of Adult Education and Adult Education a Precarious Age: The Hamburg Declaration revisited.