The Question of modernity pt.II (Darren S.)
The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity: Twelve Lectures
MIT Press, 1990
Like Fredric Jameson and Charles Taylor Habermas is concerned, one might say intimately concerned, with the concept of modernity. But where Jameson tends to allow his focus to encompass if not fix on artistic modernity, Habermas like Taylor is most concerned with the social and cultural trope of modernity; of modernity as enlightenment reason. In The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity Habermas attempts to recover the project of modernity, one that he sees as unfinished not bankrupt, from the specters of post-modernity; from Derrida, Deleuze and Foucault. On Habermas' account the project of modernity needs to be reconstructed not deconstructed, and those who critique it are correct on nearly every technical point but wrong in the most important way. They are wrong as to what it means, and they are wrong in which direction they take in trying to deal with the very real problems they see. For Habermas it is clear what fork they come to and what path they wrongly choose; the philosophy of the subject. Even clearer for him is the path they came across and did not take; the path of intercommunication, of intersubjectivity of what he has called in other and equally famous books communicative action.
On Habermas’ account the project of modernity is not exhausted. It has not as Lyotard says “been abandoned…destroyed, liquidated” (The Post-modern Condition, 1984, 111). This point of divergence is central to Habermas’ deconstruction (although he would never use this term) of post-modernity and the thought of its proponents. Habermas commits much of the space of this book to a critical examination of the thought philosophers who form the core of those critical of the enlightenment project and the modernity that sprung from it. Habermas’ method is to point out the performative contradiction of all those who critique the rationality and reason of modernity with the very tools of reason that this modernity (and their privileged educations and status) has given them. For Habermas, to bastardize a famous saying appropriated from Derrida, there is no outside of modernity. He states plainly that “I do not believe that we can distantiate Occidental rationalism into an object of neutral contemplation and simply leap out of the discourse of modernity” (PDM, 59). What is needed instead is a critical re-examination of the central thesis of modernity up to now which Habermas believes is the philosophy of the subject, a philosophy he sees as ‘exhausted’.
It is this exhausted philosophy of the subject thatHabermas sees all supposed critiques of modernity as such as being addressed towards. For Habermas the problem in the end “is too little rather than too much enlightenment, a deficiency rather than an excess of reason” (PDM, xv). This is why he posits the project of modernity as unfinished rather than exhausted, it is simply this one aspect; subjectivity, that requires reformulation, indeed on his account it needs to be abandoned for another and more palatable philosophy; that of communicative action, of intersubjectivity. For Habermas the escape from the morass of subjectivity is not an abandonment of modernity nor its refusal but a movement of the focus from the individual and the internal to the social and mutually shared. This is a decentering of the type that post-structuralists might carry out but while their project is self-conceptualized as deconstruction, an activity I believe that Habermas himself engages in here, Habermas sees his work as therapeutic and rereconstructive. In this vein Habermas adheres strongly to the emancipatory ideals of some of his Frankfurt School predecessors, particularly Herbert Marcuse and even Erich Fromm. What Habermas does reject is the radical critique carried out by Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer. Habermas is a therapist of modernity not its executioner. Since on his account modernity is not to be escaped easily if it can be escaped at all it must be dealt with understood and come to terms with. In the end it is this stance; that of trying to perform therapy on the modern project while admitting its faults, indeed its deep philosophical failings as it has been expressed up to now that sets Habermas apart from many of his contemporaries and certainly, at least in his own view, from those he sets out to critique.
The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity is a modernist project through and through. Habermas believes in the emancipatory power of reason and the compelling metanarrative of the enlightenment. His commitments to both of these ideas make him a foil for many poststructuralist theorists but his ideas demand both response and serious consideration. On Habermas’ account the radical critiques of modernity all contain at least an element of truth, and their compelling power comes from their recognition of the dead end of the philosophy of subjectivity. What Habermas offers instead of their totalizing critique is perhaps another totalizing modernist narrative but with this work Habermas puts the theoretical ball back in the post-structuralist’s court. The onus now falls on them.