On the self-reflection of rationalistic “faith”

Jürgen Habermas

Now, even in its positivistic form the critique of ideology can pursue an interest in adult autonomy; as the example of Popper shows, it need not stop at an adherence to the technical interest of knowledge. Certainly, Popper was one of the first to insist on the demarcation rigidly drawn by the logic of science between knowing and valuing. He too identifies the knowledge of empirical science conforming to the rules of a cogent universal methodology with science as such; he too simply accepts the residual definition of thought, which is purged of the components of rational volition, and does not ask whether perhaps the monopolizing of all possible knowledge by a technical interest of knowledge does not itself create the norms, measured by which everything that does not comply takes on the fetishistic guise of valuing, commitment, or mere faith. But Popper’s critique of the configurations of dogmatism, as positivistically defined, does not share the tacit metaphysics to which the partisans of technological rationality are committed. His motive is that of enlightenment, with the prior reservation, however, that he can only justify rationalism as his professed faith. If scientific insight purged of the interest of reason is devoid of all immanent reference to praxis, and if, inversely, every normative content is detached nominalistically from insights into its real relation to life—as Popper presupposes undialectically—then indeed the dilemma must be conceded: that I cannot rationally compel anyone to support his assumptions with arguments and evidence from experience. And just as little can I justify compellingly, with the aid of arguments and experiential evidence, why I should be resolved to pursue this conduct. I must simply decide to commit myself to a rationalistic attitude. Even here the problem consists “not in a choice between knowing and believing, but in the choice between two kinds of “faith.” [25] What is at issue here for Popper is not the recommendation to accept technological rationality as a value. Rather, the rationalism in which he believes desires to obligate society, by means of the enlightened consciousness of its citizens, to a socio-technically correct behavior. These citizens will act rationally, in the sense which already points beyond technological rationality, when they establish or change social norms and institutions with a knowledge of the scientific information at their disposal. For precisely that dualism of facts and commitments, with the implicit assumption that history can have meaning just as little as nature can, appears as the premise for the practical effectiveness of a rationalism adopted as commitment. It presupposes that, in the dimension of historical facts, by virtue of commitment and due to our theoretical knowledge of factual laws of nature, we can realize a “meaning” sociotechnically which is inherently alien to history. Popper’s concept of rationality, too, at first preserves the semblance of a purely formal concept, no matter how much his category of meaning otherwise exceeds the criteria of economy and efficiency required by the system of social labor; this meaning itself, for the realization of which specific procedures are provided, remains undefined and open to concretization in terms of the requirements of accepted value systems. The material shaping of given situations cannot already be prejudiced from the start by the obligation to apply rational procedures—for then even in this other case a substantial concept of rationality would be presupposed which would deprive the rationalistic faith of its character of pure decision.

Rationalism in Popper’s positivistically delimited sense initially demands only that as many individuals as possible assume a rationalistic attitude. This attitude, no matter whether it determines comportment in the process of inquiry or in social praxis, conforms to the rules of scientific methodology. It accepts the customary norms of scientific discussion, is instructed especially concerning the duality of fact and commitment, and knows the limits of intersubjectively valid knowledge. Therefore it resists dogmatism, as the positivists understand it, and obligates itself in its judgment of value systems, and in general of social norms, to conform to critical principles which specify the relationship of theory to praxis. First, the absolute validity of all social norms is denied; instead, they are considered to be open to critical investigation and possible revision at any time. Second, norms are accepted only after their effects in given social life-contexts have been tested and evaluated on the basis of available scientific information. Finally, every politically relevant action will seek to exhaust the reserves of technical knowledge and will employ all means of prediction, in order to avoid uncontrolled secondary consequences. All levels of this rationalization always refer back to the communication of the citizens carrying on discussion with a rationalistic attitude—and this distinguishes them from the four levels of technology enumerated above. For Popper has fictitiously extended methodology to the principles of political discussion, and thus has also extended the forum of scientific researchers examining methods and discussing empirical-theoretical questions to embrace the political public sphere as a whole.

The sociopolitical extrapolation of methodology into social policy represents more than merely the form of a rational realization of meaning. Indeed, it unfolds a specific meaning, and even the intention of a specific order of society, namely, the liberal order of the “open society.” From the formal assumption of a rationalistic attitude Popper draws maxims for the decision of practical questions, which, if they were followed on an order of magnitude which is politically relevant, would have to intervene profoundly in the “natural” structure of the existing society. That process of scientifically enlightened communication to be institutionalized in the political public sphere, would set into motion a sociotechnical dissolution of all substantial forms of domination—and would maintain this dissolution itself in the permanent reflection of the citizens, for the sake of their emancipation. It is not without reason, therefore, that Popper expects a reduction of repression from such a liberalism in the formation of political will, reconstituted on the level of the modern sciences, and as a consequence of this, the growing emancipation of human beings: the reduction of collective and individual suffering within the limits of a noncompulsive consensus concerning the bases of general welfare and peace. Just as in the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century, lack of rationality once again coincides with freedom denied and deprivation of happiness. If, however, a well-founded interconnection actually existed between the canon of scientifically cogent communication, extrapolated into the sociopolitical domain, and such practical consequences, then a positivism which reflected on itself could no longer detach reason’s interest in emancipation from its concept of rationality. Now, however, that interconnection exists because in rational discussion as such a tendency is inherent, irrevocably, which is precisely a decisive commitment entailed by rationality itself, and which therefore does not require the commitment [Dezision] of pure faith. But rationalism would revoke [sublate] itself to become the positivistic version of blind faith if the comprehensive rationality of unconstrained dialogue between communicating human beings—which Popper tacitly requires from the outset—were merely to be subjected once again to the limited rationality of social labor. [26]

Popper’s discussion of methodological questions, as David Pole pointed out against him quite correctly, [27] presupposes the prior understanding of a rationality that is not as yet divested of its normative elements: methodological decisions can only be discussed on a rational basis if prior to that we have formed a concept of a “good” theory, a “satisfactory” argument, a “true” consensus, and a perspective that is hermeneutically “fruitful”; in such a concept, descriptive and normative contents are still not separated. Popper, on the other hand, must deny the rationality of such decisions, because it is they which determine to begin with the rules according to which the empirical analysis can be carried out in a value-free manner. And what is cut off especially is a discussion which would have to develop the objective implications of methodical decisions within the social context of the process of research, but which cannot do so owing to an undialectical separation of questions of genesis from those of validity.

This precarious inhibition of rationality is revealed still more distinctly in the discussion of practical questions as envisioned by Popper. Value systems, too, are to be subjected to rational tests of validity that are just as rigorous as those of scientific theory, even if they are conducted in a different manner. According to the criteria for this validity, just as in the sciences, decisions would have to be reached methodologically. By means of such criteria, the factual consequences that value systems have for social life could be tested in given situations on analogy with the information content of empirical science theories. In this connection, Hans Albert makes the utilitarian suggestion “to place in the foreground . . . in the establishment of a criterion for the validity of ethical systems, the satisfaction of human needs, the fulfillment of human desires, the avoidance of unnecessary human suffering. Such a criterion would have to be discovered and established, just as this is true for the criteria of scientific thought. The social rules of the game and also institutions, which to a certain degree are embodiments of ethical ideas that could be tested with the aid of such a criterion, are based on human invention. It is not to be expected that such a criterion would simply be accepted without further argument . . . but a rational discussion of a usable criterion is possible without any difficulties.” [28] Now, however, the establishment of such criteria is withdrawn from empirical scientific control, in view of the methodologically presupposed dualism of matters of fact and of moral decision. Precisely the desire for a far-reaching rationalization involuntarily renders visible the positivistic limits: questions of fact are prejudged in the form of methodological decisions, and the practical consequences flowing from the application of such criteria are excluded from reflection. Instead, a hermeneutic clarification of the need and the need satisfaction historically appropriate to the developmental state of society would be required, as well as a concept of suffering and “unnecessary” suffering valid for the epoch. Above all, the criterion selected would have to be derived as such from the objective complex of underlying interests and justified in terms of these. That in turn already presupposes a comprehensive concept of rationality, and especially one that does not hesitate to reflect on its own interrelationship with the historical stage of development attained by the knowing subjects. As soon as argument with rational warrants is carried on at the methodological—the so-called metatheoretical and metaethical—level, the threshold to the dimension of comprehensive rationality has already been breached. The proponents of positivistic enlightenment, who have confidence in their rationalism only as an article of faith, cannot reflect on what they thus presuppose as reason, as an interest identical with that of reason, for although they themselves have only been infected with the dogmatism of the technologists, they cannot see through it.

Only a reason which is fully aware of the interest in the progress of reflection toward adult autonomy, which is indestructibly at work in every rational discussion, will be able to gain transcendent power from the awareness of its own materialistic involvements. It alone will be able to begin reflecting on the positivistic domination of the technical interest of knowledge, growing out of the interrelationships of an industrial society that integrates science within it as a productive force, and which thus protects itself as a whole from critical insight. It alone can dispense with sacrificing the attained dialectical rationality of language to the deeply irrational criteria of a technologically constrained rationality of labor. Only it can seriously intervene in the complex of compulsive interrelations of history, which remains dialectical as long as it is not liberated so that the dialogue of mature, autonomous human beings can take place. Today the convergence of reason and commitment, which the philosophy of the great tradition considered to be intimately linked, must be regained, reflected, and reasserted on the level of positive science, and that means carried on through the separation which is necessarily and correctly drawn on the level of technological rationality, the dichotomy of reason and commitment. Science as a productive force can work in a salutary way when it is suffused by science as an emancipatory force, to the same extent as it becomes disastrous as soon as it seeks to subject the domain of praxis, which is outside the sphere of technical disposition, to its exclusive control. The demythification which does not break the mythic spell but merely seeks to evade it will only bring forth new witch doctors. The enlightenment which does not break the spell dialectically, but instead winds the veil of a halfway rationalization only more tightly around us, makes the world divested of deities itself into a myth.

Schelling’s romantic dictum about reason as controlled insanity gains an oppressively acute sense under technological domination over a praxis, which for that reason alone is detached from theory. The motive of reason was already central and determining in myth, religion, and philosophy; there it had the function of laying the foundation, within the manifold of shapeless phenomena, for the unity and coherence of a world; this motive lives on in a perverted manner in insanity. When the sciences, within the flux of phenomena in principle devoid of world, [29] seek to wrest from contingency that which is empirically uniform, they are positivistically purged of insanity. They control but they do not control insanity; and therefore insanity must remain ungoverned and uncontrolled. Reason would have to rule in both domains; but this way, reason falls between two stools. Accordingly, the danger of an exclusively technical civilization, which is devoid of the interconnection between theory and praxis, can be clearly grasped; it is threatened by the splitting of its consciousness, and by the splitting of human beings into two classes—the social engineers and the inmates of dosed institutions.


25. K. R. Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies (Princeton, N.J.: 1950).

26. D. Pole, Conditions of Rational Inquiry (London: 1961 ), p. 50ff.

27. See the concluding chapter of G. Radnitsky, Contemporary Schools of Metascience, vol. 2, 2nd ed. (Goteborg: 1970).

28. H . Albert, “Ethik und Metaethik,” in Archiv für Philosophie, vol. 2, 1961, p. 59f.; Traktat über kritische Vernunft (Tübingen: 1968), especially chapter 3.

29. See Toward a Rational Society, pp. 50f.

SOURCE: Habermas, Jürgen. “Dogmatism: Reason, and Decision: On Theory and Praxis in Our Scientific Civilization,” in Theory and Practice, translated by John Viertel (Boston: Beacon Press, 1973), pp. 253-282. This section: pp. 276-282 + 305 (notes). The opening paragraphs of the preceding section is “The partisanship of the critique of ideology in favor of technological rationality” (268-276) can be found via the link; followed by characterization of four levels of rationalization of technical control (pp. 270-275); followed by the extract Jürgen Habermas on centralized automation of social control (pp. 275-276).

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