I’m happy to see Bill Barger’s admiration for Habermas’ sense of Sartre.

The interview gives an atmosphere to Habermas’ early life that suggests that his early-career interest in psychoanalysis expressed a tacitly existential appreciation of the emancipatory interest. (This interest is derivative of the interest in enlightenment, as the interest in healing is derivative of the interest in development. So, it’s not that Habermas later dropped his emancipatory interest; rather: It was initially an expression of the interest in enlightenment, albeit strapped with realities of systematically distorted communication.)

Habermas’ resort to psychoanalysis as venue for making methodological sense of the critical spirit expressed an appreciation of existential depth (as psychoanalysis idealizes existential depth of self-understanding) associable with the overtly existential atmosphere of the times. This association of “existential” endeavor and psychoanalytic endeavor was explicit with Sartre, of course, but also explicit in some camps of psychoanalysis: so-called “existential psychoanalysis.” But what became more durable for psychotherapeutics was the interest in development which one’s concern for existence expresses. Existentialism was at heart a kind of emancipatory interest that had limited usefulness for psychotherapeutics, while developmental psychology has evolved to be immensely useful for psychotherapeutics (and existentialism, within psychology, has gone the way of human potential psychology, now “positive psychology” or the psychology of “well-being,” also called “hedonic psychology”).

This development—from psychoanalytic modeling to developmental-psychological modeling—is suggested in Habermas’ movement into cognitive-developmental psychology in the mid-‘70s. Methodological sense of the interest in enlightenment is made in terms of cognitive-developmental research. All along, Habermas had been seeking a sense of “reconstructive” inquiry, evident even in his critique of Kant and Hegel in Knowledge & Human Interests, but quite explicit in his appropriation of Kohlberg in the early ‘80s, in Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action, 1983g/1990e (which derives from appropriation from the mid-‘70s, Communication & the Evolution of Society , 1979e).

When Bill Barger expressed concern recently (and earlier) about the “translation” of Habermas’ work in English (as a matter of mediating English abstraction into English accessibility), I was curious about his comment that:

Even so, students needed help from the professor to grasp the ideas being presented, often in quite obscure terms: (e.g., “the transcendental unity of apperception” which is not uncommonly understood to mean “ego.”)

“...not uncommonly understood,” perhaps, but is such understanding valid? I didn’t want to get into Kant, but Kant’s sense of self has received attention in recent years, so I wanted to believe that such an understanding is valid, though my intuition told me otherwise.

A challenge for philosophy—for intellectual life generally, but philosophy especially—is to do translations (i.e., interpretations within a given language) that don’t conceal prospects for moving further into what the thought is about. A heuristic conception may be greatly felicitous for one’s developmental thinking, but conceal prospects for deeper understanding. A proximal conception can conceal what’s going on primordially; this was a keynote of Heidegger’s Being & Time, which so influenced Sartre and Europe’s focus on existential issues after the The War (which was one war with a long break).

It’s likely that one misunderstands any difficult writer. Maybe a postmetaphysicalist reading of Kant holds in store promise missed in the employment of Kantian thought for the critique of metaphysicalism (as the latter doesn’t dispense with “metaphysics”—i.e., ontological interests—just dissolves the metaphysicalist approach to ontological issues). Certainly, there’s no end to Kant scholarship, and I’ve never claimed to be a Kant scholar (having been steered away from Kant by Ordinary Language Philosophy, then by Husserl/Heidegger, furthered by Habermas’ critique).

So, I sent Bill an email, including (among other things better expressed above):

...when I look up Kant’s notion, I find that ‘It is objective’—‘the manifold given in an intuition [that] is united in a concept of the object’ and ‘It is a subjective unity of consciousness... empirically given.’ But ego pertains to a subjective unity that is only experientially given, not as object (nor objectively), rather as subject. The concept of ego is not the ego itself.

Maybe you meant that Kant’s notion pertains to the concept of the ego. But a concept is an abstraction from what is conceived, and ego is given only for “me”; the concept’s not objective, nor empirically denotable (except as propositional content or reference to that which belongs to a given person AS experience).

Bill replied with a very interesting (and valid, it seems to me) appreciation of Freud, to which I replied in part:

... I’m surprised to read, as you indicate, that “Habermas appears to be using ‘ego’ as a rough equivalent for the ‘transcendental unity of apperception’...in his first chapter, on Hegel’s critique of Kant.” Can you tell me what pages of KHI that is?

Bill replied:

That’s my understanding of p. 16: “Even if the transcendental unity of self-consciousness can only be comprehended in the actual course of the investigation as arising from the activities of original apperception, the identity of the ego must already be taken account of at its beginning on the basis of the undoubted transcendental experience of self-reflection.” This is not an example of limpid linguistic transparency; I’d appreciate your translation, if I’m mistaken.

I replied:

It’s certainly an obscure passage. But it’s fascinating.

“...the transcendental unity of self-consciousness...arises from the activities of original apperception,....”

But that doesn’t indicate that any apperception is a unity, being also no indication of a transcendental unity pertaining to apperception; rather transcendental unity pertains to self-consciousness.

The ego here is related, but methodologically distant, as only “the identity” of the ego, not the ego itself is “taken account of” prior to investigation. This accounting is based on self-reflection, but there’s no indication that self-reflection is a transcendental unity; rather a “transcendental experience”.

Self-consciousness’s unity “can only be comprehended in the actual course of the investigation.” The unity is a construct informed by prior self-reflective experience, but there’s no connotation that self-reflection has any unity apart from what it constructs through inquiry.

The unity of self-consciousness is experience-distant in its relation to ego identity. This is a methdological issue apparently unrelated to either ego as such or Kant’s understanding of apperception. Habermas seems to be re-thinking Kant.


That was written late at night; I call it the “evening email” below. The next morning, I emailed him again (call this the “morning email”):


Habermas’ general strategy early in KHI, you know, is to re-think Kant via Hegel. This endeavor seems evident in the passage you provided. Later in KHI, he seeks to correct Hegel via Kant, resulting in a Habermasian view of rational reconstruction that figures into his examination of knowledge in Peirce (objective), Dilthey (social), and Freud (self-reflective). The context you provided pertains especially to Freud, but anticipates a developmental aspect (as rational reconstruction of theoretical insight, like Piaget’s endeavor) that isn’t found in Freud (who relies on reflective reconstruction). A keynote of Habermas’ early work is the clarification of a distinction between rational (theoretical) and reflective (emancipatory) reconstruction of understanding.


Bill later replied that my explanation (the evening email) “looks reasonable,” but a crossing of wires caused him to receive my second, morning email first, to which he responded in part:

Okay, but the problem was: is “ego” in the passage quoted equivalent to “transcendental unity of apperception” or does it have a different meaning?

My earlier response addressed his concern—“looks reasonable”—and I recognized this; but I was on a roll:

Since Habermas makes no mention of transcendental unity of apperception, and since it is a technical Kantian rubric having objective, empirical meaning for Kant, and since there’s no suggestion anywhere in Habermas’ work that he regards ego as an empirical objectivity, I see no reason to suspect that ego in the passage you quoted has any relation to Kant’s notion (and it apparently isn’t part of Kant’s own understanding of self, i.e., Kant doesnt understand the self as t.u.o.a. such that one can say of Kant that t.u.o.a. is like Freud’s or psychology’s sense of I-ness).

Bill replied in part:

Part of my own problem is the difficulty of separating the Frankfurt School (which is or was neo-Kantian, I’m told) from the original Kant,....And it becomes even foggier when I drag in Freud’s terminology which probably had no relationship to Kant in the first place, since the terms he used were “ich” and “selbst” and not “ego” in the original texts, in any event.

I replied:

But Freud’s terminology has a lot of relationship to Habermas’ early work, particularly KHI! His re-thinking of Kant via Hegel and Hegel via Kant sets the German Idealist background for his employment of Freud’s work in the latter parts of KHI. The psychoanalytic sense of ego identity is also integral to his sense of identity formation in ‘Moral Development & Ego Identity,’Communication & the Evolution of Society (1979) and for 2 chapters of Moral Consciousness & Communicative Action, 1983 (German)/1990 Z(Eng). So, your interest here is very apt.

I also included some comments about Freud, and Bill replied insightfully about Freud, including the comment that “I’m not conversant enough yet with H’s relationship to psychoanalysis to have anything to say untill I do a lot more reading.”

I replied this morning (and just now discovered that the URLs below don't work as embedded links, so you get the same ol' indication of URLs here that I put in my email):

I want to support your interest in Habermas and psychoanalysis. You may realize that, for some of the members of the Yahoo! Habermas group (myself especially), discussions echo our involvement with the earlier Habermas discussion list hosted by the University of Virginia. That list had an extended discussion of Habermas and psychoanalysis:

February, 1999: posts # 7, 16, 18, 21, 22, 26-28

December, 2000: several postings, from the middle of the month to the end, having “Freud” in the subject line.

January, 2001, a few postings at the top of the month


Afterward, I thought I’d share the exchange with the group, so I began a posting, indicated that I’d get to that sharing (what's above here) in a moment, but never got to it. So, I quit the earlier “discourse,” started all over, and you have what you see above.

But now that I’ve finished the posting above, as it happens to have been written in the top of the previous document abandoned, I faced that other “stuff” still riding along below, and I think now: What if I had accidently hit the “send” button earlier and had to live with the following anyway?.....

So you have it:

A general issue here is curricular aim. Stimulating thought with a philosopher’s work is largely what is done in undergraduate coursework, though one aims to really understand the philosopher. Truly understanding the other is ideal, but realistically, the reader is likely at a “place” in the development of understanding that may not yet be able to truly understand the position (the plague of my life), let alone appreciating the philosopher’s background engagement. For example: What is Habermas seeking to do via his stances on the psychoanalytic sense of existence—what is Habermas seeking to do with recent interest in Kierkegaard, in the Future of Human Nature (different from a metalogician’s interest in “existence” or a theoretical physicist’s interest in “existence”)? Anyone may get a lot out of what’s read, but what was Habermas doing? (Everyone speaks of what the writer is doing, rather than taking the attitude that, in effect, “I read that the writer's text clearly seems to indicate that the writer is....” Rather, the interpretive confidence—as if the text is transparent of its author’s project—is a dramaturgical trace of the reality of readerly relativity—not that a validity of interpretation can’t be demonstrated, but who really tries?)

“What is the author really doing?” is an ever-open-ended kind of question, but ultimately—let’s say: with Jürgen in the room—one may validly, in principle at least, disagree with him—with him—about his own understanding of what he is/was doing (but the usual question of that stays ever-open-ended because one doesn't get in the room very long, if at all, with Habermas). In principle, he may be persuaded that, in reality, he was doing something different from what he thought. Vastly more likely, of course, is that I will be persuaded that I—in differing with him about his view of his own intentions—misunderstood his text. With him, he has a chance to tailor a translation (by him) to a clarification of my “understanding” (to-and-for him), tailoring his intent in appropriate terms (relative to my understood “understanding”). This hermeneutical endeavor, only completely available face-to-face, is approximated in literally-textual interaction.

This isn't an occasion for theory of interpretation. The point I want to make is that there is a “truth” to the matter of what the author means. What happens in the classroom—how much of the truth gets shared—is a function of its members. But the good teacher would hope that developmentally fruitful plays of ideas don’t inhibit later inquiry. What happens for an inquirer beyond the course is, of course, something a teacher likely has no role in facilitating (unless the student becomes especially attached to one teacher’s influence, as happens in a tutorial approach to education, the Oxbridge tradition perhaps, where the Tutorial is a very special kind of relationship—too expensive in today's academia! And besides, who these days knows how to be a good tutor? Its analogous to being a good therapist, resulting from mentoring and “clinical supervision,” in the sense that's normal to therapeutic training).

Maybe it reads exotic to think of instilling conditions for the possibility of original thinking. Or oppositely that: Instilling a frame of mind can inhibit a capacity for future inquiry, inasmuch as thinking seeks to have a self-understanding of its own constitution. This is the appeal of Kant’s great concern for “the conditions for the possibility of....” Philosophy has always sought to understand the conditions for the possibility of—. Plato’s Ideas were allegedly that: conditions for the possibility of—. Shadows in the Cave Allegory are like interpretations of the textualized other appearing as the real authorship (while really a straw man). What is “Habermasian,” what is “Kantian” (What's to be done with the “is“?) Ha, the converse should be the point here: Textual interpretation is like those archetypal shadows in the cave. (The Jungian archetype has the status of Platonic Ideas, yet as psychic phenomenology—emergent structure of the "Shadow"—rooted in Collective Unconscious—an anthropological claim—rather than a metaphysicalism, as Plato’s Ideas were for Plato.)

How can constitutive assumptions be dissolved? It’s not like tracing logical implications to their root premises. Even here inference rules may beg the question of conditions for the possibility of employing the system. This constitutive Doing that boostraps is the bane of artificial intelligence research. The nature of this constitutivity is concealed to formal logic. The nature of this is concealed to a most rigorous “psychology” beyond psychologism: Husserl’s Formal and Transcendental Logic. The nature of this is concealed to the metaphysicalist longings that led to the 20th century’s ideological tragedies.

Unconcealment in a most profound sense is a therapeutic issue of philosophy unmatched by any other discipline. Yet, fostering the potential of thinking face-to-face is so more feasible compared to formulating for a general audience (as philosophical writing must do) general dynamics of reflection that may be individualized just as generally (in “discourses of appropriation,” which Habermas seeks to generally address in “Remarks on Discourse Ethics,” but which he practices widely through his readings of others).

The doing of philosophy is different from representation of philosophical issues within other endeavors, such as cultural anthropology’s interest in the deep structure of worldviews or “assumptive form world ” (Alfred Schutz) manifoldly evident in sacred practices. The best example outside of philosophy of what philosophy may do face-to-face is psychoanalysis (Socratic “dialectic” was a kind of disclosure or “nonconcealment” (Heidegger)—except that a particular psychoanalysis intends to be far more individualized (existentially implicative) than any extended tutorial, and an analysis never aims to get really philosophical, since analysis succeeds when the analysand’s life is constructively happy, whatever the presumptions which that life may have—though a life can’t be authentically constructive and happy with just any assumptive formativity.

So, the analogy between psychoanalysis and philosophical practice is useful, but limited. The Wittgensteinian reconciliation to philosophy as a therapeutic expresses one intuition of the end of metaphysicalism, but doesn’t recommend psychoanalysis specifically. In fact, psychoanalytic psychotherapy is an expensive prospect. Therapeutic efficacy has, by now (so long after Freud), been vastly articulated, such that cognitive-behavioral strategies can be implemented across all kinds of social programs involved with mental health. This meshes with educational endeavors outside of the structured education systems of professional education. Yet even within professional education, therapeutic processes are now normalized via “special needs education,” which is a profession (PhDs are granted in this) bridging professional “social work,” educational psychology, and student-centered teaching within the classroom.

The therapeutic interest is an abstract and profound human interest that may comprehend the scale of humanity’s desire to develop—across lives, across generations, and across eras. A specifically philosophical issue—within academic philosophy, rather than a philosophical theme appearing elsewhere (including the philosophy classroom oriented by developmental interests)—should be seen as somehow already implying the Background scale of horizonality and modes of interest that have evolved to see the issue institutionalized within “academic” philosophy, which midwifes or facilitates conceptual designs across domains (evolving), within fields (“suffering” new generations pretending that history began with them), and, eventually, relative to individual capabilities (seeking originality).

The healthy ferment of academic controversy registers an evolutionary process that’s essentially discursive. In the classroom, the development of student discursiveness is destined to meet its maker in the earlier talent—the “names”—who have designed new paradigms (out of the crowd of modeling, as the modeling that grows to become a magnetic field in the mass of modeling) that orients future modeling precisely because of the kind of advance that distinguishes a paradigm-capable new model from other conceptual modeling: “Wittgensteinian,” “Merleau-Pontian,” “Deweyan," etc. (David Hull goes this kind of route with conceptual modeling in Science & Selection, 2001, and I recall Stephen Toulmin advancing a notion of “conceptual evolution” in Human Understanding, 1972, as a kind of transposition of Kuhn to the history of ideas.) Either appropriate your development to history or be forgotten. (Ontogeny tends to recapitulate intellectual history in its idiosyncratically selective way. Appearances that the history of philosophy is a footnote to Plato are urged on one by the student’s shadowing in straw-man readings. Who knows what Habermas thinks. It’s just so easy to do a quote and have an opinion, especially when your audience doesn’t have much familiarity with Habermas.)

Speaking of the evolution of discursive formations (which I've been doing), the history of psychology has been quite a bit more critically innovative than sociological thinking might cause one to believe. While sociological thinking, scandalized by psychologism, went its own way, psychology evolved in ways that social thinking hardly tracked. So, then, it’s no wonder that individuation may look like a socialization all the way down. How can it be that humans are fundamentally psychosocial, rather than fundamentally sociopsychological? From a “dialectical” point of view, it really doesn’t matter: It’s both somehow in an interaction. However, in teaching, in innovation, in science, in art, in psychotherapy, in human rights, in leadership, and in the ideal of democracy, it is the primacy of the individual, thus individuation, that is primary.

The individuality of the individual is probably the issue most shared by existentialism, psychoanalysis, and Habermas' very individualized work, where—it seems to me—the virtue of mature autonomy, across his career, is so integral.

Be fair. © 2014, g. e. davis

Habermas, psychoanalysis, and existence

gary e. davis
March 26, 2006