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Defending Habermas

In response to:

Habermas's Reformation from the October 7, 1982 issue

To the Editors:

If Quentin Skinner’s representation of Habermas’ views [NYR, October 7] were even approximately accurate, anyone who took Habermas seriously would have to be stupid or deluded or both. Uncomfortably perhaps for Professor Skinner, this group includes a rather large number of authors whose lucidity he has elsewhere praised. They will certainly be surprised to learn that their interest in Habermas derives from “the subconscious impact of…familiar images of sin and salvation.” Many among them, particularly the non-Protestants, will surely be grateful to Professor Skinner for warning us away from “the continuation of Protestantism by other means”; and all will doubtlessly be instructed by his own example of how to unmask false consciousness without falling into the over-simplifications cautioned against in the review.

But Professor Skinner’s account is hopelessly inadequate. He mentions the existence of Habermas’ recently published magnum opus and then proceeds to ignore it. As it has not yet appeared in English translation, he may have been justified in not discussing it; but he should at least have read it. Had he done so, he might have discovered the unsuitability of the starting point he chooses for his review. He could also have discovered this from reading Communication and the Evolution of Society, which is listed as being under discussion. The “review” of this work, however, consists of one cavalier remark about Habermas’ “pedestrian appeals” to language theory and one misrepresentation of his theory of social evolution as a “historical study of the formation and development of ideologies.” As to other works, there is one passing reference to Theorie der Gesellschaft and several brief references to Legitimation Crisis, the principal one being a highly questionable reading of Habermas’ model of the suppression of generalizable interests as offering an account of the genesis of ideology. The point of this recitation is that Skinner largely—I am tempted to say entirely—ignores the development of Habermas’ thought in the last fifteen years and deals almost exclusively with one theme from the earlier work. The only justification offered for this astonishing narrowness of focus is that “the general structure of [Habermas’] theory was originally outlined in two treatises he published in the late 1960s.” He is referring here to Theorie und Praxis and Erkenntnis und Interesse. The first of these “treatises” is a collection of scattered essays first published together in 1963; the second, Habermas tells us in the preface, is a historical prolegomenon to more systematic studies planned for the future (and now available). One of the unfortunate consequences of this constricted focus is that the complexity, multidimensionality, and synoptic power of Habermas’ thought disappear from sight. One would never suspect from reading the review that he was the author of original and influential works on hermeneutics and systems theory, communication and socialization, modernization and social evolution, German idealism and contemporary action theory, the logic of the social sciences and—an omission that is especially striking in view of Skinner’s own interests—the history of political and social theory. And there is no indication that for more than a decade now Habermas has been preoccupied with constructing a general theory of social action, to serve as the basis for a general account of societal development, with the aim finally of comprehending modern society and its discontents. After all the paring and pruning and—most importantly—ignoring, what we are left with is the picture of a one-dimensional thinker who has, during three decades and over thousands of pages, been haplessly floundering about in a vain effort to answer the questions which Skinner, following Geuss, thinks he should have been asking.

Even in this single dimension the representation of Habermas’ views is seriously inaccurate. To mention only a few instances: Where did Skinner find his “three stage” model of emancipation “according to Habermas”? Had he read to the end of the introduction to Theory and Practice, which he once cites, he would have seen in the sections on the “organization of enlightenment” that this “third stage”—in which “the mere perception of this fact [of repression] is supposed to release us from its power”—doesn’t bear the slightest resemblance to Habermas’ own views. And in this same connection, Skinner’s triumphant introduction of institutions and interest groups as a counterargument to Habermas makes one want to ask: What has he been reading? In his discussion of the ideal speech situation, Skinner pays insufficient attention to the fact that this is claimed to be a counterfactual supposition. No doubt, there are questions to be raised here; but they are not the ones raised in the review. The exchange between Steven Lukes and Habermas included in one of the volumes supposedly under review might have helped Skinner in formulating them. He might have noticed there that freedom from any and all “local assumptions or cultural particularity” is not one of the suppositions of the ideal speech situation. Nor does rational discourse preclude disagreement, compromise, and the like. (“Does Habermas really mean…?” No, he doesn’t.) What Skinner has to say about a pure interest of reason, about positivism and decisionism, is just as wide of the mark.

But there is no point in continuing this. Readers familiar with Habermas’ work will have picked out their own favorite misconstruals. Mine occurs on the first page of the review, where we read that Habermas “parts company” with Marx, Weber, and others in assigning responsibility for our loss of liberty not to “external coercive forces” but “entirely to the operations of our own false consciousness.” It would be entertaining to see Professor Skinner develop this interpretation through the two hundred pages of Weber analysis in Volume I of Theorie des kommunikativen Handelns, through the three hundred pages in Volume II which deal with systems theory in general and Parsons in particular, and through the concluding chapter in which Habermas attempts to combine Marx and Weber in a statement of his own position.

I regret the tone of this letter, but it is disturbing to see a body of very interesting and original work hacked up into small and unrecognizable bits so that it can more easily be packaged in all-too-familiar wrappers. One can imagine how Professor Skinner—who has written very intelligently in and on the history of ideas—would react to an assessment of Marx based solely on the early writings, accusing him of ignoring economics, and attributing his “vast and bewildering popularity” to the “subconscious impact” brought about by his continuation of Jewish messianism by other means. His review deserves the same response.

Thomas McCarthy

Boston University

Boston, Massachusetts

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