Jürgen Habermas, non-ironist and non-metaphysical philosopher

As I previously noted, Jürgen Habermas and Richard Rorty stood close to eachother. However they did also have their disputes. Rorty’s philosophical heroes are people who are both “liberal” and “ironist”, and he called Habermas “a liberal who is unwilling to be an ironist”. In a sense this appears somewhat paradoxical. According to Rorty, being an ironist is an opposite of being a metaphysician (see earlier post here on Rorty’s ironist/metaphysician distinction), and Habermas clearly claims himself to be a non-metaphysician, but yet not ironist. Personally I want to avoid labels as much as possible, and I think that “ironist” is not a very nice sounding word, so I do sympathize with Habermas on this point.

Habermas, born in 1929, was in his youth member of Hitler Jugend. His father was “passive sympathizer with Nazism”. After the war, when documentary films of concentration camps was released, Habermas is to have said, “all at once we saw that we had been living in a politically criminal system.” And so he eventually would turn into one of the most prominent defenders of liberalism and democracy.

Quotes and notes from Philosophy as Stand-In and Interpreter

I will just pick some quotes from this essay and comment. If you want a review of what it’s all about, and what points Habermas wants to make, this may not be the best place to look. Earlier I recommended a PPT-presentation on this essay, which presents the central ideas of the text short and comprehensible: http://www.powershow.com/view1/27881d-ZDc1Z/Philosophy_as_StandIn_and_Interpreter_powerpoint_ppt_presentation

“Richard Rorty’s impressive critique of philosophy assembles compelling metaphilosophical arguments in support of the view that the roles Kant the master thinker had envisaged for philosophy, namely those of usher and judge, are too big for it.”

“While I find my self in agreement with much of what Rorty says, I have trouble accepting his conclusion, which is that if philosophy forswears these two roles, it must also surrender the function of being the “guardian of rationality”. If I understand Rorty, he is saying that the new modesty of philosophy involves the abandonment of any claim to reason – the very claim that has marked philosophical thought since its inception.”

This shows Habermas humbleness. He says “I have trouble accepting” instead of “I disagree” as if he indeed does try to accept Rorty’s conclusion… and “if I understand Rorty”, as if he is concerned that he might’ve actually misunderstood Rorty.
Of course this may be just empty phrases, but it seems to me that he takes what Rorty says as a serious challenge to his own thinking. And I think that he should.

“I will argue that philosophy, while well advised to withdraw from the problematic roles of usher (Platzanweiser) and judge, can and ought to retain its claim to reason, provided it is content to play the more modest roles of stand-in (Platzhalter) and interpreter.”

Explanation of the purpose of the essay.

“What I know about the history of the social sciences and psychology leads me to believe that hybrid discourses such as Marxism and psychoanalysis are by no means atypical. To the contrary, they may well stand for a type of approach that marks the beginning of new research traditions. What holds for Freud applies to all seminal theories in these disciplines, for instance, those of Durkheim, Mead, Max Weber, Piaget, and Chomsky. Each inserted a genuinely philosophical idea like a detonator into a particular context of research.”

Here Habermas argues why philosophy can be practical and useful. Are this list of people really philosophers, one can wonder, or are they rather sociologists, anthropologists, linguists? One may answer that they are both, but then; in what way, to what extent, is not so easy to sort out…

“bla bla bla…. triumphal march toward objectivist approaches, such as neurophysiology, that quaint favorite child of the analytic philosophers.”

Is Habermas here being sarcastic and scorns analytic philosophers for taking interest in neurophysiology?
It reminded of that most philosophers seem to stand close to certain other intellectual discipline, and whatever that other discipline is can vary widely. Some philosophers stand close to the natural sciences (such as many analytic philosophers), other stand close to the social sciences (such as Habermas), and some stand close to culture, literature and psychology (such as Wittgenstein).

“Whose seat would philosophy be keeping, what would it be standing in for? Empirical theories with strong universalistic claims.”

This is important quote. This seems to be Habermas own opinion. I’m a bit skeptic about it, but I’m not quite sure what he means by it either. I believe it can be problematic to be a Stand In for empirical theories, if you aren’t involved in any certain empirical context and don’t undertake empirical investigations yourself. Maybe Habermas does think philosophers should involve themselves in certain empirical contexts?

“every philosophy makes a practical and theoretical claim to totality and that not to make such a twofold claim is to be doing something which does not qualify as philosophy”

Here quoting a metaphilosophical claim by Robert Spaemann. Habermas expresses some sympathy with this. To me it sounds reasonable too, but it all depends on how you interpret it… “Totality” is a dangerous word, which easily makes philosophers get lost.

“Reason has split into three moments: modern science, positive law and posttraditional ethics, and autonomous art and institutionalized art criticism (i.e. aesthetics) – but philosophy had precious little to do with this disjunction.
Ignorant of sophisticated critiques of reason, the sons and daughters of modernity have progressively learned to differentiate their cultural tradition in terms of of these three aspects of rationality such that they deal with issues of truth, justice, and taste discretely rather than simultaneously”

There are three intellectual disciplines; science, ethics/laws and aesthetics. These turn away from each other, and do not cooperate. This is Habermas concern.

“(1) The sciences disgorge more and more dements of religion, thus renouncing the former aim to being able to interpret nature and history as one whole. (2) Cognitivist moral theories disgorge issues of the good life, focusing instead strictly on deontological, generalizable aspects of ethics, so that all that rernains of “the good” is the just. (3) With art it is likewise. Since the turn to autonomy, art has striven mightily to mirror one basic aesthetic experience, the increasing decentration of subjectivity”

“how can expert cultures with their rarefied, esoteric forms be made to stay in touch with everyday communication?”

“Everyday life … is a more promising medium for regaining the lost unity of reason than are today’s expert cultures or yesteryear’s classical philosophy of reason.”

Quotes like these are a central reason why I choose to pay attention to Habermas in this blog. I find this interesting, but also find it hard to grasp what he really wants to say. How to stay in touch with everyday communication? Should this be a concern of philosophy?
Rather than standing above the expert cultures, as something über-esoteric, philosophy should stand below them – as a mediator and discipline closer to the lifeworld?
I’m positive about what he says. But if we are to follow it through, I suspect that philosophy has to be done in very different way from how it usually is done

“As far as philosophy is concerned, it might do well to refurbish its link with the totality by taking on the role of interpreter on behalf of the lifeworld. It might then be able to help set in motion the interplay between the cognitive-instrumental, moral-practical, and aesthetic-expressive dimensions that has come to a standstill today, like a tangled mobile”

And how to make reality of this?


In general, I’m sympathetic with Habermas view. It seems to me, he doesn’t manage to get things quite straight when trying to work out a role of philosophy, but he’s not far off. The role of empirics in philosophy is an important question. Here is another post where I continue to discuss the role of empirics in philosophy – Pierre Bourideu, philosophy and empirics

Further reading

Habermas replies to Rorty @ Re(-)petitions blog – A well written article further discussing Habermas Philosophy as Stand-In and Interpreter


About Dandre

Former student of philosophy, maths and literature. Now studying master program in sociology. Some thinkers of central interest include Ludwig Wittgenstein, C. G. Jung and Pierre Bourdieu.
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2 Responses to Jürgen Habermas, non-ironist and non-metaphysical philosopher

  1. Pingback: Jürgen Habermas, non-ironist and non-metaphysical philosopher … | Neuro Physiology Blog

  2. Pingback: Pierre Bourideu, philosophy and empirics | Recollecting Philosophy

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