Sunday, December 17, 2017

A Dialogue between Agnes Heller & Jürgen Habermas

The current issue of the journal "Thesis Eleven" features a dialogue between Agnes Heller and Jürgen Habermas in 2012. The exchange took place at a conference on ”Habermas and Historical Materialism” at the University of Wuppertal, Germany, in March 2012.


Agnes Heller:
My most important critical remark was, as I already mentioned, that Habermas does not clearly distinguish between the transcendental and the empirical levels. On the one hand, it was possible to understand the ‘universal validity claim’ in empirical and historical terms because modern human beings claim universal validity in the sense of the Enlightenment. However, when Habermas counts as a condition for universal validity claims the counterfactual assumption of domination-free communication in the ‘ideal communicative community’, he speaks on a transcendental level. And yet he at least presupposes the possibility of a de facto universal consensus, i.e. he ‘descends’ again from the transcendental to the empirical level without accounting for this transition. That is to say, universal agreement, a consensus omnium, is empirically impossible.
For Kant this did not yet create a problem. Transcendental freedom is the absolute law of humanity as it stands within me. We do not need to discuss it in terms of empirical human beings under empirical conditions of freedom from domination in order to reach consensus. If one begins from ‘being-in-the-world’ and not from a transcendental subject, empirical consensus is in principle excluded. I reached the conclusion that Habermas, precisely due to his continuous slippage from a transcendental to an empirical level, does not at all reflect on the true problems of the empirical world. (......)
In general, I was more than skeptical about Habermas’s ‘true consensus’. The consensus theory of truth in particular was indigestible for me. ‘What I find faulty in Habermas’s theory is not that it is counterfactual. It is, after all, a philosophical idea and its counterfactual constitution is at the same time its justification. The problem I have consists in the fact that I cannot accept it even as an idea.’ I add with far too much pathos, but with too little justification: ‘I do not wish that humanity will ever reach consensus about questions of goodness and truth. I do not wish that there will ever be one single true interpretation of Hamlet. I do not wish that there will ever be one single good purpose. I do not wish for consensus. [ . . . ] I presuppose the plurality of forms of life.’
[In her comments Agnes Heller is referring to her book "Philosophie des linken Radikalismus" (VSA Verlag, 1978)]

Jürgen Habermas:
"I need to touch on yet another point of contention, which does indeed concern a central idea – the alleged confusion of moving back and forth between a transcendental and an empirical level. I do indeed take back an element of what is intelligible into the domain of symbolically structured social reality by way of the uncommon thought figure of ‘indispensable idealizing conditions of communication’. These universal and necessary conditions of communicative action possess, I think, strong phenomenological evidence: in a dialogue one person must hold the other accountable in the sense of an orientation according to validity claims. If one person informs the other about a fact, he must indeed assume that his claim is true, not only in the given context or ‘for us’, but absolutely and ‘in itself’. Without the common orientation towards the universality of truth claims or the rightness of assertoric or, respectively, moral assertions, arguments lose their meaning. On the other hand, the intention to communicate, including its pragmatic assumptions, is only a necessary presupposition for the creation of dissent and for the justified identification of justified disagreements. The orientation towards rational agreement does not aim at totalitarian homogenization, but first allows for disagreement. The fundamental human monopoly of being-able-to-say-no presupposes an orientation towards agreement."

The dialogue between Agnes Heller and Jürgen Habermas was originally published in Smail Rapic (ed.) - Habermas and der Historische Materialismus (Verlag Karl Alber, 2014).

See Heller's critique of Habermas in 

* "Habermas and Marxism", John B. Thompson (eds.) - Habermas. Critical Debates (MIT Press, 1982) and Habermas's response "A Reply to my Critics" (pp. 220-229).

* "The Discourse Ethic of Habermas: Critique and Appraisal", Thesis Eleven no. 10/11, 1984/85.  

Links to many of Agnes Heller's essays in "Thesis Eleven" here

[The photo of Heller and Habermas is not from the conference in 2012, but  from a conference on "The Philosophy of Jürgen Habermas", University of Pécs, Pécs, Hungary, May 2009.]

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