The Idea of a Critical Theory: Habermas and the Frankfurt School
Knowledge and Human Interests
Toward a Rational Society: Student Protest, Science, and Politics
Theory and Practice
Communication and the Evolution of Society
Theorie der Gesellschaft oder Sozialtechnologie
The Critical Theory of Jürgen Habermas
Habermas: Critical Debates
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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.