Habermas Replies to Rorty

Jurgen Habermas

Jurgen Habermas

In my search for a reasonable referent for the term “philosophy,” thereby shedding some light on what some philosophers have called “anti-philosophy,” I have to admit that a survey of the last hundred years of thinking on that issue has done more to muddy the waters than clarify them. Richard Rorty does an excellent job surveying the land, so to speak, of contemporary philosophy, noting that in pretty much all camps there has sprouted a plant of thought that is deeply suspicious of its own soil. In response, Rorty gives up on philosophy as a privileged discipline, or as having any specialized realm of discourse, preferring instead to consider philosophy as a kind of eclectic mix of things that attempts to see how things “hang together,” in the terms of Sellars. In response to Rorty’s call for the demise of the philosopher as the “guardian of reason,” Jürgen Habermas proposes a new role for philosophers, not as “Master Thinkers,” but as translators and mediators between different cultural spheres of inquiry. In his essay “Philosophy as Stand-In and Interpreter,” Habermas pursues the historical shifts of philosophy as an insular discipline in order to discover whether or not such a conception of philosophy is viable today.

Habermas goes quite far with Rorty on this issue, granting him quite a bit of ground and tracing, historically, the collapse of philosophy as an insulated discipline of its own. Rorty celebrates the collapse, and Habermas gives him plenty of room to do so. Habermas agrees that the model of philosophy which recognizes philosophers as members of a privileged, esoteric inquiry is dead and gone, and it deserves to be thrown out. Already with Kant, he argues, philosophy began to yield its special ground to the human sciences, ethics, and the arts, and it has been yielding that ground ever since. In the twentieth-century, philosophy continues this habit, leading both Rorty and Habermas to wonder if, after fraternizing with other disciplines so intimately, philosophy can assume an identity of its own.

Noting Rorty’s allergy to philosophy as the keeper of reason, Habermas takes up the shield, or perhaps the defibrillators, hoping to rescue reason and place it at home under philosophy’s tender care. Reason, for Habermas, is a kind of shorthand here for simple conversational dialogue, that common ground that all conversations seek. Pragmatism and hermeneutic philosophy, he says, have joined forces to highlight this very space and role for philosophy. In this new role, the philosopher, argues Habermas, must become the interpreter between the specialized discourses of things like science and the “life-world.” As Reformational philosopher Calvin Seerveld says, philosophy is the janitor of the disciplines. Philosophy becomes a kind of cosmopolitan meeting ground in the world of ideas, an airport where thoughts arrive and depart, but not before comingling. These common conversation spaces force us to make decisions, as Habermas says “They force us into yes or no positions.”

This decisional aspect is highly attractive to me, yet I find Habermas particularly weak with regard to philosophy as the “guardian of reason.” For all his talk of common understanding, when he writes “Everyday communication makes possible a kind of understanding that is based on claims to validity, thus furnishing the only real alternative to exerting influence on one another, which is always more or less coercive.” Given postmodern criticisms of reason as a veiled will to power, I find it difficult to go all the way with Habermas here, even given his humble admission that reason appears to be as simple as “pointing to something beyond the spatio-temporal ambit of the occasion [of a conversation].” These concerns are difficult to square, but at the same time they grant a greater capacity than Rorty to actually discern what is healthy or not for social life—and if it is simply a matter of being afraid to take the risk of reason, then I suppose I might be willing to tentatively side with Habermas, given that this risk is always taken in and for community.

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One Response to Habermas Replies to Rorty

  1. Pingback: Jürgen Habermas, non-ironist and non-metaphysical philosopher | Recollecting Philosophy

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