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

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

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

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

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


Jürgen Habermas: ‘An Awareness of What is Missing’ – ‘the Kingdom of God on Earth’

Habermas and Ratzinger, 19.01.04

Habermas and Ratzinger, 19.01.04

I will first summarise what I think are the most salient points made by Habermas in his chapter ‘An Awareness of What is Missing’ and I will then respond to what I think are the main issues raised.

The chapter is a study in the relation between reason (knowledge) and faith. It begins with a funeral service for an agnostic held in a church, indicating that ‘modernity’ could not offer a replacement for a religious ritual in order to mark a person’s death.

Habermas argues that the secular and the religious should engage in communicative dialogue. They share a common source in the Axial Age and while the secular must not presume to speak on religious truth the religious must accept the domination of the secular state and the ‘factual knowledge’ of science.

  • modern science compelled philosophical reason to break with metaphysics and little more was left to philosophy
  • modern reason can only come to understand itself when it addresses religious consciousness
  • Habermas rejected the Enlightenment’s unenlightened view of denying religion rational content and Hegel’s position regarding religion’s subordination to philosophy
  • Habermas states that his motive ‘for addressing the issue of faith and knowledge is to mobilise modern reason against the defeatism lurking within it.’ He is referring to postmodernism’s relativism and to scientism.
  • where ‘practical reason can justify law and morality, it falls short in motivating collective action in response to threats. Kant aimed to counter this with God as postulate. Habermas asks if an engagement with religion might resolve this dilemma for ‘postmetaphysical thinking’. Such an engagement would bear on current religious conflicts around the world ‘triggered…by (an) unexpected spiritual renewal’ and the politicisation of religion. The main religious winners are the Catholics, Evangelicals and Muslims. The Protestants in Germany and Britain, due to their national organisations, not so. The primary issue since the destruction of the World Trade Centre has been the instrumentalisation of Islam.
  • the neutrality of the state towards worldviews has set off conflicts which are either power struggles between state authority and religious movements or conflicts between those with secular or religious convictions. The liberal state cannot continue with this position – it requires convictions. And to acquire legitimation, it requires reasons to justify its neutrality which can be accepted by both the religious and the secular. On the basis of this the religious must accept the neutrality of the state in relation to worldviews, broad religious freedom and the independence of scientific research and its monopoly in producing factual knowledge. The secular state must at the same time protect freedom of belief for all. Habermas asks if the state might require the religious to justify themselves non-religiously with regard to politics or should a worldview-neutral language only be expected of politicians?
  • the liberal state must expect its secular citizens not to treat religious ideas as irrational. This engenders the question of how ‘modern’ reason and religion should relate with the other.
  • Habermas concludes with a brief genealogy of the rise of secular reason, arguing its development through a ‘shared reason’ of people of faith, unbelievers, and members of different religions.’


> Habermas refers to several ‘reasons’: ‘secular reason’, ‘“natural” reason, ‘philosophical reason’, ‘modern reason’, ‘practical reason’, ‘religious reason’, ‘shared reason’, ‘secular knowledge’ and ‘revealed knowledge’ – not to mention ‘postmetaphysical thinking’. There is one reason – and that very poorly understood, particularly in philosophy where Lloyd’s Man of Reason with his dualist exclusions is dominant. And this reason is that of Habermas – linguistic, propositional, undialectical, ‘yes’ and ‘no’.

> Habermas writes that ‘modern science compelled…philosophical reason…to break with metaphysical constructions of the totality of nature and history.’ But metaphysics is not the point – it is a straw man for the question which underlies all others – ‘Which takes precedence and which the derivative – consciousness and language or ‘matter’ – the philosophical concept for objective reality?’ What modern science compelled was that God come from heaven to earth and go within. I refer to the rise of mysticism in the West, its primary manifestation Neoplatonism. And this mysticism, this ‘secret accomplice’ via Böhme, Habermas acknowledged was of great significance to him – in fact his theory of communicative reason, his magnum opus, is built on it.

> 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, particularly from that of unity. Habermas wrote ‘the decision to engage in action based on solidarity when faced with threats (such as the tensions and fracturings of ‘modernity’) which can be averted only by collective efforts calls for more than insight into good reasons. Kant wanted to make good this weakness of rational morality through the assurances of his philosophy of religion.’ 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 subjects – for all, truly a ‘Kingdom of God on earth’.

> ‘Could an altered perspective on the genealogy of reason rescue postmetaphysical thinking from this dilemma?’ Certainly, but not in the direction Habermas advocates. The grounding would need to be material (which would immediately remove religion from claims to reason) not an abstract normative.

> Habermas writes of ‘conflicts which are currently being triggered around the world by the unexpected spiritual renewal and by the unsettling political role of religious communities.’ When the only form of organised resistance available is one’s religious structure, because the government of one’s country is so compromised and democracy crushed, undoubtedly this spiritual renewal will come as unexpected to many in the West.

> Habermas writes of ‘the neutrality of the state towards worldviews.’ I disagree. The state is the organ of the capitalist class and its fundamental purpose is to embody and represent the world-view of that class. While it is necessary for cohesion that the state give the appearance of impartiality, this is not the case in practice. Perhaps the potentially most dangerous instance of this is the delicate two-faced two-step between the state and the media with regard to China. At regular intervals a story is fed to the media on China – a recent one concerning Chinese spies on this campus. Could anyone possibly argue against there being Australian and American spies here as well? Wikileaks exposed the disgusting servility of Australian political leaders to the US on the subject of China. These stories keep the tension ‘just right’ so that if and when the state with the assistance of the media needs, at the behest of the US, to whip the majority into the acceptance of war, all is in place.

And on the point of public and religious schools, Habermas’s words do not stand up – funding by Federal and state governments for decades has increasingly been taken from the public education system and given to religious and so-called private schools. If it weren’t so serious, the rorting by religious schools that occasionally appears in the media would be amusing.

> Habermas writes that ‘the liberal state must…expect its secular citizens…not to treat religious expressions as simply irrational.’ There is everything right with calling the irrational such. What would be wrong would be to do so with intolerance, abusively and with the intention of provoking violence. Habermas writes of ‘the rational core of faith’ yet in ‘Fundamentalism and Terror’ he wrote ‘Every religious doctrine rests on a dogmatic kernel of belief’.

Habermas’s late concern with religion is that of its prodigal son.


Jürgen Habermas, ‘An Awareness of What is Missing’ in An Awareness of What is Missing: Faith and Reason in a Post-Secular Age, Polity Press, Cambridge, 2010