Law and Critique

, Volume 25, Issue 3, pp 199–229 | Cite as

The Vicious Circles of Habermas’ Cosmopolitics

  • Isobel RoeleEmail author


Habermas’ cosmopolitan project seeks to transform global politics into an emancipatory activity in order to compensate for the disempowering effects of globalization. The project is traced through three vicious circles which stem from Habermas’ commitment to intersubjectivity. Normative politics always raises a vicious circle because politics is only needed to the extent that an issue has become problematized through want of intersubjective agreement. At domestic level Habermas solves this problem by constitutionalizing transcendental presuppositions that political participants cannot avoid making. This fix will not work at the global level because it is pre-political as between human individuals. Habermas therefore premises cosmopolitics on the transformation of nation-states into sites of participatory politics, engagement in which will eventually ignite a global cosmopolitan consciousness. This transformation depends on the constitutionalization of existing UN structures and their enforcement of an undefined and (therefore) ‘uncontroversial’ core of human rights. Unable to ground this project in social practice, Habermas eventually disregards his own lodestar of intersubjectivity based in social practice by relying on the prediscursive concept of human dignity. This move is not merely philosophically inconsistent; it also opens the door to the moralization of politics and the imposition of human rights down the barrel of a gun.


Democracy Cosmopolitanism Habermas Human rights Public international law Constitutionalism 



I would like to thank Phil Fennel, Ioannis Kalpouzos, Panu Minkkinen, Nell Munro and Jiří Přibáň for their invaluable comments and suggestions. Errors are, of course, my own.


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© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of LawCardiff UniversityCardiffUK

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