Thursday, March 9, 2006

Habermas’s “abstractness”

An online friend (a philosophy professor!) noted that Habermas “needs another translation [besides German to English] making his work clearer and more comprehensible.”

I have much fondness for the idiom of saying “you need to [whatever].”

“Gee,” I say to myself, “I didn’t realize I needed that.”

You might expect—one might expect—linguistic analysts to latch onto such things, not that I consider myself a linguistic analyst; but, you know (‘you know’ is another one of those things), close scrutiny ought to be called for somewhere, so in philosophy it’s typical.

“Needs” is often an idiomatic imperative: Habermas should be “translated”—Habermas should translate himself. Habermas should feel the need to translate himself or see that he is translated....

As if he isn’t or hasn’t or doesn’t.

‘Habermas’ might be a stand-in for “academic philosophy” generally, especially in a culture that prefers short attention spans (not true for my friend, I’m sure—“I’m sure”: With all due generosity toward the professor).

I’m amazed by the ordinarily low level of attention to another’s words that’s common in Internet dialogue. Here, you’ve got all the time you need before responding: time to think, then to think during the writing (in the writing: writing as an occasion for tracing careful thought ongoing in the slowness of writing).

But Internet dialogue reflects our society: Chat room spontaneity (impulsiveness?) reflects cell phone chatter. Email discussion reflects the office memo: Keep it short for the busy, so busy, V.I.P.

One’s response to a given passage of philosophy easily looks like a vertiginous pretext for whatever’s on the respondent’s mind, having little to do with the motivating text. It’s amazing!

Then, there’s the special context of the philosophical text, whose pretext (by the major philosopher) is some lucidity about what’s already been said, as the aging, major writer is Moving On in her/his new topic, still in a community of communicative projects, all involving “translation” of one kind or another.

I’ve heard that in the classical German university, seminars commonly go through texts line-by-line, like Heidegger explicating a paragraph. Though you won’t find such engagement with the hermeneutical circle in Habermas’ explications, you should find much more in his work (e.g., The Theory of Communicative Action) than you’ll find in the average journal article on Habermas’s work.

Bottom line (“bottom line”: love that one, too), good philosophy is very difficult to do, therefore difficult to read fairly.

But everyone’s got an opinion, because something’s valuably gotten from what reading’s done—meaning being so transparent ’n all (supposedly)—or “needs to” be—quick reading ought to do it? If you can’t get your message across easily, there’s something wrong with your message, “they say” (in effect, by their impatience of response).

It all reminds me of Heidegger’s notion of “idle chatter.” People think the alternative is some Sturm und Drang humorlessness of Transcendental Gall, but, no, really it’s divine comedy.