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Political Philosophy After Metaphysics: Habermas & Lyotard

Abdelkader Aoudjit thinks about postmodern political thinking.

Enlightenment thinkers were optimistic. They thought that the application of the scientific method to all aspects of life would not only liberate humanity from bondage to nature, but also inaugurate a new era of happiness, justice and emancipation. Jean Antoine de Condorcet declared, “one day, the sun will shine over a humanity who acknowledge no other master than their own reason.”

More than two hundred years after Condorcet wrote these words philosophers are still pondering the value of the Enlightenment project, or what is alternatively called the project of modernity – of making everything subordinate to human reason. Clearly, scientific knowledge has brought many benefits, such as industrial and economic development, and improvements in education, medicine, communications, etc. But paradoxically, according to critics of modernity, the misery that the Enlightenment was supposed to put an end to has not only lived on, but has in many ways intensified: instead of liberty, the Enlightenment has produced alienation, powerlessness, and the subordination of all aspects of life to economic and bureaucratic requirements of control and efficiency. Modern man does not seem to have any firm guidelines on how to behave towards others; he feels estranged from the world in which he lives, and has the impression that his life is run by impersonal forces over which he has no control. For the critics of modernity, it seems as though the attempt to put the Enlightenment project into action has resulted in a nightmare.

Are the problems inherent to modernity itself, implying that the Enlightenment project ought to be abandoned, or are they aberrations, which mean that project is worth preserving? This is the question that, at first glance, opposes Jürgen Habermas, the successor to the Frankfurt School of critical theory, and Jean-Francois Lyotard, one of the major representatives of postmodernism. While Lyotard (1924-1998) contends that the project of modernity and the philosophy that underlies it are fundamentally defective and ought to be rejected, Habermas (1929-) maintains that the “pathologies of modernity” are not due to the project of modernity as such, but to the fact that it has not been carried out properly. For him, modernity has not failed but is merely unfinished, and its emancipatory potential can still be realized.

Habermas and Lyotard have their agreements too. They both deplore the fact that commercial and administrative structures have taken over all aspects of life. They also agree that all foundationalist philosophies – philosophies which are built on supposedly unquestionable, absolute, universal, transcendent, or timeless metaphysical or epistemological principles – have lost their credibility. Lastly, they are both concerned with justice, and both want to give a voice to everyone. The purpose of this article is to describe Habermas’ and Lyotard’s philosophies, and assess their capacity to generate conceptions and practices of politics that are both progressive and consistent with their rejection of foundationalist philosophies. After sketching their ideas, focusing on their views about the crisis of modernity and how they propose to remedy it, I’ll examine how successfully they accomplish this goal. I will argue that while Lyotard’s philosophy is both appropriate for giving voice to marginalized groups and individuals, and consistent with his rejection of foundationalist thinking, Habermas’ philosophy fails to enfranchise the marginalized and contradicts his intention of avoiding foundationalism.

Lifeworld and System

To show how modern society came to be what it is, Habermas draws on the philosophy of early Frankfurt School thinkers Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer. Like them, Habermas explains the current state of the world in terms of the attempt to extend scientific/technical-type rationality to all aspects of life. However, Habermas argues that their conception of rationality is one-sided and pessimistic. The main thrust of his philosophy i s the belief that in addition to instrumental reason, which consists of finding means to ends, and strategic reason, aimed at practical success, there is also communicative reason, aimed at reaching agreement through the presentation of valid arguments. For Habermas, once it is understood that communicative reason is at work in history, it becomes clear that the ills of the contemporary world are not necessary, and not the natural development of modernity so much as the result of its distortion.

To explain how the development of instrumental reason prevented the realization of reason’s emncipatory potential, Habermas constructs a two-level social theory. On one level, society is a shared and largely taken-for-granted set of beliefs, norms and expectations, on the basis of which individuals make sense of their world, coordinate their actions and shape their identities. On the other level, society is also made up of impersonal organizations such as the government and the economy. These have a dynamic and logic of their own, and are guided by considerations of efficiency.

Habermas calls the taken-for-granted beliefs and values the lifeworld, and he calls the government and the economy the system. For him, modern society cannot function correctly without both. Yet, the lifeworld and the system differ fundamentally. First, while the lifeworld is maintained and reproduced through communication, the system functions through the use of money and power. Second, whereas in the lifeworld there is a shared sense that human actions and experiences are meaningful, the system functions according to patterns that have no natural human resonance. Finally, unlike the system, in which individuals are “primarily oriented to their own individual success” in the lifeworld, “they pursue their individual goals under the condition they can harmonize their plans of action on the basis of common definitions.” (The Theory of Communicative Action, Vol I, p.286, 1984.) In sum, while the system is the domain of control and efficiency, the lifeworld is the domain of mutual understanding.

Equipped with these two notions, Habermas sketches a history of modernity. He says that in the seventeenth century society started changing dramatically. First, there was “the uncoupling of the system and the lifeworld” – that is, the economic and political systems separated from the general culture with which they used to be united, took a life of their own, and became increasingly indifferent to the norms, values, meanings and everyday preoccupations of individuals. Once the system was no longer tied to the lifeworld, it differentiated into subsystems – the state and the economy – organized around principles of calculation and predictability.

Significant changes have taken place in the moral-practical domain too, also starting in the seventeenth century. First, religion lost its prestige, authority and power. Second, there developed an awareness of a number of competing conceptions of the good, none of which is incontrovertibly superior. As a result there was a shift from considerations of what a good life is to considerations of what is right to do, and how to accommodate difference and diversity. Third, the cognitive (intellectual), normative (moral) and expressive-aesthetic (artistic) spheres of life, which used to be tied together in a comprehensive worldview under the hegemony of religious and other metaphysical principles, became independent, each developing its own criteria of validity. Eventually each became the exclusive domains of experts. Perhaps the most important development in modern ethics and politics, according to Habermas, is the adoption of a critical attitude towards religion and tradition, and the conviction that a norm is legitimate only if it is the result of rational discussion free from domination or manipulation. As he puts it, “When the power of tradition is broken… modern reason must create normativity out of itself by relying on nothing more than the force of the better argument.” (ibid, Vol. 2, p.40). Habermas looks upon these specific developments as, on the whole, improvements. Modernity has liberated humanity from stifling religion and tradition, it has increased individual autonomy, and it made possible the full emergence of democracy.

Habermas devoted his first book, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (1962) to an examination of the growth and decline of the public sphere independent of the state and the economy. This public sphere, he says, flourished in Germany, France and Britain in the eighteenth century; the coffee houses, salons, clubs, and newspapers of that period were democratic forums in which citizens debated issues of public interest freely, openly, and according to the standards of critical reason. However, he argues that the development of capitalism is such that the public sphere and true democracy have been completely eliminated. Following Max Weber and the first generation Frankfurt School thinkers Adorno and Horkheimer, Habermas claims that the demands of the market, industrial production, and bureaucracy – efficiency and performance – have increasingly taken over all aspects of life. He explains that moral questions have become cost/benefit questions, and political questions that ought to be settled through public rational argument, have become technical and bureaucratic matters handled by experts. This encroachment of the system on the lifeworld, which Habermas describes as colonization, has resulted in the depoliticization, manipulation and domination of the majority of the population by technical and bureaucratic elites. Habermas says that it made “the industrially most advanced societies seem to approximate a model of behavioral control steered by external stimuli rather than guided by norms.” (Toward a Rational Society, p.107, 1970.) According to Habermas, the colonization of the lifeworld by the system also explains the pathologies of modernity such as alienation, xenophobia and drug addiction. Still, Habermas believes that it is possible to rescue the lifeworld from the system and realize the emancipatory ideals of modernism. He argues that this requires the replacement of instrumental reason with communicative reason in the ethical and political domains.

So how can ethical and political disagreements be resolved fairly by the force of the better argument? Habermas argues that this requires certain conditions or rules he calls discourse ethics. Following Robert Alexy, Habermas identifies three kinds of such rules: semantic-logical rules, procedural rules, and reciprocal rules. Semantic-logical rules require that speakers do not contradict themselves, are consistent in their use of words, and that all parties to a discussion use the same words to mean the same things. Procedural rules require that people engaged in argumentation be sincere, and that anyone who brings up an issue not under discussion must provide reasons for doing so. Finally, reciprocal rules requires the following: 1) All who are capable of contributing are allowed to participate in the discussion; 2) Everyone is allowed to question any assertion made by others, to introduce any assertion or proposal into the discussion, and is allowed to express his desires, wishes and needs; and 3) No one may be coerced into giving up his communication rights secured under the other two conditions. From these rules, Habermas infers two principles: the principle of universalization, which says “All affected can accept the consequences and the side effects its general observance can be anticipated to have for the satisfaction of everyone’s interests”; and the principle of discourse ethics, which says “only those norms can claim to be valid that meet (or could meet) with the approval of all affected in their capacity as participants in a practical discourse.” (Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action, p.65/6, 1990.)

To reverse the colonization of the lifeworld by the system through communicative reason, Habermas looked first to the new social movements of the time – feminism, environmentalism, the student, anti-nuclear and peace movements. These, he believes, are motivated by moral ideals and are models of undistorted communication. In his earlier writings he did not treat the issue of how this decolonization is supposed to work. Later, in Between Facts and Norms (1996), Habermas claims that the process of debate and argument by free and equal members of civil society is “transformed into administratively utilizable power” through legislation. He believes that deliberation in both formal decision-making bodies and informal associations such as the above will result in laws that will restrain the power of bureaucracy and the market.

Limitations of Habermas’ Philosophy

Habermas’ philosophy is vulnerable to at least two major objections. One involves the difficulty of implementing discourse ethics to bring about consensus on ethical and political matters and thus expand the number of people who participate in collective decision-making. The other objection involves his failure to achieve the goal of avoiding foundationalism.

The first objection is quite straightforward. Habermas’ discourse ethics supposes that if only people were sincere and willing to compromise, all conflicts would be solved. While this willingness is certainly plausible when participants in a discussion are from the same socioeconomic background, share more or less the same values, and the stakes are not high, it cannot be assumed in most cases of conflict. To start, it is impossible to have the kind of unequivocal and equitable discourse Habermas describes outside the smallest units of social and political organization, where people can communicate directly. Even within those units, the concept of an ideal speech situation is inspiring but hardly practical. First, not everyone is equally capable of arguing effectively; some people are more knowledgeable and more skilled than others, and may thereby turn the discussion to their advantage. In addition, people are not always willing to reconsider their claims, and instead debate in order to defend their interests rather than reach agreement, as Habermas would wish. Thus, debates on issues such as abortion and euthanasia, are usually no more than contests among competing worldviews, with no hope of agreement. In Between Facts and Norms (1996), Habermas extends communicative action (ie, action based on communicative reason) to legislative and judicial bodies; yet by doing so, he only shifts the problem of inadequate communication from the informal to the formal structures of society: what appears to be the result of communicative deliberation in those institutions is often rather the outcome of opportunistic alliances. Another obvious problem with this shift to the formal structures of society is that even though delegates are expected to defend the interests of their constituencies, they have the power to act in ways not authorized by those they represent. Moreover, conflicts arise not only from factual disputes, but also from conceptual disagreements about what moral notions mean – for, example, whether euthanasia is a form of murder. These kinds of disagreements cannot be solved definitively, if at all.

Regarding the goal of avoiding foundationalism, Habermas intends his philosophy to be purely procedural, in the sense that the only acceptable rules are those arrived at through deliberation by equal citizens in conditions free from domination. Yet even in setting up these conditions Habermas has stacked the deck in favor of liberal democracy – a set of ideas which emphasizes individuals’ rights, freedom of choice, freedom from interference and freedom of association – not only in how he constructs the rules and principles of discourse ethics, but also in the way he thinks decisions reached at the level of the public sphere are translated into policies. Indeed, in formulating the ideal speech situation, Habermas, like liberal thinkers, sets aside the inequalities in power and wealth which produce endemic social conflict and perpetuate unjust social arrangements. Furthermore, in his later writings, the kind of rules Habermas thinks ought to be established to protect civil society are the familiar liberal democratic types of laws adopted to stop the majority from abusing its power over minorities: (1) Rights to the greatest possible liberty compatible with others’ equivalent rights; (2) Rights to belong to a state whose institutions are governed by the rule of law; (3) Rights to protection under the law; (4) Rights to participate in collective will-formation; and (5) Welfare rights to a standard of living that makes acting on the other rights possible. Finally, like liberals, Habermas thinks that the influence of informal social groups and citizens’ initiatives are transformed into lawful ‘administrative power’ through elections and law-making. In sum, Habermas ends up restating liberal democracy and the philosophy which sustains it, with all of its problems.

Litigations and Différends

Very much like Habermas, who criticizes the domination of the lifeworld by instrumental reason at the expense of genuine communication, Lyotard warns against reducing reason and the language through which it is expressed to instrumental uses. Also like Habermas, Lyotard abandons large-scale ideologies and explanations that make politics depend on society’s conformity to some a priori goal or particular idea of the good life. Still like Habermas, Lyotard rejects the belief that meaning and truth are either subjective phenomena, or lie in an objective world which language is supposed to reflect. Finally, like Habermas, Lyotard is concerned with justice and giving a voice to marginalized groups and points-of-view. Yet Lyotard’s examination of these questions is so different from Habermas’ as to conflict with it. Ironically, the issues that divide them concern the possibility of resolving conflicts, and the purpose of moral/political reflection. Whereas Habermas believes that it is possible to adjudicate between competing perspectives through open dialogue, Lyotard argues that there is no neutral point-of- view from which one might do so; and whereas Habermas is interested in solving conflicts, Lyotard is interested in pointing out cases of hidden and unresolvable conflicts.

To start with the issue of adjudicating between perspectives, in Le Différend (1984) Lyotard distinguishes between two kinds of conflict: litigations and différends. There is litigation when opponents agree on the genre of discourse – language, norms, procedures and jurisdiction – to bring into play to resolve their dispute (here a genre is a distinct way of thinking and speaking). As a result of this basic agreement, one can prove that he has suffered damage and may be compensated for it. For example, a lawsuit in which an accident victim seeks compensation from an employer for negligence, and obtains it, is a litigation: the plaintiff can prove that he has suffered damage, and there exists an agreed-upon procedure for resolving the dispute. The plaintiff and the defendant accept the authority of the court or the arbitrator to adjudicate the conflict, and they agree on what ‘negligence’ means, even if they disagree on whether or not a certain incident is a case of negligence. They also agree that when someone is guilty of negligence, a certain amount of money makes up for the damage.

In contrast to litigation, a case of différend between two parties takes place when “the ‘regulation’ of the conflict that opposes them is done in the idiom of one of the parties while the wrong suffered by the other is not signified in that idiom.” As a result, the wronged party is “reduced to silence” and “deprived of the means to argue.” This can occur in several ways: 1) The person who suffered damage is not authorized to speak, or he is deemed not worth listening to; 2) The harm he complains about cannot be represented as harm within the prevailing order of discourse, and therefore does not exist to it; or if it is represented, that representation is inadequate to reflect his experience; 3) The rules of the dominant discourse do not allow the kind of statements he makes to be made – his testimony is rejected as nonsensical; 4) There is no one with the authority or the will to hear the complaint. Lyotard describes these different ways of reducing someone to silence as “the silence of the witness, the deafness of the judges, and the inconsistency (insanity) of the testimony.” He calls someone who is reduced to silence a ‘victim’, and he calls the harm a victim suffers a ‘wrong’ – which is “damage accompanied by the loss of the means to prove the damage.”

To illustrate what he means by différend, Lyotard describes the dispute between the revisionist Robert Faurisson and Holocaust survivors. Lyotard explains that the only proof Faurisson says is acceptable is testimony from an eye-witness who saw the gas chambers in operation. But Lyotard objects that neither those who died in the gas chamber nor the deportees who survived can prove the operation of the gas chambers to Faurisson’s satisfaction: the former cannot because they are dead; and the latter cannot they are alive, and yet to have seen the gas chambers literally in operation means to have died in them. For Lyotard, the deportees are thus victims of a wrong: they are reduced to silence, divested of the means to argue.

Another example often used to explain Lyotard’s notion of différend, perhaps even better than Lyotard’s own examples, is the confrontation between a group of Australian Aborigines and a uranium mining company in Werner Herzog’s movie Where The Green Ants Dream (1984). The Aborigines claim that the land the mining company wishes to dig is a sacred place where green ants dream, and if the ants’ home is disturbed and they can no longer dream, the entire world will end. At first, the mining company tries to bribe the tribesmen, but they will not budge. Fed up, the company executives drag the Aborigines to court. Not surprisingly, the court rules against the natives, dismissing the green ant story as utter nonsense. From a Lyotardian point of view, if the Aborigines remain silent they become victims – yet if they go back to court they become plaintiffs in a dispute reduced to a simple litigation. In both cases, their beliefs, pain, frustrations, and expectations remain unrecognized. Faced with différends, the tendency is to regulate them and transform them into litigations, either by adopting the criteria of one of the parties to a dispute, or by superimposing a metalanguage (a ‘higher’ inclusive language) on them.

For Lyotard, to practice politics in the traditional sense is to construct procedures for solving conflicts and harmonizing interests that result in hiding différends by turning them into litigations – and thereby perpetuate injustice. However, to practice philosophy is to detect différends: to exhibit them, to convey their nonresolvability, and to curb the tendency to keep them hidden. To exhibit différends involves also imagining new idioms, or, because there are forms of experience that cannot be fully articulated, to allude to that which is excluded, repressed or marginalized by the dominant discourse.

Lyotard’s Advantage

Lyotard not only appreciates the pervasiveness of conflicts more than Habermas, he also brings more areas of life and its problems under consideration. For Lyotard, insofar as all social practices are ultimately manifestations of genres of discourse seeking to impose themselves on others, and insofar also as language is the vehicle of power and the site of conflict, causing violence, enforcing exclusions and maintaining relations of injustice, it follows that différends and their injustices can potentially occur whenever someone makes a knowledge claim, describes, questions or prescribes. So injustice does not consist only of political disenfranchisement or blatant acts of oppression and violence – it also includes the everyday, mundane acts of discrimination, abuse and economic coercion that fall outside the law and politics. The particular conception of injustice Lyotard has in mind, then, is not specifically that exercised openly by individuals and groups, although it includes this. Rather it is the kind of injustice that results from negative opinions, attitudes and ideologies, which are hidden but pervasive.

Lyotard is also more successful than Habermas when it comes to avoiding foundationalism. For him, the point of philosophical reflection is not to construct blue-prints for a future society, or procedures for solving conflicts and harmonizing interests, but to challenge the pretensions of any ideology or theoretical scheme to be a metagenre (an all-encompassing way of thinking/speaking); to testify to the existence of unrecognized injustice; to “wage a war on totality”; and “to refine our sensitivity to difference.” Indeed, Lyotard asserts that the search for some authority that could control genres is not only mistaken but undesirable. In a continuation of what he said in La Condition Postmoderne (1979) about metanarratives – large-scale theories and ideologies – being no longer credible, Lyotard writes in Just Gaming (1985) that “there is no metalanguage… the famous theoretical discourse that is supposed to ground political and ethical decisions.” He argues that the idea of a metagenre is contradictory: either the genre one claims to be a metagenre is a part of the set of genres, and thus not a metagenre, or it is not a member of the set, and thus it is not a genre. Lyotard writes that to claim that any one genre of discourse can be a metagenre “would be like saying: The only important game, the only true one, is chess. That is absurd.” Thus for Lyotard, the world is a contentious and contested place in which no genre of phrases or perspectives possesses a privileged status. Instead, the modes of discourse fight for dominance, and no neutral point of view is available from which to adjudicate between them. Furthermore, Lyotard argues that the quest for a metalanguage to control différends is undesirable, insofar as whatever standards one adopts to adjudicate between different perspectives, other standards are excluded and someone is thus inevitably victimized. He says that “there is no genre whose hegemony over the others would be just.” Indeed, Lyotard claims that “it is precisely in the attempt to bring an end to différends, to transform war into a litigation and pronounce a verdict that will settle the dispute, that a différend can manifest itself,” and “what is repressed can always return and indeed does return.” A case in point is the unnuanced liberal conception of justice, which hides class conflict and the inequalities in power between the rich and the poor, and thus tacitly legitimizes the domination and exploitation of the latter by the former. A contrasting case is the Marxist focus on class struggle exclusively at the expense of ignoring gender, racial, religious, national, or ethnic conflicts, which thereby tacitly legitimizes these other forms of repression.

Thus for Lyotard, all theories of justice, and all political schemes, are contingent, contestable and also inevitably unjust. So he does not put forward a positive political theory. Still, he thinks that his practice of witnessing to différends is prompted by a sense of justice. However, this does not make his philosophy inconsistent, because the idea of justice that informs this practice of witnessing to différends is not that usually found in political philosophy books. Rather, it’s what Kant calls an idea of reason – like the idea of God and the idea of the world as a totality – and should be viewed as regulative rather than constitutive – meaning, the idea adds unity and coherence to our experience and guides our thinking, but it does not and cannot stand for an actual thing. Indeed, Lyotard believes that any attempt to give justice a definite meaning is not only contradictory, but it would assume that there is a master narrative, a particular order of discourse that is privileged over others. But that privilege would also make it necessarily unjust.

Admittedly, Lyotard and Habermas are engaged in two different enterprises: whereas Habermas believes that the purpose of political reflection is to solve conflicts, Lyotard believes that it is to detect différends. Still, Lyotard more successfully accomplishes the goal of giving a voice to more people in the absence of philosophical foundations than Habermas does. However, both of them have enriched our understanding of modernity, its greatness, and its decadence.

© Abdelkader Aoudjit 2010

Kader Aoudjit teaches at Northern Virginia Community College and is the author of The Algerian Novel and Colonial Discourse: Witnessing to a Differend to be published by Peter Lang this year.


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