Monday, February 25, 2008

Habermas and "Richard Rorty's Philosophical Legacy"

some interesting discussion is going on here

Steve Fuller's comments are worth reproducing here in full:

"I write as someone who has always had a soft spot for Habermas, with Knowledge and Human Interests being one of the most heavily annotated books from my undergraduate days at Columbia in the late 70s. (I still think that’s his best book.) And of course, for left-of-centre intellectuals, it is hard to fault Habermas on political grounds throughout a long career of public exposure when there were many opportunities to be wrong-footed. And on most philosophical matters, he’s a good place to turn to get a sensible first opinion. But, if we are talking about the Reapolitik of intellectual history, I believe that Rorty will turn out to be seen as a much more original and consequential philosophical figure than Habermas. The reasons for this should be obvious, but philosophers tend to not take them sufficiently seriously.

First, Habermas is a scholastic whose intellectual power comes mainly from his ability to reconcile disparate sources that he doesn’t hide, and which makes his intellectual trajectory easy to chart simply by reading his texts. Of course, the sources informing Habermasian scholasticism have shifted over his career as his centre of gravity migrated across the Atlantic. In contrast, an original thinker is – as one should expect – a person whose origins aren’t so obvious from the textual trace, and hence appears to bring a new sensibility to the philosophical conversation. Rorty fits that bill, since he was trained as a process philosopher, not an analytic or pragmatist philosopher.

To be sure, Habermas’ scholasticism makes him attractive to people who like to learn about other thinkers by reading just one thinker. But scholasticism generally has little staying power unless it is imposed as orthodoxy, Aquinas being the obvious case in point. (Other medieval thinkers called ‘scholastics’ are remembered in a much more fragmentary manner – and for their genuinely original contributions.) It’s not an accidental feature of the sociology of Habermas’ reception that he perhaps enjoys the strongest infrastructure of translators/expositors vis-à-vis that of any other continental European thinker of the postwar period. Scholasticism, with its methodical style and broad coverage, is designed for easy transmission that can be sustained over several generations. The question is whether ‘Habermania’ will ever be anything more than an intellectual cult amongst certain centre-left thinkers.

As for Rorty, my guess that a big part of the hostility to him amongst philosophers is that he has read much more widely than they but he refuses to excuse that deficiency by laying out exactly what it is about X that leads him to categorise or appraise X as he does. You might call this intellectual laziness or cowardice on Rorty’s part – not wanting to expose his own ignorance of the original texts. Or you might simply grant his glosses and make sense of his arguments on their own terms. This involves a judgement call: The potential misuse of sources has to be traded off against the potential illumination of our current philosophical predicament served by it. If the trade off is made in favour of the latter, then Rorty is deemed original. Very few, if any, of the great philosophers read their sources well or accurately, going back to Plato and Aristotle vis-à-vis the sophists. They’re ‘great’ largely because of the influence retrospectively attributed to them, which has to do with their ability to illuminate successive generations.

As for Putnam, he plays Cassirer to Rorty’s Heidegger – assuming the ‘Geist der Weltgeschichte’ has shifted from Germany to America…."

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