Habermas and the public sphere

I’m reading about Habermas, from (Oxford’s Very Short Introduction series) in preparation for reading some of his core works. This stood out to me:

Habermas claims to have embarked upon a new way of doing social philosophy, one that begins from an analysis of language use and that locates the rational basis of the coordination of action in speech. He associates this new approach with a more general shift in philosophy called the ‘linguistic turn’. This phrase originally designated different attempts by various 20th-century philosophers to resolve apparently intractable epistemological and metaphysical disputes by investigating the conceptual truths inherent in our use of language. The basic strategy was to treat questions of what there is, of what can be known, and of how we can know it, as questions of what we mean, or what refers and how. Habermas applies a similar strategy to the questions of the nature of the social and the possibility of social order.

Anyone who has had the misfortune of reading my blog or conversing with me would be forgiven for assuming that I would oppose any social philosophy “that begins from an analysis of language use and that locates the rational basis of the coordination of action in speech”.

On the contrary, I insist upon it.


It comes down to Rorty’s concept of public and private projects:

The new distinction is between projects of social cooperation and projects of individual self- development. Intersubjective agreement is required for the former projects, but not for the latter. Natural science is a paradigmatic project of social cooperation: the project of improving man’s estate by taking account of every possible observation and experimental result in order to facilitate the making of predictions that will come true. Law is another such paradigm. Romantic art, by contrast, is a paradigmatic project of individual self-development. Religion, if it can be disconnected from both science and morals — from the attempt to predict the consequences of our actions and the attempt to rank human needs — may be another such paradigm.

Habermas is speaking of public forms of reasoning — the justification of actions and of decisions to which other people will be subjected.

It is my passionate belief that such public justification must be linguistic.

When we subject another group to social control, the reasons for that breach of autonomy must be given, and given so that a healthy majority find these reasons acceptable. If such breaches are not justified to the general satisfaction of the populace the social order will be threatened.

This means that the reasons must not only be given, but also, on the whole, accepted by those to whom they are given. You can’t just make up theories that satisfy yourself and the likeminded, and, on the basis of that self-justification, just impose your will — unless you already have way the fuck too much power.

It is this conviction — the conviction that such power concentrations threaten liberal democracy — that I still call myself left. I’m leftist not because I care about fairness per se, but because I want sufficient equality among classes that they have no choice but to negotiate with one another.

When one group gains enough material power that they believe they no longer must gain majority support, but rather begin to appeal to non-democratic standards — the usual intuitive bullshit offered by the powerful (rights, history, compassion for select categories of people, God’s will, personal feelings, intuitions and other furniture of personal conviction — the group in power will rarely recognize they are oppressing another. They simply feel they are no longer willing to compromise on values that are more important than winning public support for their intentions, and they refuse to bother with it because they don’t have to.

At this point, they stop talking democratically of persuading, building coalitions, winning support or alignment and so on — and begin talking autocratically of using power responsibly, doing what is right, respecting truth, winning the gratitude of the future, and concocting even-steven secular theodicies, where it is all cosmically ok to oppress because you win some and lose some, so why fret when you win and others lose? (Very, very leftist, there.)

If these people of conscience felt a little more vulnerable they might ask themselves some basic Golden Rule questions along the lines of “what if this logic were applied back to me?” — but the powerful generally can’t imagine not having power, and this failure of imagination makes them impossible to reason with. This is why it is that more often than not, the powerful must be forcibly removed from power before they can see why their social inferiors are so murderously furious.


It is my position that 1) the widening of the wealth gap, plus 2) changes in the role of technology in our social lives, plus 3) the domination of technology by the ruling class has created a gross power imbalance that now constitutes a threat to our liberal-democratic order.

The threat is manifested as a new moral absolutism, which ideologically excludes the voices of anyone outside its ideological horizons. This absolutism is nearly universally held by the ruling class (the hyper-rich and the professional class that reports to the hyper-rich).

This ruling class is so overwhelmingly powerful that it feels entitled — no, duty-bound — to impose its will on an unwilling population. It explains away the objections of the unwilling using its own psychological and social theories, which are also unacceptable to the hapless folks subjected to these theories. They aren’t indignant at being oppressed and treated with contempt. No, they are “fragile”. See?

And nobody can tell these overclassers that none of this is even slightly leftist, because they, and they alone, decide what is leftist. And what is racist, too. And everything of any social importance. They, as a ruling class, dictate truth, justice and reality itself.

This set of self-serving moral convictions plus the theoretical metabeliefs that protect these convictions from external and internal critique is Progressivism. Progressivism is the dominant ideology of the ruling class, its values are replicated and reinforced through the classic moves of cultural hegemony — and those people dominated by this movement, who benefit from it, are entirely unable and unwilling to entertain the possibility that they are oppressors of the worst sort, because they are desperately self-righteous.

NOBODY in my social group can claim I didn’t tell them so. I am telling every adherent to this class supremacist ideology that they are complicit in an illiberal, antidemocratic, and anti-leftist movement. So far, I’ve only gotten a bunch of complaints about feeling judged, or not quite getting it, or this not being polite. You know — the usual blather one gets when one “speaks truth to power”. But these overclassers see it as their prerogative to decide who has power and who doesn’t. It is just uppity for some random nobody to suggest that they are the power. The overclass has made it very clear how they expect these matters to be seen, so get in your place.

But I am digressing. I assume I’ve lost most of my readers by this point. And good riddance: discussing principles with unprincipled hypocrites is beneath my dignity. I’ve stopped doing it. As Eric Voegelin famously said: “I have been called every conceivable name by partisans of this or that ideology. … Understandably, I have never answered such criticisms; critics of this type can become objects of inquiry, but they cannot be partners in a discussion.”


I want to turn to the private sphere now — that realm of personal self-development projects. This is the sphere where language must not dominate, where the tacit activity of intuition should reign freely.

Part of why liberalism matters to me so much is that I believe this is where much of the best of human life happens, and that if it is forced to self-justify and give reasons for itself, it will have none.

So, in a liberal democracy, language governs the democratic half, and intuition governs (or at least can govern) the liberal half.

Part of the duty of democracy is to make verbal arguments to protect that part of human life that cannot make verbal argument (or which cannot yet make verbal arguments) — that place where originality emerges. It is my ardent wish to enlarge the private sphere to the greatest possible extent for all people for the enrichment of humanity. Whatever leftism I’ve adopted is there entirely for the sake of liberalism.

And to do this, we must convince the majority of citizens that they benefit and ought to support the maximizing of the private realm through championing real liberalism.

But –[resume diatribe]– when one powerful group loses sight of the requirement to persuade the majority of the value of liberalism and begins to force its opinions of what liberties, beliefs, judgment, intuitions are legitimate on a population that feels its own rights are being violated, they’ll rebel against such “liberalism” in the name of personal freedom.

It is a truly strange situation when autocrats with absolutist notions of whose liberties do and do not matter — a question bound up with the deeper question of who gets to judge these matters — call themselves “liberal” and violate the basic principles of liberalism by deciding these questions of civil liberties unilaterally — and then find themselves opposed by people who hate “liberals” and fight back — weirdly, as liberals.

Strange days.

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