Jürgen Habermas’s 90th birthday

The Hannah Arendt Center
Jul 2 · 7 min read
Jürgen Habermas and Seyla Benhabib in Frankfurt am Main, Germany

Raymond Guess saw fit to celebrate Jürgen Habermas’s 90th birthday with a poisoned polemic called “A Republic of Discussion. Habermas at Ninety.” Originally commissioned by the German journal Soziopolis, with essays by other contributors reflecting on Habermas’s work and significance, the article appeared in the website of “pointmagazine.”

Amor Mundi then featured Geuss’s essay on June 23, 2019, with no discussion or alternative commentary. A thinker of Habermas’s stature deserved a more measured exchange of opinions about his work on such an occasion. The introductory note in The Point magazine to Geuss’s essay also credited him with having brought Critical Theory into mainstream Anglophone philosophy with his 1981 The Idea of a Critical Theory. But Geuss’s early book is just as polemical and dismissive of Habermas’s work as his current article and it did not give rise to any significant exchange between the two traditions. Instead, the work of Thomas A. McCarthy, The Critical Theory of Jürgen Habermas (1978) and Richard J. Bernstein’s, Restructuring Social and Political Theory (1976), have initiated the serious conversation between Habermas’s work and Anglo-American philosophy.

This may not be important for Guess, who denies that “communication” is even possible and who asserts that discussions lead only to further discord and disagreement. Why, then, should one respond to Guess at all? And why, indeed, does Guess himself write at all, if communication is impossible?

Obviously, his paradoxical claims intend to provoke: while denying the possibility of communication we will continue to communicate, and seek some understanding. Karl Otto-Apel, Jurgen Habermas’s senior colleague at the University of Frankfurt and the greatest interpreter of the ideas of Charles Sanders Peirce, called this predicament a “performative contradiction”: a situation in which my speech and action can take place only under certain conditions which I continue to contradict through explicit statements such as, “Believe me, reaching an agreement through discussion is impossible, and Habermas is wrong.”

Apel and Habermas have argued that in speech acts, such as the one above, we implicitly raise a number of validity claims. Such validity claims include assumptions about what exists or what is the case (i.e. if I did not assume that Habermas had made such a claim, my statement would make so sense). In saying “Believe me,…” I further assume it is appropriate for you to trust me and that I am prepared to convince you on the basis of evidence and reasons, and not through threats of force or violence. Furthermore, we take it for granted that you and I are speaking a language that is more or less comprehensible to both (intelligibility claims); and that we are in some sense sincere in trying to convince each other of the validity of the proposition that “Believe me….Habermas is wrong.” These four validity claims — to truth (Wahrheit); to appropriateness according to some norm (Richtigkeit); to intelligibility (Verständlichkeit) and truthfulness (Wahrhaftigkeit) are presupposed in every communicative action which itself is situated in a concrete lifeworld. Habermas has called his analysis of the validity claims presupposed in speech acts and their embeddedness in communicative acts of our lifeworld “quasi-transcendental.” Serious questions have been raised about whether such transcendental analysis, quasi- or not, can convince. Unlike Kant, Habermas acknowledges that a presuppositional analysis alone will establish neither necessity nor inevitability and therefore he has appealed to socio-linguistics, pragmatic theories of meaning and even socialization theory to further shore up his claims. Like Wittgenstein, for Habermas too, language becomes the medium in and through which we articulate and try to solve the puzzles which the philosophical bequeathed to us in the vocabulary of mind and consciousness.

Geuss reduces this idea of “communicative action” to a formulation which he names a “Verständigungsverhältnis,” through which he accuses Habermas of conflating “comprehension and moral agreement.” But the confusion is Geuss’s own. Habermas claims that in ordinary transactions, we act within the shared assumptions of our lifeworld and we transmit cultural knowledge about our tradition and we coordinate our actions and express our desires, wishes etc. It is only when communication breaks down and we can no longer understand or trust one another or bring our actions into sync that it becomes necessary to engage in special argumentation practices called “discourses.” It is then that we must seek “Verständigung,” both in morals and politics, that is, we must seek to come to some kind of agreement about the conflictual and contentious situation at hand — if it is even only, to agree to disagree. There is no guarantee that we will achieve this. Habermas’s point is that if the certainties that guide our lifeworld are disrupted and torn apart, and can no longer be restored through communication, we will experience crises-like phenomena in our societies and in our selves. Intergenerational cultural transmission will cease to convince and enhance our lives; we will become less and less able to achieve social coordination in politics, economics, and administration, and we may fall into anomie, isolation, and loneliness. In other words, the failure to reach some such understanding can produce crises in the lifeworld.

Geuss reduces the complex architectonic of Habermas’ theory of communicative action which blends language analyses with social theory and a critique of contemporary capitalist societies, into a series of insultingly simple-minded propositions. He has very little to say about Habermas’s theory of the legitimation crises of modern societies which tried to show how the dsyfunctionalities of the private appropriation of capital could or could not be compensated for by the democratic welfare state; not a word is spent on Habermas’s theory of modernity in terms of the distortions caused by the intrusion of systems of instrumental action from the economy and administration into the family, into neighborhoods, into parliaments and other associations. Geuss makes no attempt to link Habermas’s views of discussion and argument with his theory of the public sphere and its place in a democracy — admittedly, one of the crown jewels of Habermas’s political theory. Geuss, who invokes John Dewey contra Habermas in the final pages of his essay, also misses the influence of Dewey’s The Public and its Problems (1927) on Habermas’s work,

That Geuss is not interested in Habermas’s complex and subtle defense of democratic constitutionalism, as discussed in Between Facts and Norms (Faktizität und Geltung) is nowhere more evident than in his claim that discussions are “not necessarily enlightening, clarifying or conducive to fostering consensus.” That is undoubtedly sometimes the case, but if we desist from engaging in discussion altogether, if we cease to try to persuade each other with the best arguments possible as we believe them to be, if we do not seek to understand each others’ reasons and reasoning, then there can be no democracy, no parliamentarism. Period. The tired gesture of the misanthrope (“I get along with most people better the less I know about what they really think and feel”) or the nimble touch of the psychoanalytically enlightened critic (“In the dialogue my soul conducts with itself, I encounter a speaker who uses a language that is utterly alien and completely opaque to me”) lead Geuss to sigh over what he calls Habermas’s “soft nostalgic breeze of late liberalism.”

Geuss’s dyspeptic article appeared just a few days before Russian President Putin announced in The Financial Times that liberalism was dead and its credibility spent. Hiding the millions of dollars that the Russian government secretly and not-so-secretly spent to stir up the Brexit campaign (look at what the extra-ordinary website Open Democracy has done to unearth the “dark money” behind Brexit); or to finance Marine Le Pen in France or the populist fascist, Matteo Salvini in Italy, Putin attacked Angela Merkel for admitting under a million of refugees into Germany, where he said, with little evidence, that they were raping, stealing and attacking — and all, because liberalism had given them “human rights.” Putin and Steve Bannon share talking points apparently!

Let us listen carefully to what Putin is saying, because the battle lines are drawn: a new authoritarianism that is sweeping across the globe from Brazil to Turkey, from Hungary to India, is upon us. It intends to destroy democratic constitutionalism, the liberal culture of tolerance and diversity and yes — pace Geuss — government based on the idea of reaching agreement among citizens and residents of a polity who show one another equal respect. In this current climate, whether we criticize liberalism à la Rawls or à la Habermas, it is incumbent upon us to state more clearly where we draw the lines between an internal critique of liberal democratic constitutionalism and autocratic authoritarianisms — lest we end up with strange bedfellows!


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.

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