Sunday, June 15, 2008

Habermas and Postmodernism

A reader writes:

"I was looking at some posts on your blog and I was wondering if I could ask you a very elementary question about Habermas. (I'm writing a book on American multiculturalism and I have a chapter on "postmodern multiculturalism.")

My question is what the objection would be to putting Habermas under the heading of "postmodernism." I realize this is a crude question - and I confess I know almost nothing about Habermas (and I realize postmodern is a crude term).

By "postmodernist" all I mean is:
1) begins from diversity of cultural worldviews; sense of problem of relativity of truth-claims; sense that human understanding is derivative from culture and, hence, from politics/struggle
2) the "usual suspects" of those lumped under this category (many protesting of course): Foucault, Derrida, Lyotard, Rorty, Fish.

My sense is that Habermas would NOT be considered a postmodern - even though (as your blog suggests) there is a lot of overlap. My sense that H would NOT be considered a postmodernist is based on 2 crude facts:

1) his attempt to sketch an ethics [or is communicative ethics precisely a kind of attempt at an ethics on postmodernist assumptions?]
2) his overtures to Rawls

And so you see my judgement is based on very crude grounds - and (to repeat) on almost no actual understanding of Habermas.

I am only looking for a general reaction to my question - and I would be grateful for any response that might tell me whether to look into Habermas as a postmodernist (which from your blog it looks like you might be inclined to say?) or continue to assume that Habermas stands outside the camp of postmodernists as much as someone like Rawls would (tho on different grounds).

I'd be much obliged to hear whatever you might have time to say about this."


My response:

I have never considered Habermas a postmodernist but he has this remarkable tendency to not only learn from his adversaries but also in a sense overstates their case (and accepts it). He then moves on to defend his own position given the valid (even over exaggerated) critique of his adversaries. What Haberams accepts from the so called postmodernists is their critique of the philosophy of subject. The critique of the philosophy of subject can mean different things for different people but in this context I take it to be a critique of the notion of rationality which locates rational standards outside space and time, in other words outside "this" world. Habermas accepts this critique of otherworldly notions of rationality which linger on in modern and late modern philosophy. However, from the above Habermas doesn’t draw the conclusions which are drawn by most postmodernists. Specifically, Habermas doesn’t accept the claim that with the demise of the philosophy of subject all hope for "objective" standards of rationality is gone and we are ensnared in the immanence of our own worldviews. In Habermas' view a this-worldly "transcendence from within" is possible. For this Habermas develops his theory of communicative rationality which is based on his views of linguistic communication. Habermas thinks that a look at linguistic communicative action aimed at mutual understanding can give us access to criteria that are this worldly (since there is no supposition of a subject located outside space and time, language is a thing of this world), shared by every human being (since we are linguistic beings). These rationality criteria can help us overcome parochialism into which postmodernism inevitably leads. Thus we can defend a version of universalism and objectivity even after we have given up the philosophy of subject. This is Habermas' position anyway!

Any further thoughts from dear readers are most welcome!
[cross posted at FR]

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