Thursday, September 15, 2016

philosopher acting as public intellectual

Habermas: A Biography
by Stefan Muller-Doohm
Polity Press, 2016

This is now available (Sept. 29), but I’ve received it only today. I’ve read the author’s “Epilogue: Habermas’s Inner Compass” carefully. I want to comment relative to that notion and my own decades of experience with Habermas’s work, but I’m not yet directly addressing the author’s misled sense of “inner compass.”

The “Acknowledgements” of the book indicates that Habermas was reticent toward Müller-Doohm’s project, though he was cooperative
(e.g., giving the author access to unpublished autobiographical material). My reading of various passages of the book causes me to believe that it’s a 400+ page project in journalism about a public intellectual who—to the sociologist qua biographer—has a lot of theoretical work that can be capsulated along the way. But Habermas’s legacy will not be as public intellectual. Philosophy is more than social theory (let alone the applied service of public intellectual).

So, the biography is apparently no better for understanding Habermas as a philosophical theorist than what David Ingram has done or Barbara Fultner has done, listed on my “Habermas resources” page. I’ll welcome finding that I’m wrong about that. I’d love to see that the biography is philosophically astute.

So, I’m not yet recommending the book by posting this discussion; nor am I decidedly not recommending the book. Biography is an informative venture!

Habermas would prefer that one dwelled with his works, rather than others’ accounts of his life, I suppose. Of course, his work is the basis for responding to its times, within a lifeworld. His response—a conceptual evolution—is exemplary, durably so, especially as supplement to philosophical theory that makes trans-historical claims.

Engagement with the thinking of the texts is what a philosopher / theorist wants. The aspiration of philosophy (and theory) is trans-historical (beyond the horizon of audience that a public intellectual enlists)—especially when historical relativity is a topic within an evolving career.
(A philosophical theory of social evolution is not translatable into a conception of historicism.) Readers are implicitly called by Habermas to appropriate the philosophical theorist’s life-historical exemplarity to their own life-historical challenges.

For instance, endeavoring to detail a Theory of Communicative Action [TCA] for this decade (around 2016) would not be what it had to be for Habermas’s 1970s (relative to voices available at that time). That’s nearly 40 years ago! Cognitive science didn’t yet exist substantially. such that philosophy of language derivea from philosophy of mind. Cognitive linguistics is not the same as linguistic cognitivism. Confronting Marxism noq is merely pedagogical, if not regressive. The 20th century Cold War is over; Germany is unified. (The cold war now is done by coding across the Internet, and Germany is leading the EU—perhaps somewhat unfortun-ately.) And the EU’s challenges intersect the challenges of other contin-ental regions that are evolving in their own ways. Eurocentrism is not a viable export for other continents.

Habermas is exemplary of endeavoring to appropriate leading voices of his time into an integrated Project of philosophical theory for the mid-to-late 20th century. That exemplarity will endure most fruitfully for enriching later ventures and challenges unanticipated in the work of its time. But his discourse of conceptual evolution—I’ll call it (though I doubt that he would be comfortable with that)—deserves to be regarded as par for the course of conceptual futuring. Philosophical theory that doesn’t yet appreciate Habermas’ scale of engagement should do so.

I’ve never read that Habermas considered TCA, 1981, to be a “magnum opus” (which many commentators have labeled it to be, including Müller-Doohm). Professor Habermas told me, during the months that he was finishing TCA in Berkeley, that he was responding to failures of his mature theory to catch on, in terms of exposition and critical reading. Indeed, TCA is basically an elaboration of what’s rigorously formulated in Communication and the Evolution of Society [CES], 1975/79. Though TCA is vastly, incomparably, beyond earlier work, as a matter of social-evolutionary theory, TCA philosophically derives from his mid-‘70s work (more or less)—then his thinking advances beyond that throughout the 1980s. By itself, TCA is an elaborative supplement to work of the mid-to-late 1970s that leads into later work of that decade. That is, later work was already in mind: Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action [MCCA] (which formally explicates his sense of “discourse ethics”) appeared in Germany a mere 2 years after the German original of TCA. Practically speaking, the two books (2+1 in English) are simultaneous. TCA leads into MCCA. One can’t read TCA as philosophically based (which it is, in terms of work in CES) without reading TCA through MCCA (philosophically speaking).

The notion of magnum opus only makes sense, in Habermas’s instance, across a series of works that begins with TCA, includes MCCA, Justification and Application [J&A], and Postmetaphysical Thinking [PMT], then ends with Between Facts and Norms [BFN] in 1992—altogether as a singularity of thinking across a decade, from TCA to BFN. If he had been writing TCA in 1991, a large part of the last half of TCA-II (in English) wouldn’t have been done; a prospectus of BFN would have ended TCA. BFN is the third volume of TCA, and MCCA, J&A, and PMT comprise the philosophical altitude of that decade-or-so. The notion of magnum opus belongs to an era of discourse.

Yet, I would argue that his finest philosophical work is Truth and Justification, 1999. During the mid-‘90s through early years of the new century, he did work which advances fundamentally beyond the 1981-1992 span of works. So the “magnum” of his opus is evolving; it belongs to a discursive locale across many discursive studies—conceptualizing “the unity of reason in the diversity of its voices” as he puts it, in PMT (which is also the title of one chapter in PMT: “Postmetaphysical thinking”)—a unity belonging to the career of thinking, as well as to the community of inquirers—yet a unity which is dynamic, advancing itself as proffering shared inquiry into fundamental engagements, which are not the property of a singular inquirer; rather, belonging to the community of inquiry.

After scholars have largely forgotten what Habermas did as public intellectual, his philosophical and theoretical work will continue to be engaging as the basis for understanding how the public intellectual—his “praxis”—supplemented the philosophical/theoretical work.

So, what belongs to our times, which his works (responding to his times) durably speak to? What are you going to do with the exemplarity of the philosophical and theoretical work?

The challenge is an event of appropriation for evolving thought that is alive and calls for reincarnation relative to evolving times.