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Critical Theory After Habermas

Social and Critical Theory

A Critical Horizons Book Series


Jan Bryant, John Hewitt, Danielle Petherbridge,

John Rundell, and Jeremy Smith


William Connolly, Manfred Frank, Leela Gandhi, Agnes Heller,

Dick Howard, Martin Jay, Richard Kearney, Paul Patton, Michel

Volume 1
Critical Theory
After Habermas

edited by
Dieter Freundlieb, Wayne Hudson
and John Rundell






Social and Critical Theory, A Critical Horizons Book Series, provides

a forum for the critical analysis of issues and debates within critical
and social theories and the traditions through which these concerns
are often voiced. The series is committed to publishing works that offer
critical and insightful analyses of contemporary societies, as well as
exploring the many dimensions of the human condition through which
these critiques can be made. Social and Critical Theory publishes works
that stimulate new horizons of critical thought by actively promoting
debate across established boundaries.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Detailed Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication
data are available on the Internet at
LC Control Number: 2004040778

ISBN 90 04 13741 6
ISSN 1572–459X

Copyright 2004 by Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, Boston

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, translated,

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Acknowledgments .................................................................... vii

1. Reasoning, Language and Intersubjectivity .................. 1

Dieter Freundlieb, Wayne Hudson, John Rundell

2. Between ‘Objectivism’ and ‘Contextualism’: The

Normative Foundations of Social Philosophy .......... 35
Maeve Cooke

3. The Pluralistic Public Sphere from an Ontological

Point of View .................................................................. 77
Dmitri Ginev

4. Irreconcilable Differences? Habermas and Feminism ... 104

Pauline Johnson

5. Postreligious Aesthetics and Critical Theory ................ 133

Wayne Hudson

6. Habermas, Schelling and Nature ...................................... 155

Peter Douglas

7. The Debate About Truth: Pragmatism without

Regulative Ideas .............................................................. 181
Albrecht Wellmer

8. Why Subjectivity Matters: Critical Theory and the

Philosophy of the Subject .............................................. 212
Dieter Freundlieb

9. Subjectivity as Philosophical Principle ............................ 233

Dieter Henrich
vi • Contents

10. Against a priori Intersubjectivism: An Alternative

Inspired by Sartre .......................................................... 259
Manfred Frank

11. The Moral Imaginary of Discourse Ethics .................... 280

Kenneth MacKendrick

12. Imaginary Turns in Critical Theory: Imagining

Subjects in Tension ........................................................ 307
John Rundell

Index .......................................................................................... 345


This book is the first to be published in the Critical Horizons book

series, Social and Critical Theory. We would like to thank the
Editors of Critical Horizons for their permission to re-print essays
that have previously appeared in the journal. We would espe-
cially like to thank Danielle Petherbridge for her additional assis-
tance in copy-editing the final manuscript, and William Egginton
for his permission to re-print the essay by Albrecht Wellmer.
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Dieter Freundlieb, Wayne Hudson, and John Rundell

Reasoning, Language and Intersubjectivity

Jürgen Habermas continues to be one of the most important and

influential thinkers today. He has not only critiqued and extended
the legacy of German critical theory, but also made lasting con-
tributions in the areas of political and democratic theory, socio-
logy, and law. These achievements and concerns have been
accompanied by a continuing reflection on the way in which the
work of critique itself may be articulated and grounded. This
work, from his earliest essays on labour and interaction, to
Knowledge and Human Interests, to The Theory of Communicative
Action, has established a reflective foundationalism that has
re-invigorated critique and reasoning and placed them at the
centre of critical theory. Moreover, he has developed a multi-
dimensional critique of modernity that has continued to address
its pathologies without losing sight of its deeply imbedded pos-
itive achievements. More recently he has also made one of the
most significant, ethically charged responses to the new repro-
ductive and gene technologies in his The Future of Human Nature.

The essays in Critical Theory After Habermas: Encounters and

Departures are written in critical solidarity and sympathy with
Habermas’ work, and address two broad areas in it that have
left their long and indelible legacies for social and critical the-
ory today. The first area pertains to the way in which Habermas
distinguishes three domains of rationality under the umbrella of
communicative reason, which pertain to norms, aesthetics and
religion, and nature. The second set of engagements and criti-
cisms arise from the first, that is, the status of the linguistic turn
2 • Dieter Freundlieb, Wayne Hudson, and John Rundell

in critical theory, and by implication the legacy of the status of

the subject that this turn bequeaths. This critical engagement and
the critiques that have emerged from it have also led to signifi-
cant points of departure. Each essay in this book points to dif-
ficulties within these two broad areas. As ways of responding
to these difficulities, the essays also point to different and often
competing theoretical and philosophical developments within
and outside German critical theory.1

The work of Dieter Henrich provides a major challenge to Habermas’
metaphilosophical claims, one that revives the case for the philosophy of con-
sciousness and subjectivity. See especially Dieter Henrich, Der Grund im
Bewußtsein, Stuttgart, Klett-Cotta, 1992; and “Subjektivität als Prinzip,” Deutsche
Zeitschrift für Philosophie 46, 1998, pp. 31–44 (trans. as “Subjectivity as a
Philosophical Principle,” in this volume). For an overview see Dieter Freundlieb,
Dieter Henrich and Contemporary Philosophy: The Return to Subjectivity, Aldershot,
Ashgate, 2003. Both Dieter Henrich and Manfred Frank have criticised Habermas’
rejection of the philosophy of subjectivity and self-consciousness. Frank main-
tains that a tenable theory of intersubjectivity and autonomous agency is impos-
sible without a renewal of the philosophy of consciousness that Habermas
rejects. Both Frank and Henrich offer strong arguments against Habermas’
reliance on G. H. Mead’s theory of intersubjectivity. Substantive critiques of
Habermas’ theory of intersubjectivity and his rejection of metaphysics have
also been launched by Edith Düsing, Klaus Düsing, and Rudolf Langthaler.
Similarly, Henrich has criticised Habermas’ retreat from metaphysical thinking.
Henrich argues that a philosophy that is able to offer existential orientation,
and which has the potential to transform consciousness, needs to redevelop a
certain form of (non-foundationalist) metaphysical thinking. Dieter Freundlieb
has critically analysed various aspects of Habermas’ position. The relevance
of Henrich’s work to Critical Theory in general, and to critique of Habermas
in particular, is only now beginning to be recognised by Anglo-Saxon schol-
ars. Peter Dews has made an important contribution to the debate between
Henrich and Habermas in his recent book The Limits of Disenchantment, London,
Verso, 1995. See also Edith Düsing, Intersubjektivität und Selbstbewußtsein, Cologne,
Dinter, 1986; Klaus Düsing, Selbstbewußtseinsmodelle, Munich, Fink, 1987; Manfred
Frank, Einführung in die frühromantische Ästhetik, Frankfurt am Main, Suhrkamp,
1989; Placidus Bernhard Heider, Jürgen Habermas und Dieter Henrich, Freiburg,
Alber, 1999.
Reasoning, Language and Intersubjectivity • 3

Norms, Aesthetics, and Nature: Three Worlds,

Three Problems

i. Normative Rightness and the Public Sphere

Habermas’ work is fuelled by a single motivating idea that has

permeated all of his work—the public and non-violent force of
the better argument. Habermas’ insistence on the validity of
norms that are argued out, indicates a commitment to philoso-
phies of right articulated in universalistic terms, as against sub-
stantialist or contextualist ones which are oriented to images of
the social good. To be sure by adopting such a strategy, Habermas
argues that the universalistic dimensions of law and the demo-
cratic constitutional state are protected from arbitrary and par-
ticularistic interpretations by being subject to a formal-procedural
discourse. In so doing, Habermas contrasts his approach to three
other traditions of practical reasoning—Aristotelianism, util-
itarianism, and Kantianism. This formal procedural discourse
functions as a form of detachment that is linguistically and
intersubjectively grounded. Kant’s categorical imperative is
replaced by a “discursive principle (D), according to which only
those norms can claim validity that could meet with the agree-
ment of all those concerned in their capacity as participants in
a practical discourse.”2

As Joas points out, this may be satisfactory if Habermas’ dis-

course ethics “had no other objective than presenting and defend-
ing this procedure for assessing normative and evaluative validity

Jürgen Habermas, The Inclusion of the Other: Studies in Political Theory, eds.
C. Cronin and P. de Greiff, Cambridge, Polity Press, 1998, pp. 33–34; Jürgen
Habermas, “The New Obscurity: The Crisis of the Welfare State and the
Exhaustion of Utopian Energies,” Philosophy and Social Criticism, 11:2, 1986, pp.
1–18. For a critique that emphasises the idea of the good life see Martin Seel,
Versuch über die Form des Glücks, Frankfurt am Main, Suhrkamp, 1995.
4 • Dieter Freundlieb, Wayne Hudson, and John Rundell

claims.”3 However, Habermas’ discourse ethics does more than

this. The strict separation that Habermas makes between formal
and substantive aspects of politics entails that their meeting
ground becomes difficult to envisage. The substantive dimen-
sion is narrowed along two fronts. From one side, as many com-
mentators have noted, the impetus that brings the interlocutor
into the public sphere to raise claims is of little interest to
Habermas. However, for empirical social actors it is important
to them whether the impetus for their mobilisation as political
actors springs from a ‘struggle for recognition’, a feeling of injus-
tice, or a value stance.4 Honneth, for one, argues that critical the-
ory cannot remain true to its original conception as a diagnostic
social theory with critical and practical intent unless it can iden-
tify an intra-societal but pre-theoretical potential for “intra-
mundane transcendence.”5 Unlike Habermas, Honneth locates

Hans Joas, The Genesis of Values, trans. Gregory Moore, Chicago, Chicago
University Press, 2000, p. 176. See also Kenneth Baynes, The Normative Grounds
of Social Criticism, Albany, State University of New York Press, 1992; eds. Seyla
Benhabib and Fred Dallmayr, The Communicative Ethics Controversy Cambridge,
MA, The MIT Press, 1990; Jay M. Bernstein, The Fate of Art: Aesthetic Alienation
from Kant to Derrida and Adorno; and Recovering Ethical Life: Jürgen Habermas and
the Future of Critical Theory, London & New York, Routledge, 1994.
See for example Axel Honneth, Kampf um Anerkennung. Zur moralischen
Grammatik sozialer Konflikte, Frankfurt am Main, Suhrkamp, 1992, English trans.
The Struggle for Recognition: The Moral Grammar of Social Conflicts, Cambridge,
Polity Press, 1995; Axel Honneth, Thomas McCarthy, Claus Offe, and Albrecht
Wellmer, eds. Philosophical Interventions in the Unfinished Project of Enlightenment,
Cambridge, Mass. and London, MIT Press, 1992; Axel Honneth, “The Social
Dynamics of Disrespect: On the Location of Critical Theory Today,” Constellations
1, 1994; and Axel Honneth, “Das Andere der Gerechtigkeit. Habermas und die
ethische Herausforderung der Postmoderne,” Deutsche Zeitschrift für Philosophie
42, pp. 195–220, 1994b. See also Hans Joas, The Genesis of Value; Agnes Heller,
Beyond Justice, Oxford, Basil Blackwell, 1987. Furthermore, the question whether
universalist discourse ethics proposed by Habermas can be entirely separated
from ethical conceptions of the good life is debated in the exchanges between
liberal and communitarian political thinkers and philosophers such as John
Rawls, Michael Sandel, Michael Walzer, and Charles Taylor.
Honneth, “The Social Dynamics of Disrespect.”
Reasoning, Language and Intersubjectivity • 5

this potential for inner-worldly transcendence in the need of each

individual for social recognition.6

Furthermore, social actors must first be willing to enter into argu-

mentation and engage with the position of another, which may
also entail that their own sensibilities and hermeneutic horizons
are opened for critical and even self-critical scrutiny. This often
pre-reflexively, socially internalised and incompletely articulated
willingness to enter rational argumentation occurs prior to argu-
mentation on the basis of a value orientation and hence com-
mitment to participate.

From another side, the social context in which argumentation

occurs is also shallowed out by Habermas’ discourse ethics. The
content of the normative claim is not simply a matter for detached,
procedural adjudication, but also refers to competing social goods,
needs, and interests that are imbedded in concrete ways of life
and divisions of power. These concrete ways of life and divi-
sions of power are often fixed and immovable blocks to rational
argumentation, adjudication, and agreement. In other words, as
Honneth has also pointed out, a politico-normative theory can-
not do without at least a ‘formal’ concept of the good life that
is part of the cultural self-understanding of political society before
argumentation can begin.7 To be sure, a discourse may test the
normative validity of what is being publicly brought forward.
However, without some substantive commitment people cannot
feel motivated in an argument and keep to its rules. They feel
themselves bound to its result only when the argumentative test-
ing for normative validity arises from a commitment to a sub-
stantive value or cause, or when the experience of participation

Honneth, The Struggle for Recognition.
See Honneth, “The Social Dynamics of Disrespect.”
6 • Dieter Freundlieb, Wayne Hudson, and John Rundell

itself produces a commitment to rational argumentation.8 More-

over, it is argued by Honneth, for example, that society should
provide the conditions that are necessary for this type of self-
activation and commitments by its members—in other words,
that argumentation is immanently tied to the structural condi-
tions for its possibility.

In her “Between ‘Objectivism’ and ‘Contextualism’: The Norma-

tive Foundations of Social Philosophy,” Maeve Cooke explores
Habermas’ double-sided reduction of the conditions of discourse
ethics from the vantage point of what for her are critical theory’s
underlying aims—to contribute to human flourishing. To this
end, she not only engages with the work of Habermas, but also
with the works of other critical theorists who have either explic-
itly or implicitly addressed this issue—Charles Taylor, Michel
Foucault, Axel Honneth, Martin Seel and Alessandro Ferraro.
For Cooke, each thinker is important for the way in which they
throw into relief an implicit agreement that is shared by those
who participate in political modernity regarding, minimally, cri-
tiques of tradition and authority, and maximally, democratisa-
tion. This implicit agreement provides for her a contextualist
backdrop against which there is a play of interpretations regard-
ing the nature, meaning and forms of critique, democracy, and
‘the good life’.

The concern that she brings to this recognition of both the his-
toricity of occidental political modernity and the play of inter-
pretations and differences which constitute it, is whether there
is a universalistic—or in her terms objectivistic—standard by

Joas, The Genesis of Values, p. 183. More recently, Habermas, in a slippage
away from his procedualism, has recognised the necessity of important pre-
conditions for politico-practical communication. See his “The Conflict of Beliefs:
Karl Jaspers on the Clash of Cultures” in The Liberating Power of Symbols, trans.
Peter Dews, MA, The MIT Press, 2000, p. 43.
Reasoning, Language and Intersubjectivity • 7

which these interpretations can be judged, argued for or against.

And it is here that Cooke, in arguing for an ‘objectivistic’ standard
for normative rightness against the more contextualist positions
of Foucault, Taylor, Ferraro, and Honneth, does so in a way that
draws on, yet departs from, Habermas’ own solution to this prob-
lem. Beginning with a critique of Seel’s anthropologically located
‘objectivism’, Cooke argues that critical perspectives that take
their starting points from substantivist vantage points cannot
but refer to the long history of the self-understanding of politi-
cal modernity. Moreover, this horizon of self-understanding is
accompanied, for her, by a series of learning processes, which
are reflexive enough to discriminate between social practices that
either enhance human flourishing or diminish it.

If social learning processes that enhance the reflexive capacities

of social actors are the mainsprings of Cooke’s argument, then
for Dmitri Ginev in his “The Pluralistic Public Sphere from an
Ontological Point of View,” these are located in and continue to
be formed incompletely as narratives. For him, these narratives
are neither completely self-enclosed nor completely open, but
located in public spheres. The public sphere is the social space
which makes both dialogue, and hence a learning process, pos-
sible. By conceptualising the public sphere as narratively con-
stituted, Ginev is able to demarcate his version of it from the
one that Habermas has both explored and formulated in his ear-
lier and more recent work.9

To be sure, from an historical point of view, the public sphere

represents a space in which questions can be raised and negoti-
ated publicly, freed from the constraints of tradition and power.

See Jürgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere,
trans. Thomas Burger with the assistance of Frederick Lawrence, Cambridge,
Polity Press, 1989, and Between Facts and Norms.
8 • Dieter Freundlieb, Wayne Hudson, and John Rundell

However, in Ginev’s view, the public sphere discloses questions

that are ‘worlded’ thematically, and this worlding occurs through
narratives. Narratives have the effect of providing meaning not
only for personal experiences, but also for ‘communal’ ones that
are constituted by the collective participants in public commu-
nication. In this sense, the public sphere is the meeting ground
of world disclosures, which are conceptualised by Ginev by
way of Gadamer’s ontological hermeneutics. Ginev argues that
the public sphere can be conceptualised as a specification of
Gadamer’s ‘fusion of horizons’. From this perspective, there is
no single source for interaction and understanding. Rather, in
modern multi-cultural societies public spheres are constituted
by their very nature through a plurality of moral systems of
social behaviour, which includes a variety of particular ethnic
and religious traditions. Consequently, there is no political meta-
discourse that lies behind the plurality of narratives, only a dia-
logic interplay between them. In this way, the practice of tolerance
in a multicultural civil society does not depend on a search for
a universal framework of understanding. Rather, so Ginev argues,
it depends on the appreciation of dialogue without the telos of
an assumed consensus. This appreciation of dialogue that does
not lead to consensus entails that argument, opinion and the
clash of traditions cannot be anticipated, controlled, nor imposed
within the public sphere. They exist as indeterminate possibili-
ties in all their differences and difficulties, which may never be
transcended nor overcome.10

The historical experience, image, and theorisation of the public

sphere has also been an issue around which feminist encounters
with Habermas’ work have occurred. Whilst Habermas has ac-
knowledged that feminism has been one of the most important

For another discussion of this paper see Jan Bryant et al., “Contingency,
Fragility, Difference,” Critical Horizons, vol. 4, no. 1, 2003, pp. 1–5.
Reasoning, Language and Intersubjectivity • 9

de-traditionalising social movements of the twentieth century,

this acknowledgement of his contribution to de-traditionalisa-
tion at the level of theoretical innovation has not always been
reciprocated.11 As Pauline Johnson notes in her “Irreconcilable
Differences? Habermas and Feminism,” the encounter has been
marked by either hostile or friendly encounters.

The friendly encounters have attempted to either draw on

Habermas’ political insights or, whilst so doing, also criticise a
traditionalising legacy located in his version of the historical
bourgeois public sphere.12 Habermas’ idea of the public sphere
became pertinent to feminism because it opened on to a critique
of the two historical worlds of the household and the patrimo-
nial state in ways that offered women something beyond them
in the form of entry into, and a stake in, political modernity. Yet,
as Fraser has noted, Habermas’ earlier The Structural Transforma-
tion of the Public Sphere drew on an idealised account of the bour-
geois public sphere that empirically downplayed the existence
and formation of contestatory, non-liberal, non-bourgeois and
women-only publics. Moreover, this idealisation also entailed
that assumptions regarding the sexual division of labour were
de facto reproduced in Habermas’ later formulation of the life-
world and system. Against the best intention of his theory, a
gendered order found its way into the image of deliberative
democracy. As Fraser has argued, “even after women [. . .] have
been formally licensed to participate, their participation may be
hedged by conceptions of economic privacy and domestic pri-
vacy that delimit the scope of debate.”13

See Habermas interview in Telos, no. 49, Fall, 1981.
For a particularly sympathetic encounter see Maeve Cooke, “Habermas,
Feminism and the Question of Autonomy,” in Habermas: A Critical Reader, ed.
Peter Dews, Oxford, Blackwell, 1999, pp. 178–210.
Nancy Fraser, “Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to a Critique
of Actually Existing Democracy,” in Habermas and the Public Sphere, ed. Craig
10 • Dieter Freundlieb, Wayne Hudson, and John Rundell

Much of the hostile criticism abstracts from the problem of delib-

erative democracy and the public sphere and, rather, is symp-
tomatic of the ongoing dispute between postmodernist thought
in its French poststructuralist guise and a theory of modernity
that is part of the architecture of both The Theory of Communicative
Action and Between Facts and Norms. For Butler, Habermas’ crit-
ical project represents an untenable nostalgia for an image of the
rationally constituted subject of the Enlightenment project. Against
such a nostalgia, and drawing on Lacan’s work, Butler posits a
feminist subject and a feminist critique that emphasises a post-
foundationalism of instability and decentredness.14

Alternatively, and in a more receptive vein, Iris Marion Young

argues that Habermas’ linguistic turn reproduces a notion of rea-
son that has neither heart, nor desire, nor emotion. As she points
out “Habermas’ theory of communicative action has much more
to offer a feminist ethics than does modern ethical and political
theory,” but its deontological structure and its ascetic version of
argumentative interaction as a mode of politics leaves the cleav-
age between reason and feeling, reason and desire intact.15 To be
sure, as she acknowledges, feelings and emotions have a place
within the overall architectonics of Habermas’ theory of com-
municative action—they are delimited, though, to the inner world
of dramaturgical action and subject authenticity, neither of which,
for him, are relevant for normative argumentation. Rather, for
Young, Habermas’ version of normative argumentation abstracts

Calhoun, Boston, MIT Press, 1993, p. 132. See also her earlier 1986 “What’s
Critical about Critical Theory? The Case of Habermas and Gender” reprinted
in Feminism as Critique, eds. Seyla Benhabib and Drucilla Cornell, Oxford, Polity
Press, 1987, pp. 31–55.
Judith Butler, “Contingent Foundations,” in Feminist Contentions, London,
Routledge, 1995, pp. 35–58.
Iris Marion Young, “Impartiality and the Civic Public Some Implications
of Feminist Critiques of Moral and Political Theory” in Feminism as Critique,
p. 68.
Reasoning, Language and Intersubjectivity • 11

too readily from the concrete motivations that bring interlocu-

tors into the public sphere, their forms of embodiment, and the
nuances of utterances that give language its natural ambiguity
and perplexity. In her terms, Habermas replicates the typology
of the gendered division of emotional labour.16

Pauline Johnson takes up these issues of feminism’s dispute with

Habermas in her chapter in this book. She considers how far
Habermas’ changes of stance in Between Facts and Norms meet
feminist objections to his project. She emphasises that many
feminists have failed to appreciate Habermas’ two-sided account
of rationality as giving rise both to the reification of human life
and to new critical perspectives. Nonetheless, she argues that
Habermas still gives a narrow account of rationality that has
been found in the dispute between the Enlightenment and Roman-
ticism. To be considered a rational participant in the public sphere,
even in its most post-traditional version, Habermas implies that
both women and men must suspend traits historically associ-
ated with womanly virtues—passion, feeling, desire, and emo-
tion—and concentrate instead on cultivating and projecting the
cold art of reasoning in order to make explicit not only norms,
but also their universality or partiality. Universality, validity, and
coldness go hand in hand.17 In their critical encounters with
Habermas’ work feminist theorising has kept alive Romanticism’s
critique of the Enlightenment’s series of distinctions between
reason and emotion, reason and desire.18

Ibid., pp. 71–73; for a more developed version of her argument see “Com-
munication and the Other” and “Asymmetrical Reciprocity” in Intersecting
Voices, Princeton, New Jersey, Princeton University Press, 1997.
Habermas makes this emotional division of labour explicit in his inter-
view with Toben Hviid Nielsen, “Morality, Society, and Ethics” in Application
and Justification, Oxford, Polity Press, 1993.
See Pauline Johnson’s “The Quest for the Self: Feminism’s Appropriation
of Romanticism,” Thesis Eleven, 1995, pp. 76–93.
12 • Dieter Freundlieb, Wayne Hudson, and John Rundell

ii. Aesthetics or the Linguistification of Innerly Expression

The Romantic critique of the Enlightenment usually took two

directions. Romanticism often emphasised the elimination of
destructive forces through a reconciliation with oneself, others
or Nature through beauty, love or embodied sensuality. Alter-
natively, Romanticism moved inward and emphasised the cre-
ative imagination, affects and emotions, and as such viewed the
subject as constituted by irrational forces. These two ideas came
together in the idea of an aesthetics that would carry the image
of a critique of alienation, produced out of the inner ‘burning
lamp’ of the creative artist, who through his or her creativity
produced the auratic experience that spoke beyond differenti-
ated—alienated—modernity. In this version of aesthetically
inspired critique, which, for example, finds its way into the
works of Benjamin, Marcuse, and Adorno, reconciliation—or the
saddened recognition of its impossibility—and criticism go hand
in hand.19

Habermas, however, has been particularly critical of the Romantic

counter-paradigm, irrespective of the direction it took. For him,
Romanticism’s promise of reconciliation between humankind
and nature, and between the differentiated worlds of society,
economy, and culture that became the hallmark of modernity, is
an illusion fraught with danger. He has responded to this counter-
paradigm, and especially the way it became absorbed into the
sensibilities of the first generation of German critical theorists,
in a two-fold yet interconnected manner. On the one hand, for
him, aesthetic modernity is an irreversible part of the differen-
tiating narrative of modernity, and as such is part of its learn-
ing process. In Habermas’ view, an aesthetical-practical type of

M. H. Abrams, The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical
Tradition, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1953.
Reasoning, Language and Intersubjectivity • 13

rationality emerged, which was differentiated from the other

types, one of the results of which was an uncoupling of aes-
thetics from everyday life in ever more radical forms, culminat-
ing in not only the avant garde, but also the retreat of art into
experiments with technique only. To be sure, Habermas does not
subscribe to a completed post-auratic aesthetics and is mindful
that works of art may have “a resonance in the mimetic relations
of a balanced and undistorted intersubjectivity of everyday life,”
but a resonance that does not involve a de-differentiation.20 As
he goes on to say, “the aesthetic ‘validity’ or ‘unity’ that we
attribute to a work of art refers to the singularly illuminating
power to open our eyes to what is seemingly familiar to disclose
anew an apparent familiar reality.”21

From another side, the differentiation and autonomisation of art

from everyday life, economy, and the state is grounded, for
Habermas, in the socio-cultural evolution of communicatively
structured societies and their patterns of action. As distinct from
the Romantic paradigm of an irrational force, in Habermas’ view,
the creation of works of art belongs to—to coin a phrase—the
linguistification of innerly expression—the model for which, at
least in The Theory of Communicative Action, is dramaturgical
action. Although dramaturgical action is oriented towards the
authenticity of an inner life of desires and needs, it nonetheless
has to be conveyed to others. To be sure, and in line with the
intersubjective impulses of his theory of communicative action,
the conveyance of inner life is modelled on forms of self-pre-
sentation.22 However, the problem of aesthetic self-presentation

Jürgen Habermas “Questions and Counter-questions,” in Habermas Critical
Debates, ed. John B. Thompson and David Held, London, The Macmillan Press,
1982, p. 202.
Ibid. p. 203.
Jürgen Habermas, The Theory of Communicative Action, Vol. 1, trans. Thomas
McCarthy, Boston, Beacon Press, 1984, pp. 90–92.
14 • Dieter Freundlieb, Wayne Hudson, and John Rundell

in the form of works of art is, as Jay notes in one critical com-
mentary, left up in the air. As he remarks, “[it] is difficult enough
to grasp what a mediated relationship among cognitive-instru-
mental, moral-practical, and aesthetic-expressive rationalities
would look like, even if they might be integrated with the life-
world. It is even harder if the rational status of the third remains
somewhat of a mystery.”23

It could be argued that Habermas implicitly responds to these

issues regarding the communicative basis of aesthetic-expressive
rationality in his later essay “The Liberating Power of Symbols.”
In a sympathetic reading of the work of Ernst Cassirer, aesthet-
ics represents for Habermas a process of abstraction that occurs
within the horizon of already established everyday linguistic
expression and in stages of increasing de-contextualisation and
objectification.24 For Habermas, an aesthetic object is meaning-
ful, as is its reception, only if it resides within a horizon of mean-
ing that is already understood. The basis for the surprise that
art objects create is formed at the intersection between everyday
life, generally, and the prior understandings of art into which
the art object is ‘thrown’, rather than the actual act of the cre-
ation of the aesthetic object itself.

However, this formulation entails that insights regarding the con-

stitution of the subject concerning the ineluctable horizons and
dimensions of articulation are narrowed or bracketed. Habermas
narrows the understanding of aesthetic creation to ‘the singularly
illuminating power to open our eyes’, and by so doing brackets

Martin Jay, “Habermas and Modernism” in Habermas and Modernity, edited
with an Introduction by Richard J. Bernstein, Cambridge, Polity Press, 1985,
p. 139.
Jürgen Habermas, “The Liberating Power of Symbols,” in The Liberating
Power of Symbols, Mass, The MIT Press, pp. 14–19.
Reasoning, Language and Intersubjectivity • 15

the issue internal to debates concerning aesthetics and its auto-

nomisation regarding the nature of creativity, whether or not
this is formulated in terms of the sublime, the creative imagi-
nation, nature, or sensuous experience. Wayne Hudson, in his
“Postreligious Aesthetics and Critical Theory,” explores some of
these issues by addressing the problem of aesthetics from the
vantage point of postreligious forms of thought. He argues that
the case of a postreligious aesthetics elucidates why Habermas
cannot deal effectively either with the experience of sensuous-
ness or with anti-mundane dimensions of the world. He con-
cludes that Habermas’ attempt to re-orient critical theory towards
language is fundamentally defective and that critical theory
needs to take account of a theory of emergent bodies and their

iii. Nature and the ‘Thing-In-Itself’

Habermas is at his most Kantian, perhaps stubbornly so, when

he addresses nature and humankind’s relation to it. In some
respects this is a condition of two aspects of his theorising that
derive from different quarters. On the one hand, and as our dis-
cussion above indicates, Habermas was neither attracted to, nor
convinced by, the Romantic critiques of the Enlightenment and
its attempts to posit a reconciliation between humankind and
nature. On the other hand, in his effort to re-invigorate and give
rigour to a project of deliberative democracy, Habermas has con-
tinually reiterated what, for him, is a constitutive division between
objects of knowledge and practices pertaining to the world of
nature, and those pertaining to the world of society. This dis-
tinction has remained intact from his earliest essays on labour
and interaction to his most recent The Future of Human Nature.25

Jürgen Habermas, “Labour and Interaction: Remarks on Hegel’s Jena
Philosophy of Mind,” Theory and Practice, trans. John Viertel, London, Heinemann,
16 • Dieter Freundlieb, Wayne Hudson, and John Rundell

Behind this distinction is a commitment not only to forms of

argumentative reasoning that pertain to discrete areas of life, but
also and more importantly, to the belief articulated by Kant and
reproduced by the hermeneutically sensitised neo-Kantians, that
there is a constitutive distinction between knowledge about
nature, and knowledge about society.

This Kantian distinction is transposed by Habermas into the fol-

lowing formulation by way of the linguistic turn: only proposi-
tional truth claims that are the basis for argumentation and
consensus regarding scientific knowledge are valid. Habermas
attempts to make a strict separation between context dependence
and dependence on argumentation, where, like his formulation
of practical reasoning, it is abstracted from everyday context and
language use. Scientific discourses, like those concerning aes-
thetics, are specialist forms of knowledge that are symptomatic
of the increasing differentiation and specialisation of the spheres
of value. The question of the truth concerning knowledge about
nature does not concern our experience of it, but rather involves
its transposition into a “semantic content of communicative utter-
ances [where] experiences are transformed into a validity claim.”
As he goes on to say, “the question of the truth of utterances is
posed when we can no longer assure ourselves of their validity
through simple ostensive procedures, when circumstances arise
which render problematic in a persistent way validity claims pre-
viously concealed behind habitation. At that moment we are
already moving in a sphere of argumentative speech, where in
principle only reasons count.”26

1974, pp. 142–169; Knowledge and Human Interests; trans. Jeremy J. Shapiro,
London, Heinemann, 1972; The Theory of Communicative Action; The Future of
Human Nature, Cambridge, Polity Press, 2003.
Jürgen Habermas, “A Reply to my Critics,” in Habermas, Critical Debates,
p. 275.
Reasoning, Language and Intersubjectivity • 17

This reliance on an ideal of argumentation entails that nature is

left as an object indifferently treated, except for the claims of cog-
nitive-instrumental action that are made upon it. Nature, as such,
does not exist, for Habermas, it is an indifferent ‘thing-in-itself’.

And yet, as Mary Hesse has noted in her critical commentary

on Habermas’ version of scientific enquiry, there is a tension
here. Arguments concerning the validity or truth content of state-
ments about nature presuppose—as has also been pointed out
above for his notion of normative rightness—a background com-
mitment. In the context of scientific arguments the commitment
is to notions of falsification and accountability, which themselves
derive from a commitment to empirical verification on the part
of the scientific community. There is, then, a shared background
judgement about, and commitment to the normative character
of an empiricistically oriented scientific attitude as such.27

However, this commitment to empirical verification in the end

is not enough to provide the guarantee of the veracity of scien-
tific statements. As philosophers and sociologists of science have
pointed out, an objectivating attitude is not the privilege of occi-
dental science, and nor does it result in only one set of inter-
pretations and practices. This means that nature is already a
‘field’ in which interpretations enter at many levels, which may
or may not be able to be disconnected from each other. If nature
is not a thing in itself, it is also not a passive environment upon
which abstracted interpretations, such as scientific theories, can
be imposed unproblematically.28

Mary Hesse, “Science and Objectivity,” in Habermas, Critical Debates,
p. 109.
See Peter Winch, The Idea of a Social Science and its Relation to Philosophy,
2nd Edition, London, Routledge, 1990; ed. Bryan R. Wilson, Rationality, Oxford,
Blackwell, 1991; Helen Verran, Science and an African Logic, Chicago, University
of Chicago Press, 2001.
18 • Dieter Freundlieb, Wayne Hudson, and John Rundell

In some ways, Habermas recognises this. In his reply to Ottman’s

and McCarthy’s critiques of his image of nature in Habermas:
Critical Debates, Habermas concedes that a different attitude may
occur—an anamnetic one through which a compassionate rela-
tion to nature may lie even beyond the horizon of moral-prac-
tical insights with their own assumptions of reciprocity and
responsibility. As he states, “with these living creatures who are
indeed affected by the normatively regulated, morally relevant
behaviour of humans, who could not, even counterfactually, step
out of the position of those affected and take up the role of par-
ticipants in practical discourses—nature in itself would come into
view in a certain way, and not only the nature instrumentalised
by us.”29

Habermas goes on to argue that this anamnetic attitude, through

which we could establish a solidarity with nature as a response
to ecological difficulties and instrumentalist attitudes, need not,
though, result in a change of paradigm. Rather, “a transition to
a morality that includes the compassionate relation of humans
to nature as a cosmically expanded solidarity with everything
that is capable of suffering and that in this vulnerability calls for
reverence,” can be made within the orbit of his ‘this sided’ deon-
tological discourse ethics.30

To be sure, John Dryzek and Steven Vogel, for example, have

attempted, in competing ways, to develop an image of human-
kind’s relation with nature that is ecologically sensitised by draw-
ing critically on Habermas’ work. In so doing, they have attempted
to relocate and subordinate instrumental-cognitive reasoning to
practical reasoning, and, hence, view nature as a partner-in-com-

Habermas, “A Reply to my Critics,” p. 247.
Ibid., p. 248.
Reasoning, Language and Intersubjectivity • 19

munication.31 However, Habermas has been more sanguine. As

he notes, the normative validity claims of practical reasoning
cannot be carried over into the relation between humans and
nature in a strict sense. In this context, the Heideggerian notion
of care, for him, is one that “can lay claim to an ethical status
only in relation to those who are released into autonomy and

Consistent with his three-world strategy, there is a yawning

chasm between a discourse ethics and a naturalistic one. For
him, a conceptual re-naturalisation of the relation between
humankind and nature decreases the boundaries between both,
which has a double result. On the one hand, it becomes difficult
to determine, so Habermas argues, where the anamnetic atti-
tude should finish with regard to the levels of the natural
environment. In other words, should all of ‘nature’ be included,
including plants, or only animals? 33 Moreover, and on the
other hand, the blurring of boundaries between humankind and
nature in terms of a re-naturalisation can also lead to an opposite
result—the completed cognitive-instrumentalised identification
of humankind with nature, for example under the terms of genetic

Habermas’ insistence on the three-world boundary is further

articulated in his skepticism as to whether a naturalistic ethic

See John Dryzek, “Green Reason: Communicative Ethics for the Biosphere,”
Environmental Ethics, vol. 12, Fall, 1990, pp. 195–210; Steven Vogel, “Habermas
and the Ethics of Nature,” in Roger S. Gottlieb, The Ecological Community,
London, Routledge, 1997, pp. 175–192 where he critiques Dryzek’s position,
and Against Nature The Concept of Nature in Critical Theory, New York, State
University of New York Press, especially, chapter 6.
Habermas, “A Reply to my Critics,” p. 248.
This is an implication of Habermas’ argument in his The Future of Human
20 • Dieter Freundlieb, Wayne Hudson, and John Rundell

could be adequately grounded today without recourse to reli-

gious or metaphysical worldviews, which would effectively
undermine the learning processes built into the worldviews of
modernity.35 Leaving the issue of the possible relation between
humankind and nature as one pertaining to practical reason to
one side, Peter Douglas, in his chapter “Habermas, Schelling and
Nature,” takes up the challenge of the legacy of a naturalism
laid down by Habermas’ post-metaphysical skepticism.

Douglas argues that there is a correspondence between Habermas’

approach and the reliance on closed systems in traditional physics.
Both concentrate on what is reliably known, ignoring or brack-
eting out the broader environment outside the system, the result
of which is the conflation of explanation and technical control.
He goes on to argue that in contrast to these ‘linear’ approaches
a parallel can be established between Schelling’s work and con-
temporary physics, especially chaos theory. In Douglas’ account,
Schelling draws on a notion of productivity (a natura naturans)
as the ground of an appearing nature. In a similar way, chaos
theory posits systems that do not preclude unpredictable out-
comes because of their sensitivity to boundary conditions between
system and environment, and hence a heightened regard for con-
tingent outcomes that cannot be ignored. This radicalisation of
the problem of contingency entails that, like the image of moder-
nity itself, humankind’s relation with nature is not so much an
unfinished project, but, more so, a continually problematic one
in which there is no linear progress towards greater verifiable
articulation. Rather, this relation can be conceptualised as one of
ongoing and competing interpretations that build multiple dynam-
ics on both sides of the equation between humankind and nature.

Habermas, “A Reply to my Critics,” p. 248.
Reasoning, Language and Intersubjectivity • 21

The Linguistic Turn and the Status of the

Subject—Paradigm Shift or Cul-de-sac?

Each of the essays that have been discussed thus far, whilst explic-
itly pointing to the limits of Habermas’ formulations of politics,
aesthetics, and nature, implicitly direct our attention to the way
he has internalised the linguistic turn in twentieth-century phi-
losophy. The essays by Albrecht Wellmer, Dieter Freundlieb,
Dieter Henrich, Manfred Frank, Kenneth MacKendrick, and John
Rundell all critically encounter Habermas’ version of this turn,
as well as signal departures from it.

For Habermas, the linguistic turn marked a supposedly irrevo-

cable paradigm shift in philosophy. As Dews has pointed out
this is an attitude he shares with structuralism and post-struc-
turalism, notwithstanding disagreements regarding the consti-
tutive dimensions of its own linguistic turn that emanated from
Saussure’s work.36 It enabled him to break with Adorno’s turn
to negative dialectics, partly because he was convinced that
Adorno remained imprisoned within the conceptual framework
of a philosophy of the subject. Habermas’ version of critical the-
ory that takes its point of departure from the linguistic turn is
an attempt to redeem the notion of reason through a theory of
communicative action, which is simultaneously a theory of inter-

However, as mentioned above Habermas’ concept of commu-

nicative rationality narrows the scope of the human self-image
to a construction of human reason as the capacity for the redemp-
tion of three types of validity claims in rational discourse. He
conceives of rationality almost entirely as the giving of reasons,

See Peter Dews, The Limits of Disenchantment: Essays on Contemporary
European Philosophy, London & New York, Verso, 1995.
22 • Dieter Freundlieb, Wayne Hudson, and John Rundell

which, when tied to the linguistic turn, is considered as purely

a feat of the propositional use of language. This rational ideal-
typicalisation is linked to a notion of epistemic justification, which
in Habermas’ terms cannot transcend the boundaries of lan-
guage.37 In other words, there is for him, an internal connection
between the forms of truth that he accords each of the areas of
rationality, and the modes of justification that are required for

However, there are major difficulties posed by Habermas’ account

of truth and his related attempt to ground a theory of epistemic
normativity. Here, as in other areas, Habermas has let himself
be guided too much by dominant trends in analytic philosophy
of language and its inherent affinities with a semiotic-idealist
epistemology. In spite of recent concessions and his willingness
to take what he calls our ‘realist intuitions’ seriously, he still
insists that epistemic justification cannot transcend the bound-
aries of language.38 This ignores strong arguments developed,
for example, by scholars such as Christopher Peacocke and
William P. Alston in support of the justificatory role of non-con-
ceptual content in perception.39

To be sure, even within contemporary German critical theory,

Habermas’ insistence on the philosophy of language has also
been questioned. Albrecht Wellmer, for one, has been a particu-
larly acute interlocutor of Habermas on this question. In his ear-

See Jürgen Habermas, “Exkurs: Transzendenz von innen, Transzendens ins
Diesseits” in Habermas, Texte und Kontexte, Frankfurt am Main, Suhrkamp, 1991;
Postmetaphysical Thinking: Philosophical Essays, trans. W. M. Hohengarten,
Cambridge, Mass, The MIT Press, 1992; Wahrheit und Rechtfertigung. Philosophische
Aufsätze, Frankfurt, Suhrkamp, 1999; Erläuterungen zur Diskursethik, Frankfurt
am Main, Suhrkamp, 1991.
See Habermas, Wahrheit und Rechtfertigung.
See Christopher Peacocke, A Study of Concepts, Cambridge, Mass. The MIT
Press, 1992.
Reasoning, Language and Intersubjectivity • 23

lier, The Dialectic of Modernism and Postmodernism: The Critique of

Reason Since Adorno, Wellmer points to the multiplicity of mean-
ings through which any world can be understood.40 Moreover,
these multiplicities point to horizons of meaning that are not
only linguistically constituted. Wellmer continues this interro-
gation of the relation between meaning and language in his essay
published here on truth. In “The Argument about Truth: Prag-
matism Without Regulative Ideas,” he contests the attempt by
Habermas, Apel and others to preserve the ‘internal’ or ‘con-
ceptual’ connection between truth and justification, and hence
the internal relation between meaning and language.41 Wellmer
begins his argument from the difficulties that the correspondence
theory of truth has in determining whether a relation of corre-
spondence between a statement and a fact exists and what type
of justificatory practices of reason giving are required to estab-
lish this correspondence. Wellmer argues that a purely epistemic
notion of truth denies the difference between truth and justifi-
cation, and because of this difference, truth is and will always
be ‘disputable’. According to him, once we distinguish, within
our justificatory practices, between first-person and third-person
perspectives, we realise that what must be accepted as true by
one speaker on the basis of the reasons he or she has for a truth
claim need not be so accepted by a third person. For Wellmer,

Albrecht Wellmer, The Dialectic of Modernism and Postmodernism: The Critique
of Reason Since Adorno, Polity Press, 1991, Cambridge, pp. 36–94. See also his
Ethik und Dialog, Frankfurt am Main, Suhrkamp, 1986; Karl-Otto Apel, Ausein-
andersetzungen in Erprobung des transzendentalpragmatischen Ansatzes, Frankfurt
am Main, Suhrkamp 1998; Herbert, Schnädelbach, “Transformation der Kriti-
schen Theorie. Zu Jürgen Habermas’ Theorie des kommunikativen Handelns” in
Schnädelbach, Vernunft und Geschichte, Frankfurt am Main, Suhrkamp, 1987.
The editors would like to thank William Egginton and SUNY Press for
their kind permission to Critical Horizons to publish the essay by Albrecht
Wellmer. William Egginton translated the essay, which will also appear in The
Pragmatic Turn in Philosophy: Contemporary Engagements Between Analytic and
Continental Thought, edited by William Egginton and Mike Sandbothe, SUNY
Press, 2004.
24 • Dieter Freundlieb, Wayne Hudson, and John Rundell

truth cannot provide a fixed point of orientation. There is no

‘meta-perspective’ that closes the gap between justification and

If, as Wellmer argues, the link between justification and truth is

not as close as Habermas presupposes, and thus, a gap remains
open, it is also a gap between interlocutors themselves. For
Habermas, there is not only an internal link between truth and
justification, but also between interlocutors themselves. For him,
the linguistic paradigm is simultaneously an intersubjective one.
Habermas believes that the linguistically determined and con-
stituted paradigm of intersubjectivity overcomes the subject/object
dualism because a ‘performative attitude’ towards the other is
constitutive of the speech acts themselves. For Habermas, this
performative attitude replaces the postulate of objectification that
is unavoidable under the premises of the paradigm of the sub-
ject, irrespective of whether this paradigm takes an idealist or a
materialist form. There are two issues here that it is helpful to
separate out—Habermas’ dismissal of the paradigm of the sub-
ject, and his reliance on language to give substance to his human

Habermas’ attempt to move from the philosophy of the subject

to intersubjectivity has been challenged by recent developments.43
As works such as John Searle’s The Rediscovery of the Mind, and
extensive work in other areas of analytic and continental philos-
ophy of mind and subjectivity testify, we have never entered a

See also Jan Bryant et al. “Contingency, Fragility, Difference.”
The more the historical record is studied and the more account is taken
of contemporary cognitive science, the less plausible any attempt to drop or
sidestep the philosophy of consciousness appears. Karen Gloy, Bewußtseinstheorien.
Zur Problematik und Problemgeschichte des Bewusstseins und Selbstbewußtseins.
Freiburg & Munich, Alber, 1998; see also Manfred Frank, Selbstbewußtsein und
Selbsterkenntnis. Stuttgart, Reclam, 1991.
Reasoning, Language and Intersubjectivity • 25

‘postmetaphysical’ era in philosophy and the notion that most

serious traditional problems in philosophy can be reformulated
in terms of a philosophy of language has been shown to be pre-
mature. Habermas, in his critique of German Idealism, has argued
that the individuality of the subject can only be recognised qua
individuality in the performative nature of the speech act.

However, some of the strongest critiques of Habermas’ reliance

on the linguistic turn have come from those positions that have
attempted to re-work the tradition of German Idealism without
falling into the trap of either renewed subject-object dualisms or
solipsistic versions of the subject. In their critiques of Habermas’
rejection of the philosophy of subjectivity and self-conscious-
ness, both Dieter Henrich and Manfred Frank, for example, have
argued that this recognition through performativity is already
dependent on a pre-discursive familiarity of the self with itself.44
This knowing self-relation—at whatever level it may occur—also
implies that relations with others are not expressed in either a
performative or an objectifying attitude in the first instance.
Rather, the ‘meeting ground’ between subjects is constituted in

Cf. footnote 1. Manfred Frank, “Selbstbewußtsein und Rationalität” in eds.
P. Kolmer and H. Korten, Grenzbestimmungen der Vernunft, Freiburg/Munich,
Alber, 1994; Analytische Theorien des Selbstbewußtseins, Frankfurt am Main,
Suhrkamp, 1994; “Self-Consciousness and Self-Knowledge: Some Difficulties
with the Reduction of Subjectivity,” Constellations 9, no. 3, 2002, p. XX; Dieter
Henrich, “Was ist Metaphysik—was Moderne? Zwölf Thesen gegen Jürgen
Habermas,” in Henrich, Konzepte. Essays zur Philosophie in der Zeit, Frankfurt
am Main, Suhrkamp, 1987; “Grund und Gang spekulativen Denkens” in eds.
D. Henrich and R.-P. Horstmann, Metaphysik nach Kant? Stuttgart, Klett-Cotta,
1988; “Die Anfänge der Theorie des Subjekts” in eds. A. Honneth et al.,
Zwischenbetrachtungen. Im Prozess der Aufklärung, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main,
1989; Der Grund im Bewußtsein, Stuttgart, Klett-Cotta, 1992; Konstellationen,
Stuttgart, Klett-Cotta, 1986; Fichtes ursprüngliche Einsicht, Frankfurt am Main,
Klostermann, 1967; Selbstverhältnisse, Stuttgart, Reclam, 1982; Fluchtlinien:
Philosophische Essays, Frankfurt am Main, Suhrkamp, 1982; J. Grondin, “Hat
Habermas die Subjektphilosophie verabschiedet?” Allgemeine Zeitschrift für
Philosophie, 12, 1987, pp. 25–37.
26 • Dieter Freundlieb, Wayne Hudson, and John Rundell

many different ways—from intuition, to emotion, to cognition—

all of which may, of course, be rendered linguistically. However,
at this level, a theory of subject formation that is located in a
dynamic that un-problematically brings together language use,
and a reflexive relation between ego and alter, overplays its hand.

Dieter Freundlieb in his “Why Subjectivity Matters: Critical Theory

and the Philosophy of the Subject,” argues that subjectivity can-
not be constituted through, and reduced to, the effect of com-
municative interactions with others. Attempts that posit a
communicative interaction as constitutive of subjectivity always
presuppose, at some logically prior level, an idea of a subject
who is already familiar with him or herself in a non-discursive
way. In fact, non-propositional cognitive dimensions are present
within subjectivity that provide the background and ultimate
premises to virtually any argument. At the same time, Freundlieb
argues that Habermas misunderstands a key aspect of Idealism’s
philosophy of the subject when he claims that it is committed,
willy-nilly, to a subject-object model. Rather, the subject’s self-
knowledge is made possible by a form of ‘intellectual intuition’,
and it is conceptualised within a (yet to be developed) monistic
ontology that enables it to view itself as belonging in, and hav-
ing a meaningful relation to, the world, to itself, and to other
human beings.45

As Freundlieb shows, Dieter Henrich’s renewal of the philoso-

phy of subjectivity poses a fundamental challenge to Habermas’

See also Dieter Freundlieb, “Naturalismus und Realismus nach der sprach-
pragmatischen Wende. Habermas’ Rückkehr zur theoretischen Philosophie,”
prima philosophia, 13, 2000, pp. 267–277; “Nachmetaphysisches Denken oder
pragmatistische Problemverkürzung? Zu Habermas’ Analogisierung von Richtig-
keit und Wahrheit,” prima philosophia, 14, 2001, pp. 219–236; “The Return to
Subjectivity as a Challenge to Critical Theory,” Idealistic Studies 32, 2002, pp.
171–189; Dieter Henrich and Contemporary Philosophy: The Return to Subjectivity.
Reasoning, Language and Intersubjectivity • 27

prioritising of intersubjectivity over subjectivity. Henrich in his

essay “Subjectivity as a Philosophical Principle” argues for a re-
newal of the philosophy of the subject initiated by the German
Idealists, especially Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel. His renewal,
however, departs in significant ways from the program pursued
by these post-Kantians. Taking as his point of departure the prob-
lem of self-consciousness Henrich’s approach is neither founda-
tionalist nor does it assume that it is possible to theoretically
account for what he terms the epistemic self-relation in any
exhaustive way. Nonetheless, a renewed philosophy of the sub-
ject can show that subjectivity is still a principle of philosophy
in the sense that our insights into its nature and constitution will
make us aware of the implications of subjectivity for the philo-
sophical enterprise, as well as for what Henrich calls a con-
sciously led life (bewußtes Leben). According to Henrich subjectivity
cannot be seen as derived from intersubjectivity and from com-
munication in the way suggested by Habermas.

In a similar way to Henrich, Manfred Frank, in his “Against a

priori Intersubjectivism: an Alternative Inspired by Sartre,” also
criticises Habermas’ critical theory for beginning with the assump-
tion that intersubjectivity pre-determines the subject. He terms
this assumption ‘a priori intersubjectivism’ that argues that sub-
jectivity is derived from a third person perspective which has
priority over the perspective of the ego. As Frank points out,
this approach has some unexpected affinities with such diver-
gent thinkers as Nietzsche, Heidegger, Gadamer, and the neo-
structuralists of Foucault, Derrida, and Deleuze.46 More broadly
he also argues that subjectivity and the self-consciousness that
accompanies it is not a form of mediated self-reflexivity, and can-
not be known according to propositional (de dicto) principles,

See Manfred Frank, What is Neo-structuralism? Minneapolis, University of
Minnesota Press, 1989.
28 • Dieter Freundlieb, Wayne Hudson, and John Rundell

realist (de re) ones, or ones grounded in reciprocal recognition.

Rather the pre-reflexive self-consciousness of the first person is
an irreplacable postulate.

Elsewhere, Frank has drawn on the work of Fichte, Brentano,

and Shoemaker in order to posit an image of the self that is an
indivisible unity in which intuition, feeling and thinking are pre-
reflexively interconnected in an irreducible way. In the essay
published here, though, Frank draws on the work of Sartre in
order to posit a different theory of intersubjectivity that begins
from the irreplacability of the first person and the simultaneous
contingent limitation and possibility that this places on relations
between subjects. In Critique of Dialectical Reason, Sartre argues
that the basic contingent ‘fact’ of subjective existence is that others
exist, which negates freedoms and limits possibilities for action.
In other words, viewed from a dyadic relation there is an incom-
patibility of two centres of consciousness, neither of which can
assimilate the other in itself. There is only mutual hostility.
According to Sartre, though, it is only through a mediating third—
for example, in the form of time, space, gifts, or money—that an
initial propensity for a mutual hostility is transformed into an
awareness of a connection between ego and alter, and thus a rec-
iprocal possibility.47 As Frank points out, and irrespective of Sartre’s
incomplete theorising here, the ternary relation is a secularised
Leibnizian monad that enables every particular subject to go
beyond him or herself and reach the co-operative ‘we’.

The essays by Wellmer, Freundlieb, Henrich, and Frank point to

the limits of the linguistic paradigm itself, and by implication,
of posing a paradigm of intersubjectivity in linguistic terms. The
reliance on both an epistemic self-relation (Henrich) and pre-

Jean Paul Sartre, Critique of Dialectical Reason, trans. Alan Sheridan-Smith
and ed. Jonathan Rée, London, New Left Books, 1976.
Reasoning, Language and Intersubjectivity • 29

conceptual and pre-reflexive dimensions of meaning (Freundlieb

and Frank) have some affinities with different approaches that
re-work the philosophy of the subject from different conceptual
strategies that take their starting points from the issues, as Wellmer
and Frank intimate, of the gaps between meaning and language,
and between ego and alter.

One such conceptual strategy that theorises the gap between

meaning and language emerges from an implicit appeal to the
power of the imagination. However, as our discussion of Haber-
mas’ notion of expressive-aesthetic rationality has noted, the
imagination is never theorised as such in his work. Moreover,
he views the slippages and metaphoricity of meaning as forms
of fictionalisation that belong more to the activity of aesthetic
creation. To be sure, the problematic of the imagination has a
lengthy legacy in modern philosophy, which is usually confined
to an argument between the Enlightenment and Romanticism.
However, it is in Kant’s work, rather than that of Schelling, Fichte,
or Schiller that this problem is stated most clearly, and takes the
form of a series of remarks on the imagination. In an insight in
the Critique of Pure Reason that Kant retreats from, the categories
of pure reason are creations and representations of an imagina-
tion that is ever present, although only partially presented.48 In
this context, there is a recognition that in the space between pres-
ence and (re)-presentation humankind invents the conditions of
its own existence.

This recognition of the power of the imagination has taken at

least two forms that have resisted attempts to return it to the
world of aesthetics, usually under the category of the sublime.

As Kant remarks, “the imagination is the faculty of representing in intu-
ition an object that is not itself present.” Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, trans.
Norman Kemp Smith, MacMillan Press Ltd., London, 1978, p. 165, B152.
30 • Dieter Freundlieb, Wayne Hudson, and John Rundell

Both attempts locate the imagination’s power in terms of philo-

sophical anthropology, rather than in terms of metaphysical cat-
egories. One version derives from the work of W. D. Winnicott,
for whom the imagination becomes present in the play between
ego and alter. It is constituted intersubjectively as a positive out-
come of patterns of separation and recognition. Honneth follows
Winnicott’s work in his own attempt to work through the patterns
of ‘intra-mundane transcendence’ that are central to each indi-
vidual for social recognition. By so doing he gives a place to the
work of the imagination that is denied to it in Habermas’ work.49

Another version emerges from the work of Castoriadis who also

extends the idea of the imagination beyond its usual reference
to the aesthetic sphere. For him, and from the perspective of an
ontological re-casting of this problem, there are two irreconcil-
able dimensions through which the imagination can be posited.
One dimension is the radical imagination or radical imaginary
through which the psychic monad creates meaning. This imag-
inary ‘monadic core’ entails that the individual resists socialisation,
even as he or she is constantly socialised through social insti-
tuting imaginaries. In Castoriadis’ terms social instituting imag-
inaries—the other dimension—are the patterns of collectively
created meanings that are institutionalised and become a society’s
point of reference. Castoriadis concentrates on the nature and
invention of meaning through a reflection on socio-historical
being that leads him to posit the incommensurability of the social-
historical dimension from the psychological one.

Both Honneth’s and Castoriadis’ work are reference points for

the essays by Kenneth MacKendrick and John Rundell. In his
“The Moral Imaginary of Discourse Ethics,” MacKendrick opens

See Axel Honneth, “Invisibility: On the Epistemology of Recognition,”
Supplement of the Aristotelean Society, Number 75, 2001, pp. 127–139.
Reasoning, Language and Intersubjectivity • 31

up the overall status of the linguistic turn itself. In MacKendrick’s

view, Habermas’ attempt to avoid the spectre of subjectivism
leads him to develop an understanding of universalism that
hinges on a critical error, the confusion of subjectivity with nor-
mativity. MacKendrick draws on Castoriadis’ theory of the rad-
ical imaginary to illuminate this failure, and in so doing shows
the way in which Habermas’ moral theory of discourse harbours
a moral-imaginary horizon, a non-linguistic and pre-political ker-
nel with which his universalistic ethics is underscored and with-
out which it cannot function.

In “Imaginary Turns in Critical Theory,” John Rundell also implic-

itly responds to Habermas’ linguistic turn by arguing that imag-
inary horizons are central to the ways in which the gaps between
meaning and language, and between ego and alter can be con-
ceptualised.50 The way in which Habermas privileges argumen-
tative reasoning entails that a conflation occurs between the forms
of human intersubjectivity in their complexity and richness, and
the claims of reasoning themselves. In other words, Habermas’
conception of intersubjectivity entails that other forms of inter-
subjectivity that cannot refer to normative criteria, such as love
or violence, are viewed as inferior or distorted rather than con-
stitutive in their own right.51

Departing from Axel Honneth’s reworking of the struggle for

recognition, Rundell argues that the nature of the claims for
recognition that are articulated always refer to the status of the

See also John Rundell “From the Shores of Reason to the Horizon of
Meaning: Some Remarks on Habermas’ and Castoriadis’ Theories of Culture,”
Thesis Eleven 22, 1989, pp. 5–24.
Stephen E. Bronner, Of Critical Theory and Its Theorists, Oxford, Blackwell,
1994; Wayne Hudson, The Marxist Philosophy of Ernst Bloch, London, Macmillan,
1982; Joel Whitebook, Perversion and Utopia: A Study in Psychoanalysis and Critical
Theory, Cambridge, Mass., The MIT Press, 1995.
32 • Dieter Freundlieb, Wayne Hudson, and John Rundell

subject. Rundell turns to Castoriadis’ work, especially to his core

idea of the radical imaginary in order to more fully explore this
issue. However, Rundell argues that there is a problem in Cas-
toriadis’ idea of the autistic radical imaginary with reference to
dynamics of sociability. In addressing this issue Rundell posits
a tension-ridden co-existence of the creatively imagining subject
and multiple forms of intersubjectivity that force the subject
beyond his or her initial radical enclosure and enables him or
her to establish world relations in multidimensional ways.52

Concluding Remarks

A fundamental tension exists within Habermas’ work between

the meta-theoretical paradigms through which the tasks of cri-
tique are anchored and the task of producing a critique of ‘real
existing conditions’. Habermas reduces the complexity of moder-
nity to the tension between life-world and system imperatives.
Furthermore, with his underlying evolutionary premise of the
differentiation of the structures of rationality, Habermas privi-
leges Western Europe as the primary stage for the development
of modernity and too readily demarcates tradition and moder-
nity, and the religious and the secular, a demarcation that is dif-
ficult to sustain at the level of historical and social analysis.

These issues are areas in which there is much critical engage-

ment with Habermas’ work to date, and the present volume can-
not claim to address them systematically. Nonetheless, the
encounters with and departures from Habermas’ work that have
been articulated in this collection of essays are not simply the
technical reservations that can be levelled at almost any theory

See J. Byant et al., “Editorial,” Critical Horizons, vol. 2, no. 1, 2001 for a dis-
cussion of Rundell’s paper.
Reasoning, Language and Intersubjectivity • 33

of such a range and level of generality. Some of them at least go

to the viability of what his critical theory is attempting to do,
and the meta-philosophical claims it is putting forward.

Whether new forms of critical theory can emerge if more account

is taken of human subjectivity, imagination, art, and religion
remains to be seen.53 It seems possible that they can, especially
if insights that have emerged separately in French and German
philosophy are brought together. There are already signs of a
critical theory that overcomes the ‘French theory’/German phi-
losophy divide.54 Similarly, much recent scholarship has estab-
lished links between ‘continental philosophy’ and both analytical
philosophy and the natural sciences in ways that are different
from Habermas’ own dialogue.55 Critical theory may still prove
possible on different theoretical and practical foundations. For

For further discussion see eds. Peter U. Hohendahl and John Fisher, Critical
Theory: Current State and Future Prospects, New York, Berghahn, 2001.
See eds. S. Ashenden and D. Owen, Foucault Contra Habermas: Recasting
the Dialogue between Genealogy and Critical Theory, London, Sage, 1999. For a
different perspective see John McCumber, Philosophy and Freedom. Derrida, Rorty,
Habermas, Foucault, Bloomington, Ind., Indiana University Press, 2000; Thomas
McCarthy, Ideals and Illusions: On Reconstruction and Deconstruction in Contemporary
Critical Theory, Cambridge, Mass., The MIT Press, 1991; Thomas McCarthy and
David Couzens Hoy, Critical Theory, London, Blackwell, 1994; ed. David Rasmus-
sen, Universalism vs. Communitarianism, Cambridge, Mass., The MIT Press, 1990;
ed. David Rasmussen, The Handbook of Critical Theory, Oxford, Blackwell, 1990;
William Rehg, Insight and Solidarity: The Discourse Ethics of Jürgen Habermas,
Berkeley, University of California Press, 1994; eds. Peter U. Hohendahl and
John Fisher, Critical Theory: Current State and Future Prospects.
See eds. Dieter Freundlieb and Wayne Hudson, Reason and Its Other:
Rationality in Modern German Philosophy and Culture, Oxford and Providence,
Berg, 1993; Dieter Freundlieb and Wayne Hudson “Convergence and Its Limits:
Relations Between Analytic and Continental Philosophy,” Philosophical Explora-
tions 1, 1998, pp. 28–42; Rudolf Langthaler, Nachmetaphysisches Denken? Kritische
Anfragen an Jürgen Habermas, Berlin, Duncker & Humblot, 1997; Richard Rorty,
Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1989;
John Searle, The Rediscovery of the Mind, Cambridge, Mass., The MIT Press,
34 • Dieter Freundlieb, Wayne Hudson, and John Rundell

example, in contrast to Habermas’ meta-theoretical and largely

proceduralist approach, it is possible to advocate critical prac-
tices rooted in actual contexts and expertises, and to inform these
approaches with relevant results from the natural sciences and
historical sociology. Paradoxically, such critical practices can in-
clude the use of universalisation tests, proceduralism and moral
postulates as tools for promoting change. It is also possible to
explore less narrowly Kantian forms of critical theory.

A critical theory more sensitive to the passions of human beings,

to their embodiment, to the particularities of social and histori-
cal change and better integrated with the natural sciences, will
be substantially different from the critical theory envisaged by
Habermas. It will remain indebted, no doubt, to many of his
analyses, just as it will be inspired by the precedent he has set
of the engaged intellectual loyal to the Western philosophical
tradition but intent upon promoting enlightened rationality in
dark and dangerous times. But it will take the argument in sig-
nificantly different directions.56

One such direction could be a normative theory of international relations.
Another direction might be a normative ecology based on a philosophy of
nature rather than on Habermas’ acceptance of instrumental natural sciences.
See our discussion of Section 1, part 2, above, and Steven Vogel, Against Nature.
Maeve Cooke

Between ‘Objectivism’ and ‘Contextualism’:

The Normative Foundations of Social Philosophy*

Two fundamental challenges face contemporary social philosophy.

First, it must find normative foundations appropriate for its pro-
ject of social critique and congruent with its self-understanding.
Second, it must provide a convincing normative account of the
conditions for forms of social life that would facilitate individ-
ual human flourishing. The following discussion focuses on the
first challenge. I start by situating social philosophy as a critical
project within the interpretative horizon of Western modernity.
I then formulate the task of normative foundations in terms of
negotiating the tension between ‘objectivism’ and ‘contextual-
ism’. In section two I examine six contemporary responses within
social philosophy to the problem of normative foundations. In
the final section I argue that their respective limitations call for
renewed reflection on justificatory strategies, in particular, for a
conception of ‘objectivity’ based in a normative theory of social
learning processes.

Social philosophy is a mode of reflection that has developed over

the last two hundred and fifty years in industrialised Western
societies with the aim of working out critical standards for eval-
uating forms of social life that would facilitate individual human

* This article was first published in Critical Horizons, vol. 1, no. 2, 2000.
36 • Maeve Cooke

flourishing.1 Defined in this way, the concept of social philosophy

can be seen to rest on at least three assumptions. These assump-
tions are, first, that individual human flourishing is a valuable
end of human endeavour, second, that individual human flour-
ishing is possible only under certain social conditions and third,
that there are non-arbitrary, universal standards for assessing
individual human flourishing.2 On this account, social philosophy
has its origins in Rousseau, is taken up in the nineteenth century
above all by Hegel, Marx and Nietzsche and is practised from
the turn of the last century onwards by sociologists and philoso-
phers as diverse as Max Weber, Georg Simmel, Émile Durkheim,
Georg Lukács, Helmut Plessner, Hannah Arendt, Michel Foucault,
Alasdair MacIntyre, Charles Taylor and, of course, the various
associates of the Frankfurt Institute of Social Research and those
who continue this tradition today.3 The advantages of such an

Here I elaborate on a definition of social philosophy proposed by A. Honneth
in “Pathologien des Sozialen, Tradition und Aktualität der Sozialphilosophie,”
his introduction to Pathologien des Sozialen, Frankfurt am Main, Fischer, 1994,
pp. 9–69.
This definition leaves open the question of whether or not central elements
of modern life are inimical to individual human flourishing. It also leaves open
the question of whether social philosophy should have a practical orientation
aimed at the actual removal of the identified obstacles to human flourishing
and, if so, what kind of practical orientation. The problem of the relationship
between theory and practice has been a concern, in particular, of the tradition
of social philosophy that goes back to Marx. For a recent statement by a the-
orist within this tradition, see J. Habermas, “Noch Einmal: zum Verhältnis von
Theorie und Praxis,” in his Wahrheit und Rechtfertigung, Frankfurt am Main,
Suhrkamp, 1999, pp. 319–333.
On this definition, the critical theory of the Frankfurt School can be regarded
as one tradition within social philosophy. Honneth has offered two somewhat
different characterisations of the salient features of the Frankfurt tradition of
critical social theory: the first distinguishes it from other approaches to social
philosophy by virtue of its methodological objectives. These objectives are the
“systematic utilisation of all social-scientific research disciplines in the devel-
opment of a materialist theory of society.” Here, Honneth distinguishes Frankfurt
critical theory from other forms of social philosophy by virtue of its attempt
to overcome the theoretical purism of historical materialism through merging
it with academic social science (see A. Honneth, “Critical Theory” (1987),
The Normative Foundations of Social Philosophy • 37

account of social philosophy is that it is general enough to embrace

some very diverging perspectives on individual human flour-
ishing, and on the social conditions that impede or promote it,
while being at the same time restrictive enough to permit a mean-
ingful distinction between social philosophy and other philo-
sophical modes.

The success of the critical project that characterises social phi-

losophy depends on its ability to defend its own normative foun-
dations by postulating ‘objective’ standards for assessing the
social conditions of human flourishing. I use the term ‘objective’
and its cognates to refer to evaluative standards that are non-
arbitrary and universally applicable. (It is important to note that,
on my definition, ‘objectivist’ justificatory strategies have no
necessary connection with foundationalism. Nor do they deny the
inescapable influence of history and context on human processes
of evaluation and interpretation.4) The appeal to ‘objectivist’

reprinted in his The Fragmented World of the Social, ed. C. W. Wright, Albany,
SUNY Press, 1995, pp. 62–63). More recently, Honneth has offered a somewhat
different definition of the salient feature of Frankfurt critical theory. He now
distinguishes it on the basis of its allegiance to a particular kind of normative
critique—one that anchors its own critical viewpoint in a pre-theoretical resource
(vorwissenschaftliche Instanz) such as an empirical interest or a moral experi-
ence. As he puts it: “Critical Theory in its innermost core [. . .] is dependent
on the quasi-sociological specification of an emancipatory interest in social
reality itself.” (A. Honneth, “The Social Dynamics of Disrespect: On the Location
of Critical Theory Today,” Constellations, vol. 1, no. 2, 1994, pp. 255–269 (here,
p. 256)). Both definitions are, in my view, accurate and helpful in that they
allow us to see why the quite different social philosophies developed by
Horkheimer, Adorno, Habermas and Honneth himself are held to belong to a
common tradition and can be grouped together in a meaningful way. Admittedly,
the second definition in particular makes strong claims on behalf of Frankfurt
critical theory; indeed, it raises the possibility that a project of this kind might
not be feasible at all.
Thus my use of ‘objectivism’ differs significantly from that of R. Bernstein
in his seminal book, Beyond Objectivism and Relativism, Oxford, Basil Blackwell,
1982. By ‘objectivism’ Bernstein means “the basic conviction that there is or
must be some permanent, ahistorical matrix or framework to which we can
38 • Maeve Cooke

arguments in justification of a particular normative conception

of human flourishing is necessary for a number of reasons.

• Social philosophers require ‘objectivist’ arguments if they are

to uphold a robust conception of social critique. A strategy of
exclusively immanent criticism runs the risk of delivering over
the standards for critique to the arbitrary standards of a given
historical epoch. Insofar as they rely solely on a context-imma-
nent strategy, social philosophers ultimately lack the resources
necessary to defend the validity of their normative visions and
social criticisms against arguments that appeal to competing
normative standards—or against those who deny the ratio-
nality of normative arguments.
• A robust conception of social critique requires social philoso-
phers to be able to identify and critically evaluate new nor-
mative conceptions of human flourishing as they emerge
historically. For example, insofar as social groups currently
raise claims to recognition based on new normative ideas of
cultural uniqueness, social philosophers require conceptual
resources for identifying the newness of such claims and for
assessing their validity. Were social philosophers to rely on a
purely context-immanent justificatory strategy, they would
lack the conceptual resources for evaluating new kinds of nor-
mative claims.
• A robust conception of social critique requires a concept of
social progress. This means that social philosophers must be
able to defend the key normative conceptions guiding their
respective projects as improvements vis-à-vis earlier conceptions.
For example, insofar as their projects appeal to normative ideas
such as ‘autonomy’ or ‘authenticity’, they must be able to see

ultimately appeal in determining the nature of rationality, knowledge, truth,

reality, goodness or rightness. [. . .] Objectivism is closely related to founda-
tionalism and the search for an Archimedean point.” (ibid., p. 8).
The Normative Foundations of Social Philosophy • 39

these as historical achievements. Were social philosophers self-

consciously to restrict the validity of their normative concep-
tions of human flourishing to those who share their own,
historically specific, interpretative horizon, they would be
unable to defend any concept of social progress.
• Social philosophers cannot dispense with ‘objectivist’ argu-
ments if they are to engage in genuine, potentially transfor-
matory, dialogue with the inhabitants of rival interpretative
horizons. The need for such dialogue is particularly apparent
under contemporary conditions of globalisation where com-
peting visions of human flourishing frequently and publicly
collide. Were social philosophers self-consciously to restrict
the validity of their normative conceptions of human flour-
ishing to those who share their own, historically specific, inter-
pretative horizon, they would have no motivation to engage
in deliberation with those who hold competing views. Even
more importantly, they would lack the conceptual resources
for any meaningful concept of learning from such deliberation.

In order fully to grasp the complexity of the task facing social

philosophy in its search for ‘objectivist’ arguments, it should be
noted that, on the definition just given, social philosophy is his-
torically contextualised as a project specific to Western moder-
nity. By virtue of being situated within a specific interpretative
horizon, it is subjected to certain constraints that affect its meth-
ods of inquiry, its justificatory strategies and its proposals as
regards the form or content of the social conditions that would
facilitate human flourishing. The particular constraints imposed
on social philosophy by virtue of its emergence within a modern
interpretative horizon considerably complicate the attempt to
find an ‘objectivist’ justificatory strategy congruent with its self-

This thesis of historically specific contextual constraints is guided

by the basic intuition that, as inhabitants of any cultural and
40 • Maeve Cooke

social context, we are unavoidably shaped by a certain history and

by certain traditions. These produce evaluative conceptions of
rationality, of knowledge, and of human beings and their inter-
relationships, that shape our identities in fundamental ways.
They also form the basis for narrative accounts of the historical
development of the social and cultural context in question—nar-
ratives that frequently diverge and may even compete with one
another (in the case of Western modernity, for example, one need
think only of the very different narratives offered by Simmel and
by Nietzsche, or by Foucault and by MacIntyre). Notwithstanding
points of divergence and competition, however, there are usu-
ally important points of agreement and overlap. This is evidently
the case for the rival narratives of Western modernity. One sig-
nificant point of agreement is the view that the development of
Western modernity is characterised by a new attitude towards
authority: the authority of tradition, and of those in positions of
power and privilege, is no longer unquestioned but regarded as
open in principle to challenge and criticism by ordinary citizens.
More precisely, the category of those deemed capable of critical
reflection and informed judgement in matters of validity is not
predetermined but becomes itself a matter for critical discussion.
(This new attitude is frequently described in terms of secularisa-
tion and democratisation.) The agreement of the rival narratives
of Western modernity in this regard supports the hypothesis—
gained through historical, hermeneutically oriented, inquiry—
that the secularisation and democratisation of authority is a key
formative element of the modern Western self-understanding.5
Further key formative elements have emerged in the course of
its history (for interpretative horizons are not fixed and given
but continuously in flux). For our present purposes, I want to
highlight three of these. The first is a normative conception of

I do not claim that it is specific to Western modernity.
The Normative Foundations of Social Philosophy • 41

knowledge, the second is a normative conception of human

beings and the third is a normative conception of subjectivity:

• the view that there are no authoritative standards indepen-

dent of history and of cultural context that could adjudicate
rival claims to validity, especially in the areas of science, law,
politics, morality and art, and that such claims should be con-
strued fallibilistically;
• the idea that everyone is in principle deserving of equal respect
as an autonomous moral agent with a distinct point of view;
• a decentered understanding of the individual human subject;
the subject is held, first, to be internally disunified and, sec-
ond, to be at least partially constituted by external material
and social forces.

These three normative conceptions constitute key elements of

the interpretative horizon of late Western modernity in the sense
that they now unavoidably shape our (late modern, Western)
self-understandings and proposals. Accordingly, they also un-
avoidably shape the direction of contemporary social philosophy.
This is not to say that social philosophy has to accept the valid-
ity of these normative conceptions (Nietzsche disputed the sec-
ond one, for example). The point is that if it does not, it must
then take on the task of reorienting our self-interpretations so that
we no longer find the normative ideas in question convincing.
This is the sense in which the three ideas mentioned act as con-
straints on contemporary social philosophy in its attempts to
elaborate a normative conception of individual human flourishing.

For the most part, contemporary social philosophy has not

taken on the burden of reorienting the fundamental self-under-
standings constituting the normative horizon of (late) Western
modernity. This considerably complicates its critical project. The
main difficulty it encounters is the problem of how to maintain
42 • Maeve Cooke

non-arbitrary, universal standards for its social critique and for

its normative projections that are in tune with the central ele-
ments of the late modern Western self-understanding. As is evi-
dent from the normative conceptions of knowledge, human beings
and subjectivity just mentioned, an emphasis on the historicity
of human knowledge and experience, and on the plurality of
human desires, interests and needs is central to this. Accordingly,
if it is to be congruent with the late modern Western self-under-
standing, contemporary social philosophy must pursue an anti-
foundationalist strategy in claiming validity for its hypotheses
and must conceive of its justified assertions fallibilistically, it
must respect all human beings equally as moral agents with a
distinct point of view, it must take account of the multiplicity
and possible incompatibility of ethical perspectives and must
acknowledge the influence of diverse and contingent material,
social and psychic factors in constituting these distinct perspec-
tives. Social philosophy is thus faced with the challenging task
of finding normative foundations that are robust enough for the
purposes of its critical project while taking account of the his-
toricity and plurality of human knowledge and experience.

Although the term ‘postmetaphysical’ is sometimes used to de-

scribe this task, I regard it as infelicitous. For one thing, it is mis-
leading in that it can be used to refer both to social-philosophical
approaches that reject any kind of metaphysical thinking and
those that insist on the historicity and plurality of human knowl-
edge and experience but acknowledge the inevitability of meta-
physical assumptions in their theories—or, indeed, even see a
place for metaphysical speculation. However, it is not easy to
find an alternative, more appropriate term of convenience. The
label ‘postmodern’ brings with it a host of unwelcome connota-
tions, in particular ones of conceptual and ethical relativism. The
term ‘anti-foundationalist’ correctly suggests a project concerned
to maintain the ‘objectivity’ of warranted assertions while acknowl-
edging the historicity and fallibility of knowledge; however, it
The Normative Foundations of Social Philosophy • 43

refers primarily to the epistemological aspects of this project and

fails to evoke an adequate sense of the historical situatedness
and multiplicity of human experience. Despite the fact that it,
too, may have unwelcome associations, I have on balance opted
for ‘contextualist’ as a term of convenience to characterise those
social-philosophical endeavours that emphasise the historicity
and plurality of human knowledge and experience.6

It is evident from the foregoing that ‘contextualism’ and ‘objectiv-

ism’ are intimately connected. ‘Objectivism’ stresses the need for
evaluative standards that are non-arbitrary and universal; at the
same time, however, it is compatible with anti-foundationalism
and acknowledges the inescapable influences of history and con-
text on human processes of interpretation and evaluation. It thus
incorporates a ‘contextualist’ perspective. ‘Contextualism’, by
contrast, stresses the historical contingency of evaluative stan-
dards and the diversity of evaluative perspectives. Although it
does not deny the need for non-arbitrary, universal standards of
evaluation, it is mainly concerned with possibilities for norma-
tive assessment through appeal to evaluative standards imma-
nent to a given context of interpretation. If it is to practise more
normatively robust social critique, however, ‘contextualism’ has
to be supplemented by ‘objectivist’ arguments. In short: whereas
‘objectivism’ without ‘contextualism’ is blind, ‘contextualism’
without ‘objectivism’ is impoverished.

In attempting to establish the normative foundations of their

projects, therefore, social philosophers must endeavour to do jus-
tice to the insights of both ‘objectivism’ and ‘contextualism’.

As is evident from the foregoing definition, ‘contextualism’ as I under-
stand it neither affirms nor denies the possibility of ‘objective’ standards for
social critique. Some writers, however, take it to do so. For this reason, in the
following I use the term in quotation marks in order to indicate my particu-
lar interpretation of it.
44 • Maeve Cooke

Contemporary social philosophers have responded to this chal-

lenge in various ways. Some, like Michel Foucault, appear to
ignore it. But even among those who are evidently aware of the
need for non-arbitrary, universal arguments that take account of
history, context and human diversity, the response, on the whole,
has been inadequate. Some have responded in a way that threatens
to affirm ‘contextualism’ at the expense of ‘objectivism’: examples
here are Charles Taylor, Alessandro Ferrara and Axel Honneth.
In the case of others, the ‘objectivist’ argument is of the wrong
kind and threatens to undermine their theory’s ‘contextualist’
impulse. Examples here are Martin Seel and Jürgen Habermas.
A brief discussion of these various projects reveals the strengths
of the contextualist position—and its limitations when divorced
from the right kind of ‘objectivist’ justificatory strategy.

a) In contrast to the other social philosophers just mentioned,

Foucault’s attitude to the problem of normative foundations is
one of unconcern. He makes no attempt to resolve the tension
in his work between insistence on the historical contingency and
social determination of all human thought and forms of life, on
the one hand, and social critique and a normative picture of
human flourishing, on the other. Foucault persistently under-
scores the historical contingency of ‘discursive formations’ and
the determination of knowledge—and human experience in gen-
eral—by social relations of power.7 However, he offers no hint
as to how we should understand the relation between his the-
sis of absolute contingency and total determination, on the one

See, for example, M. Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge, trans.
A. Sheridan, London, Tavistock, 1972; M. Foucault, Discipline and Punish,
trans. A. Sheridan, London, Allen Lane, 1977; M. Foucault, History of Sexuality,
vols 1 & 2, trans. R. Hurley, London, Allen Lane, 1979 & 1987.
The Normative Foundations of Social Philosophy • 45

hand, and his implied critique of social power relations and of

the modern institutionalisation of repressive mechanisms of bod-
ily control, on the other. The tension between the two positions
is increased rather than diffused in his later work.8 Here, he not
only engages in social criticism through reference to obscure nor-
mative standards but presents his own normative picture of
human flourishing as ethical self-management, the status of which
is never clarified. The implication, of course, is that it is no mere
expression of subjective preference but an ethical ideal that is
nonarbitrary and universally applicable—in other words, ‘objec-
tive’. Foucault not only fails successfully to negotiate the ten-
sion between ‘contextualism’ and ‘objectivism’, he gives no
indication that he acknowledges its existence. To this extent he
appears to respond to the problem of normative foundations by
simply ignoring it. In contrast, most other contemporary social
philosophers are evidently concerned with the problem.

b) One of these is Charles Taylor. Taylor sets out to articulate

the fundamental intuitions guiding modern conceptions of the
self in its social and political relations.9 In doing so he employs
a method of hermeneutic retrieval that acknowledges the his-
toricity and plurality of human knowledge and experience.10
However, one of his principal aims in this hermeneutic endeavour
is to defend the possibility of truth and rational judgement in
the domain of practical reason. Unlike Foucault, therefore, who
ignores the problem of ‘objectivity’, Taylor expressly addresses

See esp. M. Foucault, History of Sexuality, vol. 3, London, Penguin Books,
See, in particular, C. Taylor, Sources of the Self, Cambridge, Cambridge
University Press, 1992 and his The Ethics of Authenticity, Cambridge, MA,
Harvard University Press, 1989.
For an excellent account of Taylor’s aims and methodology, see N. Smith,
Strong Hermeneutics: Contingency and Moral Identity, London & New York,
Routledge, 1997.
46 • Maeve Cooke

the problem of negotiating the conflict between ‘contextualism’

and ‘objectivism’. Taylor is relentless in his critique of subjectivism,
introducing the notion of strong evaluation as part of an attempt
to find a non-arbitrary normative basis for self-interpretations
and for practical judgements. He presents the self as a strong
evaluator: someone who is motivated in a fundamental way to
define herself meaningfully from within a horizon of important
questions about history, nature, God, society and so on. For
Taylor, the fact that she cannot do so without making use of a
language of evaluative distinctions—in which, for instance, moti-
vations are described as ‘higher’ or ‘base’, ‘courageous’ or ‘cow-
ardly’, ‘clairvoyant’ or ‘blind’—is evidence of the non-arbitrary
normative status of her interpretations and judgements. In a sim-
ilar vein, Taylor argues that deep-seated convictions about the
normative importance of authenticity, and a corresponding nor-
mative vocabulary, have become part of the modern self-under-
standing, providing a standard for criticising inauthentic behaviour
and the social conditions that encourage it.

Taylor’s articulation of the sources of the self is often illuminat-

ing; furthermore, his explication of the normative assumptions
guiding modern self-interpretations convincingly demonstrates
how, from the internal perspective of the subjects themselves,
these self-interpretations have an irreducible nonsubjectivist
dimension. In addition, insofar as modern self-interpretations
produce normative standards that are now firmly established
within the social forms of late modernity, Taylor’s approach
allows for the possibility of immanent critique through reference
to these standards. Ultimately, however, the ‘objective’ status of
modern self-interpretations and socially established normative
standards remains unclear. One the one hand, Taylor presents
his pictures of the self as an articulation of key normative intu-
itions gained through hermeneutic reflection on the self-under-
standings of the inhabitants of modern societies; on the other
hand, he appears to attribute to them a normative significance
The Normative Foundations of Social Philosophy • 47

that transcends any specifically modern interpretative horizon.

In according them such a context-transcendent normative sig-
nificance, he implies the possibility of evaluative standards that
are not tied to any particular historical context of interpretation
and value. But despite his explicit rejection of subjectivism and
ethical relativism, Taylor ultimately fails to resolve the question
of how ‘objective’ evaluative standards can be accommodated
within his hermeneutic framework of enquiry.11 Indeed, Taylor
has surprisingly little to say on this score. More generally, the
normative basis of his project remains opaque. He does not clearly
contextualise his phenomenological descriptions of strong eval-
uation and practical reasoning as a description of modern prac-
tices. Nor, however, does he present them explicitly as part of a
universal philosophical anthropology. Similarly, the possibilities
for immanent criticism opened up by his approach are rarely, if
ever, explicitly thematised; not surprisingly, therefore, he does
not discuss the limitations of social-philosophical projects that
rely exclusively on a strategy of immanent critique. In short,
despite his evident concern with normative questions and with
the possibility of social criticism, the tension between ‘contex-
tualism’ and ‘objectivism’ remains largely unacknowledged in
Taylor’s work. Moreover, given his hermeneutic emphasis on
retrieval and articulation, the ‘contextualist’ strand tends to pre-
dominate. As things stand, it threatens to triumph over the ‘objec-
tivist’ impulse that is also apparent in his writings.

c) A similar conclusion can be drawn from Alessandro Ferrara’s

theory of reflective authenticity.12 Once again, despite the author’s
express intentions, ‘contextualism’ threatens to triumph over
‘objectivism’. Like Taylor, Ferrara explicitly addresses the problem

Cf. M. Cooke, “Feminism, Habermas and the Question of Autonomy,” in
ed. P. Dews, Habermas: A Critical Reader, Oxford, Blackwell, 1999, pp. 178–210,
esp. pp. 197–200.
Ferrara, Reflective Authenticity, London & New York, Routledge, 1998.
48 • Maeve Cooke

of normative foundations that would be at once universally ap-

plicable and sensitive to history, contingency and plurality. How-
ever, unlike Taylor, whose method is one of hermeneutic retrieval
and articulation, Ferrara moves beyond hermeneutics through
appeal to the Kantian notion of exemplary validity. Ferrara starts
with a hermeneutic enquiry into the fundamental intuitions and
deep-seated convictions that shape the self-understandings of
the inhabitants of Western modernity. However, he transcends
this initial framework by using his hermeneutically gained find-
ings to construct a normative picture of authentic identity that
permits non-arbitrary and universal judgements of validity.
Drawing on the Kantian notion of reflective judgement, Fer-
rara proposes a conception of exemplary validity that enables
context-specific judgements of authenticity to claim a context-
transcendent validity. However, in contrast to Kant, for whom
the universality of reflective judgement rests on the assumption
of certain truths about human nature, Ferrara seeks a less natu-
ralistic and more hermeneutically oriented explanation. In explicit
analogy to the constructivist strategy deployed by John Rawls
in his later work,13 Ferrara sees himself as presenting a con-
structivist elucidation of modern Western intuitions that avoids
reliance on a Kantian philosophical anthropology.14

Rawlsian political constructivism professes agnosticism con-

cerning the truth of the fundamental intuitions and deep-seated
convictions that constitute our individual comprehensive doc-
trines and with which objectively valid political principles must
be compatible.15 Accordingly, the standard of correctness to which

Ibid., p. 52. See also p. 153 and p. 158.
Ibid., pp. 45–49.
J. Rawls, “Kantian Constructivism in Moral Theory,” Journal of Philosophy,
vol. LXXVll, no. 9, 1980, pp. 518–9; The concept of political constructivism is
elaborated in J. Rawls, Political Liberalism, New York, Columbia University
Press, 1993, esp. Lecture III, pp. 89–129.
The Normative Foundations of Social Philosophy • 49

Rawls’ idea of political liberalism appeals is not moral truth but

reasonableness:16 “To say that a political conviction is objective is
to say that there are reasons, specified by a reasonable and mutu-
ally recognizable political conception [. . .] sufficient to convince
all reasonable persons that it is reasonable.”17 Political construc-
tivism neither affirms or denies the concept of truth, it simply
does without it.18 It sees the question of the moral truth of polit-
ical convictions as a matter not for political discussion but for
the individual’s non-public deliberations which he may engage
in only when he exchanges his citizen’s cap for the one he wears
as a member of a family, church, professional group—or any
other of the many associations of civil society.19 Rawls’ political
conception of justice is freestanding, not dependent on any spe-
cific metaphysical or epistemological doctrine; it is thus designed
to gain the support of an overlapping consensus among citizens
whose religious, philosophical and moral doctrines not only
diverge but are “opposing and irreconcilable.”20 This explains
why, for Rawls, objectively valid political conceptions must be
conceived as reasonable rather than true: because citizens hold
conflicting and irreconcilable positions as regards the truth of
political values, truth is not an appropriate standard for mea-
suring their objectivity: “[h]olding a political conception as true
[. . .] is exclusive, even sectarian, and so likely to foster political
division.”21 Rawls’ methodological starting point is the historic-
ity, plurality and irreconcilability of human conceptions of epis-
temic validity, that is, of the good and the true. From his political
constructivist viewpoint, not only is there nothing to be gained

Ibid., p. 127.
Ibid., p. 119.
Ibid., p. 94.
Ibid., pp. 126–129. See also J. Rawls, “The Idea of Public Reason Revisited,”
The University of Chicago Law Review, vol. 64, no. 3, 1997, pp. 765–807, esp. pp.
Rawls, Political Liberalism, p. 3.
Ibid., p. 129.
50 • Maeve Cooke

from deliberation on the truth of the specified political princi-

ples, to do so would encourage social divisiveness and would
prevent the achievement of “a just and stable society of free and
equal citizens, who remain profoundly divided by reasonable
religious, philosophical, and moral doctrines.”22

Rawls’ constructivist strategy has certain advantages in the con-

text of political theory—even if one does not share his premise
that intractable ethical conflicts are irreconcilable23 or agree with
his view that public deliberation on the truth of political values
would foster sectarianism.24 One advantage is that it releases the
political theorist from the burden of unproductive discussion of
fundamental ontological and epistemological questions and allows
her to concentrate instead on constructing the political princi-
ples and institutional framework most congruent with the deeper
self-understandings and aspirations of those who inhabit a given
historical, social and cultural context.

However, even from the perspective of political theory, the lim-

itations of Rawls’ constructivist strategy are clear. Since his
approach disallows questions concerning the truth of the fun-
damental intuitions and deep-seated convictions with which his
political principles are deemed congruent, it is unable to argue
for the superiority of these principles over those governing the
lives of inhabitants of rival historical, social and cultural con-
texts. Its combination of ‘contextualism’ with a nonepistemic inter-
pretation of ‘objectivity’ means that it can gain no purchase in
social and cultural contexts in which the value of ‘reasonable-
ness’ does not already prevail. Not surprisingly, therefore, polit-

Ibid., p. 4.
See M. Cooke, “Are Ethical Conflicts Irreconcilable?” Philosophy and Social
Criticism, vol. 23, no. 2, 1997, pp. 1–19.
See M. Cooke, “Five Arguments for Deliberative Democracy,” Political
Studies, vol. XLVIII, no. 4, 2000.
The Normative Foundations of Social Philosophy • 51

ical constructivism runs into problems when extended to inter-

national law and practice.25

Ferrara’s proposed model of reflective authenticity is more ambi-

tious in scope than Rawls’ model of political liberalism for, with
its notion of exemplary validity, it explicitly asserts the ‘objectivity’
of judgements of authenticity. In order to do so, however, it must
ultimately move beyond the particular kind of ‘contextualism’
characteristic of Rawlsian political constructivism and engage
with the epistemological questions this disallows. Surprisingly,
despite his explicit rejection of a Kantian philosophical anthro-
pology, Ferrara appears on occasion to endorse a Kantian type
of naturalist position and to account for the non-arbitrary and
universal character of reflective judgements through appeal to
universal truths about the nature of human beings.26 Quite apart
from the apparent contradiction, however, a naturalist line of
enquiry is out of step with the ‘contextualism’ Ferrara applauds
in Rawls’ work. If we are all inescapably formed in profound
ways by the particular historical, social and cultural contexts we
inhabit, questions about the universal features of human nature
are likely to be unproductive; although there may well be uni-
versal truths about human nature, they are likely to be too trivial
to serve as a normative foundation for a political or social theory.

The problem of normative foundations is particularly evident in Rawls’
attempt to develop a “law of peoples” out of liberal ideas of justice. See
J. Rawls, The Law of Peoples, New York, Basic Books, 1993.
On occasion, Ferrara appears to relapse into naturalism: he draws, for
example, on Makkreel’s account of oriented reflective judgement as analogous
to having a sense of left or right, postulating a further analogy with having a
sense of authenticity (Reflective Authenticity, pp. 47–49). It is on this basis that
he claims that, “we all have a sense of what it means for our identities to flour-
ish or stagnate” (Reflective Authenticity, p. 42). If the analogies are sustainable,
however, we have to presume not only that we all have the same sense of left
and right but also the same sense of authenticity. It is hard to see how this
position is a hermeneutically open one that avoids Kantian naturalism—or
how it fits with political constructivism.
52 • Maeve Cooke

Since we are not given any hint as to what enables us to move

beyond this ‘contextualist’ position, however, the universality of
judgements of exemplary validity remains mysterious and ‘con-
textualism’ threatens to prevail. More precisely, Reflective Authen-
ticity ends up hovering uneasily between a discredited Kantian
naturalism and an unsatifying Rawlsian ‘contextualism’.

d) With his theory of social recognition Axel Honneth endeavours

to provide resources for a normatively robust social philosophy.27
A central motivation behind his theory is to overcome the limi-
tations of Habermas’ linguistic approach to critical social theory.
In Honneth’s view Habermas’ normative conception of a ratio-
nalised lifeworld conjures a vision of the good life that is insuf-
ficiently robust: it is too thin and too weak to provide a basis
for critique of the main pathologies of modernity—indeed, it is
unable even to identify them. Honneth argues against Habermas
that certain moral-psychological categories drawn from the writ-
ings of the early Hegel can be used to construct a formal theory
of the good life that would have real critical power.28

My discussion in the following is based on Honneth’s Struggle for Recognition,
trans. J. Anderson, Cambridge, Polity Press, 1995, and on a manuscript, unfin-
ished at the time of writing, in which Honneth engages in an exchange with
Nancy Fraser on the capacity of a theory of social recognition to do justice to
the aims of a critical social theory. See A. Honneth, “Anerkennung oder Umver-
teilung? Eine Auseinandersetzung mit Nancy Fraser,” MS, Frankfurt am Main,
In Struggle for Recognition, Honneth offers a formal conception of the good
life in terms of three mutually irreducible spheres of reciprocal recognition:
that of primary relationships of love and friendship, that of relationships of
moral, political and legal right and that of relationships of non-intimate social
connection. In the more recent exchange with Fraser, however, he insists that
the particular mode of interpretation and institutionalisation of expectations of
social recognition depends on the specific historical context in question. It is
as yet unclear what implications can be drawn from this for his normative con-
ception of the good life.
The Normative Foundations of Social Philosophy • 53

In keeping with the tradition of Frankfurt critical theory as he

himself defines it, Honneth anchors his critical viewpoint in a
pretheoretical resource, more precisely in moral experience.29 He
insists that moral experiences of social misrecognition provide
the motives for social struggles.30 In this way Honneth gives the
normative foundations for social critique a negative formulation:
the validity of his vision of the good life is to be inferred from
the negative moral feelings produced by experiences of mis-
recognition that manifest themselves in social struggles.

Although at first glance this may look like old-fashioned natu-

ralism, Honneth’s position is more complex.31 At least in his most
recent writings, the moral feelings and needs that underpin his
theory are not posited as natural facts but are conceived of as
the historical result of social processes.32 Although he suggests
that the social expectation of recognition from others may indeed
be universal,33 he also emphasises that the object and form of
recognition vary from historical context to historical context and
that expectations of social recognition are institutionalised in dif-
ferent societies in different ways. He maintains, furthermore, that
moral feelings are articulated in claims to justice that call for

See note 3 above.
“Anerkennung oder Umverteilung?” p. 44, p. 51; cf. also Honneth, Struggle
for Recognition, chapter 8.
This holds, at least, for Honneth’s most recent writings. Here he stresses
the role played by historical context in determining the shape and content of
expectations of recognition in any given society.
This contrasts with the naturalism implicit in the writings of some of his
predecessors in critical social theory, for example, Max Horkheimer in his early
work. The early Horkheimer explains the motivation for social struggles through
reference to feelings (of injustice, etc.), whose status as natural facts means
they require no justification. See M. Cooke, “Critical Theory and Religion,” in
eds. D. Z. Phillips and T. Tessin, Philosophy of Religion 2000, London, Macmillan,
2000. Insofar as Honneth’s Struggle for Recognition affirmed this kind of natu-
ralism, it also marks a break with his own earlier work.
Honneth, “Anerkennung oder Umverteilung?” p. 30.
54 • Maeve Cooke

reasons. These reasons—more generally, the standards of moral

justice—are determined by the way in which the “order of recog-
nition” is normatively anchored in a given society.34 Thus stan-
dards of justice also vary from historical context to historical
context. Honneth is concerned in particular with the specific
expectations of recognition that have been institutionalised socially
with the emergence of bourgeois capitalism. He identifies three
mutually irreducible spheres of social recognition that have been
differentiated historically in the process of transition from the
feudal to the bourgeois-capitalist social order. First, ‘love’, as the
normative idea guiding intimate relationships, second, the equal-
ity principle, as the norm for relationships of legal right, and third,
the principle of individual achievement, as the standard according
to which social hierarchies are established.35 His aim is to show
how these three expectations of recognition have a potential for
conflict built into them. This potential for conflict exists, and can
be mobilised, so long as the actually existing social order fails
to realise the normative ideas inherent in each.

The critical force of Honneth’s approach rests on the notion of

a ‘validity surplus’ (Geltungsüberhang) possessed by each of the
three spheres of social recognition, both separately and as they
interact to constitute a complex socio-moral order.36 This surplus
of validity refers to the normative potential inherent in the idea
of ‘love’ and in the principles of equality and individual achieve-
ment. Insofar as the existing bourgeois-capitalist social order
institutionalises social relations of recognition that are one-sided
or restrictive, inhabitants of this social order can rationally object
on the grounds that these social relations lack justification. ‘Love’
and the principles of equality and individual achievement thus

Ibid., p. 29.
Ibid., p. 35.
Ibid., p. 42, p. 44; cf. also p. 48, p. 51.
The Normative Foundations of Social Philosophy • 55

represent normative aspects in relation to which subjects can

rationally make claims to the effect that the habitualised norms
of recognition are not appropriate or not sufficient and need to
be expanded and developed.37 Thus, for example, the ways in
which the principle of individual achievement historically has
been interpreted and institutionalised under conditions of bour-
geois capitalism can be—and has been—criticised on the grounds
that it privileges the activities of one social group (economically
independent male citizens) and discriminates against, and ex-
cludes, those of others.38

As we can see, Honneth offers a ‘contextualist’ perspective on

the conflict potential of modern societies that allows for the pos-
sibility of justified moral critique. Importantly, however, the moral
standards of justification he appeals to for the purposes of diag-
nosis and criticism are purely immanent to the social context in
question. His theory of recognition thus raises the question of
the viability of a critical social theory that relies exclusively on
immanent critique. While this kind of critique has a venerable
history—Marx used it effectively to expose the hypocrisies and
delusions of bourgeois capitalism—it was traditionally used in
conjunction with other kinds of argument, most notably with a
normative theory of history. Habermas recognised this long ago:
“Without a theory of history, there could be no immanent critique
that set out from the forms of objective spirit and distinguished
between ‘what men and things could be and what they actually
are’. Critique would be delivered over, in a historicist manner,
to the standards of any given epoch.”39 Habermas’ point serves
as a warning against over-dependence on a ‘contextualist’ strategy

Ibid., p. 35.
Ibid., p. 33.
J. Habermas, “A Reply to my Critics,” in eds. J. B. Thompson and D. Held,
Habermas: Critical Debates, London, Macmillan, 1982, pp. 218–283, here p. 231.
56 • Maeve Cooke

and underscores the need for ‘objectivist’ arguments in order to

deal with rational criticism that appeals to normative standards
that are not already socially established. But even Honneth’s
own theory points to the limitations of a social philosophy that
relies exclusively on a strategy of immanent critique. For such
a strategy would be insufficient for its own critical purposes, in
particular for the purposes of normatively assessing the valid-
ity of new experiences and feelings of misrecognition that moti-
vate social struggles.

As Honneth himself acknowledges, it is implausible to suppose

that just any feeling of misrecognition, together with readiness
to engage in social struggle, is evidence of the need for concern
on the part of social philosophy (or, indeed, of the need for fun-
damental social transformation). In his recent critical exchange
with Nancy Fraser, Honneth reproves Fraser for taking too seri-
ously the claims to social misrecognition advanced by the so-
called new social movements in the USA. He admonishes Fraser
for failing to be sensitive to those experiences of socially induced
suffering and injustice that, due to the filtering effects of the
bourgeois public sphere, never achieve the level of political the-
matisation and organisation in the first place.40 Honneth evi-
dently—and in my view correctly—rejects the position that the
simple fact of articulation in social struggles guarantees the valid-
ity of moral feelings and experiences and justifies the claims to
misrecognition articulated on the basis of them. This implies the
availability of normative standards for evaluating affectively
based claims to misrecognition. Unless he elaborates his theory
further, however, the only standards available to Honneth derive
from the normative potential built into the socially established
‘order of recognition’. Through appeal to the normative potential
of the ‘order of recognition’ established under conditions of bour-

Honneth, “Anerkennung oder Umverteilung?” p. 7.
The Normative Foundations of Social Philosophy • 57

geois capitalism, the claims to recognition raised by certain social

groups can be exposed as ideological. As we have seen, this
amounts to a strategy of immanent criticism. But problems arise
when it comes to new kinds of claims to recognition—Honneth
himself mentions the example of claims raised by groups or col-
lectivities to cultural uniqueness.41 As it stands, his theory seems
to lack normative resources for assessing new kinds of claim.

In order to be able to deal with new kinds of claims to recogni-

tion, Honneth must expand his social-philosophical toolbox to
include instruments other than immanent critique. On occasion,
there are hints that he would like to do so. Whereas when describ-
ing the historical emergence of the bourgeois-capitalist ‘order of
recognition’, he usually adopts the stance of the neutral socio-
logical observer, on occasion he uses language that suggests a
normative perspective. An example here is his reference to the
transition from the feudal to the bourgeois-capitalist social order
as a ‘breakthrough’ (Durchbruch).42 This clearly implies a concept
of historical progress. A similar implication can be taken from his
observation that the institutional differentiation of three spheres
of recognition under conditions of bourgeois capitalism leads to
an increase in ‘individuality’, understood as the possibility of
establishing an increasingly secure basis in social approval for
the uniqueness of one’s own personality. Here, too, he suggests
that this is a positive development.43

As things stand, however, it remains unclear which path Honneth

will take in the attempt to move beyond the purely ‘contextu-
alist’ strategy of immanent critique.44 The problem facing him is

Ibid., p. 53.
Ibid., p. 30.
Ibid., p. 35.
As indicated, at the time of writing the version of the manuscript on which
I have based my remarks in the following was incomplete. Most importantly,
58 • Maeve Cooke

the following: he has to show that justified claims to misrecog-

nition can make claims to rationality that transcend the specific
socio-moral order in which they are articulated. Furthermore,
and connected with this, he has to show how progress in his-
tory is conceivable. Honneth rightly rejects the view that social
struggles have a built-in telos. He thus explicitly distances him-
self from the Hegelian idea that the potential for conflict built
into the three spheres of recognition has the essential function
of motivating transition to the next stage of social-moral insti-
tutions.45 However, although he is right to reject any notion that
the progress of history is guaranteed, he must avoid the position
that there can be no progress in history. Such a position would
lead to a weakened and restricted notion of ‘objectivity’, severely
curtail the scope of social critique and eliminate the potential
transformatory dimension of dialogue with those who hold com-
peting views of the world. In the interests of normatively robust
social critique and intercultural dialogue, therefore, Honneth
must maintain a concept of historical progress. Various options
are open to him here. He could defend a materialist—for exam-
ple, naturalist—account of the progress of history or, alternatively,
an idealist—for example, rationalist or theist—one. Recently,
there is some indication that Honneth appears to favour a Hegelian
strategy for he has embarked on the project of reworking Hegel’s
notion of objective spirit.46 However, if he wants to avoid the

the final section of Honneth’s paper, which promised to deal explicitly with
the problem of the normative standards with which the claims to recognition
raised in social struggles could be morally justified, was not available to me.
However, my overall argument in this essay is independent of Honneth’s abil-
ity to clarify the normative foundations of his theory. My concern is less to
highlight the weaknesses of contemporary social philosophy in the matter of
normative foundations than to indicate the best way forward if it is success-
fully to negotiate the tension between ‘contextualism’ and ‘objectivism’.
Honneth, “Anerkennung oder Umverteilung?” p. 36.
A. Honneth, “Leiden an Unbestimmtheit,” Spinoza Lectures, Amsterdam,
The Normative Foundations of Social Philosophy • 59

triumph of ‘contextualism’ over ‘objectivism’ he will have to go

further than that. One option here would be to attempt to rethink
the Hegelian notion of absolute spirit in a way that acknowledges
the historicity and plurality of human knowledge and experience.47
For—as the above quotation from Habermas reminds us—the
Hegelian notion of objective spirit does not offer any reference
point external to its own historically specific, social and cultural
context of interpretation and evaluation. Unless he makes a move
to establish such a reference point, ‘contextualism’ will prevail
in Honneth’s theory. In consequence he will lack resources not
only for engaging critically with rival views of the world but
also for a normative perspective on new kinds of claims to mis-
recognition motivated by moral feelings and experiences.

e) In the work of Taylor, Ferrara and Honneth, the ‘objectivist’

dimension is underdeveloped. Martin Seel proposes a formal
theory of happiness in which it is made explicit, but which also
endeavours to do justice to ‘contextualist’ insights.48 Despite his
evident awareness of the importance of both ‘objectivist’ and
‘contextualist’ perspectives, however, Seel fails successfully to
negotiate the tension between the two. To begin with, his empir-
ically based ‘objectivism’ awakens suspicions of ethnocentricism.
Furthermore, since it provides only the evaluative point of depar-
ture for a self-consciously ‘contextualist’ picture of human flour-
ishing, it is soon eclipsed by the ‘contextualist’ perspective and
does no work as a justificatory strategy. Thus, not only is the
universalist assumption grounding Seel’s theory the wrong kind
of ‘objectivism’, it enters into his theory at the wrong level.

As Theunissen reminds us, the concept of a philosophy of history is not
incompatible with acknowledgement of the historicity of all knowledge and
experience: see M. Theunissen, “Society and History: a Critique of Critical
Theory,” in ed. P. Dews, Habermas; A Critical Reader, pp. 241–271.
M. Seel, Versuch über die Form des Glücks, Frankfurt am Main, Suhrkamp,
60 • Maeve Cooke

Seel sets out to elaborate a formal theory of happiness. He empha-

sises the historicity of human knowledge and experience and
the plurality of human desires, interests and needs.49 At the same
time, however, he is clearly aware of the need for some kind of
‘objective’ measure for human flourishing: he recognises that the
evaluative basis for social philosophy’s interpretation of the
human situation should not be an arbitrary one. He takes this
to mean that his theory should begin with a generalised under-
standing of the nature of human well-being that rests on anthro-
pological hypotheses concerning the fundamental possibilities
and difficulties of human existence.50 What he seeks here is an
evaluative starting point that is as trivial as possible in the sense
that it is, first, an assumption that everyone can accept and, sec-
ond, as philosophically modest as possible.51 The assumption he
sees as most suitable for his purposes is that, “anyone who is
capable of taking an evaluative attitude towards their life will
find it important that some of their wishes are fulfilled.”52 As we
shall see, he presents this as an analytic truth that follows from
acceptance of an empirically based observation. Seel’s ‘trivial’
evaluative assumption then provides an ‘objective’ starting point
for his ‘contextualist’ interpretation of the conditions of hap-
piness. For, in contrast to the non-arbitrary, universal status
he ascribes to the theory’s evaluative point of departure, Seel
expressly acknowledges the historicity of the proposals he devel-
ops on the basis of this initial evaluative assumption. He freely
admits that his interpretation of the conditions of happiness is
a decidedly modern one and describes his strategy in the inter-

Ibid., p. 51; see also M. Seel, “Ethik und Lebensform,” in M. Brumlik und
H. Brunkhorst, Gemeinschaft und Gerechtigkeit, Frankfurt am Main, Fischer, 1993.
Seel, Versuch über die Form des Glücks, pp. 77–83; see also M. Seel, “Well-
Being: on a Fundamental Concept of Practical Philosophy” in European Journal
of Philosophy, vol. 5, no. 1, 1997, pp. 39–49.
Seel, Versuch über die Form des Glücks, p. 78.
Seel, “Well-Being,” p. 44; cf. Seel, Versuch über die Form des Glücks, pp.
The Normative Foundations of Social Philosophy • 61

pretative part of his theory as a kind of ‘historical universalism’.

By this he means a mode of reflection on fundamental possibil-
ities for living one’s life that have been disclosed historically and
that must be appropriated anew in every actual social context.53

Nonetheless, despite his awareness of the need to do justice to

both ‘objectivism’ and ‘contexualism’, there are at least two prob-
lems with the normative foundations of Seel’s theory. One prob-
lem arises from the empirical basis for the ‘objectivity’ he attributes
to his evaluative point of departure. A second problem is that
the ‘objectivist’ argument plays a role in his theory only initially
and is ultimately redundant as a justificatory strategy; in con-
sequence, the ‘objectivist’ dimension seems to disappear from
his theory, which now threatens to become purely ‘contextualist’.

In grounding his theory of happiness in an empirically based

‘trivial’ assumption about human well-being, Seel faces the
dilemma of all such anthropological approaches to the norma-
tive foundations of social philosophy. On the one hand, empir-
ically based anthropological assumptions that are genuinely
‘trivial’ (for example, the assumption that all human beings need
to eat in order to live) are unlikely to yield normative conclu-
sions strong enough for the theory’s critical purposes. On the
other hand, empirically based anthropological assumptions that
are sufficiently substantive are unlikely to be genuinely ‘objec-
tive’; the theory is then open to the objection that it subscribes
to an ahistorical, ethnocentric universalism that denies the diver-
sity of human beings and of human experience. Seel gets caught
on the second horn of this dilemma.

We will recall that his ‘trivial’ assumption has two components,

an empirical and an analytic one. The empirical component is

Seel, Versuch über die Form des Glücks, p. 82, p. 186.
62 • Maeve Cooke

the observation that most people are capable of taking an eval-

uative attitude towards their life—or, at least, to their wishes.
The analytic component is the observation that everyone who is
capable of taking an evaluative attitude towards their endeav-
ours or their wishes will find it important that at least some of
their wishes are fulfilled. The component is analytic insofar as,
“one cannot take an evaluative attitude towards one’s wishes
while wanting none of these wishes to be fulfilled.”54 The indi-
vidualist bias of Seel’s empirical observation is evident, how-
ever. It attributes to all human beings who are capable of happiness
a view of the life they lead as, in some important sense, ‘their’
life: that is, as a life for which they must accept some responsi-
bility or over which they can have some control. The universal-
ity of his observation can be disputed insofar as there are views
of human flourishing according to which ‘life’ as manifested in
a given human being is not something for which that human
being has any responsibility or over which she can exert any
kind of control (for example, because human beings are held to
be supernaturally, or naturally, or culturally determined).

The individualist bias is even more evident in Seel’s reference

to fulfilment of ‘wishes’. Again, his assumption that fulfilment
of at least some of one’s wishes is important for happiness is not
‘trivial’ insofar as there are views of the world—for instance deep
ecological ones or certain kinds of religious ones—according to
which individual human wishes are irrelevant to the achieve-
ment of human happiness or subordinate to other considera-
tions. In short, as an empirically based reconstructive statement
about the situation of human beings in general, Seel’s evalua-
tive point of departure is open to the accusation of ethnocen-
trism. The problem, in my view, is that Seel pursues the wrong

Ibid., p. 79.
The Normative Foundations of Social Philosophy • 63

kind of ‘objectivist’ strategy. Empirically based reconstructions

of the human situation are inevitably either too trivial for the
purposes of social philosophy or they fail to do justice to human
diversity. As my argument in the final section aims to make clear,
social philosophy needs not an empirically based but a meta-
physically based ‘objectivist’ strategy, which seeks to defend the
non-arbitrary, universal status of its key normative assumptions
by way of a normative theory of the progress of history.

From the point of view of social philosophy, however, the main

problem with Seel’s approach is not the content of the anthro-
pological assumption he takes as his evaluative point of depar-
ture. Since social philosophy, too, is guided by a normative
concern with individual well-being, it would hardly wish to con-
test this aspect of Seel’s theory. The real problem is that, as the
theory stands, the ‘objectivist’ dimension does no work as a jus-
tificatory strategy. As we know, Seel starts his theory with an
‘objectivist’ argument. He follows this argument with a ‘con-
textualist’ interpretation of the conditions for happiness, self-
consciously acknowledging the ‘historical’ character of his
interpretation. However, since the substance of his theory is pre-
sented as a ‘contextualist’ argument, the initial ‘objectivist’ ele-
ment seems redundant. Certainly, it contributes nothing to the
justification of the theory. Most importantly, it does not help to
answer the question of why Seel’s interpretation of happiness is
better (that is, discloses more normatively superior possibilities
for living one’s life) than other interpretations.

Although this crucial question cannot be answered without

recourse to some kind of ‘objectivist’ arguments, Seel’s empiri-
cally based anthropological strategy is unsuitable. Not only is it,
as we have seen, too contentious; in providing merely the start-
ing point for his theory it is soon eclipsed by its interpretative
elements. In short, Seel not only draws on the wrong kind of
‘objectivism’, it also enters his theory at the wrong level. In my
64 • Maeve Cooke

view, he would be well advised to dispense with his ‘objec-

tivist’ assumption about human well-being and to pursue a self-
consciously ‘contextualist’ strategy from the outset. This does
not mean that his theory can do without any kind of ‘objectivist’
arguments, however. In order to engage in dialogue with rival
normative conceptions and in order to practise normatively robust
social critique, it must provide an ‘objectivist’ defence of its own
key normative conceptions—but, as I argue in the final section,
one that is metaphysically rather than empirically based.

f) An empirically based ‘objectivism’ also plays a role in the

work of Jürgen Habermas. It is particularly evident in the for-
mal pragmatic underpinning of his theory of communicative
action. Again, as in the case of the ‘objectivist’ point of depar-
ture for Seel’s theory of happiness, it awakens suspicions of

The main purpose of Habermas’ theory of communicative action

is to show how a conception of rationality with critical force can
be extracted from everyday practices of communication. This
conception of rationality not only provides a basis for context-
transcendent standards of validity (such as truth and justice), it
also projects a normative picture of individual human flourish-
ing in terms of a utopian vision of the rationalisation of the life-
world.55 This is a utopian vision of a society in which first, there
is permanent revision of traditional interpretations and practices,
no element of which is exempt from revision; second, social inte-
gration is dependent on discursive procedures for establishing

There is a further important aspect to Habermas’ utopian vision: the idea
that human flourishing is dependent on processes of rationalisation both in
the system and in the lifeworld and that these processes must establish a rela-
tionship of balance and harmony with one another. See M. Cooke, Language
and Reason: A Study of Habermas’ Pragmatics, Cambridge, MA, MIT Press, 1994,
esp. chapter 5.
The Normative Foundations of Social Philosophy • 65

and justifying norms and third, the identities of individual sub-

jects are self-regulated through processes of intersubjective crit-
ical reflection and, to a high degree, detached from concrete
cultural contexts.

The normative conception of communicative rationality that

inspires Habermas’ picture of a rationalised lifeworld is allegedly
grounded in universal features of using language that have an
immanent normative potential. Habermas maintains that these
can be rationally reconstructed by way of a formal linguistic
investigation into the pragmatic dimensions of everyday lan-
guage-use.56 Formal pragmatic investigation is supposed to reveal
certain normative presuppositions of participation in argumen-
tation, understood as the ‘reflective’ form of everyday commu-
nicative practice. These form the basis for his normative conception
of communicative rationality, and for the normative picture of a
rationalised lifeworld suggested by this. According to Habermas,
these idealising presuppositions are not specific to any particu-
lar historical, social or cultural context but are implicit in the
communicative practices of all human societies.57

To this it may be objected that formal pragmatic investigations

can at best explicate a set of unavoidable normative presuppo-
sitions that would be too weak for the purposes of his critical
social theory. A further objection follows from the first: the crit-
ical power that Habermas attributes to his conception of com-
municative rationality is based on a substantive notion of moral
universality that is not a formal pragmatic presupposition of

“Rational reconstruction” is a non-foundationalist justificatory strategy:
see J. Habermas, “What is Universal Pragmatics?” in ed. M. Cooke, Habermas:
Toward A Pragmatics of Communication, Cambridge, MA, MIT Press, 1998.
J. Habermas, Justification and Application, trans. C. Cronin, MA, Cambridge,
1993, pp. 30–33.
66 • Maeve Cooke

argumentation in general but rather has emerged historically

within specific socio-cultural forms of life.58

The objection starts with the presuppositions of argumentation

explicated by Habermas. These include the suppositions that
participants must be guided by a common concern for truth, that
the contributions of all participants carry equal weight, that only
the force of the better argument may prevail and that no rele-
vant argument may be excluded. The objection allows that the
presuppositions mentioned may well be universal features of
participation in argumentation; it contends, however, that they
are insufficient as a normative basis for Habermas’ conception
of communicative rationality and for the vision of a rationalised
lifeworld conjured up by this. It argues that in order to equip
his conception of communicative rationality with the resources
necessary for social critique, Habermas requires the help of a
number of additional normative ideas. He must presuppose the
‘objectivity’ of certain normative conceptions of knowledge and
of human beings, in particular, the ideas that epistemic claims
can be settled only through argument and are essentially falli-
ble, that no topic is in principle immune to rational criticism and
that no-one should in principle be excluded from argument on
grounds of their gender, race, class or ideology. But these evi-
dently are not unavoidable presuppositions of participation in
argument in general but normative conceptions of knowledge
and human beings that guide argumentative practices in social
and cultural contexts in ‘post-traditional societies’ in which knowl-
edge has been desacralised, in which authority has been secu-
larised and in which the principle of universal moral respect has
been internalised (as is the case for the socio-cultural forms of
life characteristic of Western modernity).

See Cooke, Language and Reason, esp. pp. 29–38.
The Normative Foundations of Social Philosophy • 67

Objections of this kind have been raised most frequently in the

context of Habermas’ discourse ethics with regard to his justifi-
cation of the moral principle of universalisability.59 His usual
response has been to dismiss such objections as resting on a mis-
understanding—as a confusion of his idealising presuppositions
of argumentation with moral norms.60 Clearing up this misun-
derstanding does not invalidate the point of the objections, how-
ever, for a gap still remains between the normative content of
the universal presuppositions of participation in argumentation,
on the one hand, and the substantive normative ideas on which
his conception of communicative rationality draws, on the other.
Habermas does admit on occasion that, on its own, formal prag-
matics cannot provide the normative foundations required by
his theory of communicative action. He acknowledges the need
for an accompanying theory of modernity, perhaps even for a
theory of moral learning processes.61 As my remarks in the fol-
lowing aim to make clear, however, what he in fact requires is
a normative theory of modernity as a social learning process.62
Until he provides a theory of this kind, however, Habermas’ for-
mal pragmatic grounding of his theory of communicative action
remains unsatisfactory. Moreover, it awakens the suspicion that
it achieves the universality it seeks only by disregarding the

See, for example, S. Benhabib, Situating the Self, New York, Routledge,
1992, esp. pp. 33–38.
See Habermas, Justification and Application, pp. 31–33; J. Habermas, Die
Einbeziehung des Anderen, Frankfurt am Main, Suhrkamp, 1996, pp. 62–63.
Habermas, Die Einbeziehung des Anderen, p. 63. Habermas refers approv-
ingly to Rehg’s point about the limitations of the theory of argumentation in
W. Rehg, Insight and Solidarity, Berkeley, CA, California University Press, 1994,
pp. 65–69.
This qualification is important as Habermas has, in a sense, already offered
a theory of modernity: see his The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity, trans.
F. Lawrence, Cambridge, Polity Press, 1997. This theory is not, however, a nor-
mative theory that accounts for why we should view the emergence of mod-
ern structures of consciousness and modern normative conceptions as the result
of learning processes.
68 • Maeve Cooke

non-democratic and non-egalitarian norms and the closed contexts

of justification that traditionally have characterised the commu-
nicative practices of many societies and cultures—in other words,
that it asserts ‘objectivism’ at the expense of ‘contextualism’.

Nonetheless, of the various contemporary attempts to reconcile

‘objectivism’ and ‘contextualism’, Habermas seems most aware
of what is at stake. Moreover, with his remarks on the need for
a theory of modernity to complement his theory of argumenta-
tion, he hints at a way of resolving the tension that I regard as
promising. In this concluding section I take up the hint that
Habermas offers. I use it to outline a justificatory strategy that
would permit social philosophy to negotiate normative founda-
tions in a way that does justice to the valid insights of both the
‘contextualist’ and the ‘objectivist’ perspectives.63

The helpful hint that I take from Habermas is that social phi-
losophy needs a two-step justificatory strategy. As a first step, it
needs a ‘contextualist’ argument in favour of the normative pic-
ture of human flourishing it proposes; as a second step, it needs
an ‘objectivist’ argument for the key normative conceptions under-
lying the normative picture in question that presents these as
universally applicable historical achievements. We can illustrate
this by applying this two-step strategy to Habermas’ own case:
his theory of argumentation would now be read as a ‘contextu-
alist’ argument for a normative conception of communicative

I want to emphasise that I am endorsing only Habermas’ two-step strat-
egy here. I reserve judgement as to the merits either of his particular ‘contex-
tualist’ vision of human flourishing or of his ‘weak’ naturalist account of social
learning processes.
The Normative Foundations of Social Philosophy • 69

rationality. Instead of presenting itself as an empirically based,

rational reconstruction of universal presuppositions of partici-
pation in argument, it now becomes historically self-conscious,
acknowledging that it is valid only for the inhabitants of a cer-
tain kind of interpretative horizon (for example, that of Western
modernity). However, when read as a ‘contextualist’ argument,
Habermas’ formal pragmatic theory of argumentation lacks the
context-transcendent standards that are required for intercultural
dialogue and for social critique in a robust sense. For this reason
it must look to a normative theory of the progress of history (for
example, a theory of modernity) in order to find an ‘objectivist’
argument that would supply the required context-transcendent
vantage point.

As argued in the foregoing, a ‘contextualist’ approach to the

question of normative foundations is insufficient. It runs the risk
of delivering over critique to the standards of any given epoch
and seems especially inadequate in an increasingly globalised
world. At the same time, as our discussion of the ‘objectivist’
aspects of Seel’s theory of happiness and Habermas’ formal prag-
matics made clear, an empirically based universalist approach
runs the risk of ethnocentricity, that is, of disregarding the diver-
sity of human knowledge and experience and failing equally to
respect the particular views of the world and particular forms
of life of all human beings. A two-step justificatory strategy offers
a way out of this dilemma. Its advantages are independent of
the specific ‘contextualist’ and ‘objectivist’ arguments offered by
any particular theorist. As we have seen, a range of ‘contextu-
alist’ arguments is available. Instead of Habermas’ formal prag-
matic argument, one could draw, for example, on Foucault’s
ethics of self-management, Ferrara’s model of reflective authen-
ticity, Honneth’s moral-psychological categories or Taylor ’s
method of hermeneutic retrieval and articulation. The question
of which strategy is most convincing—and to what extent the
70 • Maeve Cooke

various strategies compete with, or complement and enhance

each other—is a matter for ongoing debate among the inhabi-
tants of the social and cultural context in question (in this case,
the interpretative horizon of Western modernity). The important
point for our present purposes is that any ‘contextualist’ argu-
ment is insufficient unless accompanied by an ‘objectivist’ one.
This second step is necessary if social philosophy is to practise
normatively robust social critique and to engage critically with
rival normative conceptions of knowledge, human beings and
subjectivity. What is required is an ‘objectivist’ argument that
can defend the key normative conceptions underlying the nor-
mative picture of human flourishing in question as universally
applicable historical achievements. This amounts to a normative
theory of social learning processes. Such a theory would, of
course, have to be worked out in a way that is congruent with
the normative horizon of Western modernity by avoiding the
traps of ahistoricism, foundationalism and ethnocentricism.

What would a normative theory of social learning processes look

like? In my view it would have to comprise at least the following
four components: To begin with, the theory would have to pro-
vide a convincing phenomenological account of learning. That
is, it must convincingly describe, from the first-person perspec-
tive of the learner, what it means to have learnt something. The
required phenomenological account cannot be confined to every-
day skills such as tying one’s shoelaces, riding a bicycle, or read-
ing and writing, although it must also embrace such skills. It
must, in addition, offer a convincing description of theoretical
learning in the natural sciences and in the humanities, of moral
learning, of intercultural learning, of aesthetic learning—possi-
bly even of religious learning.

The development of an adequate phenomenology of learning

would call for a high degree of expert knowledge as well as for
highly differentiated hermeneutic skills. Nonetheless, it is only
The Normative Foundations of Social Philosophy • 71

one of the components necessary for the kind of theory of social

learning we are looking for. A further component would be empir-
ically guided theoretical reflection on the kinds of cognitive and
practical capacities that are a precondition of learning in the var-
ious domains, and on whether they can be traced back to basic
anthropological principles. The lively debates on the precondi-
tions of first-language learning serve to remind us of the com-
plexity of the issues here.

A third component would be an investigation of the relationship

between individual and collective learning processes. This requires,
in turn, exploration of more general questions concerning the
interconnections between individual and collective identity-

But even this is not enough. A fourth component consists in the

task of clarifying philosophically the sense in which we may
speak of ‘learning’. This component is the crux of any theory of
social learning processes. What does it mean for human beings
to learn that the earth revolves around the sun? Or what does
it mean for human beings to learn that waste-disposal is not just
a technical but also a moral problem? Or what does it mean for
human beings to learn that they are autonomous beings who
should take responsibility for their own actions? Or to learn that
conflicts can sometimes be resolved by reasoned discussion
instead of violence? Or that children who cannot yet speak have
desires and emotional needs that deserve attention? In each case
the general question implicit in the specific one is why we should
speak of ‘learning’ at all: why do we imply that the change in
perspective constitutes an improvement rather than simply an
alteration in point of view.

This is the crucial question raised by a theory of social learning

processes and it poses a formidable challenge for social philos-
ophy. For if it cannot clarify the sense in which its fundamental
72 • Maeve Cooke

normative conceptions of knowledge, human beings and sub-

jectivity represent an improvement over older or rival ones, it
loses the nonarbitrary, universal moment required for social cri-
tique in the robust sense and ‘contextualism’ triumphs over
‘objectivism’. Of the social philosophers discussed in the fore-
going, only Habermas seems—on occasion—to acknowledge this.
Habermas has, of course, long been concerned with questions
of social learning and particularly with learning in the moral
domain.64 More recently, this concern has resurfaced in connec-
tion with his renewed interest in metatheoretical issues such as
truth and normative rightness.65 One of the central motivations
behind his continued insistence on the disjunction between truth
and justification, for example, is a perception that such a dis-
junction is necessary for an account of social learning.66 Most
interesting for our present purposes, however, is his incipient
attempt to answer the question of why we should regard cer-
tain shifts in perspective or changes in practices as learning.
Habermas’s answer draws on a ‘weak’ naturalist argument.

One of the central questions that Habermas addresses in his

recent metatheoretical writings is how we can uphold a con-
ception of ‘objectivity’ notwithstanding the multiplicity and
contingency of world-generating grammars. On his view, the
‘linguistic turn’ has resulted in a ‘deflationary’ interpretation of
what is meant by transcendental conditions: the unavoidable

See for example, J. Habermas, “Historical Materialism and the Development
of Normative Structures,” in his Communication and the Evolution of Society,
trans. T. McCarthy, London, Heinemann, 1979, pp. 94–129. See also the many
references to learning in the various domains in ed. Cooke, Habermas: Toward
A Pragmatics of Communication.
See his essays in J. Habermas, Wahrheit und Rechtfertigung, Frankfurt am
Main, Suhrkamp, 1999.
See, for example, J. Habermas, “Richard Rorty’s Pragmatic Turn,” in ed.
Cooke, Habermas: Toward A Pragmatics of Communication, esp. pp. 373–377.
The Normative Foundations of Social Philosophy • 73

conditions that have to be fulfilled in order to make possible cer-

tain basic practices are no longer seen as timeless conditions
removed from human practices but instead as deep-seated struc-
tures of consciousness that have developed historically within
our world. Whereas for Habermas, there is no possibility of
retreating behind the linguistic turn to a stronger understand-
ing of ‘transcendental’, he sees clearly that it poses the problem
of ‘objectivity’: the possibility cannot be ruled out that the pos-
tulated necessary conditions of knowledge result in an anthro-
pocentrically contingent, selective or distorted view of things.67

Habermas’ ‘weak’ naturalist argument responds to this problem

by showing how the ‘objectivity’ of the (now historicised) tran-
scendental conditions of knowledge can be defended even after
the linguistic turn. Although Habermas is principally concerned
with the ‘objectivity’ of transcendental structures, his argument
can be made relevant to our present concerns. Since, on his ‘defla-
tionary’ account, transcendental structures are conceived of as a
kind of practical knowledge, there seems to be no reason why
we should not extend his argument to the question of the ‘objec-
tivity’ of the deep-seated normative conceptions of knowledge,
human beings and subjectivity that emerge historically as a result
of human practices and that fundamentally shape the self-under-
standings and proposals of the inhabitants of a given historical

As indicated, Habermas’ response to the problem of the ‘objec-

tivity’ of transcendental structures draws on a ‘weak’ naturalist
argument. The argument is naturalist insofar as it relies on the
basic assumption, “that the organic equipment and cultural way
of life of homo sapiens have a ‘natural’ origin and are accessible

Habermas, Wahrheit und Rechtfertigung, esp. pp. 27ff.
74 • Maeve Cooke

in principle to explanation by evolutionary theory.”68 Its natu-

ralism is ‘weak’ insofar as it is nonreductionist. It does not replace
conceptual analysis with natural scientific explanation and reduce
the communicative practices of the lifeworld to, for example,
neurologically or biogenetically explicable operations of the
human brain.69 Habermas claims that his ‘weak’ naturalism makes
just one fundamental metatheoretical assumption. It assumes
that “‘our’ learning processes—those possible within the frame-
work of socio-cultural forms of life—in a certain way merely
continue antecedent ‘evolutionary learning processes’ that have
in turn given rise to the structures of our forms of life.”70 This
seems to be the basis for Habermas’ defence of the non-contin-
gency of social learning processes.

Since the transcendental structures of the forms of life that enable

‘our’ learning processes emerge out of processes of natural evo-
lution conceived of as analogous to learning processes, these
transcendental structures acquire a cognitive content. The same
is true of any of the general basic features of socio-cultural forms
of life. Their origins in processes of natural evolution—to which
non-contingency is attributed—means that they too may claim
non-contingency.71 Presumably, this is supposed to provide a
basis for speaking of social learning processes as opposed to acci-
dental switches in perspective. It is also supposed to make sense
of the ideas of universality and necessity that are part of the con-
cept of objective knowledge.72 In other words, it is supposed to
allow us to retain a meaningful concept of ‘objectivity’.

Ibid., p. 38.
Ibid., p. 38.
Ibid., p. 37.
Ibid., pp. 39–40.
Ibid., pp. 27–40.
The Normative Foundations of Social Philosophy • 75

For our present purposes, what I find most significant about this
argument is that it relies on a metaphysical assumption. More
precisely, it can avoid a vicious circularity only by making a
metaphysical assumption. This assumption is that the history
of the species, which embraces both natural evolution and the
history of socio-cultural forms of life, is potentially a process of
cognition—and thus not purely contingent.

Habermas’ argument appears to have the following logic. Natural

evolutionary processes are ‘coping’ processes—processes of solv-
ing problems and dealing with disappointed expectations—that
lead to ever more complex levels of development. Whereas these
processes may in fact be purely contingent, we impute to them
a cognitive context. This supposition is necessary if we are to be
able to conceive of socio-cultural processes as learning processes.
In other words, the attribution of a cognitive content to the prac-
tices that make possible ‘our’ socio-cultural forms of life requires
us to impute a cognitive content to natural evolutionary processes.

However, as is evident from the above reconstruction, Habermas’

argument does not explain why we are entitled to speak of ‘learn-
ing’ in either case. Rather, it relies on the metaphysical assump-
tion that human beings unavoidably conceive of the progress of
history as the possibility of learning—as a potential process of
acquiring knowledge—and not as a cognitively irrelevant, purely
contingent shift from one perspective to another. This ‘meta-
physical’ assumption underlies Habermas’ ‘metatheoretical’
assumption of the continuity between socio-cultural and evo-
lutionary learning processes as a first principle that cannot be

The metaphysical dimension to Habermas’ argument is, of course,

significant in light of his repeated rejection of metaphysics and
insistence on the ‘postmetaphysical’ character of his critical
76 • Maeve Cooke

theory.73 But it is also important from the more general point of

view of the ‘objectivist’ step that is required to supplement any
‘contextualist’ strategy. It is important insofar as it suggests that,
in the end, social philosophy cannot avoid relying on meta-
physical assumptions if it is to maintain a context-transcendent
concept of ‘objectivity’; furthermore, that the ‘objectivity’ required
for the normative foundations of social philosophy should be
metaphysically rather than empirically based.

In conclusion I want to make three points. The first is that social

philosophy has no prior metaphysical commitment to any kind
of naturalism—‘weak’ or otherwise. Idealist commitments—for
example rationalist or theist ones—cannot be dismissed out of
hand and should be taken at least as seriously as Habermas’
‘weak’ naturalist assumption. The second point is that social phi-
losophy has no reason to fear reliance on metaphysical assump-
tions. It is not the fact that social philosophers cannot avoid
making metaphysical commitments that is problematic but the
tendency to deny the effects of history and context and the impor-
tance of human free will. It is not metaphysics that social phi-
losophy has to guard against but the views that access to perfect
knowledge is available, that perfect justice is achievable and that
the progress of history towards perfect knowledge and perfect
justice is guaranteed.74 My final point is that social philosophy
needs to make explicit its metaphysical commitments. This is
necessary not only for the purposes of internal debate as to which
kinds of metaphysical assumptions are most convincing, it is
also necessary for the purposes of intercultural dialogue and the
possibility of learning that such dialogue implies.

This insistence can be found in all Habermas’ writings from the 1980s
onwards. See, for example, J. Habermas, Postmetaphysical Thinking, trans.
W. M. Hohengarten, Cambridge, MA, MIT Press, 1992.
See M. Cooke, “Critical Theory and Religion,” in eds. D. Z. Phillips and
T. Tessin, Philosophy of Religion 2000, London, Macmillan, 2000.
Dmitri Ginev

The Pluralistic Public Sphere from an Ontological

Point of View*

1. On Heidegger’s Concept of the Public Sphere

According to a claim widespread in the literature on the public

sphere (as a phenomenon of modernity), it was the mass consump-
tion of printed goods in the eighteenth century that turned persons
into a public.1 To be sure, the public sphere is an artefact of
modernity’s social dynamics. This is why its ‘structural trans-
formations’ can be studied from a variety of cultural-historical
perspectives: the co-births of the nations (and nationalism) and
the bourgeois public sphere; the significance of the bourgeois
family to the public authority of the middle class; the dependence
of the rise of the public sphere upon the sexual differentiation
of the public and private; the roots of democratic politics in the
bourgeois public sphere’s communicative culture; the pluralisa-
tion of the public sphere in communicative spaces of particular
cultural life-forms; the birth and the end of modern ideologies
in the historical transformations of the public sphere; the grow-
ing instrumentalisation of the public debates and the prolifera-
tion of new forms of secularisation; the role of the public sphere
for the emancipation of civil society from public authority; the
revolutions of mass communication and the changing mechanisms
of political control and manipulation, and so on.

* This article was first published in Critical Horizons, vol. 4, no. 1, 2003.
See in particular, Michael Warner, The Letters of the Republic: Publication and
the Public Sphere in Eighteenth-Century America, Cambridge, Harvard University
Press, 1990.
78 • Dmitri Ginev

The notion of the public sphere keeps an essential resemblance

to the notion of the political. In both cases, the historical recon-
structions of the ‘structural transformations’ are not only com-
patible with, but rather require an approach in terms of ontological
hermeneutics of human existence. Chantal Mouffe demonstrates
convincingly that the political as expression of the constitutive
role of antagonism in social life “cannot be restricted to a cer-
tain type of institution, or envisaged as constituting a specific
sphere or level of society. It must be conceived as a dimension
that is inherent to every human society and that determines our
very ontological condition.”2 By the same token, having a sphere
of public discourses in which the individual both loses herself
and creates her individuality is an existential-ontological condi-
tion of many empirical (cultural-historical) phenomena. By saying
this, I am trying to provide a rationale for a ‘model of the public
sphere’ in terms of hermeneutic ontology. The construction of
such a model is a theme of Heidegger’s Being and Time. I will
start out my discussion within the framework of the Heideggerian
model. At a certain point, however, I am going to introduce
notions that require both an extension of that framework and a
‘weakening’ of the ontico-ontological-difference on which the
Heideggerian model is based. (By this weakening I mean: [a] the
growing translatability of existential phenomena initially cast in
hermeneutico-ontological terms into languages of the social sci-
ences, and [b] the reformulation of empirical ideas about the
public sphere in the framework of hermeneutic phenomenol-
ogy.) The dialogue between hermeneutic ontology and social the-
ory will occupy a central place in what follows. More specifically,
the main aim of this paper is to suggest some ideas to bridge
the gap between the ontological focus on the hermeneutic fore-
structure of being-in-the-public-sphere and the focus of social

Chantal Mouffe, The Return of the Political, London, Verso, 1993, p. 3.
The Pluralistic Public Sphere from an Ontological Point of View • 79

theory on the nexus between constructing identity and narrative.

Let me sketch out briefly the approach suggested in Heidegger’s
aforementioned work.

The publicness or public sphere (Öffentlichkeit) is analysed in

Being and Time in connection with the existential analytic of ‘falling
of Dasein’. It is defined as being-lost in the ‘they’ (das Man). The
public sphere of the everyday mode of being-in-the-world is a
basic characteristic of the inauthentic existence. Inauthenticity is
the absorption in being-with-one-another which characterises the
primordial status of each existential mode. In other words, the
inauthentic lost in the ‘they’ (or, the anonymous existence in a
public sphere) is not a ‘degenerative status’ of a ‘purer’ mode
of being-in-the-world. The inauthenticity of being-with in a pub-
lic sphere is the indication that Dasein has already fallen into the
world. (Heidegger stresses that inauthenticity does not mean an
absurd existential mode of Being-no-longer-in-the-world. It is
rather the everydayness with ‘others’ in the ‘they’.)

The primordial (average-everyday) existence is not to be disen-

tangled from fallenness into the world. The phenomenon of
falling ‘documents’ (Heidegger’s expression) the existentiality
of primordial sociality. The public sphere is the site where
the ownmost existential possibilities (or, the ‘potentiality-for-
being’ in ontological terminology) are hidden from Dasein. (On
Heidegger’s account, the authentic self-understanding of res-
olute Dasein is defined with regards to its being-in-the-world for
the sake of its death as Dasein’s own most possibility. As it will
become clear, the criterion for authenticity used in this paper
differs from this formulation.) Dasein lives away from itself and
‘drifts along towards an alienation’. The public sphere is an every-
day anonymous sociality in which the ‘turbulence of falling’ (and
not the emancipated personal choice) picks out inauthentic exis-
tential possibilities. This is why Dasein’s everyday existence in
80 • Dmitri Ginev

the public sphere is dominated (a domination in the form of

severe ‘dictatorship’) by the ‘they’. In the public sphere, we “take
pleasure and enjoy ourselves as they take pleasure; we read, see,
and judge about literature and art as they see and judge; like-
wise we shrink back from the ‘great mass’ as they shrink back;
we find ‘shocking’ what they find shocking. The ‘they’, which
is nothing definite, and which all are, though not as the sum,
prescribes the kind of being of everydayness.”3 Central for
Heidegger’s account is the conclusion that the public sphere is
the place of an inconspicuous domination by not definite ‘oth-
ers’ over the everyday being-one’s-self.

Before entering further into Heidegger’s existential-ontological

analysis of the public sphere, let me draw the following paral-
lel: The existential-ontological claim that, in its everyday mode
of existence Dasein has fallen into the world, corresponds with
the claim, which can be formulated in terms of social theory, that
the established norms and models of intersubjectivity in the pub-
lic sphere always have priority over the process of reaching per-
sonal identity. The latter is a value-neutral (that is, theoretical)
claim that is accepted in both the communitarian and liberal ver-
sions of social theory. This is why the Heideggerian approach to
the public sphere is in agreement with the basic assumptions of
both parties. Furthermore, this approach is independent of the
opposition between individualistic and collectivist theories in
the social sciences. Even the theories, which imply that action is
‘motivated from within’, do not ignore the fact that the public
sphere constrains the social order generated by individual inter-
actions. The commitment to the methodological individualism
and the rejection of extra-individual structures presupposes a
milieu of intersubjective negotiations. Thus, in denying the reifi-

Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. John Macquarie and Edward
Robinson, New York, Harper & Row, 1962, p. 164.
The Pluralistic Public Sphere from an Ontological Point of View • 81

cation of cultural patterns the champions of individualistic theories

insist on the constitutive role of the public sphere as a milieu of
negotiations creating social order. In addition, a full-fledged indi-
vidualistic theory in the social sciences has to take into consid-
eration the internalisation of ‘being-with-structures’ of the public
sphere (transmitted by rituals and traditions) in the process of
individuals’ socialisation. A socialised individual is a human
being personalised in the public sphere. The non-essentialist pro-
grams of methodological individualism must do justice to this
fact. By implication, a non-essentialist social theory must avoid
any hypostatisation of structures, codes, or patterns determining
the individual’s action and interaction. Yet, it can only avoid
essentialism by developing an existentialist picture of the public

In resuming the discussion of Heidegger’s approach to the public

sphere, I will focus on how the (inauthentic) being-in-they’s-pub-
licness discloses to Dasein a being towards the world-as-present-
at-hand, towards the world of primary sociality, and towards
the ‘internal world’ of itself. The public sphere discloses the pre-
thematic world as a physical reality of ‘entities, which may have
been reached’, the social world as a manifold of particular space-
time-interactions with the ‘others’ of the everyday concerns deal-
ing within the ‘totality of equipment’, and the internal world as
the reality of subjective experience. It is the public sphere that
‘makes possible’ through this triple disclosedness the differenti-
ation of objective (though still not objectified by cognitive pro-
cedures and epistemological norms) world, social world of
immediate contextual and situational interactions, and subjec-
tive world of internalised traditions and rituals.

On Heidegger’s account, the moments of the triple disclosed-

ness are idle talk, curiosity, and ambiguity. They are constitu-
tive for having a public sphere. Idle talk is the average public
82 • Dmitri Ginev

discourse in which the very averageness (and inauthenticity) ex-

presses itself. In this regard, idle talk is the discourse that expresses
the communication that prevents the deviations from ‘they’s’
point of view. On another formulation, idle talk is the discours-
ing of ‘they’s’ average understanding which has lost (or, has
never achieved) its primary relationship-of-being. By alienating
from the communication that would let the entities ‘be appro-
priated in a primordial manner’, the ‘they’s’ discourse takes on
an authoritative character. Moreover, the ‘groundlessness of idle
talk’ (due to its alienation from the primary relationship-of-being
towards the entities) creates the medium of all kinds of author-
itative manipulation by means of ‘they’s’ mass-communication.
Heidegger makes the following observation:
The groundlessness of idle talk is no obstacle to its becoming pub-
lic; instead it encourages this. Idle talk is the possibility of under-
standing everything without previously making the thing one’s
own. If this were done, idle talk would founder; and it already
guards against such a danger. Idle talk is something which any-
one can rake up; it not only releases one from the task of gen-
uinely understanding, but develops an undifferentiated kind of
intelligibility, for which nothing is closed off any longer.4

Idle talk is a discourse (and communication) with a ‘hidden

normativeness’ by means of which the ‘they’ prescribes the
‘permissible existential possibilities’ in the everyday being-in-

Curiosity is the ongoing seeking for novelties that does not try
to come into a being towards what is seen, but just “seeks nov-
elty only in order to leap from it anew to another novelty.”5 This
is why curiosity is everywhere and nowhere in the public sphere.
Curiosity determines a ‘homogeneous topology’ of the public

Ibid., p. 213.
Ibid., p. 216.
The Pluralistic Public Sphere from an Ontological Point of View • 83

sphere—because of its ‘never dwelling anywhere’; curiosity is

never privileging a certain topic (as standing in need for a com-
prehension that differs from the average understanding) in the
public discourse as idle talk. Finally, in the public being-with-
one-another it is impossible to decide what is ‘disclosed in a gen-
uine understanding’. By implication, there is a constant ambiguity
characterising inauthentic existence in the ‘they’s’ public sphere.
To those who are involved in ‘they’s’ public communication,
everything looks as if it were genuinely understood, though ‘at
bottom it is not’. Ambiguity provokes different ways of under-
standing what is seen. Since the public sphere does not have
resources to decide what is a genuine understanding, ambigu-
ity creates a quasi-pluralism of ways of seeing the world (as
physical reality), the ‘others’, and the self. The relativism of these
ways increases the potentiality for alienation and manipulation.
Due to idle talk, curiosity, and ambiguity, one’s understanding
in the ‘they’s’ publicness is “constantly going wrong in its pro-
jects, as regards the genuine possibilities of being.”6

2. Narratives of Authenticity and Inauthenticity

In my further discussion of the existential-ontological concep-

tion of the public sphere I should like to bring into play a ‘non-
Heideggerian component’. I will make use of the notion of
narrative that does not belong to the conceptual repertoire of
Being and Time. Nevertheless, it is of prime importance for authors
like Wilhelm Schapp, Paul Ricoeur and David Carr who are work-
ing in the tradition of hermeneutic phenomenology. In what fol-
lows, narratives will be regarded as (a) elementary forms of
discourse’s expression; (b) primary means of communication;
and (c) structural units of the public sphere. Yet, since the notions
of discourse, communication, and public sphere are addressed

Ibid., p. 218.
84 • Dmitri Ginev

in the present discussion in an existential-ontological manner,

narratives are not to be reduced to forms of linguistic expression
or to particular cognitive (pre-explanatory) procedures.

On the account put forward by hermeneutic phenomenology,

there are ‘ontological narratives’ which express the hermeneutic
fore-structures of the modes of being-in-the-world. The every-
day-concernful dealing within-the-world is a process of actual-
isation of projects, which are ‘existentially more primordial’ than
the agents who are committed to them. The agents become eman-
cipated as agents only within the projects. Thus, the actualisa-
tion of projects within-the-world goes ontologically before the
emancipation of the epistemic subject-object cut as a condition
of the instrumental rationality of action. What are projected in
the modes of being-in-the-world are existential possibilities. The
human existence in the world is always already projected. As
a projection, the everyday dealing within-the-world is always
pressed into such possibilities. This is why the socialisation and
personalisation is already projected on existential possibilities
‘available in the public sphere’.

A hermeneutic fore-structure is the ongoing correlation of never-

ending projection of the existential being upon possibilities and
actualisation of certain possibilities. On another formulation, a
hermeneutic fore-structure is the ontological unity of a horizon
of being-in-the-world, the projection of this horizon, and the
range of possibilities informed by this projection. An ‘ontologi-
cal narrative’ expresses both the processual character and the
ontological unity of a hermeneutic fore-structure. (I leave aside
the temporalising function of narrative. By uniting horizon, pro-
jection, and existential possibilities, an ontological narrative
expresses a scheme of tempolalisation within-the-world. The dis-
cussion of this topic, however, is far beyond the scope of this
The Pluralistic Public Sphere from an Ontological Point of View • 85

Thus epitomised, the account of the relationship between her-

meneutic fore-structure and narrative is in line with David Carr’s
phenomenological approach. This approach opposes the views
of authors like Louis Mink and Hayden White. For them, nar-
rativity is a term that indicates the cognitive specificity and auton-
omy of the research process in the historical sciences. According
to Mink, for instance, the historian “must set forth in sequence
a narrative which . . . he understands or tries to understand as
a whole.”7 By placing emphasis upon the ways in which ethnic
minorities (Basques, Corsicans, Quebecois, Kurds) construct their
identities through subscribing to a story of their community, Carr
managed to bridge the problematics of narrative (re)construc-
tion of cultural identities with the ontological reading of the con-
stellation of narrativity-temporality-historicality. On his view, the
construction of identity is a process within a tradition that con-
tinuously reconstructs and deconstructs itself. A significant
moment in Carr’s conception is that the ‘narrator’ is detached
from the individual, and placed at the level of culturally dis-
tinctive communities.8 The process of story telling is ascribed to
the communal experience. Like Ricoeur, Carr shifts the focus of
the narrativist approach from the epistemological and rhetorical
techniques to the (ontological) constitution of cultural life-forms.
Stories are lived before being told. The unity of living a story
and telling a story (of a life-form’s tradition) informs an impor-
tant feature of the hermeneutic fore-structure of community’s
being-in-a-cultural-life-world. All ‘structures’ that characterise
the specificity and autonomy of a cultural life-form are fore-
structured by narratives lived by a community (as a ‘collective
Dasein’ of this life-form).

Louis Mink, “The Autonomy of Historical Understanding,” ed. William
Dray, Philosophical Analysis and History, Harper & Row, New York, 1966, p. 185.
See David Carr, Time, Narrative, and History, Bloomington, Indiana University
Press, pp. 122–145.
86 • Dmitri Ginev

Against the background of the foregoing formulations, one can

specify further the distinction between inauthentic and authen-
tic existential possibilities. The former are the possibilities of act-
ing prescribed by the ‘they’ in each particular situation. It is the
‘they’ that is pressing situationally into inauthentic possibilities.
‘They’s’ narratives provide coherence among the possibilities
actualised in different situations. The public sphere is the site
where ‘they’s’ narratives are generated.9 These narratives have
to be effective in giving meaning not only to the personal expe-
rience, but also to the ‘communal experience’ of all collective
participants in public communication. From a historical point of
view, the emancipation of a sphere where questions of a com-
mon concern can be negotiated is at the same time the emanci-
pation of public narratives, by means of which crises of different
sorts can be resolved. The ‘grammar of public narratives’ (cir-
culating in public discourse) is completely detached from the
‘discursive syntax’ of the local and contingent narratives belong-
ing to private life.10

The authentic existential possibilities are related to a self-under-

standing that enables one to avoid idle talk, curiosity and ambi-
guity of ‘they’s’ public sphere. The authentic possibilities are also
situational and their unifying in a coherent totality requires a
narrative reconstruction as well. The self-understanding that
reconstructs a coherent totality of authentic existential possibil-
ities shapes a narrative of an authentic existential mode. The

I leave aside the highly sophisticated problematics of ‘they’s’ rhetorical
tools and strategies in shaping the dominant narratives in the public sphere.
Producing ‘they’s’ narratives goes hand in hand with different kinds of emplot-
ment. The ‘plots’ in the public sphere is a topic that requires special attention.
On the studies in the grammar of narratives with respect to their psy-
chological and social functions in the areas of psychoanalysis, social psychol-
ogy, cultural anthropology, ethnomethodology, and micro-history, see Elinor
Ochs and Lisa Capps, “Narrating the Self,” Annual Review of Anthropology, no.
25, 1996.
The Pluralistic Public Sphere from an Ontological Point of View • 87

public sphere is not only the site of the inauthentic existence,

but also the medium where the transition from inauthentic to
authentic being-in-the-world takes place. Authenticity as a mode
of being-in-the-world through actualisation of authentic possi-
bilities can come into being only in an established public sphere.
Moreover, reaching authenticity also demands narrative resources.
These are strategies of narrative self-understanding, which have
to prevent the imposition of ‘they’s’ narratives in the course of
constructing personal or collective identity. The transformation
of not-being-its-self into an authentic existence proceeds always
in the public sphere characterised by ‘they’s’ authoritative centre.
A mode of authentic existence is that one which in its own nar-
rative reconstruction contributes to the dissolution of that centre.

The ‘they’s’ dictatorship (as authoritative discourse, groundless

communication, and dominating inauthenticity of the public
sphere) manifests itself in narratives in which the interconnec-
tion of idle talk, curiosity, and ambiguity resides. The most trivial
illustration of such narratives is provided by the story-tellings
that take on the form of ‘gossiping’. Yet, the narrativity of ‘they’s’
publicness includes a wide range of manipulative-political con-
structions. Their principal feature is to impose ‘inauthentic iden-
tity’ on the individual and collective participants in the public
sphere. Notoriously, in the social sciences the notion of narrative
is related to the process of constructing identity. The conceptual
nexus ‘narrative-identity’ takes a prominent place in disciplines
like cultural anthropology, social psychology, psychoanalysis,
cultural studies, social theory, micro-history, gender studies, stud-
ies on multiculturalism, and studies on nationalism. An aspect,
which from different perspectives is at stake in these studies, is
the ‘potential infinity’, that is, the fact that the ongoing construc-
tion of identity can never be totally complete. The narrative con-
struction of identity in the ‘they’s’ public sphere is a process of
working out possibilities that are prescribed by ‘they’s’ anonym-
ous voice. On a succinct observation suggested by Madan Sarup,
88 • Dmitri Ginev

“the stories we tell are often reshaped in/for the public sphere.
And then, when these narratives are in the public sphere, they
shape us. Narratives are, of course, sites of cultural contest, and
when they become public, we should ask: who is orchestrating
them? This leads us to the problems of representation and
power.”11 Through this processual shaping/reshaping us, ‘they’s’
public narratives become powerful myths.

The ‘official’ nationalist narratives are a case in point. In this

case, the official authorities use in a most effective manner the
manipulative capacity of the ‘they’. Notoriously, Habermas puts
forward the claim that civil societies (each of them considered
as a private sphere emancipated from a public authority) in
modern nation-states came into existence as the corollary of a
‘depersonalised state authority’. In his celebrated The Structural
Transformation of the Public Sphere, the origin of ideology is viewed
in the early modern identification of ‘property owner’ with
‘human being as such’.12 Under post-ideological conditions, there
is a growing tendency of replacing the ideologies of ‘human
being as such’ with nationalist propaganda. In the former (the
early modern) case, depersonalised state authority (as a politi-
cal body of the ‘they’) is still rationalised in a certain version of
the ‘philosophical project of modernity’ (or, the project of philo-
sophical self-foundation of modernity). In the post-ideological
case, the nationalist advocacy of depersonalised state authority
no longer needs philosophical rationalisation.

In contrast to the ‘classical’ ideologico-political (meta)narratives,

nationalist myths and stories do not need argumentation and

Madan Sarup, Identity, Culture and the Postmodern World, Edinburgh,
Edinburgh University Press, 1996, p. 18.
See Jürgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An
Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society, Cambridge Mass. and London, Eng.,
MIT Press, 1989, p. 88.
The Pluralistic Public Sphere from an Ontological Point of View • 89

legitimation. In their discursive form, these myths and stories

are akin to the everyday stories of gossiping. After the ‘end of
ideology’ (and the great ideological narratives), the nationalist
narratives fill the axiological-normative vacancy in the public
sphere once filled by global political doctrines. Each new reshap-
ing in the public sphere of an official nationalist narrative is a
reinvention of a national community once imagined in an early
modern civil society. It is a reinvention that has to keep alive the
myth of the sacredness of a nationhood (and of belonging to it).
In addition, such a reshaping has to introduce modifications in
narrating (the historical destiny of) the nation-state that are rel-
evant to the historical situation.13

More generally, a standard means for exercising the influence of

public discourse upon private life is by imposing ‘official nar-
ratives’ about the collective historical destiny. The story of the
national heroes, the story of the sacrificial role of the nation’s
‘intelligentsia’, the story of the great nation’s sufferings, the story

In speaking of imagined communities, I have in mind Benedict Anderson’s
classical work on the origin and spread of nationalism. In societies of increas-
ing anomie and growing destruction of face-to-face communities and cultural
life-worlds, there is a dramatic need for imagined communities where the ‘sen-
timents of locality’ can be restored. States elites’ nationalist narratives com-
pensate the loss of all pre-modern historical-cultural substances destroyed by
the spread of industrialisation. When these narratives “portray the nation as
based on common ancestry, as having common cultural attributes and values,
as constituting a natural and unique subspecies of humanity, they are offering
a particularly powerful vision of a kinship community, and thus are seeking
to deploy the emotional power of family in the service of the state.” David
Brown, “Why is the Nation-State so Vulnerable to Ethnic Nationalism?” Nations
and Nationalism, no. 4. 1998, p. 7.
A principal feature of national consciousness in the Enlightenment was the
growing convergence of thinking for oneself and thinking as a public use of
reason. (Fichte’s efforts to entangle the early modern nationalist discourse in
his practical philosophy, guided by the dictum that only by completely iden-
tifying with the whole as the meta-individual subject of the cultural-historical
development can an individual human being really become a person, is the
most typical case in point.)
90 • Dmitri Ginev

of the long and painful way to national emancipation are a few

examples of an impressive list of official narratives that are embod-
ied in the textbooks of national history, mass-media propaganda,
discursive strategies of the educational institutions, national lit-
erature and fine arts. Even institutionalised social practices, which
at first glance seem to be apolitical, are often laden with nation-
alist narratives. Thus, Michael Shapiro notes that the
[L]egitimacy of the contemporary nation-state cartography is sup-
ported in part by a series of nation-building narrative performances.
While it remains unclear if the age of nationalism is near an end,
one of its primary legacies remains well entrenched. The story of
a unified national culture, designed to legitimate the ethnic and
spatial boundary policing of the modern state, retains its force.14

Traditionally, the official nationalist narratives contain ‘fragments’

that tell us why the ‘others’ (those who do not belong to the
imagined community of the nation but are for historical reasons
citizens of the nation-state) have to be either excluded (from par-
ticipating in the public sphere) or assimilated. The case of assim-
ilation is typically illustrated by nation-states’ policies towards
indigenous people, while the former case was (and somewhere
still is) widespread in nation-states with totalitarian or authori-
tative regimes of institutionalised political power. Yet the public
sphere of a nation-state characterised by a liberal-democratic
regime of power also tolerates in various situations (even when
a multicultural policy is officially accepted by the state elites)
the propagation of nationalist narratives. The oxymoron ‘multi-
cultural nationalism’ indicates the privileged status of these nar-
ratives in the public sphere.

Following this line of reasoning, one may observe that in many

cases the imposition of official nationalist narratives does not

Michael Shapiro, “Triumphalist Geographies,” eds. Mike Featherstone and
Scott Lash, Spaces of Culture, London, Sage, 1999, p. 169.
The Pluralistic Public Sphere from an Ontological Point of View • 91

violate the formal principles of representative democracy. The

spread of the ‘myths of unity’ are carried out by means of cultural
and educational policy, and not by repressive political mecha-
nisms. However, the reverse side of imposing nationalist narratives
on multiethnic societies consists in the fact that ethnic/religious
minorities internalise a picture of their own inferiority, since they
are compelled to interpret themselves as second-order members
of the nation-state. In other words, by propagating (in a non-
violent manner) ‘unifying cultural patterns’ of common histori-
cal identity (embodied in new versions of a ‘great nationalist
narrative’), nation-state’s authorities promote a public sphere
that meets most of the formal requirements for having a political
democracy, but manipulate the ways of constructing minorities’
cultural identities as autonomous life-forms (or, communities
constituting autonomous cultural life-worlds). This case is exem-
plified by countries as diverse as some of the ‘new democracies’
in Eastern Europe and some of the post-colonial democracies in
South-Eastern Asia.

Frank Kermode makes it clear that fictional narratives degener-

ate into myths whenever one ascribes their narrative properties
to the real, “whenever they are not consciously held to be fic-
tive.”15 To replace the real with the fictive is the prime task of
‘they’s’ official narratives. The latter reproduce in semi-acade-
mic and semi-bureaucratic languages myths of unity (for instance,
the myth of kinship identity of pre-modern communities, or the
myth that the nation-state can promote human progress) for the
control of societies characterised by diversity of cultural life-
forms. In this regard, they are sources of legitimacy employed by
nation-state elites. David Brown convincingly argues that “after
the Second World War, these elites began to portray themselves

Frank Kermode, The Sense of an Ending, New York, Oxford University,
Press, 1968, p. 39.
92 • Dmitri Ginev

as the agents of equitable development, so that the image of the

nation was reconstructed as the social justice community.”16
In addition, the post-war state elites were successful in imagin-
ing narratives about the shift of the role of the state from the
guarantor of order and unity to the engineer of progress and
development. This is a typical case of a reconstruction of estab-
lished narratives under new historical circumstances. What is
achieved by it is the increase of the mobililising power of the
invented nationhood.

To reiterate, the spread of official nationalist narratives illustrates

the post-ideological politicisation of the authoritative centre of
‘they’s’ public sphere. I agree with William Connolly that the
task of social theory is to suggest ways of pluralising that cen-
tre. In so doing, however, one is not obliged to commit to the
principle of dialogic neutrality. In attacking that principle, Con-
nolly formulates the task to forge an “ethos of political engage-
ment between multiple orientations, in which many participants
come to terms affirmatively with the contestability of the moral
faiths and identities they prize the most and in which many then
embody the appreciation in the way they articulate, debate and
decide fundamental issues of public life.”17

Brown, “Why is the Nation-State so Vulnerable to Ethnic Nationalism?”
p. 2.
William Connolly, “Rethinking the Ethos of Pluralisation,” Philosophy and
Social Criticism, no. 24, 1998, p. 94. With respect to the problematics of the mul-
ticultural public sphere, the principle of dialogic neutrality is under attack for
several reasons. Those who advocate this principle, not only for pragmatic but
also for theoretical reasons, face serious troubles in working out a coherent
social ontology and conceptual models of cultural diversity. In fact, the only
way to achieve such a theoretical coherence requires one to admit that the pub-
lic sphere of a multicultural society is (what Nancy Fraser calls) “a space of
zero degree culture,” that is, a space “so utterly bereft of any specific ethos as
to accommodate with perfect neutrality and equal ease interventions expres-
sive of any and every cultural ethos.” Nancy Fraser, “Rethinking the Public
Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy,” ed.
The Pluralistic Public Sphere from an Ontological Point of View • 93

The dissolution of the public sphere’s authoritative centre is a

dimension of the process of the explosion of particularisms and
growing challenge to the models of cultural universalism and
globalisation. It is also a part of what Chantal Mouffe analyses
under the heading “The Return of the Political”: the revival of
manifold ethnic, religious and nationalist conflicts and the emer-
gence of new antagonisms that put into question the universal-
isation of liberal democracy as a (post)political culture. At the
same time, the rebirth of the political is not only entangled with
new power relations, struggles and antagonisms, it also provides
the chance of a ‘multicultural solidarity’ that gradually replaces
the nationalist (and other authoritative) narratives imposing inau-
thentic identities. Roughly speaking, a general feature of this
kind of solidarity is the transition from nation-states societies,
with ethnic/racial/national/linguistic/religious minorities striving
for a self-isolation in their cultural life-worlds, to pluralistic soci-
eties in which culturally distinct communities get their autonomy

C. Calhoun, Habermas and the Public Sphere, Cambridge, Mass. & London,
England, The MIT Press, 1992, p. 120.
It is this denial to attribute cultural specificity to the public sphere of a mul-
ticultural society, which provokes accusations of an inability to take into account
the cultural background of political processes in pluralistic societies. Some crit-
ics convincingly argue that by professing dialogic neutrality one avoids hav-
ing to face the real problems of the multicultural public dialogue. Thus, with
regard to Ackerman’s model of a pluralistic public sphere Seyla Benhabib
makes the case that the “liberal principle of dialogic neutrality, while it expresses
one of the main principles of the modern legal system, is too restrictive and
frozen in application to the dynamics of power struggles in actual political
processes.” Seyla Benhabib, “Models of Public Space: Hannah Arendt, the
Liberal Tradition, and Jürgen Habermas,” in ed. C. Calhoun, Habermas and the
Public Sphere. Cambridge, Mass., & London, The MIT Press, 1992.
On a hermeneutic corollary to this critical argument, there is little room in
the theory, guided by the principle of dialogic neutrality, for coping with the
whole scope of public debates in a way that would unfold the logic of strug-
gles of oppressed groups and communities in multicultural societies. To over-
come this shortcoming, a conceptual framework that goes beyond the mere
search for ‘liberal conversational constraints’ is demanded.
94 • Dmitri Ginev

through interpretative transgression of normative codes estab-

lished in the ‘official’ public sphere. I will try to argue that this
transgression implies a constitution of a medium of intercultural
dialogue. The dynamic identities constructed in this dialogue
take place in a public sphere in which collaborations and contesta-
tions (as part of an ongoing intercultural dialogue) occur. An
appropriate example is the way in which the African-American
Muslim community creates a variety of ‘dialogic identities’: first,
with respect to the whole community of African-Americans; sec-
ond, in its relationships with non-American Muslim communi-
ties and organisations; and third, in dealing with the problems
of living in the majority white Christian culture. Each of these
narratives contains a specific rhetorical strategy of drawing a
demarcation line between ‘we’ and the ‘other’, and mechanisms
of memorising and historicising, which shape a community’s

The dialogic (and dynamic) identities prevent not only the impo-
sition of ‘they’s’ narratives, but also the self-isolation and the
drawing of firm cultural boundaries. As a rule, a narrative gen-
erated within a self-isolated cultural life-world leads to the degra-
dation of community to a sort of sect guided by (what Mary
Douglas calls) a ‘witchcraft cosmology’: the idea of the bad outside
and good inside, and the refusal to have contact with the ‘other’,
since this may weaken the protection from various kinds of sub-

Gregory Starrett makes the observation that the ‘we’ of the African/
American/Muslim community is “labile and does not necessarily presume or
privilege Islamic Africa as an intermediary. For Muslim Americans, like the
followers of W. D. Muhammad, the investment in broader identities pays a
higher dividend, insofar as it can move beyond a Africannesss and connect
with wider global currents . . . and Islamic histories alternative to both America-
centred and Afrocentric identities.” Gregory Starrett, “Muslim Identities and
the Great Chain of Buying,” eds. D. F. Eickelman and J. W. Anderson, New
Media in the Muslim World, Bloomington and Indianapolis, Indiana University
Press, 1999, p. 72.
The Pluralistic Public Sphere from an Ontological Point of View • 95

versive influence. The dialogic identities rule out gradually both

the policy of a manipulative control and witchcraft cosmologies.
To what extent, however, is this claim not a quasi-political dec-
laration, but a consequence from the hermeneutico-ontological
analysis of the public sphere?

3. The Hegemony of the Dialogue

In the preceding section, I used on various occasions the expres-

sion ‘narrative reconstruction’. Roughly speaking, it refers to a
strategy of overcoming an identity crisis. For instance, the iden-
tity crisis of a nation-state (as a political, economic and cultural
unit produced by the spread of commerce and industry) is
resolved through reconstructing a ‘great nationalist narrative’
that connects territory, history, cultural symbolism, and national
sentiments.19 In fact, the conception about the way of overcom-
ing an identity crisis through a ‘narrative reconstruction’ of a
tradition stems neither from hermeneutic phenomenology, nor
from the social sciences, but from discussions in the philosophy
of science. Its author is Alasdair MacIntyre. According to him,
an epistemological crisis (in the historical development of science)
is resolved either by a reconstruction of an existing narrative or
by a construction of a new narrative that enables the agents to
understand the cognitive dynamics of their enterprise. By resolv-
ing such a crisis, one gains ‘narrative resources’ for (re)defining
the cognitive identity of a scientific discipline, domain, or research
program. For instance, the rise of special relativity marks not
only a conceptual revolution in theoretical mechanics, but also
a radical change in the epistemological criteria of experimental
verification, theoretical coherence, and potential refutability of a

See in particular, Gertjan Dijkink, National Identity and Geopolitical Visions:
Maps of Pride and Pain, London, Routledge, 1996.
96 • Dmitri Ginev

theory—criteria, which play a crucial role in defining a discipline’s

cognitive identity.20 (The epistemological transformation implied
by special relativity resolved a crisis provoked by an incom-
patibility between Maxwell’s field equations and Newton’s first
postulate.) The rise of special relativity enables one to evaluate
the preceding development of theoretical mechanics by a new
set of epistemological standards and criteria. Thus, the his-
torical narrative of theoretical mechanics was rewritten (recon-
structed). Thereby, MacIntyre formulates a criterion for autonomy
(and epistemological recognition) of the cognitive forms (research
programs, theories, paradigms of investigation) in the develop-
ment of science. The present section will be devoted to the fol-
lowing question: Is it possible to work out a similar criterion for
the autonomy of cultural life-forms in a pluralistic public sphere?

To begin with, a narrative reconstruction that would preserve

the authentic existence of a cultural life-form is that one that pro-
motes a dialogic identity based on the ‘situated transcendence’
of the life-form in the public sphere. The collective Dasein look-
ing for a dialogic identity appeals to the ‘others’ in order to get
recognition of the specificity (the ‘irreducible otherness’) of its
life-form. Yet, this recognition can be attained only under con-
dition that its champions, on their part, acknowledge and respect
the irreducible ‘otherness’ of the ‘others’. Following the hermeneu-
tico-ontological formulation of the notion of narrative, one can
raise the claim that the ‘otherness’ is ‘inscribed’ in the life-form’s
ontological narrative. To reconstruct such a narrative amounts
to ‘making available’ authentic existential possibilities that reside
in the hermeneutic fore-structure of the respective mode of being-
in-the-world. The collective Dasein of a cultural life-form is ‘sit-
uated in this hermeneutic fore-structure, but in order to reconstruct

See Alasdair MacIntyre, “Epistemological Crisis, Dramatic Narrative, and
the Philosophy of Science,” The Monist, no. 60, 1977.
The Pluralistic Public Sphere from an Ontological Point of View • 97

the latter (and to make available new authentic possibilities), the

collective Dasein has to transcend the current horizon of projects
and possibilities. In so doing, it reveals a ‘new possible future’
of its existence and ‘rewrites’ at the same time the history of its
tradition. The only way of achieving the transcendence of the
current horizon is through a dialogue with the ‘others’ whose
‘otherness’ remains always hidden from the perspective of Dasein’s
hermeneutic fore-structure. Thus, getting dialogic identity by
means of narrative reconstruction is a kind of ‘situated tran-
scendence’. This is why the dialogic identity (in a pluralistic pub-
lic sphere) can be conceived as a specification of Gadamer’s
‘fusion of horizons’. In this case, one may speak of an interplay
of ontological narratives based on the situated transcendence of
cultural life-forms in a pluralistic public sphere.

Yet, by reaching this conclusion, one faces a traditional objection

against the idea of the fusion of horizons. More generally, it is
an objection against the cultural ‘universality of hermeneutics’
(and its ontological model of pluralistic public spheres). In a
manner quite appropriate for the present discussion, the objec-
tion was raised by Marina Vitkin. In analysing the idea of the
fusion of horizons, she argues that Gadamer misconstrues the
challenge multicultural understanding and recognition present
to hermeneutic philosophy. According to her, communicative
interaction in a multicultural society is impossible without vio-
lence to the ‘others’, and hence “fusion, synthesis and integra-
tion are euphemisms for, and so inadvertent invitations to, yoking
‘others’ by force into a frame of reference akin to them.”21 In
addition, Vitkin holds that Gadamer’s hermeneutics is unable
to respond to the challenge of communicative incommensurability
of cultural life-forms. In my view, this critique wrongly applies

Marina Vitkin, “The ‘Fusion of Horizons’ on Knowledge and Alterity (Is
Inter-Traditional Understanding Attainable through Situated Transcendence?”
Philosophy and Social Criticism, no. 21, 1995, p. 58.
98 • Dmitri Ginev

epistemological and logical-semantic arguments in a hermeneutic

context of reasoning. (Although Vitkin’s conclusions differ essen-
tially from Davidson’s conception of ‘radical interpretation’, the
structure of dialogue is illuminated in both cases from a logical-
semantic point of view.) These arguments are essential for advo-
cating the position of cognitive relativism, but they are irrelevant
to Gadamer’s hermeneutic context where from the outset every
sort of relativism is discarded through emphasising the radical
historical finitude of the interpreter and the primordial open-
ness of the horizon (or, the hermeneutic fore-structure) of every
cultural mode of being-in-the-world. Since each particular hori-
zon of cultural existence invites its completion by means of a
dialogic interaction with the ‘others’ in their authentic horizons,
there is no isolated and closed in-itself cultural life-form. By con-
trast, every life-form opens itself by ‘hermeneutic necessity’ to
be interpreted. Yet, this view does not imply that the intercul-
tural dialogue should lead to a global and universal horizon of
cultural experience (or a horizon of ultimate consensus).

On my reading, to reiterate in a slightly modified form the the-

sis formulated above, the fusion of horizons (in which under-
standing and dialogue coincide) inaugurates an interplay of
ontological narratives that rather promotes the pluralisation of
life-forms and life-worlds. Indeed, Gadamer’s main concern is
with the ‘effective history’ of a given cultural tradition, whereby
he pays attention predominantly to mutual openness of the hori-
zonal boundaries between historical epochs within the devel-
opment of one and the same cultural life-form. There is nothing,
however, in Gadamer’s conception itself that forces one to restrict
the fusion of horizons only to the dialogue between interpreter
and the ‘texts’ of interpreter’s own cultural tradition. The mutual
openness of the horizons taking place in a dialogue ‘follows’
from the finitude of every cultural life-form, that is, the fact that
it is situated in its hermeneutic fore-structure. The finite (because
of its situatedness) but never-ending (because of its hermeneutic
The Pluralistic Public Sphere from an Ontological Point of View • 99

openness and potentiality for a dialogue) construction of a life-

form’s identity makes the fusion of culturally different horizons
as unavoidable as the fusion of horizons within the historical
dynamics of one and the same tradition. In both cases, the herme-
neutic distance informed by the finite hermeneutic fore-structures
brings into being the need of dialogic understanding and inter-
pretation. The finitude of every cultural life-form implies a basic
incompleteness whose situational and contextual completion in
the dialogic interaction is a never ending process. In this regard,
the hermeneutic distance is not a phenomenon that has to be over-
come (in order to conquer the ‘others’) but a condition of the
interplay of ontological narratives in the pluralist public sphere.
This interplay is (in contrast to the particular hermeneutic fore-
structures) infinite in its capacity to reveal new authentic existential
possibilities. To sum up, the approach of hermeneutic philoso-
phy to the fore-structures of dialogue is not called into question
once a plurality of traditions and cultural life-forms is faced.

It is not despite the historical finitude and hermeneutic distance,

but because of them, that a communicative interaction in the
multicultural public space can take place. In opposing Vitkin’s
view that there is in-eliminable violence involved in the inter-
cultural dialogue, one should stress that the multicultural public
sphere plays the role of a hermeneutic medium of ontological
narratives involved in a constant interplay that prevents any vio-
lence to the ‘others’. To this public sphere corresponds a civil
society that is the totality of communities’ cultural life-forms
(and their life-worlds). The emphasis in this claim is placed
upon the notion of totality. In recent literature, the dialogic to-
tality of cultural life-forms is described as a ‘transculturality’.
Wolfgang Welsch makes it clear that this concept is not to be
reduced to the concepts of ‘interculturality’ and ‘multiculturality’.22

See Wolfgang Welsch, “Transkulturalitaet—Lebensformen nach der Aufloe-
sung der Kulturen,” Information Philosophie, no. 2, 1992.
100 • Dmitri Ginev

‘Transculturality’ refers to the aspects of hybridisation of cul-

tural life-forms. One of them is the formation of the public sphere
of a pluralist civil society. From the viewpoint of hermeneutic
phenomenology, ‘transculturality’ is the totality constituted by
the interplay of ontological narratives that leads to a growing
complexity of the public sphere. ‘Transculturality’ is a charac-
teristic of the increasing potentiality for a dialogue. But this dia-
logue does not entail a cultural unification of the public sphere.
The interplay of narratives (through which the cultural life-forms
construct their identities) rules out not only meta-narratives but
the projection of a universal horizon of communication also. This
is why the ‘transcultural dialogue’ guided by the ‘ethos of plu-
ralisation’ is an antidote to globalisation.

As a consequence of ignoring the phenomenon of ‘situated tran-

scendence’, the notion of ‘transcultural dialogue’ has begun to
gain currency in recent years, against the tendency (especially
in disciplines like cultural anthropology and cultural history) to
conceive of cultural life-worlds as isolated ‘wholes’ of codes of
face-to-face communication, customs of everyday life, routine
practices that support an existing informal social order, and
shared practical beliefs and attitudes. The thesis (imported from
the philosophy of science) of the incommensurability of cultural
life-worlds is in line with this tendency. As a rule, the formula-
tion of the thesis is related to some kind of social constructivism.
On the latter, each cultural life-world is distinguished by spe-
cific modes of social construction of symbolic artefacts. Since
there are no ‘neutral’ (independent of a hermeneutic fore-struc-
ture of being-in-a-cultural-life-world) discursive practices, there
is nothing in cultural experience that can guarantee the same-
ness of the life-forms across the horizonal boundaries of the
cultural life-worlds. If this line of thinking were correct, then a
multicultural society would be no more than an ‘ensemble’ of
particular cultural life-worlds. Each ethnic/religious community
The Pluralistic Public Sphere from an Ontological Point of View • 101

would be closed in its own life-world. The impetus to under-

stand the ‘others’ would be a futile and meaningless endeavour.

This picture, however, is wrong. Indeed, each community is sit-

uated in its own life-world in a sense that it is committed to the
finite horizon (hermeneutic fore-structure) of this world. Yet, this
commitment implies the interpretative openness of the cultural
life-form. Its hermeneutic fore-structure is open ‘to be completed’.
The never-ending completion is at the same time the process of
narrative reconstruction by means of which the cultural life-form
constructs its dynamic identity. (Gadamer speaks in this regard
of a ‘fore-structure of completion’.) Thus, one reaches again the
point at which the figure of the situated transcendence comes to
the fore. Being situated in its cultural life-world, each ethnic/reli-
gious community (within a multicultural pubic sphere) is open
to transcending this situatedness in the dialogue with the ‘others’.
Since every cultural life-form is predicated on a situated tran-
scendence, a multicultural civil society is not an ‘ensemble’ of
cultural life-worlds incommensurable with each ‘other’, but a
totality in which each is open to the other.

The hermeneutic model of multicultural dialogue opposes not

only that form of cultural relativism which is related to the denial
of the intercultural fusion of horizons, but also the anti-relativist
view that life-world’s rationality is located in the structure of
communication itself. On this view, the tenets of the democratic
process are to be formulated through a reconstruction of the uni-
versal presuppositions of communicative action. Since these pre-
suppositions are normative conditions for Verstaendigung, the
kernel of the view (integrated in various critical theories) is a
normative doctrine of how to reach consensus based upon the
norms of life-world’s communicative rationality. In reaching
this consensus, one erects at the same time a democratic dam
against the colonialisation of the life-world by state apparatus
102 • Dmitri Ginev

and economy. Thus, the communicative view of life-world’s ratio-

nality rests on the tacit assumption that there is in social life a
level of ‘ultimate consensus’.

However, given the social dynamics of multicultural societies

this consensualist dogma is to be rejected. To be sure, Habermas
speaks of a ‘communicative force of production’, referring to the
‘exchange of arguments and negotiations’ as a medium for a
rational formation of opinion and will.23 However, such an ex-
change cannot constitute a medium for a dialogue of cultural
traditions in a multicultural society. The solidarity and ‘dialogic
hegemony’ in the pluralistic public sphere do not need a Haber-
masian ‘exchange of arguments’. They are rooted rather in a
mutual sensibility to the ‘others’ narratives and ‘plots’ and to
the new existential possibilities promoting narrative reconstruc-
tions of dynamic identities.

In other words, the dialogic interplay of the traditions in a mul-

ticultural civil society does not aim at an ultimate consensus. It
rather creates a hermeneutic medium of interplay of ontological
narratives without ruling out the dissensus concerning basic
ideals, values, goals, and orientations. The solidarity attained
within this medium is ‘solidarity despite the insurmountable dis-
sensus’. In multicultural societies, there are always gaps that
must be bridged. But it is these never vanishing gaps that con-
tribute to increasing ethnic/religious communities’ hermeneutic
sensibility, which is the ultimate source of multicultural solidarity.
The medium of dialogical interaction in the pluralist public sphere
creates a kind of ‘unity within an increasing pluralisation’. It seems
to me that a notion originally introduced by Antonio Gramsci
can help in illuminating this kind of unity. I have in mind the

See Jürgen Habermas, “Towards a Communication Concept of Rational
Collective Will-Formation,” Ratio Juris, no. 2, 1989.
The Pluralistic Public Sphere from an Ontological Point of View • 103

notion of ‘hegemony’.24 It is neither a concept that can be used

interchangeably with ideological domination, manipulation or
indoctrination, nor is it a totalitarian concept. Hegemony refers
to the processualist order of the public sphere in a pluralist soci-
ety. Hegemony is not an order imposed by ‘they’s’ anonymous
voice. It is rather the self-created order of civil society’s plural-
ist public sphere. In the case of multicultural civil society, hege-
mony denotes the dominance of authentic existential possibilities
revealed by the interplay of ontological narratives. It is this hege-
mony that can destroy any attempt of the ‘they’ to impose a new
meta-narrative in the public sphere.

On this kind of solidarity and ‘dialogic hegemony’ is based also

the model of tolerance suggested by the view of the multicul-
tural public sphere. A constitutive dimension of this tolerance is
captured nicely by William Connolly: “You practice tolerance
when you exercise forbearance to established constituencies
diverging from your faith or identity.”25 The insistence on ‘soli-
darity despite the insurmountable dissensus’ implies the idea of
a hermeneutic co-understanding without consensualist utopia.
There is no single source of co-understanding and dialogic inter-
action around which the moral systems of social behaviour of
the particular ethnic/religious traditions rotate. Consequently,
there is no political meta-discourse that lies behind the dialogic
interplay of traditions. To practice tolerance in a multicultural
civil society means not to search for a universal framework of
Verstaendigung, but to enjoy existential possibilities revealed by
the dialogue without consensualist dogma.

See: ed. Chantal Mouffe, “Hegemony and Ideology in Gramsci,” Gramsci
and Marxist Theory, London, Verso, 1979.
Connolly, “Rethinking the Ethos of Pluralisation,” p. 95.
Pauline Johnson

Irreconcilable Differences? Habermas and


For a long time Habermas’ social philosophy and contemporary

feminism evolved in mutual indifference. When feminists did
occasionally turn their attention in his direction, the judgement
was usually negative and sometimes even scathing. In the last
decade this stand off has changed significantly with many now
well-known figures like Nancy Fraser and Seyla Benhabib artic-
ulating their concerns in the language of critical theory and
engaging various aspects of the Habermasian oeuvre. On his own
side, Habermas has responded to this mixed reception by going
to some pains in his recent work to establish the relevance of his
project to feminist concerns.1 The following paper reviews the
extent to which main formulations in his last major work, Between
Facts and Norms, makes ground against feminist objections to the
Habermasian project. It also considers the sources of an on-going
alienation between some interpretations of feminist motivations
and the terms of Habermas’ hopes for democratic Enlightenment.

The feminist critique has not presented a united standpoint.

Critics of the early works are principally concerned that Habermas’

* This article is based on an earlier essay entitled “Distorted Communication:

Feminism’s dispute with Habermas” that first appeared in Philosophy and Social
Criticism, vol. 27, no. 1, January, 2001, pp. 39–62, and has been rewritten for
this volume.
Jürgen Habermas, Between Facts and Norms: Contributions to a Discourse
Theory of Law and Democracy, trans. by William Rehg, Cambridge, Mass, The
MIT Press, 1996.
Irreconcilable Differences? Habermas and Feminism • 105

attempt to reconstruct the immanently critical potentials of cul-

tural modernisation concedes too much. This enterprise remains,
they argue, too tolerant of repressive gender relations. Joan Landes
contests the apparent dependence of the critical perspective out-
lined in The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere on a lib-
eral separation of the private and the public spheres.2 Nancy
Fraser’s influential essay, titled “What’s Critical About Critical
Theory?” targets the gender blindness, which, she feels, clings
to the description of emancipatory modernising potentials offered
in The Theory of Communicative Action.3 I suggest that the for-
mulations that mainly trouble these feminist critics give way in
Between Facts and Norms to a new focus. In particular, the medi-
ated relation between the goals of private and public autonomy
described in the later work underlines the extent of Habermas’
break with liberal categories that had seemed to sanction tradi-
tional gender relations. From this theoretical reconstruction of
modern democracies’ self-critical potentials, contemporary fem-
inism can glean some useful clarifications of the broader signif-
icance and objective conditions of its own struggles.

Distorted communications are, however, only part of the story

of feminism’s long-running dispute with Habermas. Feminism
is a complex ideology whose critical energies have drawn upon
Romantic as well as Enlightenment convictions. Some feminist
critiques of Habermas’ efforts to reconstruct the emancipatory
potentials of democratic Enlightenment articulate goals and com-
mitments that remain unrecognised by the terms of his theory.
The second part of the paper argues that we need to recognise
the irreducibility of Romantic and Enlightenment motivations

Joan B. Landes, “The Public and the Private Sphere: A Feminist Reconsidera-
tion,” Feminists Read Habermas, ed. Johanna Meehan, London and New York,
Routledge, 1995, pp. 91–117.
Nancy Fraser, “What’s Critical About Critical Theory?” Feminists Read
Habermas, pp. 21–57.
106 • Pauline Johnson

within the complexity of contemporary feminist politics. On the

one hand, a feminist interest in achieving recognition for the dif-
ference of the feminine draws upon, and tries to reinterpret,
democratic procedures in its determination to establish the legit-
imacy of its claims. I argue that an attempt to make sense of
these particular investments in terms borrowed from Romantic
categories produces incoherent results. On the other hand, we
run the risk of alienating an important source of the movement’s
critical energies if we reduce the diversity of feminist hopes to
an interpretation of the unrealised potentials of democratic
Enlightenment. Quite different objectives can inspire a quest for
the recognition of feminine difference. An expressive interest in
experimentation with novel descriptions of a chosen feminine
difference has also been a significant inspiration for contemporary
feminist politics. Habermas, as well as his feminist critics, need
to recognise both the distinctiveness and the mutual dependency
of these two sources of feminism’s critical energies.

Reconstructing the Public Sphere

Joan Landes has played a leading role in formulating the terms

of a feminist critique of early Habermas. She argues that The
Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere offered an idealised
description of the bourgeois public sphere that was too uncritical
of the gender ideologies that sustained it. The central claim raised
in Women and the Public Sphere is that “the bourgeois public sphere
is essentially, not just contingently, masculinist, and that this
characteristic serves to determine both its self-representation and
its subsequent ‘structural transformation’.”4 Habermas supposed
that the exclusion of women and others from the public sphere

Joan Landes, Women and the Public Sphere in the Age of the French Revolution,
Ithaca & London, Cornell University Press, 1988, p. 7.
Irreconcilable Differences? Habermas and Feminism • 107

that took shape in eighteenth century Europe did not funda-

mentally affect the significance of its idealising self-description
as an open arena of unconstrained discussion and debate. Yet
the masculinity, together with the class positions, of the partic-
ipants was, Landes argues, by no means incidental to the mode
of interaction upheld by the bourgeois public sphere. Its argu-
mentative style of dialogue depended upon the presumed self-
sufficient autonomy of all participants.

Nancy Fraser argues that the essential correctness of this account

of the biases that infect the tools of Habermas’ critical theory is
not diminished by the efforts of The Theory of Communicative
Action to distance itself from the terms of the earlier theory.
Written in the early 1980s, this two-volume work tried to theo-
rise the self-critical potentials of modernity in terms less re-
liant on the idealising self-representations of a bourgeois public
sphere. Yet, Fraser, we will see, thinks that gender blind preju-
dices still cling to the systematic reconstruction of the potentials
of modernisation processes offered by the later work. Both these
feminist appraisals target the deeply problematic character of
Habermas’ early formulations of modernity’s potentials for self-
critique. Yet, I want to suggest that significant developments
occur in the formulations of Between Facts and Norms that sug-
gest opportunities for new sympathies between Habermas and

Landes concedes that some aspects of Habermas’ early account

of the critical potentials of the bourgeois public sphere offer help-
ful insights into the emancipatory significance of this modern
development. Habermas, she writes:
Enriched our understanding of modern society by highlighting
autonomous regions of political association not centred on the state
or the family and not reducible to the principles of labour . . . He
opened up new lines of research into the continuing transformation
108 • Pauline Johnson

of the category of the public sphere in the West and revealed why
the category itself now must be reconstituted.5

Fraser also thinks that The Structural Transformation of the Public

Sphere represents a ‘conceptual resource’ that is ‘indispensable
to critical social theory and democratic political practice’.6 For
her, Habermas’ account of the public sphere offers a theoretical
reconstruction of the emancipatory potentials of the principle of
publicity. Only if the ideal of the public sphere is recognised as
the basis of democratic legitimacy can we hope to avoid the hor-
rors of a state power whose proclaimed representative relation
to the ‘people’s will’ becomes institutionalised in an authoritar-
ian statist, instead of a participatory-democratic, form. Also
Habermas’ idea of ‘the public sphere’ allows feminism to think
its way out of a major conceptual confusion that has seen the
conflation of all kinds of public power with repressive inter-
vention. Habermas clarifies the democratising credentials of a
public power based on the efforts of private individuals to achieve
recognition for the generalised significance of their concrete needs
and points of view. To these credits it can be added that femi-
nism might be expected to share Habermas’ interest in describ-
ing a mode of interaction through which strangers can try to
overcome systemic misunderstandings and debilitating isolation.
Its sympathies might well go with his efforts to reconstruct pro-
cedures through which we deliberatively construct an inter-
pretation of common purposes and can seek recognition of the
rational legitimacy of diverse needs and identity claims.

Yet for both of these influential feminist critics, it is not merely

Habermas’ specific formulations that block his theory’s ability

Ibid., p. 6.
Nancy Fraser, “Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique
of Actually Existing Democracy,” Habermas and the Public Sphere, ed. Craig
Calhoun, Mass., The MIT Press, 1992, pp. 109–143, 110–142.
Irreconcilable Differences? Habermas and Feminism • 109

to enter into a helpful relationship with the ‘wishes and struggles’

of contemporary feminism. As Fraser sees it, the sticking point
is that because “Habermas stops short of developing a new, post-
bourgeois model of the public sphere” he never “problematises
some dubious assumptions that underlie the bourgeois model.”7
Exclusionary assumptions are, for Landes, built into the proce-
dural norms of the public sphere because only certain kinds of
subjects armed with particular kinds of motivations, capacities
and histories are equipped and willing to channel their interest
in public recognition through such discursive constraints. She
Habermas’ formulation fails to acknowledge the way the symbolic
contents of the bourgeois public sphere worked to rule out all
interests that could not or would not lay claim to their own uni-
versality. If only what is universal may wear the mantle of truth
and reason, then it is precisely everything else that is reduced to
the sphere of what Habermas calls “mere opinions cultural assump-
tions, normative attitudes, collective prejudices and values.”8

Can Habermas’ theory respond convincingly to this critique? I

think we have to make do with a yes/no response. We can’t rea-
sonably hope to avoid an unequivocal answer because feminism
itself has an ambiguous account of what it wants from the recog-
nition of feminine difference. I suggest that some of feminism’s
investments in the struggle for recognition can be clarified by a
reformulation of Habermas’ account of the critical potentials of
the public sphere. Other investments in achieving recognition of
concrete feminine difference remain deeply suspicious of all
demands for a rationalising description of its significance.

The first task is, then, to evaluate the assertion that Habermas’
theory has in-built assumptions that prevent it from responding

Ibid., p. 111.
Joan Landes, Women and the Public Sphere in the Age of the French Revolution,
p. 45.
110 • Pauline Johnson

adequately to any interest that contemporary feminism invests

in the struggle for recognition. This strong position, implied by
Landes, is, as mentioned, adopted by Fraser also in her critique
of the so-called ‘gender blindness’ of key categories elaborated
in The Theory of Communicative Action. My focus is on the par-
ticular formulation Fraser gives to this shared critique. It is, after
all, only in the communicative action theory that concepts
employed in The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere
receive a systematic formulation. If we want to interrogate the
biases supposed essential to the critical purposes of the theory it
is most useful to concentrate on the feminist critique of the writ-
ings from this middle period.

Liberating Potentials of Rationalising Processes

The Theory of Communicative Action anchors its systematic diag-

nosis of modernisation processes in a challenge to Weber’s one-
sided account of rationalising tendencies. Weber, Habermas claims,
does offer a description of the liberating potentials of modern
rationalising processes. He shows that the separation of the value
spheres and the increasing autonomy of high culture provide
the conditions that allow individuals to thematise and question
inherited aspects of their lifeworlds and to engage in the commu-
nicative analysis and reconstruction of them.9 Yet, for Habermas,
Weber’s preoccupation with processes of societal rationalisation
driven by the expansion of instrumental or functional reason
meant that he failed to recognise and elaborate the potentials of
this other emancipatory side of rationalisation tendencies.

Habermas’ own double-sided account of rationality potentials,

stresses that the imperatives of societal rationalisation, entrenched

Jürgen Habermas, The Theory of Communicative Action, Vol. 1, trans. Thomas
McCarthy, Boston, MA, Beacon Press, 1994, p. 144.
Irreconcilable Differences? Habermas and Feminism • 111

in the steering logics of bureaucratic capitalism, penetrate into

all domains of social interaction. The lifeworld, which stores the
interpretive achievements of past generations in the form of dif-
fuse background assumptions, finds itself invaded by alien strate-
gic imperatives that explode the capacity of tradition to provide
sanction for its contents. Yet to Habermas, the ‘rationalisation of
the lifeworld’ does not merely describe the collapse of traditional
forms of legitimation under the ruthless advance of an instru-
mentalising reason. This concept also identifies the process
whereby the released contents of the lifeworld seek new forms
of legitimation by attaching themselves to generalising descrip-
tions through which they might seek intersubjective validation.10
Habermas’ theory invests, then, in the critical, democratising
potentials of communicative or interactive rationality. Legitimacy
can be won by processes of argumentation which finally appeal,
not to the authority of tradition or power, but to a set of con-
sensually elaborated principles.

Where previous formulations of the critical impulses supporting

the concept of reification had focused on social labour as the real
bearer of historical evolution, Habermas’ critique of reification
gives explicit priority to the emancipatory potentials of com-
municative interaction. Reification occurs when an expanded
instrumental reason seeks to colonise the specific rationality of
communicatively achieved agreements. It refers to the colonising
function achieved when strategic imperatives of an instrumen-
talising reason stifle the rationality claims of evolving commu-
nicatively achieved modes of integration.11

On this account, rationalisation assumes an emancipatory role

as the claims of unreflected upon tradition are pushed back to

See ibid., p. 124.
Ibid., p. 355.
112 • Pauline Johnson

be replaced by new rational solidarities. This reconstruction has

some seeming attractions for contemporary feminism. Landes
and Fraser are mindful of the theory’s appealing aspects. They
endorse its efforts to pin emancipatory hopes, not on the aspi-
rations of an historical agent, but on an analysis of those processes
through which modern subjects try to free themselves from the
repressive grip of an unchosen way of life. These potentials
notwithstanding, Fraser is persuaded that the dualistic sociol-
ogy of The Theory of Communicative Action is too forgiving of tra-
ditional gender arrangements. She objects principally to the
apparent implications of Habermas’ colonisation thesis that seems
to carry the weight of his critical intentions. De-colonisation, she
supposes, suggests a programme aimed at the resurrection of
conventional communicative modes of interaction against the
alienating impact of system imperatives. This perspective does
not, Fraser maintains, finally overcome an appeal to essentialis-
ing descriptions of a presumed normative subjectivity and she
finds that his formulation of the emancipatory power of reason
continues to be marked by a gendered ideology.12 Despite his
critique of the exaggerated emphasis Weber gives to societal
rationalisation, Habermas repeats the mistake. The result is a
theory that apparently describes reification as a matter of the
intrusive rationalisation by system imperatives into a tradition-
ally structured lifeworld. Habermas, Fraser claims, ultimately
remains blind to the ‘gender subtext’ that informs this concep-
tion of a society divided into certain domains of appropriate
modes of integration.

Marie Fleming endorses this assessment of the sexist ideologies

that prop up the colonisation thesis.13 As she sees it, Habermas’
description of the ‘pathological’ consequences of the penetration

Nancy Fraser, “What’s Critical About Critical Theory,” pp. 3–4.
Marie Fleming, Emancipation and Illusion: Rationality and Gender in Habermas’
Theory of Modernity, Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997,
Irreconcilable Differences? Habermas and Feminism • 113

of strategic imperatives into the lifeworld’s internal dynamics,

is “conservative insofar as it works on an argument for resistance
to fundamental change at the level of family structures.”14 She
agrees with Fraser in supposing that the critical thrust of the
colonisation thesis rests on an idealised portrait of domestic life
in which social integration is supposed to be secured, not via
instrumentalising imperatives, but through processes of com-
munication. On this viewpoint, the colonisation thesis, which
describes the ‘desiccation of communicative contexts’ and the
‘depletion of non-renewable cultural resources’ by the intrusion
of system imperatives into the lifeworld, reproduces a repressive
gender ideology. As Fleming sees it, Habermas’ account of the
pathological impact of the juridification of once informally reg-
ulated lifeworld structures of the family has failed to recognise
the extent to which bourgeois domesticity is organised around
relations of domination and subordination. A programme aimed
at the decolonisation of the lifeworld would, accordingly, do noth-
ing to advance the interests of modern women and would actu-
ally claw back that range of significant achievements in social
justice ushered in by welfare state policies.

This line of criticism seems to fly in the face of the double-sided

significance that Habermas attributes to modernity’s rationality
potentials. Rather than investing in the taken for granted character
of the lifeworld, Habermas places his hopes in the emancipatory
potentials of rationalisation processes which open the lifeworld
up, submitting its traditional contents to critiques, communicative
dialogue and negotiation. It appears that the feminist critique

and “Women and the ‘Public Use of Reason’” in Feminists Read Habermas, pp.
Marie Fleming, “Women and ‘The Public Use of Reason,’” p. 118. Fleming
supposes that the idea of colonisation, with its range of conservative implica-
tions, remains central to Habermas’ critical perspective. See Emancipation and
Illusion, pp. 95–97.
114 • Pauline Johnson

has overlooked the two-dimensional character of this account of

the paradox of rationalisation that is supposed to give “rise to
both the reification of the lifeworld and the utopia perspective.”15
Yet the feminists are right in supposing that Habermas does not,
at this stage, push the critique of the oppressive character of the
lifeworld far enough. Despite his own intentions, the weight of
Habermas’ interest in the paradox of rationalisation falls on one
side of the process, on the description of the colonising effects
of system intrusions into the lifeworld.

Habermas has, in recent years admitted as much. Written in May

1984, “The Preface” to the Third German Edition suggests that
the account of the modernising process developed in The Theory
of Communicative Action was driven by a problematic, which
skewed the results of the analysis.16 At this stage his overriding
concern had been to thematise the phenomenon of reification in
terms that made no appeal to a conception of the frustrated
potentials of the subject of history. This purpose meant that the
exposition of the concept of rationalisation emphasised its cre-
dentials as a theory of reification. He later conceded that “this
way of approaching systematically induced disturbances in com-
municatively rationalised lifeworlds was one-sided: it failed to
utilise the whole range of potential contributions of the theory.”
In particular, this formulation failed to insist that the question
of whether the communicatively rationalised lifeworld might
impose limits on the intrusions of strategic imperatives or, in
turn, be thwarted and suppressed by its competitor, must be
recognised as “an empirical question which cannot beforehand
be decided on the analytical level in favour of the systems.”17

Habermas, Theory of Communicative Action, Vol. 2, p. 329.
Jürgen Habermas, Torben Hviid Nielsen “Jürgen Habermas: Morality,
Society and Ethics—an Interview with Torben Hviid Nielsen,” Acta Sociologica
vol. 33, 1990, 95–115, 106.
Ibid., p. 106.
Irreconcilable Differences? Habermas and Feminism • 115

Habermas admits to less than is required by the feminist critique.

His self-criticism recognises no limits to the capacity of the the-
ory itself. As he sees it, the theory can be elaborated to produce
a complex and comprehensive account of the range of system/
lifeworld relations at play in any specific conjuncture. By con-
trast, the feminist critics consider the ‘blindness’ of the theory
with respect to the specific circumstances of modern women an
index to the prejudicial terms in which Habermas has under-
pinned his critical perspective on reifying modernisation processes.
It was up to reformulations offered in Between Facts and Norms
to establish that his account of modernity’s rationalising poten-
tials is able to break from any dependence of the theory on the
legitimation of traditional gender relations.

Reformulating the Ideal of Critical Publicity

Between Facts and Norms does not depart from the core project
of Habermas’ theory of modernity. Here, as with The Theory of
Communicative Action, he interprets Enlightenment hopes not in
terms of the self-asserting ambitions of particular subjects but in
the light of potentials for democratising interactions aimed at
building rational solidarities. The form in which this general
undertaking is now elaborated and, in particular, the terms in
which the procedural norms of democratic interaction are now
conceived, clarifies the sympathetic relevance of Habermas’ pro-
ject to some of feminism’s own vital concerns.

In the recent work, Habermas reconstructs the normative frame-

work of contemporary legal constitutionalism and political institu-
tions in an effort to demonstrate that democratising ideals are not
merely utopian hopes but exist as a powerful normative demand
within existing institutional structures. He asserts that the nor-
mative claims raised by major politico-legal institutions in mod-
ern democracies have not been well understood. He particularly
116 • Pauline Johnson

wants to contest the one-sidedness of both liberal and republi-

can interpretations. Between Facts and Norms does not limit itself
to a reworking the idealised self-interpretations of modern democ-
racies. It also wants to identify the social arrangements and the
political structures of modern democracies that can be engineered
into realising these normative claims. Contemporary feminism
can use aspects of both of these undertakings to help it clarify
some of its own ambitions and achievements.

In Between Facts and Norms Habermas insists that there is a “con-

ceptual or internal relation, and not simply a historically con-
tingent association, between the rule of law and democracy” that
has not been properly understood.18 The rule of law claims legit-
imacy through its appeal to the principle of democratic decision-
making in which enfranchised citizens “as equally entitled authors
of the legal order, must ultimately decide on the criteria of equal
treatment.”19 The liberals and the republicans fail to grasp the
centrality and the significance of democratic procedures to the
self-interpreted legitimacy of the law and the constitutional state.
The liberal interpretation gives priority of the idea of private
rights while the republican prioritises public or common right.
Against the liberals, Habermas insists that the legitimacy of the
rule of law does not finally rest on the conviction that the pri-
vate individual might appeal to the protective authority of the
law to sustain his/her private interests, nor does it rely on the
republican idea that the law articulates a consensually under-
stood idea of the ‘common good’. The legitimacy of the rule of
law depends, rather, on the institutionalisation of those proce-
dural norms through which the private individual is recognised,
not just as a bearer of fundamental rights, but as a potential con-
tributor to discursive processes through which the idea of the

Habermas, Between Facts and Norms, p. 449.
Ibid., p. 415.
Irreconcilable Differences? Habermas and Feminism • 117

common good gains legal sanction. In the final analysis, the legit-
imacy of the law rests on the conviction of the interdependence of
the principles of private and public right.

To Landes and to Fraser, the early Habermas’ reconstruction of

the idea of the public sphere appears to collude with the exclu-
sionary logic of a liberal framework which sees the bearers of
systematically frustrated needs for personal autonomy barred
from an, only nominally, public discourse. The one-sided stress
given to the system-lifeworld relationship in The Theory of
Communicative Action appeared to confirm the inability of the
Habermasian paradigm to overcome the ‘bracketing’ of the con-
tributions of private individuality that informs a liberal construc-
tion of the public sphere. The later Habermas emphasises the
dialectical character of the relation between private and public
autonomy that underpins legitimate political and legal author-
ity. On this reconstruction, the shared understandings upheld
by citizens in the formal public sphere recognise themselves as
originating in the will forming processes engaged in by private

Jean Cohen has pointed out that Habermas’ own early preju-
dices about the politics of the new social movements helped to
confirm the misgivings of many feminists. 20 The Theory of
Communicative Action had construed the particularistic interests,
which were, Habermas supposed, the motivational force behind
the new social movements, as a failure in the modernising pro-
cess; as a defensive strategy aimed at the preservation of spe-
cific identities, norms and alternative values.21 Between Facts and
Norms indicates a new openness in Habermas’ assessment of the

Jean Cohen, “Critical Social Theory and the Feminist Critiques: The Debate
with Jürgen Habermas,” in Feminists Read Habermas, pp. 57–91, p. 57.
Habermas, The Theory of Communicative Action, Vol. 2, p. 396.
118 • Pauline Johnson

contribution of concrete struggles for self-realisation to the renewal

of the idea of a critical public sphere.22 At this stage he moves
his account of the processes of cultural rationalisation from the
periphery to the centre of his analysis of modernisation processes.
With this development, the theory is better able to demonstrate
its potentials as a clarification of processes through which some
of feminism’s critical energies are built and as a reconstruction
of the objective conditions under which these can become effec-
tive as demands.

Habermas locates the impetus for the formation of new, reflected

upon interpretations of damaged lifeworlds in the experience of
the ‘violated interests’ and ‘threatened identities’ that emerge
from the disruption to action contexts by system imperatives.23
As private individuals seek to elaborate descriptions of needs
that can no longer be interpreted within the horizons of con-
ventional frameworks, they enter into a new deliberative rela-
tionship to the remnants of their damaged lifeworlds. In this
sense the disrupted lifeworld appears as the arena from which
an informal public sphere is recruited. The participants in the
communicative actions of a lifeworld begin, namely, to consti-
tute themselves as a public once they seek to elaborate shared
descriptions in terms of which the generalisable significance of
their problems and claims can be interpreted.24

In the first instance, the claim for personal autonomy appears

as a particular concrete demand for the realisation of the newly
re-interpreted potentials of a determinate lifeworld. Initially expe-
riencing itself in particularistic terms, as a call for the elaboration
of new modes of interaction capable of supporting the hitherto

Habermas, Between Facts and Norms, pp. 424–426.
Ibid., pp. 405–409.
Ibid., p. 397.
Irreconcilable Differences? Habermas and Feminism • 119

suppressed possibilities of a lifeworld, the demand for self-real-

ising private autonomy must seek to elaborate its claims in ever
more generalised and formalistic terms as the wider implications
of its ambitions become better understood. What is involved here
is no shift away from the recognition of the particularity of the
assertion of the need for personal autonomy, but only an acknowl-
edgement of the increasing degree of abstraction or generality
in the kinds of arguments that must be mounted in defence of
its claims. The threshold separating the private sphere from
the public “is not marked by a fixed set of issues or relation-
ships but by different conditions of communication.”25 The pub-
lic sphere, which initially “draws its impulses from the private
handling of social problems,”26 appears, then, as that mode of
communication in which strangers seek to deliberatively elabo-
rate generalised or shared understandings through which their
differences can be mutually understood. The threshold between
the private and the public spheres is entirely pervious, consist-
ing only in the degree of abstraction which might be required
of arguments used in the elaboration of particular need claims.
Accordingly, the new social movements and those ‘spontaneously
emergent associations and organisations’ of civil society attuned
to how ‘societal problems resonate in the private life spheres’
can serve, not merely as a receptacle for various identity claims,
but as a conduit through which such aspirations are channelled
to the ‘sounding board’ of the public sphere.27

Civil associations underpin an informal public sphere. They are

the ‘social sites’ in which the generalised significance of points
of view and particular claims are teased out.28 However, in order

Ibid., p. 402.
Ibid., p. 403.
Ibid., pp. 402–3.
Ibid., p. 397.
120 • Pauline Johnson

to shape these problem descriptions into the terms of effective

demands, the social movements must be able move them into
the sphere of influence of the decision-making centre of a formal
public sphere. Under normal circumstances, operations in the
core arena of the political system proceed according to routines
without reference to community-wide processes of collective
opinion formation. Yet, Habermas insists that the settled rou-
tines of bureaucratised decision-making in accordance with the
dictates of established power constellations are open to contes-
tation. The welfare compromises between capitalism and democ-
racy achieved in the post war era are, in part, testimony to the
capacity of an institutionalised public sphere to respond to
demands emanating from the periphery. The politico-legal sys-
tems of liberal democracies show themselves vulnerable to the
‘empirical criticisms’ of marginalised populations for whom lib-
eral descriptions of the legitimacy of the constitutional state has
revealed itself as mere ideology. These criticisms came to under-
stand themselves as more than a mere demand for the distrib-
ution of basic rights aimed at the extension of the conditions of
a self-directing private autonomy.29 The feminist movement has,
for example, been a significant critic of the self-contradictory
character of welfare policies that have used paternalistic means
to attempt to shore up the ‘failed’ self-making autonomy of pri-
vate individuals.30 In this regard, Habermas’ commitment to the
democratisation of the welfare state, which insists that this self
reforming capacity of liberal democracies be guided by opinion
and will forming processes that start in an informal public sphere,
offers feminism a perspective on the wider significance of its
own struggles.

Jürgen Habermas, “Struggles For Recognition in the Democratic Con-
stitutional State,” Multiculturalism, ed. Amy Gutman, Princeton, Princeton Uni-
versity Press, pp. 107–148, p. 116.
Habermas, Between Facts and Norms, pp. 420–427.
Irreconcilable Differences? Habermas and Feminism • 121

In this later work, Habermas neither appeals to an idealised

description of the early bourgeois public sphere, nor to a sys-
tematic reconstruction of tendencies supposed essential to mod-
ernisation processes, to anchor his value commitments. The theory
now ties its critical values to an interpretation of normative
demands upheld by key institutional structures within liberal
democracies. This new framework enables the theory to enter
into a productive dialogue with certain accounts of the motiva-
tions and aims of feminist struggles. In particular, this social
movement can use aspects of Habermas’ description of the for-
mation of an informal public sphere and his account of its inter-
section with the decision-making centre of a formal public to a
clarify some of feminism’s own objectives and achievements. By
the same token, however, Between Facts and Norms appears to set
a collision course with commitments central to other descrip-
tions of a feminist project. For feminists who invest the concrete
particularity of feminine difference with a value that cannot tol-
erate demands for a generalising self-description, there can be
no reconciliation with Habermas’ perspective on the rationalis-
ing trajectories essential to the galvanising of critical capabilities.

The Ambiguities of Feminism

Some feminist critics have recognised that Habermas’ dialecti-

cal interpretation of the relation between private and public
autonomy can help to clarify the wider significance and some
of the objective conditions of feminist achievements. Jodi Dean
has used a Habermasian model of the relationship between for-
mal and informal dimensions of the public sphere to talk about
aspects of the significance of feminist struggles. She points out
that feminist politics has exploited the capacity of a formal pub-
lic sphere to re-describe an interpretation of shared commitments
in response to new demands emanating from informal publics
sited at the periphery of political power. She points out that
122 • Pauline Johnson

feminist struggles have revealed “the biases within the fiction

of the subject of the law. If claiming their status as legal subjects
meant that women had to deny their femininity-that is their bio-
logical potential for motherhood or their position in the home
as child rearer—then the legal subject itself was not universal,
but particular-particularly masculine.”31 She goes on to point out
that this critical pressure from organised feminism has seen an
activation of the self-reforming capacities of some of the politi-
cal and legal structures in liberal democracies.32 Yet, feminism is
no united singular and hegemonic ideology and no generalised
acknowledgement of the sympathetic relevance of Habermas’
description of the potentials of a liberal democratic system for
self-reform to a feminist ‘project’ can be expected. Some inter-
pretations of feminist motivations repudiate any conception of
the quest for recognition that seeks a reinterpretation of shared,
generalisable, commitments.

Iris Young, for example, supposes that the irreducible distinc-

tiveness of feminine difference demands a form of recognition
that owes nothing to the consensus-building aspirations that sus-
tain the modern public sphere. Using terminology developed by
Luce Irigaray, Young insists that a respectful attitude of wonder
towards irreducible difference is the ethic appropriate to the quest
for recognition in a radically democratic polity. She writes, “A
respectful stance of wonder toward other people is one of open-
ness across, awaiting new insight about their needs, interests,
perceptions or values. Wonder also means being able to see one’s
own position, assumptions, perspectives as strange because it

Jodi Dean, Solidarity of Strangers: Feminism After Identity Politics, Berkley,
University of California Press, 1996, p. 4.
Ibid., p. 105. Dean makes the point that, “Questioning is already contained
within the notion of an abstract norm, which must be interpreted for it’s mean-
ing to be realised.” See also Joan B. Landes “The Public and the Private Sphere:
A Feminist Reconsideration,” Feminists Read Habermas, pp. 91–117, p. 100.
Irreconcilable Differences? Habermas and Feminism • 123

has been put in relation to others.”33 Young supposes that the

idea of respect which, remains sensitive to and ‘awaits insights
into’ the other’s needs, avoids the ‘dangerous’ character of the
concept of wonder which might otherwise be interpreted as a
“kind of distant awe before the other that turns their transcen-
dence into an inhuman inscrutability.”34

Feminism needs to be rather cautious about the way in which

it uses this interpretation of the need for autonomy. It is not a
formulation that is able to support an interest in claiming legit-
imacy for an interpretation of feminine difference and is, accord-
ingly, unsuitable as the basis of a demand for justice. What it is
missing in this regard is precisely the interest in a consensual
elaboration of shared perspectives that underpins an attempt to
establish the rational legitimacy of need and identity claims.
Wonder at the expression of unique difference might be an appro-
priate response to a subject wrapped in a sense of his/her own
self-sufficiency. It cannot, however, even when tempered with
necessary respect, offer the basis from which self-interpreted dif-
ference can enter into discussion about the justifiability of its
unmet needs. In refusing to build any generalising grounds upon
which difference can argue for itself, the ethic of wonder denies
to the different the capacity to ‘talk back’, to propose corrections
to and re-interpretations of, ascribed identity and needs. To
respond to the ‘attentive and interested questioning’ of the respect-
ful other, the object of wonder must, it seems, forfeit any claims
to the irreducibility of his/her difference and seek to establish
an interactive rationality. Young’s intentions notwithstanding,

Iris Marion Young, “Asymmetrical Reciprocity: On Moral Respect, Wonder
and Enlarged Thought,” Constellations, vol. 3, no. 3, January 1997, pp. 340–364.
See also her “Communication and the Other: Beyond Deliberative Democracy,”
in Democracy and Difference, ed. Seyla Benhabib, New Jersey, Princeton University
Press, 1996, pp. 120–137.
Iris Marion Young, “Asymmetrical Reciprocity,” pp. 341–342.
124 • Pauline Johnson

the role that she gives to the ethic of wonder appears to be con-
sistent only with an attitude of ‘awe’ before the supposed self-
sufficiency of the irreducibly different.

To save the coherence of the ethics of wonder as a description

of a feminist quest for recognition, Young needs to offer a more
precise account of the specificity of the feminist motivations it
gives voice to. Feminism does, of course, have a strong tradition
of ‘separatist’ politics that has offered important space for the
trial of novel descriptions of chosen feminine difference. The
limits of this kind of strategy has also been admitted by an ex-
perienced movement that has learnt that its commitment to
achieving justice demands that it enter its new need descrip-
tions into an interpretive relation with shared commitments
upheld in a formal public sphere. Different descriptions of how
the struggle for recognition might be waged are suggestive of
distinct, but compatible, gaols harboured by feminist politics
and I suggest that any search for a paradigm able to interpret
the significance of these struggles needs to admit this full range
of motivations.

The attempt to describe the quest for recognition in terms that

repudiates all demands for generalisability cannot, I have argued,
support an interest in the legitimation of need claims. Introducing
the demand for respect for a unique self that cannot give an
account of how it wants the significance of its novelty to be
understood cannot help in those instances where the different
seeks to raise a claim about the justice of unmet need claims. An
interest in recognition that refuses to compromise with general-
ising descriptions is unable to offer a coherent formulation of
an interest in the rational justifiability of claims made upon
public resources. Yet, so too there can be no formulations of
these latter objectives that can satisfactorily assimilate Roman-
tic longings for recognition of the irreducibility of feminine
Irreconcilable Differences? Habermas and Feminism • 125

Seyla Benhabib has tried to reformulate Habermas’ procedural-

ist interpretation of public reason in terms that makes it respon-
sive to an investment in the singularity of concrete difference.
She insists that a supplementation of the categories of the the-
ory is necessary for it to respond to an interest in the unique-
ness of feminine difference.35 Habermas’ proceduralism needs to
describe the process of building shared understandings in terms
that recognise the other as a concrete, not merely abstract, other.
The standpoint of the concrete other requires us to view each
and every rational being as an individual with a concrete his-
tory, identity and affective-emotional constitution.36 Only on the
basis of an insight into the situatedness of the particular other
are we able to determine in what sense they are different from
ourselves and, hence, what might be required to adequately
apply our commitment to the extension of equal rights and duties
to all.

It seems, however, that Benhabib’s proposed adjustments to

Habermas’ proceduralism do no more than what might be
achieved by exploiting existing capacities of his theory. This is
a point that has been made by Maeve Cooke.37 Cooke claims that
Habermas’ proceduralism does not need to be supplemented by
an extra principle. She points out that the requirements of reci-
procity and symmetry, embedded in Habermas’ own recon-
struction of discursive rationality, already implies a commitment
to the recognition of the legitimacy of difference. On this account,
the norms of reciprocity and symmetry between discursive part-
ners requires that participants be:

Seyla Benhabib, “Communicative Ethics and the Claims of Gender, Com-
munity and Postmodernism,” and “The Generalised and Concrete Other,” in
Situating the Self, New York, Routledge, 1992.
Benhabib, “The Generalised and the Concrete Other,” p. 158.
Maeve Cooke, Language and Reason: A Study in Habermas’ Pragmatics,
Cambridge, MA, The MIT Press, 1994.
126 • Pauline Johnson

Willing (in principle) to consider the arguments of everyone no mat-

ter how poorly they are articulated, and to attach (in principle)
equal weight to all these arguments . . . In addition, since argu-
mentative willingness to reach understanding requires a genuine
openness not just to new arguments but also to the needs, desires,
anxieties, and insecurities-whether expressed or unexpressed- of
the other participants: at times this will require a special sensitiv-
ity and a willingness to look beyond explicit verbal expressions
and deficiencies in argumentative skills.38

Habermas defends discourse ethics in similar terms. He argues

that sensitivity to diverse points of view and to the multifarious
claims of private individuals is built into the ‘richness’ of the
theory’s communicative and intersubjective presuppositions.39

The misgivings of some feminists are not easily quieted by

accounts of the sensitivities of Habermas’ theory. Maria Pia Lara
suggests that the narrowness of his interpretation of the ratio-
nalising procedures followed by the struggle for recognition is
unable to accommodate other strategies that women have used
in their efforts to get acknowledgement of a chosen difference.
As she sees it, Habermas describes the consensus-building inter-
actions of the public sphere in terms that remain blind to the
importance of the expressive/communicative practices through
which feminist understandings have been achieved. In particu-
lar, she suggests that Habermas neglects the role of emancipa-
tory narratives in mediating “between particular group identities
and universalistic moral claims, providing new frameworks that
allow those who are not members of the group to expand their

Ibid., p. 160.
Habermas, “Lawrence Kohlberg and Neo-Aristoteleanism,” Justification
and Application, trans. Ciaran P. Cronin, Cambridge, MA, The MIT Press, 1993.
pp. 113–133, pp. 130–131.
Irreconcilable Differences? Habermas and Feminism • 127

own self-conceptions and their definitions of civil society.”40 On

this reading, Habermas’ account of the entwinement of the prin-
ciples of private and public autonomy appears as something of
a blunt instrument. Lara draws upon Hannah Arendt’s notion
of ‘storytelling’ in her efforts to identify the ways in which “the
normative and the aesthetic contents of narratives allow the mul-
tiple projects of women’s identity to express themselves posi-
tively in the public sphere.”41

Lara has, on the one hand, no dispute with Habermas’ proce-

duralist defence of the idea of the public sphere. Yet, as she sees
it, he does not give a sufficiently flexible description of the
processes through which private individuals attempt to com-
municate a self-interpretation of their identities and needs to an
audience of strangers. Her thesis is that it is through the aes-
thetic, particularly through literary self-presentation, that mod-
ern women first learnt to set their lifeworlds ‘communicatively
aflow’. Women “used works of art because presenting them-
selves within the realm of aesthetics allowed them to express
themselves without the impediments of liberal theories that
excluded women from the public sphere.”42 Using the narrative,
women have, Lara points out, by-passed the necessity of appeal-
ing to narrow conceptions of justice in their efforts to make their
needs and experiences understood. By such imaginative self-
clarifications women have succeeded in slowly pushing back the
limited terms in which claims for private autonomy might be
publicly recognised.

It is not clear, however, that this interest in the power of the aes-
thetic in elaborating descriptions of the specificity of a feminine

Maria Pia Lara, Moral Textures: Feminist Narratives in the Public Sphere,
Cambridge, Polity Press, 1998.
Ibid., p. 3.
Ibid., p. 7.
128 • Pauline Johnson

self-consciousness can offer itself as a critique of Habermas’ the-

ory. Habermas has consistently acknowledged an important role
for aesthetic self-exploration as a mechanism through which new
contents, born of struggles to achieve personal autonomy, enter
communicative interactions in the political public sphere. As he
sees it, problems voiced in the public sphere first become visi-
ble when they are mirrored in personal life experience.43 To the
extent that these experiences find their concise expression in the
languages of religion, art, and literature, the ‘literary’ public
sphere in the broader sense, which is specialised for the articu-
lation of values and world disclosure, is intertwined with the
political public sphere.44

It seems that Habermas’ theory does allow room for a descrip-

tion of the communicative power of the aesthetic in helping to
give shape to new identity descriptions that will finally be able
to participate in those generalising self-representations that are
required if a legitimate claim on public resources is to be made.
Yet he could be accused of underestimating the role of the aes-
thetic in building attitudes and aptitudes important to the con-
struction of democratic interactions in modern pluralistic societies.
Some feminist writers have argued that underplaying the role
of the aesthetic communication is a deficiency common to con-
ventional democratic theory. Martha Nussbaum stresses that the
communicative resources of the aesthetic play an indispensable
role in the formation of attitudes and capacities necessary to the
reproduction of the democratic relation. She emphasises that the
literary work permits a ready transgression of the boundaries of
the worlds of others. “The greatest contribution literature has to

Habermas, Between Facts and Norms, see chapter 8 “Civil Society and the
Political Public Sphere” especially p. 351, p. 354, p. 359, pp. 360–361.
In his “Further Reflections on the Public Sphere,” Habermas emphasises
the key place that The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere gave to lit-
erary publics. Habermas and the Public Sphere, ed. Craig Calhoun, pp. 421–461,
p. 423.
Irreconcilable Differences? Habermas and Feminism • 129

make to the life of the citizen is,” she writes, “its ability to wrest
from our frequently obtuse and blunted imaginations an acknowl-
edgement of those who are other than ourselves, both in con-
crete circumstances and even in thought and emotion.”45

There is, however, a stronger argument to be made here. The

problem, it could be said, is not simply that Habermas under-
plays the significance of the contributions that an aesthetic/
expressive practice make towards the enrichment of democratic
commitments. The point is also that his framework insists on
trying to assimilate the significance of an expressive investment
in communication to its contribution to democratic interests. The
distinctiveness and complementary character of these two kinds
of motivations within feminist politics needs, I suggest, to be
acknowledged to avoid a debilitating alienation within it.

Concluding Remarks

A Romantic intolerance at rationalising demands is evident in

some leading interpretations of feminist agendas. Irigaray is
amongst the most influential of those to have searched for a lan-
guage adequate to the uniqueness of a feminine experience and
that can evade the supposedly distorting generalisations required
by the categories of theory. The success of her efforts has not
been generally conceded. Judith Butler, for example, argues that
the terms in which the French feminists have attempted to sub-
vert imposed gender descriptions betrays an essentialising tem-
per that finally confirms the cultural impositions that it tries to
resist.46 The details of this debate within feminist theory are not,

Martha Nussbaum, Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defence of Reform in
Liberal Education, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 1997, pp. 111–112.
Judith Butler, Gender Trouble, New York, Routledge, 1990. See also essays
in Revaluing French Feminism, ed. Nancy Fraser and Sandra Lee Bartky, Blooming-
dale & Indianapolis, Indiana University Press, 1992.
130 • Pauline Johnson

for our purposes, material its importance lies, rather, in its symp-
tomatic expression of a major theme within contemporary fem-
inist politics. The passionate refusal of all ascriptive generalisations
of self-interpreted feminine difference that is shared by Irigaray
and Butler and their common enthusiasm for the elaboration of
novel identity descriptions is indicative of some major motiva-
tional influences at work in recent feminisms.

Contemporary feminism draws upon Romantic anti-rationalising

impulses and, has an allegiance also to the project of a demo-
cratic Enlightenment. The failure to recognise the ambiguous
sources of its diverse interests and the attempt to homogenise
distinct feminist motivations has tended to promote an undis-
criminating assessment of the usefulness of Habermas’ attempt
to theorise the possibilities for a reconstruction of the modern
public sphere. Under certain descriptions of its goals, feminism
can discover important sympathies with Habermas’ interest in
renovating the emancipatory potentials of democratic Enlighten-
ment. It can, in particular, use his recent account of the dialec-
tical relations between private and public autonomy to reflect
upon its opportunities for activating and radicalising the self-
reforming potentials of liberal democratic social and political
institutions. For Habermas, it is essential that the project of democ-
ratising the welfare state (which appears as the best chance for
self-reforming liberal-democracies) insists on the responsiveness
of decision-making political centres to need interpretations that
are referred on from the informal publics at the margins. This is
a model of the potentials of a modern public sphere that makes
room for the importance of novel identity descriptions. Yet, while
he is happy to appropriate the results of these critical energies
insistent on the irreplaceable uniqueness of the particular and
intolerant of all generalising self-description, Habermas insists
that such energies must finally prove willing to subordinate their
spirited self-preoccupation to the wider cause of an invigorated
Irreconcilable Differences? Habermas and Feminism • 131

project of democratic Enlightenment. Habermas does not want

to acknowledge a separate framework for Romantic interpreta-
tions of the struggle for recognition. The risk here for feminism
is that an attempt to squeeze diverse feminist commitments into
the mould of democratic Enlightenment objectives will cause a
debilitating alienation of those feminist motivations thirsty to
experiment with novel descriptions of what it is to be a woman
in the contemporary world.

The rationalising commitments of democratic Enlightenment and

the irrationalist focus of Romantic love for the particular sug-
gest separate utopias that are not finally realisable in isolation.
As mentioned, Habermas acknowledges that the self-reforming
potentials of modern democracies are activated by demands
placed on them by the need descriptions generated by transfor-
mative longings. A Romantic disdain for a future that seeks con-
tinuity with inherited commitments produces a set of need and
identity claims that can be used to sharpen the critical focus of
a radical reformism that aims at a discriminating re-working of
chosen legacies. Equally, longings for the recognition an unre-
peatable individuality rely upon the reproduction of shared com-
mitments that extend recognition to the legitimacy of these
self-explorations. Dialogue that acknowledges a mutual reliance
between these two separate motivations is, I suggest, necessary
to their equal protection and promotion.

The general point has a specific relevance to the future of fem-

inist politics. Many have commented on the waning enthusiasm
in recent years for the trialing of new directions in feminist the-
ory. This apparent tiredness can be interpreted as the outcome
of a number of intersecting factors and sociological influences.
At least part of the problem might, however, be attributed to a
debilitating cul-de-sac reached by various strands within recent
feminist theory. Unmediated by dialogue with a practical reform
132 • Pauline Johnson

agenda Romantic preoccupations with the beauty of the partic-

ular can lead to kind of claustrophobic fundamentalism that
finally bores itself with its own protective, rigid conventional-
ity. A constant insistence on the need to find the most secure
way of defending the integrity of irreducible feminine difference
threatens to produce the very constrained identity descriptions
that are loathed by Romantic inclinations. Equally, if it cuts itself
off from contributions from the hopes of transformative feminist
longings, a reformist feminist politics can only lose an energis-
ing interest in its own radical possibilities.
Wayne Hudson

Postreligious Aesthetics and Critical Theory

That which deserved the name of glory in the sphere of meta-

physics has been lost to view. Being no longer possesses any
radiance, and beauty, banished from the transcendental
dimension, is confined to a purely worldly reality. . . .



In this essay I raise the problem of how Critical Theory can deal
with the antimundane. To do so, in part one, I discuss the theo-
logical aesthetics of the Swiss German theologian Hans Urs von
Balthasar1 and suggest that, despite its confessional and hieratic
features, it can be read as an entry into a postreligious aesthetics.
In part two, I consider what such a postreligious aesthetics might
involve. In part three I explore the challenges that such aesthet-
ics poses for the work of Jürgen Habermas and draw some pos-
sible implications for future forms of Critical Theory. Specifically,

Balthasar’s writings are little known in social-philosophical circles, partly
because theology has ceased to be important for contemporary discussions
generally. Apart from the objection that theology often seems to be no more
than in-service talk for religious professionals, modern theologians have failed
to make major intellectual contributions to the understanding of aesthetics or
the arts, despite various attempts by leading figures, whether Calvinist
(Rookmaaker), Reformed (Karl Barth), Catholic (Hans Küng) or neo-Orthodox
(Paul Tillich) to do so. Of course, there are partial exceptions, such as the work
of Vladimir Lossky; there are also neglected veins of gold in the less well-
known works of Fritz Buri and Heinrich Ott. On the whole however, epigo-
nal assimilations of Heidegger, Jaspers, Adorno, and now Habermas, do not
amount to substantive contributions.
134 • Wayne Hudson

I argue that Habermas cannot deal with the sensuous experiences

of the antimundane that human beings actually have and that
future forms of Critical Theory will need to do so. Whether they
can do so using any form of Kantian philosophy is open to serious
doubt. But if so, then Critical Theory in the future may need to
explore alternatives to Kantianism, including several alternatives
raised by contributors to this volume. Of course, no one is so
naive as to imagine that rigorous theoricity is always compatible
with attempting to engage with the qualitative depths of human
experience. This, however, is a crucial issue which neither Haber-
mas nor any other Critical Theorist has thus far resolved.

In recent years the theological aesthetics of the Swiss German

theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905–1988) has attracted
international attention as one of the major achievements of twen-
tieth century theological thought.2 Balthasar attacks modern

For recent work on Balthasar, see F. Bowie and O. Davies, Hans von Balthasar:
An Anthology, London, SPCK, 1990; L. Gardner, D. Modd, B. Qash and
G. Ward, Balthasar at the End of Modernity, Edinburgh, T & T, 1999; R. Gawrouski,
Word and Silence. Hans Urs von Balthasar and the Spiritual Encounter Between East
and West, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996; E. T. Oakes, Pattern of Redemption:
The Theology of Hans Urs Von Balthasar, New York, Continuum, 1994; L. Roberts,
The Theological Aesthetics of Hans Urs Von Balthasar, Washington, Catholic
University of America Press, 1992; D. L. Schindler, Urs von Balthasar: His Life
and Work, San Francisco, Ignatius Press, 1991; ed. J. Riches, The Analogy of Beauty:
The Theology of Hans Urs Von Balthasar, Edinburgh, T & T Clark, 1986; Murphy,
F. A. Christ the Form of Beauty: A Study in Theology and Literature, Edinburgh,
T & T Clark, 1995. See also V. B. R. Viladesau, Theological Aesthetics: God in
Imagination, Beauty and Art, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1999; A. Nichols,
The Word Has been Abroad: A Guide Through Balthasar’s Aesthetics, Edinburgh,
T & T Clark, 1998; No Bloodless Myth: A Guide Through Balthasar’s Dramatics,
Edinburgh, T & T Clark, 2000; Say It Is Pentecost: A Guide Through Balthasar’s
Logic, Edinburgh, T & T Clark, 2001; T. O’Meara, “Of Art and Theology: Hans
Urs von Balthasar’s Systems,” Theological Studies, 42, 1981, pp. 272–276; and
L. Roberts, “A Critique of the Aesthetic Theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar,”
American Benedictine Review.
Postreligious Aesthetics and Critical Theory • 135

Western Christian theology as a decadent rationalism allied to

a fideistic and form-less supernaturalism. Instead, he develops
a theological aesthetics for which a super-form is manifested by
historical facts, not symbols or allegories.3 A theological aesthetics,
in Balthasar’s sense, is concerned with the conditions of the pos-
sibility of our seeing the appearance of the ‘form’ of the divine
‘glory’ (kabod) in nature and history.4 It is based on the claim that
the non-mundane is communicated by the senses.

Balthasar’s project is to reintegrate grace and nature, thought

and feeling, body and mind, culture and theology, within a syn-
thetic, comprehensive, theological reflection on form.5 For him
the divinity of the invisible radiates in the visibility of the world,
and the openness of every beautiful form expresses more than
what goes into the thing formed. In this sense, aesthetic form
manifests the divine ‘super-form’ and there is no need for the-
ology to gesture emptily towards a mystery that lies entirely
beyond the world.6 Instead, there is a primacy of history. In place
of the Schein of a timeless mysterion, Balthasar argues that the
antimundane is historical and manifests in material cultural pro-
ductions. There is also a turn to contingent facts. Indeed, Balthasar
writes of revelation establishing its own sensorium in the soul
and of pistis developing into gnosis by a contemplative penetration
of individual facts.

Balthasar is not a gnostic, however, in the unorthodox world-

rejecting sense. Nor is he advancing a neo-Platonist metaphysics.
On the contrary, he retains the complex social process view of

H. U. von Balthasar, Herrlichkeit, Einsiedeln, Johannes Verlag, 1961–69, I,
p. 432.
L. Roberts, The Theological Aesthetics of Hans Urs von Balthasar, Washington,
The Catholic University of America Press, 1987, p. 241.
L. Dupré, “The Glory of the Lord: Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Theological
Aesthetic,” Communio, no. 16, Fall, 1989, pp. 183 ff.
Balthasar, Herrlichkeit, IV, p. 34 and I, p. 422.
136 • Wayne Hudson

revelation characteristic of the Judaeo-Christian traditions. Con-

sistent with the ‘ontological difference’, whether as articulated
by Thomas Aquinas or by Martin Heidegger, Balthasar distin-
guishes between ‘inner-worldly beauty’ and ‘divine glory’. The
‘divine glory’ is not the glory of ‘being’.7 There is a divine mys-
tery, but it remains intrinsically concealed. Appearances of ‘the
beautiful’ point to a concealed reality, albeit to a reality that is
capable of appearing. Just as ‘mimesis’ in Greek does not mean
copying appearances, so the form of ‘the divine’ does not copy.
Instead, it manifests a mystery that remains hidden. A theolog-
ical aesthetics, in Balthasar’s sense, describes how non-mundane
perfection becomes manifest, where such perfection consists in
the correspondence between obedience and love, between self-
emptying into hiddenness and being raised up into manifestness.8

Similarly, Balthasar’s theological aesthetics is not a philosoph-

ical aesthetics. On the contrary, it is based on a real divine
emptying out in a motion downwards (kata). This means that
Balthasar’s theological aesthetics is also not an aesthetical the-
ology. Instead, it is an aesthetics, which insists in a very radical
way upon the visibility of the antimundane, a visibility that
allegedly cannot be understood in terms of the Western philo-
sophical tradition. In a magnificent restatement of Patristic
thought, Balthasar argues that human experience reveals a mys-
tery that can neither be reduced to a passive immanence nor
placed beyond the reach of the faculties in the manner of mod-
ern supernaturalist theology. But to say this is to link the intrin-
sic depth content of theology with anthropology, as secular
Western thought, despite Feuerbach’s profound and little under-
stood efforts, has persistently refused to do.9

L. Roberts, The Theological Aesthetics of Hans Urs von Balthasar, p. 53.
Balthasar, Herrlichkeit, VII, p. 261.
For a positive reading of Feuerbach’s claims, see A. Van Harvey, Feuerbach
and the Interpretation of Religion, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1995.
Postreligious Aesthetics and Critical Theory • 137

Balthasar claims that human beings, when appropriately infused,

can perceive the non-sensuous sensuously. His claim that human
beings can see the form of grace (cf. Origen’s kastastasis) is a
major rejection of the apophanticism of the Western tradition.
Significantly, he links this move with eschatology. The ‘glory of
the Lord’ can be seen, but it is an eschatological category.10 In
this way, Balthasar’s claim that the non-mundane is graspable
by human beings, but is not available as an inner-worldly reality
to them, escapes the divide, re-inscribed in a secular form by
post-Enlightenment Western cultures, between grace and nature.
In effect, Balthasar argues that we can appropriate contents that
neither simply belong to the world (as most post-Enlightenment
thinkers assume all contents must), nor transcend it such that
they are only accessible in mystical or supernatural experience
(as supernaturalist theologians have tended to argue). Accordingly,
any sense of reality as there or not there is made complex.

Balthasar also rejects any dualism between ‘human beings’ and

‘nature’. He resurrects Greek and Latin Patristics, including the
Biblical gnosis found in the writings of Clement and Origen. The
result is an aporetical ontology of the real as always involved in
social relations, such that our decisions determine the reality we
experience. Accordingly Balthasar’s theological aesthetics is com-
plemented by a ‘theological dramatics’, which studies human
responses to the Word, and by a ‘theological logic’, concerned
with how the appearance of the divine glory is understood by
the intellect and processed by the analytical operations of reason.

Balthasar also offers a perspective from which to challenge mod-

ern aesthetics based on taste or judgement. He does so by reassert-
ing the case for an aesthetics of the kalon, understood as the

Here Balthasar’s work is influenced by the Greek church Fathers, by
Ignatius of Loyola, and by the distinguished philosophical anthropologist Erich
138 • Wayne Hudson

whole, the sound, the shining. The modern term ‘the beautiful’
is unavoidable here, but it is inadequate for what is meant. An
aesthetics of transcendental beauty implies that there is an intrin-
sic link between beauty and goodness, and that everything beau-
tiful indicates, in some measure, a beauty higher than inner
worldly beauty. Balthasar implies that modern philosophy does
not possess adequate concepts with which to think the world as
it appears to us because the material realities around us have
modes or ‘characters’ that add nothing to what there is, but are
not graspable by reference to finites. This is a powerful claim
because it implies that Balthasar’s stress on ‘divine glory’ chal-
lenges neo-Kantian attempts, from Hermann Cohen to Lyotard,
to reduce ‘glory’ to a purely subjective humanist sublime, explic-
able in terms of the capacity of the faculties of the subject to
grasp or fail to grasp Ideas. According to Balthasar the radiance
of the divine ‘glory’ comes from the form, not from the subject.11
What is seen is the doxa of the form: the kalon (from kalein: to
call) has a vocative dimension.

Balthasar’s work also challenges the self-enclosed account of

human experience on which modern secular humanism is based.
For him human experience is pervaded by the non-mundane,
which cannot be registered in a merely humanist aesthetics. It
has dimensions, which regimented neo-Kantian disciplines
(Wissenschaften) have rendered speechless. Of course, attempts
to understand human experience as open to a radically Other
that conceals itself, even when it reveals itself, are hardly new.
Both Kierkegaard and later Shestov argued that the phenome-
nology of such experiences problematised traditional metaphysical
understandings of reality. There was a related radicalism in the
dialectic of the invisible and the invisible in the late philosophy
of Merleau-Ponty. Levinas and Derrida also revisited this ter-

Balthasar, Herrlichkeit, IV, p. 31.
Postreligious Aesthetics and Critical Theory • 139

rain. Balthasar‘s theological aesthetics, however, goes further

because it challenges what Hans Blumenberg calls ‘the abso-
lutism of reality’.12 What Balthasar has achieved by his theolog-
ical aesthetics is a recovery for contemporary consciousness of
the differential heterogeneity of experience. This claim, which
can be argued through in Humean terms or in more linguistic
terms,13 does not imply that the world has to be understood in
one particular ethically formative way. It is a point about level
distinctions that need to be marked, whatever ethically forma-
tive understanding of the world we adopt, if what can be said
is not to be significantly restricted.

Finally, despite its theological character, Balthasar’s corpus pro-

vides a point of entry into the project of a postreligious aes-
thetics that inherits his utopian surplus, without his confessional
interpretations.14 Although Balthasar’s aesthetics can be read as
the work of a Christian theologian, the amazing thing about
Balthasar’s theological aesthetics is that any rationalist can under-
stand it. In Ernst Bloch’s language, the utopian surplus is clear,
and we can identify the structures of experience Balthasar evokes
so brilliantly without entering deeply into the hermeneutics in
terms of which he himself attempts to interpret them. This in
itself suggests that a rehabilitation of transcendentalism may be
possible which differs from transcendentalism in its ancient Greek,
scholastic, and modern European forms. For Balthasar ‘tran-
scendental’ need not imply a-historical generality.15 Nor need

See H. Blumenberg, Work on Myth, trans. R. Wallace, Cambridge, MIT,
1985, part one, chpt. 1. For discussion and analysis of the work of Hans
Blumenberg, see W. Hudson, “After Blumenberg: Historicism and Philosophical
Anthropology,” History of the Human Sciences, vol. 6, no. 4, 1993, pp. 109–116.
P. Unger, Philosophical Relativity, Oxford, Blackwell, 1984, chaps 1 and II.
Cf. the discussion of Bloch’s doctrine of utopian surplus in W. Hudson,
The Marxist Philosophy of Ernst Bloch, London and New York, Macmillan and
St Martins, 1982, pp. 106–9, 173–183.
The literature on what Germans mean by transcendental philosophy in
140 • Wayne Hudson

‘transcendental’ refer to a reality that can be objectified inde-

pendently of the human physical organisation. Rather the point
is that the antimundane traverses some of what human beings
with species-specific characteristics experience, and it does so in
ways that create vertical, and in that sense, transcendental effects.
On this basis, it is possible to explore the possibility of a post-
religious aesthetics, which not only does not surrender the depth
content of the antimundane, but also does not save it in a con-
fessional sense.


But what would a postreligious aesthetics look like? As a technical

prospection in one of many possible versions, the possibility of
a postreligious aesthetics arises because human beings experi-
ence the antimundane as a normal feature of their embodied
subjectivity. This fact can be theorised in terms of Merleau-Ponty’s
theory of the living body. According to Merleau-Ponty the body
is the ontological basis for reason, imagination and perception.
Both art and the schemata of the imagination arise from the expe-
rience of embodiment, although the universal body scheme is
exemplified in a purality of experiences.16 Merleau-Ponty’s con-
ception of the flesh, including the experience of its intentional-
ity towards the world enacted by bodily motility, is only one
model however, and the more fundamental issue is the need to
take the actual experiences human beings have seriously, even
if this requires a form of post-rationalism.

English tends to down play the metaphysical dimension of this tradition. See
W. Leinfellner, “The Development of Transcendentalism—Kant, Schopenhauer
and Wittgenstein,” in eds. K. S. Johannssen and R. Nordenstam, Wittgenstein—
Aesthetics and Transcendental Philosophy, Vienna, Hölder-Tempsky, 1981, pp.
54–69 and, now, J. Malpas, From Kant to Davidson: Philosophy and the Idea of the
Transcendental, New York, Routledge, 2002.
For Merleau-Ponty on the body, see eds. F. Evans and L. Lawlor, Chiasms:
Merleau-Ponty’s Notion of Flesh, Albany, State Univerity of New York, 2000.
Postreligious Aesthetics and Critical Theory • 141

A postreligious aesthetics would not break with ‘religion’ in the

sense of the claim that reality includes antimundane dimensions.
However, it would move beyond ‘religion’ as a hermeneutics for
understanding the antimundane. It would do so on the grounds
that more naturalist approaches to understanding the antimun-
dane are now available. Today advanced techno-scientific cul-
tures are arguably moving out of the social processes in which
the repression of the antimundane was crucial to the success of
early industrialism, and to the moralising religion that was its
counterpart.17 In this context it is becoming increasingly possi-
ble to view religious organisations of human spirituality more
critically, without underwriting an Enlightenment hostility to the
antimundane phenomenological data to which religions witness.
At a time when religious organisational forms no longer provide
adequate responses to the problem of how human beings can
best sustain spiritual value systems and practices under condi-
tions of exceedingly fast social change, there are many reasons
to rethink the antimundane in this way, especially in the context
of possible social reforms. A postreligious aesthetics of the kind
envisaged here would explore the historically changing condi-
tions of the intelligibility of antimundane aesthetic experiences
with an eye to clarifying their potential significance for attempts
to generate alternative social organisational arrangements.

Understood in this way, a postreligious aesthetics would not be

about ‘art’ as a domain of objects in an allegedly autonomous
aesthetic sphere. It would be about grasping the effects of aes-
thetic phenomena on mortal bodies under contemporary con-
ditions, where these effects may be a source of socially useful

Cf. P. Koslowski, Die Postmoderne Kultur: Gesellschaftlich-Kulturelle Konse-
quenzen der technischen Entwicklung, Munich, Beck, 1987; and his Die religiöse
Dimension der Gesellschaft Religion und ihre Theorie, Tübingen, Mohr, 1985.
142 • Wayne Hudson

knowledges.18 These useful knowledges could include the self-

knowledges of historically changing subjects. Obviously an aes-
thetics of this sort would not be a philosophical aesthetics in
a neo-Kantian sense. Nor would it confine the phenomena
with which it deals to exotica set apart by protocols of distinc-
tion. Rather it would be a component of a morally serious and
historically sensitive naturalism.

Such a perspective sits oddly at first with dominant under-

standings of aesthetics. There are now many critiques of aes-
thetics as an independent specialised philosophical discipline
(Wissenschaft), but there is no universally accepted conception of
aesthetics.19 Attempts to base aesthetics on the philosophy of his-
tory are also largely discredited, and attempts to characterise the
specificity (Besonderheit) of ‘the aesthetic’ have floundered, at
least temporarily, on an inability to mark off the aesthetic from
the non-aesthetic within the culturally valorised productions of
contemporary Western cultures.20 Hence art is no longer neces-

Such a research program should not be confused with calls for the reen-
chantment of art or with conservative attempts to return to John Ruskin’s
watered down version of theoria.
See, for example, J. A. Passmore, “The Dreariness of Aesthetics,” (1951)
reprinted in W. Eldon, Aesthetics and Language, Oxford, Blackwell, 1984, pp.
35–55; T. Eagleton, The Ideology of the Aesthetic, Oxford, Blackwell, 1990; ed.
H. Foster, The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture, Port Townsend, Bay
Press, 1983; V. Burgin, The End of Art Theory: Criticism and Postmodernity, London,
Macmillan, 1986; G. Vattimo, “The Death or Decline of Art,” in The End of
Modernity, trans. J. R. Snyder, Cambridge, Polity, 1988, ch. 3. Compare T. Bennett’s
discussion of “Really Useless Knowledge: A Political Critique of Aesthetics,”
in Outside Literature, London, Routledge, 1991, chpt. 6, and more recently,
W. Welsch, Undoing Aesthetics, New York, Sage, 1997. On art history, see
D. Preziosi, Rethinking Art History Meditations on a Coy Science, New Haven,
Yale University Press, 1988, L. Niethammer, Has History Ended? trans. P. Camiller,
London, Verso, 1992, Hans Belting, The End of Art History, trans. C. Wood,
Chicago, Chicago University Press, 1987; and A. Danto, After the End of Art,
Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1997.
G. Lukács, Über die Besonderheit als Kategorie der Ästhetik, Darmstadt,
Luchterhand, 1967.
Postreligious Aesthetics and Critical Theory • 143

sarily expected to be beautiful, and the production of beauty is

less and less a separate type of institutionally specific social activ-
ity. Nor do post-Wittgensteinian attempts to rewrite aesthetics
from a third rather than a first person point of view offer a con-
vincing way out of the difficulties associated with general con-
ceptions of ‘the aesthetic’. On the contrary, the heterogeneity
of the matters covered by talk of ‘the aesthetic’ and ‘aesthetic
phenomena’ makes it hard to defend any approach, which
assumes a unified set of enquiries, even though nominalism also
fails to provide an adequate basis for a rational approach to aes-
thetic data.

And yet it is not that long ago that philosophical aesthetics

appeared relatively secure. Ferenc Fehér and Agnes Heller, for
example, in “The Necessity and Irreformability of Aesthetics,”
argued that aesthetics as a philosophical discipline was neces-
sary because arguments about the validity of aesthetic judge-
ment were indispensable:
Aesthetics is, consequently, irreformable, in the sense that its anti-
nomic character is untranscendable. Therefore, its ‘sources of error’
are ineliminable as well. On the other hand, it is indispensable. At
both poles (i.e. of inductive art criticism and philosophical aes-
thetics) efforts need to be made to avoid, or at least to minimise,
the inherent dangers of the respective standpoints. Deductive crit-
icism has to question the process of validation of its value judge-
ments with respect to the individuality and distinctiveness of works
of art. Similarly, inductive criticism has to question the validity of
its particular judgements with respect to their value beyond the
present moment. It is a postulate of art that the value of the art-
work and the validity of the aesthetic judgement concerning it
should be in unison.21

F. Fehér and A. Heller, “The Necessity and Irreformability of Aesthetics,”
in eds. A. Heller and F. Fehér, Reconstructing Aesthetics: Writings of the Budapest
School, Oxford, Blackwell, 1986, p. 21.
144 • Wayne Hudson

Such claims, however, are hardly self-evident, not only because

they bypass the problem of anti-aesthetic cultural production,
but also because they assume a Kantian conception of what aes-
thetics is. But such a conception is arguably inadequate to the
sensuous subject matter with which aesthetics deals. Since its
inauguration as a separate philosophical discipline by Alexander
Baumgarten (1750), aesthetics has been crucially linked with sen-
sory experience (aisthesis) considered in the context of conceptual
inquiries (Wissenschaft), but Kantian philosophy has tended to
drown out the importance of sensory experience in favour of a
formal rationalism of aesthetic judgements. A contemporary post-
religious aesthetics would seek to moderate this state of affairs.

On the other hand, contemporary critiques of aesthetics are less

than reassuring. Many contemporary critiques of aesthetics are
absurdly Eurocentric. There is much discussion of Schiller and
Kant and Derrida, but little about Japanese or Chinese or Indian
or Islamic aesthetics, even though the questions raised by such
European philosophers involve empirical claims to which non-
Western materials are pertinent.22 Even within the Western tra-
dition, one has only to pose the challenges of Plotinian aesthetics
or medieval transcendental aesthetics or Renaissance phantas-
mic aesthetics to see how narrow and historically restricted many
current critiques of aesthetics are. Contemporary critiques of aes-
thetics are also weak on references to actual natural scientific
findings and often falsely assume that human animals primarily
construct and value certain types of objects for historical and
socio-cultural reasons.23 There is also a persistent failure to study

On Renaissance theories of phantasm see I. P. Couliano, Eros and Magic
in the Renaissance, trans. M. Cook, Chicago, Chicago University Press, 1987,
chpt. 1 “Phantasms at Work.”
Among a considerable natural scientific literature, see T. Reutschler, B. Herz-
berger and D. Epstein, Beauty and the Brain: Biological Aspects of Aesthetics, Basel,
Birkhäusler, 1988, part V.
Postreligious Aesthetics and Critical Theory • 145

the effects cultural productions actually have—to analyse ‘didac-

tics’ in the Renaissance sense. Instead, nostalgia for aesthetics as
an ethos or way of life lives on in discourses that make no attempt
to study the differentiality and diffusion of ethical effects. A neo-
Kantian generality survives, even in writers who pride them-
selves on their post-Kantian commitments. This is true both of
Frankfurt School theorists, who tend to assume that ‘art’ is valu-
able per se, and of those primarily influenced by recent forms of
French philosophy.24

There is also a widespread failure to engage with the cognitive

character of aesthetic experiences. Indeed, it is often assumed that
any value found in cultural productions, aesthetic or anti-aesthetic,
is socially constructed, that such productions matter because they
excite emotions and change attitudes rather than because of any
cognitive contents that they convey, and that judgements about
such value primarily have to do with highly plastic formations
of human subjectivity rather than with attributes of actual works.25
Contemporary culturalists, in other words, accept the assump-
tions of modern subjective humanism, including the notion that
aesthetic objects are constructions of the senses of the subject,
even when they adopt explicitly anti-humanist or posthumanist
positions in certain respects.26 But culturalist approaches to aes-
thetic data of this type can be questioned on both phenomeno-
logical and natural scientific grounds.27

For comparison, see F. Schuon, “Foundations for an Integral Aesthetics,”
Studies in Comparative Religion, Summer 1976, pp. 130–35.
For the view that all value is radically contingent, see B. H. Smith,
Contingencies of Value, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1988, chpt. 3. Cf.
P. Bourdieu, Distinction, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1984, and, more
recently, “The Historical Genres of a Pure Aesthetic,” in R. Shusterman, Analytic
Aesthetics, Oxford, Blackwell, 1989.
See J. Pefanis, Heterology and the Postmodern: Bataille, Baudrillard and Lyotard,
Sydney, Allen and Unwin, 1991.
Here account needs to be taken of the phenomenological turn in recent
French philosophy and the work of Jean-Luc Marion, in particular. See
146 • Wayne Hudson

Certainly it is no longer possible to rule out on secularist grounds

the possibility of a postreligious aesthetics that questions the
anti-naturalism of subjective humanism and denies that human
experience can be adequately understood in terms of the organ-
isation of an inner-worldly subject.28 For such an aesthetics the
antimundane is basic to human experience and necessarily
involves a verticality that confronts the human subject. Such a
view does not deny that human subjectivity has irreducible
dimensions.29 Nor does it underestimate the constitutive role of
historically changing networks of institutions and practices. It
does, however, imply that a more finite and determinate view
of our own place in the world is preferable to modern subjec-
tive humanism.

Such an aesthetics may be filled out in terms of a biologically

based realism about universals. Here the work of the American
philosopher of art and aesthetics Nicholas Wolterstorff is perti-
nent. Wolterstorff argues for a projectivist aesthetics based on
the ontological limitations on the possible:
If we reject Romanticism in the arts and approach art from the
side of its social practices, and if the philosophy of art we then
develop rejects the Kantian/Hegelian dialectic and adopts instead

Dominique Janicaud et al., Phenomenology and the ‘Theological Turn’: The French
Debate, New York, Fordham University Press, 2000, and Jean-Luc Marion,
Prolegomena to Charity, New York, Fordham University Press, 2002, and The Idol
and Distance: Five Studies, New York, Fordham University Press, 2001.
The debates between Balthasar and the great Protestant theologian Karl
Barth can be usefully reread here by an approach, which interprets both of
their theological hermeneutics from a realist standpoint. See Balthasar’s impor-
tant study, Karl Barth, Darstellung und Deutung seiner Theologie, Cologne, Hegner,
1951, translated by J. Drury, The Theology of Karl Barth, New York, Holt, Rinehart
and Winston, 1971.
For an excellent collection, see the special issue of Topoi, vol. 7, no. 2, 1988:
Who Comes After the Subject? In a related spirit, see Derrida’s important essay
‘Introduction: Desistance” to P. Lacoue-Labarthe, Typography Mimesis, Philosophy,
Politics, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1989, pp. 1–42.
Postreligious Aesthetics and Critical Theory • 147

a Realist orientation, then we will see the social practices of art as

dealing not just with actuality but with possibility and impossi-
bility; and not just with particulars but with properties and actions
and kinds. The fictioneer neither makes a world nor imitates a
world, but selects from the vast realm of possibility and impos-
sibility a segment thereof, a ‘world’, for us to consider. Among
the many benefits of a Realist philosophy of art is that it offers us
a cogent and powerful way of explaining what it is to project
a world.30

He rejects subjective humanist accounts of what concepts are in

favour of the view that concepts are graspings of real states of
affairs in the world:
The Realist rejects the Kantian claim that we have no intellectual
intuitions. He holds that there are predicables and propositions
(states of affairs), and that, of many of these, we have a grasp. He
thinks of concepts—some of them, anyway—as graspings of pred-
icables. And he holds that some of the predicables that we grasp
are instantiated and are known by us to be instantiated. Reality,
though not made by us, is thus also not alien to us. Concepts are
not mental representations screening reality from us. Neither are
they modes of organisation imposed on unorganised protean stuff
. . . We are at home in the world—without having made it.31

Wolterstorff argues that human cultural strivings are strictly lim-

ited by the fact that we live in a universe with determinate reper-
toires and characters. Realism of this sort requires ontological
determinacy, in the sense of restrictions, which persist as long
as the world is organised in some and not other ways. It rejects
the current uncritical denial of all ‘generality’, and focuses instead

See N. Wolterstorff, Works and Worlds of Art, Oxford, Clarendon Press,
1980, especially part seven ‘Projected and Actual’, and ‘Art in Action’, Grand
Rapids, Eerdmans, 1988.
N. Wolterstorff, “After Analysis and Romanticism,” in ed. R. Shusterman,
Analytic Aesthetics, Oxford, Blackwell, 1989, pp. 55–6.
148 • Wayne Hudson

on relating the surplus given with aesthetic phenomena to pos-

sibilities with a basis in the world.


I now discuss the implications of such a prospection of a post-

religious aesthetics for the work of Jürgen Habermas and for the
future of Critical Theory. Habermas’ greatness as a social philoso-
pher is well established and his work now helps to raise the level
of rational debate about political and social questions in many
countries. Nonetheless, Habermas cannot deal with a postreligious
aesthetics of the type discussed here because his version of Critical
Theory, for all its complex and highly contestable methodolog-
ical claims, cannot deal effectively either with sensuousness as
human beings experience it or with antimundane dimensions of
the world mediated by the senses. This suggests that the con-
ception of rationality on which Habermas’ entire program is
based is flawed in so far as it rests upon a formal rationality,
which cannot grasp the rationality immanent in phenomena.32
In a contemporary context the attempt to separate sensuousness
from rationality seems misconceived, as both Hegel and Heidegger
understood.33 Once rationality is divorced from sensuousness,
however, subjectivity becomes a mystery for which clear data
cannot be found. Yet without a proper account of subjectivity as
mediating rationality it is difficult to establish grounds for crit-
icism that go to the qualitative character of actual states of affairs.
It is no accident that Schelling and Bloch found a basis for crit-
icism in non-conceptual knowledge and objective imagination

See eds. D. Freundlieb and W. Hudson, Reason and Its Other: Rationality in
Modern German Philosophy and Culture, Oxford, Berg, 1993.
For Hegel on aesthetics see R. Wicks, Hegel’s Theory of Aesthetic Judgment,
New York, Peter Lang, 1994, and for Heidegger on aesthetics, see J. J. Kockelmans,
Heidegger on Art and Art Objects, The Hague, Nijhoff, 1988.
Postreligious Aesthetics and Critical Theory • 149

respectively, whereas Habermas is forced back to the lowlands

of neo-Kantian formality.34

To pursue the point even further, because Habermas has no

theory of sensuousness and no historical sociology of the senses,
it is doubtful that he can ever construct an adequate account of
experience. It is not merely that he has no adequate philosophical
anthropology, and the contrast here with Hegel or even with the
philosophical anthropologist Arnold Gehlen is striking, but that
he lacks adequate means with which to discuss the contents of
the world at all.35 Habermas has no theory of the body, and so
no theory of the role the body plays in either aesthetic or reli-
gious experience. As a result, he has no appropriate account of
imagination or perception, and no account of the actually appear-
ing natural world. This means that he has no critical purchase
on the world human beings actually see, experience, and live in.

Because Habermas cannot deal with the experiences that embod-

ied human subjects have, he cannot generate an adequate account
of aesthetics or religion, both of which depend on the experi-
ences of biologically mortal bodies. Consistent with this, Habermas
cannot develop adequate accounts of two of the most important
areas of value-laden communication: aesthetic and religious expe-
rience. It is his failure to achieve theoretic capacity in the whole
domain that explains his well-known inadequacies when it comes
to specificities. Habermas notoriously fails to engage with actual

For Schelling, art is a form of creativity in which our nonconceptual knowl-
edge of ourselves (intellektuelle Anschauung) manifests itself. See D. Jähnig,
Schelling: Die Kunst in der Philosophie, 2 vols, Pfüllingen, Neske, 1966.
On the philosophy of institutions, see A. Gehlen, Studien zur Anthropologie
und Soziologie, Berlin, Luchterhand, 1963, and Man in the Age of Technology trans.
P. Lipscomb, New York, Columbia University Press, 1980. For discussion see
K. O. Apel, “Arnold Gehlens Philosophie der Institutionen und die Metainsti-
tution der Sprache” in Transformation der Philosophie, I, Frankfurt am Main,
Suhrkamp, 1973, pp. 197–221.
150 • Wayne Hudson

works of art and so cannot engage with issues that only mani-
fest at the level of detail. He is also confined to Eurocentric mate-
rials, despite the undeniable importance of world art and Chinese,
Japanese and Korean aesthetics for educated discussion of the
significance of works of art in the context of Critical Theory.
Moreover, Habermas’ theory of communicative action does not
seriously address non-Western or pre-modern data.36 He also has
no way of relating actual art works to the specific and historic-
ally changing conditions of aesthetic ‘sense’.

Habermas is even less well equipped when confronted by reli-

gious experience, even though he concedes that religious sym-
bols have unsaturated semantic potential and even though his
approach to religion is much more sophisticated than has often
been supposed.37 And again he fails to deal with specificities
such as Buddhism and Islam, despite their manifest importance.
This matters for his project because it means that he cannot ade-
quately draw on two of the most important sources of critical
perspectives but instead is forced to reduce them to forms of
rationality. The late Habermas might be happy to emphasise that
both forms of experience involve ‘world disclosure’, but he has
no theoretical vocabulary in which to say what that disclosure
is, especially if both turn out to involve the antimundane. More-
over, these failures pose problems for his theory of commu-

For discussion of Habermas’s attempts to integrate aesthetics within his
account of communicative rationality, see D. Ingram, “Habermas on Aesthetics
and Rationality: Completing the Project of Enlightenment,” in New German
Critique, no. 53, 1991, pp. 67–103.
For an excellent collection of essays, see Jürgen Habermas, Religion and
Rationality. Essays on Reason, God, and Modernity, London, Polity, 2002. It is true
that the late Habermas retreats from his early view that dissolution of religious
consciousness is desirable and from the notion that religion can be replaced
by a rational theology in contemporary society. Nonetheless, the secular char-
acter of his approach remains unchanged.
Postreligious Aesthetics and Critical Theory • 151

nicative action even in its own terms because Habermas is unable

to explain how deep meanings modify human beings in the
world. Yet without a theory of how deep meanings arise or an
adequate account of subjectivity it is arguably impossible to
analyse the most important acts of communication, above all
acts of love.

In Habermas’ defence, it may be said that he confines himself

to epistemologically secure enterprises. This is largely true, and
he has, to be fair, avoided the grotesque political judgements
and the lurid irrationalisms, which have tempted other less cau-
tious critical thinkers from Berdyaev among the Russians to
Foucault among the French. On the other hand, Habermas’ absti-
nence comes at an extremely high price, especially since it may
be possible after all to conceive of an alternative basis for Critical
Theory, without falling into the fool’s gold of either grandiose
philosophical theories for which no adequate rational justifica-
tion can be found or deflationary social science programs which
ultimately have little critical purchase.

On the other hand, once it is accepted that antimundane con-

tents appear in human experiences and should not be left out of
account by those attempting to decide how human persons and
cultures should be shaped, the possibility of a more world engag-
ing Critical Theory arguably opens up. Obviously Critical Theory
cannot offer a worldview or fulfil roles once fulfilled by religion
in the West. It could, however, adopt a conception of criticism
as rational reflection upon the experiences of the mortal body.
Connecting contemplation, criticism and embodiment in this way
would be a reprise of anticipations of such a possibility in Ren-
aissance art criticism and physiognomics. This, in turn, suggests
that Critical Theory can operate with a stronger theory of sen-
suous experience than Habermas, as ever the nervous neo-Kantian
epistemologist, allows. Of course, this is partly to concede that
Walter Benjamin was right when he argued that there was a
152 • Wayne Hudson

need to develop an alternative to flat Enlightenment theories of

experience.38 It also suggests that there is a need to develop a
theory of rationality that can be applied to the experiences of
embodied subjects rather than a theory of rationality that is often
confined to their status as reason givers.39 Here again Habermas’
work is deficient. Because he adopts a shrunken conception of
rationality, Habermas cannot draw upon or make use of non-
discursive ways of creating meaning and orientation, including
those anchored in spiritual experiences. A Critical Theory more
sensitive to embodiment would arguably have greater resources
in this respect.

Of course, such Critical Theory would have to learn from Schelling

to privilege actual works of art and matters of contingent fact
over the empty conceptuality, which we might describe as Kant’s
Lutheran scholastic misreception of the logic of Duns Scotus.
Once, however, account is taken of actual cultural productions
and of the material achievements of the past (so often neglected
by modernity), then a Critical Theory could indeed deal with
the antimundane by construing it sensuously in the context of
body performances, including performances that can be enhanced
by training. It could also relate antimundane experiences to ecolo-
gies of differential spatialities in place of the flat spatialities asso-
ciated with the Enlightenment. In this way it would make possible
substantive modifications to the Enlightenment secularism, which
has often coloured Critical Theory at the price of cutting it off
from Christian, Moslem, Buddhist and Hindu populations.

Re-emphasising experience in this way also captures Dieter Henrich’s
research into our experience of a never representable and ungraspable ground.
For an excellent discussion, see D. Freundlieb, Dieter Henrich and Contemporary
Philosophy: The Return to Subjectivity, Aldershot, Ashgate, 2003.
See eds. D. Freundlieb and W. Hudson, Reason and Its Other: Rationality in
Modern German Philosophy and Culture.
Postreligious Aesthetics and Critical Theory • 153

Critical Theory of this sort would reassert a worldly rationalism

theorised on naturalist and ecological premises. It would be closer
to Duns Scotus than to Habermas in taking metaphysics and
logic to be primary, and in no way historically defeasible con-
cerns. It would be closer to Marx than to Habermas in regard-
ing the analysis of actual economic conditions as central to an
historical rationalism. It would be closer to Schelling than to
Habermas in seeking to integrate criticism with a rational phi-
losophy of nature. Critical Theory of this sort would also require
a philosophical anthropology that transcends the limitations of
European philosophical anthropology, without abandoning its
immensely rich heritage.40 Significantly, pace Richard Rorty, Critical
Theory of this sort need not be non-foundational. On the con-
trary, it could provide ‘foundations’ for its critical claims of a
finitist anthropomorphic variety that are as strong as we are
likely to get.

Likewise, a reformulated Critical Theory of this sort would sit

well with a historicised approach to the human senses, and with
aesthetics.41 No doubt, in a more fully theorised form, it would
require a developed theory of subjectivity (Freundlieb, this vol-
ume), an account of imaginative horizons (Rundell, this volume),
and at least some elements of a philosophy of nature (Douglas,
this volume). Of course, developments in these directions would
take Critical Theory away from the neo-Kantian formality to
which Habermas is committed towards social and cultural crit-
icism informed by the penetration of contingent facts and spe-
cific body performances,42 but this would be compatible with

For detailed discussion, see my The Reform of Utopia, London, Ashgate,
2004, in press, chapter 3 and Appendix 2.
A program to historicise aesthetics also qualifies the work of recent French
philosophers such as Lyotard and Derrida. Cf. D. Carroll, Paraesthetics: Foucault,
Lyotard, Derrida, New York, Methuen, 1987, esp. chpt. 8.
This perspective integrates many recent discussions seeking to combine
154 • Wayne Hudson

combining theoretical and performative perspectives on a range

of problems. It might therefore contribute to a clarification of the
endemic aporia at the heart of Critical Theory viz. how Theory
and Criticism can be satisfactorily combined without over-
burdening Theory or blunting Criticism.

the work of Foucault with Critical Theory. It suggests how to reconcile the
need for a plurality of critical discourses with explorations of diverse ‘aes-
thetics of existence’. See T. Osbourne, “Critical Spirituality: On Ethics and
Politics in the Later Foucault” in S. Ashenden and D. Owen, Foucault Contra
Habermas: Recasting the Dialogue Between Genealogy and Critical Theory, London,
Sage, 1999, chapter 2; and P. Hohendahl and J. Fisher, Critical Theory: Current
State and Future Prospects, New York, Berghahn Books, 2001.
Peter Douglas

Habermas, Schelling and Nature


This essay argues that it is possible to draw a connection between

Habermas’ avoidance of the problem of ultimate foundations
and his scientistic conception of nature.1 The point of departure
is what Habermas has described as “[t]he unavoidable (for the
time being?) circle in which we have to move as soon as we
tackle problems that are equivalent to the traditional problem of
ultimate foundations.”2 In Habermas this ‘circle’ manifests as the
paradox of maintaining, within a transcendental framework, a
notion of ‘nature-in-itself’ that is simultaneously an abstraction
required by thought as well as its ground. Rather than being
interpreted solely as a problem, though, the argument here is
that this paradox exposes an opportunity to question the premise
that our knowledge of, and interaction with, the ‘natural world’
is necessarily orientated towards emancipation from its con-
straints via the technical control of its scientifically objectified
processes. Using the work of Schelling as a template, it will be
argued that it is possible to promote a more positive relation to

For material relevant to this argument, see Jürgen Habermas, “Die Phi-
losophie als Platzhalter und Interpret,” Moralbewusstsein und kommunikatives
Handeln, Frankfurt am Main, Suhrkamp, translated in After Philosophy: End of
Transformation? Eds Kenneth Baynes et al., Cambridge, Mass., MIT Press, 1987;
Postmetaphysical Thinking: Philosophical Essays, trans. W. M. Hohengarten,
Cambridge, Mass., MIT Press, 1992; and The Inclusion of the Other: Studies in
Political Theory, trans. C. Cronin & P. de Grieff, Cambridge, Polity Press, 1998.
Jürgen Habermas, Theory and Practice, trans. John Viertel, Boston, Beacon
Press, 1974, p. 285, note 38.
156 • Peter Douglas

nature than one subsumed under the logic of instrumental action:

one that maintains that if nature precedes thought, then we need
to ground our thinking in an understanding of a primitive rela-
tion between subject and nature. The choice of Schelling may
seem paradoxical in itself given that Habermas is fully aware of,
and rejects as failures, Schelling’s repeated attempts to resolve
the problem of ultimate foundations.3 However Schelling’s sig-
nificance in this context is not to be found in the details of any
attempted resolution, but in the implications that he draws from
the problem.

Habermas and the Problem of Ultimate Foundations

The unwelcome though stubborn presence of the notion of ‘nature-

in-itself’ in Habermas’ work indicates, as he concedes, that the
traditional problem of ultimate foundations is compellingly
resilient. His post-metaphysical reliance on the possibility of
intersubjective consensus, which is intended to overcome the
ontological separation of the transcendental and the empirical,
seems only to have forestalled the problem of the ground of the
necessary relation between the knowing subject and the object
known, between language and the world. This becomes evident
when the question is addressed of how, within language, we are
to understand the distinction between propositional and pre-
propositional experience.

Bowie has characterised this dilemma as “the tension between

conceptions of language as the medium of propositional asser-

Habermas’ doctoral dissertation, Das Absolute und die Geschichte. Von der
Zwiespältigkeit in Schellings Denken (University of Bonn, 1954) addressed in an
historical and systematic fashion the repeated attempts of Schelling and his
contemporaries to solve the problem of ultimate foundations. See Thomas
McCarthy, The Critical Theory of Jürgen Habermas, Cambridge, Polity Press, 1984,
p. 403.
Habermas, Schelling and Nature • 157

tion and of language as the medium of world-disclosure,”4 which

is reflected in a growing realisation that the linguistic turn was
achieved at the expense of attention to our pre-propositional
relationship to language. Habermas’ position depends on the
validity of the distinction between discourses of legitimation
(problem-solving) and articulations of experiences such as those
associated with religious and aesthetic expressions (world-dis-
closure). He admits that the world-disclosing semantic potential
of the latter cannot currently be included in the former, but main-
tains the possibility of this occurring in a future ideal speech sit-
uation. As Bowie points out, Habermas “thereby repeats on a
less speculative level the Hegelian move of suggesting that there
is a higher truth which is arrived at by raising intuition to the
level of the concept.”5 The predicament for Habermas is that his
post-metaphysical perspective requires the assertion of an absolute
difference between rationality and interpretation, which it is not
entitled to, as the delineation of such a difference must arise
through intersubjective consensus.

For the purposes of this essay what is more important than this
illegitimate recourse to an a priori difference between rationality
and interpretation, is that the promise of overcoming this dif-
ference acts to forestall the need for a conception of the real out-
side of language. If, as Habermas argues, “[o]ur first sentence
expresses unequivocally the intention of a universal and uncon-
strained consensus,” even if such a consensus must be continu-
ally tested in the contingencies of intersubjective communication,
then it is this promise that the world-disclosing capacity of inter-
pretive discourse can eventually be subsumed within the legit-
imating discourse of propositional language that defers indefinitely

Andrew Bowie, Schelling and Modern European Philosophy: An Introduction,
London & New York, Routledge, 1993, p. 183.
Ibid., p. 186.
158 • Peter Douglas

the need for a ground that both propositional and pre-proposi-

tional aspects of language would refer to.6 This means that even
though the need for an ultimate foundation in the form of a con-
ception of the real outside of language can be indefinitely deferred,
it could only be foreclosed in the event of the attainment of an
unequivocal and enduring universal agreement.

In Habermas’ defence, it might be argued that the indefinite

deferral of the attainment of an ideal speech situation does not
imply the mere forestalling of the need to consider a ground out-
side of language, as what is to be attained is held to be internal
to communication. However, the potential for truth in any inter-
subjective communicative act does not guarantee its eventual
actuality, and as Manfred Frank has argued, it is the absence of
such a guarantee that both institutes and maintains the move-
ment towards intersubjective consensus:
. . . we would not even need to set off on the road of intersubjec-
tive agreement . . . if this agreement were a priori (or intersubjec-
tively) guaranteed. But it is not guaranteed; and the fact that it
is not is a result of the irreducible plurality of individual world-
disclosure, without which there would be no pressure of motiva-
tion in the direction of interindividual agreement. We must come
to agreement with each other as individuals, but not although, but
rather because we cannot build on a system of agreement which is
agreed in advance. If this were not the case the conception of truth
as intersubjective consensus would lose its meaning: it would
no longer be a specifically post-metaphysical alternative to the
classical-ontological theory of truth.7

If there is no guarantee that the ideal speech situation can be

actualised, then there is no firm basis upon which to insist that

Habermas, Knowledge and Human Interests, trans. Jeremy J. Shapiro, Cam-
bridge, Polity Press, 1987, p. 314.
Manfred Frank, Stil in der Philosophie, Stuttgart, Reclam, 1992, p. 83, cited
in Bowie, Schelling and Modern European Philosophy: An Introduction, p. 188.
Habermas, Schelling and Nature • 159

the distinction between language practices can be delineated and

overcome in intersubjective consensus. Without this guarantee
there is also no legitimate reason for avoiding the question of
what it is that sustains these distinctions. And if we agree with
Frank that the plurality of individual world-disclosure is irre-
ducible, and the history of thought gives us no justification for
thinking otherwise, then it is feasible to conclude that this irre-
ducibility is the result of something that is not a matter of valid-
ity claims.

In Habermas this something reveals itself in the notion of nature-

in-itself, which, as he admits, “designates a natura naturans that
has created both subjective nature and what confronts it as objec-
tive nature.”8 The dilemma, as McCarthy has explained, is that
nature as transcendentally constituted cannot also be the pre-
historical ground of the constituting subject.9 As transcenden-
tally constituted, nature appears or is disclosed subject to technical
interests in the prediction and control of its objectified processes.
In this sense, nature-in-itself is not an unknowable. However,
the system of instrumental action is presumed to have a pre-
history in nature. In response to the obvious problem involved
with an understanding of nature bound to the conditions of
instrumental action advancing an account of what was prior to
the emergence of these conditions, Habermas argues that a theory
of human evolution will have to include a reflection on nature
that is not bound to these conditions:
. . . a theory of evolution which is expected to explain emergent
properties characteristic of the socio-cultural life-form—in other
words, to explain the constituents of social systems as part of nat-
ural history—cannot, for its part, be developed within the tran-
scendental framework of objectifying sciences. If the theory of

Habermas, Knowledge and Human Interests, p. 286.
See McCarthy, The Critical Theory of Jürgen Habermas, pp. 110–125.
160 • Peter Douglas

evolution is to assume these tasks, it cannot wholly divest itself

of the form of a reflection on the prehistory of culture that is depen-
dent on a prior understanding of the socio-cultural life-form.10

This moderation of the epistemological claim that knowledge of

nature is bound within the framework of instrumental action
indicates a change of emphasis from a unitary model of cognitive
interests, to one that is more ready to admit a relation between
“scientific object-domains” and “objectifications which we find
pre-given in ordinary life.”11 We are still left with the funda-
mental tenet that “[w]hat raises us out of nature is the only thing
whose nature we can know: language.”12 But given the indis-
pensability of the notion of nature-in-itself as simultaneously an
abstraction required by thought and the ground of thought, in
what sense have we been raised out of nature?

From the discussion so far, it can be inferred that Habermas’

attempt to quarantine the need for a ground in nature to the pre-
history of transcendental consciousness is overwritten by three
related factors. Firstly, there is the need to supplement our knowl-
edge of nature with a reflection that is not necessarily subject to
the technical interests of prediction and control. Secondly, in
order to explain the immanent facticity of nature there is the
admission that nature is disclosed within language. And thirdly,
there is the argument derived from Frank that it is the irre-
ducibility of world-disclosure that institutes and maintains the
movement towards intersubjective consensus within language.
The combined force of these factors is to suggest that not only
can an adequate understanding of nature not be confined to any
single language practice, but also that nature is an irreducible,

Habermas, Theory and Practice, pp. 21–22.
Habermas as cited in William Outhwaite, Habermas: A Critical Introduction,
Cambridge, Polity Press, 1994, p. 33.
Habermas, Knowledge and Human Interests, p. 314.
Habermas, Schelling and Nature • 161

immanent, and productive presence within language. If this is

the case, then the indefinite deferral of the need to address the
issue of ultimate foundations, [which is supposedly required to
enable a post-metaphysical quasi-transcendental philosophy such
as Habermas’ to focus on issues that can be agreed upon], cannot
be justified as these foundations in the form of nature permeate
language in a way that disrupts the supposed internality of lan-
guage. And if the internality of language cannot be maintained,
then the question of ultimate foundation cannot be legitimately
quarantined from rational discourse.

Returning now to the question of in what sense it can be said

that we have been raised out of nature, if it can be maintained
that nature permeates language, then the answer is not at all.
For Habermas the absolute is the goal of ‘universal and uncon-
strained consensus.’ The current failure of intersubjective com-
munication to ground itself can therefore be interpreted as
provisional, just as the current failure of a material relation to
nature defined by the parameters of prediction and control to
address environmental degradation is. In both cases there is a
Hegelian faith in what is to come—more specifically, in the pos-
sibility of a scientifically delivered self-grounding totality. In the
latter it is a faith in the ultimate efficacy of technological solutions
to sustainability. In the case of Habermas, and as noted by
McCarthy, implied in the goal of intersubjective consensus is the
possibility of a unified account of nature and history that would
dispense with the troublesome notion of nature-in-itself (as well
as the need to supplement a scientistic understanding of nature
with a reflection not subject to conditions of instrumental action).13
And as the following quote demonstrates, such a theory would
be scientific and not philosophical.

See McCarthy, The Critical Theory of Jürgen Habermas, p. 403, note 117.
162 • Peter Douglas

The unity of nature and history cannot be comprehended philo-

sophically so long as progress in physics and social theory has not
led to a general theory of nature or a general theory of social devel-
opment. . . . Philosophy is the—until now irreplaceable—regent
[Statthalter] of a claim to unity and generalisation, a claim that will
of course be redeemed scientifically or not at all.14

McCarthy goes on to explain that the use of the term Statthalter—

literally ‘place-holder’—is meant to “convey the provisory sta-
tus of philosophy in relation to science. Just as natural philosophy,
for example, gave way to natural science, so too will the tasks
remaining to philosophy eventually be subsumed by science. Of
course the ‘science’ capable of assuming these tasks will not be
the science of today.”15 Significantly, then, the notion of nature-
in-itself is made redundant only when philosophy itself becomes
so, and presumably both occur when scientific theory and prac-
tice prevail. These connections reveal an approach to both the-
ory and practice that treats seemingly intractable problems as
difficulties that can be left behind by progress towards more
appropriate methodologies.
The unavoidable (for the time being?) circle in which we have to
move as soon as we tackle problems that are equivalent to the tra-
ditional problem of ultimate foundations—although this can very
well be explained—may be a sign that, among other things, the
concepts ‘contingency-necessity’ are no longer sharply separable
at this level of argumentation. Presumably, assertions about the
contingency or necessity of cognitive interests, just as those about
the contingency or necessity of the human race or the world as a
whole, are meaningless.16

In contrast, the alternative offered by Schelling accepts that con-

tingency and necessity are aspects of the world that need to be

Habermas, Theory and Practice, p. 285, note 38.
Habermas, Schelling and Nature • 163

Schelling and the Absolute

For Schelling the Absolute is an origin rather than something

that is to come (either potentially or actually), and as such can
be interpreted not just as a beginning in the sense of the cosmic
singularity in contemporary cosmogonic speculations, but more
importantly as an immanent presence that grounds every moment
of experience. This conception brings with it the problem of how
to conceive the transition from the Absolute to the world, and
the development of Schelling’s thought from the Naturphilosophie
onwards can be read as a series of unsuccessful attempts to
resolve this problem. However the legacy of these attempts is a
properly philosophical understanding of the limits of reason that
undermines scientistic views of the natural world by grounding
consciousness in the nature that is its condition of possibility.

By insisting that the first task of philosophy is to understand the

character of the relation between self and nature, Schelling is
drawn to questions that contemporary philosophy has deigned
insoluble. The notion of the identity of identity and difference
overcomes the Kantian divide between subject and object, ideal
and real, by positing their emergence from a common ground,
but falters on the dilemma of how to explain the fact of their
emergence. The facticity of the self, the world, knowledge, reflec-
tion, language and science cannot be deduced from within the
orbit of these, as the contingency of emergence is only ever evi-
dent through what is experienced within each of these as necessity.

For Habermas the quasi-transcendental conditions that define

the behavioural system of instrumental action is necessary in
this sense, just as the presumed emergence of these conditions
from their pre-history in nature is a contingent fact. Similarly
the necessity evident in deterministic accounts of natural phe-
nomena expresses the contingent facticity of a nature that man-
ifests as a resistance and a constraint in the experiences of our
164 • Peter Douglas

inquiries into it. In both cases the notion of nature-in-itself stands

in for this nexus of the contingent and the necessary.

As alluded to in the opening paragraph of this section, Schelling

does not resolve the dilemma posed by the nexus of contingency
and necessity that manifests in fundamental aspects of experi-
ence. However, in contrast to Habermas, he does not evade its
implications. Instead, justification is found for a critique of rea-
son that requires a consideration of the Absolute as ground and
not goal: the inability to explain the emergence of thought exposes
the intrinsic and irrevocable incompleteness of knowledge, while
the Absolute is that something in our thinking whereby this
incompleteness is recognised.

That the incompleteness of knowledge is not considered to be

provisional can be explained in the context of a distinction that
Schelling draws from his analysis of the ontological proof of
God.17 In these proofs, he argues, there is an illegitimate move-
ment from that which exists in a necessary manner, to that which
necessarily exists. The difference between these types of existence
corresponds to what Schelling refers to as two kinds of philos-
ophy: the former the domain of what is termed negative phi-
losophy, and the latter the field of positive philosophy.

In articulating that which exists in a necessary manner, negative

philosophy as a self-related totality is unable to explain the fact
of its own necessity, either in the sense that it exists at all, or that
it exists as it does. The inability of a system of necessity to explain
the fact that it exists at all is its inability to account for its own
emergence. That a system of necessity cannot explain the fact

See Andrew Bowie “Translator’s Introduction,” On the History of Modern
Philosophy (translation of F. W. J. von Schelling, Zur Geschichte der neueren
Philosophie), Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1994, pp. 30–32.
Habermas, Schelling and Nature • 165

that it exists as it does, refers to an inability to account for its

continuing presence in the world, the effects of which, if they
were to be explained, in turn lead to further additions to the
world that require explanation and so on. Despite their attempts
to be otherwise, therefore, systems of necessity remain open both
at their origin and into their future.

The only way of overcoming this incompleteness is to conflate

the world and the system such that the latter becomes the world
in and for itself. For Schelling the illegitimacy of this movement,
which corresponds to the movement from that which exists in
a necessary manner to that which necessarily exists, lies in the
false assumption that the former must in fact exist. The crucial
point is that what must be must first be in a manner that is itself
not potential, and therefore must already be in actuality, for “if
it only could exist, it would for that reason not be what necessarily
exists.”18 Schelling describes this difference as that which is “not
not at all” rather than “what absolutely cannot not be,”19 which
translates into the recognition that the kind of existence that is
necessitated by that which exists in a necessary manner is not
that which could also be prior to the system of necessity that
posits it. As he says, “we must begin with/go out from what I
have called that which merely exists, from being which is imme-
diate, simply necessary, which is necessary because it precedes
all potential, all possibility.”20 The Absolute as origin necessar-
ily exists in this sense, but it is also contingent insofar as it is
not the result of logical necessity. The simultaneous contingency
and necessity of the Absolute, simultaneous in the sense that
that which necessarily exists must be ultimately contingent, can

Schelling cited in ibid., p. 32.
Cited in ibid., p. 31.
Schelling cited in Bowie, Schelling and Modern European Philosophy: An
Introduction, p. 167.
166 • Peter Douglas

therefore only be established by the fact of existence itself, and

more immediately by the recognition of this fact about ourselves.

This point returns the discussion to the issue with which this
critique of Habermas was initiated. Along with Bowie’s above-
mentioned recognition of “the tension between language as the
medium of propositional assertion and of language as the medium
of world-disclosure” in contemporary philosophical debates,
comes the suggestion that this tension “in certain ways corre-
sponds to the difference between negative and positive phi-
losophy”21 in Schelling’s later work. As we have seen, negative
philosophy addresses the necessity of a world that already is,
whereas positive philosophy concerns itself with the contingent
fact of existence itself—that there is a world at all. In character-
ising Habermas’ approach as an example of the former, it has
been argued that the prospect of subsuming the world-disclos-
ing capacity of pre-propositional language into propositional
statements, of the contingency of nature into the necessity of
instrumental action, relies on the efficacy of his attempt to fore-
stall if not foreclose the need to consider the problem of ultimate
foundations. In contrast, Schelling finds ontological import in
the distinctions that Habermas would surmount.

As that which precedes all possibility, Schelling recognises that

the Absolute cannot itself be thought: “One can admit this in a
certain sense and say: precisely for that reason it is the begin-
ning of all thinking—for the beginning of thinking is not yet
itself thinking.”22 The positive philosophy therefore requires the
thinking of what cannot itself be thought, a “knowing non-knowl-
edge” that is itself not unthinkable given that thought is a move-

Ibid., p. 183.
Cited in Bowie, “Translator’s Introduction,” p. 32.
Habermas, Schelling and Nature • 167

ment of the Absolute without being the Absolute itself.23 The

immediacy with which the contingent facticity of existence must
be grasped consequently establishes a role for intuition and
metaphor in philosophy that is irreducible: intuition insofar as
“thought which is not a thinking thought cannot be far from an
intuiting thought,” and metaphor given its capacity to draw intu-
itive thought towards the level of reflection in language.24 As a
result, the essence of Schelling’s positive philosophy is not to be
found in what is brought to reflection, but in what can be intui-
tively understood in the attempt to bring the Absolute to reflection.

Interpreted in this way, the positive philosophy mimes Schelling’s

earlier conception of nature as the coincidence of natura naturans
and natura naturata, or productivity and product. Here Schelling
gives ontological significance to an element of experience that
Habermas would do without, and downplays the importance of
those elements that Habermas makes central, in this case natura
naturata or the product which is nature as objectified: “As the
object is never absolute (unbedingt) then something per se non-
objective must be posited in nature; this absolutely non-objec-
tive postulate is precisely the original productivity of nature.”25
Whereas Habermas conceives of nature as outside of language,
for Schelling the disclosure of productivity as the ground of an
appearing nature that includes language avoids these conditions
by resorting to articulations that are pre-propositional.

The broader significance of this difference can be elicited with

reference to a suggestive parallel in contemporary physics. Due
to the constraints of solvability, the traditional approach to math-
ematical modelling was to concentrate on phenomena that could

Schelling cited in Bowie, Schelling and Modern European Philosophy: An
Introduction, p. 136.
Schelling cited in ibid., p. 186.
Schelling cited in Bowie, “Translator’s Introduction,” p. 36.
168 • Peter Douglas

be reduced to a system of linear equations. The stability of such

phenomena means that fluctuations in their environment can be
effectively ignored, leading to their treatment as closed, and there-
fore predictable, equilibrium systems. With the introduction of
computers the constraints of solvability have been considerably
relaxed, and as a result more complex and irregular phenomena
have been modelled with mathematical resources made avail-
able in fields such as nonlinear dynamics. As chaos theory has
demonstrated, the necessity with which these systems evolve
does not preclude unpredictable outcomes due to their sensi-
tivity to contingent initial and boundary conditions, which implies
that the phenomena they model are connected with their envi-
ronment in a way that cannot be ignored.

A correspondence between Habermas’ approach and the tradi-

tional reliance on closed equilibrium systems can be drawn on
the basis of the way both ignore the broader environment, con-
centrating instead on what can be reliably known: for Habermas
propositional language, and for physics solutions to systems of
linear equations. In both cases the necessity with which the sys-
tem evolves encourages the conflation of predictability and tech-
nical control with explanation. However closed linear systems
are limited in their application to a relatively small range of sim-
ple phenomena that exhibit quite specific conditions. The abil-
ity to adequately model a broader range of phenomena in fields
such as nonlinear dynamics has come with the realisation that
fluctuations in contingent factors such as initial and boundary
conditions can significantly influence the overall behaviour of
the model. If the analogy holds, then it would be reasonable to
suggest that like closed linear systems, propositional language
would also have a limited range of application due to an inabil-
ity to include the contingency of what lies outside of the neces-
sity of its statements. If this were the case, then the prospect of
subsuming the world-disclosing capacity of pre-propositional
language into the legitimating discourse of propositional state-
Habermas, Schelling and Nature • 169

ments would be untenable, especially given the former’s amenity

to religious and aesthetic experiences, both of which express
aspects of nature that are not captured by the transcendental
conditions of instrumental action.

The conclusions drawn from the analogy with physics broadly

support the Schelling-inspired critique of Habermas that has
been presented in this essay. From the fact that propositional lan-
guage cannot include the contingency of its ground it does not
necessarily follow that the problem of ultimate foundations is
therefore no longer important to an understanding of language
in particular, or the world in general. The lesson to be drawn
from Schelling and the mathematical modelling of complex phe-
nomena is that more realistic accounts of our experiences of the
world are messier and less controllable than many of us would
like. And given that Habermas’ avoidance of the problem of ulti-
mate foundations carries with it a conception of nature restricted
to the technical interests of prediction and control, as well as the
increasingly urgent nature of the many ecological crises that this
conception has contributed to, a messier account of the world
that includes a consideration of its ground is to be preferred to
the wager that the ground can be overcome.

Productivity and Synthesis in Schelling and Nonlinear

Models of Complex Systems

In this context, and given the importance of Habermas’ project

of providing both a critique and a defence of reason, Schelling’s
thought provides the prospect of the development of a new phi-
losophy of nature that grounds the self in nature rather than in
social structures and practices that stand over and against the
natural world.
So long as I myself am identical with Nature, I understand what a
living nature is as well as I understand my own life; I appreciate
170 • Peter Douglas

how this universal life of Nature reveals itself in manifold forms,

in progressive developments, in gradual approximations to free-
dom. As soon, however, as I separate myself, and with me every-
thing ideal, from Nature, nothing remains to me but a dead object,
and I cease to comprehend how a life outside me can be possible.26

Even though many of the details of Schelling’s Naturphilosophie

now seem anachronistic, some of his more fundamental premises
have renewed currency in the light of developments in contem-
porary physics such as those mentioned in the previous section.
The weakening of the connection between determinism and
necessity in nonlinear models of complex systems allows small
variations in contingent aspects of these models to inflate into
large-scale unpredictability.27 Correspondences can be drawn
between this development and what Bowie has described as
Schelling’s determination to “find a way of sustaining notions
of freedom and reason that could account for the emergence and
development of living nature and consciousness, but which also
took account of the fact that the ground of nature and conscious-
ness could not itself appear in philosophical reflection.”28 This

F. W. J. Schelling, Ideas for a Philosophy of Nature, trans. Errol E. Harris &
Peter Heath, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1988, p. 36.
There is no well defined and generally agreed upon definition of a com-
plex system. However, it is possible to list some commonly accepted elements:
• complex systems are not restricted to specific scales of inquiry and often
involve interactions between different levels of organisation;
• they often have a large number of components or degrees of freedom;
• they are predominantly nonlinear and involve nonequilibrium and irre-
versible processes;
• they are open to their environment in the sense that they exchange
energy, material and information with their surroundings;
• they occur in both energy-conserving and energy-dissipating systems;
• causes and effects are not necessarily proportional;
• they often appear abruptly and undergo discontinuous changes that
suggest that the functional relations that might describe them are not
differentiable; and
• are recursive or iterative, involving positive or negative feedback.
An explanation of dynamical systems will be provided in what follows.
Bowie, Schelling and Modern European Philosophy, p. 10.
Habermas, Schelling and Nature • 171

may seem an unlikely proposal given Schelling’s argument that

“what philosophy has over mathematics is the concept of the
subject of that which can be something and can also not be some-
thing.”29 However the simulation of systems of nonlinear equations
has demonstrated that mathematical form can be given to an
ongoing process that relates the structure of the interactions
between the parts of a system to the emergence of an individu-
ated whole. This result supports two central tenets of Schelling’s
Naturphilosophie: productivity and synthesis, and both of these
are involved in his defence of the reality of the freedom of the
subject and its reflection in the individuality of the object.

Schelling’s determination to sustain notions of freedom and rea-

son within nature is consistent with the belief, which is accorded
to him by Esposito, that the “facts of human experience must be
accounted for in terms that leave the meanings of those facts as
experienced intact.”30 This is reflected in his conception of the real
as essentially relational, with Schelling’s emphasis on synthesis
actively opposed to the analytic style of mechanistic thought, to
which contemporary physicalism is heir, that reduces all phe-
nomena to the law-governed ordering of material existents inde-
pendent of thought and spirit. For Schelling the abstraction from
experience effected by the ordering of the world in this fashion,
its deduction from general laws to a succession of events or
states, fails to account for the emergence of individuals in nature.
This he equates with a principle of organisation: “In Nature, what
bears the character of individuality must be organisation, and vice
versa,”31 that disrupts linear sequences of cause and effect by

F. W. J. Schelling, Grundlegung der positiven Philosophie (1832–3), ed. Horst
Fuhrmans, Turin, Bottega d’Erasmo, cited in Bowie, Schelling and Modern European
Philosophy, p. 148.
Joseph L. Esposito, Schelling’s Idealism and Philosophy of Nature, London,
Associated University Presses, 1977, p. 79.
Schelling cited in ibid., p. 100.
172 • Peter Douglas

introducing patterns of interaction that refer to an emergent indi-

vidual to which the nodes of these interactions become parts.
What individuation brings to our understanding of nature, there-
fore, is the need to relate phenomena to the broader reality they
are embedded within. Hence Schelling’s maxim: “there is no
analysis without synthesis.”32

For Schelling the broader reality of nature, the context within

which nature as a system of dynamic interconnections both within
and between multiple levels of organisation is conceived, is cap-
tured by a relation between productivity and product of mutual
dependence and ultimate identity: “Think of a river, which is
pure identity; where it meets a resistance an eddy is formed, this
eddy is nothing fixed, but disappears at every moment and reap-
pears at every moment.”33 If nature were simply product, as
science conceives it, the conditions of its emergence and evolution
would lie outside itself. On the other hand if nature were pure
productivity, there would be nothing to resist its immediate dis-
sipation. Because productivity cannot appear as itself we are
phenomenologically bound to products. In this respect it is entirely
appropriate that science as the study of an empirical nature is
similarly bound. Schelling’s objections to mechanistic thought
are based on its extrapolation of the determination of the object
in science to the world in general, which, he argues, leads to
philosophical confusion and estrangement from nature and spirit.
His Naturphilosophie seeks to undermine this extrapolation by
positing the emergence of both subject and object from the abo-
riginal productivity of nature. This has the effect of dissolving
the ontological distinction between that which produces experi-
ences of self and nature and that which is experienced. In doing
so it enables a conception of a living nature in which the freedom

Ibid., p. 79.
Schelling cited in Bowie, Schelling and Modern European Philosophy, p. 36.
Habermas, Schelling and Nature • 173

of the subject arises from the same synthesis of elements, or

processes of organisation, as the individuality of the object.

Schelling’s characterisation of science as the strict determination

of the object, which excludes consideration of the contingency
expressed in the freedom of the subject and the individuality of
the object, is consistent with dominant law-based explanations
of natural phenomena in which general laws infer a necessary
connection between the successive states of a system. Given a
set of initial conditions, each subsequent state is determined by
its predecessor in accordance with the governing equation/s.
The strong connection between necessity and determinism in
this approach finds application in systems that approximate
to a linear aggregation of the parts of the whole in question. The
ability to separate out the contribution of the parts toward the
whole and then effectively ignore their interactions provides
the analytical basis for closed equilibrium systems whose behav-
iour can either be deduced via integration if they are simple
enough, or treated ‘phenomenologically’ via statistical mechan-
ics in more complex cases.34 The superposition of causal factors
in linear models therefore assumes that there is no intrinsic rela-
tion between the parts of a system, and in situations where the
interactions between the parts are accidental to the whole in
question this is not a disadvantage.

The same cannot be argued when moving to analyses of emergent

systems, where the structure of the interactions between the parts
is often a necessary condition for the emergence of the whole.
There is nothing in a purely analytic approach that can explain
the distinction between necessary and accidental relations, as

When a deterministic description of a system is not possible due to its
complexity, statistical models that relate the average behaviour of each particle
to the overall behaviour of the system are used.
174 • Peter Douglas

this distinction implies the casual efficacy of a whole towards

which the activity of the parts is directed. One way of dealing
with this limitation is to withhold causal efficacy from emergent
phenomena and to dismiss them as epiphenomenal. However
this conclusion is not supported by the fact that the simulation
of nonlinear models of complex systems produces nondeducible
system-level details of emergent phenomena, that these details
derive from the nonlinear coupling of the parts of a system, and
that they are given in the form of attractors that represent the
evolution of the system as a whole.35 It will be argued in what

The term ‘nonlinearity’ does not lend itself to a simple definition as West
and Deering explain. “Linearity means a response in direct proportion to an
applied force; nonlinearity then means a disproportionate response. Here we
see that nonlinearity is not narrowly defined; to say the response is dispro-
portionate is to define it by what it is not. There are a large number of ways
that a response can be disproportionate, but only one way to be proportion-
ate (linear). The broad range of possible responses in part explains why non-
linear phenomena are so difficult to understand as a class—the only thing they
have in common is that they are not linear. Thus they share a common lack,
but may not possess any other feature in common.” B. J. West and B. Deering,
The Lure of Modern Science: Fractal Thinking (Studies in Nonlinear Phenomena in
Life Sciences—Vol. 3), Singapore; New Jersey; London, World Scientific, 1995,
p. 125.
Holt and Holt provide a similar explanation geometrically.
“The most easily grasped distinction between linear and nonlinear functions
is geometrical. Where a=f (b), if a plot with respect to b is a straight line, as the
independent variable b takes on all possible values in its domain, f is linear: if
the plot is any other curve, f is said to be nonlinear. More generally, a nonlin-
ear function (usually appearing as one of many other terms in an equation) is
a function which contains a variable raised to a power other than one or zero,
or a product of two or more variables, or a variable as the argument of a tran-
scendental function (e.g. sine or cosine). An equation containing one or more
of such nonlinear terms is then said to be a nonlinear equation, and the sys-
tem which inspired the equation is called nonlinear as well.” L. D. Holt and
G. R. Holt, “Regularity in Nonlinear Dynamical Systems,” British Journal of the
Philosophy of Science, vol. 44, 1993, pp. 712–713.
Nonlinearities arise when a variety of pathways through which individual
components influence the behaviour of others exist, for example, when a cer-
tain chemical present enhances (or suppresses) its own production as in a
Belousov-Zhaboyinskii reaction, or in the highly orchestrated system of inter-
Habermas, Schelling and Nature • 175

follows that these factors arise from a weakening of the con-

nection between determinism and necessity in attractor-based
descriptions of nonlinear dynamical systems. This weakening is
due to the introduction of an element of contingency, which in
a manner similar to Schelling undermines the strict determina-
tion of phenomena by equating certain modes of organisation
in nature with the emergence of genuine individuals.

A dynamical system is a mathematical description of the rates

of change of specified properties of physical phenomena. It con-
sists of two parts: the state of the system and the dynamic that
determines how these states evolve over time. In the case of a
simple pendulum, for instance, the state of the system can be
described by the variables velocity and position. The dynamic
of such a system can be given in the general form of a differ-
ence equation: xn+1 = F(xn), with each successive state of the sys-
tem (xn+1) depending on the previous state (xn) and its behaviour
under the operation of the function or dynamic (F). In cases
where the terms of the dynamic are related linearly, it is usually
more straightforward to solve the equation directly. However
when the terms of the dynamic are related nonlinearly this is
commonly not an option, and so the iteration of the dynamic in
the form of a difference equation can be used to obtain numer-
ical approximations instead.

The results of the continued iteration of the dynamic can be rep-

resented in state space, which is a non-metric abstract space
whose coordinates vary with the details of the system being
investigated. Returning to the example of the simple pendulum,

locking reactions that constitute fermentation. West and Deering also note that
nonlinearities lead to forms of stability and instability beyond those expected
in a linear world, with solitons mentioned as an example of enhanced stabil-
ity, and the irreversible behaviour of chaotic trajectories that are also solutions
to Newton’s equations of motion an example of strong instability (p. 79).
176 • Peter Douglas

the coordinates of its state space would be velocity and position,

and the topological space defined by these coordinates repre-
sents the possible states that the pendulum characterised as a
dynamical system could instantiate. The trajectory traced out in
state space in this example would be drawn towards a single
point that represents the pendulum at rest. This point in state
space is the attractor of the system, and it represents its long-
term tendency. If we introduce a forcing mechanism that over-
comes the effect of friction on the pendulum, however, the
situation considerably alters. Firstly the forcing mechanism intro-
duces nonlinear terms into the dynamic, which means that the
results produced by the simulation of the model are nondeducible,
as they cannot be obtained by analytical methods. Secondly the
attractor is no longer a single point in state space, as the pendulum
does not come to rest. Instead, and depending on the behaviour
of the forcing mechanism, the pendulum-system may evolve
periodically, quasi-periodically, or even chaotically, with the latter
depicted by ‘strange’ attractors. These represent a bounded unpre-
dictability, as the system remains confined to the attractor even
though it is impossible to predict where on the attractor it will
be at a particular stage of its evolution.

In representing the long-term tendencies of dynamical systems,

attractors give structure to the possibilities that constitute state
space, of which they are subsets. And given that state space rep-
resents how the variables chosen to characterise the phenome-
non being modelled change, attractors give the topological form
of processes, providing a qualitative classification of how system
evolve and respond to fluctuations in their environment. Attractors
are therefore more than a simple description of the actual or pre-
dicted behaviour of a particular system, which can be represented
as a single trajectory in state space, as sets of attractors depict
the possibilities that are open to a class of systems given con-
tingent fluctuations in their initial and/or boundary conditions,
Habermas, Schelling and Nature • 177

these referring to certain aspects of the environment in which

the system is embedded.

In depicting the range of possibilities of a dynamical system,

attractor-based descriptions of these overwrite the importance
of initial conditions and governing equations in law-based mod-
els.36 Within the basic of attraction of an attractor, all initial con-
ditions are equivalent as the trajectories they serve as the starting
points of are all drawn towards that attractor. This also means
that the states that the trajectories pass through on their way to
the attractor are of less interest than the stable states that char-
acterise the system. As a result, the relations between the suc-
cessive states of a system, which are determined by the governing
equation/s, are also of less interest as the set of stable states that
the system settles down to are not determined by previous states
but by the attractor. In addition, nonlinear models are commonly
characterised by multiple attractors that partition state space into
their associated basins of attraction, the boundaries of which are
fractal and therefore infinitely complex. The sensitivity of such
systems can be such that even slight alterations in their initial
and/or boundary conditions can make it impossible to predict
not only where on an attractor the system will be, but also which
attractor the system will be drawn on to. Thus even though the

It should be noted that what follows is not an orthodox interpretation of
state space descriptions of emergent phenomena. Many philosophers now
study state space as part of a recent shift in analytical philosophy of science
from logic and set theory to analyses of the mathematics used by scientists.
See for instance Bas Van Fraassen, Laws and Symmetry, Clarendon Press, Oxford,
1989. However, the interpretation that follows has more in common with
Deleuze’s ontological reading of state space, though it does not venture as far.
According to Delanda, Deleuze has taken up Poincaré’s topological studies
and emphasised the ontological difference that can be posited between recur-
rent features of state space and the trajectories these features determine. See
Manuel Delanda, Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy, London, Continuum,
2002, p. 30.
178 • Peter Douglas

individual trajectories of the system in state space do evolve

deterministically, because it is not possible to predict which tra-
jectory the system will actually trace out in state space, the tra-
ditional association of determinism with single necessary outcomes
is broken. What replaces it is a combination of determinism and
chance, which is captured by an often-complex distribution of
attractors in state space.

This combination of determinism and chance also has the effect

of breaking the temporal symmetry that has been one of the hall-
marks of deterministic explanations of natural phenomena. If a
system can be effectively modelled by a single trajectory in state
space, then no meaningful distinction can be made between the
past and the future. However, in nonlinear models where the
actual evolution of a system cannot be reduced to a single tra-
jectory and the number of possible attractors multiplies as the
system becomes more unstable, every ‘choice’ between possible
attractors, which is accorded to chance, is a break in the tem-
poral symmetry of the system. It is in this sense that nonlinear
systems are considered to be ‘irreversible’ as the actual sequence
of states they pass through cannot be traced back by simply
changing the sign of the variable that represents time. The irre-
versibility of nonlinear systems also means that the significance
of time in the self-organisation of complex systems receives both
a physical meaning and a mathematical description.37

The contingency introduced into nonlinear models by the irre-

ducibility of chance therefore has two important results. Firstly

For accounts of the significance of irreversibility in physical (especially
chemical) systems see Ilya Prigogine, “Irreversibility and Space-Time Structure,”
Physics and the Ultimate Significance of Time, ed. David Ray Griffin, Albany, State
University of New York Press, 1986; The End of Certainty: Time, Chaos, and the
New Laws of Nature, New York, The Free Press, 1996; and Ilya Prigogine and
Isabelle Stengers, Order Out of Chaos: Man’s New Dialogue With Nature, London,
New Science Library, 1984.
Habermas, Schelling and Nature • 179

it gives rise to the range of possibilities associated with a class

of phenomena by making it impossible to specify in advance a
single necessary trajectory in state space. This means that the
trajectory of a particular system is not strictly determined, rep-
resenting instead the genuine individuation of that system as it
actualises a unique set of states that is jointly determined by the
contingent conditions of its environment and the form of the
attractor towards which it is drawn. Secondly the irreversibility
of nonlinear systems gives mathematical form to the production
of order irreducible to mere changes in the configuration of fun-
damental entities. The nonlinear coupling of the terms that com-
prise the dynamic represent the structure of the interactions
between the parts of the system being modelled. The simulation
of the model allows both the spatial and temporal structuring
of the parts of the system to be included in this representation,
and given that the attractor/s associated with the model char-
acterise the behaviour of the system as a whole, what is implied
is an active relation between the parts of the system and the sys-
tem as a whole that gives significance to both analytic and syn-
thetic aspects of emergent phenomena.

As with Schelling, then, the association between organisation

and individuation and the synthesis that this involves is sup-
ported by a principle of activity. In Schelling it is the aboriginal
productivity of nature. In nonlinear models it is found in both
the simulation of the model via the iteration of the dynamic that
represents the organisation of parts of the system, and in the
unique trajectory that characterises the system as a whole as a
process with a loosely determined form that is depicted by the
attractor of that system. Interpreted in this way, nonlinear mod-
els imply a genuinely dynamic conception of a nature that is
both intelligible and unpredictable. While nonlinear models have
nothing to say about the freedom of the subject per se, the abil-
ity to model phenomena that are experienced as emergent indi-
viduals does not contradict this assertion given Schelling’s premise
180 • Peter Douglas

that both subject and object arise from the same processes in

This combination of intelligibility and unpredictability is also

compatible with Schelling’s argument that the incompleteness
of knowledge is not provisional. In opposition to Habermas’ pro-
ject, nonlinear models define a world that, in Delanda’s words,
“remain[s] forever problematic.”38 Rather than subsuming the
contingency of the ground into a self-grounding system of neces-
sity, then, in nonlinear models the contingent facticity of the
world intrudes in a fundamental way. That the phenomena mod-
elled in nonlinear dynamics are not strictly determined, and so
can both be and not be something specific, brings an aspect of
what Schelling found most valuable in the subject into our math-
ematical descriptions of the world. It is in this sense that Schelling’s
prospect for a philosophy of a living nature as an alternative to
a conception of nature restricted to the technical interests of pre-
diction and control receives support from, rather than being
opposed to, contemporary scientific investigations.

Delanda, Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy, p. 155.
Albrecht Wellmer

The Debate About Truth: Pragmatism without

Regulative Ideas1

Translated by William Egginton*

The classical definition of truth that has largely determined the

understanding of the concept in the history of European philos-
ophy comes, as is well known, from Aristotle. Aristotle says: “To
say of what is that it is not, or of what is not that it is, is false,
while to say of what is that it is, and of what is not that it is not,
is true.”2 This formulation of Aristotle’s has been understood, to

* The translator would like to thank Eric Little for a first version of this
translation. My gratitude as well to Bernadette Wegenstein for her invaluable
help with the final version.
This article was published in The Pragmatic Turn in Philosophy: Contemporary
Engagements between Analytic and Continental Thought, edited by William Egginton
and Mike Sandbothe, The State University of New York Press, 2004, all rights
reserved, and appeared in Critical Horizons, vol. 4, no. 1, 2003.
This is the revised and greatly expanded version of a lecture I first held
in 1995 at a conference on “Pragmatism Without Regulative Ideas?” at the
Institute for Cultural Science in Essen, Germany. This occasion explains the
strong and originally central reference to Karl-Otto Apel—who was present at
the conference and whose 75th Birthday marked the occasion of this event—
as well as the title of the essay. Later workings over have somewhat shifted
the weight, but the conclusion of the essay, in which I summarise my critique
of Apel, remains unchanged. Since the German publication of Mike Sandbothe’s
volume Die Renaissance des Pragmatismus (Weilerswist, Velbrück, 2000), I have
once more revised my article, prompted in large part by a criticism of Richard
Rorty’s (see notes 15 and 18). Several notes, and section 11, are newly written.
Aristotle, Metaphysics, in The Basic Works of Aristotle, ed. Richard McKeon,
New York, Random House, 1941, IV, 7, 1011b.
182 • Albrecht Wellmer

a large extent, in the history of European philosophy in the sense

of an ‘agreement’, ‘adequation’, or finally also a ‘correspondence
theory’ of truth. The medieval formulation according to which
truth is an ‘adaequatio rei et intellectus’, is only one version of this
basic idea. Even Kant, in The Critique of Pure Reason, plainly pre-
supposed a corresponding understanding of the concept of truth:
“The old and famous question with which the logicians were to
be driven into a corner . . . is this: What is truth? The nominal
definition of truth namely, that it is the agreement of cognition
with its object, is here granted and presupposed.”3

If one wanted to reformulate what Aristotle and Kant said in an

easier and somewhat schematic format, one could do so as follows:
(T) the assertion (statement or conviction) that ‘p’ is true if and
only if p.

And this biconditional is then in formal semantics reduced to

the following schema:
(TI) ‘p’ is true if and only if p.

The problem that will concern us from here on emerges in both

formulations: on the one hand, in both cases, the ‘truth condi-
tion’—be it of the assertion that p, or of the sentence ‘p’—is for-
mulated with the help of the same sentence for which or for
whose assertion the necessary and sufficient condition for being
true is sought—such that we, so it seems, don’t at all go beyond
the sentence ‘p’, or rather the assertion that p. But on the other
hand, both biconditionals should explain truth as a relation of
agreement between a statement (a conviction) and reality, such

Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, trans. Paul Guyer and Allen W.
Wood, New York, Cambridge University Press, 1997, B83/A58.
The Debate About Truth: Pragmatism without Regulative Ideas • 183

that the expression ‘p’ would thus have to emerge on the left
and right sides as differentiated functions: on the left side it is a
question of the statement (assertion, conviction) that p; on the
right side, juxtaposed to this, is the ‘state of affairs’ that p.
Nevertheless, it is of course no coincidence that we can specify
the ‘fact’ with which the statement (conviction) that p should
‘agree’, again, only with the help of the same sentence ‘p’, with
whose help the statement was also made (or the conviction

Next we ask: how can we ascertain whether such an agreement

exists between an assertion and a ‘thing’—a state of affairs, reality?

Let us assume that someone claims: both doors are closed. I turn
around and determine that: no, both doors are not closed. It is
not the case, as it was asserted. Or in another situation, I deter-
mine: yes, both doors are closed. It is the case, as was asserted.
In both cases, therefore, I determine whether the assertion agrees
with reality, by determining whether it is thus the case, as was
asserted. The precondition for this is that I understand the sen-
tence ‘both doors are closed’, that I know to what the expres-
sion ‘both doors’ refers in this case, and that I can correctly use
the predicate ‘is closed’. If these preconditions are given, I can
determine, as a rule—if I find myself in an adequate position—
whether the doors are closed. My ability to determine whether the
two doors are closed is my ability to determine whether the
assertion that both doors are closed agrees with reality (whether
it is the case as asserted)—and this means: whether the asser-
tion is true.

What ‘agreement’ between a statement and reality means can

thus only be clarified when we reflect on our ability to find out
in many cases—for instance, through perception—whether things
are as asserted. And, if we have learned a language, we can do
this in many elementary cases.
184 • Albrecht Wellmer

Naturally, things are much more complicated when speaking of

logically complex moral, aesthetic, mathematical, historical or
philosophical judgements (or statements or convictions). Then
we cannot persuade ourselves, as a rule, by merely ‘looking into
it’, whether it is the case as asserted: here, as a rule, the idea of
a direct comparison between a statement and reality makes no
sense. In order to find out whether it is the case as asserted, we
are, on the contrary, dependent on ‘indirect’ procedures, namely,
on ways of reasoning that so and so is the case—whereas the
possible ways of reasoning for statements pertaining to the past,
for aesthetic or moral judgements, for mathematical or scientific
assertions or convictions, are respectively completely different.
We try to decide the question whether something is so, as one
says it is, with reasons (where in many cases the reasons which
are at our disposal are not sufficient for bringing about such a
decision). At this point it becomes clear that the idea of a ‘cor-
respondence’ between a statement and reality (or between a state-
ment and a fact) suggests a misleading picture: namely, it suggests
the picture of a relation of agreement—ascertainable from some
standpoint (which cannot be ours, but perhaps that of God)—
between statements or beliefs and a piece of reality, or the things
themselves. If, however, one detaches the idea of agreement
between what one says and what is (really) the case from the
way we justify or deny assertions or beliefs with reasons—or by
calling on perceptions—then this idea becomes something com-
pletely incomprehensible. For how then should one think such
an agreement between statements (thoughts, convictions, etc.)
and reality—two totally incommensurable relata: how and what
should be tested here as agreement; and who should carry out
such a test? A correspondence concept of truth, such as seems
to be suggested by Aristotle’s formulation, becomes either incom-
prehensible or metaphysical, or both at the same time, if we seek
to think of the idea of ‘just like’, that is, ‘agreement’, indepen-
dently of our justificatory praxis.
The Debate About Truth: Pragmatism without Regulative Ideas • 185

Let us now return to our biconditional (T): the assertion that ‘p’
is true if and only if (really) p. The intuition that this sentence
expresses could also be reformulated as such: an assertion is true
if and only if it is the case as was asserted. We can now think
what place such an explanation of the concept of truth can have
in our practice of making assertions. This practice is of a nor-
mative kind: assertions are moves in a language game that are
‘justified’ or ‘unjustified’. We are entitled to assertions if we have
good reasons to assert that p, or if we have convinced ourselves
through our perceptions that p—or also if Someone whom we
have good reason to trust has said to us that p (that is, reason
for the assumption that this Someone could provide good rea-
sons). What we learn when we learn a language is—among other
things—to judge in a reasoned way and to distinguish between
justified and unjustified assertions (convictions). This suggests
a new interpretation of the biconditional (T), which frames it no
longer as an attempt to interpret truth as an agreement between
statements and states of affairs, but rather as an attempt to deter-
mine the place the word ‘true’ has in our assertive and justifi-
catory praxis. Accordingly, we could now read the biconditional
as such: someone is justified in asserting that p is true precisely
when he or she is justified in asserting that p. And this could
now be further interpreted as saying: to say that an assertion is
true is nothing other than to say that the assertion is legitimate
(grounded, justified). Truth would then become no more than
‘warranted assertability’ or ‘rational acceptability’. The concept
of truth would consequently be drawn back onto justification.

Of course, upon closer examination it appears that something in

this reduction—or equation—cannot be correct. Nevertheless,
186 • Albrecht Wellmer

the new interpretation of the biconditional (T) makes clear an

internal relation between truth and justification—which in its
correspondence theoretical interpretation is lost from view—and
which I would like once again to clarify differently. In Ludwig
Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, one finds the famous
sentence: “to understand a sentence means to know what is the
case if it is true.”4 This sentence denotes the fundamental idea
of truth-conditional semantics. Wittgenstein’s sentence says: we
understand a sentence if we know its truth conditions. For exam-
ple, we understand the proposition ‘both doors are closed’ if we
know under which conditions a corresponding assertion is true.
Now it is clear that the knowledge of the truth conditions of a
sentence p cannot be anything other than the knowledge of the
conditions under which I am entitled to assert that p. If I have
learned a language, and so long as I understand the sentences
of the language, I know, as a rule, when the conditions are pre-
sent under which I am entitled (or not entitled) to assert that p.
This knowledge is only, in part, a propositional knowledge. To a
considerable degree it is practical knowledge—a knowing how—
as the later Wittgenstein always emphasised (I can ascertain, for
example, through perception, whether the predicate ‘is closed’
applies to both doors). My knowledge of the truth conditions is,
in practical terms, a knowledge of assertability conditions. Since
the conditions under which I am entitled to assert that p are pre-
cisely the conditions under which I am entitled to assert that p
is true, and in that sense the knowledge of the conditions of
assertability is the same as the knowledge of the conditions of
truth, it would appear that truth is warranted assertability. Truth
would become thus, as one says, an ‘epistemic’ concept, which
should mean: a concept that can be traced back to ‘justification’.

Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, trans. C. K. Ogden, London,
Routledge, 1981, 4.024; translation modified.
The Debate About Truth: Pragmatism without Regulative Ideas • 187

Upon closer inspection, however, something about this conclu-

sion appears to be false.

Putnam has made clear that the words ‘true’ and ‘justifiable’
(referring to assertions or convictions) cannot be equated by ref-
erence to the grammar of these words: one is entitled (has good
reasons)—under certain conditions—to believe or to assert that
p—and such reasons can later be revealed to be insufficient.
‘Justification can be lost’5—justification is relative to time or cir-
cumstances and also to people, whereas truth ‘cannot be lost’—
that is, a conviction or an assertion cannot today or for me be
true and tomorrow or for you not be. Truth is trans-subjective
and timeless. This points to an grammatical difference between
the predicates ‘is true’ and ‘is justified’,6 which would certainly

Hilary Putnam, “Reference and Truth,” in Realism and Reason: Philosophical
Papers Vol. 3, Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 1983, p. 84.
Here I employ the concept of justification in a broad sense. An assertion
can be justified in a narrower sense by reasons that stand in an inferential con-
nection with the propositional content of an assertion. In the broader sense, it
can also be justified through reference to perceptions (or, indirectly, also to the
reliability or believability of another speaker). Cf. the analogous differentiation
by Robert Brandom in Making It Explicit, Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University
Press, 1994, chps. 3 & 4. Incidentally, I concur with McDowell—differently than
Brandom, Rorty, or Davidson—that convictions are also justified through
recourse to perceptions (although I also have some reservations about the
details McDowell’s argument). Rorty’s (Sellar’s, Davidson’s, and Brandom’s)
causal interpretation (that is, elimination) of the concept of experience is, in
my opinion, only convincing insofar as it is directed against the empirical ‘myth
of the given’: namely, against the idea that ‘sense data’ or ‘sensory feelings’
could play an epistemic role in the formation of our empirical convictions. A
remainder of this idea is still found in Quine’s concept of ‘stimulus meaning’.
Now Rorty rightly points out, for instance, that Davidson—to whom, among
others, he himself refers with regard to his own causalistic elimination of the
concept of experience—has long since dismissed the Quinean version of empiri-
cism. “Davidson substitutes a ‘distal’ theory of meaning formulated in terms
of public external objects; he allows no intermediate terrain of philosophical
188 • Albrecht Wellmer

remain to be clarified. A corresponding attempt at clarification

has been undertaken, in particular, by Putnam, Habermas, and
Apel. The basic idea common to all three philosophers is as fol-

inquiry between linguistically formulated beliefs and physiology.” (Richard

Rorty, “Dewey Between Hegel and Darwin,” in Truth and Progress. Philosophical
Papers Volume 3, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1998). If the causal
interpretation of the concept of experience refers to ‘public external objects’ as
the causes of non-inferentially received convictions, then—against Davidson’s
and Rorty’s opinion—there exists absolutely no further objection to an epis-
temic role for (linguistically impregnated) experience (that is, perceptions). If
I justify my assertion that the corner window on the second floor of the house
across the street is open, with the indication that I see it (or have seen it), then
here, in my opinion, it clearly concerns an epistemic relationship between my
perception and my conviction. Granted I can also causally interpret the same
relationship, as Davidson does in the context of his theory of interpretation.
(It is the rabbit hopping by that causally brings about the conviction ‘Gavagai’
in my foreign-speaking interlocutor). But now it appears to me in this case
that the epistemic interpretation is to have conceptual precedence over its inter-
pretation as a causal relation, and this is for the following reason: to interpret
a relation as causal means to assume that we could discover something empir-
ical about the asserted causal relation. Of course, this is possible in the case of
radical interpretation because the interpreter could discover that it is not the
rabbit hopping past, but rather, something else that (the interpreter presumes)
caused the foreign speaker’s conviction expressed by his uttering ‘Gavagai’.
But what is here empirically clarified is nothing of the sort that under these or
those circumstances certain objects of the public world cause this or that non-
inferential conviction. What is clarified is, on the contrary, the question, which
is the conviction that the foreign speaker expresses (that is, what ‘Gavagai’
means). But what about the interpreter’s conviction (that there is a rabbit hop-
ping past), which is clearly already implied by his interpretation of the for-
eign speaker? As to what concerns its cause, as a rule the interpreter has no
choice (because most of his—non-inferential—convictions must also be true):
it is the rabbit hopping past (that he sees hopping past). But the ‘principle of
charity’ now says that, as a rule, the same objects will effect the same non-
inferential convictions in speaker and interpreter. The interpreter, as noted, has
no choice as to what affects him: the cause of his non-inferential conviction is
that thing he—in an ordinary way of speaking—sees (that of which he sees
that it is the case). And insofar as ‘seeing that’ is an ‘achievement’ word, he
can also occasionally be mistaken. What I am driving at is that we can only
identify the causes of our non-inferential beliefs in Davidson’s scenario (which
Rorty makes his own), in that we say what we see. And that must be—still in
Davidson’s scenario—as a rule the correct identification. Accordingly, another
method of identification of causes of our non-inferential beliefs can in principle
not be at our disposal (except if one would cross over again into ‘physiology’).
The Debate About Truth: Pragmatism without Regulative Ideas • 189

lows: if truth is internally connected with justification and never-

theless not the same as justification (here and now), then further
conditions must be stated in such a way that an assertion or con-
viction justified under such conditions would be necessarily true.
Truth would, therefore, be maintained as an ‘epistemic’ con-
cept—internally connected with the concept of justification—and
nevertheless the simple equation of the predicates ‘is true’ and
‘is justified’ would be avoided. The conditions in question would
have to be ideal conditions; and the basic idea is that an asser-
tion or conviction justified under such ideal conditions would
be necessarily true—whereas the ‘necessarily’ should give expres-
sion to a conceptual necessity. Putnam, Habermas, and Apel want
to say that this is how we understand the concept of truth (or this
is how we ought to understand it).

Let us first make clear the point of the basic argumentation strat-
egy: if one eliminated the difference between truth and justifica-
tion, there would be relativistic consequences, because it is easy
to see that in the vertical dimension of historical time, as well
as in the horizontal dimension of a plurality of cultures, situa-
tions, and contexts, many mutually incompatible convictions are
held to be true by different people, in different cultures, etc., and
all with—prima facie—good reasons. This even goes for the history
of science—it is thus not only a problem for cultural pluralism.

But then there can be nothing disreputable in the (justifying) appeal to (lin-
guistically impregnated) perceptions; on the contrary, the implication of a causal
interpretation of non-inferential convictions lead us back to the possibility of
justifying such convictions through recourse to perceptions. In reality, how-
ever, the praxis of such justification has conceptual priority over a causal inter-
pretation of non-inferential beliefs (as far as the possible identification of the
corresponding causes is concerned). The causal interpretation is not false, but
first it is compatible throughout with an epistemic interpretation, and since we
must now give the epistemic interpretation an epistemic priority over the causal
interpretation, second, the causal interpretation of the concept of experience
reveals itself to be an empty piece of rhetoric that at best can remind us that
we are, even in perception and cognition, still (linguistically skilled) natural
190 • Albrecht Wellmer

(It would be absurd to assert, for example, that not one scientist
in the past had good reasons for theories he was convinced of,
even though we might today hold these theories to be false).

The consequence of an equation of truth and justification would

be relativism, because by such an equation the contextual index
that belongs to the concept of justification (someone at a specific
time is convinced, with good reasons that . . .) would be trans-
ferred to the idea of truth: truth would be tantamount to what,
according to the respective prevailing standards of justification
for someone, or some group, is justified to be held as true. Such
a relativistic dissolution of the idea of truth appears, however,
to be incoherent.

For Putnam, Habermas and Apel, the problem to solve is: how
is the ‘absoluteness’—in the sense of timelessness and non-index-
icality—of the concept of truth to be reconciled with the con-
ceptual connection between truth and justification? The answer
from all three authors is that opinion can be called ‘true’ which
would be accepted as justified under ideal conditions—condi-
tions which would have to be further specified. Characteristic
for all three versions of this answer is the following: the ideali-
sation upon which the explanation of the concept of truth seems
to be dependent must already be operative, as pragmatically
effective, on the level of everyday communication and argu-
mentative discourse, be it as ‘necessary presuppositions’ or as
‘regulative ideas’.7

For the following criticism of the ‘Idealisation Theory’ of truth see Albrecht
Wellmer, “Ethics and Dialogue,” in The Persistence of Modernity, trans. David
Midgley, Cambridge, Mass., The MIT Press, 1991, especially pp. 175–182, as
well as Wellmer, “Truth, Contingency and Modernity,” in Endgames: The
Irreconcilable Nature of Modernity, David Midgley, trans. Cambridge, Mass., The
MIT Press 1998, 137ff.
The Debate About Truth: Pragmatism without Regulative Ideas • 191

Putnam has sought to define truth as rational acceptability under

epistemically ideal conditions.8 Against this, Habermas and Apel
have rightly insisted that the idealisation contained in the con-
cept of truth should refer not merely to ideal cognitive condi-
tions (that is, to scientific progress), but should be understood
in a more comprehensive way. Namely, if one considers the dif-
ferent dimensions of truth and validity with reference to which
we can speak of validity claims and their justifications; if one
considers further the social dimension of our justification prac-
tices and thereby, by the same token, the internal relation between
giving reasons and the attempt to bring about a consensus; then
the idealisation implicit to the concept of truth must refer to ideal
epistemic, moral, and communicative conditions all at the same
time. I restrict myself here to Apel because I believe that Apel
has worked out this idea in the most conclusive way. The idea
of truth for Apel is the idea of an ultimate and infinite consensus
of an ideal communication community.9 Truth becomes a regu-
lative idea. Here, in fact, the idea of an absolute truth appears to
be reconciled with the insight into the internal connection between
truth and justification. Whereas the concept of truth of meta-
physical realism severs this connection and thereby implies fun-
damentally the fiction of a ‘God’s eye view’ outside of our practice
of justification, one could label Apel’s position as the attempt to
inscribe something analogous to such a God’s eye view into our

For example in Hilary Putnam, Reason, Truth and History, New York,
Cambridge University Press, 1981. I think that, in the meantime, Putnam’s
position has changed (cf. his criticism of consensus theory in “Philosophy as
a Reconstructive Activity: William James on Moral Philosophy,” in eds. William
Egginton and Mike Sandbothe, The Pragmatic Turn in Philosophy: Contemporary
Engagements between Continental and Analytic Thought (not final), the State
University of New York Press, forthcoming). For the sake of a clear presenta-
tion of my argument, I refer nevertheless to Putnam’s old formulation.
Cf. Karl-Otto Apel, “Fallibilismus, Konsenstheorie der Wahrheit und
Letztbegründung,” in Philosophie und Begründung, Forum für Philosophie Bad
Homburg, ed., Frankfurt a.M., 1986, IV.1: 139–150; IV.3: 151–163.
192 • Albrecht Wellmer

practices of justification as a regulative idea. And thus Apel

claims that this idea is a constitutive regulative idea for linguistic
communication and the justification practices attached to it. The
idea of truth is at once ‘constitutive’ and ‘regulative’ in the sense
that, on one hand, the truth-orientation of linguistic communi-
cation is unavoidable, and that, on the other hand, thanks to this
unavoidable truth-orientation of linguistic communication we
know ourselves to be obliged in our discursive practice to approx-
imate ever more the rational consensus of an ideal communica-
tion community.

If one now attempts to spell out the implications of Apel’s expla-

nation of the concept of truth, it becomes clear that in it, the idea
of a final, complete, and absolute truth is short circuited with
that of a morally perfect order and that of a completely transparent
communicative situation. But this idea is, I believe, metaphysical.
It is the idea of a communication community that would have
escaped—to put it in Derrida’s words—‘play and the order of
signs’;10 it is the idea of a state of full transparency, absolute
knowledge, and moral perfection—in short: of a communicative
situation that has left behind the constraints, the opacity, the
fragility, the temporality, and the materiality of finite, human
forms of communication. Derrida has correctly pointed out that,
in such idealisations, the conditions of possibility of what is being
idealised are negated. Ideal communication would be commu-
nication beyond the conditions of ‘différance’—to speak with
Derrida—and thus communication outside of and beyond the

Cf. Jacques Derrida, “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the
Human Sciences,” in Writing and Difference, trans. Alan Bass, Chicago, Chicago
University Press, 1978, p. 292.
The Debate About Truth: Pragmatism without Regulative Ideas • 193

conditions of possibility of communication. However, insofar as

the idea of an ideal communication community includes the
negation of the conditions of finite human communication, it
also implies the negation of the natural and historical conditions
of human life, of finite, human existence. The idea of an ideal
communication community remains paradoxical even if it is only
understood as a regulative idea, to which nothing real in the
world can ever correspond; because it belongs to the meaning
of this idea that it commits us to work toward its realisation.
The paradox in this is that we would be committed to strive
toward the realisation of an ideal whose realisation would be
the end of human history. The goal is the end; ideal communi-
cation would be the death of communication. This paradoxical
structure reveals that the idea of an ideal communication com-
munity still contains a metaphysical explication of the concept of
truth, which finally does not distinguish itself from that of meta-
physical realism structurally, except through its greater subtlety.
I will return to this theme.

The result thus far is that the concept of truth cannot be explained
with the help of the idea (or even the ‘regulative idea’) of justi-
fication—or of consensus—under ideal conditions. From this cir-
cumstance, Rorty has drawn the conclusion that ‘truth’ and
‘justification’ are two different concepts that have nothing to do
with one another. What matters for us in our discursive prac-
tices—everyday practices and scholarly research—is, according
to Rorty, not truth but justification. ‘Truth’, in contrast, would
be a semantic concept, useful for formal semantics or theories à
la Davidson. In this way, Rorty wants to cut through the inter-
nal connection between truth and justification, not in the sense
of metaphysical realism—which is the actual object of his cri-
tique—but rather in that he, as it were, lets the air out of the
194 • Albrecht Wellmer

concept of truth. This corresponds to the strategy that has come

to be known as that of a ‘deflationary theory’ of truth. One could
also speak of a ‘deflationary’ interpretation of Aristotle’s expla-
nation of the concept of truth, which takes the semantic equiv-
alence of ’p’ is true if and only if ‘p’ as its starting point. One
can interpret this equivalence—as I did at the outset—such that
I am entitled to assert that ‘p’ is true to exactly the same extent
that I am entitled to assert that p. Rorty, however, does not draw
the conclusion that I had suggested earlier: namely, that truth
could be drawn back onto justification—a conclusion that, in the
end, leads to the untenable idealisation theses of Putnam, Apel
and Habermas. Rorty would on the contrary say that because
the assertion that ‘p’ is true brings nothing to the assertion that
p, since both assertions have the same content, the semantic con-
cept of truth has nothing to do with the pragmatic concept of
justification. Accordingly, the concept of truth would have pri-
marily certain theoretical (for instance, formal semantic) func-
tions and, in addition, only some rather trivial pragmatic functions
regarding the expression of agreement or disagreement11—as
when one says ‘that is true’ or ‘that is not true’—but the con-
cept of truth would have in this way lost any weight and sub-
stance, respectively. What our discursive practices are about—and
the only thing they can be about—according to Rorty, is the jus-
tification of our assertions and beliefs: not truth but justification
is the goal of inquiry.

I believe that Rorty’s considerations signify a step in the right

direction as compared to those of the ‘idealisation theoreticians’;
I wish to interpret this step, however, in a somewhat different
manner than Rorty himself does.12 To this end I would like to

I will come back to Rorty’s ‘cautionary’ use of ‘true’.
Rorty objected, in response to an earlier version of this work (in a per-
sonal communication), that I could not (in what follows in the next two sec-
The Debate About Truth: Pragmatism without Regulative Ideas • 195

stick, for the time being, to the basic intuition of Putnam, Haber-
mas, and Apel, that in order to understand the role that the
concept of truth plays for our discursive practices one must
understand not only the difference but also the internal connec-
tion between ‘truth’ and ‘justification’. Later on I will return to
Rorty’s thesis.

Next I would like to show why regulative ideas are not neces-
sary in order to explicate a normatively meaningful concept of
truth, and that the search for such an explication runs up against
a ‘grammatical error’. Herein I proceed from an internal con-
nection between truth and ways of reasoning (justification), which
could be explained by the following two theses: (a) The truth
conditions of statements are only given to us as conditions of jus-
tifiability and assertability, respectively. (b) Assertions (and in
general, convictions) are, according to their meaning—as valid-
ity claims—internally related to justification in a normative sense.
Assertions are only rightfully raised—convictions are only right-
fully held—if one can justify them. Nevertheless, to justify them
means to justify them as true. To justify the assertion (or con-
viction) that p is the same as to justify the assertion that ‘p’ is
true (and with this thesis we need not yet distinguish between
the different kinds of truth claims—empirical, evaluative, aesthetic,
hermeneutic, and moral—that we raise while speaking). That to
justify an assertion, that p, means to justify it as true, is the prag-
matic explanation of the semantic equivalence, ‘p’ is true = if p.
As soon as we explain the Tarskian equivalence pragmatically
in this way, it becomes clear at once that, in order to completely
explain it, we must take into account the difference between the

tions) simultaneously call upon Brandom and argue against a deflationist con-
cept of truth. I will attend to this objection further on (see section 11).
196 • Albrecht Wellmer

perspective a first person (a speaker) has of him or herself and

the first person’s perspective on another speaker. In fact, it is valid
for me, as for any other, that to justify an assertion (a conviction)
means to justify it as true. Reciprocally, however, we do not recog-
nise justifications necessarily as valid, such that in the difference
in perspective between two speakers there emerges the differ-
ence between something ‘held to be true’ (held as justified) and
being true (being justified).13 And as soon as this difference emerges,
without which a concept of truth is not possible, it of course also
emerges for each speaker with reference to him or herself. Thus
it appears that a gap remains between ‘justified’ and ‘true’: that
between apparent and real justification; and now one can attempt
to make explicit under which conditions a justification would
really be a justification, thus guaranteeing the truth of the so-
justified—for instance, by saying that the justification of an asser-
tion guarantees truth if it occurs under epistemically ideal
conditions or under conditions of an ideal communication com-
munity. Justification as such does not guarantee truth, rather
only justification under ideal conditions; that—so goes the mis-
leading and already criticised conclusion—is what we mean by
truth. The error of all considerations of this kind lies in the fact
that they do not take seriously the constitutive difference between
a first person’s perspective on herself and her perspective (as
that of a ‘second person’ or interpreter) on other speakers, and

I have worked out the meaning of this difference in perspective from a
somewhat different point of view in my article “Verstehen und Interpretieren,”
Deutsche Zeitschrift für Philosophie 3, 1997. Robert Brandom has shown that it
is precisely thanks to this difference in perspective that a trans-subjective space
of truth can be constituted—(cf. “Knowledge and the Social Articulation of the
Space of Reasons,” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, LV, no. 4, 1995:
903ff.). Brandom has worked out this idea in Making it Explicit, especially in
Ch. 8. Nevertheless, I have reservations concerning the reductive theory-design
in whose framework Brandom develops this idea. For a brilliant exposition of
the same idea, cf. also Sebastian Rödl, Selbstbezug und Normativität, Paderborn,
1998, especially 182ff.
The Debate About Truth: Pragmatism without Regulative Ideas • 197

instead attempt to take on a ‘meta-perspective’; that is precisely

what I called ‘metaphysical’. Let me try to show next how the
normative force of the concept of truth becomes operative through
the difference between first and second person perspectives, as
it plays itself out for each individual speaker.

If I make an assertion—hold a belief—with reasons—then I under-

stand it, with reasons, as true. That is the internal connection
between truth and justification. If, however, another makes an
assertion—holds a belief—then I can only understand this as the
assertion or conviction it is, in that I understand it with its—fac-
tual or possible—reasons. I can only ascribe convictions to another
insofar as I can understand them as rationally tied together with
reasons, evidences, and other convictions. But here to under-
stand beliefs or assertions as being based on reasons does not
necessarily mean to understand them as true. To ascribe to
another’s reasons does not necessarily mean to recognise these
reasons as sound. My reasons—whatever I accept as good rea-
sons—are eo ipso good reasons (that is a comment on the gram-
mar of ‘good reasons’); this should mean that for me the justified
beliefs are necessarily the true beliefs. With reference to another
person, however, his or her ways of reasoning are not necessar-
ily sound from my perspective, and the corresponding convic-
tions not necessarily true. This should not mean that I exclude
myself from the sphere of fallible beings, since the same goes
for every other speaker in the I-perspective. That my reasons are
eo ipso good reasons, that my reasoned convictions are neces-
sarily true convictions, should only mean that what makes sense
as a persuasive reason to me is precisely for that reason a per-
suasive reason for me.14 I cannot place myself outside of my con-
victions, reasons, and evidences; if I doubt, that only means that

For the connection between ‘justification’ and the ‘I-perspective’ cf. Sebastian
Rödl, ibid., 96ff.
198 • Albrecht Wellmer

I do not feel myself persuaded by the reasons available to me,

that they are, for me, (still) not persuasive reasons. And of course
I know not only—by understanding myself as, so to speak, the
other of another—that the justifications which I give to another
will not necessarily be recognised by him or her as sound; rather
I also know that what I hold as a reasoned truth may appear to
me at some later time—perhaps on the basis of new experiences
or counter-arguments that I am confronted with—as not (really)
justified. This knowledge, however, alters nothing of the fact that
what is true for me is,15 respectively, what I take to be as justi-
fied belief.

What I hold as reasoned truth deserves agreement: truth is trans-

subjective. And if I argue for my conviction, I wish to bring
about, with reasons, such an agreement. In this sense, a rational
consensus is the telos of argumentation. But ‘rational’ here means
precisely: reasoned, and that means: similarly reasoned for all
those taking part. We can give no criteria for rational consensus
other than this: that precisely all those taking part are similarly
persuaded by good reasons. Since, however, what ‘good reasons’

One could take offence at the formulation ‘true for me’, after I claimed
that the grammar of ‘true’ does not allow such a formulation. My answer to
this (possible) objection has two parts: (1) in the present context it is a ques-
tion of there always being certain speakers who recognise something as true
(or justified). Thus one could also say that the differentiation between justifi-
cation as context-relative and truth as non context-relative is insofar mislead-
ing as, of course, the ‘taking-to-be-true’ is just as context relative as the
‘taking-to-be-justified’. This is also the reason, if I see it correctly, why Rorty
holds the concept of truth in the pragmatic context of our justification prac-
tices to be dispensable. Against this I will try to show to what extent the con-
cept of truth nevertheless plays a constitutive role in this context (see section
11). (2) As long as I have not shown this, the above-mentioned objection must
be taken seriously, because my arguments up to now leave open the possibil-
ity of a general fallibilistic reservation. Such a general fallibilistic reservation
would have as a consequence, however, that the only choice we would have
left would be between Apel and Rorty.
The Debate About Truth: Pragmatism without Regulative Ideas • 199

are can only be shown in that they compel us towards an agree-

ment, a consensus can never be the criterion that what we have
before us are good reasons. The concept of a ‘good reason’ is
attached, in an irreducible way, to the perspective of the one
‘persuaded’ by good reasons. One cannot describe from a meta-
perspective which ‘qualities’ reasons must have in order to be
really good reasons. To call reasons ‘good’ is not the ascription
of an ‘objective’ quality, rather it is the adoption of an attitude
with normative consequences. These reasons compel me to accept
that p as true. And naturally these are often the reasons that
another brings up; in this sense, linguistic communication is,
among other things, also a medium for progress in knowledge.


The answer to the question ‘why do you believe that?’ or ‘by

what right do you assert that?’ is the giving of reasons or evi-
dence. This shows that ‘asserting’ and ‘believing’ are internally
geared to the giving and asking for reasons. And to show that
an assertion—a conviction—is justified means to show that it is
true. Since for every speaker, however, there exists a difference
between the first person’s perspective on him or herself and the
first person’s perspective on another, there also exists a differ-
ence between ‘justified’ and ‘true’. What another holds as true,
with reasons, may not be true (that is, I may not recognise it as
true if their reasons do not convince me or if I have good oppos-
ing reasons myself). What I, however, myself hold with reasons
as true, I recognise eo ipso as true. I cannot position myself between
my (good) reasons and my affirmation of something as true. But
if it is correct that a trans-subjective space of truth can only be
constituted by way of an irreducible difference between the per-
spectives of different speakers, this also means that consensus
and dissent are equiprimordial: just as every controversy about
truth claims has its telos in an uncoerced consensus, so does
200 • Albrecht Wellmer

every consensus carry in itself the seed of new disagreements.

And this now means: truth, as encompassing various perspectives
is, simultaneously, essentially controversial. That truth is trans-
subjective means that truth is, at the same time, contested. The
fight around truth is the element in which truth has its being, a
being that compels us ever further to rediscover truth, to take a
position in the space of truth, to give and accept reasons. Only
against the background of a cooperative fight around truth are
shared convictions possible which are taken to be justified by all
those who share them. In this context, the idea of a final, ultimate
consensus makes no sense: because it would be the idea of a ces-
sation of that dialogue and dispute in which truth has its being,
it would be the idea of an end of truth.


I now return to Rorty’s thesis that the disquotation theory of

truth contains everything elucidating that can be said about the
concept of truth. I wish to explain in what sense I believe this
thesis to be prima facie plausible, and in what sense I believe it
to be false. It is plausible insofar as ‘truth’ cannot mean a property
of assertions or convictions like ‘agreement with a reality exist-
ing in itself’ or ‘the possible content of a rational consensus under
ideal conditions’. Actually, it does not designate, as Brandom
has convincingly shown, a ‘property’ of assertions or convictions
at all. On the contrary we call ‘true’ those assertions or convic-
tions that we take to be justified: taking-to-be-true is a taking-a-
position in a social space of reasons and not the ascription of a
mysterious property. This is exactly what appears to speak for
Rorty’s thesis that the concept of truth plays (or should play)
absolutely no role in our justificatory practice. Since we call ‘true’
precisely the justified assertions or convictions—and one could
be of the opinion that my reflections (directed against the ‘ide-
alisation theorists’) on the constitutive connection between a
The Debate About Truth: Pragmatism without Regulative Ideas • 201

trans-subjective space of truth and a plurality of social perspec-

tives can be just as well formulated with the help of the concept
of justification—then the ‘recognising-as-(really)-justified’ would
precisely move into the place of the ‘recognising-as-true’.
Nevertheless, Rorty’s thesis appears false to me. I would now
like to show that the concept of truth is significant for our dis-
cursive practices in that it makes explicit a central trait of these
practices.16 If this demonstration is successful, this means that
the concepts of truth and of justification mutually point to and
demand one another.

What is it about our discursive practices that is made explicit by

the concept of truth? The key to answering this question is, I
believe, the fact, emphasised by Rorty and Putnam, that ‘justifi-
cation’ has a time and person index, which does not hold for the
concept of truth. Whereas Rorty, however, seeks to trivialise the
‘non-indexicality’ of the concept of truth, I see in it a clue that
in the concept of truth a constitutive trait of our assertion and
justification praxis is revealed: namely, that the timelessness and
non-indexicality of the concept of truth make explicit what the
implicit meaning of asserting and justifying is. Even though jus-
tification always has a time and person index—which is easily
made clear by reflection on our justification practices—nevertheless

Michael Williams, in a an article on “Meaning and Deflationary Truth”
(The Journal of Philosophy, XCVI, no. 11 [1999]), has argued for an expressive role
of the concept of truth: “For a disquotationalist, ‘true’ offers a way of replac-
ing talk about the world with logically equivalent talk about words. This move
to the level of talk about words (‘semantic ascent’) gives us new things to gen-
eralise over—that is, linguistic objects, sentences—thereby enabling us to express
agreement and disagreement with sentences that we cannot specify: for exam-
ple because we do not know what they are (‘What the president said is true’)
or because there are too many of them (‘Every sentence of the form “P or not
P” is true’)” (547). This, I believe, corresponds to Rorty’s position. Against this
I would like to point to an ‘explicitating’ (Brandom’s term) role of the concept
of truth, which is not reducible to an “expressive” role in Williams’ sense.
202 • Albrecht Wellmer

the justification of assertions or convictions from the perspective

of those who bring forth such justifications is in no way meant
as having a time or person index: where they argue for asser-
tions or convictions, they raise—as one can say with the help of
the concept of truth—context-transcending and trans-subjective
truth claims. To express a conviction would not be what it is
were it not at least implicitly already the expression of a context-
transcending truth claim. And this is exactly what is made explicit
by the non-indexicality of the concept of truth.

Rorty once said that he himself has never raised a context-tran-

scending truth claim.17 This is of course not an empirical, but
rather a meaning-critical (sinnkritische) thesis. It expresses in
another way what Rorty also explains as the ‘cautionary’ use of
‘true’, when he says, “that the entire force of the cautionary use
of ‘true’ is to point out that justification is relative to an audi-
ence and that we can never exclude the possibility that some
better audience might exist, or come to exist, to whom a belief
that is justifiable to us would not be justifiable.”18 This is Rorty’s
version of fallibilism; and a lot, it seems to me, hangs on it.
Namely, if it were correct then one could say: since taking-to-
be-true itself is plainly context-relative, even the non-indexical-
ity of the concept of truth cannot help us to get beyond particular
justification contexts (as it certainly cannot), and therefore the

Nevertheless, he says such things as these: “Large-scale astrophysical
descriptions of [the solar system, A.W.] are, if true at all, always true. So if
Kepler’s description is right now, it was right before Kepler thought it up.”
(“Charles Taylor on Truth,” in Truth and Progress, p. 90.) And, “It was, of course,
true in earlier times that women should not have been oppressed, just as it
was true before Newton said so that gravitational attraction accounted for the
movements of the planets.” (“Feminism and Pragmatism,” ibid., p. 225.) One
need only reverse the temporal direction of these sentences to see what a ‘con-
text-transcending truth-claim’ is: it is the kind of truth-‘claim’, like Kepler and
Newton raised it in their time, as they formulated and justified their theses
(namely, as true).
Richard Rorty, “Is Truth a Goal of Inquiry?”, ibid., p. 22.
The Debate About Truth: Pragmatism without Regulative Ideas • 203

idea of a context-transcending truth claim could look like a piece

of empty rhetoric. However, I believe that Rorty’s version of fal-
libilism is false. I will return to this shortly.

First, however, back to my thesis that the disquotation schema

of truth in no way shows us everything there is to say about the
place of the concept of truth in our assertion and justification
praxis. In a first step I argued that we ourselves only understand
this schema correctly when we relate the concept of truth as
‘making explicit’19 back to our assertion and justification practices.
If we do this, however, we can furthermore show that we only
then correctly understand the role of the concept of truth when
we make clear to ourselves in what way the truth-value of state-
ments is dependent on—and varies with—a ‘truth-enabling’ con-
ceptual background or ‘vocabulary’, an interdependence which
may be spelled out in two ways: (1) On the one hand, vocabu-
laries and conceptualisations are always already potentially at
stake in the debate about the truth of propositions, and can also,
hence, at any time—in spectacular or in inconspicuous forms—
become the object of the debate about truth. Rorty’s own re-
flections on the difference between ‘inferential’ and ‘dialectical’
forms of argumentation20 point, in my opinion—despite Rorty’s

If I use an expression of Brandom’s here, I am doing so—as already indi-
cated—not exactly in Brandom’s sense, since my intention is to make clear a
mutual relation of explication between ‘truth’ and ‘justification’. This is incom-
patible with a reductive theory-design. In fact, I should say: I (as a philoso-
pher) try to make explicit how the concept of truth is built into our discursive
practices. However, I believe that what I here say about the concept of truth
as ‘context-transcending’ corresponds in some way to what Brandom says
about the concept of objectivity as one of ‘perspectival form’: “What is shared
by all discursive perspectives is that there is a difference between what is objec-
tively correct in the way of correct concept application and what is merely
taken to be so, not what it is—the structure, not the content.” (Making It Explicit,
p. 600.)
Cf. For instance Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, Cambridge,
Cambridge University Press, 1989, pp. 12, 78: “the ironist’s preferred form of
204 • Albrecht Wellmer

intentions—to a corresponding connection—which means, how-

ever, to the necessity of a broadened understanding of proposi-
tional truth. I have tried elsewhere21 to show in more detail that
‘inferential’ and ‘dialectical’ forms of argumentation in Rorty’s
sense designate only two extreme poles of argumentation, which
in all interesting forms of argumentation are always already tied
up together. This means, however, that we only correctly under-
stand the debate about the truth of propositions when we recog-
nise that it is potentially always already tied together with a
debate about the appropriateness of the vocabularies in which
assertions and convictions are formulated. Turned around this
means that what is at stake in the debate about the appropri-
ateness of language is always also the truth of our beliefs, such
that we thus do not correctly understand the role of the concept
of truth when we understand truth values as being ultimately
determined by a specific vocabulary.22 (2) On the other hand—as
Wittgenstein in my opinion showed in On Certainty—‘paradigms’
of doubt-free assertions and beliefs are also always already given
in every language or, to speak with Heidegger, every form of
‘disclosure’, beliefs which require no justification, but which
rather define the elementary conditions of possible justification.
Some of these beliefs may not be situation-specific, like “the earth
already existed long before my birth,”23 others may be beliefs,

argument is dialectical in the sense that she takes the unit of persuasion to be
a vocabulary rather than a proposition” (p. 78).
In a piece entitled “Gibt es eine Wahrheit jenseits der Aussagenwahrheit?”
in eds. Klaus Günther und Lutz Wingert, Die Öffentlichkeit der Vernunft und die
Vernunft der Öffentlichkeit. Festschrift für Jürgen Habermas, Frankfurt am Main,
From this it follows, of course, that the inferential concept of justification,
which I have invoked in the preceding considerations, is too narrow in real-
ity to help us to an appropriate concept of possible argumentation.
Ludwig Wittgenstein, On Certainty, trans. Denis Paul and G. E. M. Ascombe
New York, Harper & Row, 1969, § 203. “. . . we are interested in the fact that
about certain empirical propositions no doubt can exist if making judgements
is to be possible at all” (§ 308). And: “What stands fast does so, not because it
The Debate About Truth: Pragmatism without Regulative Ideas • 205

like “there’s a hand there,”24 about which one can quite easily
be mistaken, ‘only’, as Wittgenstein says, “not in particular cir-
cumstances”—in circumstances, to be sure, which cannot, as
Wittgenstein adds, exactly—in the sense of a rule—be specified
in advance.25 “The truth of my statements,” says Wittgenstein,
“is the test of my understanding of these statements.”26 And, “the
truth of certain empirical propositions belongs to our frame of
reference.”27 If I have until now assumed that we call ‘true’ those
beliefs that we take to be justified or recognise as justified, then
I have spoken above all about beliefs that are the possible object
of a controversy. Wittgenstein, in contrast, is concerned with
beliefs about which we cannot say what the meaning of a con-
troversy (a doubt) should be. We assume them to be justified,
without really being able to justify them. And that means that
they are truth ‘paradigms’.

Granted, the linguistic ‘frame of reference’ is also, as has already

been emphasised above, never safe from revision—“The mythol-
ogy may change back into a state of flux, the river-bed of thoughts
may shift”;28 nevertheless—and this seems to me the point of
Wittgenstein’s considerations—nothing about the ‘structural’ trait
of our truth praxis is changed by any of this: namely, that cer-
tain paradigmatic truths that we presuppose without justifica-
tion as certain, define the elementary conditions of a possible
justification of beliefs. This means, however, that without such
‘truth paradigms’, standards of justification are not thinkable.
And this further means that the concept of justification is not

is intrinsically obvious or convincing, it is rather held fast by what lies around

it” (§ 144).
Ibid., § 32.
Ibid., § 25, § 27.
Ibid., § 80.
Ibid., § 83.
Ibid., § 97.
206 • Albrecht Wellmer

explainable independently of those of truth and certainty.29

Granted, this presupposes that the ever-present possibility of a
revision of vocabulary also does not justify a general, fallibilis-

One could object that what was said under (1) does not go together with
what was said under (2): Wittgenstein speaks of changes in language like
changes in nature (“the river-bed of thoughts may shift”), he can thus also eas-
ily say: “When language-games change, then there is a change in the concepts,
and with the concepts the meanings of words change” (Ibid., § 65). But that
means: in all language games something is undoubtably certain and some-
thing else is not, and what is certain and what is not changes with the chang-
ing of the language game. Against this I have spoken, with Rorty, of another
kind of changing of language games, one in which the invention of new vocab-
ularies is critically related to problems, incoherences, or dead ends—which an
established vocabulary has led to. Here then the language change is of the sort
that relates critically to the respective established language. Only from such a
perspective a problem emerges that in Wittgenstein’s description of language
changes cannot emerge at all: I mean the problem of a generalised fallibilistic
reservation, which both Apel and Rorty—the latter with the idea of a ‘cau-
tionary’ use of the concept of truth—postulate as necessary. For Apel this reser-
vation holds for all convictions with the exception of those which are ‘ultimately
grounded’; for Rorty it holds—just as for Davidson—in the sense that although
not all of our convictions can be false, any one taken individually may turn
out to be false. Were a general fallibilistic reservation—be it in Rorty’s or in
Apel’s version—justified, it would have to also incorporate Wittgenstein’s
doubtless ‘certainties’ and my references to Wittgenstein could appear to be
somehow displaced. Against this I believe that Wittgenstein’s considerations
contain arguments against both versions of a generalised fallibilism which I
have mentioned. I don’t want to speak here of Apel’s theses concerning an
“ultimate grounding of certain necessary presuppositions of rational discourse,”
which I have elsewhere criticised (“Ethics and Dialogue,” 182ff.); in what fol-
lows I will refer only to Rorty’s version. What Wittgenstein’s considerations
show, in my opinion, is that not any one of our convictions taken individually
can be false. As far as a particular, relatively stable system of reference is con-
cerned, this appears to be trivial, because—as Wittgenstein shows—it can still
only ever turn on an axis of non-doubtable convictions. Everything depends,
therefore, on what happens when ‘vocabularies’ are revised or new vocabu-
laries invented—when, hence, the ‘river-bed of thoughts’ shifts not merely in
a natural sense but rather in the context of a controversy about truth. In this
way, certainly, as I assumed above, many truths believed to be certain may be
put in question; but for the ‘empirical’ certainties discussed by Wittgenstein
as paradigmatic this cannot hold in the same sense as it does for common
errors or hypotheses, which can be revealed to be false. This is what I am argu-
ing for in the main text, and this is also what, in my opinion, makes an unqual-
The Debate About Truth: Pragmatism without Regulative Ideas • 207

tic reservation, as Rorty expresses it when he speaks of a ‘cau-

tionary’ use of the concept of truth. The ‘contextualistic’ aspect
of our use of the concept of truth in no way makes it a victim
of a fallibilistic devaluation. If Rorty believes that each one of
our beliefs may turn out to be unjustified, this also means—
despite Rorty’s Davidsonian protest, according to which most of
our beliefs must be true—that all of our beliefs (not all at once,
but certainly successively) could turn out to be unjustified. If
one wants to avoid this consequence—which is certainly incom-
patible with Rorty’s Davidsonianism—then one must admit that
the ‘truth paradigms’ of which I have spoken cannot in any case
be revisable in the same sense as all those (possibly) controver-
sial beliefs that one actually means when one formulates a fal-
libilism principle. If we, for instance, take the conviction that the
Earth existed long before my birth—of which Wittgenstein says
that to put it in question means to put in question the possibil-
ity of historical or natural-historical research (and we must ask
ourselves, how we should ever do that)—it would still be think-
able that our concept of ‘Earth’ and the network of inferential
relations with which it is tied up could change. But the practi-
cally relevant kernel of that (common) conviction would in no
way be put into question—which is in some ways comparable to
the case of Newtonian physics, which in the limited domain in
which it had proven itself a thousandfold, was in no way put in
question by the scientific revolution of quantum physics or of
relativity theory, but rather remained valid as their limiting case
(cf. Bohrs ‘correspondence principle’). Precisely from a pragmatist

ified fallibilism incoherent. The problem with a generally formulated fallibil-

ism principle with reference to the truth of statements is, in my opinion, that
it tosses together into one pot completely different cases of a possible revision
of concepts and convictions without differentiating among them. If one does
not do so, then one cannot, as Rorty does, say in general: “that we can never
exclude the possibility that some better audience might exist, or come to exist,
to whom a belief that is justifiable to us would not be justified.”
208 • Albrecht Wellmer

perspective, one should not equate ‘false’ (in the sense of a prob-
lematic vocabulary) with ‘false’ (in the sense of ‘untrue’). But if
this is correct, then one should not say that each one of our con-
victions could turn out to be unjustified, but rather—if one wants
to say something general—that every vocabulary, every network
of convictions, may reveal itself to be in need of revision (and
in fact constantly does). If there were no paradigmatic certain-
ties = truths in Wittgenstein’s sense, then there would also be
no linguistic praxis with its accompanying possibility of revi-
sion. If one takes, however, what was said under (1) and (2)
together, then it becomes clear, as I believe, that a deflationist
interpretation of the concept of truth conceals constitutive traits
of our justification practices or, rather, makes them inaccessible
to an appropriate thematisation.


In closing, I wish to explain my thesis directed against Karl-Otto

Apel, that the attempt to anchor truth in the idea of an ideal
communication community is structurally analogous to the strat-
egy of the metaphysical realists. After all, one could first of all
object that idea has its place in the context of an already admit-
ted internal relationship between truth and justification, and con-
sequently merely attempts to explain the in fact barely doubtful
difference between ‘justified’ and ‘true’ in another way than I
have attempted to here. My argument for the thesis that the
explanation of that difference with help of the idea of an infinite
consensus of an ideal communication community still structurally
participates in the weakness of metaphysical realism has two
parts: the first part is of a meaning-critical kind; the ideal com-
munication community is the Nirvana of linguistic communica-
tion, therefore it makes no clear sense (just like the idea of a
world in itself, portrayed as escaping our epistemic capabilities,
makes no sense). The second part of my argument is that the con-
The Debate About Truth: Pragmatism without Regulative Ideas • 209

sensus of an ideal communication community defines a measure

of absolute truth, which is not available to any finite being as a
measure of his or her judgements. It is located beyond those
standards toward which we are factically always already ori-
ented when we call convictions true or false and reasons sound
or not. So the measure defined by Apel’s explication of truth is
a measure against which in principle no one can measure his or
her judgements and reasons. It is a measure beyond the human
capacity for knowledge and judgement, and is in this way com-
parable to the measure of a world-in-itself, of which we can in
principle not know whether our convictions and judgements are
appropriate to it. What I have attempted to show is that we don’t
need such a measure in order to understand our differentiation
between ‘justified’ and ‘true’; a measure beyond our actual judg-
ing and reasoning praxis helps us neither to better understand
this judging and reasoning praxis, nor to better orient ourselves
in it. In Wittgesteinian terms, it is like a wheel in a machine that
spins alone. To ignore it or to remove it does not threaten our
practice of raising and criticising context-transcending truth
claims. For that it is enough that we understand ourselves as
beings who, in a social ‘space of reasons’ (Brandom), and from
a respectively ‘subjective’ perspective, are compelled to take a
position whose meaning can only be explained with the help of
an inter-perspectival and context-transcending concept of truth.
But in order to understand how the latter can be coherently
thought, we would only have to bid farewell to metaphysical
understandings of such an absolute truth; and that is exactly
what I think is possible when we understand the connection
between truth and justification as I have explained it.


My conclusion thus runs: truth is not a regulative idea. The

attempt to replace a metaphysical correspondence theory of truth
210 • Albrecht Wellmer

with an epistemic concept of truth—with the expectation that

truth and justification (or truth and consensus) will coincide, not
here and now but rather under ideal conditions—will not lead
us out of metaphysics. Truth and justification coincide with ref-
erence to the making of judgements and the holding of beliefs,
but not in reference to the ascription of judgements and beliefs
to others. From this ‘grammatical’ difference result both the nor-
mativity and trans-subjectivity of truth, as well as the ‘contested’
aspect of truth.

Apel has always believed that the only alternative to ‘truth-abso-

lutism’—as he sought to explain it through the idea of an ideal
communication community—is a relativistic-historicist dissolu-
tion of the concept of truth. But I believe this is an optical illu-
sion. What is common to Apel’s and the relativistic position is
the attempt to look at our truth practices from a standpoint out-
side these practices. The relativist tries to step out of the truth
game while playing it at the same time––of course, at the cost
of a performative contradiction. Against this, Apel would like
to make it clear to the relativist that he or she absolutely cannot
coherently do this because one must always already stake a claim
to a non-relativistic concept of truth in order to deny it. And this
argument appears correct to me. The problem lies in Apel’s next
step: when he attempts to prove to the relativist that he or she
must always already have recognised a concept of absolute truth—
which Apel explains with the help of the concept of an idealised
communication community—he opens up for the relativist a
breathing space for a meta-critique: namely, if the ideal com-
munication community turns out to be a metaphysical fiction,
then this means—presupposing that the relativist accepts Apel’s
proof—that the idea of an absolute truth is merely the expres-
sion of a transcendental illusion that surrounds our discursive
practices. And this was in fact exactly what the relativist wanted
to say. Perhaps at this point I could be allowed to cite myself:
as I said in “Ethics and Dialogue,” it is likely
The Debate About Truth: Pragmatism without Regulative Ideas • 211

that the problem of relativism is merely the abiding shadow of an

absolutism which would like to anchor the truth in some
Archemedean point lying outside the world of our actual discourse.
Relativism in this connection, would be the reminder that there
can be no such Archemedean point. But if it is true that we can
hold fast to the idea of truth without the aid of such an Archimedean
point, then at the same time as we take our leave of absolutism,
we can also bid farewell to its shadow, relativism.30

What I have tried to show is that we in fact need no such Archeme-

dean point in order to save the normative power of truth.

“Ethics and Dialogue,” 180f.
Dieter Freundlieb

Why Subjectivity Matters: Critical Theory and the

Philosophy of the Subject*

The significance of subjectivity for philosophy was not discov-

ered for the first time by René Descartes—St. Augustine and
even earlier Greek philosophers in the Stoic tradition had already
explored subjectivity to a certain extent. But it is widely accepted
today that it was Descartes who launched a new paradigm in
philosophy, a paradigm often referred to as either the philoso-
phy of consciousness (Bewußtseinsphilosophie), the philosophy of
the subject, or, as Jürgen Habermas sometimes prefers to call it,
the ‘mentalist paradigm’. Subjectivity as a grounding principle
for all philosophical system building, especially for all knowl-
edge claims, was subsequently made the focal point by both
Kant and the post-Kantian idealists Fichte and Schelling, though
both Fichte and Schelling later discovered the limitations of any
philosophy that relies entirely on the subject as ultimate ground.
With Hegel’s move from subjective to objective idealism the role
of subjectivity became more complicated and less clear than in
Schelling’s and Fichte’s systems.1 There is no need, however, to
address this difficult issue in this paper.2

* This article was first published in Critical Horizons, vol. 1, no. 2, 2000.
See the ground-breaking work of Klaus Düsing, Das Problem der Subjektivität
in Hegels Logik, Bonn, Bouvier, 1995. See also the earlier piece by Konrad Cramer,
“‘Erlebnis.’ Thesen zu Hegels Theorie des Selbstbewußtseins mit Rücksicht of
die Aporien eines Grundbegriffs nachhegelscher Philosophie,” Hegel-Studien,
Beiheft 11, 1974, pp. 537–603.
As is well known, Habermas claims that in spite of a promising initial
move by Hegel to overcome the mentalist paradigm, he never managed to
Why Subjectivity Matters • 213

With the collapse of German Idealism around the middle of the

nineteenth century, the subsequent rise of positivism and, in the
early twentieth century, of analytic philosophy, subjectivity was
removed from centre stage. It had retained some of its centrality,
of course, in neo-Kantianism and moved to the forefront again
in Husserl’s phenomenology. But this revival was short-lived.
Soon Heidegger was to interpret the philosophy of subjectivity
as a central part of the history of Western metaphysics, a history
Heidegger wanted to overcome. Its focus on the subject was seen
as a manifestation of the subject’s preoccupation with self-preser-
vation (Selbsterhaltung) and self-empowerment (Selbstermächtigung)
which prevented it from addressing the prior and ultimately
more important question of Being. Today it is often argued that
Heidegger and the ‘linguistic turn’ have once and for all made
the philosophy of the subject obsolete. Interestingly, this view is
shared by two otherwise opposed contemporary schools of
thought: postmodern philosophy and Critical Theory. The once
fashionable dictum about the ‘death of the subject’ was never
quite true, of course, and philosophers such as Jacques Derrida
always claimed to be reconfiguring the subject, not abandoning
it altogether. Nonetheless, in both postmodern philosophy and
Critical Theory the subject is usually thought of as somehow
‘constituted’ by language, albeit in different ways and by dif-
ferent mechanisms.

In spite of the strong anti-subjectivist currents that have reigned

since the end of German Idealism, there are now signs that the
philosophical sensibility is shifting. After some early attempts
in the late 1960s the last twenty years or so have seen a genuine
return to the subject and to subjectivity as a focus of philosophical

leave it behind. The most recent occasion on which Habermas makes this
claim is his essay “From Kant to Hegel and Back again—The Move Towards
Detranscendentalization,” European Journal of Philosopy 7, 1999, pp. 129–157.
214 • Dieter Freundlieb

interest. This has occurred in at least two areas: analytic philos-

ophy of mind3 and in the work of Manfred Frank and Dieter
Henrich, two major German philosophers engaged in the explo-
ration of the connections between German Idealism and analytic
philosophy of mind.4 In my paper I will draw freely on their
work because I believe it is of crucial importance for the future
of Critical Theory and for social philosophy in general. In fact,
both Frank and Henrich have already begun to investigate some
of the consequences of the return to subjectivity for Critical
Theory,5 but further work needs to be done if the full implica-
tions of the new approach are to be drawn out and recognised.
Before I begin to show in some detail why subjectivity matters
for Critical Theory, let me briefly indicate why analytic philoso-
phers have focussed on subjectivity and why they found that it
cannot be reduced to something else, either naturalistically or

From the late 1960s, a number of analytic philosophers became

convinced of the irreducibility of subjectivity when they applied

The main figures here are Hector-Neri Castañeda, Roderick M. Chisholm,
Gareth Evans, Thomas Nagel, John Perry, and Sydney Shoemaker. See also the
volume entitled Analytische Theorien des Selbstbewußtseins, ed. Manfred Frank,
Frankfurt am Main, Suhrkamp, 1994.
Henrich is best known for his path-breaking historical analyses of German
Idealist philosophy. But he has also produced important systematic work and
work that is both historical and systematic. Frank is known in the Anglo-
American world for his critique of poststructuralism but he is now also recog-
nised as a world authority on the philosophy of early German Romanticism.
See Manfred Frank, “Wider den apriorischen Intersubjektivismus. Gegen-
vorschläge aus Sartrescher Inspiration,” in Micha Brumlik & Hauke Brunkhorst,
hg., Gemeinschaft und Gerechtigkeit, Frankfurt am Main, Fischer Verlag, 1993,
pp. 273–289, “Subjektivität und Intersubjektivität” in Frank, Selbstbewußtsein
und Selbsterkenntnis, Stuttgart, Reclam, 1991, pp. 410–477, and “Selbstbewußtsein
und Argumentation” Amsterdamer Spinoza-Vorträge, July, 1995, Assen, Van
Gorkum, 1997. Dieter Henrich has openly criticised Habermas in his “Was ist
Metaphysik—was Moderne? Zwölf Thesen gegen Habermas” in Henrich,
Konzepte, Frankfurt am Main, Suhrkamp, 1987, pp. 11–43.
Why Subjectivity Matters • 215

their linguistic analysis to deictic expressions such as ‘here’, ‘this’,

and ‘now’, including, in particular, the personal pronoun ‘I’ and
the peculiar kind of self-reference it makes possible. It quickly
became obvious that indexicals such as ‘here’ and ‘now’ can only
be fully understood in relation to a first-person perspective, that
is, a consciousness with regard to which something is physically
or temporally close. Furthermore, analytic philosophers of mind
such as Hector-Neri Castañeda argued that knowledge of the
self cannot be analysed in terms of concepts we use to refer to
objects. He also maintained that reference to objects is only pos-
sible on the basis of a previous acquaintance with ourselves in
self-consciousness, a point Fichte had made more than a hun-
dred and fifty years earlier.6 This knowledge by the self of itself
as subject is not the result of an identification but a form of direct
and incorrigible awareness or knowledge. As Manfred Frank has
pointed out, from the early 1980s a number of analytic philoso-
phers (for example, Gareth Evans) realised that not all philo-
sophical problems can be reformulated as problems of language.
Several analytic philosophers of mind acknowledged that self-
consciousness is pre-propositional and that knowledge of the
self as self cannot be reduced, to use more technical terms, to
either de re or de dicto attitudes.7 Rather, as David Lewis, in spite
of his materialist leanings, argued, self-consciousness must be
conceived as a de se attitude.8 Self-consciousness is not knowl-
edge of an object and it is pre-propositional. As early as 1968,
Sydney Shoemaker had maintained that self-reference cannot
proceed on the basis of the perception model of knowledge

Castañeda, “ ‘He’: A Study in the Logic of Self-Consciousness,” Ratio 8,
1966, pp. 130–157; and “Self-Consciousness, Demonstrative Reference, and the
Self-Ascription View of Believing,” in ed. James E. Tomberlin, Philosophical
Perspective 1 Metaphysics, Atascadero, Ridgeview, 1987, pp. 405–454.
“Vorwort,” Analytische Theorien des Selbstbewußtseins, p. 21.
See his “Attitudes de dicto and de se” in Lewis, Philosophical Papers, Oxford,
Oxford University Press, 1983, vol. I, pp. 133–159.
216 • Dieter Freundlieb

because perception requires a subject that perceives an object.9

And such perceptions are always fallible. But in the case of a
subject being aware of itself, observational fallibility is impossi-
ble. We can be mistaken in many ways when we look at ourselves
as persons with certain attributes, but we cannot be mistaken
about our own identity as thinking subjects. Thus in his essay,
“Personal Identity: A Materialist’s Account,” Shoemaker had
argued that perceptual self-knowledge always presupposes non-
perceptual acquaintance with oneself.10

It is obvious even from this very brief sketch that the philoso-
phy of subjectivity is alive and well within contemporary ana-
lytic philosophy. This is why Habermas’ view according to which
the mentalist paradigm has become obsolete as a consequence
of the linguistic turn simply does not stand up to scrutiny. On
the contrary, there are many signs that a return to subjectivity
as a philosophical issue is still on the increase.11 But why did
Habermas reject what he calls the philosophy of the subject in
the first place? For Habermas (who, it seems to me, is only now
beginning to address the relevant issues)12 the philosophy of the
subject is primarily associated with the metaphysical program
of German Idealism, though his critique is directed at virtually
all its continental varieties. His critique basically focuses on two
aspects. The first one is his rejection of the philosophy of the
subject as a foundationalist program. Even in very recent work
he argues that the philosophy of the subject is wedded to the

“Self-Reference and Self-Awareness” reprinted in Shoemaker, Identity,
Cause, and Mind: Philosophical Essays, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press,
1984, pp. 6–18.
In Shoemaker and Richard Swinburne, Personal Identity, Oxford, 1984,
p. 104.
D. Henrich has recently diagnosed the current situation in his essay
“Inflation in Subjektivität?”, Merkur 586, 1998, pp. 46–54.
Frank, personal communication.
Why Subjectivity Matters • 217

ideal of epistemic certainty. In his 1996 essay on Richard Rorty,

for example, he writes:
The ideas of “self-consciousness” and “subjectivity” imply that the
knowing subject can disclose for itself a sphere of immediately
accessible and absolutely certain experiences if, rather than focussing
directly on objects, it turns its attention, in an indirect fashion, to
its own representations of objects. . . . The epistemic authority of
the first-person perspective is sustained by three paradigmatic
– That we know our own mental states better than anything else;
– That the acquisition of knowledge proceeds essentially on the
basis of the representation of objects;
– And that the truth of judgements is supported by apodictic

Now the first point to be made about Habermas’ comment here

is that in its generality this characterisation of the philosophy of
the subject is simply incorrect. The incorrigibility of self-refer-
ence does not entail that the philosophy of the subject is com-
mitted to the ideal of epistemic certainty. Habermas’ description
seems to fit late nineteenth century positivism much better than
the philosophy of the subject. Even as a description of the admit-
tedly foundationalist program of German Idealism Habermas’
statements are very questionable. In any case, in a sense Habermas
is tilting at windmills here because his critique of German Idealism
as a form of foundationalism is widely accepted by his critics.
Philosophers like Dieter Henrich and Manfred Frank, while draw-
ing extensively on German Idealism for their own philosophy
of subjectivity, have been arguing all along that the renewal of
a philosophy of the subject is not necessarily linked to any foun-
dationalism and should in fact abandon any such attempt. As
Frank has demonstrated in great detail, the early Romantic

J. Habermas, “Rorty’s pragmatische Wende,” Deutsche Zeitschrift für
Philosophie 5, 1996 (my translation).
218 • Dieter Freundlieb

philosophers and writers, especially Hölderlin, Friedrich Schlegel,

and Novalis, never subscribed to the foundationalist program
launched by Fichte.14

Habermas’ second, and in our context more important point, is

that he believes that the idealist philosophy of self-conscious-
ness is tied to a subject-object model of knowledge and that it
cannot, therefore, account for the kind of non-objectifying knowl-
edge the critical social sciences aim for. What Habermas calls the
‘performative attitude’, that is, the attitude of a communicating
subject to another subject, is non-objectifying but crucial for the
entire Habermasian project. This is where the real differences
between Habermas and his critics arise. Habermas thinks he can
show that the whole of Kantian and post-Kantian philosophy of
the subject is caught in a certain network of concepts from which
it cannot escape and which makes it impossible to conceive of
the performative attitude adopted by subjects oriented towards
mutual understanding.

Habermas reiterates this critique on numerous occasions, but the

following examples will suffice to illustrate the point. The phi-
losophy of consciousness, he claims, is based “on an epistemic
model oriented towards the perception and representation of
objects,” and it operates with a concept of the subject that is
“directed towards objects and that turns itself into an object
through reflection.”15 Similarly, he claims that in Fichte’s phi-
losophy subjects can only be conceived as “objects for them-
selves”16 and that Fichte dissolves intersubjective relations into

M. Frank, Unendliche Annäherung. Die Anfänge der philosophischen Früh-
romantik, Frankfurt am Main, Suhrkamp, 1997.
“Die Philosophie als Platzhalter und Interpret,” in Moralbewußtsein und
kommunikatives Handeln, Frankfurt am Main, Suhrkamp, 1983, p. 17.
J. Habermas, Nachmetaphysisches Denken, Frankfurt am Main, Suhrkamp,
1988, p. 199.
Why Subjectivity Matters • 219

“subject-object relations.”17 In a very recent paper he combines

the critique of the alleged foundationalism of the mentalist par-
adigm with his critique of the subject-object model. He describes
self-reflection as the subject’s representing of its own represen-
tations of objects through introspection and argues that this search
for the origins and conditions of knowledge operates with a con-
cept of truth as “subjective evidence or certainty.”18

These criticisms are rather surprising because surely Habermas

is aware that even in Kant the transcendental self is not and can-
not be conceived of as an object of knowledge since it is pre-
cisely this ‘highest point’ in Kant’s architectonic which makes
knowledge of objects possible for a unitary subject. But Habermas
seems to assume that the philosophy of the subject is somehow
wedded to the subject-object model because it just cannot say
how the subject itself is knowable and therefore has no other
choice than to fall back on the subject-object model. To be sure,
Habermas points to a real problem here because it is true to say
that Kant has great difficulties in trying to explain, in what he
calls a ‘transcendental deduction’, how we can know the subjective
conditions of factual knowledge. Habermas seems to assume
that the philosophy of the subject is faced with a dilemma: it is
committed to a reflection model of self-consciousness, that is to
say, to a model according to which the self knows itself by turn-
ing back on itself. But this means that it looks at itself as an
object, which by definition it is not, and which it could not even
recognise as itself if it were not already acquainted with itself in
some other way before bending back on itself. Habermas claims
that this dilemma only became obvious in Fichte’s Wissenschafts-
lehre. Thus he writes: “If the representation of an object is the

Ibid., p. 200.
“From Kant to Hegel and Back again—The Move Towards Detranscenden-
talization,” European Journal of Philosopy 7, 1999, p. 131.
220 • Dieter Freundlieb

only mode in which we can gain knowledge, a self-reflection

that operates as a representation of my own representings could
not but turn the transcendental spontaneity that escapes all objec-
tification into an object.”19

Post-Kantian philosophers, including Fichte, tried to solve this

problem by postulating, at various points in their intellectual
careers, what they called ‘intellectual intuition’, that is, a non-
sensory but at the same time non-conceptual access to the self
by itself, that is to say, a form of knowledge that is not a mode
of representing. We will have to come back to this question of
how the self can know itself in a moment because it is crucial
for a critique of Habermas. But first I would like to look at one
more aspect of Habermas’ criticisms.

He argues that the philosophy of the subject is committed to an

inherently paradoxical dualist ontology. There is the knowing
subject that stands over against a world of objects. But at the
same time the subject is itself an object in the world. This dual
position of the subject has been dealt with in two ways. Attempts
have been made to either reduce it naturalistically, as has hap-
pened in the empiricist tradition from Hume to Quine, or else
it can remain in its paradoxical position as both immanent and
world-transcending as is characteristic of the idealist tradition
of transcendental philosophy from Kant to the present. Habermas
claims that Dieter Henrich is committed to this second alterna-
tive, but like his idealist predecessors he is unable to solve its
inherent problems.20 Habermas is obviously alerting us to a
conundrum here that has plagued transcendental philosophy
from its inception. How can we solve the problem arising from
Kant’s doctrine of the two realms, the realm of the phenomenal

Ibid., p. 132.
See Habermas, Nachmetaphysisches Denken, p. 27.
Why Subjectivity Matters • 221

and the realm of the noumenal that according to Kant we simul-

taneously inhabit? According to Habermas we can only solve,
or rather dissolve, the problem by switching paradigms. We need
to abandon the philosophy of the subject and move on to the
linguistic paradigm. But is this the only option we have? And
does it really get rid of the problems we want to get rid of?

Habermas knows that reflective theories of self-consciousness

are circular, but he refuses to countenance the possibility that
the knowledge the self has of itself might be a genuine form of
knowledge but nonetheless escape the subject-object model, a
form of knowledge that is pre-propositional and in fact the nec-
essary epistemological basis for any further propositional knowl-
edge of the self and the external world. This is precisely Henrich’s
and Frank’s point. Since we cannot possibly deny the fact that
there is self-consciousness, and since reflection theories are
inescapably circular, we must postulate a basic epistemic self-
relation which is sui generis in the sense that it cannot be con-
ceived of within the subject-object model of knowledge. This is,
of course, what the German Idealists had in mind when they
talked about intellectual intuition. Habermas refuses to consider
the possibility of such a subjective basis for knowledge because
he is convinced that all knowledge must be propositional or con-
ceptual. He probably fears that if we abandon the idea of the
linguistic nature of all knowledge his crucial concept of com-
municative rationality is at risk of suffering serious damage. For
Habermas sees rationality and rational justification as reason
giving, and reason giving can only be performed through mak-
ing statements. Like Donald Davidson he thinks that “nothing
can count as a reason for holding a belief except another belief.”21
And beliefs are always considered to be propositional.

D. Davidson: “A Coherence Theory of Truth and Knowledge” in Truth and
Interpretation: Perspectives on the Philosophy of Donald Davidson, hg. von Ernest
LePore, Oxford, Blackwell 1986, p. 310.
222 • Dieter Freundlieb

This conception of reason giving is unacceptable, however, because

it suffers from a fatal flaw: it cannot explain what the validity
of those statements or beliefs consist in which function as the
ultimate premises of an argument. This is why several analytic
philosophers have recently argued that statements expressing
beliefs must be grounded in pre-propositional perceptual knowl-
edge.22 And such knowledge always has its basis in subjective
experience and is therefore only accessible from a first-person
perspective.23 An appeal to publicly available linguistic entities
like propositions or statements does not help since their valid-
ity (or at least the recognition of their validity) depends on both
a unitary subject and its pre-propositional experience. Habermas
has always claimed that the move from the mentalist to the lin-
guistic paradigm brought with it the methodological advantage
that it replaces subjective evidence with publicly available lin-
guistic entities.24 But this has turned out to be an illusion. The
validity of statements must be recognised by individual subjects
whose judgement crucially depends on their own experiences.
A first conclusion we can draw, then, is that subjectivity matters
to Critical Theory because it shows that the epistemic validity
claims that figure so prominently in theoretical discourses must
be anchored in the subject. What it means to make a knowledge
claim and how it can be validated cannot be explicated at the
level of pragmatics because any such attempt presupposes cog-
nising subjects with privileged access to their own subjectivity.

For example William Alston and Laurence BonJour. See William Alston,
“Perceptual Knowledge,” in The Blackwell Guide to Epistemology, ed. by John
Greco and Ernest Sosa, Oxford, Blackwell, 1999, pp. 223–242, and Laurence
BonJour “The Dialectic of Foundationalism and Coherentism,” pp. 117–142 in
the same volume.
This has serious consequences for Habermas’ consensus theory of truth.
For example in the recent essay by Jürgen Habermas, “Richtigkeit vs.
Wahrheit. Zum Sinn der Sollgeltung moralischer Urteile und Normen,” Deutsche
Zeitschrift für Philosophie 46, 1998, p. 189.
Why Subjectivity Matters • 223

But let me now turn to Dieter Henrich for whom subjectivity

can still function as a philosophical principle as long as we avoid
the foundationalism that was once associated with this idea. Let
me give you a brief outline of his philosophy of subjectivity.

In line with German Idealism, but without attempting to renew

the idealist program of ultimate foundations, Henrich argues
that philosophical reflection needs to start from an analysis of
subjectivity because a philosophically tenable understanding of
ourselves and our place in the world, of truth and objectivity,
must first engage in an analysis of the subjective presupposi-
tions of knowledge. So, what he proposes is obviously a version
of transcendental philosophy. But while Kant had identified tran-
scendental apperception, that is, the ‘Ich denke’, as the ‘highest
point’ in his epistemology, he had failed, according to Henrich,
to analyse sufficiently the intrinsically and irreducibly complex
structure of the knowing self-relation, even if we have to con-
cede Kant’s point that the epistemic self-relation cannot be fully
explained theoretically, and that our attempts at its elucidation
cannot avoid getting caught in a certain kind of circularity. Henrich
claims that such an elucidation shows the epistemic priority of
the self-relation in which the subject is aware of its identity with
itself. Its identity is in fact constituted by the irrefutable iden-
tity, over time, of its ‘I’-thoughts (Ich-Gedanken). Henrich also
points out that in the case of ‘I’-thoughts thinking and being
coincide, that is, the ‘I’ exists as a thinking self. In other words,
it is normally always possible that what I think about does not
exist. But this is not possible in the case of ‘I’-thoughts.

Henrich also argues, following Leibniz and Kant, that our sense
of what is real in the world is in fact derived from the immedi-
ate experience of the reality of our own existence. This is what
ultimately supports and from which we derive our sense of what
else is real, apart from our own self. As a consequence, he believes
224 • Dieter Freundlieb

that an analysis of the self-relation shows that the objective world

can never be conceived of as entirely independent of ‘I’-thoughts,
that is, that we cannot refer to objects in the world except on the
basis of a prior self-consciousness, a point made by Fichte but
also, as Manfred Frank has pointed out and as I mentioned ear-
lier, by analytic philosophers of mind such as Hector-Neri
Castañeda.25 In this sense, our account of the world contains an
irreducibly idealist moment. At the same time, however, our
striving for knowledge always goes beyond a world of objects
whose basic structure is constituted by subjective conditions of
knowledge. Here Henrich sides with post-Kantians such as
Schelling who likewise argued that we need to go beyond Kant’s
view that we can only know a world of phenomena.

According to Henrich, as we have just seen, an analysis of the

knowing self-relation shows that ‘I’-thoughts imply a belief in
the existence of a world of objects. In other words, the epistemic
self-relation is inconceivable without a simultaneous relation to
an already (partially) disclosed world that is not a mere exten-
sion of the self.26 This is the indispensably realist aspect of
Henrich’s philosophy, a characteristic that sets it off against the
radical idealism of the early Fichte.

At the same time, as embodied subjects, we know that we are

not just a subject but a spatio-temporally situated person in the
world and thus an object among all other objects in the world,

M. Frank, “Psychische Vertrautheit und epistemische Selbstzuschreibung,”
in Denken der Individualität. Festschrift für Josef Simon, ed. by Thomas S. Hoffmann
and Stefan Majetschak, Berlin & New York, de Gruyter, 1995, p. 74.
In his analysis of Schelling’s Die Weltalter, Wolfram Hogrebe argues that
reference to objects in the world is only possible on the basis of a ‘pre-seman-
tic’ cognitive relation between self and world. I take this to be a similar point
to Henrich’s argument. See Hogrebe, Prädikation und Genesis, Frankfurt am
Main, Suhrkamp, 1989.
Why Subjectivity Matters • 225

even though we know that the relation between the subject and
its bodily existence as a person is not of the same kind as the
relation between the subject and external objects. But, as is the
norm in the case of external objects, we normally do not have
privileged knowledge of what we are as persons with bodies.
Also, since we know ourselves as individual subjects, we know
that there can be other such subjects. Subjectivity and intersub-
jectivity are therefore co-terminous.

Far from being self-sufficient or completely transparent to itself,

the subject is aware that it has not created itself and is dependent
on a ground that supports its existence. This ground, however,
cannot be conceived on the basis of a materialist or purely nat-
uralist ontology. In other words, the reality of the subject for the
subject cannot be understood entirely as that of a material object
in the world. The ground we depend upon can therefore not be
conceived of as the (material) cause of our existence. An analy-
sis of the knowing self-relation makes us aware of the ground.
But at the same time the ground remains beyond our cognitive
reach in the sense that while it can be thought, it cannot become
an object of (objectifying) knowledge (Wissen).

An analysis of the self-relation makes us realise that we are not

at home in the world in the sense that our ‘natural’, philosoph-
ically unaided, understanding of the world does not make avail-
able an internally consistent ontology but presents us with
incompatible ontologies, especially the ontology of subjectivity
and free agency, on the one hand, and that of things or objects
and their relations in the external world, on the other. In Henrich’s
view, this is one of the main reasons for the need for philoso-
phy. Once we recognise that our situation in the world is inher-
ently precarious and lacks clear orientation and full intelligibility,
the need for a revisionary metaphysics (in Strawson’s sense) and
a certain kind of speculative thinking becomes inescapable. In a
226 • Dieter Freundlieb

sense, what we need is a new kind of Vereinigungsphilosophie as

it was postulated by Hölderlin and the early Hegel, a philoso-
phy that can unify what seem to be incompatible ontologies and
the conflicting tendencies of life they give rise to.

According to Henrich, all philosophy which rightfully bears this

name arises from and, once developed, should reconnect with
existential questions and uncertainties that emerge from the
incompatibilities of the ontologies we are confronted with in our
‘natural’ understanding of the world. By doing this, philosophy
should be able to give our lives guidance and orientation, though
without imposing any particular doctrine upon us. And while
conflicting but equally legitimate orientations and tendencies
arise unavoidably from within our natural understandings of
the relation between the self and the world, it is the task of phi-
losophy to attempt to reconcile or at least come to a final assess-
ment of the conflicts that arise from within ‘conscious life’
(bewußtes Leben), that is, a life led by and in accordance with (reg-
ulative) ideas in a Kantian sense. Historically, the major religions
of the world have offered such existential orientation, but they
have always given priority to only one of the conflicting ten-
dencies and are therefore inherently unstable. A naturalistic sci-
entific worldview, on the other hand, cannot make the whole of
reality intelligible either. An all-encompassing naturalism such
as the one underlying most of analytic philosophy (paradig-
matically manifest in the work of Quine) must be taken seriously,
but it cannot possibly give a complete account of the world (espe-
cially not of naturalism itself as an explanatory approach to the
world). Only philosophy, if anything, will enable us to analyse
and assess the conflicting tendencies and to give an account of
how that which naturalism leaves out of consideration can be
accommodated within a more comprehensive understanding.

What is required then, according to Henrich, is a philosophy

which is monistic in its ontology and guided by the neo-Platonic
Why Subjectivity Matters • 227

idea of the ‘hen kai pan’, that is, the notion that the diversity and
multiplicity of the world ultimately derives from an all-encom-
passing unity of which everything is and remains a part. Only
such a monistic ontology would allow us to see ourselves as
actually belonging to and having a meaningful place within the
world. And he sees the enduring achievement and contempo-
rary relevance of German Idealism in its attempt to develop new
conceptual frameworks (Begriffsformen) and a monistic ontology
that could make our precarious and intellectually puzzling place
in the world intelligible. As in the case of German Idealism, a
contemporary version of such a philosophy has to be meta-
physical in the sense that it needs to develop a speculative form
of thinking which transcends and unites existing but incompat-
ible ontologies.

Now let me return to Habermas and Critical Theory. As we have

seen, Habermas assumes that the problems of the philosophy of
the subject can be avoided by moving from the mentalist to the
linguistic paradigm. But if what both analytic philosophers of
mind and Frank and Henrich are saying has any validity, Haber-
mas’ paradigm shift is neither justified nor does it solve the prob-
lems it is intended to solve. For a start, Critical Theory, unlike
some postmodern conceptions of the subject, needs an autono-
mous subject qua social agent. But there is no systematic account
in Habermas’ work of such a subject because for Habermas the
subject is a product of social interaction. When he tries to explain
the constitution of the subject, intersubjectivity takes priority
over subjectivity. He believes subjectivity to be the result of a
process of a communicative exchange with other persons. But
this is getting things the wrong way around. His attempt to
analyse the emergence of self-consciousness and the subject on
the basis of George Herbert Mead’s theory of social interaction
cannot succeed, even if Mead’s theory is refined in the way
Habermas suggests it must be. As Frank has shown, such attempts
always presuppose the notion of a subject that is already familiar
228 • Dieter Freundlieb

with itself before it can understand and adopt the perspective

of a co-subject with whom it interacts through communication.27
Just as the subject cannot identify itself by looking at its image
in a mirror unless it already knows itself as an identical subject,
the subject cannot first learn that it is a subject by being ap-
proached by another subject. Subjectivity is not reducible to the
effect of a communicative exchange with others. The develop-
ment of a personal identity in the social-psychological sense of
this term is of course very much dependent on our interaction
with others. But this development can only proceed on the basis
of a sense of identity that cannot be learned from being exposed
to others. This also means that the ‘performative attitude’ which
Habermas believes he can somehow deduce from an analysis of
basic presuppositions of speech acts is ultimately explicable only
from within the philosophy of the subject that Habermas rejects.
Only a subject standing in the kind of knowing self-relation that
Henrich has been trying to elucidate is capable of adopting a
performative attitude. That it is being addressed as a subject, is
again, not something the subject can learn by listening to the
speech acts performed by others, even if they are directed at him
or herself.

In a similar way it can be argued that subjectivity matters in the

field of ethics, including the discourse ethics developed by Critical
Theorists. The subject knows itself as an agent who can act on
the basis of freely accepted norms. It cannot conceive of itself as
a mere object in a material world governed by natural laws. The
basic principles of Habermas’ discourse ethics, which again he
claims can be rationally reconstructed from the presuppositions

See for example Frank, “Subjektivität und Intersubjektivität” in Frank
Selbstbewußtsein und Selbsterkenntnis, pp. 410–477. See also Frank, “Die Wiederkehr
des Subjekts in der heutigen deutschen Philosophie” in Frank, Conditio mo-
derna, Leipzig, Reclam, 1993, pp. 115–6 and “Against a priori Intersubjectivism”
in this book.
Why Subjectivity Matters • 229

of communication, would be unintelligible to a subject that does

not already understand itself as free and therefore acting within
a space of norms and reasons, not the space of natural laws. In
this sense Kant was right when he talked about a ‘fact of rea-
son’ that is not open to any further explanation. In fact, one could
argue that both our sense of what is real and our sense of what
ought to be are part of a basic self-understanding that makes
factual and normative knowledge possible. They are conditions
of possibility and hence not reducible to a result of social learning.

The notion of the recognition of and by other subjects that plays

such a prominent role in Habermas’ (and Axel Honneth’s) social
philosophy is then also only intelligible if it is anchored in a the-
ory of the subject, that is, a subject that is both capable and in
need of recognition. What needs to be recognised is a subject of
a certain kind. And if recognition is to be ethically meaningful,
it must be of a subject that knows itself as not entirely socially
constituted but also as not entirely self-created.

This becomes clearer once we take some of Henrich’s further

considerations into account. As we have seen, Henrich argues
that the subject is faced with a fundamental uncertainty about
its origin as well as an uncertainty about how it can make its
own position in the world intelligible given that it encounters
several incompatible ontologies. The ‘knowing self-relation’ (wis-
sende Selbstbeziehung) as Henrich calls it opens up different and
equally valid possibilities of leading a meaningful life. And the
irreducible self-reflexivity of the subject allows the subject, at
least in principle, to distance itself from any conceivable self-
interpretation. The formation of a personal identity, which of
course, always proceeds within the context of an ongoing inter-
action with others, must be seen as both self- and other-directed.
Even more importantly perhaps, the subject which has to lead
its life and which therefore needs to arrive at a reasonably stable
230 • Dieter Freundlieb

self-interpretation, even if much of its life might be taken up

with trying to arrive at such a self-interpretation, will not be able
to do so if it sees itself as no more than a social agent. It will
want to know how it can conceive of itself as occupying a mean-
ingful place not just in its social environment but as a human
being in a cosmological environment of which it will always
have a very limited understanding. It is in this sense, too, that
subjectivity matters to social philosophy.

Social philosophy must incorporate a philosophy of the subject

that conceives of the subject as much more than a social being. If
Critical Theory requires a standard by which it evaluates the
chances for self-realisation that a social order offers its members,
then that standard must take into account the fact that subjects
are in need of existential orientation. This does not mean, as
Habermas often fears, that philosophy should take on the role
religion once played and impose its own conception of the good
life on the rest of the community. Rather, it means that philoso-
phy must elucidate options for self-realisation and self-inter-
pretation that would not otherwise be available. Social philosophy
cannot pretend to be neutral in this regard anyway because it
will always operate with a certain conception of the subject,
whether this is made explicit or not. And whatever the open or
underlying conception might be that it fosters, its conception
will inescapably have an effect on the self-interpretation of sub-
jects. For how we think about ourselves is in part what we are
or what we are in the process of becoming. Self-interpretations
do not leave the subject unchanged. This is another important
reason why subjectivity matters.

It is becoming increasingly clear that Critical Theory cannot right-

fully ignore conceptions of the good life and concentrate instead
on procedural and universal conceptions of morality or justice.
Axel Honneth, for example, has argued that what is needed is
Why Subjectivity Matters • 231

at least a formal notion of a post-traditional ethics (formale

Sittlichkeit).28 But if Henrich is right, it would seem to follow that
we even require a return to a certain kind of (non-foundational)
metaphysical thinking in philosophy, a philosophy that clarifies
the options available to a subject seeking answers to significant
and unsettling existential questions. These options can only be
developed if we overcome the incompatible ontologies that pre-
vent us from constructing a coherent self-interpretation. Perhaps
we must look out not just for pathologies of the social but for
pathologies of social philosophies. Habermas regards the differ-
entiation of reason into different domain-specific rationalities as
a cognitive gain of modernity. But he does not offer a plausible
way in which a higher, reunified reason can adjudicate between
competing rationalities. Henrich is not in a position to provide
any easy solution to this problem either. But it must be acknowl-
edged that he has seen the problem with great clarity. In a rather
bold move, he even hints that we may not be able to make much
progress unless we rethink the idealist notion of the Absolute as
a grounding concept for an overarching monistic ontology.29
Whatever we might think of this move—and so far it remains
undeveloped in Henrich’s work—it seems to point in the right
direction. Habermas has not been able to avoid the problem of
incompatible ontologies built into his own conceptual frame-
work. And his commitment to what he calls the postmetaphys-
ical role of contemporary philosophy prevents him, it seems,
from even addressing the issue.

There is at least one thing the history of philosophy has taught

us. Problems don’t go away by being ignored. Subjectivity and
the question of how it fits into a unifying view of the world is

A. Honneth, The Struggle for Recognition, Cambridge, Polity Press, 1994.
Henrich, Dieter “Die Zukunft der Subjektivität,” p. 9, Internet http://www.
232 • Dieter Freundlieb

one of the problem areas of philosophy and human understanding,

including social philosophy, that cannot be kept at bay for too
much longer. This is especially true of Critical Theory since with-
out addressing these problems it cannot do what it has always
aimed to do: provide a normative standard by which society is
to be judged.
Dieter Henrich

Subjectivity as Philosophical Principle*1

Translated by Dieter Freundlieb

More than two hundred years have passed since an entire philo-
sophical movement focused on the knowledge that allows us to
form an originary epistemic relation to our own self. We can
refer to this knowledge as self-consciousness (Selbstbewußtsein).
However, the word Selbstbewußtsein is also used to signify a ten-
dency to emphasise one’s own accomplishments and qualities2
or else a reflective attitude towards one’s own behaviour, a ten-
dency which already presupposes the existence of what philoso-
phers mean by ‘self-consciousness’. This is why there were good
reasons for philosophers to associate this knowledge with the
use of the personal pronoun ‘I’ and to make our elementary
knowledge of ‘the Self’ a primary focus of philosophy.

The philosophical attention that was devoted to the self did not
just happen however, because self-consciousness is a significant

* This article was first published in Critical Horizons, vol. 4, no. 1, 2003, and
was translated by Dieter Freundlieb with permission from the author.
This essay is based on an Inaugural Lecture given by Dieter Henrich on,
13 November 1997, at the Humboldt University in Berlin on the occasion of
the honorary professorship the University awarded him. The essay was orig-
inally published in Deutsche Zeitschrift fuer Philosophie 46, 1998, pp. 31–44. It
was then republished in Dieter Henrich, Bewusstes Leben, Stuttgart, Reclam,
1999, pp. 49–73.
This applies to the German word Selbstbewußtsein. The English word ‘self-
consciousness’ does not have these connotations. ‘Self-assuredness’ is closer to
‘Selbstbewußtsein’ in this respect (translator’s note).
234 • Dieter Henrich

and fascinating fact, and because its explication seems to demand

the development of peculiar and previously unavailable con-
ceptual resources. There were two further reasons which turned
the philosophical movement concerned with knowledge of the
self into a philosophy of the subject: the thought of an ‘I’, our
own self, offered itself as an ultimate evidentiary ground upon
which all further knowledge could be based. And the special
nature that could be attributed to this thought opened up the
prospect of enabling us to deduce from it the entirety of what
can be known through a chain of deductive steps, a chain that
would eventually link up with itself. An outline of a new science
presented itself that would surpass in its systematicity even math-
ematical knowledge.

Indeed, a further expectation seemed to be well-founded—the

hope that since the epistemic self-relation was considered self-
sufficient and explicable from within itself, the thought of
an Absolute might find its best and perhaps its only possible
explanation if it was modelled on the epistemically accessible

At the university that is today called the Humboldt University,

the philosophical movement that focused on the self developed
into a world philosophy as Marx called it in a letter to his father,
and from which he in vain attempted to escape. Fichte, the first
Rektor of this university was the first to give this philosophy a
distinct shape. This is what Hegel said about it in his Berlin
Lectures: “Fichte, by starting from the ‘I’, does not, in the man-
ner of Kant, proceed in a narrative fashion; this is what makes
him so eminent. Everything must be derived from the ‘I’.”
Schelling gave the second of his early writings the title On the I
as Principle of Philosophy. I would like the reverberations of this
work to be heard within the theme of this lecture. For I wish to
raise again the question: in what way can philosophy as a whole
Subjectivity as Philosophical Principle • 235

gain a profile and a point of view by taking its departure from

the knowledge of our own self?

And yet, while the theme of my lecture indicates that I wish to

reconnect with the intentions that informed the work of the three
most eminent philosophers who have taught at this university,
working through this theme means to present, in outline, a con-
trasting project. If two hundred years after the beginning of
Fichte’s philosophy of the subject one wishes to start again from
subjectivity as a principle, then what is required are justifica-
tions that demonstrate a connection with, and their relevance to,
contemporary philosophical problems and issues. Similarly, a
renewed philosophy of the subject must not risk being exposed
to the fundamental suspicion, so eloquently formulated by
Heidegger, that the act of theoretical violence of which Fichte’s
work was accused from the beginning, results from a deeper
underlying error, that is to say, from the conviction that we can
lead a human life only on the basis of acts of the universal objec-
tification of everything there is and finally on the basis of an act
of self-empowerment. In formulating and conceiving its funda-
mental principle a renewed philosophy of the subject will there-
fore try to bring itself into harmony with our experience and
awareness of human limitations and ambivalence, an experience
which in itself is the reason why a self-consciously conducted
life, a life concerned, in Plato’s sense, with itself, gets drawn into
philosophising in the first place.

When we look ahead towards undertaking such a contrasting

philosophical program two things may be emphasised: subjec-
tivity can only be regarded and function as a principle if the ele-
mentary knowledge we have of our own self allows us to reach
a variety of conclusions which clarify basic facts better and solve
problems more convincingly than if we choose any other prin-
ciple as a point of departure. That does not mean, however, that
236 • Dieter Henrich

in the course of such a deductive procedure a system can be

derived of the kind of which the erstwhile philosophers of
the subject proved to be masters, but about which they offered
what proved, in the end, to be unredeemable promises. The con-
nection between the principle (Prinzip) and the conclusions that
follow from it must and can be of a different kind than the demon-
stration that all facts with regard to which something follows
are already contained in the principle and can therefore be derived
in their entirety from it. In fact, the principle as such must be
conceived in a different way. The great Berlin professors took it
for granted that the principle, though by no means simple, was
transparent to itself and that it was self-explanatory. The second
property was the presupposition for their assumption that the
philosopher would be able to comprehend it adequately and
completely, and it was the reason why they regarded it as the
paradigm case of a well-defined thought of the Absolute, that is
to say, of the self-explicating ground of everything there is. It
will become obvious, however, that we can no longer take their
assumption for granted. Furthermore, we will try to show that
nonetheless, and perhaps for that very reason, subjectivity can
still serve philosophy as a fundamental principle.

Such an attempt, however, faces numerous opposing though

influential views and arguments. They support the thesis that
the philosophy of the subject is a form of philosophical thinking
that belongs to the past. Today, so the argument goes, philoso-
phy should take an approach that is anchored in intersubjectiv-
ity and especially in language, that is to say in areas of support
and heuristic promise which the philosophy of the subject will
never find congenial. Nonetheless, in what follows this pre-
judgement will be rebutted as well.

It is obvious that the design of a profile of a philosophy of the

subject that can be defended today can only be advanced in out-
Subjectivity as Philosophical Principle • 237

line and in the shape of a number of main theses. However, in

comparison with a more fully developed design and its realisa-
tion, such a sketch still has the same significance as an archi-
tectural draft. One just needs to be able to see that the solidity
of the edifice, and thus the strengths of its foundations, have not
been lost sight of during the process of planning. To be sure, for
nearly fifty years now every kind of philosophy of the subject
has been regarded as standing in diametrical opposition to the
dominant tendencies of contemporary thought. No matter how
internally conflictual these tendencies were, they all came together
in the view that the problems of the philosophy of the subject
were either easy to solve or obsolete. And its general orientation
was seen as incompatible with the most important philoso-
phical insights and of no benefit to any of the most interesting
philosophical problems. Logical positivism, analytic philosophy,
pragmatism, and a whole spectrum of recent forms of phenom-
enology and social philosophy uniformly agreed in their rejec-
tion of the philosophy of the subject. If the possibility and the
indispensability of a philosophy of the subject, or perhaps even
a philosophy that would regard subjectivity as a philosophical
principle, was to be demonstrated again and in a novel fashion,
one had to be prepared to take on the role of the outsider and
the hopelessly outmoded.

However, during the last two decades the situation and the
chances of a philosophy of the subject of just this kind have
become more propitious. The fact that some American philoso-
phers had begun to support such a project was only one factor
in this development. Two philosophical disciplines that, on the
face of it, would have appeared to be most inimical to the phi-
losophy of the subject began to recognise the significance of its
themes: analytic philosophy and the philosophers concerned
with the results of the neurosciences. Without addressing these
developments in detail we can state that one no longer needs to
238 • Dieter Henrich

feel off-side when one tries to re-establish the validity of a phi-

losophy that regards subjectivity as a principle and that wishes
to regain an audience for it.

For the moment I would like to address in some detail the prob-
lems one faces and the results one gets if our elementary knowl-
edge of the self is to be set up as a philosophical principle. In a
second somewhat programmatic step I will move on to the con-
clusions and applications that can be gained from this principle.

Problems arise the moment we ask questions about the kind of

knowledge that allows us to form a cognitive relation to our own
self within the realm of what we know. The terrain of problems
that comes into view when we begin to ask such questions is
not illuminated by the objectifying light that shines on and assists
the investigation of observable objects of formal systems. It is a
terrain of problems all of its own that we have to enter if we wish
to remain in control of an investigation of that which forms the
starting point of all our understandings of the world. And we
need to be aware that what forms our starting point remains
with us and supports us at every turn of our path to a compre-
hensive understanding. In taking our point of departure from
our knowledge of the self we face the constant danger of going
astray or of running into a dead end. This is why, in the case of
such an endeavour, questions regarding the adequacy of philo-
sophical procedures become even more pressing than is usual
whenever foundational philosophical problems are being debated.
As a result, we encounter uncertainties that a boldly affirmative
style might disguise but cannot, in the end, alleviate. What com-
pensates us for these uncertainties, however, is the prospect of
gaining an insight into the conditions of all philosophising and
the basic condition of a consciously led life.
Subjectivity as Philosophical Principle • 239

If our aim is an investigation into the first and most basic knowl-
edge we have of our own self, contemporary analytic philoso-
phy of language suggests that we should pay attention to the
system of personal and possessive pronouns we find in our lan-
guage. In fact, the philosophy of the subject has always estab-
lished its credentials by looking at the use of such pronouns as
the examples of Descartes’ ‘cogito’, Kant’s ‘I think’, and what
Fichte called the ‘absolute I’ demonstrate. No doubt, this phi-
losophy will remain indebted to such investigations. It is easy
to recognise the key role of ‘I’ within the system of pronouns
when it comes to articulating our knowledge of the self in sen-
tences. For the primary indexical expressions ‘here’ and ‘now’
already presuppose that the position of the speaker who relates
to himself by the pronoun ‘I’ has been fixed. ‘You’ and ‘we’ as
well imply that individuals have knowledge of themselves and
can refer to themselves. To be sure, the ‘I’ is part of the pronom-
inal system. But its priority in the case of the determination of
the semantics of ‘here’ and ‘now’ indicates that the mutual depen-
dency of the personal pronouns does not imply that they are all
of equal weight within the system.

Now it would be illegitimate to conclude from all this that our

capacity for the rule-governed use of the personal pronoun ‘I’
was a precondition for our self-knowledge or that the knowl-
edge of ourselves consisted in its use as if in some kind of soli-
loquy. One can see that this is entirely misleading when one
realises that the capacity for the correct use of personal pronouns
is acquired rather late in the linguistic development of the child.
The reason for the late acquisition of the system of personal pro-
nouns is not just that it requires the abstract realisation that one
can use the same word to express something about oneself that
others use when they make a statement about themselves. Similar
accomplishments are frequently achieved in other areas of early
language acquisition. A more plausible explanation for the late
240 • Dieter Henrich

acquisition of the use of the pronoun ‘I’ is that in using ‘I’ we

indicate to others that we are addressing them from the perspective
of our own self-relation. This means that the use of this word
already presupposes a reflective relation to our self-relation and
not just the self-relation itself. The semantic analysis of the use
of the pronoun ‘I’ can in fact demonstrate that its use can only
be made intelligible on the basis of a prior self-consciousness on
the part of the speaker.

It follows from this that we cannot avoid articulating our thoughts

with the help of personal pronouns such as ‘I’ and ‘me’ when
we analyse the epistemic self-relation. At the same time, however,
we must be clearly aware of the fact that this self-relation cannot
be reduced to the actual use of personal pronouns. That the rela-
tion exists prior to the use of pronouns and actually informs
their use justifies, though not without some critical caveats, our
attempt to elucidate the relation via an analysis of the use of per-
sonal pronouns. But the fact that the self-relation cannot be
reduced to the use of pronouns also makes our caveats neces-
sary. The indispensability of the reservations we have has the
significant benefit that it prevents the investigation of the epis-
temic self-relation from being treated as a problem that poses
only a small risk. At the same time our reservations make the
proposal of bold but simplistic solutions difficult, solutions that
appear to expose as untenable all obscurantism in the analysis
of the self. For example, the remark that when a speaker uses
the pronoun ‘I’ he refers to himself as speaker, a remark designed
to put an end to any further analysis, does not really contribute
anything to an understanding of the epistemic self-relation.

We encounter different kinds of difficulties when, having gone

through the procedures applied by analytic philosophy of lan-
guage, and having thus sharpened our analytical tools, we move
on to an explanation of the constitution of our self-knowledge,
that is to say, the self-knowledge that underlies our use of per-
Subjectivity as Philosophical Principle • 241

sonal pronouns and which, as can be shown, forms the foundation

for any understanding of language and any intelligent use of
language. The classic philosophers of the subject were only par-
tially aware of those difficulties and paid only partial attention
to them. And one can only hope to get a grip on those difficul-
ties if one is prepared to engage in a lengthy process of moving
between ideas designed to solve the problems and bouts of self-
doubt, all the while attempting to delve deeper into the prob-
lems and being aware of one’s own perspective on those problems.
In our deliberations we will concentrate on two bundles of dif-
ficulties. For what can be learned from these difficulties will yield
results that have consequences for the status of the philosophy
of the subject. They will also tell us something important about
the conclusions to which the philosophy of the subject might
come as far as its content is concerned.

It is not difficult to describe many natural events by employing

an unproblematic notion of ‘self-relation’: birds lift themselves
up into the air, plants supply themselves with nutrients, and
leaves even have the capacity to turn themselves around to adjust
their position in accordance with the changing angle of incidence
of sunlight. In many of these cases it is only our way of describ-
ing things that makes us attribute a self-relation to these phe-
nomena when in fact no such relation exists within them. In any
event, none of these cases are cases of a knowing self-relation. As
soon as we begin to ponder these, we are faced with numerous
embarrassing enigmas peculiar to this kind of relation.

One difficulty has now been widely recognised. It arises from

the fact that we can only speak of true self-knowledge if the
knower not only has, as a matter of objective fact, knowledge of
something that is himself but knows that what he knows is indeed
himself. But now it seems that this is another fact that must be
known by the knower. If we then ask the question what self-
knowledge actually consists in, we end up in a logical circle of
242 • Dieter Henrich

the Baron Munchhausen type. What turns knowledge into self-

knowledge is a requirement that is necessary at each step of the
way so that it can never be fulfilled. Conversely, one may ask of
what one has knowledge if one has knowledge of oneself. Here
a complementary circle familiar from the fairy tale of the hare
and the hedgehog arises. Any one who makes an attempt at a
self-attribution must already have an awareness of the receiver
of this attribution as the one who attributes something to himself.
So any such attribution concerns a person who already stands
in an epistemic relation to himself. Either way, we have reason
to suspect that knowledge of one’s own self therefore is an impos-
sibility. And the reason is its propositional nature: There is no
knowledge of the self that is not, at the same time, known as
such, that is to say, that it is knowledge of the self.

This diagnosis of the origin of the two kinds of circularity pushes

us towards removing our qualms about the apparent impossibility
of self-consciousness by way of a proposal which says that we
must equip self-knowledge with the capacity to use the predicate
‘knows of itself’ in relation to the knower’s own self. While this
is indeed the only promising path to take, new obstacles arise
as soon as we go down this track. It is obvious from the start
that a self-characterisation cannot be explained on the basis of
an epistemic self-relation to which this self-characterisation applies.
One can avoid this difficulty by saying that the self-characterisation
constitutes this self-relation, not that it already presupposes it.
However, it now remains unintelligible how the predicate ‘knows
of itself’ can be available in the first place. For as we just saw,
its availability does not follow from simply noting that there is
a kind of knowledge whose object of knowledge happens to
be the self of the person who knows. If it did follow, then the
capacity to use the predicate ‘knows of itself’ would presuppose
what the use of the predicate was meant to explain in the first
place. This way one would be caught again at some other point
Subjectivity as Philosophical Principle • 243

within the circularity exemplified by the tale of the hare and the

The thesis according to which mastery of the use of the predi-

cate that articulates self-reflexivity constitutes the epistemic self-
relation, implies that in the case of this relation, the object of
knowledge and its being known necessarily coexist. It is incon-
ceivable that he who knows of himself is initially without such
knowledge (whatever else he might already know at this point
in time), and then, in a subsequent act of gaining knowledge,
acquires self-knowledge. The person who has knowledge of
himself and the fact that he knows himself as himself cannot be
separated from each other. To be sure, knowledge of oneself pre-
supposes someone who is the object of this knowledge for other-
wise there would not be knowledge of anything. However, this
presupposition must be understood as a necessary implication.
That is to say, it must not be understood sequentially and as a
relation between two somehow independent entities. Self-knowl-
edge can only emerge at once and as an indissoluble mutual

This, by the way, is another reason why the subject is indis-

pensable. But it is also the reason why talk of the subject has
always come under the suspicion that it introduces into philosophy
something ghostly or spooky. Subjects emerge spontaneously
and equipped with self-knowledge, and this is why they cannot
be treated like any other contents or objects. Yet this does not
force us to the conclusion that they emerge in empty space and
without relations to anything else. On the contrary, the thesis of
their spontaneous emergence can be reconciled, and is demon-
strably linked with, the insight that the epistemic self-relation
originates within and becomes part of a pre-existing structure.
This structure comprises perceptual fields, bodily awareness,
behavioural patterns, affects, and other things and their multiform
244 • Dieter Henrich

coordination. In earlier times they were associated with what

was called ‘inner sense’; they can, indeed, be characterised, in a
particular sense, as ‘subjective’. However, this particular mean-
ing cannot be explicated on the basis of the concept of the sub-
ject that pertains to the epistemic self-relation. Conversely, it is
impossible to explicate the knowledge on the basis of which the
subject constitutes itself in thought from these pre-existing cog-
nitive structures and capacities.

Another bundle of difficulties regarding our coming to an under-

standing about the epistemic self-relation comes to the fore when
one focuses on an aspect of this self-knowledge that was there
all along: Knowledge is not an anonymous process that draws
in and engages the knowing individuals as if they were rather
non-committal participants. And it is only in a highly metaphor-
ical style that one can say that in knowledge as such we know
something about knowing. Knowledge is always knowledge that
someone has, that is, the person who knows. And this individ-
ual person must therefore be called the subject of knowledge. If
there is knowledge of oneself, it is always knowledge the hav-
ing of which means that the subject knows of itself and of its
knowing. And it knows this in such a way that it can use the
word ‘I’ to indicate the having of this knowledge. In this way,
the epistemic self-relation is always bound to the person who
knows of himself as a knower. And yet we cannot say that the
knower is something that belongs to what is known in the way
that ways of knowing and everything known belongs to knowl-
edge. We can already conclude from this that there cannot be an
anonymous or general and therefore strictly singular subject of
knowledge. However, at this stage we need not take this con-
clusion into account, a conclusion that would situate us in oppo-
sition to the earlier philosophy of the subject.

But then we have to ask ourselves again: How can a subject

acquire knowledge of itself, especially if this also means knowl-
Subjectivity as Philosophical Principle • 245

edge of what such knowledge consists in? Anyone who is tempted

to explain this in some distant analogy to our previous description
of the bird that lifts itself up in flight or of plants that supply
themselves with nutrients will end up in a cul-de-sac of the same
kind we encountered in the previous attempt at an explanation.
Any one going down this path, it would seem, would at least
have to start from the assumption that he could gain a general
concept of an epistemic self-relation from the distant observa-
tion of the relevant facts, and that he could then apply this con-
cept to the specific case of someone who is aware of the knowledge
he has and that what he has is self-knowledge. However, what
it actually means to have knowledge of oneself, the knowledge
we attribute to subjects, cannot be understood independent of
the fact that we are confronting a case of knowledge that is pecu-
liar to each individual subject. For in cases like this, and for knowl-
edge of oneself in general, we have to say not only that the
concept ‘of oneself’ must already be in use. Since this knowl-
edge is not anonymous and subjectless but an individual’s knowl-
edge, the thought of the self-relation has to be made explicit not
just through the notion of a ‘Being for itself ’ but more precisely
through the idea of a ‘Being for me’. Whatever explanation one
might come up with regarding the acquisition of such a thought,
it cannot possibly be considered as a general concept formed on
the basis of cases one has encountered somewhere and which is
then applied to one’s own case. The reason for this is that it only
acquires its meaning in the actual use a subject makes of it in
relation to itself. Insofar as this thought is indispensable for the
possibility of any knowledge of oneself, it belongs to the very
constitution of this knowledge, is in fact in use within it and is
always already being used, which means that one cannot really
say that it is ever ‘applied’. The abstract thought of a general
‘Being-for-me’ only emerges when an epistemic self-relation is
attributed to other subjects on the basis of one’s own individual
‘Being-for-me’. To be sure, one can characterise the constitution
of this thought on the basis of its functioning within the individual
246 • Dieter Henrich

‘Being-for-me’ in such a way that the idea of a knowing self-

relation does not end up in a circle of the hedgehog or Munch-
hausen type and thus as an impossibility. But it does not follow
that the constitution and the capacity for the use of our self-
knowledge have actually been explained in any way.

Now this result forces us to draw certain conclusions that have

fundamental consequences. If one does not wish to deny that
there is such a thing as a knowledge of oneself that provides
subjects with an understanding of themselves in relation to this
knowledge, then three things have to be accepted that are in dia-
metrical opposition to many widely adopted opinions, including
some to be found in earlier versions of the philosophy of the

(1) This knowledge is sui generis because with regard to this

knowledge one cannot make the distinction between it and mere
opinion that has not reached the stage of self-knowledge—as
one can in the case of ordinary talk about knowledge. In some
instances this has led people to assume that self-knowledge is a
particularly simple case of knowledge and to see it in analogy
to intuition. But one has to accept that it is in fact a multiply lay-
ered complex. For it always already contains the thought of ‘of
oneself’ that in turn is complex in itself.

(2) It follows from this that something else must also be accepted:
the epistemic self-relation cannot be made intelligible and recon-
structed by building it up from one of its components. The com-
ponents must emerge simultaneously, and they are determined
and modified through their interdependence. This has conse-
quences for our understanding of the development of the con-
scious life we lead. To be sure, the epistemic self-relation, through
a number of steps, can reach a fully articulated clarity and develop
into what we can call a truly rational life. The self-relation is
Subjectivity as Philosophical Principle • 247

based on presuppositions and there are preliminary stages in its

development. But eventually its full blown form must emerge
spontaneously—in spite of the presuppositions to which it is
related. It must, fundamentally, be the same complex form of
knowledge from the very beginning. It is possible, even neces-
sary as will become apparent in a moment, that the development
that brings about the epistemic self-relation must be stimulated
by external factors. But this constitutes the limit of its social gen-
esis. Its real base is entirely endogenous. In making this claim
the philosophy of the subject is in fact in agreement with the
neurosciences, though it is still separated from these by method-
ological and substantive chasms.

(3) The self-understanding of philosophy regarding its procedures

and its situation in general is affected by the above deliberations.
The unavoidable circularities in which it gets entangled when-
ever it tries to gain an understanding of self-knowledge can teach
philosophy a lesson. It is bound to fail if it attempts to clarify
this kind of knowledge by way of the commonly practiced pro-
cedure that aims to comprehend complex configurations through
an analysis of their individual elements. Self-knowledge eludes
this kind of analysis, regardless of the fact that it is not something
unitary, that its aspects can be isolated in spite of their mutual
dependence, and that it can be characterised unambiguously by
its propositional form as knowledge of itself or, rather, knowledge
of ‘myself’. Nonetheless, the explication of self-knowledge in its
totality can always only be approximate. As soon as philosophy
tries not only to take the whole complex of self-knowledge as a
starting point but attempts to master it through a process of
reconstruction, it is driven back into the circularities noted before.
This is the reason why one should regard these circularities as
symptoms of an endeavour whose methodology and approach
is inappropriate to its task.
248 • Dieter Henrich

It might be tempting, while retaining the methodological com-

mitment to an analytical explication, to avoid the problematic
situation one is in, by locating the development of the knowing
self-relation in a dimension of originary experience that precedes
the capacities of conceptually articulated cognition, and thereby
also escape its problems. It might appear that genuine under-
standing could be achieved if one distinguishes between different
moments, but then declares that they cannot really be separated
but remain bound together in some archaic unity. But this would
in no way change the situation. In fact, this would go against
and dissolve the real relationship between self-knowledge and
intelligibility in favour of an illusory escape route. To know of
oneself as oneself is only possible in fully articulated thought,
even though this thought is not derived theoretically. In this
sense the subject, in so far as it has propositional knowledge of
itself, is nothing without its thoughts. One may even say that it
exists in nothing but its own thoughts. This connection, how-
ever partial, with Descartes, but also Hegel, can be complemented
and made more plausible by indicating that I can only know
something about myself if I can entertain the (possibly only
implicit) thought of a particular, a particular that is I. I need not
be able to characterise it beyond the notion that it is that in rela-
tion to which, and by which, all the thoughts that are mine are
entertained. In whatever way this particular may be explained,
it contains within itself, even in the minimal determination given
of it here, the contrast with a multitude of other particulars of
the same constitution.

Not only in relation to the particular that I am but already in

relation to the constitution of self-knowledge as such the ques-
tion of what forms the basis of the epistemic self-relation is
ineluctable. For this constitution is complex and by no means
self-explanatory. It does not have the self-sufficiency of a Platonic
idea, and we cannot separate it out into self-contained components
Subjectivity as Philosophical Principle • 249

in order to reconstitute the whole, in a process of synthesis, from

one of these components. In cases such as this we must always
inquire about a preceding ground which, at the same time, raises
the question of the origin, a question that always and unavoid-
ably occupies a self-consciously led life. Acts of creation cannot
be the answer since they presuppose a subject with the same
kind of self-knowledge as our own.

Once one has reached this point, a wide range of options opens
up. What has been said so far could even be used by neuro-
philosophers as an argument for the naturalistic thesis that all
knowledge emerges from material nature. But it is also possible
to connect what has been said with the tradition of speculative
metaphysics. The epistemic self-relation is then referred back to
a foundation that is not a form of knowledge with which we are
familiar but one that can be seen as a kind of self-relation and
to which, in its self-relation and the development of this rela-
tion, we can attribute the property of being more complex than
the constitution of subjectivity that forms our point of departure.
Whichever of these two options is to be preferred, we can say
about both that from a descriptive perspective we cannot get
beyond the limits of what the nature of our cognitive capacity
has furnished us with. And the epistemic self-relation forms a
prominent part of this capacity. Whatever arguments might moti-
vate us in the end to accept as true one or the other of the two
forms of emergence of the epistemic self-relation, we cannot
expect that this relation will allow us to derive, step by step, the
ground we must postulate in order to make its existence intel-
ligible. For we have seen already that its constitution can only
be described approximately. A ground upon which my self-knowl-
edge rests, in whatever way we might conceive of it, can only
be thought of as a hypothesis, a hypothesis that cannot be con-
verted into a proven cognition through some process of final
250 • Dieter Henrich

There is no need for any anxiety that admitting such a limit to

what can be known is a violation of the spirit and ideal of sys-
tematic knowledge or that it might even promote some kind of
philosophical obscurantism. Setting limits to what it is possible
to know, especially when it comes to knowledge of the self, is
one of the most important achievements of human rationality.
This is something we need to realise because it lies at the bot-
tom of all our epistemic capacities, and we were led to its acknowl-
edgment when we tried to come to an understanding of the
knowing self-relation, though it also applies elsewhere. It applies
to the form of truth-functional statements and particularly to our
conception of truth as such. Reference to truth is complex and
fundamental at the same time. After many attempts over decades
by Anglo-Saxon philosophy to trivialise the notion of truth or to
develop a theory of truth that could be fitted into a naturalistic
world view, it has now become obvious that all our investiga-
tions must rely, from the very beginning, on truth as a funda-
mental fact. We can always show that anyone who tries to
explicate truth through an analysis of components must pre-
suppose an already grasped notion of truth and therefore gets
trapped in a circularity. Now the relation to truth within knowl-
edge is intimately and in many ways connected with the know-
ing self-relation. The results of our analysis of the self-relation
thus accords with insights achieved in neighbouring areas.

This insight brings about a fundamental reorientation in our con-

ception of the aims of philosophy: what is fundamental can only
be explicated approximately. But on the basis of this limited expli-
cation we can throw some light on the totality of our knowledge
and our cognitive relation to the world. The fact that we cannot
establish final or inherently unitary foundations, but are nonethe-
less able to gain insights into such general matters concerning
human knowledge, will also throw some light on the signifi-
cance of philosophy for the life we have to lead. Philosophy can-
Subjectivity as Philosophical Principle • 251

not offer us compelling final grounds or absolutes that give ori-

entation to our life. It can only enlighten us about the human
condition as such. But it can provide legitimacy to our endeavour
to find out, in the process of leading a life and from within that
life, what it is that ultimately supports us. Finally, philosophy
can clarify the possibilities open to us of an all-encompassing
existential orientation while at the same time giving us an under-
standing of the reasons for the confusions in which we invari-
ably end up in our search for such an orientation and the theories
we develop in these pursuits. This means that philosophy, at its
most basic level and in its very constitution and its limitations,
forms an integral part of, and is in concordance with, the life
that seeks to comprehend itself through an analysis of the cog-
nitive self-relation. It follows from all this that the starting point
of a fundamental philosophy and its elucidation of the interde-
pendent components of the human condition must not be equated
with that which seems to be the most important and most fulfill-
ing aspect of life in its attempt at gaining a self-understanding:
The philosophy of the subject is not in the service of self-
enhancement or the stabilisation of an autistic image of self-
empowerment. This philosophy, rather, is a necessary presup-
position for a deepening of our understanding of life, a deepening
that, in view of life’s ultimate ground, implies a renunciation of
self-interest. And this process of a deepening of our self-under-
standing means that our life is subjected to an aim and regarded
as relative to the context in which our life is to be led.

After the above deliberations and from a point of view that is

relevant to the whole of philosophy, we can now move on to a
further clarification of subjectivity as philosophical principle by
looking at a number of its implications. In doing so we will have
to concentrate on those implications that can be based on precisely
252 • Dieter Henrich

the characteristics of the epistemic self-relation that emerged in

our previous discussion in the context of the question about the
way in which they can become a major theme in philosophy.
Other implications follow from other characteristics—for exam-
ple the self-relation’s identity over time and its latent presence
within all our thinking. Amongst them are also those that have
given Kant’s theory of the cognition of objects its particular con-
tour. However, in the present context we must look at implica-
tions that can be elucidated via the inescapable thought of the
epistemic self-relation’s transcendent ground. Methodological
questions concerning the concepts needed for such an endeav-
our cannot be addressed here. Furthermore, we will have to
restrict our discussion to the task of offering no more than a
number of theses. But such a restriction can be tolerated because
our present interest lies in the possibility and the kind of impli-
cations, not the more substantive issues arising from specific
aspects. Nonetheless, central current and controversial problems
in philosophy within epistemology and in relation to questions
of intersubjectivity and language will be addressed.

1. The age-old fundamental question of what it is that ultimately

convinces us that the real can be grasped in thoughts is directly
related to the result of our analysis of the knowledge we have
of ourselves. For it has emerged that we can only be the kind of
beings that we are in virtue of our ability to entertain ‘I’-thoughts.
With regard to these thoughts a differentiation between that
which is being thought and the reality of what has been thought
about simply drops out of the picture. There cannot be ‘mere’
‘I’-thoughts. Rather, it is ‘I’-thoughts that constitute the actual-
ity of a being whose characteristic nature it is to exist in a mode
of ‘Being-for-itself’. To some this may sound like reviving the
famous ontological proof of the existence of god, though this
time not applied to an infinite but to the finite human Being in
its ‘Being-for-itself’. In fact, we cannot object to this as long as
we are aware that we are not deducing anything ontologically
Subjectivity as Philosophical Principle • 253

real from a mere thought but demonstrating why, in this ‘abnor-

mal’ but peculiarly eminent case, something actual is constituted
by thought.

At the same time it became obvious to us that the actuality con-

stituted by the ‘Being-for itself’ is not self-explicatory and that
we therefore had to postulate a Grund from which it emerges.
And while this ground of our cognition will elude us if it is
treated as an object of cognition, it nonetheless defines another
class of what is real. And its reality is such that a conscious life
can only relate to it in the sense that it makes it aware of its lack
of self-mastery.

Now a subject whose reality emerges in and through ‘I’-thoughts’

always and at the same time entertains thoughts in relation to
a world distinct from his own self, though this is a world whose
actuality is as real as his own. He knows that the quasi-predicate
‘real’ that he uses does not just serve to refer to individual thought
contents, and he knows this on the basis of his experience of the
epistemic self-relation. This is what gives him the right to relate
everything he refers to in thoughts to the dimension of the real,
a reality that for him is beyond any doubt. This also explains
and justifies the unshakable realism of our everyday convictions
about the world.

We can describe the world in different ways but these world

descriptions, while justified in themselves, are in conflict with
each other, a conflict that cannot be settled by any kind of com-
promise. Now whether the world description of mathematical
physics or that of our everyday experience with its Aristotelian
ontology truly matches what is not just real within a system of
description, this question must be decided through an investi-
gation that is not the one that focuses on subjectivity as such.
But since the use of the predicate ‘real’ in an absolute sense is
based on, and justified by, such an investigation, and since we
254 • Dieter Henrich

know that nonetheless the ground of subjectivity cannot be known

in an objectifying way, it is clear that all our world descriptions
and the objects we take to be part of the world, are subject to
certain cognitive limitations. This also shows that the philosophy
of the subject, through the realism that is characteristic of it, must
reject the accusation of promoting subjectivism and the project
of an unlimited scientism—and for the same reason.

2. If one starts out from the ‘Being-for-me’ of subjectivity one is

led to the notion of intersubjectivity through a different aspect
of its constitution. In so far as it is not the general ‘For-itself’ of
the self-relation but the ‘For-me’ of the ‘I’-thought that is con-
stitutive of it, the subject necessarily understands itself as a par-
ticular. Therein lies, as mentioned before, that it must think the
thought of other possible subjects and, as a further consequence,
the thought of an order within which such subjects can be dis-
tinguished. It is not necessary that the subject, within its self-
relation, has a determined concept of this order or this dimension.
But both the ‘I’-thought and the relation between this thought
and the thought of the order allow us to develop, without any
difficulty, another thought, that is, the thought of the relation
that subjects can take up with each other from within their Being-
for-themselves. This is in fact what constitutes a minimal char-
acterisation of intersubjectivity.

From this a further implication can be shown to follow. It is im-

possible for a singular subject to be present to another subject
in the mode of the other subject’s own Being-for itself. For this
would mean that it would be included in the other subject’s
Being-for-itself. The difference between the two subjects would
be suspended. Subjects can only become accessible for each other
through some kind of embodiment. A subject can be said to be
embodied if it also exists as a particular that is not just consti-
tuted through the ‘For-me’ of the epistemic self-relation but in
Subjectivity as Philosophical Principle • 255

a way that nonetheless belongs to the subject and in which the

subject can directly intervene through its intentions.

To be sure, the embodiment as such does not guarantee any inter-

action controlled by intentions. It must be presupposed, in addi-
tion, that an embodied subject can make its presence felt for
another subject and its Being-for-itself without, however, inte-
riorising it within its own self. This is made possible by language.
Of course there is more to spoken language and the variety of
its functions than this. What has become clear from our delib-
erations, however, is that language must be understood as a
medium and not just as an instrument of communication. Subjects
cannot come to an agreement about its use because such an agree-
ment would already presuppose the possibility of its use. It fol-
lows that any taking up of communication presupposes an existing
communality between subjects who can interrelate to one an-
other. Such a communality belongs as much to the roots of any
cultural community as the indispensable Being-for-itself of sub-
jects is required for linguistic communication aiming at mutual

Such Being-for-itself cannot in any way be derived from com-

munication. But neither is it self-generated as the analysis of the
epistemic self-relation has demonstrated. It has to emerge spon-
taneously from a transcendent unmasterable ground. In spite of
this we must realise and expect that subjects entering, and finally
departing, a temporal Dasein are in need of guidance, support
and the company of other subjects. This also explains the fact
that the subjects’ thoughts can only reach maturity if the subjects
acquire, at the same time, the shared language of the culture in
which they grow up. And we can also understand now that the
options for living a certain kind of life that are opened up in and
through the Being-for-itself can find their fulfilment in relation-
ships with other subjects. If it understands Being-for-itself correctly,
256 • Dieter Henrich

the philosophy of the subject must not succumb to the fallacy

of identifying that which lies at its base. This is essential since
life gains its ultimate meaning and fulfilment in this base.

Furthermore, it has now become clear that there is no good reason

to assume that there is an irresolvable antagonism between a
philosophy of the subject and coming to an understanding about
intersubjectivity. It is not by accident that in the history of moder-
nity both themes were developed almost simultaneously. To be
sure, with regard to our understanding of intersubjectivity, the
theory of language made available during the current [twentieth]
century has given rise to entirely new problems and perspec-
tives. But those who regard the era of the philosophy of the sub-
ject as the predecessor of an epoch of the theory of communication,
thereby giving the latter an historical accreditation of its supe-
riority, fail in their comprehension of the ongoing modernity. In
addition, they are saddled with the irredeemable task of deriv-
ing the genesis of the epistemic self-relation from processes of

Looking back at the path we have followed so far, what remains

to be said is how subjectivity can be seen as a principle and what
the procedure is by which subjectivity can be employed within
philosophy. Subjectivity is not self-explicatory. It is an aggrega-
tion of elements that cannot be reduced to each other but which
are modified by each other and are thus bound together. It is
not self-sufficient but points beyond itself in a dual way: towards
its ground and towards an external world. Nonetheless, this mul-
tiplicity constitutes a poignant unity because its presence can be
demonstrated within the epistemic self-relation.

The eminent philosophers who belong to the early history of the

Berlin University took this unity as their starting point. They did
not mistake the self-relation for an undifferentiated simplicity.
Subjectivity as Philosophical Principle • 257

But they also underestimated its internal complexity. One rea-

son for this was the fact that they took the knowing self-relation
to be self-explicatory. But they also underestimated it because
they thought that it could become a principle if only one fol-
lowed its own movement of explication, a movement by which
knowledge of the self would evolve into knowledge of founda-
tions and of the world, whereby the whole of philosophy could
then be turned into a system.

If it is understood in this way, subjectivity can no longer be a

principle for us. The multiplicity we can perceive within the epis-
temic self-relation cannot even be mastered in an otherwise ade-
quate analysis of it. But its elements can be the starting points
of justificatory deliberations in which the ‘For-myself’ of this
self-relation must be kept in view and in which contexts of the
‘Being-for-myself’ can be disclosed—as we have indicated in the
areas of cognition and intersubjectivity.

Since we do not assume, in what the results of these delibera-

tions show us, that subjectivity turns itself into a system, there
is neither the possibility nor a motive for the development and
the deployment of a speculative conceptual framework when it
comes to the procedures we use for the explication of the nature
and validity of the epistemic self-relation. A speculative logic
only plays a legitimate role when subjectivity and its world are
conceived of as based on a transcendent ground and when it
therefore becomes necessary to explicate a concept of the Absolute.

It follows that when we try to explain subjectivity as a princi-

ple, and when we are concerned with the procedures of a phi-
losophy of subjectivity, we must depart in almost every way
from the project pursued by those who first tried to establish
this project. However, it is a clear indication that we are still
committed to the original motives that occupied their thinking
258 • Dieter Henrich

when I quote a statement from Hegel’s inaugural lecture he gave

at this university almost a hundred and eighty years ago:
Philosophy as science has been entrusted with the preservation
of a light, “and it is our vocation to nurse it and to nourish it
and to make sure that the highest a human being can call his
own, the self-consciousness of his essence, may not be extinguished
and perish.”
Manfred Frank

Against a priori Intersubjectivism:

An Alternative Inspired by Sartre

A basic conviction of the current version of the Frankfurt School

is that all humans are ‘always already’ (‘je immer schon’) in com-
municative exchanges with each another with the aim of a final
consensus. We may also formulate it thus: if subjects exist at all,
then they have ‘always already’ existed as inter-subjects in com-
municative and cooperative relations. In what follows I will call
this position ‘a priori intersubjectivism’.

Ernst Tugendhat modified this position by including the per-

spective of the third person in that of the first-person. In his
view, my solitary epistemic self-reference does not actually re-
quire the identification of myself as a space-time object. But I
must know that I am such an object for others (and for myself
as an observer). To put it differently, self-consciousness ‘implies’
knowledge of social rules that grant the convertibility of speak-
ers’ perspectives and can be understood only in the light of these
rules.1 Tugendhat characterises this knowledge with the predicates

Ernst Tugendhat, Selbstbewußtsein und Selbstbestimmung. Sprachanalytische
Interpretationen, Frankfurt am Main, 1979, p. 87. Tugendhat says: “[. . .] this pos-
sibility of intersubjectivity is itself necessary, because it follows from the mean-
ing of ‘I’ ” (p. 88). Previously, he had claimed “that it generally has always
belonged to the usage of the word ‘I’ that he who uses it uses it so that he
knows that another can understand his speech in such a way that he refers to
260 • Manfred Frank

of ‘precedent’ (‘vorgängig’), ‘general’, and ‘necessary’. Such knowl-

edge is therefore a priori.2

Following George Herbert Mead, Jürgen Habermas gave a prag-

matic turn to semantic intersubjectivism. But this does not weaken
its commitment to apriorism. According to Habermas, linguis-
tic understanding not only relies on knowledge of semantic rules,
especially those governing the use of indexicals, but on ‘com-
municative competence’, that is, the practical ability of speakers
to take on the perspective of another. This ability creates “a self-
understanding which in no way presupposes the solitary re-
flection of the knowing or acting subject on itself as a precedent
consciousness. On the contrary, self-reference is generated in an
interactive context.”3 Elsewhere he writes that self-consciousness
is “what first results, in communicative action, from taking over
the perspective of the other.”4

the same person with ‘he’” (p. 84). Tugendhat has since admitted that his the-
ory of self-consciousness is untenable in reaction to Dieter Henrich’s objections
(“Noch einmal in Zirkeln. Eine Kritik von Ernst Tugendhats semantischer
Erklärung von Selbstbewßtsein,” in Clemens Bellut & Ulrich Müller-Schöll,
eds. Mensch und Moderne. Beiträge zur philosophischen Anthropologie und
Gesellschaftskritik [= Festschrift for Helmut Fahrenbach], Würzburg, 1989, pp.
And it is clearly a case of applied rule competence. More recent analyti-
cal work on the theory of consciousness has, however, persuasively demon-
strated that epistemic self-consciousness cannot be understood as a case of
successful language conditioning—such as mastering the usage of the first-
person singular pronoun. These rules can, rather, only be learnt by persons
familiar through direct acquaintance with the referent of ‘I’ or ‘my’.
Jürgen Habermas, Nachmetaphysisches Denken. Philosophische Aufsätze,
Frankfurt am Main, 1988, p. 32.
Jürgen Habermas, Theorie des kommunikativen Handelns, Vol. 1, Frankfurt
am Main, 1981, p. 527. The young Marx had already repeatedly protested
against the presumption of deriving the ‘real, empirical individual’ as the
‘result’ of a general process, for example (but not only) in the Ökonomisch-
philosophische Manuskripte (Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Werke, Berlin,
1957ff., 1st supplementary volume, p. 584): “This process must have a bearer,
a subject; but [allegedly] a subject first emerges as a result.” The individual
Against a priori Intersubjectivism. An Alternative Inspired by Sartre • 261

Despite all their internal differences, both approaches, surprisingly,

concur with Nietzsche, Heidegger, Gadamer, and the poststruc-
turalists in their treatment of subjectivity as something deriva-
tive. It is to be derived from relations in which the third-person
perspective, or practical interaction, has priority over the per-
spective of the self, from within which a feeling, thinking, and
active being is disclosed to him- or herself.

Tugendhat and Habermas do not want to prove that subjectivity

is fictional or non-existent as do Nietzsche, Heidegger, the post-
structuralists, or Daniel C. Dennett, for example.5 In showing
that it emerges from intersubjectivity, they have fulfilled their
ambitions to humiliate the narcissism of the philosophy of the

But what if it turns out that subjectivity is not even conceivable

in this way? Then it would make no sense to claim that it must
be explained as an epiphenomenon of intersubjectivity. The eva-
sion of a solid epistemological clarification of the structures of
subjectivity would have to come at the cost of the failure of a
priori intersubjectivism. This is because the subjects, whose inter-
action the a priori intersubjectivism intended to demonstrate as
precedent, would thereby immediately cease to exist as subjects.
In addition, moral imperatives of the form that “act in such a
way that you treat mankind, yourself and others included, always
as ends, never only as means” would lose their addressees.6 Such

bearer of the social process and the social process itself are thus in a “relation
of absolute inversion.”
Daniel C. Dennett treats self-consciousness as a hermeneutically useful ‘fic-
tion’ and in so doing refers concurringly to Nietzsche and Derrida: Consciousness
Explained, Boston-Toronto-London, Little, Brown and Company, 1991, pp. 227
and 411.
I. Kant, AA IV, p. 429, p. 433 and VI, p. 395.
262 • Manfred Frank

principles cannot—as for instance Harry G. Frankfurt7 believed—

have a merely practical justification; they require, in addition, a
fundamentum in re. Put differently, they are dependent on the
claim that there in fact exists something like non-objective subjecti-
vity. Without it, there would be no point to any human rights
declarations or to appeals to respect the individuality of other

I cannot recapitulate the discussion of more detailed arguments

against the theory of intersubjective apriorism here.8 These argu-
ments can, though, be found in the extensive literature on the
philosophy of mind (hardly taken note of in Frankfurt), the most
prominent authors of which include Hector-Neri Castañeda,
Sydney Shoemaker, Roderick M. Chisholm, John Perry, or David
Lewis. Here we find the view that self-consciousness is a phe-
nomenon that cannot be analysed in terms of perceptual obser-
vation, demonstrative reference, or (Fregean/Russellian) definite
descriptions. The phenomenon referred to as ‘self-consciousness’
is not mediated reflectively, although I can easily take it as a
starting point from which I can then reflect on it, in which case
I attend to it as an object of my inner life. Self-consciousness is
also not a kind of knowledge. For everything that is known is
relative to theories that could be false. I am aware of my psychic
states, however, even when I know of no theory that I would
take to be true of them. That is why animals and children can
be self-conscious before the onset of language acquisition. (And
that is also why it is possible that I literally ‘do not know’ what

H. Frankfurt, “Freedom of the Will and the Concept of a Person,” The
Journal of Philosophy, vol. 68, 1971, pp. 5–20. See also Georg Mohr, “Personne,
Personnalité et Liberté dans la Critique de la Raison Pratique,” Revue Internationale
de Philosophie, vol. 42, no. 3, 1988, pp. 289–319, esp. 297f.
I took a start in this direction in Selbstbewußtsein und Selbsterkenntnis. Essays
zur analytischen Philosophie der Subjektivität, Stuttgart, 1991, especially in essay
III (“Subjektivität und Intersubjektivität”), pp. 410ff.
Against a priori Intersubjectivism. An Alternative Inspired by Sartre • 263

happens to me psychologically, without thereby lacking self-

consciousness.) Epistemic self-ascriptions cannot be logically
tackled by means of attributions de dicto or de re; the first-person
perspective is irreplaceable as that which situates subjects in
the world and enables practical interaction. Closely related to its
theory-independence, self-consciousness does not stand for a
state of affairs that can be articulated in propositions. If we under-
stand ‘language’ to comprise the entirety of what is communi-
cable and understandable in propositions, then self-consciousness
cannot be called a linguistic phenomenon. David Lewis talks of
a non-propositional knowledge.9 Reduction attempts such as the
private-language argument or the semantic nominalism based
on it have no purchase on self-consciousness or prove to be

This is analogously true of pragmatist attempts at reducing self-

consciousness to intersubjectivity. It has been shown that sooner
or later such attempts get caught in circularity, covertly presuppose
the phenomenon they pretend to explain, and would be aimless
without this presupposition. Contrary to specious views suggested
by everyday speech (which, however, a thorough linguistic analy-
sis ought to undermine), there is no relation between something
and another (or to itself as an object) in self-consciousness. All
attempts to derive the non-relational self-awareness in con-
sciousness from relations—whether from behavioural observa-
tions or from interactively taking over different roles—lead sooner
or later into circularity, as has been shown time and again by
philosophers from Fichte to Sartre. For how can something non-
relational be the result of relations? That I am myself and that
my experiences are my own cannot be a lesson I learn from the

“[. . .] If it is possible to lack knowledge and not lack any propositional
knowledge, then the lacked knowledge must not be propositional” (“Attitudes
‘De Dicto’ and ‘De Se’,” in Philosophical Papers I, Oxford, 1983, p. 139).
264 • Manfred Frank

truth of a proposition or from something that has been com-

municated to me by someone else, nor could it be conveyed to
me by my mirror image. According to Shoemaker,
[self-awareness] is radically different from perceptual knowledge.
The reason one is not presented to oneself ‘as an object’ in self-
awareness is that self-awareness is not perceptual awareness, i.e.,
is not the sort of awareness in which objects are presented. It is
awareness of facts unmediated by awareness of objects. But it is
worth noting that if one were aware of oneself as an object in such
cases (as one is in fact aware of oneself as an object when one sees
oneself in a mirror), this would not help to explain one’s self-
knowledge. For awareness that the presented object was f would
not tell one that one was oneself f unless one had identified the
object as oneself; and one could not do this unless one already had
some self-knowledge, namely the knowledge that one is the unique
possessor of whatever set of properties of the presented object one
took to show it to be oneself. Perceptual self-knowledge presup-
poses non-perceptual self-knowledge, so not all self-knowledge
can be perceptual.10

Habermas presents an especially instructive example of such cir-

cular explanations of self-consciousness when he writes, for exam-
ple, that ‘the self’ consists in “the self-relation which is established
performatively in a hearer by taking over the perspective imparted
to him by the speaker.”11 Since the alter-perspective has (logical)
priority over the speaker’s ego-perspective—or since the former
is even encapsulated in the latter as a necessary and sufficient
condition for conscious self-reference—such explanations rather
lead to an especially crass circulus in probando. This circularity is
what Habermas shares with other similar theoretical approaches.
Their paradigmatic progenitor is Hegel’s theory of the recipro-
cal recognition (Anerkennung) of subjects who supposedly first

Sydney Shoemaker, “Personal Identity: A Materialist’s Account,” in Shoe-
maker & Richard Swinburne, Personal Identity, Oxford, 1984, pp. 104f.
Habermas, Nachmetaphysisches Denken, p. 34.
Against a priori Intersubjectivism. An Alternative Inspired by Sartre • 265

learn that they are subjects through their objective relatedness

to others.


The circularity of Hegel’s theory of reciprocal recognition was

first clearly recognised by Jean-Paul Sartre.12 Despite his impor-
tance and his contemporaneity with the development of Critical
Theory, Sartre has not been included in its discussions and still
does not have a favourable reputation in Frankfurt. Yet his ap-
proach is excellent in demonstrating how starting with the ‘cog-
ito’ not only doesn’t obstruct intersubjective consequences, but
first makes them intelligible. This remains true even when one
considers the early Sartre’s uncooperative and mocking attitude
towards Heidegger’s talk of ‘being-with’ (Mitsein) as modelled
on conformist masses or on football teams.13 Sartre’s philosophy
is particularly well suited in showing that in their commitment
to the philosophy of the subject opponents to a priori intersub-
jectivism certainly need not deny that we exist as inter-subjects.
Rather, they only reject the idea that this assertion expresses an
a priori truth of reason. We are in fact inter-subjects—but only
contingently. ‘Contingently’ doesn’t mean at all that we have the

Its precursor is Schelling’s critique of Hegel’s inability to overcome the
reflection model of self-consciousness (see Manfred Frank, Der unendliche Mangel
an Sein. Schellings Hegel-Kritik und die Anfänge der Marxschen Dialektik, enlarged
new edition, Munich, 1992, esp. Ch. III, pp. 151ff.) Later, Dieter Henrich restates
it as follows: “The claim that he [Hegel] could not relinquish the reflection
model is incidentally not refutable just because he believed that reflection could
only take place in a social interactive context. This has no impact on his account
of the structure of what ensues in this way” (“Selbstbewußtsein. Kritische
Einleitung in eine Theorie,” in Hermeneutik und Dialektik. Essays, vol. 1, ed.
R. Bubner, K. Cramer, R. Wiehl, Tübingen, 1970, p. 281).
Sartre, L’être et le néant. Essai d’ontologie phénoménologique, Paris, 1943,
p. 303. Sartre later gave up this attitude as a biographically motivated contin-
gency and at the end of his life arrived at a co-operativist interpretation of
266 • Manfred Frank

freedom not to treat or understand ourselves as inter-subjects.

Leibniz, too, had characterised self-consciousness as immediately
self-evident knowledge, which is nevertheless not a priori, rather
a posteriori.14 In the same sense, Sartre sees intersubjectivity—and
even our moral duty towards other subjects—to be originally
unmediated through language. Articulations in language are cor-
rigible, propositions are falsifiable, but our being-with-others is
a certainty. Therefore it must be a primordial component of self-
consciousness. I quote from one of Sartre’s last interviews:
[. . .] in every moment that I am conscious of or doing something
or other, there is some sort of obligation (réquisition). It bestows
on the action I intend to perform a kind of interior constraint (de
contrainte intérieure), namely, as a dimension of my consciousness.
Every consciousness can do what it does not because it is of such
great value, but on the contrary because whatever intentions it has
are presented to it with an element of obligation, and this I hold
to be the departure point for morality.15

Since, as already mentioned, it was Hegel’s conception of inter-

subjectivity that became paradigmatic for the views of the younger
Frankfurt School, we should first see how Sartre understands
and criticises Hegel’s theory of the subject and the inter-subject.16

“[. . .] this intuition, which acquaints us with our existence, also causes us
to know it with complete evidence that is neither in need of nor open to proof.
[. . .] I add that the immediate self-awareness (aperception) of our existence and
our thoughts provides us with the first a posteriori truths or truths of fact (ou
de fait), i.e. the first experiences, just as the identical [thus analytically true]
assertions provide the first a priori truths or truths of reason (ou de raison), i.e.
the first illuminations (les premières lumières). Both are resistant to proof and can
be called immediate; the former, because there is immediacy (immédiation)
between the faculty of understanding and its object; the latter, because there
is immediacy between the subject and the predicate”(Nouveaux Essais sur
l’Entendement Humain, Paris, Garnier-Flammarion, 1966, Livre IV, Chapitre IX,
pp. 383f.).
Jean-Paul Sartre, “L’espoir maintenant . . .,” in Le nouvel observateur, no.
800 du 10 au 16 mars 1980, p. 59.
Sartre, L’être et le néant. Essai d’une phénoménologie ontologique, Paris, 1943,
pp. 288ff.
Against a priori Intersubjectivism. An Alternative Inspired by Sartre • 267

Hegel calls self-consciousness the truth of consciousness. But as

its sublation (Aufhebung), it remains—like all consciousness—
chained to an object outside of itself, the independence of which
it endeavours to disrupt and incorporate into itself through ne-
gation.17 In first differentiating itself as the immediate certainty
of its self-identity (as I = I) from its object, it pays tribute to
abstraction or finiteness. Yet it can free itself from these in appro-
priating the difference constituting its (intentional) reference to
others as its own reflection-in-itself. In this way, its particular-
ity dissipates, and it recognises itself as itself or as “the univer-
sal [dis-individualised] self-consciousness.”18

So self-consciousness is in fact—as with Mead—the result of

reflection in a social field: I recognise myself as myself by catch-
ing reflexes sent by other subjects.19 Hegel had thus attempted
to mediate self-consciousness by reducing it to object-con-
sciousness and by giving the third-person perspective priority.
The other is a condition for my self-knowledge because the self
alone does not have immediate (non-objective) self-knowledge.
Self-consciousness, according to Hegel, exists always only ‘for a
self-consciousness’. It is thus principally only accessible through
reflective ‘duplication’, and is therefore, as Hegel says, only
“mediated with itself through another consciousness.”20 Conse-
quently, the being of the other precedes the knowledge of myself.
Even if, in the consequence of the battle for recognition, it is

Hegel, Enzyklopädie, §§ 424/5, in Theorie Werk-Ausgabe, eds. Karl Markus
Michel and Eva Moldenhauer, Frankfurt am Main, 1970, vol. 10, pp. 213/4.
Hegel, Theorie Werk-Ausgabe, p. 215.
These are Hegel’s own words: “self-consciousness is a reality to itself
according to its essential universality only in so far as it knows its reflection
in others (I know that others know me as a self)” (Theorie Werk-Ausgabe, vol.
4, p. 122, § 39).
Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A. V. Miller, Oxford, 1977, pp. 110–11,
268 • Manfred Frank

negated as an object, it is its objectivity through whose collapse

the subject experiences its selfhood.

Sartre has brought forth two objections against this explication.

To begin with, it is utterly implausible that a subject learns
through a reflection that it is itself this reflection. A subject would
only be authorised to this insight through a pre-reflective and
non-objective familiarity with itself, which Hegel emphatically
rejects.21 On the other hand, Hegel describes the goal of the bat-
tle for mutual recognition not as my individual, but rather as a
‘universal self-consciousness’, in whose ‘empty’ identity all traces
of individuation are annulled.22 But then I still cannot recognise
myself as the one that I am: for I am neither an empty univer-
sal nor the other individuated person I reflect myself in (and
strive to kill).23 This is where the crypto-theology behind Hegel’s
theory of lordship and bondage manifests itself: the master, who
is not afraid of death, can know that he need not be afraid of
anything; for in death he executes the mediated transition to the
concrete eternity of ‘reason’ (‘Vernunft’) that constitutes his truth
or essential home. At this level of self-reflection, he has no need
for the particular other-as-object who reflects his own (individ-
ual) particular self. His consciousness has reached “its truth [. . .]
as the middle term which proclaims to the unchangeable con-
sciousness that the single individual has renounced itself, and,
to the individual, that the Unchangeable is for it no longer an
extreme, but is reconciled with it.”24

So what is missing, as Sartre says, is “a common measurement for sub-
ject and object” (Sartre, L’être et le néant, p. 299). I can never experience from
the existence of me as an object that I myself am this object: “Etre objet c’est
n’être pas moi” (Sartre, L’être et le néant, p. 298).
Hegel, Theorie Werk-Ausgabe , vol. 4, p. 117, §§ 22/3; vol. 10, p. 213, § 424;
p. 228, § 438; Phenomenology, p. 139; Theorie Werk-Ausgabe, vol. 4, p. 122, § 38.
Sartre, L’être et le néant, pp. 299–300.
Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, p. 139.
Against a priori Intersubjectivism. An Alternative Inspired by Sartre • 269

This result of Hegel’s reasoning is invalid, and not only because

the condition under which it is possible has been repressed. It
simply does not accord with the phenomenologically verifiable
mode of being (Seinsart) of consciousness, that is, that its iden-
tity with its object—if we can even sensibly use the term ‘object’
here—can be testified from a vantage point which “does not [first]
establish myself in what I am and so pose the problem of other
selves from [the perspective of] my own being. In short, the only
certain point of departure is the interiority of the cogito.”25

Yet Hegel might have recurred to two precursor positions about

the reciprocal acknowledgment of free individuals, those of Fichte
and Schelling.26 Both had managed to explain the social inte-
gration of individuality without circularity because they assumed
that the self-knowledge of particular subjects is a non-objective
or pre-reflective certainty. Fichte and Schelling had already spo-
ken of the reciprocal ‘acknowledgment’ of subjects as a neces-
sary condition for the individuation of their self-consciousness.
But in so doing, they correctly assumed that this individuation
forfeits its cogency if understood as resulting from the knowl-
edge of the other-as-object reflected back onto the subject. So
“the activity of external intelligences is sure to be a condition
for [individual] self-consciousness,” since “no rational being can
prove itself as such except through the acknowledgment of oth-
ers,” that is to say, as independently existing subjects.27

I cannot say whether Mead or Habermas have really compre-

hended this problem and understand why it is disastrous for a

“[. . .] m’établit dans mon être et pose le problème d’autrui à partir de mon
être. En un mot, le seul point de départ sûr est l’intériorité du cogito” (Sartre,
L’être et le néant, p. 300).
Fichte’s Werke, ed. I. H. Fichte, reprint Berlin, 1971, vol. III, pp. 35–52;
Schelling’s sämmtliche Werke, ed. K. F. A. Schelling, Stuttgart, 1856–64, vol. I/3,
pp. 538–557.
Schelling’s sämmtliche Werke, vol. I/3, p. 550.
270 • Manfred Frank

theory of communicative reason. It is true that they do not ar-

gue from the perspective of an objectifying observer, but from
that of social interaction with others. But this does not save them
from circularity in their attempts at explanation. The other just
is, in fact, at first a given—even ‘given’ as an object. To impute
personality to him or her first requires a prior understanding of
what it means to be a subject, but I cannot derive this under-
standing from cooperation. Rather, only those beings can enter
into cooperative relations of whom I know in advance that they
have some sort of rudimentary self-understanding. (For lack of
time, I cannot justify my criticism of Mead and Habermas fur-
ther here; however, I have done so elsewhere.)28


Instead, I owe you a few explanatory notes on how Sartre’s suc-

cess in refuting Hegel can be developed into a positive theory
of intersubjectivity. If this can be achieved, then such a theory
would be preferable to a priori intersubjectivism. For it would
be of the same explanatory value, yet devoid of the latter’s faults.

In his lecture to the Society of French Philosophy on the 2nd of

June 1947, Sartre had mentioned that every philosophy with the
‘cogito’ as its point of departure must reckon with at least five
objections.29 These include the inability to see another (‘autrui’)
as anything but an object, and thus as another self-conscious and
actively cooperating subject. “Autrui doit être certain ou disparaître.”30

In Selbstbewußtsein und Selbsterkenntnis, p. 410ff., esp. pp. 464ff.
“Conscience de soi et connaissance de soi,” in Bulletin de la Société Française
de Philosophie, tome 42, 1948, pp. 49–91; reprinted in Manfred Frank, ed.
Selbstbewußtseinstheorien von Fichte bis Sartre, Frankfurt am Main, 1991, pp.
Sartre,“Conscience de soi et connaissance de soi,” 51.6
Against a priori Intersubjectivism. An Alternative Inspired by Sartre • 271

Now he is certain, even if this certainty—as with Leibniz and

Kant—is not a logical truth, but rather forced upon us due to
the ‘empirical circumstances of our facticity’.

To explain how Sartre can say such a thing without absurdity

would require a more thorough analysis of his theory of con-
sciousness. This is not possible within the framework of this
paper. Nor can I discuss Sartre’s earlier attempt to argue that
one’s own ego is just as transcendent of consciousness as that
of another, because he later withdrew it.31 On the other hand, he
was able to interpret certain experiences, such as shame and
pride, as apodictically certain, despite the fact that they imply
knowledge of foreign subjectivity. This was due to his theory of
pre-reflective consciousness, which was later dialectically extended
by means of its inner ‘reflet-reflétant’ structure.

Shame presents itself as non-positing (self-)consciousness of

shame, thus as a subjective experience of the same Cartesian cer-
tainty as pleasure or belief—that is, as states that do not essen-
tially require an intersubjective interpretation. Unlike these, shame
has the peculiarity that it is not only self-reflective (I am ashamed
of myself ), but also essentially based on self-understanding. It
would be absurd to believe that this understanding would ensue
had I not been conscious of someone in front of whom I feel ashamed
(even shame in front of myself assumes the internalisation of a
generalised foreign subject—of a super-ego). We thus confront
the ‘presence of another in my consciousness’ without the pos-
sibility of practicing a Husserlian epoxh on him.32 When ashamed,
just as when morally indignant, I am afflicted, even to the core
of my cogito.33 Therefore, unless I undergo self-destruction, I

Sartre, L’être et le néant, pp. 290f.
Sartre, L’être et le néant, p. 276.
Peter Strawson has, incidentally, analysed the non-dismissibility or the
272 • Manfred Frank

cannot protect myself from the certainty of foreign viewpoints

that are just as transcendental as my own.

Sartre convincingly shows that realism with respect to the existence

of other subjects is not at all better off than idealism. Realism
cannot explain which knowledge allows us to ascribe self-con-
sciousness to another human body (it faces the problem that an
attitude de re cannot be transformed into an attitude de se without
a logical gap.)34 And idealism must either explain self-con-
sciousness as super-individual (in which case we would not be
able to differentiate our own from that of another) or it must jus-
tify the self-consciousness of others by analogy with one’s own,
for example in Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason.35 In short, the ego-
logical centre of intelligibility of another subjective system remains
epistemically inaccessible to my viewpoint; it is neither homo-
geneous to my own, nor is it causally connected with it. In prin-
ciple, it could exist without my knowledge of it—and vice versa.
In this way, the other is transformed into a regulative idea, a
being-as-if. This is, however, an untenable abstraction; for the
other, who puts me to shame, is not a doubtful object, but rather
a non-object the existence of which is certified by a Cartesian

In L’être et le néant, Sartre especially emphasises and deliberately

caricatures the agonal and unsociable quality of the mutual reifi-

reality of moral experiences very similarly to Sartre. In a famous paper from

1962 (reprinted in Freedom and Resentment, London, 1974) he has used the exam-
ple of our anger in reaction to being insulted by others to make plausible that
we do not just find the actions of the other bad or dreadful—as in the case of
anger or shock—but rather morally outrageous. So we must always already
have experienced the reality of morality before subsequently perhaps finding
it problematic. It is the same with resentment where we have already perma-
nently recognised the existence of others as moral persons.
See Sartre, L’être et le néant, p. 279.
See Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, A 359f.
Sartre, L’être et le néant, p. 283.
Against a priori Intersubjectivism. An Alternative Inspired by Sartre • 273

cation of freedom. Each subject can only maintain his/her sub-

jectivity in compensating his/her suffered reification by reifying
the other. This results in the battle for the maintenance of one’s
own capacity to be a subject in an inter-monadic world. But this
unfriendly aspect of Sartre’s conception of intersubjectivity (which
made it difficult and even impossible for him to justify a moral-
ity of solidarity in the 1940’s and 1950’s) does not alter his con-
viction that the other is just as certain as myself—this [latter]
conviction is rather presupposed. We should also take into account
here the writer’s strategy in shocking the bourgeoisie with its
own unpleasant image.

Later, especially in his confrontation with Marxism, Sartre sought

a new and original solution. It stems from the observation that
the other is not the negation of en-soi, but rather of my pour-soi:
I am not the only subject in the world (‘I am not Paul’); others
negate my freedom and limit my radius of action. The difference
between others and me is not the distance between bodies, or
something like the distance between body and soul. Rather, it is
the incompatibility of two centres of consciousness, neither of
which can assimilate the other in itself. In this context, the con-
cept of a ‘tiers à médier’—of the mediating third—appears for the
first time. Sartre used it in his Critique de la raison dialectique as
a key to understanding the ‘we’ of a group: only a third person
is able to see what two opposed subjects truly have in common.37
The ‘tiers à médier’ is thus a secularised Leibnizian central monad
that enables every particular subject in an intelligible way to
reach the cooperative ‘we’. In the late interview entitled L’espoir
maintenant, the presence of others in my own consciousness is
hesitatingly extended to include a moral dimension: the other is
not a cold gaze intent on reifying me, but rather to be understood

Sartre, L’être et le néant, pp. 286f.
274 • Manfred Frank

as the voice of duty. If the other belongs to my inner consciousness

and is distinguished by its radical freedom, then the dimension
of responsibility must be extended to that of obligation. I admit,
however, that this remains vague.

It would now be of importance to analyse much more thoroughly

how this intervention of the alter in my selfhood can actually
form a component of my immediate self-consciousness—but one
which, unlike in the analytic tradition following Strawson, must
not accept epistemic asymmetry, since it presents itself as a cer-
tainty. This certainty is of course not such that it would be con-
stitutive of my self-understanding as a subject. The certainty of
interaction with others is contingent to me to the extent that
it is de facto indubitable—in the same sense in which my self-
consciousness is contingent to me, but de facto immune to error.
(As mentioned above, this is how Leibniz and Kant saw things).

I already anticipate your criticism: so far so good, you might say,

but rather little has been accomplished for a social theory. I con-
cede this—but I was more concerned here with the premises on
which such a theory could justifiably be based. And these premises
are not provided by an understanding of social interaction as an
a priori truth. This is sufficient to fundamentally question the
entire project of a priori intersubjectivism—as convincing as it
may seem in its subsequent development. Thus I have done the
same with the Theory of Communicative Action as the young
Schelling did with Kant when he remarked, “Philosophy has not
yet come to an end. Kant provided the conclusions: the premises
are still lacking. And who can understand conclusions without

Letter to Hegel of 6 January, 1795.
Against a priori Intersubjectivism. An Alternative Inspired by Sartre • 275

Now it would in fact be arrogant to accuse Sartre of going no

further than providing the premises. He finally did elaborate on
his theory of intersubjectivity in extensive works on social the-
ory in the 1950’s and even later. It remains to be proven—exclud-
ing questions of detail—that his attempt has principally failed.
What seems especially important to me is that Sartre, in his
Critique de la raison dialectique and in other works, chooses the
self-consciousness of an individual person as his point of depar-
ture in defending the ‘irreducibility of human praxis’.39 The intel-
ligibility of social relations must be built on the transparency of
a particular self-consciousness and not on arbitrary super-indi-
vidual or a priori totalities.40 Sartre naturally concedes that indi-
viduals never appear other than as ‘singular universals’ (universels
singuliers), that they do not affirm themselves against society, but
rather understand themselves as individualised collective con-
sciousnesses. Logically, however, this means that the universal
acts only as the conditio sine qua non for individual conscious-
ness, not positively as its causa per quam.41

Critique de la raison dialectique (précédé de Questions de méthode). Tome I,
Théorie des ensembles pratiques. Texte établi par Arlette Elkaïm-Sartre, Paris, 1985,
pp. 73, 167.
Sartre, Critique de la raison dialectique, pp. 154, 182
“One should call mankind a singular universal: by being inserted into a
[Heideggerian] totality of meaningfulness through his belonging to an histor-
ical epoch, man is defined (universalisé) as a universal; but he redefines the
borders of this epochal whole (il le retotalise) in re-establishing himself in it as
a singularity (en se reproduisant en elle comme singularité) (Sartre, L’idiot de la
famille, tome 1, Paris, 1971, p. 7). I have thoroughly examined this dialectic in
“Archäologie des Individuums. Zur Hermeneutik von Sartres ‘Flaubert’,” in
M. Frank, Das Sagbare und das Unsagbare, Frankfurt am Main, 2nd ed., 1989,
pp. 256–333). This dialectic corresponds to the way Marx talks of the ‘social
individual’ which, if separated from his epoch and living situations, would be
just as unthinkable “as language development without individuals who live
and speak together” (Karl Marx, Grundrisse der Kritik der politischen Ökonomie,
Berlin, 1953, p. 6). However, what cannot be explained without society, is not
for that reason the ‘result’ of social processes, and therefore of the universal.
That would rather be the reversed abstraction that Marx characterises as the
‘inverted world’ or ‘mystification’. Neither Marx nor Sartre hold the individual
276 • Manfred Frank

It may now seem surprising that Sartre bases his maxim of

methodological individualism, according to which all totalisa-
tion starts with the individual, on the philosophy of Karl Marx.
For Marx was conceivably far from the false universality which
seeks to generate knowledge about mankind dialectically by pro-
gressively elevating itself from the most broad to the most pre-
cise determinations. He defines his method in a letter to Lassalle
as research, which ‘elevates itself from the abstract to the con-
crete’. And the concrete is according to Marx the hierarchical
totalisation of hierarchised determinations and realities. For “the
population is an abstraction when, for example, I leave out the
classes which constitute it. Class is again an empty term if I do
not know the elements upon which they are based, for example
paid labour, capital, etc.”42

In fact, Marx’s name has been roped in by a priori intersubjec-

tivism to the extent that one has forgotten what drove him to
criticise Hegelianism. His motive was not only that matter can-
not be sublated into mind, but more importantly the irreducibility
of individuality to universality.43 ‘The unrestrained realisation

to be ontically ‘independent’ in contrast to society; but it participates in soci-

ety’s presenting itself as this rather than that particular, concrete society.
Sartre, Critique de la raison dialectique, p. 49; the citation is taken from the
introduction to the Kritik der politischen Ökonomie, Karl Marx and Friedrich
Engels, Werke, 13, p. 631.
Marx adopts from Feuerbach and from Schelling through Feuerbach (cf.
for example Schellings sämmtliche Werke, II/3, 162, 2) the objection that “the
reality of mankind and of nature [. . .] becomes in Hegel’s philosophy [. . .]
mere predicates, symbols of this covert unreal mankind and this unreal nature
[of absolute spirit, or the idea of nature]. Subject and predicate are thus in a
relation of absolute inversion” (Marx and Engels, Werke, 1, supplementary vol-
ume, p. 584; cf. Marx and Engels, Werke, vol. 2, p. 204; vol. 1, pp. 206–8,
pp. 240f.; vol. 3, pp. 378, 384 and passim). “‘Real mankind’ or ‘the real subject
as the foundation for the state’ are consistently characterised with the prop-
erty of ‘individuality’ or ‘singularity’, as a charge against the ‘mystical’ notion,
according to which the subject of history is ‘Subjectivity’ or ‘the Universal’: It
is important that Hegel makes the idea a subject and that he makes the actual,
Against a priori Intersubjectivism. An Alternative Inspired by Sartre • 277

(Entfaltung) of individuality’ was indeed the true motive of his

earlier (and arguably also of his later) theory. Marx never accepted
the unauthorised ‘power of the universal’ (for example of the
‘value’), which is constitutive of the distinctive structure of cap-
italist society and its institutions, as a power that defies inten-
tional explanations and that should be interpreted from a
systems-theoretical or Hegelian perspective. He rather chastised
functionalist interpretations as mystifications throughout his
career.44 For example in The German Ideology Marx argues:

real subject [. . .] a predicate. But development always comes from the side of
the predicate.” (Commentary on § 268 of Hegel’s Philosophy of Law and Right,
cf. commentary on §§ 270, 279–280: the subject [is] necessarily an empirical
individual). For a criticism of Hegel’s subject-predicate inversion in the works
of Schelling, Feuerbach, and Marx cf. my Der unendliche Mangel an Sein, esp.
pp. 276ff., 298f. (each in context).
In the following, I adopt the main claims made in a doctoral thesis being
completed in Tübingen by Moritz Epple, Abstrakte Handlungen. Zur Diskussion
des “rational choice marxism” im Kontext der handlungstheoretischen Analyse moder-
ner Gesellschaften. This thesis will show that the methodological individualism
of analytical Marxists is a method which Marx himself had already employed.
A homogeneous social theory can be formulated by differentiating concrete
(situation dependent) and abstract (situation unspecific) rules of action, and
the abstract theoretical derivation of the latter from the former. Abstraction
theory, which evolved insufficiently in British empiricism (especially with
Berkeley), became conceptually refined in the number theory and logical investi-
gations of the early Husserl. According to the latter, abstract concepts (such as
number, plurality, or continuity) are to be thought of as grounded (‘fundiert’)
on a concrete (singular) intuition. They are, however, not immediately (as ‘pri-
mary content’) ‘derived’ from psychic experiences. Rather, they are mediated
by ‘reflection’.
With the help of abstraction theory, the concept of intentional action can now
be retained even within explanations of systemic orders. For the latter are noth-
ing other than ‘abstract actions’—assuming that the much too rigid rule con-
cept of mathematical game theory (which may be of explanatory value only
for the subsystem economy) can be made more flexible within a Wittgensteinian
and Davidsonian framework.
As a second step, Moritz Epple shows that this sort of pragmatically extended
and adjusted model of action can be made fruitful for the analysis of institutions.
In so doing, he is able to find support from the works of Winch, which explain
the regularity of behaviour not causally (as in the case of Althusser’s ‘struc-
tural causality’ or deterministic economism), but rather non-deterministically
278 • Manfred Frank

The fact is that those specific individuals that are productively

active in a specific way enter these specific social and political rela-
tions. Empirical observation must in each singular case empiri-
cally demonstrate the connection between social and political
structures and production without mystification and speculation.45

In a similar vein, the “Introduction” to the Critique of Political

Economy makes the following point:
If there is no production in general, then there is also no general
production. Production is always a specific branch of production—
for example agriculture, stock farming, manufacture, etc. [. . .]. All
production is appropriation of nature by the individual located
within and mediated by a certain social form.46

in terms of the concept of rule following. Patterns in social action can never-
theless be made comprehensible without any loss of the internal intelligibility
(and thus our hermeneutical understanding) of single individuals’ intentional
actions. At the same time, the capacity of social orders for innovation and their
openness to criticism becomes more easily understandable.
As a third step, Epple shows that society can in fact be grasped adequately
as a whole by methodological individualism. According to Wittgenstein, games
emerge in an irreducible plurality without being dependent on a universal lan-
guage or society as a whole from which they can all be deductively derived.
Here again, abstraction theory is can be deployed: the reciprocal relations
between (language and other) games or action contexts, even those that are
regulated differently, may be grasped by differentiating concrete and abstract
rules (of action). This would allow the abstract (situation unspecific) rules (of
action) to appear embedded in (and grounded by) concrete (situation sensi-
tive) ones (see project sketch p. 8). From this differentiation and from the abstrac-
tion theoretical derivation of the former from the latter, Moritz Epple can hope
to formulate a social theory made in one (theoretical) casting: Within this the-
ory action situations and individuals’ actions are posited as real, and it ascribes
to social institutions no independent reality in contrast to the actions consti-
tutive of them [. . .]. For every institution we can ask the question of which
individual actions establish the ‘usage’ of the rules that build the inner core
of the institution that is being investigated (see project sketch p. 9); cf. mean-
while Epple’s article “Karl Marx und die soziale Wirklichkeit,” Zeitschrift für
philosophische Forschung 48, 1994, 4, pp. 518–542.
Marx and Engels, Werke, vol. 3, p. 25.
Karl Marx, Grundrisse der Kritik der politischen Ökonomie, pp. 7 & 9.
Against a priori Intersubjectivism. An Alternative Inspired by Sartre • 279

The followers of Marx who emphasise his putative methodological

dependency on Hegel are usually themselves committed to func-
tionalist social theoretical assumptions (especially apparent with
Althusser). Even Habermas takes the trouble to divide labour so
that institutions are allotted functionalist and the life-world action-
theoretical explanations. Both explanation models are perhaps
incompatible, and anyway lack consistency in contrast to the
homogeneous conceptualisations of social processes according
to the early Marx and Sartre. An especially interesting task would
be a detailed investigation of the convergence in the approaches
of the early Marx, Sartre, and the methodological individualism
of Jon Elster and John Roemer. Each of these writers understands
the systemic character of social relations—partly with the help
of game theory—to mean the unwanted fallout of originally indi-
vidual and intentional actions (as ‘practico-inerte’) and not as a
sort of universal a priori, which has ‘always already’ anonymously
disenfranchised (entmündigt) individual practice.

In any case, I cannot and need not demonstrate here that Sartre’s
counter-conception to a priori intersubjectivism is convincing in
all aspects in order to be justified in talking about the failures
of the latter. Rather, our critical assessment of tradition-building
theories of intersubjectivity has taught us that those who do not
account for subjectivity from the start cannot later make it under-
standable as an inter-subject. In contrast, methodological indi-
vidualism opens doors to the field of intersubjective relations.
The plausibility of these attempts and the advantage they already
have due to their epistemological safeguard against a priori inter-
subjectivism, still make them attractive, despite manifest short-
comings and inconsistencies. I plead for the removal of these
weaknesses from the explanatory resources of a theory of com-
municative reason. Conversely, I suggest that intersubjectivism
not misconstrue the explanatory advantages of methodological
individualism with its pointless polemics, but rather that it quickly
convert them to its own use.
Kenneth MacKendrick

The Moral Imaginary of Discourse Ethics*1

[Moral] thoughts are those alone which do not understand


Gillian Rose, shortly before her death, noted that “It is strange
to live in a time when philosophy has found so many ways to
damage if not to destroy itself.”3 However, in agreement with
Cornelius Castoriadis, I suspect that the ‘death of subjectivity’
and the ‘end of philosophy’ are exaggerated reports.4 Still, it is
ironic that precisely when the ideals of rational thought, or at
least the aims of critical analysis, appear to be needed most, the
pre-emptive conclusions regarding the possibility of reason have
been encouraged to fall in either of two undesirable directions:
self-inflicted destruction (the cultural logic of late capitalism) or
political terror (nationalism, authoritarianism). This is, in fact,

* This article was first published in Critical Horizons, vol. 1, no. 2, 2000.
It would be irresponsible not to thank Andrea Brown, John Rundell, Stella
Gaon, Chris Brittain, Kelley, Darlene Juschka, Bill Arnal, and Stephan Dobson.
An earlier draft of this paper was presented at the American Academy of
Religion: Eastern International Region Conference, University of Toronto, April
17, 1998.
The original reads “True thoughts are those alone which do not under-
stand themselves” in Theodor W. Adorno, Minima Moralia, trans. E.F.N. Jephcott,
London, Verso, 1974, p. 192.
G. Rose, Mourning Becomes the Law, Cambridge, Cambridge University
Press, 1996, p. 1.
See Cornelius Castoriadis, World in Fragments, ed. and trans. David Ames
Curtis Stanford, Stanford University Press, 1997, p. 137 and Philosophy, Politics,
Autonomy, ed. David Ames Curtis, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1991, pp.
13–32. For an innovative and persuasive critique of postmodern ‘deconstruc-
tions’ of subjectivity, see Slavoj ÒZiÏzek, The Ticklish Subject, London, Verso, 1999.
The Moral Imaginary of Discourse Ethics • 281

the provocative thesis of Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of

Enlightenment: that reason, at the moment of the fall of meta-
physics, risks slipping into a “new kind of barbarism.”5 The idea
here is depicted in the striking etching ‘El sue de la razón produce
monstruos’ by Francisco Goya. The image is interesting because
of its ambiguity. Is it the ‘sleep of reason’ or is it ‘the dream of
reason’ that produces monsters?6 In either case, the image illus-
trates several entanglements for critical theory in ‘postmodern’
times and highlights the relevance of what I understand to be
the dreamwork of moral philosophy.7 The important idea not to
be missed here is the radical entwinement of fantasy and moral
consciousness. Prompted by this etching, this paper will examine
the relation between the ‘discourse ethics’ of Jürgen Habermas
and Cornelius Castoriadis’ theory of the ‘imaginary institution
of society’.

Habermas’ critical social theory, including his theory of com-

municative rationality and moral theory of discourse, is one
of the most challenging and innovative attempts to ‘rescue’
Enlightenment-based reason from ‘uninhibited scepticism’ and
the ‘monadic isolation of strategic action’.8 Habermas’ conceptuali-
sation of practical reason through a sophisticated and differentiated

M. Horkheimer and T. W. Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, trans. John
Cumming, New York, Continuum, 1990, p. xi.
For a brief reflection on Goya’s image from Los Caprichos, plate 43, see
David Couzens Hoy and Thomas McCarthy’s “Introduction” in Critical Theory,
Oxford, Blackwell Publishers, 1994, pp. 1–4.
I am using the term ‘dreamwork’ here in the Freudian sense, “the work
which transforms the latent dream into the manifest one,” keeping in mind
Freud’s fundamental insight into the phantasmic character of trauma, which
lies at the heart of moral consciousness. Sigmund Freud, Introductory Lectures
on Psychoanalysis: Vol. 1, trans. James Strachey, New York, Penguin Books, 1991,
p. 204.
J. Habermas, The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity, trans. Frederick G.
Lawrence, Cambridge, Mass., MIT Press, 1987, p. 129 and Moral Consciousness
and Communicative Action, trans. Christian Lenhardt and Shierry Weber Nicholsen
Cambridge, Mass., MIT Press, 1990 p. 102.
282 • Kenneth MacKendrick

understanding of communicative rationality is virtually poetic

in stature. Quoting Walter Benjamin approvingly Habermas
writes, “there is a sphere of human agreement that is non-violent
to the extent that it is wholly inaccessible to violence: the proper
sphere of ‘mutual understanding’, language.”9 The non-violence
intimated in the sphere of mutual understanding serves as a
foundational moment for Habermas’ ‘muscular’ universalism
and his analysis provides an important opportunity to revisit
what universalism might entail for contemporary moral philos-
ophy. Yet, as I will argue, Habermas’ attempt to rescue reason,
as communicative action, remains bound in a paradox in that
moral reasoning is implicated in its own contingency, and with
regards to universalism, is entwined in a necessary and impos-
sible structure. Although Habermas’ discourse ethics remains
one of the more fruitful developments in moral philosophy today,
it does not acknowledge enough and perhaps presupposes too
much. To substantiate this paradox, I argue that Habermas’ moral
theory fails to establish the necessary immanent connection
between the universality of discourse ethics and the quasi-tran-
scendentalism that is supposed to provide its ground. In effect,
Habermas’ attempt to avoid the spectre of subjectivism leads
him to develop an understanding of universalism that hinges on
a critical error, the confusion of subjectivity with ethical sub-
stance [the subject becomes language]. Using the work of
Castoriadis, I maintain that Habermas’ moral theory of discourse
harbours a moral-imaginary dimension: a pre-political kernel
that undercuts its capacity to serve as a universalist ethic. What
his analysis of morality fails to distinguish here is the depth to
which particular forms of subjectivity and discourse are fused
with a moral-imaginary horizon. As a consequence, the attempt

Walter Benjamin quoted in Jürgen Habermas, “Consciousness-Raising or
Rescuing Critique” in Gary Smith, ed. On Walter Benjamin, Cambridge, Mass.,
MIT Press, 1988, p. 124.
The Moral Imaginary of Discourse Ethics • 283

to circumvent such a fusion leads to something that Castoriadis

refers to as ‘the ethicists’ new clothes’—a public display of a
withdrawal into the ‘private’ sphere that is characteristic of the
present age along with its ‘individualist’ ideology.10 Furthermore,
I then suggest that Habermas’ discourse ethics, because of the
way in which the question of universalism is formulated, remains
firmly embedded within a substantive conception of reason
which, in effect, aligns his moral theory in close proximity to
praxis philosophers such as Agnes Heller, Cornelius Castoriadis
and the earlier work of the Frankfurt School, despite his explicit
disagreements with their conclusions. This affinity further illu-
minates the imaginary horizon of moral philosophy.

Habermas’ Emphatic Conception of Reason

Theory formation is in danger of being limited from the start to a

particular, culturally or historically bound perspective, unless fun-
damental concepts are constructed in such a way that the concept
of rationality they implicitly posit is encompassing and general,
that is, satisfies universalistic claims.11

The central idea of Habermas’ theory of communicative action

is that there is an indestructible moment of rationality that is
grounded in concrete forms of human existence. Habermas uses
this indestructible moment as a foundation for the articulation
of a comprehensive social theory which shifts beyond the tradi-
tional ‘critique of ideology’ to a theory of rationality expressly
concerned with the validity of its own critical standards. To this

Castoriadis, World in Fragments, p. 110. A similar critique of this problem
can be found in Seyla Benhabib’s essay “The Generalized and the Concrete
Other” in Situating the Self, New York, Routledge, 1992, pp. 148–177.
J. Habermas, The Theory of Communicative Action: Vol. 1, trans. Thomas
McCarthy, Boston, Beacon Press, 198, p. 137.
284 • Kenneth MacKendrick

end, Habermas develops a theory of communicative rationality,

which requires an understanding of objectivity that shows itself
to be universally valid. He is well aware that this is a very strong
requirement for a theorist operating without metaphysical sup-
port, and argues that there are three ways in which to expound
the universality of the concept of communicative rationality with-
out ‘falling back’ into metaphysics. The first way is through the
introduction of a formal-pragmatic concept of communicative
action, including a rational reconstruction of universal rules and
necessary presuppositions of speech acts oriented toward reach-
ing an understanding. The second way, to explain pathological
patterns of communication found in the evolution of the foun-
dations of socio-cultural forms of life and the ontogenesis of
capabilities for action. Based on these two approaches, Habermas
develops a third way, expounded in the theory of communica-
tive action.12

Habermas’ aim here can be taken as twofold: first, to reconstruct

the ‘rules’ of argumentation that are unavoidable; and second,
to outline a rational and ethical vision of the world in accord
with an idea of moral subjectivity that is appropriate to these
rules. To reconstruct the ‘rules’ of argumentation, Habermas
develops ‘formal’ or ‘universal’ pragmatics out of the idea of
‘transcendental pragmatics’ from the work of Karl-Otto Apel. In
this way, Habermas links questions of universality in moral state-
ments with a theory of communicative action. Habermas’ argu-
ment takes the form of a reconstructive science, the (objective)
articulation of the non-contingent ‘intuitive know-how’ or ‘intu-
itive pre-understanding’ of speech acts oriented by the attempt
to understand something with someone. The purpose of a uni-
versal pragmatic argument is to prove that all discourses entail
inescapable presuppositions. Habermas’ intention is to demon-

Ibid., pp. 138–139.
The Moral Imaginary of Discourse Ethics • 285

strate that ‘argumentative games’ are not mere conventions, but

are rather implicit rules, which, upon reconstruction, outline the
minimal moral content of any possible discourse. Failure to com-
ply, in practice, with this reconstructed model results in a per-
formative contradiction, the raising of a radical or critical claim
which undercuts or contradicts the possibility of its own valid-
ity.13 Language use, therefore, is rational when participants co-
ordinate their plans of action consensually, and it is moral when
the agreement reached at any point is evaluated in terms of the
intersubjective recognition of validity claims.14 Habermas’ expli-
cation of universal pragmatics rests on his thesis that commu-
nicative actions can be successfully demarcated from all other
social actions. He makes the claim that such a separation can be
accomplished through an analysis of the illocutionary binding/
bonding force of utterances (what Habermas has more recently
identified as a ‘transcendence within’).15 Communicative actions,
according to Habermas, differentiate themselves based on their
self-sufficiency, in the sense that “the communicative intent of
the speaker and the illocutionary aim he [or she, KM] is pursu-
ing follow from the manifest meaning of what is said.” 16
Specifically, Habermas then argues that all speech acts oriented
to reaching understanding [Verständigung] raise three distinct,

Habermas, Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action, pp. 76–98 and
Communication and the Evolution of Society, trans. Thomas McCarthy, Boston,
Beacon Press, 1979, pp. 1–68.
Habermas, Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action, p. 58. Habermas
also writes, “What counts as rational is solving problems successfully through
procedurally suitable dealings with reality.” See Jürgen Habermas, Postmeta-
physical Thinking, trans. William Mark Hohengarten, Cambridge, Mass., MIT
Press, 1992, p. 35.
See Jürgen Habermas, The Inclusion of the Other, ed. Ciaran Cronin and
Pablo De Greiff, Cambridge, Mass., MIT Press, 1998, pp. 7ff. Also, Jürgen
Habermas, “Transcendence from Within, Transcendence in this World” in
Habermas, Modernity, and Public Theology, ed. Don S. Browning and Francis
Schüssler Fiorenza, New York, Crossroad, 1992, pp. 226–250.
Habermas, The Theory of Communicative Action, Vol. 1, p. 289.
286 • Kenneth MacKendrick

meaningful and procedurally separable validity claims: claims

regarding truth (the objective sphere), rightness (the social or
political normative sphere), and truthfulness (concerning the sub-
jective sphere of private experiences). Habermas further argues
that this separation of ‘value spheres’, the result of a ‘decentring
of worldview’, has been incorporated (in however distorted and
incomplete a fashion) into the institutions of constitutional gov-
ernment, into the forms of democratic will formation, and into
individualist patterns of identity formation.17

The stronger thesis that Habermas develops is that commu-

nicative action, the use of language orientated to reaching under-
standing, is the original mode of language use, and that the
instrumental use of language is parasitic.18 To this end, univer-
sal pragmatics seeks to reconstruct and make explicit the uni-
versally valid orientations of speech acts while simultaneously
providing a systematic outline of the “intuitive knowledge of
competent subjects.”19 In short, universal pragmatics claims to
outline the intuitive and necessary conditions for a “happy
employment of sentences in utterances.”20 The failure to conform
to the logic of these rules inevitably results in what Habermas
calls a performative contradiction. A speaker is ‘competent’ when,
and only when, their utterances do not conflict with their ‘always
already’ presuppositions.

The problem that the theory of communicative action must over-

come is this: How is it possible to thematise discourses into ques-
tions of truth or rightness without an a priori appeal to their
factual and valid separation? Habermas attempts to short circuit

Habermas, The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity, pp. 115–117.
Habermas, The Theory of Communicative Action, Vol. 1, p. 288.
Habermas, Communication and the Evolution of Society, p. 9.
Ibid., p. 26.
The Moral Imaginary of Discourse Ethics • 287

the charge of begging the question by relying upon a quasi-

transcendental understanding of communication, whereby the
internal structure of validity claims are conceived of as possessing
the turgid durability to mediate agreement through mutual

For Habermas, the adjudication of validity claims regarding objec-

tive truth or normative rightness must be determined procedurally
if they are going to remain in accord with rationalisation. Proced-
uralisation as ‘ideal role-taking’ is the rational (and moral) par-
adigm of modernity in philosophical form. Guided by Kantian
intuitions, Habermas elaborates the formal character of discourse
ethics with a theory of argumentation which sustains the idea
that all questions of truth or normative validity can be success-
fully adjudicated through the use of good reasons, with con-
sensus upon any issue serving as rational grounds for its validity.
Since traditional worldviews, in their encounter with plurality,
have lost their legitimacy, modern reason must create norma-
tivity out of itself by relying on nothing more than the force of
the better argument.21 Legitimacy (understood here as consensual
will-formation), for Habermas, in light of the disenchantment of
mythical worldviews, requires a turn toward reason, discursively
conceived and quasi-transcendentally derived. Habermas grounds
this turn to reason in the social evolutionary development of
autonomy and solidarity constituted by the intersubjective and
communicative logic of ego development.22

In sum, Habermas provides an analysis of speech act orientations

and argues that rational thinking is determined, in part, by what
one wants: “It is a matter of making a rational choice of means
in the light of fixed purposes or of the rational assessment of

Habermas, The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity, p. 7.
See Habermas, Communication and the Evolution of Society, pp. 69–94.
288 • Kenneth MacKendrick

goals in the light of existing preferences.”23 The question, ‘What

should I do?’ takes on a pragmatic, an ethical, or a moral mean-
ing depending on how the problem is conceived: pragmatic ques-
tions address strategic directions for action, ethical questions
correspond to ethical-existential advice concerning correct conduct
of life and the realisation of a personal life project, and moral
questions pertain to the clarification of legitimate behavioural
expectations in response to interpersonal conflicts resulting from
the disruption of our orderly coexistence by conflicts of interest.24
Pragmatic and ethical discourses have an affinity with empiri-
cal discourses—which take on a third person perspective, ori-
ented by an interest regarding a discursively constituted ‘objective
state of affairs’ and moral discourses thematically deal with ques-
tions of ‘rightness’ and the validity of social or moral norms.25
To sustain these divisions, Habermas maintains that “the social
world, as the totality of legitimately ordered interpersonal rela-
tions, has a different ontological constitution from the objective
world.”26 In other words, meaning and truth, for Habermas, are
(ought to be) mutually exclusive. For example, the question of
how one might equitably distribute food is a pragmatic ques-
tion, regarding the strategic and technical employment of rea-
son. The question of whether one wants to live their life like a
saint or a communist distributing food is an ethical question,
pertaining to a particular vision of a good life. Finally, the ques-
tion of whether one should distribute food is a moral question,
pertaining to the potentially universal moral interest of all.
Habermas’ discourse ethics rests on the intuition that the appli-
cation of the principle of universalisation calls for a joint process
of ‘ideal role taking’, which entails the pragmatic presupposi-

J. Habermas, Justification and Application, trans. Ciaran P. Cronin, Cambridge,
Mass., MIT Press, 1993, p. 3.
Ibid., pp. 8–9.
Ibid., p. 11.
Ibid., p. 39.
The Moral Imaginary of Discourse Ethics • 289

tion of an inclusive and non-coercive rational discourse between

free and equal participants—the explicit theorisation of which
can be identified as the “general presuppositions of commu-
nicative action.”27

Beyond an Emphatic Conception of Reason: Towards

Performative Idealisation

In a careful analysis of Habermas’ program of discourse ethics,

Albrecht Wellmer argues that Habermas’ principle of universal-
isation is a moral principle, guided by a local ideal, which fails
as a legal principle of consensual validity, pertaining to legiti-
mation.28 Likewise, Agnes Heller argues that the universalisa-
tion test requires at least one shared good as a presupposition
upon which any attempt to reach consensus can hope to ground
itself. In other words, both Wellmer and Heller have argued that
Habermas must presuppose a shared ethos: an ethos that grants,
as a good, the conceptual priority of communicative action. This
is highly problematic since such a presupposition contradicts the
universalist aim of Habermas’ project by incorporating an ethical
good in the very ‘bones’ of his moral theory of discourse, given
that Habermas requires that the good and the just be separate
in order to substantiate the claim that the principle of univer-
salisation serves as a guarantee of impartiality.29 If Wellmer and
Heller are correct, Habermas’ model of moral discourse neces-
sarily fails as a universal model because it relies on ethical assump-
tions derived from a pre-political a priori acceptance of normative
claims that are external to discursive formal procedures.30

Habermas, Communication and the Evolution of Society, p. 1.
A. Wellmer, The Persistence of Modernity, trans. David Midgley, Cambridge,
Mass., MIT Press, 1993, pp. 145–159.
A. Heller, Beyond Justice, Oxford, Basil Blackwell, 1987, p. 240.
Adorno understood this well when he asserted, “In general, the objectiv-
ity of empirical social research is an objectivity of the methods, not of what is
290 • Kenneth MacKendrick

In response to Wellmer, Habermas argues that the moral element

of discourse ethics is only exhausted in the justification of a norm
and its application; the latter linking moral principles to con-
creteness.31 With regard to Heller, Habermas maintains that there
are simply no alternatives to a formalist model of mutual recog-
nition and that for this reason, a shared good can legitimately
be presupposed. Habermas writes, “In communicative rational-
ity we are always already orientated to those validity claims, on
the intersubjective recognition of which possible consensus
depends.” Furthermore, he notes, “In structures of undamaged
intersubjectivity can be found a necessary condition for indi-
viduals reaching an understanding among themselves without
coercion.”32 Habermas’ stage model of ego development, which
he also formulates as the development of ‘ideal role taking’, is
taken here to be the (only!) valid model.33

Simultaneously he argues that this process of justification and

application should not be understood consequentially: solidar-
ity and autonomy are preserved in the procedures themselves.
The substance of universal pragmatics serves as the basis on
which the fundamental principle of discourse ethics can be elab-
orated: only moral rules that could win the assent of all affected
as participants in a practical discourse can claim [impartial] valid-
ity. Essentially, Habermas’ claim is that all originary attempts of

investigated,” an argument that I also think holds true for Habermas’ recon-
structive sciences. Theodor W. Adorno, “Sociology and Empirical Research,”
The Positivist Dispute in German Sociology, ed. Theodor W. Adorno et al., trans.
Glyn Adey and David Frisby, London, Heinemann Educational Books, 1976,
p. 71.
Habermas, Justification and Application, pp. 30–39.
J. Habermas, “A Reply to My Critics” in Habermas, ed. John B. Thompson
and David Held, Cambridge, Mass., MIT Press, 1982, pp. 227–228.
For a particularly excellent critique of this problem in Habermas, see Stella
Gaon, “Pluralising Universal ‘Man,’’ The Review of Politics, vol. 60, no. 4, 1998,
pp. 685–718.
The Moral Imaginary of Discourse Ethics • 291

human beings to communicate with each other contain at least

a minimal ‘idealisation’ from which it is possible to derive the
universal principles of justice and solidarity. Habermas argues
that by virtue of the ‘idealising’ assumptions that everyone who
seriously engages in argumentation must make, as a matter of
fact, rational discourse can be formulated as a procedure that
explicates the moral point of view. Specifically, the moral point
of view is understood to be the reconstruction of a ‘God’s eye’
within the boundaries of our intersubjectively shared world.34
The ideas of justice and solidarity are articulated, in retrospect,
to be implicit in these idealising presuppositions of commu-
nicative action.35 As Stella Gaon summarises, Habermas must
“explicate the moral point of view in such a way as to render it
both ethically empty and yet normatively full.”36 Without this
impartial element, Habermas acknowledges that “we must be
prepared to renounce the emancipatory potential of moral uni-
versalism.”37 What Habermas fails to adequately consider in his
responses is the way in which discursively inaccessible ethical
assumptions themselves may be buried in his understanding of
the reconstructive sciences.

This assumption can be located in Habermas’ claims regarding

the ‘idealisations’ found within all linguistic utterances. Speci-
fically, Wellmer argues that Habermas’ ‘necessary idealisations’
involved in the raising of truth claims can be understood in two
ways: in a strong or ‘totalising’ sense, and in a weak or ‘localis-
ing’ sense. If taken in a strong sense, it becomes metaphysical;
if understood in a weak sense, it becomes innocuous.38 Wellmer
argues that if we reach a consensus that we think is based on

Habermas, The Inclusion of the Other, p. 7.
Habermas, Justification and Application, p. 50.
Gaon, “Pluralising Universal ‘Man,’’ p. 689.
Habermas, Justification and Application, p. 125.
A. Wellmer, Endgames, trans. David Midgley, Cambridge, Mass., MIT Press,
1998, p. 140.
292 • Kenneth MacKendrick

good reasons, then we take it for granted that no arguments have

been suppressed and that none of the participants has been pre-
vented from putting forward relevant counter-arguments. In ret-
rospect, we might discover this to be wrong. But it would be a
mistake to construe these ‘necessary idealisations’ as signifying
an ideal structure, which we might use as a normative standard
for evaluating real structures of communication. In effect, ideal-
isations might indeed be necessary, but they are, strictly speak-
ing, not idealisations in the Habermasian sense, since they arise
out of local ‘epistemic conditions’ and strategic performative
assumptions.39 Wellmer concludes that the dialectics of context-
immanence and context-transcendence involve idealisations, as
performative presuppositions, only in a local context.40 In other
words, the performative presuppositions of argumentation are
not ‘universal’ idealisations, but are rather idealisations of a con-
tingent sort. This point acknowledges that language can be used
in different ways, and does not grant a privileged position to
communicative utterances. Wellmer provides a critical insight if,
as Maeve Cooke concludes, Habermas’ language-theoretic argu-
ment can show no more than the conceptual priority of the com-
municative mode of language use.41 This insight can be further
elaborated by a point made by Castoriadis.

Against the formal implication of Kantianism, and relying on

insights from Gödel’s incompleteness theorems, Castoriadis argues
that formal principles (upholding the idea of non-contradiction)
always rely upon idealised assumptions or presuppositions that
remain undetermined and undeterminable within a given set of
axioms.42 This analytical observation explains, in part, the logical

Ibid., pp. 142–145.
Ibid., p. 150.
M. Cooke, Language and Reason, Cambridge, Mass., MIT Press, 1994, p. 19.
Cornelius Castoriadis, The Imaginary Institution of Society, trans. Kathleen
Blamey, Cambridge, Mass., MIT Press, 1998, p. 74.
The Moral Imaginary of Discourse Ethics • 293

gap that Wellmer and Heller point out, namely, that Habermas
lacks sufficient grounds to adequately justify the conceptual priv-
ileging of communicative rationality as a universal and moral
form of rationality. The problem here is that if the validity claims
regarding the reconstructive sciences themselves cannot be re-
duced to ‘yes or no’ truth claims because they rely on indeter-
minate assumptions, or if the procedures of discourse cannot be
substantially questioned without assuming their validity, then
the procedure of justification, structurally, cannot yield impar-
tial (however fallible), non-contingent, or universally acceptable
results. In other words, Habermas smuggles a ‘transcendental
good’ into his moral theory of discourse without providing ade-
quate justification for doing so. By appealing to a normative
‘transcendence within’ Habermas must also simultaneously appeal
to a transcendental principle external to his moral theory of dis-
course. This problem aggravates the way in which Habermas
derives the universality of discursive moral principles (the prin-
ciple of discourse and the corollary principle of appropriateness).
Of central importance is whether Habermas can justify a prin-
ciple of discourse as the moral principle without assuming its
validity as an a priori or relying on metaphysical assumptions.

There is a second problem as well. The problem, in short, is that

Habermas uses the reconstruction of the ‘intuitive pre-understand-
ing’ of speech to demonstrate that the reconstructive sciences are
more than retroactive analyses with an imposed normative mean-
ing. Here, Habermas must indicate how reconstructive sciences
possess the capacity to provide (relatively) pure cognitive con-
tent (Habermas must ground his analysis ontologically) without
relying on a heteronomous authority. In other words, Habermas’
principle of discourse must martial evidence that demonstrates
that it does not beg the question; Habermas must accomplish
materialistically what Kant failed to do transcendentally. And
this is precisely what Asher Horowitz argues Habermas cannot
do. To quote Horowitz at length:
294 • Kenneth MacKendrick

The problem presents itself as follows: the three spheres of ratio-

nality are deemed by Habermas to follow from the act of linguistic
communication itself. On the one hand, human grammatical speech
is the ‘transcendental’ condition of the forms of objectivity. On the
other hand, that the system of world-relations follows directly from
grammatical speech is knowable only within the frame of refer-
ence supplied by that system. . . . Thus Habermas is thrown back
on science, specifically on a reconstructive science deemed to be
capable of grasping the logic of development, in order not to be
seen to be begging the question of the priority of communication

Habermas uses a reconstructive science to confirm communica-

tive validity which is now the only possible grounds for a recon-
structive science. As Horowitz notes, Habermas’ argument is
circular.44 The validity of the reconstructive sciences depends on
communicative validity, which, in turn, is dependent upon the
validity of reconstructive sciences. Horowitz argues that to escape
this dilemma Habermas tries to save himself through an onto-
anthropological argument where the Subject does not at all dis-
appear within the philosophy of language: the Subject becomes
language.45 Ironically, Slavoj ÛZiÏzek has noted that this in fact may
align Habermas’ social theory with postmodernism, since
Habermas’ understanding of discourse stems from the alienation
produced by disenchantment—which now takes a purely pro-
cedural and disembodied form. In effect, Habermas’ moral theory
liquidates and breaks with any ‘rational’ and substantial content

A. Horowitz, “Like a Tangled Mobile,” Philosophy and Social Criticism, vol.
24, no. 1, 1998, p. 16. For a similar critique see Jay M. Bernstein, Recovering
Ethical Life, New York, Routledge, 1995, pp. 58ff.
One is tempted here to introduce, pace Habermas, Lacan’s notion of the
inherent lack involved in all forms of symbolisation. In effect, the paradox pre-
sent in Habermas’ theory of communicative action is the symptom of impossi-
ble and necessary demands of conceptualisation. For a concise introduction to
Lacan’s theory of symbolisation, see Bruce Fink, The Lacanian Subject, New
Jersey, Princeton University Press and for Lacan’s relation to the political, Yannis
Stavrakakis, Lacan and the Political, New York, Routledge, 1999.
Horowitz, “Like a Tangled Mobile,” p. 19.
The Moral Imaginary of Discourse Ethics • 295

of modernity by taking the form of a postmodern/postmeta-

physical moral philosophy.46

In the end, in order to escape the circularity of his moral theory

of discourse, Habermas unwittingly appeals to an empirical argu-
ment with normative dimensions; an attempt that Castoriadis
calls an ‘enormous logical blunder’.47 By appealing to a corrob-
orating retroactive authority for internal legitimacy, Habermas
paradoxically ends up in the same place that he criticises the
Frankfurt School for occupying—he invokes ‘a reason that is
before reason.’48 If this is the case, then both Wellmer and Heller
are correct: the procedures of justification and application are
themselves moral principles and rely, implicitly, on a specific
(local) performative idealisation, what I have termed the moral
imaginary of discourse ethics. In effect, the principles that Habermas
identifies do not lend themselves to an impartial assessment of
norms, rather, to the fundamental assumptions of a particular
kind of democratic politics.

The Moral Imaginary of Discourse Ethics and The

Imaginary Institution of Society

The internal contradictions in Habermas’ account, according to

Seyla Benhabib and Agnes Heller, establish that discourse ethics
is not the moral point of view but a moral point of view.49 I have
proposed that the moral-imaginary element of Habermas’ work
is that which informs moral arguments but cannot be exhausted
by them because they require presuppositions that are indeter-
minable in his theory. In other words, Habermas’ discourse ethics

S. ÒZiÏzek, Looking Awry, Cambridge, Mass., MIT Press, 1991, pp. 141–142.
Castoriadis, Philosophy, Politics, Autonomy, p. 78.
Habermas, The Theory of Communicative Action: Vol. I, p. 382, quoted in
Benhabib, Situating the Self, 38–46 and Heller, Beyond Justice, pp. 230–256.
296 • Kenneth MacKendrick

remains embedded within the imaginary of a particular set of

institutionalised practices. The imaginary grounding of discourse
ethics is manifest as an anticipatory utopian praxis, which requires
the appropriation of specific, and contingent culturally articulated
values.50 Strictly speaking, however, Habermas’ theory leaves lit-
tle room for imaginative creativity in moral argumentation, yet
when he translates subjectivity into language, discourse ethics
is obliged to take on phantasmic dimensions (which appear as
transcendental presuppositions) to support and ground its thesis.
These values take their shape from the ‘social imaginary’ of a
historically conditioned democratic ethos, the suppressed con-
tent of discourse ethics, the actual substance buried within
Habermas’ procedural model. Habermas’ moral theory of dis-
course is unable to justify its own grounds, and thereby fails to
establish the conditions under which its premises could be
accepted as universal precepts toward the resolution of moral
problems. Habermas fails to demonstrate the validity of a uni-
versalist orientation because of the logical indeterminacy of a
procedure that is ‘normatively full’ yet devoid of an substantial
content. In other words, Habermas makes a rather Kantian error.

Several studies of Habermas’ theory of communicative action, particularly
analyses examining gender, have also pointed this out. See Marie Fleming,
Emancipation and Illusion, University Park, Pennsylvania State University Press,
1997, Joan B. Landes, Women and the Public Sphere, Ithaca, Cornell University
Press, 1988, and ed. Johanna Meehan, Feminists Read Habermas, New York,
Routledge, 1995. An even greater insight into this problem might be uncov-
ered through a Lacanian analysis, particularly Lacan’s idea of an ‘obscene
object.’ In other words, in order to maintain the consistency of a moral theory
of discourse, Habermas is obliged to import precisely those elements which
the structure of his theory forbids (‘the good’). See Slavoj ÒZiÏzek, Plague of
Fantasies, London, Verso, 1997, p. 213. ÒZiÏzek further argues that the philo-
sophical approach to ethics seems to be split between three options: substan-
tial ethics (communitarianism), procedural ethical universalism (Habermas and
Rawls), and ‘postmodern’ ethics, all three of which de facto privilege a certain
positive content. This positive content, the ‘obscene object’ of discourse ethics,
then could be read as an ideological kernel, the existence of which must be
denied (repressed) in order to maintain consistency.
The Moral Imaginary of Discourse Ethics • 297

What is of interest here is how a ‘remainder’—a vanishing medi-

ator (an element of moral reasoning not exhausted by moral
argumentation) located in the ‘moral imaginary’ and substantial
element of discourse ethics, has been inadvertently incorporated
into Habermas’ understanding of post-conventional or post-
metaphysical interpretations of reasoning.51 The work of Casto-
riadis, particularly his interpretation of Freud, addresses the very
nature of an imaginary dimension to discourse ethics and offers
a refreshing and persuasive alternative to Habermas’ strictly cog-
nitivist proceduralism.

It is particularly interesting that the political convergence and

divergence of Castoriadis and Habermas has been largely ignored,
despite the fact that Habermas’ ‘project of Enlightenment’ and
Castoriadis’ ‘project of autonomy’ are almost indistinguishable.52
This is especially striking since their theoretical conceptions of
subjectivity and their employment of psychoanalysis are quite
distinct. For Habermas, psychoanalysis provides a ‘tangible exam-
ple’ of a successful self-reflective emancipatory science that com-
bines communicative rationality with explanatory procedures,
thereby clarifying the foundations of critical theory. For Casto-
riadis, psychoanalysis is a practical and poetic activity, both cre-
ative and self-alterating, whose object is human autonomy.53 The
crucial differences between Castoriadis and Habermas rest largely
on their mutually exclusive interpretations of subjectivity. The
former maintains subjectivity is constituted by a ‘monadic core’
conceived of in terms of a theory of imagination. The latter
proposes an evolutionary model of linguistic development and

The idea of a ‘vanishing mediator’ is taken from the work of Slavoj ÒZiÏzek.
See The Indivisible Remainder, London, Verso, 1996, pp. 92ff.
J. Whitebook, Perversion and Utopia, Cambridge, Mass., MIT Press, 1995,
p. 166.
Castoriadis, World in Fragments, p. 129.
298 • Kenneth MacKendrick

communicative competence—the subject as a derivative of com-

municative interactions.54

The only way Habermas is able to martial evidence to support

its ‘objective’ validity is by translating the idea of subjectivity
directly into language, an error that Renata Salecl and Slavoj
ÒZiÏzek, in different contexts, have identified as the equation of
‘subjectivity with substance’.55 Habermas’ ‘logical blunder’ stems
from what I regard as a fundamental dilemma in his appropri-
ation of psychoanalysis: the linguistic ‘liquidation’ of the Freudian
unconscious. Habermas’ reinterpretation of Freud’s entire theo-
retical framework from the perspective of language remains, I
think, at the heart of the problem. For Habermas, psychoana-
lytic interpretation is taken to unearth the idiosyncratic links
between the public use of language and illicit and private moti-
vations.56 Consequently, Habermas understands the unconscious
as a kind of interrupted conversation with oneself, the reconcil-
iation of which produces an ‘undistorted’ and ‘competent’ sub-
ject. In effect, Habermas contends that the unconscious is a
derivative phenomenon, stemming from the pre-existing social
reality of mutual recognition.

Communicative incompetence, for Habermas, is a result of the

‘untamed’ or ‘un-rationalised’ conscience, whereby the entwine-
ment of meaning, fantasy, and cognition takes shape as a ‘mythic’

Castoriadis notes that communicative action is certainly an important
moment of psychoanalysis, but in no way defines its meaning or end: “The
end of psychoanalysis is not ‘interpretative understanding’ between the ana-
lyst and the patient . . . but rather a contribution to the patient’s access to
his/her own autonomy.” Castoriadis, Philosophy, Politics, Autonomy, p. 77.
See Renata Salecl’s critique of John Rawls in The Spoils of Freedom, New
York, Routledge, 1994, pp. 77–89 and S. ÒZiÏzek, The Ticklish Subject, pp. 171–239.
Jürgen Habermas, Knowledge and Human Interests, trans. Jeremy J. Shapiro,
Boston, Beacon Press, 1971, p. 257.
The Moral Imaginary of Discourse Ethics • 299

or ‘pre-modern’ mode of thinking.57 This mythic ‘failure’ is fur-

ther illustrated in Kohlberg’s pre-operational and concrete oper-
ational level, a model that Habermas places squarely in the centre
of his neo-Kantian discourse ethics.58 Habermas contends that
the shift to postconventional reasoning, at the level of philo-
sophical reflection, transcends the naturalist paradigm and is an
achievement of an orientation toward universal discourse (from
myth to enlightenment).59 This orientation requires that moral
discourses rely upon the medium of available good reasons,
which take shape in actual discourse.60 This reflects, in turn, his
concern with communicative autonomy, intersubjective solidar-
ity, and rationalisation. It is at the level of argumentation (formal
discourse) that the question of whether the distinctions between
value, imagining, and cognition have successfully been digested
and transformed is to be resolved. For Habermas, it is through
procedures of argumentation that these issues are linguistified,
clarified, debated, and translated into yes or no truth claims.61
The problem here is that Habermas’ linguistic transcendentalism
prevents him from adequately addressing the extra-linguistic
and pre-linguistic reality of moral consciousness at the proce-
dural level. As Joel Whitebook notes, Habermas “is compelled

Habermas, The Theory of Communicative Action, Vol. 1, pp. 43ff.
Habermas, Communication and the Evolution of Society, pp. 69–129 and Moral
Consciousness and Communicative Action, pp. 116–188. For a good discussion of
the switch in Habermas’ understanding of knowledge and human interests to
a developmental perspective see Richard J. Bernstein’s “Introduction” in Habermas
and Modernity, ed. Richard J. Bernstein, Cambridge, Mass., MIT Press, 1991,
pp. 1–32.
J. Habermas, “Justice and Solidarity,” Hermeneutics and Critical Theory in
Ethics and Politics, ed. Michael Kelly, Cambridge, Mass., MIT Press, 1991, pp.
Franklin Gamwell persuasively discuses the implicitly teleological frame-
work in Habermas’ universal pragmatics in contrast with Karl-Otto Apel’s
transcendental pragmatics. Franklin I. Gamwell, “Habermas and Apel on
Communicative Ethics,” Philosophy and Social Criticism, vol. 23, no. 2, 1997, pp.
Habermas, Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action, pp. 158–160.
300 • Kenneth MacKendrick

for systematic reasons simply to dismiss the notion of a pre-lin-

guistic unconscious ex cathedra.”62

The issue of how one conceptualises the relationship between

psychic agencies, especially between language and the imaginary,
is thus crucial to any comparison of Habermas’ moral theory of
discourse and Castoriadis’ theory of the imaginary institution of

Castoriadis introduces his anthology, World in Fragments, with

the line “The world—not only ours—is fragmented. Yet it does
not fall to pieces . . .” The world does not fall apart precisely
because it is tied together or ‘filled in’ with a potentially inex-
haustible source of imaginary constructions, the institution of
meaning though the fundamental act of positing a self/other
distinction, which is generated along two fronts. One front
emanates from the psyche, which Castoriadis terms the radical
imaginary, the other from the side of the social, which he terms
social imaginary significations. The radical imaginary ultimately
stems from the originary faculty of positing or presenting one-
self with things and relations that do not exist, in the form of
representation. This originary faculty is taken to be the radical
imaginary, the common root of the actual imaginary and of rea-
son. The radical imaginary is “the elementary and irreducible
capacity of evoking images.”64 Society, then, is ‘self-positing’ and
what is instituted is a creative world-interpretation, a universal
of significations. The institution of society is the institution of a

Whitebook, Perversion and Utopia, p. 167.
For a summary of the dispute between Castoriadis and Habermas see
Whitebook, Perversion and Utopia, pp. 165–215. For Habermas’ response to
Castoriadis see Habermas, The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity, pp. 327–335
and Castoriadis’ brief remarks in Philosophy, Politics, Autonomy, pp. 47–80.
Castoriadis, The Imaginary Institution of Society, p. 127.
The Moral Imaginary of Discourse Ethics • 301

‘magma’ of significations, which bring society into an ‘identitary-

ensemblist’ organisation of what exists for society. This imposed
meaning is always retroactive, arbitrary, and while not completely
irrational, it certainly cannot be reduced to rationality (there is
always an indeterminate element in rational thought).65 For
Castoriadis, the institution of society is the institution of social
imaginary significations, the building blocks of language.

The subject, for Castoriadis, is both a groundless monadic core

and a product of radical and contingent socialisation. In contrast
to Habermas, Castoriadis maintains that the spontaneous and
creative power of the imagination is not and could (should) not
be completely ‘tamed’ or rationalised, although he also main-
tains that such a ‘taming’ of the psyche is necessary to preserve
the institution of society of which the individual remains a part.66
From birth, Castoriadis notes, the human subject is also caught
in a variety of social-historical fields, and placed under the grip
of a collective instituting imaginary. Castoriadis understands
social imaginary significations to demarcate a shared ethos, a
shared web of meanings, carried in and through the institution
of a given society.67 For intersubjectivity to exist there must be
human subjects and the possibility for these subjects to com-
municate. In other words, there must already be socialised human
beings and a language that they could not produce by them-
selves as individuals. In other words, subjectivity is instituted
by imaginary significations, not as substance, but as question
and as project. The subject, for Castoriadis, “is not merely real,

Ibid., pp. 160ff.
C. Castoriadis, “Democracy as Procedure and Democracy as Regime,”
Constellations, vol. 4, no. 1, 1997, p. 2.
Social imaginary significations are “significations that are relatively inde-
pendent of the signifiers that carry them and . . . they play a role in the choice
and in the organisation of these signifiers.” Castoriadis, The Imaginary Institution
of Society, p. 139 and World in Fragments, pp. 7ff.
302 • Kenneth MacKendrick

it is not given; rather, it is to be made and it makes itself by

means of certain conditions and under certain circumstances.”68

In this precise sense, too, language is instituted in society by the

imaginary. For Castoriadis, language is a system of ensembles;
an instrument acting on what is external to it.69 In this sense, lan-
guage can only impose a limited order, synthesis or form on
objective reality: we can organise ‘reality’ in specific ways, only
insofar as objects are amenable to certain forms of organisation.
Against Habermas then, ‘communicative action’ is understood
to be a contribution towards autonomy but defines neither the
meaning nor end of this project. In other words, the institution
of society by imaginary significations is the cipher through which
the project of autonomy is channelled. Such a project is coher-
ent only insofar as it is meaningful for those involved. This stands
in sharp contrast to Habermas’ understanding of rational argu-
mentation, which, theoretically, eliminates all imaginary and
affective dimensions of speech.70 Such imaginary dimensions are
eliminated precisely because Habermas’ moral theory of dis-
course structurally avoids the implications of what Castoriadis
identifies as the radical imaginary. Furthermore, Habermas, for
all intents and purposes, begins with a semantic understanding
of cognition, Castoriadis argues that the absolute condition for
the possibility of reflectiveness (subjectivity) is the imagination.71

Castoriadis, World in Fragments, p. 143.
Castoriadis, The Imaginary Institution of Society, p. 238.
See Heller, “Habermas and Marxism,” p. 23. Peter Dews also makes a sim-
ilar argument, although he explores it along different lines. Dews comments
that Habermas seems to be aware of the problem of eliminating all ties to affec-
tivity, noting that Habermas has, on occasion, “expressed the view that the
anthropocentric orientation of discourse ethics needed to be supplemented by
an ethics of sympathy” in the form of anamnestic solidarity, which, quoting
Habermas, signifies an attempt to sustain a “compassionate solidarity with the
despair of the tormented who have suffered what cannot be made good again.”
Peter Dews, The Limits of Disenchantment, London, Verso, 1995, p. 153.
Castoriadis, World in Fragments, p. 159.
The Moral Imaginary of Discourse Ethics • 303

Whereas Habermas’ theory of communicative action points to a

procedural model of will-formation based on a theory of justice,
Castoriadis’ imaginary institution of society focuses on self-inter-
pretation and creative collective praxis.72 While language pro-
vides certain representations and is, without a doubt, the primary
vehicle for social co-ordination, the imaginary upon which lan-
guage is based, cannot be ‘tamed’ or ‘rationalised’ in the way
that Habermas’ theory requires, upon pains of social disinte-
gration.73 Castoriadis even goes so far as to note that Habermas’
attempt ‘rationally’ to deduce right from fact “leads him . . . to
seek a mythical biological foundation for the questions of social
theory and political action.” Habermas writes: “The utopian per-
spective of reconciliation and liberty is ingrained in the condi-
tions for the communicative sociation of individuals; it is built
into the linguistic mechanism of the reproduction of the species.”74
Castoriadis goes on to note that it is incoherent to assume that
biology has a ‘built in’ utopian perspective.75 What the work of
Castoriadis is able to illuminate here, through the idea of the
imaginary, is the ‘vanishing mediator’ between Habermas’ cir-
cular justification of communicative action as moral, and his sub-
sequent and illicit equation of subjectivity with substance.76

For Castoriadis’ understanding of creation and creativity, see The Imaginary
Institution of Society, pp. 195–201. For an equally innovative understanding of
the creative character of human action, see Hans Joas, The Creativity of Action,
trans. Jeremy Gaines and Paul Keast, Chicago, University of Chicago Press,
Castoriadis argues that a democracy reduced to a set of procedures risks
eliminating the ultimate goals of collective life by dissociating all discussion
relative to these goals from the political form of the regime. Castoriadis,
“Democracy as Procedure and Democracy as Regime,” p. 1.
Habermas, The Theory of Communicative Action: Vol. 1, p. 398 (quoted by
Castoriadis, Philosophy, Politics, Autonomy, p. 79.
It should be noted that Habermas’ critique of Castoriadis remains largely
intact here. Despite the fact that Habermas cannot establish the link between
universality and ground, his critique, that “Castoriadis cannot provide us with
the figure of mediation between the individual and society” still remains valid.
As Joel Whitebook notes, “Castoriadis shares Kant’s problems and is guilty of
304 • Kenneth MacKendrick

What is remarkable here is the coincidence of two lines of inquiry.

One the one hand, Habermas has been criticised by Wellmer and
Heller for illegitimately granting conceptual and moral primacy
to procedural communicative actions, ones that are also sub-
stantively imbedded. On the other hand, Habermas has been
criticised for granting primacy to language over the more fun-
damental ‘dreamscape’ of the imaginary, specifically in regards
to his re-reading of Freud’s notion of the unconscious. Habermas
is on the horns of a dilemma: he cannot escape the snare of beg-
ging the question without translating the idea of subjectivity into
language and, by doing so, he must eliminate all phantasmic or
imaginary elements of psychical reality that would make moral-
ity meaningful for human beings. What the work of Castoriadis
accomplishes here is the illumination of a pathological impulse
in discourse ethics as a theory: the attempt to purify and sepa-
rate cognition and meaning. Habermas’ reflections on morality
and moral theory contain specific value judgements and embody
a variety of evaluative and speculative claims which relate con-
cretely to historical and social circumstances while, at the same
time, make claims which transcend such circumstances. Habermas’
appeal to justice, solidarity, autonomy, or moral principle is
inevitably a retroactive justification drawn from a specific utopian
horizon, despite the fact that it may address concrete concerns.
The question of ethics emerges here as a ‘crisis of values,’ what
Castoriadis takes to be a crisis in our ‘social imaginary signifi-
cations’—the significations that hold a society together.77 As such,
ethics is essentially political and we must be content to acknowl-
edge that all forms of theory “attempt to conceive of the world
without knowing, either before or after the fact, whether the
world is actually conceivable, or even just what conceiving of

subjective idealism.” See Habermas, The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity,

p. 334 and Whitebook, Perversion and Utopia, pp. 196ff.
Castoriadis, World in Fragments, p. 110.
The Moral Imaginary of Discourse Ethics • 305

something exactly means.”78 The important idea not to be missed

here is Castoriadis’ insight that in analysis the objective is not
to reach a definable or determinate end, such as consensus, but
is rather to encourage self-activity, ‘self-alteration’. For Castoriadis
this ambition is the project of autonomy.79


Castoriadis observes that the

purely procedural conception of ‘democracy’ itself originates in
the crisis of the imaginary significations that concern the ultimate
goals of collective life and aims at covering over this crisis by dis-
sociating all discussion relative to these goals from the political
‘form of the regime’, and, ultimately, even by eliminating the very
idea of such goals.80

As I have argued, Habermas’ proceduralism can be understood

with a paradoxical recognition that principles and procedures
harbour no guarantee of a withdrawal from ideological edifices.
As such, moral thoughts are always contradictory, in the spe-
cific sense that they signal ethical and political failure. It is in
this sense that morality contains a significant paradox: a vision
of a better world for one, for many, or for all, without possess-
ing the certainty of whether or not such a utopian vision, as a
concrete vision, is indeed reasonable or desirable. As such, a
moral philosophy, which seeks to retain the idea of universal-
ism, must be a critical moral philosophy, one that avoids the
finality of its analysis. As Jay Bernstein notes, the ‘passion for
critique’ is impossible without some sort of vision that stands in
judgement regarding the object of a particular critique. If the
radical imaginary is the ground of practical reasoning then, as

Castoriadis, The Imaginary Institution of Society, p. 74.
Castoriadis, World in Fragments, pp. 126–129.
Castoriadis, “Democracy as Procedure and Democracy as Regime,” p. 1.
306 • Kenneth MacKendrick

a result, morality is the work of the radical imagination as an

act of asking questions.

The moral imaginary of discourse ethics is shaped by a relent-

less interest in calling one another into account. Responsibility,
linked with autonomy and solidarity, are the regulative ideals
that shape Habermas’ moral theory. Habermas has argued that
such regulative ideals are presuppositions of the communicative
use of reason, embedded in the idea of mutual recognition.
However, Habermas is unable to justify this claim without a tran-
scendental appeal. The circularity in Habermas’ account emerges
when he equates the substance of moral trauma directly with
the subjectivity of participants in a dialogue. As Horowitz notes,
the subject, in Habermas, becomes language. This is the point at
which Habermas short-circuits his universalist intention. As
Bernstein notes, moral discourses about justification can only
indicate the irreducible aspects of moral thought as they are
entwined within living and breathing moral subjects.81 Since
moral reflections are aporetic and are always incomplete, while
being both necessary (for human coexistence) and impossible (as
a determinate project), the fact that procedures find justification
in democratic societies, indicate that they are the remains of a
shared social imaginary. Moral philosophy, as such, stands in
defiance of what is deemed ‘good,’ ‘final’ and ‘necessary.’ Such
an argument intimates that moral thinking resist becoming uncon-
ditional. In other words, formalism in moral philosophy must
take itself at its word, and not assume a priori its own unquali-
fied moral substance.82

Bernstein, Recovering Ethical Life, pp. 180–191.
Developments in moral theory working in this direction, especially regarding
the rethinking of Kant through Lacan, can be found in the work of the Slovene
Lacanian School. See Joan Copjec, ed. Radical Evil, New York, Routledge, 1995;
Salecl, The Spoils of Freedom; ÒZiÏzek, The Plague of Fantasies and “Kant with (or
against) Sade” in The ≥ZiÏzek Reader, ed. Elizabeth Wright and Edmond Wright,
Oxford, Blackwell, 1999 and Alenka ZupanÏciÏc, Ethics of the Real, London, Verso,
John Rundell

Imaginary Turns in Critical Theory: Imagining

Subjects in Tension*1


In recent critical theory, there are many directions from which

the ‘linguistic turn’, especially the one identified with Habermas’
work, has been challenged.2 Two are of particular note and will
be the subject of our discussions. In his own work on intersub-
jectivity, Honneth argues that the phenomenal-affective or emo-
tional forms through which the subject is formed intersubjectively
are as significant as the linguistic ones. In this sense, it is not so
much the linguistic mediation of emotions that is important here,
but the emotional content itself.3 Whilst Honneth draws our
attention to the Jena period of Hegel’s work as a basis for the

* This article first appeared in Critical Horizons, vol. 2, no. 1, 2001.

This paper grows out of a series of seminars that were given in The
Department of Sociology, University College Dublin in 1999. The author would
like to thank members of the department for their hospitality, and for criti-
cisms of aspects of this work. I would like to thank the reviewers, especially
Maeve Cooke, for their own criticisms. Thanks also go to Danielle Petherbridge
and John Cash for their comments on an earlier draft of this paper.
Axel Honneth, Thomas McCarthy, Claus Offe and Albrecht Wellmer, Cultural-
Political Interventions in the Unfinished Project of the Enlightenment, trans. Barbara
Fultner, Cambridge, Mass., The MIT Press, 1992; Axel Honneth and Hans Joas,
Communicative Action, trans. Jeremy Gaines and Doris L. Jones, Cambridge,
U.K., Polity Press, 1991; Maeve Cooke, Language and Reason: A Study of Habermas’
Pragmatics, Cambridge, Mass, MIT Press, 1994; Maeve Cooke, ed. On the
Pragmatics of Communication, Cambridge, Mass, MIT Press, 1998; Peter Dews,
ed. Habermas A Critical Reader, Oxford, Blackwell, 1999.
Axel Honneth, The Struggle for Recognition, Cambridge, UK., Polity Press,
308 • John Rundell

interrogation of an intersubjectively constituted struggle for recog-

nition, his interrogation of this struggle will be suspended in the
following discussion in order to interrogate another issue that
accompanies it—that of subject formation itself. For Honneth,
following the works of G.H. Mead and Habermas, subject-for-
mation can only be understood as a process that is inter-subjec-
tively constituted. Winnicott’s work is also important to Honneth
not only because it provides a framework of primary sociation,
but also because it addresses the interior world of the subject,
which is, itself, intersubjectively constituted. Here the creative
imagination plays a developmental role of significant importance,
which points to an implicit imaginary turn in Honneth’s work.4

However, Honneth’s re-working entails that subject-formation

is subsumed under the paradigmatic weight of intersubjectively
co-ordinated theorising, which leaves to one side, the status of
the subject sui generis. This entails that Honneth (and Habermas)
reproduce an over-socialised conception of the human being. For
Habermas, this oversocialisation is rendered as an ‘over-lin-
guistified conception of the human being’, whilst for Honneth
it is rendered as ‘the over-mutually-determined conception of
the human being’.5

In this context, it can be suggested that Honneth’s position with regard to
his critique of Habermas’ work is similar in many ways to Schiller’s own crit-
ical position to Kant. Both draw on notions of the creative imagination drawn
from an idea of play to give substance to notions of subjectivity that have been
emptied out at the hands of formalistic philosophy.
As far as Habermas is concerned this aspect of over-socialisation is a the-
oretical disposition that is structured even into his earliest work. See, for exam-
ple, “Toward a Theory of Communicative Competence,” Recent Sociology,
no. 2, ed. Hans Peter Dreitzel, London, Macmillan, 1970, pp. 115–148, and his
reading of Freud in Knowledge and Human Interests, London, Heinemann, 1974.
See also Joel Whitebook’s critique in Perversion and Utopia, Cambridge, Mass.,
The MIT Press, 1995.
Imaginary Turns in Critical Theory: Imagining Subjects in Tension • 309

As is well known, the critique of the image of over-socialisation

posits that there is a non-social dimension of the human being
that exists alongside socialisation itself. In other words, this cri-
tique works with an image of the human being as “a social animal
without being entirely a socialized animal.”6 It is this problem
of over-socialisation, and hence the status of the subject, that will
be the entry point for our current discussion, rather than the one
concerning the struggle for recognition. The ‘imaginary turn’ is
a way of re-thinking the over-socialised conception of the human
animal, and not only the conceptualisations of its over-linguis-
tification. It will be addressed primarily through Castoriadis’
idea of the monadic core of the subject. From the vantage point
of the interior world of the subject, Castoriadis’ work exposes
the dilemma of oversocialisation in Honneth’s work, notwith-
standing, as we shall see, his own ‘imaginary turn’ drawn from
the work of Winnicott.

In Castoriadis’ work, the subject is constituted by an irreducible

relation and tension between the monadic core of the psyche
and socially created constellations of culture and social institutions
that he terms social imaginary significations. These dimensions,
for him, are constituted as imaginative or imagining activities,
rather than linguistic ones, that produce meaning both as a cre-
ative flux, and a flux of creative interactions between these two
dimensions. The question of the internality of the subject is moved
away from the metaphysics of the unconscious (Freud and Lacan),
to a site that is posited in anthropo–ontological terms, the empha-
sise of which is on the indeterminate creativity of human subjects
and the equally historically indeterminate creation of human so-
cieties.7 Castoriadis’ work continues and consolidates an imaginary

D. Wrong, “The Oversocialized Conception of Man in Modern Sociology,”
American Sociological Review, vol. 26, no. 1, April 1961, pp. 183–193.
See Cornelius Castoriadis, “Anthroplogy, Philosophy, Politics,” Thesis Eleven,
49, May, 1997, pp. 99–116.
310 • John Rundell

turn in critical theorising that is part of the longer history of the

dialectic of the Enlightenment and Romanticism.8

Yet, notwithstanding Castoriadis’ anti-functionalist insight con-

cerning the irreducibility of each side of subject-formation, his

See Cornelius Castoriadis, World in Fragments, ed. & trans. David Ames
Curtis, Stanford, Stanford University Press, 1997; Philosophy Politics, Autonomy,
ed. David Ames Curtis, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1991; The Imaginary
Institution of Society, trans. Kathleen Blamey, Cambridge, Polity Press, 1987;
“Anthropology, Philosophy, Politics,” Thesis Eleven, no. 47, May, 1997, pp. 99–116.
Castoriadis’ imaginary turn shifts an interpretation of the imagination from
one interpreted in predominantly aesthetic, fictive terms. Whilst it is beyond
the scope of this paper to provide a genealogy of modern notions of the imag-
ination, in brief, this particular interpretation was cemented in the context of
the conceptual division of labour that emerged in the dispute between the
Enlighteners and the Romanticists. If one views Kant’s work as paradigmatic
in the case of the Enlighteners, the faculty of the imagination plays a central
yet suppressed role. In Romanticism, the imagination predominates, especially
if it is interpreted from an aesthetic perspective, as is the case, for example, in
the works of Schiller’s The Aesthetic Letters on the Education of Man, and August
and Friedrich Schlegel, especially their Atheneum Fragments. However, an “imag-
inary turn,” which emphasised indeterminate creativity sui generis, can be
viewed as a parallel current that accompanied Kant’s uneasy reflections con-
cerning the faculty of the imagination, and in the wake of these reflections
attempted to rework these reflections beyond the Romantic paradigm. This
parallel current includes Hegel’s early work, especially his Jena period, Freud’s
‘discovery’ of the unconscious, and Castoriadis’ own critical engagement with
Aristotle, psychoanalysis and Marxism.
For the first current see Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, trans. Norman Kemp
Smith, London, Macmillan, 1978; Critique of Judgement, Trans. & Introduction
by Werner S. Pluhar, Indianapolis, Hackett Publishing Company, 1987. The
Romantic current includes Friedrich Schlegel’s Lucinde and the Fragments, trans.
& Introduction by Peter Firchow, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press,
1971; Friedrich Schiller, On the Aesthetic Education of Man, ed. and trans. Elizabeth
M. Wilkinson and L.A. Willoughby, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1967. For
the third current see G.W.F. Hegel, System of Ethical Life and First Philosophy of
Spirit, eds. and trans. H.S. Harris and T.M. Knox, Albany, State University of
New York Press, 1979; Hegel and the Human Spirit, a translation of the Jena
Lectures on the Philosophy of Spirit (1805–6), with a commentary by Leo Rauch,
Detroit, Wayne State University Press, 1983; Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation
of Dreams, New York, Basic Books, 1965; Cornelius Castoriadis, see footnote 3
above, especially “The Discovery of the Imagination” in World in Fragments.
See also James Engell, The Creative Imagination, Cambridge, Mass, Harvard
Imaginary Turns in Critical Theory: Imagining Subjects in Tension • 311

formulation of the subject, nonetheless, confronts the problem

of the complexity of subjectivity. It is in this context that Hegel’s
Jena Lectures are once again instructive. To be sure, Honneth
draws our attention to them in The Struggle for Recognition. How-
ever, here it is not their normative content that is instructive, but
the weight that Hegel gives to the forms of sociality that move
the subject beyond an initial self-enclosure. In this context, and
in a critical dialogue with Castoriadis’ work, the Jena Lectures are
drawn on to posit what will be termed here, subjects in tension.
By ‘subjects in tension’, I mean subjects who are forged out of a
combination of subjective interiority as well as the patterns of
interaction that are multidimensional in their scope and create
social spaces that force the subject beyond an initial closure.9

Moreover, this paper also traverses what has been termed an

oscillation between ‘metaphysical discourse’ and ‘critical dis-
course’.10 This distinction can also be read as a tension between
three aspects that constitute a critical theorising. The first aspect
refers to the, often, concealed anthropological principles or basic
human self-images of both subjectivity and intersubjectivity, and
the relations and tensions between them. The second aspect refers
to the impulses and horizons that give rise to a critical stance,
whilst the third aspect refers to the paradigmatic nature of the

University Press, 1981; Richard Kearney, The Wake of Imagination, London,

Hutchinson, 1988; M.H. Abrams, The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and
the Critical Tradition, London, Oxford, 1953; Rethinking Imagination Culture and
Creativity, eds. Gillian Robinson and John Rundell, London, Routledge, 1994.
The notion of tension is taken from J.P. Arnason “Modernity as Project
and a Field of Tension,” Communicative Action, pp. 181–213. The idea of “inter-
subjectivity in tension” has also been explored by me in “The Hermeneutic
Imagination and Imaginary Creation: Ourselves, Others and Autonomy,”
Divinatio, Volume 8, Autumn-Winter, 1998, pp. 87–110.
See Dews suggestive discussion of Herbert Schnadelbach’s account of the
history of philosophy as an oscillation between metaphysical discourse and
critical discourse in “Modernity, Self-consciousness and the Scope of Philosophy”
in The Limits of Disenchantment, London, Verso, 1996, p. 190.
312 • John Rundell

critical theory as a system of thought itself. Theorising has its

own ‘metaphysical’ predisposition to bring these dimensions into
alignment, in other words to systematise them and close over
basic dilemmas in, and tensions between, them. In the rush for
a critical theory—to protect critical theorising itself—the basic
dilemmas of the ‘who’, the mobiliser of critique, are often closed
over. This essay will touch on the second aspect, and leave to
one side the third in order to elucidate the dilemmas of the first—
the anthropological in a way that does not assume the norma-
tive primacy of critique, and hence, the critical subject.

Honneth and the Intersubjective Development of the

Critico-Reflexive Self

In The Struggle for Recognition Honneth draws on Hegel’s Jena

Lectures, the works of G.H. Mead, and the paediatric psychoanalyst
Donald Winnicott in order to posit a theory of intersubjectivity,
otherwise couched in terms of a dialectic of recognition. The aim
of his theory is to investigate the way in which the reflexive,
democratic personality might be formed. Mead’s work is impor-
tant for Honneth, because following Habermas’ use of it, it pro-
vides the framework for a structure of interaction through which
self-reflexivity develops. According to G.H. Mead, self-reflexivity
occurs as an outcome in a proto—or real—dialogic interaction
between self and others. More accurately, a reflexive self occurs
out of a process of learning to put oneself in an object-relation
to oneself.11 As Honneth points out, in the formulation of that
part of the self, which Mead terms the ‘me’, “[Mead] inverts the
relationship between the ego and the social world and asserts a
primacy of the perception of the other to the development of

See G.H. Mead, Mind, Self and Society, Chicago, Chicago University Press,
1972, especially pp. 199–246.
Imaginary Turns in Critical Theory: Imagining Subjects in Tension • 313

self-consciousness.”12 In other words, the perceptions that are

given to the self by others enable the self to become its own
object of self-reflection. The corollary of this self-reflection is the
recognition by society that the self is a social member. Moreover,
this social recognition is the basis for self-respect. In other words,
there is an internal relation, for Mead, between the inner ‘impo-
sition’ of the ‘generalised other’ and the emergence of a reflex-
ive self which is simultaneously one who receives respect as well
as gives it to itself.

For both Mead and Honneth, then, this dynamic of reflexivity

through objectification is a basic anthropological principle. In
this way, the person participates in social life on the basis of
mutual recognition gained by such objectifying interactions. For
Mead, as well as Honneth, though, the interactions that occur
between the ‘me’ and the ‘generalised other’ of community norms
should not necessarily result in a conventional attitude being
taken. Rather, the reflexive self is simultaneously a critical one
in the form of a ‘dialogue’ that proceeds along two fronts—exter-
nally and internally.

According to Mead, it is the dialogue between the self and the

internalised ‘generalised other’ that initiates the critique. For
Honneth, though, the way that Mead structures this internal dia-
logue raises the issue of both the dynamics of critique and its
origins. For Mead, and in a homologous formulation with psy-
choanalysis, there is part of the self “that is responsible to action
problems . . . that can never as such be glimpsed”—the ‘I’.13
However, as Honneth points out, whilst the ‘I’ stands for “the
sudden experience of a surge of inner impulses,” it is unclear

Honneth, The Struggle for Recognition.
Ibid., p. 74.
314 • John Rundell

whether it stems from pre-social drives, the creative imagina-

tion, or the moral sensibility of one’s own self.14

It is here that a conceptual tension emerges in Honneth’s own

work around Mead’s, and his, basic anthropological principle.
Both Mead and Honneth adopt the latter formulation of “a moral
sensibility of one’s own self” as the interpretation of the ‘I’.
According to Mead (and Honneth), the ‘I’ is conceived as a
“creative reaction potential” that establishes a friction that initi-
ates critique.15

However, Honneth not only follows Mead’s footsteps, but also

confronts the limits of his (Mead’s) formulation of the critically
oriented impulse as a moral-integrative one. Critique, for Mead,
is mobilised as a form of creative deviation from societal norms.
This version of critique, however, exposes Mead’s own peculiar
naturalistic functionalism, which simultaneously slips away from
a theory of pragmatic psychological developmentalism to a the-
ory of societal evolution.16 Whilst critique functions at the seam
between the ‘I’ and the ‘me’ it only does so on the basis of an
integrative principle of re-integration.17

Ibid., p. 81. See also “Moral Development and Social Struggle,” in Cultural-
Political Interventions in the Unfinished Project of Enlightenment.
Honneth, The Struggle for Recognition, p. 82.
See G.H. Mead, On Social Psychology, especially pp. 4–18.
At a fundamental level for Honneth’s reading of Mead, “this inner fric-
tion between the ‘I’ and the ‘me’ represents the outline of the conflict that is
supposed to be able to explain moral development of both individuals and
society. As the representative of the community, the ‘me’ embodies the con-
ventional norms that one must constantly try to expand, in order to give social
expression to the impulsiveness and creativity of one’s ‘I’. Mead thus intro-
duces into the practical-relation-to-self a tension between the internalised col-
lective will and the claims of individuation, a tension that has lead to a moral
conflict between the subject and the subject’s social environment.” Honneth,
The Struggle for Recognition, p. 82. In this context, social critique, and the dynam-
ics of the reflexive personality, occurs not only merely at the seam between
system and life-world (Habermas), but also and more significantly, at the seam
between the ‘I’ and the ‘me’.
Imaginary Turns in Critical Theory: Imagining Subjects in Tension • 315

It is here, too, that we are confronted by the nodal point of

Honneth’s argument. For Honneth, at least in The Struggle for
Recognition, the impulse towards critique not only occurs as part
of the self’s objectification, but also emerges in the context of
damaging intersubjective relations. Leaving to one side Honneth’s
own reworking of Hegel’s Jena Lectures, we will investigate the
way in which he confronts the constitutive dimensions of the ‘I’
as critical impulse, because for him it belongs to the capacity of
human individuation and autonomisation.

In The Struggle for Recognition, conflicts and struggles over recog-

nition remain ultimately pseudo-dialogic in the manner laid
down by Mead. However, in “Imagination and Recognition,”
Honneth turns his attention to the ‘imaginative’ dimensions of
reciprocal recognition, in a way that not only foregrounds this
aspect, but transforms it into a necessary part of a developmental
process.18 In order to pursue the themes of individuation and
autonomisation, which are internal to the ‘I’ as critical impulse,
Honneth, at this point, departs from Mead’s work and concen-
trates on the work of the paediatric psychoanalyst Donald
Winnicott with some unexpected results. These results point
towards an unacknowledged imaginary turn in Honneth’s work.

For Honneth, at least in The Struggle for Recognition, the fight for
recognition involves an increasing realisation of the differentiat-
ing inter-subjective dimensions of love, rights and solidarity that
are built up in relations and encounters between self and other.
In his view, the human faculty of the imagination is linked to
each of three patterns of recognition—love, rights and solidar-
ity. The result of this linkage is that, “if the subject participates
in a social life-world in which the tripartite hierarchy of patterns
of recognition are present . . . he [or she] may anchor his [or her]

A. Honneth, “Imagination and Recognition,” 1991, unpublished paper.
316 • John Rundell

relationship to self in the positive modes of self-confidence, self-

respect and self-esteem.”19 Honneth links the faculty of the pro-
ductive imagination to the struggle for recognition through a
reading of Winnicott’s work. This is done by Honneth to make
the productive imaginative faculty the result of an intersubjec-
tively orientated set of experiences, and ones that are linked to
the earliest years of life.

According to Winnicott and Honneth, the creative or productive

imagination can only develop within the context of the mother’s
loving recognition of her infant.20 To cut a long and very com-
plex story short, the first phase of absolute [mutual] dependence
comes to an end when a new possibility on the part of the mother
occurs. She returns to the independence that everyday life offers,
which also offers a possibility of relative independence to occur
on the part of the infant. Winnicott argues that two psychic mech-
anisms must be available to the infant for this potential of rela-
tive independence to be successful—destruction and transitional
phenomena. Both are saturated with meaning for the infant. In
this context, aggression is neither negatively nor injuriously inter-
preted; rather it is the constructive means through which the
infant comes to recognise the mother as other and integrate both
aggressive feelings and this knowledge beyond his or her fantasies
of omnipotence.21 In “Imagination and Recognition,” however,

Ibid., p. 7.
For Honneth, Winnicott’s work is a supplement to the insights put for-
ward by Hegel and G.H. Mead in their own versions of the dialectic of recog-
nition. According to Honneth, what distinguishes Winnicott from the tradition
of orthodox psychoanalysis is that the symbiotic and interdependent relation
between infant and mother cannot be captured by the term primary narcis-
sism. Rather, the first phase of the human life cycle indicates, for Winnicott,
that there are two parties in interaction who “are completely dependent on
each other for the satisfaction of their needs, without at all being able to demar-
cate themselves individually from the other” (p. 8).
D.W. Winnicott, “From Dependence towards Independence in the Develop-
Imaginary Turns in Critical Theory: Imagining Subjects in Tension • 317

Honneth places more emphasis on the phase where transitional

objects are selected and played with by the infant, a phase in
which another mediation between self and ‘world’ is forged. To
put it slightly differently, during this phase the bridge between
the primary experience of being merged and the experience of
being separate, that is of being by one’s self, or being alone, is
crossed.22 To put it more strongly, for Honneth, this relative inde-
pendence should also include a capacity for mutual recognition
by the infant.

It is here that Honneth locates the role of the creative imagina-

tion as part and product of this developmental process in which
the new mediated relation is forged. Following Winnicott, “the
child’s creativity, indeed the human being’s imaginative faculty
as such, is tied to the presupposition of ‘a capability of being
alone’ in the context of a basic trust in the willingness of the
loved person to devote him or herself to the other.”23 In other
words, Honneth reiterates Winnicott’s thesis that “the human
imagination emerges genetically at that moment when the child
acquires a capacity to be alone by trusting the permanency of
the mother’s devotion . . . that is that the imagination can only
develop in the context of loving recognition.”24 Imagination, trust,
affirmation, and mutuality go together for Honneth, and it is on
this basis that not only other areas of human expression are inte-
grated—feelings and emotions—but also solidaristic forms of
association as well as the creation of cultural objectivations.

Notwithstanding the psychoanalytic insights derived from

Winnicott’s work, Honneth’s analysis of the imagination has

ment of the Individual,” The Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment,
London, Karmas Books, 1990, pp. 83–92.
D.W. Winnicott, “The Capacity to be Alone,” The Maturational Processes
and the Facilitating Environment, pp. 29–37.
Honneth, “Imagination and Recognition,” p. 14.
Ibid., p. 15.
318 • John Rundell

rendered it into an intersubjectively conceived moment. However,