Philosophy and the Dialectic of Modernity
Thelma Z. Lavine
The social philosophy of Jurgen Habermas, outstanding philosopher and master dialectician of our time, has an immediate appeal to American philosophers, educated in the history of the Protestant migrations to the New World in search of religious freedom; educated also in the Founding Fathers who drew up a constitution for a modern republic heralded by Thomas Jefferson's Declaration of Independence proclaiming the universality of human equality and natural rights; educated as well in the social philosophy of American pragmatism, in which Enlightenment principles of democracy and science become normative social processes.
The appeal of Habermas to American philosophers long acculturated in the Enlightenment tradition is that of a voice speaking for reason and justice; he stands forth philosophically on behalf of "rehabilitating the Enlightenment" in the face of various current modes of thought engaged in its undermining. Habermas has been widely commended for his strong unequivocal stand as a German intellectual against the Nazi movement and the Holocaust it produced, and against any revisionist circumlocutions seeking to obscure those atrocities. Habermas is also commended for his repudiation of Martin Heidegger's complicity with Nazism and his retreat to linguistic mysticism. He is commended as well for his strenuous criticism of postmodernism's drive to bring philosophy to an end. Of crucial philosophical significance is the appreciation of Habermas's recent struggle to "rehabilitate" the Enlightenment by securing it, however unfashionably, upon a firm foundation by a democratic politics of deliberative discussion.
In the face of the multidimensionality of Habermas's perceived accord with American philosophers, as culture carriers and analysts of the Enlightenment tradition, there comes the shocking realization that the Habermas appeal has been misconstrued. The shock occurs with the discovery that Habermas's account of philosophy in The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity begins the discussion of philosophy in the modern era with Hegel and finds no place for the tradition of Enlightenment philosophy. How was it possible for Habermas to erase the Enlightenment tradition from his text of the philosophical discussion of the modern era? How, in view of this erasure of Enlightenment thought, was it possible for American philosophers so seriously to misinterpret Habermas's project for "rehabilitating the Enlightenment," with its seemingly Jeffersonian subtext of universal reason and its Deweyan promotion of communicative democracy? How, then, was it possible for Habermas, after omitting the Enlightenment from his overview of modern philosophy, to appeal nevertheless to the Enlightenment language of reason, communication, universalism, and democracy?
The search for some answers to these questions must discover the young Habermas emerging from the recent Nazi past, finding his way from the horrors of World War II disclosures to the socialist vision of the Frankfurt School with its potent mix of Marx, Freud, and Weber. Especially significant was Horkheimer and Adorno's Dialectic of Enlightenment, which mythically portrayed the Enlightenment's capitalist domination of nature as the fearful source of Nazism: the domination of nature turns into the domination and repression of human beings, eventually into their self-repression and into their political and social domination by the Fascist regime. Horkheimer and Adorno returned to Germany from their refuge in capitalist America only to confront the post-war hopelessness of their political vision. It is possible to see the subsequent developmental line of Habermas's career as the philosophical search for a restored rationality for society in the form of a thoroughly procedural, non-substantive, communicative democratic consensus. In this way, Habermas will retain from the Dialectic of Enlightenment its dread indictment that Enlightenment economic and political principles turn into Fascist domination, while he will also retain a saving remnant of the Frankfurt School's socialist hope.
Responding to the widespread philosophic interest in language and its entrance into German intellectual circles, Habermas moves forward with the breakthrough discovery that in language itself there is the ground he needs. This is Habermas's well known claim that in speech there is "always already," pre-theoretically, four validity-claims which are to be "redeemed" in human exchange of language which seeks to "come to an understanding."
And in the massive, two-volume The Theory of Communicative Action, he now begins to build upon his newly formed distinction between instrumental and communicative language to develop a concept of society as consisting of the prevailing Western economic and governmental systems, employing the language of Enlightenment's purposive, instrumental rationality; in opposition to the life-world of civil society, which is expressed in the intersubjective language of mutual understanding and fosters communities of free and open democratic discourse. By the end of The Theory of Communicative Action he has constructed a philosophy of society which borrows much of his concept of "system" from the "functionalist" sociologists Talcott Parsons in America and Nicholas Luhmann in Germany.
It is not surprising but nonetheless noteworthy that insofar as Habermas has found his way to accepting in his recent model of society the economic and political systems of the West, he has done so without acknowledgment of the historical reality of the Enlightenment tradition from which these systems have been derived. Here we have come upon and astonishing, deadly erasure. In his text, Habermas has erased from historical consciousness the philosophic vision of liberal democracy, fought for in the Enlightenment transformative revolutions of 1688, 1776, 1789 in England, America, and France.
The intellectual violence of such an erasure calls out for explanation and interpretation. The erasure of the Enlightenment philosophic tradition, only to incorporate without identification key elements of that tradition must derive from important determining interests. The rewriting of Western political philosophy is at stake. Is it to be rewritten to reflect anti-Enlightenment socialist political thought? Or to reflect postwar interests of Germany in sugarcoating its philosophical past and assuring its place in history? Or to affirm with Heidegger, "When [others] want to philosophize they speak German"?
What, then, of philosophic thinking in the modern era? How has it engaged the Enlightenment tradition in relationship to the philosophy of modernity? In the Preface to The Philosophic Discourse of Modernity, Habermas undertakes "to reconstruct here, step by step, the philosophical discourse of modernity," to meet the challenge of poststructuralism.
It is astonishing to discover immediately that this step-by-step reconstruction of the philosophical thought of modernity begins with Hegel. The prior Enlightenment philosophic tradition, with its deep historical roots in the Magna Carta and voicing itself in the 17th and 18th century great British and French Enlightenment philosophers, is obliterated.
However, Romanticism appears as the rise of the aesthetic "modernist temper," subverting everything normative, and thus heralding the extremism of the French postmodernists.
The stage is now set for Hegel and the beginning of modern philosophy:
Habermas argues that the Hegel who, as the first to open the philosophic problem of modernity and the first to suggest that modernity must create its normativity out of itself can appropriately be seen as marking the beginning of modern philosophy.
But Habermas bestows upon Hegel yet another distinction. In the writings of the young Hegel, Habermas discovers a path to communicative action and intersubjectivity and a democratic self-organization of society within the living spirit of the early Christian community. "Hegel did not take this path," Habermas concedes, because he was "forced" in "the modern age" to part with this recourse to religion, and because "he had to see that the capitalist form of economic commerce had produced a modern society." But was this ever a meaningful option for Hegel? How could this elusive reconstruction of an archaic path to a Habermasian intersubjective radical democracy be imputed to the Hegel for whom the true path leads precisely away from radical democracy? Nevertheless, "the path not taken" runs like a leitmotif throughout The Philosophic Discourse of Modernity sounding the note that the path is not lost but is yet to be taken, a path to a society which organizes itself by the uncoerced intersubjectivity of radical democracy.
The third distinction Habermas confers on Hegel is the discovery of normativity within modernity. "The only source of normativity that presents itself is the principle of subjectivity . . ."
"Subjectivism," Habermas says, "is a one-sided term." It is also pejorative, and he skillfully develops the concept of "subject-centered philosophy" and "philosophy of consciousness" with the provocative connotations of limitation, prejudice, personal bias, isolation, and exclusiveness.
Habermas has tried to lead us to see that modern philosophies from the Cartesian Enlightenment to the Hegelian Idealist Counterenlightenment and their philosophical offspring are trapped by subjectivity, which is reflected in the subject-object conception of knowledge, and a purposive, instrumental mode of relationship to things and in the language of instrumental rationality. Habermas's principle of subjectivity may now be seen to have swept before it and devastated the whole of classical Enlightenment philosophy from Descartes to Kant, and the whole of "idealistic philosophy itself," including Hegel. How to explain the devastating sweep of the principle of subjectivity with which Habermas discredits all the philosophies of the modern world? The remarkable answer appears to be their failure to address and engage the principle of intersubjectivity and its language of communicative action But one may note that by leveling the two traditions as governed by the principle of subjectivity, Habermas conceals the objective strengths of the Enlightenment and the objective weaknesses of the Counterenlightenment.
In 1980, Habermas finds the political climate agitated by the spreading of pessimism and negativity, especially in the form of postmodernism. Habermas subjects six exemplary postmodernist texts to exhaustively detailed examination only to reveal, unwittingly, that postmodernism is not a Nietzschean splinter-group but comes from within the Counterenlightenment tradition itself. The postmodernist writers seize upon ideas and images from the Counterenlightenment corpus: the elevation of will, spirit, imagination, creativity over reason; the romantic search for the self and the group in an archaic past and a mystical hereafter; the anti-Enlightenment contempt for rationalistic universalism, for the rationally autonomous individual, and for the regularities of public law and scientific objectivity. Exploiting these features of the Counterenlightenment, the postmodernists threaten to leave no ground upon which Habermas can build a social philosophy. The Counterenlightenment chickens have come home to roost.
Yet, the real world context is that of the Cold War. At the end of The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity, Habermas bursts forth from his abstract philosophical complexities into a polemical diatribe against "the colossus of worldwide capitalism," as well as attempting once again to patch up Marxism for the late 20th Century, and finally to cry out: "Who else but Europe could draw from its own traditions the insight, the energy, the courage of vision . . . to shape our mentality."
Between Facts and Norms: Contributions to a Discourse Theory of Law and Democracy appeared within three years of the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The conflict between the economic and legal systems and the Husserlian life-world has been transferred to the "interplay" between the formally organized institutions of the political system and the informal organization of civil society, with its proliferation of private groups and modes of mass media. Interplay between the political system and civil society occurs through the spread in civil society of centers of deliberative politics capable of engaging the focus of public opinion. Although the responsibility for decision-making rests with institutionalized legal procedures, it is the informal sphere of deliberative democratic practices that has the crucial responsibility for identifying and interpreting social problems in relationship to legal issues.
Now, in 1992, in reflecting upon America within the real world situation in which Soviet socialism has fallen, Habermas assails "the party which considers itself victorious" for having lost the opportunity to "drive ahead with the task of imposing social and ecological restraints on capitalism at the breathtaking level of global society." Basing their thinking upon "the improbable" theory of modern natural law, Western societies, he says, have lost their orientation and self-confidence before a "terrifying" background of problems. The resulting unrest of the Western democracies he sees as having, however, a deeper source: the sense that "in an age of completely secularized politics, the modern rule of law cannot be had or maintained without radical democracy," and that in its absence, there can be no reprieve from unrest and no social "redemption."
This gloomy picture of social disquietude, weakness in the face of seemingly insurmountable problems, and the guilty sense of an unfulfilled redemption foreshadows a disastrous future for the victorious Western heirs of the Enlightenment and a foreboding return and fulfillment of the mythic vision of The Dialectic of Enlightenment.
Has Habermas succeeded in his noble determination to find an Archimedean point, a foundation for social philosophy and for society? Habermas recognizes that the philosophic constellation of the Hegelian Counterenlightenment tradition, linked to the primacy of the historically changing will and to the rejection of the rational normativity of the Enlightenment, cannot yield a grounding for social philosophy, despite his efforts to represent the German tradition as the fons et origo of modern philosophy.
Habermas copes with this recognition by introducing two strategies: he repudiates the philosophical significance of both the Enlightenment and Counterenlightenment as failed philosophies, trapped in subjective consciousness. His second strategy is to take the linguistic turn to the discovery in speech of a set of universal validity claims and the construction of a distinction between a communicative language of understanding and the language of purposive instrumentality. From the oppositional linguistic structure there emerges the oppositional social structure between system and life-world, between the functionally organized and the informally organized association of civil society, empowered by consensual, deliberative democracy. But how does the achievement of the free-floating, normless, anarchic consensus of procedural deliberative democracy protect human rights, affirm universal political ideals, or provide a foundation for social philosophy and a just society? The only answer seems to be that in critiquing institutionalized public policy, Habermasian deliberative democracy is serving not the philosophic function of ascertaining and sustaining a foundation for philosophy, but is instead serving the undermining of the capitalist economic system ad western constitutional democracy to make way for a movement toward socialism in its revived form as "democratic self-organization" for "emancipated forms of life." Habermas has produced not a foundation for modern philosophy but a niche for the faithful who cling to socialist aspirations after the fall.
Habermas's social philosophy can now be perceived in its oppositional structures and their symbolic meaning. His repetition of structural opposition finds its expression in the symbolism which may be seen to pervade The Philosophic Discourse of Modernity: the opposition between the dreaded myth of the Dialectic of Enlightenment and the redemptive fantasy of the path yet to be taken.
More significant for the intellectual culture of modernity is the neglect, by erasure on the part of this esteemed philosopher, of the great drama of philosophy in our time. This is the drama occasioned by the dialectical struggle, rushing to climax in the 20th Century, between Enlightenment reason and its Counterenlightenment opponent, the struggle between these philosophical constellations which is refracted in the great wars of the 20th Century.
Thus the drama of the philosophical thought of the 20th Century and its historical development is lost. The philosophic discourse of modernity has yet to be written. Its text, once it has been freed from the tenacity of ideological hostilities, and their erasures, and concealing circumlocutions, will at the same time provide the sought-for foundation for social philosophy and a just society: it is the philosophic framework of modernity itself which is the foundation of all modern philosophies, in the dialectic of Enlightenment and its Counterenlightenment other.