Wednesday, July 10, 2019

A discussion about discussion - Raymond Geuss on Habermas

Overview. Raymond Geuss's crititical essay on Jürgen Habermas and some responses: 

1. Raymond Geuss - "A Republic of Discussion. Habermas at Ninety" (June 18, 2019)

[See the full German version here.]


Is “discussion” really so wonderful? Does “communication” actually exist? What if I were to deny that it does? (....) Discussions, even discussions that take place under reasonably favorable conditions, are not necessarily enlightening, clarifying or conducive to fostering consensus. In fact, they just as often foster polemics, and generate further bitterness, rancor and division. Just think of Brexit. I get along with most people better the less I know about what they really think and feel. (....)

When I talk with Brexiteers, I certainly do not assume that what Habermas calls the “power of the better argument” will be irresistible. And I am certainly very far from assuming that an indefinite discussion conducted under ideal circumstances would eventually free them from the cognitive and moral distortions from which they suffer, and in the end lead to a consensus between them and me. What makes situations like this difficult is that arguments are relatively ineffectual against appeals to “identity. (.....) 

There is good reason to be skeptical about the main thesis Habermas proposes in this context: that the main contemporary problem is a deficit of legitimacy for social institutions, and that this can be remedied by developing a theory of communication. First of all, as has been mentioned above, it is a Kantian prejudice that “legitimation” is the basic problem of philosophy or even the basic problem of philosophy in the modern era. It is even less plausible to think that it is the basic social problem of the modern world. Then, Habermas’s conception of “discourse-without-domination” makes no sense: communication has no stable, invariant structure, certainly not one that would allow us to infer from it criteria for a universally valid set of norms, and for the identification and criticism of all forms of domination. In other words, there is no communication, at any rate in the following sense: there is no rule-governed form of linguistic behavior that is necessarily oriented to universal norms that are implicit in it, can be anticipated and are always presupposed by those who participate in that form of behavior. (......)

The foolish claim that “we live in the best of all possible worlds” is not the best defense of the status quo. It is much more effective to hide one’s affirmation of the given social and economic structures, while trumpeting the opportunities one’s philosophy provides for criticizing a wide variety of individual flaws, defects and inadequacies. An ideology of “discursive criticism” also has much better chances of establishing itself because of certain psychological advantages it gives to those who adopt it. It is well suited to absorb, deflect and channel destructive energies that might otherwise get out of hand, by, thanks be to Kant, imposing discipline on existing discontent and dissipating it in small packets of reformist criticism of individual imperfections and blemishes of the social system.

2. Seyla Benhabib - "Jürgen Habermas’s 90th Birthday" (July 2, 2019)


Geuss reduces the complex architectonic of Habermas’ theory of communicative action which blends language analyses with social theory and a critique of contemporary capitalist societies, into a series of insultingly simple-minded propositions. (.....)

That Geuss is not interested in Habermas’s complex and subtle defense of democratic constitutionalism, as discussed in Between Facts and Norms (Faktizität und Geltung) is nowhere more evident than in his claim that discussions are “not necessarily enlightening, clarifying or conducive to fostering consensus.” That is undoubtedly sometimes the case, but if we desist from engaging in discussion altogether, if we cease to try to persuade each other with the best arguments possible as we believe them to be, if we do not seek to understand each others’ reasons and reasoning, then there can be no democracy, no parliamentarism. Period. (.....)

Let us listen carefully to what Putin is saying, because the battle lines are drawn: a new authoritarianism that is sweeping across the globe from Brazil to Turkey, from Hungary to India, is upon us. It intends to destroy democratic constitutionalism, the liberal culture of tolerance and diversity and yes — pace Geuss — government based on the idea of reaching agreement among citizens and residents of a polity who show one another equal respect. In this current climate, whether we criticize liberalism à la Rawls or à la Habermas, it is incumbent upon us to state more clearly where we draw the lines between an internal critique of liberal democratic constitutionalism and autocratic authoritarianisms — lest we end up with strange bedfellows! 

3. Martin Jay - “The Liberal Idea Has Become Obsolete” - Putin, Geuss and Habermas" (July 5, 2019)


Let me begin by conceding that the current political discourse in liberal democracies—Geuss’s main case is the cacophonous Brexit debate, but it would be easy to give other examples on both sides of the Atlantic—provides ample evidence that we are a long way in practice from Habermas’s ideal speech situation. Of course, he always posited it as a counterfactual, which could only be approached asymptotically with no guarantee that we are going in the right direction. Like the democracy that is always “to come,” as Derrideans are wont to say, or “the perfect union” that is always a task, not an accomplished state of affairs, it is an aspirational goal. By making the obvious point that we have not yet achieved it, does it follow that its function as such a goal is negated?  (....)

Ironically, Habermas’s own study of The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere ruefully concluded that the institutional breakthrough that was the bourgeois public sphere was losing ground in the late twentieth-century, when media manipulation was overwhelming the power of the better argument. Rather than being a starry-eyed utopian, he showed himself to be realistic about the obstacles to communicative rationality, even if the ideal, once articulated, was hard to suppress entirely. Although he later postulated a latent telos of communicative rationality in discursive interactions, it was always a regulative ideal and never a constitutive one. Only weakly transcendental, it has always been understood as dependent on specific circumstances for its potential actualization.

4. Raymond Geuss - "Professor Benhabib and Jürgen Habermas" (July 7, 2019)


I stopped reading what Habermas wrote in about 1980 when I discovered that he continued to be committed to pursuing a general line which seemed to me a dead end. I did, in fact, read a further one of his books, Diskurs der Moderne, when I was asked to review it, but I thought it was a tissue of misunderstandings, and so that was my last attempt to keep up with his writing. (.....)

I wrote a short essay in German about what I remembered about Habermas (and also T.W. Adorno and John Dewey) on communication. I praised Dewey for his open-ended idea of communication as an empirical process with potentially changing rules, and also Adorno for his criticism of liberal claims about the universality of the communication of truth. In doing so, I contrasted their views with those of Habermas, who held that communication had invariant, universal rules which imposed rules of behaviour on all speakers. In the sense in which Habermas used the term, ‘communication’, I thought, did not exist. My main target, just to repeat, is transcendentalism (or, in Habermas’ formula, ‘quasi-transcendentalism’ which seems to me in fact to amount to the same thing). (.....)

I note that the position I outlined was not that what we usually call ‘communication’ is never possible or never a good thing, only that Habermassian ‘transcendental theory of communicative action’ was an illusion. Now perhaps I am wrong about this, although I see no reason in Professor Benhabib’s text to think so.

5. Seyla Benhabib - "Contra Geuss: A Second Rejoinder" (July 7, 2019)


Geuss’s principal critique of Habermas is that the program of searching for “transcendental conditions of communication” is a philosophical failure. This is a perfectly legitimate philosophical disagreement but Geuss simply does not state the problem precisely. Habermas is NOT searching for transcendental or quasi-transcendental conditions of communication überhaupt; rather, in the tradition of speech-act theory, he is analyzing the conceptual presuppositions which we as speaking agents make in order for our utterances to be intelligible to each other. The distinction here is between “knowing what” and “knowing that,” or between implicit and explicit knowledge. Speech acts are embedded in communicative actions in the lifeworld. (.....)

As one of my mentors at Harvard, Judith Shklar argued convincingly, society is dependent for its functioning upon a certain hypocrisy and many of us do not even know our “deepest opinions, feelings and motivations.” But democracies cannot simply be republics of hypocrites. Sometimes, somewhere we must speak truth to power and to each other if we are to succeed in living together with respect and dignity.

6. Michael J. Quirk - "Why I Believe in Communicative Action: A Response to Geuss" (July 9, 2019)


(.....) you can de-transcendentalize Habermas and still have an intelligible way of talking about the need for undistorted communication as a central element in liberal democratic discourse. Habermas de-transcendentalized is shorn of the Kantian emphasis on the rigid distinction between fact and norm, and the political-moral priority of the Right over the Good. But for all that transcendental baggage Habermas rightly views political communication — in the form of public discussion of common goods and individual rights, where each communicator is considered an equal, and each communicant is committed to interpretive charity and “the power of the better argument” — as central to liberal, democratic, republican politics. (....)

What Dewey was advocating, along with Whitman and Lincoln, was this democratic culture, democracy as the very form of community life. So while Habermas is guilty of overreach in insisting that this culture requires a synthetic a priori of communicative competence, Geuss is similarly overreaching when he assumes that, without such an a priori, we are mysteries to each other as well as ourselves, adrift in the morass of late-modernity where ignorant armies clash by night, and wind up delivering Brexit and Donald Trump. Dewey’s defense of liberal republican democracy — participatory, deliberative, and discursive democracy — is not a matter of theory. But as a kind of shared attunement and set of shared judgments, it is a culture, and a pretty desirable one given the present alternatives.

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