“Argument and Ethos”

“Argument and Ethos” is presented here as an independent essay, and it is, but it is also a chapter in Amanda Anderson’s 2006 book The Way We Argue Now, a book that aims

to draw attention to the underdeveloped and often incoherent evaluative stance of contemporary theory, its inability to clearly avow the norms and values underlying its own critical programs. In particular, I contest the prevalent skepticism about the possibility or desirability of achieving reflective distance on one’s social or cultural positioning. As a result of poststructuralism’s insistence on the forms of finitude—linguistic, psychological, and cultural—that limit individual agency, and multiculturalism’s insistence on the primacy of ascribed group identity and its accompanying perspectives, the concept of critical distance has been seriously discredited, even as it necessarily informs many of the very accounts that announce its bankruptcy. This alliance between the poststructuralist critique of reason and the form of sociological reductionism that governs the politics of identity threatens to undermine the vitality of both academic and political debate insofar as it becomes impossible to explore shared forms of rationality.

Jurgen Habermas is the hero of the book; poststructuralist like Judith Butler and Michel Foucault are the villains. She does not entirely embrace Habermas, as we will see, but Anderson finds in him the most promising orientation for theory.
The first essay of the book looks at feminist debate in the 1990s between Butler and Seyla Benhabib (a Habermasian). Butler accuses Benhabib for subscribing to the delusion that rationality will “solve the messy, embedded problem of ongoing political life” (problems such as race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, etc.) The premise of Butler’s argument, Anderson argues, is that philosophy is irretrievably cut off from real politics. Anderson finds some bad faith in the argument inasmuch as it seems to (first) assume a critical distance of its own author that cannot be had by others—what’s the point of arguing if there is no common ground of reason? Second, she claims that Butler refuses to acknowledge the normative aspirations of her own argument; she argues, in effect, that anti-normativism should be the norm.

Another essay looks at historiographical and literary feminist argument about women’s agency in the 19th Century. The theorists Anderson looks at all draw to some degree on Foucaultian notions of the relationship between power, discourse, and subjectivity. The problem she finds in these accounts is that the critics allow for a Foucaultian totalization of subjectivity by power—that is, we are formed fully by power. Agency and self-awareness are effects of power. At the same time, these critics argue that specific women or female characters within novels somehow see through the fog of discourse to a truth (for example, the equality of men and women). The fallacy at work is one that Anderson calls aggrandized agency, the idea a specific historical individual/character can see through the power-knowledge of her own time to a (contemporary) truism.

I mention these articles as a way of situating the essay we are discussing today. Although Anderson is capable of wading into philosophical debates, she is primarily interested in philosophy as it is taken up and deployed by literary critics.

“Argument and Ethos”

Although much of theory denies traditional conceptions of the personal, it nonetheless uses in a disavowed way the notion of character. For example, there is a compulsion to talk about the paranoia of hermeneuts  of suspicion or the smugness of pragmatism. Within philosophy, there has been a recognition of character and ethos in such movements as the resurgence of virtue ethics, but within literary theory, the concepts are suppressed and transformed (despite the so-called “turn to ethics”). Literary studies has its own categories of self-understanding, but these tend to be drawn from broadly sociological categories (gender, race, class, nationality, sexuality). Evaluative ethical language is used to evaluate how people speak about self identity, but ideas of ethos and character—perhaps because they imply a self-authorizing subjectivity—seem incompatible with, and possibly anathema to, the sociological understanding of self.

Anderson’s essay will look at the late Foucault’s turn to ethos to argue (a) that it actually obscures the notion of ethos by opposing it to reason, and (b) to show how Habermas, especially in his critique of Foucault, provides clues as to how ethos and reason may be configured rather than opposed. (105-6) In current theory the word ethos (especially as used by Foucault) provides a slippery, noncommittal way to lend a vague sense of practicality and commitment (as will be shown later). Character is not used at all by modern theory. Anderson mainly uses the term ethos not only because it is a point of contact in the Foucault/Habermas debate, but also because it can suggest both individual and collective disposition and practice. By contrast, character tends to suggest strongly the sense of self-making that interests Anderson, but ethos avoids the overly individualistic nuances of character.

Some readers might balk at the word character, thinking that it automatically aligns one with the US political right and its faulty understanding of the heroic, self-making individual; they think the word is so overdetermined by ideology as to be unsalvageable. While vigilance is necessary, the word character is historically not limited to the political right. In fact, by eschewing the term, a would be leftist “pays a considerable political price” inasmuch as the term resounds with a large portion of the (non-academic) population. Moreover, though their role is denied, self-cultivation and virtue seem to play a role in any political philosophy, and a “more direct avowal of ideals of character and ethos [. . .] will extend our resources for talking about ethics and politics, at the same time correcting for some of the more narrow understandings of the ‘personal’ and of ‘identity’” (107).

Section I

The exclusion of character from discussions of the personal is a distinctively contemporary response to modernity’s unsettling of the subject. Victorians responded to the disenchantments of modernity by formulating modes of comportment suitable to the times. For example, Mill argued that being correct about a topic is not sufficient—you have to have achieved that truth through the proper habits and actions. Where has this self-forming response to modernity’s ungrounding of the subject gone?

From his structural beginnings to his post-structural turn while writing The History of Sexuality, Foucault dramatizes the larger shift in thinking the self in contemporary theory. However, the focus of this essay will be on Foucault’s famous so-called debate with Habermas. It’s a “so-called debate” because (a) there was never a formal debate despite the fact that both discussed the other’s work various times, and (b) the legacy of their discussions has not been a debate but a “bloodless coup on the part of the Foucaultians” (109). They have only glancingly mentioned rather than discussed Habermas, and in the process they have caricatured him as a naive or conservative defender of old-school rationality: “the name Habermas was used economically to signify any number of denigrated practices, from the mere distastefulness of rationalist modes to the inevitable oppressiveness of normative thinking to the dangers of a totalized Reason seeking to disavow its drive to power” (109-110) Anderson clarifies that she is not taking up the debate with an eye to its own acknowledged focus on power and communication. Rather, she is keen to examine how the two thinkers make their arguments and the central but “consistently misrecognized” role ethos has in those arguments.(110)

Foucault’s late turn toward “practices of the self” and “aesthetics of existence” is a way of correcting the impersonality of his earlier structuralist work, work that leaves little room for choice and agency but sees these as effects of super-personal discourses. In this sense, Foucault’s turn “could be said to reintroduce the exiled categories of ethos and character.” (111) In Foucault’s own person, too, there is an acting out of a certain kind of ethos as Foucault strikes “a provocative posture of deliberate evasion and negation” in interviews. (111) This posture is maintained by “the form of response that acts as a refusal of the very terms of the question, a refusal of certain characterizations of his thought, and [. . .] a studied refusal to engage the terms that shape debate” (112). Moreover, Foucault’s “aversion to formal argument [. . . is] for many of his admiring commentators, ethos-defining” (112). Many admirers of Foucault “defend him against rationalist and political critique” with Habermas and others (Taylor, Jameson) as opponents. Foucault’s persona is taken as taken as “an ethos that cannot be reduced to doctrine or theory” (112).

Such defenses of Foucault are made in the face of criticism (mounted by Habermas among others) that Foucault is incoherent and self-contradictory. The argument against Foucault in this regard is that he cannot “account for his account”: if critique is a form of power, then Foucault’s own critiques cannot really speak back to power. This argument is based on the idea that there is a communicative reason that cannot be collapsed to instrumental or technical reason, a distinction that Foucault denies. In other words, for Habermas, Foucault’s own critique is not merely incoherent, but more importantly, unlivable. Foucault’s admirers contest this attack, seeing in his turn to ethos “a refusal of the insistence on rational coherence,” (113) a deliberately unstable position fundamentally compatible with the task of the genealogist to critique the development of rationality.

A key moment of the debate is in Foucault’s response to a question about Habermas in which Foucault claims, among other things, “I am quite interested in what Habermas is doing. I know that he does not at all agree with what I say–I for my part tend to be a little more in agreement with what he says” (114). Regarding this claim, Anderson notes (ii) it refuses strictures of logic as way of evaluating statements and puts in its place “attitude or stance.” Foucault provides no explanation of his comment, but his persona is regarded as the guarantor of the statements efficacy. (ii) In this moment, “Foucault congratulates himself upon his own good manner” and implicitly derides Habermas’ behaviour: “There is the suggestion, in other words, that Habermas is ethos-challenged” (115). This second point is further elaborated in another comment in which Foucault derides polemicists in general as so focused on their own correct argument that they want to eliminate opponents of it. In Anderson’s paraphrase, Foucault is claiming that “the thinkers who are most wedded to reason and to strong versions of argument are revealed to be ungenerous and even violent in relation to those they oppose, so much so that they discredit the purity of their arguments” (115). In other words, Foucault tacitly accepts the idea that argument is an ethos; it just happens to be a bad ethos.

Foucault’s appeal to ethos–and for his followers–is “an attempt to evade or trump the moves of the rationalist,” but it is an argument that “disavows its own polemical status in imagining itself beyond or to the side of polemic” (115). Such an non-argumentative argument is held together by the “charismatic force of Foucault as a figure”; critics of Foucault are taken to be wrong because Foucault’s word is taken to be final. [We can look at examples of this by read pages 116-117 of Anderson’s article]. At any rate, appeals to Foucault’s person as a way of settling/avoiding argument “partakes ultimately of what we might call charismatic fallacy, a version of positive ad hominem” (117) “The appearance of this form of argument is instructive, revealing the ways an appeal to ethos here merges with a cult of the theorist’s personality, shifting the criteria of argumentation so as effectively to thwart the charges of incoherence” (117). The valorization of Foucault’s aura works “to forestall a moment of critque and potential dialogue” (117). The charismatic fallacy not only helps to deflect and absorb the Habermasian critique, but it also accounts for why people pay attention to the late Foucault’s writings at all–if another writer had published the later volumes of The History of Sexuality, nobody would have cared. In other words, the charismatic fallacy not only informs argumentation about Foucault but also simple attention to him.

Section II

Foucault’s appropriation of ethos as a practice of self that works against the domination of power-rationality leads to the disparagement of Habermas and his followers as somehow naive and possessed of a vulgar understanding of reason and power. (118-119) However, it is wrong to draw a battle line with Foucault and ethos on one side and Habermas and logos on the other. While Habermas is indeed critical of the zeal with which Foucault’s followers attend to his off-hand remarks at the expense of arguing his ideas, Habermas also has a notion of ethos that incorporates rationality and thus argumentation. On the one hand, he stresses the formation of the individual through its socialization, but he also argues on behalf of “reason’s capacity to break free of tradition and custom” (120). The “crowning achievement of modernity” is cultivation of of “the reflective institutionalization of communicative and democratic principles [promoting] a practical philosophy that operates, unlike the Foucaultian art of living, at the collective and institutional levels of political life,” not just in the life a single individual.(120)

Anderson argues here that in Habermas, there is some ambivalence between wanting (on the one hand) to “redefine universalism as a new ethos” and (on the other) to “assert universalism over and against ethos.” His detractors usually claim he is doing the latter–stripping away any sense of social embeddedness and arguing for a sterile community of purely rational actors without attachments. Anderson wants to focus on the former pole: universalism as an ethos.

Habermas’ most sustained engagement with Foucault and critiques of modernity from the Frankfurt School to poststructuralism is The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity (1985, trans. to English in 1987), a book that analyses individual thinkers as a way of making an intellectual genealogy. Ethos makes an oblique entrance as Habermas “tends to accord privilege to what we might called historical psychology and ideological forces rather than characterology: there is in fact a leitmotif of historical crisis and political disappointment in the text, which is meant to explain the dark mood of the theorists he criticizes” (121). Examples include World War II and the failed revolution of May 1968. His text is not restricted to such historical psychological analyses, however, and he indeed examines the “excesses or tensions internal to the writing of specific thinkers” (121) The tension he finds in Foucault is “cryptonormativsm,” a charge different from Anderson’s criticism of performative contradiction.

Recall that a performative contradiction is when you say something different from what you do in saying it: Foucault argues that argument is flawed. This charge can only hit its mark if Foucault accepts a universal rationality, which he doesn’t. Thus, Foucault might be able to escape the charge of a performative contradiction. However, the charge of cryptonormativism is not worried about the premises of Foucault’s theories of language and argument; rather, it concerns a hidden (i.e., cryptic) gesture of normativity in an otherwise anti-normative critique, a normativity “felt most vividly at the level of tone or rhetorical gesture” (122). The problem Habermas has with Foucault, in other words, is not logical contradiction in his ideas (that is, a purely argumentative problem), but rather a problem in Foucault putting ethos and argument at odds with each other. Instead of adopting an ethos bearing “principles of opennes and transparency that forward the practices of deliberative debate,” Foucault (and similarly charismatic thinkers) “proceeds encased in [rhetorical] privileges that he possesses in advance and will never agree to question” (Habermas as quoted by Anderson, 123).

Although he allows mood to inform theoretical interests and their Zeitgeist, Habermas ultimately does not explicitly formulate ethos. He is ambivalent about allowing anything that might obstruct reason’s clarity. Nonetheless, it seems that Habermas is committed to a certain ethos of “deliberate non-grandiosity of proceduralism.” (123) In quoted interviews, Habermas expresses his weariness with Heidegger’s saying “only a god can save us” and similar majestic tones. He claims, “philosophers don’t change the world,” and he urges a modest appeal “to the spirit of proceduralism, here construed as forms of institutionally bound collective practice that are best advanced through modes of interaction that downplay extreme affect or, presumably, strong investments in personal style” (124-5). That is, he seems to embrace a collective, institution-building ethos, not an ethos that isolates and valorizes the individual, ultimately undermining “the advance of collective ethos precisely by romanticizing politics.”

In addition to an ethos of collectivity, Anderson finds in Habermas a stance of askesis (ascetisim): “a refusal of various seductions to which others fall prey: the desire to absolutize reason by conflating it with power, for example, or to imagine one could engage in a ‘final umasking’” (125), that is, a final dissolving of ideology. Rather than adhering to a naive view of the possibility of a purely rational communication untainted by speakers’ social embeddedness, Habermas calls on participants of a discussion to strive toward this purity while acknowledging the de facto impurity of all linguistic practice. Striving toward an impossible purity–cultivating a theoretical attitude–is an ethos of argumentation. (126-7)


If we try to distinguish theory from philosophy, we could do worse than by claiming that, on the whole, theory has more concern to inform lived experience than philosophy does. In other words, theory is always oriented toward practice. This concern for how the theory might be lived means that “[n]o matter how disavowed the category of ethos or character may be in many philosophies of the present, it tends to come back in shadow forms, hating the debate through strange displaced appearances, as when a pragmatist is called smug. Or it may makes its presence felt more forcefully, as in the case of the charismatic fallacy or the narrow understanding of reason, where a certain style is elevated to endorse, express, or underwrite the theory” (128). Anderson calls on theorists to be more attentive to characterological elements of argument, not trying to excise them but to foster “a highly deliberative, reason-infused cultivation of ethos, one that [. . .] might wed the insights of Aristotle with those of Kant. Such  practical philosophy promotes reflection and deliberation in the cultivation of habit; it also has the potential to accommodate ideals of self-cultivation alongside those of collective deliberative processes. (128-9). Thinkers who oppose reason to ethos think they are helping the latter to develop “when in fact they are cornering it.”


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