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

Meehan encapsulates Habermas’s theory of communicative reason: ‘(When subjects employ communicative reason they can) distance themselves from particular roles and recognise that all roles are structured by shared social norms. Thus the vantage of the generalised other is the vantage of a neutral observer, who can objectively survey the reciprocal expectations and interactions constitutive of these roles. Only then can the intersubjectively grounded character of norms which shape expectations and actions be grasped.’1 Not only is this theory utterly idealistic – a denial of class, of the reality of capitalism as a political construction, and of its property relations2 – that idealism signifies its true meaning and purpose.

Communicative reason for Habermas is far more than a thoroughly democratic experience of rationality, an equal exchange of reasoned and defensible views in debate, than action oriented toward mutual understanding and the development of ‘an intact intersubjectivity, which makes possible both a mutual and constraint-free understanding among individuals in their dealings with one another and the identity of individuals who come to a compulsion-free understanding with themselves. …(an) intact intersubjectivity (which) is a glimmer of symmetrical relations marked by free, reciprocal recognition,’3 it is an exercise which can never go beyond the theoretical for attaining a spiritual unity built on and sustained by a core mystical belief which Habermas acknowledged regarding the relationship between ego and alter, knower and known, subject and object.4

‘one doctrinal element of Jakob Böhme’s mystical speculations on the “nature” that arises through an act of contraction, or the “dark ground” in God, has been of great significance for me. …The rather “dark” tendency toward finitisation [Verendlichung] or contraction is intended as an explanation of God’s capacity for self-limitation. This was the subject of my doctoral dissertation. …In order to be able to see Himself confirmed in His own freedom through an alter ego, God must delimit himself precisely within this very freedom.’5

Böhme believed that for God to realise himself, he must dirempt from and oppose an other to himself, coming to fully be through the development of this negation.6 Hegel (amongst others) took this over from Böhme and built his master/servant dialectic on it – for Hegel, selfhood not only develops in opposition to the not-self but through communal intersubjectivity all find their existence and true, non-arbitrary freedom. In his essay ‘Communicative Freedom and Negative Theology: Questions for Michael Theunissen,’ Habermas wrote ‘The dialogical encounter with an other whom I address, and whose answer lies beyond my control, first opens the intersubjective space in which the individual can become an authentic self.’7

He approvingly writes that for Theunissen ‘True selfhood expresses itself as communicative freedom – as being-with-oneself-in-the-other…In such a relation one partner is not the limit of the other’s freedom, but the very condition of the other’s successful selfhood. And the communicative freedom of one individual cannot be complete without the realised freedom of all others.’8 Habermas acknowledged that the ‘metaphysical priority of unity above plurality and the contextualistic priority of plurality above unity are secret accomplices (my italics). …the unity of reason only remains perceptible in the plurality of its voices’.9

Habermas’s ideal ‘final opinion’ that transcends material space and time not only echoes Plato’s realm of Forms but has its source in The Enneads

‘The fact that the product contains diversity and difference does not warrant the notion that the producer must be subject to corresponding variations. On the contrary, the more varied the product, the more certain the unchanging identity of the producer.10

Part three/to be continued…


1. Johanna Meehan, Ed., Feminists Read Habermas: Gendering the Subject of Discourse, Routledge, New York, 1995, 3

2. Suitably for Habermas, also a denial of the very consciousness and its products in language that he, following Weber, otherwise gives precedence to. John Sitton, Habermas and Contemporary Society, Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2003, pp. 151 ff.

3. ‘The Unity of Reason in the Diversity of Its Voices’, op. cit., 145

4. The oddness of Habermas’s assertion that ‘reason’ can only be found in intersubjective communication, that reason cannot be employed by a subject towards a material object is a further sign of his mystical motivation.

5. ‘A Conversation About God and the World’ Interview of Jürgen Habermas by Eduardo Mendieta op. cit., 160-161

6. This is essentially ‘the double negation of criticisable validity claims’ in my first quotation from Habermas. For Hegel, the double negation (Christ’s death and resurrection) enabled the life of Spirit and true religion (distinct from that of the Enlightenment) to come to the Lutheran cultus.

7. Habermas, ‘Communicative Freedom and Negative Theology: Questions for Michael Theunissen’ (1997), in Religion and Rationality: Essays on Reason, God, and Modernity, op. cit., pp. 110-128, 110

8. Ibid., 115

9. ‘The Unity of Reason in the Diversity of Its Voices’, op. cit., 116-117. Martin Beck Matustik wrote ‘mystery is ascribed by Habermas to communicative reason in history, rather than to an apocalyptic myth of a saving ‘God’. Secularising the mystical Protestant and Jewish traditions of Jakob Böhme and Isaak Luria, with the gnostic narrations of the salvation history, Habermas forms his intuitions about communicative nearness and distance, reciprocity and autonomy, vulnerability and separateness’ Martin Beck Matustik, Jürgen Habermas: A Philosophical-Political Profile, Rowman and Littlefield, Lanham, Maryland, 2001, 226

10. Plotinus, The Enneads, Third ed., abridged. Trans. Stephen MacKenna, Penguin, London, 1991, IV. 4.11

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