The Rorty-Habermas Debate

Toward Freedom as Responsibility

By Marcin Kilanowski

Subjects: Philosophy Of Communication, Democracy, American Philosophy, Ethics, Education
Series: SUNY series in American Philosophy and Cultural Thought
Hardcover : 9781438483559, 292 pages, May 2021
Paperback : 9781438483542, 292 pages, January 2022

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Table of contents

From the Author


1. Opening: First Comes Dewey

2. On Rorty's Sociopolitical Thought

3. On Habermas's Theory of Communicative Action

4. On the Convergence of the Perspectives of Rorty and Habermas

5. Postscript: From Dewey to Rorty and Habermas



Argues that out of the confrontation between Rorty and Habermas, we might be able to find a new way to think about the kind of politics we need today.


The Rorty-Habermas debate has been written on widely, but a full treatment of its importance had to wait until now. We have some historical distance from this exchange, which extended over three decades, and which touches upon the central concerns of numerous fields of study and of social organization. From law, to politics, to philosophy and communication theory, and including the basics of action, these two towering figures compare their forms of pragmatism. Marcin Kilanowski sets the debate in its historical and multilayered context, comparing it with criticism and commentary from his own viewpoint and from that of other important thinkers who observed and participated in the famous exchange. This book not only provides background in the history of philosophy for a general reader but also will be useful to those who need an abbreviated narrative and compendium of relevant sources for their own thinking and research. Kilanowski shows the points of convergence between Rorty and Habermas, and also examines the meaning of the outcome of their long exchange. Does the result get us any closer to a viable idea of freedom? Of responsibility? The book suggests some answers to these and other related questions.

Marcin Kilanowski is Professor of Law at Nicolaus Copernicus University in Poland.


"It is a delightful oddity to see lines of agreement sketched out in a time of increasing polarization. That is why philosophers will find Marcin Kilanowski's fresh study reconsidering Richard Rorty and Jurgen Habermas' two-decades long debate a welcoming and timely endeavor. The Rorty-Habermas Debate presents the exchange between Habermas and Rorty by challenging us to rethink their differences as points of convergence and pragmatic merging, especially in attempting to regain trust and confidence in democracy." — Dewey Studies

"Kilanowski's study admirably meets its three-fold goal of presenting the thought of Rorty and Habermas during their long debate, showing its convergence while recognizing important areas of continued disagreement, and suggesting the continued importance of their thought for both non-philosophers and philosophers." — Eidos. A Journal for Philosophy of Culture

"Marcin Kilanowski's book offers an insightful discussion of the most important heroes of pragmatism. Dewey, Rorty, and Habermas's theses are presented and discussed exceptionally pedagogically. While full justice is done to the complexities of each author's writings, they are confronted innovatively, thus underlining unsuspected proximities. Kilanowski's important study testifies to the relevance of pragmatism in social theory and offers a thought-provoking guide to the debates it prompts." — Guillaume Tusseau, Professor at Sciences Po Law School, Member of the Institut universitaire de France

"For both Habermas and Rorty philosophy was a practice in the service of freedom and democracy. Their disagreements were to a large extent disagreements about how that service could best be performed. Marcin Kilanowski reliably and helpfully guides the reader through positions and arguments taken by Rorty and Habermas respectively, while emphasizing their commonalities. A compelling read at a time when freedom and democracy are increasingly contested and the question of their defence is very much a live issue." — Mattias Kumm, Professor of Law at New York University School of Law, Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin für Sozialforschung (WZB), and Humboldt University in Berlin

"What do Richard Rorty and Jürgen Habermas have in common? As philosophers know well, quite a lot, but one point not generally known is that they met at a public debate in Warsaw, Poland, right after the fall of Communism which marked a beginning of a new era in Europe, and the world. This event, and these two giants of contemporary philosophy, constitute the organizing structure of this beautifully written, sophisticated yet accessible book. Of course it is of great interest to all Habermas and Rorty students, but there is more than that: gesturing to an idea of 'freedom as responsibility,' Marcin Kilanowski provides us with an outline of his new, intriguing theory. Greatly recommended!" — Wojciech Sadurski, Challis Professor of Jurisprudence, University of Sydney

"Kilanowski offers thorough introductions to Rorty and Habermas, accessible to scholars working outside philosophy. He then fully dispels the battling caricatures that have arisen, establishing roots and commonalities especially deriving from Dewey's philosophical pragmatism. This book will be an enormous service to students and scholars who hope to learn from these philosophers without being specialists themselves, or even without being philosophers at all." — David Estlund, Professor of Philosophy, Brown University