Habermas, Adorno, Politics
Gordon Finlayson interviewed by Richard Marshall.
Gordon Finlayson is the uebercool continental philosopher with Marxist-influenced radical, progressive, non-aligned politics lined up with modern European philosophy and critical theory. He is bold and deep. He finds Agamben on Aristotle rubbish, wonders how far the moral domain extends, throws light on what is bad about the abuse of things, believes Habermas to be very important as a political theorist, discusses the dispute between Habermas and Rawls,discusses the relevance of Kant, Hegel and Habermas on contemporary political and ethical thought, chews over the Frankfurt School, Adorno and Habermas’s objections to his critical theory, wonders about austere negativism, negative theology,the muteness of art works, the sinister crisis of Universities, the unreliability of Roger Scuton on anything left wing and how despite the overall bleakness of our contemporary world there are signs of hope. All in all, this is rad. Blowin’.
3:AM: Why did you become a philosopher? Were your politics a driver in this decision, or have they come after the philosophy?
Gordon Finlayson: I sidled into philosophy. I went to university originally to study English Literature. I took some philosophy too, but I found the introduction to moral philosophy I was given somewhat trite and uninspiring. I ended up taking Modern Languages because I was more interested in German and French literature. As my interest deepened and broadened, I branched out into 18th and 19th Century thought. It gradually dawned on me that I was more fascinated by the Denker than the Dichter, and I turned toward Modern European Philosophy and critical theory.
I won a D.A.A.D. scholarship to study ‘General and Comparative Literary Theory’ at what is now called the Peter Szondi Institute at the F.U. Berlin, where I first came to study the Frankfurt School. I already had an interest in Marx and Marxism, which meant that in Berlin in the mid-80s, when post-modernism was rife, I was a fish out of water. At the time, most of the German students, who were in perpetual occupation of some area of the Rostlaube, were reading Derrida or Foucault in autonomous seminars. I was spotted walking around with a copy of Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man by Peter Halberg, translator and editor of the Swedish Edition of Benjamin’s Arcades project. He felt sorry for me and took me under his wing. I learnt a lot from him and from various of my other friends there.
I gradually worked my way into philosophy on my return from West Berlin. I planned to go to Cambridge to work on Nietzsche in the German Department. However, I heard Onora O’Neill give a talk on Kant at St. Andrews University. She was Professor at the University of Essex, which had a taught M.A. in Continental Philosophy, with core courses on Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason and Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. It was the only one in the country and seemed a sensible preparation for a D Phil on Nietzsche. In the end, I stayed there, and wrote a Ph.D. on Hegel’s criticism of Kant.
My politics are largely a matter of conviction, not applied philosophy. They were mainly driven by a sense, which has never left me, that there was something deeply wrong with Western capitalist society. I was surrounded by Marxists, both at school, and at some of the Universities where I studied and worked. At St. Andrews, mind you, most students were Conservative, which at the time meant Thatcherite, and even though I counted some of them personally as friends, I was instinctively repelled by the Thatcherite ideology. Consequently, I was both pushed and pulled towards Marx and Marxism, and inclined to the progressive and radical politics associated with them. Anyway, I made it my goal to find out more about Marx, which led me eventually to study Hegel and Kant, and German Idealism.
That said, I had been brought up by liberal, tolerant and non-doctrinaire parents, and the respect for individual freedom that they instilled in me made its mark. And even some of my most radical activist friends were fiercely anti-totalitarian. Like them, I had a critical and sceptical attitude to Marxism and especially to Eastern Bloc communism. I made several good friends who were brought up in East Germany, Czechoslovakia and Poland, respectively and who suffered under the communist regimes there, enough not to have any illusions about actually existing communism. These various convictions settled into a radical and progressive outlook, which has perhaps more pragmatic and less utopian as the years have passed. Nowadays, my politics are progressive non-aligned, issue driven, and pragmatic. It is important to be radical, where social and political problems are deeply rooted. At the same time, there is a time and place for conservatism about those things that are worth conserving. Blanqui’s radicalism – “Everything is bad. Something else must take its place!” (which could be the motto for much of Frankfurt School critical theory) – even though it might be well-motivated, is in the final analysis as undiscriminating as the reactionary instinct to preserve the status quo, and to see every attempt at amelioration as jeopardy.
3:AM: You are concerned to ensure that high standards of scholarship inform all radical thought. As an example, you criticize the Italian theorist Agamben for being sloppy. You rather think his reading of Aristotle in Homo Sacer is deeply flawed and his conclusion that ‘Today it is not the polis but the camp that is the fundamental bio-political paradigm of the West’ based on his reading is just wrong. Yet his conclusion that there is a ‘previously concealed common link secretly governing the ideologies of the 20th century totalitarian regimes of Hitler and Stalin … and the institutions of Western liberal democracy’ is one heard quite often in some circles. Can you tell us about why Agamben shouldn’t be taken seriously, and whether there are other well-known culprits of inflamed conclusions based on poor work. Do you see philosophy as having an important role in preventing this kind of bad thinking?
GF: Well not all criticism is scholarly, but some is. And where social and philosophical critics are scholars, like Agamben claims to be, the quality of their scholarship affects the quality of their thought and can impair or enhance their criticisms. Actually, I think Agamben should be taken seriously. I find some of what he says provocative and interesting. However, what he writes about Aristotle is, well, I was going to say cavalier, but I really mean rubbish. I’ve taught Aristotle for 15 years or so, and though I certainly would not consider myself an Aristotle scholar, I know some of his work well. I noticed that many of my students – particularly MA students who were new to philosophy, and or did not know much Ancient philosophy, were taking at face value what Agamben writes about Aristotle’s Politics, particularly what he writes about the supposed distinction between ‘bios’ and ‘zoē’ as fact, on the grounds that he is supposed to be a super-erudite classical scholar.
I was suspicious. What he said clashed with everything I knew about Aristotle. Also, whenever I checked something – for example I looked up most of Aristotle’s uses of the terms ‘bios’ and ‘zōē’ and related words and phrases in Bonitz’s Index Aristotelicus – I found the evidence conflicted with Agamben’s assertions. He appeared to base his reading of Aristotle on passing remarks by Michel Foucault and Hannah Arendt – thinkers, incidentally, whom I also take very seriously, and indeed admire, but not as authorities on Aristotle – and then piece these together with other bits of theory from Walther Benjamin and Carl Schmitt. The result is a preposterous thesis about the destiny of Western Politics – we are all supposed to be captivated by a paradigm of politics dating back to Aristotle, which paradigm is ‘secretly’ responsible for the worst atrocities of the twentieth Century among everything else. It seemed preposterous in at least four different ways.
First, there is not just one tradition of Western political philosophy. It’s a whole tangle of different traditions, movements and counter-movements, which pull in many different directions. It’s at least as plausible to claim that Western politics rests on a single paradigm of political thought dating from Hobbes’s break with Scholasticism and Aristotelianism.
Second, since the 4th Century B.C. there have been innumerable smart and well-informed people reflecting on politics, why has no-one noticed this hidden paradigm until Agamben?
Third, though I’m not one to downplay the role of ideas and theories in shaping political reality, their influence is diffuse, opaque, riddled with contingencies. Claiming that there is a discernible link between Aristotle’s Politics and, say, modern liberalism, not to mention the Nazi deathcamps, stretches credulity to breaking point.
Fourth, the actual passages from Aristotle that Agamben quotes do not support his claims; they say almost the opposite.
Having said that, I did not write that article to divest the crow of his peacock’s feathers. A good thing too, because, as I was revising my piece, I found that the Cornell scholar, Laurent Dubreuil had done that far more effectively than I could. I wrote the article because I think the virtues of good scholarship are fundamentally important to humanities disciplines, and that critical theorists who are worth their salt cannot afford to treat them lightly. I respect good scholarship. It’s hard, slow, and often unrewarding. The reason it is unrewarding, is that like some craftsmanship, the better it is, the less you notice it. Maurice Blanchot puts the point better than I could. “Critical writing has this peculiarity: the more it realizes, develops and affirms itself, the more it has to efface itself… Not only does it not impose itself on the object, and take care that it does not replace that of which it speaks, but rather it only fulfils and successfully carries out its aim, when it vanishes. ” It’s just the opposite with Agamben. His scholarliness is meretricious. That is why he has such a reputation for his erudition: not among classical scholars of course, but among high profile academics who you think should know better. Ernesto Laclau, for example, praises his “dazzling classical erudition.”
To my mind Agamben’s work is all about emulating a certain gesture and pathos that one finds in Heidegger about the fate of Western metaphysics, and to some extent also in Derrida’s critique of the metaphysics of presence. Agamben’s trick is to claim to do something similar for Western politics.
But just as some Derrideans, who claim to reject an entire tradition of Western metaphysics, vastly oversimplify and homogenize that tradition in order to confect something ready for deconstruction, so Agamben makes his grand narrative up. And I don’t buy the argument that Agamben is deliberately purveying what he knows to be a fictional ‘counternarrative’, in order to contest the prevailing ideology. It is not as if his writing is redolent with irony. Dubreuil is right. Agamben’s ex cathedra pronouncements about Aristotle, and the ancient world, on which he bases his thesis about Western politics, claim scholarly authority, but don’t stand up to scrutiny.
3:AM: Your philosophy is politically engaged at all sorts of levels. So when you ask why things matter – beginning with an example of breaking things as a child and why even those things mattered even though easily replaceable – you brood on how we’ve thought about things mattering and found that actually we don’t philosophize about it. Except Heidegger, who did. And Christine Korsgaard who does in footnotes. Why do you find Korsgaard’s approach a good start and how do you develop your thoughts about things? And why do you think things matter?
GF: You’ve picked on rather quirky piece of mine. I was asked to talk to a conference entitled Real Things: Matter, Materiality and Representation. I had no idea that there was a branch of theory (in the broadest sense) called ‘thing theory’. But I had always been interested in how far the moral domain extended – to animals, to the environment, to material things. And Adorno’s work makes one think about the ethical dimension of one’s relation to the material world. So I decided to investigate to the question of whether and to what extent real things matter, morally speaking.
To your first question, Korsgaard is, to my knowledge, the only contemporary philosopher of any moment who has even begun to address this issue. And she canvasses the thought that we might have duties “not only to our fellow creatures, but to our fellow entities” only at the “risk of being thought a complete lunatic.” I don’t think she is a lunatic, but I do think that that her Kantian moral theory is not a promising basis on which to pursue such an inquiry. I take a broader, more historical, and phenomenological approach.
Ironically, given what I’ve just said above, it began with a reflection on how in the history of Western metaphysics, in what A. O. Lovejoy called ‘the Great Chain of Being’, and in the axiological hierarchy that chain represents, inanimate material objects occupy a rather lowly place. This goes hand in hand with a certain ethical outlook that is primarily concerned with the obligations that we owe to other human beings. These two views seemed to me to be natural partners.
But there are other important factors that govern our attitudes toward things. In our world, most things are the property of someone. And proprietors dispose absolutely of their property. What they do with it, is completely up to them. As Proudhon puts it, a proprietor may “allow his crops to rot underfoot; sow his field with salt; milk his cows on the sand; change his vineyard into a desert, and use his vegetable garden as a park.” Legally speaking it is in the main perfectly acceptable to maltreat one’s material (inanimate) possessions. Finally, in our commodity-rich consumer society artefacts are nearly all readily substitutable with like for like equivalents. If something gets broken or lost a replacement can in most cases easily be found, and this affects our sense of the value of things, as opposed to the value of persons.
My rather speculative idea is that these several factors have had the effect of narrowing the ethical domain to that of our relations to other persons, and thus of expelling things from the realm of ethical values and obligations. The effects of this are hard to gauge. Perhaps it helps explain why our domestic lives, and our economy and society in general, are governed by instrumental relations, and patterns of exploitation of nature and material objects, rather than, say relations of care, stewardship, trust, or whatever.
3:AM: You write: ‘The wrong or the bad in the destruction, damage, neglect, abuse of things, whether intentional or not, has a different shade. It has the shade of desuetude, the cessation of an attachment to something there is reason to value, and the desolation of something that no longer belongs.’
Is your thought that many of the horrors of the contemporary (such as the abandonment of civil values, political and intellectual decency, ecological and social care, the absence of fairness and public endorsement of greed) can be understood in these terms? Are, for example, the protests of the Occupy Movement and the Arab Spring, for example, motivated by such feelings of desolation? And do you think that the difference between, say, the Occupy protests and the Tea party is largely to do with the sense of desuetude that the Tea Party lot seem to miss?
GF: No. I was trying to throw some light on what is bad about the damage, or neglect, or abuse of things. I was trying to specify the moral hue of that particular kind of badness. Maybe ‘moral’ is the wrong word to describe this. There are many varieties of badness and of human wrongs. Human life is reticulated by the things that surround them. Each of these things calls to be treated in a certain way, and accordingly can be treated well or badly. In that sense all living beings have a certain fellowship with things. If one sees things merely as property one loses sight of that fellowship. I was trying to say what the fellowship consisted in, and, at the same time, to explain why almost no philosophers or social scientists appear to find such questions worthy of philosophical interest. I don’t think I succeeded. I only managed to provide an initial orientation for an unfinished philosophical inquiry.
As for the Tea Party, the Arab Spring and the Occupy Movement, I’d be wary of making connections between my philosophical first thoughts about the value of things, even when more properly developed, and these difficult terrains. These are political topics which require expert knowledge I don’t possess. Of course I have opinions, worked up from my selective intake of news reports etc.. But these are not direct applications of my philosophical views.
One thing I will say is that the Arab Spring, and Occupy are genuine political movements, based on real grievances and a proper sense of injustice. The Tea Party, so far as I can tell is an entirely astro-turfed lobbying organization for far right interests, in hock to the NRA and other such organisations. I note that it is campaigning against Dianne Feinstein’s to my mind sensible bill to halt the sale, transfer, importation and manufacturing of military-style assault weapons and high-capacity weaponry. The Tea Party’s self-declared mission is to campaign on any issue that threatens “the security…or domestic tranquillity of our beloved nation.” They argue that the proposed partial gun control – limiting access to semi-automatic firearms and military assault weapons – jeopardizes their beloved domestic security and tranquillity, and that what is needed in order to protect it is for more people to carry such weapons, including armed guards in schools! What can you say to such a preposterous view? It goes beyond reactionary. The recently deceased A. O. Hirschman pointed out that perversity arguments, like the argument that the proposed measure will achieve the contrary result to the one intended, are the favoured rhetorical techniques of reactionaries. Here we have The Tea Party putting forward a perversity argument that is a reductio ad absurdum of all perversity arguments. You don’t need a philosopher, historian or sociologist to point out what is wrong with it. Rather you need a social psychologist to explain why some people are inclined to believe it in the first place. That is the kind of question that ideology criticism and later the critical theory of society was supposed to answer.
3:AM: You find Habermas enormously important in liberal political theory. Can you say something about Habermas and why he’s so important?
GF: Yes. That’s easy. First let me say that Habermas is an important political theorist, but whether he is a liberal political theorist or not is another question. He’s recently stated that he considers himself a “left-liberal”. But what the means in Germany is rather different from what it means in the UK or the US. Let me explain what I mean. There are obvious senses in which Habermas is anything but liberal. He does not begin from the assumption that the political system is there chiefly to protect private interests, and to safeguard the negative freedom of individual persons to pursue those interests (compatibly with everyone else’s freedom to do likewise) unhindered by the state or other citizens. He offers a critique of that kind of liberal political theory for bowdlerizing political reality, ignoring the social complexity and social differentiation of modern political associations. And he has quite a lot to say about the role of the state, as the seat of a political system the function of which is to produce legitimate law, and to safeguard the free flow of discourses in which public opinion and democratic opinions can form. He is no advocate of the small state, even if he acknowledges the decline in its reach.
In neither of those very common ways of understanding the term ‘liberal’ can Habermas properly be called a liberal political theorist. Nor does he think that the job of the state is merely to facilitate the free market. So he is not a liberal in that third sense either. Finally, although he argues that the liberal idea of individual human rights and the republican idea of popular sovereignty are equiprimordial and mutually complementary, it is clear that ultimately it is popular sovereignty – albeit under modern, post-conventional conditions – that is to use Austin’s politically incorrect phrase, the trouser concept, and this is true of Habermas’s understanding of democratic legitimacy, and his ideal of good functioning of the political system, his conception of the open ended, constitution, and of his interpretation of German constitutional law. In his conception of liberal democracy, it is democracy that has the upper hand.
That said, he does defend the idea of individual rights and the rule of law, in his own manner, and he also argues that a liberal political culture in which citizens are free to make up their own minds and voice their opinions is both desirable in itself and a functional prerequisite of democratic politics. So there are important components of liberal political theory that are built-in to his theory of democratic legitimacy. He has therefore always adopted a very defensive position on the rule of law, which he thinks must be preserved, albeit not at the expense of the democratic process, which replenishes the source of legitimacy on which legality depends. I guess that this is what most inclines him against Marxist theories that sees law and legitimacy as the expressions of class interests of the bourgeoisie that are bound to the capitalist relations of production. Generally speaking Habermas is accused of being a liberal by Marxists. Liberals in any of the three senses outlined above – defenders of a small state, of a free market, and believers in the pre-political rights of individuals – probably view him as a radical social democrat.
So, to answer your question, Habermas is an important social and political theorist for several reasons.
First, there is the richness and suggestiveness of his account in Theory of Communicative Action of how communication and discourse facilitate social integration and provide social cohesion in modern societies, an account which dovetails with his diagnosis of the pathologies of modern societies. One of his most important ideas is that of the colonisation of the lifeworld, and the erosion of freedom and the concomitant depoliticisation of social life at the hands of the market, and the various arms of the state.
Second, he is one of few political theorists to have has made a contribution to moral theory. In the 1980s he developed the idea for a Discourse Ethics, a discourse theory of morality, which is an intersubjective cousin of Kantian deontology, influenced by Apel, Mead and Kohlberg and others.
Third, he puts forward an extended argument for the very ambitious thesis that the modern constitutional state and the rule of law are not to be had without radical democracy, or a recognizable version of popular sovereignty that is compatible with modern, mass, complex and differentiated, multicultural societies, and a state whose reach and power, in relation to the global economy, has declined.
Fourth, he developed albeit in phases from the 1970’s onwards, a theory of deliberative democracy, long before such ideas took hold in the various traditions of analytic political philosophy. He really was a deliberative democrat avant la lettre.
There are many other reasons why Habermas has (and deserves to have) such a high cultural, intellectual and academic profile especially, but not only, in Germany and Europe.
Consider the range of his influence. His work on the public sphere, his Habilitation thesis – Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere – was and still is a seminal text in 18th Century and Enlightenment studies. In the 1970s he inherited the mantle of Frankfurt School critical theory, and proposed nothing less than a transformation of historical materialism.
One of his nicer insights was that the flawed assumption that changes in the socio-economic infrastructure would automatically bring about transformations in the superstructure, (which would then bring about individual and collective well-being), was common both to historical materialism, and to the technocratic governance of the Federal Republic of Germany in the 50s and 60s, where political ‘decisions’ were reinterpreted as the management of the effects of steering-mechanisms, implementing strategies to deliver low-inflation, economic growth, and full-employment. In Habermas’s eyes Marxist theory and neo-conservative politicians conspired to occlude, and to eviscerate what was left of, the democratic basis of political legitimacy, and thus unwittingly weakened the rule of law, and the freedoms it protected.
He has a rich and comprehensive theory of modernity which brings to light the various ways in which the process of rationalisation puts itself in jeopardy, and which has a bearing on work in an array of disciplines across the social sciences and humanities. Habermas’s work is taken seriously by academics currently working in Sociology departments, English Departments, Cultural Theory departments, Political Science, Law departments and Philosophy departments. Few theorists in any discipline command such wide appeal. That is a good mark of his significance.
In addition to that, for the last few decades Habermas has been one of Germany’s and Europe’s foremost public intellectuals. One can easily forgets that he started off as a journalist and that at least half of his work consists in articles and published interviews intended for a public readership in newspapers, weekly magazines, and other non-academic written media. In 2008 his Kleine Politische Schriften, by no means all of his occasional writing, amounted to 11 volumes. I cannot keep up with them all. And if they were his only contribution to posterity, they would be more than enough for a lifetime’s work. Habermas takes his role as a public intellectual extremely seriously.
I think he saw himself as a kind of agent provocateur on behalf of democracy and the rule of law, smoking out forces of reaction and complacency wherever he found them. In 1953 he published an excoriating article on Heidegger in the FAZ. Heidegger had just republished a speech he made in 1935 in which he talked of “the inner truth and greatness of this movement.” Habermas took that to be an allusion to National Socialism, and a sign that Heidegger had failed or simply refused to acknowledge and to deal with his association with the Nazi regime. Just 24 at the time, Habermas was criticized for undue moralism and alarmism and for wanting to persecute the greatest philosopher of the age.
In the mid-1960s during the student protests he was equally vocal in his denunciation of Police violence against the students (which culminated in the fatal shooting of a student by a plain clothes policeman in West-Berlin) as he was of the blind activism and revolutionary violence of the students. On both sides, he saw a threat to an incipient, but still fragile, democratic state and liberal democratic culture of the Federal Republic of Germany. He did not play to the radical student gallery. He was not afraid of making enemies on the political Right and the Left. It has recently been claimed by Matthew Specter, in my view justifiably, that one of Habermas’s great achievement as a (West)-German citizen was to sensitize the left to “an appreciation for the normative and institutional value of a liberal constitutional order”.
Thirdly, Habermas has a rare and enviable capacity to sense the issues that are relevant to the present. In the mid-1980s he was among the most vocal opponents of the right-wing historiographers in the Historian Controversy, whom he accused of wanting to relativize the crimes of the Nazi regime, in the interests of normalizing West German foreign policy. More recently he has engaged in debates around gene technology and their threat to our self-understanding as autonomous moral persons. He has been true to his own view that the task of the public intellectual is to “stir up critical developments when everyone else is still doing business as usual.” Philosophers should do more of that. As a bunch, we tend to be too inward looking.
3:AM: A key discussion in contemporary liberal theory of ethics and politics is the relationship and differences between Habermas and Rawls. Can you say something about what you take the main points of dispute are and where you stand on this?
GF: Sure. In my view, despite the amount of ink that has been spilt on Habermas and Rawls in their respective fields, relatively little attention has been paid to the dispute between them. This is largely because influential commentators and critics were quick to judge their exchange in the Journal of Philosophy a damp squib.
This was in part because expectations ran high, at the time, because two of the greatest social and political theorists of the 20th century, although working in different traditions, roughly analytic political philosophy and German Social theory had engaged each other in debate. It was also because in truth neither thinker was sufficiently well apprised of the detail of the others theory – unsurprisingly really, since they worked in very different traditions and each had just spent the last few years writing their own major work of political theory. Finally, everyone at the time, including the disputants themselves, were seduced by the assumption that the salient point of comparison between their respective theories was Habermas’s principle (U) and his conception of the moral standpoint, and Rawls’s argument that the principles of justice are those that would be chosen by a rational and reasonable persons in the Original Position. Almost everyone who has written on Habermas and Rawls makes that particular mistake.
My take on that is straightforward. The debate between them concerns their respective political theories. It is basically a dispute between Rawls’s theory of Political Liberalism, and Habermas’s Discourse Theory of Law. It is not primarily a dispute between Rawls’s A Theory of Justice, and Habermas Discourse Ethics. Principle (U) is the central idea in Habermas’s Discourse Ethics, which is a moral theory, not a theory of law or of democratic legitimacy, while the argument from the Original Position takes a back seat in Rawls’s Political Liberalism. People who interpret the Habermas Rawls dispute in the light of the contrast between Habermas’s principle (U) and Rawls’s Original Position, are looking at the wrong thing and so miss the real points of dispute.
What people should have been asking is this. What are the central organizing ideas of their respective political theories, and on what significant points do these ideas conflict? To my mind the real point of dispute concerns their different conception of the political and of democratic legitimacy. According to Rawls “ the liberal principle of legitimacy” implies that legitimate laws, laws whose enforcement is properly justified to those who must live under them, may not appeal to principles and ideas insofar as they form part of any comprehensive philosophical or moral doctrine, but only insofar as they form part of an overlapping consensus of all reasonable comprehensive doctrines. For various reasons, Habermas has to deny this. For one thing, he maintains that morality, that is principle (U) and the norms it validates, constrain what can count as legitimate law. Habermas claims at various places that that legitimate laws must “harmonize with the universal principles of justice and solidarity”. More precisely he writes that “a legal order can be legitimate only if it does not contradict basic moral principles.” Whatever way you look at it Habermas’s conception of morality (and his theory of Discourse Ethics) is what Rawls would call comprehensive moral (or philosophical) doctrines. The fact that Habermas calls his theory ‘proceduralist’ is irrelevant. After all he claims that substantive moral norms, namely all those norms that are validated by the procedure – namely discourse in conformity to (U) – constrain legitimate laws on pain of giving rise to cognitive dissonance (between moral and legal demands). There are other important differences too. Habermas allows that conceptions of the good may be germane to the justification of legitimate law, a claim that Rawls again, must deny. Finally, Rawls is right to claim that Habermas’s conception of legitimacy is comprehensive, at least in one obvious sense: it presupposes that a controversial philosophical theory is true, namely discourse ethics.
3:AM: You ask whether Hegel’s Critique of Kant applies to Habermas’s discourse ethics. Kant, Hegel and Habermas are all philosophers people may have heard of but perhaps not really understood why they are significant for contemporary political and ethical thought. Can you say something about why we should be interested in these three figures and how you answer your question?
GF: Do you think it is the case that people have not understood why Kant is important to contemporary ethical and political thought? I’d be surprised if that were true. After all nearly every contemporary moral philosopher takes a position for or against Kant. Think of the animus of Bernard Williams’s ethical theory against “morality the peculiar institution” as he calls it: in other words, the moral standpoint as Kant conceived it. Some theorists, Habermas, George Herbert Mead, Lawrence Kohlberg, think that Kantian conception of morality is embedded deep in our moral consciousness. That may or may not be true. But it cannot be denied that Kant, in contrast to, say, Mill, whose influence has waned, has remained stubbornly central to the canon of Western moral philosophy.
In political philosophy Kant’s influence – surprisingly perhaps the influence of Kant’s moral theory rather than of his political theory, which is poorly understood – is, if anything even stronger. This is probably due to Rawls, who for one reason or another became central to modern political philosophy. He called his approach Kantian constructivism.
With Hegel the case is different. I’d say that he is the philosopher who gave not the only, but the most focused, systematic and insightful, diagnosis of the failures of the modern world, and of the habitus of modern subjects, and the most vigorous defense of its achievements. And while he undoubtedly tended to overemphasize the power of reason and the reach of philosophy, he did in the main refrain from dispensing remedies.
He also was the first political philosopher to recognize that the task of political philosophy is to render intelligible the bases and the structure of modern ethical life, both its institutions, and its non-institutional prerequisites. He realized that philosophy should leave the task of the actual politics of the moment to those whose business it was.
Hegel also has a number of very telling criticisms of Kantianism. And given the enduring importance of Kant, these are of lasting significance. In retrospect it is obvious that some very prominent debates in political philosophy, for example the communitarian criticism of Rawls in the 1980s and 90s, and some of the current discussion about the merits of ideal and real theory, are after echoes of Hegel’s criticism of Kant.
My argument that Hegel’s criticism of Kant’s moral theory also applies to discourse ethics, is an indirect way of showing the enduring relevance of Hegel’s philosophy. Habermas often claimed that his theory of Discourse Ethics reconstructs the moral standpoint in a way that is immune from Hegel’s criticisms of Kant’s moral standpoint. In an article I wrote long time ago now, I showed that it depended how one interpreted Hegel’s criticism of Kant. Hegel claims that Kant’s conception of the Categorical Imperative, as the Formula of the Universal Law, is an empty formalism because any maxim can be reformulated so as to pass the test. But that of course is an easy criticism for Kantians to rebut: they just have to show that there is at least one maxim that fails the test of universalizability contained in the Categorical Imperative. On my interpretation Hegel objects to Kant’s account of the way in which form is given to content – the very idea of maxim testing. On its own, without the institutional basis of law – Recht – and without the uninstitutionalized sense of social order, the behavioural attitudes, values and sense of propriety that people possess as citizens, without, that is, ethical life, morality as the external effect of pure reason is not in a position to regulate social actions.
[photo from www.citelighter.com]
On the face of it Habermas thinks of morality very unlike Kant as a social medium by which modern moral agents coordinate their interactions by way of communication and discourse without the need for external mechanisms or coercion. However, Habermas’s conception of the moral standpoint – discourse in accordance with principle (U) involves a similar idea to Kant’s .
Principle (U) states that: “a norm is valid if and only if the foreseeable consequences and side effects of its general observance for the interests and value-orientations of each individual could be freely accepted jointly by all concerned.”
Candidate norms are fed in from situation in the lifeworld into the procedure of moral discourse, in which norms are filtered out if they cannot be welcomed from the perspective of the interest and values conceptions of everyone affected by the(counterfactual) implementation of the norm. That is a very severe condition for a candidate norm to have to meet, especially when you consider how wide the constituency of “all affected” is. Habermas admits that as a consequence very few norms pass the test successfully. But that means that there are very few valid moral norms, in which case morality and moral discourse is not fit play the central social role of action-coordination and social integration that Habermas assigns it. So it seems that Habermas’s discourse Ethics is after all vulnerable Hegel’s argument against Kant’s moral standpoint.
3:AM: Habermas takes a cognitivist perspective to morality. He’s debated this with Hilary Putnam and thinks that it is a crucial component of his ethical thinking because his discourse ethics has got to be able to provide a justification of the moral standpoint that a rational moral skeptic will find convincing. Can you say something about what you make of this and does it survive the Frege-Geach challenge that you discuss?
JF: This point is point is of interest only to those who think that Habermas’s theory of language can be made to work, or who want to make it work. I think we need to detach the question of whether there can be a philosophical justification of the moral standpoint, and whether there needs to be, from the question of whether one is a cognitivist about morality, and if so in what sense. I believe, along with quite a few others, such as Konrad Ott, Christoph Lumer, and Joseph Heath to name a few, that Habermas does not succeed in justifying the moral standpoint, but I also think that this is not essential to his programme of Discourse Ethics.
As for Habermas’s cognitivism that is tricky. The term “cognitivist” is used in many different ways. Habermas uses it to mean that moral statements are rational, and hence reason sensitive, and that morality is learning process. That said, because of his peculiar pragmatic theory of language he denies that moral statements – or to use his terminology – statements that make validity claims to rightness, are in the running for truth, and that any are literally true. He has to deny this because on his view moral statements operate in a different validity dimension: they make validity claims to rightness, which are, he claims only analogous to validity claims to truth. This feature of his theory puts him in the same basket as emotivists, and projectivists and expressivists, who are often referred to for that very reason as non-cognitivist. (Whether or not they accept that designation is another matter.)
The Frege-Geach problem is directed at theorists who think that the meaning of moral statements is different in kind from the meaning of descriptive terms. At the time I wrote that paper I was working with a fairly restricted view of what the Frege-Geach problem was. I looked at only one part of the much larger problem, which is how the moral non-cognitivist can explain, say, why the moral modus ponens argument is valid, while denying that moral statements have truth-conditional meaning.
1. If murder is wrong, then attempted murder is wrong.
2. Murder is wrong
3. Attempted murder is wrong
This is a problem for Habermas, because it appears he must hold that while 1. makes a validity claim to truth, 2 and 3 make validity claims to rightness. What then licenses the conclusion? How does the truth claim in 1, cooperate with the rightness claim in 2. to warrant the conclusion 3?
Now the Frege-Geach problem may be more wider-ranging and complex than I assumed. Non-cognitivists typically claim that the meaning of ordinary descriptive terms like ‘red’ is different in kind from moral terms like ‘wrong’. The trouble is that in natural languages moral terms and ordinary descriptive terms play the same kind of semantic role in every complex linguistic construction. Non-cognitivists have to explain the meaning of those complex moral sentences, and indeed mixed sentences that conjoin moral and descriptive elements. They also have to produce a compositional semantics, a semantics which explains how the meaning of a complex linguistic construction is a function of the atomic meaning of their parts, and explain why ordinary descriptive terms function in exactly the same way as moral ones even though the meaning of the former is allegedly different in kind from that of the latter.
That said, the narrow problem is enough to convict Habermas, just because he insists that moral judgments make validity claims to rightness, and that these are different in kind to validity claims to truth, he is in the same boat as the non-cognitivists. On his view, it is puzzling why moral argumentation is (formally) valid, and why the patterms of inference are homologous in the practical and theoretical domains. Blithely asserting , as Habermas does, that rightness is analogous with truth, won’t wash. It merely begs the various questions against the non-cognitivist that arise from the problem Geach poses.
3:AM: A Nietzschean skeptic like Brian Leiter will argue that claims of morality are all false (although some are better than others for flourishing nonetheless.) He’ll claim that the sort of ethical accounts given by Habermas that make a certain kind of rational agency central are fantasies. What do you say to this?
GF: What I would say to him partly depends on Brian’s reasons for saying what he does: and on whether his position is that all moral judgments are literally false, or that they are not even in the running for truth. Suppose he’s an error theorist. John Mackie also thinks that although all moral statements aspire to truth, they are nonetheless all sweepingly false. I’m not convinced by error theory. In Mackie’s case it is a very clever way of marrying a certain naturalistic ontology with a fairly common sense view of the semantics of moral statements.
Moral statements must be false, Mackie thinks, because there are no queer, i.e. intrinsically motivating, properties to which they refer. But that is a fairly drastic position to take. Do we have to believe that only the existence of a queer property can make a moral statement true? No. We can make a cleaner division between our semantic theory and our metaphysics and separate out our account of what it is for a statement to be true or false, from our account of what there is. Then we have no need to invoke the metaphysical bogeyman of queer properties, even if we think that moral judgments are in the running for truth and that some are true.
What I don’t like about the position is the view that all our moral judgments are false and that, notwithstanding this, we keep believing them anyway. Why does the ordinary forensic process of experience, whereby falsehoods are eventually discovered, overturned and, when all goes well, replaced by truths, not function in this case? Skeptics about ‘morality’ owe an explanation for the fact that morality as a whole (not in part) has proven to be pretty durable and that people have continued to hold their moral beliefs, with as much certainty as their ordinary epistemic beliefs.
Marxists, most of whom are probably not error theorists, although they could be – also sometimes hold that morality is a kind of illusion, the ideology of the bourgeoisie. Their explanation for its adhesiveness is that morality is an ideology, a false belief which is functionally necessary to the existence of reproduction of the institutions of bourgeois life, in which co-operative virtues, propriety and private property are particularly highly prized. That explanation, if true, would undermine and destabilize the moral views and practice of those who held it, since it is not compatible with their continuing to be moralists or indeed to be moral. That materialist view of morality as ideology not only threatens certain philosophical views of the world, and certain approaches to law and political philosophy – theoretical moralisms – it threatens actually existing morality too, the kind of morality that Brian Leiter among others has quite a lot of.
3:AM: Talking of Nietzsche, (as an aside) you have interesting things to say about Hegel’s notion of tragedy that contradicts Goethe’s 1824 statement that ‘everything tragic rests on irresolvable opposition. As soon as resolution enters or becomes possible the tragic vanishes.’ Can you say something about this?
GF: This refers to what was my first published paper, “Conflict and Reconciliation in Hegel’s Theory of the Tragic.” Most people believe, like Goethe, that irresolvable conflict is essential to tragedy, such that genuine tragedy is inimical to resolution. Hegel does not. He holds something more like the view that a tragic conflict is a clash between two powers, two equal rights, that remains intractable at the level of the outlooks and self-conceptions of the protagonists (subjective spirit), but which can eventually be resolved at the level of objective spirit.
The most vehement critics of Hegel reject dismiss his conception of the tragic. In particular they reject his curious reading of the Antigone, which he reads as a clash of two equally righteous ethical powers represented by Creon and Antigone respectively. “Creon is not a tyrant, but an ethical power just as much as Antigone.” Hegel argues that each of these figures contains within them the force to which they think they are opposed. Antigone is not only beholden to Creon as a citizen and protegée of the Theban polis, she is also the daughter of Oedipus and Haemon’s fiancée. She is thus and should have recognized his authority, both political and familial, and obeyed his edict. Conversely, Creon is not only the ruler and protector of Thebes, but a father and husband, and more importantly an uncle to Antigone, his niece and daughter-in-law to be. So he should have respected the sanctity of familial relations and not condemned Antigone to be entombed.
Thus there is immanent to both Antigone and Creon exactly that against which each turns, so that each is gripped and shattered by something intrinsic to their own sphere of existence. (15, 549)
There is a lot of textual evidence that I won’t go into here to suggest that Hegel’s reading of the play downplays Creon’s and exaggerates Antigone’s failings, in order to make it fit Hegel’s conception of the tragic. It is also quite difficult to see where the moment of reconciliation is in this story, although Hegel insists that it is there and arises from the moment of Enlightenment where by both protagonists recognize and acknowledge their error, and thus transcend their one-sided ness. It can look as if Hegel is shoehorning the plot of Antigone in order to make it fit into his theory of the tragic, and that he does so because otherwise, without such interpretative violence, his thesis that the Antigone is “the absolute exemplum of tragedy” would convict his own theory of the tragic.
This is particularly so if one thinks of an Hegelian Aufhebung as a resolution in the musical sense as a movement from dissonance to consonance, and as a return to the tonic.
It struck me that although that there was something odd about Hegel’s interpretation of the Antigone, there was something plausible about his conception of the tragic. By no means is it the case that all tragedies end badly, with no hint of reconciliation or transfiguration: think of the endings of Sophocles, Philoctetes, Ajax, Oedipus at Colonus, and especially the last of the Oresteian Trilogy, the Eumenides.
I think that the crucial point about Hegel’s theory is that it is a theory of the tragic, rather than a theory about tragedies, and, Hegel being Hegel it is an attempt at a unified theory of the tragic on the basis of a fragmented, sparse and somewhat contradictory basis of evidence.
More interesting than the fact that Hegel’s view inclines him to a somewhat tendentious reading of the Antigone, is that however much he may exalt that drama, his model of the tragic, and its place in ethical life, is Aeschylus’s Eumenides, which ends with the founding of the court of the Areopagus and a triumphal procession whereby the Erinyes are led to their position as “venerable gods” within the new lawful order. Insofar as that is a resolution it is not one in the musical sense: dissonance conflict does not vanish. It is transfigured and preserved. That is a resolution in exactly the sense of an Hegelian Aufhebung as I understand it.
I also try to show that Hegel’s account of the truly tragic fits nicely with what Aristotle writes in the Poetics about what features the most tragic plots have, particularly his account of the ‘peripiteia’: a reversal of an intentional act into its unintended opposite, precipitated by some error of judgment.
My argument against the many critics of Hegel’s theory of tragedy is that Hegel’s theory is more nuanced than his many critics appreciate, and that it is better supported by the available evidence – extant ancient tragic dramas, and Aristotle’s theory of tragedy in the Poetics. I’m afraid I might disappoint you here. There is no dramatic conclusion about a tragic sense of life, of the kind one finds in Unamuno or the young Nietzsche. I just present an interpretation Hegel’s theory of the tragic, and defend it from its detractors.
3:AM: You are an expert the Frankfurt School theorists. Could you say something about this and why it is still a significant force, especially when discussing politics, art and ethics in modernity? In particular can you explain its relationship with Marxist and Liberal theories because where often they are seen as opposing theories they kind of come together at points in this school don’t they?
GF: I think I have answered the second of your questions in respect to Habermas’s conception of the political. And you are dead right, in Habermas elements of Marxism and Liberalism come together. As a matter of fact, I don’t consider Habermas a member of the Frankfurt School. I think the whole idea that there is a first generation of Frankfurt School theorists, comprising Horkheimer, Adorno and Marcuse among others, and a second generation comprising Habermas and some of his pupils, and then a Third generation, is although it can be a convenient label, factually inaccurate and theoretically misconceived. Habermas was for a very short period the assistant to Adorno at the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt. He was then levered out of the institute by Horkheimer who considered him a dangerous Marxist and went to Marburg to complete his Habilitation. Although he went back to Frankfurt in 1964 he refused the offer to become director of the Institute. He left in 1971 with several of his pupils as research assistants to become director of the Max Plank Institute in Starnberg. So it would me more accurate, and much less misleading to think of Habermas as a first generation Starnberg Theorist.
The Frankfurt school label applies much more readily to Adorno and Horkheimer and Marcuse, and their colleagues at the Institute of Social Research, although if anything these were the second wave of theorists. And they were not really a school. There was no shared doctrine. According to Habermas, when he was there, “there was no Critical Theory, no coherent doctrine” just a certain loose commitment to Hegelian Marxism. However, Adorno and Horkheimer collaborated very closely in the 1940s and co-wrote Dialectic of Enlightenment.
Why should we still read the work of Adorno, Horkheimer and Marcuse? We should read them because there is something very compelling about their diagnoses of the age. However much things have moved on historically and culturally, the problems facing us have remained stubbornly unsolved since the end of the Second World War. Technology and science develop and improve, but people’s lives don’t. Productivity increases and still poverty, inequality, and misery exist. Wealth increase, but general well-being does not. Our lives are regimented with technological devices that supposedly save time and labour, and yet people seem to be busier and have less time than ever before.
Another reason why they are of interest is that they are not shy of attempting to connect up all the various different areas of social and cultural life. This is a feature of their philosophy that they inherit from Hegel and German Idealism. They are purveyors of theory on a grand scale. Framed within wide intellectual and cultural horizons their work has a great richness and interest. Much contemporary philosophy works within narrow compartments on increasingly specialized material.
At the same time, we need to read these authors critically. Too many followers take what they say at face value. In Adorno’s case that is dangerous. What Adorno says of works of art, that what they say “is not what their words say” is true also of his own writings. The ‘dialectic of Enlightenment’ Myth become Enlightenment, and Enlightenment reverts to Myth taken at face value looks like a simple-minded perversity argument, that the process of enlightenment produces the very opposite aim of the one it intended. But of course enlightenment is not a simple, monolithic process with a unitary aim. One can tell from the way he writes that he does not intend his readers to take everything he writes literally. He is continually provoking and challenging his readers to think for themselves.
The relation to Marxism and Liberalism is complicated. For one thing the members of the so-called ‘Frankfurt School’, even if one confines this to an inner circle and excludes outliers like Walter Benjamin and Ernst Bloch, do not speak with one voice. And in each case their relation to Marxism and Liberalism is far from straightforward. I’ve talked a little bit about Habermas’s relation to liberalism and to Rawls’s political philosophy above. So let us take Adorno as an example.
He does help himself to some ideas of Marx, for example the notion of the commodity fetish and of ideology. But they become something very different in his hands, tools of analysis and criticism, detached from their original context in Marx. At the same time he is fiercely critical of productivism, the view that the increase of productive forces, once freed from capitalist relations of production, will bring about social happiness; and he is dismissive of the vulgar Marxist reduction of the cultural, intellectual and spiritual aspects of society to mere expressions of an economic infrastructure.
As for liberalism, Adorno is scathing of the liberal picture of society as a cooperative association between individuals all pursuing their private interests. At the same time he is almost pathologically allergic to anything that smacks of collectivism, and his conception of practice tends to be limited to his encouraging individuals to develop capacities to resist assimilation in the prevailing. In his hostility towards conceptions of positive freedom, where freedom is construed as the participation of individuals in forms of collective self-rule, he is on the side of the arch liberals, Isaiah Berlin and Karl Popper.
3:AM: A question haunting the Frankfurt School is whether social and political theories claiming to be critical can be normative. Habermas addressed this when he looked at Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment but there are difficulties with this approach aren’t there? Can you say what these are?
GF: Yes, Habermas’s objection to the problem of the normative grounds of Adorno (and Horkheimer’s) Critical Theory has been hugely influential both in the interpretation and assessment of Frankfurt School critical theory and in the development of later variants of it. And the objection on face value is a simple and devastating one. No critical theory worth its salt can refrain from making normative claims about the society it critcizes, claims that are either implicit or explicit, the existing society its practices and institutions are bad and ought to be changed or something like that. The trouble is that Adorno and Horkheimer for various reasons don’t think of their critical theory like that.
Actually, what Habermas says is rather more complex and obscure than this. He states that critical theory has problems in “giving an account of its own normative foundations”. I asked, what would it be for a critical theory to ‘give an account of its own normative foundations’, according to Habermas?
One answer is that what critical theory requires is a normative moral theory in the basement. The corollary of this is that discourse ethics, in the case of Habermas critical theory of society, supplies the normative foundations (the normative moral theory) that Habermas thinks is missing from Adorno’s. Axel Honneth (along with Albrecht Wellmer, Seyla Benhabib and various others) appear to endorse this view of Habermas. Honneth wrote that it is with “communicative ethics” — i.e. with a moral theory — that “Habermas . . . has attempted to justify the normative claims of a critical social theory.” Honneth rightly thinks that an unpromising strategy, which is why, I surmise, in his own work he tries to ground critical theory on something less than a full blown moral theory, a kind of thin (but nonetheless sufficiently normatively rich) anthropology.
A second and different answer would be that what critical theory lacks and needs are normative moral reasons, rather than a fully blown moral theory. This is the interpretation of the remark I favour, because it seems odd to claim critical social theory requires a normative moral theory to justify its conclusions.
In either case discourse ethics would not do the job of providing the putatively missing normative foundations, because it is not the kind of normative moral theory that determines valid norms, or answers the question of what ought to be done and why. Discourse Ethics does not yield first personal, normative reasons for action, of the kind that might support the normative conclusions of critical theory. This is not bad news for Habermas. In my view, the very idea that Habermas wants to set critical theory on sure moral foundations, and that this explains the place of Discourse Ethics in his theory, is completely wrong. You can tell by looking at it that Habermas’s philosophy is not an attempt to underpin the edifice of Marxism with a Kantian moral foundation. Habermas is not like the Marburg neo-Kantian Karl Vorländer, or the Austro-Marxists Max Adler and Otto Bauer, or more recently, G.A. Cohen, all of whom have attempted to provide a Kantian Moral foundation to socialism. You’d be surprised how many people think that this is what he is doing.
In my view, which I develop in articles in Telos and Constellations, he’s doing something very different both in approach and aim to the Critical Theory of the Frankfurt School, and from Kantian Marxism. And ironically, despite his criticism of Frankfurt School Critical Theory for its failure to give an account of its own normative, Habermas also omits to give a proper account of the normative grounds of his own social theory.
The other argument Habermas advances against Adorno and Horkheimer, is that in respect of its normative grounds, and in respect of its claim to be true, the Dialectic of Enlightenment is self-undermining, and incoherent. This is because, according to Habermas, as a meaningful theory, understood as a body of justified assertions about the social world, it (Dialectic of Enlightenment) must claim to be true, and yet the substance of the theory is that any theoretical claim is a disguised power claim, an attempt to gain mastery over internal and external nature. Basically, he says, the thesis of Dialectic of Enlightenment is incoherent. The trouble is that Habermas ties this objection in to his very controversial pragmatic theory of meaning, according to which the meaningfulness of any theory depends on its making validity-claims to truth and rightness, which the authors of the theory are implicitly committed to supporting by good reasons, on pain of incoherence. This is to take a needless hostage to theoretical fortune. Habermas makes what is a powerful objection to Adorno and Horkheimer’s critical theory depend upon the truth of his own highly controversial account of meaning.
3:AM: You propose that we can retrace the discussion and rethink and reanalyze the issue don’t you? Can you say something about your approach and why you think it helpful?
GF: Yes I think it is helpful to disentangle Habermas’s good objection to Adorno’s critical theory from the complexities of his own controversial theory of pragmatic meaning. Then we get something like the following view. A critical theory of society worth its salt must at least give an account of what is ‘wrong’ with the social world, or show that it is in some way ‘bad’ or that it ‘ought not’ to be like it is. The terms ‘wrong’, ‘bad’ ‘ought not’ and their like are moral terms. I mean that in the broadest possible sense. They express important values that shape our lives. If that is right, then critical theory has, and cannot but have, in that same broad sense moral aims or conclusions. Now social theories with moral aims or conclusions require moral grounds. In that case, if a critical theory does not have broadly moral grounds, its normative conclusions are unwarranted. (OK I’m assuming that you cannot reach the level or degree of normativity required here, by configuring together normative or evaluative elements that are less than moral – rational or logical requirements or whatever. In other words doing critical theory not like baking a cake where I can make something edible and delicious by combining elements none of which are delicious on their own – like baking powder, sugar, margarine and flour.)
Adorno’s critical theory of society is, now implicitly now explicitly, redolent with such broadly moral judgements. He thinks that the social world is pervasively evil and ought not to be as it is. The interesting problem arises, and begins to reflect what is distinctive (and distinctively problematic) about Frankfurt School critical social theory, when we realise that, for all its moral aims and conclusions, critical theory does not, and in some respects had better not, avail itself of any broadly moral standard, be this a thick conception of good, bad, or thinner ideas of right, or wrong.
So why is this? Well for a whole variety of different reasons. One of these is that Adorno believed that the whole ensemble of abhorrent events he called ‘Auschwitz’ manifested the failure of an entire culture, and with it morality. Not only does he think that nothing remains unaffected by Auschwitz, he believes that everything is complicit with it. This is a key motivation for Adorno’s negativism, his interpretation of the significance of the “ban on images.” There is “no right living in the false life” there is “nothing innocent left”. There are no reliable or worthwhile ideals or values to provide the standard of criticism. One cannot picture or represent a reconciled society, or a good life, indeed on cannot so much as conceive of it, without disfiguring and devaluing it. Another reason is that Adorno and Horkheimer sometimes think of bourgeois morality as Marx did, namely as the ideological expression of bourgeois interests. Finally, they follow Hegel in arguing that the task of philosophy is to explain the way the world is and not to lecture it on how it ought to be. (Insofar as he maintains this, Adorno, for reasons given above, is being inconsistent.) Anyway for all these reasons and others besides Adorno’s (and to an extent also Horkheimer’s) critical theory must eschew any broadly moral or ethical standard of criticism, and this gives rise to a dilemma: either critical theory relies on broadly moral premises (or broadly moral considerations) and is therefore self-contradictory, or it does not, in which case its conclusions are unsupported. This is what Habermas’s objection to first generation critical theory amounts to, once it is divested of his controversial theoretical assumptions.
3:AM: You argue that Adorno had a minimal normative ethics. It was a negative ethics of resistance. But then the question is how can philosophical negativism and normative ethics be consistent? We ask whether Adorno’s aporetic philosophy lead to irrationalism and mysticism. You answer that this is not the case, and draw on a comparison with negative theology to defend this view. Can you say more?
GF: There are two related questions here. Let’s assume I’m right that Adorno has a normative ethics, which, incidentally, many people deny. There is a life that one should live, namely one of active and self-conscious resistance to prevailing norms, values and practices.
How does this fit with the interpretation I have just given of Adorno’s philosophical negativism, which we can call austere negativism? Austere negativism is the view that when he says that there is “no right living in the false life” and there is “nothing innocent left” he means it literally. The social world has been entirely denuded of no reliable and intrinsically worthwhile ideals or values. There is only the system of instrumental value, where everything is valued as a means to the promotion of some other end, however there are no intrinsically worthwhile ends to put value into the system. In that case, the task of criticism cannot be, as he sometimes claims it is, to confront existing reality with its own unrealized standards. There are no worthwhile or reliable standards of criticism to which the social critic can appeal. As he puts it in Minima Moralia “there is no crevice in the cliff of the established order into which the (critic GF) might hook a fingernail.”
(If Adorno does not subscribe to austere negativism, but to partial negativism, that allows, say, that there are some worthwhile values and ideals, which are not entirely complicit with the otherwise corrupt social world, then immanent criticism can resume business as usual, criticizing social reality in the light of its own worthwhile standards to which, however, it fails to live up. Modern society may be inimical to a good life, but a good life can be lived on the basis of whatever remains of uncontaminated ethical life there happens to be.)
At the time when I wrote ‘Adorno on the Ethical and the Ineffable’ I thought that a coherent overall position had better be available to Adorno, and that the job of a philosophical interpretation of his work was to provide him with one, even if that meant reconstructing his views. That is why I came up with my characterization of Adorno’s ethics, according to which three ‘virtues’ of Mündigkeit, humility and love are required by a life of vigilance and resistance to the totally administerd society. I try to show how these are the practical counterpart of the paradoxical task that Adorno sets philosophy in his Negative Dialectics, namely to think what is non-identical to thought. The view I end up with is quite baroque, but does capture important elements of Adorno’s ethical views.
Nowadays I’ve given up on that kind of reconstruction. Adorno just is inconsistent. Really, he does not try very hard to work his thoughts up into a stable and coherent theory. He espouses different views on different occasions, and in different contexts. I’ve given up trying to make it all hang together. Adorno is not one of those thinkers who accepts that the best theory is the most consistent one, and that tensions and contradictions between the different positions he takes up are a sure indication that his theory cannot be true. On the contrary, he eschews that kind of formal theorising. He gives various different reasons for this, not all of them convincing. Anyway the upshot is that he is a thinker who prizes depth of insight, and the elegance and acuity with which those insights are expressed above the philosophical values of consistency, soundness and logical validity. That being so it is far from than obvious that the best philosophical interpretation of his work is one that attributes the most coherent position, defensible by contemporary standards of philosophy rather than his own. The best interpretation might be one that simply allows his work to be inconsistent, to bring these inconsistencies to light and to explain why he holds the views he does.
So now I’m inclined to point out that Adorno does not consistently embrace austere negativism, although he does endorse it most of the time, and that it is just difficult to reconcile this with the fact that Adorno’s criticism is, albeit in an unconventional sense, nevertheless deeply moral.
On the second question, it always struck me as funny that many of Adorno’s otherwise most insightful critics, who observe that some of his more paradoxical claims resemble the kind of paradoxes one finds in apophatic theology, or what is sometimes called negative theology, think that this is a good argument against them. Again, some big beasts of German philosophy make this claim, for example Habermas, Wellmer, Schnädelbach, and where they go others inevitably follow. They are right there are genuine parallels, although with the conspicuous exception of Michael Theunissen and Michael Pauen none of these commentators deigns to elaborate them.
The ontological question if what God’s essence or being consists in, poses peculiar difficulties when God is supposed to be wholly transcendent and therefore unknowable and ineffable. Apophatic (or negative) theology is the strategy of responding to these peculiar difficulties through negation or denial, the so-called negative way. Now one way of reading Adorno’s notion of non-identity is as the figure of what is absolutely and wholly other to thought. And in Negative Dialectics, Adorno claims that the “true interest of philosophy” lies “in what is non-conceptual” and that the task of philosophy is to think the non-identical , or to go beyond the concept by means of it. Both then, in different ways and for different reasons, attempt to think through the prima facie paradoxical attempt to think what cannot be thought.
Adorno’s detractors maintain that since there is a resemblance between Adorno’s philosophy and the ideas of some negative theologians and mystics, this is, without further ado, a powerful objection to it. Then, of course, Adorno’s defenders pile in from the other side and deny that there is a parallel between Adorno’s thought and negative theology. Curiously, neither Adorno’s detractors nor his defenders spend any time setting out what the supposed analogy between Adorno and negative theology is. To do that you actually have to examine what certain theologians say with care and attention. If one does not do that one runs the risk of falling foul of various misconceptions about negative theology, for example that it works by approaching the question of the divine essence through negations rather than through affirmations. That is actually not true. Apophatic theology must eschew both negation and affirmation equally, along with all finite categorization. To that extent, the labels ‘negative theology’ and the ‘via negativa’ are misnomers. It is kind of ironic that many Adornos most stringent critics and ardent defenders who respectively assert or reject the idea that there is a strong parallel between Adorno’s philosophy of non-identity and negative theology, both do so on the basis of not-knowing what negative theology is.
By contrast, I suppose because I find apophatic theology philosophically interesting, I try to show with the help of examples, first, Nicholas of Cusa, and later with Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite and Meister Eckhart the extent to which there is or is not an illuminating parallel with Adorno. The chief difference is that aphophatic theology is chiefly concerned with our inability to capture, know, or even conceive of the divine essence, because of its ultimate concern with divine transcendence, whereas Adorno is primarily concerned to transcend existing forms of thought and action for the sake of redeeming and transforming existing social reality.
Having said that, it is not clear how much negative theology Adorno knew, and it is unlikely that there was any direct influence, even though he studied briefly under Paul Tillich. The Messianic and Theological dimension to Adorno’s work seems to something he picked up from Walter Benjamin and immediately presses into the service of his own project of developing a negative dialectic through a critical engagement with Hegel.
3:AM: Does Adorno face a similar challenge when we consider his claims that art inhabits an autonomous region and yet at the same time he wants critical theory to apply? Is this a case of having your cake and eating it which is what some have accused his ethics of being? Is his art theory another version of his thought comparable to the apophasis theology you discuss above?
GF: Yes, some people say, I think Wellmer does, that Adorno’s aesthetic theory is a negative theology of art. But he does not really explain what he means. He just joins in the refrain. And the same difficulties with Adorno’s thinking crop up everywhere. It is not the case that Adorno has a general view that only really makes sense in the aesthetic domain. Art works, in Adorno’s eyes are mute, and aesthetic experience calls for philosophical interpretation. But philosophical interpretation attempts to makes sense not of the content of art, of what art works say, but only of the way their content is manifested in their sensuous form. There is a lot to say about artworks and what Adorno calls their promise of happiness, the various way in which they point beyond themselves and transcend the social conditions of their existence. But there is not a single, coherent theory of art that would, say, that would evince general conclusions about standards of judgment, or ideas of beauty. What Adorno gives us is an ensemble of analyses and essays about works of art, mainly about individual pieces of music, that do not and are not supposed to add up to a single coherent overall theory.
3:AM: Is the clash between the nihilism claims of Critchley and the Stalinism of Zizek anything more than showbiz for people wanting to avoid genuine political issues without admitting it?
GF: Hmm. I guessing that is what you think. I’m sure that is what Brian Leiter thinks. I know where you are coming from, but in truth I haven’t read enough of the recent work of either of these thinkers, so I ‘m not in a position to way whether either indulges in political grandstanding.
It is very easy to think that one’s work has more political significance than it does. Both journalists and academics tend to be walled up in their own worlds. I’m often made very aware of this. It is tempting to think that if one works on Adorno and critical theory, one is doing critical theory. That would be wrong. A critical theory of society is meant to understand, explain and criticise the society in which it is written. To write a book on Adorno or critical theory is not to do that. It is to do something else, philosophical interpretation or intellectual history. That is not to say it is not worthwhile to approach his work as a philosophically informed intellectual historian of 20th Century German thought or something. It is very worthwhile. But doing that is not doing critical theory. To do that you have to be a social critic, and that means criticising today’s society.
Much of what Adorno wrote was relevant to his era, but is not straightforwardly applicable to ours. For example his critique of the culture industry presupposes something like a Fordist conception of mass production and consumption. Things have changed. Yes some of what Adorno wrote about his world is still very much applicable to ours, but where it is, it is so mutatis mutandis. I don’t find applied Adorno very fruitful or appealing. As I often try to show my students to merely emulate his thinking, or repackage it in a new form is to betray the animus of his work. To be true to Adorno is to think for oneself, and to criticise existing society where appropriate.
I admire Habermas’s way of going about things. He has two distinct careers as a journalist and as an academic and he writes in two different genres. In his political writings in newspapers and interviews he gets engaged in real politics. His academic writing rarely reflects his own substantive political and moral views. This has the advantage that his political interventions reach the right audience, not just an audience of philosophers, and that his political writings are not merely an academic exercise largely ignored by fellow citizens. Other people, like Joe Heath do something similar.
3:AM: You’re working in a university but you are concerned about Universities aren’t you? You take university to be an institution that fulfills what Cardinal Newman said it should be doing: forming the individual’s intellect and developing and transmitting culture in all its dimensions. Can you say more about what you think is so good and necessary about this idea of a university?
GF: Well I think that Universities still should, as Cardinal Newman said in 1858, aim at “the perfection or virtue of the intellect” which is an old fashioned way of saying that they should educate well. The idea of excellence in education is not – as Bill Readings has argued – vacuous and part of an outdated ideology.
However, Newman thought of universities as primarily teaching institutions, whereas I think that they should also be research institutions, and that teaching and research should go hand in hand, because they are mutually enhancing. To that extent Wilhelm von Humboldt’s idea of the university was more up to date than Newman’s which was old fashioned for Victorian times. The reason is that philosophers who also research generally make better teachers. It keeps them fresh. I mean, you would not employ a piano teacher who only taught piano, but did not actually play the piano. I think it works the other way round too. One’s research in philosophy benefits from teaching, in various different ways.
It seems a truism to say that the purpose of a university should be to educate well, and to that extent to perfect the intellect of students (and teachers). It also can seem, rather quaint. Funding bodies and Government Higher Education ministers don’t want to hear about the intrinsic value of a education, and are not impressed by the argument that educated minds are a public (not just a private and individual) good. One of the stated justification of the recent reforms of university funding in England and Wales is that University is a private benefit to the individual who acquires it and hence should be paid for by those individuals, not by the public purse (which raises the question of why the Government undertakes to heavily subsidize student loans.)
Anyway, the direction of HE policy over the last 15 years has been to dismantle the autonomy of the Universities, and make their teaching and research serve the perceived interests of the business sector, and the UK economy. Whether this aim is a good one, and whether the reforms undertaken will even succeed in realizing this aim, are debatable questions. For it was not as if universities served the intrinsic goods of educating well, perfecting the intellect, and producing excellent research across a range of disciplines, instead of the instrumental good of serving the economy and the business sector. On the contrary, teaching students to think for themselves, which is what philosophy does, is to equip them with arguably the most important transferable skill all. This means that the recent attempt to transform Universities into training programmes for the acquisition of transferable skills, which involves the dangerous game of second guessing which disciplines will do this most effectively, (the game is currently skewed against humanities disciplines and in favour of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, so-called STEM subjects) might end up shooting itself in the foot, because it turns out that traditional autonomous Universities geared towards the goal of educating well do this rather better after all, than the reformed institutions.
Anyway, I think that we are in the midst of a very dangerous experiment. Universities in this country have not been allowed to adapt and change organically. They have been dragooned into rapid unplanned expansions, thoroughgoing restructuring of their administrative and management systems along corporate lines. University faculties and departments have been bundled up (in many cases arbirtarily) into schools or clusters, which function as autonomous budget holding entities that purchase and sell services to one another, and are evaluated in terms of the profit and loss they generate.
Vice chancellors have become like CEOs behaving as if they have large equity holdings in the companies they direct. University councils are populated with representatives from the business sector, and tend to rubber stamp decisions taken by small-scale management teams around the Vice Chancellor. Their powers are almost unlimited. Senates, the academic bodies which oversee University management, on which traditionally there have been a majority of academics, have been drastically downsized, filled with people with management positions, with the result that academics have been largely cut out of the decision making process. As a consequence there few, if any, academic constraints on the measures that University managements can implement.
Both nationally, and locally within Universities, institutional change is being brought in at breakneck speed. ‘Experiment’ is the wrong word here. Experiments are conducted under controlled conditions. Causes are isolated and their effects closely monitored. This is, as Andrew McGettigan puts it, not so much and experiment as “The Great University Gamble” whose odds are too difficult to reckon, conducted in the blind hope that creating a market in Higher Education, and reforming Universities along business lines, will magically produce more employable graduates, make universities both more economically useful and more ‘accountable’ to their Government paymasters and their clients (students), save money, as well as promote the excellence of research and teaching. Whether or not any of these aims are actually achieved is a completely open question, and the Governments of Blair, Brown and Cameron who introduced the policies, anyway won’t be around to monitor and evaluate the consequences.
Meanwhile, the best Universities in the world, the big private and public Universities in the US have seen nothing like this degree of policy induced change. According to Jonathan R. Cole’s analysis of the rise of the Great American University is due mainly to the way in which they, have been allowed to adapt and change organically, as autonomous and more or less democratic institutions, run by academics, with the academic values of excellence in teaching and research as the guiding aim of their organisation. Cole, a Professor of Sociology, who went on to be Provost and Dean of Columbia University, writes: “research universities should not attempt to imitate corporations in their organizational structure. The hierarchical culture of the corporate world would not further the other important aims of the university.”
Finally, there is an even more sinister scenario taking shape. Large private companies are hovering to buy up the HE institutions lower down the food chain which will be crippled by the current funding reforms. They are attracted by the huge income streams made available due by heavily subsidized Government backed student loans. At the moment the title of University and its degree awarding powers is protected by legislation, and most Universities are charities. The Government is consulting with these corporations to lower the eligibility criteria for that protected title, in order, eventually, to allow for profit companies to buy into Universities. If successful, this will allow companies to bleed money out of institutions in terms of dividends and profits, which up to now, has not been legally possible. The trouble with that is, as is evidenced by the for profit sector in the US, corporate aim of maximising profits and dividends is incompatible with the academic aim of excellence in teaching and research. As John Sperling, founder of Apollo Group, put it brutally and revealingly: “This is a corporation… Coming here is not a rite of passage. We are not trying to develop [students’] value systems or go in for that ‘expand their minds’ bullshit.” It is no surprise that such organisations are teaching only institutions that tend to put more time and effort into recruiting students, than to teaching them well, and that offer very poor terms of employment. Since 2008 the Apollo Group has faced numerous investigations into its unfair and deceitful recruitment practices. Apollo Group are of course eager to expand into British market as soon as it is opened up, and are in prime position to do so as the parent Company, since 2009, of BPP, which runs law and accountancy colleges in England, and which has been among the firms intensively lobbying the Higher Education minister, David Willetts, to make the necessary changes in legislation, that would allow them to compete with publicly funded UK institutions.
3:AM: What’s gone wrong? Is the future bleak, not just for Universities but given the mass inequalities, the wars, the reactionary politics that seems to be dominant, for all areas of life?
GF: Quite a lot. And yes it is, but there are also signs of hope.
3:AM: You write poetry don’t you? What are the books, films, artists that have inspired you? What’s the role for art and culture in all this? Are you sympathetic to Adorno on this, or is he, as Roger Scruton asks (in relation to his theories concerning music), a dead duck?
GF: Funnily enough, I don’t write poetry any more. The last one I wrote was a very long time ago. I did recently publish a poem I wrote long ago in my early twenties, at the invitation of my friend and colleague Keston Sutherland, who is a poet and critical theorist.
Oh dear. Such questions are hard to answer. I can say that, as a graduate student, when I read books like Raymond Geuss’s The Idea of Critical Theory, Onora O’Neill’s Constructions of Reason, I was inspired, and that more recently when I read A.D. Smith’s Husserl and the Cartesian Meditations, I realized that these were wonderful examples of how to write about the philosophers I was interested in, examples that I still give to my own students.
As for books that have inspired me, there are far too many to list. I can name some books off the top of my head that I have in recent memory recommended to others, because I found them particularly good. For example, Too Loud A Solitude by Bohumil Hrabal; Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities; The Infinite by Adrian Moore; Philosophy as a Way of Life, by Pierre Hadot; Agape and Eros, by Anders Nygren; The Darkness of God, by Denys Turner; Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel by Hans-Friedrich Fulda.
It is hard to say with paintings. Every time I visit friends and family in Brussels, I find myself sneaking into the Musée des Beaux Arts, and looking again at David’s The Death of Marat and Pieter Breughel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus. I was captivated by Domenichino’s, Diana and Acteon, when I visited the Villa Borghese in Rome, some years ago. But I’m not pictorially literate enough to have much of interest to say.
Am I sympathetic to Adorno, or is he a dead duck? Well, I could be both. But obviously I find Adorno’s work rewarding, otherwise I would not still be reading, writing about, and teaching his work to students. I certainly do not agree with all of what he says, but who could. Last Summer I spoke at a Music and Philosophy conference at KCL where Roger gave his ‘dead duck’ talk. As I remember, he thinks Adorno is a dead duck, primarily because he was a Marxist, and because in Scruton’s view Marxism is “crap”. His word not mine! He seems to arrive at this view by the following means: All Marxism is crap. Adorno is a Marxist . Therefore, Adorno’s work is crap.
Scruton is a clever man. But he is far from a reliable judge of Adorno. His allergic response to Marxism, and left-wing politics, impair his judgement. Somewhat uncomfortably Scruton finds himself in agreement with all those aspects of Adorno’s critique of the Culture Industry that he shares with conservative critics of culture. He deals with this by claiming that nothing that Adorno said on those issues was particularly new, and said better by the conservative critics of culture he identifies with. (Actually, one can say something very similar about Scruton’s views on Marxism and Leszek Kolakowski).
Adorno was primarily a music critic, and also a philosopher. He did not have a philosophy of music or a philosophical theory of music of the kind that Scruton does. He certainly was not interested in sideways on accounts of what music is. He is not interested in general aesthetic theories, or theories of music, which would provide general criteria for successful works of art. Also to say that Adorno is “the critic of tonality and advocate of the New Music” is to vastly oversimplify what he says. If that is what makes him a dead duck, it is easy to show that he is not.
The best way to evaluate Adorno’s writing on music is to look at what he says about each individual composer, and their compositions. If Scruton can find nothing of interest in what Adorno says about Wagner, Mahler, Beethoven, Berg, and their works, then so much the worse for him. There were many musicologists, musicians and philosophers at the conference of a discerning, erudite, well-informed, and critical cast of mind who still found Adorno’s musical writings intriguing, interesting and engaging. Had they not been there, of course, Scruton’s talk would have utterly failed to provoke. I’m sure he wished things had been otherwise, but in fact, in that context and to that audience, Adorno sat among the canonised, establishment figures, whose work had become the target for Scruton, the critical theorist.
3:AM: And finally, are there five books that you could recommend to the readers here at 3:AM that would help them delve further into the issues you’ve discussed here?
GF: It is hard to nominate only five, but here are five good books of relevance to this interview.
Philosophy as a Way of Life, by Pierre Hadot.
The Politics of Aristotle, by W. L. Newman.
The Idea of a Critical Theory, by Raymond Geuss.
The Darkness of God, Denys Turner.
The Great University Gamble, by Andrew McGettigan.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Richard Marshall is still biding his time.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, May 17th, 2013.