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The Politics of Fulfilment and Transfiguration

The Politics of Fulfilment
and Transfiguration
J. M. Bernstein-

SeylaBenhabib’ s Critique, Norm, and Utopia* is, without doubt,
the most philosophically acute and learned history of the critical
theory of society yet to be written. Because the intentions of
Benhabib’s work are systematic rather than historical, her history
is equally a major contribution to critical theory which will, I am
sure, prove to be a powerful focus and catalyst for future research.

Benhabib subtitles her work’ A Study in the Foundations of
Critical Theory’. Her point of departure is the now familiar aporia
of Adorno and Horkheimer’s totalising critique:

If the plight of the Enlightenment and of cultural rationalization only reveals the culmination of the identity logic,
constitutive of reason, then the theory of the dialectic of
Enlightenment, which is carried out with the tools of this
very same reason, perpetuates the very structure of domination it condemns (p. 169).

For Adorno and Horkheimer this aporia belongs not to their theory
but to modernity. For Habermas however it marks the place where
the question of foundations must be resurrected and answered
anew in terms oflanguage and communication. Benhabib’s study
concedes the question, and at least the form of Habermas’s
response. What distinguishes her study is its subjection of
Habermas’s Kantian inspired communication theory to an Hegelian critique.

As she admits, her conclusion amounts to something of a
‘belated vindication’ of one of the central insights of early critical
theory. My contention shall be that Benhabib’s final vision
requires more than her admittedly large concessionary nod to early
critical theory. In order to sustain her remarkably bold and
compelling vision she will have to take on board the core of
Adorno’s philosophy of non-identity. Indeed, precisely through
her desire to avoid the impasses of Adorno’s philosophy, her
austere presentation of the shortcomings of Habermas’s theory
amounts to the fullest vindication of Adorno yet to appear 1.

* New York, Columbia University Press, 1986.

All tnlSpecified page
references in the text are to this. Other references: AT = T. W. Adomo,
Aesthetic Theory, trans. C. Lenhardt (London: Routledge and Kegan
Paul, 1983); ND = T. W. Adomo, Negative Dialectics, trans. E. B.

Ashton (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1973).

The Philosophy of the Subject
Throughout Critique, Norm, and Utopia Benhabib deploys and
develops a subtle and elaborate theoretical apparatus with which
she interrogates her chosen authors. Central to this theoretical
scheme is what Benhabib calls ‘the philosophy of the subject’.

Benhabib isolates four presuppositions as being constitutive of
this philosophy: (i) a unitary model of activity based upon Hegel’s
phenomenological conceptualisation oflabour; (ii) the model of a
transsubjective subject; (iii) history as the story oftranssubjectivity; and (iv) the ultimate or inner identity of constituted and
constituting subjectivity (p. 54). Each of the components of this
model possesses a comprehensible and often sound theoretical
motive. The rationale behind the development of (i), the dialectical model of transformative activity which is world and self
spiritualizing/humanizing, is too well-known to bear repeating.

Two thoughts underlie (ii). On the one hand, it was obvious to
Hegel that natural right theories tended to project into the state of
nature images of reason derived from their understanding of their
own concrete historical experience. It hence became necessary to
recognize that reason was not an ultimate term of analysis or a raw
given, but a historically conditioned product. On the other hand,
however, it was equally obvious that reason tended to forget or
repress its historical and social situatedness, and to regard itself as
naturally or metaphysically transcendent to the work of history.

Since reason was not, at bottom, ‘in the head’ anyway, but rather
was manifest in complex social practices, and could only be
perceived from the perspective of an outside observer-thinker, it
looked plausible to regard the ‘object’ observed as ‘the’ , transsubjective, subject. Once this thought is harnessed together with (i),
(iii) and (iv) follow quite unproblematically.

Now in almost none of the writings Benhabib considers does
the model of a collective, singular subject that exteriorizes itself
and subsequently reappropriates what it has been exteriorized
operate in isolation from a contrasting perspective. We get an idea
of what is involved in this contrasting perspective if we examine
Benhabib’s suggestion that throughout Capital two strands of
analysis, corresponding to two distinct social epistemologies, are
followed. The fIrst perspective is interpersonal, considering
individuals as always enmeshed in complex social relations with
other individuals. Corresponding to this participant perspective is
a crisis theory which presents crises as ‘lived phenomena of


alienation, exploitation, and injustice’ (p. 123). The second
perspective, implying the philosophy of the subject, views the
movement of capital from the perspective of a third, of a thinkerobserver. Corresponding to this perspective there is a crisis theory
which regards crises as the failure of the functional logic of the
system. Benhabib theorizes these two perspectives in terms of
Lockwood’s now familiar distinction between social integration
and system integration. System integration takes place through
the ‘functional interconnection between the consequences of
social actions’ (p. 127). Adam Smith’s concept of the ‘invisible
hand’ and Hegel’s account of the ‘system of needs’ can serve as
adequate models for what is at issue here. Social integration
requires the coordination of social actions, and this occurs through
the harmonizing of action orientations. Individuals can orient
their actions to one another because, Benhabib says, ‘they understand the meanings, social rules, and values in question’ (ibid.).

These perspectives, of course, are the social equivalents of the
traditional philosophical distinctions between fIrst and third person, agent and spectator, inside and outside perspectives, and are
as irremoveable, discordant and recalcitrant to easy reconciliation
as they are. To her credit, Benhabib never suggests that this duality
can be dissolved. On the contrary, her critique of the philosophy
of the subject is precisely that it brackets and then, forgetfully,
dissolves interpersonal experience in the objectifying gaze of the
thinker-observer. What is required here is not an act of dissolution,
but rather a workable account of how these perspectives can be

Nonetheless, it is no accident that the system perspective has
come to dominate since, in the fIrst instance, it was not the theorist
who objectified, reified interpersonal activity but capital itself.

The logic of capital works behind the backs of the agents of capital,
and its comprehension therefore necessarily invokes the perspective of the thinker-observer. Since the philosophy of the subject
logically dovetails into the thinker-observer perspective, and
simultaneously lends to it an active, critical edge through its
establishment of the primacy of work/labour, it was this model,
Benhabib argues, which eventually triumphed in the writings of
Hegel and Marx (Chapters 3-4). More, however, needs to be said
here since both perspectives are implicated in the grounding of the
fundamental critical gestures which critical theory has adopted.

Benhabib distinguishes between immanent and defetishizing
critique; and between categorial and normative critique. Immanent critique has its origin in Hegel’s critique of natural right
theories. Hegel proceeds by demonstrating how each apparently
a priori criterion of right is in fact a posteriori. However,
according to Benhabib, Hegel can only sustain this critique by
illicitly contrasting the ideal of the ancients to the fact of the
modems. Marx, taking up Hegel’s thesis concerning the illicit
substitution of a priori norms for a posteriori facts, sophisticates
Hegel’s procedure by operating an immanent critique which is
both categorial and normative. Categorial immanent critique


involves demonstrating how the accepted definitions and significations of the categories of political economy turn into their
opposites without the intervention of a separate categorial framework. For example, ‘if capital is defined as self-expanding value,
and if the reason for the increase in the value of capital is sought
in the sphere of the exchange of commodities, then either the
exchange of commodities violates the principle of equivalence or
the self-expansion of the value of capital becomes unintelligible’

(p. 106). However, immanent critique can also be normative,
when the categories of the political economist are normative. In
this case critique involves comparing the norms of bourgeois
society – e.g., ‘Freedom, Equality, Property, and Bentham’ – with
‘the actuality of the social relations in which they are embodied’

(p. 107). Normative immanent critique thus reveals the apparently
a priori norms of experience to be distorting, albeit factual,
appearance forms of the social relations they help to articulate.

Defetishizing critique has its origin in Hegel’ s reinterpretation
of self-reflection as involving the recuperation of the historical
and social conditions which have produced the self. Once this
position is articulated with the labour model of activity, defetishizing critique can be read as the critical motive for and consequence
of the philosophy of the subject. According to Benhabib, Marx’s
critique of Hegel in the 1844 Manuscripts is not a rejection of this
model, but a ‘materialistic’ continuation of Hegel’s discovery (p.

21), wherein Marx ‘simply replaced “Spirit” with “mankind” or
“humanity'” (p. 54). Again, the deployment of defetishizing
critique in Capital is more nuanced. It presupposes only that the
categories of political economy are theoretically refmed versions
of the social discourse it is theorizing. Political economy handles
these socially given categories as if they were natural, and as a
consequence ‘fails to uncover the social constitution of its own
object domain’ (p. 108).

Now if, on the one hand, we consider the occluded value-producing agents of capital to be ‘the proletariat’; and, on the other
hand, consider defetishizing critique as analyzing theoretical
versions of everyday forms of social consciousness with reference
to a future actuality, where that actuality is cashed out in terms of
systematic crises (the falling rate of profit, unemployment, et al),
then it again becomes quite natural to put into operation the
discourse of the philosophy of the subject. Only here, the language
of class, class interest, and the like replaces ‘humanity’ and
‘mankind’ ,and the interests of one particular class, the proletariat,
are regarded as being universal precisely through their occluded
but constitutive place within the capitalist system of production.

While Benhabib does not wish to deny the appropriateness of
the thinker-observer perspective, she regards its articulation in
terms of the philosophy of the subject as amounting to the virtual
dissolution of the interpersonal perspective. Briefly, she argues
that the category of ‘objectification’, as employed within the
labour model of activity, is inadequate to characterize communicative activities because it operates with a fundamentally monological conception of activity, moving from ideas in the head to
actions in the world, and hence abstracts from the linguistic
mediation of desires, intentions and purposes. In so doing,
however, it illegitimately suppresses the interpretive indeterminacy of human action, that is, the sense in which there can be no
completely objective and determinate description of the meaning
of any action because ‘the “whatness” of an action and the
“whoness” of the actor is a social and communicative process,
intrinsically liable to disputes of misinterpretation, misconstrual,
and misidentification’ (p. 136). It is only as a consequence of the
suppression of the interpretive indeterminacy of human action,
however, that the model of a transsubjective subject comes into
being. But such a subject involves a denial of the inescapable fact
of human plurality (p. 140). Finally, the model of self-actualiza-

tion operative in the philosophy of the subject assumes ‘an
epistemologically transparent self, who seems to possess unequivocal knowledge for determining what would “actualize”
him/her’ (p. 137). As such, it suppresses the very situatedness, the
context-boundness which characterizes interpersonal existence.

As mentioned above, throughout her account of the domination of the illicit model of the philosophy of the subject in Hegel
and Marx, Benhabib etches a counter-story of the interpersonal
perspective. She sees this counter-story at work in the dialogic
dimensions of Hegel’s Phenomenology, in Marx’s analysis of
sensuous fmitude in the 1844 Manuscripts, and in the historical
chapters of Capital. What is important here is not simply the
existence· of another perspective, but the fact that it entails a
different account of human emancipation. Roughly, in accordance
with the model of the philosophy of the subject, emancipation
amounts to the fulfIllment of the possibilities and potentialities of
the present. However, in accordance with the model of interpersonal, communicative relations, emancipation involves the qualitative transformation of our needs, pleasures, and self-understanding; in short, it conceives of emancipation as transfiguration.

With these elements before us we can now, quickly, anticipate
the predicament of contemporary critical theory. Given its historical situation, early critical theory was led to deny that there were
any potentials in the bourgeois world worth fulfilling. On the
contrary, it looked to Horkheimer and Adorno as if enlightened
reason and the philosophy of the subject had already and disastrously been fulfilled in Nazi Germany. However, since they
accepted the Hegelian critique of the a priori, then there were no
norms, immanent or transcendent, on which they could base their
critique. Emancipation as fulfillment was hence not a live option
for them. Habermas attempts to reground critique by displacing
the philosophy of the subject with a theory of communicative
action, which will simultaneously salvage the emancipatory potential of the enlightenment conception of bourgeois rights and
self-refection. Surprisingly, then, communicative interaction
becomes the ground for a defetishizing, normative critique which
operates with a logic of emancipation as fulfIllment. In a sense,
Habermas’s theory draws what had been the transfigurative
moment of Marxism back into the enlightenment developmental
scheme. This programme, however, can only be carried out
through a surreptitious continuation otherwise of the discourse of
the philosophy of the subject, and through the restriction of
emancipation to fulfIllment.



nicative rationality are the results of a non-reversible or developmental process of socialleaming or evolution whose compelling
logic is under-written by the quasi-empirical reconstructive sciences of cognitive psychology, genetic epistemology and generative linguistics. Against Habermas’s claim for the quasi-transcendental status of communicative rationality it has been argued that
he presupposes that there is just one correct explication of linguistic competence, etc., ignoring the fact that for each of the phenomena he considers there are competing explanatory frameworks (p.

266). This entails dropping the uniqueness claim associated with
transcendental arguments generally; and from this it follows that
the line separating reconstuctive narrative from hermeneutical
narrative may not exist
(2) Communicative rationality, with its insistence on the validation of claims through argumentative procedures, correctly captures the growing ‘reflexivity’ characteristic of the cultural tradition of modernity. How could such reflexivity not be binding for
us? Notoriously, however, as the whole of Habermas’s evolutionary schema suggests, this claim simply begs the question when
faced with the claims of other cultures, cultures which do not share
our penchant for reflexivity and argumentation. Habermas, in
fact, is not averse to offering to the critical theorist a privileged
epistemic situation from which he can judge the comparative
‘health’ or ‘sickness’ of different societies:

If we do not wish to renounce altogether standards of
judging a form of life to be more or less misguided,
distorted, unfortunate, or alienated, if it is really necessary
the model of sickness and health presents itself 2.



From nearly the beginning of his career Habermas has been axious
to argue that the growth of Western rationality does not entail a loss
of freedom. On the contrary, if we can categorially distinguish
technical from communicative rationality, then we can demonstrate that there is an emancipatory potential in communicative
rationality which the technization of society brought about
through capital expansion and the altered role of the state in the
post-war period has suppressed. For Habermas ‘the constituents
of cultural modernity – decentration, reflexivity, and the differentiation of value spheres – are binding criteria of rationality’ (p.

254). The emancipation of society would involve the fulfIllment
of these criteria.

Benhabib considers Habermas’ claim for the bindingness of
communicative rationality as resting on three claims, each of
which she rejects.

(1) Habermas claims for communicative rationality a quasitranscendental status based on a rational reconstruction of the
anonymous rule systems or deep structures underlying cognition
and action. More precisely, he claims that the criteria of commu-

(3) Finally, Habermas claims for communicative reason an existential irrevocability. For him, the development of scientism,
universalistic morality and post-auratic art represent “‘irreversible developments, which have followed an intemallogic”, and
which could be reversed only at the cost of regressions’ (p. 276).

This contention is deeply reminiscent of speculative philosophies
of history, where the ‘normal’ future is already latent in the
present. Not only does such a thesis provide history with a closed
logic, but it regards the fulfillment of the legacy of modernity in
theoretical rather than practical· terms. As Benhabib states: ‘The
question here is: does such a demand for fulfIlment of modem
reason project the image of a future we would like to make our
own?’ (p. 277). And here one wants to say: Habermas has denied


that we can have such a question (without being irrational or mad).

This is not to deny that the standpoint of modernity and the norms
of communicative rationality are in some sense binding for us.

Benhabib’s contention is only that this binding is cultural and
contingent, not trans-historical and logical, and hence the binding
itself can always be brought into question.

Benhabib’s account of Habermas’s programme for a communicative ethics, which draws from the ideas of communicative rationality the presupposiition of an ideal speech situation embedded in all discursive argumentation, is, disconcertingly, simultaneously compulsively sympathetic and austerely critical.

Habermas’s thesis is now familiar: discourses are forms of speech
which rationally examine controversial claims concerning truth
and normative rightness that have arisen in the course of ordinary
communication. The ‘ideal speech situation’ specifies the ‘formal
properties that discursive argumentations would have to possess if
the consensus thus attained were to be distinguished from a mere
compromise or an agreement of convenience’ (p. 284). These
divide into a two-part symmetry condition and a two-part reciprocity condition. The symmetry condition states that each
participant must have an equal chance to initiate and continue
dialogue; and an equal chance to make assertions, recommendations, etc. The reciprocity condition states that all participants
must have an equal chance to express their wishes, feelings, etc;
and they must act as if, in action contexts, systematic domination
was not a feature of their relations with others. It must be noted
here how strong the reciprocity condition is. It not only requires
honesty and sincerity (a dubious social virtue 3), along with, I
think, by implication the non-existence of self-deception, but
further makes essential reference to action contexts where inequality and subordination of a systematic kind can play no part.

Initially Benhabib considers the now standard objections to
Habermas’s programme. As we have already seen, the attempt to
provide a strong justification, which would ground a communicative ethic on the fundamental norms of rational speech through the
establishment of a quasi-transcendental connection between the
structures of rational speech and a communicative ethic must fail.

Other arguments against Habermas suggest that his theory is
circular; that it presupposes a richer semantic content than the
symmetry and reciprocity conditions in general entail; and that
once we reach the stage of universalist moral orientation, the
formal criteria demarcating that orientation (impartiality, universalizability, etc.) are no longer sufficient to arbitrate between
competing moral theories. Habermas now contends, following
Apel, that the relation between argumentative speech and communicative ethics is neither deductive nor inductive, but rather
invokes the idea of a performative contmdiction. That is, the
sceptic who doubts that validity claims can be settled through
rational argumentation immediately gets involved in a peformative contradiction. This shows that the ideal is ‘unavoidable’ and
‘uncircumventable’ .

It is at this juncture that Benhabib reformulates the Hegelian
objections to Kantian moral theory so as to be applicable to
Habermas’s revised communicative ethic. Hegel raised three
essential objections: (i) the objection to Kantian formalism; (ii) the
institutional objection that Kantian theory illicitly abstracts from
the functional interdependency of practices; (iii) the objection to
Kantian moral psychology that it falsely contrasts reason and
emotion, disallowing the formative capacities of reason.

Benhabib’s reformulation of these objections follows Hegel’s
pattern of argumentation.

(i) Habermas’s discursive, procedural reinterpretation of
Kant’s categorical imperative states that a maxim is morally valid
only if it can be agreed to be a universal norm following the
procedures of rational argumentation. This thesis is weaker than


Kant’s since it does not seem to be able to prohibit a group from
consenting to a principle which entails the violation of that
principle. Habermas attempts to circumvent this objection by
claiming that the principle of universalizability belongs among the
pragmatic presuppositions of argumentation, and thus cannot be
materially violated without (a pragmatic) contradiction. However, as Benhabib demonstrates in a careful analysis, this reveals
the principle of universalizability to be, as Hegel would have it,
either redundant or inconsistent Benhabib states:

Either this principle explicates the meaning of rational
consent in such a way that nothing new is added to the
available explication of the argumentation procedure in
practical discourse; or this principle defmes the meaning of
rational consent in some additional way, but this definition
is neither the only one compatible with accepted rules of argumentation, nor can it be said to follow from the rules of
argumentation without the introduction of additional assumptions not belonging to the specified rules of argument

(ii) The question of the institutional bases of communicative
ethics asks this question: Does Kantian moral theory have a
privileged object domain, namely, the domain of legal and juridical relations between individuals, but remain blind to other forms
of relationships: familial (which is, of course, also juridical),
erotic, fraternal and the like? This would be so if, where there are
conflicting interests, participants could legitimately come to an
agreement while simultaneously refusing either (a) to forgo any of
their own interests or (b) to consider changing the form of life
which generated those interests in the fIrst place. And this would
be so if general interests were defmed, Rawlsianly and minimally,
as ‘not taking an interest in each others interest’ (p. 311). Accepting this has the undesirable consequence of letting our form of life
in which the pursuit of happiness is defmed in terms of the private
consumption of material goods remain unquestioned, and reducing the rules of justice to rules for regulating commercial warfare.

In short, if these conditions obtain, then the universalist ethical
position is exhausted by a legal/juridical construction.

On this matter, Benhabib contends that, while Habermas does
have a participatory democratic aspect to his thought which would
entail the promotion of (a) and (b) (that is, an aspect which regards
the process of argumentation as capable of transforming given
interests and questions the forms of life in which given interests are
generated), he fails to adequately appreciate the problem. He
consequently vacillates between a legal/juridical conception of
universalizability, indistinguishable from assorted other such
versions, and a radical democratic conception which would see
universalizability as procedurally generating radical social transformations.

(iii) Since communicative ethics does not Kantianly distinguish between duty and inclination, Benhabib reformulates the
Hegelian objection to Kantian moral psychology through this

Does the cognitivist bias of communicative ethics also lead
to the rationalistic fallacy, namely, to a view of reason as
a self-generating faculty, determining both the conditions
of its own genesis and application? (p. 317)
Benhabib contends that this question must be answered in the
affirmative for three reasons. First, what may be called the
Gadamer objection states that the ideal of a rational consensus can
only be relevant when it is an ideal consciously striven for in a
particular culture. But this culturally concrete ideal assumes,
amongst those using it, a reconciled intersubjectivity; after all,
rational consensus inscribes part of the integrity of their form of




life. However, for those who feel that the reconciled intersubjectivity of the culture has been produced at their expense, it might be
morally legitimate to refuse to participate in the rational consensus
game until it appears to be materially applicable to them.

Secondly, Habermas insists on distinguishing moral justification from questions of contextualization or application. But this
elides the question of moral judgment If we consider moral
judgment a question of (social) character, then this elision entails
a question mark as to what it might mean concretely to embody the
virtues of communicative rationality. In short, the question of

application cannot be regarded as wholly independent from the
question of justification, for until we know what will count as a
proper application of the principle we know far too little. The point
here is not that we require a formalism to specify its conditions of
application. It is rather that the meaning of the formalism itself is
only revealed fully through its concrete embodiment
These two objections together yield the third objection,
namely that Habermas provides insufficient motivation forpursuing rational argument Benhabib states, following Hegel, that
reason can become a fact only if it shapes and transforms desire:

The desirability of reason entails the rationality of desire.

Reason that refuses to heed inner nature and the
individual’s demand for happiness and fulfilment can lose
its motivating power (p. 324).

But is not this to say that reason can motivate us to justice only if
happiness too is promised? Not for nothing did Hegel regard
Kant’s ‘Postulates of Pure Practical Reason’ as the exposed and
vulnerable core of the Kantian programme.

Desires: Public or Private



Benhabib summarizes her critique of Habermas’s communicative
ethic by reiterating the objection encapsulated in the passage from
her quoted above: either Habermas’s theory is too empty and/or
formal to be morally informative, or it requires additional assumptions that can not be justified in the theory’s own terms. Benhabib
relentlessly tracks down the source of this difficulty in Habermas’s
continuation of the discourse of the philosophy of the subject This
occurs at those points in his theory when the reconstruction of our
species competences becomes a ‘formative history of the subject
of history’ (p. 331). Habermas’s procedure assumes that the
standpoint of the reconstruction is the standpoint of mankind as
such. Not only does this procedure construct the ‘we’ of the
present theoretically, but in so doing neutralizes real history into
a ‘semantic gloss on a structural process which proceeds with
necessity and invariably from one sequence to the next’ (p.331).

Further, as already noted, even if we grant that evolutionary
argument takes us to the standpoint of a post-conventional, universalistic morality, such a theory is useless in arbitrating between
competing universalistic theories and positions. Since the future
is not theoretically determined, the application and contextualization of the theory for the sake of the future cannot be worked in
theoretical terms. Or better, the application of theory cannot be
made from the position of the third, the thinker-observer.

Now there is an aspect or moment of Habennas ‘s theory which
pushes in this direction, namely, his addition to Kohlberg’s schema
of moral development4 of a stage of universalizable need interpretations. The significance of such a thesis is not far to seek, for it
contravenes the privacy of human desire presupposed by most
deontological ethical theories. As Benhabib baldly states the

To want to draw this aspect of a person’s life (i.e., their
needs, desires, and feelings about things – JMB) into

public-moral discourse would interfere with their autonomy, i.e., with their right to define the good life as they
please as long as this does not impinge on others’ rights to
do the same (p. 332).

Habermas backs the requirement for this stage with the relatively
uncontentious thought that needs, desires and the like are always
already socially mediated, and in that sense not private; and that
the grammatical logic of the term ‘I’ reveals that the use of the tenn
by a unique subject involves a recognition of other such subjects
to hold this position. One becomes an ‘I’ only in a community with
other subjects who are also ‘I’s.

It is at this juncture that Benhabib transforms the Habermasian
discourse into her own. Benhabib claims that needs and their
interpretations can only be discursively thematized if the cultural
traditions and practices, the semantic content of which defmes the
good life and happiness, are thematized. But this will reveal, and
subject to interpretation and critique, that our idea of justice itself
rests upon a certain understanding of needs. When such an
interpretive search is pressed, it reveals the non-detachability of
conceptions of justice and the good life. And while this says
something we already knew, namely, that the idea of a public
discourse of rights and entitlements as capturing the highest stage
of moral development secretes the idea of a good life as something
to be sought in private (and, I suspect, a good deal more, e.g., a
valorization of intimacy, individuality, personal growth, etc.), it
goes further. For the insistence that universalizable need interpretations move into the centre of moral discourse is not simply a
further evolution of the perspective of rights and entitlements, it
entails a ‘utopian break’ with it; it involves a fundamental’ transfiguration’ of the perspective of universalistic moral theory.

This is the ‘belated vindication’ of early critical theory I mentioned at the outlet What I want to argue is that Benhabib’s brief
fleshing out of the politics of transfiguration in fact requires more
of the resOurces of early critical theory than she recognizes, and
hence a more sympathetic reading of it than she, under the
influence of Habermas, offers. I shall discuss these problems
under three rubrics: the question of the separation of the spheres
of value; the question of non-identity; and the question of the

Art, or the Politics of Desire
Habermas labels the forms of discourse in which our need
interpretations are thematized, and whose semantic content defines happiness and the good life, ‘aesthetic-expressive’. This, of
course, coheres with the idea that the good life is a (semi-)private
affair, that is non-universalizable and culturally specific, and
hence outside the bounds of either truth or morality. Benhabib
contends that this distinction between the normative and the
aesthetic-expressive does not do justice to the significance of
needs and their interpretations in the moral realm. One can only
read Habermas’s preservation of this distinction as an attempt to
protect the purity of the moral realm; and this appears to prohibit
Habermas from making good his critique of theories of justice
which do not extend to a critique of consumerism, and possessiveindividualist modes of life. Benhabib goes on to note that there is
a continuing vascillation in Habermas between a model of community as one of rights and entitlements, and a model of community as fonned through needs and solidarity.

Benhabib states that Habermas has failed to adequately thematize the idea of a community of needs and solidarity because,
following Mead, ‘he assumes the standpoint of the “generalized
other”, of rights and entitlements to represent the moral view par
excellence’ (p. 339). Now while Benhabib’s point has real force,


as I shall say more about in the next section, it moves too quicldy
past the issue of Habermas’s acceptance of the separation of
spheres of value, the separation between the discourses of truth,
right, and beauty, represents an unassailable and irreversible
accomplishment of modernity. What is ironic here is that, although Benhabib has been brought to the pitch of doubting this
thesis because of the now evident lacuna in the post-conventional,
universalistic standpoint which traces the idea of a community of
rights and entitlement, she fails to draw the obvious conclusion
that the historical institution and material inscription of this
standpoint requires the prohibition on universalistic need interpretations; and hence the autonomy and independence of aestheticexpressive discourse, i.e., art, for its maintenance. This exclusion
of need interpretations, and the consequent marginalization/autonomisation of art echoes the substantial exclusion/marginalizationl domination of persons (alias the proletariat) which conditions the reconciled intersubjectivity of the bourgeois, liberal
state. It is because these exclusions are, however obliquely, in the
mode of a mutual conditioning, ‘the same’, that autonomous art
became for Adorno a politically privileged object for social

truth and purified, formal and procedural morality. Benhabib
conflates the critical, non-discursive illusion of truth in autonomous art with the idea of non-identitary reason itself.

This explains why she thinks that Adorno reduces praxis to
poietics. Again, autonomous artistic practice is not itself praxis,
anymore than it is a realization of non-identitary reason. Rather,
such practice presents the image of true praxis, but as an image it
is still confined to the illusory world of art. Such a world is illusory
because its practice is neither truly transformative nor truly, fully,
cognitively meaningful. Adorno does not think that true praxis
would be poietical practice set free into experience, whatever such
might mean. Rather, true praxis would be transformative activity
and cognition practised without the exclusion of aesthetic-expressive considerations. To daim, as Benhabib does, that for Adorno
‘non-sacrificial non-identity is not a social ideal, but an aesthetic
one’ (p. 211) seems to me to exactly miss the whole point of the
function of aesthetic theory within Adorno’s critical programme.

The ‘hinge of negative dialectics’ (namely, ‘to change [the]
direction of conceptuality, to give it a turn toward nonidentity’

(ND, p. 12» is embodied in the social practice of autonomous art
where form, the artistic equivalent of conceptuality, ‘mobilizes
technology in a different direction than domination does’ (AT, p.

80). If the truth claim of autonomous art is valid – and remember
Adorno believes that ‘Art works are true in the medium of
determinate negation only’ (AT, p. 187) – then objective reason is
possible. Of course, such an objective reason would not have the
articulation of truth, beauty and goodness grounded in either
nature or some transcendent source. The ground of a new
objective reason would have to be the solidarity of its communal
carriers. What would further make such reason objective is that it
would not ‘rigidly’ juxtapose ‘rationality and particularity’ (AT, p.

144); and it would equally be ends and not means rational:

In the eyes of existing rationality, aesthetic behaviour is
irrational because it castigates the particl!larity of this
rationality in its pursuit not of ends but of means. Art keeps
alive the memory of ends-oriented reason. It keeps alive
the memory of a kind of objectivity which lies beyond conceptual frameworks. That is why art is rational, cognitive.

Aesthetic behaviour is the ability to see more in things than
they are (AT, p. 453).

Because she has failed to see that the point of Adorno’s focus
on autonomous art is to critique the extrusion of need interpretations from morality and social understanding, she is led to make
three false claims concerning Adorno’s theory: fIrSt, that the
theory of non-identitary reason, a reason which would not (violently) subsume particulars under universals, conceives of such a
reason as essentially non-discursive (p. 170); secondly, that in
Adorno ‘poiesis, becomes not praxis but poietics’ (p. 220); and
thirdly, that the destruction of objective reason is irrevocable (p.


Adorno does not claim that either language or conceptuality
are intrinsically identitary, and that therefore a relation to the other
which does not linguistically or discursively dominate must be
non-discursive. On the contrary, he contends that non-identity is
‘opaque only for identity’S claim to be total’ (ND, p. 153); and in
The Dialectic of Enlightenment he attempts to reveal how this
claim became materially and historically dominant. It is only for
us, now, that non-identitary truth remains non-discursive. Any
attempt to discursively cash out the truth claim of an (autonomous)
work of art will be subject to the now suppressive logic of identity
thinking. Autonomous art’s resistance to the claims of discursive
reason as it now exists, and its nonetheless continuing, albeit conditioned and contingent, claim on us, is its critique of autonomous


The Concrete Other and Non-Identity
As noted above, Benhabib regards Habermas’s failure to thematize the idea of a community of needs and solidarity as following
from his adoption of Mead’s conception of the standpoint of the
‘generalized other’, the standpoint of rights and entitlements, as
representing the fulfillment of the moral point of view. Adopting
the standpoint of the generalized other involves abstracting from
the concrete individuality and identity of the other, which allows
us thereby to treat this other, and hence all others, as equal rational
beings who are entitled to the same rights and duties as we would
wish to ascribe to ourselves. On this account, the moral dignity of
an individual derives not from what differentiates them from all
others, but from what, as a speaking and acting agent, they have in
common with all others. Within such a scheme our relations to
others are governed, for the most part, by public and institutional
rules obeying the norms of formal reciprocity.

In opposition or contrast with this Benhabib proposes the
standpoint of the ‘concrete other’. This standpoint requires us
to view each and every rational being as an individual with
a concrete history, identity, and affective-emotional constitution. Our relation to each other is governed by the norm
of complementary reciprocity; each is entitled to expect



and to assume from the other forms of behavior through
which the other feels recognized and confmned as a concrete, individual being with specific needs, talents, and
capacities. The norms of our interaction are … the norms
of solidarity, friendship, love, and care (p. 341).

This standpoint, Benhabib states, has been silenced, even suppressed by the liberal political tradition.

Clearly Benhabib believes that the standpoint of the concrete
other corresponds to the general requirement for the universalizability of need interpretations; or better, that we cannot think
such a universalizability unless we are willing to publicly, as it
were, include the standpoint of the concrete other. Further,
however, we have already seen that Benhabib regards the standpoint of universalizable need interpretations as what separates
critical theory from other universalistic moralities, i.e., from
liberal moral and political theories. From this it would follow that
whatever grounds this standpoint grounds critical theory. However, Benhabib introduces this standpoint via Habermas’s adding
of it to the Kohlbergian scheme after having demonstrated that this
scheme, as it figures in Habermas’s theory, is not, and cannot be,
rationally compUlsive. At best, again, the denial of the universalist
stage of the scheme involves a pragmatic contradiction. But this
should not be regarded as overly significant since a pragmatic
contradiction will ensue from the denial of any ‘foundational’

belief within a cultural tradition; e.g., if all meaning comes from
God, then the denial of God’s existence pragmatically contradicts

Within our tradition, however, no pragmatic contradiction is
involved in our denying the universalizability of need interpretations. This apparently leaves critical theory without a rational,
normative foundation; and hence puts Benhabib in a position not
significantly different from the position in which Adorno and
Horkheimer found themselves. But this should not be surprising
since, if the formal universalistic reason of our tradition excludes
universalizable need interpretations, and the motivation for securing reason relies on the promise of happiness, then we cannot
regard the ideal of the formation of communities of need and
solidarity as a rational supplement to the model of a community of
rights and entitlements. That is, if the standpoint of the generalized
other stands to the standpoint of the concrete other as third person,
observer accounts of our moral-political situation stand to a
participatory perspective, and the former perspective has been
established and consolidated through its exclusion of the latter,
then ‘our’ position is like those members of a tradition who feel
that its reconciled intersubjectivity has been established at their
expense. This is not to deny the standpoint of universalistic
morality, or the ideal of a community of rights and entitlements. It
is only to claim that ‘We’ can only pursue this ideal on the basis of
an alternative perspective.

But one must not assume that this alternative perspective can
be simply adopted, that there is a waiting standpoint available such
that if we adopted it, then a politics of transfiguration could be
pursued without further ado. At one point, Benhabib quotes the
following statement fromNegative Dialectics: ‘The concept of the
person and its variations, like the I-Thou relationship, have assumed the oily tone of a theology in which one has lost faith’ (ND,
p. 277). Now Benhabib goes on to claim that in order to reject this
claim we must demonstrate that intersubjectivity points to a
genuine lacuna in negative dialectical thought But we can now
see that whatever that presumed lacuna is, it is not one that can be
filled by the Habermasian account of communication; and further,
that the standpoint of the concrete other, at least as Benhabib
presents it, surely does have the sound of ‘the oily tone of a
theology in which one has lost faith’ .

Adorno was not unaware that communication could not be
theorized in terms of the labour model of activity; but for this very
reason he regarded the ‘idea’ of communication as harbouring an
inexpungible transcendence (a utopian moment) which marked
the limit of theoretical reflection:

If speculation on the state of reconciliation were permitted,
neither the undistinguished unity of subject and object, nor
their antithetical hostility would be conceivable in it;
rather, the communication of what was distinguished. Not
until then would the concept of communication, as an
objective concept, come into its own. The present one is so
infamous because the best there is, the potential of an
agreement between people and things, is betrayed to an
interchange between subjects according to the requirements of subjective reason s.

Communication signifies reconciliation, about which theory can
only respond in the language of Sollen (ought); hence Adorno’s
withdrawal of the image of communication in its positing. This is
not to deny the virtues of love or sharing, but to assert that these
are not ‘universal’ virtues that have remained untouched by the
formations and deformations of capital expansion, et al; and
hence, that the ‘hard’ (difficult/critical/aporetic) political love
required by the standpoint of the concrete other as transfigured is
quite unlike the privatised/domesticated! fetishized love of our
As for universalistic need interpretations, as we have seen, it
has been systematically relegated to the autonomous domain of
art. This is no escapist ploy on Adorno’s part, no retreat. His point
is that what is wanted from communication or the perspective of
the concrete other cannot be found directly. What has been
repressed returns, but elsewhere, in all but unrecognizable forms.

Adorno never meant to say that non-identitary reason was restricted to art in modernity. Buthe did want to assert that only there
was it preserved, for the time being, in an intrinsical· way; and
further, therefore, that only there could we begin to appreciate
what taking the standpoint of the concrete other required.

The whole point, then, about the standpoint of the concrete
other, about, that is, non-identitary reason, is that within our
tradition it is ‘beyond’ reason, beyond the claim of reason and
beyond what reason requires. Only critique can reveal that this is
not a criticism of the standpoint of the concrete other, but a
categorial fault in the constitution of reason itself in modernity.

Risk: Praxis Without Foundations
Earlier I noted Benhabib’ s criticism of Habermas for committing
what she termed the ‘rationalistic fallacy’, the view of reason as a
self-generating faculty. Now I want to suggest that Benhabib
commits just this fallacy twice over. First, she nowhere overtly
concedes what she needs to concede if the standpoint of the
concrete other is to be achieved, namely, that the grounds for
autonomous action are themselves heterononomous. This, I take
it, is the point of Hegel’s Phenomenology. The whole course of
that work is a search for recognition and self-possession (autonomy), which continues to fail through either taking the wrong sort
of object, or through committing some form of the rationalistic
fallacy. While recognizing its adequacy, Hegel uses and delimits
the theological term ‘forgiveness’ in establishing the moment of
reconciliation between self and other, the recognition of self in
othemess, precisely in order to reveal that such a recognition does
not conform to the dictates of categorial reason (God’s forgiveness
of evil is excessive); and further, that categorial reason can gather
itself only if it first dispossesses itself of what we call its autonomy.

‘Our aim,’ Adorno says, ‘is total self-relinquishment’ (ND, p. 13).


This is a somewhat oblique way of pointing to the fact that in
adopting the standpoint of the concrete other we must, perforce,
acknowledge our dependence on the other. But this ethicoontological dependence is not something that can be established
from ‘within’, by what we call autonomous reason, by adopting
the standpoint of the spectator, observer, or theorist It is no
accident, I think, that Benhabib so misreads Hegel andAdorno, for
she reads them as theorists, while their programmes of ‘phenomenology’ and ‘critique’ are avoidances of theory, theory’s own
self-overcoming in the name of what lies beyond theory.

Secondly, although Benhabib notes, and indeed urges the
thought, that the neglect of a radical, participatory, and pluralist
conception of politics has been a central blind spot in the development and history of critical theory, she conceives of this neglect as
a ‘theoretical’ fault But surely this ‘fault’ is itself an exemplar of
the rationalistic fallacy. Since Plato, Western metaphysics has
attempted to ground politics, a just political order, on a secure
theoretical, normative foundation. A good political order was to
be the instantiation, the application of the ‘Rational Idea’ of such
an order as it was theoretically established; in short, the tradition
subordinated politics to theory. Does not the theoretical inadequacy of the standpoint of the concrete other follow from the
attempt to ground it theoretically, while its critical function is a
protest against the claims of theory as founding? And isn’t this
what Adorno’s critical theory was pointing to in its refusal of
theory? And isn’t this what makes critique as practised by Adorno
a form of political discourse in circumstances where the so-called
political realm had disposed of the truly political?

At one point Benhabib criticizes Habermas’s theoretical construction of the ‘we’ of the present post-conventional, universalistic moral standpoint in these terms:

[Habermas’s] shift to the language of an anonymous species-subject preempts the experience of moral and political
activity as a consequence of which alone a genuine ‘we’

can emerge. A collectivity is not constituted theoretically
but is formed out of the moral and political struggles of
fighting actors (p. 331).

But if collectivities are themselves the source of the discourses
through which their experience can be rendered theoretically
intelligible, then one can only found critical theory by struggling
for the community of needs and solidarity it critically images.

Such a project, however, is both paradoxical and risky; paradoxical because the ground of such a ‘self-transfonning’, ‘self-grounding’ project is beyond the self in the non-identical other; and risky,
therefore, because pursuing such a project requires surrendering
the self which has made the undertaking of the project ‘necessary’ .

Risk is the appropriation of the anxiety consequent upon the acknowledgement that what appears as the grounds of subjectivity
is the source of its domination, its suffering. Such grounds, such
foundations cannot be had. With good reason, Hegel made ‘risk’

the master trope of the entire phenomenological programme.

Finally, however, this risky and paradoxical project cannot be
pursued blindly. Theory must be ‘risked’, both attempted and
subordinated to the political. Or better: dialectic is the acknowledgement of philosophy’s non-identity with itself. Philosophy,
theory, can remain self-same and universalistic only through the
repression of its non-identical other. Dialectical phenomenology
or negative dialectics is the presentation of the misrepresentations
of substance and subject, of subject as substance. In Adorno’s
words, dialectics is ‘the ontology of the wrong state of things’ (ND,
p. 11). It is ‘the self-consciousness of the objective context of
delusion [which] does not mean to have escaped from that context’

(ND, p. 406).


Political Love, Woman and Dialectics
Benhabib closes her book with a beautiful vision of communities
of need and solidarity united together into ‘polities’ governed by
the ideal of a community of rights and entitlements (p. 351). There
are two quite natural ways of reading this vision: fIrstly, as an
imaginative account of what we desire; and secondly as an account
of how things’ ought’ to be. Neither of these readings is plausible.

The first contravenes the critique of privatized desire, while the
second would be a morally legislated blueprint of a goal to fulfill.

How else are we to read this vision than as an identity, a reconciliation, of identity (rights) and non-identity (solidarity)?

For Benhabib the ideal of a community of rights and entitlements is both what is and what ought to be. As what is, it is
deformed by its exclusion of particularity, need, happiness, solidarity. Its concept images the equality and liberty of all, which in
practice, because of what it excludes, becomes domination.

Communities of need and solidarity equally both are and are not;
they are but only as deformed by their grounding in the contingent
overlap of privatized desires. Each form of sociation, dialectically
comprehended, comprehended in its historical determination and
in its concept, presses towards the other, its other as that which it
historically requires and refuses.

Something more needs saying here, for, thus far, the idea of the
perspective of the concrete other as it operates in Benhabib’s work
sounds as if it were a pure theoretical construct. But such is not the
case. In footnoting her claim that the standpoint of the concrete
other ‘has been silenced … even suppressed’ by the tradition of
universalistic moral and political theory, she says that this suppression is, without doubt, ‘also a consequence of the epistemic and
social exclusion of women’s voice and activity from the public
sphere and their denigration’ (p. 409). The claim of the perspective of the concrete other as a theoretical figure is parasitic upon
the claim of woman, women. It is because, however, Benhabib has
been unwilling to problematize this claim; to note the
contradictions in that silence and in that suppression, that she can
so easily dismiss the claims of the aesthetic with the calm brushoff that the perspective of the concrete other cannot be accommodated by aesthetic expressive discourse because ‘relations of
solidarity, friendship, and love are not aesthetic but profoundly
moral ones’ (p. 342) – as if for us what is moral or love or
friendship has not become deeply problematic, aporetic; as if we
knew what we do not; that the moral is different from the aesthetic,
and the aesthetic indifferent to the questions of morality or love.

Benhabib’s appropriation of the silence of woman is made without
anxiety, without the anxiety which would mark that appropriation
as a repetition whose excess ‘beyond’, whose non-identity with
that silence, alone gives its voice: makes it the claim of the nonidentical other.

It is, I think, unequivocally clear that the relation between
concrete other and generalized other, fulfilment and transfiguration, ought and is, in Benhabib repeats Adorno’s speculative
identification of autonomous art and philosophy. Must we not say
here that the figures of art and woman are equivalents, that they
translate one another with respect to their third: the dominion of
subjective reason. As figures of non-identity autonomous art and
feminism critically install the remembrance and anticipation of an
other reason, of reason as for the other, of reason transfigured. The
historical experience informing Benhabib’s dialectic simply
blinds her to the historical experience informing Adorno’s dialectic. Both dialectics, however, are dialectical only through their
speculative constructions of an identity of identity and nonidentity, through their recognition of the possibility of overcoming
the duality of particular and universal without positing that overcoming.

. Benhabib’s dialectic, often despite itself, articulates the speculatIve sentence that ‘the standpoint of the generalized other and the
perspective of the concrete other are one,’ just as much as
Adorno’s writing is governed by the unacknowledged speculative
sentence that ‘philosophy and art are one’. These statements of
identity are, of course, equally statements of non-identity. Since
the speculative thinking of the Absolute which both invoke are
neither statements of fact nor prescriptions of what ought to be,
then we must acknowledge that speculative thinking is, as such, a
form of political insight, political wisdom,phronesis. Inacknowled~ing . this we are not following an inference or obeying an
obhgatIon; rather such an acknowledgement would be aporetic,
difficult, an anxious act of political love.

In attempting to draw out this line of thought, my account of
Critique, Norm, and Utopia has had to pass over in silence much
of its rich argument and commentary. I have said almost nothing
about Benhabib’s reading of Hegel, Marx, and Horkheirner; nor
her staunch defence of Habermas’s diagnosis of the ills of late
capitalism. And I have said too little about her reading of Adorno
given the role it plays in my argument. Others will certainly want
to take up Benhabib’s provocative and urgent analyses.

The scope and richness of argument in this work are daunting.

But what makes it such a splendid book is that its historical and
critical acumen are put to work in the service of critical theory and
its project of emancipation.


While not directly entering into the debate between McCamey
(RP 42) and Dews and Osborne (RP 45), I take it that what follows
shows how the pattern of explanation and critique that Dews and
Osborne defend works in a particular case. I doubt, however, that
they would sympathise with the speculative construction I place
on that pattern.


Habennas, ‘Reply to My Critics’, in Thompson and Held (eds),

Habermas: Critical Debates (London: The MacMillan Press,
1982), p. 262.


See, of course, Lionel Trilling’s Sincerity and Authenticity
(London: Oxford University Press, 1974).


For the scheme and Habennas’s discussion of it see his ‘Moral
Development and Ego Identity’, in his Communication and the
Evolution of Society, trans. Thomas McCarthy (London: Heinemann, 1979).

‘Subject and Object’, in A. Arato and E. Gebhardt (eds.), The
Essential Frankfurt School Reader (Oxford: Basil Blackwell,
1978), pp. 499-500.



No. 26


• Rosa Lee

Feminism, Painting and Postmodernism

• Michele Barrett

The Concept of Difference
• Catherine Clement

The Weary Sons of Freud
• Shorelle Cole

• Plus articles on SocialistFeminism; European Left; Toronto
Conference and 18th Century

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