vrijdag 13 september 2013

Levinas and Habermas

An important feature that the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas and Levinas have in common is their love for reason, that is, for the human rational faculty. In Habermas, this is expressed because his book Theory of Communicative Action – which is often considered as his magnum opus – is about how people, guided by reason, can optimize their communication. In Levinas it is visible in his commitment to the achievements of the Western Enlightenment such as democratic institutions, fair jurisdiction and scientific institutes. The fact that, being a Lithuanian Jew, he was allowed to become citizen of such an enlighted society, namely the French, he during his whole life considered as a special privilege.

At the same time, both philosophers have their reserves with regard to that human rational faculty. Habermas sharply sees the hazards of reason-based economic and administrative systems in which humanity is compromised. And Levinas believes that human reason permanently produces illusions. This skepticism was fueled in both of them by their experience of the twentieth-century violence of Nazism and Holocaust in which they perceive the workings of modern thought. Both Habermas and Levinas had to work hard to to ultimately let prevail their love of reason over their great skepticism.

The skepticism with respect to reason was inculcated into Habermas by thinkers of the Frankfurt School like Horkheimer and Adorno, who he joined in the fifties. The Frankfurt School was very critical of the traditional idea of a rationality that can organize society in a good way, as it had been proposed from the Enlightenment to the twentieth century. Horkheimer and Adorno examined the reasonableness of reason itself and came to shocking conclusions. Reason has failed and rationality and its ideals have been reversed in their  opposite: in phenomena such as the Shoah the West shows its true face, which is that of oppression and violence.

Habermas endorsed many of the ideas of the Frankfurt duo, but at the same time struggled with the consequences. There was something self-destroying to their philosophy and it was inapplicable. They fought the status quo, but did not believe in change. Habermas did not want to see in Nazism the final collapse of a civilization based on reason. He gradually regained his confidence in human reason by formulating his own, this time applicable,  answer to the inky analysis of the Frankfurt School.

In his turn Levinas after the war – in which his entire Lithuanian family was massacred – looked for support in the Jewish tradition and found it there. Led by the brilliant Chouchani – a mysterious combination of clochard, wandering Jew and great scholar – he started to study the Talmud. Through him, Levinas said, he regained his confidence in the books.

The different ways in which the two philosophers have overcome their skepticism ultimately led to two rather different positions with respect to reason.

Habermas found a useful starting point in his humanistic belief that interpersonal dialogue provides an opportunity to bring about better understanding between people. This led him ia to the proposition that in addition to end-means rationality – thoroughly analyzed by the Frankfurt School – there is something like ‘communicative rationality’, which is essentially different in nature. The logic of end-means rationality proceeds instrumentally and considers everything it encounters, including human beings, as means for achieving its goal. The logic of communicative rationality is based on the uniqueness of human communication itself. When people enter into conversation with each other, they actually do more than merely use the other as a means or an instrument, because they assume that they are dealing with rational people, and these are goals in themselves.

Building on that premise, according to Habermas it is possible to design a methodology for good conversation, that is a conversation ethics. Habermas claims that a well-developed conversation ethics is useful for all people, and thus has universal validity .

As said, Levinas sought affiliation to the Jewish tradition. His interpretation thereof made him believe that the shortcomings of reason cannot fully be repaired by using reason. Because according to him all reason is blind and autistic in a way, and there is no special type of reason which would be an exception to that rule, as Habermas claims. So the answer to the deficiency of reason according to Levinas must be something outside of reason, something entirely different. By that he does not refer to music or romantics. No, he primarily sees that come from the experience that the other person with whom we deal at home or at work may regularly surprise us. He or she may at times appear to be quite different from what we could think of, and thus repairs our fabrications.

Levinas certainly also believes in the power of searching dialogue and the corrective effect  that may have. But not as much as Habermas does. Levinas does not believe that one can prevent miscommunication and injuring people in communication. For that the autistic and self-deceptive nature of reason simply is too great. So the large scale and detail of Habermas’ measures make a bit of a grotesque impression from Levinas’ perspective. You can achieve quite something with your own measures, says Levinas, but you will still keep being caught by the other person who shows you that, with all your good intentions, you’ve gone too far. Communication is not as malleable as Habermas believes. It remains a venture, says Levinas, and that sometimes strikes me as very true.

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