Once More Raymond Geuss on Habermas.

Here are some brief remarks on Geuss's Latest Blog in Verso

Thanks to Adrian Blau for the pointer.

1. When in a hole, stop digging, is the most apt comment I can make. Maybe Geuss is anxious that he has gone too far, this time, which seems unlike him.

2. There is still a fair amount of disingenuity in his piece. He writes as if the Habermasians of the world all decided to gang up on him for no reason. He did after all, on the occasion of Habermas 90th birthday, publish a piece that claimed Habermas had not so much as had a first thought about the objections to his theory of communication, (when he has actually addressed them fairly extensively, without backing down, and that his 'liberal' political theory was a piece of Cold War propaganda for the integration of German into the West, and a betrayal (not a refinement or continuation) of critical theory's utopian aim of social transformation. So that. together with the manifest solecism, of launching the attack on teh occasion of Habermas’s 90th birthday was to say the least a provocation. So it’s odd he seems so surprised at the reactions he provoked.

3. Geuss makes the blithe assumption that the all replies to his attack on Habermas were "affect-laden" but not his original piece. As if he were the paragon of temperance and rational disinterest!

4. However problematic Habermas's conceptions of "communication" and "discourse' may be, Geuss's chess analogy is totally inappropriate. Of course, there are plenty of alternatives to playing a game of chess. Unlike meaninful speech, reason, and argument, playing chess not even a candidate for a practice that is essential to, or very deeply interwoven with, human association. So all Geuss's chess analogies are beside the point.

5. Nothing in Habermas's theory of communication or discourse, nor in his political theory means that he must deny Geuss's claim that "Human life is not a closed system, but one with indistinct indefinite boundaries and open toward a changing future." The only thing, I guess, that Habermas would deny is that whatever that future holds, it is highly probable that speech, reason and discourse will be part of the distinctively human form of association, and the human life-form. I find that hard to deny. So I believe would a Dewean or Adornian.

6. There is definitely something to Kallimachos's maxim ‘mega biblion, mega kakon’ (‘a big book is a very bad thing’) that Habermas has never heeded. There again, neither did John Dewey!

6. Geuss. "So if I am not an expert, and think Habermas’ project is terminally flawed, why don’t I keep my mouth shut about it?" No-one is saying he should. They are saying that his criticisms, which specifically targeted Habermas 'liberalism,' and his conception of politics, are open to objection. Habermas has written a lot about these in his political writings, which Geuss admits has has not read. It opens him to the reply that his criticisms are basically guess work and in many respects simply do not engage Habermas's position. As a Cambridge professor of philosophy emeritus and a scholar of German philosophy and political theory, his readers expect him at least to have read the theories he casually dismisses.

7. Geuss is right that some of Habermas's followers are aficionados who tow the Habermas line. As are many of Adorno's or Dewey's or Nietzsche's, or Geuss's, for that matter! But by no means all. Even people who remain very critical of Habermas like me, say, or Peter Dews, or Peter Gordon, or Adrian Blau, or Joseph Heath, or Cristina Lafont, or Simone Chambers, still think that many of Geuss's criticisms of Habermas were ill-judged, misinformed, and incorrect. This is not because of misplaced loyalty for their 'favourite' German philosopher. To make that assumption is a convenient speculation on Geuss's part; one that gives him a free pass not to engage with them.

8. Geuss: "Habermas does not think that the status quo is root-and-branch evil and false, and must be replaced by something ‘completely different’ (even if one does not know and cannot say what that ‘other’ state is)." That is true. He thinks there is something worth preserving in liberal constitutional democracy. Even Adorno assumed that, although Adorno’s commitment to social democracy remained unarticulated and in conflict with the central tenets of his social theory and major published works of philosophy.

9. "Rather, he (Habermas) thinks that our liberal political order is, basically on the right track; a good thing that should be made to function better." No he doesn't. He thinks its gone badly wrong: massive social inequality, impending environmental catastrophe, the resurgence of populist nationalism, and political myopia focused exclusively on reelection all testify to that.

10. "This is not a minor revision of the Critical project, but the complete abandonment of it, in fact its transformation into its opposite."

So what's the claim? Is it that Habermas deliberately intends to justify the status quo. That's clearly wrong for all the reasons given above. Habermas claims that the status quo has imperfectly realized the ideals of freedom, equality, and deomcratic self-determination, and if anything is moving further away from them.

Or is the claim that, unwittingly, Habermas theory functions, in spite of his best intentions, to cement the status quo in place. It is possible. But it attributes more influence to Habermas's theory that Geuss thinks political philosophy generally has. And if so, is he responsible for that. Geuss spends a long time pointing out that the Idea of A Critical Theory, was not really about Habermas. My view, for what its worth, is that what primarily matters, is what a theory says, not what is made out of it. And plenty of people make out of Habermas’s ideas, a form of Frankfurt School critical social theory. I’ve questioned this reading in many places, including here.

The real difference between Habermas and Geuss I think is that Geuss like Blanqui, is happy to claim: "What exists is bad. It must be replaced by something else." Whereas Habermas thinks that whatever the solution is, democratic self-determination (the quality of which depends on liberal constitutionalism), is part of the answer. The difference between Geuss and Habermas is basically the difference between a 68er and a 45er. The 45ers are more cautious about advocating revolution, because they allow that however bad things are, everything can still get much worse. But that does not mean that radical social transformation is off the agenda, but that it has to take the form of what Habermas once called “radical reformism”. At the heart of radical reformism is the idea that Habermas ironically, shares with Dewey, the thinker Geuss contrasts with Habermas, that the ills of democracy can only be remedied with '“more democracy”.

James Finlayson