Habermas, Adorno, Politics


Richard Marshall interviews Gordon Finlayson in 3:AM Magazine:

3:AM: A key discussion in contemporary liberal theory of ethics and politics is the relationship and differences between Habermas and Rawls. Can you say something about what you take the main points of dispute are and where you stand on this?

GF: Sure. In my view, despite the amount of ink that has been spilt on Habermas and Rawls in their respective fields, relatively little attention has been paid to the dispute between them. This is largely because influential commentators and critics were quick to judge their exchange in the Journal of Philosophy a damp squib.

This was in part because expectations ran high, at the time, because two of the greatest social and political theorists of the 20th century, although working in different traditions, roughly analytic political philosophy and German Social theory had engaged each other in debate. It was also because in truth neither thinker was sufficiently well apprised of the detail of the others theory – unsurprisingly really, since they worked in very different traditions and each had just spent the last few years writing their own major work of political theory. Finally, everyone at the time, including the disputants themselves, were seduced by the assumption that the salient point of comparison between their respective theories was Habermas’s principle (U) and his conception of the moral standpoint, and Rawls’s argument that the principles of justice are those that would be chosen by a rational and reasonable persons in the Original Position. Almost everyone who has written on Habermas and Rawls makes that particular mistake.

My take on that is straightforward. The debate between them concerns their respective political theories. It is basically a dispute between Rawls’s theory of Political Liberalism, and Habermas’s Discourse Theory of Law. It is not primarily a dispute between Rawls’s A Theory of Justice, and Habermas Discourse Ethics. Principle (U) is the central idea in Habermas’s Discourse Ethics, which is a moral theory, not a theory of law or of democratic legitimacy, while the argument from the Original Position takes a back seat in Rawls’s Political Liberalism. People who interpret the Habermas Rawls dispute in the light of the contrast between Habermas’s principle (U) and Rawls’s Original Position, are looking at the wrong thing and so miss the real points of dispute.

What people should have been asking is this. What are the central organizing ideas of their respective political theories, and on what significant points do these ideas conflict?