The Unfinished Project of Enlightenment
In a sweeping new history of Western philosophy, Jürgen Habermas narrates the progress of humanity through the unfolding of public reason. Missing from that story are the systems of violence and dispossession whose legacies are all too visible today.
June 18, 2020
Jun 18, 2020
26 Min read time
In a sweeping new history of Western philosophy, Jürgen Habermas narrates the progress of humanity through the unfolding of public reason. Missing from that story are the systems of violence and dispossession whose legacies are all too visible today.
Auch eine Geschichte der Philosophie (This Too a History of Philosophy)
Vol. 1, Die okzidentale Konstellation von Glauben und Wissen (The Occidental Constellation of Faith and Knowledge)
Vol. 2, Vernünftige Freiheit. Spuren des Diskurses über Glauben und Wissen (Rational Liberty: Traces of the Discourse on Faith and Knowledge)
Suhrkamp Verlag, €98 (cloth)
“No one in the world feels the weakness of general characterizing more than I.” So lamented Johann Gottfried von Herder, towering figure of the German Enlightenment, in his 1774 treatise This Too a Philosophy of History for the Formation of Humanity. “One draws together peoples and periods of time that follow one another in an eternal succession like waves of the sea,” Herder wrote. “Whom has one painted? Whom has the depicting word captured?” For Herder, the Enlightenment dream of grasping human history as a seamless whole came up against the irreducible particularity of individuals and cultures.
At a time of crisis, Habermas suggests that humanity already possesses the resources for levelheaded debate oriented toward the common good.
The German philosopher and social theorist Jürgen Habermas, among the most influential thinkers of our time, grapples with much the same problem in his new work, the title of which reverses the order of Herder’s terms: This Too a History of Philosophy. Published in German last September, Habermas’s History spans over 3,000 years and 1,700 pages. It marks the apogee of a singular career. Like his eighteenth-century precursor, Habermas seeks a thoroughgoing reconceptualization of the sweep of human history. “Philosophical problems,” he writes, are distinctive from merely “scientific” ones in their “synthetic force.” For Habermas, the fragmentation of modern life has hardly exhausted philosophy’s capacity for bold questions and architectonic structure.
To be sure, the work pays homage to the legacy of postmodern critique. Wary of Herder’s pitfalls of “general characterizing,” Habermas eschews airy speculation for dense textual reconstruction. But this history of philosophy, no less than Enlightenment philosophies of history, is driven by a teleological intent, a principle that threads through history’s seeming randomness and contingency. For Herder, that principle was humanity’s “formation” (Bildung), a foundational concept of the German Enlightenment linking the moral development of the individual with the progress of civilization. For Habermas, it is instead a collective “learning process” (Lernprozess). History, in Habermas’s telling, is the story of humanity’s learning, a record of problems solved and challenges overcome. “New knowledge about the objective world” alongside “social crises,” he explains, create “cognitive dissonances.” These dissonances propel societies to adopt novel modes of understanding and interaction.
The vehicle of Habermas’s learning process is language: the source of human rationality, the storehouse of humanity’s accumulated knowledge, and the medium by which that knowledge can be challenged and improved. Here too Habermas plays variations on an Enlightenment theme. But there is a catch. Although immersed in the give and take of rational argument, Habermas’s protagonists develop metaphysical systems that obscure their own intersubjective meaning-making. For Habermas, only with the rise of modern, “postmetaphysical” thinking does philosophy become conscious of the learning process itself.
Tracing a continuous learning process across three millennia of Western philosophy, This Too a History of Philosophy is a masterpiece of erudition and synthesis. Habermas’s command of the philosophical canon astounds, and even experts will find fresh insight in his searching portraits. At the same time, his narrative of humanity’s rational development invites us to pose Herder’s challenge anew: Whom has Habermas’s History captured? Most urgent is the question—raised, but not resolved—of how the learning process traversed by the West interacts with wider histories of the modern world.
• • •
Born in 1929 into Western Germany’s Protestant middle class, Habermas is contemporary Europe’s most prominent philosopher and public intellectual. Over a prodigious career stretching nearly seven decades, he has set out a system linking epistemology, linguistics, sociology, politics, religion, and law. His philosophical texts have appeared in over forty languages. But more than that, Habermas has distinguished himself as a staunch advocate of the intellectual’s public role. His exchanges with interlocutors from John Rawls to Michel Foucault have generated debate across the humanities, and his political interventions have shaped controversies on themes from historical memory to European unification to genetic engineering.
Habermas’s ninetieth birthday last year initiated spirited discussions of his life’s work. His lecture marking the occasion at the University of Frankfurt drew a crowd of over 3,000 listeners, while the appearance of the eight-hundred-page Cambridge Habermas Lexicon set the stage for the next phase of his reception in English. More controversially, a polemic by the political philosopher Raymond Geuss challenged the very foundations of Habermas’s thought and sparked a contentious exchange among scholars of critical theory. Habermas turns ninety-one today, remaining no less active and continuing to inspire and provoke.
Democracy, for Habermas, is a system where uncoerced communication triumphs over naked power, where rational argument among equal citizens forms the basis of political legitimacy.
An overarching project connects Habermas’s philosophical writing with his public advocacy and helps to account for his global reach: the elaboration of what he terms a theory of “communicative rationality.” When we address ourselves to another human being through language, Habermas argues, we assume the possibility of mutual intelligibility and rational persuasion. In an “ideal speech situation,” where no coercion is present save the “unforced force of the better argument,” dialogue would foster consensus based on rational agreement. Habermas recognizes that most communication is far from this ideal. Yet he insists that the ideal remains the prerequisite even for ordinary speech, and contains the seedbed of radical democracy. Democracy, for Habermas, is a system where uncoerced communication triumphs over naked power, where rational argument among equal citizens forms the basis of political legitimacy.
Habermas’s project emerged from the traumas of postwar Germany. Fifteen-years-old at the time of the Nazi collapse, Habermas had narrowly escaped military conscription and listened, horrified, to radio broadcasts of the Nuremberg trials. Determined to uncover where German history had gone so wrong, and whether German culture possessed resources for the country’s reconstruction, the Gymnasium student abandoned a planned career in medicine to pursue philosophy. In what has become a set piece of his biography, it was the 1953 republication of a Nazi-era tract by the philosopher Martin Heidegger, extolling the “inner truth and greatness” of National Socialism, that led the young Habermas to reject the reigning existentialism and cultural despair. He would instead find his academic home at the University of Frankfurt, among the returned German-Jewish exiles Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno. Their reconstituted Institute for Social Research served as a haven for critical debate amidst postwar West Germany’s hidebound academic culture.
Yet even as he quickly gained recognition as the leader of the Frankfurt School’s second generation, Habermas diverged from his predecessors. Whereas Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947) tracked the decay of Western rationalism into a self-destructive “instrumental reason,” Habermas sought out a mode of rationality that escaped a narrow means-ends logic. This he would locate in intersubjective communication. Habermas’s habilitation thesis and the book that made his name, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (1962), foreshadowed the centrality of communication for his life’s work. Embedding philosophical argument in historical sociology, Habermas traced the rise of a bourgeois “public sphere” in the coffee houses and print culture of eighteenth-century Europe. The new domain of reasoned deliberation, between the official institutions of politics and the private sphere of the family, challenged ruling authorities and fomented the spread of republican ideas. Although Structural Transformation concluded by charting the decline of the public sphere in modern mass media—a pervasive concern in today’s talk of disinformation and fake news—the work announced its author’s lifelong identification with the “unfinished project” of Enlightenment.
If Structural Transformation made Habermas a rising star, it was his 1981 magnum opus, The Theory of Communicative Action, that established him as a premier philosopher of the twentieth century. Theory bore the fruits of two decades of intellectual exploration, including a stint as director of the Max Planck Institute in Starnberg, Bavaria, and an ambitious program of reading across classical sociology, systems theory, ordinary language philosophy, and American pragmatism. The book marshaled all of these influences to uncover the rational foundations of communication as a path toward reenergizing democracy. The modern “system” of economy and bureaucracy, Habermas concluded, must be subjected to rigorous oversight by the “lifeworld,” the spaces of society and culture where free communication can flourish. While accepting the structures of the capitalist welfare state, Habermas warned against the “colonization” of the lifeworld by private interests. He would return to this theme over subsequent political writings.
When we address ourselves to another human being through language, Habermas argues, we assume the possibility of mutual intelligibility and rational persuasion. He recognizes that most communication is far from this ideal.
This Too a History of Philosophy marks the culmination of a third stage of Habermas’s career, one in which questions of faith and religion have assumed increasing prominence. Habermas’s earlier work hinged on a theory of secularization. Whatever one’s private convictions, the public sphere depended on the exchange of “validity claims” accessible to all citizens; appeals to faith had to be checked at the door. Yet in an address one month after the attacks of September 11, 2001, Habermas characterized contemporary Western democracies as “postsecular” societies. The public sphere, he now argued, should accommodate religious diversity and permit the participation of religious citizens. Habermas went further in a 2005 essay that followed a public discussion with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI). Not only should religious and secular citizens have equal access to the public sphere, but the latter “can be reasonably expected not to exclude the possibility that [religious] contributions may have cognitive substance.”
For some of Habermas’s secular-minded interlocutors, these apparent concessions to religion betrayed the rational promise of critical social theory. Yet as with so much in Habermas, what seems an about-face reflects a deepening of earlier concerns. My own research on Protestant intellectual networks in early postwar Germany uncovered evidence of Habermas’s participation in “Christian-Marxist” working groups during the early 1960s. And since the 1980s, Habermas has engaged in philosophical exchanges with prominent Christian theologians, most notably his Catholic contemporary Johann Baptist Metz. Habermas’s recent writings build upon his longstanding view that religious citizens can contribute moral insight to the public sphere—and that they did so in a democratizing Germany. As Europe absorbs new waves of Muslim immigrants, Habermas has sought to combat xenophobic discourses of cultural difference, while fostering democratic deliberation across religious divides.
But more provocative convictions drive Habermas’s writings on religion as well. Notwithstanding his advocacy for a religiously plural public sphere, Habermas has remained emphatic about the foundational role of Western Christianity. Already in The Theory of Communicative Action, he drew on the classical sociologist Max Weber to trace the rise of modern purposive rationality out of the Protestant idea of vocation. More recently, Habermas has distanced himself from claims of Weberian disenchantment to suggest that the process of secularization remains incomplete. “Universalistic egalitarianism,” he stated in a 2002 interview, “is the direct legacy of the Judaic ethic of justice and the Christian ethic of love . . . Up to this very day there is no alternative to it.” Drawing a dubious contrast between the two monotheistic religions, Habermas articulated what would become the core of his intellectual program. The West’s Judeo-Christian heritage was not a passing phase in the emergence of modern thought and politics, but contributed—and perhaps still contributes—its essential core.
• • •
This Too a History of Philosophy is the realization of Habermas’s claim on a grand scale. At its most basic, the work provides a historical survey linking Habermas’s longstanding theory of communication with his more recent argument for the preeminence of Judeo-Christianity. The central thesis is expansive but straightforward. Communicative rationality as well as constitutional democracy emerged out of a three-thousand-year dialogue between the two poles of Western thought: faith and knowledge. Through a protracted history of intellectual debate and social transformation, the moral universalism at the core of Christianity—having evolved out of its Jewish precursor—was subsumed into modern, postmetaphysical thinking. Habermas’s account of secularization departs from what the philosopher Charles Taylor has termed the “subtraction story,” by which irrational beliefs are stripped away with the forward march of science. Instead, Habermas reconstructs the interactions of Christian faith and worldly knowledge as a process not of conflict, but of mutual learning and translation.
Habermas’s learning process is rooted in the very nature of Homo sapiens as a linguistic being. Drawing on the research of the developmental psychologist Michael Tomasello, he begins with a sharp distinction between human and animal cognition. Other primates, Habermas explains, communicate to indicate objects in their own environments. But the unique social complexity of human life, manifested in the monogamous family and paleolithic hunt, catalyzed a distinctive ability to communicate intersubjectively about a shared objective world. This unique form of language allowed human beings to formulate collective solutions to common problems. Humanity’s social and cultural learning could thereby outpace its biological evolution.
The West’s Judeo-Christian heritage was not a passing phase in the emergence of modern thought and politics, Habermas argues, but contributed—and perhaps still contributes—its essential core.
Habermas proceeds to narrate the early development of human societies along a hierarchy of communicative forms. Ritual served as the primordial medium of “symbolic” communication, bridging the individual and the collective. Habermas locates a shift to myth in the “Near Eastern high cultures” of the third millennium B.C.E., characterized by written language, scientific advancement, and political hierarchy. But the crucial transformation came in the “Axial Age” of Moses, Buddha, Confucius, and Plato—a term Habermas borrows from the philosopher Karl Jaspers. Whereas myth collapsed god and man into one another, the Axial worldviews accomplished the seminal distinction between sacred and profane, eternal and temporal. In Judaism’s omniscient God, Buddhism’s doctrine of reincarnation, and Plato’s Forms, Habermas locates the foundations for the transcendental perspective of both objective science and universal morality.
Jaspers developed the concept of the Axial Age, Habermas notes, “to overcome the Eurocentric narrowing of view to the Western path of cultural development.” But Habermas’s own study takes a sharp turn toward the West. It is the particular history of Western Christianity, he argues, that leads from the nascent universalism of the Axial Age to modern postmetaphysical reason and constitutional democracy. Eastern religions became amalgamated to state power or declined in competition with new sciences. Judaism remained too bound to its sacral language and text to interact productively with its surroundings. But the unique circumstances of early Christianity’s confrontation with Greek philosophy and Roman state power catalyzed a process of mutual learning. The cross-pollination of faith and knowledge found an early apex in Augustine’s fourth-century synthesis of Christianity and Platonism. And at the same time that Augustine introduced philosophy to the Church, Western Christianity’s Roman-inspired legal system brought the Church into the realm of power politics.
Traversing the church-state conflicts of medieval Europe, Habermas arrives at thirteenth-century Italy as a new turning point: a site at which the earliest forms of proto-capitalism inaugurated the functional differentiation of modern society. Thomas Aquinas, the central thinker of the period, departed from Augustine’s Christian-Platonist synthesis to establish theology and philosophy as separate disciplines. Reason and faith now offered firmly independent paths toward salvation. Though Aquinas remained a monarchist, his formulation of “natural law,” implanted by God in human reason, opened the door to nascent democratic theories. With unprecedented criticisms of the pope, Aquinas’s late medieval successors theorized law as a limit on both church and state power. They prefigured an age when law would become an object of contestation among citizens.
Yet ironically, perhaps reflective of Weber’s ongoing influence, it is the political reactionary Martin Luther who is accorded pride of place in Habermas’s narrative of secularization. Luther’s attack on ecclesiastical authority, Habermas argues, not only exacerbated the cleft of church and state, but located faith in the intersubjective exchange between the human being and God. Protestant hermeneutics, in which every believer became an interpreter of Scripture, foreshadowed a communicative rationality in which authority is accorded to the “most convincing argument.”
Habermas reconstructs the interactions of Christian faith and worldly knowledge as a process not of conflict, but of mutual learning and translation.
At the same time, Luther’s attempt to secure faith from the incursions of worldly authority set up its own undoing. The Reformation, in addition to the scientific and political revolutions of the seventeenth century, tore apart the Augustinian and Thomist syntheses of ontology (what is there?) with practical philosophy (what should I do?). The secularization of state power, epitomized in the English constitutional revolution, eroded the Christian foundations of political order; the determinism of Newtonian laws threatened to undermine human free will, the kernel of Christian morality. The question of legitimacy emerged as the Achilles heel of modern thought.
David Hume and Immanuel Kant are the eighteenth-century thinkers who, for Habermas, articulated the paradigm-shifting responses to this problem. Seventeenth-century philosophers could reconcile faith and knowledge only at the expense of “inconsistent foundations”: consider Thomas Hobbes’s argument for religiously based monarchy despite his avowed atheism and John Locke’s return to divinely ordained natural law. Only in Hume and Kant was the breakthrough to postmetaphysical thinking achieved. Hume disaggregated human subjectivity into a succession of sense-impressions, dissolving Christian metaphysics. But Kant emerges as the hero of Habermas’s narrative, the figure who reconstructed the rational core of Christianity in the wake of Hume’s withering critique. Kant’s categorical imperative, which called on individuals to posit their actions as the basis for a universal law, established a universal morality on purely rational grounds.
Habermas presents the history of post-Kantian philosophy as a short path toward his own theory of communicative action. The key challenge was to ground the concept of “rational liberty”—which Kant defined as the subject’s obedience to a self-willed law—in an account of society. G. F. W. Hegel, building on Herder’s turn to history and culture, identified reason with an “objective Spirit” unfolding through time. Yet if Hegel took a step forward beyond Kant’s isolated subject, his valorization of state-imposed “morality” (Sittlichkeit) was a step back to Christian monarchism. Only Hegel’s leftwing successors of the 1830s developed a social theory of language to mediate between subject and object. The “Young Hegelian” Ludwig Feuerbach located the potential for human freedom not in a transcendent God but in everyday social relations, constituted through language.
For Habermas, modern constitutions create the institutional framework for a participatory public sphere, the heart of democratic life. Citizens are bound only by the force of the better argument and can reach agreement across cultural divides.
Habermas titles his last chapter “The Contemporaneity of the Young Hegelians,” underscoring an enduring shift in the locus of reason from subjective consciousness to intersubjective communication. He dismisses Karl Marx’s critique of ideology, which situated the theorist “over the heads of the participants themselves.” Instead, Habermas regards Charles Sanders Peirce, the founder of American pragmatism, as the true successor to the Young Hegelians. Peirce developed Feuerbach’s philosophy of language into a full-fledged theory of knowledge. For Peirce, scientific knowledge obtained solely in intersubjective understandings. Language was the essential medium coordinating between the external world and the research of the scientific community.
Habermas, finally, draws a line to his own writings. Whereas Peirce uncovered linguistic learning processes in science and technology, Habermas’s own work since the 1980s has shown how communication fosters progress in moral and political life as well. Habermas elects not to engage the late twentieth-century debates that surrounded his corpus. That, he writes, “would have required at least one more book.” But this decision only contributes to the air of inevitability surrounding This Too a History of Philosophy. Habermas’s theory of communicative rationality emerges as the outcome of, and explanation for, the trajectory he has traced since the Axial Age. The learning process, it would seem, culminates in its own self-awareness—realized in Habermas’s oeuvre.
• • •
This brief summary can hardly do justice to the staggering array of texts and debates that Habermas explores. The architecture of the work is ingenious, if its teleology does not fully convince. Most pressing, however, Habermas intends his History not only as a historical exercise, but as a record of the ideas that have furnished the political foundations of the modern West. The work invites readers to consider the resonances—and contradictions—between philosophy and politics.
Habermas himself, as in his previous works, sees a close alignment of the two. The normative implications he draws will not surprise veteran readers. A “detranscendentalized concept of rational liberty”—the result of the three-thousand-year dialogue of faith and knowledge—forms “the key to a universalist rational morality that makes possible the discursive resolution of moral conflicts, even with a multiplicity of heterogeneous voices.” In turn, the “historical traces of those moral-practical learning processes” traced over his study are deposited in “the practices and legal guarantees of democratic constitutional states.” In short, modern constitutions create the institutional framework for a participatory public sphere, the heart of democratic life. Here, citizens are bound only by the force of the better argument and can reach agreement across cultural divides.
A tension persists between Habermas’s political ideals and his historical framework. His story’s European origin collides with its universal intent.
It is an appealing vision. At a time when a global pandemic has only exacerbated spiraling inequalities, pervasive racism, and xenophobic insurgencies on both sides of the Atlantic, Habermas suggests that humanity already possesses the resources for levelheaded debate oriented toward the common good. Yet a tension persists between Habermas’s political ideals and his historical framework. The gap is not so much one of theory and practice, which Habermas readily acknowledges. Instead, his story’s European origin collides with its universal intent. Habermas insists that postmetaphysical reason—because it refuses to take refuge in foundational certainties—provides a basis for the inter-cultural dialogue necessary to confront global crises of climate change, mass migration, and unregulated markets. But by tracing the emergence of modern rationality solely to a Western, and Christian, learning process, he elides the historical reckoning necessary for any such dialogue.
The same problem faced Habermas’s Enlightenment precursors, who equally saw Europe as the source of universal ideals. Yet philosophical histories of the German Enlightenment also recognized the role of power in history, and the violence that saturated Europe’s interactions with the non-European world. Kant’s 1784 essay “Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Purpose,” which informs Habermas’s argument for a global public sphere, predicted the achievement of world peace through the “improvement in the political constitutions of our continent (which will probably legislate eventually for all other continents).” Herder more directly confronted the nexus of European global domination and colonial violence, and suggested that history would have its revenge. “Europe must give compensation for the debts that it has incurred, make good the crimes that it has committed—not from choice but according to the very nature of things.”
Even Hegel’s history of Absolute Spirit, the most bluntly Eurocentric teleology of classical German Idealism, attests to counter-narratives that shook the self-certainties of revolutionary Europe. As the political theorist Susan Buck-Morss has pointed out, the Haitian Revolution of 1791–1804, the slave uprising that overthrew French rule over the Caribbean island, may well have motivated Hegel’s early account of freedom. Though Hegel would later become an apologist for slavery, his dialectical theory of history modeled how political ideals emerge out of struggle, not only consensus. At the same time that Idealist philosophies of history enacted colonialist apologetics, they could also, if inadvertently, subvert them.
This Too a History of Philosophy, by contrast, devotes limited attention to the contradictions of European slavery and colonialism, as well as their problematic treatment by contemporaries. Habermas instead frames colonial encounters as moments in the learning process, way stations on the path toward moral universalism. He addresses the conquest of the Americas only to conclude that Francisco de Vitoria, the sixteenth-century Scholastic who defended the property rights of indigenous peoples, exemplified the universal reach of Catholic natural law. A long section on Locke’s theory of natural rights omits their use to justify colonial expropriations.
Haiti, too, is absent from Habermas’s History, as is the centuries-long, intra-Christian debate over the legitimacy of slavery. Instead, Habermas tells a more straightforward story. “The abolition of slavery,” he argues, is “a popular and really striking example” of moral learning:
While the slaves always should have been understood as persons who were denied the social status of free people, the ‘masters’ first had to learn to recognize and acknowledge in the Other the same person that they were in themselves.
But this description is misleading. It elides not only slavery’s enduring legacies, but the histories of resistance, civil war, and violent backlash that paved the twisted road to emancipation. And these histories can hardly be decoupled from the emergence of human rights. Habermas takes the enactment of democratic constitutions to mark the “historical embodiment of reason,” but the North Atlantic constitutions of the Age of Revolution continued to authorize slavery at the same time that they expanded the rights of privileged groups.
Habermas proceeds similarly through nineteenth- and twentieth-century social reform, passing over the contested, politicized, and still ongoing struggles by which marginalized groups claimed legal rights. Like the abolition of slavery, Habermas regards “the authorization of religious tolerance, freedom of opinion, [and] sexual equality, increasingly also the recognition of sexual freedom” as the results of moral learning processes. Such learning occurs when
relevant parts of the population discover new connections to ‘other’ people, toward whom until then they had felt little or only weak obligation . . . allowing them to understand that even these ‘strangers’ are in no relevant manner different from themselves.
Habermas does not further specify who stands on each side of these learning processes, the active bestowers of rights and the receptive “strangers.” The implication, however, is that extensions of rights tend to proceed from the moral learning of society’s dominant groups.
Habermas’s account of Western moral progress not only stands apart from classics of critical theory like Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment. It is also, arguably, in tension with his own earlier work on the public sphere. In an essay for Habermas’s ninetieth birthday, the philosopher María Pía Lara underscores how Habermas’s concept of publicity provides tools for “feminists and other excluded groups” to challenge power structures and demand recognition as political subjects. Yet stories of excluded groups and individuals who inserted themselves into the public sphere—and the canon of Western philosophy—are all but absent from This Too a History of Philosophy. For its many twists and turns, the history Habermas tells is linear and aggregative, the unfolding of an immanent logic. Rarely do we learn of realizations that were unjustly discarded, knowledge suppressed, experiments failed. In the learning process, it would seem, little is forgotten.
Habermas might object that such a critique misses the point. Painful histories of slavery and colonialism are not at issue, since Western political thought has still come to hold the abolition of racism (or sexism, religious discrimination, or homophobia) as a normative ideal to orient action. And to challenge Habermas’s conception of the learning process might appear to forfeit the Enlightenment promise of the rational improvement of the human condition.
By tracing the emergence of modern rationality solely to a Western, and Christian, learning process, he elides the historical reckoning necessary for inter-cultural dialogue.
To raise questions of historical accuracy, however, is not to reject Habermas’s ideals. His goals—constitutional democracy buttressed by a robust public sphere, equal rights realized in both law and practice, and international cooperation around global problems—remain critically important, even as their attainment appears ever more remote. But a history oriented toward the realization of these ideals would require fuller examination of the contexts under which they were formed and contested. To narrow the genesis of moral universalism to a Western, Christian “learning process” limits our understanding of how political change happened in the past. Transforming the contingent into the inexorable, such a narrative constricts social theory’s thinking of possible futures.
• • •
Habermas draws to a close with a reference to Theodor Adorno’s late essay, “Reason and Revelation.” Reflecting upon on the modern revival of irrational faiths, Adorno concluded that a return to religion could not be sustained. “Nothing of theological content will persist without being transformed,” Adorno pronounced. “Every content will have to put itself to the test of migrating into the realm of the secular, the profane.”
Adorno wrote these words in homage to his friend and interlocutor Walter Benjamin, who committed suicide in 1940 fleeing Nazi persecution at the French-Spanish border. Its inclusion is a fitting tribute to Adorno, Habermas’s teacher and the thinker who articulated the crisis of modern civilization to which Habermas’s career has responded. And Habermas answers Adorno in a manner fitting of Benjamin, whose late writings perceived the glimmer of messianic hope peering through histories of suffering:
So long as religious experience can still support, on the basis of ritual praxis, the presence of a strong transcendence . . . the question remains open for secular reason whether there are uncompensated semantic contents that still await a translation ‘into the profane.’
Religion, Habermas suggests, might retain a sacral core that resists secularization.
Yet Habermas’s concluding reflection is also jarring, underscoring his departure from the Frankfurt School’s first generation. For Adorno and Benjamin, the experience of brute suffering, epitomized in their own time with the rise of National Socialism, revealed the falsehood of progressive teleologies of human reason. Habermas, by contrast, alludes only once to the historical conditions of his predecessors’ thought, at the end of a long introduction. “Regression,” he notes, remains the constant shadow of “‘progress’”:
What we experienced in the twentieth century as a true break in civilization is anything other than a ‘relapse into barbarism,’ but the absolutely new, and from now on always present possibility of the moral collapse of an entire nation.
Habermas goes on to concede that “unreason in history” will be a “neglected theme in what is to follow.” The Nazi period does not reappear.
Set in the context of German history, an implicit premise of Habermas’s work may well be that the Federal Republic of Germany’s democratic transformation, what Habermas earlier termed its “unconditional opening toward the West,” vindicates the long arc of the learning process. The “unreason” that preoccupied his forebears, Habermas seems to suggest, should not blind us to the West’s historical achievements. Habermas has been rightly lauded for seeking a way forward beyond his precursors’ totalizing critique of reason. His own public contributions proved vital to fostering democratic culture in postwar Germany. But Habermas’s History avoids linking the emergence of Western-cum-universal rationality with systems of violence and dispossession whose legacies are all too visible today—and that also shaped the history of philosophy.
The “unreason” that preoccupied his forebears, Habermas seems to suggest, should not blind us to the West’s historical achievements.
Still, by any measure, This Too a History of Philosophy is a landmark achievement. The text caps a generative intellectual career, clarifying how Habermas understands the historical and conceptual foundations of his lifelong project. Most significantly, the work will inspire the next cohort of critical theorists to confront anew the problem of philosophy’s historical ground. Challenges to democracy and struggles for justice in our own moment may belie the conviction that public reason is the sole heritage of the West, or the apex of its historical progress. But thinking with and against Habermas offers powerful tools for reconsidering the place of communicative action in social theory's project of emancipation. Returning to history as a critical lens on the discourse of philosophy, rather than the canvas of its rational development, offers one path forward.
Author’s Note: The author would like to thank Liat Spiro for many conversations about the questions treated in this essay.
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June 18, 2020
26 Min read time