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“The Liberal Idea Has Become Obsolete”

Putin, Geuss and Habermas

This essay is a response to a widely-discussed piece we published last month by Raymond Geuss. In “A Republic of Discussion,” Geuss offered a critical reassessment of Jürgen Habermas’s theory of communicative action. To read Geuss’s original essay, click here.

I was first alerted to Raymond Geuss’s sour anti-commemoration of Jürgen Habermas’s ninetieth birthday, “A Republic of Discussion,” coincidentally on the same day that Vladimir Putin declared the obsolescence of liberalism in a meeting with Donald Trump. Trump, with the exquisite cluelessness that has made him so easy to mock, took the remark to refer to American political liberals, such as those in the Democratic Party. But Putin’s target was something much larger: the tradition of liberal democratic norms and institutions he and his fellow authoritarian populists are determined to undermine. It is the tradition that Geuss finds so lamely defended by Habermas’s theory of communicative action, which believes in discursive deliberation as a fundamental principle of a liberal democratic polity.

Since guilt by association may not be a fair tactic — although in this case, it is hard to resist — let’s look at Geuss’s argument on its own terms. The first point to make is that it is, in fact, an argument, made publicly, drawing on reasons and evidence, employing Geuss’s characteristic rhetorical flair and keen intellect, and not a mindless rant. It is hard not to see it as an attempt to communicate, intending to sway its audience, and thus betraying some residual faith in the power of persuasion through the better argument. As such, it immediately invites the reproach, which Habermas and his followers often level, of committing a performative contradiction. That is, if Geuss denies that communication and discussion are laudable endeavors, how can he still engage with such brio in precisely what he is so eager to trash? It is not as if there are no examples of performatively consistent denials of communication — see, for instance, the way Derrida dismissively thwarted Gadamer’s attempt at hermeneutic dialogue in the stillborn “encounter” between them in 1981 — but Geuss is too deeply steeped in Oxbridge civility to act out his disdain. If such an option is not then possible, why not just withdraw into silence, retreating, as Orwell would have put it, inside the whale?

There is, in other words, a certain amount of bad faith in Geuss’s arguing against argumentation, giving reasons against the power of reasoning. But the performative contradiction reproach, let it be admitted, only goes so far in rebutting Geuss’s disillusioned take on the role of communicative rationality in the public sphere. It smacks too much of a clever schoolboy trick to stifle a discussion before it can begin. Geuss’s case should be addressed on its own merits, taking his points, both empirical and theoretical, at their strongest. Otherwise, the defender of communicative rationality will be open to the charge of performative contradiction in turn.

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? Geuss is thus setting up a straw man in asserting that “no amount of exertion will suffice to permit us to establish within the domain of the natural phenomenon ‘communication’ a safe-zone that is actually completely protected on all sides from the possible use of force.” Would the same disconnect between imperfect achievement and enduring aspiration also render otiose other such laudable goals as, say, equality, dignity, autonomy or abundance for all?

Although it would be challenging to determine conclusively, the real issue is how much progress, however uneven, has been made moving in the right direction. 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. Although it is easy to cite examples of its imperfect realization, to deny its aspirational function — to join with Putin in deriding it as “obsolete” — is something else entirely. Would Geuss abandon all ideals if they have not yet been universally achieved?

Geuss’s skepticism towards Habermas’s position is buttressed by his appeal to an earlier Frankfurt School figure, Theodor W. Adorno, whose scorn in Minima Moralia for the “liberal fiction which holds that any and every thought must be universally communicable to anyone whatever” he cites approvingly. Written during his exile, when Adorno was exasperated by the demand that his esoteric writing be made accessible to a middlebrow audience, this critique of the fetish of communicability was an understandable defense against a reductive view of language as conversational and transparent. It was the plea of an aesthetic modernist and philosophical outlier for the necessity of difficulty and indirection in expressing complex ideas. It was based on an appreciation, one later shared by deconstruction, of the distinction between verbal conversation and written discourse. As we know from his later musings on the alleged virtues of clarity in philosophy — see, for example, his defense of skoteinos (darkness) in Hegel — Adorno never accepted the imperative to simplify his prose in the service of painless comprehension. While attacking Heidegger and other exponents of the “jargon of authenticity” for deliberate linguistic obfuscation, he remained ambivalent about the role of discursive argumentation in his own work.

But it is no less the case that Adorno never claimed that esoteric obscurity was inherently superior in all circumstances. Nor did he consider the fiction of universal communicability, as Geuss asserts, “a clear pathology,” as if the state of mutual incomprehension were somehow a “healthy” normality. Although it is hard to imagine Teddie giving a TEDtalk, his pedagogy, as shown by the wonderfully lucid lectures that have been posthumously published, was based on a strong desire to make difficult ideas accessible to his students. And as demonstrated by the series of radio broadcasts he delivered after returning to Germany from his American exile, he appreciated the responsibility of intellectuals to intervene in the public sphere in such a way that large numbers of people could be influenced by the power of an argument. To do something as important as “working through” the Nazi trauma, it was absolutely necessary to have a public discussion in which the occluded past was brought to light and frankly confronted. Geuss acknowledges as much when he claims that Habermas’s turn to communicative rationality also reflected the postwar era of reconstruction (which he then bizarrely dismisses as merely “ideological cover” for the western integration of Europe). For the very same imperative can be discerned in Adorno’s own communicative practice at the same time.

But whether or not Adorno can be as easily enlisted in Geuss’s anti-Habermasian campaign as Geuss assumes, there are larger points he raises that transcend any quarrel over the putative blessing of an authority. One is the issue of legitimation, another that of the relationship between identity and discourse. Geuss disdainfully charges that for Habermas, and Kant before him, the question of legitimation is both a fundamental philosophical issue and “the basic social problem of the modern world.” That it may also be a burning political question, however, he neglects to mention. Once again, it is hard to ignore resonance in current headlines, as only the day before this is being written, a former American president, Jimmy Carter, explicitly denied the “legitimacy” of the current president because of the irregularities of his election. Legitimate authority as opposed to naked power has, of course, been a theme of political theory and a concern of political practice ever since the Romans struggled over the meanings of “auctoritas” and “potestas” [1] and have continued to vex theorists such as Carl Schmitt, Hannah Arendt and Hans Blumenberg into our own day. In a secular world, one in which questions of sovereignty, human rights and constitutional constraints are constantly negotiated, to dismiss the quest for a plausible notion of legitimacy through discursive will formation as merely a hypocritical liberal experiment within the protected space of the American empire is appallingly cynical. First of all, it ignores the issues of popular sovereignty and the exercise of democratic agency, and makes it only a question for bloodless liberalism with its jejune faith in reason over will. The political instantiation of communicative rationality is less narrowly a liberal polity, with all of the restrictions that implies, than a robust deliberative democracy, based on a powerful egalitarian imperative. It is not one that seeks legitimation in discourse alone, but also in the institutions and practices that enable moving from argument to decision to implementing action.

In his recent collection, tellingly titled A World Without Why, Geuss confesses that, immersed as he is in an academic environment where justifications are always demanded, “I suffer from recurrent bouts of nausea in the face of this densely woven tissue of ‘arguments,’ most of which are nothing but blinds for something else altogether, generally something unsavory; and I feel an urgent need to exit from it altogether.” It is thus not surprising to see him dismissively denigrate communicative rationality without offering any alternative way of establishing legitimate authority, oddly siding with that latter-day Nietzsche, Donald Trump, who knows when to push over a tottering idol when it is poised to fall. For a disillusioned realist nauseated by the annoying demand to give reasons and justify values, is there any way to make right besides naked might? Maybe the resemblance to Putin is not so far-fetched, after all.

Geuss’s second major point, and perhaps his most arresting, concerns the relationship between identify and discourse. It is, of course, often argued that prior identities are so strong that it is impossible, or at least very difficult, to dislodge them by counter-arguments alone. When ultimate value systems are involved, religious faith being the favored exemplar, it is hard to dissuade a true believer who says with Luther, “Here I stand. I can do no other.” The same intransigence often seems to accompany secular worldviews held with conviction. Geuss is fond of citing his former Cambridge colleague, the eminent philosopher Bernard Williams, who “took an extremely dim view of the powers of reason to persuade. He once told me he had only one time in his life seen a case of a person convinced to give up a deeply held belief by the force of rational argumentation.” Such conversion experiences that do happen can be explained, if at all, by unconscious processes that operate in less transparent and reflective ways.

One might, of course, note that identities and belief systems are now often considered in far greater flux than ever before, and the bald alternative between rational reflection and emotional involvement may be too rigid a way to capture how they are negotiated. It is also the case, moreover, that many significant decisions made in the public sphere are not based on hard-wired worldviews or impermeable identities. Despite the ticket-mentality that does so often prevail, there are sufficient numbers of “undecideds” in any large population to make outcomes uncertain. And although Williams was certainly right to note that, say, few analytic philosophers have been persuaded by reasons to become raving Heideggerians (who themselves scorned the very need to give them), it is quite possible to say that Quine’s refutation of the analytic/synthetic distinction gave a good number of Kantians second thoughts. That is, communicative rationality may have a weak ability to work its magic on the most fundamental identity levels and belief systems, but it is often effective within more local communities of discourse. It is wrong to measure its power only against the most recalcitrant existential identities or entrenched belief systems.

Geuss, however, makes a larger claim than that prior identities or worldviews resist the blandishments of rational communication. He argues that discussion itself is often the cause of their emergence in the first place, as it can lead to the hardening of inchoate opposing positions rather than their convergence. Instead of enabling consensus, he asserts, discussions “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.” No performative contradiction here: instead of a reasoned argument, Geuss gives us an extreme example — the current mess in the U.K. — and his own personal experience. Other examples and other experiences might easily be adduced for the opposite effect, but what is striking about Geuss’s claim is that it suggests that identities and worldviews are not necessarily formed prior to discussion, like say a preference for chocolate over vanilla ice cream, but are rather their product. For what this implies, against his intentions, is that they are far more vulnerable to discursive modification and perhaps even dissolution than if they were a priori givens before the discussion began.

The homely example I would offer from my own experience concerns my service on jury duty, when we deadlocked six to six at the first ballot. Without spelling out the details, I was in favor of a guilty verdict, but by the end of the third day of our sober and careful discussion, I and the other five others on my side were convinced by the arguments of one of the other jurors that we couldn’t convict beyond a reasonable doubt. What made the experience particularly moving was that the persuasive reasoning came from a postal worker, who had succeeded in convincing a professor at a prestigious university and five other professionals through the sheer power of his arguments. I suppose no one had come in with a strong investment in a prior outcome, but still, what made the experience so powerful an instance of communicative rationality working to reach a meaningful consensus became clear after we announced our verdict. We had exit interviews with the attorneys for both sides, and the prosecutor admitted that he had a weak case and thus tacitly confirmed our judgment. Jury deliberations are, of course, imperfect models of public discourse in general—our interests weren’t involved and we had strict rules of admissible evidence — but they draw on the same aspirational imperative as deliberative democracy — giving justifications and listening to the justifications of others before decisions are made.

Geuss, embracing his dyspeptic allergy to this kind of process, concludes that the Habermasian age of communicative reason, whose heyday he places between 1950 and 2000, may well be drawing to a close. Rather than lamenting what is lost, he wonders if the generations to come “have different values and desires and a different orientation, what grounds could one have for objecting to that? Disloyalty to some ideal of free discussion? Even if they were disloyal, who could blame them?” These are phony questions. For 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 his post-discussion future world. If there is any blame to assign for such an outcome, it is to those who turn their own bitter world-weariness into a recipe for resigned indifference. A meaningless world without why easily turns into a brutal world in which atrocities can be committed without ever asking “why not?”

Martin Jay is the Sidney Hellman Ehrman Professor of History at the University of California, Berkeley. He is a renowned Intellectual Historian and his research interests have been groundbreaking in connecting history with other academic and intellectual activities, such as the Critical Theory of the Frankfurt School, other figures and methods in continental Social Theory, Cultural Criticism, and Historiography, among many others.

This article originally appeared in The Point and is a response to Raymond Geuss’s critique of Habermas, published here

[1] In A World Without Why (Princeton, 2014), Geuss has an essay on “Authority: Some Fables,” in which he considers various candidates for authority, weakly concluding that none is really convincing

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