Monday, January 15, 2018

Jürgen Habermas on classical German philosophy, the Young Hegelians, pragmatism, and communicative reason

"Our capitalist democracies are about to shrink to mere façade democracies. These developments call for a scientifically informed enlightenment." - Jürgen Habermas, Critique and communication: Philosophy's missions (an interview with Michaël Foessel) Eurozine 10/16/2015

That interview with Habermas covers a lot of ground with a surprising amount of substance in the (digital) space it takes up: Habermas' early philosophical concerns, his issues with Heidegger, pragmatism, his own communicative theories, neoliberalism and resistance to it. This excerpt gives a flavor of it:
With the paradigm shift from the philosophy of the subject to the philosophy of language you touch upon an important issue. Hegel was already aware of the symbolic and historical embodiment of reason in the forms of the “objective mind”, for example in law, state and society. But Hegel then sublates this objective mind after all in the dematerialized thoughts of the absolute mind. By contrast, J.G. Hamann and Wilhelm von Humboldt or the young Hegelians, i.e. Feuerbach, Marx and Kierkegaard, regard the transcendental achievements as being realized only in the performative acts of subjects capable of speech and action and in the social and cultural structures of their lifeworlds. For them, apart from the subjective mind there is only the objective mind left, which materializes itself in communication, work and interaction, in appliances and artefacts, in the living out of individual life stories and in the network of socio-cultural forms of life. But in the process, reason does not lose the transcendental power of spontaneously projecting world-disclosing horizons. This “creative” power of imagination expresses itself in every hypothesis, in every interpretation, in every story with which we affirm our identity. In every action there is also an element of creation.

Pragmatism and historicism were involved in the development of this detranscendentalized concept of reason just as much as phenomenology, philosophical anthropology and existential philosophy. I myself would grant a certain precedence to language, communicative action and the horizon of the lifeworld (as the background context of all processes of communication). The media in which reason is embodied, i.e. history, culture and society, are symbolically structured. The meaning of symbols, however, must be shared intersubjectively. There is no private language and no private meaning that can be understood only by a single person. This precedence of intersubjectivity does not mean, however, that – to return to your question – to some extent subjectivity would be absorbed by society. The subjective mind opens a space to which everyone has privileged access from the perspective of the first person. This exclusive access to the evidence of one’s own experiences may not, however, belie the structural correlation between subjectivity and intersubjectivity. Every additional step in the process of the socialization of a person, as they grow up, is simultaneously a step towards individuation and becoming oneself. Only by externalization, by entering into social relationships can we develop the interiority of our own person. Only by marching in step with the communicative entanglement in social networks does the subjectivity of the “self”, i.e. of a subject that assumes relationships to itself, deepen. [my emphasis in bold]
Habermas' distinctive contribution in the field of philosophy was his work on communicative reason. I was acquainted with his political and historical work, particularly his role in the German Historikerstreit of the 1980s, where he took the lead in criticizing contemporary effort to rehabilitate aspects of the National Socialist regime and its horrific policies, before I more recently dig into understanding his work on communications. I've also been very impressed with his writing on the European Union. He definitely falls into the left-leaning Eurocritical camp, as distinct from the rightwing "Euroskeptic" one.

In that interview he talks about Martin Heidegger's philosophy and politics. He's written at some length about the latter. He really has Heidegger's number. But he is careful to recognize Heidegger's more constructive contributions to contemporary philosophy, including in this interview:
... I’m still convinced that the arguments of Being and Time, if read with the eyes of Kant and Kierkegaard, retain an important place in the history of philosophy. In spite of the political ambivalence of the style, I regard this work as a result of the long history of detranscendentalizing the Kantian subject: by appropriating the methods of Husserlian phenomenology in his own way, Being and Time also digests an important legacy of American pragmatism, German historicism and the kind of philosophy of language that originates from Wilhelm von Humboldt.
He also notes, "My friend Karl-Otto Apel always insisted that only in 1929 with Kant and the Problem of Metaphysics did Heidegger set the course for his fatal late philosophy – and subsequently assigned to himself a privileged access to the “destiny of truth”. From that point on, Heidegger increasingly abandons philosophical argumentation and becomes a private thinker." (my emphasis) He has made the latter point in a considerably more blunt fashion elsewhere. Even in this interview, he reminds us that Heidegger "had become a convinced Nazi long before 1933. The fact that he had remained an unrepentant Nazi, however, could be known by 1953 at the latest." Heidegger had been publicly active in support of the Nazi Party in 1933-34. He was notably less public in his role after that. But he retained his Nazi Party membership right up until 1945. Heidegger was literally a Nazi.

His description of the Frankfurt School tradition of which he is considered the leading Second Generation figure is also informative, particularly in his connection of the Frankfurt School perspective with "Austromarxism":
From its inception the Frankfurt Institute was anti-Stalinist – and all the more so after the war. There are also other reasons why I was never tempted by orthodox Marxism. For example, I was never convinced by the centrepiece of political economy, the theory of surplus value, in view of the intervention of the welfare state in the economy. During my youth I was certainly more closely aligned with left-wing activism than I was later. But also the early project of “Realizing Philosophy”, to which you’re alluding, was more idealistic and inspired by the young Marx. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, which was my post-doctoral thesis under the supervision of Wolfgang Abendroth, the only Marxist to hold a chair at a German university, at best points in the direction of socialist democracy. If you like, I was always a parliamentary socialist – in this respect I was in my early days influenced by the Austrian Marxists Karl Renner and Otto Bauer. My attitude to Theory and Practice has not significantly changed since I wrote the introduction to the new edition of this book in 1971. Academic studies are always written with the reservation that all research is fallible. This role must be clearly separated from the other two roles of a left-wing intellectual – from his involvement in political discussions in the public sphere and from the organization of joint political action. This separation of roles is necessary even if the intellectual attempts to combine all three roles in one person. [my emphasis in bold]
The Frankfurt School's contemporary attitude toward the Soviet Marxism of the 1930s ("Stalinism") was more complicated than this passage might suggest. Focused as they were on the menace of German Nazism which they had fled and the threat of war, their famous Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung did not focus on critiquing the Soviet model directly. Nor did they indulge in the Trotskyism of the day. Privately, some of their leading figures were very critical of the Soviet situation, others more supportive.

Politics was complicated in the 1930s, just as it is in the 2010s.

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