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.

But how can we ever hope, deluded as we are, to reach an unblinkered recognition of the fact that our current legitimating beliefs are indeed reflectively unacceptable? This is the moment at which Habermas offers to come to our rescue. The role of a critical theory of society, he declares, is precisely that of emancipating us from our present state of false consciousness by enlightening us about its cause. Or, as he prefers to put in a characteristic passage at the beginning of Theory and Practice, the effect of the “self-reflection” induced by a critical theory is that it “brings to consciousness those determinants of a self-formative process of cultivation and spiritual formation which ideologically determine a contemporary praxis of action and the conception of the world.”

The process of becoming emancipated by critical theory takes place, according to Habermas, in three stages. As in psychoanalysis, the initial step is to make us aware of the unconscious determinants of our present consciousness. We come to see that our current legitimating beliefs have not in fact been rationally acquired, and thus that our present desires and corresponding patterns of social behavior are out of line with our real or human interests. Next, this recognition is said to bring us to a new cognitive state. In place of our earlier false consciousness, we rise to a true understanding of our social situation; in place of our earlier delusions, we attain an objective knowledge of the social world. Finally, this knowledge is claimed to set us free. We come to see that there is no good reason for us to accept our current beliefs and the social arrangements they uphold. This in turn releases us from the bondage of our existing social world, liberating us from our present frustrations and enabling us to enjoy a life of “truth, freedom and justice.”

What are we to think of this tripartite scheme of emancipation by way of enlightenment? Among social scientists of an empiricist bent, the first stage has regularly been denounced for its allegedly authoritarian implications. Habermas is contending in effect that although we may have no wish to give up our present way of life, it would nevertheless be rational for us to do so. But is this not a case of claiming to know, better than we know ourselves, what is good for us? And is this not an intolerable as well as an obviously dangerous form of paternalism?

As Geuss demonstrates in a superb chapter on “real interests,” such objections rest on the merest complacency. They presuppose—in the manner of Hume—that “reason is and ought only to be the slave of the passions,” and thus that it only makes sense for us to speak of being motivated by our present desires. But one of the great strengths of any social theory founded on the concept of real interests is that it focuses on the limitations inherent in this type of subjectivism, and reminds us that there need be nothing in the least objectionable about another person suggesting to me that I may have good reasons for acting contrary to my present desires or even my perceived interests.

To see how this is possible, Geuss suggests, we should begin by considering the idea of human needs. The concept of a need is admittedly not a determinate one, but an approximate definition can be given by appealing to the idea of effective functioning. To say that we all need food is to say that if we fail to obtain it, we shall eventually cease to function effectively. Now it may be that I am unaware of some of my needs, or else that I cannot recognize—because of some impairment in my powers of reasoning—that I need to act in a certain way to bring about some of my desired ends. But when this happens, my needs will cease to have the right kind of relationship with my motivations. As a result, I may see no reason to perform various actions which it is nevertheless essential for me to perform in order to preserve my well-being. And in these circumstances (which are after all quite familiar and describe, for example, the situation of many who consult doctors), there is nothing objectionable about the suggestion that an outside observer might be in the best position to enlighten me about what I ought to do, and in particular to show me that it would be rational for me to act contrary to my present desires.

The possibility of an even wider disjunction between what I want and what it is rational for me to do arises if we turn to consider the concept of interests. Geuss’s handling of this topic reflects the influence—which he generously acknowledges—of Albert Hirschman’s very subtle discussion in The Passions and the Interests. The sort of cases Geuss examines are those in which, in consequence of various failures of judgment—which may in turn be caused by such factors as stubbornness, self-deception or false consciousness—I insist on acting according to my immediate desires even when my own best interests are thereby jeopardized. To take (as Geuss does) an obvious though simplified example, I may insist on fulfilling my wish to spend all my waking hours drinking gin, even though it may be unequivocally against my interests to allow this desire to motivate my behavior. This is surely a further type of case in which it makes sense to argue that a sympathetic observer might be in the best position to emancipate me from my self-destructive proclivities by prompting me to reflect about my desires and submit them to a more considered judgment.

Finally, there is a third and more dramatic possibility, although Geuss doesn’t mention it. There may be objective reasons for action, in the sense of actions which there are good reasons for me to perform even if I find, after the fullest and coolest reflection, that I still have no desire to perform them. Habermas considers this possibility only glancingly, and in what appears to be a contradictory way. When he discusses Kant and Fichte in Knowledge and Human Interests, he flirts with the idea that there might be a pure “interest of reason,” such that it might be possible and appropriate to become motivated by reason itself. But when he turns to the parallel between critical theory and psychoanalysis in the final chapter of the same work, he appears to argue that since my reasons for action have to be reflectively acceptable, it must be indispensable to the program of emancipation by way of enlightenment that my real interests should at some point coincide with my considered desires.

Other moral and social philosophers have been bolder, however, and have sought to defend the idea of objective reasons for action in a full-blown Kantian style. Martin Hollis has done so in Models of Man, and a similar commitment runs through the whole of Thomas Nagel’s important work as a moral philosopher, most recently in the concluding chapter of his brilliant and imaginative book of essays, Mortal Questions. For Nagel it is essential to the idea of moral behavior that we should be capable of arriving at our reasons for action by way of considering, from an impersonal standpoint, what actions are most likely to achieve the greatest good. The aim, as Nagel explains it, is to become motivated not simply “on the basis of the agent’s life, his role in the world and his relations with others.” It is rather to ensure “that one’s decisions should be tested ultimately from an external point of view, to which one appears as just one person among others.”

There is thus ample scope, despite the vociferous doubts of empiricist social scientists, for developing the suggestion about human interests that Habermas and the other members of the Frankfurt School have all advanced: the suggestion that it may be rational for us to seek to transcend our present desires and corresponding patterns of social behavior. But what of Habermas’s second and connected claim, that if we succeed in overcoming our false consciousness in this way, the effect will be to bring us to a new cognitive state, a state in which our present delusions are replaced by genuine social knowledge?

It is not difficult to explain why Habermas feels obliged to speak in this joltingly naïve fashion about “social knowledge.” He sees it as the only possible response to the threat posed by what he calls “positivism.” According to Habermas, positivism is the doctrine that all forms of cognition have the same logical structure, and that this structure is exhibited in the practice of the physical sciences. The positivist is thus credited with the alarming view that unless our modes of reasoning result in propositions “which permit the deduction of lawlike hypotheses,” they can only be said to result in wholly noncognitive propositions about which there can be no rational argument at all.

As Habermas makes clear in Knowledge and Human Interests, he thinks that such positivistic claims are extremely widespread. This is surprising enough in itself. It is hard to think of a single living philosopher who subscribes to the obviously absurd belief that any proposition not capable of being scientifically grounded must represent nothing more than the statement of an arbitrary preference. Even more surprising is the extent to which Habermas agrees with the positivism he attacks. For he accepts that in order to prevent our normative beliefs from being dismissed as irrational and subjective, he needs to establish that they constitute a genuine form of knowledge which “the positivist self-understanding of the nomological sciences”—the sciences concerned to establish testable laws—has mistakenly overlooked.

As a result, Habermas bases his entire critical theory on a wildly ambitious flight of epistemological fancy. He thinks he can demonstrate (though in fact he merely asserts) that there are three categorically distinct forms of knowledge, not merely the one that positivism has alone admitted. At the end of Knowledge and Human Interests he sets them out. There is, of course, the technical knowledge purveyed by the nomological sciences. But there is also a “hermeneutic” form of knowledge (the influence of Hans-Georg Gadamer is evident here) which is said to derive from the study of social action and the interpretation of texts. And finally, transcending both of these, there is the self-reflective form of knowledge contained in such critical theories as those of Marx, Freud, and Habermas himself. The upshot of the classification is thus the claim that, with the rise of critical theories of man and society, we have arrived at nothing less than a new type of cognition, a genuine form of understanding not previously recognized by epistemologists.

As Geuss points out, however, this preoccupation with the categories of knowledge and truth leads to some acute and gratuitous difficulties. First of all, Habermas’s basic distinction between knowledge and arbitrary preference is obviously too crudely drawn. As Geuss observes, “the decision to eat when one is very hungry is not arbitrary—I couldn’t equally well have decided to go swimming—but that doesn’t make eating a form of knowledge.” More seriously, Habermas is far from convincing when he tries to explain how it is possible, limited as we are by our local concepts and canons of evidence, to encompass such a transcendent entity as the truth about the good society itself. His answer is that we obtain access to such truths in the “ideal speech situation,” and that their universal validity is guaranteed by the fact that this situation itself is free from any local assumptions or cultural particularity.

But how can he feel so confident about such a lofty theory of human rationality? Even Geuss’s interpretative charity momentarily deserts him at this point, and he allows himself a touch of understandable irony. Does Habermas really mean that everyone in the ideal speech situation would arrive at exactly the same moral as well as cognitive judgments? Does he mean to include “pre-dynastic Egyptians, ninth-century French serfs and early-twentieth-century Yanomanö tribesmen” on exactly the same terms as each other and as ourselves? Is it really plausible to suppose that all of us would agree on what counts as coercion and what as true liberty? What possible grounds are there for such a belief? As Geuss rather tartly concludes, all that Habermas seems able to offer us at this crucial stage in his argument is “a transcendental deduction of a series of non-facts.”

Finally, we come to the third link in Habermas’s chain of reasoning, his contention that the acquisition of social knowledge will in turn set us free. This is the point at which he tends to press the parallel between critical theory and psychoanalysis most explicitly. The suggestion is that as soon as we recognize the sources and in consequence the irrationality of our present beliefs, the effect will be to release us from their grip, thereby leaving us free to live our lives in line with our real or human interests. Self-knowledge, as in Freud, is thus presented as the key to liberty.

It is arguable, however, that this alleged parallel introduces a damaging oversimplification into Habermas’s argument. In psychoanalysis the attempt to overcome repression is basically viewed as a struggle I wage with myself, a struggle to uncover my true motivations and rearrange them in a more satisfying shape. But in critical theory, as Habermas himself stresses, the root cause of our repression is traced to the institutions and practices we mistakenly treat as legitimate and in consequence impose on ourselves. This adds at least two complications to the argument. Unless the society in which we are living happens to be exceptionally homogeneous, there will always be the awkward possibility that although I may come to recognize a given institution as illegitimate, the same institution as illegitimate, the same institution may continue to uphold the real interests of other citizens. Their endorsement of its activities need not be an instance of false consciousness at all. Moreover, even in the case of an institution that has the effect of repressing everyone’s real interests, it is difficult to see how the mere perception of this fact is supposed to release us from its power. If an institution has been accepted as legitimate over any period of time, it will inescapably have acquired a life and momentum of its own which could well enable it to survive for a considerable period even after everyone has ceased to believe in its legitimacy.

Habermas could of course reply that he is a revolutionary, and wants to see repressive institutions brought down by those who have “seen through” them. He is extremely reluctant, however, to round off his theory in this way. He attacks the “pseudorevolutionary adventures” of student activists in Toward a Rational Society, and only concedes that “a measure of emancipation” might possibly result if such “actionism” were to be encouraged “with caution.” He insists on placing all his emphasis on the power of rational argument to regulate political discussion in such a way that consensus, even unanimity, will eventually be achieved. This determination to treat politics as a means of conducting genuine debates about the public interest, not merely competitions between rival interest groups, is of course salutary. But for those of us who find it hard to endorse Habermas’s touching faith in the ability of reason to overcome evil, the result of the entire argument is simply to leave the crucial connection between the attainment of enlightenment and the process of social emancipation altogether obscure.

Reading Habermas is extraordinarily like reading Luther, except that the latter wrote such wonderful prose. Both insist that our wills are enslaved by our present unregenerate way of life. Both emphasize that in consequence we cannot see, except through a glass, darkly, the true character of our alienated condition. Both promise that a change of heart will release us from our present bondage and bring us to a state of perfect liberty. Above all, both put their trust in “the redeeming power of reflection” (Habermas’s phrase), and hence in our ability to save ourselves through the healing properties of the Word (or discourse, as Habermas prefers to call it). This has always been an inspiring vision, and the subconscious impact of such familiar images of sin and salvation may even do something to account for Habermas’s vast and somewhat bewildering popularity. But it is disconcerting to see how far his assumptions and vocabulary merely recast a traditional story of deliverance in secular modern dress. We are surely entitled to something more rigorous from our social philosophers than a continuation of Protestantism by other means.

This Issue

October 7, 1982