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