The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity


Title:                      The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity

Author:                  Jürgen Habermas

Habermas, Jürgen (1987). The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity: twelve lectures, Frederick Lawrence (trans.). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press

LOC:       87012397

B3258.H323 P5513 1987

Date Posted:      April 19, 2013

Habermas[1] writes of the attempt to deal with modernity, especially the problems posed by subjective purposive rationality, and the attempts to escape metaphysics since Hegel posited absolute Spirit. Chapters are devoted to Heidegger, Nietzsche, Derrida, Foucault, Horkheimer, Adorno, et al.

In his discussion of Nietzsche’s “On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life,” he writes:

Nietzsche analyzes the fruitlessness of cultural tradition uncoupled from action and shoved into the sphere of inferiority. Knowledge, taken in excess without hunger, even contrary to need, no longer acts as a transforming motive impelling to action and remains hidden in a certain chaotic inner world…and so the whole modern culture is essentially internal…a Handbook in Inner culture for External Barbarians. Modern consciousness, overburdened with historical knowledge, has lost “the plastic power of life” that makes human beings able, with their gaze on the future, to “interpret the past from the standpoint of the highest strength of the present.” Because the methodically proceeding Geistewsissenschaften are dependent on a false, which is to say unattainable, ideal of objectivity, they neutralize the standards necessary for life and make way for a paralyzing relativism: “Things were different in all ages; it does not matter how you are.” They block the capacity to “shatter and dissolve” something past from time to time, in order to “enable us to live in the present.” Like the Young Hegelians, Nietzsche senses in the historicist admiration of the “power of history” a tendency that all too easily turns into an admiration of naked success in the style of Realpolitik.

I [William Plank] think Nietzsche explained why the EMC faculty have been able to tolerate for so long the lack of leadership and the lack of a raise for the last four years, except for periods of private griping. They have great knowledge, but it is “taken without hunger,” and it no longer impels them to action. They have been profiting from the “fruitlessness of a cultural tradition uncoupled from action,” and paralyzed by the admiration of “historical knowledge” which “has lost the plastic power of life.” On the other hand, we may just be children of the Great Depression and grateful to the employer that he does not discover our Guilt and fire us.

A major hoax that has been played on the public is that Johnny and Jenny will perform beyond expectations in school if they are told they are wonderful. It has been called the “self-esteem movement,” and its shortcomings and duplicities have been exposed for all to see by Maureen Stout in her excellent book, The Feel-Good Curriculum (2001). Stout deconstructs the ten “myths” undergirding the movement, such notions as that competition and grading are bad for students’ self-esteem, that teachers should be counselors and friends with their students, that when students fail, it’s the teacher’s fault.

The above is Plank grinding an ax, but that does not mean he is wrong. Neither does Habermas have the answers regarding how we view the changes in mores we are experiencing, especially in the Millennium youth. I deal with them every day. Their ideas challenge the notions of right and proper, especially of the baby boomers, and the generation that preceded them.


[1] This review by William Plank, Modern Language & Literature, Eastern Montana College

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