Jürgen Habermas, Guardian of Mystical ‘Rationality’ – Part Two

Habermas fails to understand and denies the living relationship between concepts, language and the world. Neither concepts and language, if they are to be relevant, can be imposed arbitrarily on the world, rather they develop from the world, meeting our needs in a changing and dialectical relationship with it. Concepts, language and thought, reflecting the world, are and can never be final, thought is not only linguistic and propositional.1 Yet Habermas writes

‘The ideal character inherent in the generality of concepts and thoughts is interwoven with an idealisation of a wholly different sort. Every complete thought has a specific propositional content that can be expressed by an assertoric sentence. But beyond the propositional content, every thought calls for a further determination: it demands (my italics) an answer to whether it is true or false.’2

Truth for Habermas is not found in a dialectical relationship with the world but in a propositionally communicative use of language, beyond which (if we desire to or believe that we have direct access to the world) we cannot go.3 Habermas subscribes to a Meno-like universal and what he acknowledges is an idealised theory of grammar he attributes to Chomsky4 (no longer accepted by linguists, who recognise that both concepts and language develop through our relating with the world) and acknowledges that this is an assumption by Chomsky.5 More, Habermas longs for a ‘universal reason’ (my italics) that will most reinforce unity.6

The concept ‘validity’ has no place outside formal logic because the world and its reflection in thought is not a matter of logical rules and consistency, of ‘yesses’ or ‘nos,’ is driven by contradiction and cannot but always reflect that. Habermas’s second use of ‘validity’ carries us to the mystical core of his theory of communicative reason. Where his first reference to ‘validity’ is ‘context-dependent’ his second is transcendent – of context, material space and time. In ‘detranscendentalising’ Kant’s noumenal realm – the unknowable realm beyond appearances and what can be known and said to what transcends space and time – in other words, by not detranscendentalising Kant’s noumenal realm at all other than as a bare assertion, Habermas followed the Neoplatonic model of ‘detranscendentalising’ God – of bringing God to earth while leaving him, as with Habermas’s second use of validity – ‘transcendent’ – within.7 Habermas, following Wittgenstein, brought a mystical God to earth in language. Language for Habermas replaces God thought of as a metaphysical background that has the potential to unify all. This validity that transcends space and time is a metaphysical and absolute unconditionality,8 a guarantee for the normativity of Habermas’s lifeworld.

In agreement with Wittgenstein’s core apophatic statement that bookends his ‘final solution,’ his mystical Tractatus – ‘What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence’9 – Habermas wrote that any truth claim refers to something transcendent, to an ideal ‘“final opinion,” a consensus reached under ideal conditions’10 – a unified, absolute audience or reference point that anchors the communicative interaction of all other audiences in ‘real’ space and time.11

Part two/to be continued…


1. Lloyd wrote that that intuition, which she argued is associated with ‘female’ thought, (and which Plotinus believed provides an immediate, non-discursive knowledge) can be part of a constructive assessment of reason. ‘The Man of Reason’, op. cit., 117. Plumwood’s discussion of the relevance of emotions to reason, consistent with feminist critiques of Habermas, is most valuable. She argued for a critiquing of the dominant forms of reason to redefine or reconstruct them in less oppositional and hierarchical ways and for an affirmative assessment of emotion as being both crucial and creative. She wrote of reason and emotions as capable of a creative integration and interaction and ties an inclusion and respect for the emotions to the development of rationality and ethics.

2. Habermas, ‘Law as Social Mediation Between Facts and Norms’, op. cit., 12

3. The materialist position is that in thought we are matter (objective reality) reflecting on itself. Contrary to language (or anything else) being a barrier to our knowing the world, every aspect of us including our use of language has developed from and to know the world through our senses. Our knowledge of the world is continually tested and refined – by nature – in practice. ‘Truth,’ as a result, is never absolute but always deepening.

4.‘The task of the theory of universal grammar is the rational reconstruction of a system of rules that is not yet recognised or theoretically specifiable even though it is already practically mastered and to that extent known. …Chomsky, in introducing the concept of linguistic competence, is compelled to perform an idealisation. He himself talks of the ideal speaker-hearer: “Linguistic theory is concerned primarily with an ideal speaker-listener”’ Habermas, ‘Universal Pragmatics: Reflections on a Theory of Communicative Competence’ in On the Pragmatics of Social Interaction, Trans., Barbara Fultner, MIT, Massachusetts, 2001, 68

5. ‘Chomsky uses this assumption of an innate linguistic capacity to support the further assumption that all normally socialised members of a speech community, if they have learned to speak at all, have complete mastery of the system of abstract linguistic rules.’ Ibid., 70

6. ‘nothing would stand in the way of the concept of one reason today if philosophy and science were able to reach through the thicket of natural languages to the logical grammar of a single language’, Habermas, ‘The Unity of Reason in the Diversity of Its Voices,’ Post-Metaphysical Thinking, MIT, 1992, pp. 115-148, 134

7. ‘The idea of the redeemability of criticisable validity claims requires idealisations that, as adopted by the communicating actors themselves, are thereby brought down from transcendental heaven to the earth of the lifeworld. The theory of communicative action detranscendentalises the noumenal realm only to have the idealising force of context-transcending anticipations settle in the unavoidable pragmatic presuppositions of speech acts, and hence in the heart of ordinary, everyday communicative practice.’, ‘Law as Social Mediation Between Facts and Norms’, op. cit., 18-19

8. Habermas acknowledges that his philosophy employs both an absolute and metaphysics: ‘The moment of unconditionality that is preserved in the discursive concepts of a fallibilistic truth and morality is not an absolute, or it is at most an absolute that has become fluid (my italics) as a critical procedure. Only with this residue of metaphysics (my italics) can we do battle against the transfiguration of the world through metaphysical truths’, ‘The Unity of Reason in the Diversity of Its Voices’ op. cit., 144

9. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus 1921, Trans. D. F. Pears and B. F. McGuinness, Introduction Bertrand Russell, Routledge, New York, 2005 (1st pub. in English in 1922). Habermas agreed, writing ‘There are indeed, things that cannot be put into words. They make themselves manifest. They are what is mystical’ (2002: 46, emphasis added), in Mel Gray and Terence Lovat, ‘Practical Mysticism, Habermas, and Social Work Praxis’, Journal of Social Work, Vol. 8, Issue 2, 2008 pp. 149-162, 156. The authors conclude their article with ‘we believe we are on solid ground in inferring a conceptual link between Habermasian self-reflective knowing and practical mysticism.’ Ibid., 158

10. ‘Law as Social Mediation Between Facts and Norms’, op. cit., 14

11. ‘“Real” is what can be represented in true statements, whereas “true” can be explained in turn by reference to the claim one person raises before others by asserting a proposition. …we cannot break out of the sphere of language and argumentation, even if we must understand reality as what we can represent in true statements‘ Ibid., 14

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