Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Arguably one of the best reviews of Professor Matuštík's book.

Overcoming Emancipation

Gopal Balakrishnan on Martin Beck Matuštík, Jürgen Habermas: a Philosophical-Political Profile. Bends in the thought of Germany’s leading philosopher, and its engagement with history, across half a century.

"Confronted with current US assertions of America’s eternal supremacy, as the Pentagon gears up to seize Baghdad, Habermas has not been moved to revise his confidence in the West’s new mission civilisatrice. While expressing conventional European misgivings about the dangers of ‘unilateralism’, he has deplored Schroeder’s declaration that Germany would not join an invasion of Iraq, even were the Security Council to mandate one, as failing to display ‘unreserved respect for the authority of the UN’. The more loyal attitude of Foreign Minister Fischer—a favourite of both the State Department and the philosopher—was preferable. For Habermas, once again, the decisive question is the language to be used in justifying the latest state of exception, as if this is what determines the final architecture of world politics. Here is the distinction with which (in a recent Nation interview) he garlanded motives for the Balkan War:

In Continental Europe, proponents of intervention took pains to shore up rather weak arguments from international law by pointing out that the action was intended to promote what they saw as the transition from a soft international law toward a fully implemented human rights regime, whereas both US and British advocates remained in their tradition of liberal nationalism. They did not appeal to ‘principles’ of a future cosmopolitan order but were satisfied to enforce their demand for international recognition of what they perceived to be the universalistic force of their own national ‘values’.

The shell game of principles versus values defines the parameters of the only debate that the later Habermas considers worthwhile. Conversations with Rawls and Rorty—‘the heirs of Jefferson’—boil down to justifying the writ of liberal democracy in different idioms. Acknowledgment that ‘the idea of a just and peaceful cosmopolitan order lacks any historical and philosophical support’ does not deter Habermas from concluding that there is no alternative to striving for its realization, even if its military expressions, for all their good will, so far leave something to be desired. The suspicion that such wishful thinking might preclude historical and philosophical comprehension of the real world has been successfully kept at bay. Habermas recently wrote of Herbert Marcuse that he believed he had to introduce a vocabulary that could only open eyes clouded to realities that had grown invisible ‘by bathing apparently unfamiliar phenomena in a harsh counterlight’. But reconstructing this forgotten language, and learning how to speak it, is the sole vocation of a theory that is genuinely critical."

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