Happy birthday Habermas, your philosophy has failed us

How a spat on the occasion of the famous thinker's 90th birthday reveals the inadequacies of political philosophy.

Happy birthday Habermas, your philosophy has failed us

How a spat on the occasion of the famous thinker's 90th birthday reveals the inadequacies of political philosophy.

The critical theorist Jürgen Habermas turned 90 last month. Although a hugely prominent figure in political philosophy, Habermas is not read much outside the academy in the English-speaking world. His works, which typically take the form of vast, multi-volume tracts, have all the forbidding difficulty of Derrida or Foucault or Deleuze and Guattari, but none of the outré edge; indeed, Habermas is sometimes cast as the leading philosophical exponent of the European Union. He belongs to the “Frankfurt School,” which in its early years pioneered a radical combination of heterodox Marxism and Freudian psychoanalysis. But his time as the leading thinker associated with the Institute for Social Research, the school's spiritual home in Frankfurt-am-Main, has been coincident with its lapse into cozy academic conformity.

So it's been interesting for me, as someone who used to spend most of their time studying this sort of thing, to see a bunch of senior professors use the occasion of Habermas's birthday to squabble about liberalism and accuse each other of being in thrall to Vladimir Putin. But while (often) wonkish, the debate is not solely of academic interest. In drawing out the significance of Habermas's thought, into a “real” world from which it otherwise remains largely isolated, the dispute helps us get to the heart of the crisis of political agency we are experiencing today.

It all starts with a guy called Raymond Geuss, an emeritus professor at the University of Cambridge, although to be perfectly honest I'm not sure how Cambridge ever ended up hiring him. To be clear, I mean that as compliment: Geuss used to have a big disclaimer on his faculty profile page informing visitors that he was NOT on email and that if anyone decided to use the university email address he had been allocated to contact him he would NOT answer it; I have heard him dedicate a good few minutes of a visiting lecture to detailing the schedule he had managed to establish for his naps. In an era in which academia often seems hamstrung by over-professionalization, there is something deeply heroic about this.

Geuss is a thinker drawn to irrationality, to failure, to the problems our intellect can't solve. Most philosophers, when presenting their work, will give a big spiel saying how they hope what they say will be convincing, despite its manifest limitations and blah blah blah (there's a lot of false modesty out there); whenever I've heard Geuss speak, he's started basically every argument by saying something to the effect of: “I know you'll all hate this, but I'm going to tell you it anyway,” openly flagging up the essential futility of (merely) academic debate. Obviously, some people find this style appealing — and some very much don't. If you were an academic philosopher who wanted a colleague who was willing to reassure either yourself or anyone else that, by teaching in a university and participating in the endless “publish or perish” cycle of research such institutions demand, you were engaged in an independently laudable endeavor with some sort of ultimate, self-justifying point — you would not find that in Geuss. Geuss’s style in itself represents a challenge to academic philosophy, especially academic political philosophy: to go beyond itself; to act, be engaged.

At any rate: to celebrate Habermas's birthday, Geuss published a piece in philosophy magazine The Point in which he argued that Habermas's ideas have very definitely been shown by history to be wrong. In the age of Brexit and Donald Trump, the fraying of liberal internationalism and the resurgence of the populist right, Habermas — and Habermasianism — have been left thoroughly, both politically and philosophically, refuted.

Habermas is the sort of thinker whose work is full not only of jargon, but also of fine, scholastic distinctions, so it can be hard to sum up for a lay audience in a clear, satisfactory way. But to put it reductively: his work pursues a sort of philosophical justification of the idea, popular among contemporary centrists, that the best way to combat any evil is to debate it.

Central to Habermas's thought is the idea of “communicative rationality.” For Habermas, norms of rationality are implicit in communication — hence rationality itself is the necessary outcome of our communicating with one another successfully. Of course, in the real world, not all communication is successful in this way: people as they really exist lie, cheat, exploit each other's ignorance, employ cheap rhetorical tricks; they have selfish interests which conflict with the common good. But we can posit an “ideal speech situation” in which none of this is able to go on. In theory then (although to be clear: not all Habermasians believe it would be possible to attain such an ideal speech situation in practice, and in his later work Habermas himself moves away from it at least somewhat), any problem could be solved simply by talking it through — everything yielding to the “forceless force” of the better argument.

But as Geuss points out, in the face of something like Brexit, this theory must seem — regardless of any qualifiers one may couch it in — completely absurd. It's not just that the debate over Brexit in the UK has both resulted from, and perpetuated, a crisis in communicative rationality, with few (if any) forums in which anything even approximating to a good-faith discussion of the issues surrounding Britain's membership in the European Union (which itself in truth is only one of the issues subsumed under the figure “Brexit”) can be had. This is certainly the case — although to Habermas's credit, he has himself written fairly extensively about the nature and significance of such crises. It is rather that Brexit gives us a very clear-cut example of an issue where not discussing it — refusing to discuss Britain's membership of the EU at all — would have been a lot more helpful. As Geuss puts it:

“It is only the discussion of the last four years, stoked by a few newspaper owners (many of them not domiciled in the U.K. at all), a small group of wealthy leftover Thatcherites and some opportunistic political chancers, that generated any interest in the subject at all. Dyed-in-the-wool Europhobes didn’t constitute more than 10 percent of the population. It was only the process of public discussion that permitted that hard-core to create conditions in which another 10 percent of the population articulated what was previously a merely latent mild discontent of the kind any population will be likely to have with any political regime, and express it as skepticism toward the Union.”

Thus, he continues:

“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... I get along with most people better the less I know about what they really think and feel.”

Obviously the main example Geuss uses here is Brexit — but he could equally have cited “no-platforming” controversies at universities, as well as something like Gamergate. Almost every day gives us another example of the sort of thing that Geuss (or rather: a Geuss more obsessively plugged-in to internet and popular culture) could have raised in support of his argument. The other week, a handful of comments in a Facebook thread led to an internet-wide controversy about Jason Momoa being “body-shamed”; almost simultaneously, a guy filmed causing a scene in a bagel shop was given a platform from which he was able (despite his racist YouTube channel) to claim to be the “Martin Luther King of short men”. Discourse begets discourse — but that discourse often works actively against real understanding. To put it bluntly, the interests of humanity would often be better-served by passing over certain issues in silence.

Perhaps, in all this, discourse really can be part of the solution, but if so, it is going to have to confront the fact that it’s also part of the problem.

In response to this, both Martin Jay, a leading historian of the Frankfurt School, and Seyla Benhabib, a political philosopher heavily influenced by Habermas who teaches at Yale, wrote sniffy, somewhat pearl-clutching rejoinders scolding Geuss for his rudeness in even daring to question their mentor. “A poisoned polemic,” Benhabib wrote of Geuss's article. “A thinker of Habermas's stature deserved a more measured exchange of opinions about his work on (his 90th birthday).” (Presumably, the norms of communicative rationality entail always being ideally deferential to other peoples's teachers).

Both rejoinders cover pretty similar theoretical ground. They argue that, in rejecting Habermas's specific ideas about communicative rationality, Geuss is denying the possibility of rational communication as such. He thus gives any would-be dictator theoretical leeway to ride roughshod over the institutions underpinning liberal democracy; indeed, without communicative rationality, any criticism of the people in power would be subject to a sort of performative contradiction. As Jay puts this point: “having already abandoned the very idea of grounds or reasons or justifications, Geuss has preempted the possibility of objecting to anything at all that might happen in (a) post-discussion future world.” (Hence why both accuse him of being somehow in thrall to Putin).

But this is a ridiculous conclusion to draw from Geuss’s critique. Geuss doesn’t reject the “very idea” of justifications — just the assumption that these justifications might always best be teased out, be formed and re-formed, through discussion. A similar thought is advanced by Habermas’s own mentor, Theodor Adorno, who grounded his critical theory not in abstract ideals of justice, but rather than in the brute, unjustifiable and often incomprehensible fact of bodily, physical suffering. “The physical moment tells our knowledge that suffering ought not to be, that things should be different,” Adorno writes in Negative Dialectics. “‘Woe speaks: Go’. Hence the convergence of specific materialism with criticism, with social change in practice.”

The fact of suffering can be a grounds for discourse, giving us a reason to ask the questions which must guide any discussion. But it can also lead us to come to the conclusion that the time for discussion has come to an end. Ultimately “only human action,” as Geuss also insists, can “bring about clarification and resolution.” (sometimes, yes, that action can appropriately take the form of a discussion — but not always).

Today, no matter how many people are suffering, we seem precisely unable to act. MEL Magazine's Miles Klee has written about how this is inability is being encoded into our very language; phrases like “you love to see it” and “you hate to see it” are uttered even in response to events we are swept up in; they imbue our orientation towards the world with the passivity of spectators watching sports on TV. In the face of climate change and the resurgence of the far right; the erosion of democracy, as more and more of the world's resources are channeled into the power of a privileged few, with concentration camps on the U.S.'s southern border, we are experiencing a deep crisis of political agency. We all know that something must be done, but seem totally passive in the face of our duty to do it. Indeed, in the contemporary pathology of “raising awareness,” we see how discussion has become a substitute for action, a sort of pseudo-activity.

Perhaps, in all this, discourse really can be part of the solution, but if so, it is going to have to confront the fact that it’s also part of the problem. But this is something that contemporary political philosophy — even contemporary critical theory, which is supposed to be at least a bit more “radical” — seems determined to oblige itself to be unable to grapple with. In the face of the present crisis, what do the likes of Jay and Benhabib do? Stick firmly to their old master, to their old philosophical interpretation of the world; hope only perhaps for better elites to carry it through — they have long-since given up on trying to change it.

Thus what might initially seem like a petty spat between some aging philosophers, yapping territorially over the legacy of another even older one, can in fact help us articulate a deep crisis in both political thought and action. If critique is to “converge” with “social change in practice,” we need our thinkers to do better. We need radical thinkers who can respond to the real suffering in our world, with both the hope and the urgency that might help people in general to eliminate it.

Tom Whyman, a contributing writer at The Outline, is a writer and philosopher from the UK.