Fast food for thought

The Liberating Power of Symbols - The Postnational Constellation
April 12, 2002

Historians of Germany during the latter part of the 20th century discussed at great length the question of the existence of a German Sonderweg , a path from traditional society (whatever that was), to modernity (whatever that is), that diverged in important ways from those taken by Germany's neighbours in the west such as France and Britain, whose development was tacitly taken as the standard of normality. Whatever the truth about the Sonderweg in the realms of politics and society - and the consensus now seems to be that claims of German exceptionalism were much exaggerated - it does seem to be the case that the higher intellectual culture of Germany in the "short 20th century" (1914 to 1989) was rather different from that dominant in the English-speaking world. One difference was the prominence of a kind of philosophising that combined the construction of highly speculative positions with a very high tolerance for difficult and unusual modes of expression and literary styles. Sometimes the preferred literary style was hyper-academic, reading like parodies of the works of German professors; sometimes consciously avant-garde or anti-academic; sometimes both.

Martin Heidegger and Theodore Adorno, in their different ways, represented this refusal to speak the language of the streets and the marketplace at its best; the treatises of a multitude of lesser-known philosophers (for instance, Ludwig Klages, Ernst Bloch, Odo Marquard) and innumerable professorial productions exhibited the same phenomenon much less attractively. German philosophers in the short 20th century, by and large, asked different questions from those asked by philosophers in neighbouring western countries, had more intellectual distance from liberal capitalist democracy and its institutions, and were prone to develop wide-ranging, speculative, utopian constructions that represented, or suggested, radical alternatives to ways of doing things, rather than merely describing or explaining existing structures. Some of these alternatives were, to put it mildly, repellent - Heidegger was a partisan of the National Socialist revolution - but this kind of philosophising had the advantage of being a continual, if not always effective or salubrious, reproach to intellectual conformity.

What seems to have happened by the beginning of the 21st century, and what the essays in these two volumes document, is that German intellectual culture has become normalised. It has lost the ability to generate the large speculative project, to see the present critically from the point of view of some radical alternative. It is discussing the same problems - the impact of globalisation on nation-states, the justification of human rights, the ethics of cloning - in the same terms as philosophers in the English-speaking world, and, increasingly, the theses German philosophers are prepared to defend are located in the same narrow band of possibilities allowed by the prevailing western liberal consensus. Jurgen Habermas calls this the "exhaustion of utopian energies" and sees it as a global, not a specifically German, problem.

This normalisation of German intellectual life has some advantages - especially for European neighbours who might have felt threatened by an economically powerful Germany with a semi-impermeable, distinctive culture - but it also brings with it a loss. Ideally what one would have hoped for is that the old-style speculative impulse could maintain itself and learn to express itself in a language of immediate transparency. This might be an impossible, even incoherent, hope; novel thoughts might require novel or obscure forms of linguistic expression. The avant-garde mode of philosophical writing, however, seems to have disappeared in Germany, and the academic prose style, as illustrated in these works by Habermas, is almost as dense as ever. Sequences of analytically vague, composite substantives continue to lock arms in long, unnecessarily convoluted periods. Some people will put up with reading Heidegger for the sake of insights not found elsewhere, but who would put up with academic German, even in excellent English translations, to read the tired platitudes of run-of-the-mill western liberalism?

The Postnational Constellation is described in its subtitle as a series of political essays, but it is in fact a set of occasional public speeches, book reviews and newspaper articles on a variety of topics from the purported demise of the nation-state, through the controversy about human cloning, to the public uses of history. The Liberating Power of Symbols , which is billed as philosophical essays, is an equally disparate set of lightweight pieces on a variety of contemporary philosophers and theologians, and a film-maker. Most of these - Karl-Otto Apel, Alexander Kluge, Johann Metz - are people who will not be household names in the English-speaking world. Neither of these volumes has any internal coherence of topic, so it is extremely difficult to give a succinct summary of contents, and none of the pieces in either is of particular merit.

Since the 1970s, Habermas has been expounding the idea of a legitimation crisis in western societies: modern populations make increasing demands on political agencies to show that their actions are legitimate, but modern western societies cannot depend on various traditional sources of legitimacy - we no longer believe in the divine right of kings or the imperatives of history - and this means that modern states are always potentially suffering from a deficit of legitimacy. In the earlier versions of the theory, particular emphasis was placed on ways in which a crisis in legitimacy could arise from developments within individual nation-states. To some extent there is a thread running through some of the texts in The Postnational Constellation that is a shift of emphasis from internal stresses within the nation-state to globalisation as the source of a purported deficit of legitimacy in modern political societies.

The most interesting piece in these two collections is a discussion in The Liberating Power of Symbols of the work of Michael Theunissen, a German philosopher who has devoted his life to trying to put together theological views deeply influenced by the existentialism of Kierkegaard with a theory of politics derived from Marx. Theunissen is one German philosopher who has resisted the pressures of normalisation. The weakest texts in these two collections are a remarkably confused and implausible defence of a book on the Holocaust by Daniel Goldhagen, and a text with the unprepossessing title "What is a People? The Frankfurt 'Germanists' assembly' of 1846 and the self-understanding of the humanities in the Vormarz". This last is a transcript of a rambling and inconclusive speech given at a university ceremony in Frankfurt that instead of ending seems to break off in mid-thought, as if the microphone had been cut off.

The high, gamey flavour of Heidegger's Being and Time (19) may be as little to contemporary taste as the excessively precious amuse-gueules of Adorno's Minima Moralia (1951), the insubstantial puff pastry of Hans-Georg Gadamer (active in the 1960-70s), or the farinaceous dumplings of a Walter Benjamin (1920-30s). Compared with these specimens of the traditional cuisine, the two volumes under discussion are a pair of Big Macs.

Raymond Geuss is reader in philosophy, University of Cambridge.

The Liberating Power of Symbols: Philosophical Essays

Author - Jürgen Habermas
ISBN - 0 7456 2088 4 and 2552 5
Publisher - Polity
Price - £45.00 and £13.99
Pages - 130
Translator - Peter Dews

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