History, Evolution, and The Darwin Debate

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Habermas and the dilemma of post-Kantian philosophy

April 10th, 2015 · No Comments


From his student days, Habermas has tried to find the solid ground, a way to defend the idea that we can rationally justify universal normative claims. Habermas did not think that Marx had succeeded in this task. Nor did he believe that the idea of the proletariat as an emancipatory collective subject still carried deep and profound motivating power in our post-World I societies. To provide this solid ground, Habermas has pursued vigorously this daunting project by re-working historical materialism as a social evolutionary learning theory, analyzing the fundamental knowledge-interests of our species, developing the philosophical basis for communicative action and devising a theory of society anchored in the different modes of rationality (instrumental, communicative and emancipatory). In his most recent works, Habermas has extended his communicative theory into profound reflections on terrorism, religion and public life, genetics and human nature, and the future of Europe. In a nutshell, he is alarmed at the shredding of the conversable world and the global failure to press to the fulfilment of Kant’s great dream of a peaceful, post-national constellation governed by law and bound resolutely to human solidarity.

One of the issues of my Last and First Men is the compressed innovation of the early modern and the resulting focus on the the period of the so-called ‘divide’, the era of Marx/Engels beginning at just that point or its immediate aftermath.

The result fails to do justice to what comes next, perhaps, and this is a source of regret with figures like Habermas and many others who have useful commentary on the questions of marxism. I am considering a longer edition of Last and First Men to include the many later figures, but there is a logic to the method used: focus on the early modern and its dynamics in the macro model can be useful on its own right and makes the study of successors like Habermas a little easier.

It is very hard to surpass the heights of German classical philosophy, beginning with Kant (and Rousseau is really the first), and many fail to see why. In the macro model of WHEE the reason is clear if still elusive: it is the grand slingshot moment of the modern transition and the innovations of Kant, which echo those of Plato, long lost, challenge philosophy with transcendental idealism, again soon lost. It proposes problems very hard to solve in a style that is very obscure, and with no easy resolution, although, strangely, a distantly related version arises in the physics of cosmological observers. The possible connection has not been given any clarification. But the anomaly, so visible in Schopenhauer, who produced a brilliant streamlined version of Kant, of a universe springing into existence as representation seemed to falsify TI (transcendental idealism). But now a strangely reminiscent set of issues arises in the physics of cosmological observers. I think Schopenhauer’s brilliant version and equally brilliant discovery and attempted remedy of its outlandish property requires, as so often, a much more complicated model than the one Kant and others came up with, and then only by the skin of their teeth.
So I think that the situation almost forced the successors to Kant after Hegel to bail out into something they could handle: materialism of the crudest kind, Iron Cage and no nonsense from the idealists. But the result was an instant mirror image failure, one further muddled with the issues of the dialectic.

In any case figures like Habermas steeped in the source issues of the creative era of Kant have produced a certain amount of digested and more practical succession to the original corpus. The question of a creative philosophy in the wake of someone like Kant is intractable, but Habermas gives us many suggestive insights into the problem.

It should leave philosophers nettled to consider that transcendental idealism has appeared twice, in Plato and Kant, in both occasions close to or inside a ‘macro transition’ and both times the innovation drifting away and being lost.

The suggestion is that real philosphy has at best a marginal existence, and then only when prompted by the larger and mysterious scheme of macro emergence in the evolution of civilization.
In a word, philosophy loses its focus. And science is no better, being dependent on philosophy to evade scientism.

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