Notes and commentary on “No Contest? Assessing the Agonistic Critiques of Jürgen Habermas’s Theory of the Public Sphere”

Notes and commentary on:

Brady, John. “No Contest? Assessing the Agonistic Critiques of Jürgen Habermas’s Theory of the Public Sphere.” Philosophy & Social Criticism 30.3 (2004): 331-354.


John Brady’s article, “No Contest? Assessing the Agonistic Critiques of Jürgen Habermas’s Theory of the Public Sphere”, is a defence of Jurgen Habermas’ theory of deliberative democracy. It attempts to address the general critique of Habermas’ theory by “post-modern”, radical pluralists like Jodi Dean and Chantal Mouffe. These writers argue that Habermas not only ignores the essential role of an essentially contested public sphere, but that his overly optimistic rationalism leaves us dangerously incapable of accounting for, in Mouffe’s words, an essential “pluralism of values” where consensus is conditional and based on exclusion. Brady responds that these writers have misread Habermas, and that he is neither overly rationalistic nor politically and ethically naïve. Habermas, according to Brady, is attempting to establish a “meta-ethical” (343) set of principles and procedures that are “limited, but nonetheless significant”, and which assist “the further development of agonistic politics” (349).

Habermas’ central philosophical project has been to “specify the norms that should govern citizens’ interactions on the public stage” (332). According to Brady, the “agonistic critique” views this “theory of the public sphere [as] hopelessly unrealistic in so far as it continues to rely on a conception of public politics as the rational exchange of opinions, despite copious and daily proof of the messy, conflict-laden nature of contemporary political practice” (ibid).

Brady provides an excellent summary of postmodern theory, and how we have learned from post-modernism that binary oppositions often mask the contingent nature of social life as well as the “constitutive nature” of excluding the Other (333).

Nevertheless, Brady notes that one such binary opposition remains strong among all theorists:

“… it is perhaps surprising how stubbornly one particular binary opposition has managed to shape the discussion between agonistic and deliberative democrats, namely the purported opposition between contest and consensus. With remarkable regularity, theorists on both sides insist on the fundamental opposition between a democratic political practice based on contestation and one based on consensus formation” (333).

This is a rich and suggestive point. Apart from academia’s apparent need for adversarial positioning, it does seem from my own reading that such a dualism remains quite strong within this debate on democracy. Like Brady, I wonder if both sides are talking past each other, and evaluating each other with categories that don’t really describe what the other is thinking. In any case, Brady’s point lays the groundwork for attempting a reconciliation of the two perspectives, to which we will later return.


After his introduction, Brady summarizes the critics’ position. According to Brady, Jodi Dean and others critics believe that Habermas’ theory has three central flaws:

“… the adoption of an homogenous and homogenizing conception of the public sphere; the denial of the constitutive role played by the exclusion of marginal groups, especially women, in the public sphere’s development; and, finally, the formulation of a concept of political subjectivity that belies the ‘conflicts and multiplicities already present’ in any subject” (337).

This apparently leads to an omission of the major role played by “gender, racial, cultural and ethnic differences” (ibid) in the public sphere.

Likewise, Chantal Mouffe argues (as summarized by Brady) that Habermas’ theory is flawed because of

“… Habermas’s adamant insistence that political questions can be decided rationally and that a public exchange of arguments and counter-arguments that takes place under conditions of equality, impartiality, and openness is the most suitable means of producing rational political opinion. To maintain such a position in the face of the ample evidence testifying to the irrational, power-soaked nature of contemporary politics, underscores the unrealistic, idealistic nature of Habermas’s model” (338).

The agonistic, pluralist model, on the other hand, redirects our attention to the tangible interplay of power. As Brady concludes, this model seeks to “address the bodily, psychic and emotional harms that Habermas, according to Dean, relegates to secondary importance by assigning them to the domain of ethics, tradition, and culture” (339).


Brady responds to this critique by reminding the critics that Habermas has never forsaken the realm of contested political activity (340-341). Brady contends that Habermas has always confronted “power, conflict, and political contestation over issues of difference” (341). Nevertheless, Habermas does not reduce himself to such concerns. He instead

“… offers an analysis that is at once more subtle and more realistic: it acknowledges the play of power in politics but also the real role that rationality and non-strategic political communication play in shaping public debate. Thus what Dean and Mouffe interpret as a preoccupation with idealistic aspects of public debate is actually part of Habermas’s attempt to provide a more comprehensive analysis of the public sphere, one that avoids a one-dimensional, reductionist depiction of politics as simply power politics” (341).

We see from Brady an attempt to break Habermas’ theory out of the suffocating binary dualism that Brady noted earlier. He directs our attention to the second-order nature of Habermas’ theory that escapes the unitary notion of politics which typifies Mouffe’s and Dean’s approach.

“From Habermas’s perspective, the articulation of basic norms of law and morality [with which Mouffe and Dean are primarily concerned] falls outside the domain of moral theory [Habermas’ central concern]. Moral theory’s charge is, instead, meta-ethical: it is to develop the principles and criteria of fair procedure that should govern any process of argumentation through which individuals attempt either to restore the validity of a norm that has been contested or to arrive at a valid new norm” (343; emphasis added).

Brady adds that such a domain is reflexive and self-critical (ibid). It must be capable of defending itself against “other ethical approaches” in order to provide a “theoretical reconstruction of the pre-theoretical knowledge that subjects possess regarding what makes normative argumentation possible”. Brady emphasizes the second-order, meta-theoretical nature of Habermas’ task:

“Communicative rationality is not, however, a subjective capacity that individuals possess and that would tell them what they ought to do. This is a decisive point. It means that a theory that aims to describe communicative rationality will not produce prescriptions for individual action; it will not tell individuals how they should best lead their lives or how they should best organize their society” (345).

Instead, Habermas provides a neutral set of procedures “through which political actors can test the desirability of political contestation as an ingredient in the continuing project of democratization” (346). Therefore, “Habermas’s theory opens up a space for democratic reflection and democratic action, a space that necessarily contains room for a consideration of agonistic politics. In this sense, Habermas’s theory facilitates the agonistic approach to politics” (348).

Brady concludes with a subtle rebuke of post-modern, agonistic theories with the following question: “Does the endless subversion of codes and norms contribute to democratic politics or simply to political frustration?” (349) Brady’s point is that we can’t afford to dismiss Habermas’ project. At some point, we need to establish norms and rules which govern our political lives. After all, politics is, by its very nature, the process by which we regulate and institutionalize the competing demands and values of citizens. Can “endless subversion” even reach a tentative or conditional set of norms and rules? Brady and Habermas would surely say no.

The next stage is to consider if such norms and rules – reached by reason-giving citizens – can claim to be truthful in a Rational, universal sense, or merely historical and contingent. Brady, Habermas and others, like John Rawls, attempt to offer a different way of looking at things. They want to refuse a choice between flux or stasis; they want to regulate the inevitability of the former with an enduring vision of the latter. It remains to be seen whether their attempt to order politics in a first-order and second-order manner will be successful. It’s certainly an immensely interesting and important question to me, and one that I will continue to examine.



Posted by Colin Welch at 8:35 PM
Categories: In a Philosophical Mood, Language


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