Richard Rorty

  • Der Philosophische Diskurs der Moderne: Zwölf Vorlesungen by Jürgen Habermas
    Suhrkamp, 302 pp, 54.00, February 1985, ISBN 3 518 57702 6

A third-rate critic of an original philosopher usually attacks him (or her) for frivolous irresponsibility, or corrupting the youth, or for having (by underhand ‘rhetorical’ means) briefly made the worse appear the better cause. By contrast, a second-rate critic will spot lacunae in the philosopher’s arguments, ambiguities in her use of terms, and vagueness in her conclusions. Such a critic defends the conventional wisdom which the radical philosopher criticised, and does so by detailed examination of the ipsissima verba of those criticisms, pointing out how often they either missed the point or begged the question.

A first-rate critic will think his way so thoroughly into the hopes and fears of the philosopher he is criticising that he is able to shrug off, on that philosopher’s behalf, the strictures of such lesser critics. First-rate critics delight in the originality of those they criticise, and they criticise them only when they are at their best. They attack an optimal version of the philosopher’s position – one in which the holes in the arguments are plugged or politely ignored, and the unfortunate side-effects of his work, or the side-issues she discussed, are trimmed away. This sort of criticism is robustly external. It consists in showing the inability of the philosopher under study, even at his best, to do what the critic thinks needs to be done. It says: this philosopher has invented a marvellously ingenious device, but it is one for which we have, or should have, no use.

The most effective form of such criticism is the one which Hegel perfected – a dramatic narrative which displays the historical situation in which the philosopher being criticised worked, the contemporary historical situation in which the critic himself is working, the connecting links between these two situations, and the inefficacy of the philosopher’s means to achieve the goals which the critic (and, by the time they have finished reading the narrative, his readers) are trying to achieve. At their best, such narratives convince us that the philosopher has not understood the pattern of the past and the needs of the present as well as, thanks to the critic, we now do. Viewed as formal arguments, such narrative accounts are, to be sure, circular and question-begging. They are often decisive, however, because they revise, subtly but convincingly, the terms in which we describe and judge the philosopher’s work – the terms in which we describe the utility of philosophy, what philosophies are supposed to do for us. Such narratives typically tell us that the tradition has exhausted its alternatives, and that it is time to start afresh – to achieve new ends with new means.

Thus, to those who have read Kant’s first Critique, Hume and Leibniz will always look a bit primitive in their understanding of the philosopher’s task. Hegel never quite recovered from Marx’s description of his social and historical role. Nietzsche is still reeling from Heidegger’s description of him as ‘the last metaphysician’. If Habermas has his way, we shall, from now on, have to think of Heidegger, Derrida and Foucault as philosophers who tried and failed to achieve something which they were doomed never to achieve, warped as they were by a fatal genetic inheritance – what Habermas calls ‘the philosophy of subjectivity’.[1] Habermas wants to convince us that the needs of modernity can only be achieved by the means which he himself develops: the grounding of critical social theory on the ‘normatively-binding theory of intersubjective communication’ which he offered in his huge Theory of Communicative Action. On his view, Heidegger, Derrida and Foucault are ‘symptoms of exhaustion’ – the exhaustion of ‘the philosophy of consciousness’.

Habermas may be the best critic these philosophers have yet had – the most understanding and imaginative, if also the most implacable. Further, the drama Habermas unfolds in this richly-textured and vibrantly polemical book is likely, for accidental reasons, to become the standard story recited in British and American universities about what these three philosophers wanted, what they said, and where they went wrong. For the book offers an Anglo-Saxon audience features not previously found within a single volume. It is an insider’s book, in the sense that the young Habermas cut his philosophical teeth on Heidegger – just as the young Derrida and the young Foucault did. But it is also a debunking book, in the sense that it comes out on the side to which sceptical Anglo-Saxon readers already incline.

Habermas thinks that there is such a thing as ‘reason’, that it needs to be defended against irresponsible ‘irrationalist’ critics, and that there are universal, ahistorical norms which are fundamental to a democratic society. He agrees with lots of Popper’s strictures against Hegel. He thinks that Heidegger’s enthusiastic Nazism was not just a philosophically insignificant misstep, and that Heidegger’s later philosophy is just as vacuous as it first sounds. He thinks Derrida’s literarisation of philosophy and philosophication of literature a complete mistake. He thinks Foucault a brilliant failure: that Foucault’s talk of ‘power’ is, in the end, as empty as Heidegger’s talk of ‘Being’. So he is likely to be read as confirming the opinions of blimpish know-nothings. The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity will be cited as evidence that we can safely ignore all those mystical Germans and frivolous French who are being read by the gullible, corruptible, thrill-seeking youth.

Such misuse of the book is, I suspect, inevitable but unimportant. But it is important to notice that Habermas does not think of himself as debunking, but as arguing with his peers: with the people who have thought hardest about how to answer the ‘question of modernity’, about how to handle the problem which European philosophers have had to face since the time of Hegel. He is not appealing to sound common sense against the fantasies of the philosophers. He is taking for granted that the figures whom he discusses asked a hard and important question, and arguing that they failed to answer it.

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[1] A translation, by Frederick Lawrence, of Der Philosophische Diskurs der Moderne will be published in October by MIT Press in America and in November by Polity in Britain. I have used Lawrence’s translation in the quotations contained in this review.

[2] For the young Habermas’s attitudes toward Heidegger, see the volume of interviews with him edited by Peter Dews, Habermas: Autonomy and Solidarity (Verso, 1986).

[3] LRB, 17 April, 8 May and 24 July 1986.