Natural man is born free but is everywhere in chains. ‘Civilised man’, unfortunately, ‘is born and dies a slave. The infant is bound up in swaddling clothes, the corpse is nailed down in his coffin. All his life man is imprisoned by institutions.’ Optimists will insist, as Helvétius did to Rousseau, that ‘l’éducation peut tout.’ Pessimists will reply, like de Maistre, that sheep are born carnivorous but everywhere eat grass. How do we know, if the men we see around us and we ourselves are slaves, that natural man is free? By introspection, says Rousseau – in tracing, through biography, the simplicity of the heart and its all but inevitable degradation by society. The biography may be theoretical, as in Émile and the discourse on inequality, or literary, as in the character of Saint-Preux, for instance, in La Nouvelle Héloise, or literal, as in the Confessions.
Yet can one trust such introspection? Can one trust the particular introspection of that extraordinary man, whose suffering, whatever its revelations, was so acute? Above all, can one trust and then generalise the moral intuitions of someone who argued that our moral notions themselves, of evil and so of good, of guilt and so of innocence, are the result of social relations? Pessimists, of course, like Rousseau himself in most of his moods, will say we cannot. We know very little and always will. We hear the chatterings of scientists, intellectuals, lawyers and journalists, of democrats, Jansenists, Protestants, Jews and atheists – the list is the Catholic de Maistre’s – but that is all. Optimists, though, will protest. Like Rousseau only when he sat down to write The Social Contract, and perhaps not even then, they will want a proof of possible freedom. Hence their interest now in Jürgen Habermas, that ‘unifying force’, as Gillian Rose grandiloquently describes him, ‘in the international world of sociological reason’. He produces a reasoned reflection on our collective biography in which he claims to reveal our rational will.
There is, accordingly, more to Habermas than mere sociology. Indeed, his sociology is decidedly thin and second-hand. It describes a society which has come to treat men as means yet which cannot justify doing so. It is an echo of that dispiriting Weimar world in which a tediously technical and quite blind Civilisation has conquered Kultur. In Habermas, it is true, this sociology has none of his predecessors’ sheer hatred for the bourgeoisie, none of what George Friedman sketchily and unlovingly illuminates of Marcuse’s frenzy or Adorno’s fastidiousness or Benjamin’s irony. It certainly has none of Max Weber’s tragedy. Its force lies in its striking deployment of the argument for collectively redemptive self-criticism.
But Habermas is not easy to read. It is not just that he writes very badly, like many men struggling to articulate a vision that is obscure even to them. It is also that he writes within the German tradition of Kritik. This comes down at least from Kant through Fichte, Hegel and Marx to later phenomenologists and hermeneutic theorists. It is a tradition of difficult and extended prose which presumes that the philosophy of history is first the history of philosophy. It requires each writer critically to define himself against those who precede him and so demands much of the reader too. One is grateful to the Cambridge University Press for providing short books for readers whose ears have not been trained for what most of them have no doubt regarded as deep but largely incomprehensible noises from across the German Sea. Garbis Kortian, in one such book, explains Habermas historically. He does so moderately well. Raymond Geuss, in another, explains him analytically. He does so so astonishingly well that he has not only written the one absolutely indispensable account, more indispensable than anything Habermas himself has written, but also laid out the arguments with a clarity and power that no one now wanting to pursue them, least of all Habermas, could wisely ignore.
‘Critical theories,’ Geuss begins, ‘have special standing as guides for human action in that ... they are aimed at producing enlightenment in the agents who hold them, i.e. at enabling those agents to determine what their true interests are.’ They ‘are inherently emancipatory, i.e. they free agents from a kind of coercion which is at least partly self-imposed, from self-frustration of conscious human action.’ They ‘have cognitive content, i.e. they are forms of knowledge.’ Finally, they ‘differ epistemologically in essential ways from theories in the natural sciences. Theories in natural science are “objectifying”; critical theories are “reflective”.’ In short, they are much what Rousseau himself, at the moment of inspiration in the woods at St Germain, wished to deliver.
We start a critical theory by refusing to be sheep. Sheep, if they are to be understood at all, can only be understood (or, more exactly, described, explained and predicted) by the methods of the ‘positive’ sciences. They can only be ‘objectified’ as the objects they un-contentiously are. Men, however, cannot only be. A properly positive science of men, of course, is not impossible. It is a science of their behaviour. But because it is only this, a science of mere motion, it is incomplete and, in Geuss’s exact sense of the term, wholly unenlightening. We may do much with it, but if we do so by means consistent with its methods, we can scarcely be said to have induced self-awareness in the species we do it to. So much is clear. Yet as Geuss and Russell Keat, too, explain, Habermas has from time to time got himself into a terrible tangle about such a science. He has made extravagant and scarcely consistent assertions about ‘objectification’ being at once necessarily oppressive and morally quite arbitrary. But the important point, which is also Habermas’s, remains: whatever else it is, such a science is, just, unenlightening.
Enlightenment comes with Ideologiekritik. Ideologies, in the pejorative sense, are illusory beliefs. Freeing ourselves from such illusion, we see ourselves as perhaps we really are. In a chapter which is the very best discussion of the idea of ‘ideology’ I know, Geuss detects in Habermas three tactics to such self-awareness. The first and most obvious is to show that our beliefs do not correspond with the way the world is; the second is to show that they have origins which we would not on reflection accept; the third is to show that they also or instead have consequences which we would similarly disavow. It is the last two which are opaque.
As Geuss argues, the Marxist claim that class interests are unacceptable because they are class interests, or the Freudian claim that illusion comes out of wish-fulfilment, both of which might appear to be criticisms of the second, ‘genetic’ sort, are not so. The one, on closer inspection, is a criticism of the first sort. It is ‘epistemic’. Class interests are particular interests and, as pictures of general human interests, therefore false. The other may not be a criticism of a belief at all, but of the desires of the agent who has it. Illusions are either false or they are held by people who have what we may call (what Habermas does want to call) ‘false desires’. Genetic criticisms are not indeed easy to secure: Nietzsche’s criticism of Christianity, that it has its origins in hatred, envy, resentment and weakness, motives that Christians themselves would reject, may be a rare exception.
Likewise, the argument that one should not unreflectively accept a belief which seems to justify what we might describe as ‘surplus repression’, an argument which is a criticism of the third, ‘functional’ sort, is impossible to secure without a theory of the legitimate interests we have in a fortiori legitimate and so ‘non-surplus’ repression. As Geuss makes clear, perhaps in general and certainly in Habermas, functional criticisms turn out to be parasitic on the other two. But Habermas not only wants to ground all three sorts of criticism. He also wants to prove that they can show beliefs to be false and can show false beliefs to go against our true interests. Moreover, he wants to prove that our true interests are not just our interests now, as the culturally peculiar characters we actually are. He wants to prove that they are our interests, our true interests, as a species.
He therefore thinks, in Geuss’s words, ‘that he can give something like a transcendental argument to the conclusion that all agents must agree in finding reflectively unacceptable any part of their form of consciousness which could only have been acquired’, as deluded sheep, ‘under conditions of coercion. He further thinks that he can show that all agents have a tacit commitment to the same views about what conditions are coercive.’ The argument is this. Being human, men speak; speaking, they ‘anticipate’, in Habermas’s phrase, an ‘ideal speech situation’, in which they and their speech are free and uncoerced; free and uncoerced, they see clearly what is true and false; seeing clearly what is true and false, which includes seeing what is true and false about themselves, they come to know where their true interests lie. The transcendental criterion is the ideal speech which to be so has to be spoken in pure freedom. Conversely, pure freedom will guarantee ideal speech. Very clearly, the criterion is purely theoretical. It has no social shape. But we can, with reflective effort, see that we strain towards it, towards ideal speech, in all that we say.
There are objections. The critical criterion can’t apply to all known agents. Geuss not unreasonably finds it ‘hard to burden pre-dynastic Egyptians, ninth-century French serfs and early 20th-century Yanomamö tribesmen’ with the view that truth arrives in free discussion in an open society. That is a relatively new and decidedly Western notion. The consensus theory of truth itself, he rather too briskly remarks, is ‘a recent invention held by a couple of professional philosophers in Germany and the United States’. The critical criterion doesn’t deliver anything at all definite for the here-and-now. Decisively, and even for the never-never, by which time we might wonder whether we are still recognisably us, the critical criterion rests upon the curiously simple-minded conviction that if moral beliefs are not arbitrary, as Habermas’s straw ‘positivists’ are supposed to hold, then all such beliefs must separately and together be incipiently rational and, if rational, true. However much it may say about the means to rational persuasion, on present form this critical theory cannot convincingly claim to have proven one truth.
Geuss shows more clearly than anyone has yet done how one might nevertheless use it to reason towards something more provisional. He does so, moreover, by skilfully avoiding the history of Kulturkritik and Kulturkritik as history. Kortian deliberately does not, and, with Connerton,gives the best short history of Kritik, certainly the best short deliberately philosophical history. Such a history must first explain how Fichte believed that he had resolved Kant’s apparent equivocation in the Critique of Practical Reason over the relative priority of pure and practical reason; Fichte resolved it in favour of the latter. (‘May God preserve us from our friends,’ wrote Kant in 1799, when he had seen Fichte’s first attempt.) It must then make clear how Fichte’s ‘cognitive Jacobin’, an energetic ‘positive Ego’ pitting itself against ‘immediacy’ or ‘otherness’ in a confident career of total comprehension, roused Hegel to declare that Fichte had not thereby escaped all pre-supposition, since ‘immediacy’ was pre-supposed; Hegel argued that one must return to a pre-Kantian metaphysic of one substance which, at the end of the day, will reveal that there never was any real distinction between subjects (or egos) and objects (or immediacy) after all. Next, it must explain how Habermas rejects Hegel and misreads Marx, which most commentators agree that he does, as supposing that liberation comes in unreflectively working through the contradictions of capitalism. Finally, it must explain how Habermas returns to Fichte’s Ego reflecting (to many of us incomprehensibly) upon itself. It is a formidable test, and although the sun often goes in behind his prose, Kortian meets it.
John Thompson also reaches back and does so to reach forward again. He goes back not to Kant or Fichte or Hegel or Marx but back, and a little sideways, to Wittgenstein: Wittgenstein the genitor of the view that an analysis of the rules of language use defines the limits of human comprehension and so of our comprehension of the human. Thompson then comes forward, yearning for foundations and thus unhappy with such restriction, to Paul Ricoeur, of whom he also offers an excellent edition. Ricoeur finds Heidegger ‘the inescapable attempt and temptation’ and takes language rather ‘as a medium, a mediation, an exchange between Telos and Ursprung’: two poles, one of pre-theoretical intuition, the other of Utopian ambition, which ground reflection and hope together to reveal what we really may mean in what we say. Thompson concludes, like the others, with Habermas, with some of the criticisms of the transcendental criterion of ideal speech more sharply put by Geuss, and with a sketch, diffidently and darkly made, of how best to escape these criticisms: of how to rescue the whole of Habermas’s vertiginous ambition, even the ambition to truth, by reconnecting the abstracted interlocutors of the ideal speech situation to what is, as put forward by Thompson, a disappointingly unargued and rather simple view of a very uncivil society. In respecting Habermas’s conviction that all the questions are connected, Thompson reveals how difficult it is to give them all connected and convincing answers. He has simply tried to do too much.
Keat, like Geuss, is more restrained. He is drawn to Habermas despite himself: despite himself because of his analytical temper and his admirable disinclination to believe that a good theory has to be useful, true and optimistic, but drawn nevertheless because, in arguing against Habermas, he can define the possibility of being both a Kantian, although in his case a queerly, nervously, edgily realist Kantian, and a socialist too.
Gillian Rose, however, will not compromise at all. She does see Habermas’s power: but only in the context of ‘the international world of sociological reason’, which is a deluded world, a world in which we are uncomprehendingly stuck ‘at the Fichtean station’. For her, comprehension comes only with Hegel, of whom she gives a deeply read and impressively concise account. Yet she fails to do what she should have done if her claim is to stand, which is actually to defend Hegel’s argument that the perceived separation of man from being and indeed from himself is phenomenal illusion. She says three times that Hegel has no social import if the absolute cannot be thought, but never quite says how to think it.
She is far too severe. Rousseau couldn’t convincingly secure his introspection. Habermas can’t convincingly secure his transcendental argument. Hegel can’t, for us, secure the absolute. But the view from each point, from Rousseau’s depths and the Germans’ heights, is often sensational. It is far too self-denying to insist that if a view is not secure it has no value. Of course, to have had such a view may not have helped Saint-Preux with Julie, even if the poor weak man had got her into an ideal speech situation. Even as views, none of them reveals it all. The supreme merit of Geuss’s little book, however, its modesty, its humanity and its power, lies in unshowily showing that where Habermas’s own view demands an argument, then this is how that argument has to run. We may well doubt where we are and where to go: but Geuss’s patient unpacking of what it may mean unreflectively to accept the prevailing opinion about either is a model of how rationally to continue to think about both.