Professor Benhabib and Jürgen Habermas

The Hannah Arendt Center

When I have been invited, I have published things on the internet, but I don’t myself regularly read anything published there. However yesterday two friends pointed out Seyla Benhabib’s reply to my piece on Habermas, and I thought those who have been following the discussion might find the following clarifications helpful.

Professor Benhabib is the author of what seems to me to be the best philosophical study of the thought of Jürgen Habermas: Critique, Norm and Utopia, and she is an internationally recognised expert on his writing. She is entirely correct, in her recent response to an article I published in The Point, to note that I was not the first to introduce Habermas (or, for that matter ‘The Critical Theory’ — she tends to use these as if they were interchangeable expressions, although for me they are distinct) to English-speaking thought. This claim is made in the preface added to my essay by the editors of The Point; I was not shown this text or consulted about it in advance. I would not consider myself at all to be a scholar of the works of Habermas. In fact, in 1976 or 1977 when I was writing the manuscript which I eventually published as The Idea of a Critical Theory, it was the publisher’s idea to add the subtitle Habermas and the Frankfurt School. I had certainly conceived the work without any special reference to a particular figure, and actually had three aims. First, I was interested in rehabilitating the concept of ‘ideology’, which at that time was widely criticised. I thought that the criticisms were unwarranted but motivated by a confusion of different senses in which the term ‘ideology’ was used. Second, I was interested in the idea of people having and pursuing or failing to pursue their own ‘real interests’. Third, I was keen to try to suggest that there could be forms of ‘enlightened action’ that were not in any sense analogous to scientific theories, but were nonetheless important. I merely mentioned this third point at the very end of the book, without developing it. Despite the book’s external success, I thought that on my own terms it was a huge failure, if only because I discovered that several careful philosophers (including Dick Rorty) thought I was trying to do the reverse of what was my intention; namely that I was trying to discredit the use of the term ‘ideology’. In addition, others thought I was asserting dogmatically that there were real interests that existed independently of their construction by agents. Finally, no one seemed to pick up the point about enlightenment and science/knowledge at the very end, which seemed to me to be key.

So the book is not about Habermas, and the criticisms I levelled at him in the book were not even original. In about 1971, the colleague with whom I shared an office as an Assistent in the Philosophisches Seminar in Heidelberg, Konrad Cramer (later Professor at Göttingen), said something to me that stuck in my memory. One could, he said, go through the work of Habermas and simply strike out all occurrences of the word ‘transcendental’ (including in the expression ‘quasi-transcendental’), and if one did that, not only would the resulting text lose nothing, but palpable falsehood would often be transformed into truths. The only problem was that the result would be philosophically trivial. This observation, then, which was not original to me, is basically what I had to say specifically about Habermas in the book. I did him what I took to be the philosophical courtesy of treating his use of the word ‘transcendental’ as if it were serious and considered, and modelled on Kantian usage. To say that there were ‘transcendental conditions of communication’ did not mean merely (1) that there were important conditions, nor (2) that there were universal conditions — because these could be merely empirically universal, nor indeed (3) that there were necessary and universal conditions, but (4) that there were necessary, invariant, universal conditions that could be the grounds of further cognitions apriori. What was crucial then was that the purported necessary and universal conditions of communication told us apriori how we had to act, how we had to evaluate things, etc.

Perhaps I ought to have resisted the addition of the subtitle to the book, but at the time I was an emollient young fellow and I thought the publisher knew better. (I should also mention that in the original German version of the text published in The Point, I started the piece with Adorno and Minima moralia, relegating the material about Brexit to later, as merely an instance of the many ways in which discussion may go wrong. The editors suggested this transposition, and I acquiesced. I suppose they thought that more people in Chicago were interested in Brexit than in Habermas. Now, in retrospect, I think that that this transposition was a mistake, because it distorts the structure of my argument.]

I stopped reading what Habermas wrote in about 1980 when I discovered that he continued to be committed to pursuing a general line which seemed to me a dead end. I did, in fact, read a further one of his books, Diskurs der Moderne, when I was asked to review it, but I thought it was a tissue of misunderstandings, and so that was my last attempt to keep up with his writing.

So if I am not an expert, and think Habermas’ project is terminally flawed, why don’t I keep my mouth shut about it? I have tried to do this for the past thirty years or so, but in March of this year I happened to find myself in Vancouver, Canada with nothing much to do, and on the computer in my hotel lobby I found a message from my old friend Martin Bauer of Mittelweg 36 and soziopolis, inviting me to write something on the topic of Habermas and communication. Martin had a knack of suggesting topics I myself would never have picked and thought myself unqualified to treat (for instance, Cervantes’ Don Quixote). Martin was keen to avoid conventional pieties — who can blame him for that? What is the point of publishing mere panegyrics? It is also, I assume, commonly accepted that public philosophers should not be immune from public criticism, or even expressions of public dissent. Adoration is in any case, in my view, an inappropriate attitude in philosophy; it went out with the Pythagoreans, who had a religious cult of their founder, and we have no good reason to revive it. So finding myself at a loose end for four or five days in Vancouver, I wrote a short essay in German about what I remembered about Habermas (and also T.W. Adorno and John Dewey) on communication. I praised Dewey for his open-ended idea of communication as an empirical process with potentially changing rules, and also Adorno for his criticism of liberal claims about the universality of the communication of truth. In doing so, I contrasted their views with those of Habermas, who held that communication had invariant, universal rules which imposed rules of behaviour on all speakers. In the sense in which Habermas used the term, ‘communication’, I thought, did not exist. My main target, just to repeat, is transcendentalism (or, in Habermas’ formula, ‘quasi-transcendentalism’ which seems to me in fact to amount to the same thing). Professor Benhabib’s response to this is to restate the structural rules which Habermas thinks govern communication and the implications which these rules have. It would be unfair to expect her to outline in full and convincing detail Habermas’s complex theory and to defend it in the compass of a single paragraph, and of course I did not expect her to do that, but the reader will also understand that if reading Habermas’s work in extenso in the 1970s did not convince me, reading her bald summary did not either.

I note that the position I outlined was not that what we usually call ‘communication’ is never possible or never a good thing, only that Habermassian ‘transcendental theory of communicative action’ was an illusion. Now perhaps I am wrong about this, although I see no reason in Professor Benhabib’s text to think so. There is, however, something in her piece that bothers me, and that is the suggestion that if we wish not to endorse the views of Vladimir Putin, the only way to proceed is by accepting Habermas’s construction, or that the only way to avoid playing into Putin’s hands is to avoid any criticism of any position that can reasonably be construed as ‘liberal’ (as Habermas’ position, in my view, clearly is). Following Karl Kraus (and my old teacher Sidney Morgenbesser), I would say that if I have to choose between Putin and Habermas, I choose neither. Just as when Tony Blair told us that if we opposed the invasion of Iraq, we were supporting Saddam Hussein, there too, I permitted myself to choose neither of the proposed alternatives. If you tell me I ‘must’ choose, I would wish to know what the force of that ‘must’ is (apart from ‘I would very much like you to choose between exactly these two’).

The most interesting passage, for me, in Professor Benhabib’s note is the characterisation of my view that I often get along better with people the less I know about their deepest inner opinions, feelings and motivations. Professor Benhabib thinks that this is a form of misanthropy; I don’t know if Habermas would agree with her on that. In any case, this seems to me naive, but it is also potentially dangerous to make public order depend too strongly on a deep understanding of shared impulses and opinions. I merely point out that there is another — dare I say, a related? — strand of recent liberal thought (Rawls) which emphasises precisely the necessity for a good society to create institutions in which different people and groups can get along despite differences in their final conceptions of the good.

Professor Benhabib dismisses my remarks about Rimbaud and Quine, which were intended to suggest that Habermas’ ideas of about communication were unsophisticated, for reasons that are not completely clear to me. In fact, I think that the nineteenth century saw four ‘revolutions’ in our way of seeing and thinking about society and politics: first, the great upsurge of socialist, anarchist, communist thought (Marx), second, the new aesthetic sensibility associated especially with figures like Rimbaud (‘dérèglement de tous les sens’), third, Nietzsche’s transformation of epistemology in his ‘perspecticism’, and fourth, Freudian psychoanalysis. Moving from reading Adorno, who whatever else one might think of him, made some attempt to assimilate and deal with all of these, to reading Habermas, who makes a serious attempt at thinking about the first, a desultory stab at dealing with the fourth, completely misses the point of the third, and does not even seem aware of the second, always strikes me as regressing from the contemporary world to some point at the start of the nineteenth century.

To return to the issue of adoration, the phenomenon of philosophical affiliation and loyalty deserves more study than it has received (which is, as far as I can tell, none). Since antiquity, philosophers have formed ‘schools’ and conducted polemics. It is perfectly understandable that philosophers take especially seriously, and think twice about criticising, the views of their main teachers. It is also understandable that someone who specialises in mastering a set of highly convoluted, difficult systematic views will not wish to have that investment of time, patience, and energy devalued. Defending one’s favourite position or philosopher tenaciously is a perfectly laudable impulse and some philosophers seem especially to inspire this in their admirers (for instance, Wittgenstein), but this is different, I think, from cases in which the identification with a particular philosopher is so strong that criticism of him or her is taken as a personal affront. This seems to be the case with Professor Benhabib and Habermas. There is something mysterious about the way in which some philosophers become iconic for some people in this way; it is something that would definitely repay further study, but in any case the answer cannot be that these philosophers, and no others, are always right.

If I have misunderstood Habermas, I regret that, but I have yet to see any evidence that that is the case. Being 90 is no intellectual get-out-of-jail-free card for a public philosopher (or, in my view, for anyone else who is still compos mentis). I am 72 years old and not a public figure, but I expect to be criticised when I speak or write, not blandly and indiscriminately praised, not even on my birthday.


Raymond Geuss, Emeritus Professor in the Faculty of Philosophy, University of Cambridge.

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