Geuss, Habermas, and the Rose of Unreason

The Hannah Arendt Center
Jürgen Habermas

Discursive interaction, let me concede, can ultimately be exhausting. High-minded exercises in inferential logic and evidentiary demonstration descend into ad hominem polemics and clever put-downs. Accusations of misrepresented arguments on both sides grow more heated as civility morphs into a pissing contest. Getting the last word may reward stamina or at least persistence, but doesn’t necessarily turn into a conclusive victory, as telling points made along the way continue to reverberate. It is therefore no wonder that Raymond Geuss concludes his response to Seyla Benhabib’s second critique of his original essay on Habermas (and my one entry into the fray) with a vow of future silence: “since, as I said, I don’t believe that unlimited discussion must necessarily result in consensus (which, to repeat again, does not mean that discussion is never under any circumstances useful), this is the last comment I am going to write on this issue.” [1]

Because it may seem unfair to counter-punch an adversary who has taken off his gloves, any attempt to continue the argument risks appearing churlish. But not if one takes seriously the concession made in the parenthesis. For the discussion that we have entered has been going on for a long time before Geuss’s initial effort and our responses, and will doubtless continue for a very long time after. It transcends, we might say, the proper names affixed to our little essays, by raising perennial questions that have never been fully resolved. Happily, Geuss’s final entry helps clarify what is at stake, and does so without the tone of misanthropic ressentiment that made his initial essay so inappropriate a way to commemorate a 90th birthday. So it is in the spirit of trying to move the discussion forward rather than to score debating points that the following remarks are intended.

But before I take the high road, I have to take one detour to highlight what has so troubled Benhabib and myself in Geuss’s characterization of Habermas’s position. Having admitted that he stopped reading Habermas’s work around 1980, he cannot avoid presenting a cartoon version of the latter’s nuanced and evolving position. One of the exemplary characteristics of Habermas’s extraordinary career has been his ability to listen to and learn from his critics. The issue of transcendental norms has been one repeatedly raised in his encounters with them, resulting in an on-going attempt to clarify a complicated argument. [2] Some of his interlocutors, such as Karl-Otto Apel, have, in fact, chided him for abandoning transcendentalism entirely, but most applaud his attempts to find a way beyond it. In my own attempt to present his position in Reason after Its Eclipse: On Late Critical Theory (2016), I characterized it as “the detranscendentalization of reason,” and argued that Habermas clearly sought to distance himself from Kant’s belief in a universal “consciousness philosophy.” By short-circuiting the process of actually grappling with Habermas’s dauntingly large oeuvre (which is about to be extended by a massive new book dealing with secularization), Geuss is able to create an easily vulnerable target, whose “irrelevance” he takes on faith from his friend Konrad Cramer.

Perhaps Geuss’s casual essentialization of Habermas’s position reflects his belief that identities are enduring and solid formations that cannot be shaken by argumentation. But if so, how are we to deal with such familiar distinctions in the history of philosophy as those dividing the pre-critical and critical Kant, early and late Marx, Heidegger before and after his “turn,” early and late Wittgenstein, Sartre the existentialist and Sartre the Marxist, and so on? Habermas may not be subject to such a radical periodization, but it behooves any serious critic to pay attention to the development of his work before dismissing its crudest formulation. For those inclined to see where Habermas now stands on some of these issues, one good place to begin is the interview published last year in the Oxford Handbook on Deliberative Democracy. [3]

Geuss’s haste in interpreting the positions of others is, alas, also on display in his reply to my piece — sorry for playing the misrepresentation card, but I will only provide this one example — when he writes that “it is true that I simply do not believe, as Professor Jay does, that ‘legitimation’ is the ‘burning’ political (and philosophical) issue of the modern world. I think that a lot of other things are at least as ‘burning’ as the question ‘what is legitimacy?’, and that turning the focus of attention from genuinely pressing practical issues to discussion of ‘legitimacy’ often serves as a mask for the protection of entrenched existing interests.” In my essay, I had in fact, not called the question of political legitimacy “the” burning question of our world, but rather “a” burning question, which makes his objection meaningless. No one denies there are lots of other pressing issues, but at a time when the president of the United States is doing all he can to subvert constitutional safeguards against arbitrary rule and the presumptive British Prime Minister is threatening to prorogue Parliament to get his way on Brexit, to dismiss the issue of legitimacy as merely an ideological mask seems remarkably tone deaf to reality. And, of course, doing so raises the question of whether or not there is a pattern in Geuss’s work of attributing extreme versions of a targeted position and then subjecting them to easy ridicule.

Ok, enough petty parrying. Let me turn to the main substantive issue raised in this little contretemps: the vicissitudes of normative transcendentalism. In the title essay of The World without Why, Geuss invokes the infamous episode in Primo Levi’s wrenching account of his time in Auschwitz in which a camp guard cruelly snatches an icicle from his thirsty lips and responds to Levi’s astonishment with “Hier gibt es kein ‘Warum.’” (‘Here there is no ‘why.’”) It was with this episode in mind that I concluded my piece by saying that “A meaningless world without why easily turns into a brutal world in which atrocities can be committed without ever asking ‘why not?’” Geuss anticipates this reproach by arguing that there is a less diabolical reading of the question exemplified by the famous lines of the 17th-century German Catholic mystic Angelus Silesius “The rose is without why; she blossoms because she blossoms.” Insofar as the cover of his book depicts a rose, it is clear which he prefers.

The opposition, however, is clouded by the fact that the lines from Silesius became familiar to those of us unschooled in early modern German religious poetry — and I would imagine Geuss is one of our company — when they were cited approvingly by the philosopher whose sympathies for the regime that put Levi in Auschwitz have come increasingly into focus: Martin Heidegger in Der Satz vom Grund (The Principle of Reason). [4] Significantly, they were mobilized in a polemic against Leibniz’s principle of sufficient reason, which Heidegger understood as the principium reddendae rationis (the principle of rendering reasons). In addition to whatever philosophical objections he raised, there was also a personal motivation. Annoyed by those who were offended by his Nazi engagement and pressed him for an explanation, Heidegger complained that “lately we have had the demand to render reasons all too oppressively in our ears.” [5]

Now, it may seem that by recalling Heidegger’s tacit embrace of both versions of “here there is no ‘why’,” I am insinuating that Geuss is somehow a closet Nazi, whose visceral disgust at being asked to give reasons hides some sort of crime for which he is culpable. But remember, I have committed to taking the high road in this response, and so want to make clear that I am making no such accusation. Not only would it be entirely unwarranted, but it would also inevitably end any chance of moving the discussion forward. Here what has come to be called “Godwin’s Law of Nazi Analogies” — “as an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1” — would kick in, and we would all go home disgruntled.

Instead, by dragging Heidegger into the conversation I want to make a very different point. In many respects, he has been positioned as the anti-Habermas and strongly identified with the battle against transcendentalism, wherever it might be found. Inspired by the pre-Socratics, he rejected the Platonic quest for abstract truths disclosed by inferential reasoning. Despite his debts to the phenomenology developed by his former teacher Edmund Husserl, he never endorsed the latter’s “transcendental idealism,” and in his famous debate with Ernst Cassirer at Davos, he lambasted the Kantian tradition. Not surprisingly, his fingerprints are all over later anti-transcendental philosophies such as Gadamer’s hermeneutics and Derrida’s deconstruction. When American pragmatists like Richard Rorty sought a continental partner for John Dewey, it was Heidegger who seemed most appealing. So if Habermas can serve for Geuss as the exemplary transcendentalist, Heidegger can justly function as the poster boy for what can be called radical immanentism, hostile to both traditional metaphysics and the subjective idealism of Kantian epistemology. Not surprisingly, in this role he has been a useful resource for critics of the alleged Eurocentrism of Habermas’s position. [6] Each distinct Lebenswelt, he can be taken to argue, contains its own immanent self-justification, which cannot be judged from without on the basis of allegedly universal norms. Like roses that bloom without a reason, they don’t ask why, they just are.

Or so it seems. For a case can be made — and in fact has been very powerfully presented by the philosopher Daniel Dahlstrom in a 2005 essay called “Heidegger’s Transcendentalism” [7] — that for all of his fulminating against the evils of normative thinking, the constitutive function of the epistemological subject, and the imperative to give reasons, palpable traces of what Heidegger tried to abject can nonetheless be discerned in his own thought. This is obviously not the place to attempt a summary of Dahlstrom’s claims or argue their merits. But acknowledging their possible plausibility leads to an important insight: the suspicion that behind traditional transcendental claims — or even ones, such as Habermas’s, that seek universal normative grounding in different ways — there lurks a rationale for the privilege of specific interests must be mirrored by a comparable suspicion of the latent transcendental norms in their immanentist opposites. That is, if it can be shown that abstract, universalizing claims are generated by concrete, particular contexts of origin, it then becomes necessary to examine closely those putative contexts to see if there are impulses that transcend their putative boundaries, perhaps even crypto-normative imperatives that have universalizing implications. Should these be found, and I would venture they quickly would be, the conclusion follows that there is no self-sufficient discursive community, be it linguistic, ethnic, religious, cultural, national, gendered, or even “civilizational,” that is so homogeneous that it lacks tensions, even outright contradictions, which push beyond its limits. Similarly, there is no historical Zeit ruled by a uniform and coherent Geist without residues of earlier periods or intimations of later possibilities. When Geuss himself asks “who exactly is ‘we’?,” he shows that he understands the perils of locating a coherent, watertight collective subject or discursive community with no remainder. It is always possible, to give a familiar example, that a young girl from an orthodox Muslim background in certain sections of Africa or the Middle East will reject her culture’s mandate and appeal to transcendental values of woman’s rights in the hope of avoiding genital mutilation.

To recognize the mutually limiting power of both the transcendentalist and immanentist positions, the ways in which contexts of genesis both inflect the validity of the norms they generate and are in turn left behind by them, is perhaps what Adorno meant by a negative dialectic (and which is illustrated in one of his earliest essays on “The Idea of Natural History”). [8] Habermas has always been sensitive to this dynamic, which informs, for example, the ways in which he pits the insights of Kant against those of Hegel. [9] Ironically, despite his one-dimensional cartoon of Habermas’s position, Geuss seems to arrive at a somewhat similar conclusion when he proclaims “I reject Plato’s dichotomy: either one must be committed to Ideas (in a strong metaphysical sense) or one must accept chaos and unintelligibility, and also Habermas’ analogue: either notions of reason are transcendentally grounded in an ideal speech situation or there are no reasons at all. I decline this choice.” Because of his self-imposed ban on keeping the argument going, we will never know for sure. But in the discussion that is certain to continue well after both of us have left the room, it is an insight that may move a future “us” — understood as inclusively as possible — just a little bit closer to that elusive deliberative consensus that provides a compelling telos for interminable discussion itself. And which distinguishes humans who need reasons in order to flourish from flowers that can blossom without them.


Martin Jay Sidney Hellman Ehrman Professor Emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of fourteen previous books, including The Dialectical Imagination: A History of the Frankfurt School and the Institute of Social Research, 1923–50, which has been translated into thirteen languages; Marxism and Totality: The Adventures of a Concept from Lukács to Habermas; Adorno; Permanent Exiles: Essays on the Intellectual Migration from Germany to America; Downcast Eyes: The Denigration of Vision in Twentieth- Century French Thought; Songs of Experience: Modern European and American Variations on a Universal Theme; and The Virtues of Mendacity: On Lying in Politics.


[1] Raymond Geuss, “Presuppositions: Reply to Benhabib and Jay,” Amor Mundi, July 11, 2019. https://medium.com/@arendt_center/presuppositions-reply-to-benhabib-and-jay-835c4898d848

[2]The concept of “transcendentalism” is, of course, itself highly contested. In addition to referring to the American movement associated with Margaret Fuller, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, it has been identified with everything from Kant’s epistemology, which distinguishes between “transcendental” and “transcendent,” to the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s meditation techniques. For the purposes of this exercise, we can define it as a belief in norms or grounds that transcend their parochial contexts of origin, providing a point d’appui for critique.

[3] Jürgen Habermas, Interview with André Bächtiger, The Oxford Handbook of Deliberative Democracy, eds. André Bächtiger, John S. Dryzek, Jane Mansbridge and Mark Warren (Oxford, 2018).

[4] Martin Heidegger, The Principle of Reason, trans. Reginald Lilly (Bloomington, 1996), p. 35.

[5] Ibid., p. 28.

[6] Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provinicializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (Princeton, 2008).

[7]Daniel Dahlstrom, “Heidegger’s Transcendentalism,” Research in Phenomenology, 35 (2005).

[8] Theodor W. Adorno, “The Idea of Natural History,” Telos, 80 (1984). Here the mutually imbricated opposition is between history and nature, rather than immanence and transcendence, but many of the same issues are raised.

[9] See, for example, Habermas “From Kant to Hegel and Back Again: The Move toward Detranscendentalization” in Truth and Justification, ed. and trans. Barbara Fultner (Cambridge, Mass., 2005).

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