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

Habermas wrote that radical contextualism itself thrives on a negative metaphysics1 and that it may be appropriate to do philosophy in the mode, but only in the mode of negative theology.2 In this Habermas is being disingenuous. He wrote that ‘Modern science compelled a philosophical reason which had become self-critical to break with metaphysical constructions of the totality of nature and history. …With this the synthesis of faith and knowledge forged in the tradition extending from Augustine to Thomas fell apart.’3

Firstly, idealism (in its many shades) continues to dominate philosophical ‘reason’ – Habermas’s philosophy, in which cognates of ‘ideal’ are common, is exemplary. It is philosophy’s relationship with idealism and religion that Habermas wants to preserve. His assertion that modern science compelled philosophical reason to break with metaphysics (leading to what Habermas thinks is a ‘postmetaphysical’ age) is a straw man for the question which underlies all others – ‘Which takes precedence and which the derivative – consciousness and its products in language or ‘matter’ – the philosophical concept for objective reality?’

What the rise of modern science compelled philosophers to do in their refusal to accept the primacy of matter (and the far-reaching consequences of this) was to ‘detranscendentalise’ God, to bring him from heaven to earth and place him withinin hiding. I refer to the rise of mysticism particularly post the late eighteenth century – its primary manifestation in the West, Neoplatonism. This mysticism, this ‘secret accomplice’ via Böhme, Habermas acknowledged was of great significance to him – in fact his theory of communicative reason and the ‘rationality’ he believes philosophy should be the ‘guardian’ of are built on it. Habermas’s philosophy is but one which is representative of this mystical influence – philosophy’s suppressed but beginning-to-be-told story.4

In arguing for philosophy’s role as ‘guardian of rationality’, Habermas is not only merely arguing for the continuation of a Western cultural perception and tradition summarised in philosophy’s role as interpreter (for Habermas’s ‘lifeworld’) of the arbitrary, ‘fragmented’ ‘value spheres’ derived via Weber from Kant’s Critiques – of the theoretical (science), the practical (morality) and the aesthetic (art), he is arguing, in what he calls a ‘post-secular’ age for the revival of the relationship between philosophy and religion – a relationship he hopes5 can address the tensions and fracturings of ‘modernity’ by producing a mystical unity of (communicative) ‘reason’.

Habermas writes of the blinkered, unenlightened enlightenment, which denies religion any rational content. He takes his place on a continuum from Hegel through Nietzsche and Weber, critical of the enlightenment from a spiritual perspective, from that of unity. Habermas wrote ‘the decision to engage in action based on solidarity when faced with threats (such as the tensions and divisions of ‘modernity’) which can be averted only by collective efforts calls for more than insight into good reasons. (my italics – what is philosophy if not insight into good reasons?) Kant wanted to make good this weakness of rational morality through the assurances of his philosophy of religion.’6 Hegel’s answer was that philosophers find sanctuary as an isolated order of priests and that the Holy Spirit come to a speculative Lutheran cultus; that man of god, Nietzsche’s, his mystical Übermensch; Weber’s his no less mystical hero of Beruf and Habermas’s a linguistified God, ‘detranscendentalised’ in the mutual recognition of communicative egos – for all, truly a ‘Kingdom of God on earth’.7

Part four/to be continued…


1. ‘The Unity of Reason in the Diversity of Its Voices’, op. cit., 116

2. ‘Communicative Freedom and Negative Theology: Questions for Michael Theunissen’, op. cit., 126

3. ‘An Awareness of What is Missing’, An Awareness of What is Missing: Faith and Reason in a Post Secular Age, Trans., Ciaran Cronin, Polity, Cambridge, 2010, 16

4. With the running out of steam of that stage of capitalist ideology known as postmodernism, mysticism (up until recently a total ‘no-no’ anywhere to do with academia) is beginning to be taught in adult education courses to eager audiences. It is but a matter of time before the tuition of mysticism enters the universities.

5. Habermas’s view on this is very bleak: ‘the colonisation of the public sphere by market imperatives seems to foster a peculiar kind of paralysis among the consumers of mass communications.’ ‘Political Communication in Media Society: Does Democracy Still Have An Epistemic Dimension? The Impact of Normative Theory on Empirical Research’, Europe: The Faltering Project, Polity, 2008, pp. 138-183, 177; ‘The most influential governments…who remain the most important political actors on this stage, persist undaunted in their social Darwinist power games – even more so since the catastrophe of 9/11 and the reaction to it. Not only is the political will to work towards the institutions and procedures of a reformed global order missing, but even the aspiration to a pacified global domestic politics. I suspect that nothing will change in the parameters of public discussion and in the decisions of the politically empowered actors without the emergence of a social movement which fosters a complete shift in political mentality. The tendencies towards a breakdown in solidarity in everyday life do not exactly render such a mobilisation within western civil societies probable’, ‘A Reply’ in Jürgen Habermas et al., An Awareness of What is Missing: Faith and Reason in a Post-Secular Age, op. cit., 74; ‘More than anything else, the erosion of confidence in the power of collective action and the atrophy of normative sensibilities reinforce an already smouldering skepticism with regard to an enlightened self-understanding of modernity. Hence the imminent danger of democracy becoming an “obsolete model”’, Habermas, ‘“The Political” The Rational Meaning of a Questionable Inheritance of Political Theology’ in Eduardo Mendieta and Jonathan VanAntwerpen, The Power of Religion in the Public Sphere, Columbia University Press, New York, 2011, pp. 15-33, 16. Then there is his elitism ‘The addressees who comprise the dispersed mass audience can play their part in a process of deliberative legitimation only if they manage to grasp the main lines of a, let us assume, more or less reasonable elite discourse and adopt more or less considered stances on relevant public issues.’ ‘Political Communication in Media Society: Does Democracy Still Have An Epistemic Dimension? The Impact of Normative Theory on Empirical Research’, Europe: The Faltering Project, Polity, 2008, pp. 138-183, 172

6. ‘An Awareness of What is Missing’, op. cit., 18-19

7. Habermas’s words are instructive ‘enlightened reason unavoidably loses its grip on the images, preserved by religion, of the moral whole – of the Kingdom of God on earth – as collectively binding ideals. At the same time, practical reason fails to fulfil its own vocation when it no longer has sufficient strength to awaken, and to keep awake, in the minds of secular subjects, an awareness of the violations of solidarity throughout the world, an awareness of what is missing, of what cries out to heaven.’, Ibid., 19

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