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The Spirit of Modernity and its Fate: Jürgen Habermas

The Spirit of Modernity
and its Fate:

JOrgen Habermas
Nick Smith
Jurgen Habennas’s ongoing opus is organised around distinctive
conceptualisations of ‘modernity’, ‘crisis’, and critique’. * The
Theory of Communicative Action (2 volumes, Boston, 1984 &
1987), in which these internally related concepts are articulated
into a theory of rationality, was written by Habennas to revivify
the project of Frankfurt School Critical Theory. In The P hilosophical Discourse ofModernity: Twelve Lectures, 1 far and away
his best book to date, Habennas attempts to unlock what he takes
to be the closures and aporias of the various rival projects of
modern Continental philosophy – and especially of
poststructuralism – with the keys of his theory of communicative

Modernity, Crisis, and Self-Reassurance
What does it mean to say that Habennasian critical theory and
poststructuralism are rivals? To understand the significance of
this question, we need to follow Habennas back to where he
locates the beginnings of the philosophical discourse of modernity – in Hegel. Modernity, Habennas infonns us in the preliminary lecture, is characterised by a distinctive consciousness of
time. The past loses its legitimating weight, the present is loosened from the totality of Tradition and appears as a moment of
pennanent transition towards an indetenninate and problematic


Jurgen Habennas, The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity;
Twelve Lectures, translated by Frederick Lawrence, Oxford,
Polity Press, 1990. xx + 430 pp., £10.95 pb., 0 7456 0830 2.

Jurgen Habennas, The New Conservatism, edited and translated
by Shierry Weber Nicholsen, introduction by Richard Wolin,
Oxford, Polity Press, 1989. xxxv + 270 pp., £29.50 hb., 0 7456

Jurgen Habennas, The Structural Transformation of the Public
Sphere, translated by Thomas Burger with the assistance of
Frederick Lawrence, Oxford, Polity Press, 1989. xix + 301 pp.,
£29.50 hb., 0 7456 0274 6.

Axel Honneth and Hans Joas (eds.), Communicative Action,
translated by Jeremy Gaines and Doris L. Jones, Oxford, Polity
Press, 1991. ix + 301 pp., £35.00 hb., 0 7456 05540.

David Rasmussen (ed.), Universalism vs. Communitarianism,
Cambridge, Mass. and London, M.I.T. Press, 1990. 297 pp.,
£24.75 hb., £12.50 pb., 0 262 18140 1 hb., 0262680637 pb.

Radical Philosophy 60, Spring 1992

future. Since modem consciousness is no longer anchored in
Tradition, its turning away from an exemplary past under the
pressure of an onrushing and unforeseeable future must be continuously renewed. With Hegel, this modem consciousness of
time catches up with philosophy. Philosophy must conceive of
itself in its time, and this means it must conceive of itself
historically. But as soon as philosophy does this, it transpires,
philosophy must take on what Habennas calls the problem of
modernity’s self-reassurance. What is this problem?

In turning away from Tradition, modernity must generate its
nonns out of itself. Now this condition of unconditionality is
precisely what specifies the rational. Oriented by the horizon of
a rational fonn of life, Enlightenment thought understood a
critique of tradition and religion which culminated with Kant. But
from the perspective of a philosophy whose own concept was tied
to the modem consciousness of time, Hegel could view Kant as
merely reflecting (rather than conceiving) the historically rooted
instabilities of the modem world. For Hegel, this instability is
attributed to a ‘sundered hannony of life’, to real ‘diremptions’

which are reflected in the organising categorial oppositions of
Kantian philosophy: ‘nature and spirit, sensibility and understanding, understanding and reason, theoretical and practical
reason, judgement and imagination, I and non-I, finite and infinite, knowledge and faith’ (p. 20). These abstract oppositions
testify to the concrete ‘estrangement of spirit’ in modem conditions of life, an estrangement which Hegel captures in the notion
of ‘positivity’ .

For Hegel, Habennas tells us, ‘positivity’ represents both the
‘signature’ and the ‘need’ of the modem age. The spirit of
modernity emerges as a reaction to the positive fonn into which
Christianity had degenerated: a fonn at once sustained by the
subordination of the individual’s reason to time-honoured authority, and scarce in resource for nourishing solidarity between
individuals. Out of the exhausted spirit of positive religion, there
breathes a new principle of ‘subjectivity’. Infonned by this
principle, modernity aspires towards new-found values; selfconsciousness, self-detennination, and self-realization. But the
Enlightenment critique of religion, perfonned in the name of
reflective reason and the sovereignty of the rational subject, only
substitutes one fonn of positivity for another. Reason, as articulated by the Enlightenment and paradigmatically by Kantian
philosophy, leaves itself without a motivating power for the
individual who must act, and without a unifying power for the
collective which must mediate individuals. Incapable of ‘interesting the heart and of having an influence upon feelings and needs’

(p. 26), the reason of the Enlightenment merely perpetuates the
diremptions which the principle of subjectivity wrought in spite
of itself. In the positive, the principle of subjectivity in which the


rational takes its modem form discloses its Janus face. The selfconsciousness which was the promise of the reflective knowing
subject turns to objectification of self. The self-determination
promised by the purposively acting subject turns to objectification
of other. Subject-centred reason, articulated in the philosophy of
consciousness from Descartes to Kant, paradoxically produces
subjects who are divided within and between themselves.

Thus the problem of the self-grounding of modernity turns
into a problem of self-reassurance. Self-reassurance is required
because, as Hegel conceived it, the experiential and public consequences (not clearly distinguished by Habermas) of a normative
orientation derived from subject-centred reason undermine a
form of life so oriented. Hegel’ s critical intuition, then, concerns
modem identity’s intrinsic tendency, or fateful disposition, towards crisis. The spirit of modernity, articulated as the principle
of subjectivity, is immanently at odds with itself. Positivity refers
to a withdrawal of what inspires from reason, both personally and
institutionally, both privately and publicly. Since this motivating
and unifying power is just what modems demand of reason, it thus
refers to a spirit estranged from itself. But if modem identity is to
be reassured rather than displaced or rejected, it must be by way
of ‘a dialectic residing in the principle of Enlightenment itself’ ,
for, as we have seen, the spirit of modernity is such that it cannot
borrow its norms from an exemplary past.

And so the birth of the philosophical discourse of modernity
came to pass. Habermas recounts how Hegel saw the problem of

modernity’s self-reassurance as the fundamental problem of the
new philosophy. But with its modem consciousness of time, the
form of philosophical thought fundamentally changes – the concept of philosophy must henceforth incorporate a critical’ diagnosis of the times’ (p. 52). Habermas then makes an ingenious move.

The philosophical discourse of modernity, the rival critical selfunderstandings of modernity reflected in post-Hegelian philosophical discourse from Marx to Nietzsche and Heidegger, from
Bataille to Foucault and Derrida, can be reconstructed as if we
were contemporaries in dialogue with the Young Hegelians. The
problem of modernity’s self-reassurance, conceived as the need
for philosophy is generalised from Hegel to the various rival
traditions of Continental philosophy.

This move enables Habermas to construct a complex and
compelling dramatic narrative in which the interlocutors struggle
over a common domain: the critique of subject-centred reason as
the principle of modernity. Habermas’s argument is that these
philosophers unwittingly get caught up in the very Reason to
which their critique is directed. He then attempts to show how his
own theoretical approach can overcome the internal inconsistencies, biases, and occlusions – in short, the ‘narrow-mindedness’

-of the ‘Reason’ with which his rivals collude, and hence to solve
the problem which motivates both his own and his interlocutors’

critical projects. Only by way of orienting thought and action
towards an ‘enlightened Enlightenment’ can modernity critically
reassure itself.

The Three Ways
The times are certainly infused by a profound spirit of hesitancy, of ambivalence,
by precisely a lack of reassurance, concerning the very normativity of a rational
form of life. Haber.mas sees
poststructuralism as a condensation of
this spirit. The norm of a rationally ordered society is challenged by way of an
unmasking genealogy which traces ‘rational’ practices back to an ancestry of
power and disciplinary control (Foucault).

The ethic of rational thought is tempered
by dangers of closure, of a shutting-off to
the openness of Being and meaning
(Derrida). Habermas’s reading of these
and other post-philosophers is necessarily selective and confessedly oversimplified (though in the case of Derrida, this
acknowledgement is hardly an excuse;
his discussion focuses almost exclusively
on Derrida’s pre-1968 writings). But the
central message is convincing: that these
themes of discipline and closure, power
and Being, testify to the need for selfreassurance of a project which understands itself in terms of its putative rationality. If, following Habermas, we call
that project modernity, they testify to the
philosophical problem of modernity’s

In the story told by Habermas,
poststructuralist thought can be traced
back to a crossroads at which the philosophical discourse of modernity stood
after being set on its way by Hegel. All


Radical Philosophy 60, Spring 1992

as a subversive counterforce to the rigidities and positivi ties of
Enlightenment. This to and fro of reason and its other, with its
presupposed exclusion model of reason, is perpetuated to the
point of exhaustion, Habermas suggests, by Nietzschean total
critique culminating in Foucault. If the critique of reason is to
proceed in a determinate manner, it must do so within an alternative paradigm to subject-centred reason and the philosophy of
consciousness. How will the other of reason figure in this alternative paradigm? We must take this question back to the beginnings
of the discourse of modernity – to the young Hegel.



parties to the discourse stand together where Hegel had left off:

the point of critique of the ‘positivism of reason’ . But, though they
share the same point of departure, they then follow three different
paths. The left Hegelians choose the way of ‘praxis philosophy’.

It takes them far, approaching the cause of modernity’s lack of
self-reassurance in the capitalist political economy, but eventually gets blocked by the insuperable methodological hurdle of
history conceived as the externalization and reappropriation of
the essential powers of a subject ‘writ large’. A second path,
leading off to the right, is taken by the conservative’ Old Hegelians’

in reaction to praxis philosophy. But those who follow this path
confuse cause with effect. It is the third path which Habermas
explores most in these lectures. This takes leave of modernity,
conducting a ‘counter-discourse’ to Enlightenment, rather than a
dialectic of Enlightenment. It is the way of the ‘total critique of
reason’ for which Nietzsche is the entry point. After Nietzsche,
this totalizing critique divides into two. One conducts its critique
by way of an unmasking of reason, and leads through Bataille to
Foucault. The second proceeds by way of a critique of metaphysics, and leads through Heidegger to Derrida.

This counter-Enlightenment turn is distinctive in that the
burden of reassurance is lifted from the claims of reason, and
transposed to a version of the ‘other of reason’ be it ‘power’,
‘Being’, the heterogeneous’, or ‘differance’. Once taken, this
leads inexorably to a form of critique which cannot make sense of
its normative presuppositions. Habermas makes the now familiar
formal objection that any ‘total critique of reason’ is bound to get
caught up in a ‘performative self-contradiction’: the very performance of its critique commits it to norms which it simultaneously denies. More subtly, Habermas argues that in conceiving
reason according to an ‘exclusion model’ which will admit of an
‘other’, the totalizing critique of reason implicitly reproduces, in
an undialectical inversion, the very subject-centred reason which
it is supposed to overcome – ‘the other of reason remains the
mirror image of reason in power’ (p. 309). But what most irritates
Habermas is that post-Nietzschean total critique lacks a determinate standard before which the object of critique can be brought
to account. This orientation, Habermas contends, is invariably
characterised by a hope of ‘expectant indeterminacy’ which can
only be registered by a form of ‘extraordinary discourse’ that
resists argumentative validation. It is nourished by a ‘potential for
excitement’ exiled by reason, but which avenges itself as the
indeterminate fate of the Dionysian god who is coming.

Limit experiences of mystical revelation and aesthetic/erotic
rapture, Habermas reminds us, have repeatedly been called upon

Radical Philosophy 60, Spring 1992

The Kantian oppositions between universal and particular, I and
non-I, nature and spirit etc., were seen by Hegel not as exclusions
between reason and non-reason, but as diremptions in need of
reconciliation. It was as a ‘dirempted totality’ that the young
Hegel saw modernity in crisis and in need of reassurance. Such a
‘diremptive’ model of reason offers what is crucially lacking in
‘total critique’: a determinate standard to which the object of
critique can be brought to account. It is the standard of a reconciled ethical totality or ‘undamaged intersubjectivity’. According
to Habermas, the young Hegel once stood at the threshold of a
critique of modernity undertaken in the light of this standard
when, in The Spirit of Christianity and its Fate, he described the
dialectic of the moral life as a process of division and fateful
reconciliation. The subject-object relation thus appears as a
product of ‘division and usurpation’ of a prior intersubjective
harmony which avenges itself in the longing of each for reconciliation with the other. Since the subject is mediated by the structures
of intersubjectivity in which reason is deposited, Habermas can
claim that’ any violation of the structures of rational life together,
to which all lay claim, affects everyone equally’ (p. 324). And
this, Habermas says, is the insight which offers. a way out of
subject-centred reason. The disfigurement of the mediating totality avenges itself on all that is mediated as a causality of fate.

Since human beings are mediated communicatively through
language, Hegel’ s insight suggests a shift towards a communicative paradigm of reason. Modernity’s fateful disposition towards
crisis and need for self-reassurance would then take on a determinate character. Habermas expounds the effect of this shift in the
following crucial passage:

The theory of communicative action can reconstruct
Hegel’s concept of the ethical context of life (independently of the philosophy of consciousness). It disenchants
the unfathomable causality of fate, which is distinguished
from the destining of Being by reason of its inexorable
immanence. Unlike the ‘from-time-immemorial’ character of the happening of Being or of power, the pseudonatural dynamics of impaired communicative life-contexts retains the character of a destining for which one is at
fault oneself-though one can speak of fault here only in
an intersubjective sense, that is, in the sense of an entanglement that, however things stand with individual accountability, communicative agents would have to ascribe to
communal responsibility (p. 316).

Habermas identifies two different kinds of ‘entanglement’ . First,
there is the entanglement of cultural rationalization. Here, the
differentiated dimensions of cultural modernity – the cognitive
instrumental, the moral/practical, and the aesthetic/expressive become stuck like a ‘tangled mobile’. There is a one-sided
rationalization of everyday life around the cognitive/instrumental
dimension, and a splitting-off of expert from everyday cultures.


The foreshortening and distortion of the aesthetic moment of
comm~nic~tive reason, Habermas suggests, is repeatedly
thematIsed m the counter-discourse to modernity since Nietzsche.

It is also claimed to respond, however, to the more important
entanglement of societal rationalization. This is the key to
Habermas’s diagnosis of the times. Before turning to it, I want to
mention an entanglement within which Habermas’s Discourse
itself gets caught.

For Habermas, the problem of modernity’s critical self-reas~urance ~u~t ~e ~ddressed by ~ppeal to a standard of ‘undamaged
mtersubJectIvIty , understood m terms of ‘non-distorted communicative relationships’ , which, when divided, initiates a ‘causality
of fate’. Further, this ideal must be of modem provenance, for
there can be no resort to traditional models (for instance, the
Greek polis or the early Christian community). The causality of
fate must be disenchanted to satisfy the modem requirement of
self-grounding. However, Habermas’s reconstruction of what
Hegel means by an ethical totality is never made explicit. On the
contrary, various candidates are suggested at different points in
the text. He sometimes refers to it as ‘the lifeworld” at others he
implies reference to a ‘rationalized lifeworld’ and ~ ‘balanced’

lifeworld. At still other points, he suggests it is more akin to his
‘ideal speech situation’ , or Apel’ s ‘ideal communication communit( ..The ambiguity ~ere is no small matter, since this is just the
pomt I~ po~tstruct~rahst thought where Habermas himself wedges
the ObjectIOn of mdeterminacy. Moreover, trouble is in store
whichever o/these candidates gets the nomination: either because
of implausible assumptions built into the criteria themselves, or
becau~e,. o~ce made plausible, they no longer fit (and explain)
Hegel s mSIght. On the former matter, Habermas’s critics have
been voluble.

Communicative Action
The concluding lectures of Discourse summarise what Habermas
takes to be the main achievements of The Theory o/Communicative Action, the topic of the essays collected in the volume
Communicative Action (first German publication 1986). Most of
the contributors take issue with either the coherence of the basic
categories or Habermas’ s social theory, or with their relevance for
a critical diagnosis of the age, or both. Several of the articles have
already been published in English in various journals. But the
volume also includes a substantial reply by Habermas, in which
(contrary to a view held by some of his more sympathetic critics)
he emphasises the importance he attaches to the philosophical
foundation of his social theory. He then attempts to clarify some
of the confusions he recognises in his earlier formulations of it.

Concerning the foundations of his theory of meaning and action,
Habermas’s contribution to this volume also represents a significant advance upon those earlier formulations.

As I suggested, the major difficulties with Habermas’s programme can perhaps best be appreciated in terms of the constraints imposed by the philosophical discourse of modernity.

Habermas offers a diagnosis of the times consonant with the
dynamic of Hegel’ s causality of fate; the communicative context
a~d resource ~f self-formation (the lifeworld) is colonised by an
ahen ~conomIclbureaucratic system. Society as a system is,
accordmg to Habermas’ s usage, theoretically comprehensible as
~ self-managing/unctional organism. The rationality of a system
IS measured in terms of its functional efficiency in self-preservation. ~his it achie~es by way of a growth in complexity and
materIal productIOn. System-maintenance depends upon
~axi~ally efficient integration of action consequences, and this
IS achIeved by steering media. Put at its crudest, the argument is .


that modernity unfolds as an uncoupling of ‘lifeworld’ from
‘system’. Within the functional subsystems of economy and
bureaucratic state, action integration is mediated not communicatively, but by the ‘delinguistified’ steering media of money and
power. These can then react back and mediatize or instrumentalize
the symbolic reproduction of the lifeworld. There comes a point,
howev~r, wh~n .the. integrity of the lifeworld is threatened by
systemIC medIatIzatIOn. At this crisis point, the economiclbureaucratic s~stem colonizes the lifeworld. The result is a pathological
~ystemlcally-induced reification of the lifeworld. It is the positivIsm of reason which has motivated the philosophical discourse of
modernity since Hegel.

Such a conceptualisation, Habermas thinks, has a distinct
advantage over its rivals in that it allows for a collaboration
between philosophical reflection and social-scientific empirical
research. The sociologically slanted contributions to Communicative Action hotly dispute the force of this claim. Thomas
McCarthy’s ‘Complexity and Democracy; or the Seducements of
S~ster:ns Th.eory’ ?rings into particularly clear focus a widespread
dIssatisfactIOn WIth Habermas’s appeal to systems theory. Not
only is systems theory claimed to be methodologically otiose
~’We. do n~t need the paraphernalia of social systems theory to
Identify unmtended consequences ‘), but its categories (like ‘feedback loops’ and ‘control mechanism’) slide over just those
~omplex and internally contradictory tensions within the capitalIS~ ~c?no~y they are supposed to explain. Not surprisingly, this
cntIcIsm IS reasserted by other Marxist critics represented in the
volume. It is not at all adequately dealt with in Habermas’s reply.

Radical Philosophy 60, Spring 1992

Indeed, considering that the thesis of internal colonization is
supposed to be a reworking of Marx ‘s notion of real abstraction,
to short-circuit the problem by simply consigning it to the paradigm of praxis philosophy, as Habermas does, is quite astonishing. Equally important for McCarthy is the loss from view of the
idea of ‘a theoretically generalized narrative’ which once expressed the essential emancipatory intent of Critical Theory.

Several critics make much of just how problematic the distinction
between system and lifeworld really is. Although many of these
criticisms are important, I want to move on to two articles,
appearing here for the first time in English, which I think highlight
what, from a philosophical perspective, are the most trenchant
criticisms of Habermas. Connected to McCarthy’ s worries about
the elision of an emancipatory narrative in the communicative
paradigm shift in Habermas’ s critical theory, they also bear on
fundamental difficulties in Habermas’s purported resolution of
the problem of modernity’s self-reassurance.

The first difficulty is developed in a convoluted but fascinating way by Martin Seel. I take the crux to be this. According to
Habermas’s theory, communicative rationality covers the competence argumentatively to redeem the whole breadth of the
differentiated validity claims of truth, rightness, and authenticity.

In addition to this literal reading, however, communicative reason
must mediate or allow for the interplay between these separated
validity claims. Habermas typically speaks of this meaning of
communicative rationality metaphorically. As we have seen, for
example, he compares the lack of this interplay to a ‘tangled
mobile’ . In a nice Derridean move, Seel shows just how much the
literal meaning of communicative rationality relies, in its claim to
rationality, on its metaphorical meaning. The capacity to interrelate the validity claims of argumentation is itself constitutive of
reason, though it cannot be arrived at by way of the validityredeeming reason of argumentation. One could take this problem
further. The three validity claims correspond to the value-spheres
of science and technology, morality and law, and art and art
criticism, which become ideally autonomous in a rationalized
lifeworld. Habermas refers diagnostically to a one-sidedly rationalized lifeworld, a life world in which the claims of the aesthetic
are muted. But if the criterion of an ‘intact intersubjectivity’ is to
function as a standard of a balanced rationalization, then where is
the validity claim which can be brought to bear in the
critique of imbalance? It looks as if the lost ‘harmony
of life’, which Habermas recognised in Hegel as the
motivation for the discourse of modernity, is also lost
on Habermas’ s reconstruction of Hegel. 2
Recall Habermas’ s claim that Hegel’ s causality of
fate must be ‘disenchanted’ if it is to satisfy modernity’s self-grounding requirement. Habermas attempts to
do this by conceiving the unifying force of reason
procedurally. The procedural conception of practical
reason is challenged by Charles Taylor. The nub of
Taylor’s position is that, as soon as reason becomes
procedural, it loses its force. The point is a telling one
given the problem of reassurance. For that is just the
problem of the withdrawal of what in-spires or empowers from reason. The point is telling in another way too.

Habermas’s reply to it shows the gap between postKantian and neo-Aristotelian frameworks of discourse.

The question then is, can the nature of this disagreement be articulated within Habermas’s theoretical
framework? Arguably not, since rational agreement or
disagreement is conditioned by the separation of the
three validity claims in that framework, yet this condition is itself unreasonable to an Aristotelian like Taylor.

Of course what is at issue here are competing

Radical Philosophy 60, Spring 1992

projects, not contestable validity claims. And this suggests that
Habermas ‘s contribution to the philosophical discourse of modernity, which he claims to make from ‘the ordinary perspective
of a participant who is recalling the course of an argument’ (p. 59),
is best understood – in the manner I have been presenting it – as
the defence of a project against rivals over the same domain (even
though in such a presentation the nature of that project is seen to
alter). Moreover, it is precisely Habermas’ s passionate allegiance
to the project of Enlightenment which makes Discourse such a
wonderfully compelling book. This is not so much because he
impartially reconstructs and addresses the validity claims of the
poststructuralists. It is more because he constructs a narrative
which, by its very nature, defends one particular project against its
rivals. That the defence takes this narrative form is no accident. It
must do so if it is to do the work which is avowedly required of it;
that of articulating aparadigm change of critical self-understanding.

Universalism v. Communitarianism
The view that paradigm changes can be rationally justified only
retrospectively in narrative form, and that this form is essential to
defending a project against rivals over the same domain, has of
course been defended by Alasdair MacIntyre for some time now. 3
But MacIntyre uses this view to subvert the claims of the modem
project. Amongst these claims, MacIntyre forthrightly challenges
modernity’S aspirations to universality in the moral domain.

Against ‘universalism’, MacIntyre defends ‘communitarianism’.

Most of the essays in Universalism vs. Communitarianism
concern the relative viability of a universalist and so-called
communitarian ethics. The contributors take Rawls and Habermas
as representatives of universalism. This is opposed, in different
essays, to doctrines espoused by McIntyre, Taylor, Walzer, and
Gadamer. There are several different controversies here, ranging
over problems of moral justification, the nature of moral experience’ the relationship between moral and legal discourse, the
political application of norms, the meaning of democracy, and the
critique ofliberalism. It is the overlap ofthese which is confusing.

The vagueness of the terms ‘universalism’ and


‘communitarianism’, which generates this confusion, is recognised by several of the contributors. Their efforts are mostly
directed towards a refinement of the issues, a task most admirably
achieved in Kenneth Baynes’ s article.

Perhaps the most fundamental issue is now to make politically
effective sense of what might be called ‘the pull of the ethical’ in
a world of many ethics. For Alessandro Ferrara (,Universalisms;
procedural, contextualist, and prudential ‘), this pull is equivalent
to the demand for universality. He considers two ways of reconciling this demand with the recognition of plurality: first,
Habermas’s ‘procedural universalism’, then Walzer’s and (more
sympathetically) MacIntyre’s ‘contextualist universalism’. After
briefly identifying some of the shortcomings of each, he offers a
schematic ‘prudential universalism’ which combines the best in
both around the idea of a ‘core of human subjectivity’ indicated
by convergences between different (unnamed) schools of psychoanalysis. Worries about the appropriateness of Ferrara ‘s terms
notwithstanding (why not talk about procedural, contextualist,
and prudential conceptions of practical reason, thereby avoiding
oxymorons like ‘contextualist universalism’?), his proposal of a
psychoanalytically informed Aristotelianism is very suggestive.

Again, Habermas’s appeal to a ‘procedural universalism’

must be understood as a move made under the constraints of the
philosophical discourse of modernity. Modernity must create its
normativity out of itself. This means that the pull of the ethical
cannot be conceived as a traditionally given content to the good
life. The universality of a moral claim (the pull of the ethical) can
only be redeemed at a formal level, that is, at the level of the
procedure through which the claim is generated. So far, so Kant.

But Kant’s procedure of self-willed universalizable maxims of
action, entrenched in subject-centred reason, left’!’ and ‘non-I’

unreconciled. Moving, however, to an intersubjective or communicative paradigm of reason is supposed to allow for this reconciliation. Habermas argues that virtual to everyday communicative action, that is, to the process through which the modem
subject is mediated, is an ideal procedure which obliges participants in discourse to lay claim only to principles acceptable to all
those affected by them. ‘I’ is reconciled with ‘non-I’ in the postconventional moral consciousness of a self which recognises the
claims of a ‘generalised other’. The Enlightenment project,
Habermas contends, ‘is unthinkable without the idea of a universal confederation against betrayal’. But in a pluralist modem
world, this intuited commitment to justice must be translated into
a political principle of impartiality. Habermas’s ‘discourse ethics’ attempts to clarify and ground the link between solidarity,
universality, and impartiality.

Ferrara, Rolf Zimmerman, Michael Kelly, and Hubert and
Stuart Dreyfus rehearse some of the many difficulties which beset
Habermas’s approach to ethics. Of course, the following are
outstanding. First, the separation of the form and content of moral
claims is notoriously difficult to uphold. Second, there is the
problem of reconciling actual and ideal conditions of justification. Third, Habermas is said to be insufficiently ‘context-sensitive’ both in his defence of the peculiarly modem segregation of


the three validity claims, and in his treatment of the ineliminable
moment of ethical ‘judgement’. Habermas’s reply ought to be
that, all things considered, the modem framework is the best
available. But he dies not make this move. Rather, his justification refers to an ideal framework of pure communicative action
which is immanent to modem discourse and processes of selfformation. For Habermas, this position has the advantage of
opening a space for the critique of historically but ideologically
distorted traditions. For his critics, it has the distinct disadvantage
of being burdened by an equally ideological quasi-scientific,
eurocentric (even androcentric) evolutionism.

But, Habermas insists, with the emergence of modernity
comes the promise of a unique source of resistance against
ideological distortions. This is the promise of a public sphere of
democratic will-formation. Now Habermas’s interest in democratic will-formation, correctly identified by Bayles as a key
underlying motivation of discourse ethics, goes back to his
earliest writings. In his first major book, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (first published in German in 1962),
Habermas employs historical evidence drawn from various socioeconomic, political, and literary sources to document the rise
and fall of the category of the liberal public sphere. Two themes
are particularly worthy of attention. First, there is the (admittedly
embryonic) historical achievement of democratic processes of
opinion formation in modem societies (e.g. a free press). Second,
there is the tendency for these processes to disintegrate under the
pressure of expanding market and state/bureaucratic forces (e.g.

the mass media). These particular themes are worth mentioning
because they are connected to a development to which Habermas
has paid increasing attention: the rise of conservatism.

The New Conservatism and Beyond
In the preface to Discourse, Habermas directs. the. reader to a
collection of his political writings described as ‘supplements’ to
his philosophical study. With the publication of The New Conservatism, a translation of a selection of these writings (many of
which have already appeared in English, though most in different
translations), English readers can now readily take up the suggestion that the philosophy be considered alongside the politics.

What emerges most conspicuously from the political essays is the
German backdrop against which Habermas’ s thought is set.

Habermas is hyper-sensitive to an entrenched Teutonic ambivalence towards, precisely, the Enlightenment project. The disastrous historical manifestations of this ambivalence, without doubt,
inform Habermas’ s stance towards Western rationalism through
and through. He takes seriously the historical lesson that the
collective political ‘choice in favour of the West’, as he puts it,
cannot be taken for granted. The project of modernity, what is
undertaken in the light of this choice, is as precarious as it is
incomplete. 4
Consequently, the greatest care must be taken to distinguish
between ‘progressive’ tendencies of modernity and those which,
despite radical appearances, threaten to undermine that progress.

The 1980s, the period during which all the essays collected here
were written, have tended towards conservatism. Habermasteases
out various strands of this tendency, from architecture to the
welfare state. Neo-conservatism affirms the achievements of
societal modernization (technological progress and system expansion)’ while negating the achievements of cultural modernism
(the avant-garde). The latter, the neo-conservatives allege, is the
cause of a ‘spiritual/moral crisis’ , a lack of social cohesion, which
only religion can rectify. They thus call for a revival of traditional
values and roles. They attribute modem discontents to the under-

Radical Philosophy 60, Spring 1992

mining of tradition by an individualistic cultural modernity.

Habermas’s response is twofold: first, these critics confuse
cause (socially undesirable by-products of capitalism) with effect
(anomie); and second, they diffuse the ‘explosive force of
universalistic principles of morality’ in order to ‘minimise the
burden of moral justification incumbent on the political system’.

The neo-conservative appeal to tradition serves as a re-endorsement rather than as critique. Habermas is undoubtedly correct in
identifying one motive behind the turn to tradition; but appeals to
tradition are not necessarily neo-conservative. To be sure, modernity’s consciousness of time buffers it against conservatism. Yet
Habermas by no means proposes a forgetfulness of the past. On
the contrary, he attacks the forgetfulness of the gains made by the
Enlightenment tradition (for instance, the public sphere) of the socalled ‘young conservatives’ with their anti-modernism or total
critique. That total critique should be referred to as a form of
conservatism may seem quite baffling. It can only appear otherwise if the following question is addressed: what kind of remembrance is compatible with modernity’s consciousness of time at
the end of the twentieth century?

This is the key problematic which guides Habermas’s contributions, included in this volume, to the German ‘historians’

dispute’. The question of German identity is raised against the
background of historical controversy over the nature and extent of
the crimes of the Third Reich. In line with his theories about moral
development, Habermas advocates a post -conventional ‘constitutional patriotism’ showing allegiance to universal principles of
justice. But this allegiance must be tempered by a recognition of
responsibility for past crimes. And here, of course, the shadow of
Heidegger unconceals itself.

It is precisely the failure of He idegg er to acknow ledge responsibility for his own past which most upsets Habermas. And
Habermas’s detailed reconstruction of Heidegger’ s sordid collusion with National Socialism makes very upsetting reading. Not
only Heidegger’s quietism, but his falsification of textual archives declaring his support for Hitler, is evidenced. I was
reminded here of an anecdote told by Hubert Dreyfus, who upon
visiting Heidegger asked for his opinion of Sartre’ s Being and
Nothingness, a copy of which was on his desk. ‘Dreck’ (muck),
Heidegger replied. If that is muck, what colloquialism is strong
enough to describe Heidegger’s lectures in the Introduction to
Metaphysics, where he eulogises the ‘inner truth and greatness of
the Nazi movement’?

The charge of textual falsification arises out of a dispute dating
back to 1953, which began by Habermas putting the following
question to Heidegger: “Can even the planned mass murder of
millions of people, about which all of us know today, be made
understandable in terms of the history of Being, as a fateful
error?’5 Not the fateful dispensation of Being or of power, but a
causality of fate for which one is ‘at fault oneself’, ascribable
communally, is Habermas’ s answer. The avenging nexus of guilt
of which Hegel spoke must today be incorporated into an ‘atoning
remembrance’ of the past.

If all there were to diagnose about the political climate of the
past decade were the rise of conservatisms, things wouldn’t be
very hopeful. But countering this tendency, Habermas perceives
and welcomes the democratizing potential of the new social
movements (especially the women’s movement), which demand
a decentralization of political structures and the formation of
autonomous public spheres. But in this, as elsewhere, Habermas
is surely too formal in his diagnosis. Feminist theorists have
already articulated misgivings concerning Habermas’s failure to
address the material-economic foundation of women’s oppression. 6 In at least one other respect, however, I think that a
diagnosis of the kind offered by Habermas is directly pertinent to

Radical Philosophy 60, Spring 1992

something which is becoming of increasing significance to the
content of feminist protest today. By focusing on communication,
the Habermasian approach simultaneously focuses on its occlusion and betrayal, that is on violence. A critique of violence is
precisely what Critical Theory becomes with Habermas’s communicative transformation of it. This is seen by some as a
rationalizing purification, as a neutering of the heterogeneous
pleasures of the feminine text. But do the times afford such a
luxurious basis for critiqueT The colonisation of the lifeworld of
woman by man’s violence, its foreshortening and distortion into
a horizon of fear, is surely a more appropriate paradigm of crisis.

Critical Theory, as a reflective theory with practical intent which
is a product of its time, must account for its own need as given by
its time. The last lecture of Discourse concludes with what, in its
philosophical context, is a startling reference to Reagan’ s Star
Wars programme. Concerning the power of SDI ideology,
Habermas remarks:

The idea that the capacity to compete on an international
scale – whether in markets or in outer space – is indispensable for our very survival is one of those everyday
certitudes in which systemic constraints are condensed
(pp. 366-67).

Whether or not this is an idea perpetrated by the ideologues of
system expansion, we can at least say – and in the mildest terms
– that eight years after being written the urgency of the critical
intuition expressed here has in no way diminished.


First published in German in 1985. The hardback edition of the
English translation under review was originally’ published in
1987. I shall henceforth refer to it as Discourse. Unless otherwise specified, all my quotations will be taken from it.


Habermas does distinguish between two different kinds of
critique: ‘rational reconstruction’ and ‘methodically carried out
self-critique’ (p. 300). The latter has a narrative form modelled
upon a psychoanalysis. I am suggesting that Seel, Taylor, and
indeed McCarthy, offer reasons for thinking that these two
modes of critique are not just different, but that rational reconstruction only takes a critical form within a presupposed narrative self-critique. For more on the critical potential of Haberm as ‘s
depth hermeneutic reading of Freud and its problematic connection with rational reconstruction, see Jay Bemstein’s excellent
‘Self-Knowledge as Praxis: Narrative and Narration in Psychoanalysis’, in Cristoper Nash, ed., Narrative in Culture, London,
Routledge, 1990, pp. 51-77.


See Alasdair MacIntyre, ‘Epistemological Crises, Dramatic
Narrative, and the Philosophy of Science’, The Monist 60
(1977), pp. 433-72, and most recently Three Rival Versions of
Moral Enquiry, London, Duckworth, 1990, especially pp. 11822.


This political point fits ill with Habermas’ s sociological insistence upon the irrevocability of modem structures of thought and


The New Conservatism, pp. 161-62, first printed in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 25 July 1953.

See Seyla Benhabib and Drucilla Comell, eds., Feminism as
Critique, Oxford, Polity, 1987, especially Nancy Fraser’s article, ‘What’s Critical about Critical Theory? The Case of Habermas
and Gender’.

See Kate Soper, ‘Feminism, Humanism, and Postmodemism’,
Radical Philosophy, 55, p. 16.




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