Sources of Hope in Habermas

In assembling a book on reading Habermas as learning theorist over the last couple of years, I discovered, perhaps more deeply than previous readings, that our human capacity to learn to solve problems at micro-and-macro-levels, as well as stepping back and reflecting on our condition, carries hope forward into the not-yet future. One of our irreducible interests is that of emancipation; this interest—propelled by social struggle—is in-built into our humanness. If this be so, then, clearly even though humans down through history have suffered immensely from overlords, we can organize an enlightenment learning process to reflect on our oppression. We can acquire the verve to act collectively to change the way the rich and powerful misperceive us and the structures that hold us down.

Habermas’s social evolutionary learning theory carries critical insights pertaining to the way humans overcame specific “learning challenges” as history unfolded over thousands of years. In modern times, Habermas emphasizes that both the League of Nations, the United Nations and the European Union, though flawed, fan “sparks of hope” that we can learn from catastrophe. We do not simply lay down amidst the bombed-out buildings and corpse-strewn streets and perish into oblivion. Shaking off the dust, we get up and begin again—at our best, with acquired experiential knowledge, to resolve knotted big learning challenges (such as nations going to war against other nations) and the little knots of creating decent homes and gardens and schools.

We remind ourselves here that our species has kept on and survived for tens of thousands of years. Through those many years our cognitive capacities have expanded immensely to include the ability to “stand back and gaze forward.” We experienced the Axial Age in the period between 800-300 BC. Our species broke free (in ancient Israel, China, Greece and India) from being chained to the world as it is to imagining the “better, more just world.” From that point onward, we had the capacity to learn from history and to develop the world and our own potential.

The universe does not have to be cold and unresponsive. We have built systems of law and dignity and culture. Everybody in this entire world has created utterly exquisite art works. We have developed infinitely vast knowledge and wisdom systems and scientific medicine. We have demonstrated compassionate response to the call of the vulnerable other. The earth can be a home and cultures can interlink humans with each other so that no one is alone or forgotten. We are creatures of will, determination and action. Those on the other side of the wall can cross and play in the same symphonic orchestra. We can emerge from the trenches and drink together and talk about our kids back home. We can also choose to not ever return to those damnable trenches.

Martin Matustik (Radical evil and the scarcity of hope (2008) doubts that “humans are reasonable” (p. 63). I know what he means: material scarcity and nihilistic power politics destroys the plural world. Holy intolerance torches the very symbols (orderly houses, cultivated gardens and stunning art works) of beautiful hope. Yet I still argue that: “Rational criticism, learning, and communication are the greatest possible hope for the continual progress of the human race” (p. 77). This Habermasian hope is lodged in our human speech capacity. Deceptive language—the unspeakable double-talk of militarized language—can only be detected because we can speak the truth.

At present, we may well be moving closer and closer to humankind’s transformed cosmopolitan consciousness that will enable us to create a new form of the relations of global production that will feed the hungry and acknowledger all persons as leaves of one tree. The Coronavirus-19 released upon the world in early 2020 is functioning as an electric lightning storm, revealing dark spaces and places that are still present, and harming humanity. Put simply, the global “caring community” can be starkly divided from “predatory globalism.”

Cicero’s yearning to be a “citizen of the world” has been carried into our trembling present. Yet the conditions of a rampaging Neo-liberal form of de-regulated Neo-liberal capitalism and morally inept leadership has fostered ethnic civil wars, religious massacres, virulent forms of populism and downright cruelty. Today the systemic racism that is an integral part of the white imperialist project has almost reached exhaustion as the “wretched of the earth” act out on the streets of the world their agonal treatment. What’s ahead, just over the horizon? One possibility is the massive shift to a new, cosmopolitan order—out of sheer desperation at the catastrophic mess of Neo-liberal globalized capitalism.

One can, like the Old Testament psalmist, sit by the lake and weep. But one can also say that human cognitive, moral and ethical consciousness has evolved over time to the point that we can firmly articulate the normative framework of human rights (shared, in principle, by most peoples of the world). This “regulative ideal” cannot be dislodged from human consciousness: it transcends our petty acts and nasty treatment of others. Kant’s vision of “perpetual peace” imagined the peoples of the earth enjoying the right of hospitality in all lands of the planet. That idea, too, cannot be dislodged from human aspiration and deepening sense that it can be achieved. Basically, we know that it is morally wrong to treat others as mere ends to achieve nefarious goals. Don’t we?

Habermas’s sublime texts, The theory of communicative action (1984, 1987) are anchored in Habermas’s most primal source of hope: our use of language that presupposes we can understand each other. In “A reply to my critics,” Habermas (in J. Thompson and D. Held (Eds.). Habermas: critical debates [1982]) states: “In the constellations that suppress an intention intrinsic to the rationality of purposive action and linguistic understanding – the claim to reason announced in the teleological and intersubjective structures of social reproduction themselves – and that allow it to take effect only in a distorted manner. Again and again this claim is silenced; and yet in fantasies and deeds it develops a stubbornly transcending power, because it is renewed with each act of unconstrained understanding, with each moment of living together in solidarity, of successful individuation, and of saving emancipation” (p. 221).

Intriguingly, Habermas points out that both modern science and ancient mythology (Jerusalem and Athens) share a common cognitive origin (that is, we are all trying to make sense of the worlds before us). Once grasped, this compelling idea (religion and science eventually take different paths from shared origin) lays the groundwork for mutual understanding. It also forces attention on the way religious language can be transposed into secular vocabulary to enhance critical insight into shared predicaments that need the cognitive and moral resources residing in both traditions. This process can work the other way, too—as scientific understandings of history, nature and our bodies challenges previously taken-for-granted religious presuppositions.

Martin Matustik (2008) asks: “What are the sources of Habermas’s unwavering, to twenty-first-century tone-deaf ears more and more uncanny, secular optimism that a margin of reason may prevail in the midst of human destruction and insanity? His own remarkable journey through the twentieth century bears witness to the fact that things did get better in postwar Europe. Habermas’s theory of communicative action expresses this fact by locating the resources for learning or, this side of the world—in human linguistic competencies—that is, in our ability and willingness to rise up from the ashes of our dastardly deeds and rebuild something in the world, what other options do we have (so he questions skeptics as they question him, and so he would also confront his own unbelief), than take recourse in hope lodged in our very speech, communicative action, and want of mutual recognition?” (p. 63). Matustik claims that Habermas is a “voice crying in the wilderness” (ibid.).

Human beings have voice, they can cry out, they can leave the wilderness of oppression and humiliation.


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.