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A CASE OF DISTORTED COMMUNICATION A Note on Habermas and Arendt MA RGARET CA NOVAN Universilt o' Keele makes possible the form of unconstrained Hermeneutic understanding consensus and the type of open Intersubjectivityon which communicative action depends. POLITICAL THEORY. 0090-591783 010105-121 .2 Habermas's theory has caused great excitement because it appears to promise an escape from the subjectivism characteristic of modern thought.45 105 . Insofar as we master the means for the construction of an ideal speech situation. February 1983 105-116 ? 1983 Sage Publications. since all speech. II No 1. even of intentional deception. freedom and justice. we can conceive the ideas of truth.' The work of Jurgen Habermas is celebrated for many reasons. He seems to give grounds for the hope that disputes even about intractable matters such as morality and politics can be settled by A U THOR'S NOTE: I wish to thank Ronald Beinerfor his comments on a previous draft of this article. Vol. is oriented towards the idea of truth. but one aspect of his thought that has attracted particular interest in recent years is his theory of communicative competence. This idea can only be analysed with regard to a consensus achieved in unrestrained and universal discourse. Inc. Habermas argues that implicit in all speech is the possibility of an ideal speech situation in which undistorted communication aims at rational consensus: No matter how the intersubjectivity of mutual understanding may be deformed. the design of an ideal speech situation is necessarily implied in the structureof potential speech.
he said. This article Is in no sense an attempt at the formidable task of assessing the strengths and weaknesses of Habermas'stheory Nevertheless. ideology. and repression. provided that the discourse is not blocked by the distortions induced by domination. Kant in effect reduced moral interaction to the decisions of solitary. and on the other an ideal of a single. each acting as the sole representative of humanity 3 But the human condition is not one of identical. In Theory and Practice.4 He points out that our capacity to engage in rational discourse shows that we can in fact correct our individual views and advance from opinion to truth. who had revived the forgotten Aristotelian distinction between "praxis" and "poesis. its subject. self-sufficient individuals. it explicitly recognizes and allows for differences and dialogues between plural human beings. Habermas criticized Kant's approach to moral theory for being "monologic." thereby providing a much more adequate understanding of political action than those otherwise available." By thinking in terms of a single subject laying down laws for the human race. on the model of individuals setting up goals and adjusting means to ends. objective truth. Arendt provided a "concept of action as 'praxis' which articulates the historical experiences . Whereas most contemporary action theories understand political practice In instrumental or strategic terms. however. Habermas's view also avoids the subjectivism of saying that questions of morals and politics are simply matters of individual choice. The great attraction of this theory is that it appears to hold together in a dialectical unity two previously opposed notions: on the one hand. Habermas acknowledged a profound intellectual debt to Hannah Arendt.106 POLITICAL THEORY / FEBRUARY 1983 rational discourse. and particularly to The Human Condition. The attractions of this theory are twofold. a recognition of the plurality and diversity of minds. In the first place. does have an ironic relevance to his ideal of perfect communication. which is the rational consensus reached among individuals in unconstrained discourse. II In an address delivered at the New School for Social Research in 1980. It was Arendt. Habermas's interpretation of Hannah Arendt. solitary minds laying down identical universal rules: It is a condition of communication and interaction among plural individuals with different points of view While arguing for the plurality of individuals.
ideology or neurosis. but by sheer intellectual vitality on the part of the reader. for creative misreading is one of the most familiar features of intellectual life. Habermas certainly owes a great deal to Arendt. then it seems obvious that Habermas and Arendt must be closely connected and their views very similar.Canovan i HABERMAS AND ARENDT 107 and the normative perspectives of what we today call participatory democracy "5 Habermas distinguishes three particularly important features of Arendt's theory of action. he transformed them very considerably. in the course of taking up her ideas." Habermas concludes."6 If we accept this very handsome admission as it stands. and certainly did find in her work the features he mentions. with the result that what he learned from Arendt was not quite what she would have liked to teach him. and then. read his own theory into them." The second feature is "the symbolic nature of the web of human relationships. The third is Arendt's concept of human "natality." or the role of communication in holding unique individuals together. But the irony of the situation is that their intellectual relationship is quite different from this. This would be so whether we were to think of Arendt as a forerunner of Habermas. The interest of the encounter. However. there is nothing unusual about this. Arendt how to approach a theory of communicative action. The first is her stress on the plurality of individuals. however.7This is a breathtaking piece. is that it is a textbook case of a form of distorted communication that does not figure in Habermas's theory the distortion caused not by domination. for what Habermas does is to translate Arendt's concepts into his own terminology." her insistence that "the birth of every individual is the promise of a new beginning. accuse her of failing to realize the implications of her own theory . in the process missing or distorting much of what she wanted to say. Habermas then proceeded to read his own ideas back into her books. "I have learned from H." which Habermas wrote for the commemorative issue of Social Research devoted to her work. Needless to say. to act means to be able to seize an initiative and to do the unanticipated. when forced to recognize that her conclusions are different from his. or to reverse the emphasis and see Habermas taking Arendt's theory to its logical conclusion. We can see these distortions at work in an essay on "Hannah Arendt's Communications Concept of Power. Having had his own (extremely original) thought processes triggered by Arendt. "the multiple perspectives of participants who occupy inevitably different standpoints.
then. While believing. Arendt was very far."the ability to "think in the place of everybody else. Habermas's position . they inevitably fall into different opinions on some of them."9and interprets her general view of politics as "the praxis of those who talk together in order to act in common. she stressed that people with different political standpoints can learn from one another. On the contrary. because they substitute talking for acting. that free discussion amongst reasonable individuals is the way to more realistic judgments and better-founded opinions. which elbows out Arendt's own concern with political action and worldly institutions. According to Habermas. She did not believe that the "common convictions" he refers to were to be had amongst free people."8He attributes to Arendt the belief that political institutions rest ultimately on "common convictions. she did not believe that at the end of that road lay anything remotely resembling universal concurrence in objective truth. she said."13Political thinking. and it may be argued that insofar as they do differ. The most fundamental point is that Arendt did not share Habermas's crucial belief in the possibility of rational consensus on political questions. within which the fundamental phenomenon of power is "the formation of a common will in a communication directed to reaching agreement. distortions of Arendt's views? Basically. In her study of totalitarianism she had analyzed as a pathological state the uniformity of ideological belief within mass movements. however.'1 but where free political communities were concerned she quoted with approval an adage from the Federalist Papers: "When men exert their reason coolly and freely on a variety of distinct questions."'2 This is not to say that Arendt considered political opinions incorrigible.'4 She stressed particularly that the realism and common sense of judgments rise as they are formed and transformed in the light of other people's opinions. or the aufhebung of individual opinions into a "common will. is "representative"in that it involves forming opinions and arriving at judgments by representing to oneself the points of view of others before arriving at conclusions.108 POLITICAL THEORY / FEBRUARY 1983 His account is dominated by his overriding interest in communication and rational agreement. from the purely subjectivist view that opinions on matters of politics and morals are simply private and incorrigible. and unity for plurality in politics."10 Why are these statements." The difference between Arendt and Habermas here may seem small. and the interpretation they illustrate. consensus for disagreement. what Arendt put forward was a "communication" model of action. and she applied to political thinking Kant's concept of "judgment.
Habermas appears to believe that free politics is a matter of citizens first of all talking. and then. proceeding to act as one. while narrow in theory. The peculiarity of Habermas's position. saw no reason to suppose that we can settle practical political disputes by purely rational means.'6 and he . Shaking his head over her old-fashioned cussedness. These are indeed philosophical questions of great importance. Arendt's concept of "praxis" was not "grounded in the rationality of practical judgement. this is in fact a complete misunderstanding of Arendt. After all. to come out into the open and examine just what is involved in such a claim." and Arendt had good reasons for her stress upon "the venerable figure of the contract. therefore. like Habermas. by contrast. if she is prepared to admit that political opinions can sometimes be shown to be wrong. and she ought. Because Habermas is himself preoccupied with discussion. he concludes. Hannah Arendt finally places more trust in the venerable figure of the contract than in her own concept of a praxis. concerned not just with how political debates are carned on but with how to settle them.Canovan / HABERMAS AND ARENDT 109 is simply more coherent than Arendt's." The fundamental flaw in Habermas's reading of Arendt is that it is excessively intellectualist. but he dismissed her views as merely old-fashioned: An antiquated concept of theoretical knowledge keeps Arendt from comprehending the process of reaching agreement about practical questions as rational discourse. Habermas recognized that Arendt did not agree with him. be claimed for the power of Arguing that "a cognitive foundation can common convictions. Arendt can certainly be criticized for not pursuing further her discussion of opinion and judgment and trying to work out by what criteria it can be established that one political opinion is an improvement on another. which is grounded in the rationality of practical judgement. however. Arendt. then she too must be operating with some kind of notion of rational truth in political matters. after they have all formed a common conviction and will." Habermas maintains that Arendt's denial of the possibility of basing politics on a rational consensus is inconsistent with her own view of action. is crucial for political practice. 5 Now. The difference between them. he misses Arendt's concern with action. is that he regards them not just as philosophical questions but as practical problems.
but in action. Such ment can certainly act together. He distinguishes in his later work between two levels of nonmanipulative communication between people. it might be supposed that this notion of rational discourse is simply a limiting ideal. perhaps even settle it--but only on a time scale reaching to infinity. But Arendt thought (as her criticisms of Rousseau's General Will show) that the whole notion of getting individuals to act as one was a dangerous illusion. If the background consensus should be questioned. and so fragile when it exists. This. always a messy and unpredictable business. however. he recognizes that perfect communication is a counterfactual ideal.19 At the lower level. and that people are not likely to arrive at common convictions in the real world. she points out. and fundamental matters of principle raised. and if it is to take place considerations of immediate practical relevance must be put aside. not just in the early stages of discussion. Habermas appears to think of discourse on morals and politics reaching conclusions within a manageable length of .?7 What she herself stressed was the inescapable plurality of men. human plurality means that action is always a web of intersecting actions with no common goal or definite consummation. however. She says over and over again that "men. however many presuppositions they need to question. and time. Instead. On the one hand. raise all possible aspects of a question. inhabit the world"'x men who are incorrigibly plural." the participants share a background consensus that they can take for granted. Curiously enough. Had we but world enough.110 POITICAl THEORY FEBRUARY 1983 attributes this view to Arendt. is precisely what makes free politics so difficult to achieve. so that their communication can produce an agreement related directly to practice. on the other hand. he appears to hold out the prospect of rational agreement on political questions not just as an ultimate utopia but as a matter of direct practical relevance. "communicative action. This is a point on which Arendt is in fact much clearer and less ambiguous than Habermas. but not out of anything as stable as a common will based on rational consensus. no doubt we could go on talking indefinitely. Habermas's position is much less clear.20 and the participants must be free to pursue the search for truth." Discourse is concerned purely and simply with establishing the truth in matters of principle. however. not Man. then the participants can move to the higher level of"discourse. Now. and his ambivalence is connected with his attempt to hold theory and practice together in the Marxist tradition.
21he can hardly walt until eternity to find out what the conclusions of that discourse would be.22or may be unable to agree because some of them raise issues of principle. the agreement of all participants in fully rational. he misses the significance of Arendt's insistence that free individuals are inescapably plural. first. In order to determine what kind of society would bejust. and. The fact is that. The difference between Habermas and Arendt is not a trivial one. he criticizes Arendt for failing to realize that discourse could settle practical questions. Because Habermas's focus is chiefly on the intellectual business of discussion. that the participants may have reached a false. as we have seen. so good: Habermas has solved his problem in theory. To meet this problem. He starts with a fairly straightforward conception of practical agreement. unblocked discourse. and to unmask ideological false consciousness.Canovan / HABERMAS AND ARENDT I11 time. Free people do not share common convictions or have a "common will" Perhaps in some ideal speech situation they might come to do so." an oscillation between theory and practice.23This of course begs the question twice over. but they will certainly . He recognizes. So far. Hence Habermas proposes as a criterion for political practice what people would have decided if they had engaged in rational discourse. he appeals to an ideal limiting condition. Habermas cannot avoid treating it as an empirical possibility because this is essential to his radical political stance. and second. for he speaks of the possibility of "forming the public will"through discourse. he has to anticipate the findings of an ideal discourse on political norms. There is a certain slipperiness about Habermas's "communicative action. that one can know what this would be without having to go through the ideal process of finding it. but how is so idealized a condition as a conclusion reached in perfect rational discourse ever to be translated back into practice?This can be done only by a piece of intellectual skulduggery The outcome of that ideal theoretical discourse must be anticipated for practical purposes. ideological consensus. although his notion of rational discourse is most plausible as a counterfactual idealization of potentialities inherent in speech. For the implication Arendt draws from this is that the public world and its institutions are the only means of holding plural individuals together in freedom. however. Since he claims that the criterion of a legitimate social order is whether or not people would agree to it under the conditions of ideal discourse. by assuming. that there must be some "common will" to be found. the direct formation of a common will in discussion.
The point is this: Habermas's creative . For among people who share a common world of institutions. to support political institutions. what they can concur in is their support for a common set of worldly institutions. Her point was that although free individuals are too inescapably plural ever to concur spontaneously in their opinions and projects. it does. They can be united. for two reasons. but a characteristic example of the way in which original thinking works. and many of them are of a kind that political philosophers are likely to miss precisely because. My purpose here is not to make a cheap jibe at the spectacle of an apostle of perfect communication failing to pay attention to another person's ideas27-after all. What they can share is not convictions that are identical inside all their individual minds. there is some justification for putting the record straight on what Arendt meant. and are therefore committed to achieving a working compromise when they differ. differences can be settled through purely political means. but a common world of institutions that is outside them and that all support by their actions. but because outside in the world they all inhabit the same public space. like Habermas.24 III Does it matter that Habermas misread Arendt? Yes. Habermas's misreading of Arendt was not just a lapse on his part. it must raise doubts about Habermas'stheory of undistorted communication. unanimous conviction is not necessary for practical agreement.112 POLITICAL THEORY / FEBRUARY 1983 not do so in any conceivable political practice. acknowledge its formal rules. In the first place. One of the most typical ways in which originality expresses itself is through creative misreading--seizing someone else's idea and transforming it unconsciously into something new 26 And while this creative misreading Is a good example of that human plurality and capacity to start things on which Arendt laid so much stress. This is why Arendt used what Habermas calls the "antiquated" notion of "contract. Arendt had important things to say about politics. they concentrate too much on what is involved in thinking and talking and not enough on what It is like to act In politics. not because they all think alike in the inner realm of their minds. Where there is a mutual commitment to the continuance of the same public world. the fact that we can recognize and point out Habermas's misinterpretation itself supports his stress on the possibility of rational discourse." or mutual agreement.25 The other reason is that the encounter between the two thinkers illustrates a more general point.
because it is tied in to a different set of ideas-just as the ideas about action and plurality that Habermas got from Arendt took on new meanings when they were detached from Arendt's main concerns and integrated into Habermas's. however. and they must go on talking about that same issue until it is resolved. Human originality continually frustrates this ideal of discourse. must aim at truth alone. this makes it hard for them to communicate fully The powerfully creative mind that seizes an idea and incorporates it In its own developing intellectual structure does not take kindly to the patient. As we can see from the case of Habermas and Arendt. for even if two such people start by talking . ideology and neurosis28-causes that would not exist in an ideal world-but also out of something that even the most utopian radical could scarcely wish away: human originality The ideal of perfect communication demands complete transparency of discourse. The more vigorous their thought processes. not just because ideological and psychological distortions intervene. However. rather than manipulating his or her interlocutor. original thinkers do not merely differ in their views: They also tend to feed their own thought processes with ideas taken from one another and unconsciously transformed. Thinking persons (as Habermas himself pointed out in opposition to Kantianism) are not mere embodiments of the processes of logic: They are distinct individuals engaged in the lifelong business of trying to make sense of their experience. Each participant must be intellectually capable of understanding the other. the more individual these tend to be. In the nature of things. for vigorous and original thinkers to talk about the same thing even when they are apparently using the same concepts. and each. Worse follows. but also because the participants are rarely both talking about precisely the same thing. therefore. What may appear to be a straightforward issue looks different from each side. each should be free of fears and prejudicesthat will render him or her unable to participate fully. self-effacing attention that is required to understand another person fully Intellectual debates rarely end in consensus. and the more likely it is that any given issue will take on a distinctive significance for a particular thinker.Canovan HABERMAS AND ARENDT 113 misreading of Arendt shows that distorted communication arises not only out of domination and repression. there is another condition for fully transparentdiscourse that is perhaps more elusive: Both speakers must be talking about precisely the same thing. It is hard.
Habermas. Two possible outcomes follow. The Critical Theori of Jiirgen Habermas (London: Hutchinson. 286. and if each of them could be prevented from having new ideas that would distract his or her attention. 6. and T A. pp. Habermas'sdistortion of Arendt has been pointed out by Gerard P Heather and Matthew Stolz in the course of their illuminating contrast between Arendt's approach to politics and that of the school of Critical Theory in general. thought and go off on an intellectual adventure that may be very exciting. but that deflects his or her attention from the original topic. The implication seems to be." p. 222. Theory and Practice(London: Heinemann. would have to exclude originality as well. both of them take up the new line of insight-or. Communication and the Evolution of Societ' (London: Heinemann. the other sidetracked by a fascinating new more fruitfully. 372. 176. 7. 2nd ed. pp. Jiirgen Habermas." Journal of Politics 14(1979). pp. Heather and Stolz pay less attention to . NOTES I. 128. p. pp. pp. 266." Philosophy of the Social Sciences 3 (1973). p. Theory and Practice. and concentrating particularly on Theory and Practice. 3-24. (London: Heinemann. The implications are very clearly spelled out in Thomas McCarthy. "A Theory of Communicative Competence. Jirgen Habermas. 1978). "Hannah Arendt and the Problem of Critical Theory.114 POLITICAL THEORY / FEBRUARY 1983 about precisely the same thing. 135-156. McCarthy. Habermas. "On the German-Jewish Heritage. Habermas had previously acknowledged Arendt's part in calling his attention to Aristotelian concepts of action. depressingly. however. see Habermas." Telos 44(Summer 1980) p." Inquiry 13 (Winter 1970). "Towards a Theory of Communicative Competence. Knowledge and Human Interests. "Hannah Arendt's Communications Concept of Power. Theory and Practice. Jurgen Habermas. "What Is Universal Pragmatics?"in J. 1978). but that leaves the onglnal problem unresolved. 128. that an ideal speech situation geared to rational consensus would not only have to exclude domination and repression. 1974). 1979). On "decisionlsm. JUrgen Habermas.29 No doubt the rational discourse upon which Habermas lays such stress could achieve consensus if the participants could be induced to talk for long enough with their minds strictly focused on exactly the same issue. 5. p. but." Social Research 44 (1977)." see Habermas. Jirgen Habermas. however. By treating Habermas primarily as a member of that school. p. at least one of them gets a new idea or makes a new connection that seems illuminating to him or her. "On the German-Jewish Heritage. 326-327 4. 150-151. Either the two thinkers talk at cross-purposes-one continuing with the original terms of reference. 3. See also idem. this happy state is unlikely to last. 2. Typically.
Human Condition. 197-198. 369. 227 13. 8. 21." Partisan Review 20 (1953). 220. 20. for example. 21.. for example. as free and equal. Politics and Society. 476. 9. pp. p. Habermas explains in "A Postscript to Knowledge and Human Interests" (Knowledge and Human Interests. 16. 72-73. See.and second. the problem of achieving democracy is "a question of finding arrangements which can ground the presumption that the basic institutions of the society and the basic political decisions would meet with the unforced agreement of all those involved. 386-387 12. his comments on her attitude to social questions. Arendt. On intellectualism as the characteristic vice of Critical Theory in general. "Hannah Arendt. Totalitarianism. see Heather and Stolz. "Hannah Arendt. "Legitimation Problems in the Modern State. 9.Canovan / HABERMAS AND ARENDT 115 his later communication theory. pp. 22-24. (Oxford: Blackwell. pp. 107-110." p. On Revolution. Arendt was deeply distrustful of "the tyranny of logicality against which nothing stands but the great capacity of men to start something new" (Totalitarianism. 1967). 3-4. 5-6.. for example. Communication and the Evolution of Society." p. notably. 19. 1959). 255. some of his critical remarksare certainly applicable to and damaging to her theory. pp. See." see Theory and Practice. On Revolution. 15. 209. A distrust of single-track logicality for its coerciveness and lack of common sense is a frequent theme in her writings. Vol. "Hannah Arendt. p. The Origins of Totalitarianism. 11. The Human Condition (Garden City. 115. see p. 1967). with the result that the crucial differences are subtle and easily missed. 469-477 It is highly significant that whereas Habermas refers with approval to "that peculiarly forceless force with which insights assert themselves" ("Hannah Arendt. 15. Habermas. Knowledge and Human Interests. "Truth and Politics.eds. 174. in discursive will-formation". On Revolution (London: Faber. p. "Universal Pragmatics. 6). The various types of speech are most clearly explained in Habermas. 17 Hannah Arendt. Although Habermas was to a large extent talkingpast Arendt in this article and missing her point. with slight variations in phrasing. (London: Allen & Unwin. p. "Truth and Politics. Habermas. For a few of Habermas's constant referencesto "discursive formation of the public will." p. 3rded. Ibid. This statement." especially in Note 2. Ibid. 21-22."Understandingand Politics. Hannah Arendt." pp. p. p." in Hannah Arendt. Runciman." pp. Hannah Arendt. 22. 18. 22-23. 1963). Between Past and Future (London: Faber. in the first place because Habermas's recent theories appeal to a much wider audience than that sympathetic to Critical Theory in general. 14. if they could participate. Hannah Arendt. 1961). 4. . but supplements it by looking specifically at the relations between Arendt and Habermas's theory of communication. p. habermas. The present note therefore endorses Heather and Stolz's main thesis. NY Doubleday. Habermas. 17. p. 457-458. 3." in P Laslett and W G. pp. 12. Habermas. 18. p. p. 10. pp. pp. This is important. 473). 4. and is perhaps the single most significant motif of her thought. Philosophy. 369) that the need for this distinction had only recently occurred to him. For example. See. 37. occurs again and again in Arendt's work. because there really are certain resemblances between Habermas's communication theory and Arendt's theory of action. "Hannah Arendt and the Problem of Critical Theory." p." in Habermas. "The Crisis in Culture. Arendt.
p. Her most recent hook is Populism. 1976). 26. see Arendt." throughout. See M. 220. See Habermas. One of the criticisms commonly raised against Habermas himself is precisely that he keeps breaking new ground. pp. 29. Habermas has come in for considerable criticism on account of his interpretations of other thinkers. 24. for example. "Hannah Arendt and the Problem of Critical Theory. "How would the members of a social system Interpreted their needs (and which norms would they have accepted asjustified) if they could and would have decided on an organization of social Intercoursethrough discursive will-formation?" J. 433447 27. but can be treated simply as a technical means of settling a disputed issue. Legitimation Crisis (London: Heinemann). The Critical Theory of Jiirgen Hahermas. Leslie. 374. England. . McCarthy. 351-360. The Restructuring ofSocial and Political Theori (Oxford: Basil Blackwell. Margaret Canovan is a Lecturer in Politics at Keele Universilt. R.116 POLITICAL THEORY / FEBRUARY 1983 have collectively and bindingly 23. 25. 113. voting does not have to be looked upon as a way of finding some kind of General Will that will be the correct answer to the problem." p. and she is currentlyl working hoth on populist themes and on further aspects of Arendt's political thought. "Towards a Theory of Communicative Competence. Habermas assumes that deviations from perfect communication "increase in proportion to the degree of repression which characterises the institutional system within a given society". Her publications include The Political Thought of Hannah Arendt as well as articles on Arendt and other sublects. 28. Knowledge and Human Interests. pp. For example." Political Studies 18 (1970). "In Defence of Anachronism. See. Habermas. See also Heather and Stolz. moving into new theoretical areas-long before his critics feel that the previous ones have been properly explored. p. p. p. On Revolution. Bernstein. 163. 70.
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