To the hip and anti-meta-narrative, Jürgen Habermas' obssession with the enlightenment must be jarring to the point of distraction. I once saw the hip Marixist-Lacanian and pop-culturalist Slavoj Zizek speak where at one point in the lecture, he started attacking Habermas. His most devastating critique was that Habermas was, well, boring.
Boring he may be, but for me, Habermas' obsession on rationality brings a clarity to troubling questions that never got quite answered in the rabble of nihilist, deconstructionist, and Foucaldian writings that I have read. His writing style is somewhat graceless, but in today's forest of post-structuralist literary wordplay, his plodding rigour is a scare commodity indeed.
But what makes me pay attention, is that Habermas' obsession with rationality, was not the result of a teutonic fetish with systematic thinking, but born of a violent gut reaction against the Nazi regime that he had grown up in. In an interview, Habermas remembers the pivotal moment when, as a 15 years old huddled around the radio following the Nuremburg trials with his friends, he suddenly realized "that we had been living in a politically criminal system." He then remembers looking around at his friends, and saw that none of them had understood the enormity of what had happened. Instead, they were arguing over the legal minutia of the trial itself.
His life's work can be seen as an attempt to diagnose the horrors of Aushwitz – how to make his friends understand the gravity of the Holocaust. And to work out how one might prevent it from happening again. Being a gifted inter-disciplinary thinker, he has attacked the problem from a myriad number of angles: philsophy, sociology, poltics and psychology. He is a generous thinker and always manages to find a take-home message in everybody he reads, with the result that his magnum opus "The Theory of Communicative Action" reads like a philosophical Rube Goldberg machine. Through this philosophical juggernaut, Jürgen Habermas has succeeded in diagnosing many structural problems that have plagued modernity, and for that, he may be the most influential philosopher of his generation.
German sociologist Max Weber famously wrote about the Iron Cage of Modernity, the inevitable growth of beauracratic thinking, which Weber argued was the end-point of rational societies. Modernity, or the deification of rational thinking prizes calculation and control over all aspects of life, and this tendency would place ever more power into bureaucratic government institutions in communist governments, and corporate behemoths in capitalist societies. The Iron Cage, as much as any other metaphor, came to symbolize the bête noir of the now legendary Frankfurt School, the school in which Habermas came to prominence.
The Frankfurt School, or the Institute of Social Research located in Frankfurt, was a school devoted to furthering the insights of Marx, and included neo-Marxist thinkers such as Adorno, Horkheimer, Marcuse and of course, Max Weber. Whilst doing his thesis at the Frankfurt School, Habermas found that the thinking there had ossified into a paralytic pessimism against modern society. To his immense disatisfaction, the professors at the Frankfurt School did not believe in political engagement where Adorno even famously argued that beauty itself was a sick bourgeois value to be avoided. Habermas found this pessimism a whole iron cage of its own. He soon left there after finishing his thesis, but would eventually return to head the school and take it in a new direction.
Much of Habermas' philosophy can be seen as the attempt to break free of the pessimism of the Frankfurt School without giving up on the Enlightment tradition. If there is one single idea that might characterise the break from his predecessors, it is that Habermas believes in the essential role of communication in rational thinking. Communication between two speaking subjects is a fundamental category that cannot be reduced to any other philosophical category – neither psychology, nor science, nor metaphysics.
The essential role of communication in Habermas' philosophy owes much to the work of Oxford philosopher John Austin. In his book "How to Do Things with Words", Austin showed that language does way more than express feelings or state facts about the world. Although we can use words to express our thoughts, or to describe the world, more often than not, we use words as actions in their own right – to thank someone, to apologize to someone, and even to marry someone. These actions can only be done with words and Austin called this the locutionary force of words. The locutionary force of these words is intrinsically communicative and cannot be reduced to metaphysics, or pyschology. The theory of communicative action is the result of Habermas' attempt to flesh out Austin's concept of the locutionary force.
The whole thrust of Habermas' later work, first articulated in "The Theory of Communicative Action", is to rework the entire corpus of the Western canon in light of communicative action. Habermas showed that the classical Kantian division of philosophy between metaphysics, morality and aesthetics, can be understood as the three irreducible aspects of a speech act. Whenever I speak to you, there are always three different criteria needed for you to accept what I say – that I have the right to speak to you (morality), that what I said was an honest expression of what I think or feel (aesthetics), and that the things I talk about actually exist in the world (metaphysics).
Communicative action explained one thing to me that had puzzled me for a long time – the difference between the social and physical sciences. In his book "On logic of the social sciences", Habermas argues that the need for social scientists to communicate with their objects of study, places constraints that physical scientists have no awareness of. A physicist is not bound by ethics to his electron. He does not have to talk to it or earn its trust. He can abuse it all he likes without repercusion. In contrast, a sociologist studying Amazonian tribesmen must talk to the Amazonian to find out anything of value. The sociologist is immediately entangled in communicative action, and the ethical problems that come with it.
Following the Hegelian tradition of grand historical thinking, Habermas uses communicative action to trace the evolution of society as part of the Enlightenment project. By placing communication in the foundations of philosophy, sociology and philosophy are intertwined from the roots. In books such as "The Structural transformation of the Public Sphere and Legitamation Crisis", Habermas analyzes, in exhaustive detail, how social institutions set up the possiblity of public communication leading to the potential for greater rationality. As communicative action provides an aspect of rationality that extends beyond mere calculation and control, the Iron Cage of Weber is not the inevitable end-point of Modernity, but a derailing of the Enlightenment project. The unbalanced obsession with calculation and control prevents communicative action between speaking subjects, and thus, becomes an attack on rationality itself.
One enormous difference between Habermas and the Continental philosophers, with their delight in linguistic word-play, is that Habermas has contributed to real political debate. He served as a important public intellectual, publishing often in German newspapers. More importantly, using the formal conditions of communicative action, Habermas has developed a theory of theory of law and society that has made a real contribution to the public discourse. His brick-like tome "Facts and Norms" is a book that law professors actually read and use.
And unlike the the deconstruction thinkers, he does not feel the need to tear down everything in an act of radical but ultimately, adolescent, iconoclasm. He has constructed a theory that sits well within the tradition of the Enlightenment. It is a theory that can celebrate the triumphs of the Enlightenment – emancipation, civil rights, suffrage, secular law and science – but also exposes its flaws and vulnerabilities, without the self-flagellation and navel-gazing of much post-modern thinking.
Indeed, Habermas has come up with one of the most interesting arguments against deconstructive thinking: the concept of the performative contradiction. A typical deconstruction strategy is to take a central philsophical concept – such as truth – and try to show that in fact, our philosophical truths entails it's opposite. These typically involve intrincate linguistic arguments. But Habermas pointed out that these arguments must take place in some kind of social situation – even if is merely that between an author and a reader. The deconstructive arguments are uttered by a real person, and in making these arguments, the deconstructionist takes a communicative stance. This stance invokes promises of honesty and truth. Otherwise it would be fiction. The fact that deconstruction books are considered non-fiction, means they have a prior communicative claim to truth, which is what deconstruction theorists are leery of. This, then, is a performative contradiction.
But what I like most about Habermas is that he is suprisingly optimistic philosopher. His theory of communicative action undergirds a vision of society that we have barely touched. Through Habermas' eyes, we can see vast unfoldings in the potential of communication, and his theories draws us there in the time that is yet to come.
© 2001, 2006.
List of resources on Habermas provided by Antti Kauppinen, which includes a very amusing photograph of Jürgen.
Bibliography of works since 1993, maintained by Thomas Gregersen.