Jürgen Habermas

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Jürgen Habermas with Boris Frankel (interview date November 1973)

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SOURCE: "Habermas Talking: An Interview," in Theory and Society, No. 1, 1974, pp. 37-58.

[In the following interview originally conducted in November, 1973, Habermas discusses the place of socio-political, Marxist, and psychoanalytic theories in his own linguistic and epistemological philosophy, addressing various critiques of his historical materialist analysis.]

It was at Frankfurt University that Jürgen Habermas made his reputation as the new theoretical force continuing the tradition of the Horkheimer-Adorno-Marcuse brand of Critical Theory. It was also at Frankfurt that Habermas' popularity with the Left student movement changed dramatically from mutual support to bitter condemnation from many students. In recent years, owing to a combination of new trends in the German Left and also his own retreat into research work at Starnberg, Habermas has become more and more isolated from German Left activists. On the one hand, he is roundly (but unfairly) condemned as a "cop-out" by many elements of the existing student movement who still retain incorrect memories of his role in the student-administration confrontation at Frankfurt. Habermas did not call the police in at Frankfurt (in fact he strongly opposed this move behind the scenes but could not bring himself to publicly criticize Adorno due to his personal friendship and justifiably great concern over Adorno's deteriorating health), but he did criticize various student tactics as being short-sighted and counter-productive which earned him abundant criticism from many students. On the other hand, he has never been loved by the academic establishment as well as being almost universally excluded from Marxist ranks in Germany and abroad (with the notable exception of Marxists such as the Praxis group in Yugoslavia).

While not wishing to exonerate or apologize for Habermas' activities during the recent past, a large degree of confusion, accusation and misinterpretation concerning his theoretical work, derives from the non-conventional approach he has undertaken to historical materialist analysis. The peculiar position of Habermas is that he confronts contemporary Marxism not merely with the German-Continental theoretical tradition, but also with an intimate knowledge of Anglo-American philosophy, social and natural science. It is not an exaggeration to say that his knowledge is encyclopaedic and hence the grand project of a brilliant reformulation of historical materialism is only intelligible in the light of the familiarity with the two (Continental and Anglo-American) dominant, and conventionally regarded (almost everywhere) as irreconcilable traditions.

In confronting these two dominant traditions, Habermas' work assumes a misleading conventional, academic appearance because a large part of it until now has been in the form of an immanent critique of bourgeois sociology, linguistic philosophy, systems theory, and various forms of neo-positivism. Perhaps the largest single reason for many of the Left to be suspicious and hostile to Habermas stems from his attempts to develop a Communication Theory of Society. As one who previously shared his hostility to Habermas, it is easy to understand why most Marxists continue to feel this way. First, there is the matter of acquiring Habermas' works in English or French. No translations of his work have been published in French, although two books will be out in the near future; and in English we are on the average about five years behind his recent publications. More than 10 years after its publication in German English readers are now able to read Theorie und Praxis . The abridged English version could give rise to further misinterpretations of Habermas' Marxism as there is inadequate note made of the fact that Habermas no longer holds certain views on political economy which appear especially in the chapter entitled "Between Philosophy and Science: Marxism as Critique". Although he has attached...

(This entire section contains 9443 words.)

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a brief list of more recent Marxist analysis, readers should refer to his more recent bookLegitimationsprobleme im Spätkapitalismus (1973) in order to understand his present analysis. Added to this delay in translations is Habermas' own unfinished development of the Communication Theory of Society which largely exists in unpublished manuscripts. The second, and equally important fact, is that one almost immediately has suspicion about any so-called "Communication Theory". The concept is somewhat confusing in that one inevitably has images of either a McLuhan type of bourgeois apologetics in the form of a communication theory concerned with technological determinism and media etc., or else one thinks of Habermas as just another idealist working in the sociology of language, phenomenology, or symbolic universes, etc., which are becoming so dominant in the bourgeois academic world. Consequently, Habermas' work is basically misconceived as the latest form of idealist aberration which seeks to reduce all problems to that of problems concerning the language of communication, and thereby diverting us away from the historical analysis of class struggle, imperialism, and capitalist forces of production. As Habermas states, nothing could be further from the truth or the intention of his work.

In his isolation from most of the German Left, Habermas is quietly but impressively working and directing a series of substantial analyses of various facets of advanced capitalist societies. Current projects being developed are those concerning the role of the state in capitalist society, capitalist policies and investment in Third World countries, ecology and capitalism, alternative science and technology theories, the relation of science to state and industry, and socialization problems dealing with conflict and apathy. (Two of these projects are summarized in the journal Working Papers on the Kapitalistate, no. 1, 1973.)

Habermas' own epistemological critique, rather than being merely another sophisticated form of Hegelian idealism in new clothes, is, in fact, the only body of writing which substantially exposes and undermines linguistic philosophy's attempts to debunk Marxist ideas such as ideology and false consciousness. In contrast to other Marxists who provide a limited critique of linguistic and hermeneutic philosophy from an "external" position, i.e. they criticize the latter for its trivialization of social reality, e.g. all dogs have tails, or for being fundamentally ahistorical, Habermas acknowledges the contributions made by linguistic philosophy and thereby establishes his penetrating critique. By incorporating the insights of linguistic and hermeneutic philosophy into historical materialism, Habermas endeavours to transcend the philosophic problem of "consciousness" which has hitherto constituted the background against which the relationship between ideology and "false consciousness" has been thrashed out between Marxists and bourgeois theorists. As true or false consciousness is articulated verbally, Habermas is concerned to analyse the historical materialist conditions of everyday discourse in order to show how not only the class nature of social relations manifests itself within everyday language, but also the emancipatory notions of freedom and justice. This interest in the manner in which material conditions have distorted communication (verbal and behavioural), also accounts for his utilization of psychoanalysis in order to grasp the hidden, unconscious and suppressed activity of individuals distorted by class societies.

Communication is not conceived by Habermas as something which is exclusively verbal, but rather his Communication Theory rests upon an extremely solid philosophical anthropology. This "materialist phenomenology of mind" is a brilliant attempt to articulate in unambiguous and non-reductionist terms, the anthropological assumptions behind Marx's concept of "sensuous activity". Only by elucidating the linguistic aspect of the reproduction of social life, can the images, plans, programs and organization of a free society be realized without perpetrating the explicit and implicit repression so prevalent at the moment. Regardless of whether Althusser and others are correct about alienation (or the Feuerbachian problematic) not being present in Marx's mature work, one thing is clear, we can not ignore or dilute into other analytic categories the epistemological assumptions about human competences and the manner in which social reality is constituted and reconstituted. If Althusser has done us the service of criticizing those Marxists who reduce forces and relations of production to "historicist" questions of human "essence", Habermas' strength lies precisely in avoiding the other extreme—reducing all symbolic interactions to questions concerning the forces of production and labour processes.

Habermas has no desire to debunk Marx or to point with bourgeois glee that Marx is obsolete and so forth. His intention is in fact the very opposite. In probing the epistemological assumptions of Marx's work, Habermas wishes to make explicit that which has been implicit, and to eradicate or make unambiguous that which is objectivistic and scientistic (in the positivist and naturalist sense). If it is "no accident" that the Second and Third Internationals both shared crude, mechanistic and scientistic notions of historical materialism, then Marx's works cannot be treated either as a sacred cow or a biblical fountain for the solution of every new theoretical and practical development. Nor can Marx's notion that knowledge is historical only be given lip service. In utilizing the insights of linguistic philosophy and other twentieth century developments in social and scientific theory, Habermas is not indulging in fanciful eclecticism but rather trying to strengthen historical materialism against contemporary bourgeois attacks.

Moreover, his work provides us with what is perhaps the most decisive critique of "Hegelian Marxism" of which, ironically, he is regarded to be a leading exponent. By distinguishing between knowledge which involves a relationship between a subject and an object (empirical-analytic sciences), and that knowledge which involves a relationship between one subject and another subject (dialectical-hermeneutic sciences), Habermas is able to make an immanent critique of objective idealism and objective materialism. The Lukácsian and Horkheimer-Adorno-Marcusianconcepts of reification and instrumental rationality are subtly shown to be responsible for the various idealizations, pessimism, or romanticism, which characterizes their theoretical work. It is not merely that Habermas calls for more detailed analysis of the forces and relations of production, which Lukács and the old Frankfurt School failed to do, but that he shows how the notions of rationality which Lukács, et al. shared with Marx were inadequate to clearly distinguish the continuity and discontinuity between domination and emancipation.

Habermas is a probing and first-rate thinker who raises long term questions concerning the nature of science, technology, division of labour, etc., in capitalist and future socialist societies. Any serious Marxist cannot avoid confronting these fundamental questions if the qualitative differences between capitalism and socialism are not to be blurred in vague romantic or eschatological visions. This is not to say that Habermas is trying to circumscribe or predict the potentialities and organization of the future, but it does mean that he is not trying to avoid fundamental problems which are so frequently subsumed under the all pervasive answer—"we don't know what will happen when the first human phase of history begins".

While this is not the place to give a summary of Habermas' work, it cannot be overstressed that he is not an idealist concerned with only linguistics and epistemology, but that he is trying to develop a historical materialist analysis which helps to bring about a society free from domination and repression, or what he calls distorted communication. It is simply not true, as Göran Therborn claims, that Habermas replaces the proletariat with science, and the forces and relations of production with Parsonsian categories of labour and interaction. While it is true that he uses Parsons in a critical sense, his categories of labour and interaction cannot be confused or reduced to merely new equivalents for the forces and relations of production. Habermas' long term ("transcendental") perspective is a quality which makes his work significant, but at the same time irritating and "idealist" to those involved in the immediate problems of day-to-day class struggle. This long term perspective is also responsible for Habermas' political attitudes; in aiming for large scale success, he places his hopes in the Jusos' (the younger Social Democrats) strategy of the "long march through the institutions". Actually, he supports the work done by many radical groups but his own personal predisposition to intellectual work cuts him off from the spontaneity and immediacy of activism. In the German situation of a minority Social Democratic Party depending on fragile support from conservative Free Democrats, plus the absence of a large Left, it is not surprising that Habermas is not overconfident about large scale Left success in the next ten or more years. Still, he does not exclude the possibility of unexpected contingent crises which could affect the present capitalist situation; in the meantime he sees his usefulness in building up a solid body of Marxist analysis and in trying to change legitimating beliefs in social institutions such as schools and public institutions. One thing is clear, Habermas offers little in the way of immediate strategy and tactics; he is not an activist and will most probably never be one. It is also true, as Therborn points out, that many fashionable "reformist" sociologists will find Habermas attractive. This is partly due to the current concern with methodological problems being discussed in universities, and also partly due to Habermas' own decision to answer his critics via an academic dialogue. However, the quality and pertinence of a man's thought is not determined solely by those who utilize merely a part of a great thinker's horizons. It should be made clear that Habermas is committed to a socialist revolution even though he is occasionally courageous enough to express a scepticism about its form and future which others have kept to themselves. I believe that Habermas' contributions will outlive those academic "leeches" who presently cling to him for the wrong reasons as well those Marxist sectarians who oppose him for the wrong reasons. Hopefully, the Marxist Left will make an effort to comprehend what he is all about and judge Habermas' work on the adequacy of its analysis rather than dogmatically ignoring it because of intolerant labelling. The self-reflection needed to eliminate domination is not to be relegated to the priorities of tomorrow; distorted communication is not a characteristic which is confined to the ranks of the non-Marxist population.


[Frankel:] You talk about the "subsystems" of purposive rational action and communicative action. To what extent do you subscribe to Parsons' understanding of "system"?

[Habermas:] I think that I use the term "subsystem" in two different contexts, the first context is familiar to sociological discourse. Take for instance some passages from Technik und Wissenschaft als Ideologie (1968) where I differentiate, on the one hand, between those subsystems which mainly serve functions of pattern maintenance and integration such as the family, or face to face relationships or educational settings and so forth, and on the other hand, those social systems which mainly serve goal attainment and adaptation, i.e. the economic or administrative system. Actions of the purposive rational type play a much more important role in the economic and more formalized social systems, while communicative action "overweighs" or is more important in the other types of social systems. I think that if you have a concrete piece of social interaction you will have in any case, both types of action, namely, a communicative action which is guided by norms, and on the other hand, attached in a way, or embedded in this interaction are what Parsons calls "tasks"—I mean elements of actions which can be reconstructed as instrumental actions or as purposive rational actions; there are only extreme situations in which you may have a pure type of either communicative or purposive rational action. For instance, if you play chess then you intentionally follow a setting in which I think you pursue a type of rational choice behaviour. In my sociological analyses I make use, of course, of the usual concept of "system" and "subsystems"; e.g. I try to analyse empirically if there are systematic limitations to the planning capacities of state bureaucracies then my focus is the administrative system. Here I don't see any problem. I only want to say that you can order subsystems on a scale, that is, from a point where you have almost exclusively a subsystem in which communication governs the whole process, to another point, where you have systems in which you have exclusively almost a type of purposive rational behaviour.

So this is one context in which I use the categories of purposive rational action and communicative action. The other context is when I speak on a rather anthropological level: when I try to analyse the constituents of social systems in general, then I refer to basic human competences. One dimension of analysis is instrumental action, and another dimension of analysis is communication, which presupposes the structure of intersubjectivity in which you can either act communicatively or have a discourse, or something like this. So there are two uses of the terms which I would like to distinguish; rather a sociological way of speaking about systems and subsystems of communicative versus purposive rational behaviour, on the one hand, and a more anthropological way of speaking when I am analysing only basic components of what can be conceived as the socio-cultural form of life.

So in other words it is not correct to say that you subscribe to Parsons' general conception of the "social system".

That is correct. In my last book on Legitimationsprobleme im Spätkapitalismus (1973) there is a first part in which I discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the "systems" approach. There I try to explain that we have to combine in a systematic manner the "systems" approach with an approach which has so far been explicated, rather in phenomenological traditions, I mean the "Lebenswelt" analysis. I think that we have to put together both aspects, "system" aspect and "Lebenswelt" aspect into one integrated analysis.

Do you feel close to the work that the ethnomethodologists are doing?

No. I think that the ethnomethodologists as well as the phenomenologists are isolating only one aspect in the same manner as the "system" theorists are isolating the other aspect. I distinguish myself from both approaches, maintaining that we have to employ a framework which is capable of integrating both aspects mentioned.

Various interpretations have been made of your work Knowledge and Human Interests. Could you clarify a few misconceptions by illustrating the "technical interest of control" inherent in the empirical-analytic sciences with reference to a "scientific" theory such as Darwin's theory of the evolution of the species? In what sense is the latter theory only a theory for "instrumental action"?

I think in no sense. Since the evolution theory has a methodological status which is quite different from a normal theory in, say, physics, I think that the categorical framework in which the evolution theory has been developed since Darwin presupposes some references to a pre-understanding of the human world and not only of nature. The whole concept of adaptation and selection presupposes some elements which are more characteristic for the human sciences than for the empirical-analytic sciences, strictly speaking. So in my opinion, the evolution theory is no example of an empirical-analytic science at all. But as far as bio-chemical theories about mutations go into this evolution theory, we have, of course, a usual empirical-analytic theory. However, this is not what is characteristic for the design of the evolution theory. This is only a component of the evolution theory which may be quite indifferent or independent of the evolution theory. Modern genetics is not dependent on the evolution theory framework. Modern genetics is, I propose, a strictly objectifying theory which make no use of concepts inherently related to our pre-understanding of what social life or cultural life is.

But would you then say that modern genetic theory has an inherent interest in control, e.g. being able to control certain genetic formations?

No. I think that we must not confuse a psychological meaning of interest with its epistemological meaning. I don't want to maintain that any part of natural science has been developed in the researcher's subjective interest of making technical use of the final output or scientific informations. Well, we have some parts of natural science, e.g. agricultural science at the time of Liebig, which indicate a type of theory formation induced from outside practical interests; but this is not the usual way of theoretical development. I only want to maintain that the very logical and meta-theoretical structure of theories and informations predetermines their possible application. I take this concept of Erkenntnis Interesse in order to explain why you can use, for instance, nomological knowledge only in the way of technical application, whereas you can make use of, let's say historical knowledge, only in the way of affecting the self-understanding of acting and interacting and speaking people. But this type of connection between the formal structure of knowledge and the structure of possible contexts of use, this connection is an indicator of the practical impact of any human knowledge. My attempt to explain this in reference to the relationship between cognition and interest (Erkenntnis Interesse) is, of course, an attempt to show that human knowledge is not something which is developed in an area completely disentangled, or disconnected from life-practice. That means that I doubt that there can be a realm of pure theory, although I want to stress that of course there are structural differences between realms of action and experience, on the one hand, and realms of discourse (and theoretical discourse) where your main task is to check truth claims and not to implement new aims of praxis and action.

If you say that we must not confuse the psychological and external meaning attached to science with the epistemology used in the empirical-analytic sciences, what implication does this have for the possibility of a new humane science that Marcuse talks about?

There are two versions of this Marcusean idea of a new science. The first, and stronger version, is that there might be a possibility to develop a type of science which is generically different from what we have now; so that due to its very structure this new science could not be applied in the exploitation of nature. This idea is a very romantic idea. I don't want to be impolite to Marcuse, but I'm convinced that this idea has no real base. The other version is that there might be a change in the relationship between the scientific system and its environment, moreover, its political environment. A change, so that in the future the developments in the science system might be stronger and stronger influenced, and after all guided by political aims and by a discursively formed, politically reasonable will.

But in your essay on the "scientization of politics" you say that "responsible scientists, disregarding their professional or official roles, cross the boundaries of their inner scientific world and address themselves directly to public opinion when they want either to avert practical consequences … or to criticize specific research investments in terms of their social effects." What do you mean by this "inner scientific world" and is this only applicable to contemporary scientific activity?

I don't think that we can go back behind a given level of the division of labour. So, I don't think that we can just demand that scientists should de-differentiate their several roles which they have anyway—that is, as a scientist, as a citizen, as a family member and so on. This, I think, would not make much sense to me. But there can be political and organizational steps, or pushes in the direction of raising the political consciousness of scientists so that they can first at their working place, try to get influence, efficient influence on the direction and course of their investigations; that means that on the level of co-determination, self-determination and self-administration of scientific institutes, universities, etc., there can be a political organization of the decision-making processes within the scientific community which might have some impact on the directions and overall priorities of research development.

Do you see the possibility of a new form of society which overcomes the distinction between pure scientific theory and everyday life? For instance, what do you think of the attempts made in China to integrate scientific work directly into the work place itself?

I suppose these attempts are meaningful for a more humane application of science and a more stimulating input into science from practical life. But I don't think that a serious progress in theory formation can be gained or made more rapid by these types of de-differentiations. I think that these attempts produce much more closer connections and interactions between science and different areas of political and professional practice, but they wouldn't abolish scientific theoretical work.

But would these attempts substantially alter pure theoretical problems?

It is difficult to answer these questions in general. These attempts are in any case relevant for sensitizing the scientist, making them aware of the political content of their work, especially in those fields, e.g. physics, which up until now seem to be quite distant from social practices. On the other hand, we have in recent years seen some attempts of action research in the social sciences, for instance, in educational research or in industrial sociology which are designed to continue immediately research and political action; it is sometimes meaningful but I don't think that these attempts have an impact on the development of social theory so that the whole course of theory formation would be changed. I don't believe that. I don't want to exclude it from the very beginning, but I am sceptical in the long run.

Moving to your other basic concept of "communicative action"; one writer has queried the inherent interest in mutual understanding in a "cultural-science" such as law which is based on a large amount of empirical-analytic theory and is also used as a means of technical control. Do you think that this is a legitimate critique of the relationship between "communicative action" and the human sciences, or a basic misunderstanding of your work?

I would say that the praktische Interesse or epistemological interest of improving mutual understanding and preserving intersubjectivity of understanding, that this interest is related to the hermeneutic sciences, strictly speaking, I am thinking of literary criticism, of the work of historians, the history of literature and so on. For these sciences, which we can call hermeneutic sciences, I would maintain that the only context of application which you could imagine is that of influencing, of changing and maintaining a self-understanding of a relevant group which is mainly determined by prevailing traditions. So that the group and ego identity of speaking and acting subjects and groups of those subjects cannot be maintained except if you grant some basic consensus about general interpretations of their world and their surroundings. This is already the case before you enter any science. But there is some type of science, which, on the level of discourse, articulates and controls this type of self-understanding; so you can say that these hermeneutic sciences are designed for a scientifically controlled continuation or revision of dominant traditions. The epistemological interest of mutual-understanding is, e.g. involved in interpreting the dominant tradition of legal theories underlying concepts of justice. On the other hand, if you take criminal sociology, that is, an empirical theory about the causes of juvenile delinquency, then you have a type of social theory which is different from the interpretative activity of the hermeneutic sciences. In the social sciences we have a peculiar combination of hermeneutic and empirical-analytic methods and I have tried to explain this in terms of the nature of social systems which are characterised by systematically distorted communication. These types of social systems are in a way nature, pseudo-nature. In these systems interactions are determined by an institutional setting which is not freely accessible to the consciousness of the actors; they are acting under the violence of intentions which are not immediately their own. These are the latent intentions of social systems acting, so to say, behind the back of the individual actors: and because of this nature or pseudo-nature of social systems characterized by violence and domination, we are bound to develop theoretical frameworks which are designed to grasp both aspects—the subjective aspect of, let me say, the cultural components and the intentionality of social systems on the one hand, and also the quasi-natural aspect of social systems which are "unseen", which are "withdrawn" from what is immediately accessible to the consciousness of the actors. One can of course study the historical background of juvenile delinquency, but as soon as you try to get a theory of the social determinants of juvenile delinquency, you are leaving the field of the strictly interpretative sciences. Then you cannot rely solely on the documents of delinquency or the contents of the consciousness of young people who are on trial. You can of course, attempt to develop a strictly behavioural theory in order to explain the whole thing, let me say a learning type of theory, but there is only a limited range of applicability for this type of objectifying behavioural theory. To my opinion, a more promising approach would be the attempt to have a socialization theory using psychoanalytic hypotheses as well as actual social theory hypotheses so that you can have a theory basically depending on the paradigm of systematically distorted communication. Using our example of juvenile delinquency, we could examine the type of communication which is dominant in a family in which the socialization process of the young child—i.e. how it gains its linguistic, cognitive and communicative competences—results in the child being driven into a deviant direction. So that when the child is grown up his or her competences are deficient; given empirical circumstances, the solution of some stressful problems may be crime or mental disease, and sometimes, even much more useful things like political protest.

Moving to another area, one that has been subject to many accusations and interpretations, namely your analysis of Marx. As I understand you, one of the primary motives for developing your Communication Theory of Society was the desire to reformulate historical materialism on a more explicit and comprehensive basis by: (a) developing the symbolic realm of human interaction which Marx only treated briefly or implicitly, and (b) eliminating the objectivistic and scientistic elements in Marx's categorical self-understanding of historical materialism. However, while you indicate that Marx had a basic misconception of historical materialism at the categorical level, you also argue that in his actual material investigations, e.g. Class Struggles in France, Marx always took into account "social practice that encompasses both work and interaction". If this is true, in what sense do you think that your epistemological "reformulation" of historical materialism would enable us to actually practice historical materialism in a "broader" way than what you claim Marx already achieved in his concrete analyses?

This is an important question since I think you are quite right—there are many people who have the suspicion that I favour epistemological work instead of sociological work, and of course, I have not the slightest idea of this kind: I don't have this intention. I think that epistemologicalanalysis can of course provide us with some insights which have an impact on the general course of Marxist empirical analysis; once you get rid of the idea that materialism doesn't mean reducing all social phenomena to production and work processes, in the strict sense, then you can better escape the pitfalls, several pitfalls of dogmatism. Therefore, I think that epistemological analysis might be a help in avoiding the dogmatist self-understanding of Marxist traditions, especially the Soviet type of Marxism. These are considerations on a meta-level, but nevertheless an important palliative or preservation against false argumentation.

(interruption) There are many contemporary Marxists who desire to read the three volumes of Capital on the basis that only in doing an intensive reading of Capital will one be able to distil the so called "science" of capitalism and the "science" of history. Would you regard such a reading of Capital to be indicative of the type of epistemological errors which you wish to avoid?

No, it depends on the context. If you think of those groups who confine their intellectual activity to interpreting the three volumes of Capital, then I at least would have the suspicion that their analysis would fall short of what we have to do now in analysing late capitalism. There is no doubt that we have to read and to reread, and to interpret Marx again and again, but this is not enough—we have to apply what we have learned in Capital. In trying to apply the labour theory of value we have, in my opinion, to realize that we can no longer move sufficiently within the range of just this type of theory. My main argument (which I have developed in Legitimationsprobleme in Spätkapitalismus) is that we have now a new amount of a new type of work which I like to call "reflexive Arbeit", reflective work, which is the work of scientists, engineers, teachers, etc., and is designed in the first instance to improve the productivity of labour. Now we have capital which is invested in the area of science, technology, education, and so on, in order to boost the productivity of labour, resulting in, economically speaking, a rising rate of surplus value and in the cheapening of the constant elements of capital. This capital investment in reflective labour is therefore a counter-tendency against the fall in the rate of profit already remarked about by Marx. But the difference between late capitalism and liberal capitalism, or one relevant difference, is that we now incorporate these activities into the economic processes while at the time of Marx, this type of reflective work could be conceived of as an external input just as some natural resources such as water, etc. were. So that even if you argue on the basis of the premises of the labour theory of value, you can show that with the economic institutionalization and exploitation of science and technology, the whole mode of surplus value production was changed by a new type of capital which I would like to call with Jim O'Connor, the indirect productive type of capital. So my basic thesis is that the mode of surplus value production changed from the base, where we have the production of absolute surplus value, over the base where we have the production of relative surplus value, to a position where we now have the production of relative surplus value by engaging indirect productive type of labour which is not immediately productive in terms of the labour theory of value, but indirectly productive by producing informations and qualifications which in turn improve the productivity of labour and thereby affect the rate of surplus value and the price of the constant elements in capital. This is basically my argument for the inapplicability of the labour theory of value under the conditions of late capitalism; this means that we now have to come to a Marxist analysis of late capitalism which is no longer bound strictly to Marx's premises of the labour theory of value, but which is still Marxist in the sense that the general hypotheses about the working of late capitalism are taken from historical materialism. This introduces my second answer to your question about the impact of epistemological analysis. Since today we have no longer a self-sustaining economic system in relation to the state and the cultural system, since we now have an integrated system in which the state is no longer only an agent of the ruling class, but where things are much more complicated, we are now compelled to leave the level of analysis which is indicated by Marx's critique of political economy, and we have to go back, so to say, to the level of that analysis which Marx called historical materialism—this is the level of class struggle and the interaction of the political system and the economic system and so on. Going back to this level, I think we now have to get to a reformulation, to a clarification of historical materialism for which it is quite important to have a clear idea about the relationship between productive forces and productive relationships. This is an issue which might be clarified by such epistemological investigations.

One of the differences you see between liberal capitalism and late capitalism is that "politics is no longer only a phenomenon of the superstructure … society and the state are no longer in the relationship that Marxian theory had defined as that of base and superstructure." The implication here is that you understand Marx's analysis to be an economic determinist theory of the relationship between base and superstructure. Is this true?

Insofar as he is working as an economist, let's say in Capital, Marx's methodological premise, in my opinion, is that in liberal competitive capitalism the economic system is self-sustaining, at least in the following way that you can explain any process in the total social system finally in terms of economic processes. This is no longer true.

Concerning this new relationship between the state and the economic system, Nikos Poulantzas criticized the idea of viewing the state as merely a crisis manager; would this critique affect in any way Claus Offe's and your analysis of the state in late capitalism?

There are two different aspects which one can analyse in the development of the state apparatus. One is of course its planning capacity and under this viewpoint you can try to show systematic limits in the resources upon which this "crisis manager" is depending. There are two resources, namely, fiscal resources (economic resources) and legitimation. On both sides you can try to show that the demand of the state which is necessary in order to fulfil its crisis management functions, is larger than the supply from the economic or the cultural system respectively. My opinion is that we may well have a legitimation crisis. That means that the cultural system—traditions and agencies of socialization which are relevant for the generation of necessary motives as well as the motives needed to uphold the educational and political systems—that these modes of structures are now no longer in accordance with what is demanded from the political or the economic system. This means that there is an evolution of cultural systems, value systems, moral systems, etc. which is just not sensitive to the imperatives of the economic and political systems; but that this cultural development is following an inherent logic so that there arises certain irreversible discrepancies. For instance, if you take moral systems then you can, without great difficulties show that the only type of moral systems which are still credible today are of a universalistic type. If you have to refer to these universalistic morals, then you get into many difficulties if you want to legitimate a class society or a society which is still based on a pattern of distribution and dominance which is class dependent. This is another example of the importance of epistemological analysis since, on this epistemological level, we can rehabilitate in a way the relative autonomy of culture in relation to economy. But on the other hand, coming back to Poulantzas' critique, we can also analyse the state under the aspect of actions and group activities and phenomena which are identifiable on the level of interactions. This is quite another aspect, and on this level we might analyse the actual class struggles, the fights between different factions of capital and unions, etc. And I don't see that these two aspects are mutually exclusive, but they are both legitimate theoretical levels. So I'm not quite sure that the Poulantzas objection would disturb me very much.

In your critique of Freud's scientistic self-misunderstanding of metapsychology (the energy model), you state that "at the human level we never encounter any needs that are not already interpreted linguistically and symbolically affixed to potential actions". Hence your reinterpretation of biological instincts into "symbols" which are either suppressed (i.e. producing distorted or repressed behaviour) or freed (i.e. non-repressed communicative action which has self-reflectively abolished historical constraint imposed internally and externally). But if biological instinctual repression has now been understood by you to be only intelligible in its "symbolic" form, i.e. through linguistic mediation, what does one make of Mitscherlich's argument that aggression cannot be conceived in monist terms as being either completely endogenous or completely cultural?

This is actually a difficult question, but let me say just why I don't think that it worries me so much. I would like to discuss this on a methodological level. If you want to have an area in which you speak about drives, just drives, then go ahead and show me how you can succeed. Taking the Freudian example, it is evident by now, and it has been evident at any time, that there is no sufficient operationalization of this concept of drive and energy. So that all hypotheses which Freud calls "economic" hypotheses, are in a way in the open air and nobody knows how to relate them to empirical data except in the very situation of the analyst and the patient. And if you enter the latter situation, then of course the frame of reference is quite different; there you cannot look at drives or energy potentials or changes of energy and so on, but what you have is verbal material. This is what I was arguing for, that you have to reformulate the structural model of Freud in terms of a communication model—a model of historical communication. If you do so, then of course you have to pay a price; the price is that you can only speak about the intelligible needs, that means needs which in principle are capable of being represented on the level of verbal communication.

But would you acknowledge that there are influential nonverbal drives?

What I retain from this "energetic" aspect of Freud is, that I think that drives are something real in distorting verbal communication, they have some force in destroying an individual's capacity to act; but I cannot account for this without referring to a communication frame. If we try to examine the disruption of the normal business of communication, one can try to get indicators of the severity, of the intensity of disruption; for instance, we know that some people are just neurotic and others have something else causing their distorted activity. But it is complicated to find reliable indicators. If we have something which is negatively fixable, then you must start from suppositions about a normal state of affairs; only then you can measure the deviant states. This is what Freud did; you establish that there is something destroyed and how severely it is destroyed only by comparing the given behavior with a state of say, ego strength or undistorted communication. If you don't have this positive aspect, it is much more complicated, I mean, than perhaps we have to write poems about it in order to grasp it.

You have been criticized as being a "reformist" who only desires greater "discussion" and "participation" in existing institutions but not their total overhaul. What does "radical reformism" mean in the present context of Western capitalist countries and does this assume that a "crisis-collapse" theory of capitalism is not applicable any more (if it ever was)?

I think that a crisis theory is no longer applicable only in one sense, namely, that we have a theory of economic crisis which allows us to predict that there must be—in a middle range perspective—a breakdown of capitalism. I don't think so. But I think that there might be crises because of other reasons; for instance, a legitimation crisis, and in any case, there might be a breakdown of capitalism because of stringent conditions: there is not so much imagination needed in order to think of shortcomings which indeed leave no way out for capitalism. What is "radical reformism"? An attempt to use the institutions of present day capitalism in order to challenge and to test the basic or kernel institutions of this system. In regard to the German Federal Republic today, this is the strategy of the Jusos (Young Social Democrats) who, on the one hand, at least this is their programme, try to push the Social Democratic Party in the direction of reforms which are no longer compatible with the now-a-days functioning of the economic system. That is that they push their Party in the direction of programmes which would not only mean a much higher proportion of taxes, but also changed priorities that could only be implemented by the control of investment decisions, etc. The reformistic flavour or aspect of this strategy is mainly that the Jusos only need to take literally what we can find in the problematic references of the more liberal or "progressive" established politicians, that is, to take these issues and to pursue them consequently without any concern for the vested interests of economically and politically dominating groups. This is one side of this strategy, and the other side is to get a larger part of the population mobilized on those issues which are strictly political ones. The main field of activities of the Jusos until now has been communal policies, regional planning, transport and health service issues, etc. Of course, much more could be done, and is being done by other groups within the factories, with the workers who are pushed to think about real working conditions, and real gains in terms of self-determination more than in terms of social rewards of the conventional type, e.g. more money and free time.

So you would see the Jusos as the group with the appropriate political and theoretical programme, or would there be other German groups you admire as well?

Theoretical programme is another question. I mean, there are many groups which are dedicated to the analysis of late capitalism, but I don't see any group which has succeeded in developing Marx's theory to a point which could be regarded as in a way sufficient. But practically, of course, there are many ways and you have to take into consideration the empirical reference system. If you ask me how to proceed within present day Western Germany then I would be inclined to say that the strategy which seems to me to be most promising is that of the Jusos. But on the tactical level I think that there are other groups who are more successful within the factories and in organizing wild cat strikes or in pushing the workers' demands forward into political dimensions, or even in trying to influence the established unions which are not in any case just an element of the establishment. Now the unions have been pushed by the wild cat strikes in the summer and the uneven development between wages and prices, to go ahead towards contracts which for the first time include issues of immediate working conditions. This is a new thing which might have an effect on the consciousness of the workers who can now learn to make another category of demands.

But do you see in the next five or ten years any serious dislocations within capitalism which would require a different form of organizational strategy than that of the long term strategy employed by the Jusos?

I don't know. This would require a much more detailed analysis for each country which I am not capable of doing. For instance, one could imagine that Mitterand would be the next president of France, this possibility cannot be excluded, and one has to analyse closely, empirically, what this would mean to have a Popular Front government in France. Something will happen, perhaps only a "social-democratization" of France, maybe, but may be it could be the beginning of an even more radical development. Similar things could happen in Italy; there is at least a middle range perspective that the Communists could take power in the government. But in Germany my hope is more modest, and my hope is that we have a Social Democratic government for the next twenty years—a government which is so well established that after four or eight years it can even govern without the Free Democrats so that the Party leadership is in a much weaker position against the demands of the left wing. Until now, in any case, the Party leadership is happy to say that "you see we have to take consideration of our coalition partner, etc."; but one can imagine a process which changes things and then no doubt we will have a much more severe polarization than we have at present. In this case, things get very difficult to predict. If we have a polarized situation many things can happen; one indicator, at least in present day Western Germany, of at least the possibility of a middle range radicalization is that quite openly in the press it is discussed that there is a need to prevent a situation which is similar to Allende's just before the coup. I don't want to say that I'm very hopeful and so on, but if there are hopes at all, I think they are to be expected in this long term dimension rather than in a more dramatic one.

So essentially you would work through existing social democratic parties and hope to radicalize these.

Not parties. It is actually only the case in Germany that we don't have another way. But in France and Italy you do have other means. The radicalization of the Social Democratic Party in Germany is the only possible medium that we have so far for large scale success. I mean, there is no indication that the Communists in Germany can gain more than five per cent of the vote, and then I would ask—what would this mean? In Germany we have a special situation because of the two Germanies and this is another aspect about which I can only speculate. If we succeed in "de-hostilizing" the other part of Germany, then there will smoothly appear very new possibilities of coalitions. Both left wings can perhaps some day form a kind of cooperation—a "hidden" coalition among intellectuals of both parts is already coming about.

When you say left wing, do you mean the ruling party in the D.D.R. with its form of communism?

No, I mean the "left" opposition within the D.D.R. could in a way cooperate with left opposition groups in the Federal Republic and this would create a unique situation.

But wouldn't this be a very long term proposition given the very limited possibility of seeing any left opposition within the D.D.R. being free to organize politically?

You see, Sakharov is already at the phone of our most popular television station; there are tendencies … I'm only speculating on the possibilities. In Russia things are different of course, the samizdat people are by our standards right wing or so, nevertheless their function in Russia is not different from a left wing opposition.

How would you see your own role as a radical in advanced capitalist society; do you think a theorist should concentrate on theory?

Under the general viewpoint I take this to be a serious opportunity for intellectuals and scientists to try to join community groups, radical professional groups (or to create them), or even to go into the factories to try to get into contact with active labour groups there. This is a possibility. The other aspect is, who can, and who should make this contribution; this question is very much biographically touched and tinged. Since we don't have a situation which pinpoints one possibility as the most promising or real one, e.g. we don't have a situation of a counter-push facing the whole left as Chile had before the fall of Allende, therefore we are left with a wide range of options. I myself have taken the option to work within a research institute and this is then an option for a division of labour which forbids an engagement which takes more than a small part of one's working time. Of course, it depends then on contingent circumstances, how much you nevertheless feel inclined to take a stand on certain issues and to join longer ranging things. I have left the university (Frankfurt) and this means that I can no longer continue my activities on Hochschul Politik which I have presumed so far; it wouldn't be credible if I tried to continue this. But there are other issues; for the last two years I was very much detached from almost anything, I must admit, now I see that I will get involved into curriculum issues for high schools. Then I'm involved in matters of science policy—first in the formal setting which means in a council attached to the science ministry, and in a more informal setting I'm occasionally joining a group of Jusos people who are periodically meeting with the science minister. The interest in high school curriculae serves the function to defend a pretty radical first push in setting up new curriculae. I think that these material questions of what the children will learn are relevant if the hypothesis is correct that the educational system will be the promising locus of creating legitimation and motivational problems in this capitalist system. Regarding science policy, the immediate thing is to politicize the whole area of science policy with the aim to disconnect the present policy making in this area from a very well established and channelized influence coming, not from industry in general, but from the technically high developed industries such as electronics. So this might be possible within the present setting of the Social Democratic Party, but of course it depends on very contingent developments. Another, and even more relevant possibility would be to engage in the long term programme of the Social Democratic Party which projects middle range policies which might well be incompatible with capitalist institutions. This might be at least a base on which the inner Party opposition could be effectively organized during the next five or ten years. I know these are very undramatic and very reformist, perhaps even ineffective attempts, but for alternatives I think I am either a little bit old or I have well taken priorities.

Concerning these priorities, how would you see your present investment of energy into your research projects?

I see our research projects as an input into a social science which should be capable of a critical analysis of late capitalism with practical consequences. It's trivial, but this is a standing demand upon any Marxist that you must have a theoretical approach which is just. I don't see, at least in the Federal Republic, any other place or group where endeavours are made in the same direction which are more promising than ours.

Would you still call yourself a Marxist?

Oh yes. I protested some months ago in Der Spiegel where this new epilogue to Knowledge and Human Interests was taken as an excuse for telling the people that I'm far out of any Marxist field; I wrote to them saying that I don't see why I should not be regarded as a Marxist. I think that in Germany it is very important to have people, or to get the whole scene accustomed to Marxists, even if, as Brecht would say, they are part of the establishment. This is only one single aspect of "radical reformism"; step by step people must get used to the view that the Marxist analysis is a serious one and that Marxists are not only "wild and coloured beasts" out there in the D.D.R. or in Russia or China. In France we have this acceptance of Marxists for a long period, at least they are part of a very different climate—you have for instance a very strong Communist Party at the back of the Marxist intellectual scene. I think this change of attitude to Marxists in Germany is one, perhaps not a necessary, but a useful condition for changing the base of the only party we have if we want to change a society like ours. On the other hand, I must say that to think of revolution raises a lot of questions. One question is whether there can be any type of revolutionary, i.e. rapid and violent classical change, of a system which is so complex as ours is, without a breakdown which is self-defeating in any case—that is a breakdown of basic functions of the system beginning with fuel and ending in water, etc. Of course this view has motivational aspects and perhaps you cannot mobilize energies without binding them to revolutionary pictures; but then we are at the place where Sorel was.

But we really don't know what kind of disintegration will take place?

That is correct. One can of course speak of long term enduring revolutionary processes transforming individuals in a way in which there is no difference left between a radical reformist position and the so called revolutionary one. These are converging conceptions.

Martin Jay (review date 9 November 1986)

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SOURCE: "Standing Up to Paris and Bitburg," in The New York Times Book Review, November 9, 1986, p. 26.

[In the following review, Jay suggests that Autonomy and Solidarity "provides a marvelous point of entry" into Habermas's thought.]

One of the major ironies of contemporary thought is surely the fact that a champion of enlightened rationality is now more likely to speak German than French. No one represents this reversal of roles more clearly than the Frankfurt philosopher and sociologist Jürgen Habermas. Vigorously defending what he calls the "uncompleted project of modernity" as an emancipatory learning process, he has come squarely into conflict with French poststructuralists such as Jacques Derrida and Jean-François Lyotard.

Mr. Habermas's targets, to be sure, have also been domestic, as evidenced by his courageous intervention in the German debate following President Reagan's visit to Bitburg cemetery over the "normalization" of the Nazi past by certain German historians. But in the main, he has taken aim recently at the postmodernist, poststructuralist onslaught from Paris, whose repercussions have been felt in the British-American world as well.

Mr. Habermas's nuanced and complicated attempt to vindicate the legacy of the Enlightenment, in which he includes Marxism in certain of its forms, has been carried out in a series of ambitiously conceived studies. Beginning in 1962 with a widely discussed treatise on the transformation of the realm of public discourse, he has produced major works on radical theory and political practice, the competing interests underlying human cognition, crimes in the legitimacy of the modern state, social evolution and communicative social action.

At a time when theorizing on a grand scale is increasingly out of favor, Mr. Habermas has spun out a highly abstract model of social development that bears comparison with those of such 19th-century predecessors as Hegel and Marx. To his admirers, Mr. Habermas has accomplished a much-needed reconstruction of historical materialism by incorporating insights ranging from ordinary language philosophy and hermeneutics to developmental psychology and sociological systems theory. To his detractors, the result has been an amalgam of ill-fitting elements that merits comparison more with the work of Rube Goldberg than with that of Marx.

Happily, Mr. Habermas himself has been eager to help in the task of elucidating his work by responding to his critics. In so doing, he has exemplified his commitment to the communicative, rational discourse he identifies as the Enlightenment's most potent legacy. He has also given a stream of interviews on a wide range of subjects. The most important of these, conducted between 1977 and 1984 in Israel, Holland, Italy, Germany and England, have now been collected [in Autonomy and Solidarity] under the auspices of the English journal New Left Review, and trenchantly introduced by Peter Dews, an editor for the journal.

The interviews supplement and 'clarify' Mr. Habermas's more formal writings in several ways. Probing his intellectual roots, the interviewers shed liht on his relationship with the older members of the Frankfurt School—Max Horkheimer, Theodor W. Adorno and Herbert Marcuse, whose Critical Theory he has substantially revised. Insistent on exploring his political agenda, they elicit hitherto unavailable information about Mr. Habermas's membership in the Hitler Youth, his political re-education during the American occupation, his initial allegiance to and then temporary estrangement from the German New Left, and his re-entry into political life during the so-called German Autumn of 1977, when there were signs of a new authoritarianism in response to terrorism.

Soliciting his views on a series of contemporary topics, from the Green Party and Eurocommunism to neoconservatism and the women's movement, they allow him to demonstrate the applicability of his grand theory to the issues of the day. And along the way, they help to dispel versions of his position disseminated by critics too impatient to struggle with his forbiddingly dense and lengthy oeuvre.

The Habermas who emerges from these pages is a genuinely attractive figure, flexible, tough-minded, self-critical and deeply committed to the project of human emancipation. That such a grandiose goal might still seem even remotely worth fighting for, despite all the voices now cynically raised against it, is due in no small measure to Mr. Habermas's work and example.

Repudiating the spirit of Bitburg, which counsels compromise in the remembrance of evil, he has been no less adamant in rejecting counsels of resignation in the present, no matter what the latest intellectual fashions from Paris. However much one may contest various aspects of his work, it is chilling to imagine the current theoretical and political landscape without Mr. Habermas's towering figure. Autonomy and Solidarity provides a marvelous point of entry into the thought of the outstanding German philosophe of our day.

Onora O'Neill (review date 22 November 1990)

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SOURCE: "The New Restoration," in London Review of Books, Vol. 12, No. 22, November 22, 1990, p. 13.

[In the review below, O'Neill examines various themes of The New Conservatism in terms of Habermas's engagement with contemporary cultural and political debates, concluding that his work proves that "philosophical writing may be engagé without being ephemeral."]

Should philosophers be politically committed, engagés in the manner of Socrates or of Sartre? Or should they adopt an aloof and distanced posture, like Plato after his early political disappointments, who views concern with this-worldly affairs as (at best) a conscientious return from the heights to 'the cave'? Jürgen Habermas and John Rawls are surely the two most distinguished political philosophers of our day, and their work exhibits many parallels: but on this deeply political matter they are worlds apart.

John Rawls's writing is scrupulously, evenly distant from political and cultural controversy. Although he is quite explicit about the historical and cultural context of his own theory of justice, which he sees as specifically tied to and designed for a modern world that lacks consensus on ultimate values, and although his theory has definite practical import, he does not engage with current political and cultural debates. His writings focus relentlessly on the fundamental task of vindicating and articulating a complex account of justice. The enormous public influence that these writings have had, at least within the US, is not because Rawls's own writing reaches a wide audience, but because Rawlsian positions and arguments have been appropriated and developed in the debates of lawyers, policy-makers and other professionals. In these debates Rawls is invoked by many who think that Utilitarians don't care enough about rights or that neo-conservatives care too much about property rights—hence too little about welfare or the poor.

Jürgen Habermas's relations to his public—or rather publics—are quite different. His intellectual reputation, like Rawls's rests centrally on a corpus of philosophical and theoretical work, most of it long translated, if not yet widely appreciated, in the English-speaking world. However, Habermas also often speaks directly to audiences who don't follow his basic work in philosophy or social theory. He practises the communicational ethics that he defends theoretically by contributing pieces to a range of contemporary cultural and political debates. From time to time Suhrkamp publish selections of these shorter writings; and the pieces in The New Conservatism are mostly translations from writings published in Volumes V and VI of the Suhrkamp collections. Some pieces have been translated before, but none is easily available in English. Where the translations are new or have been revised, an attempt has been made to retain not only Habermas's paragraphing and metaphors but his sentence structure and punctuation. Unsurprisingly one result is wilfully inelegant, if serviceable English.

The thematic unity of the volume is greater than its mixed provenance suggests. Nearly all of these writings reflect on political and cultural currents of the Eighties, and in many Habermas tries both to make intelligible and to criticise the neo-conservatism which dominated the decade in the German as in the English-speakin world. Habermas's central line of thought diagnoses the neo-conservatisms of the last decade as a selective repudiation of the secular and universal ideals of the Enlightenment: the new conservatives combine 'an affirmative stance towards social modernity and the devaluation of cultural modernity'. They endorse processes of modernisation in the organisation of economy, polity and administration, yet repudiate them in the sphere of culture, where they reject democratic and secular ideals and seek a reinstatement of tradition. In British terms, this amounts to relishing the Big Bang while wanting to restore Victorian values: 'a disenchanted modernity has to be satisfied by a process of re-enchantment.'

Yearnings for re-enchantment demand that 'the legacy of tradition … be preserved in as static a form as possible.' Where preservation and stasis are not enough to keep cultural modernisation at bay, a bit of judicious restoration, or even nostalgic invention, of traditions may be called for. Accordingly, most neo-conservatives hark back to and even try to 'improve' on religious and other traditions. Others of them, who don't find cultural restoration a plausible option, are led from a distaste for the modernisation of culture into a restless array of eclectic, aestheticised Post-Modernisms. Habermas dubs anti-traditionalists who are also cultural anti-modernists 'Young Conservatives', and his translator has kept the term with an insouciance which may amuse British readers, but which is not after all so implausible: yuppie conservatism, too, endorses the economic and administrative ideals of the Enlightenment, but substitutes a variegated consumerism for its moral and cultural ideals. Traditionalists and Post-Modernists may then join a common neo-conservative cause on the basis of a shared hostility to the legacy and ideals of the Enlightenment, combined with a shared acceptance of its economic, administrative and political implications.

The search for re-enchantment has taken varied forms, and while Habermas's analyses are by no means confined to the German case, many of the pieces in this volume trace the Sonderweg of German neo-conservatism in the post-war period, and in particular in the late Seventies and the Eighties. The conservative project of affirming and reviving tradition became a more controversial and bitter affair in a culture whose traditions had not only included Wilhelmine values but had led to Auschwitz. Faced with flawed traditions, cultural neo-conservatives may be tempted to help their project along by denying past realities or minimising past horrors.

A resolute refusal to forget those horrors had become a point of honour to the generation of Germans who define themselves as 68-ers, many of whom look to Habermas as their spokesman. Nonetheless, some German historians writing in the mid-Eighties manifested their conservative cultural sympathies by a willingness to revise previous accounts of Nazi war crimes. The revisionists took an apologetic and normalising approach to the Nazi period, blaming the initial descent into what they chauvinistically termed 'Asian' barbarities on the provocations of earlier Bolshevik strategies, and by implication condoning Nazi atrocities as an explicable response to other people's behaviour. Habermas's response in the last pieces included in this volume is not to defend Bolshevik barbarities, but to insist—with a passionate sobriety—that Germans should not gloss over those of their own past.

Given the furore caused in Britain earlier this year by Nicholas Ridley's speculations on the German character, it is worth quoting Habermas's position at some length: 'After Auschwitz our national self-consciousness can be derived only from the better traditions of our history, a history that is not unexamined but appropriated critically. The context of our national life, which once permitted incomparable injury to the substance of human solidarity, can be continued and further developed only in the light of a gaze educated by the moral catastrophe, a gaze that is, in a word, suspicious. Otherwise we cannot respect ourselves and cannot expect [?respect] from others.' In Habermas's account, Ridley's mistake would not lie in the concern he showed about the German past, but in his assumption that what is awry is 'the German character', rather than the neo-conservative, tendency to endorse specific elements of that past. Ironically, the very neo-conservatism that mars the writing of those German historians who took an accommodating view of the Nazi past also lurks in Ridley's position. Ridley was all for economic development, provided it was 'not in my backyard'. This nimby politics, too, accepts universal rules and market imperatives—the economic, political and administrative project of modernity—but rejects cultural modernisation in favour of enclaves of tradition and privilege, which are said to be demanded by fixities of character and tradition.

The 'Historians' Debate' in which these issues were fought out provides the context of several pieces in this book. Other manifestations of neo-conservative thought are dealt with separately. Habermas dissects architectural disputes, in which traditionalists and Post-Modernists have combined to mount a neo-conservative attack on Modernism. He takes a look at religious revivalism in the US. He analyses the sources of the renewed flowering of hostility to intellectuals in Germany. (British and American corroborations might be added.) He offers a guide to the controversies surrounding the relationship between Heidegger's Nazism and his philosophy. He probes the Eighties revival of interest in Carl Schmitt's realist jurisprudence where constitutionalism is endorsed at the expense of democracy.

These case-studies may persuade many readers that Habermas is able to provide a penetrating diagnosis of the structure of neo-conservatism. However, some will still wonder what he thinks is so wrong with neo-conservatism. Isn't the attempt to secure economic growth, prosperity and (some) human rights, while also hanging onto the particularities of culture and tradition very understandable? Isn't the fear that processes of modernisation end up imposing uniformities—a fear evident in current discussions of moves towards European unity—entirely reasonable? And if we think it is, wouldn't it make sense to espouse neo-conservatism?

The lectures and essays in The New Conservatism offer only parts of answers to these questions. The most convincing reason Habermas offers for rejecting neo-conservatism is that it is internally incoherent. The spread of universal principles of market, politics and administration is itself a cause of the destruction of traditional forms of life and culture: hence a politics that demands economic and political modernisation cannot also embrace cultural conservatism. In British terms, the party of the market cannot also be the party of the traditional family. Habermas points out many cases in which this stark choice is obscured and evaded by a rhetoric of resentment that identifies other villains and accuses them of causing cultural and moral disorder. He points out some of the popular scapegoats, such as left-wing intellectuals and educators; the list can be richly extended by drawing on the demonology of the neo-conservative decade in the English-speaking world, which includes feminists, loony lefties, working mothers, welfare cheats and a large number of other citizens. Meanwhile the real dynamic of modernisation proceeds unchecked, administrative and market forces penetrate more and more spheres of life, and cultural traditions crumble.

If the two elements of neo-conservatism cannot be combined, there will be hard choices, and on this these short writings leave much open. We could imagine a completed and consistent modernisation across all spheres of life; various self-limiting forms of modernisation which deliberately leave some domains to the contingencies of life, and which may be compatible with elements of traditionalism; and also (although this is harder) a retrenchment of modernisation. (Some Greens may offer an account of what this would entail.) Accounts of alternatives to neo-conservatism can, however, be found in Habermas's more systematic writings.

This volume mainly offers English-speaking readers a diagnosis rather than a remedy, but, in the UK at least, the symptoms it diagnoses are very recognisable: the neo-conservative decade is still alive and unhealthy in these parts, if not only in these parts. In the wake of last year's transformations, demands for economic and political modernisation and for cultural and national restoration jostle throughout the continent of Europe. Habermas's discussion of German predicaments in the Eighties speak to European dilemmas of the Nineties. Writings that began as occasional pieces dealing with the issues of the moment have turned out—in ways that Habermas would regret—to have a lasting relevance, and incidentally to show that philosophical writing may be engagé without being ephemeral.

Douglas Kellner (review date March 1992)

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SOURCE: A review of Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action and The New Conservatism, in Contemporary Sociology, Vol. 21, No. 2, March, 1992, pp. 278-79.

[In the following review, Kellner outlines the main concerns of Habermas's thought in Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action and The New Conservatism.]

Jürgen Habermas's New Conservatism and Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action are collections of his recent essays on his major political and theoretical concerns of the 1980s. The New Conservatism assembles articles which provide critiques of recent forms of conservative thought, while the articles in Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action present his latest positions in philosophy, the social sciences, and ethics. Together, these collections provide an excellent survey of Habermas's intellectual and political concerns of the last decade.

On the whole, Habermas is a deft practitioner of the art of political polemics. His essays are clearly written, accessible to a broad public, and possess a sharp critical edge that requires reflection about a wide range of contemporary political and theoretical issues. Most of the articles published in The New Conservatism were first published in Germany's leading cultural and political journals, and one—on the crisis of the welfare state and exhaustion of utopian energies—was even first delivered as a lecture to the Spanish parliament in 1984. Habermas is thus very much a public intellectual who involves himself in the key social and political debates of the day. This stance is grounded in the tradition of the Frankfurt school, which attempted to merge theory and politics, and is also inspired by the Marxian tradition of ideology critique.

In The New Conservatism, Habermas polemicizes against rightist thought in the Weimar Republic and Third Reich, as well as against contemporary conservatism. His sharpest attacks are directed against the thought of German philosopher Martin Heidegger, political theorist Carl Schmitt, and the contemporary renewals of a rightist conservatism which covertly apologizes for National Socialism in the so-called historians' debate. Several essays contain Habermas's answer to recent historians like Michael Sturmer, who believe that history should provide that "higher source of meaning, which, after [the decline of] religion, only the nation and patriotism were able to provide." Habermas also polemicizes against recent German histories of the Third Reich which downplay the crimes of the German army and the horrors of the holocaust. Habermas follows Adorno and the Frankfurt school in stressing the need continually to work through and reappropriate the past critically without forgetting its horrors or rationalizing away its crimes.

Most of the essays in The New Conservatism deal with recent and contemporary German history, and in these essays Habermas appears as the conscience of the critical liberal and Social Democratic Left. He also appears in both collections as a resolute defender of Enlightenment reason against its critics. Habermas links attacks on reason with conservatie ideology and is deeply concerned about the renaissance of conservatism, which has played a pernicious role in German history. For instance, in response to the recent revelations that Heidegger was much more actively involved in National Socialism than previously known, Habermas is concerned to demonstrate the kinship between Heidegger's philosophy and the worldview of fascism. For Habermas, it is not just Heidegger's political links with National Socialism that are at stake in the so-called Heidegger controversy, but his very philosophy, which, like fascism, attacks reason, democracy, and modernity itself.

Likewise, Habermas criticizes Carl Schmitt's concept of the political as "the collectively organized self-assertion of a 'politically existing' people against external and internal enemies." He also sees Schmitt's decisionism, his rejection of the norms of critical reason, as dangerous. For Schmitt, sovereignty rests in the "decision power" of "he who decides in the exceptional situation." Such positions obviously legitimate totalitarian domination and state political violence, as was obvious in the use of Schmitt' ideas in the Third Reich. Habermas also critically engages the thought of Daniel Bell and of contemporary German conservatives, such as Arnold Gehlen, detecting inconsistencies in these affirmations of economic modernity and rejections of modern culture and defending cultural modernity against conservative cultural criticism.

Throughout his political and philosophical essays, Habermas is concerned to hold on to the notion of critical rationality and believes that precisely this concept is rejected in the decisionism of Heidegger and Schmitt and the defense of traditional morality of old and new conservatism. Against these positions, Habermas defends a notion of critical rationality rooted in his theories of communicative action and a discourse ethics. This theme stands at the center of Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action. For Habermas, philosophy is a "stand in" (Platzhalter) for "empirical theories with strong universalistic claims." Rejecting the notion that philosophy is an usher (Platzanweiser) and judge, Habermas assigns philosophy the more modest role of mediating among the claims of practical, theoretical, and aesthetic reason and serving as a "place holder" for empirically grounded theories. Habermas's philosophy draws strongly on the social sciences, and his model for a universalistic science with strong empirical foundations is Kohlberg's theory of moral development.

The subtext of many of Habermas's essays is his philosophical reflections on modernity and his defense of critical rationality as a legacy of modernity worth defending. Thus he rejects the postmodern claims of a break or rupture in history, as well as postmodern attacks on rationality and modernity. In general, Habermas interprets the contemporary French postmodern theory inspired by Nietzsche and Heidegger as a form of irrationalism and aestheticized subjectivism that engages in a total rejection of modernity.

This interpretation of postmodern theory, which associates it ultimately with fascism, has produced a heated debate, as has Habermas's labeling Derrida, Foucault, Lyotard, and other French postmodern thinkers as "young conservatives." There is little in these French theorists, however, that is conservative, and this labeling misfires and covers over the linkages between some aspects of postmodern theory and the Frankfurt school tradition in which Habermas is rooted. Habermas does, to be sure, find sympathetic elements in the late Foucault, but he has yet to undertake a systematic interrogation of postmodern theorists to discern both their contributions and their limitations for social theory today. Habermas is more concerned with their attacks on reason and modernity and thus fails to appreciate the ways that some postmodern theorists help conceptualize new trends within the contemporary media, computer, and high-tech society in which we find ourselves.

David Weberman (review date July 1992)

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SOURCE: A review of Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action, in The Philosophical Review, Vol. 101, No. 3, July, 1992, pp. 924-26.

[In the following review, Weberman explains Habermas's contribution to the field of discourse ethics, defining his methodology and its application to ethics.]

[Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action] is a well-translated edition of a book that first appeared in 1983. It has been expanded to include a fifth, more recent essay. The last three essays (two of which are short treatises in themselves) address pivotal issues in ethical theory, such as cognitivism, justification, Kantianism, and moral psychology. They contain the most definitive statement yet of Habermas's original contribution to the field: discourse ethics. It should be noted that analytic moral philosophers will find this book both accessible and relevant.

The first two essays deal more generally with the legitimate aims of philosophy and social science, but they also clarify the methodological assumptions underlying Habermas's ethics. Habermas argues that philosophy should no longer regard itself as an entirely distinct type of aprioristic inquiry serving as the judge and usher (Platzanweiser) for all purported claims to truth. This repudiation of foundationalism and dethronement of philosophy is said to follow from the historicity of our cognitive achievements and the impossibility of ultimate justification (moral and epistemological). Although it has led some to abandon all attempts at justification, Habermas is at great pains not to give up ship. Against Rorty, he argues: "Even a philosophy that has been taught its limits by pragmatism and hermeneutics will not be able to find a resting place in edifying conversation outside the sciences without immediately being drawn back into argumentation, that is, justificatory discourse." Sharing many of Rorty's premises, Habermas nevertheless arrives at different conclusions. He proposes not the abandonment, but the transformation of philosophy.

Habermas's transformed philosophy attempts to steer a middle course between aprioristic foundationalism and relativistic contextualism. Absolutely unwilling to restrict the evaluation of standards of rationality and morality to the bounds of a given culture, he engages in a "rational reconstruction" of the transcendental conditions of the various kinds of competence that we possess. What makes this different from foundationalism is that these transcendental conditions are "weak"—that is, historically contingent and (in part) empirically discoverable and falsifiable. The point is to discover in these conditions criteria for the rational assessment of moral and theoretical questions. This is the method; we can now turn to its deployment in ethics.

The treatment of ethics in this book can be divided into five parts: (1) the defense of ethical cognitivism; (2) the formulation and justification of the principle of universalization; (3) the appeal made to moral psychology; (4) the role of discourse in determining universalizability; and (5) the nonsubstantive, procedural character of moral theory.

(1) Habermas has long opposed ethical skepticism and subjectivism. Here he argues that moral rightness is not a naturalistic property, but a "higher-level" predicate like truth. However, this does not mean that moral judgments are true in the same way as empirical propositions. Moral judgments have their own kind of legitimacy that derives from the reasoning inherent in moral argumentation.

(2) For Habermas, moral argumentation must be based on a Kantian-like principle of universalization. His version of that principle, (U), requires that a valid norm be not only consistently universalizable, but also acceptable to all concerned parties. This stronger stipulation is motivated by the recognition that any one person's test for universalizability will be parochial to that person's preferences.

Habermas's justification of (U) takes the form of a "transcendental-pragmatic" argument that "show(s) that the principle of universalization … is implied by the presuppositions of argumentation in general" such that participation in argumentation accompanied by the disavowal of some such principle constitutes a "performative contradiction." Habermas maintains that implicit in argumentation are procedural rules that require equal opportunities for all participants and that the recognition of such rules "amounts to implicitly acknowledging (U)." Habermas mentions but does not lay to rest two problems with this derivation. First, individuals are free to opt out of argumentation. Second, recognizing certain rules of argumentation would not seem to entail recognizing similar rules for action. Whatever the cogency of the argument, Habermas says that it does not provide an ultimate justification or Kantian-like deduction of (U), but only shows that there are no plausible alternatives to (U). On his account, (U) has only "hypothetical" status, meaning that its universality and interpretation must be empirically corroborated. What remains puzzling are Habermas's reasons for not taking his argument to be as strong as any demonstration of necessary presuppositions and for thinking that it requires empirical confirmation.

(3) Habermas seeks further grounding for (U) in Kohlberg's theory of moral development, in which the possession of universal ethical principles represents the highest stage of moral consciousness. Yet it is hard to see how facts about psychological moral development are supposed to corroborate Habermas's philosophical argument aside from mapping onto or "fit(ting) into the same pattern," especially since Habermas concedes that "the empirical theory presupposes the validity of the normative theory it uses" and that the two stand in a "relationship of mutual dependence." In fact, Habermas's discussion serves principally to illuminate, reinterpret, and undergird Kohlberg's theoretical framework, and not the other way round.

(4) Perhaps the most original feature of Habermas's ethics is his insistence on the role of discourse. His strong formulation of the principle of universalization resembles the impartiality demanded by Rawls's veil of ignorance. However, Habermas argues that the test of universalizability "cannot be handled monologically but require[s] … a process of discursive will formation … a 'real' process of argumentation." In the last, more recent essay, Habermas defends discourse ethics against various criticisms including those leveled by Hegel against Kant (formalism, abstractness).

(5) Despite his departure from Kant's formalism through the inclusion of discourse, Habermas concedes and embraces a different kind of formalism. Discourse ethics is and must remain a procedural theory or a minimalist ethics that cannot provide "substantive guidelines" to questions concerning the good life. In accordance with liberalism and in recognition of the difference between cultures, Habermas leaves substantive moral issues to be decided by the actual process of public discourse.

Frederick J. Antczak (review date November 1992)

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SOURCE: A review of Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action, in The Quarterly Journal of Speech, Vol. 78, No. 4, November, 1992, pp. 510-11.

[In the review below, Antczak summarizes Habermas's theory of communication ethics and various potential objections from the communication scholars' perspective.]

It is a truism now accepted even by some philosophers that modern medicine saved ethics, that moral theory had been mired in the same concerns with ever-diminishing returns until it confronted the new problems that emerged from the advances in medical practice, with consequences that significantly changed both ethics and medicine. It's hardly shocking when powerful new technologies applied in urgent practical questions reinvigorate standing issues and open further productive lines of thought; what's surprising is that nothing similar has happened to that other practice where momentous transformations have been changing the ways we approach issues of the highest public and personal importance—the practice of communication.

Many have seen Jürgen Habermas's theory of communicative action as presaging just such a change. Over more than twenty years he has been articulating a theory of communication that attempts to provide society with a self-understanding that is both critical and emancipatory. Characterizing positivist science as insensitive to its own practice-based meanings, and hermeneutic inquiry as unable to transcend embeddedness in the authority of tradition, Habermas has sought to develop claims that are both sufficiently sensitive to practical meaning and transcendentally grounded. In [Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action], his latest book, he attempts to demonstrate the relevance of communicative action for moral theory.

Habermas articulates a theory of normative justification that advances a sharply Kantian distinction: moral theory is concerned strictly with the Right and is separate from the larger field of questions sometimes treated as part of ethics, all those variously concerning the Good. But Habermas attempts to get beyond Kant's problematic reliance on the individual moral actor in a manner that seems to hold special promise for communication scholars: not by replacing that actor with a Rawlsian "veil" that blinds individuals to their identities and interests, but with a communication procedure that removes the onus from the individual moral actor and places it on communicative action—on participatory argument. This seems a promising move: a uniting of ethics and communication in a relation at least as intimate as that of ethics and medicine.

Habermas bases his theory of normative justification on two principles. The "Principle of Universalization" establishes that "all affected can accept the consequences and the side effects its general observance can be anticipated to have for the satisfaction of everyone's interests (and these consequences are preferred to those of known alternative possibilities for regulation)." The "Principle of Discourse Ethics" mandates that "only those norms can claim to be valid that meet (or could meet) with the approval of all affected in the capacity as participants in a practical discourse" (chapter 3). But for either of these principles to make sense, the participants must see argumentation as fundamentally cooperative, not competitive. The purpose of argument is either to reach a new consensus on questions of right or wrong, or to reaffirm a consensus that has been disrupted.

For this procedure to reach normative justification, participants must be "competent" to partake in argument as he has defined it. Habermas bases his notion of competence on the developmental theories of Koohlberg and Piaget. All people, regardless of culture, pass through the same stages of moral (Kohlberg) and intellectual (Piaget) development. These stages are distinct, hierarchical, irreversible, chronological in nature, and tied to perspectives on the world. A competent participant in argument must have moved into the "postconventional stages" of moral development—a move beyond adherence to culturally structured norms.

Argument in this mode is a reflexive act of communication. Participants in the argument inherently have the competence to partake in three roles during the process: that of the actor expressing his or her experience in the lived world; that of the critic who is able to distance herself form the lived world; providing an "objectivating" viewpoint toward the world; and that of the participant in an interpersonal relationship within the legitimate world of norm-conformative behavior (chapter 4). The interplay of these roles constitutes Habermas's procedure of normative justification, the procedure for testing the validity of claims of "rightness."

Habermas attempts to anticipate and answer his critics; disappointingly, the objections he chooses to engage are matters of philosophy, not necessarily those of scholars of practical communication. One of these concerns the core element of The Principle of Universalization: the requirement that all consent. Habermas attempts to transcend Kant's individual justification by transferring that justification to a process involving all. Yet Habermas disclaims responsibility for advancing any mechanism of ensuring, however abstractly, the participation of all—thereby evading exactly the sorts of practical nexus with the lived world that has been so productive for ethics and medicine. Instead he seems to redefine "all" circularly, as all who conceivably "could" participate in a system which neither he in his theory nor we members of the all in our communicative practices have a responsibility to change, much less perfect. While Habermas has argued that hermeneutic inquiry leads to a limited form of understanding because of its contented embeddedness in the hermeneutic circle, it is not clear from his own arguments that Habermas systematically eliminates the possibility of his own contented embeddedness, his own kind of circularity.

Even when he successfully defends his position against philosophers, Habermas does not attempt to address the kinds of concerns that communication scholars might be more inclined to pursue. Many of us may question the universalist abstractions of this approach, holding that questions of morality—even those drawn so narrowly as to include only questions of normative Right—cannot be separated from the specific contextual arenas in which they occur. Not all of us have accepted the Speech-Act approach to language that allows him to make distinctions like the one between interactive communicative behavior and strategic communicative behavior, a distinction he treats as marvelously clean and unproblematic; many have raised doubts about the "rational" model that envelops the Speech-Act approach. Others among us would have trouble with the assumption that the purpose of argument is to reach or reaffirm consensus. We have in our midst critics of Kohlberg and Piaget, who find controversial the rigidity of developmental stages, their necessary sequence and hierarchy; the controversy may be especially widespread on the possibility and degree to which persons may step outside their own cultures and be able to formulate ethically meaningful critiques of those cultures. Finally, some of the philosophical and theological literature that has stoked the recent revival of communication ethics casts doubt on the assumption that it is either necessary or possible to separate out and privilege questions about the Right from questions about the Good.

But this book is meant primarily to address philosophers; it does not attempt to speak to the concerns of argumentation theorists in the field of communication or of those scholars practically interested in revitalizing the public sphere. Fair enough. There is still much for us to consider and adapt here. But perhaps the most important issue the book poses is whether we can best revitalize ethics—and our own discipline in the bargain—by yearning to be philosophers, or by doing what we do: understanding the meaning and moment of actual communication practices, however culturally embedded, however far—perhaps usefully far—from transcendence.

Peter Dews (review date 13 May 1993)

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SOURCE: "Agreeing What's Right," in London Review of Books, Vol. 15, No. 9, May 13, 1993, pp. 26-7.

[In the review below, Dews detects a change in Habermas's discourse ethics in Faktizität und Geltung, offering a thematic analysis of the philosophical principles addressed in the book.]

On 9 November last year, the anniversary of Kristallnacht, the philosopher Manfred Frank was invited to give the principal address at the memorial service which is held annually in the Paulskirche in Frankfurt. The Paulskirche was the home of the first democratically elected German national assembly, which flourished briefly amidst the revolutions of 1848–9, and, in keeping with this setting, Frank refused to limit himself to a 'retrospective ritual of mourning'. Rather, he used the occasion to consider contemporary events in Germany, in particular the rise of a violently xenophobic right-wing element, whose activities claimed 17 lives in 1992, and the reaction of the established political parties to it. Central to this reaction has been the attempt to limit the right of political asylum enshrined in Article 16 of the Grundgesetz, the German constitution. The provisional agreement reached between the main political parties on 6 December 1992 foresees abolishing this right for applicants arriving from an EC country or from any 'safe third country' deemed to have satisfactory asylum procedures of its own. Since Poland and the Czech Republic fall into this category, these measures will effectively cut off the flow of applicants, the vast majority of whom reach Germany by land.

Frank suggested that in Germany an ethnic rather than political definition of the nation, and an excessive concern with national unity and security, had repeatedly overridden the protection of individual freedoms, and had hindered the development of an appropriate conception of democracy: 'The predominant conception of the essence of democracy is expressed in the demand that politics should bow to pressure from the streets.' To illustrate this he quoted leading protagonists in the current Asyldebatte from both the Right and the Left. He then reached for a shocking comparison: 'Goebbels's populism invented a fitting jingle for what happens when one adapts to the unqualified feelings of the populace: "Our thinking was simple, because the people are simple. Our thinking was primitive, because the people are primitive."' At this point many members of the audience, including the entire Christian Democrat contingent, walked out. Subsequently, all the parties in the Frankfurt Parliament (including the Greens) repudiated the speaker, and the furore occupied the local press for a fortnight afterwards.

These events illustrate the drawback of one possible interpretation of Faktizität und Geltung, Jürgen Habermas's new book on the philosophy of law and the theory of the constitutional state. Under the headline 'Jürgen Habermas makes peace with the constitutional state', a pre-publication review in Der Spiegel sought to present the book as an old leftist's recantation in response to the collapse of Communism, and his belated return to the fold of liberal democracy. But one of the deepest motivations of Habermas's work has been an anxiety that the institutions and practices of the modern democratic state may not be sufficiently firmly anchored in the traditions of German thought and politics. He is convinced that the emancipatory potential of such a state needs to be defended against the powerful current in German philosophy and culture which views democratic ideals as—at best—helpless before, and—at worst—a positive symptom of, the spiritual desolation of modernity. It is not surprising, therefore, that Habermas should have sprung to Frank's defence. In a highly combative article in Die Zeit he denounced the German government's increasing tendency to contemplate altering, or simply bypassing, the constitution, for the sake of Germany's self-assertion as a 'normal' nation-state. This 'D-Mark patriotism' is, in Habermas's view, an attempt to compensate for the 'normative deficits' of a bungled reunification process, with its disastrous social consequences, particularly in the East. He repeated the argument he has made before: instead of what amounted to an administrative incorporation, through provisions contained in the Grundgesetz of the old Bundesrepublik, the reunited Germany should have had the opportunity to conclude a new 'social contract' in the form of a new constitution.

Faktizität und Geltung ('Facility and Validity') provides the philosophical background to these political arguments. The book's title indicates the main direction in which Habermas's thinking has moved in the last decade, since he began to work more intensively on a universalist foundation of morality in the tradition of Kant. Ever since the Sixties, he has contended that human communication is necessarily framed by 'relations of recognition' between language-users, and that such recognition always involves, implicitly at least, commitment to a search for consensus. Naturally, Habermas does not deny that it is always possible for individuals to use language 'strategically', in order to mislead, intimidate or exclude others. But even in this case the expectation that communication will convey verifiable truths and justifiable imperatives is being obliquely exploited. The requirement that speakers provide grounds for their claims and assertions, when these do not initially appear convincing, is ultimately not culturally determined, but is built into the necessary conditions of communication, and provides the basis for a conception of the rightness of moral norms. Such norms are objectively 'right' when they result from a consensus attained through free and equal discussion by all concerned in the light of their respective interests (this is the principle of what has come to be known as 'discourse ethics').

Since he began to formulate this approach in the Seventies, Habermas has often been accused, from various directions, of confusing a principle of political democracy with one of morality. It has been argued, by his colleague Albrecht Wellmer, for example, that moral convictions are anchored in the personality at a level which stops them from being readily altered, even in the light of discussion, whereas collectively agreed norms, though the obligation to obey them may have a 'weak' moral force, can change in the light of shifting opinions or circumstances. In Kantian terms, immoral actions are those which, as rational agents, we cannot even coherently will, let alone fail to agree on. It has also been argued (by feminist critics inspired by Carol Gilligan's In a Different Voice) that moral awareness involves an attentiveness to individuals in their uniqueness, and a concern with the sustaining of personal relationships, which are not susceptible to universal regulation. The conclusion of both these lines of argument is often that Habermas, when sympathetically interpreted, has failed to capture philosophically our core sense of morality, while offering a compelling basis for the regulation of public issues through discussion and collective decision-making.

In Faktizität und Geltung Habermas takes the major step of accepting, at least in a qualified form, the force of this criticism. He begins from the historical consideration that, in modern societies, a morality based on universal principles progressively separates itself from those forms of ethical practice which are tied to specific social roles and expectations. As a result, what has been referred to, since Hegel, as Sittlichkeit degenerates into mere convention. Habermas still insists on this, despite the objections of his critics, communitarian in the United States, Neo-Aristotelian in Germany, that even modern morality ultimately derives what force it has from communally shared convictions. But while Habermas has resisted this move, and continues to defend the formal priority of a universalist point of view, he now also stresses its corresponding weaknesses. First, the complexity of the situations that moral agents need to adjudge generates a 'cognitive indeterminacy' which can make excessive demands on the individual. Second, to be effective this morality must be transformed, from a form of social knowledge, into the driving force of the individual conscience. (An additional difficulty here is that the moral agent is disadvantaged if others don't follow the same norms, as he or she is entitled to expect.) Third, the level of social organisation required if some moral duties are to be fulfilled—for example, aid for disaster-struck regions of the world—often lies far beyond the reach of individual initiative.

On these grounds, Habermas argues, it is clear that a post-conventional morality requires the complementary form of law. Law enables a society to regulate interactions without having to rely directly on the motivations of its members; indeed it vastly increases the scope for strategic action, yet in a manner still ultimately anchored in the principle of a communicative consensus. Law, in other words, generates a higher-level reflexive social facticity, which compensates for the increasing risks posed by those conflicts which arise when traditional life-worlds splinter, and the space for the pursuit of individual interests expands.

Habermas wants to emphasise, however, that law must also satisfy expectations of legitimacy; if it is to fulfil its socially integrative roles, it must be generated through a democratic procedure, in which all concerned can, in principle, take part. From this he draws the conclusion that his general principle of 'discursive grounding' ('Those norms of action are valid, which all who may be concerned could accept in a rational discourse') separates into two distinct principles, a 'principle of morality' (which specifies the aim of consensus, taking into account all relevant interests) and a new 'principle of democracy'. This second principle is contrasted with the first: 'Whereas the moral principle operates at the level of the internal constitution of a particular form of argumentation, the principle of democracy relates to the level of the external (effective) institutionalisation enabling equal participation in the discursive formation of will and opinion, which in its turn takes place within legally guaranteed forms of communication.'

In Habermas's view, this 'principle of democracy' provides a means of resolving the dispute represented paradigmatically by Kant and Rousseau: does the autonomy of the private individual come before the 'public autonomy' of the citizen, or are the subjective freedoms central to liberal political thought themselves bestowed by an act of collective self-definition? Habermas proposes a 'logical genesis' for the system of rights—a more modest version of the dizzying feats of deduction of his German Idealist predecessors—in which the subjective right to the greatest possible freedom of action compatible with equal freedom for others is understood as a condition of participation in a law-governed polity. Since such a polity must also define a status for its associates, offer guarantees of this status, and legitimate its content collectively, a spiralling movement of internalisation generates further basic rights: of recognised membership of the community, of protection and redress, of political expression and participation. Underpinning all these are rights to the preservation of the social, technical and ecological bases of life itself. All such a derivation presupposes, according to Habermas, is 'an intuitive understanding of the discourse principle, and the concept of the form of law'.

Even during his most abstract excursions, Habermas remains aware that a purely normative conception of law is likely to fall prey to idealist illusions, misconceiving an institution essentially torn between facticity and validity. He therefore seeks to bring into his picture the sceptical results of that 'sociological disenchantment' which sees law as a self-contained system, interacting with other social systems, or simply as an implement of unequally shared power. Habermas's social theory as a whole is based on a fundamental distinction between a 'life-world', organised primarily through tacit consensus, and the systems of state administration and the market economy, which use money and power to co-ordinate actions without the need to gain agreement. In The Theory of Communicative Action, Habermas analysed contemporary developments in terms of a distinction between law as 'institution', ultimately anchored in the moral expectations of the life-world, and law as 'steering medium', or an administrative mechanism intermeshed with those processes of bureaucratisation and monetarisation which 'colonise' the life-world. From such a standpoint the crucial question is how the legislative process can be brought under the democratic control which, according to Habermas, the modern concept of law intrinsically implies. The Theory of Communicative Action bequeathed us the problem of how the life-world can 'steer' such systems, and limit their intrusions, without disrupting their functioning.

To address this problem Habermas has recourse here to the category of the 'public sphere' (Öffentlichkeit). This concept, first developed in The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (1962), provides a sketchmap of Habermas's entire intellectual itinerary, and is the key to his conception of the continuing emancipatory content of democratic ideals. The public sphere consists of both the direct and the mediated discussions of 'critically reasoning' individuals, who thereby form public opinion, and are thus able to exert pressure on the political system, without being formally part of it. Already in the early Sixties, Habermas had appreciated that, under contemporary conditions, only groups and organisations providing internal forums for discussion could hope to withstand the blizzard of advertising, public relations and the mass media, an insight seemingly confirmed by more recent developments, such as the emergence of the 'new social movements'. Accordingly, in this book, Habermas intertwines the concept of the 'public sphere' with that of 'civil society', a more recent term for those spontaneous movements and associations beyond the reach of the state which bring new problems and perspectives to political attention. He emphasises the 'dual politics' characteristic of such movements, which do not seek simply to influence the political system, as traditional interest groups do, but also to hold open new spaces of communication.

In this way Habermas seeks to span the gulf between the 'anarchistic' core of communicative action, which leaves no truth-claim in principle unchallenged, and the remote, inflexible mechanisms of the modern state. Is this conception convincing? He does not conceal the mass of evidence suggesting the extent to which the manipulated, media-saturated public sphere destroys the potential for an effective democratic opinion to form. Statistics such as those indicating that the average length of the sound-bites of presidential candidates on American television has declined from 42.3 seconds in 1968 to 9.8 seconds in 1988, seem to confirm the worst apprehensions of Structural Transformation. One could also argue that Habermas's enthusiasm for the 'post-Marxist' category of 'civil society', already tarnished by the latest developments in Eastern Europe, seriously underplays the continuing role of social class as a factor in determining access to channels of political influence. In Faktizität and Geltung he is obliged to appeal, rather weakly, to the 'normative self-understanding of the mass media', as informing and facilitating public discussion, in order to convince his readers that issues of sufficient common concern will eventually obtain a hearing. Even then, however, he stresses that it is only crises which are capable of mobilising people successfully. Can such sporadic movements really be said to constitute 'communicative practices of self-determination'? And how are the democratic impulses of civil society to be distinguished effectively from that pressure from the streets whose role in German politics, as we have seen, Habermas so fears?

To these political concerns can be added reservations about the philosophical bases of Habermas's conception of a Rechtsgemeinschaft. He believes his theory can help to resolve the problem of the oscillation between the goals of formal equality and of compensatory intervention, which has become explicit in recent legal discussion, and which he illustrates by discussing feminist debates. The problem highlighted by feminist critics is that welfare-state intervention simply assumes what the needs of specific groups are, and makes allowance for these as 'deviations' from a norm which is not itself neutral. The solution, Habermas suggests, cannot be to return to a 'formal' liberalism, which has irretrievably lost its innocence, but rather to move to a 'proceduralist' paradigm, where social groups themselves can bring forward the relevant interpretations of their needs and aspirations. In the light of this move: 'a programme of law proves to be discriminatory when it is insensitive to the freedom-limiting side-effects of actual inequality, and paternalistic when insensitive to the freedom-limiting side-effects of the state-organised compensation for these inequalities.'

There is no critique here of law as such. Yet ten years ago, in The Theory of Communicative Action, Habermas described the increasing intrusion of law into the life-world as 'deworlding', or as isolating and antagonising individuals, and disrupting a social integration essentially grounded in values, norms and processes of understanding. Habermas now renounces this conception of an unavoidable dilemma whereby a simultaneous process of emancipation and colonisation is the result of encroaching 'legalisation' (Verrechtlichung). Yet it's fair to ask whether his earlier insights may not have been suppressed by his current, more positive evaluation of law.

In Kampf um Anerkennung ('Struggle for Recognition'), Axel Honneth, a younger representative of the Frankfurt School tradition, suggests that the recognition of individuals as subjects of universal legal rights is not sufficient if they are to achieve an undistorted sense of selfhood. Individuals also require acknowledgment of their contribution to the general welfare if they are to value as well as respect themselves, and it is only this reciprocally endowed sense of worth which makes forms of social solidarity possible. From such a standpoint, the intrusion of law must have a damaging effect, because what is at stake is not merely the maximisation of freedom, in terms of individual autonomy and political participation, as Habermas's formulation suggests. One can see this from the feminist critiques of state intervention which Habermas himself discusses. What is at issue here is not simply whether such intervention restricts the freedom of women, but rather that it treats women as anomalies, and does not reflect an appropriate, nonandrocentric valuing of their specific contributions to society. What is ultimately required, therefore, is not merely further legal reform, but a change in the values which organise the possibilities of social solidarity.

Habermas suggests at several points in this book that, in contemporary societies, the resources most urgently in need of protection are not economic or administrative, but rather those of a 'social solidarity which is currently disintegrating'. It is doubtful, however, whether the 'project of the realisation of law' alone, whatever content it is imbued with, is sufficient to combat this disintegration. Indeed, Habermas himself has recently made clear that a concern with rights, which enable self-determination, must be balanced by sentiments of solidarity, which enable self-realisation: 'Justice is connected with the equal freedoms of unique and self-determining individuals, whereas solidarity is connected with the well-being of one's fellows, who are bound together in an intersubjectively shared form of life—and thus also with the sustaining of the integrity of this form of life itself.'

Habermas goes on to emphasise, of course, that solidarity cannot be restricted to the internal relations of one social group, closing itself against others, but must be construed in a universalist spirit. In this case, however, a philosophical space appears to be opened up by his own argument for an enquiry into the fundamental structures of the human form of life, as the locus of the 'archaic, binding energies' which drive even this expanded, cosmopolitan solidarity. The need for such an investigation is perhaps suggested by Habermas's blunt declaration, in a recent interview, that 'emancipation—if the word is given an unambiguous interpretation—makes human beings more independent, but not automatically happier.' Against the background of German history, his reluctance to provide even an outline of how the striving for solidarity might be fulfilled is understandable. But this very reluctance risks discouraging and dampening emancipatory impulses. An attempt to explore what is essential to the integrity of human life-forms in general might enable more to be said about the goals which could inspire collective self-determination, without damaging that steadfast, subtle universalism which has been the hallmark of Habermas's massive contribution to contemporary philosophical debate.

William Outhwaite (review date May 1994)

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SOURCE: A review of Autonomy and Solidarity and Postmetaphysical Thinking, in Contemporary Sociology, Vol. 23, No. 3, May, 1994, pp. 456-58.

[Below, Outhwaite detects Habermas's "practical-political concerns" in Autonomy and Solidarity and outlines his philosophical approach in Postmetaphysical Thinking.]

The first edition of Autonomy and Solidarity: Interviews with Jürgen Habermas, published in 1986, rapidly established itself as the fast track into an understanding of Habermas's life and work, as well as an indispensable complement to his own massive oeuvre and the equally massive accretion of secondary literature which surrounds it. This new edition contains five further interviews from the period 1985–90, and Peter Dews has extended his excellent introduction with a new postscript.

As Dews notes, Habermas is now giving more and more interviews. Dews has therefore had to be more selective this time, choosing some of the interviews from Eine Art Schadensabwicklung (1987) and Die nachholende Revolution (1990) which best illustrate Habermas's relation to earlier critical theory, his assessment of contemporary German society and intellectual life, and his work on morality, law, and democratic theory which recently came to a head in Faktizität und Geltung (1992).

Some parts of the interviews serve directly as summaries and close discussions of specific works or bodies of work by Habermas; this is true particularly of the written interview with New Left Review entitled "A Philosophico-Political Profile," of "Dialectics of Rationalization," and of the final essay in the new edition, "Discourse Ethics, Law and Sittlichkeit." But these and the others also range more widely: A particular virtue of the interview format is that it encourages juxtapositions of distinct, yet related, themes of a kind which would look peculiar in a more formal text.

One of the striking aspects of Habermas's work is that despite its massive scholarship—his tendency not just to borrow themes from a very wide variety of disciplines and approaches but to immerse himself thoroughly in their various discourses—a set of persisting practical-political concerns can also be seen to run right through his work. So, for example, his assessment of his relationship to earlier critical theory, something which he seems not to have reflected on explicitly, or at least publicity, in his earlier work, is closely bound up with his judgments of the political culture of the German Federal Republic. These in turn, documented in his "political writings," such as those from which these interviews are mostly taken and which he sees as distinct from his more theoretical work, are intimately linked with his concerns about how to secure a genuinely democratic political culture in contemporary societies—which itself is a kind of red thread running through from his early work on students' political orientations and the "structural change" in the contemporary public sphere, through his critique of technocracy in the 1960s, to his current focus on legal and democratic theory. The interviews bring out these connections in a uniquely vivid way. They also are an arena in which Habermas can be seen to comment on issues of international politics which have been strikingly absent from the rest of his work so far. And as he disarmingly put it at the end of the written NLR interview of 1984, "I should not talk about socialism only in interviews."

Peter Dews rightly contrasts "the steady development of Habermas's project" with the "theoretical gyrations" found in much contemporary French thoúght. Habermas began his scholarly career in the 1950s with an acute sense of the difficulties of contiuing the central themes of neo-Marxism in the postwar period. Having initially conceptualized his project as a modified philosophy of history, Habermas came in the 1970s to seek an alternative foundation in an analysis of the presuppositions of linguistic communication and a resultant theory of communicative action…. This in turn led Habermas to develop and defend, in writings through the 1980s, a "discourse ethics" addressed in the last interview in this collection and, most recently, by a massive attempt to theorize the complex relations between "facticity and validity" in legal and democratic theory.

Postmetaphysical Thinking (Nachmetaphysisches Denken) is well translated and usefully introduced by W. M. Hohengarten. For the English-language version, Habermas has replaced two essays originally published in English and a review essay on the work of the philosopher Dieter Henrich with the paper "Peirce and Communication."

In these essays, Habermas develops and illustrates his conception of a philosophical approach which has abandoned what he variously characterizes as metaphysics, the philosophy of the subject, and the philosophy of consciousness, but avoids the jump into poststructuralist or postmodern skepticism. In a narrow sense, the term "postmetaphysical" means that philosophy gives up the attempt to compete with or transcend the individual sciences, adopting instead a more modest ancillary and collaborative role. This change of orientation goes along with a shift of focus from consciousness to language (in analytical philosophy, structuralism, and even Habermas's own theory) from abstract universalism to an awareness of context and culture and finally to a sense of the rootedness of our cognitive activities in our life practice—in, for example, pragmatist philosophy, cognitive psychology, and the sociology of knowledge.

Attempts to rehabilitate metaphysics, whether in the traditional mode of transcendental philosophy, as in the work of Dieter Henrich, or in more innovative and fashionable variants building on Heidegger's later philosophy, attribute to philosophy a privileged method and domain which it can no longer aspire to without anachronism. In opposition to this love-hate relationship to metaphysics found in some contemporary philosophy, a more genuinely antimetaphysical radical contextualism is represented by Richard Rorty's neopragmatism. But where Rorty claims that we cannot mean by truth anything more than truth "for us," though we can aim to extend the scope of "us" by pursuing intersubjective agreement, Habermas argues that we could not understand the way we criticize and modify our established standards of rationality and justification if we did not take seriously the idea of a possible consensus which would transcend the opposition of us and them.

In social theory, Habermas argues, the current valorization of contradiction and difference derives partly from a still unclarified relation to metaphysics, but even more to a recognition of the complexity, differentiation, and decenteredness of modern societies, in which the state no longer acts as a center for social functions and "everything appears to have become part of the periphery." Yet we cannot sustain our won self-understanding without a corresponding image of our societies and their possible futures; even a decentered society needs as a reference point "the projected unity of an intersubjectively formed common will." Thus Habermas aims "to make plausible a weak yet not defeatist concept of linguistically embodied reason" which preserves from the metaphysical tradition the ideas of the rational understanding of reality and the unconstrained harmony of individual and society in a way which is skeptical and fallibilist enough to fit the reality of the contemporary situation.

The essays in this volume range widely, from the themes summarized above to a dense essay on the theory of meaning which leads into the foundation of Habermas's theory of communicative action and an "excursion" into literary criticism which examines the notion of levels of reality in the work of Italo Calvino. More directly sociological concerns are addressed in the essays on Peirce and "Mead's Theory of Subjectivity," which bring out Habermas's creative incorporation of the pragmatist tradition. The Mead essay concludes with some fascinating conjectures about the interrelations between individuation and socialization, and individualism and social constraint, in contemporary welfare capitalism.

Per Fjelstad (review date November 1994)

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SOURCE: A review of Postmetaphysical Thinking and Philosophical Interventions in the Unfinished Project of Enlightenment, in The Quarterly Journal of Speech, Vol. 80, No. 4, November, 1994, pp. 500-03.

[In the following review of a festschrift dedicated to Habermas and Postmetaphysical Thinking, Fjelstad examines the "communicative implications" of Habermas's notion of "the self-hood of the individual" in the philosopher's book.]

Jürgen Habermas has afforded the self-hood of individuals a remarkably central place in his philosophy of social life. This commitment is not always evident, given Habermas's better known attention to the ideal of universal consensus and to the pragmatics of general social norms. Still, his communicative model equally values claims to truth, rightness, and truthfulness. By claiming truthfulness, communicators assume responsibility for the selves they proclaim to be. Two recent books, one a collection of essays by Habermas, the other a festschrift dedicated to him on his sixtieth birthday, develop the communicative implications of such self-hood in a way not discernible in earlier works by and about the theorist.

On its surface, Philosophical Interventions in the Unfinished Project of the Enlightenment thematizes self-hood, as all honorific works do, by celebrating the person and life of Jürgen Habermas. At issue generically are the implications of his work: its consistency and inconsistencies; its development over time; and its relationship as a whole to the ideas and agendas of other writers. Yet the contributors refrain, as one would expect, from dwelling on the person or the personality of Habermas. They take his work as a starting point from which to develop and question epistemological premises. Habermas's particular accomplishments are present by being absent, assumed and implied in the rationales of these original essays. The Habermas reader will recognize those theoretical traces, underplayed as they are, and see the many things that can be done with such beginnings.

The first essays in Philosophical Interventions trace lines of philosophical heritage. Michael Theunissen shows that the intellectual tradition Plato inherited despised processes of development; philosophy spurned signs and semblances of life. Dieter Henrich finds in the work of Friedrich Jacobi an emerging theory of the acting subject. Charles Taylor distinguishes between acultural and cultural theories of modernity to explain the particular inward-turning of the self in modern western society: reason disciplines the "self" in isolation from body and cosmos; the self engages in a reflexive search for personal identity and inner being. Taylor suggests that recent theories of subjectivity and agency grew out of that cultural tradition.

In the next section of the festschrift, Ernst Tugenhat, Karl-Otto Apel, Albrecht Wellmer and Peter Bürger extend and apply Habermas's theoretical principles. Wellmer, for instance, broadens the requirements for comprehending validity claims beyond the structural conditions Habermas proposed. In addition to knowledge of illocutionary form, Wellmer describes a knowledge of situational and pragmatic substance. He suggests that conditions of acceptability vary according to the content that speakers assert. Similarly, the normative knowledge built into advice is deeply situational; such evaluation is not an "additional validity claim" (emphasis in original). Rather it is a "normative understanding of the situation that the speaker relies on without thematizing it". Wellmer proposes a theory of validity inherently rhetorical.

In the final section of the festschrift, Thomas McCarthy, Martin Jay, Richard Bernstin and Herbert Schnädelbach defend Habermas against, and expose him to, certain postmodern critiques. Jay examines Habermas's criterion of performative consistency, a standard Habermas invokes most obviously when accusing others of using reason to debunk the validity of reason. A performative contradiction exists "when whatever is being claimed is at odds with the presuppositions or implications of the act of claiming it". While Jay professes a lingering fascination with the possibly unresolvable contradictoriness of actual life, he defends Habermas's zeal for performative consistency against challenges by Michel Foucault, Rodolphe Gasché and Paul de Man. Jay upholds Habermas's claim that parole may have a discernible structure and his distinction between literary and philosophical rhetorics. These guidelines could hold communicative agency to the criterion of consistency, even if the individuating constructs of subjectivity and consciousness evaporate as illusory.

These essays form a frame for reading Habermas. They historicize and theorize the problem of human subjectivity, especially as this informs perceptions of action. They review and develop the pragmatic communicative norms that Habermas used to judge validity. They summarize challenges that postmodern theories pose for the Enlightenment project, particularly for Habermas's variant thereof. The essays function as testament to Habermas's influence and to the provocative fertility of his thought. They sketch a philosophy as much concerned with human action and interaction as with the ideals of truth and validity.

The editors of the festschrift selected primarily philosophers to be contributors. One author out of eleven is a historian; one other is an art critic. Given the breadth of Habermas's readership, this concentration of expertise positions the book narrowly. It canonizes Habermas in the philosophical literature, while down playing the cross-disciplinary value of his work. The book also assumes extensive knowledge of Habermas's writings, especially if readers are to appreciate the way the essays frame and extend Habermas's work.

Habermas's own philosophical reflections, first published in 1988 and now in translation, serve a different function and address a different readership. [Postmetaphysical Thinking] studies the "aging of modernity". Modern philosophy, that effort early this century to break with the totalizing tradition of metaphysics, is itself undergoing change. Habermas suggests that philosophy, like recent architecture, might also be returning to the "historical decoration" and "ornamentation" it once so proudly had disclaimed. Insofar as philosophers find themselves on that road, they may need to reask what today still constitutes "postmetaphysical thinking".

Habermas reviews the tradition of metaphysical philosophy since Kant. This tradition grounds subjectivity in a subject's "relation to, and understanding, of itself". Habermas refers to Dieter Henrich, a contributor to the festschrift reviewed above, as a contemporary illustration of the metaphysical orientation. Henrich inquires "how a life that is conscious and originarily [sic] at home with itself can be maintained". Metaphysical thinkers account for the tenability of consciousness, in fact the possibility of moral consciousness and common sense, in a world transformed by the successes of specialized sciences.

Habermas goes on to list three ways that the philosophical illumination of common sense has been affected by the onset of modernity. Philosophy no longer stands as the source or measure of rationality in relation to other existing fields of inquiry. It must restrict its claim of knowledge to theoretical issues rather than pedagogical, moral, or practical ones. It must restrict its judgment of lifeworlds to the general structures that these all share. Thus while philosophy still can pursue metaphysical lines of inquiry, in the sense that these assess the conditions of possibility for consciousness and common sense, these assessments will gain or lose their validity within a modernist field of inquiry that rejects proofs merely intellective.

Habermas affirms Henrich's preference for metaphysical analyses of self-reflexivity over its apparent opposite, naturalism. Applying this metaphysical orientation to the analysis to communication systems requires a shift of attention to the interactive reflexivity of utterances. This paradigm shift resolves the dilemma of the self being able to recognize itself only by objectifying itself. Instead the self belongs to a performative relationship established when "the speaker takes up the second-person perspective of a hearer toward the speaker". Postmetaphysical thought defines itself primarily as procedural, as language-analytical, and as the activity of situating reason in the world.

Habermas reviews the "turn to pragmatics" in modern theories of language and communication. He refers to Karl Bühler's trichotomy between functional modes of linguistic meaning: expression, representation, and appeal. He contends that contemporary theories of meaning focus singularly upon one or another of those functions. Habermas claims that his theory treats the functions in conjunction with one another.

In a special essay added to this English translation, Habermas observes that Charles Sanders Peirce had an early interest in the intersubjectivity implied by exchangable personal pronouns. Instead of following that route, however, Peirce developed a theory of semiotics in which consciousness and purpose were incidental to interpretation. Peirce explained the openness and flexibility of language by subsuming it in the larger evolutionary process of semiotics. Habermas argues that Peirce strayed from his original insight that language was performative. Thus he eliminated those features that make human communication specifically human, features that make individuality and unique utterances desirable accomplishments.

Habermas then takes up his theory that individuality is a developmental complement to sociality. He suggests that the One and the Many have always stood, and should stand, in a philosophically productive relationship to one another. Still the nature of this relationship is neither clear nor obvious. The metaphysical tradition identifies all particulars by subsuming them to universals and thus constrains the modes in which someone can be individual: "No place remains for the ego qua individual person between the ego as something universal and the ego as something particular".

Modern theories of subjectivity allow Habermas to join the particularities of the Many and the generality of the One in an evolving communicative dynamic. Neither the One nor the Many exists outside history. Thus the presumed universality of reason is precarious and at risk. Habermas compares its stability to the "rocking hull" of a ship: "it does not go under the sea of contingencies, even if shuddering in high seas is the only mode in which it 'copes' with these contingencies".

Habermas takes Mead's theory of social formation to define the subjectivity of individuals in and through their relationship to others. Mead pictures individuation "as a linguistically mediated process of socialization and the simultaneous constitution of a life-history that is conscious of itself". This formation of individuality is not just any manifestation of selfhood. Performative interaction demands a specifically "nonconventional ego-identity". The speaker "cannot in actu rid himself of his irreplaceability, cannot take refuge in the anonymity of a third person, but must lay claim to recognition as an individuated being". Being an "I" in a communicative interaction necessarily signifies more than the ability to adopt a role.

The individual takes responsibility in speech for his or her own life history. In fact, an idealization of individuality comes into play related to "the guarantee I consciously give, in light of a considered individual life project, for the continuity of my life history". Constitutive features of that ideal are irreplaceability, autonomy, spontaneity, and responsibility for a life history. This ideal of individuality, obviously unmet in actual communicative experience, belongs implicitly and necessarily to the pragmatic structure of language.

Ulrich Beck's social analysis (Risikogesellschaft, Frankfurt, 1986), finds that contemporary society increasingly requires people to shape themselves in multiple and fragmented dimensions of social life. Following Beck's communicatively derived criterion of individuality, Habermas concludes that such society singularizes, i.e. atomizes, but does not individualize persons or choices.

Habermas's ideal of selfhood should not predestine a culture to be "individualistic" in any way opposite to being "collectivistic". Habermas exposes that dichotomy as false by locating the possibility of individuation in the communicative function of socialization. The speaker develops a conception of a self who can act, an "I", only through communicative performances in which the speaker gleans renderings from others about their perceptions of the speaker's own and individual "me". These renderings, however, that contribute to the reflectively knowable contours of the acting self, are only communicable, and thus realizable, in the language available for normative and descriptive generalizations. Individuation thus is a consequence, not an opposite, of increased abstraction in a culture.

Habermas's theory enriches and orients analyses of communication. It provides a linguistic model for linking everyday communication with theoretically self-reflective discourse. Rather than excluding one another, these forms of communication belong to a gradated map of the same basic activity. On the basis of this model, Habermas's theory offers the prospect of universal pragmatic standards against which critics might evaluate the legitimacy of communicative practices.

Habermas's theory remains underdeveloped, particularly when showing the communicative basis for normative standards. Habermas bases many of his claims about inter-subjectivity on the symmetrical reciprocity of pronouns and on the structurally analyzable pragmatics of speech acts. One is left wondering how fully Habermas's model will be sustained by empirical analyses and supported by other theories of communicative interaction. Until such work is done, however, Habermas's attempt to idealize contexts for subjective expression will remain alluring. His theory should interest us, both because of what it develops and what it leaves for communication scholars to do.

The two books reviewed here propose a mode of reflective discourse that is pragmatically philosophical. The authors neither privilege the word "rhetoric" nor expound on the incomparable uniqueness of situations. Instead they privilege a mode of discourse that abstracts and generalizes, one that posits the possibility of universal communicative norms. Even so, this philosophy calls for an engagement of our subjectivity that is highly personal, irreplaceable and socially formed. The philosophy beckons us to reevaluate the place of persons within the larger project of knowing.

Such thinking about the subject's position in speech imbues all communicative action with implicit accountability. The speaker takes on responsibility, not only to acknowledge relevant social norms and objective facts, but also, in her presentation of self, to be herself. The theories suggested here allow one to explain interest in personal "authenticity" without debunking that interest as decadent or glamorizing it as redemptive.

Dieter Misgeld (review date March 1995)

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SOURCE: A review of Justification and Application, in The Review of Metaphysics, Vol. XLVIII, No. 3, March, 1995, pp. 657-58.

[In the review below, Misgeld describes the themes of Justification and Application.]

In all of his works Habermas pursues the elucidation of the modern age ("modernity") and of the principles and processes constitutive of it. The affirmation of modernity and its critique are integral to the elucidation. [Justification and Application] also pursues these themes. It is a collection of four recently published essays, all dealing with the issue of ethics, and concludes with a long and informative interview. There is also a lengthy, useful introduction by the translator. The translation is adequate, even good. The theme of the essays is the possibility of a "discourse theory of morality." This theory is largely a form of deontological cognitivist metaethics defending a "universalistic concept of morality." The essays fit together thematically and are more lucid than a few earlier writings by Habermas on the same topic.

The first essay introduces a distinction between ethical and moral discourse, singling out the second as the discourse in which universal moral judgments can be justifiably made. Essays 2 and 3 more or less cover the same terrain, developing a critique of contemporary contextualist and other moral theories (including those of Alasdair MacIntyre, Charles Taylor, Bernard Williams, John Rawls, Karl O. Apel). Essay 2 ("Remarks on Discourse Ethics") is the more important of the two It largely reads like a lecture, in which Habermas discusses his well known and controversial theories of validity—claims, rationality, and justification of the moral point of view as a communications—theoretically restated form of Kantian cognitive ethics. He also pays attention to a variety of more specific problems, such as the relation between rights, and duties and the "primacy of the right over the good." Most of all, he draws a firm line between philosophical ethics as a theory of justification, clarifying the moral point of view, on the one hand, and "discourses of application," which determine the appropriateness of a universal norm to a particular situation, on the other.

Moral theory is part of the emancipatory history of modernity, insofar as some of its forms contributed to liberating public consciousness (in some societies) from dependence on specific cultural traditions and forms of life. They help call these traditions and ways of life into question. Discourse ethics attempts to radicalize this critical impulse by arguing that disputed norms can only be shown to be valid if they can command the voluntary assent of all affected by the norm. Thus a public process of criticism and debate is given pride of place in the resolution of moral disputes.

In his final essay, Habermas draws the conclusion that a discourse theory of morality is postmetaphysical. It gives primacy to the right to call conceptions of justice (and sometimes also those of the good) before the "tribunal of justificatory discourse," even if it cannot give an ultimate or unconditional reason for being moral. Modernity is affirmed as the epoch which has made it possible to approach questions of principles and norms as open questions. But it also encourages an argumentational and public process of seeking the correct solution to these questions. According to Habermas, recalling the Kantian tradition helps us to recover this will to rational justification.

Richard A. Posner (review date 6 May 1996)

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SOURCE: "Law's Reason," in The New Republic, Vol. 214, May 6, 1996, pp. 26-30.

[In the following review, Posner details Habermas's central laim in Between Facts and Norms, concluding with two criticisms and two questions.]

Jürgen Habermas, who is professor emeritus of philosophy at Frankfurt University and is widely regarded as Germany's leading philosopher and social thinker, was a month short of his sixteenth birthday when Hitler's Reich collapsed. Shocked to learn of the Nazi atrocities, and free from any complicity in them, Habermas proceeded through the West German university system appalled by its unapologetic continuity with the past. Its philosophy departments, staffed mainly by professors who had served uncomplainingly during the Nazi period, looked up to Heidegger—whom Habermas has sarcastically described as the "felicitously de-Nazified Heidegger"—as the lodestar of German philosophy.

From these early experiences Habermas acquired a lifelong un-German distaste for the idea of German nationhood, for the German philosophical tradition insofar as it nourishes nationalism and political extremism of the right or the left (Habermas is a social democrat but not a socialist or a "Green"), and for totalizing theories of a religious or other metaphysical cast. He refuses to refer to the uniting of the two Germanies as the reunification of Germany, since that would imply a preexisting unity unfortunately sundered. He prefers to describe what happened in 1989 as the liberation of a people, the East Germans, who since 1933 had been denied civil liberties and the other legacies of the Enlightenment. He derides "the longing of many intellectuals for a lost German identity" as "kitsch," and says that "philosophers are not teachers of the nation. They can sometimes—if only rarely—be useful people."

For inspiration Habermas reaches back to Kant, who preceded the concept of a German nation and constructed his moral and political philosophy on universalistic foundations. But Habermas does not believe that Kant can simply be dusted off and put back into service. Kant and the other thinkers of the Enlightenment grounded their philosophy in metaphysical ideas that are unavailable in our predominantly secular, morally heterogeneous, socially complex, relativist and historicist era, in which "normative certainties must be maintained without metasocial guarantees." In place of the idea that each of us can use our God-given reason to construct an avenue of access to ultimate scientific and moral truths, Habermas has borrowed from the American pragmatist philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce and greatly elaborated the idea that truth, whether of a scientific, moral or political character, is most usefully regarded as what a community of rational, disinterested, undominated inquirers would arrive at if given all the time in the world. Communities of inquirers do not have all the time in the world, so the agreements they do arrive at are incomplete (non-unanimous), tentative and revisable: "the decision reached by the majority only represents a caesura in an ongoing discussion." But they are the best that we can hope for; and they are good enough.

Habermas calls this the theory of "communicative action" or "discourse theory," which "grounds the fallibilist assumption that results issuing from proper procedure are more or less reasonable." Being procedural rather than substantive, the theory supports his project of rejecting totalizing visions. Its aim is securing the preconditions for rational inquiry rather than anticipating the end of that inquiry. It is therefore interested in equality of incomes, say, not as a goal that might be derived from utlitarianism or Marxism or some other comprehensive moral or political theory, but only insofar as some measure of equality may be necessary to prevent the rationality of political debate from being distorted by money or may be adopted as the outcome of a political process founded on rational discourse. This approach bears the stamp of John Dewey, like Peirce an advocate of "epistemic" or "deliberative" democracy—the idea that truth, or, more precisely, warranted assertibility, can be modeled as the outcome of a "vote" of a community of free, equal and rational inquirers. The process must be protected, but it would be presumptuous under modern pluralist conditions to prescribe the outcome.

Discourse theory, as the subtitle of [Between Facts and Norms] suggests, is the master concept of this ambitious work of jurisprudence. But almost as important is the German jurisprudential tradition, or rather its limitations. That tradition is organized around the concepts of Rechtsstaat and Sozialstaat (Justice State and Social State). The first is the idea that government must operate exclusively through laws that in their administration by judges and other officials, as well as in their formulation by legislatures, abstract from the unique situations of particular persons or classes. Laws that enforce property rights regardless of consequence and without consideration of competing goals or interests are illustrative, for they are laws out of which every element of equitable discretion has been wrung. (And so plea bargaining is improper, which is still the official position in Germany, as in Europe generally.) Such a rigid conception of the rule of law eventually proved politically unrealistic and was modified in the direction of the Sozialstaat, which seeks to make "material," that is, operational, the merely "formal" rights created by the Rechtsstaat, and thus to narrow the gap between legal and social justice. It does this by creating flexibly administered entitlements—bureaucratically rather than judicially enforced—to public services, such as education.

Missing from both concepts is any reference to democracy; and this is the gap that Habermas believes discourse theory can fill. Formulated by Kant in eighteenth-century Prussia, an absolute monarchy at a time when England was already a constitutional monarchy, the Rechtsstaat is a theory of limited government rather than a theory of popular government, a theory, that is, in which the legitimacy of the law is grounded not in popular consent but solely in "the abstract rule structure of legal statues, the autonomy of the judiciary, as well as the fact that administration is bound by law and has a 'rational' construction." And the Sozialstaat, originating in Bismarck's authoritarian Reich, was paternalistic rather than popular, a device for diffusing social tensions. As Habermas points out, it has bred welfare dependency and other dysfunctions, and it is permanently in tension with the generalizing, abstract, formal, nondiscretionary character of Rechtsstaat norms.

Habermas's main criticism of the German legal tradition is that it failed to grasp the importance of democratic legitimacy. Yet he recognizes that the idea of legitimating law by reference to democracy is paradoxical. He is strongly committed to the core ideas of the Rechtsstaat and the Sozialstaat—that law is supposed to protect the people from the government and the weak people from the strong people. In a democracy, however, the people are the government, so how can the law protect the people from the government? And democracy means majority rule, which is the rule of the stronger, or at least the more numerous; and majorities sometimes like to coerce minorities.

Habermas's attempt to reconcile democracy with law begins with the proposition that law is, on the one hand, a part of social reality and, on the other hand, a part of the normative (moral) order, but that it is not fully one or the other. Among the reasons law is not simply a subset of moral duties is that it binds only the people who happen to be subject to a given legal system. And it employs coercion and thus secures the compliance even of people for whom law, or a particular law, is not morally obligating. It constrains only behavior, and thus "enforces norm-conformative behavior while leaving motives and attitudes open." Indeed, it "complements morality by relieving the individual of the cognitive burdens of forming her own moral judgments." It even creates a space in which people can opt out of certain moral duties—the duty to engage in communicative action, for example. For Habermas is emphatic that "legally granted liberties entitle one to drop out of communicative action" and thus to live the unexamined life or the thoroughly private life. But at the same time he believes that law is not effective unless most people obey it not because they are coerced or bribed to do so, but because they accept the moral authority of the law. Law thus has two sides: "its positivity and its claim to rational acceptance." "Social rights," for example, "signify, from a functionalist viewpoint, the installation of welfare bureaucracies, whereas from a normative viewpoint they grant compensatory claims to a just share of social wealth."

But how is moral authority imparted to law? Habermas believes that all but one of the possible ways are disreputable (such as the tradition of the German Volk) or, since we live in a "post-metaphysical" world, unavailable. Habermas counts among modern "metaphysicians" of the law both John Rawls and Ronald Dworkin. Neither considers himself to hold a metaphysical conception of justice or law, but both their conceptions have substantive foundations and entailments, and, according to Habermas, "in a pluralistic society, the theory of justice can expect to be accepted by citizens only if it limits itself to a conception that is postmetaphysical in the strict sense, that is, only if it avoids taking sides in the contest of competing forms of life and worldviews." At the other end of the spectrum are the positivists, such as H. L. A. Hart, who give "priority to a narrowly conceived institutional history purged of any suprapositive validity basis," attributing "hard cases" (cases in which reason or justice clashes with rules validated by having been properly enacted by legally competent institutions) to "an unavoidable vagueness in ordinary language" that gives judges "a discretionary leeway" which they fill out "with extralegal preferences."

The only grounding for a legitimate legal system in the modern world, and the only basis for law that survives Habermas's criticisms, is democracy. He claims to be able to dissolve the tension between democracy and law by approaching democracy from the direction of discourse theory. Unlike populist or plebiscitary democracy, epistemic or deliberative democracy, which is the democracy of inquirers, presupposes both the negative liberties associated with the Rechtsstaat and the positive liberties associated with the Sozialstaat. If people are either intimidated or desperate, they will not be able to participate rationally in political debate. If they are neither, they will be able to participate rationally and the laws will be legitimate because produced by rational discourse. The laws secure the conditions for epistemic democracy, and epistemic democracy in turn secures the legitimacy of the laws. This is he book's central claim.

Habermas realizes that modeling the political process as a system of fully rational, fully disinterested inquiry may appear to be hopelessly unrealistic. Interest groups, the selective and distorting attentions of the media, public ignorance and apathy, and other interrelated social phenomena that neither the Rechtsstaat nor the Sozialstaat limits—indeed, that the Rechtsstaat fosters by creating the preconditions of capitalist development—deflect the political process from the deliberative ideal. Habermas wants to limit these distorting influences. Borrowing a leaf from the American constitutional theorist John Hart Ely, he considers the central (and virtually the only) task of constitutional law to be to secure "equal opportunities for the political use of communicative freedoms." His criticism of Ely is that Ely takes it for granted that we know what "democracy" is; he has no theory. Habermas's criticism of other American constitutional theories is that they are undemocratic. They cast the Supreme Court in the role of "a pedagogical guardian or regent" of an incompetent "sovereign," the people. "The addressees of law would not be able to understand themselves as its authors if the legislator [or judge] were to discover human rights as pregiven moral facts that merely need to be enacted as positive law."

Consistent with these criticisms, Habermas, who is no utopian dreamer, believes that there is too much hand-wringing over the imperfections of political democracy. The fact that political parties are coalitions of disparate interests makes it difficult for a politician to formulate his appeal for votes in terms limited to the narrow interests of the members of his coalition. He is constrained to speak in broader terms of principle, and this forces the voting public, too, to think in terms of principle. It may even nudge the politician into taking a public-spirited position for the sake of consistency: "concealing publicly indefensible interests behind pretended moral or ethical reasons necessitates self-bindings that … lead to the inclusion of others' interests."

And people form their views about political questions not only by listening to politicians and media pundits, but also by reflection on personal and social experiences acquired in the family, at work, in political or cultural movements, and in other voluntary non-political associations. This competition in points of view enables people to form political opinions that are authentically their own. Habermas rejects the view that people are "'cultural dopes' who are manipulated by the [television] programs offered to them." Yet he is not so naïve as to suppose that self-interest can be eliminated from the political process. Quite the contrary, it is because of the "weak motivating force of good reasons" that law has its irreducible "factive" as well as normative component. "Bargaining processes are tailored for situations in which social power relations cannot be neutralized in the way rational discourses presuppose." Compromises arrived at through bargaining rather than consensus are legitimate so long as the bargaining interests have equal power and therefore "equal chances of prevailing." This is another basis for redistributive policies viewed not as ends in themselves but as procedural preconditions for legitimate law.

Habermas intimates, without quite saying, that the political process in democratic nations such as the United States and Germany is sufficiently deliberative, in part because of the network of positive and negative liberties that are among the essential conditions of democratic deliberation, to impart the minimum necessary legitimacy to the legal systems of these nations. So while he is concerned about the influence of moneyed interests and other "normatively unfiltered interest positions" on the political process, and would like to see that influence reduced, the tone of Habermas's Between Facts and Norms is moderate and hopeful.

This will not endear him to radicals. His response to the claim by radical feminists that it is not enough for the law to give women the same rights as men is that the law should make sure that women have the political and economic independence necessary to enable them to participate actively in the political process. He is unwilling to prescribe a particular outcome of that process, and he is mindful of the downside of legal activism. "What is meant to promote the equal status of women in general often benefits only one category of (already privileged) women at the cost of another category, because gender-specific inequalities are correlated in a complex and obscure manner with membership in other underprivileged groups."

I have described, summarized and quoted at such length in order to make a little more accessible a book that, in its density, its abstractness, its unfamiliar terminology (such as "lifeworld," "autopoiesis," "thematize" and "materialized law"), its lengthy discussions of obscure German legal and social theorists, and its translation into a clumsy, Teutonic-sounding English, makes inordinate demands on an American reader. It is unfortunate that the book is so difficult. It is a fascinating synthesis of Continental and Anglo-American legal theory, and it is full of interesting insights, acute criticisms and striking passages, such as the observation that the parties to Hobbes's social contract "transfer their unrestricted liberties to a state authority, which gathers up the scattered anarchic potentials for violence and puts them to work for the disciplinary enforcement of legally restricted liberties."

I have two criticisms and two questions. The first criticism is that the book exaggerates the extent to which legislative enactments or even judicial decisions can be regarded as the outcome of rational discourse. The subject matter of the law is often, perhaps typically, too emotional or too freighted with uncertainty (or both) for the participants in the enacting or decisional process to be able to reach even tentative agreement. Peirce, a scientist as well as a philosopher, modeled his ideal of the deliberating community on the scientific community, in which the criteria of validity are agreed upon and operational, enabling the community to reach the nirvana of "observer independence," where people having different values and perspectives are brought into an uncoerced agreement.

The political community is not like that. The criteria for decisions are contested and vague. The outcomes of legislative "deliberations" usually reflect compromises between bargaining interests with unequal power or opportunistic coalitions (as when religious fundamentalists and radical feminists agree to support a ban on pornography), or divergent estimates of consequences, as when both liberals and conservatives agree to reduce sentencing discretion, the former in the hope that it will reduce unjust disparities and discriminations, the latter in the hope that it will lead to longer sentences. Unbridgeable gaps in values and perceptions are visible in many split judicial decisions as well. Habermas thinks it very important to equalize bargaining power between groups, but does not explain how that can be done or even what "equal bargaining power" means.

When stakes are high and information is sparse, people do not simply yield to the weight of argument. Habermas himself warns against "avant-gardism," the "consensually veiled domination of intellectual spokespersons. Powerful in word, they grab for themselves the very power they profess to dissolve in the medium of the word." Elsewhere he distinguishes between "discourse," where agreement is secured through the force of argument, and aesthetic evaluations, which are not expected to convince all doubters even if there is no time limit on deliberation. Political and judicial disagreements—in my view, contrary to Habermas's—are more often of this kind than of the discourse kind, where disagreement would dissolve if only deliberation continued long enough.

It would be odd to insist, for example, that the prohibition of police torture be justified by a weighing of the arguments pro and con. The reasons that are given for the prohibition—that it makes the police lazy, or brutalizes them, or produces false information—are makeweights that do not really "outweigh" the fact that torture is a generally effective method of eliciting information. The revulsion against the practice can be rationalized in highfalutin' terms, by defining a human essence that torture violates, but actually the revulsion is based on history, or emotion, or how we are brought up (to be squeamish), rather than on arguments. This doesn't mean it isn't a reliable basis for action. But academia selects for people who attach unusual weight to arguments. Only academics can be argued into becoming, say, vegetarians.

Torture, like slavery, is an easy case, because at the moment it has no advocates. Many of the issues that are on the legislative and judicial agendas today can be resolved neither by a convergence of values nor by discourse, but only by power, or by the sorts of nonrational persuasions, or emotional demonstrations or manipulations, that produce religious-style conversions and other Gestalt switches, or by giving people information that corrects misconceptions. Only the last of these has a secure footing in discourse theory, though Habermas himself does not exhibit an interest in facts.

My second criticism is that Habermas's lack of concreteness makes it difficult to determine whether discourse theory has any practical significance. Habermas thinks that it is vital, in the interest of discourse, to place "curbs on the power of the media." But he does not explain what those curbs might be, or how they would be consistent with the preservation of freedom of expression—one of the liberties that undergirds the democratic legitimacy of the law—or why curbs are necessary, given the increasing competitiveness and diversity of the media and his own rejection of the view that people are cultural dopes. He favors liberal immigration policies on the pragmatic ground that multiplying perspectives aids the search for truth and justice. But he does not consider the effect on the likelihood of forging consensus of admitting large numbers of people whose values were shaped in societies that do not believe in the resolution of conflict by deliberative means. People from different "lifeworlds" have difficulty communicating, let along achieving even temporary consensus.

Not only is Habermas weak on particulars; he never makes clear how much deviation from the tenets of discourse theory a political system can be permitted without losing its legitimacy. Which brings me to the first of my two questions. What exactly is the problem to which Habermas's theory of law is the solution? He might answer that it is the problem of law's legitimacy. I am not sure that there is such a problem in the United States or most other wealthy countries. He says that "law must do more than simply meet the functional requirements of a complex society; it must also satisfy the precarious conditions of a social integration that ultimately takes place through the achievements of mutual understanding on the part of communicatively acting subjects." Yet if law meets "the functional requirements of a complex society" by providing a reasonably predictable, adaptable and just framework for peaceful social interactions, where "just" means nothing more pretentious than consistent with durable public opinion, who is going to raise an issue of legitimacy about the framework, that is, about the law itself?

Particular laws, particular judicial decisions and particular enforcement decisions and institutional details will sometimes be challenged as illegitimate. An example would be a decision by a judge who had been bribed, or, more subtly, a judicial decision that rested on arguments that the legal culture ruled out of bounds for judges. Particular groups in society may feel disserved, even discriminated against, by the people who enforce and administer the law. These retail issues of legitimacy can be serious, but they do not seem to be illuminated by discourse theory. The wholesale issue—the legitimacy of the law—does not arise. A successful practice does not require foundations. That is the abiding lesson of pragmatism.

An entire legal system could be illegitimate even though most people were unaware of the fact. But if the system is legitimate (as Habermas believes) and no one of consequence doubts this, then what precisely is the point of trying to prove it? But before discounting Habermas's book as academic in the pejorative sense, we should recall its cultural context. Habermas's universalism speaks far more to the German situation than to that of most other developed nations, including the United States. Americans do not need to be instructed in the values of diversity, the unavailability of "metaphysical" groundings for political principles, the importance of democracy, or the preconditions for legitimate political institutions. These things are the features of our "lifeworld," the taken-for-granted background of discussion and debate.

The Germany in which Habermas grew up, by contrast, did not have a secure, untroubled relation to diversity, democracy, reason or law. That Germany seemed dangerously susceptible to totalizing visions, stifling cultural conformity, ethnocentrism, irrationalism, political extremism and, in law, to excessive formalism on the one hand and excessive paternalism on the other. Against all these tendencies, which are much weaker fifty years after the fall of Hitler but have been given a shot in the arm by the unification of the two Germanies, Between Facts and Norms is a powerful polemic. We Americans are fortunate in not needing it so badly.

Maybe Kant was wrong. Maybe jurisprudence is an unavoidably ethnocentric enterprise. If so, my second question need not arise. That question is, how can law be democracy's foundation and democracy be law's foundation? It is a circle without a beginning or a foundation. How much easier it would be just to say that in our system, which is also the system of our peer nations such as Germany, law and democracy exist in a creative, mutually supporting and stable tension.

Cass R. Sunstein (review date 18 August 1996)

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SOURCE: "Democracy Isn't What You Think," in The New York Times Book Review, August 18, 1996, p. 18.

[Below, Sunstein reviews the question of political legitimacy addressed in Between Facts and Norms, especially Habermas's concept of "deliberative democracy."]

Most people know that the Constitution's First Amendment provides the rights to freedom of speech and to the free exercise of religion. But in the first Congress some people seriously proposed that the First Amendment should contain another right: the right on the part of constituents "to instruct" their representatives how to vote. The first Congress ultimately rejected the proposal. Roger Sherman made the central argument against it. In Sherman's view, representatives had a "duty to meet others from the different parts of the Union, and consult…. If they were to be guided by instructions, there would be no use in deliberation." A right to instruct "would destroy the object of the meeting."

By rejecting the right to instruct, the first Congress affirmed a distinctive concept of politics. It favored what might be called a deliberative democracy, in which representatives would be accountable to the people but also operate as part of a process that prized discussion and reflection about potential courses of action.

Jürgen Habermas is one of the most important political philosophers of the 20th century: he has been preoccupied for much of his life with the problem of political legitimacy. Under what circumstances is it legitimate for political authorities, mere human beings, to exercise power over other human beings? It is unsurprising that a German philosopher—in his teens during the Nazi period and a witness to countless other atrocities since—should direct his attention to this question. Mr. Habermas thinks that the question is especially urgent in an era that is "postmetaphysical," in the sense that it has lost the sense that we have wholly external foundations by which to ground our judgments and choices. Whether or not we believe that God exists, it seems clear that as citizens in a heterogeneous society we must proceed on the understanding that our choices are our own. But even as he insists on this point, Mr. Habermas draws a line against modern irrationalists, many of them—like Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida—influential within the modern academy. Mr. Habermas says, tellingly, that those who oppose reason and the Enlightenment can give no account of the basis for their own rhetoric, which seems inspired by the Enlightenment commitment to human liberation.

In his influential past work, Mr. Habermas offered a "theory of communicative action" whose centerpiece is the "ideal speech situation." In the ideal speech situation, all participants have equal power, attempt to reach understanding, do not act manipulatively or strategically, and understand their obligation to offer reasons. In this situation, outcomes depend on what he calls "the unforced force of the better argument."

This is abstract stuff, and for many years Americans, Germans and many others have been interested in the real-world implications of Mr. Habermas's work. For example: Can we derive a set of rights from those ideas? Real-world politics is far from the ideal speech situation; might that notion bear on the obligations of the mass media, on issues of race and sex, on campaign finance law? Mr. Habermas's new book, Between Facts and Norms, is both the culmination of a lifetime of thought about political legitimacy and his effort to bring his argument closer down to earth by developing new understandings of law, democracy and the relationship between them.

Much of Mr. Habermas's analysis urns on an exploration of two accounts of democracy, which he labels "liberal" and "civic republican." Under the liberal account, rooted in the work of Thomas Hobbes, politics is a process of bargaining, a matter of aggregating private interests. Liberals define citizens as holders of negative rights against the state. In the liberal view, politics is a struggle among interest groups for position and power. The civic republican account, rooted in Aristotle and Rousseau, is very different: politics is not a mere matter of protecting our selfish interests but instead an effort to choose and implement our shared ideals. Civic republicans see rights not as negative constraints on government, but as promoting participation in political practices through which citizens become authors of their own community. Consider the right to free speech and the right to vote. For civic republicans, politics is a matter of discussion and self-legislation, in which people participate not in bargaining and compromise but in forms of reflection and talk.

The organizing theme of the book is Mr. Habermas's rejection of both views and his effort to defend instead what he calls "deliberative politics" or "deliberative democracy." This is emphatically a procedural ideal. It is intended to give form to the notion of an ideal speech situation. Like civic republicans, deliberative democrats place a high premium on reason-giving in the public domain. But like liberals, they favor a firm boundary between the state and the society, and they insist on a robust set of constraints on what the government can do. Mr. Habermas sees majority rule not as a mere statistical affair, an effort to tally up votes, but instead as a large social process by which people discuss matters, understand one another, try to persuade each other and modify their views to meet counterarguments. In this way we form our beliefs and even our desires.

The deliberative conception of democracy anchors Mr. Habermas's theory of political legitimacy. For him, democracy does not exist to secure rights with which we have been endowed by our Creator; nor is it simply a way to allow us to throw the rascals out; nor is it a mechanism for processes of accommodation, compromise and the exercise of power. Democracy, ideally conceived is a process by which people do not implement their preferences but consult and deliberate about what values and what options are best.

Mr. Habermas's argument sees constitutional law as institutionalizing the presuppositions of a system of discussion by which legitimate lawmaking is made possible. Thus his account of fundamental rights includes the right to "equal opportunities to participate in processes of opinion and will-formation in which citizens exercise their political autonomy and through which they generate legitimate law."

Mr. Habermas thinks that the principal goal of a court, interpreting a constitution, should be to protect the procedural preconditions for deliberative democracy. The point suggests an especially aggressive role for courts when democratic processes do not fit with the aspirations to deliberation and democracy—for example, when people are excluded from politics, or when outcomes reflect power and pressure rather than reason. This is how Mr. Habermas tries to reconcile the tension between law and democracy, seeing them not as opposed but instead as mutually supportive. Law can create the preconditions for democracy, by insuring freedom of speech, voting rights, political equality and so forth. Democratic ideals can inform the appropriate content of law.

Mr. Habermas isn't a lot of fun to read (despite a clear translation from the German by William Rehg). He offers little in the way of summary and guide-posts to help readers see the main lines of argument. His analysis is abstract, turgid and filled with short, puzzling discussions of a dazzling variety of German and American thinkers. The book raises substantive questions, too. What Mr. Habermas calls the liberal account of democracy does not capture the liberal political tradition; John Stuart Mill, John Dewey and John Rawls—to name three prominent liberals—are, in their ways, deliberative democrats too. And Mr. Habermas does not do a great deal to address the predictable concern that deliberative democracy should be constrained by a robust set of rights on what even a deliberative public might do.

For those interested in a deliberative approach to democracy, much future work lies not in abstractions but in more concrete thinking designed to help with concrete problems. American democracy, for example, is far from deliberative, and we might ask how to make it more so. Can the mass media—even the Internet—be harnessed to promote political deliberation? How can a deliberative democracy operate when there are huge disparities in both wealth and education? What sorts of constraints should be imposed on the permissible substance and form of public talk? Should we strengthen local democracy? Mr. Habermas does not much take up these issues.

But this is a work of political philosophy, dealing with the foundations of democratic theory, and as such it has great value, above all because of its careful exposition of deliberative democracy and the potential for productive interactions between democracy and law. The 20th century is ending at a time when democratic aspirations are proliferating throughout the globe; Jürgen Habermas has provided one of the best and, I think, most enduring accounts of the values that underlie those aspirations.

Timothy Dykstal (review date Fall 1996)

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SOURCE: A review of The Past as Future, in Southern Humanities Review, Vol. 30, Fall, 1996, pp. 375-79.

[In the review below, Dykstal questions Habermas's standard of "the norm" in The Past as Future.]

Conversation is indispensable to Jürgen Habermas. In the German philosopher's "theory of communicative action," the values that sustain a good conversation—that is, one that produces greater understanding—are perhaps the only transhistorical imperative that we have. We speak in order to be understood, and we can use that desire for understanding to criticize whatever—from material deprivations to immaterial, or ideological, distortions—would defeat it. Given the indispensability of conversation to Habermas, this interview with the German journalist Michael Haller, conducted between the close of 1990 and March 1991, and covering such topics as the Persian Gulf War, German unification, and the future of Europe, is something of an event. Habermas has given interviews before, but none as extensive or, paradoxically, as carefully articulated: paradoxically because, as Haller explains in his preface, the interview "was ultimately conducted by correspondence." If The Past as Future is not an actual conversation, then, it is still a dialogue, still benefitting from the "eminent capability and productivity of socially circulating everyday speech," which, as Habermas asserts, "is the only faculty that has grown adequate to extraordinarily complex tasks precisely because it remained nonspecialized, because it hasn't been forced to specialize." Habermas' interview with Haller exhibits the "unwavering, insistent thinking" called for by his mentor Adorno, but in "everyday," nonspecialized speech that makes his thought available to what he would call the "lifeworld."

The risk of the interview form, as Habermas worries more than Haller, however, is its sheer topicality. Habermas admits that he "was not enthusiastic" when his German publisher proposed issuing the interview in paperback, because "the rapid pace of current events"—including, since the first edition, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the outbreak of civil war in Yugoslavia—"had certainly not slowed," and he supplements the 1991 edition with a lecture on the so-called "asylum debate" in Germany and an afterword. Yet Habermas need not have worried that his thoughts on contemporary topics would become so quickly dated: the situation of Germany (on which he and Haller naturally focus), looking back to a barely usable past and ahead to an uncertain future (made even more uncertain after unification), could stand for the situation of nearly every Western nation at the end of the Cold War. Habermas takes the title of the interview from an election slogan of German chancellor Helmut Kohl's ruling Christian Democratic party; he complains that the CDU's maxim "the past as future" encourages Germans to say, "Let's get it [that is, the past] over with," just as Konrad Adenauer and others "repressed" the immediate Nazi past after World War II. Habermas, however, by way of imagining a future, would have Germans "work through" their past: in this case, the immediate past of a divided Germany and the legacy of repression left by the former German Democratic Republic. Although Habermas emphasizes the particularism of the German situation—the sense of Germany as a nation, he explains, "emerged from the context of a war of liberation [from Napoleon], and thus remained ensnared in passionate notions of the uniqueness of culture and identity"—other nations are engaged in the same wrestlings with their pasts as his. Indeed, Habermas' description of the editors of the right-wing Frankfurter Allgemeine Zitung who, "[a]rmed with saber-rattling ideas from the old young-conservative attic," are "ready to put paid to the '68ers," sounds remarkably like the new young conservatives in the United States who are ready to dismantle the 1960s counter-culture.

Habermas deploys his theory of communicative action against those postmodern skeptics who, suspicious of the claim of reason, sense "behind every universal validity claim the dogmatic will to domination of a cunningly concealed particularism." The desire for understanding that Habermas detects in conversation may, as Haller objects, lead to "sweeping" validity claims, but it cannot produce too-particular ones: we desire to understand the other as much as to be understood by him or her. But Haller also objects that Habermas has too idealistic a view of ordinary conversation. He points out (and Habermas concedes) that their dialogue is more "reasonable" than the passionate, topical debates taking place in the public sphere. There, people trade interests rather than ideas; there, "[i]t's rare for anyone to demand the better argument." How can practical "compromise building" serve as a theory for a saving rationality? Habermas replies that "these compromises are also rational, in the sense of a moral and practical procedural rationality," and that every sticking-point on the way to compromise building "can only be decided in a discourse about questions of justice." In other words, even the most practical debate appeals to local (or "procedural") standards of fairness, and, when compromise building breaks down, it can be built back up again only by grander, more theoretical debates about just how fair, or how universal, those standards really are. Allowing for the passions that sometimes inhibit debate, Habermas concludes, "I never say that people want to act communicatively, but that they have to."

A theory like Habermas' that concerns itself with what human beings have in common rather than, as is the academic fashion, with what makes them different, risks being accused of what Haller calls a "false universalism." Habermas is, after all, attempting to define what is "normative" in human behavior, even if his norm is limited to the expectations that we bring to the conversational table, and any definition of what is normal, as the philosophical discourse of postmodernity has taught us, excludes as much as it includes. Yet Habermas modestly claims that he is no master thinker, and he is sensitive to the crimes committed in the name of "normalcy" by those less modest than he. When the German public, or some factions of it, greet unification with the sigh, "we have finally become normal again," Habermas not only wonders about the moral ambiguity of the adverb "again"—are those sighing in relief referring to a Germany previously "united" by National Socialism?—he also worries that the rush to normalcy appeals, paradoxically, to a German "special consciousness" that would exclude from the newly unified nation political refugees and other immigrants from Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. Habermas' future can only be multicultural: his normalcy must come from that "overlapping consensus" that John Rawls finds among world moral and religious traditions, not from drawing the physical and ethnic borders around "Germany" ever tighter.

Habermas also guards against the accusation of false universalism by focusing his search for what is normative on the process of communicative action rather than the product. This is why testing his theory against the case of German unification, as Haller insists that he do, is so appropriate, for the product of unification—a nation-state not divided against itself—would seem to merit Habermas' approval. But Habermas is clearly uneasy about what he perceives as "the normative deficits of unification." In their rush to bring the GDR into the fold, Habermas protests, West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and his burgher allies "managed to outmaneuver both the deeply divided opposition and the public sphere." They saw the unification process as merely the legal and administrative tinkering necessary to make what was already a "self-running economic mechanism" run more efficiently; they did not see it as an opportunity to persuade the German public of their own "better argument" for bringing the two Germanies together. In the process—or, rather, in the lack of a process—Kohl and his allies shortchanged, and may have irreparably damaged, "incalculable and exhaustible moral and cultural resources": those democratic traditions that Habermas is bold enough to attribute to Western rationality. Only public debate about ideas, not private or unconscious appeals to ancient ethnic and linguistic bonds, can create a unified nation of "citizens." Habermas may welcome the product of German unification, but doubts that the process by which it was achieved can forever sustain the ideals to which its leaders continue cynically to appeal.

For Habermas, in short, the process is the norm. But to state this is also to expose the weakness in his theory, a weakness that the German situation, if not necessarily Haller's scrutiny of it, reveals. One can imagine a German nation-state that has met the normative requirements of the unification process—that has discussed all that Habermas thinks it should discuss—and is yet repressive. Conversely, one can name certain democratic ideals—the right to dissent comes to mind—that the process of communicative action, with its emphasis on consensus, does not yield. There are norms that can be derived from the ideal speech act; there are also norms that have nothing to do with how we should treat one another in conversation, norms that may be called on to set things right when communicative action produces a result that, although agreed on by all parties, is still wrong. Terry Eagleton has compared Habermas' theory to the process of psychoanalysis, and, at certain times during this interview, the comparison is apt: discussing the tendency in the Western media to shy away from the crimes against humanity perpetrated by the Stasi, the East German secret police, Habermas—quoting Richard Schröder, a former leader of the resistance to the old regime—says that Westerners "have to let us [Easterners] tell them how it was, and at least listen, even if it's hard." Such a process may be therapeutic, but it is not emancipating: it may lessen the pain of the past, but it cannot prevent the crimes of the future. The skills that communicative action depends on—honest speaking and empathetic listening—are process skills; they do nothing to improve the ultimate product.

But, again, Habermas does not claim that his theory of communicative action can provide ultimate standards of worth. Since the shining moment of the public sphere, which he locates in early eighteenth-century Europe (and especially in England), the lifeworld has been "structurally transformed" into a series of specialized disciplines, each with its own standards of validity and each with its own ideas about how to meet those standards. Within the disciplines, the products of each can be improved; across the disciplines, standards of worth do not apply. At the conclusion of The Past as Future, it is clear that Habermas' hope for a post-unification politics, like his hope for a postmodern philosophy (previously expressed in his synoptic article "Philosophy as Stand-In and Interpreter"), is that it will function as a kind of mediator between the disciplines, or between the previously mentioned ethnic and linguistic communities. In politics, he envisions a Europe made up of both smaller and larger structural units, with the smaller defined by the sacred truths that divide them, and the larger units (perhaps as large as an entire European Union) defined by the democratic traditions—the communicative actions—that bring them together. In philosophy, Habermas envisions not a new metanarrative but only ways to practice "a little more solidarity." That conclusion ought to chasten those critics who would see him instituting, in the bleak vision of Dialectic of Enlightenment, a new world order of totalizing reason.


Principal Works


Further Reading