Koselleck, Politics and Discourse

In West German political theory of the mid-1950s, notes Niklas Olsen in his History in the Plural (2012), the public sphere – die Öffentlichkeit – emerged as ‘das akademische Thema der Stunde’: the academic theme of the hour.[i] Probably the two most important resulting West German studies considering the public sphere were Reinhart Koselleck’s Critique and Crisis [Kritik und Krise (1959)], and Jürgen Habermas’s The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere [Strukturwandel der Öffentlichkeit (1962)]. The relationship between these two texts was already apparent in terms of their reception history: in 1960, before publishing his own book, Habermas produced a double review of Critique and Crisis alongside a dissertation by Hanno Kesting. As Olsen writes, in fact Habermas’s subsequent book offered an interpretation of the Enlightenment project and the status of the modern European public sphere that ‘simultaneously overlapped and conflicted’ with the interpretation in Koselleck’s work. Olsen quotes Peter Uwe Hohendahl: ‘Where Koselleck perceived decline (already during the eighteenth century), Habermas saw the beginning of modernity, containing the very project that was supposed to shape postwar Germany.’ (81)    

Olsen draws on useful expository articles from Jeremy Pompkin and Anthony J. La Vopa in order to summarize how, to the extent that Habermas’s account of ‘the rise of the public sphere and of the possibilities of human communication’ was a ‘direct response’ to Koselleck’s account of these issues, it also ‘fundamentally conflicted’ with Koselleck’s treatment. In Olsen’s words, Habermas outlines a ‘public sphere of rational debate’ which is ‘guided by a norm of rational argumentation and critical discussion in which the strength of one’s argument was more important than one’s social belonging’. But whilst Habermas’s invocation of a bourgeois world of ‘coffeehouses, literary salons, and the print media’, and the sort of rootless, desocialized sociablility that world enabled, meant that he underlined ‘the possibilities of openness, dialogue, and consensus in processes of decision-making in the public sphere, Koselleck emphasized the existence of secrecy, domination, and conflict’. Olsen pinpoints the way in which Habermas valued the Enlightenment as a discursive Enlightenment:

‘[…] where Habermas optimistically interpreted the Enlightenment public sphere as an unfulfilled promise of how a new kind of human communication can break down hierarchical power relationships, Koselleck pessimistically spoke of the pathogenesis of the Enlightenment and highlighted the destructive potential of Enlightenment thought and the public sphere in modern politics.’ (82)

Chris Thornhill has observed how Habermas’s conception of a discursive Enlightenment and resultant view that – to state it plainly – politics is discourse – continued to inform his 1970s debates with a slightly younger conservative thinker than Koselleck, Niklas Luhmann: where Luhmann argued that ‘political legitimacy is smooth-running administration’, Habermas maintained that ‘legitimate politics arises from discursive interaction’.[ii] I want to show now that Koselleck, by contrast, asserts politics against discourse.

In Critique and Crisis, John Locke is identified as the first to notice the rise of moral criticism – the appearance of new moral laws – in the new bourgeois public sphere. This phenomenon, Koselleck saw, undermined existing criteria for political decision-making: ‘Which authority decides? The moral authority of the citizen or the political authority of the state? Or both of them jointly?’ For Enlightenment philosophers, a subordination of politics to morality, or what Olsen calls a rejection of ‘the authority of the state on behalf of the authority of morality’, naturally accorded with their critique of the absolutist state. Moreover, in Koselleck’s outline, politics began to be considered as ‘evil’, in that it prevented morality from unfolding. In consequence citizens, as Olsen explains, sought ‘protection from the state in the institutions of the public sphere, where the moral criticism had to be carried out in secrecy – and with the claim of being unpolitical – as it conflicted with the statutes of the absolutist state’ (49, quoting Koselleck).

Post-1789, for Koselleck, the lack of resolution of the contradiction between morality and politics still entailed a failure – as Olsen writes – ‘to transform the Enlightenment crisis-consciousness into rational and responsible political action, where the existence of enemies is recognized’. The rise of secular eschatological philosophy of history such as Hegel’s meant that agents ‘sought refuge in historical-philosophical ideas of future worlds with reference to which they sought to carry out their utopian political plans and moreover acquitted themselves from the responsibility of their actions’. Like his friend Carl Schmitt, when faced at this time by the Cold War, in Critique and Crisis Koselleck presented a modern world ‘where the conditions for a durable political order are absent as long as historical-philosophical worldviews prevent the recognition of political opponents and of political responsibility’ (52).

Olsen’s account emphasizes Koselleck’s focus on political life in the Schmittian sense of ‘taking responsibility and making decisions’ (23). Koselleck sensed, Olsen adds, that ‘the utopian rejection of political authority instead led to an authority based on ideology, where supposedly anti-authoritarian Enlightenment concepts such as “reason,” “equality,” and “morality” were used as weapons of power and control’ (49-50). This suspicion of utopianism and its concomitant work of depoliticization is also aligned – as indeed it was by Victor Gourevitch in his ‘Foreword’ to the English translation of Critique and Crisis – to what has importantly been described (by Gourevitch) as Koselleck’s wish to ‘restore the characteristically Hobbesian awareness that there is no escaping the constraints of political life’, along with Thomas Hobbes’s sense that it is not possible ‘to reduce some measure of contingency, conflict and compulsion to the status of differences of opinion or to resolve them by discussion and peaceful competition’. As Gourevitch stated, Koselleck ‘shares the conviction, so forcibly articulated by Hobbes, that the only alternative to politics that takes these constraints into account is the war of all against all’.[iii] The Cold War is seen to be a product of the substitution of a politics recognizing real constraints, such as the reality of conflict itself, with competing ideology-based authorities.

In Gourevitch’s account, Hobbes – and then Koselleck also – resists the reduction of features of political reality to elements of discourse (‘differences of opinion’), which would be assimilable within processes of discursive arbitration (‘discussion and peaceful competition’). It would seem that, briefly put, and whilst for Habermas politics is discourse, Koselleck asserts politics against discourse. Certainly, in Critique and Crisis, when he draws out Pierre Bayle’s exclusion of ‘the sphere of criticism from the sphere of the State’, Koselleck holds out criticism as one example of a discursive discipline which represents a depoliticized activity. ‘Within the Republic of Letters the unpolitical quest for truth reigns.’ Koselleck’s account also lets us see that the separation of politics from discourse which Hobbes stressed and foregrounded as a defining modern rift was not such an absolute one prior to Hobbes. Hobbes himself was identified in his own time as a practitioner of both criticism and politics: Koselleck points out that, on account of their common opposition to the ‘ecclesiastical authorities’, as ‘critics’ in a dual sense practitioners of rational Biblical criticism and political commentary ‘often formed a personal union, like [Jean] Bodin and Hobbes, who were considered outstanding both as Biblical critics and “politicians”’. Further, Koselleck notes how Aristotle’s use of language derived (like the words ‘criticism’, ‘crisis’, Kritik, Krise) ‘from the Greek xρίνω: to differentiate, select, judge, decide’, had already allied the critical, discursive activity of legal judgement to politics, citizenship.

‘When the judge’s decision specifically is meant, the term αρxή xριτιxή carries the sense of creating order, as Aristotle used it (Pol. 1253a; 1275a, b; 1326b). […] Only he who participates in the office of judge (αρxή) is a citizen.’[iv]     

Olsen sees how the opposition of a politics recognizing real constraints to progressivist philosophy of history and utopianism, which we find in Critique and Crisis, reflects the influence of Karl Löwith’s 1949 text Meaning in History, of which Koselleck was co-translator (22). Löwith’s postwar emphasis on historical contingency is found in statements such as ‘[man’s] planning and guessing, his designs and decisions, far-reaching as they may be, have only a partial function in the wasteful economy of history which engulfs them, tosses them, and swallows them’ (quoted on 23). Koselleck in turn, as Olsen puts it, ‘focussed on the possibility of crisis, conflict, and war, on change and contingency, and he nurtured a much deeper scepticism [than historian Hans-Ulrich Wehler] toward every kind of long-term planning, morality, and belief in societal progress’ (16). Like Hobbes, as we have seen, Koselleck also opposes politics admitting ‘contingency, conflict and compulsion’ to opinionated discourse amenable to resolution by ‘peaceful competition’ (Gourevitch). Yet it is possible to wonder whether Koselleck’s concern with a politics accepting contingency has relevance beyond the immediate postwar historical context which generated it. Referring to the original dissertation form of Critique and Crisis, Olsen observed how ‘while Koselleck did not subject the plot line or the line of argumentation in the dissertation to major revisions between 1954 and 1959, the intellectual-political climate in Germany underwent considerable changes in this period’. (1954 was the year following the dissertation’s submission; 1959 was its publication date). Whereas during what Olsen calls ‘the long period from around 1900 to the 1950s’, tropes of ‘uncertainty, change, and crisis had dominated social-political thought’, by the later 1950s ‘a stronger faith in the capability and durability of political democracy’, alongside socio-economic improvements, meant that (West) Germans had become ‘increasingly oriented toward concepts such as stability, welfare, and progress’ (80). Does this shift of focus of socio-political attitudes away from an understanding of politics in terms of contingency and conflict begin to undermine the validity of Koselleck’s thinking around politics and discourse?

The continuing relevance of Koselleck’s opposition of a politics accepting contingency to conflict-resolving discourse – Gourevitch’s ‘discussion and peaceful competition’ – seems to me to be most apparent in terms of the resistance which Koselleck’s upholding of politics admitting contingency enables to Habermas’s thinking of domination-free discourse. As Olsen observes, in his 1987 article ‘Historik und Hermeneutik’ [‘History and Hermeneutics’] Koselleck explicitly ‘challenges Habermas’s ideal of herrschaftsfreier Diskurs, that is, the contention that we can critically evaluate political life from the perspective of a rational consensus that is attained in a herrschaftsfrei (domination-free) practical discourse’ (99 n. 138). You could say that politics can only become discourse for Habermas because discourse – so he asserts – can achieve the rational evaluation of political life. This assertion, moreover, is why Habermas’s theory of discourse – as Thornhill suggests – would be pitched against Luhmann’s theory of the functional system of the political institution. ‘In opposition to Luhmann’s functionalism, Habermas puts forward a non-institutionalist theory of discourse, in which the ethical claims of domination-free communication cannot be assimilated to systemic rationality.’[v] Yet Habermas’s vaunting of ethical discourse (or discursive ethics) and the reason of academic institutions against political-institutional rationality had already been questioned in the work of the ‘liberal conservatives’ who clustered around the Münster philosopher Joachim Ritter during the 1950s and 1960s. These thinkers, some of whom – as Olsen writes – ‘knew and cooperated’ (35 n. 36) with Koselleck – sought to reclaim ethics in the face of Habermasian reason and morality:

‘As Verfassungspatrioten (constitutional patriots) they have instead attempted to defend and improve the liberal-democratic pillars of the German Federal Republic by emphasizing “responsibility against attitude, institutionalized decision against ideas of a discourse free of domination, tradition and ethics [Sittlichkeit] against idealized reason and morality.”’ (16, quoting Jens Hacke)   



[i] Niklas Olsen, History in the Plural: An Introduction to the Work of Reinhart Koselleck (New York: Berghahn, 2014; first publ. 2012), p. 98 n. 126; Olsen refers us to Stephan Schlak, Wilhelm Hennis: Szenen einer Ideengeschichte der Bundesrepublik (Mŭnchen: 2008) for details. (Further references to History in the Plural are given after quotations in my text).  

[ii] Chris Thornhill, Political Theory in Modern Germany: An Introduction (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2000), p. 204.

[iii] ‘Foreword’, in Reinhart Koselleck, Critique and Crisis: Enlightenment and the Pathogenesis of Modern Society (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1988), pp. vii-x (p. ix).

[iv] Koselleck, pp. 112, 106, 103 n. 15.

[v] Thornhill, p. 203.


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