Habermas, Foucault, and the Communicating Subject

Habermas Contra Foucault

In the “contemporary history of philosophy”, the Habermas-Foucault debate is most likely overrepresented, given the two never directly interacted on the matters present. However, it is a crucial element of Jürgen Habermas’s Philosophical Discourse on Modernity. It is important to note that, in his Foucault lectures, Habermas is heavily reliant on Hubert Dreyfus’s reading of Foucault (“Being and Power” 1996). This fact helps explain the tethering of Heideggerian Being with Foucault’s various formulations of power, but it may also bring theoretical light to several of the limitations of his critique. Habermas boldly exclaims Foucault’s “theory of power has shown itself to be a dead end” (Habermas 1990, 296). This is a relatively interesting argument to make, and the assertions that ground it in the prior lecture are quite compelling (Habermas 1990, 268). While it is true that Foucault sees no “outside” to power relations, no mechanism through which one can escape power relations, this hardly means it is a theoretical dead end.[1] There are two ways to perceive this attack. First, that Foucault’s theory of power lacks any actionable potency. Or, alternatively, that power is the dead end within Foucault’s theory, a mechanism that serves as a stopping point – an imposed limit of his analysis.

Addressing the first, power works as a relation of execution. Power exists only in where it is utilized, not possessed. Foucauldian anarchic theorists, like Andrew Culp, posit a similar critique of Habermas. “The cases made for such a world are virtuous enough—Kantian cosmopolitanism wants perpetual peace […] and Habermas would have us all be part of one great conversation. Yet connectivity today is determined far more by people like [Former] Google Ideas director Jared Cohen” (Culp 2016, 6-7). To Culp, Deleuze, Negri, and others, it is not necessarily a lack of communication, or an obfuscation of it, that causes the political strife or philosophical stagnation of the modern era. “We do not lack communication. On the contrary, we have too much of it. We lack creation. We lack resistance to the present” (Deleuze and Guattari 1994, 108). “Resistance” is the key term in that small assertion. When it comes to the question of praxis, the burden is on Habermas in this interaction.

Addressing the second interpretation, the critique seems to be at the level of what Foucault’s power analytic says about subjectivity, which is a separate notion. The problem with Habermas’s critique is two-fold, and each of these issues collapse into the other. It comes down to the power/knowledge relation, which is not dichotomous. Habermas’s critique of Foucault’s conception of knowledge argues that power only enters the formulation once the “autonomy” of systems of knowledge internally fails. “Foucault escapes this difficulty when he gives up on the autonomy of the forms of knowledge in favor of their foundation within power technologies” (Habermas 1990, 268). This methodological critique seems to be outside the bounds of what Foucault actually articulates to be a dispositif. Deleuze argues that the theoretical run in between Foucault and Habermas is largely the result of a misunderstanding. “[O]ne could say, that his relationship with the Frankfurt School and the successors to this school are a long series of misunderstandings for which he is not responsible” (Deleuze 2006, 343). Zizek, frustrated that the Habermas-Foucault “debate” has drowned out other important discourses, dedicates a segment of his introduction to Sublime Object to stating that, since both parties are fundamentally committed to understanding the effect of externalities on human interaction, they are on “two sides of the same coin” (Zizek 1989, xxiv). One wonders whether the problem may be rooted more deeply than just their competing notions of discourse. It may lie in their respective constructions of the subject, in their understanding of the “human” in interaction.

Who Speaks at Habermas’s Dinner table?

One remarkable aspect of Habermas’s scholarship is how remarkably amenable he is on his formulations of knowledge acquisition and processes of discourse. It is in this sense that Habermas’s project can be read as one oriented towards an altered future. One finds Habermas engaging in a revision of his discursive notion of truth. To Habermas, truth is inextricably linked to a perpetual process of justification. Problematized truth claims become a “topic of conversation only when practices fail and contradictions arise” (Habermas 2003, 39). The striated nature of the lifeworld is explicitly delineated here, the separation between action and discourse is fundamental. Habermas’s understanding of truth is linked with his understanding of social relations as a complex system – however, in Legitimation Crisis, Habermas does discuss the limitations and paradoxes that arise when overextending the application of systems theory, that societies operate with a fundamentally different logic. “Societies are also systems, but their mode of development does not follow solely the logic of the expansion of system autonomy (power); social evolution transpires within the bounds of the logic of the life-world” (Habermas 1988, 14).

These two domains of the lifeworld, discourse and activity, function in relation to the truth in a distinct manner, those distinctions in relation are crucial. It is in discourse alone that the material of immanent critique can be broken down and reflected upon. “Only once they make the transition from action to discourse do participants take a reflective attitude and dispute the now thematized truth of controversial propositions” (Habermas 2003, 39). The participants in this discourse play a fundamental role, as do their interests.[2] In the elaborative Habermasian framework, how are “relevant voices” determined? What is considered a relevant contribution or topic? Here is where the deeper schism lies, dormant in Zizek’s frustration. These theorists are not merely contributing to a theory of discourse from opposite directions, they are directly opposed to one another.

Habermas and the Universal, Distinguished Human

It may be helpful to look at other theoretical debates Habermas has engaged in. One of the political elements of Habermas’s extensive critique Robert Brandom pertains to how the two differ on normativity. This seems to be a strain of thought that runs through Habermas, as part of his critique of the Foucauldian framework is that he finds it crypto-normative, even in its critical stance toward Enlightenment. “Norms are not intrinsically part of nature; they are imposed on natural dispositions and modes of behavior by the will of intelligent beings” (Habermas 139, 2003). The oppositional disposition Habermas takes here is particularly interesting. Nietzsche disagrees with the very foundation of such an assertion. He claims that “we are sick of it; we laugh as soon as we encounter the juxtaposition of ‘man and world’, separated by the sublime presumptuousness of the little word ‘and’!” (Nietzsche 2001, 346). The separation between the human and the broader realm of the natural runs deeper in this text, though, through both Brandom and Habermas alike. It appears earlier in the critique as well, in the mildly laudatory introduction. Habermas seemingly accepts Brandom’s reformulation of the “essence” of the human, the move away from “sentience” to “sapience” (Habermas 2003, 131). Beyond just the political ontological elements, which would no doubt be worth pursuing, as ontology determines what and who belongs to the real (and, therefore, a social body), it exposes a deeper commonality between these two theorists – a commonality that can be problematized in critical theory. This commonality is human essence.

Sartre in Existentialism is a Humanism, attempts to find a way out of an idea that is pervasive in philosophical discourses – human nature. “We encounter this idea nearly everywhere: in the works of Diderot, Voltaire, and even Kant. Man possesses a human nature; this ‘human nature,’ which is the concept of that which is human, is found in all men, which means that each man is a particular example of a universal concept – man” (Sartre 2007, 21-22).[3] This oppositional relation between the person and nature is what is initially problematized by Adorno and Horkheimer themselves, the passive but malignant disposition that humans exist as entities that can, and must, dominate nature and each other – it is this construction that forges the way for the exact instrumental rationality Habermas seems to desire to critique alongside the rest of the Frankfurt School.

Some Books to Contribute to Your Pseud Stack

Culp, A. 2016. Dark Deleuze. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Deleuze, G. 2006. “What is a Dispositif?” In (Ed.) D. Lapoujaade. Two Regimes of
Madness: Texts and Interviews 1975-1995.
New York: Semiotext(e). 338-348.

Deleuze, G. & Guattari, F. 1994. What is Philosophy? (H. Tomlinson, Trans). New York: Colombia University Press.

Habermas, J. 1988. Legitimation Crisis. (T. McCarthy, Trans.) Cambridge: Polity Press.

Habermas, J. 1990. The Philosophical Discourse on Modernity. (Trans. F. Lawrence). Cambridge: Polity Press.

Habermas, J. 1991. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society. (T. Burger, Trans.) Cambridge: MIT Pres.

Habermas, J. 2003. Truth and Justification. (B. Fultner, Trans.) Cambridge: MIT Press.

Horkheimer, M. 1992. “Traditional and Critical Theory.” In D. Ingram & J. Simon (Eds.) Critical Theory: The Essential Readings. Saint Paul: Paragon House. 249-254.

Nietzsche, F. 2001. The Gay Science. (J. Nauckhoff, Trans.) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Sartre, J-P. 2007. Existentialism is a Humanism. (C. Macomber. Trans.) New Haven: Yale University Press.

Zizek, S. 1989. The Sublime Object of Ideology. New York: Verso Books.

[1] Like Badiou with Deleuze, Habermas’s critique was levied after Foucault’s death (1985, Foucault died in ’84), so there is no true “debate” in the manner of Foucault-Chomsky or Foucault-Derrida. For this reason, those thinking alongside Foucault, or following in his theoretical direction, need to be consulted.

[2] Though some elements of Habermas’s project seem to have changed since its publication, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, elaborates extensively on the effects that the changing relations between authorities and subjects had to the nature of broader social relations, primarily the manifestation of a new civil society (Habermas 1991, 19).

[3] It should be noted that even Sartre himself is stuck, reliant on the very rationalist constructions that he attempts to move away from. The human has no essence that presupposes its existence, to Sartre, but that tension with rationalism remains. Heidegger’s letter on Sartre’s work shows this tension implicitly.

2 thoughts on “Habermas, Foucault, and the Communicating Subject

  1. Reblogged this on Extemporaneous Dénouement and commented:
    A very solid defense against Habermas’ critiques of Foucault’s theoretical positions by Will Conway! He’s cranking out some really great, thoughtful content that I highly suggest you check out!! Give him a follow folks as I have no doubts that there’s more to come!


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