Saturday, May 14, 2011

Jürgen Habermas: Key Concepts

Barbara Fultner (ed.)
Jürgen Habermas: Key Concepts

Barbara Fultner (ed.), Jürgen Habermas: Key Concepts, Acumen Press, 2011, 264pp., $24.95 (pbk), ISBN 9781844652372.

Reviewed by David Ingram, Loyola University Chicago

"Anyone who has read Habermas knows how daunting his writing can be. Aside from the notorious density and abstractness of his prose, there is the challenge posed by the sheer scope of his undertaking. Quite simply, he stands out among our great contemporary thinkers for having dared to write a system of philosophy that crosses both disciplinary and thematic boundaries. In addition to this challenge, his thought has undergone several major permutations and countless minor ones over the past half century, as evidenced by the thirty some odd books and collections he has authored.

So we are truly fortunate that Acumen chose to include a book on Habermas in its exceptional Key Concepts series. These volumes are designed to provide synoptic introductions to important thinkers. This volume, edited by the well-known Habermas translator and scholar, Barbara Fultner, is a fine addition to the series. The essays included in this volume are written by eminent specialists in their respective fields, many of whom studied with Habermas. They are uniformly of high quality, and most are written at a level that upper-division undergraduates should find accessible. Furthermore, although most of them present a sympathetic case for Habermas's ambitious undertaking, they do not shy away from noting potential weaknesses. In short, this is about as complete an account of Habermas's social philosophy as one might possibly expect from a modestly sized volume.

The best way to appreciate the merits of the volume is to go directly to its Table of Contents. With the exception of Fultner's fine introduction, in which she deftly summarizes the evolution of Habermas's thought through four stages, and Max Pensky's nicely written essay situating Habermas's post-metaphysical enterprise within its historical and intellectual context, the volume's eleven chapters fall under three headings that are arranged in a kind of logical order. The first heading, on communicative rationality, addresses the basic methodological and conceptual foundation of Habermas's system. This section begins with Melissa Yates's reflections on Habermas's post-metaphysical style of philosophical thinking. Yates observes that, unlike many philosophers, Habermas refuses to assign his philosophy any privileged epistemic status above or prior to the empirical sciences. This serves as a corrective to those who mistakenly believe that Habermas is a transcendental philosopher in the Kantian vein. At the same time, Habermas reserves a unique role for philosophy as a kind of placeholder or guardian for the most basic normative presuppositions underlying distinctly modern forms of life, whose abstract, rule-like competencies it seeks to "reconstruct" with the aid of the sciences. This latter endeavor requires that philosophy mediate interpretatively the sciences and our common-sense understanding of what it is that we do whenever we act, communicate, argue with one another, reason morally, and the like. In this way, Habermas's notion of philosophy defends -- in a weakly transcendental way, with the aid of an equally weak naturalism -- claims about universal normative assumptions to which we must all appeal if we are to make sense of our speech action, argumentative practice, and modes of moral, ethical, and legal deliberation."
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