Habermas / Carr – A Few Notes

In his 1980 lecture, Modernity Versus Postmodernity, J. Habermas attempts to diagnose the ’emotional current of our times’ as manifest in the myriad social reactions to the breakdown of modernity.  He takes his cue from a signal proclamation of a German critic around that time: ‘Post-modernity definitely presents itself as anti-modernity’.  He does this by first examining the nature of the ‘modern’ and what that has traditionally stood to mean, and then tracing the ‘[loss of] fixed historical reference’ as a symptom of human civilization moving from a synthesis of lived order in the pre-enlightenment era to its enlightenment distillation into distinct spheres – epistemic, normative and aesthetic – which in-turn encourage the emergence of specializations along each respective track.  This movement – or drive toward specialization – sparked a sense of disconnection (alienation?) as a symptom of the modern era which in turn provoked rebellions channeled along three primary tracks, namely: (1) young conservatives, (2) old conservatives and (3) neo-conservative – which he then characterizes by their reactions and proposed solutions to these problems at hand.
In framing the question of modernity as traditionally understood as a fixed point in the the bi-polar ancient/modern divide, we can better understand the breakdown in the work that the modern does.  E. H. Carr seems to touch on this by placing the historian as a (modern) node in a feedback-loop between past and present.  He notes ‘two important truths: first that you cannot fully understand or appreciate the work of the historian unless you have first grasped the standpoint from which he himself approached it; second, that that standpoint is itself rooted in a social and historical background […] The historian, before he begins to write history, is the product of history.’ (What Is History?, 48)  Habermas’ critique and diagnosis of the postmodern can be situated in Carr’s suggestion (54): ‘Before you study the history, study the historian. […] Before you study the historian, study his historical and social environment.  The historian, being an individual, is also a product of history and of society; and it is in this twofold light that the student of history must learn to regard him.’  Diagnosing the postmodern condition amounts to diagnosing the various social reactions to the breakdown of the modern.

Leave a Reply