Working in the Philosophical Discourse of Modernity: Habermas, Foucault, and Derrida

By Fleming, Marie | Philosophy Today, Spring 1996 | Go to article overview

Working in the Philosophical Discourse of Modernity: Habermas, Foucault, and Derrida


Fleming, Marie, Philosophy Today


Jurgen Habermas's book on the philosophical discourse of modernity is an original and multilayered work. It is an ambitious synthesis of post-Hegelian philosophy, a self-critique of the tradition of Critical Theory, a decisive rejection of philosophies committed to subject-centered (instrumental) reason, and an energetic defense of a non-totalizing conception of the "project of modernity." All of these themes converge in his treatment of the "radical critique of reason" that he associates with the paradoxes of self-referential critique. According to Habermas, the problem of a "radical critique of reason" seriously undermines the Critical Theory of Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, and it reaches crisis proportions in the work of "postmodernists" such as Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida. In this essay I explain what is at issue for Habermas in the work of Horkheimer and Adorno, and I focus on the specific arguments that he develops in his critiques of Foucault and Derrida. My main concern, however, is to analyze the complex ways in which Habermas's theory of modernity, his theory of communicative action, intersects with both genealogy and deconstruction. I argue that his attempt to apply the idea of a radical critique of reason to Foucault is only partially successful because, while it can show limitations in the genealogical method, it also gives rise to questions about the methodological basis of Habermas's own theory. In my discussion of Derrida and deconstruction I am especially concerned not to allow the differences between Habermas and Derrida to be reduced to personal idiosyncrasies, and I try to identify the basic theoretical claim of deconstruction, which I maintain, in opposition to Habermas, is made from within the tradition of rational argumentation.

Horkheimer and Adorno's sweeping condemnation of Enlightenment thinking provides Habermas with a paradigm case of the paradoxes involved in self-referential critique. These theorists get entangled in paradoxes, he explains, because they cannot describe the dialectic of Enlightenment without making use of the critical capacity that, according to them, has been lost in the unbounded spread of instrumental reason.2 The problem might be understood as follows. If we have lost all capacity for critical reasoning, how is it then that we can even raise the question of such a loss? To raise the question, to enter into an open-ended discussion, is to announce, in a performative sense, the existence of a reason that cannot be reduced to the instrumental, or understood solely in terms of power claims. According to this view, anyone who argues against reason is necessarily caught up in contradiction: she asserts at the locutionary level that reason does not exist, while demonstrating by way of her performance in argumentative processes that such reason does in fact exist. Adorno, as Habermas writes, not only acknowledged his performative contradiction, but, inspired by Nietzsche, became defiantly resigned to it. But an attitude is not an argument, and Habermas interprets Adorno's resignation as indicating a failure to follow through problems in theory.

Faced with the question of why Horkheimer and Adorno abandoned theory at such a critical juncture, Habermas points to limitations in their concept of reason. As he sees it, Horkheimer and Adorno were operating with a concept of instrumental reason that properly defines subject/object relations, but which is not adequate to what is involved in other types of relations. By the same token, in Habermas's view, we need an expanded concept of reason-a concept of communicative reason that focuses attention on the intersubjective (subject/subject) relations involved in communicative action. He explains that Horkheimer and Adorno did not have such a concept of communicative reason and that they tended to reduce intersubjective relations-which involve practical-ethical commitments-to subject/object relations-which involve instrumental (power-oriented) relations. …

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