Are we sure people today are still interested in being free? Habermas’ steps forward according to Massimo Borghesi.

Publisher: Armando Editore
Pages: 176
Price: €17

Massimo Borghesi reconstructs the considerable “steps forward” made by Habermas with respect to human nature in the essay “The natural premises of being-able-to-be-oneself. The nature-liberty polarity of Jürgen Habermas” published in the series edited by Francesco Russo, Natura cultura libertà, Armando, Rome 2010 (pgs.  176, Euro 17.00).

Especially in “The Future of Human Nature. The Risks of Liberal Genetics” and in “Between Science and Faith”, Habermas takes quite seriously the need for democracy to have non political “premises”, as argued by Böchenförde. Thus does he oppose the liberal vision of human nature, whereby everything has to be culture and no longer nature in order for liberty to exist, Postmodern liberal thinking opposes nature and culture, retaining that liberty calls for “constructionism”, which retains everything phenomenon. Standing at the origin of all this is Kant, who argued radical opposition between natural inclinations and moral liberty. Habermas, who is an expression of this school of thought, deviates from his masters and, especially  in the latest works mentioned above, asserts that the inalterability of our body is a condition for the exercise of our liberty. As Massimo Borghesi points out, this is an innovation of utmost interest because it denotes an acceptance of the dimension of nature.

Habermas argues that if the body is constructed by someone (for example, through its genetic programming), the liberty of the subject in question disappears. Natural contingency in the sense of the fact that man is not the producer of himself is the condition for his autonomous action. The exercise of liberty needs to feel the body as “part of self” and not produced by others. This is why Habermas calls his position “soft naturalism”. Only if the body is maintained in its “spontaneous” aspect (the “natality” as “innovation” of which Hanah Arendt speaks) as something new is it possible to maintain the distinction between subjective and objective, between artificial and natural, between what has grown naturally and what has been technically produced.   

In going against the tide of the school of thought to which he belongs, but in line with Hans Jonas, for example, and with Adorno as far as some aspects are concerned, Habermas has taken a stand against genetic manipulation, DNA alterations, the destruction of human embryos and euthanasia. Denied in all these forms is the importance of something natural being inalterable.

His observations, quite naturally, remain within the Habermasian paradigm. It is not a matter of a recovery of ‘nature’ in an ontological-metaphysical sense. Habermas remains within modernity and aims to argue against certain deviations of instrumental reason precisely in the field of modernity itself, illustrating how they hamper liberty, which, as we know, is the totem of modernity. Likewise typically Habermasian is the argument that genetic manipulations do not take into account the “consent” of the actual subject thereof. This argument evokes his theory of communicative action whereby it is necessary to proceed on the level of law and ethics with the assumption of certain pragmatic premises, including the assumption that each person acts according to purpose, is able to argue his reasons, and that said reasons are rendered public.

Nonetheless, Massimo Borghesi quite rightly highlights the importance of these “steps forward” on the part of Habermas. The affirmation that the human person “owes his origin to an inalterable beginning” is well worthy of note. Certainly, one could take this annotation all the way to creation, because only the absolute distance between the Creator and His creature founds the contingency of human nature and its inalterability on the part of man himself. Habermas does not do so, but this is the right direction. Evident is the lack of an ontological-metaphysical foundation, but for the moment could anyone ask anything more of Habermas? Mr. Borghesi does underscore one point where this lack reveals the acute need for such a foundation. Habermas says the recognition of nature is a condition for the exercise of liberty. He is speaking about enlightened modernity. But are we sure people today are still interested in being free? Habermas and others may well have lost control over the nihilistic outcomes of enlightened modernity. The true solution is the full recovery of the concept of nature, but ‘hats off’ to Habermas for his “steps forward”.


Stefano Fontana