December 04, 2004

Habermas & Heidegger

I find this article by Nikolas Kompridis quite interesting, as it brings Habermas into a philosophical conversation with Heidegger.

"One can't really understand the nature and purpose of Jürgen Habermas's philosophical project if one fails to see how much the entire undertaking is motivated by the question of how we can self-critically renew our traditions. This question is at work in Habermas's life-long attempt to bring about "a new beginning" in Germany's political culture by realigning elements of German cultural traditions with the liberal-democratic traditions of the West; in his engagement with the less-local problem of "completing" the project of modernity; and in the paradigm change from the "philosophy of the subject" to the model of linguistic intersubjectivity."

This renewal would involve an engagement with the German philosophical trradtion. Kompridis says that he wants to evaluate the stand Habermas has taken towards the German philosophical tradition which goes back to Kant and Hegel, and especially that part of it which goes by the name of critical theory. He says that the "problem of renewing the German philosophical tradition can hardly be taken lightly by someone with Habermas's concerns and outlook, and he has treated it as conscientiously and responsibly as could be expected of anyone. As the principal custodian of Frankfurt School critical theory Habermas has endeavoured to place its considerable insights in the service of reforming the legal and political institutions of liberal democracies. As a rule, Habermas has tried to rescue the Enlightenment elements of the German philosophical tradition, reformulating them in radically democratic terms."

However, there are many elements within the German tradition which strongly resist, if not altogether preclude, reformulation in radically democratic terms -- for example, much of what is considered original in Nietzsche and Heidegger. Habermas interprets their ideas, attitudes, and presuppositions as the most influential representatives of counter-Enlightenment positions within the German tradition. Hence a "critical, indeed, distrustful appropriation" must always, govern our relation to their work.

I've always found this reading of Nietzsche and Heidegger to be suspect because of the starkness of the duality involved. It is very close to the gatekeeping reading of American liberals such as Richard Rorty and Richard Wolin.

So what does Kompridis say? He provides a more balanced reading.

Well he gives credit where credit is due. Habermas is able to shift the limits of critical theory with respect to ethics and so renew it this tradition. Kompridis says:

"Unquestionably, the paradigm change to linguistic intersubjectivity made up a rather glaring normative deficit in earlier critical theory. By providing a normative foundation in the potential for reason latent in action oriented to achieving mutual understanding in language, Habermas's quite strenuous theoretical efforts have made it clear that further attempts to develop the Enlightenment ideals of freedom, reason, and autonomy are not fatally compromised from the start. Although the work of Hegel, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Adorno, and Foucault made shockingly clear how much these ideals were ensnared in the net of the objectifying and self-objectifying practices responsible for the disfigurement of modernity, the perspective opened up by Habermas's model of linguistic intersubjectivity made compellingly clear that these ideals were not inescapably ensnared in these practices."

However there are limits to Habermas renewal:

"Yet for all of its considerable theoretical and practical promise, Habermas's paradigm is beset by intractable problems of its own. Habermas is not unaware of these problems, but no matter how much theoretical ingenuity he brings to the task of reconciling them within the terms of his theory, it seems that it is all in vain: so long as the basic concepts of the theory of communicative action remain unchanged, these problems turn into corrosive agents undermining his paradigm from within. The problems are not only theoretical; they are existential. For they are intertwined with the identity of critical theory, and with the meaning and value of the German philosophical tradition."

What then are the limits? They, by and large, articulate my own reservations.

*Habermas' reduction of the German philosophical tradition from Nietzsche to Heidegger and Adorno reduces it to "negative metaphysics," "aestheticism," and "irrationalism";

*Habermas' shift to linguistic intersubjectivity changes critical theory's identity and remodels critical theory in the image of liberal theories of justice, and severely weakened the Marxist identity of critical theory;

*By turning critical theory into a form of normative theory and in bringing it into the philosophical mainstream of the normal, international "business of science" critical theory's openness to historical experience is displaced and its relation to modernity's time consciousness abandoned;

*by assimilating the liberal position of neutrality towards the good, Habermas's reformulated model of critical theory has to refrain from critically evaluating and normatively ranking totalities, such as forms or ways of life and cultures, life-contexts and epochs as a whole;

*the shift to the paradigm of linguistic intersubjectivity leaves unaddressed (if not unacknowledged) the problems of normative and cultural change central to the German tradition from Hegel to Heidegger and Adorno;

*communicative rationality produces its own "other" of reason because it denies a transformative role for reason, a role it can't help but deny so long as it is narrowly framed by a procedural conception of rationality.

Kompridis says that each of the above problems coalesce into the Heideggerian problematic of world disclosure and this problematic to represent the most important challenge to Habermas's paradigm.

Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at December 4, 2004 08:12 PM | TrackBack


Nice post! I think it focuses on what is the critical issue in the relation between Habermas and Heidegger. Habermas, interestingly, borrows a lot from Heidegger in terms of his ontological analysis of freedom (in Philosophical discourse of Modernity, Habermas uses Heidegger's term Being in Time interchangeably with lifeworld), however what diverges Habermas and Heidegger is the normative status of freedom (as your post and the article you refer to nicely points out).

Posted by: Ali on December 4, 2004 09:45 PM

I've always been puzzled by the hostility of Critical Theory to Heidegger.

You can see it surfacing in some of the early posts in philosophical conversations with Trevor Maddock that were based on Adorno's reading of Heidgger.

Heidegger was a negative that had to be rejected.There was nothing positive in the (existential) Heidegger.Nor could it be acknowledged that Adorno borrowed from Heidegger, or there were similarities as well as differences.

Habermas seems to me to strike the same tone in his Philosophical Discourses of Modernity.I turned away from Habermas on the basis of the strong misreading of that book.

So I welcome the Kompridis article.

Posted by: Gary Sauer-Thompson on December 5, 2004 02:59 PM


Given Habermas' huge debt to Heidegger at the ontological level but his disagreement with him on normative plain, he needs to 'overreact' against Heidegger in order to distance his project from that of Heidegger. This overreaction seems to be strategic and well considered.

Posted by: Ali on December 5, 2004 03:18 PM

Fair enough. Strong readings are often useful as they can disclose something different and insightful.

But interpreting Heidegger to be part of the counter-enlightenment and the source of irrationalism does seem to be overdoing it. There is a strong critical component to Heidegger's engagement with the philosophical tradition, even if the politics is a conservative one that is deeply critical of modernity.

The Habermas reading strikes me as a misreading since Heidegger is working with reason, though a philosophical one that is informed by poetics.

Posted by: Gary Sauer-Thompson on December 6, 2004 09:11 PM
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