• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

Habermas’s Reformation

The Idea of a Critical Theory: Habermas and the Frankfurt School

by Raymond Geuss
Cambridge University Press, 100 pp., $19.95; $6.95 (paper)

Knowledge and Human Interests

by Jürgen Habermas, translated by Jeremy Shapiro
Beacon, 356 pp., $5.95 (paper)

Toward a Rational Society: Student Protest, Science, and Politics

by Jürgen Habermas, translated by Jeremy Shapiro
Beacon, 132 pp., $3.95 (paper)

Theory and Practice

by Jürgen Habermas, translated by John Viertel
Beacon, 310 pp., $4.95 (paper)

Legitimation Crisis

by Jürgen Habermas, translated by Thomas McCarthy
Beacon, 166 pp., $6.25 (paper)

Communication and the Evolution of Society

by Jürgen Habermas, translated by Thomas McCarthy
Beacon, 239 pp., $6.95 (paper)

Theorie der Gesellschaft oder Sozialtechnologie

by Jürgen Habermas, by Niklas Luhmann
Suhrkamp, Frankfurt, 404 pp., $13.00 (paper)

The Critical Theory of Jürgen Habermas

by Thomas McCarthy
MIT Press, 484 pp., $25.00; $12.50 (paper)

Habermas: Critical Debates

edited by John B. Thompson, edited by David Held
MIT Press, 324 pp., $30.00; $12.50 (paper)

Among the ever-increasing volume of studies devoted to the social philosophy of Jürgen Habermas and other members of the Frankfurt school, Professor Raymond Geuss’s recent book, The Idea of A Critical Theory, stands out as a contribution of exceptional originality and interest. It is searching in its criticisms, but never loses its basic sympathy. It is formidably dense in texture, but unfailingly lucid in its presentation of Habermas’s often obscure arguments. It is remarkably concise, but is clearly based on a comprehensive study of all the relevant literature. As such it offers an excellent starting point for a reconsideration of Habermas’s “critical theory” as a whole. What sort of a theory is Habermas seeking to construct, and what should we think of it?

Although Habermas has lately been engaged on a large-scale restatement of his ideas,1 there are ample materials already available in English for forming at least a preliminary assessment of his work. The general structure of his theory was originally outlined in the two treatises he published in the late 1960s, translated as Theory and Practice and Knowledge and Human Interests. These were followed by a series of essays collected in Toward a Rational Society, in which Habermas sketched some of the political implications of his position, and then by Legitimation Crisis, a more formal analysis of the problems facing the advanced capitalist societies. Finally, Habermas’s recent preoccupation with technical issues in the philosophy of language can be traced in Communication and the Evolution of Society, a further set of essays that also reflects the other main theme of his latest research, the historical study of the formation and development of ideologies.

Like other theorists of the Frankfurt School—notably Herbert Marcuse—Habermas starts out from the observation that in modern industrialized societies we are all living an unfree, “one-dimensional” form of social existence. Our experience of repression, he repeatedly claims in Knowledge and Human Interests, gives rise to “unequivocally identifiable suffering,” and this in turn furnishes us with both the occasion and the justification for trying to develop a “critical” and “reflective” type of social science.

So far this is very familiar territory. Ever since Rousseau declared on the opening page of The Social Contract that “man is born free, yet everywhere he is in chains,” social theorists of all persuasions have bewailed the tendency of modern mass society to frustrate our natural and creative impulses. Marx in his earliest writings placed his main emphasis on the power of capitalism to alienate us from our work and its products, from our true natures and the rest of human kind. Tocqueville and John Stuart Mill alike insisted that, with the advance of democratic government, there has been a corresponding erosion of individual freedom and spontaneity. And Max Weber spoke with even greater eloquence—recently echoed by Michel Foucault and his disciples—of the “iron cage” in which we have all become imprisoned by the demands of a technological and bureaucratically organized way of life.

Habermas parts company with these traditions of thought, however, when he goes on to assign responsibility for our loss of liberty. The restrictions we suffer, he maintains, are not primarily imposed on us by external coercive forces; rather we unconsciously impose them on ourselves. As he puts it in the concluding section of Theory and Practice, it is only because the prevailing “relationships of power” in society “have not been seen through” that they manage to retain any ascendancy over us at all.

The reasoning which leads Habermas to this conclusion begins with an account of what he calls our “legitimating beliefs.” By these he means—as he makes clear in particular in Legitimation Crisis—the norms and attitudes that go to make up our “world picture” or “social consciousness,” and prompt us to commend as legitimate, or at least to accept as necessary, a network of institutions and practices of a highly repressive character. (Habermas has in mind not merely the apparatus of political control, but the entire work discipline of industrial societies.) He then contends that the “form of consciousness” by which we underwrite this system of coercion is ideologically distorted. It is—as he prefers to put it—a case of false consciousness. As a result, we are led to uphold and participate in a gratuitously restrictive set of social arrangements under the mistaken impression that they are indispensable to our well-being. This means we not only lead frustrated lives, deprived of many important human potentialities; it also means we impose these frustrations on ourselves, since we owe them entirely to the operations of our own false consciousness.

But what does it mean to describe a form of consciousness as false? As Geuss demonstrates in a powerful chapter of great acuity, the significance of this central feature of Habermas’s analysis is far from self-evident, and Habermas’s various attempts to clarify it often merely add to the difficulties.

Sometimes Habermas seems to be saying that the function of preserving coercive arrangements has the inevitable effect of distorting our beliefs in such a way as to present our social world falsely. This appears to be the suggestion at the end of Theory and Practice, where he speaks of the Enlightenment’s attempt to root out “the false consciousness of an epoch, anchored in the institutions of a false society, a consciousness which in turn secured the dominant interest.” But even if we concede that our beliefs have the effect of maintaining such interests, why should it be supposed to follow from this that they must be mistaken? A set of beliefs might, for example, serve to uphold an unjust arrangement simply by diverting attention from the injustices involved, without any of the beliefs in question being false. (An account of the part played by the monarchy in contemporary British society might well proceed along these lines.) And if this is possible, it is clearly fallacious to conclude that the delusive character of our beliefs simply derives from their role in maintaining oppressive states of affairs.

Generally, however, Habermas presents a completely different line of argument. The falsity of our present consciousness, he usually maintains, arises out of the manner in which we have acquired it. But this too is far from being a perspicuous thought, and in seeking to explicate it Habermas again appears to become confused.

At some points he argues—notably at the end of Legitimation Crisis—that the connection between the “genesis” and the falsity of our beliefs can be clarified by invoking what he calls “the model of the suppression of generalizable interests.” The model concerns itself with those beliefs that originate within particular social classes—for example, the bourgeois belief in the justice of market relations—and help to serve their interests. If the class in question happens to be (in Gramsci’s phrase) a “hegemonal” one—not just dominant economically but able to project its way of seeing things throughout society—its members may be able to suppress rival perceptions and make it appear that their own beliefs in fact serve to uphold the general interests of society. When this happens, Habermas concludes, the result will be “an ideological form of justification” and hence an instance of false consciousness.

But again this argument doesn’t seem to establish what is claimed. As Geuss points out, “The form of consciousness in question is not being criticized in virtue of its origin, but in virtue of the ‘falsity’ it is likely to have as a result of this origin. Its origin in the particular experiences of a particular social class will then be at best a more or less reliable indicator that the form of consciousness will be found to present a particular class-interest as the general interest.” In short, Habermas’s argument fails to establish any direct link between the genesis of our beliefs and their alleged falsity.

At other points, however, Habermas suggests a different and more complicated relationship between the origin and delusive character of our beliefs, and to spell out this alternative analysis will bring us to the heart of his theory of false consciousness. We need to begin with the “counterfactual” state of affairs which Habermas labels “the ideal speech situation.” This is his best-known neologism, and is central to the structure of his critical theory. But it is not easy—especially for anyone relying on translations—to arrive at an exact understanding of this element in his thought. His clearest exposition of it occurs in the Theorie der Gesellschaft, of which no English version has yet appeared. And although Geuss cites and discusses this text, his account is almost too brief and elliptical to serve as a helpful introduction. Fortunately, however, it is possible to gain additional and extremely valuable assistance at this point from Professor Thomas McCarthy’s recent book, The Critical Theory of Jürgen Habermas. McCarthy’s is the fullest exegesis of Habermas’s ideas so far published in English, and contains an admirable survey of all aspects of his work, culminating in an excellent outline of the theory of “universal pragmatics” or “ideal speech.”

As McCarthy indicates, this feature of Habermas’s theory is designed to establish two connected points. The first is that there is a unique set of circumstances in which it is alone rational for anyone to acquire a legitimating belief. The other and more specific claim is that these circumstances must be those of ideologically undistorted (and hence “ideal”) communication and speech. By this Habermas means that our normative beliefs can only be rationally formed in conditions of absolutely free and unlimited debate, in which all parties to the institutions and practices being set up must be capable of recognizing that they are freely consenting to their establishment under conditions in which the only constraints derive from what Habermas rather optimistically calls “the peculiar force of the better argument.”

These claims may at first sight appear strange and arbitrary, but in fact Habermas is merely updating one of the most familiar conceptual devices associated with traditional discussions of the “social contract” in political thought. It is true that in his most recent presentations of the case—such as the opening essay in Communication and the Evolution of Society—he has begun to embellish his analysis with lengthy and somewhat pedestrian appeals to current philosophy of language, in particular to J.L. Austin’s theory of speech-acts.2 But in essence his basic suggestion remains strictly analogous to the idea of a “state of nature” developed by such early contractarians as Locke and Rousseau, and revived by such avowed disciples of their approach as John Rawls in A Theory of Justice. The proposal is simply that if potentially repressive institutions are rightly to be regarded as legitimate, it must be possible to imagine their creation under conditions of freedom and equality, and their acceptance by the unforced consent of all those subsequently liable to be affected by their behavior.

It is when Habermas connects this account of the ideal situation in which we should acquire our legitimating beliefs with the actual circumstances in which we are said to have acquired them that he feels justified in stigmatizing our present social consciousness as false. The only conditions, he has laid it down, in which it would have been appropriate for us to arrive at these beliefs would have been those of free debate. But our current beliefs, he began by insisting, were not in fact formed in that way. They were formed—although our present consciousness prevents us from seeing the fact—under conditions of outright coercion and constraint. For example, we did not freely debate whether to accept either the political or the economic system in which we find ourselves. This means that if only we could somehow be brought to a true consciousness of the situation in which our beliefs were in fact acquired, we should at once perceive that they are “reflectively unacceptable.” We should recognize, that is, that the only reason they continue to exercise their hold over us is that we falsely believe them to have been acquired in a rational and appropriate way. This, then, is essentially what Habermas appears to mean by “false consciousness”: what is false is first of all our belief about how our present legitimating beliefs were acquired, and consequently our belief that these are suitable beliefs for us to hold.

  1. 1

    The Theory of Communicative Action, translated by Thomas McCarthy, will be published in two volumes by Beacon Press. Volume I, Reason and the Rationalization of Society, will appear in February.

  2. 2

    This aspect of Habermas’s recent work is ably surveyed and criticized by John B. Thompson in his contribution to the recent collection, Habermas: Critical Debates, an impressive series of essays on various features of Habermas’s social theory, together with a substantial and fair-minded—though not always very convincing—”Reply to My Critics”—by Habermas himself.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print