Habermas’ Critical Theory

June 7, 2012 — Leave a comment

“What Habermas will eventually try to show is that we become rational by conforming to the true nature of language. The objectivity of reason is restored but in the form of communicative reason. But in his first major work, Knowledge and Human Interests, this idea, though present, is not developed. Here his defense of reason against the pessimism of his predecessors in the Frankfurt school takes the form of a defense of reflection. The enemy of reason is what he calls positivism, by which he understands the view that only genuine knowledge is scientific knowledge. The claim that scientific knowledge is the only knowledge is not itself a scientific claim. It is scientism. Positivism is a refusal to reflect, because to make this identification excludes the possibility of asking how knowledge is possible.” (p163)

So the overarching philosophical question becomes ‘how is knowledge possible?’ (epistemology). This is one key area of the philosophy of Kant. Habermas has taken to linguistics to investigate, adopting structuralism as the foundation of understanding all conscious phenomena. For perspective, it is important to remember here the presence of Habermas’ Marxist interests, and Derrida’s critique of structuralism, that structuralism is not radical but merely a substitute for epistemology and other schools of philosophy. That is, structuralism makes the claim that there is no center to understanding, but structuralism itself becomes the new center.

“For a critical philosopher any adequate conception of knowledge must take account of the ‘subjective conditions of the objectivity of possible knowledge’. We can in a sense form the idea of a mode of knowledge that is not ‘ours’ but we associate a meaning with this idea only to the extent that we can derive it as a limiting concept from a kind of knowledge that is possible ‘for us’.” (p165)

Habermas promotes reflection on two cognitive models of knowledge: knowledge as an instrument, and knowledge as a medium. This brings to light a series of implicit presuppositions of the Kantian critique of knowledge which should be rejected:

1) a normative concept of science
2) the assumption of a complete, fixed, knowing subject
3) the separation of theoretical and practical reason

For Habermas reason is intrinsically practical. This is shown through his focus on linguistics. Our engagement in language games is where reason arises and finds form.

Where does Marx fit in?

Habermas is reacting to scientism and positivism. He is trying to reinstate epistemology, in order that these ‘isms’ do not claim authority over knowledge and the understanding of how knowledge is possible. This is a philosophical goal I believe most serious thinkers should be sympathetic to, in that science has proven itself to be fallible, just as any political system, and via the philosophy of Kuhn, also social and cultural in its paradigmatic operations. It is an illusion to take a ‘scientistic’ approach.

“Marx follows the strategy of detaching the exposition of consciousness in its manifestations from the framework of the philosophy of identity (the identity of thought and being, subject and object). Whereas for Hegel mind or spirit (Geist) is the absolute ground of nature, for Marx it is the other way around. This is not, Habermas claims, coarse materialism. Hegel’s phenomenology is given a materialist interpretation in the sense that the changing forms of consciousness are seen as the reflection of changes in modes of material production. The phenomeno-logical construction of the dialectically unfolding forms of consciousness is reinterpreted by Marx as ‘an encoded representation of the self-production of the species’.” (p166)

Materialism in Marx can be seen as having an equivalent in Habermas’ ordinary language communication. Interestingly, Habermas recognizes Marx’s positivism in approaching ideology as itself a science, in the order of the natural sciences. He does not however take the same view on psychoanalysis. An appropriate area for discussion opens up here with regard to Popper who argues the pseudo-scientific status of psych-analysis and non-scientific status of ideology.

Habermas and Gadamer

“If Gadamer’s account of the conditions of the possibility of understanding is correct, then it is not clear that such a project is even possible. Critical theory as Habermas understands it depends on our being able to give a rational grounding of certain norms. The linguistic, cultural, and historical dependence of all our thought and knowledge, which Gadamer’s hermeneutics seems to imply, would apparently rule out the possibility of such a rational grounding.” (p173)

Habermas enthusiastically endorses certain aspects of Gadamer’s philosophy:

linguisticality of tradition
situatedness of understanding
the in principle translatability of every natural language into every other
the self-reflexive character of ordinary language

“What Habermas does oppose is what he calls the ontological self-understanding of Gadamer’s hermeneutics. This is the claim of hermeneutics to universality, which as we shall see he links to the idea that it is not possible to go behind the understanding of ordinary language.” (p173)

Habermas claims that Gadamer’s hermeneutics is a form of ‘idealism of linguisticality’, that it is unable to deal with the phenomenon of ‘systematically distorted communication’, and, finally, that it does not allow for the rational criticism of tradition. (p173)

“Habermas accepts that ordinary language is a kind of meta-institution on which all social institutions are dependent. This is because social institutions depend on social actions and social actions are constituted in ordinary language communication. However, it is also the case, he thinks, that language is part of a complex that is constituted cojointly by language, labor, and power.” (p174)

For Gadamer, the linguistic component of this complex determines the material practice of life. For Habermas, these extra linguistic factors, power and labor, are equally determinate in the outcome of the material practice of life. The communicative power of language is affected by such ‘real’ factors: modes of production and relations of power. Language is at once the fabric of social consensus and mutual understanding, and, a medium for social domination and power. Gadamer refutes this by observing that power is acknowledged through social consensus. Also, Gadamer cites power and means of production as sources of prejudice and therefore proper objects of hermeneutic reflection. This concedes to Habermas that theses extra linguistic factors are present, whilst maintaining a hierarchical order of the structure of hermeneutic philosophy. He prevents it becoming materialist. For Gadamer, labor and power do not fall outside language and tradition (remembering that tradition is not fixed, but is mutable via each generation).

Habermas argues that there is ‘distorted communication’ when language is used ideologically. There is surface meaning (intended meaning) and ‘true’ meaning. This requires critique, which once done, will reveal ‘true’ meaning. Gadamer points out that there is a false assumption that only intended meaning can be understood. The experience of meaning, for Gadamer, has a broader scope than this. Habermas strengthens his argument by introducing psychoanalysis and critique of ideology. These two fields of criticism reveal systematically distorted communication. This is heavily explored in Habermas’ essay ‘On Hermeneutic’s Claim to Universality.”

At this stage in this narrative of Habermas vs. Gadamer it is clear that Habermas is making a valid point on the nature of language and its relation to the material and social experience of people. However, by invoking psychoanalysis, Habermas takes a mis-step that can be highlighted by Popper’s critique of psychanalysis: namely, that psychoanalysis is purely speculative and creates an invalid power-relation between researcher/philosopher/scientist and participant (remembering that it may yield results in the case of psychotic patients and doctors, but this is not a model for the rest of the world).

“Habermas follows Alfred Lorenzer, who treats psychoanalysis as a form of linguistic analysis. The neurotic’s symptomatic expressions are seen as belonging to a deformed language game that has been privatized and split off from the public language game. By tracing the private language game back to a childhood trauma the analyst seeks to draw up a lexicon whereby expressions in the private language can be translated into expressions in the public language. A meaning which had previously been inaccessible to public communication but which determined the neurotic behavior is now made accessible.” (p176)

To use this psychoanalytic process as a comparison to hermeneutic inquiry is to compare an individual engaged in ordinary language games to a neurotic or psychotic, coupled with placing the academic researcher in a position of power akin to that of the doctor to neurotic patient. This is a contradiction to Habermas’ foundational critique’s of positivism and its form of scientism.

“Hermeneutic understanding we have seen is essentially dialogical in character. The aim of dialogue is reaching an understanding, an agreement, about a subject-matter (Sache). It is clear that the form of communication which takes place between analyst and patient is not that of a dialogue between equals, but a contrived mode of discourse which ‘fulfills experimental conditions’. But the main reason why such a case is supposed to call into question hermeneutics’ claim to universality is that it shows that the meaning of the systematically distorted expressions can only be understood by showing how the systematic distortion comes about. And this requires a theoretical framework which goes beyond hermeneutic understanding. It shows that we are able to transcend the dialogue that, according to Gadamer, we are.” (p176)

The analyst in this argument is as context dependent as anything or anyone else and therefore has no validity as an objective observer of the language games of ordinary people. This is a contradiction to the rejection of positivism.

Habermas promotes an ideal to get around this: the existence of a counterfactual community in which communication is unlimited and free of force. This is essentially positivist. Habermas’ determination to critique prejudice has ironically illuminated the intense presence of his own prejudice. For Gadamer this is fine as prejudice is part of hermeneutic inquiry; it is the state of existence. Habermas does a lot of work to find a position in which he can legitimately critique and deconstruct tradition but finds himself the subject of Gadamer’s reasoning that all understanding is theory-laden and prejudiced.

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