The Case of Castoriadis v. Habermas

(c) Frederik Argazzi

The content of Dirty Looks is strongly influenced by the linguistic or intersubjective ‘turn’ taken by Jürgen Habermas, a key figure in continental philosophy and in particular critical theory. Habermas made the move away from the philosophy of consciousness in order to build a theory of communicative rationality, a theory he hoped could provide a sound basis for identifying the worst effects of capitalist modernisation. This turn was taken for a number of specific reasons (reasons that became explicit in his Theory of communicative action), not least his efforts to overcome the aporias at the heart of previous Frankfurt school critiques of capitalism, and his desire to transcend the limitations of Weberian action theoretic understandings of modernisation and its discontents.This turn allowed Habermas to deliver a diagnosis of the times – i.e., that capitalism ushered in a one-sided rationality into everyday life, an instrumental rationality that was obsessed with efficiency, outcomes and performance. He was able to provide this critique because, thanks to his shift towards intersubjectivity, he could evidence how this one-sided rationality undermined a different form of rationality, namely communicative rationality, which was essential to everyday life but not reducible to means-ends thinking without causing serious damage.One does not have to be a modernist to appreciate the ingenuity deployed to build this theoretical framework. But like all designers of complex theoretical frameworks, Habermas was constantly defending his work against that which, directly or indirectly, could undermine the core elements of his theory. One of these threats became in the form of Cornelius Castoriadis (pictured), a Greek philosopher and psychoanalyst, and most famous for his book The imaginary institution of society. Fellow travellers in many ways (with shared roots in Freud and Marx), Habermas nevertheless took umbrage with Castoriadis’ notion of the monadic core of the psyche, a notion that posited an interior world separate and prior to intersubectivity. Given that the linguistic turn depended on the denial of a pre-linguistic unconscious, it is logical that Habermas would feel duty bound to dismiss Castoriadis in this way.

While this dismissal might be logical in the context of a theory of communicative action, it might be the case that Habermas was too quick to gloss over interiority and the unconscious in this manner. Examined more closely, Habermas (and Axel Honneth likewise) could be said to suffer from the same problem that he so readily attached to Castoriadis – namely that he cannot provide for the mediation between individual and society. Joel Westbrook (in Habermas and the unfinished project of modernity) provides a concise summary of the problem:

Habermas himself does not provide a genuine account of the mediation of individual and society, because he solves the problem, at least in principle, in advance through the pre-established harmony between an already linguistic unconscious and an intersubjective social world. … Habermas is correct in arguing that ‘language functions as a kind of transformer’ which draws the individual into the intersubjective social world. But it does not do so without a residuum of private in-itselfness – without which we would all be pre-coordinated clones – and it is this residuum that does not adequately appear in Habermas’s account.

The recent discussion of the nature of regret and its place in the relational world illustrated how the relational, while pervasive and significant, does not necessarily reach into every nook and cranny of the psyche (although the denial of regret is decidedly relational). A theory that posits the individual as always and forever caught in a relational whirlwind with no place to hide, may be just as guilty of the kind of aporetic thinking Habermas so derided in the Dialectic of enlightenment. His easy dismissal of the monadic core means that his intersubjective theory glossed over the question of mediation – an oversight that in hindsight was an opportunity missed. Exploring, for example, how regret is connected and mediated via the power of others would help not only to reflect on the nature of regret, but also to understand where the power of this relational world comes from in the first place.

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By Mark Murphy

Mark Murphy is a Reader in Education and Public Policy at the University of Glasgow. He previously worked as an academic at King’s College, London, University of Chester, University of Stirling, National University of Ireland, Maynooth, University College Dublin and Northern Illinois University. Mark is an active researcher in the fields of education and public policy. His research interests include educational sociology, critical theory, accountability in higher education, and public sector reform.

2 replies on “The Case of Castoriadis v. Habermas”

Guess Habermas’ would not deny the arguments brought to the fore. Although, he probably would ask, how the irrational could reflect itself, if not in a rational discourse.

Indeed, Habermas discourse model seems to suggest the idea of “empty” subjects. Drive, emotions, ends, interests or ambivalences. For Habermas’ all of this is nothing like sand in the clockwork of a rational discourse. In order to become “true” subjectivity, the subject has to de-subjectivate itself.

Funny enough, it is excactly this paradoxy, which Foucault described as the “shaping” of subjectivity in modern societies. One might not be convinced by Foucault’s idea of man as savage. However, at the end of the day the idea of a savage subject to me is more friendly than an empty one.

Like a true nature child
We were born
Born to be wild
We can climbed so high
I never wanna die
Born to be wild
Born to be wild


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