Jürgen Habermas, Guardian of Mystical ‘Rationality’

Habermas and Ratzinger, 19.01.04

Habermas and Ratzinger, 19.01.04

‘I would not object to the claim that my conception of language and of communicative action oriented toward mutual understanding nourishes itself from the legacy of Christianity. The “telos” of reaching understanding – the concept of discursively directed agreement which measures itself against the standard of intersubjective recognition, that is, the double negation of criticisable validity claims – may well nourish itself from the heritage of a logos understood as Christian, one that is indeed embodied (and not just with the Quakers) in the communicative practice of the religious congregation.’

Jürgen Habermas, ‘A Conversation About God and the World’ Interview by Eduardo Mendieta1

It will be my argument that Habermas’s conceptions of language, of reasoned communicative action and of rationality itself are not only nourished from the legacy of Christianity but more specifically and in response to the rise of science, from a parallel rise in German mysticism since the late eighteenth century, particularly in the forms of Christian Neoplatonism and the closely related Böhmean theosophy. Habermas’s rationality is guarded by Lloyd’s Man of Reason – clothed mystically.

Habermas is vague and loose in his use of the concepts ‘rational’ and ‘reason’. He refers to ‘secular reason’, ‘natural’ reason, ‘philosophical reason’, ‘modern reason’, ‘practical reason’, ‘religious reason’ and ‘shared reason.’2 Wolterstorff wrote that he knew ‘of no place in his recent writings in which Habermas explains the concept of rational that he has in mind’.3 What compounds the confusion is Habermas’s use of the concept, taken from Weber’s psychological understanding of society, of ‘rationalisation’ – meaning the instrumental ‘de-magification,’ ‘de-sanctification’ of social life and the ‘robbing of gods’ from it – for Weber a religious negative4 but for Habermas a process that opens up social areas for the negotiation of all issues in the community.

Habermas believes that reason is to be found in the context of social interaction. It is not what a subject thinks in relation to an object (either metaphysically or ‘empirically’) but is what subjects do communicatively. Habermas claims he has moved philosophy from focusing on a subject/object relation to that of subject/subject, from ‘subjectivity’ to intersubjectivity. Rationality for Habermas is a discursive activity and it is this discursive and unifying activity that Habermas believes philosophy should remain the guardian of. Rationality lies not in what is claimed but in how the claim is made.

In this activity, according to Habermas, subjects make ‘truth claims’ concerning ‘facts’5 which can be defended with reasons when necessary, in order to gain the rationally motivated agreement of the relevant interpretative community as a whole. When agreement is found, validity (which like reason, is discursively contextual) is established.6

Habermas’s philosophy is utterly consistent with the Man of Reason identified by Lloyd which she defined as ‘the ideal of rationality associated with the rationalist philosophies of the seventeenth century. And, secondly, something more nebulous – the residue of that ideal in our contemporary consciousness, our inheritance from seventeenth century rationalism.’7 For Habermas reason is linguistic and propositional. Rejecting a dialectical understanding,8 Habermas holds that the aim and result of this intersubjective activity is a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’.9 His philosophy, beneath a seeming commitment to democratic discursiveness, is rigid and steeped in philosophical idealism.10

Part one/to be continued…


1. ‘A Conversation About God and the World’ Interview of Jürgen Habermas by Eduardo Mendieta in Religion and Rationality: Essays on Reason, God, and Modernity, Ed., Eduardo Mendieta, Polity Press, Cambridge, 2002, pp. 146-167, 160

2. Reason is very little understood, particularly in patriarchal Western philosophy in which it is simply presumed to be only linguistic, conceptual and predominantly propositional.

3. Nicholas Wolterstorff, ‘An Engagement with Jürgen Habermas on Postmetaphysical Philosophy, Religion, and Political Dialogue’, pp. 92-111, in Craig Calhoun, Eduardo Mendieta, Jonathan VanAntwerpen, Eds,. Habermas and Religion, Polity Press, Cambridge, 2013, 97

4. In Weber’s account, religion plays a fundamental role in producing ‘modernity.’

5. Habermas wrote ‘The world as the sum total of possible facts’, ‘Law as Social Mediation Between Facts and Norms’, Between Facts and Norms, MIT 1996, pp. 9-27, 14 repeating 1.1 of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus ‘The world is the totality of facts, not of things.’ When our species becomes extinct we will take consciousness, thought, language and every fact with us – a totality of things on an ultimately dead planet will remain.

6. For Habermas contextual ‘validity’ means a justified claim that can be defended with reasons aimed at attaining a rationally motivated consensus.

7. G. Lloyd, ‘The Man of Reason’, in Women, Knowledge, and Reality: Explorations in Feminist Philosophy. Eds. A. Garry and M. Pearsall. Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1989, 111. Lloyd was most concerned ‘to bring into focus…his maleness’ since the Man of Reason is an idealisation of the male, not of the human being – yet he still embodies fundamental ideals of our culture. Ibid. The Man of Reason is the dominant model in Western philosophy, reaching back to the patriarchal theologian Plato. Both Lloyd and Plumwood exposed the anti-female and anti-human dualisms of this model.

8. ‘Habermas ventures that the Hegelian “paradigm” is unworkable because as scholars, “we cannot live with the paradoxes of negative dialectics” – of a totalising Reason that is supposed to be positive in the very “moment” of negation. The paradigm simply does not work: it is too negative in the plain garden sense of the term’ Michael Pusey, Jürgen Habermas, Tavistock, London, 1987, 34. Yet Habermas’s position regarding reason continued the (Neoplatonically sourced) teleology of Hegel and Marx: ‘The release of a potential for reason embedded in communicative action is a world-historical process; in the modern period it leads to a rationalisation of life-worlds,’ From ‘A Philosophical-Political Profile’, New Left Review, 151, 1985, pp. 75-105, 101; ‘as more settled traditional worldviews are fragmented and “liquefied”, we – you and I and everyone else – are together forced, to reach “forwards” (and “upwards”!) for understandings and agreements at an every higher level of abstraction and generality. …critical reflection achieved in one domain is supposed to release the “repressed traces of reason” that are latent in the others’ Pusey, op. cit., 117; ‘it is clear that this theory is guided by the idea of (a) more comprehensive notion of rationality that underpins his whole theory. How is this notion to be justified?…It seems clear that this underlying but orientating concept echoes past substantive concepts of reason like those embodied in the Marxian notion of socialism and the Hegelian concept of spirit.’ John Grumley, notes for University of Sydney seminar 20.03.14

9. ‘(these approaches regarding deliberative democracy) negate the inherently conflictual nature of modern pluralism…They are unable to recognise that bringing a deliberation to a close always results from a decision which excludes other possibilities and for which one should never refuse to bear responsibility by invoking the commands of general rules or principles.’ Chantal Mouffe quoted by Jodi Dean, Democracy and Other Neoliberal Fantasies: Communicative Capitalism and Left Politics, Duke University Press, 2009, 13

10. ‘Habermas continues to assert that his critical theory is inspired by remnants of utopianism. He will not give up the search for a way of identifying the reasonableness of utopian hopes. …Habermas undertakes to rescue the utopian credentials of achievements whose significance had been overlooked by a tradition of critical theory shaped by Marxism. He not only considers that we have been looking in the wrong place for our utopian potentials but also that we have misunderstood the character of a utopianism relevant to a historicising and pluralistic age.’ Pauline Johnson, Habermas: Rescuing the public sphere, Routledge, London, 2006, 118


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