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📙 The Cambridge Companion to Habermas (Cambridge Companions to Philosophy) by Stephen K. White — free pdf


The previous reviewer, Mr. Craig Chalquist, complains that despite having read "a lot of philosophy," he found this book tough going. One can certainly sympathize with him; Habermas is not easy to read, and people writing on Habermas tend not to be easy to read. I believe that Mr. Chalquist is right in saying that Habermasian prose tends to drive students away from philosophy and critical theory. But the denseness and opacity of Teutonic philosophical language is an old story; Marx had already shuddered at the "mostrous melodies" of Hegel. Mr. Chalquist does not proceed to ask if students who are turned off by dense prose do not deserve to be driven out of philosophy. Must philosophy be clothed in the language of the marketplace? Hegel could already speak of the old prejudice that, whereas everyone realizes it takes training and a certain native talent to be a great craftsman or a great mathematician, everyone thinks she is ready to philosophize. Let us take the pasage cited by Mr. Chalquist. From his review, I had the impression that the author simply dropped that sentence out of the blue. But when I discovered the relevant passage on page 274, I found it situated within a discussion that begins on the previous page regarding the "tension between the comprehensible and the incomprehensible," a tension that the authors claim is embodied most clearly in Kant's Critique of Judgment. Anybody with a passing familiarity with Kant will recognize immediately how apropos this claim is. And those who are unfamiliar with Kant--well, is it not the duty of a good introduction to lead readers to the great works that have set the agenda for later philosophers and thinkers? I know some readers do not believe so. They believe that the task of a good introduction is to present profound insights in easily digestible form so that they can be spared hard thinking: fortune cookie wisdom, wisdom for dummies. I wonder if these readers know what the word "bowdlerize" means. As far as I am concerned, Stanley Rosen has articulated what ought to be the guiding principle for anyone who undertakes the daunting and noble task of writing an introductory work of philosophy: An oversimplified account is no account at all. By that standard, this Companion does a decent, and at times even a good, job. The authors generally display a great deal of familiarity with Habermas and do a nice job of presenting his position concisely and without too much distortion, though obviously some glossing over of subtleties is inescapable in the format of the short essay. The Strong and Sposito chapter, from which Mr. Chalquist lifted his example of bad writing, is actually one of the best chapters in the book. I describe it briefly to show up the virtues of this collection. The chapter points out that according to Habermas, rationality is a "moral social concept" (263), that rationality is tied to the fact that we speak to one another (in neo-Kantian terms, that human beings are situated in the space of reasons), and that this speaking to one another implies a "we." But the act of speaking, precisely as an act, is an embodied act--which is to say, when we speak, we do not speak to everyone all at once, if only because we do not all share the same language. This means that the "we" is at least immediately circumscribed by the "others" to whom we are not speaking. Given the link between reason and the "we," the "other" to the "we" is thus at the same time the "other" of reason. And from here the authors build their critique of Habermas. I should perhaps add that I rate this book solely on the basis of its worth as an initial guide to Habermas. I do not rate it on the basis of its intrinsic philosophical worth. I am not a sympathizer of Habermas' philosophical project. I believe that what is right about it has almost all been said, and said better, by others, especially by Kant and Hegel, and that what is new about it is almost all wrong. The contributors to this volume, in contrast, are all sympathetic critics, to varying degrees. They disagree with Habermas at the margins, but not at the core. I could put this simply by saying that they are all moderns for whom their modernity is not a problem.

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