Contra Geuss: A Second Rejoinder

The Hannah Arendt Center
Jürgen Habermas and Seyla Benhabib in Frankfurt am Main

As Raymond Geuss admits in his Reply, having published his initial critique of Habermas in 1981,[i] he no longer followed the work except for a review of the Philosophical Discourse of Modernity (German 1985; English 1990 ) which he considered equally to be a “tissue of misunderstandings.” I did not harbor any illusions that I would be able to change Raymond Geuss’s mind about Habermas’s work through my reply, but I just wanted to set some of the record straight, particularly for new generations of students and scholars, out of whose milieu the The Point, which first published Geuss’s article, seems to have emerged. (Martin E Jay has now written an in-depth rejoinder to Geuss on this website. https://thepointmag.com/2019/criticism/the-liberal-idea-has-become-obsolete-putin-geuss-and-habermas.)

Geuss’s principal critique of Habermas is that the program of searching for “transcendental conditions of communication” is a philosophical failure. This is a perfectly legitimate philosophical disagreement but Geuss simply does not state the problem precisely. Habermas is NOT searching for transcendental or quasi-transcendental conditions of communication überhaupt; rather, in the tradition of speech-act theory, he is analyzing the conceptual presuppositions which we as speaking agents make in order for our utterances to be intelligible to each other. The distinction here is between “knowing what” and “knowing that,” or between implicit and explicit knowledge. Speech acts are embedded in communicative actions in the lifeworld.

As is well-known, J.L. Austin’s theory of speech acts presupposes an institutional analysis of the background conditions against which our utterances become intelligible performances for our interlocutors. We can do “things with words” (as when the couple gets married by saying “I do” in front of the Justice of Peace or other relevant official) because these statements are uttered in certain lifeworld contexts. In such contexts, we take certain assumptions about what is the case, what is proper to do or say, the language in which we communicate and why we communicate, always already for granted. Habermas digs deeper than Austin in analyzing just those assumptions that make speech-acts possible and uncovers the four validity claims. It is these four conditions (and their world references, which I will not go into) that Habernas names “transcendental.” Geuss does not sort out speech-act theory from communicative action.

For Habermas, the distinction between illocutionary and perlocutionary speech effects is one that we must presuppose for communicative action to be possible. It is, of course, obvious that in many cases this distinction may be blurred. “Illocutionary” are those effects which one speaker communicates forthrightly to the other in order to coordinate their actions; whereas “perlocutionary” are those speech acts through which one speaker wants the other to behave in a certain way without communicating overt intentions and sharing mutual understanding. The key to Habermas’s work, in my opinion, is the relationship between this speech act analysis, the social-theoretic conception of communicative action, which is both action and communication, and the logic of modernity as rationalization. Having misconstrued one part of this complex program as a transcendental argument about communication as such, Geuss dispenses with the whole structure.

Geuss is not alone in rejecting transcendental arguments or in denying that philosophy ought to be concerned with policing boundaries among different kind of speech acts. The fundamental dispute between Derrida and Habermas rested on this issue and Derrida denied the necessity as well as viability of the illocutionary/perlocutionary distinction. For Foucault and Foucaultians as well, who see speech acts as interlaced with and imbricated in relations of power, this distinction makes no sense. All speech is perlocutionary in their view.

These are crucial questions in philosophy which go as far back as the dialogue between Thrasymachus and Socrates in Plato’s Republic about power, persuasion and justice. Reasonable and smart people can disagree about them, even while trying to convince each other with the best arguments they can marshal against each other — as Geuss and I are (hopefully) trying to in this exchange. Therefore, I find the insinuation that my arguments are motivated more by “adoration” and by “philosophical loyalty to a school” rather than by rational conviction, offensive.

Raymond Geuss may or may not be a misanthrope and we may all be better off if we do not know about each others’ “deepest opinions, feelings and motivations.” As one of my mentors at Harvard, Judith Shklar argued convincingly, society is dependent for its functioning upon a certain hypocrisy and many of us do not even know our “deepest opinions, feelings and motivations.” But democracies cannot simply be republics of hypocrites. Sometimes, somewhere we must speak truth to power and to each other if we are to succeed in living together with respect and dignity.

Hence my final paragraph on Vladimir Putin. It was intended to provoke Geuss to state more clearly, and not by his dismissals of Habermas’s position alone, how he would distinguish his critique of liberal ideals of government by deliberation and argument, tolerance and respect for individual dignity, from Putin’s critique. Sometimes, “les extremes se touchent,” the extremes touch, and there can be a convergence between right-wing and left-wing critiques of these ideals. I don’t know much about Geuss’s politics but I sense a certain ultra-left critique of labor and social democratic politics in his statements. It would have never occurred to me to pose this as a choice between Putin and Habermas. Indeed, the whole idea is so preposterous, that I will rest my case contra Geuss here: Putin OR Habermas? Really Raymond Geuss?


Seyla Benhabib is the Eugene Meyer Professor of Political Science and Philosophy at Yale University and was Director of the Program in Ethics, Politics and Economics (2002–2008). Professor Benhabib was the President of the Eastern Division of the American Philosophical Association in 2006–07, a Fellow at the Wissenschaftskolleg in Berlin in 2009, at the NYU Straus Institute for the Advanced Study of Law and Justice in Spring 2012, and at the German Marshall Fund’s Transatlantic Academy in Washington DC in Spring 2013. In 2009, she received the Ernst Bloch prize for her contributions to cultural dialogue in a global civilization and in May 2012, the Leopold Lucas Prize of the Evangelical Academy of Tubingen. She holds honorary degrees from the Humanistic University in Utrecht in 2004, the University of Valencia in November 2010 and from Bogazici University in May 2012. She received a Guggenheim grant during 2010–2011 for her work on sovereignty and international law. Professor Benhabib was awarded the Meister Eckhart Prize of the Identity Foundation and the University of Cologne in May 2014 for her contributions of contemporary thought.


[i] Geuss’s disclaimer that the book is not about Habermas is disingenuous. I took out my tattered copy of The Idea of a Critical Theory (1981) from the shelf. The series’ Editors Introduction, by Alan Montefiore and Hide Ishiguro, refer to Geuss’s arguments with reference to Habermas throughout (pp. vii-ix); the list of Abbreviations in the front of the book are all to works by Habermas. And Geuss himself writes in the Introduction, “ I have decided to focus my discussion on the views of Habermas because his work is the most sustained attempt by a member of the Frankfurt School to get clear about the underlying epistemological assumptions of the critical theory, and so raises the issues that interest me in a particularly striking way.” (p. 3) The discerning reader may want to check out pp. 55–88 for Geuss’s further critique. But there is one oddity in a book in which Habermas is discussed nearly on every page: the Index makes no reference to him at all!

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