Commentary on Matthew Piscioneri, Habermas: The Myth of Reason

by Ralph Dumain

Written 25, 27, 31 October 2004
Compiled, slightly edited, & uploaded 11 September 2008

This doctoral dissertation (apparently completed in 2004) is downloadable in three WORD files:

Thesis00[1].04.doc Acknowledgments / Abstract / Contents; 46 KB
Thesis01[1].04.doc Introduction / Chapters 1-3; 598 KB (approx 200 pp.)
Thesis02[1].04.doc Chapters 4-7 / Conclusion / Bibliography; 832 KB (approx 200 pp.)

These files can be found in the files section of this yahoo group; but one must first join the group to access them:

I am acknowledged by first name in the Acknowledgments.

The abstract is as follows:

In this thesis I explicate and assess the second phase of Jürgen Habermas’s programme to reconstruct the normative conditions of possibility for undertaking a critical theory of society. The publication, in 1981, of Habermas’s The Theory of Communicative Action (Habermas, 1995) signals the transition from the first phase of his reconstruction of Critical Theory that commenced in the 1960s with his critical theory of cognitive interests to the second phase of his project. I include Habermas’s Between Facts and Norms (1996) in the second phase of his reconstructive programme for it represents, I contend, the third and completing volume of The Theory of Communicative Action.

I argue that an informed assessment of Habermas’s reconstruction of Critical Theory can only proceed once the domains of application for his project are clarified. I position Habermas’s project first within the Critical Theory of the Frankfurt School, and second, within the more general tradition of Western Marxism. Clarifying the socio-historical and discursive background to Habermas’s project also indicates the practical objectives of the second phase of his reconstructed Critical Theory. For, in contrast to conventional Marxian approaches, I argue that Habermas intends his reconstructed Critical Theory to intervene practically at the site of discourse. I locate the critical practice of Habermas’s project in his response not only to Max Horkheimer’s and Theodor Adorno’s critique of instrumental reason, but also to the re-emergent influence of Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophy, via the French post-structuralist school, in the West German discursive milieu during the 1970s and 1980s. My thesis is that the practical or applied moment of Habermas’s critical theory of communicative action is discernible in his undertaking to sustain the persuasive signifier of “reason” in the adversarial socio-philosophical discourse of modernity taking place in the West German polity of that period. His critical theory of society responds to the threat posed by these critiques of reason to the very fabric of the Occidental social order in general, and the continued viability of the West German political, moral and cultural traditions, in particular. Habermas’s strategy here, I suggest, indicates his normative appropriation of Emile Durkheim’s theses on the integrating function of collective ideals in the consolidation of a social order.

In assessing Habermas’s project I argue that on a formal level his reconstruction of Critical Theory effectively theorizes a viable space for a “positive” critical social theory that resists Horkheimer and Adorno’s totalizing critique of instrumental reason. On the substantive level, however, I argue Habermas’s Critical Theory is an under compelling alternative to the critique of instrumental reason that Horkheimer and Adorno detail in their later Critical Theory. The strong thesis I develop in Chapter Seven is that Habermas’s project is unable to overcome convincingly the aporetic pathos of pessimism that is generated by Horkheimer and Adorno’s thesis on the dialectic of enlightenment. Furthermore, I make the case that the social systems model of participation in the critical-emancipatory project Habermas outlines, especially in Between Facts and Norms, ironically risks generating its own aporetic pathos of pessimism. His depiction of the near-inevitable contribution communicatively-empowered social movements make to the maintenance and reproduction of an existing social order, I suggest, compromises the emancipatory aspirations of these social movements. It is on this basis I conclude that the second phase of Habermas’s reconstruction of Critical Theory remains problematic.

What interests me so far is this claim:

I develop the argument that the primary theoretical and practical domain of application for Habermas’s reconstructed Critical Theory is the sphere of radical and expert (critical) social scientific discourse in West Germany in the late 1970s and 1980s. In this unique way, I explain, Habermas achieves a unity of theory and practice on the basis of his theory of communicative action. Specifically, I argue the stronger thesis that in the first place the domain of application of Habermas’s reconstructive programme is “inside” the Frankfurt School tradition of Critical Theory. In other words, prior to the external audience in the general radical, intellectual and (critical) social scientific community of West Germany in the late 1970s and early 1980s I contend that Habermas directs his programme to an internal audience: his collaborators, research assistants and students. Habermas’s project, again in the first place, is a struggle for the hearts and minds of his contemporaries and the next generation of Critical Theorists against what he considers is the clear and present danger of the revival of Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophy, a cynical reason and a reactionary neo-conservatism.

Moving along:

The challenge for Habermas is to outline a type of reason that is not innately instrumental in nature and also capable of withstanding the dialectical inversion Horkheimer and Adorno make central to their critique. Against their pessimistic diagnoses Habermas proffers his conception of communicative reason. The communicative reason Habermas derives from the philosophy of language is intended to resist Horkheimer and Adorno’s totalizing critique of reason as an inherently instrumentalizing capacity of the human species.

I am highly dubious of Habermas' project.

The issues raised by Agnes Heller (1982) in her essay “Habermas and Marxism” frame my discussion of Habermas’s conception of the relationship between theory and practice. Heller strongly argues that Habermas’s renegotiation of the relationship between theory and practice under theorizes the motivational complex of practical engagement in the critical-emancipatory project. According to Heller, Habermas fails to explain why - on the basis of his reconstruction of Critical Theory’s normative authority - social actors would engage with processes of theoretical or practical enlightenment. I extend Heller’s point in two ways. First, I argue that Habermas’s reconstructed Critical Theory lacks a sufficiently motivating or persuasive component, which would ensure that the “always/already” emancipatory potential he finds in the meaning generating structures of communicative language practice be realized in practice. Second, I point out this problem is exacerbated given Habermas’s tendency to operationalize the critical-emancipatory impulse as a key factor in processes of social integration. Habermas’s affirmation of the critical-emancipatory project’s institutionalization in the structures of social governance risks diminishing the advances his linguistic turn brings to the tradition of Critical Theory. Not only does Habermas under-theorize the motivational bases for participation in the critical-emancipatory project, but also the social systems theory he introduces to Critical Theory I argue acts to dissuade participation in processes of theoretical and practical enlightenment.


My contention is that this ironic and unintended ramification of Habermas’s theory construction forestalls his ambition to write a compelling “new” Dialectic of Enlightenment. For it is one thing to abstractly dispel the pessimism engendered by Horkheimer’s and Adorno’s counter-Enlightenment critique on what Maeve Cooke (1997) describes as the ‘conceptually a priori’ grounds provided by the critical implications of Habermas’s analysis of communicative language use. It is an entirely different matter to succeed in satisfying what James Bohman (1988) describes as the empirical conditions of possibility facing the project of critical social theory.


In the Conclusion I develop the argument that the critical potential of Habermas's project remains tied, in an unexpected way, to Horkheimer and Adorno's critique of instrumental reason. Their critique defines the boundary conditions of Habermas's project. The shadow cast by their thesis on the dialectic of enlightenment sets the limits, as it were, of his reconstructed Critical Theory.

This, I think, is unfortunate.

Quoting Horkheimer/Adorno:

Formal logic was the major tool of unified science. It provided the Enlightenment thinkers with the schema of the calculability of the world. The mythologizing equation of Ideas with numbers in Plato's last writings expresses the longing of all demythologization: number became the canon of the Enlightenment. (1995: 7)

I think they were quite wrong and shouldn't be allowed to get away with such assertions.

Quoting Matt:

What enlightened human thought has conferred is not emancipation from a heritage of dogmatic cultural and religious tradition or political enslavement, but rather an enhanced capacity for the instrumentalization of the external world as well as the repression of humankind's inner nature

This viewpoint of H/A is most undialectical. It does have that Nietzschean stench to it. There is of course a dialectic between bourgeois rationalism and irrationalism, particularly as its implicit managerialism blossoms in the 19th century, but H/A obscure its logic with such formulations as these.

My understanding of Habermas’s project is that it must on the one hand - either ameliorate or dismiss Horkheimer and Adorno’s totalizing critique of enlightened reason as wholly instrumental. On the other hand, if he is effectively to move the tradition of Critical Theory beyond the aporia introduced by Horkheimer and Adorno’s debilitating critique, then Habermas must, in a sense, “break the spell” of the dialectic of enlightenment.

The problem here is that if one is held hostage to the logic of H/A's nonsense, even to oppose it, one is going to end up in dire straights.

First, from Habermas’s point of view, Horkheimer and Adorno’s identification of enlightened reason in toto with technology and the positivist methodologies of science overlooks the emancipatory potential residing in human reason. Second, according to Habermas, Horkheimer and Adorno (and Marcuse also) mistakenly conflate the rational practices of science and technology with the ideologically distorted creed of scientism.

Absolutely. And Marcuse was the worst of them, from first to last, reprehensible.

In place of their subject-centred conception of reason, which is drawn from the philosophy of consciousness, Habermas substitutes his intersubjectively constituted conception of communicative reason which is drawn from the philosophy of language.

Habermas, I think, is fundamentally wrong.

In place of the rigidly administered world in which the all traces of emancipatory potential and resilience have been dissolved in the false consciousness of the culture industry, Habermas identifies a communicatively rational logic guiding the development of newer normative structures and the institutionalization of these norms into law.


For Horkheimer and Adorno, it is in the logic of identity, which demands the submission of the particular before the universal, that reason's ineradicable tendency for domination inheres.

Highly dubious of them.

First, I consider Horkheimer and Adorno subtly draw the category of critical reason, and Marxism especially, into their overarching critique of reason on the basis of the scientific character of Marx’s critique of political economy. By this I mean Horkheimer and Adorno consider the scientific basis of Marx’s critical social theory to be a type of positivism. In this way, Marx’s critical social theory and its scientific derivatives are as liable to their critique of positivism as are all other instantiations of positivist reason in the natural, technical and physical sciences.

I think this characterization of Marx is wrong. Marxism is a creation of the German social democratic party of the 2nd International.

The link between these two passages is unmistakable and highly illustrative of the depth of Habermas’s passion for “correcting” Horkheimer and Adorno’s thesis on the dialectic of enlightenment. Indeed, in an essay on Horkheimer published in German in 1990 Habermas continues to display his unease with aspects of Dialectic of Enlightenment-era material when he comments on this remark also from “Juliette or Enlightenment and Morality”:

In Sade as in Mandeville, private vice constitutes a predictive chronicle of the public virtues of the totalitarian era. Not to have glossed over or suppressed but to have trumpeted far and wide the impossibility of deriving from reason any fundamental argument against murder fired the hatred which the progressives (and they precisely) still direct against Sade and Nietzsche. (1995: 118)

In response Habermas writes: ‘I have to admit that this remark irritates me now no less than it did almost four decades ago when I first read it.’ (1993: 134), . . .

Good for Habermas. I think H/A were full of crap.

For, on the one hand, his alternative paradigm must counteract the certainty or finality of Horkheimer and Adorno's critique of instrumental reason. On the other hand, Habermas's conception of communicative reason cannot risk re-introducing a type of metaphysical foundationalism into the discourse over the normative conditions of possibility for a critical theory of society. Otherwise his reconstruction of Critical Theory's normative authority would also be vulnerable to the charge of idealism already leveled by conservative critics against the Critical Theory of Horkheimer and Adorno (Van den Berg, 1980). In place of the fixity offered by either Kant's or Hegel's philosophical idealism, or Marx's materialist philosophy of history (appropriated, according to Habermas, by Horkheimer and Adorno), Habermas seeks to ground the justification for the normative authority of his critical theory of society in the universal structures of communicative language practices.

If this is so, Habermas' strategy is highly dubious.

Habermas describes Adorno’s resolution in the following manner:

[Adorno] no longer wishes to break out of the paradoxes of this critique of reason, which has now become as if subjectless - he wishes to endure in the performative contradiction of a negative dialectics, which directs the unavoidable medium of identifying and objectifying thought against itself. Through the exercise of endurance he believes himself to be remaining most nearly faithful to a lost, non-instrumental reason.(1992: 152)

In TCA Habermas describes Adorno’s journey’s end more dramatically:

Unlike Marcuse, Adorno no longer wanted to get out of his aporia - and in this he was more consistent than Horkheimer. “Negative Dialectics” is both an attempt to circumscribe what cannot be said discursively and an admonition to seek refuge nonetheless in Hegel in this situation. It is the “Aesthetic Theory” that first seals the surrender of all cognitive competence to art in which the mimetic capacity gains objective shape. Adorno withdraws the theoretical claim: Negative dialectics and aesthetic theory can now only “helplessly refer to each other”. (1995: 2.384)

In light of critical reason’s historical acquiescence in the totalitarian instincts of the logic of identity, Adorno restricts not only critical reason’s prescriptive or norm-generating capability, but also its critical social function.

Habermas is correct here, it seems to me.

In doing so, Habermas replaces the dialectical logic of history as the driving mechanism of social evolution. In its place he devises a model of social evolution as a developmental learning process (Heller, 1982: 37-38). Here, Habermas's strategy is to transpose the structure of ontogenetic psychological development - as outlined primarily by Piaget - onto the development of the species on a phylogenetic level.

If so, Habermas' position is highly suspect.

In the essay “The Entwinement of Myth and Enlightenment: Re-Reading Dialectic of Enlightenment” (first published in English in 1982) Habermas writes.

In their blackest book, Dialectic of Enlightenment, Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno joined with these writers [Marquis de Sade and Nietzsche] to conceptualize the Enlightenment’s process of self-destruction. On their analysis, it is no longer possible to place hope in the liberating force of enlightenment. Inspired by Benjamin’s now ironic hope of the hopeless, they still did not want to relinquish the now paradoxical labor of conceptualization. We no longer share this mood, this attitude. And yet under the sign of a Nietzsche revitalized by poststructuralism, moods and attitudes are spreading that are confusingly like those of Horkheimer and Adorno. I would like to forestall this confusion. (1987: 106)

For the moment what is important is that in spite of the shift in Habermas’s critical philosophical attention in the 1980s to Nietzsche (and Martin Heidegger), his mode of critical response to the Neo-Nietzschean school (now inclusive of Adorno and Horkheimer) remains his theory of communicative action. In other words, in the initial and reconstructive stage of the second phase of Habermas’s programme (in TCA) Habermas employs his theory of communicative action to challenge Adorno and Horkheimer’s critique of instrumental reason in general, and specifically their thesis on the dialectic of enlightenment.

Thank goodness!

He rejects both the overly enthusiastic identification of either instrumental reason (Horkheimer and Adorno) or technological rationality (Marcuse) with rationality in toto, and the thesis that science and technological rationality is oppressive per se (Roderick, 1986: 47). Roderick capably describes Habermas’s position:

Habermas’s early attempt in Knowledge and Human Interests [is] to formulate a concept of reason capable of a more differentiated critique of instrumental reason and of providing a more satisfactory normative justification for the critical theory of society. The critique of instrumental reason is reformulated as a critique of ‘scientism’… Habermas focuses on the relation between scientism and positivism, which provides scientism with its sophisticated philosophical defense. (1986: 50)

The primary objective of Habermas’s project in this first phase of his defence of the Enlightenment is to confront the all-encompassing and exclusive ideology of scientism. He traces the origins of the dogma of scientism to the Enlightenment creed of positivism:

Positivism certainly still expresses a philosophical position with regard to science, for the scientistic self-understanding of the sciences that it articulates does not coincide with science itself. But by making a dogma of the sciences’ belief in themselves, positivism assumes the prohibitive function of protecting scientific inquiry form self-reflection…Positivism stands and falls with the principle of scientism, that is the meaning of knowledge is defined by what the sciences do and can thus be adequately explicated through the methodological analysis of scientific procedures. (1971: 67)

For Habermas it is the dogma of scientism which is oppressive, and not as Horkheimer, Adorno and Marcuse appear to fixate on the complex of technological or positivist scientific rationality in itself. According to Habermas, scientism is oppressive because it is exclusive of other types of knowledge. One type of knowledge denied its validity by scientism is that knowledge original to the project of philosophy: knowledge gained via self-reflection. Habermas understands this capacity for self-reflection on both the individual and species-level. On both accounts, the emergence of this self-knowingness or self-consciousness, according to Habermas, is the distinctive hallmark of modernity.


Central to Habermas’s confrontation with positivism in KHI is his thesis that two primordial anthropogenetic knowledge-constitutive interests ensure the continued reproduction of the human species (Held, 1980: 317):

Knowledge-constitutive interests mediate the natural history of the human species with the logic of its self-formative process… I term interests the basic orientations rooted in specific fundamental conditions of the possible reproduction and self-constitution of the human species, namely work and interaction. (1971: 196)

Here's where I begin to have a problem with Habermas.

Matt's account of the practical nature of Habermas' interventions makes sense to me. I still don't quite grasp this claim about metacritique and substantive critique:

The flexible strategy of Habermas's critical practice that is evident in his engagements with Adorno and Horkheimer's, the neo-conservative's and post-structuralist's critiques of reason is made possible I believe by Critical Theory's dual status as both metacritique and substantive critique. It is why I feel justified in treating these critical philosophical engagements as a substantive critical theory of society.

Habermas’s strategy is by no means unproblematic. His tactic of insulating at all costs his meta-theory of Critical Theory from the philosophy of consciousness, in my opinion, draws into question the formal credibility of his theory of communicative action. Habermas’s linguistic turn pays scant theoretical attention, by way of explanation, to the motivational component of an engagement with the critical-emancipatory project. Furthermore, Habermas’s aversion to motifs drawn from the philosophy of consciousness overly abstracts and de-personalizes his conception of practical reason.

Very interesting.

If, as Habermas suggests, Adorno and Horkheimer’s critique of instrumental reason interrupted the task of undertaking a critical theory of society this aporia was surely restricted to the late Critical Theory of the Frankfurt School. Their critique of instrumental reason, I am arguing, did not appear to have interrupted Western Marxism’s task of undertaking productive critiques of society in the post-Second World War period.

Good point.

The protest movement's frustration at the inability of late Critical Theory (other than Marcuse) to direct or lend support to a programme of praxis encouraged the development of radical actionist strategies. For Habermas this was one negative consequence of Adorno and Horkheimer's critique of instrumental reason. On the other hand, Habermas considers the Nietzschean strain in their critique of the enlightenment works in tandem with the emergent influence of the French School. Together with the neo-conservative critiques of reason, these forces contribute to what Habermas understands as the dissolution of the heritage of western rationalism in West Germany in the 1970s. As I explain in more detail below, these factors shape Habermas's ambitions for his second-generation Critical Theory.

A compelling argument.

Habermas discerns the normative deficiency of Critical Theory to stem from its reliance on Marx’s philosophy of history, and - in particular, the paradigm of production.

I disagree with Habermas.

More emphatically in TCA, Habermas is critical of late Critical Theory’s dependence upon the philosophy of consciousness paradigm, and in particular, it’s adherence to the model of subjective reason.

I need to understand this better.

There are traces of both rhetorical exaggeration and excessive provincialism in Habermas’s framing of the discourse over the crisis in the project of modernity in TCA and other essays of that time. Habermas makes clear in an interview that he is cautious about extending the domain of application for his theory of communicative action far beyond the socio-historical context of the Occidental lifeworld (1986: 187). A crucial aspect of this thesis is my contention is that Habermas designed his theory of communicative action to intervene primarily in the West German context of the 1980s in light of the tumultuous social, cultural and political conditions and events of the 1970s.

If true, this is very illuminating.

Of course, Habermas developed his theory of communicative action and its strategic objectives for the legacy of Critical Theory within a discursive milieu that was both complementary and adversarial. Eder and Offe, I think, are indicative of the more sympathetic academic audience at which Habermas’s theory is directed. Having said this, it is clear that within radical intellectual circles in West Germany Habermas’s theory of communicative action faced a less receptive, sympathetic or willing general audience than did his Knowledge and Human Interests. The “mood” of radical discourse in the West German context not to mention elsewhere, had shifted away from Critical Theory.

Situating Habermas as addressing an academic audience in the contemporaneous social context.

This fear for Habermas is crystallized in the series of events now known as the German Autumn. Habermas describes it thus: ‘After the Schleyer kidnapping the politicians and the media…tore down the barriers of the political culture which had been so arduously built up during the first two decades after the war’ (1992: 87). My point is simply that in order to fully understand the development of Habermas’s theory of communicative action it is necessary to place it against the socio-historical and cultural backdrop of the period in which it was conceived. Habermas’s theory of communicative action is a product of his fears. It is his version of Critical Theory and in more than one way his fears force him to confront Horkheimer and Adorno’s critique of instrumental reason.

If so, this is very illuminating.

However, Habermas's preferential treatment of Horkheimer and Adorno is best exposed by the sharpness of the tone he reserves for his discussion of Nietzsche's work and that of Nietzsche's post-structuralist "disciples" Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida. There is no saving grace or sign of forgiveness extended either to Nietzsche, Foucault or Derrida:

What separates him [Adorno] from these two figures [Derrida and Foucault] as from Nietzsche himself and this seems to be politically decisive [emphases mine] is simply this: Adorno does not merely bale out of the counter-discourse which has inhabited modernity ever since the beginning; rather, in his desperate adherence to the procedure of determinate negation, he remains true to the idea that there is no cure for the wounds of Enlightenment other than the radicalized Enlightenment itself. (1992: 155)


[end of chapter 2]

I have read the first two chapters and find this very illuminating, though I don't really have the knowledge base to assess the author's argument. Most striking to me are the following:

(1) Habermas' strong reaction against Counter-Enlightenment tendencies, which he sees abetted by the Nietzschean dimension of Horkheimer/Adorno's Dialectic of Enlightenment;

(2) the specific West German political and ideological context that motivated Habermas' work: the combined Counter-Enlightenment menace of conservative political reaction, the ultraleft currents of the student movement and left-terrorist groups, and the neo-Nietzschean philosophical currents coming from France (Foucault, Derrida, etc.);

(3) the argument that the specific trajectory taken by Habermas is thus explicable but is not ultimately satisfactory and might even be provincial in its perspective.

Chapter 3:

On the reception of Habermas:

I consider this is unlike the reception of either Michel Foucault’s or Jacques Derrida’s work, for example. In place of the reconstruction and modification that has occurred with Habermas, Foucault’s work has generated significantly more applied studies. The emphasis on application, I would suggest, also occurs with Derrida. Put another way, whilst these philosophers have all generated considerable interpretative efforts I consider there has been far greater immanent critique of Habermas’s work by those sympathetic to his perspective and yet far fewer dedicated research programmes that have followed closely the lines of inquiry and analysis he has developed

I hope I will one day understand the point about critique and metacritique:

Moreover, Habermas's deliberate strategy of discursive engagement and confrontation validates central components of his theory of communicative reason, and by extension his theory of modernity. This is how Habermas fuses the meta-theoretical and practical moments of Critical Theory. Habermas's remarkable strategy is to vindicate his theory of communicative rationality by pointing to the presence of communicative reason as the sustaining analytical and historical condition of possibility for critical social discourse

A consideration of audience is always important:

The strong thesis I developed in Chapter Two was that even before the audience he identifies in the above passage Habermas directs his theory of communicative action in the first place to fellow second and third generation practitioners of Critical Theory, and active participants in the intellectual debates of the 1970s and 1980s in the West German context. In the second place, and as the passage above confirms, his theory of communicative action is directed to an expert audience, both sympathetic and adversarial, outside the specific tradition of Critical Theory, but still within the context of West Germany. Lastly, Habermas’s critical social theory is available to the broader socio-philosophical community for interpretation, disputation and application both within and outside West Germany.

On the question of philosophy and revolution:

Habermas does not echo Marx's position that the function of (critical) philosophy is to radically change the world, and in doing so bring to fruition the revolutionary ascendancy of the proletariat in accordance with the dialectical logic governing the laws of historical development

Actually, I think the standard interpretation of Marx's Thesis 11 is all wrong.

According to Agnes Heller's summary, the revolution has lost its heart (proletariat) as well as its head (philosopher of proletarian revolution). Quote from Habermas:

If it [philosophy] communicated with the sciences and with scientists themselves, it would find in the rapidly expanding university system a broader basis of influence than philosophy had ever enjoyed before. It would no longer have any need of the organizational form of a doctrine embodied in individual philosophers. It would incur a politically effective task inasmuch as it went against the twofold irrationality of a positivistically restricted self-understanding of the sciences and a technocratic administration isolated from publicly discursive formation of will. (1983: 17)

This presumably is an alternative to propagating philosophy through sectarian "revolutionary" channels, but it seems to leave a lot out of account.

Habermas's complex thesis is that in place of the Kantian conception of a unity of reason, there is - in advanced modernity - an independent tripartite structure to reason. Reason, according to Habermas, has split into three separate moments: 'modern science, positive law and posttraditional ethics, and autonomous art and institutionalized art criticism' (1990: 17). The new role for critical philosophy is to maintain the balance between these separate moments of reason by acting to mediate conflicts and disparities between them, and, just as importantly, to translate knowledge between them. In this way Habermas conceives of philosophy as the 'guardian of rationality' (1990: 17):

But how is this possible if philosophy itself becomes bureaucratized?

For Habermas, processes of practical enlightenment are to be facilitated via the education system and public institutions of social governance. Enlightenment is to be a “managed” affair. Asking after a “particular addressee” in the conventional Marxian manner, as Heller does, makes little sense in relation to Habermas’s conception of critical social theory. The particular addressees for his theory of communicative action are those expert and practically engaged participants in the discourse of emancipation and social justice in higher education and public administration.

More problematic, as I see it in agreement with Heller, Habermas under-explains how his critical theory of society is capable of furthering actual or substantive processes of enlightenment and then emancipation.

All of this is problematic.

Habermas, I believe, tends to gloss over or sidestep the point Heller is making. He is more attentive when he suggests that: ‘Heller wants to stylize communicative rationality into a particular value, for or against which we can take sides’ (1982: 226). In response Habermas argues that members of a modern lifeworld engaged with the discourse of emancipation cannot help but be oriented towards communicative rationality. Communicative reason, according to Habermas, forms the very conditions that make such a discourse possible in the first place. In other words, Habermas contends that participants in discursive processes of enlightenment do not first have to make a choice for or against communicative rationality:

Tell this to Dubya.

For good reason, I think, Habermas finds odious the idea that the critical-emancipatory project should rely on the unique insights and feelings of a morally sensitive, almost priestly, class of social actors. Rather, Habermas prefers to scientize the role of the critical social theorist.

This is not a priestly caste?

Put simply, he considers the task of the critical social theorist as analogous to that performed by the psychoanalyst. The following passage not only indicates this approach, but importantly for the preceding discussion, also indicated is Habermas’s rejection of an elite or vanguardist understanding of the role of the critical social theorist:

Therefore, from the conservative side the misgivings readily arise that a transferring of the doctor-patient model to political praxis of large groups would encourage the uncontrolled exercise of force on the part of self-appointed elites, who close themselves off against potential opponents with dogmatic claims of privileged access to true insight. On the other side the misgiving arises that the same model leads to a rationalistic denial of the militant element in the confrontation with political opponents, because the pacifist illusion arises that the critical insight will by itself destroy the dominating dogmatism of existing institutions. (1977: 16)

Yet the point of Heller’s essay is that Habermas’s reconstructed version of Critical Theory labours under the pacifist illusion, and although I am transposing issues from the first to the second phase of Habermas’s programme I am confident that this transpositioning is appropriate. To reiterate Heller’s point, Habermas’s version of Critical Theory as reconstructive science does not adequately reveal the motivational basis for participation in the processes of social action that would be required to remove the distortions that block the natural functioning of these innate species-competences.

Between a rock and a hard place.

On the Durkheimian moment:

My conjecture in this discussion is that by the time of writing TCA, Habermas conceives of his theory of communicative action, and especially his rhetoric in support of reason, as a strategy to re-assure the collective ideal of reason in the West German polity, in the first place, and then more generally (and grandly) in Occidental civilization: ‘We need a symbolic form of representation for those things for which we have fought, for which a collective effort was made’ (1986: 139). Understood from this perspective, Habermas’s theory of communicative action is a fundamental critical social theory. The critical practice of Habermas’s Critical Theory addresses the primordial conditions of social integration and reproduction in modern Occidental societies, and in particular the threat he perceives to the order of West German society posed by the disintegrative critiques of reason increasingly influential in the social, cultural and political discourses of West Germany in the 1970s.

Distinguishing Enlightenment from religion as a unifying symbolic order:

In place of Adorno and Horkheimer’s thesis that enlightenment has reverted to myth Habermas argues that whilst there are analogical continuities in the structural form of social integration between traditional and posttraditional societies, in modernity there occurred a distinctive transition from a dogmatic theological reason to an emancipatory type of communicative reason.

Let's keep our fingers crossed.

In the contestation between Habermas and Foucault, I am unimpressed by Foucault's response. I am also a but puzzled by Matt's criticism of Habermas:

In the following passage Nikolas Kompridis (1999) addresses Habermas’s position on the world-disclosing or poetic function of language. Kompridis sets this issue in the context of Habermas’s engagement with the contemporary discourse of modernity:

From Nietzsche through Heidegger to Derrida, Habermas detects a series of increasingly radical attempts to aestheticize language, everyday practice and philosophy by assimilating them to the world-opening, world-transforming power of practices of disclosure. Such an assimilation would prejudice and rhetorically overdetermine everyday communicative practice (the ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ positions which agents take in relation to criticizable validity claims); it would collapse the difference between logic and rhetoric, between normal and ‘poetic’ language, between problem solving and meaning creation, and between the everyday and the ‘extraordinary’ (das AuSeralltagliche); and it would allow the action-co-ordination function of language to disappear behind its world-transforming function. Rather than allowing world disclosure to aestheticize language, everyday practice and philosophy, Habermas aestheticizes world disclosure. (1999: 137)

The tension I am interested in is the apparent inconsistency between, on the one hand, Habermas’s rhetorical and sometimes polemical partisanship for reason, and, on the other hand, his critique of Nietzsche’s, Heidegger’s and Derrida’s tendencies towards what Kompridis describes as the aestheticization of language. My point is that in both Habermas’s rhetoric for reason and in the articulation of his theory of communicative action his use of language employs the world-disclosing and aesthetic capabilities he mistrusts and polemicizes against in others.

I don't get it.

Maeve Cooke (1997) emphasizes that Habermas's speech act theory has difficulty with those types of speech acts whose validity claims are based in aesthetic, expressive or world-disclosing functions.

I am interested in this question.

Habermas argues that the aesthetic validity or unity that we attribute to a work of art refers to its singularly illuminating power to open our eyes to what is seemingly familiar - to its power to disclose anew an apparently familiar reality. However, this validity claim stands for a potential for “truth” that can be released only in the whole complexity of life experience; therefore, this “truth potential” may not be correlated with (or even identified with) any one of the three validity claims constitutive for communicative action. Habermas’s solution to the problem raised by the question of the truth of art is to split off the validity claim(s) peculiar to art from the sphere of communicative action (1997: 75).

Cooke’s reconstructive strategy is to attempt to erode the rigid categorical distinctions Habermas applies in this aspect of his employment of speech act theory. Cooke acknowledges that ‘Habermas has now admitted that he has failed to do justice’ to ‘the articulating, world-creating, and disclosing modes of language use’

Very interesting.

My point is that Habermas overtly employs metaphoric language in the construction of his critical social theory. Habermas’s language-in-practice; that is his use of world-disclosing language, together with a critical practice that is sustained by the rhetorical mode of language, appears at first glance to be at odds with central themes of his work. There is ample textual evidence of a metaphorically saturated use of language in Habermas’s theory construction. This ranges from the employment of the lifeworld and system world similes as well as the concept of colonization in TCA. In BFN this metaphorical use of language continues. Throughout this work Habermas employs the language of social systems modeling that is rich in the similes and metaphors of cybernetics and mechanical processes. Put simply, throughout his work Habermas utilizes world-disclosing and persuasive modes of language in his theory construction including illustrative techniques of metaphor, analogy and thought experiment.

Interesting, but I'm still not getting the implications.

The central theme of Bohman’s essay is that a categorial overlap occurs between speech acts of an illocutionary type and those speech acts that are perlocutionary in nature when in the service of the social critic. Briefly, for I deal with this distinction more fully in Chapter Five, the meaningful effect of an illocutionary speech act is contained in what is said. Paradigmatic of illocutionary-type locutions are vows, blessings or promises. Locutions employed in communicative interactions that exhibit a perlocutionary-type force aim - either overtly or covertly - at influencing or directing the outcomes of a social communication. Paradigmatic of overt perlocutionary-type locutions are imperative speech acts such as commands and orders. Locutions that rely upon covert perlocutionary effects to achieve the desired effect of the speaker may include instances of manipulation and persuasion facilitated via inference, subtle ridicule, sarcasm, flattery or deceitfulness.

Interesting, but I haven't quite absorbed this.

Quote from Bohman:

My thesis is that one subset of that class of perlocutions which are elements of communicative action is emancipatory speech, the sort of speech social critics engage in. Emancipatory speech consists precisely of perlocutionary acts in the service of communicative aims, that is, of opening up blocked possibilities of mutual understanding or self-understanding. Emancipatory speech is therefore primarily to be classed as perlocutionary, although it has many of the features of illocutionary acts, including avowability and orientation to reaching understanding’ (1988: 199).

The next section of chapter 3 is on Habermas' fallibilism and pragmatism. I don't get the point about pragmatism.

I have a keen interest in section 3.6.2 of the dissertation (near the end of the first text file), on Habermas and Popper. There are direct quotations from Habermas' work as well as citations of some secondary sources. The consonances and disagreements between Habermas and Popper are reviewed here. There is a discussion of Habermas' model of the testing and progress of knowledge in the social sciences, but I don't quite understand it. There is also an alarming footnote that attributes a consensus theory of truth to Habermas. There is a question of Habermas' eclectic tendencies in absorbing other social theories, and a question of Kuhnian paradigms. I don't understand what is going on here, though. I need to understand the Habermas-Popper relation.

The next section is on positive dialectics, and then the conclusion of chapter 3 and the text file.

2nd text file: chapter 4

In TCA Habermas very deliberately seeks to move beyond the themes of the philosophy of consciousness and its focus on subject-to-external world and subject-to-inner world relations that have dominated the Western philosophical tradition since Descartes (Benhabib, 1986: 242; Rasmussen, 1990: 25-26). The intersubjective origin of Habermas’s conception of a communicative rationality excludes the Kantian conception of human reason as a subject-centred form of reason. Moreover, the intersubjective basis of Habermas’s communicative reason attempts to sidestep the inherent instrumentality of the Kantian conception of reason as something that is applied to the world. Kögler writes: ‘the whole point of overcoming the solitary rational subject is to place the communicative agent in the midst of the sociocultural lifeworld’ (1996: 16). In this way Habermas further turns away from the Kantian conception of a subject-centred form of reason. Habermas argues that it is Kant’s conception of reason that largely instructs Weber’s analysis of modernity. It is this type of rationality complex, which, via Weber, according to Habermas, misinforms Horkheimer and Adorno’s critique of instrumental reason. In contrast Habermas works to establish an intersubjectively-constituted paradigm of communicative reason that escapes Horkheimer and Adorno’s totalizing critique of reason as innately instrumental. This strategy is crucial to Habermas breaking the spell of their thesis on the dialectic of enlightenment.

The explanation preceding this passage is interesting, but here is where I begin to have doubts. I am very distrustful of the intersubjectivity vs. subject-centred reason gambit.

The conditions of possibility of social theory, critical philosophical inquiry - indeed the logic of scientific inquiry in general - relies on the immutable presence of communicative reason.

Well, duuuuuh!

This strategy I believe achieves for Habermas the secure starting place he requires to disable Horkheimer and Adorno’s critique of reason as wholly instrumental and the post-structuralists’ disparaging of the rational bases of knowledge construction.

This strikes me as odd, for the issue is not the abstract species-capability of rationality, but the possibilities for its instantiation in practice.

Habermas's attempted resolution of this hermeneutical problem is controversial. He argues that the social scientist's object domain is originally constituted on the bases of communicative actions. Given this the social theorist cannot avoid engaging rationally with the original processes of reaching understanding that have taken place in distant lifeworld contexts. Therefore, according to Habermas, the social scientist cannot help but become a 'virtual participant' (1995: 1.108) in the rationally constituted lifeworld structures of a distant interpretation of social action.

I don't get this.

The always-already presence of communicative rationality can ensnare the social scientific observer as a participant - albeit it a virtual participation - in order to provide ‘the critical means to penetrate a given context, to burst it open from within and to transcend it’ (1995: 1.120). In this way, the social scientist can enter into temporally or culturally distant social lifeworld contexts, as a virtual participant, and ‘systematically exploit them in order to bring them into play outside their situated temporal and cultural contexts, and against their particularity’ (1995: 1.121).

OK, but something's not quite right here.

Yet Habermas's thesis appears to limit social theory specifically to an analysis of those periods in human history when the rationality-bearing potential of human language has been released. A "rational" social theory would be restricted to either an analysis of modernity or the Classic Hellenic period. This aporia also foreshortens Habermas's ambition to construct a coherent basis for extending Critical Theory's normative authority beyond the horizons of the social, cultural and historical context in which it is produced.

Could this be true?

In TCA Habermas first draws attention to his conception of ‘communicative rationality’ (1995: 1.10) when he posits the ‘wider concept of rationality connected with the ancient conceptions of logos’ (1995: 1.10). This conception of rationality is distinct from the model of a ‘cognitive-instrumental rationality,’ (1995: 1.10) which has, Habermas argues, ‘through empiricism, deeply marked the self-understanding of the modern era;’ (1995: 1.10) a self-understanding that also includes the sociology of modernity and the work of Max Weber.

I think it is essential to be absolutely clear about what this means.

Habermas’s strategy is increasingly transparent. Even social actors who coordinate their social actions on the basis of a purposive or cognitive-instrumental rationality can act and interact only within the horizons of the background meanings that constitute the lifeworld that they intersubjectively share. Instrumental-type social actions, therefore, are always/already embedded in the normative context of the lifeworld, and ‘puts the cognitive-instrumental aspect of reason in its proper place as part of a more encompassing communicative rationality’ (Habermas, 1995: 1.390).

Yes, but there's something wrong with the prioritizing here. This reads like a priori metaphysics.

In effect what Habermas is doing here is “chipping away” at the feasibility of the pervasive social scientific paradigm that posits the monadic social actor standing over and against the objective world of objects and the social world. Instead, given the overarching framework of the lifeworld, Habermas emphasizes the intersubjectively constituted context in which all social action occurs.

The first point is understandable, but there is something suspiciously Heideggerian about the latter sentence. I'm not sure how Gadamer fits into this, but something is rotten here. Stinks of hermeneutics.

Quote from Habermas:

What remains for philosophy, and what is within its capabilities, is to mediate interpretively between expert knowledge and an everyday practice in need of orientation. What remains for philosophy is an illuminating furtherance of lifeworld processes of achieving self-understanding, processes that are related to totality. For the lifeworld must be defended against extreme alienation at the hands of the objectivating, the moralizing, and the aestheticizing interventions of expert cultures. (1994: 18)

Isn't there unintended irony here?

Next Habermas develops the hypothesis that this type of rationality can be ingrained in historically transparent ways of life: ‘we also speak of the rationality of a conduct of life’ (1995: 1.43). This hypothesis is the prelude to Habermas’s key thesis in TCA: communicative rationality and the communicative actions that it coordinates constitute the foundations of the modern Occidental social order.

Ideally, maybe, but in practice the modern social order is a hodgepodge of highly contradictory thought and behavior.

Habermas argues that the validity claims rooted in the preunderstanding of modernity's scientific, moral-legal and cultural institutions make a claim for their universality. This claim to universality, Habermas argues, is woven tightly into the normative fabric of the modern way of life. Moreover, the emergence of this ethic of universalism is intrinsically connected to the historical unleashing of the natural or innate rationality contained in communicative language practices at the threshold of the modern era. The task of Critical Theory is to redress the deformation of the originating rational norms that have been embodied in the paradigmatic institutions of modernity: the scientific enterprise, the emergence of a universalistic moral and legal system, and an autonomous cultural sphere.

Well and good, but this historical unleashing was also bridled as it was unleashed. Hence the deformations which Horkheimer/Adorno fixate upon—the dark side of the dialectic, as Alvin Gouldner might put it—can hardly be ignored simply by prioritizing the positive side.

There is, according to Habermas, in the totalizing worldviews of mythical societies, a fundamental ‘confusion between nature and culture’ (1995: 1.48). This confusion restricts the precision with which social actors can manipulate their objective, social and personal worlds (1995: 1.48).

In contrast, the (supposedly) demythologized worldview that characterizes modernity provides for a differentiation between nature and culture as the constitutive object domains of human existence. This differentiation calls forth two fundamental attitudes or actor-to-world relations.

Yes, but we know how little evolved this tendency is in practice. The failure of disenchantment of the world and the renchantment of the world form the cognitive foundation of fascism.

Again it is pertinent to keep in mind the fact that Habermas constructs his theory of communicative action around the question of what constitutes the conditions of possibility for a theory of (modern) society. Habermas shrewdly argues that only a theory of modernity that makes a theory of communicative action (and by extension a theory of communicative rationality) its centre piece can the developmental trajectory of modernity be adequately understood. One of Habermas’s proofs is the argument outlined above that unless modernity was constituted on the basis of communicative rationality which empowered the type of analytical reflexivity afforded by the potential to take a “yes” or “no” position on criticizable validity claims, then the socio-analytical problematic could not have been set up in the first place. Habermas’s strong claim here is that social theory is made possible in the first place by the reflexive opportunities offered by the embeddedness of communicative rationality in the modern Occidental way of life.

A tautology, no?


The rationality debate carried on in England suggests that the modern understanding of the world is indeed based on general structures of ationality but that modern Western societies promote a distorted understanding of rationalityr that is fixed on cognitive-instrumental aspects and is to that extent particularistic.

I have a problem with this. I understand the need to demystify the myth of "instrumental reason" (or to demystify both scientism and the rebellion against scientism), but the attempt to transcend this via a transcendental argument for communicative rationality does not convince me.

On the broader scale, the decentration that Piaget identifies on an ontogenetic level is, according to Habermas, mirrored on a phylogenetic level in the historically progressive transformation of the Occidental worldview.

This strikes me as an odd way to go.

The hermeneutical challenge of Habermas's work is to piece together complementary researches in a variety of disciplines in order to build a hybrid theoretic. This hybridity also keeps faith with the original programmatic intentions of Critical Theory to be an interdisciplinary research project. This interdisciplinary cooperation is intended to substantiate in practice the task he sets for a critical theory of society once released from its focus on the anachronistic paradigm of production and the Leninist/Lukacsian imperative to organize the proletariat.

There is something suspect in this formulation.

A theoretic of this sort does not - in the traditional sense - avail itself of the predicate true. Rather, and in a way that nods in the direction of Popper I think, Habermas’s objective is to ensure his theory is plausible. This plausibility is partly based on a compatibility with, and a coherent synthesis of, the best knowledge available:

From the perspective of the history of theory, I have taken up the work of Mead, Weber, and Durkheim and tried to show how in their approaches, which are simultaneously empirical and reconstructive, the operations of empirical science, and of philosophical conceptual analysis intermesh. The best example of this cooperative division of labor is Piaget’s genetic theory of knowledge. (1995: 2.399)

If Critical Theory is to undertake not only a critique of scientism but to provide a mediating service between the sciences it must reveal its sophistication. In other words, Habermas’s Critical Theory needs to be up to date.

Isn't this just a pretentious truism?

A significant part of his critique of Horkheimer and Adorno’s critique of instrumental reason is the suspicion of totality thinking, yet in his rendering of life in societies dominated by mythical or theological reason Habermas appears to be susceptible to indulging in a similar intellectual folly. In this way, Francois Lyotard’s jibe in the PostModern Condition (1984) concerning Habermas’s penchant for grand narratives acquires a degree of substance.

This is a red herring, I think, even if the totalistic thinking imputed to premodern societies merits skepticism.

The distinction Habermas draws between action oriented to reaching understanding (communicative action) and action oriented to success (strategic action), in the words of Cooke, 'has been seen as the most fundamental claim of the entire corpus that constitutes the work of the later Habermas' (1997: 19). In asserting the priority of social actions oriented to understanding over social actions oriented to success, Habermas considers he is in a position to challenge the feasibility of Weber's analysis of modernity. In this analysis goal-oriented actions are posited as the basic constitutive unit of the modern social order.

Habermas' conception strikes me as quite dubious.

In effect Habermas designs his theory of communicative action as a superior hybrid of many of the major competing paradigms in the history of contemporary social theory. My point is that this strategy is no accident. As with hybrids in the botanical or zoological worlds the synthesis is intended to establish a competitive advantage.

Synthesis is one thing, hybridity another. I distrust these apologetics.


The aporetic course of the Marxist reception of Weber's rationalization thesis from Lukacs to Horkheimer and Adorno shows the limits of approaches based on a theory of consciousness and the reasons for a change of paradigm from purposive activity to communicative action. (1995: 1.141)

Frankly, this preoccupation strikes me as quite provincial.

In general, Habermas's reconstruction of Max Weber's theory of modernity centres on Weber's employment of models of rationality and social action that have been shaped by the tenets of the philosophy of consciousness. The point to remember is that a central objective of Habermas's reconstruction of Weber's theory of modernity is to call into question Adorno and Horkheimer's critique of instrumental reason. The theoretical objective of Habermas's complicated strategy is to undermine Lukács' reception of Weber and the subsequent 'critique of reification' (1995: 1.366) taken over by Horkheimer and Adorno: 'Horkheimer and Adorno, borrowing from Lukacs, transform Weber's rationalization thesis' (1995: 1.366). Yet, according to Habermas, for Adorno and Horkheimer the usefulness of Lukács' critique of reification is diminished by two key sets of historical phenomena: 'the failure of the revolution and the unforeseen integrative accomplishments of advanced capitalist societies' (1995: 1.366). This leads Horkheimer and Adorno to develop their totalizing critique of instrumental reason. It is in Habermas's eyes an attempt to make sense of the disastrous historical reality of the twentieth century. In the final analysis their apocalyptic philosophy of history recognizes the deep seated bio-anthropological tendency for domination that is embedded in the basic cognitive processes of the human species.

OK OK OK, but I don't see how the philosophy of consciousness is the culprit.

In contrast to the subjective paradigm of the philosophy of consciousness employed by Weber, Habermas’s theory of communicative action focuses upon the public and intersubjective component of human language practices in order to reaffirm the fundamentality of the social experience to human life. In developing his alternative paradigm of communicative action, Habermas moves away from Weber’s appropriation of the Kantian model of actor-to-world relations in which the solitary individual stands apart from an external world of objects and other individuals and whose social actions are coordinated by the goal-directed rationality this model entails

If this is Habermas' concern, it seems small and childish to me.

Elsewhere, Habermas describes this as the paradigm shift from the philosophy of consciousness to the philosophy of language in the tradition of critical social theory (1992: 44-48). This 'shift of attention from the teleological to the communicative dimension' (McCarthy, 1995: xii) is, in Habermas's view, the changing of Weber's exhausted socio-theoretic paradigm for a newer paradigm which concentrates upon consensus, commitment to negotiation and the 'intersubjective recognition of criticizable validity claims' (McCarthy, 1995: xii).

And if this is the Habermasian argument, I think it is a load of shit.

However, this totalistic conception of societal rationality and action that Marx, Weber, Horkheimer and Adorno share, according to Habermas, ‘is not complex enough to capture all those aspects of social actions to which societal rationalization can attach’ (1995: 1.145). It is the same type of criticism Habermas raises against Karl Marx and the late Critical Theory of Adorno, Horkheimer and Herbert Marcuse in Knowledge and Human Interests (1971).

I have yet to see any evidence that this criticism applies to Marx. But yes, the others were simplistic in eliding the liberal dimension of modernity.

Cooke explains this difficult point as follows:

Habermas believes that formal pragmatic analysis of everyday communication suggests that we can distinguish three types of validity claim, corresponding to three dimensions of validity, which, although distinct, interact in complex ways. This leads Habermas to put forward a postmetaphysical idea of the unity of reason as the interpenetration of the three logically distinct spheres of reason. In conceiving reason as multi-dimensional, Habermas does not simply rely on formal-pragmatic investigations into language. He also draws on Max Weber’s diagnosis of cultural modernity in terms of the historical differentiation of three cultural spheres of value, each with its own internal logic. (1997: 41)

Habermas’s precise movement beyond Weber’s analysis of modernity lies in his rejection of the desirability of reconstituting these fractured moments of reason. Instead, in this differentiation Habermas makes room for critical philosophy as the guardian of rationality.

This is very interesting. I'm all ears.


Weber forcefully works out the formal properties of modern law, on the basis of which it is suited to serve as a means of organization for subsystems of purposive-rational action. But he restricts the concept of law positivistically to such an extent that he can neglect the moral-practical aspect of rationalization (the principle of justification) and take account only of its cognitive-instrumental aspect (the principle of enactment). Weber considers the advances of modern legal development exclusively from the standpoint of formal rationality, that is, of a value-neutral, means-ends, systematic spheres of shaping of spheres of action, which is tailored to the type of strategic action. (1995: 1.268)

I have my doubts about where Habermas is going with this. As for Weber, didn't Weber have both a positivist and a romantic orientation which he compartmentalized?

There have been advances in the moral-cognitive sphere of societal learning, which in itself contradicts totalizing critiques of reason as wholly instrumental. This is one of the primordial claims of Habermas's entire programme, and I consider it is a valid claim.

As an ideal tendency partially embedded in society, yes. But there seems to be a disconnection here. I suspect Habermas has become completely undialectical by now.

Just as important is Habermas’s interpretation that Weber’s analysis ends up in a critique of the positivist reason generated by empiricism. In Volume Two of TCA Habermas argues it is the emergence of this positivist reason gone out of control, and not the predominance of a purposive-rationality in the rationalization processes of modernity, which accounts for modernity’s social pathologies.

Weber's unintegrated positivism and romanticism at work? But how to explain modernity's social pathology as positivism gone berserk?

Habermas also disputes Weber’s diagnosis that the differentiation of reason into separate and then competitive spheres of value is the origin of the social pathologies of modernity:

With science and technology, with autonomous art and the values of expressive self presentation, with universal legal and moral representations, there emerges a differentiation of three value spheres, each of which follows its own logic... tension between these spheres grows along with their differentiation. (1995: 1.163-64)

Weber’s diagnosis of the social pathologies of modernity rests on the thesis that in the period under analysis there occurred a ‘switch from ethical to purely utilitarian action orientations’ (1995: 1.269) in the processes of integration. The ‘growing independence of sub-systems of purposive rationality’ (1995: 1.269) results in competition and conflict between the institutionalized value spheres. In contrast Habermas will develop the thesis that processes of social integration in modernity have been shaped by the release of the communicative communicative able to coordinate.

Habermas’s position is that Weber’s emphasis upon the coordination of modern social action by the goal-orientated form of purposive rationality misleads his analysis of the origins of the social pathologies of modernity (1995: 1.248; 2.352). Instead, Habermas determines the problem not to lay in the process of differentiation itself, but rather the selectivity of this differentiation:

But this critique rationality inherent in language, and the communicative actions this type of rationality was refers not to the differentiation of the inner logics of individual value spheres but to some value spheres becoming predominant at the expense of others. We must at least regard it as an empirical question, whether the tensions among the ever more rationalized spheres of life go back in fact to an incompatibility of abstract standards of value and aspects of validity, or rather to a partial and therefore imbalanced rationalization for example, to the fact that the capitalist economy and modern administration expand at the expense of other domains of life that are structurally disposed to moral-practical and expressive forms of rationality and squeeze them into forms of economic or administrative rationality. (1995: 1.183)

According to Habermas, the origins of the social pathologies of modernity and the deformation of the Enlightenment project is properly attributed to the increasing influence of the de-linguistified media of money and power in the organization and management of social order. This follows the emergence of industrial capitalism and large-scale market economies in the Nineteenth Century (1995: 2.165).

Finally, a bit of historical materialism. "De-linguistified" however is a red flag.

The overloading of traditional communicatively negotiated procedures of social action coordination has facilitated the emergence of new media of social action coordination. In advanced modernity newer media of social action coordination - that is money and power - begin to replace the communicatively negotiated procedures of social integration (1995: 2.154).

Begin to replace? And merely complex? And even merely money and power? Is this an adequate characterization of how capitalism operates?


Both these difficulties disappear if we connect the phenomena he described critically with our revised version of the bureaucratization thesis, and attribute them to a colonization of the lifeworld by system imperatives that drive moral-practical elements out of private and political-public spheres of life. It is not the irreconcilability of cultural value spheres - or the clash of life-orders rationalized in their light - that is the cause of one-sided life-styles and unsatisfied legitimation needs; their cause is the monetarization and bureaucratization of everyday practices both in the private and public spheres.

So what becomes of the prioritization of all the good things that modernity has brought?

Habermas argues that the object domain of a critical social theory of modernity is properly located in analyzing this deformation of the original linguistically mediated processes of modern Occidental social integration.

See, here's the problem! This is pure idealism. Unfuckingbelievable.

Chapter 5: Formal pragmatics

. . . Habermas is concerned to validate his thesis that the mode of language that coordinates communicative action - language oriented to understanding - is prior to the mode of language oriented to success that coordinates strategic action. From this Habermas concludes that action oriented to understanding (communicative action) is more fundamental to the processes of social integration in modernity than action oriented to success (strategic action). According to Habermas, this directs the search for the origins of the social pathologies of modernity, critical social theory's object domain, towards a finer analysis of the deformation of the linguistically constituted structures of the modern lifeworld.

And this argument must be fundamentally mistrusted.

This phenomenon is crucial to Habermas’s argument that language oriented to reaching understanding (thereby communicative action) is prior to, or more natural than, language oriented to success (thereby strategic action). For as he goes on to argue, the perlocutionary success of the speech act (achieving the objective of the strategic interaction) is dependent on the prior success of the effect of the illocution (the promise of x).

There's something suspect about this. Why not the other way round, with communicative action as an emergent property of communication?

In analyzing Weber’s typology of social action Habermas first points out that Weber’s conception of “meaning” retains the dualistic structure typical of the philosophy of consciousness (1995: 1.279). Weber, however, according to Habermas, fails to connect this concept of meaning with the communicative language practices that occur in social interactions. Instead, Habermas argues that Weber employs an intentionalist theory of meaning which neglects ‘the interpersonal relation between at least two speaking and acting subjects’ (1995: 1.279). In place of consensus or agreement Weber’s conception of understanding centres on the intentionalist model of ‘teleologically acting subjects reciprocally influencing one another’ (1995: 1.279-80) in search of success. Again, for Habermas, it is Weber’s reliance on motifs drawn from the philosophy of consiousness that problematize his theoretical rendering of modern social action (1995: 1.280).

There's something very suspect about this. The issue seems misconstrued. Somehow I feel I need Vygotsky here.

Speech acts, three worlds, I'm still trying to untangle this.

Put simply, I find the persistence of transcendental motifs in Habermas's construction of his postmetaphysical paradigm of communicative reason to be dissuasive rather than persuasive of his programme. These motifs are jarring, I believe, and draw into question Habermas's strong and central rhetorical claims that his paradigm of communicative reason is a postmetaphysical form of reason.

Question, indeed!

. . . Habermas has moved further towards characterizing the counterfactuals and idealizations in his theory formation as heuristic devices. Habermas discusses these issues in Justification and Application (1993) where he indicates, admittedly in reference to his earlier “ideal speech situation” that ‘concretist connotations are misleading’ (1993: 164). Rather, Habermas grants the idealizations and presuppositions that are so central to his theory construction a corporeal status following their transfiguration ‘into social reality itself’ (1993: 164). In other words, throughout modernity the ‘necessary presupposition of the unconditionality of context-transcending validity claims’ has been embedded in the scientific, moral-legal, political and cultural institutions of the Occidental lifeworld, thereby imparting a transcendence to our way of life: ‘These unconditional validity claims introduce into the lifeworld a moment of transcendence that permeates its symbolic structures’ (1993: 165).

Isn't this self-contradictory?

Habermas later broaches this issue with remarkable candor in Philosophical Discourse of Modernity:

There is a more serious question: whether the concepts of communicative action and the transcending force of universalistic validity claims do not reestablish an idealism that is incompatible with the naturalistic insights of historical materialism. (1987: 321)

Remarkable candor, indeed!

Again what is left under theorized is how the noises and symbols human animals make (and have made) can persist as a permanent and causally efficacious lifeworld made up of fixed cultural and social meanings. This is too suggestive of Karl Popper’s third world thesis I think where ideas and theories are treated as actually existing corporeal entities in interaction. I argue below these quasi-transcendental motifs in Habermas’s theory formation detract from his rhetorical objective of demonstrating a de-transcendentalized normative grounding for Critical Theory.

The Popper connection again.

I think one should be wary of adopting Quine.

His general strategy is to undertake a critical examination of the history of ideas that according to Habermas almost logically arrives, via the philosophy of language (“the linguistic turn”), at a postmetaphysical mode of thinking. Habermas responds to his critics by demonstrating the historical transition from metaphysical to postmetaphysical thinking for the outcome of Habermas’s progressivist history of ideas is paradigmatically represented by communicative reason (1994: 46-7).

This is more than suspect.

Marx and Søren Kierkegaard are spared Habermas’s harsh revision of philosophy’s history. Their anti-Idealist tendencies sought ‘to recover the finite character of mind from the self-referential, totalizing thinking of the dialectic’ (1994: 39) earning them Habermas’s admiration as forerunners of the Twentieth Century turn towards postmetaphysical thinking.


Habermas appears to be on more certain ground arguing against Nietzsche’s and the Neo-Nietzschean’s anti-metaphysics. Their critique of metaphysics, according to Habermas, sublates the “bad” totality thinking of metaphysics into their conception of ‘absolute negativity’ (1994: 121), he argues, thereby falling under the influence of that monistic strain of metaphysics which stretches back to Parmenides and Plotinus (1994: 120-1).

This is weird.

Against ‘modern empiricism’ (1994: 29) Habermas acknowledges its place amongst the ‘antimetaphysical movements’ (1994: 29). His strategy is to disable empiricism’s anti-metaphysical credentials by arguing that as the antithesis of metaphysicalism, empiricism remains ‘within the horizons of possible thought set by metaphysics itself’ (1994: 29). Habermas is just as swift in his dismissal of the positivism’s critique of metaphysicalism.

I think I actually get this and agree with it.

Harsher is Habermas’s accusation that contextualism is complicit with metaphysical totality thinking: ‘The metaphysical priority of unity above plurality and the contextualist priority of plurality above unity are secret accomplices’ (1994: 116-17). According to Habermas, in intrigue with traditional metaphysics, contextualism “gangs up,” as it were, on the ‘concept of reason that is skeptical and postmetaphysical, yet not defeatist’ (1994: 116): communicative reason.

I think I understand the logic of this.

I have my doubt though about communicative reason as a putative queen of the sciences. And again, the fundamental postulated entities and their prioritization—communicative and instrumental reason—were never convincing to me.

This response draws attention to both the fallibilistic and the pragmatic moments of his theory of communicative action. Both these moments point to Habermas’s underlying conception of critical social theory production as an essentially open-ended undertaking that is set out to function as a normative contribution to the ongoing processes of social integration. Habermas’s theory of communicative action is a set of working hypotheses in which internal theoretical consistency, whilst a basic rational standard of discourse, is to a degree subordinated to the empirical, discursive ramifications of such a theory’s applied impact in-the-world albeit, in the first place, the expert world of social scientific and critical social scientific engagement. Moreover, and this point is central to appreciating Habermas’s self-understanding of his entire project, it is the external consistency of Critical Theory-as-reconstructive science with other scientific knowledges that takes precedence:

I can't make sense of this.


Coherence is the sole criterion of considered choice at the level on which mutually fitting theories stand to one another in relations of supplementing and reciprocally presupposing, for it is only the individual propositions derivable from theories that are true or false. Once we have dropped foundationalist claims, we can no longer expect a hierarchy of sciences; theories whether social-scientific or philosophical in origin have to fit with one another, unless one puts the other in a problematic light and we have to see whether it suffices to revise the one or the other. [emphases added] (1995: 2.399-400)



Linguistic behaviourism also seems to me to belong to these reductionistic forms of theory construction. The naturalism of this unquestionably impressive theory of language, developed from Morris to Quine, is not derived from the procedure of linguistic analysis but from the presuppositions of an empiricist ontology…

To say the least.

Part of my disquiet is that Habermas disparages the linguistic behaviourism in the pragmatist tradition that stretches at least from George Mead to Charles Morris and certainly influenced Quine's semantic naturalism. I can only conjecture here that in part this rejection is connected to nascent naturalistic features of Friedrich Nietzsche's philosophy of language. In order to oppose Nietzsche's philosophy at all costs, Habermas backs himself into a genealogical inconsistency.

I do not understand this, and to the extent that I can decipher it I disagree.

A major theme in his reconstruction of Critical Theory is the movement of this tradition beyond the aporia-generating influence of German Idealism that is manifest in both Hegel’s and Marx’s philosophy of history that is present in Horkheimer and Adorno’s critique of instrumental reason. In plain language Habermas appears to replace one dissuasive element of German Idealism (a philosophy of history) in Critical Theory with another drawn from the more general idealist tradition (the ideal status of linguistic signs). I consider this willingness to retain elements of the idealist philosophical tradition compromises the real strength of Habermas’s reconstructive project: its distinctly “modern” de-transcendental, postmetaphysical nature.

I think it is a mistake to equate pragmatism and its alleged naturalism with materialism; hence I disagree with this as a diagnosis of the problem of Habermas' idealism.

[end of 5.3]

Chapter 5.4

Cooke argues that Habermas’s excursion into the philosophy of language can ‘show no more than the conceptual priority of the communicative mode of language use’ (1997: 19). Cooke’s point is well taken. The conceptual priority of language oriented towards understanding does not indicate what Cooke terms the ‘functional primacy’ (1997: 19) of the communicative mode of language. In other words, whilst the communicative mode of language oriented to reaching understanding can be feasibly reckoned as conceptually prior to language oriented to success, this does not entail that this mode of language dominates (or given Habermas’s historical narrative - dominated) everyday usage. In fact, as Cooke points out, Habermas has acknowledged the tenuous credibility of his thesis that modern social integration depended upon the “shaky” foundation of social actions oriented towards the achievement of agreement or consensus.

This is obvious, don't you think?

This interpretation leads to a bleak picture of the social world in which individual social actors are reduced to conduits of the lifeworld in a manner that suggests the residual influence of Heidegger in Habermas's work. Moreover, elsewhere Habermas's critiques 'Marxist functionalism' on the basis that 'it still secretly refers to a totality, now negatively construed as a matrix of sheer compulsion' (1996: 46). My point is that in Habermas's depiction of the possibility of individual autonomy in relation to the pervasive meaning-generating resource of the lifeworld he also incurs in his theory construction something of a matrix of sheer compulsion. The place of individual autonomy in Habermas's theory construction, I am arguing, remains ambiguous and problematic.


Significantly, the “constituting” relationship between individuals and the collective according to Habermas works both ways. In Communication and the Evolution of Society (1979), for example, Habermas describes how individual opinions and will-formations via social movements feed into generalized or collective will-formations that form the basis of the modern societal learning processes and find completion within the improvement of existing, or the development of newer, social institutions (1979: 122; 125). Whilst in TCA, Habermas indicates that the lifeworld intervenes at the level of personality development, and that individuals participate in communicative actions that sustain and reproduce the lifeworld (1995: 2. 138). It is a symbiotic relationship that I find unconvincing, first, because of the Habermas’s under explanation of the autonomy embedded in an individual social actor’s capacity to take a “yes” or “no” position on criticizable validity claims, and, on the other hand, the lifeworld’s role in the determination of this choice.

This is important!

This tension emerges out of the distinction Habermas makes between language oriented to reaching understanding and language oriented to success. For implicit in Habermas’s distinction is the capacity for choice exercised by those social actors who participate in linguistically-mediated communication oriented to success. This capacity for choice in contexts of strategic action contrasts to contexts of communicative action in which social actors always/already employ language oriented to reaching understanding. Habermas is willing to grant a greater degree of individual autonomy to those social actors who pursue success-oriented language than he is to those social actors who participate in processes of seeking to reach an understanding.


An immediate dissonant note is struck given that notions of individual or subjective autonomy are usually associated more with processes of enlightenment and emancipation. Again what this suggests is Habermas's unyielding rejection of any form of subjectivist reason. Yet in his rejection of both Kant and Nietzsche, Habermas appears comfortable with allowing a more Hegelian strain to take precedence in his understanding of the relationship between individual autonomy and processes of enlightenment and emancipation. In a manner distinctly reminiscent of Friedrich Hegel's merging of the aspiration for individual freedom within the concrete embodiment of the World Historical Spirit in the German State, Habermas makes processes of enlightenment and emancipation interdependent with the meaning-generating resources of the modern lifeworld.

If this is so, it is dissonant indeed.

The important point to take from this part of my discussion is that Habermas steers away from a conception of emancipation that is defined in terms of individual and freedom (Habermas, 1986: 147). Rather, in Habermas’s lexicon emancipation appears as a historically emergent possibility constituted in modernity and institutionally guaranteed through the unleashing of the communicative reason embedded in the meaning-generating structures of communicative language practice. Via the symbiotic relationship between the lifeworld and personality structures (whereby individuals are socialized into “freedom,” as it were, and then through participating in processes of individual will and opinion formation in contexts of communicative action that replenish and reproduce the lifeworld) the emancipatory potential of modernity “lives on.” Furthermore, I believe the approach to emancipation Habermas favours is one that connects emancipation to equality in the first place. This equality, in a manner I consider is reminiscent of Hegel’s philosophy, is achieved beneath the institutional umbrella of the state and guaranteed by the communicatively rational structures of the lifeworld:

The metaphysics of social democracy?

The counterpoint to my critique of Habermas’s revision of the individualistic basis of emancipation is surely Marx’s conception of individual freedom achieved through class or communal solidarity.

You are not being clear, here.

One part of this dissuasive pathos emanates from the diminuition of individual autonomy, another from the redefinition of the critical-emancipatory project as an operational component in processes of social integration. It is a vision of emancipation that is a long on procedure and short on passion.

I do not understand this claim.

Habermas appears to be committed to a theory of subjective cognitive rationality. Otherwise it is difficult to explain why certain social actors turn towards a language use oriented to reaching understanding and others employ a use of language oriented to reaching success. Agnes Heller identifies the issue under examination with pinpoint precision:

Readiness for emancipation is explained [by Habermas] by the transcendental theorem: we are rational beings, consequently we do not choose rationality as a value. In his efforts to eliminate decisionism, he identifies a conditional assertion with a statement. The conditional assertion is this: if we choose at all, we cannot choose anything but rationality. The statement is this: we do not choose rationality, because we are rational beings. Habermas only establishes the first (conditional) assertion, not the second one, but in fact he substitutes the second for the first. I think, however, that these two are theoretically and practically different statements and that the first does not prove the second. We can choose the priority of instrumental or strategic rationality over communicative rationality, and we may not choose at all but simply follow drives, emotions or habits. Acceptance of this possibility would not mean relapsing into the trap of decisionism, because it does not assert that there is a choice between rationality and irrationality. What it does state is that communicative rationality is a choice, a value-choice. (1982: 29)


In the essay "The Development of Normative Structures" (1979) Habermas is quite explicit that in the first place individuals and not societies learn (1979: 121). And yet given 'the cognitive development of the individual takes place under social boundary conditions, there is a circular process between societal and individual learning' (1979: 121). Oddly enough, his enthusiasm is almost justified. The sticking point is the need to explain the "origins" of the causal chain. In other words, how did individuals break through to newer learning levels at the advent of modernity? The other sticking point ironically remains the idealist-leaning rendering of the 'liberating power of symbols.' I think Habermas must literally invest the symbolically mediated level of human interaction in the lifeworld with a non-naturalistic capacity to hold meanings (in the semantic sense).

I don't know how to dig into this.

This is the conflation of instrumental reason, the object domain of Horkheimer and Adorno’s critique, and the cognitive purposive rationality Habermas ascribes to Weber. Habermas, and I think quite deliberately, misses the focus of Horkheimer and Adorno’s critique on the complex of human rationalities: purposive, communicative and/or critical-emancipatory. For Horkheimer and Adorno, the instantiation of human reason in whatever form it takes will reveal the instrumentalizing application of this reason. Their argument is that the oppressive logic of identity structures human cognition in a deep-seated biological way. In other words, the mode of the operation of human cognitive “hardware” produces oppressive identity thinking. Habermas describes it: ‘In making a statement about a particular (a thing, an event, or a person), we always apprehend it in view of a universal determination’ (1983: 104).

It is no accident, then, that Habermas follows Horkheimer and Adorno into the recesses of deep seated species-wide behavioural competences in his attempt to recover for the tradition of Critical Theory a normative basis from which to proceed anew: it is the designated playing field.

While I don't quite get this, it suggests an unfortunate dependence on what Habermas rebelled against.

But really, the central problem is not incorporating communicative reason as part of the overall picture, but making it the foundation of Habermas' world view. This is petty bourgeois idealism at its worst.

In preparation for this analysis, in the final chapter of Volume One, Habermas turns his attention to the reception of Max Weber’s work by ‘representatives of Western Marxism’ (1995: 1.343); more specifically, George Lukács, Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno. These fifty pages that close Volume One of TCA comprise the most extensive specific engagement Habermas undertakes with Horkheimer and Adorno’s critique of instrumental reason. His overall thesis is that via Lukács, Horkheimer especially, and Adorno developed their critique of instrumental reason partly on the basis of Weber’s misconstrued emphasis, in his theory of modernity, upon the cognitive-purposive rationality complex. Habermas argues that Horkheimer in particular not only conflates “purposive rationality” with “instrumental reason,” but they ignore the resilient presence of communicative reason as the primary integrating rationality complex in the formation and reproduction of the modern social order.

Even if so, is it wise for Habermas to hold himself hostage to this problematic?


Horkheimer and Adorno radicalize Lukács’ theory of reification in socio-psychological terms; they do this so as to explain the stability of advanced capitalist societies without having to give up the approach of the critique of commodity fetishism. Their theory is supposed to explain why capitalism simultaneously heightens the forces of production and immobilizes the forces of subjective resistance. (1995: 1.372)


The lack of clarity Habermas discerns in Horkheimer and Adorno's critique of instrumental reason is in fact a manifestation of the dilemma their totalizing critique of reason generates. Put simply, their critique of reason leaves them nowhere to turn. They are unable to supply a normative justification for their critique of reason, because this undertaking is also susceptible to the instrumentality of enlightened thought.

You mean, how to H/A themselves escape the iron cage?

Horkheimer and Adorno's error, suggests Habermas, was to take over from the philosophy of consciousness too strongly the means-ends model of the subject's encounter with the external world of objects. Moreover, Habermas points out, Horkheimer and Adorno characterize this encounter as being driven solely by the motive of self-preservation (1995: 1.388). Their adherence to the philosophy of consciousness means they cannot finally 'capture the integrity of what is destroyed through instrumental reason' (1995: 1.389).

I still do not understand why the philosophy of consciousness is a problem in this way.

Furthermore, in the development of his argument Habermas identifies a quasi-transcendental component in his analysis of human language practices. The consequence of this aspect of Habermas’s linguistic turn I think is to compromise the credibility of his alternative paradigm as a postmetaphysical type of reason. Yet if the primary objective of Habermas’s project is to keep a positive conception of reason “alive” in the intellectual discourses of West Germany then his programme achieves this. Habermas forces the discursive consideration of communicative reason as one other type of rationality, and this strategy undermines Horkheimer and Adorno’s totalizing critique of reason as instrumental. In principle, Habermas argues, communicative reason is not an instrumentalizing form of reason: ‘Unlike instrumental reason, communicative reason cannot be subsumed without resistance under a blind self-preservation’ (1995: 1.398).

This project seems very provincial.

Chapter 6: The Critique of Functionalist Reason


the socially integrative and expressive functions that were at first fulfilled by ritual practice pass over to communicative action; the authority of the holy is gradually replaced by the authority of an achieved consensus. This means a freeing of communicative action from sacrally protected normative contexts. The disenchantment and disempowering of the domain of the sacred takes place by way of a linguistification of the ritually secured, basic normative agreement; going along with this is a release of the rationality potential in communicative action. (1995: 2.77)

Ideally, but dubious as a matter of fact. The very terminology 'linguistification of the sacred’ is dubious.

According to Habermas's historical narrative, individuals in modern Occidental societies at least could realize the potential to coordinate their social lives on the basis of the communicative rationality built into the structures of communicative language practices. The release of this communicative rationality made it possible for modern social actors to coordinate their social lives on the new found capacity to take a yes/no position on the validity claims raised in the speech acts of fellow social actors.


Habermas's reconstruction of Durkheim centres on the following points. First, 'all sacred objects' (1995: 2.51) are symbolic in that they 'represent the power of the sacred' (1995: 2.51). This explains the proto-linguistic capacity of sacred objects to coordinate social actions. Second, religious symbols have the same meaning for the same group - a 'uniform sacred semantics' (1995: 2.52). This provides an account of the origin of fixed meanings in language. Third, ritual practice reinforces communal solidarity through the re-iteration of the uniform semantics "contained" in religious or sacred symbols and objects. This exposes how social integration can be maintained on the basis of religious practices. And, fourth, the objective of this ritual practice is a consensual social communion integrative of communal solidarity.

Thus a set-up for linguistification of the sacred, a phrase I still find suspect.

This “sacred” component in modern civil law lies in the binding normativity of the fundamental agreement contracted between unconstrained social actors on which modern civil law is based. In this way, Habermas argues, Durkheim’s analysis moves beyond the standard explanation of obedience to the law provided by sociologies of the law ‘from Hobbes to Weber’ that ‘Modern law is precisely coercive law’ (1995: 2.80). Habermas points out Durkheim’s dissatisfaction with the Hobbesian explanation of the reasons why social actors obediently orientated themselves to the normative authority of civil law. According to Habermas, Durkheim recognized instead that ‘the obedience of modern legal subjects has to have a moral core’ (1995: 2.80).

Does anybody really believe this? Or is this a goose-stepping German thing?

The main homology is the role of collective ideals in the formation of both types of social order. I argued in Chapter Three that for Habermas it is the collective ideal of reason the myth of reason as I described it - that integrated the West German social order. Ironically, and this deepens the nuances of my reading of Habermas’s project to write a “new” Dialectic of Enlightenment, it is not so much that enlightenment reverts to myth, as Horkheimer and Adorno reveal. Rather, my reading of Habermas suggests that the myth of the sacred is replaced by the myth of (communicative) reason as the fundamental integrating collective ideal of the modern social order.


In seeking to explain how this transition was made possible Habermas makes what I think is an overtly underexplained theoretical jump. In an earlier essay “The Development of Normative Structures” Habermas (1979) tentatively outlines the homologies between ontogenetic development and phylogenetic evolution. In answering the question of how the sacred and the profane spheres of social life in archaic societies were initially differentiated - as a precursor to the emergence of communicative social action - Habermas points to the developmental logic of these evolutionary processes. He suggests that ‘[T]he evolutionary gap between symbolically mediated and normatively guided interaction makes it possible to encapsulate a domain of the sacred from the practices of everyday life’ (1995: 2.60). The developmental logic driving these processes of evolution entails that ‘the emergence of institutions and the formations of identities are the phylogenetic correlates to the constructions of the social and subjective worlds that Mead studied in ontogenesis’ (1995). Habermas does provide the following conjecture however:

For this reason I would conjecture that there is a split in the medium of communication corresponding to the segregation of the sacred from the profane domains of life: religious signification, which makes possible a normative consensus and thereby provides the foundation for a ritual coordination of action, is the archaic part left over from the stage of symbolically mediated interaction after experiences from domains in which perceptible and manipulable objects are dealt with in a more and more propositionally structured manner flow into communication. Religious symbols are disengaged from functions of adapting and mastering reality; they serve especially to link those behavioral dispositions and instinctual energies set loose from innate programs with the medium of symbolic communication. (1995: 2.54)

The fourth developmental stage in Habermas's historical narrative occurs in the universalization of worldviews and value systems, which has occurred in the establishment of the major religions, especially those in the Judaic-Christian tradition. I will connect this developmental stage to Habermas's model of social evolution in my explication of Habermas's thesis on the linguistification of the sacred below. The problem I have with this explanation is its recourse to the invisible moving hand, as it were, of an onto/phylogenetic developmental logic. . Habermas’s explanation also suggests a moment of unconsciousness in the evolution of the human species wherein the physical world was lived in but not perceived or manipulated as a distinct objective realm. There is symmetry between Habermas’s thesis here and Piaget’s first stage of ontogenetic development, and perhaps Habermas is tailoring his socio-anthropological account to accord with his employment of Piaget’s model. Suffice to say at this stage that Habermas, in reply to critics of this feature of his theory construction, points to his employment of Piaget’s theory of cognitive development as a heuristic device.

Good points.

The modern lifeworld is symbolically reproduced from one generation to the next through communicative actions (Benhabib, 1986: 239). Communicative actions ensure a continuity that preserves the core structures and mechanisms of social integration in the modern lifeworld. In Volume Two of TCA, Habermas’s critique of functionalist reason examines how the intrusion of systemworld steering media (money and power) into vital domains of social integration threatens the symbolic reproduction of the lifeworld (1995: 2.403). Yet, Habermas’s lifeworld is more than simply a “vessel” of cultural meanings. Its contents are also those objective meanings as well as social and personal patterns that get transmitted from one generation to the next:

Under the functional aspect of mutual understanding, communicative action serves to transmit and renew cultural knowledge; under the aspect of coordinating action, it serves social integration and the establishment of solidarity; finally, under the aspect of socialization, communicative action serves the formation of personal identities. The symbolic structures of the lifeworld are reproduced by way of the continuation of valid knowledge, stabilization of group solidarity, and socialization of responsible actors. (1995: 2.137)

If Matt's characterization is correct, this means that lifeworld embodies the basically sound structures of modernity, but system deforms them. Is this believable?

Although originally co-extant with the lifeworld, in advanced modernity and under the pressure of an increasingly complex social environment (1995: 2.154), the systemworld begins to uncouple its bureaucratic institutions, and its formal political/juridical processes. Most significantly the autonomous mechanism of monetary exchange and regulations are detached from their mediation by the communicatively-negotiated structures of the lifeworld (1995: 2.154):

the far-reaching uncoupling of system and lifeworld was a necessary condition for the transition from the stratified class societies of European feudalism to the economic class societies of the early modern period; but the capitalist pattern of modernization is marked by a deformation, a reification of the symbolic structures of the lifeworld under the imperatives of subsystems differentiated out via money and power and rendered self-sufficient. (1995: 2.283)

But if capitalist social relations undermined feudalism, then wouldn't the system be credited for accomplishing this progress rather than the lifeworld? I'm confused here.

Habermas has been both praised and criticized for his mixing and matching of social action theory with social systems theory (Brand: 130-134; McCarthy,1985b; Joas,1991). In agreement with McCarthy, the main criticism I raise of Habermas’s employment of a social systems analysis is the methodological confusion created by the introduction of this model (McCarthy, 1985b). It is introduced for methodological purposes, and then Habermas at times appears to be treating this heuristic device as a concrete entity (1995: 2.153; 2.374-75). Habermas’s concept of simultaneity, the dynamic of uncoupling and his thesis that systemworld institutions are “anchored” in the lifeworld also remain problematic. These are under explained by reference to concepts as undetermined as ‘internal logics’ (1995: 2.155) and ‘irresistible inner dynamics’ (1995: 2.331).

In general, the awkwardness of Habermas’s analysis may well stem from a resistance to crudely characterizing the lifeworld as the domain of communicative action and the systemworld as the domain of strategic action. Habermas wants to hold on to the limiting or perhaps even the reparation of the uncoupling process of the systemworld from the lifeworld. In other words he is unwilling to treat the uncoupling of the systemworld as either an inevitable or an irreparable historical evolutionary dynamic. Otherwise, this would impair the potential of Critical Theory to restore a balance to the relationship between the lifeworld and the systemworld (Alexander, 1991: 50).

It is difficult to digest Habermas. Could Matt be right about this?

Put simply, Habermas's division of the social world into a lifeworld and systemworld appears too strongly tied to the dualistic approaches of traditional metaphysics. On this point, however, it is important to remain mindful of Habermas's intention of developing a theory of communicative action through a history of social theory with systematic intent. The introduction of a social systems model retains a consistency with the methodological dualism of Marx's base/superstructure model as well as Durkheim's analysis of the development of modern social integration on the basis of the transition from a mechanical to an organic mode. As I made clear in Chapter Three, Habermas grounds his method in the positive dialectical process of first engagement, then appropriation or reconstruction and finally a discursively tested synthesis with the work of other philosophers and social theorists. Once again I would argue that to misunderstand this aspect of Habermas's methodology is to misunderstand his entire project.

I don't understand this.

This reading lends further credence to my emphasis on the paradigm-play of Habermas's reconstructive engagement with both classic and recent (critical) social theory. My point is that just as Habermas is seemingly obliged to follow Weber's analysis of modernity as a process of rationalization, he is - on account of the reconstructive methodology he commits himself to - similarly obliged to develop a dualistic methodological analysis of the modern social world in order to keep his "hermeneutical" faith, as it were, and to provide a comprehensive alternative to Marx's and Durkheim's analyses

??? I am suspicious of hermeneutical faith.

The key issue is whether the hermeneutical idealism Habermas points to necessitates the introduction of a systems model, or whether in fact an adequate account of the deformation of modernity can be worked out of a characterization of the social world which does not require a dualist methodology. I think the key issue here is Habermas’s insistence that the introduction of a systems model always remains a methodological innovation. If this is the case, it remains to be shown how the objectification of the lifeworld as a critical methodological innovation from inside the lifeworld can hope to overcome the limitations of the hermeneutical idealism Habermas sees as problematic.

Inquiring minds want to know.

I consider the main reason Habermas introduces a social systems model is to open up another main field of social theory to engagement and synthesis. Habermas’s engagement with social systems theory stretches back at least as far as his The Logic of the Social Sciences. His intense engagement with Niklas Luhmann in the 1970s is a prelude to the synthesis of social systems theory undertaken in TCA. As Rick Roderick (1986) says, this is Habermas’s modus operandi: confront a theoretical position (social systems theory, in this case) exploit its weaknesses in debate and appropriate its strengths into your own work.

The core theoretical reason Habermas gives in support of his turn to Parsons' social systems theory is to extract Parsons' theory of systems steering media for his theory of communicative action. For it is 'Through the work of Talcott Parsons we can get clear about how to interrelate the basic concepts of systems theory and action theory' (1995: 2.197). In doing so it becomes possible to reformulate 'the problem of reification . . . in terms of systemically induced lifeworld pathologies' (1995: 2.197).

Sometimes this is hard to take.

Instead of Marx’s application of Hegel’s teleological philosophy of history to changes in the modes of material production throughout the history of the human species, Habermas substitutes a conception of social evolution as a learning process akin to Piaget’s modeling of cognitive development.

Habermas’s second point of departure from Marx’s theory of value is to insist that innovations in the area of moral-cognitive interests are at least as important to social evolution, if not more so, than changes to the modes of material reproduction (1979: 97-98). In his account of the developmental trajectory of modernity Habermas describes the emergence of institutions that have embodied this process of learning in the moral-cognitive sphere as distinct from Marx’s emphasis on changes to the modes of material production. Marx, according to Habermas, ‘conceives of history as a discrete series of modes of production, which, in its developmental-logical order, reveals the direction of social evolution’ (1979: 138). Instead Habermas draws attention to changes in the human species’ moral and cognitive “interests.”

I hope this is not so. It would explain Habermas' appeal to the wrong sort of people, though.

On the other hand, Habermas says this:

Marx’s error stems in the end from dialectically clamping together system and lifeworld in a way that does not allow for a sufficiently sharp separation between the level of system differentiation attained in the modern period and the class specific forms in which it has been institutionalised. Marx did not withstand the temptations of Hegelian totality-thinking; he construed the unity of system and lifeworld dialectically as an ‘untrue whole’. Otherwise he could not have failed to see that every modern society, whatever its class structure, has to exhibit a high degree of structural differentiation. (1995: 2.340)

This is worth investigating.


On the other hand, in TCA, Habermas’s assessment of Marx’s theory of value appears to be more complimentary of its explanatory capacity than the assessment he makes of Marx’s theory in Communication and the Evolution of Society. Hence, in TCA Habermas acknowledges that ‘Marx was right to assign an evolutionary primacy to the economy; the problems in this subsystem determine the path of development of the society as a whole’ (1995: 343). What this shift of sorts on the part of Habermas indicates is the emphasis he places on the economic sphere and the medium of money in TCA. However, Habermas consistently argues that Marx’s theory of value is too rigid to encompass all of the complexities of social life under the transformative impact of modern capitalism. Habermas argues that his theory of communicative action provides an analytical flexibility that is lacking in Marx’s theory of value. This flexibility emerges out of the methodological innovations provided by his systems theoretic and the appropriation of aspects of Parsons’s media theory. Moreover, Habermas can replace the totalizing emphasis upon the economic sphere in Marx’s theory of value with the theoretical device of the lifeworld inside which the economic sphere is the main steering subsystem of social evolution in advanced modernity. In his usual way Habermas synthesizes useful explanatory features of Marx’s theory of value into his historical narrative whilst setting up his own theory of communicative action. Such a set of claims has not gone unchallenged.

Not sure what to make of this.

Amongst other things, Habermas argues Marx's theory of value is unable to provide an adequate explanation of interventionist government strategies (1995: 2.343-44), and the qualified successes of modern democracy (1995: 2.344-45). Finally, Habermas points to the 'welfare-state compromise' (1995: 2.349) which began to emerge towards the end of the Nineteenth Century. His point here is simple and effective. Marx's theory of labor could not adequately theorize the progressive pacification of the labor/capital conflict in Occidental societies during the course of the Twentieth Century. In this respect, Habermas is convinced his theory of communicative action stands as a viable alternative paradigm for critical social theory (1995: 2.374).



For this neutralization of the generalized role of citizen, the welfare state also pays in the coin of use values that come to citizens as clients of welfare-state bureaucracies. ‘Clients’ are customers who enjoy the rewards of the welfare state; the client role is a companion piece that makes political participation that has been evaporated into an abstraction and robbed of its effectiveness acceptable. (1995: 2.350)

The critical insight Habermas displays in this theoretical rendering of the benign/positive status of welfare-state apparatus is, I think, his most convincing analysis in TCA. More than anything else, Habermas’s juridification thesis gives substance to his claims for a renewal of critical theory:

The net of welfare-state guarantees is meant to cushion the external effects of a production process based on wage labor. Yet the more closely this net is woven, the more clearly ambivalences of another sort appear. The negative effects of this - to date, final - wave of juridification do not appear as side effects; they result from the form of juridification itself. It is now the very means of guaranteeing freedom that endangers the freedom of the beneficiaries. (1995:2.362)

New social movements:

In response to the systemworld's colonization of the lifeworld, Habermas sees 'new potentials for emancipation, resistance and withdrawal' (1995: 2.396) present in the emergent social protest phenomena of the 1960s and 1970s. These social phenomena include the counter culture movement, feminism and environmentalism, the anti-nuclear movement, as well as the various religious and self-help groups. These protests and withdrawals 'are carried out in subinstitutional, or at least extraparliamentary, forms of protest' (1995: 2.392).

Matt notes a number of criticism of this view, while acknowledging its explanatory potential.

Chapter Seven: The Critical-Emancipatory Project: An Institutional Guarantee?

After all this, is the pathos of pessimism (using Dialectic of Enlightenment as the point of comparison) the best conclusion to be drawn from the perceived weaknesses of Habermas' theoretical edifice?

In chapters Four, Five and Six I undertook a critical examination of Habermas's theory of communicative action. In that discussion I identified what I consider to be a number of major tensions and flaws in Habermas's theory construction. In particular, I argued that Habermas under-theorizes the motivational component of engagement with the critical-emancipatory project. Moreover, I argued that an indissoluble tension emerged in Habermas's theory construction between the naturalistic bases of his pragmatics and what I consider to be the non-naturalistic elements of his philosophy of language.

I don't quite get this.

In other words, according to Habermas, his theoretical engagement with the history of (critical) social theory in the realization of the potential to engage performatively dispels Horkheimer and Adorno’s thesis on the dialectic of enlightenment. In the practice of his discourse Habermas illustrates the open-ended futurity of the positive dialectics generated by the communicative rationality he locates in the meaning-generating structures of human communicative language behaviour. On this basis, Habermas is in a position to discredit both the temporal finality and dialectical inevitability of Horkheimer and Adorno’s critique.

This strikes me as peculiar. The possibility of advancing theory proves the possibility of advancing society?

Although he does not state this outright I believe Habermas’s implicit thesis is that given the correct conditions of socialization, education and physical care individuals would grow into the moral consciousness required to account for involvement with processes of emancipation. Still, I think Heller’s point remains sticky for Habermas. Such an explanation does not explain how in terms of an actual practice in the contemporary historical context of advanced modernity the deformation of the communicatively rational structures of the lifeworld which problematizes, on Habermas’s account, “healthy” processes of socialization, personality development and physical well being is to be reversed and the pathologies of modernity remedied.

How indeed?

One aspect of this innovation is Habermas’s strategy of embedding the critical-emancipatory impulse in the institutions of social governance and higher education. My point is that Habermas could dismiss Heller’s concerns given the persistence of these institutions and the vocational niches these institutions provide for the management of processes of enlightenment. In other words, it could be argued that Heller’s and my concern that Habermas fails to theorize the motivational basis upon which his critical theory of society would be implemented are unfounded given the institutional guarantee of the critical-emancipatory project in modern democratic advanced capitalist societies.

Guarantee, my ass.

In light of this there does appear to be - on Habermas's account, at least - no requirement to theorize the basis of participation in the critical-emancipatory project. For, given the progressive historical embedding of the critical-emancipatory impulse in the institutional structures of modern states "participation" in the processes of enlightenment is, more or less, a matter of vocational obligation. Vocational niches have been established in the enlightenment industry, and these niches guarantee, in principle at least, an ongoing maintenance and advancement of processes of enlightenment.

Wishful thinking.

When Habermas formulated his conception of the institutional embodiment of the critical-emancipatory project in the late 1960s and early 1970s he did so amidst the rapid transformation and expansion of the West German system of higher education (Habermas, 1987b). It was a time, perhaps, of justifiable optimism. However, the ideological shift to the political right in the 1970s, that in part stimulated Habermas's attempt to halt the rollback of modernity with his theory of communicative action, has also impacted more and more on the level of support for those tertiary education and public administration reserves of critical reason. The ideologically driven impact of functionalist reason on the institutional guarantee Habermas theorizes for critical reason, admittedly with the benefit of hindsight, diminishes the persuasive appeal of his innovation of Critical Theory.

To say the least.

What these notes indicate, in light of contemporary social, cultural and political developments that have impacted on Habermas's original vision, is the need to revise this vision. However, outlining even a sketch of what this revision would look like is not the objective of this chapter's discussion.


Instead there is a lengthy treatment of Horkheimer/Adorno's dialectic of despair. And then:

However, it is my contention that Habermas's project risks introducing a further aporetic pathos of pessimism to Critical Theory given his tendency to depict central aspects of the critical-emancipatory project as crucial operational components of the processes of integration, reproduction and legitimation of the social order in modern social systems.


For as Heller states: ‘Habermasian man has, however, no body, no feelings; the “structure of personality” is identified with cognition, language, and interaction’ (1982: 22). Instead, in Habermas’s oeuvre, the processes of human emancipation are drastically de-subjectivised. What Habermas does is to surgically remove the agonistic quality from the critical-emancipatory project. In its place, Habermas substitutes a technocratic and systemic oriented vision of human emancipation.

My point is that in his haste to turn away ‘from the philosophy of despair’ (Heller, 1982: 22) and the prevailing pathos of pessimism in Critical Theory, in his theorizing of the processes of human emancipation, Habermas turns instead to a philosophy of systems and expert social management procedures: ‘The work of reconstruction can then link up with functional approaches and empirical explanations’ (Habermas, 1996: 3).

This could be damning.

This turn, I consider, ironically risks generating its own pathos of pessimism. My contention here is that on account of the unintended consequence of his theory construction in the second phase of his reconstructive programme Habermas’s new Dialectic of Enlightenment falters in overcoming, in a substantive way, the aporetic interruption brought to Critical Theory by Horkheimer and Adorno’s critique of instrumental reason.

But does this really matter?

On emancipation vs social integration:

This tension emerges from his characterization of social movements a key component in the discourse of emancipation - as an almost mechanistic dynamic inside the category of the processes of social integration. What I argue in the following discussion is that in BFN Habermas appears to subordinate processes of emancipation furthered by social movements to processes of societal integration, reproduction, and legitimation. It is not so much Habermas’s Hegel-like prioritisation of the social order that risks generating a further aporetic pathos of pessimism. Rather it is the inevitable consolidation of the social order by social movements that appears to be pessimistic.

Something to look out for.

Yet in BFN there is a discernible methodological shift in the emphasis Habermas gives to engaging with other social theorists in developing a form of reconstructive inquiry. He still engages critically with other social theorists. However, this engagement is more understated than in TCA and takes the form of either a critique or endorsement in support of his own themes. Despite this movement other methodological echoes from TCA can be heard in BFN. For example, Habermas continues to link his methodological practice to the thematic outcomes of his research. By this I mean the central thematic motif of BFN the tension between facticity and normativity in modern law is replicated in the frustrating ambiguities of the diverse methodological perspectives in this work. These perspectives swing from empirical analysis to critical prescription to an idealized projection of the co-operation of law, politics, administration, and the lifeworld.

My point here is that the thematic tension that generates Habermas’s inquiry in BFN also underlies his methodological approach. Once more there is a unique symmetry in Habermas’s work between theme and content. This methodological tension in BFN mirrors the construction of his theory of communicative action in TCA. In TCA Habermas conceives of his theory production as exemplary of his theory of (critical) social theory production. In BFN, the same tension he identifies in the generation, legislation and implementation of law in modern democratic capitalist societies is built into the methodological movement between factual or descriptive analysis, idealization and normative prognosis.

Noteworthy. I am not competent to evaluate this.

In BFN Habermas expands his theory of social movements in terms of the contribution these aggregates of individual will-formations make to the integration, stabilization and innovation of their social worlds. The motif of problem-solving is retained from previous expositions of his social movement and social evolution theory in CES and the essay “History and Evolution.” However, in BFN, many of the other central motifs of his earlier theory of social movements and social evolution have been quietly dispensed with. In particular, the homologies between processes of social evolution and Jean Piaget’s model of ontogenetic development, which Habermas strongly employs in the aforementioned works as well as in TCA, are no longer so evident in BFN. Moreover the process of social evolution is only fleetingly analyzed as a process of social learning, although - as mentioned above - the motifs of problem-solving and crisis-consciousness do re-appear in BFN.


There is, I think, one main reason for this change in the language of Habermas’s theory construction. In BFN, Habermas’s analysis is not strongly directed towards the issue of social evolution. Whilst he remains focused in this work on the dynamics and mechanisms that ensure social integration in modern societies there is no longer the compulsion to engage with the question of how or even why these societies have evolved in the manner which they have. These issues mainly form the bases of his discussion in TCA where Habermas has resolved the issue of how modern, Occidental societies were integrated and then deformed. Instead, in BFN, there is what I would describe as a horizontal perspective in Habermas’s approach to the issue of social evolution. By this I mean the vertical or latitudinal inclined evolutionism of Habermas’s historical narrative in TCA is replaced with an inquiry into a social landscape, which - for the purposes of his analysis in BFN - has effectively plateaued out. In BFN, and given this plateau modeling, Habermas’s theoretical emphasis is placed more on the issue of how social integration in democratic advanced capitalist societies is maintained. In short, the answer Habermas provides in BFN to the question of how social order is achieved and maintained in modern societies is that the processes of law formation and implementation acts as the integrating cement, as it were, of these social systems. Understood in this way, it is no surprise that in BFN the theoretical motifs of evolution and learning are scarce. In Habermas’s account modern societies have evolved to a certain stage of development. His task in BFN is not to answer the “how” of this evolution, but rather to answer the “how” of their continued integration. In other words, in BFN, Habermas’s focus is on the mechanics and dynamics of social integration in democratic advanced capitalist societies rather than providing a quasi-historical narrative detailing the social evolutionary stages leading to the present day.


What I think has shifted significantly in Habermas’s theoretical posture between the writing of TCA and BFN is his attitude to the systemworld. Instead of the exaggerated and at times cartoon-like depiction of the relation between lifeworld and systemworld in TCA, in BFN the imagery of intrusion and colonization has given way to the altogether less strident metaphorical language of cybernetic social systems model. An important part of this change is Habermas’s shift in the depiction of social movements. In TCA Habermas is primarily concerned to provide a sociologically inclined account of the emergent stage of the social protest and withdrawal movements of the post-Second World War period. In this model, Habermas depicts social movements as a primary conduit of a form of communicatively rational power: “communicative power.”


. . . . In the political sphere this communicative power is transformed into political power. The outcome of this transformation is a legislative programme that is then switched over to the administrative sphere for implementation. In a circular way, what was originally communicative power, then impacts back in the shape of new legislation onto the private sphere and outer fringes of the public sphere from where this communicative power first originated, in its raw state, out of what Habermas describes as the face-to-face interactions between social actors. In this way, Habermas argues, the production of law in social systems that facilitate such a transformation of communicative power into legislation obtains a normative legitimation.

I'm waiting for the other shoe to drop.

In TCA Habermas is most concerned to explicate the defensive features of the new social movements in the post-World War Two context as one of the several nascent resistance potentials to the colonization of the lifeworld. In TCA a social movement’s defensive identity is defined in light of the essentially communicative dynamics of its development. In this way a social movement - according to Habermas - does indeed defend or consolidate the ‘existing structures of association and public influence’ (1995: 370) in the lifeworld. Whilst in BFN Habermas tracks a social movement’s “offensive” capacity to embody discursively achieved individual will formations and then act as the carrier of a proto-communicative power. Social movements transmit the raw material of communicative power into the core of the public sphere whereby it impinges on the political sphere, and following further processes of public discourse a social movement can contribute to the formation or amendment of legislation.



As a result, democratic movements emerging from civil society must give up holistic aspirations to a self-organizing society, aspirations that also undergirded Marxist ideas of social revolution. Civil society can directly transform only itself, and it can have at most an indirect effect on the self-transformation of the political system; generally, it has an influence on the personnel and programming of this system. But in no way does it occupy the position of a macrosubject supposed to bring society as a whole under control and simultaneously act for it. (1996: 372)

Bureaucratic social democracy.

However masked, I think the impression Habermas is also attempting to portray in BFN is a clear alternative to the pessimistic prognosis offered by either Max Weber or Horkheimer and Adorno. Earlier, he also takes issue with the core tenets of cynical sociological reason: ‘The sociological enlightenment seems to recommend a disillusioning, if not downright cynical, view of the political process’ (1996: 329). In place of this cynicism Habermas offers ‘the construct of “communicative power”’ (1996: 330).

This must mean that West Germany was infinitely more civilized than the United States.

My point is that in BFN the value or worth of social integration appears to take precedence over the emancipatory potential of the utopian impulses that generated the social solidarities at the bases of a social movement in the first place.

Factually this is probably the case. Normatively, perhaps a perspective is needed that transcends both.

Seyla Benhabib (1981) in her essay “Modernity and the Aporias of Critical Theory” also points out the subjectlessness of Habermas’s reconstructed Critical Theory when she defines the ‘third aporia of critical theory’:

The more the theoretical conditions for the fulfillment of modernity are elaborated in the form of an evolutionary theory of discursive rationality, the further removed does the prospect of an emancipated society appear, for a counterfactually conceived structure of discursive rationality articulates an emancipatory ideal that cannot guide emancipatory praxis, since it belongs to the concrete life-history of no social subjects, but to the evolutionary potential of the species in general.[italic emphases in original] (1981: 54)

Well worth considering.

Alongside this problem, and somewhat ironically, I would point out another newly emergent social pathology in advanced modernity. This admittedly esoteric pathology is manifest in the compromise between what Habermas theorizes as on the one hand - the utopian emancipatory aspirations embedded in social movements, as well as authentic civil society participation in the processes of deliberative politics in the public sphere, and on the other hand the overriding compulsion to social integration. The issue I am raising here, and go on to develop below, is not so much the empirical veracity of Habermas’s analysis of the process of institutionalization. More problematic is the strong normative approval he gives to this phenomenon (Cook, 2001). In BFN Habermas overlooks the issue of the cooptation of a social movement, and the contribution to consolidating the social order a social movement can make following such a process of cooptation. Rather Habermas endorses the institutionalization of a social movement as the optimization of a social movement’s emancipatory potential.


In Habermas’s defence he does leave open the option of civil disobedience to disaffected but still motivated social actors. This is clearly one means available to would-be prominent public sphere actors who may have been marginalized or ignored by the routinization of public sphere voices (1996: 382-83). Yet what Habermas overlooks in the confidence with which he asserts civil disobedience as a form of last resort ‘for obtaining more of a hearing and greater media influence’ (1996: 382) is the susceptibility of these acts falling prey to deliberate strategies of political and media misrepresentation, for example.

In fact in order to garner media attention acts of civil disobedience increasingly appear to package themselves in a theatrical way for media consumption. To his credit Habermas directly addresses this issue. However, I consider his analysis to be unsatisfactory. Habermas strangely sees the ‘success of public communication’ (1996: 362) not in the substance or quality of the public discourse, but in the ‘procedural properties of its process of generation’ (1996: 362). This strange subordination of content to form further alienates Habermas’s critical analysis from actual historical conditions.

Habermas has become more conservative, is the argument. This would certainly account for the appeal of Habermas to the bureaucratic element.

What Habermas appears to be short on in BFN is a set of “critical” detailed descriptive analyses of actually existing historical conditions. This leads me to conjecture that Habermas’s BFN is intended as a revision of his earlier Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere in the way Scheuerman hints at. There are certainly divergences and self-conscious improvements between these two analyses. The point I am suggesting is that Habermas considers that this earlier work provides enough of a still-valid analysis of actually existing social world conditions to relieve him of the task of reproducing this type of analysis in BFN. It is perhaps no coincidence that after three decades Habermas, in 1989, finally agreed to the English translation of Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere as a form of entrée to the 1992 publication of BFN.

I consider the reason for Habermas’s hesitancy in BFN to emphasize a critical analysis of actually existing social conditions is that he is still explicitly concerned to present a clear positive alternative to the “cynical” sociology of Foucault, for example. Ironically, however, if there is one aspect of Habermas’s work in BFN that is dissuasive it is his unwillingness to take seriously the powerful presence of a self-preservationist or instrumental reason in the political and cultural processes of democratic capitalist societies in advanced modernity.


I consider Habermas's project would have far more persuasive force if he positioned his project as a contest between communicative reason versus the instrumentality of a functionalist reason subordinate to the oppressive imperatives of advanced global capitalism. To do so however, risks for Habermas, having to take seriously not only Nietzsche's but Horkheimer and Adorno's as well as Foucault's theses on the self-preservationist component of a distinctly modern reason.

This strikes me a peculiar form of reasoning. One could follow Matt's suggestion and ignore the rest of these people completely. European intellectuals do not seem to function this way, alas.

One awkward outcome for Habermas which results from this postulation of a safety net of quasi-juridical procedures is that any system of democratic watchdogs implies an infinite regress of sorts, which is finally unsatisfying. In plain terms, given a system of watchers as part of a safety net for deliberative politics, it always remains pertinent to ask “who watches the watchers?”. William Scheuerman (1999), in his essay “Between Radicalism and Resignation,” assesses Habermas on this point. He asks: ‘Does anyone really believe that more ombudsmen or administrative hearings can really protect us from what Habermas himself describes as the “crisis tendencies” of modern representative democracy?’ (1999: 171-72). What I believe Scheuerman has in mind is Habermas’s pragmatic acceptance of the dialectic of empowerment and tutelage. Habermas’s philosophical and political realism has driven out most traces of utopianism from his critical social theory. It is precisely this sense of resignation that risks stimulating a further pathos of pessimism for Critical Theory, and I argue, compromises the persuasive capability of Habermas’s reconstructive programme to inspire a re-engagement with the task of undertaking a critical theory of society.

Or, more importantly, for addressing these problems beyond the restricted interest of critical social theory.

The hypothesis I am proposing here is that discourse theories of democracy, of the sort Habermas puts forward in BFN, have been assimilated by social management functionaries within both the political and administrative spheres.

Is this why Habermasians make me sick?

Matt comes to his conclusion:

In this chapter's final discussion I draw attention to the susceptibility of central components of Habermas's communicatively rational model of deliberative politics to dialectical inversion. Here I conjecture that in spite of the procedural guarantees Habermas's theory of discourse offers actual or substantive processes of public and political discourses against the type of dialectical inversion theorized by Horkheimer and Adorno there is the omnipresent risk of subversion. This risk, I suggests, primarily emanates from a disingenuous collaboration between the political and administrative spheres.

Matt addresses the "problem" of social instability. Then the manipulation of public opinion and consultation.

In the first category what is risked through a disingenuous solicitation of opinion from the private sphere and from the periphery of the public sphere is the further stimulation of already present tendencies towards apathy in the polity and finally the erosion of governmental legitimacy. A pragmatic response to this hypothesis would be that a degree of compliance and compromise on the part of the lay-public in fact “oils the wheels” of social integration in contemporary advanced capitalist democratic societies and I am sympathetic to this viewpoint. These perspectives on the almost subterranean social psychological impulses that undergird the cohesion of modern societies suggest a quasi-contractual relationship between an almost willingly deceived private sphere and institutions of political governance.


The third and less than optimum outcome of these type of programmes of opinion-solicitation from the public and/or private spheres is that, despite the good intentions of the social management functionaries who initiate such a program of consultation, the quality of the public opinion is inauthentic because the consultation process is hijacked, for example, by ideologically motivated participants. The risk is that the results are taken to be authentic with potentially disintegrative ramifications.

I've omitted the second and fourth possible outcomes. The upshot is that contrived solicitation is not authentic communicative power.


If one thing emerges unambiguously from my discussion of Habermas’s BFN it is that the ambiguities in his methodological perspectives in this work, swinging between the descriptive, idealized and critical modes of analysis, frustrate the reader and impair the overall efficacy of what I consider to be the concluding theoretical installment in his writing of a new Dialectic of Enlightenment. This is compounded by Habermas’s unwillingness in BFN to critically analyze actually existing social world conditions of oppression as if they no longer exist.


The point to be made is that Habermas’s construal in BFN of the dynamics of deliberative politics as they actually transact in the realpolitik indicates too much trust is being placed in the role of the lay-public to be either capable or informed enough to advance very far processes of enlightenment. In the classic Marxian tradition there remains something of a potential role for an informed group of social actors to at the very least point in the direction of where processes of enlightenment may be found. This is what Heller describes as Habermas’s innovation of critical social theory as a form of social service that can be taken or left. In a minor sense Habermas’s experts are Lenin’s intellectuals. The primary difference is that Habermas’s experts have been institutionalized. It is certainly one way to insulate a social order from overthrow. First, institutionalize the ringleaders. Second, extract from them useful knowledges that can advance processes of social control and the amelioration of systemic dysfunctionalities in the maintenance and reproduction of social integration and order. This slightly cynical perspective is a worthwhile antidote to Habermas’s overly harmonious view of the mode of social reproduction in modern, democratic advanced capitalist social systems. In this way the intellectual class joins the working class as compromised by the very considerable seductions of material security and even existential identity on offer to social actors following the historic compromise between labor and capital achieved in modern advanced capitalist democratic societies.


There is another possibility, and this is the one I think Habermas works towards in good faith. Given the overwhelming changes to the material bases of Occidental societies over the last century and a half it is not surprising that changes have also occurred in the relation of theories to practices, and the potential to affect a decisive reconfiguration of the existing social order. This much at least needs to be granted to Habermas's reconstruction of the Critical Theory. What irritates perhaps most is the theoretical banishment of hope and the fearful suppression of the passion of emancipatory consciousness.


It is possible to develop this dialectical tension between the failings (unrealized potentials?) of our democratic institutions of governance in advanced modernity and the ineffectual and even unenthusiastic willingness of social actors to ensure a transparent political sphere into a resolute dilemma. In TCA, and perhaps somewhat “kindly,” Habermas traces the deformation of the Enlightenment vision to the emergence of those impersonal, systemic steering media of money and power, which erode the more personal linguistically constituted structures of the lifeworld.

This construction alone is questionable.

Yet in this chapter’s discussion I have also hinted at Habermas’s sense of resignation at exactly how far the promise of the Enlightenment can be realized. Why are there limits and obstacles to emancipation? What empowers the dialectic of tutelage and empowerment? Why do people submit to lives lived in quiet desperation, if not subject to oppressive or ruthless authority then to the enervating tyranny of conformity? These have been the frustrated questions of the emancipator ever since. They are existential questions, which demand existential answers. Yet, and as I argued in this chapter, for good reason Habermas disciplines himself from the embrace of a lebensphilophie although one senses that he struggles with these deserving existential questions and the more agonistic demands of undertaking a critical theory of society.

Habermas' embrace of lebensphilosophie in his youth was his biggest impediment.

I argue that the dialectical tension between emancipation and integration, the collective and the individual, conformity and dissent is unyielding. It is a pessimistic but not despairing diagnosis. What speaks against despair is the enlightenment that emanates from recognizing the indefatigability of the dialectic. And I think it is within this shard of enlightenment that some space might be made for an authentic form of social and individual freedom.

Let's see what else Matt has to say.

Matt concludes that Habermas puts revolution to rest, or so Habermas thinks.

To be effective a critical theory of society must persuade and inspire.

More than either, it must explain, and its intellectual deficiencies weigh in more heavily than its uninspiring bureaucratic tendencies.

What this theoretical subordination of emancipation to social integration does, and this is something Thomas McCarthy (1985) also suggests, is to highlight the normative inappropriateness of a critical social theory basing itself on a theory of social systems. To put it bluntly, the risk for Habermas in terms of the objectives he has set himself is that his social systems theory acts to dissuade potential, willing participants from engagement with the tasks of undertaking a critical theory of society.

I would not formulate the problem this way. If there is a problem with social systems theory, it is not that it is a social systems theory, but that the specific theory is questionable.

In other words: what emancipator wants to see himself or herself as a functionary of the system they are attempting to change?

OK, but it's not just a question of self-image, it's a question of actually being just a functionary or not.

In his strenuous efforts to forge a critical social theory sufficiently immunized against the dialectic of enlightenment Habermas foregoes those very things that constitute the motivational conditions of possibility for the critical emancipatory project.

So it seems.

What inspiration would the teenage Habermas, who as a youth according to Matuštík scoured ‘the local Communist bookshops…[and] the Marxist-Leninist Library in East Berlin’ (2001: 22) garner from the mature Habermas’s rendering of how the existing social order is consolidated by participation in processes of theoretical and practical enlightenment?

Good point. Perhaps it is necessary to transcend the limitations of both young and old Habermas.

In the final analysis, this is perhaps why Habermas cannot, in a sense, succeed in writing a “new” Dialectic of Enlightenment. His project remains dialectically tied to Horkheimer and Adorno’s critique of instrumental reason as its antithesis and in spite of Habermas’s reconstructive methodology. As the generative premise of Habermas’s project, Horkheimer and Adorno’s critique of instrumental reason and their thesis on the dialectic of enlightenment inexorably shape his theory construction. Horkheimer and Adorno’s critique of instrumental reason, as the generative opposite of Habermas’s thesis, is sublated into his work and compels him to take theoretical routes that do not easily persuade or inspire either imitation or agreement on the part of potential participants in the critical-emancipatory project with the determining objectives of his overall project. Put simply, too much of Habermas’s work is shaped by what he wants to avoid rather than by what he hopes to achieve.

This would be the most powerful indictment of Habermas' trajectory. However, we don't have to limit ourselves by the premises of Horkheimer and Adorno, and should thus be wary of framing our perspective in their terms. I don't think we should waste time with Rorty. But I guess this was warranted by the need not to forget Habermas' practical engagement as a political intellectual.

This uneasy tension in Habermas’s work between subjectivity and intersubjectivity delineates a definitive limit of Habermas’s critical theory. His preferred theoretical emphasis upon the overt or public component of the speech acts of social actors rather than on their motivations marks another (Bernstein, 1983). Habermas’s preference is for a Critical Theory that no longer relies expressly for its normative authority on either the agonistic compulsion of compassion or a philosophy of history. He has struggled with the place for an agonistic component in his critical social theory. In Justification and Application, for example, Habermas says of moral feelings:

We would not experience certain conflicts of action as morally relevant at all unless we felt that the integrity of a person is threatened or violated. Feelings form the basis of our perception of something as moral. (1993: 174).

Yet, on a minor note, the inclusion of an agonistic component in Critical Theory one that secured its normative basis on moral sensibilities - would appear to be a concession to the philosophy of consciousness paradigm. Habermas wants to avoid at all costs any reversion to the philosophy of consciousness for this would entail a resurrection of the subjectivist paradigm of social action coordination. On a major note, I think the inclusion of an agonistic component in his critical theory would commit Habermas to recognizing the critical social critic as belonging to a morally sensitive class of social actors. . For, if the normative basis of the judgment contained in a critical theory of society originates in the subjective dispositions or agonistic sensibilities of a limited number of social actors then its authority appears to resist the universalism Habermas requires of critical reason. This also renews a discourse that risks a sympathetic embrace of the Leninist conception of an intellectual avant-garde. There also remains the repugnant conception of emancipators and social critics as some form of priestly class. At the risk of hyperbole, the possible end result of a demand for an agonistic component in a critical social theory is shamanism.

I don't quite understand this.

The dialectical closure that marks Hegel's and Marx's and Horkheimer and Adorno's work is abandoned by Habermas. For Habermas there is a sort of perpetual synthesis going on. It is a radical innovation and even an alternative source of the profane illumination Walter Benjamin sought in his 'critical recollection[s]' (Habermas, 1995: 2.377). It is also evidence of the ineradicable strain of pragmatism in Habermas's philosophy. As Habermas reminds us we are living in the present holding the potential to shape tomorrow's present.

I do not understand this.

Yet against Habermas's resolutely forward-looking neo-Enlightenment programme stands the persistent, and to my mind invaluable, doubting of the Counter-Enlightenment. The critiques of reason offered by Friedrich Nietzsche, Horkheimer and Adorno and Michel Foucault, for example, cannot be convincingly dissolved solely on the basis of the procedural and institutional guarantees Habermas offers.

I think this is a misguided way of formulating the issues. It is a retreat to the fundamental weaknesses of the F.S. in the first place.

The theme I would like to develop in the concluding pages of this thesis is whether this standoff between Habermas’s neo-Enlightenment position and the Counter-Enlightenment offers participants in the critical-emancipatory project a productive self-enlightenment that can assist in the advancement of this project.

No, it does not.

The enlightenment of dialectic refers to a quasi-revelatory mode of self-understanding available to participants in the critical-emancipatory project. On the basis of the enlightenment of dialectic, processes of theoretical and practical enlightenment are understood given the persistent and irrepressible dynamic of dialectical inversion. I am not arguing that this social self-understanding is a replacement for emancipatory social behaviour. Rather, the self-understanding enabled by the enlightenment of dialectic informs participation in processes of enlightenment. For participants in the critical-emancipatory project this is about attaining a fuller self-knowledge and self-understanding of the ramifications of their participation.

I consider this to be an inadequate conclusion. It is a purely mechanical compromise between opposed bourgeois ideologies.

The enlightenment of dialectic has taught Habermas that romantic antimovements are susceptible to dialectical inversion, and therefore risk something of the tragedy that unfolded in the Twentieth Century. This is why Nietzsche and Martin Heidegger must be polemicized against. This is why Karl Marx’s historical materialism must be reconstructed. These philosophers were all complicit in the great moral tragedy played out in the Twentieth Century. It is also why Habermas guards against the emergent influence of Foucault and Jacques Derrida. Habermas sees them as the descendants of Nietzsche and Heidegger.

The comment about Marx is wrong, though of course we have to move beyond the 19th century. Matt seems to want an eclectic combination of Foucault and Habermas. Here I see the unfortunate influence of Graduate Student Syndrome.

In contrast to Adorno’s negative dialectics, my reading of Foucault’s tactics suggests that his point of departure is best understood within the framework of what I have termed the enlightenment of dialectic. Foucault’s response to the question: “What is to be done in the face of the dialectic of disciplinary knowledge and social control?” is that the politically-engaged social critic or emancipator can at best - through the creative invention of their life’s social action - inform or enlighten, by example:

The critical ontology of ourselves has to be considered not as theory, a doctrine, nor even as a permanent body of knowledge that is accumulating; it has to be conceived as an attitude, an ethos, a philosophical life… The key to the personal poetic attitude of a philosopher is not to be sought in his ideas, as if it could be deduced from them, but rather his philosophy-as-life, his ethos. (Foucault quoted in Kolodny: 70)

As Kolodny describes it ‘Criticism should be guided by an “attitude”, Foucault suggests, not a system of principles’ (Kolodny, 1996: 70).

Total bullshit. And Rorty is still a waste of time.

More encouragingly, there are signs that often ill-informed theoretical rivalries between the modern and post-modern camps are abating. Examples of recent scholarship that focuses on the Habermas/Foucault debate seek to broach possible points of connection between these two seminal figures in contemporary critical social analysis rather than polemically emphasizing the points of difference that have dominated the discourse over the last two decades.

Who gives a shit?


Postscript: Habermas & Popper

I await additional critique by others, but on first reading I find the author's argument a plausible account of the logic of the development of Habermas' ideas and their fundamental theoretical weaknesses. I am disappointed only by the author's conclusion, in which he argues for a compromise synthesis of the perspectives of Habermas and Foucault, which I believe to be a regressive pseudo-solution to the dilemma posed.

While there are a number of points I do not understand, I am most interested in clearing up the relationship of Habermas and Popper, which remains opaque to me. Given the changes in Habermas' perspective from his early confrontation with Popper (The Positivist Dispute in German Sociology) to Habermas' later views, which on the surface would appear to have some resonance with Popper's concerns, a detailed comparative analysis is in order.

Here I want to give the bibliographical references Matt cites in this thesis.

Habermas states: 'I do not need to emphasize that I have learned an enormous amount from Popper’ (Habermas, 1986: 50), while criticizing Popper on other counts (decisionist model of action and methodological individualism). I think the reference here is to:

Autonomy and Solidarity: Interviews with Jürgen Habermas, ed., P.Dews (London : Verso, 1986).

Matt: "Habermas is critical of I.C Jarvie’s use of Popper’s three worlds schema to establish the ‘foundations of sociology,’ (1995: 1.79) his account of Popper’s conception ‘of the third world in ontological terms as a totality of entities with a specific mode of being’ (1995: 1.79) is at least tolerant." (See 1.78-83) Later on Matt provides another cite in reference to evolutionary epistemology. Habermas apparently thinks similarly in (1995: 1.333). This appears to refer to:

Theory of Communicative Action Vol. One and Two, trans., T. McCarthy (Cambridge, U.K. : Polity Press, 1995).

Matt: "In Theory and Practice Habermas is open in his criticism of Popper’s critical rationalism":

Theory and Practice, trans., J. Viertel (Boston : Beacon Press, 1977), pp. 276-77.

Matt: " Wood (1985) provides an evenhanded assessment of the points of connection between Habermas’s and Popper’s work."

Wood, Allan. W. “Habermas’s Defence of Rationalism.” New German Critique 35 (1985), pp.145-164.

I'm not clear what this means, but Matt further asserts: "Moreover, in TCA, Habermas makes it clear that he favours the type of methodological nominalism Popper espouses:" (TCA, 1995: 2.356).

On the relation between critical theory and recognized social science:

Bernstein, Richard. Beyond Objectivism and Relativism (London : Blackwell,1983). See pp. 192-3.

Dryzek, John. “Critical Theory as a Research Program,” The Cambridge Companion to Habermas, ed., S. White (Cambridge, U.K. : Cambridge University Press, 1995), pp. 97-119. See p. 97.

This question of the "reconstructive sciences" doesn't seem to address Popper directly, so I'll omit any further references to it. The issue revolves around the role of actual empirical social science in critical theory.

Rick Roderick is not satisfied with Habermas' cannibalization of every theory he can lay his hands on:

Roderick, Rick. Habermas and the Foundations of Critical Theory (Basingstoke : Macmillan, 1986).

In sum, the comparative exposition is not very clear. The primary sources + Wood are where to go next, unless someone has other suggestions.

Metacritique Critiqued by R. Dumain

Addendum on Heine, Habermas, et al by R. Dumain

On Habermas’s Theory and Practice by R. Dumain

Historical Remarks on the Question of Organization
by Jürgen Habermas

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by Jürgen Habermas

Jürgen Habermas on centralized automation of social control

On the self-reflection of rationalistic “faith”
by Jürgen Habermas

The Analytical Theory of Science and Dialectics
by Jürgen Habermas

A Positivistically Bisected Rationalism
by Jürgen Habermas

Komunika Etiko kaj Esperantismo
[Communication Ethics & Esperantism]
de Helmut Welger (in Esperanto)

Theodor W. Adorno & Critical Theory Study Guide

Positivism vs Life Philosophy (Lebensphilosophie) Study Guide

Vienna Circle, Karl Popper, Frankfurt School, Marxism, McCarthyism & American Philosophy: Selected Bibliography

Marx and Marxism Web Guide

Philosophy and the Division of Labor: Selected Bibliography

The Philosophy of Theory and Practice: Selected Bibliography

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