Saturday, August 13, 2016


276. Habermas and Lyotard

As before, here I make use of the work of Richard Rorty, in this case his discussion of Habermas, Lyotard, and Foucault.[i]

I greatly appreciate Habermas’ commitment, against the tides of relativism, to maintain the Enlightenment ideal of rational criticism. He did this from the perspective of ‘communicative action’ as a basis for reaching social consensus. This was an improvement on the ideal of individual rationality from the Enlightenment in turning it into social rationality.

In this blog (item 270) I also, in the line of Habermas, deplored what I called the present unravelling of rationality. And like Habermas I take a discursive view of knowledge and ethics. Indeed, many years ago I was inspired to this by Habermas’s work, among others.[ii]  However, I disagree with the claims and assumptions that Habermas makes.

I pick up Rorty’s account of a clash of views between Habermas and Lyotard. To make a long story short, I summarize the debate as follows.

Habermas proposed the ‘narrative’ of communicative action, where in discourse people should and could achieve consensus, in debates of social criticism that are ‘herrschaftsfrei’, without imposition of power.

Inspired by the horrors caused by ‘great narratives’ such as those of the French Revolution, Nazism, and communism, Lyotard claimed that we should suspect and renounce such ‘grand narratives.’

Habermas claimed that if you do that you lose standards for judgement, in democratic, bourgeois values, and take out rationality and the basis for the liberal society that has served us well.

So, who is right?

At this point I have two questions to Lyotard:
-          What is the narrative from which to suspect narratives?
-          How suspicious is that one?

And here is my view:
1.      You need to assume something, take it for granted, as a basis for judging anything. Like it or not,
this is your narrative.
2.      Past narratives have indeed failed, run into perversions and disasters.
3.      It is rational to allow for the possibility that your present best narrative will turn out to fail. It is not rational to disregard that. Try to avoid the illusion of a-historical legitimation.

Does this now mean that whatever narrative you now have is relativist, context-dependent?

You hold a narrative as you hold an hypothesis in science: for as long as it ‘works’, while keeping an open eye for its limits and failures. You try to apply it as widely as you can, as purportedly universal, until you run into its failures. That requires that you keep an open mind, as much as you can, to objections that arise from novel contexts, novel perspectives. In other words, the narrative is universal in its ambition, context-dependent in its revision.

That, I propose, entails the rationality of communicative action and rationality that Habermas pleads for, but cannot and need not be presented as a claim of truth outside of time, of history.

By the way, it is not just by critical communication, but also by observing how narratives of others fare in implementation.

In an earlier criticism of Habermas in this blog (item 117), I argued that discourse without power play is an illusion. People always exert power and counter-power, to some extent and in some fashion. And remember that power can also be positive, in creating new options and more room for others to choose.

So in conclusion, the following:
-          Habermas is right in arguing the need for a guiding narrative, and in taking the perspective of communicative action, but mistaken in claiming its unhistorical, indubitable legitimation, and in assuming communication without power play.
-          Lyotard is right in being suspicious of grand narratives, but not in rejecting all narrative. Some narrative is needed as something to go on, even if temporarily and subject to ongoing communicative interaction.

I think this comes close to Rorty’s view.

To reject all narratives is as silly as rejecting all theory and science. To accept narratives as absolute and inviolable is as silly as accepting that for any theory.


[i] Richard Rorty, ‘Habermas and Lyotard on postmodernity’, in Essays on Heidegger and others, Cambridge U. Press, 1991.
[ii] Like Habermas, I was inspired by the work of Jean Piaget.