My latest article. Forthcoming in Constellations.
From the beginning The Theory of Communicative Action labored over the difficulty of answering the criticism that it fails in its aim of “justifying the normative premises of his projected social theory.” What makes that criticism potentially so devastating is that this is one of the avowed central aims of TCA, which, Habermas states on the first page, is “not a metatheory but the beginning of a social theory that is concerned to validate its own critical standards.”
Here, I re-examine TCA in the light of this criticism. In my view neither Habermas, nor his commentators, have managed satisfactorily to answer it, in spite of numerous different attempts so to do. That said, I do not believe it is unanswerable. On the contrary I believe that the criticism, as it has been widely construed, rests on a mistaken assumption about the kind of critical social theory TCA purports to be. That said, I argue that a modified version of the criticism, shorn of this mistaken assumption, and more in tune with the complex of analyses, arguments, and conjectures TCA actually puts forward, still applies. I end by suggesting the shape that a satisfactory response to it would have to take.
1. Theory of Communicative Action and Frankfurt School Critical Theory
Habermas’s remarks on the first page suggest strongly that the first volume of TCA should be read backwards. It suggests that the theory of modernity and the account of rationalization (section II) together with the Intermediate Reflections (section III) are best understood in the light of the diagnosis and criticism Habermas makes of Frankfurt School critical theory – particularly of Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment and Adorno’s Negative Dialectic – in section IV. Recall the following passage:
From the beginning, critical theory labored over the difficulty of giving an account of its own normative foundations.
Habermas confronts the Critical Theory of his former mentors and teachers with a serious problem, and is not content to find fault with it while offering nothing in its place. Rather, he offers in its place a critical social theory that does not suffer from that same problem, since, he claims, it contains within it an ‘account of its own normative foundations.’ So on the backwards reading of TCA, sections II and III of Volume 1 are to be understood as providing an “an account of the normative foundations” of the social theory which is set out in Volume 2, and as validating its critical standards.
No doubt one of the aims of TCA among others was to settle accounts with first generation Frankfurt School critical social theory by making salient the main advantages of Habermas’s new approach. For example, according to Habermas, Adorno and Horkheimer construe reason in an undifferentiated manner, because they are captivated by the limitations of the philosophy of consciousness that recognized only two perspectives, that of “an objective reason that had fallen irreparably into ruin” and a subjective reason that had been “absolutized in the service of self-preservation”. Thus, he argues, they can only understand the process of social rationalization as the reifying force of an “instrumental reason that has gone wild” in the pursuit of the ever more efficient mastery of external nature, and as the hidden hand behind social domination. By contrast his theory, which is based on a paradigm of intersubjective communication, distinguishes between instrumental reason and communicative reason, which latter “cannot be subsumed without resistance under a blind self-preservation.” TCA thus construes reason and social rationalization in a more differentiated way. In Habermas’s theory the reifying effects of social rationalization are understood not in the wholesale and undifferentiated manner of his predecessors, but as a more localized phenomenon arising from the circumstance “that an unleashed functionalist reason of systems maintenance disregards and overrides the claim to reason ingrained in communicative sociation”. Furthermore, Habermas rests his social theory on a substantial premise (reminiscent of Hegel) that Horkheimer and Adorno both disavow: namely that we “already have before us –in fragmentary and existing form, to be sure – the existing forms off a reason that has to rely on being symbolically embodied and historically situated.” This affords Habermas the possibility of mounting an immanent social criticism which, in the Marxian manner, “is critical both of contemporary social sciences and of the social reality that they are supposed to grasp” and which criticizes “ the reality of developed societies inasmuch as they do not make full use of the learning potential culturally available to them.”
Download the first version of the full article here.