The ninetieth birthday of Jürgen Habermas, the influential social theorist and political philosopher from the second generation of the Frankfurt School, has occasioned a wave of celebratory retrospectives. In this essay by Raymond Geuss, whose 1981 book The Idea of a Critical Theory brought Habermas into mainstream Anglophone philosophy, offers a less pious assessment. Habermas’s monumental Theory of Communicative Action argues, among other things, that society should work towards an ideal of ethical learning via free discussion unencumbered by power relations. In Geuss’s view Habermas’s ideal is both incoherent and ideological — his essay therefore fits within an ongoing discussion (at this magazine and others) concerning the value of discussion itself. [1]

Is “discussion” really so wonderful? Does “communication” actually exist? What if I were to deny that it does?

The public discussion of exit from the European Union has already caused incalculable, probably irreversible and completely superfluous damage to Britain. Obviously, the “conditions of discussion” before the vote were not in any way “ideal.” There is no need to belabor that, but one should also recall that ten years ago no one, except a handful of fanatics, had any real interest in discussing relations with the EU; they were not on the table, and nothing was any the worse for that. It is only the discussion of the last four years, stoked by a few newspaper owners (many of them not domiciled in the U.K. at all), a small group of wealthy leftover Thatcherites and some opportunistic political chancers, that generated any interest in the subject at all. Dyed-in-the-wool Europhobes didn’t constitute more than 10 percent of the population. It was only the process of public discussion that permitted that hard-core to create conditions in which another 10 percent of the population articulated what was previously a merely latent mild discontent of the kind any population will be likely to have with any political regime, and express it as skepticism toward the Union. A number of further, highly contingent historical factors caused another 17 percent of the population to join the vote for Brexit. The most important of these factors was the ability of the Brexiteers to convince people (falsely) that harms they had in fact suffered at the hands of politicians in Westminster were actually the direct result of action by bureaucrats in Brussels. Structural features of the archaic and rather ridiculous first-past-the-post electoral system transformed the vote of 37 percent of the electorate into a politically effective, and constantly cited, 52 percent of votes cast (in one single election), and that has now been treated as the Irresistible Voice of the People for three years. The irony of the Conservative Party, which had spent two hundred years vociferously opposing this Rousseauist conception, now experiencing a sudden conversion to it, is clearly lost on Tory Brexiteers like Jacob Rees-Mogg. A strange sequence of accidents, including the inflexibility and monumental incompetence of the Prime Minister, has now created a situation in which 30 percent or 40 percent of the electorate really is anti-European, and no discussion, no matter how ideal the conditions under which it is conducted, can now in the short run change that. A person who has been brought, for whatever reason and by whatever means, to take a public position is for obvious psychological reasons not eager to admit to having made a mistake. Discussion is not neutral, but changes the situation. Once the government, whatever the rights and wrongs of the original decision, fails to act on it, that changes the situation again, and can generate additional resentment and turn the issue into an existential one. To use the current jargon, for many of those who voted for Brexit, it has become a matter of “identity.”

When I talk with Brexiteers, I certainly do not assume that what Habermas calls the “power of the better argument” will be irresistible. And I am certainly very far from assuming that an indefinite discussion conducted under ideal circumstances would eventually free them from the cognitive and moral distortions from which they suffer, and in the end lead to a consensus between them and me. What makes situations like this difficult is that arguments are relatively ineffectual against appeals to “identity.” In the nineteenth century Kierkegaard was very familiar with this phenomenon, and much of his philosophizing is devoted to trying to make sense of and come to terms with it. “We do not under any circumstances wish to be confused with Europeans because we have nothing but contempt for them.” What is one to say to that? Only real long-term sociopolitical transformations, impinging external events and well-focused, sustained political intervention have any chance of having an effect. In the long run, however, as Keynes so clearly put it, we are all dead.

When, at the beginning of his Minima Moralia, Adorno expressed grave reservations about the “liberal fiction which holds that any and every thought must be universally communicable to anyone whatever,” he was criticizing both political liberalism and the use of “communication” as a fundamental organizing principle in philosophy. This hostility toward both liberalism and the fetish of universal communication, on the other, was not maintained by the members of the so-called Frankfurt School and was abandoned even before the next generation had fully come on the scene. Even as early as the beginning of the 1970s, the unofficial successor of Adorno as head of the school, Jürgen Habermas, who turns ninety this week, began his project of rehabilitating a neo-Kantian version of liberalism. He proposed to do this by having recourse to a normatively highly charged concept of “discourse.” What exactly discourse meant was to be explained in what he called a “theory of communicative action.” His program is “neo-Kantian” in three senses: First of all, it is dominated by the idea that the central philosophical issue is one of “legitimacy” (just as for Kant, the central philosophical question was “ quid juris?”, not “quid facti?”). Second, Habermas is fixated, as Kant was, on the idea that there are historically invariant structures that are capable of generating normativity endogenously. In Kant’s case these are structures of “reason”; in Habermas’s structures of communication. Finally, Kant was obsessed with clear, strong dichotomies, and deeply anxious about possible violations of the boundaries between what he took to be radically different domains (such as morality and prudence or the a priori and the a posteriori). This Kantian preoccupation is mirrored in the sharp opposition between the central concepts of discourse and of instrumental action one finds in Habermas’s position. Adorno took the liberal fiction of universal communicability to be a clear pathology. Habermas, on the contrary, makes no attempt to distance himself from this fiction; he actively embraces it, takes it seriously and even promotes it to be a criterion for legitimacy: “legitimacy” is to be defined by a certain kind of universal communicability. His liberalism is supposed to have foundations, and to find them in a transcendental theory of communication.

Communication is not for Habermas a simple empirical phenomenon. Rather it has, in his view, the dual structure that is characteristic of the major ideological constructs of Western history, for instance the theories of “freedom,” “democracy” and “rights.” On the one hand, the term communication has an empirical and entirely unproblematic use in everyday life. This fact itself has potential ideological implications because it makes it seem as if communication were beyond question, a self-evidently fundamental feature of all human life. On the other hand, the mere existence of communicative structures is taken by Habermas to imply that the agents communicating stand in what he calls a Verständigungsverhältnis, a term which seems inherently confused (and a breeder of further confusion) when looked at through the prism of English, because it seems to put together two things that in English seem patently to be completely different: linguistic comprehension and moral agreement. To use a single word for these two things seems to be an invitation to replace argument with linguistic sleight-of-hand. If he ever reflected on this at all, which I assume he has not, Habermas presumably would say that here everyday German usage expresses in a pre-theoretical way a fundamental truth about the inherent connection between understanding and normativity. To admit that this general point is (in some highly unspecific way) right, is not, of course, necessarily to endorse Habermas’s particular version of the connection. He holds that to speak is to be committed to coming to (ideal) moral agreement with the person to whom one is speaking. Only a form of speech that is guided by this orientation toward ideal moral agreement can be called communication in the full sense, that is “communicative action.” The space that exists between the merely empirical and the emphatic, full-blown, normative sense of communication is the potential playground for ideological distortions. To express it paradoxically, for Habermas most communication in our society is not an instance of communicative action; it is “distorted” to the extent to which it does not conform to the normative rules that are implicit in communication itself. So it is crucial to distinguish between (distorted) pseudo-communication, which takes place under conditions of social coercion, and genuine discourse, a form of speech-action that is free of all forms of social domination. To respect this distinction, police the boundaries between pseudo-speech and true speech and never confuse the two is as important for Habermas as it was for Kant never to permit the corresponding confusions between “duty” and “inclination” or “empirical motivation” and the demands of the categorical imperative.

The natural affinity between this kind of theory and certain motifs of traditional liberalism are too obvious to require discussion. After all, the high value placed on the ideal of “free discussion” is part of the stock-in-trade of the classical liberal. To be sure, by proceeding in the way he does, Habermas also finds himself confronted with some of the same problems that traditionally plagued liberals. One frequently noted problem is that liberals seem to presuppose — although they don’t usually admit it, and certainly do not draw attention to it — that discussion is always possible, and always a good thing, assuming, of course — a huge idealizing assumption, but one liberals are in general willing to make — that the situation is not an emergency with imminent danger to life and limb in which action must be taken immediately. One way of taking the opposition between liberal and a certain kind of religious fanatic is that the religious fanatic, like the early Christians, believed that all the situations of human life were emergencies because the End of Time was nigh and judgment would be pitiless and its consequences eternal. There is a further tacit assumption among most liberals that free and uncontrolled discussion will always contribute to clarifying and resolving problematic situations, and that it is, at least “in principle” always possible to attain consensus. John Stuart Mill notoriously thought that liberalism was not for “undeveloped” populations — meaning, presumably, Indians living under the benevolent rule of the British Empire — but even he would probably have found it difficult to come out publicly against the ideal of free discussion itself.

In any case, it is important to recognize that these assumptions are actually empirically false. Discussions, even discussions that take place under reasonably favorable conditions, are not necessarily enlightening, clarifying or conducive to fostering consensus. In fact, they just as often foster polemics, and generate further bitterness, rancor and division. Just think of Brexit. I get along with most people better the less I know about what they really think and feel. Anyone who has had any experience of discussions in the real world knows that they can get nowhere and peter out, they can cause people to become even more confused than they were at the outset and that they can lead to the hardening of opinion and the formation of increasingly rigid and impenetrable fronts between different parties. The longer and more intense the discussion, the worse it can get. This is precisely what motivated Habermas in the theory of communicative action to appeal to the topos of an “ideal speech situation” as a means for removing these difficulties. However, it is not at all obvious that anyone who performs a speech act necessarily thereby “presupposes” that his current situation is to be evaluated vis-à-vis what would be decided in an ideal speech situation, nor that in such an ideal situation a consensus would necessarily be reached.

In the first part of the twentieth century, half a century before Habermas began to write, the American philosopher John Dewey also developed a theory of communication. To be sure, he, in contrast to Habermas, was clear to emphasize that he conceived communication as a “naturalistic process,” and that in problematic situations it is, in the first instance, only human action that could bring about clarification and resolution. Any clarification is a response to a given situation and set of problems and it remains, unless specifically modified, relative to that configuration. Only a set of further actions, in particular specific acts of abstraction, can transform it into something with more general application. In some, but by no means all, situations the action in question can take the form of discussion, but there is no form of discussion which is given a priori as ideal. If discussion does not help, as it often does not, one must intervene to change the situation, and the change required may not be the sort of thing those of delicate sensibility automatically welcome. It may be necessary even to use one’s hands rather than some purportedly more ethereal organ. Many people may find this a hard saying, or even a sacrilege against the very principles of liberalism. Not, of course, that self-confessed liberals have ever really hesitated to act harshly when they deemed it necessary (especially to protect their interests — think of Mill and the East India Company), but they have not usually been rather willing to admit this.

The pendant in analytic philosophy to Rimbaud’s “je est un autre” is Quine’s assertion that “radical translation begins at home.” Even, Quine claims, in the inner dialogue my soul conducts with itself, I encounter a speaker who uses a language that is utterly alien and completely opaque to me. This language, too, must be “translated,” and the only basis on which the translation can be done is the actions of the speaker (to the extent to which they are visible or otherwise accessible to me), that is, in this case, the actions of the person with whom I speak when I am speaking with myself. If, then, I do not even stand in a fully transparent relation of normative understanding with myself (again we are back to a German word, Einverständnis, with the same root as Verständigungsverhältnisse), and if it is true, according to Quine, that the very idea of such a state is incoherent, what are we to make of Habermas’s ecstasies about normative understanding and genuine consensus in politics?

No amount of human exertion will suffice to permit us to establish within the domain of the natural phenomenon “communication” a safe-zone that is actually completely protected on all sides from the possible use of force, nor can we even realistically anticipate in some utopian sense a form of communication where relations of domination were completely suspended or canceled out. Even if, as Habermas suggests, there is something in the “inherent logic” of speech that “implies” freedom from domination, any particular theory that tries to claim that it is insulated against history and the real existing forms of communication will eventually turn out to do nothing more than absolutize some contingent features of our present situation. The historical precedent for this is Kant’s arguments in favor of eighteenth-century conceptions about capital punishment and against a right to suicide as purportedly following from demands of the very structure of human reason itself.

There is good reason to be skeptical about the main thesis Habermas proposes in this context: that the main contemporary problem is a deficit of legitimacy for social institutions, and that this can be remedied by developing a theory of communication. First of all, as has been mentioned above, it is a Kantian prejudice that “legitimation” is the basic problem of philosophy or even the basic problem of philosophy in the modern era. It is even less plausible to think that it is the basic social problem of the modern world. Then, Habermas’s conception of “discourse-without-domination” makes no sense: communication has no stable, invariant structure, certainly not one that would allow us to infer from it criteria for a universally valid set of norms, and for the identification and criticism of all forms of domination. In other words, there is no communication, at any rate in the following sense: there is no rule-governed form of linguistic behavior that is necessarily oriented to universal norms that are implicit in it, can be anticipated and are always presupposed by those who participate in that form of behavior.

The theological foundations of early liberalism (Spinoza, Locke), began to crumble in the late eighteenth century, and there followed a period of about two hundred years (from Constant and Humboldt, through Mill, to Hobhouse) during which liberals tried to forge ahead without making appeal to the concept of God and the theoretical apparatus that had developed in dependence on that concept. This freestanding, non-theology-based liberalism seems in retrospect to have been a lengthy experiment, the temporary success of which was actually dependent on the fact that it was protected by the strong hand of one or another of the great colonial powers, the British Empire in the first instance, but then also its successors and imitators. If the empire was large, powerful and self-confident enough, it could allow itself, within certain limits, of course, to defend tolerance, freedom of speech and a diversity of opinion, and even to protect certain civil rights. The end of the old imperial orders with the great moral collapse of the First World War and the catastrophe of the Second meant that all that remained was the sheltered internal space of the American Empire, which provided a continent-sized open-air zoo for the various subspecies of homo liberalis. Since the events of 9/11 and the economic crisis of September 2008, even this sphere is slowly but surely collapsing in on itself under our very eyes. One can see President Donald Trump as acting on the Nietzschean maxim: “Give what is falling already a further good kick.”

The soft nostalgic breeze of late liberalism that wafts through the writings of Habermas carries along with it the voice of a particular historical epoch; nothing unusual about that. After 1945, the pressing question was how Central Europe would be politically, economically and socially reconstructed. The alternative was, crudely speaking, integration into the West or into the East. There was no room for more radical suggestions, nor were they attempted. The integration of the German Federal Republic into the West had long been a fait accompli by the early 1970s, when Habermas’s works began to appear, but it was the framework within which one should place his project, a project that culminated in the publication in 1981 of his book The Theory of Communicative Action. Hegel noted that philosophy always comes after the fact, and such was the case here, too: a quasi-transcendental philosophy which consecrated discourse as the central medium of public reason, and gave ideological cover to further “West integration” by combining the tradition of liberalism that was particularly strong in Britain, the Netherlands, the U.S. and France with motifs from Kant that had strong appeal in Germany.

There was little prospect for the “experimentalism” of Dewey — who called his position almost interchangeably “pragmatism,” “instrumentalism” and “experimentalism” — to gain any kind of foothold during the formative period of the Federal Republic. Too many people were terrified of any kind of political or social “experiment.” There were perfectly comprehensible reasons for this, given the fear of a recurrence of the “experiment” of fascism, and anxiety in the face of the “great cultural experiment in the East” (as Freud put it Die Zukunft einer Illusion). “No experiments!” was a highly effective slogan used by the German political party CDU (roughly the equivalent of the U.S. Democratic Party) in the late 1950s. However, the inherent attraction of some aspects of socialism, despite the negative example provided by Eastern Europe, was not negligible, and it increased in the 1960s and 1970s. So it was advisable to try to proceed against possible “experiments” not only in an overtly political way, but also indirectly, by excluding them from the realm of discussion altogether and ensuring that they couldn’t be discussed at all. So there was a vogue for Karl Popper, who claimed that experiments that were too “large-scale” were a violation of the “logic of scientific investigation”; Dewey, in contrast, had claimed that there was no such thing as an invariant “scientific method” or “logic of investigation” because one of the most important aspects of science was that as it progressed, its methods themselves changed. Habermas, too, should be seen in this context, paradoxically, as an ally of Popper, especially when he claimed that there were a priori limits to rational communication and that these excluded the very possibility of certain “instrumental” political interventions that were to be considered “undiscussable.” So his transcendentalism is not just the shiny ornament of a philosopher who had enjoyed a decent education, but an indispensable instrument for ramming firmly into the ground the border-posts that were to enclose the area within which discussion could take place, and keep out unwelcome topics. That this policy of limitation of discussion was not merely a local phenomenon in Germany is indicated by the fact that Rawls, at about the same time in the U.S., saw himself forced to borrow some similar bits of kit from Kant’s great philosophical drugstore in his attempt to protect the American way of life from alternatives that were considered too radical.

The foolish claim that “we live in the best of all possible worlds” is not the best defense of the status quo. It is much more effective to hide one’s affirmation of the given social and economic structures, while trumpeting the opportunities one’s philosophy provides for criticizing a wide variety of individual flaws, defects and inadequacies. An ideology of “discursive criticism” also has much better chances of establishing itself because of certain psychological advantages it gives to those who adopt it. It is well suited to absorb, deflect and channel destructive energies that might otherwise get out of hand, by, thanks be to Kant, imposing discipline on existing discontent and dissipating it in small packets of reformist criticism of individual imperfections and blemishes of the social system.

Philosophers have no special competence as prophets. On the other hand, humans can hardly avoid thinking about the future, one way or the other, and speculating about its course. So one can wonder whether the next generation of young people will be as focused on and obsessed with discussion as their predecessors were between 1950 and 2000. If it should turn out to be the case that they are not only different from those who went before, but also have different values and desires and a different orientation, what grounds could one have for objecting to that? Disloyalty to some ideal of free discussion? Even if they were disloyal, who could blame them?

Raymond Geuss works in the general areas of political philosophy and the history of Continental Philosophy. This article was originally published by The Point.

[1] A version of this piece was originally commissioned and published by the internet journal Soziopolis; the text that appears below was translated from German by the author. Geuss wishes to thank Martin Bauer of Soziopolis for suggesting the specific topic, and for numerous helpful discussions of these issues over the years