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

Jane Braaten made the excellent criticism of Habermas (one which should be applied to philosophers generally) that Habermas limited his ‘critique of reason to a theory of justification, rather than the content of that theory.’1 Consonant with Lloyd’s analysis of the Man of Reason, feminists have charged Habermas with a failure to theorise gender (Jean Cohen and Nancy Fraser, Seyla Benhabib).2 Again consonant with the male/female, reason/emotion dualisms of this model, feminists have critiqued Habermas for a silence regarding the expressive aspect of communication.3 Johnson unknowingly approves the Böhmean influence on Habermas’s communicative theory of rationality.4

On the subject of art – particularly that which is non-linguistic – Habermas’s commitment to the rationalist model, to that which is linguistic and propositional and which concludes in ‘yesses’ and ‘nos’ is most exposed. To argue, as Habermas does, that works are ‘arguments’ and that art is a kind of ‘knowing’ (because it can be criticised – any such criticism traceable to the formal elements employed – ‘aesthetic harmony’ being one of them) does not stand up. Art is primarily the expression of life rather than the presentation of an argument – the expression of all that is most complex, most contradictory, most fluid and most dynamic.

Habermas’s prime concern – subsuming those for democracy and for philosophy’s guardianship of ‘rationality’ – is the regaining of a lost, mystical ‘unity of reason,’ a mystical Man of Reason. He asks ‘how can reason, once it has been…sundered, go on being a unity on the level of culture?’5 and replies ‘Everyday life…is a more promising medium for regaining the lost unity of reason than are today’s expert cultures or yesteryear’s classical philosophy of reason.’6 Hegel likewise looked to the enspirited Lutheran cultus for the same solution to the spiritual ‘crisis of modernity’. Habermas longs for ‘a worldview in which the particular is immediately enmeshed with the particular, one is mirrored in the other.’7 The philosophies of Plotinus, Cusanus and Böhme are his guides.8



1. Jane Braaten, ‘From Communicative Rationality to Communicative Thinking: A Basis for Feminist Theory and Practice’, in Johanna Meehan, Ed., Feminists Read Habermas: Gendering the Subject of Discourse, op. cit., 139

2. ‘The most significant flaw in Habermas’s work is his failure to consider the gendered character of roles of worker and citizen that emerged along with the differentiation of the market economy and the modern state from the life-world’, Jean, L Cohen, ‘Critical Social Theory and Feminist Critiques, The Debate with Jürgen Habermas’ in Johanna Meehan, Ed., Feminists Read Habermas: Gendering the Subject of Discourse, op. cit., 71. Fraser was more pointed in her verbal questioning of Habermas ‘“What are the social and economic conditions for effective participation in a nonexclusionary and genuinely democratic public sphere? Isn’t economic equality – the end of class structure and the end of gender unequality – the condition for the possibility of a public sphere, if we are really talking about what makes it possible for people to participate? Is capitalism compatible with this?” …Jürgen Habermas: “I’ll have to get over the shock to answer such a question…” ‘Concluding Remarks’ in Craig Calhoun, Ed., Habermas and the Public Sphere, MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1992, 468-469. Benhabib is more sanguine, writing that Habermas’s discourse model will be useful once that discourse has been feminised. Lloyd argued that a critique of the Man of Reason from a specifically feminist standpoint runs the risk of becoming ‘a catalogue of the atrocities he has perpetrated on women’ and that he is an ideal of the male for both genders and has been maintained by both. G. Lloyd, ‘The Man of Reason’, op. cit., 127

3. ‘communicative rationality must account for a crucial aspect of the symbolic meaning and content of communication if one is to consider, as Habermas has, an expansion of subjectivities in the interplay between culture and the public sphere.’ Mia Pia Lara, Moral Textures: Feminist Narratives in the Public Sphere, Polity Press, 1998, 50

4. ‘Habermas asserts that the struggle for personal autonomy increasingly comes to interpret itself as a call for recognition by others, hence as a struggle to discursively construct a shared understanding through which the need and identity claims of the self might be rendered intelligible. Through his elaboration of this aspect of the dependence of the idea of private autonomy on the principle of public autonomy, Habermas, I will suggest, provides an account of the mechanisms involved in the rationalisation of the lifeworld in terms which respond, convincingly, to the feminist critique of the gender-blindness of his earlier formulations’, Pauline Johnson, ‘Distorted communications: Feminism’s dispute with Habermas’, Philosophy and Social Criticism, January, 2001, Vol. 27 No. 1, pp. 39-62, 48

5. ‘Philosophy as Stand-In and Interpreter’, Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action, MIT, 1990, pp. 1-20, 17

6. Ibid., 18

7. ‘The Unity of Reason in the Diversity of Its Voices,’ op. cit., 118

8. ‘The authentic and primal Cosmos is the Being of the Intellectual Principle and of the Veritable Existent. This contains within itself no spatial distinction, and has none of the feebleness of division, and even its parts bring no incompleteness to it since here the individual is not severed from the entire. …there is here no separation of thing from thing, no part standing in isolated existence estranged from the rest…Everywhere one and complete’, The Enneads, op. cit., III.2.1; Jaspers wrote of Cusanus’s philosophy in The Great Philosophers, Ed., Hannah Arendt, Trans., Ralph Manheim, Rupert Hart-Davis, London, 1966, 189 and referenced by Habermas in ‘The Unity of Reason in the Diversity of Its Voices’ ‘Each thing is the whole world in a limited form, as participation in the whole, as mirror of the whole, as drawn into the whole by interaction. …each individual…limits all things in itself.’ Cusanus wrote ‘You bestow, as if You were a living Mirror-of-eternity, which is the Form of forms. When someone looks into this Mirror, he sees his own form in the Form of forms, which the Mirror is.’ De Visione Dei, Chapter 15, Trans., Jasper Hopkins, The Arthur J. Banning Press, Minneapolis, 1988, 710

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