Reading guide to: Giddens' critiques of Habermas in Giddens, A (1982) Profiles and Critiques in Social Theory, Berkeley, California: University of California Press.
Chapter 7 Habermas's Social and Political Theory
There are two major themes in Habermas: (a) the metatheoretical problems of social theory, especially the relations between theory and critique; (b) critique in the context of the interpretation of the main developments of Western capitalism. There are continuities with the classic writers of Critical Theory, shared similarities in terms of Hegelian readings of Marx rather than orthodox ones, attempts to form links between Freud and Marx, the need to revise Marx because capitalism now takes an advanced form, and an emphasis on technical rationality as the dominant cultural theme.
There are also significant differences though, for example in the relation to the disciplines of hermeneutics and the life sciences. Weber's version of subjective understanding was criticised by Gadamer for being located in individuals rather than in intersubjectivity itself, especially in the form of language or tradition. In Gadamer's hands, hermeneutic understanding became the universal precondition of all philosophy. Habermas wants to question this universality and restore a role for more empirical philosophies of science. This follows a critique of Marx -- according to Habermas's Knowledge and Human Interest, Marx runs together interests in work and in interaction, while in his Theory and Practice, Marx is seen as criticising philosophy but only by getting dangerously close to a positivism that 'eclipses the philosopher: that is, the subject' and tries to replace Philosophy with science.
The key for Habermas to moving beyond lies in the concept of the knowledge-constituting interests, which are not transcendental in the philosophical sense but which are 'presupposed as aspects of the human self formative process' (pages 85-6) [see file]. These interests can be found grounded in types of action. Theorists such as Dilthey and Peirce came close to recognising them, but abandoned any attempt to generalise because 'metaphysics' was in disrepute. For Habermas, however, we must explore at the general level in order to reawaken 'the emancipatory power of reflection', where the 'subject is transparent to itself in the history of its genesis' (Giddens, page 86, quoting Habermas). In this way we can understand action in order to do something about it, to achieve a level of 'autonomy of action' (86) [free from social constraints, in other words].
Habermas reads Freud as offering a possible model of analysis [of the 'blocks' affecting action] Freud became close to positivism too, but his work had been emancipatory intent and did try to reconcile scientific analysis (of the causal influences on behaviour and the 'forces' are work ) and (deep) hermeneutic ways of understanding. Freud confused to help eliminate distorted communication through self understanding [and see penultimate paragraph below].
The concept of distorted communication leads to a conception of its opposite -- the 'ideal speech situation'. This concept is only latent in Knowledge and Human Interests. Habermas draws from Peirce the argument that truth is derived from the discourse of many observers who pursue arguments only according to logical and rational procedure. Habermas wants to add to this rather technical argument more 'political' elements such as the drive to mutual understanding, a recognition of each other's autonomy and the right to enter into dialogue. The ideal speech act is a theoretical construct but it is 'anticipated by' [and immanent in?] actual speech.
Habermas's later discussion of 'universal pragmatics' led to the idea of four possible 'validity claims' -- to intelligibility, truth, adequacy or correctness, and social appropriateness -- which are sustained in conversation or even taken for granted: the first claim particularly is presupposed in all communication, while the last can only be demonstrated in social behaviour. The middle two claims are especially open to 'discursive justification', and this leads Habermas to suggest there are two main types of discourse: (a) 'theoretical/empirical', with claims linked to empirical observation and law like generalisations; (b) 'practical' which involves the justification of normative claims, the appeal to values and moral principles. [This has always seemed odd to me, with the first type mixing up the usually separated discourses based on empirical evidence and discourses based on grammatical rules].
Habermas goes on to try to relate the development of these discourses to the development of childhood cognition and to human evolution. There are metatheoretical issues involved, since these discourses are the 'ground' of theory and critique. There are also some substantive issues, such as the rise and fall of pre-discursive politics, and the role of the political public [as an arena for these ideal speech acts]. To take the latter, for example, a public sphere was developed by the bourgeoisie [although participation was limited to those able to master suitable forms of speech], and it is this that is now in particular danger from scientism, mass culture, bureaucracy and so on.
Technocratic consciousness now dominates. Science is now the leading force of production, which is one of the factors behind the need to revise the base/superstructure model in marxism [argued best, says Giddens, in Habermas 's Toward a Rational Society]. The political and economic levels are now inseparable, producing new problems of legitimation for the State [which, briefly, is now responsible for economic performance and all the social elements that go with it -- see file]. There are problems with the theory of surplus value too, and therefore with the argument that the economy is primary. It thus becomes necessary to critique ideology in its own right rather than just to understand political economy. Class conflict is also suspect as the source of all other forms of conflict. Positivism shuts down the division between labour and interaction and thus becomes an expression of technological domination. In particular, in Theory and Practice, rationalization occurs in two basic stages, each with further subdivisions -- first values are excluded from public debate (science becomes detached from governing set of values, and then it becomes a way of choosing between values, leading to decisionism), and second technical procedures take the place of values (technical rationality attaches itself to goals producing a calculus of preferences within the game rather than any reference to outside values, and the whole decision-making framework becomes scientised, with the stability or adaptability of the system as the goal). Powerful disciplines such systems theory emerge, which Habermas understands as 'the political economy of the contemporary era' (92), and one growing possibility is computerisation.
In Legitimation Crisis [see file], class conflict is still important in social life, but it is 'displaced' from the centre of it. Social crisis itself becomes an increasingly normative matter, a feeling of powerlessness, rather than something which can be managed as a systems theory 'threat to stability'. In one kind of crisis, there is a disintegration at both the social and systems level, the first referring to problems in the subjective life world the second one referring to social systems (although these are still rooted in the normative order) (93). Actors need not be conscious of crisis as such, but they increasingly experience 'normative strain'.
The background to Habermas's work here seems to be a general theory of evolution, which he uses to rework Marx [and Weber]. The key is the split between work and interaction which grows into two dimensions and two processes of growth, both of instrumental knowledge and knowledge of the normative order. The latter develops in a sequence from myths to religion to rational religion to ideology. There is no longer any necessary correspondence between the two dimensions, which produces specific 'steering problemss'. Habermas develops a Hegelian line here in seeing an evolution in the types of available couplings between the two dimensions -- a primitive stage [rather like mechanical solidarity], traditional stage [like the feudal system, where politics dominated], liberal capitalism [market], and finally advanced/organised capitalism.
Marx's analysis fitted the liberal capitalism phase particularly well, whether main organisational principle was based on the split between capital and labour, where the state was not the same as civil society, and where exchange was the main organizational mechanism. Liberal capitalism led to the secularisation of norms, the growth of universalism, anonymity, and instrumental reason rather than tradition as a means to mask the truth of domination. Social crisis arose principally as economic crisis. Advanced capitalism was very different though, as suggested above. Direct legitimation was needed rather than having to rely on the market alone. This leads to a greater central role for the State, and thus to different types of crisis [see file]. As for suggesting alternatives, Habermas flirts with the notion of post-industrial society and the work of Bell, says Giddens (95), but in a very abstract way.
Giddens thinks this is a very thorough and comprehensive body of argument, with lots of implications for social sciences, for the grounding of Critical Theory, and for social and political development, but there are problems:
(1) At the metatheoretical level, the distinction between types of knowledge, interests and action is unsatisfactory. Too much has been borrowed from the old German sociology of knowledge in dividing, saying labour and interaction. This division is too deep, and leads to a misrecognition that technical control can also be interpretive, or that there is 'understanding' in science as well. For that matter, there is an interest in prediction and control and the human sciences as well.
(2) Habermas's notion of interaction seems to exempt it from having material interests at all (97), which leaves his critique of ideology at a very abstract level. Instead of engaging in concrete political argument, Habermas remains at some distance from understanding the practicalities of real change (97). [This is a familiar criticism of marxism really, that is excellent for critiquing ideology as such, but less interested in actual ideologies that inform concrete practices -- I had in mind the ideological procedures of educational technology which deeply affect course design and assessment processes in the very universities inhabited by academics, under which escape almost unscathed from any penetrating academic critique].
(3) The metaphor of psychoanalysis as a form of critique is particularly risky -- psychoanalysis is voluntary, based on consensus, and aims to rescue the self whether that self has been dominated by others. It can hardly be applied to understand the political situation of social classes. [ As I recall, Held is particularly good at asking what the social political equivalent is of the role of the individual analyst: in psychoanalysis that analyst often allows the inner struggles of the patient to be transferred on to him or her, and such transference becomes a key mechanism in the whole process of understanding and resolving the problem].
(4) The arguments about the public sphere can also be debated. The stance on Marx seems strange in accepting that he was completely right about the 19th century, and completely wrong about the 20th. In particular, Giddens is not at all sure that technological consciousness has submerged economic and political conflicts of the old type.
Chapter 8 Labour and Interaction
Habermas wants to reconstruct marxism by arguing for a split between these two dimensions, as we have seen above. In Theory and Practice, in the course of a discussion of Hegel, labour and language are both seen as 'self formative' (language enables the modification of the context through abstraction which permits reflection). It is this that Marx failed to grasp, according to Habermas's critique [Marx overemphasises the crucial role of labour alone]. Habermas further argues that labour must always be seen as taking place in a social context [rather than as some abstract human capacity]. (Giddens points out that Hegel may not be the best source for this kind of critique, since at that stage he was still committed to some key role for Idealism as a necessary part of human self formation).
It is not that Marx ignored these points entirely, but rather that he failed to explain them adequately -- for example trying to distinguish between the forces and relations of production. And labour did remain as an epistemological category for Marx, as in the argument that human praxis constitutes nature for us (Giddens points out that there was still a category of 'Nature in itself' in Marx's work as well, however -- page 102). There is certainly no equivalent prominence for interaction in its own right, however, no epistemological status for it. In the more concrete writings, Marx does say that the relations of production and ideology, that is interaction, are important, but he gives them no philosophical underpinnings. This, together with his wish to decisively reject Hegelian idealism, led to the collapse of interaction into labour [that is this general notion of labour as constituting activity remains as the most important aspect of humans, and interaction can be read off from it]. Marx's misunderstanding extended to his hopes for developing marxism as a science, making ideology redundant, rather than developing any solid epistemological justification for criticising ideology.
For Habermas, the modern tendency to collapse interaction and labour is expressed best in positivism. His critiques are close to those found in classical Critical Theory, as in Dialectic of Enlightenment [see that file, and the one on Habermas's contribution to the positivist dispute]. Positivism is not an ideology in itself, however, in the very form it takes, but becomes one when it poses as the universal answer to understanding.
Giddens says this whole argument [about the labour/interaction split] first appears in Toward a Rational Society. The influence of Durkheim can be detected in this argument, says Giddens, for example in the different sorts of sanctions that can be applied for breaking rules in the two different areas (104). The basic distinction leads to a classification of different social sectors according to which type is dominant, and an initial theory of evolution covering whole societies, in terms of whether technical considerations are bound by moral ones. [Hints of this in the chapter above]. Advanced capitalism privileges the technical interests, of course leading to processes such as the spread of scientisation, and the 'colonization of the life world' by technical rationality and systems theory. This is typical of Habermas's style, argues Giddens (105), trying to move from abstract categories to empirical concerns, and from epistemology to social theory [I hope you can see how this annoys sociologists].
Habermas develops his argument finally to include three interests, although the interest in emancipation has always had problems, and later to ground the whole argument on distinctions in universal pragmatics and in general evolutionary theory. In the latter, Marx comes under criticism again for over-emphasising the economy and the forces of production as the main source of social 'learning processes'. Normative structures are as important for Habermas, who draws on work like that of Piaget on cognitive development: here, cognitive problems produce a reorientation of the child towards the normative order. [To decode this a bit, the argument in Piaget and in his friend Kohlberg, as I recall it in Habermas, is that children develop a system of morality that increasingly takes into account the feelings of others, and, eventually, abstract rules. The argument here is that is perceived inadequacies with more primitive forms of morality -- more based on immediate interests and concrete considerations -- that drive this process]. Habermas wants to continue to describe his work as 'historical materialism' nonetheless, which helps him claim that the economy is still the original source of the problems and tensions which develop in a social form and on the basis of concrete historical contingencies.
By way of criticism, Giddens wants to celebrate the revisions of Marx and the abandonment of the positivised bits, and commend the efforts to rework the old traditional divisions between approaches in Social Theory. Nevertheless there are problems arising from the very distinction between labour and interaction itself:
(1) There are some ambiguities, well described in McCarthy. Both labour and interaction are supposed to be types of [real, concrete ] action, but their best seen as philosophical categories, or 'analytic elements of a complex', ideal typical at best. This produces problems if we want to simply concretise the categories or separate out different usages. Habermas has not improved on the work of Weber and Marx here, who both also use this ideal typical method -- for example, it is unlikely that Marx simply meant the term 'forces of production' to refer just to labour in Habermas's sense at all.
(2) Orthodox Marxists have been able to argue that the reworking of the notion of praxis is not a decisive advance either [in what sense exactly is not clear] (109). They would argue that labour was never just epistemological in Marx himself, and that Habermas is really criticising the concept of labour in subsequent theorists, such as Marcuse and Sartre. It is possible to see a restricted usage of the term labour -- for example to use the term social labour to refer to production, avoiding the philosophical notion of praxis as the constitution of social life itself and as the fount of all other practices. Giddens says he elaborates this point himself in his Central Problems...
(3) Interaction is an important dimension, but Habermas runs the risk of reducing it to communicative action only, itself exclusively a matter of social norms. This [is functionalist, Parsonian even] is not much help for analysing concrete social systems, which are not just produced by communication in Giddens's 'structuration' approach [see file on Giddens]. As a further elaboration, developed in Giddens's New Rules..., there is an important distinction between communication and symbolisation which Habermas misses. Like Parsons, Habermas underestimates the role of power as an element of interaction: Giddens wants to suggest the reverse emphasis. As a result, Habermas's conception of freedom means merely the practice of undistorted communication, whereas what is required is 'material transformations of power relations' (112). If power is unanalysed, it will remain even in the new Good Society of ideal speech .
(4) There is no real accounts of the production and reproduction of society in the analyses of either of these dimensions. Where Habermas does do concrete analysis, he tends to borrow from Parsons or Luhmann, despite his theoretical and logical objections to functionalism. Although he wants to investigate the existence of social norms, rather than just take them as given, he shares with functionalists an agreed emphasis on norms, consensus, the tendency towards integration in society and personality, and the processes of internalisation. Struggles over power must also be present for Giddens [this 'must' depends on some underlying assumptions about human nature, or a lingering marxism?]. Similarly, social crises arise from real contradictions, not just from functional problems of integration. The [functionalist?] evolutionary connection between the development of the individual and of society is also dubious -- we know from writers such as Levi-Strauss, for example, that it is dangerously misleading to see pre-industrial societies as somehow 'primitive' compared with ourselves. Finally, the stress on internalisation of functional pressures leaves out the important role of the actor in social reproduction: this misses a crucial element of human praxis.
(5) Habermas's attempts to reformulate marxism, in his Communication and the Evolution of Society, seems to flirt with 'structuralist marxism', and the dubious notions of structures in dominance being effective 'in the last instance' [associated with the work of Althusser and Poulantzas -- try the files on their work here and here]. This is an attempt to bring back the economy is an important area, but Giddens prefers his own version to explain how technology becomes the driving force of social development [which involves consideration of, among others, globalisation -- and we might see here hints of some of the later Giddens's work on modernity -- see the accompanying file].