On Habermas’s Theory and Practice

by Ralph Dumain

Habermas, Jürgen. Theory and Practice. Translated by John Viertel. Boston: Beacon Press, 1973.

Translator’s Note vii
Introduction: Some Difficulties in the Attempt to Link Theory and Praxis 1
1. The Classical Doctrine of Politics in Relation to Social Philosophy 41
2. Natural Law and Revolution  82
3. Hegel’s Critique of the French Revolution 121
4. Labor and Interaction: Remarks on Hegel’s Jena Philosophy of Mind   142
5 Hegel’s Political Writings    170
6. Between Philosophy and Science: Marxism as Critique   195
7. Dogmatism, Reason, and Decision: On Theory and Praxis in our Scientific Civilization 253
Notes    283
Index   306

Here is a series of extracts, in proper sequence:

The last four links do not cover the entire essay “Dogmatism: Reason, and Decision: On Theory and Praxis in Our Scientific Civilization” (pp. 253-282). Hopefully I can succeed in connecting the dots here. One reason for splitting up the extracts like this is that they belong to distinct projects of mine. The extract on automation will prove quite useful for my work on futuristic utopias and dystopias. It is useful also for criticizing the ideological limitations of the American atheist / humanist / skeptics movement. The last extract serves as a postscript to the famous Positivismusstreit of the 1960s between the Popperians and Frankfurt School theoreticians.

Whenever I revisit Habermas I am reminded of why I can’t stand him. I read this book the first time in 2002. His style, in English translation at least, is quite tedious; it presents no distraction from focusing on the content if one can stay awake. One sees in this early work Habermas’s erroneous ideas which only got worse later—the correlation of knowledge types with different interests, the schematization of work and interaction. I never believed any of this. In following in the footsteps of the first generation of the Frankfurt School, Habermas endeavors to recover the larger concept of reason eclipsed in his time.  This time I will focus on the Introduction and chapter 7.

The first time I read the introductory essay “Introduction: Some Difficulties in the Attempt to Link Theory and Praxis” (pp. 1-40), I extracted pp. 32-37: Historical Remarks on the Question of Organization.

The introduction starts out innocently enough. Critique is reflexive; it is neither science nor philosophy. Science is objectivistic while philosophy is conscious of origins but from the standpoint of its own primacy. Critique is verified in the process of enlightenment. Historical materialism unites science and praxis, while social science now functions technocratically, divorced from praxis.

The Enlightenment saw the rise of a liberal public. This public no longer exists; the formation of a public will is compromised by mass communications and the masses are manipulated and depoliticized.

Habermas treated the relationship between knowledge and interests in detail in his earlier books.   Here he states that he bases his perspective on a transcendental foundation, the a priori organization of experience (p. 7). There is a systematic relationship between the theoretical structure of science and the pragmatic structure of application. So here we have Habermas’s dichotomy of technical control and intersubjectivity. Knowledge interests are quasi-transcendental and “invariant,” based on the imperatives of labor and language. (pp. 8-9) Marx transcends these a prioris in a manner analogous to Freudian theory’s relationship to therapy (though the latter is more limited, as discussed later) (p. 9).

COMMENTARY: Already we find Habermas’s thinking frozen into a sterile project, the feeling of which is reinforced by the insufferable dryness and tedium of Habermas’s style. Habermas binds himself to appropriation of or an abstract war with rival philosophers and social scientists—Wittgenstein, Gadamer, Luhmann, etc. There is a whole preceding Marxist tradition of the distinction between the administration of things and liberation from the administration of people, but Habermas hardens this into a rigid apriorism.

Kant formulated a duality which has not been entirely transcended, resolved, or dissolved: that of factive determinism and that of subjectivity where normativity and “free will” can be found.   The unifying tissue is the concept of praxis, an indeterminate meeting point of the subjective and objective. Concretely science has not advanced to the point of total concrete connection of the two realms, and the likely consequence is that there remains a no-man’s-land of indeterminacy, with the implication also that ought can be dialectically related to is but not absorbed into it.

This notion of the human as active rather than passive is surely linked to the Yugoslav Praxis School’s further identification of praxis with creativity.

The relationship in any event belongs to time and development and evolves rather than being static; in other words, something quite different from what Habermas dumps on us.

Continuing with the text: Habermas steers a course avoiding the extremes of cybernetic regulation and traditional hermeneutics (p. 12). Habermas posits his quasi-transcendental approach (p. 14) and responds to four objections.

The Marxian dialectic of theory and praxis is no longer operative (p. 16). As Adorno states, the only dialectic is the logic of compulsion. But, says Habermas, distorted communication is undergirded by a logic of undistorted communication. Pursuing a universal pragmatics, Habermas is on to the theory of the ideal speech situation. (p. 17). Habermas reasons from the nature of discourse to a consensus theory of truth (p. 19)

COMMENTARY: Already by page 17 the die is cast: Habermas is committed for life to a world of sterile abstract formulations. The subjectivist consensus theory of truth seals the deal (p. 19). Note that this ideal scheme of normativity is divorced from the actual objective determinants of the options for actual autonomy, or what Kant referred to as heteronomy. But in history and in the development of the individual, autonomy is only a potential; in actuality there is a temporal development from heteronomy to autonomy, the latter of which has been conceived abstractly and normatively centuries before its actualization becomes a realistic albeit tenuous prospect. The eternal problem of liberalism, based on an unresolved duality, is that its abstract ideals are never truly instantiated in society, though in favorable circumstances they may gain an institutional and popular foothold. Only radicals push liberal ideals towards realization. Truth is not consensual but objective. Habermas, while springboarding off ideas of Adorno and Horkheimer, has actually abandoned dialectics and retreated to formalism. Presumably contrary to intention, Habermas has made critical theory formalistic, a position itself contrary to the essence of critical theory. With respect to theory’s relation to society, Habermas differs from Popper (who doesn’t even have a social theory worth speaking of) taxonomically (classification of the sciences, interests, pragmatics).

From here the second half of the introduction is anti-climactic, so I will report only briefly.

The status of Habermas’s philosophical anthropology will be assessed differently according to transcendental or empirical criteria: I do not fully understand this (p. 21). Habermas then addresses the emancipatory interest of knowledge (pp. 22-23). I find this discussion murky, perhaps because I can barely stay awake reading it. The following sections concern the institutionalization of discourses, the organization of enlightenment (28-32), historical remarks on the question of organization, and finally the application of reflexive theories.

COMMENTARY: I digitized the section aforementioned because of the crucial formulation of the distinction of the contexts of enlightenment and of instrumental action. The problem of reflexivity and the corruption of enlightenment via interested manipulation is addressed here, as it was addressed earlier by Adorno and contemporaneously and independently by the American “outlaw Marxist” sociologist Alvin Gouldner.

The one interesting thing that Habermas adds here is that the reflective posture—which is retrospective—cannot extricate us from systemically distorted communication, but it can bring us “enlightenment about our captivity with this interrelationship, it also disrupts the latter. Therefore the demand to act dialectically with insight is senseless. It is based on a category mistake.” (p. 39) The enlightener, like the psychoanalyst, cannot make decisions for other people.

I don’t think I have assimilated all of this, but I lose patience with Habermas’s unrelenting tediousness.

It seems that in chapter 7—Dogmatism, Reason, and Decision: On Theory and Praxis in our Scientific Civilization (pp. 253-282)—Habermas follows the lead of Horkheimer’s Eclipse of Reason with an influence from Dialectic of Enlightenment. The basic point is to follow the historic linkage and delinkage of reason and emancipation (value) from d’Holbach to Fichte to Marx, and the struggle of critique against the changing forms of dogmatism. (For d’Holbach, reason is linked with the elimination of evil. Fichte seems to be the precursor of the subjectivization of value and the instrumentalization of knowledge by the subjective will.) With positivism and its image of science, reason becomes divorced from commitment. Positivism provides a reified conception of the critique of ideology (p. 267). (What this means is not immediately clear, but it comes out later in the essay.) There is an inherent weakness to a science-based critique (268).

Habermas discusses four levels of rationalization (270-4). Inter alia, he criticizes Dewey’s conception (272). I am not altogether clear on these levels, but I think he is trying to show that a merely pragmatic or positivistic critique is inherently limited, as it cannot adequately embrace normative conceptions. The logical extreme of this type of thinking would be the dystopia of centralized control directed by an automated program (275-6).

I think I am finally getting what Habermas is up to as he critiques Popper’s notion of critique, which is broader than that of the positivists but still inadequate (276-281). This is the most interesting part of the chapter for me.

It occurs to me that the participation of prominent scientists in the atheist movement now, fighting the obscurantist anti-science trend, never got beyond the positivist approach to critique that Habermas criticized a half century ago. How little the atheist movement has progressed intellectually. That is, its conception of critique never moved beyond the positivist notion of self-correcting science. The advocates of science have provided little or no institutional and ideological analysis of their own socialization and social role. The idiotic notion of Sam Harris of absorbing moral normativity into positive science, clueless as to the ideological distortion of cognitive science itself, is a manifestation of this. But Harris is no technocratic bureaucrat of the 1950s; he is a mediocre figure of the 21st century, a johnny-come-lately who probably acquired his pubic hair along with his PhD.

In my series of extracts, I have left a hole. I omitted Habermas’s delineation of the four levels of rationalization of technical control (pp. 270-275). I have read these pages several times and I still do not understand them. The problem could be me or Habermas’s overly abstract, soporific writing.

What is important in this essay, however, is the critique of positivism and the implicit dualism that animates it, the other pole of bourgeois thought being irrationalism. One virtue lurking within several strains of Marxism is the recognition of this duality, although no one has brought all of the relevant literature together, as I seek to do, at least with respect to what is available in English.

One can see Habermas at this point in his development as being on the cusp of his awful turn to discourse theory while still being anchored in the achievements of the first generation of the Frankfurt School. Habermas engages competing tendencies of bourgeois social theory on their own terms, dissecting their assumptions and challenging them, but also exemplifying his tendency, which got out of control, to cannibalize the entire range of thought to which he exposed himself. Habermas competes in abstract terms with rival abstract theoretical constructs. He does this quite well, as can be seen when one is able to stay awake following his reasoning. But this is also the root, it seems, of his compulsion to develop his notion of communicative competence and the ideal speech situation, to retreat ultimately to Kantianism and a tepid liberalism.

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Uploaded 4 September 2015

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