The Tasks of Critical Theory

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 335

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In the last section of his book, Habermas revisits the work of Weber and Marx, pointing out their main weaknesses and, in these weaknesses, finding verification for his own departures from their thinking in his theory of communicative action. Finally, Habermas turns to the future tasks of critical theory. Primarily its role is to uncover paradoxical situations in which systems steered by media such as money (economic systems) and power (government bureaucracies) turn around and threaten the values or even the communicative infrastructure of the lifeworld. He sees these paradoxes covered over by mass consumption and client-bureaucrat relations that tend to create pacification in the sphere of social labor and neutralization in political decision making. Most profoundly, Habermas breaks away from the philosophy of history on which the earlier critical theories he examined relied but which he claims is no longer tenable. Instead, he argues a critical theory of society has to be open to self-criticism.

Habermas’s The Theory of Communicative Action and his other works generated much discussion and debate among practitioners of various disciplines. The breadth of his knowledge of classical and contemporary thinkers, the variety of issues he addresses, and his own willingness to rethink his theories in the light of criticism have often helped scholars refine their thinking and see their disciplines in a new light. Despite the praise showered on his work, two areas remain problematic for many scholars, especially American scholars. The first area is his antipositivist stance and his insistence on methodological dualism, that is, his contention that the methods of the social sciences and natural science are distinct. The second position often attacked is his support of modernist ideas and his belief in rational consensus at a time when postmodernists argue over the possibility or even the desirability of a final consensus. Yet, in spite of these detractions, Habermas’s project of analyzing society in both breadth and depth, from historical and philosophical perspectives in order to emancipate it fully, continues to challenge and excite readers.