Lazy rascals, spending their substance, and more, in riotous living

Why is Habermas so dumb?

Maybe I subsconsciously believe the analytic misrepresentations of Derrida. At least, I wouldn’t have expected that in a debate between Derrida and Habermas, it would be Derrida who provides the lucid, rigorous arguments. But what else are we to make of passages like this:

The specialized languages of science and technology, law and morality, economics, political science, etc. … live off the illuminating power of metaphorical tropes; but the rhetorical elements, which are by no means expunged, are tamed, as it were, and enlisted for special purposes of problem-solving.

— Jürgen Habermas, The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity, 209

Is Habermas taking the piss? How do you “tame” metaphorical tropes, or “enlist” them? I mean, not metaphorically; what is Habermas actually saying here? The whole argument in The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity is so flabby, resting on metaphors, vague gestures, unexplicated terms. There’s some nonsense in Habermas’s discussion of Foucault (Foucault is a positivist who puts forward genealogy as a more objective historical method? Really?), but the the discussion of Derrida is especially, and I think instructively, bad.

Habermas, and here he follows Searle, completely misses the point of Derrida’s arguments against logocentrism. Despite what Derrida explicitly and repeatedly says, Habermas interprets Derrida’s argument as a kind of empirical generalization, as if his complaint was that meaning is unstable because we can never be sure what something means: “Oh, that crazy Nietzsche and his umbrella! Who knows what he was talking about?” Hence Habermas generously explains to Derrida that the idea of a “normal” speech act is an idealization, and perhaps there are no clear-cut empirical examples. But Derrida’s whole point is that this type of idealization is inherently self-contradictory, that the failure of meaning is not simply an empirical accident, but a necessary feature of language.

This illustrates a more general failure of Habermas’s approach. He claims to be a post-metaphysical philosopher because he declines to give metaphysical justifications for his positions; but, just as with his treatment of fixed meanings as idealizations, Habermas consistently acts as if metaphisical justifications were available. His philosophy has the structure of a fetish, “I know, but still…” Habermas, in other words, is a crypto-metaphysician, imagining one can avoid metaphysical thinking by strenuously disavowing it, and then carrying on as normal. One of Derrida’s most important contributions is showing that this is impossible; metaphysics is, for now, both necessary and impossible.