Reading Guide to: Dews, P (Ed) (1992) Habermas, Autonomy and Solidarity, London: Verso

Introduction by Dews

[This piece begins with a very good summary of the trajectory of Critical Theory, through its various debates with philosophy, marxism and social sciences. Critical Theory attempted be systematic but nondogmatic, and it tried to incorporate much of the material provided by its critics.] Habermas is hostile to post-structuralism though, and this has led to a whole debate on the impact of modernity: this is only partly explicable as a clash between French style and playfulness, and 'Teutonic earnestness' (4).

The debate with Lyotard began with disagreements over the eclipse of metanarratives. Lyotard's position here is close to the 'end of ideology' debate in the US, although there also bits from Nietszche. The argument leads to political pluralism rather than liberal consensus. Grand philosophy is seen merely as offering the illusion of order. Habermas agrees with this last point, but sees the specific desire for order following the rise of capitalism, with its runaway social change, social polarisation, war, the collapse of traditions and so on. The choice soon became one between scientific evolution or marxism. For Habermas, it is necessary to radicalise these accounts rather than to just dismiss them as metaphysical -- this would be positivism! However, there must be a 'empirically falsifiable philosophy of history with practical intent', which means practice is more important than attempting to devise some objective logic. Habermas's work aims to eliminate blocks to meaning, including the need for some empirical investigations, which, of course, have to be interpreted by philosophy. This became more materialist in the 1970s, as the splits between the forces and relations of production led to the conception of different interests, in work and interaction, and an interest in the increasing autonomy of interaction. Despite the use of evolutionary theorists, the stages of development of these interests were not seen as essential or inexorable: much depended on crisis and how these were to be resolved contingently. One theoretical goal was to provide analysis to help overcome these contingencies.

In order to develop a new angle on subjectivity, it was necessary to see the old sociology as offering a holistic view combined with the politics of alienation. This was echoed in the pessimism that argued that only by ending capitalism could we liberate subjectivity. This is what lies behind Lyotard's denial of the possibilities of a transparent society. We need instead a new way to think of social collectivities, and systems theory seems more promising than post structuralism. Societies can only act according to the level of learning that has been actually attained though, producing the underlying clash between system and life world, where, for example, systems threaten to outstrip the capacities for organising the life world.

In 1848, the system and life world were 'clamped', providing the basis for Marx's materialism, and his view that confused what was developed at the systems level, and what was attributable to class control (14). Marx borrowed Hegel for a model of the system as a 'ghostly form' of class relations, and this led to the illusion that the end of class struggle would mean liberation from the system. Another outcome was cynicism about the power of reason to affect social change, especially in the USSR (15). The development of systems thinking does not just follow from a simple single modernisation of the life world in capitalism, but from further reification of that modernised life world: it requires 'improved and standardised languages' to accomplish 'steering'. This is resisted not only by attempts by the working class to control the productive apparatus, but by 'counter public spheres', still rooted in the life world, and still able to demand control of the system (while trying to avoid the problem of escalating into a system). Hence the importance of the ideal speech act .

There have been ethical objections to this notion of linguistic rationality, such as Gadamer's stress on the prejudices that are found in cultural traditions, or Derrida's stuff [on the inevitable failures to bend language use to simple forms of rationality], or Lyotard on the determining effects of narratives over beliefs. Habermas now agrees it is difficult to reflect on our own cultural traditions, which are now acknowledged as important. He also sees discursive activity as any capable of settling disputes rather than generating norms: notions of the good life are integral to culture, and are not easily reproduced in discourse. Further, applying the ideal speech act to concrete situations involves a necessary 'hermeneutic sensitivity', which is 'nonformalisable' (Dews, page 18). Even moral discourses involve a necessary struggle to identify needs in the first place, and disputes are usually settled by complex political actions rather than a simple consensus. In this sense, history triumphs over reason for Habermas: reason in the ideal speech act is too abstracted from concrete situations, and thus, for example, remote from actual empirical motives.

The historical and empirical element can be over done, however and can lead to moral relativism. Habermas's answer is to split questions of justice and questions of the good life -- only the former is amenable to reason [and the latter must be settled by concrete politics which is likely to be relatively unguided by theory?]. The two can be reintegrated later using existing practices -- practical decision-making is best seen as a learning process, and modern societies are weakening cultural traditions (19).

Can an overall notion of progress and emancipation persist? We can no longer accept Marx's optimism about the democratising role of productive forces. We can identify retrogressive developments back from levels of rationality already achieved -- as in fascism -- and we can insist that no backward turns develop (20).

Lyotard argues that Habermas is implying coercion and so denying heterogeneity in his conception of the ideal speech act. However:

(a) Language games are not the same as validity claims. Lyotard may well be against the development of some metalanguage, but some ambiguities remain -- is he against any metalanguage, and what would be the effect of several competing metalanguages, say in different spheres (such as the cognitive/moral/aesthetic as in Kant) [what I think is at stake here is that Kant is seen as having a better grasp of metalanguage than Wittgenstein]? Why should not validity claims cut across and lie beneath all the multiple language games that Lyotard wants to encourage?

(b) Social conflict explains more of the social world rather than different language games. Lyotard places an excessive emphasis on playfulness and agonistics.

(c) There is a classic relativist own goal here, in the recognition that the heterogeneity of language games is some transcendental quality that serves to commend them [in other words, Lyotard seems to be making a nonrelativist, eternally true claim that language games are inevitable and good for you]. Habermas already advocates pluralism, and he is keen to explore the social effects and puzzle out how to regulate it [that is, not just to describe it as does Lyotard].

(d) Lyotard fails to sketch the history of the emergence of plurality: ironically, it depends on universalisation and rationality overcoming a simple conformity to tradition (23). Habermas proposes strengthening this kind of universalisation rather than advocating some return to an earlier conformist rationality. Differentiation must be preserved, and cannot be collapsed if we are to preserve reflexivity, individualisation, universalistic justice and morality, rather than let ourselves be dominated by instrumental reason. Thus we need to rescue the dynamism of modernity in order to unlock the current domination of instrumental reason

Thus falsifiability is to be promoted. Universalist statements are OK as long as they are not held dogmatically (but Habermas does admit that they are being undermined by other cultural and philosophical forces too). Post structuralism is forced to abandon any idea of a truth-claim or any other tests, leaving only 'anecdotal and inadequately theorised evidence... vagueness and portentousness' (25). The whole theory seems to have been generalised from Art and Architecture, where the term 'postmodern' has some definite meaning, into a whole 'epochal analysis'.

What is needed instead is a much more adequate [Habermasian] history and theory of modernity, rather than a mere recitation of 20th century disasters and a denial of any potential at all. In fact post-modernist philosophy offers a classic demonstration of the sensibility of modernity 'a constant oscillation between depression and exhilaration' (25), which arises precisely from the intersection of history, tradition and utopian reason.

It is true that one Utopia, the marxist one, has collapsed, and with it all those that rely on the self realisation of labour. The rational principle of modernity is now equated with cognitive - instrumental reason, leaving subjectivity as the necessary 'other' found in play. Post-modernism finds itself at one with neo-Conservatives in this [rejection of Marxist utopia], despite its adherence to an opposite set of values. Habermas also says that a drive towards political emancipation is also characteristic, and we can see the excesses of post-modern philosophy as expressions of it -- but this needs to be connected back to practice.

Critical Theory is of course aware of the groundlessness of its own approach [needing no post-modernist critique], hence the pessimism of Adorno when contrasting utopian 'glimmerings' with the 'total system of delusion' (27). However, Lyotard is caught in this too, leading him to an affirmative Nietzschean stance. However, he is far too content with the freedoms that exist now, such as the freedom to play, and seems to have no desire to analyse social forces: freedom as simply been realised now. This is merely an accommodation to reality, a consolation. It expresses a wish for an immediate reconciliation, between the cognitive and the aesthetic, for example.

Post-modern politics depend on a notion of 'undamaged intersubjectivity'. This is foundational, of course, and is unacknowledged, especially as post-modernists have rejected subjectivity: however, they have never done this in terms of self-conscious practice, but only as a reaction to bourgeois humanism. The subject therefore returns as a category -- for example, in Foucault's complaints about the effects of prison discipline on denying subjectivity (29). Liberal and universalist values are detectable beneath the apparent relativism -- thus Lyotard is against conflict and exploitation (29). The fears of a total relativism, with a war of all against all, has led to the current French preoccupation for rights and ethics [Nice point. -- I wonder if this is why management studies and public relations are so keen to develop some kind of bolt on ethics?]. The French historical situation is important, especially their revolutionary background, compared to Germany, where bourgeois emancipation often had less playful results, where the German state was not a liberal bourgeois one, and where the bourgeoisie was unable to fulfil its liberal promise which led to an neo-conservative turn.

Habermas has shifted from examining production and marxism to examining communication and the new politics. In this, he has rescued Enlightenment from an obsession with the dialectics of instrumental reason only. This approach may not fit specific contemporary experiences as well as does post-modernism, but it is much more theoretically and historically rigorous. The current cultural situation may feature a crisis, but is only another crisis, not the crisis. There are many political critics who don't like Habermas's restraints on the development of politics, but he is still at the heart of debates on the left, and still in the business of explaining social order as a result of communicative action.

Postscript to the Introduction

Habermas has now referred to the collapse of socialism in the East (in New Left Review 183). [Long overdue, many thought, in his work on legitimation crisis]. This has affected his stance, since he has seen that state socialist societies are steered by a bureaucracy rather than an economic system. Both systems are prone to crisis, however -- state socialist societies offer a tension between the planning system and the economy. Both systems colonise the life world, in the case if state socialism through 'sham' communicative relations in the world of politics, rather than through private households. This may offer a base for compromise in the East, although economic reforms have undoubtedly destabilised the system [I'll say!].

In The Theory of Communicative Action, power is a different mechanism used for steering, other than money. It is not quantified, not circulated, but has to be embedded in legitimate organisations. The introduction of markets in the East subverted the 'ideological pretence' of legitimate social collective goals, and had a direct impact on the state -- the state's legitimacy cannot be revived in a dominated life world (37).

In the West, the rationalisation of the life world continues, but this can extend the possibility of individual expression via ever-widening webs [this reads quite like Giddens on disembedding and re embedding]. Habermas is now stressing the need for new forms of communication, rather than just trying to defend the life world against colonisation. Beck's work on the risk society has had an influence here, and the individual is seen as the unit responsible for her own fate, as families and other groups decline. Biographies therefore reproduce 'prefabricated lifestyles... of the media'. Thus there are new ambiguities. Full and proper individuality is only possible in communities of autonomous objects, however, and the task is to build these in both East and West, for example in preserving dissidence against inroads by the Western media.

Is there now a new public and moral sphere? The common language developed by the media must not mislead us: we still need one generated by subjects themselves. There are positive possibilities in the new social emphasis on the individual, but this must still be struggled for. Marxist options seem unavailable, since the economy is now system- independent, as the collapse of state socialism shows. Emancipation is probably now less important than defensive lobbying and pressure group activity, engaging in a constant 'negotiation of boundaries and continuities (that is solidarities)'