Hegel’s cultural supremacism and the myth of Western ‘Reason’

The rose in the Rosicrucian cross is a concentration of mystical meanings including that of unfolding Mind. ‘To recognise reason as the rose in the cross of the present and thereby to enjoy the present, this is the rational insight which reconciles us to the actual…’ Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, Preface.

‘(The Oriental spirit) remains impoverished, arid, and just a matter for the understanding. For this reason we find, on the part of Orientals, only reflections, only arid understanding, a completely external enumeration of elements, something utterly deplorable, empty, pedantic, and devoid of spirit, an elaboration of logic similar to the old Wolffian logic. It is the same with Oriental ceremonies.

This is the general character of Oriental religious representations and philosophy. There is, as in their cultus, on the one hand an immersion in devotion, in substance, and so the pedantic detail of the cultus – a vast array of the most tasteless ceremonies and religious activities – and on the other hand, the sublimity and boundlessness in which everything perishes.

There are two Oriental peoples whom I wish to mention, the Chinese and the Indians.’

G.W.F.Hegel, Lectures on the History of Philosophy 1825-6 Volume I: Introduction and Oriental Philosophy, Together With the Introductions from the Other Series of These Lectures, Trans. Robert F. Brown and J.M. Stewart, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 2009, 106


Excellent words from a priest

The masses are the victims of the deception of a priesthood which, in its envious conceit, holds itself to be the sole possessor of insight and pursues its other selfish ends as well. At the same time it conspires with despotism which…stands above the bad insight of the multitude and the bad intentions of the priests, and yet unites both within itself. From the stupidity and confusion of the people brought about by the trickery of priestcraft, despotism, which despises both, draws for itself the advantage of undisturbed domination and the fulfilment of its desires and caprices, but is itself at the same time this same dullness of insight, the same superstition and error.

G.W.F.Hegel, Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, Trans., A.V.Miller, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1977, 330


Plato, the poet, inspiration and change

Raphael’s imagining of Plato and Aristotle, The School of Athens, fresco, 1509-11, Apostolic Palace, Vatican City

Plato believed that art is essentially mimetic and used ‘mimesis’ in different ways to express what the product of a craftsman is on a scale of diminishing degrees of reality and knowledge (from knowledge [pure thought and reason] to opinion [belief and illusion]), in relation to the true objects of knowledge – the Forms. Using the example of a bed: the eidos of Bed, made by the god is a unique, eternal and unchanging and therefore fully real essence, embodied in all beds.

A bed made by a carpenter participates in the essence of Bed, but because it is in the world of change, is less real. An artist’s painting of the bed is a mere image or illusion because it is only of the appearance of the bed – the bed painted from one perspective, as though seen in a mirror – so the painting is thrice removed from true reality and knowledge. Similarly, the mimesis produced by the poet (who creates pictures with words) is the re-presentation of life – mere imitation.

While an artist can paint a bit and bridle he does not understand the form that is proper to these objects, he has neither knowledge nor correct belief of what he depicts because he has no experience of them. The smith and leather-worker can make them – but even they don’t have the understanding of them that the horseman has. As with the soul, the tripartite Platonic divisions apply in the arts: here – the art of use, the art of making and the art of representation. The implied equation between ‘art of use’ and (knowledge of) eternal reality is on the basis of ‘complete engagement with’ – developed in Neoplatonism. The poet is the counterpart of the painter – their work too is thrice removed from reality, for the same reasons. The poet knows nothing more than their own craft – how to re-present appearances. They have no knowledge on the basis of experience of what they write about but employ their mere imagination.

Plato held that the only poetry that should be allowed in the commonwealth is that which praises the gods and ‘good’ men. He had particular hostility to ‘imitative’ poetry because it was to this that the Greeks had traditionally looked for moral and intellectual guidance (his prime target was Homer). He wanted to establish philosophy as that sole source, denying not only the parallels between poetry and philosophy – that they were both art forms that could be literary and pedagogical, but also the cognitive potential of poetry and the arts. He believed that ‘wisdom’ could be gained not through the study of the poet’s portraits of heroes but only through rigorous dialectic.

He argued that whereas (his) philosophy had as its summum bonum true knowledge on the basis of reason’s engagement with what was most real through strict training, the poet’s (particularly tragic) aim was to appeal to the ‘non-rational’ part of the soul and the arousal of emotion in their audience, on the basis of the poet’s imitation of appearances. The experience of the emotions aroused would then carry over into the daily lives of the citizens, to their detriment.

What was particularly threatening to Plato (because of his sensitivity to and capacity for inspiration and his determination to deny lived emotions and change with his controlled, rationalist system, and whom Guthrie correctly described as a philosophical theologian) was that the poet is ‘divinely inspired’. Poets work from inspiration not (linguistic) reason, they don’t understand the meaning of their language, they present a semblance of life with no grasp of reality. Such poetry, like all art, is play and not to be taken seriously. Thus Plato argued that the poet should be not allowed into a just commonwealth ‘because he stimulates and strengthens an element which threatens to undermine the reason.’

Driven by his antipathy to change and his incapacity to accept its necessity and by the manifestation of this in his division and opposition between ‘reason’ and ‘emotions’, Plato banished from his republic (from what was in effect his model for the perfection of self) that which, as evidenced by his own writing, he had the deepest appreciation of – poetry – and those whose business it was – including, by implication and most particularly, himself.



Hegel on the role of academic philosophers – priests at ‘a continual divine service’

Cloister garden, Domkerk, Utrecht

Cloister garden, Domkerk, Utrecht

“This conceptual cognition of religion is by its nature not universal, but is rather only the cognition of a community. For that reason three stages take shape in regard to the kingdom of the Spirit: the first estate is that of immediate, naive religion and of faith; the second is that of the understanding, the estate of the so-called cultured, of reflection and the Enlightenment; and finally the third estate is ‘the community of philosophy.’”

In a note the Editor commented: “The ‘community’ (Gemeinde) – the community of faith, of the Spirit, the Christian community – seems now to have passed over into the philosophical community, and along with it its cognitive (i.e., its theological) activity.”

G.W.F.Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion vol. III, The Consummate Religion, ed. Peter C. Hodgson, trans., R.F.Brown, P.C.Hodgson, J.M.Stewart, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 2007, 247



On reason 1

Jane Goodall with chimpanzee Jou Jou, Brazzaville Zoo, Brazzaville, Republic of the Congo, 1990

Jane Goodall with chimpanzee Jou Jou, Brazzaville Zoo, Brazzaville, Republic of the Congo, 1990

The very focus in Western culture not on a reason that is wholistic but on one that is only linguistic and conceptual, on ‘elegance’ and wit in language, the scholastic licking and sucking of every ‘ism’ (yet one more shade of philosophical idealism) or piece of jargon, a current which has sought to block out the spiritual, the emotional, the passionate, above all, the animal and material, has presented in its analysis only a twisted half of who we are.



What is philosophy the love of?

Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825) The Death of Socrates, 1787, oil on canvas, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825) The Death of Socrates, 1787, oil on canvas, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Hi Tach,

thank you for your comment and wishes. Thirty-two years of absolute commitment in pursuit of my intellectual vision (a concept, as Utzon and many others have experienced, which provokes the same response in Australia as daylight does from Dracula) academically in an authoritarian, anti-intellectual, shame-based and servile culture (all elements of the founding convict culture recently celebrated yet again by Abbott’s awarding a knighthood to the English queen’s husband and prior to that, by Obama’s showing his contempt for him – and thereby, for all Australians – at the G20 etc., etc.) have come to an end.

The most determined avoidance and ignorance of the subject of my intellectual vision – the pervasive impact of mysticism on Western culture and its relationship to dialectical materialism – is the greatest failure in social and intellectual responsibility by generations of time (i.e. capitalist class)-serving academics, particularly in the humanities.

William Franke’s two volume anthology On What Cannot be Said exemplifies the extent to which mysticism has impacted on Western philosophy (in particular), religion, literature and the arts, and it is a failure which, with the decline of the latest fashion in capitalist ideology – ‘postmodernism’ – these philosopher-servants (‘are we now post-postmodernism?’ one of them asks blithely) are now moving ever so gingerly to address.

The assertion by philosophers that what they have drawn from mysticism (which they have treated as their pornography – immensely energising when studied in private but not to be acknowledged and to be dissembled about or denied when questioned on its influence on their work) is in fact the result of the most rigorous conceptual reason is the greatest fraud on social and intellectual responsibility, a blatant lie in support of Western (increasingly threatened) capitalist supremacism – ‘We reason, you stare at your navel and chant “Om”, worship nature, are ruled with failed ideologies or are hung-up on filial piety’.

The supremacist Hegel1 was the high-priest of this. His altar boy Wittgenstein (Heraclitus without the Heraclitus, who wrote in the Foreword to his Philosophical Remarks that he would have dedicated the book to the glory of God but people wouldn’t have understood), as Russell noted, had much to say on what cannot be said – all set out in meticulous mathematical order. There are numerous others.

The present-day philosopher-servants of capital, people who would never go near mysticism before when the modernist and pomo bandwagons were rolling down main street, to be ridden for successful careers (bandwagons themselves suffused with mysticism), academics who rejected me, who abused me, who refused to recommend me for teaching what amounts to the basis for an entire cultural re-reading – an honest cultural re-reading, telling me I am intolerant of the views of others but when asked for evidence could provide none from many hours of class-time, then taught an awareness they got from me, must know that the subject of Western mysticism (particularly modern Western mysticism) has the potential to blow the lid on so much that they and their academic fellows and forebears have been utterly complicit in.

All these people who are now updating their songbooks have histories and should be held to account. Mysticism is not new to Western culture – it runs right through it to the present and its influence on Western culture has been and continues to be profound.

Ever calculating intellectual cowards, I believe these philosopher-servants don’t know what to do with such a hot potato now that they have been forced, by circumstances, to take it.

I believe the results of my absolute commitment and efforts over thirty two years to understand and explicate the impact of mysticism on Western culture have been appropriated from me at both the College of Fine Arts, UNSW and the University of Sydney, while I have been contained, laughed at (in 1999 I submitted a proposal to teach a course titled ‘Art and Ideology through Modernism’ to the Centre for Continuing Education at the University of Sydney. My referees were a professor in the department of fine arts at the university and a prominent Australian art writer. After numerous phone calls to the CCE because I had received neither a reply nor a decision, I finally spoke with a woman who asked me the name of my proposed course. When I told her, this provincial fool laughed, saying ‘That course wouldn’t suit our demographic’ and hung up), and excluded.

My blog has resulted from these and many other similar experiences.

Best regards, Phil


1. ‘(The Oriental spirit) remains impoverished, arid, and just a matter for the understanding. For this reason we find, on the part of Orientals, only reflections, only arid understanding, a completely external enumeration of elements, something utterly deplorable, empty, pedantic, and devoid of spirit, an elaboration of logic similar to the old Wolffian logic. It is the same with Oriental ceremonies.

This is the general character of Oriental religious representations and philosophy. There is, as in their cultus, on the one hand an immersion in devotion, in substance, and so the pedantic detail of the cultus – a vast array of the most tasteless ceremonies and religious activities – and on the other hand, the sublimity and boundlessness in which everything perishes.

There are two Oriental peoples whom I wish to mention, the Chinese and the Indians.’

G.W.F.Hegel, Lectures on the History of Philosophy 1825-6 Volume I: Introduction and Oriental Philosophy, Together With the Introductions from the Other Series of These Lectures, Trans. Robert F. Brown and J.M. Stewart, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 2009, 106



The Advice of a Concealed Priest, Motivated by a Love for Truth

‘…what is philosophy? To answer, we must know just where the boundaries of philosophy lie. A great deal that gets counted as philosophy we exclude; if we just went by the name, we would have to bring in much material that we nevertheless disregard. In the same way we could say about religion that, on the whole, we can leave it alone, although in history, religion and philosophy have not left one another alone. …Neither has left the other untouched; hence we may not do so either.

We have to speak about two main subjects that are connected to philosophy; the first is science as such, and the second is religion in particular and the relationship of philosophy to it; there must be open, direct, and honest consideration of this latter point.’

G.W.F.Hegel, Lectures on the History of Philosophy 1825-6 Volume I: Introduction and Oriental Philosophy, Together With the Introductions from the Other Series of These Lectures, Trans. Robert F. Brown and J.M. Stewart, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 2009, 69-70

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 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