The partisanship of the critique of ideology in favor of technological rationality


Jürgen Habermas

No matter how much it insists on a separation of theory and commitment in its opposition to dogmatism, positivism’s critique of ideology itself remains a form of committed reason: nolens volens it takes a partisan position in favor of progressive rationalization. In the case which we will analyze to begin with, its concern, without reservation, is for the extension and dissemination of technical knowledge. In its conflict with dogmatism, as understood by positivism, this critique removes traditionalistic barriers, and ideological barriers of any sort, which can inhibit the progress of the analytic-empirical sciences and the unlimited process of their utilization. This critique is not a value-neutral analysis; its underlying premise is the value of empirical science theories, and this not simply hypothetically, but normatively. For with its first analytic step it already presupposes, normatively, that behaving in accordance with technical recommendations is not only desirable, but also “rational.” This implicit concept of reason can, of course, not be clarified by means of the conceptual resources of positivism itself, even though this concept expresses its intention. By positivistic criteria, rationality of conduct is a value which we simply decide to accept or reject. At the same time, according to these same criteria, it can be demonstrated quite compellingly that rationality is a means for the realization of values, and therefore cannot itself be placed on the same level with all the other values. Indeed, the critique of ideology’s preparation for rational conduct recommends rationality as the preferred—if not exclusive—means for the realization of values, because it guarantees the “efficiency” or “economy” of procedures. Both of these terms betray the interest of knowledge guiding the empirical sciences to be a technical one. They reveal that from the outset rationalization is confined within the limits posed by the system of social labor, that what it refers to is exactly the making available of objective and objectified processes. And in this the power of technical control remains wholly indifferent with respect to the possible value systems, in the service of which it is to be exercised. Efficiency and economy, which are the definition of this rationality, cannot, in turn, be themselves conceived as values, and yet, within the framework of positivism’s understanding of itself, they can only be justified as though they were values. A critique of ideology whose sole goal is to make technological rationality prevail, cannot escape from this dilemma: it desires rationality as a value, because it has the advantage over all the other values of being implicit in the rational modes of procedure themselves. Because this value can be legitimized by pointing to the process of scientific investigation and its technical application, and does not have to be justified in terms of pure commitment alone, it has a preferential status as against all other values. The experience of the controlled success enjoyed by rational conduct exercises a rationally demonstrated compulsion toward the acceptance of such norms of conduct; thus even this limited rationality implies a decision in favor of rationality. In the critique of ideology, which at least tacitly realizes this, a particle of committed reason therefore remains active—in contradiction to the criteria by which it criticizes dogmatism. Because, no matter how perverted, it still remains of a piece with committed reason; it also entails consequences which violate its alleged neutrality toward any value systems whatsoever. On the contrary, the concept of rationality which it seeks to make prevail in its commitment ultimately implies an entire organization of society: one in which a technology become autonomous dictates a value system—namely, its own—to the domains of praxis it has usurped—and all in the name of value freedom.

I wish to distinguish four levels of rationalization, on which we extend our technical powers of control qualitatively. On the first two levels, technologies demand an exclusion of normative elements from the process of scientific argumentation; on the two subsequent levels, however, this elimination changes into its opposite in the subordination of values, which have first been pronounced irrational, to technological procedures, which then establish themselves as values.

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 excerpt, pp. 268-270, opens the section entitled “The partisanship of the critique of ideology in favor of technological rationality” (268-276). Following this extract is a characterization of four levels of rationalization of technical control (pp. 270-275). After that follows the end of this section: see extract: Jürgen Habermas on centralized automation of social control (pp. 275-276). Then comes the concluding section: On the self-reflection of rationalistic “faith” (pp. 276-282 + 305).

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