Jürgen Habermas does not exist

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Jürgen Habermas‘s lecture at Stanford in commemoration of Richard Rorty on November 2, 2007, was a lucid recitation of Rorty’s career as a linguistic and political philosopher. It was the best such recitation I’ve come across in print or in person (a point made by the chair of Stanford’s philosophy department in a fawning non-question question during the Q&A), but given the colon-rich title of the event“And to define America, her athletic democracy: Richard Rorty: Philosopher and Language Shaper”I was expecting synthesis rather than summary. More specifically, I anticipated that Habermas, with his unique perspective on Rorty’s work, would make an attempt to elucidate (or, depending on what he took to be the sophistication of his audience, problematize) the stuff astride those conspicuous colons. But he didn’t. Between the two idioms in which the event was advertisedas a “lecture” (an academic idiom) “in commemoration” of Rorty (an elegiac idiom)Habermas chose to lean heavily toward the second, the elegiac, in the form of hewing to Rorty’s life and work to the exclusion of other topics and ultimately to the extent that Habermas could have been anyone, a generic if eloquent deliverer of Rorty’s biography and intellectual lineage. Habermas wasn’t Habermas as Habermas, the thinker with unique ideas that engage uniquely with Rorty’s; he was our leader in group tribute. And so man who asked Habermas, at the conclusion of his remarks, a question about his relative silence on how the new prominence of new media might affect his thinking about the public sphere was told, by Habermas, that such a question was inappropriate, that we were “here to talk about Dick” [1].

Habermas’s resoluteness in forgetting himself as himself was pointed up by a parallel phenomenon in the woman sitting to my left, who, in the presence of Habermas the man, ignored the man to seek his image, or rather dozens of his images. She scrolled through her search results, eyes flitting from photo to photo, periodically lurching incredulously to the stage and the man and spilling just as incredulously back down the pictures. After ten or so minutes of this, apparently unsatisfied, she closed her laptop, and after a final glance at Habermas the man, or rather at Habermas the anonymous but articulate medium of tribute, she nestled her head between the shoulder and chest of the comely man to her left and fell quickly asleep.

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[1] Intellectually, this is a perfectly fair question to ask Habermas, who has not said much on those matters, but on whose theories the world’s changing dynamics of communication do unquestionably have an impact. Perhaps the questioner was a Habermasian seeking a supplement to Habermas’s theories, a palliative to ease his doubts about Habermas’s technological fluency until Habermas himself could get around to demonstrating the relevance and facility of his theories in our new media environment. Whether hostilely skeptical or just seeking that palliative, the man was put down by the crowd’s collective groan, whose displeasure at his existence was palpable.

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Richard Rorty, 1931-2007

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