Habermas and Kierkegaard on post-traditional identity: A study in communicative and existential ethics

Martin Joseph Matustik, Fordham University


In this study on post-nationalist and post-traditional identity I address critically the multicultural audiences of Europe and the USA. I reflect on Habermas's notions of constitutional patriotism and permanent democratic revolution, Kierkegaard's requirements of self-appropriation and existential living, and Havel's Levinasian dramatization of vertical identity in the Czechoslovak 1989 existential, 'velvet' revolution. Habermas asks what post-traditional life-form integrates socially Kierkegaard's individual. Existential self-choice grounds ethical living and moral acting. Yet, Habermas finds existential beginnings monological, self-choice decisionistic, and inwardness untranslatable into modern value-spheres. First, I argue that these charges betray a distorted received view of Kierkegaard. Second, I search with Habermas for those validity-domains which integrated Kierkegaard's individual. Third, I ask with Kierkegaard what existential model sustains individual and community. Fourth, I read a Kierkegaardian corrective into critical theory. This movement repeats the question: can we do for Kierkegaard what Habermas suggests, but in Kierkegaard's mode? I oppose the received view of Kierkegaard and argue formally a strong corrective-thesis against Habermas's formal theory with practical intent which defines the structure of practical discourse but forgets the requirements 'how' one inhabits an existential-temporal model of autonomy, communication, and the ideal: if the individual becomes autonomous through self-choice, then the 'how' of self-appropriating and of reduplicating one's identity originates a life-form which allows one to act autonomously and to communicate ethically. This 'how' of existential pathos signifies the difficulty of beginnings and marks formally by immanently vertical transcendence Habermas's formal translation of Kierkegaard into immanently horizontal transcendence towards the discursive other. I defend Habermas's use of Kierkegaard to critique nationalism and fundamentalism but offer a corrective: in conjunction with Habermas's reading of Hegel and Marx with Kantian means and of Kant through Mead's pragmatism and Durkheim's sociology of religion, I ask: what life-form is projected within the ideal of existentially communicating community? Habermas's permanent democratic revolution cures destructive crises-trends; Kierkegaard affords a requirement of permanent existential revolution which allows for receptive and self-active, multicultural and radically egalitarian, non-patriarchal and non-authoritative identities.

Subject Area

Philosophy|Religion|Philosophy|Political science

Recommended Citation

Matustik, Martin Joseph, "Habermas and Kierkegaard on post-traditional identity: A study in communicative and existential ethics" (1991). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI9127037.