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The Library of Living Philosophers
by Michael Graubart
Habermas, born in 1929, began his academic career as assistant to Adorno and Horkheimer and went on to become Professor of Philosophy and Sociology in Frankfurt in 1964. It is no surprise that social structures and processes are inextricably connected with language, hermeneutics and epistemology in his wideranging work, and that he has been concerned with a Critical Theory of society. For Habermas, social and political theory must be critical.
A central preoccupation is that knowledge cannot be detached from human interests; indeed, that the epistemological bases of the truth-claims in the empiricalanalytic sciences, the historical-hermeneutic sciences and the critically oriented (i.e. social and political) sciences differ and are dependent on the interests they serve. Habermas challenges the distinction between descriptive theory (theory as disinterested observation) and prescriptive normative theory leading to action. He has sought to place Critical Theory on a sound epistemological basis, and has subjected Hegel’s (as well as Kant’s) epistemology to a thoroughgoing critique.
As far as hermeneutics, the theory of understanding and interpretation, is concerned, Habermas confronted Gadamer (the subject of a recent Philosophy Now article) in his famous contribution to the Festschrift dedicated to Gadamer on his 70th birthday in 1970. Gadamer recognized the importance of prejudgements (a less loaded word in English than ‘prejudices’) in the understanding of language. For him, respect for authority and the traditions of one’s community are paramount; meaning has to precede understanding.
Habermas, on the other hand – and this is perhaps the most important aspect of his position, and one that informs all his thought – believes that the project of cultural and philosophical modernity (which he distinguishes from societal modernity and the crisis in advanced capitalism), namely the working-out of the Enlightenment’s enthronement of reason, is not dead (as the postmodernists in philosophy and in the arts assert) but is as yet incomplete. For Habermas, reason should be the basis of the consensus upon which communication depends, not authority.
Consensus is achieved through the dialogical use of natural or colloquial languages, as contrasted with essentially monological formal languages. A natural language is unlimitedly creative; it can be reflexive (i.e. it can be its own metalanguage) and is the ultimate metalanguage of all theories, which can only become functional in society through natural language. Moreover, Habermas distinguishes between communicative competence and mere linguistic competence. There can be no meaning without a striving for truth (pace Gadamer), and truth implies action: colloquial communication is the interaction between language and action.
Habermas’ critique of authority as the ground of hermeneutics is based on the psychoanalytical study of systematically distorted communication. In individuals, this manifests itself in the pathological speech of psychotics: depth hermeneutics – by the analysis of dreams as well as of the fundamentally meaningless utterances of psychotics – reveals a prelinguistic layer of paleosymbols. In society, it finds expression in the form of ideologies. Thus consensus, if based on authority and enshrined in communal traditions, may not be free. It may be based on distorted communication, and it may be forced: authority always implies force. True consensus presupposes right living, right structures of society.
As has already been implied, Habermas does not recognize a distinction between a supposedly disinterested search for truth and a normative critique of society implying action. It is therefore not too naive to use political terminology to characterize his overall attitude. It is a left-wing one – but a liberal one, too, opposing authority and ideology. It refuses to regard the methodology and rationale of the physical sciences as the model for all rational enquiry, but nevertheless insists on a profound analysis of the epistemological bases of all theories. It is fundamentally optimistic in its belief in the possibility of communication and action based on rationally-reached consensus, while being realistic in its recognition that such a desirable state of affairs is not yet with us.
© Michael Graubart 2000
The Philosophy of Jürgen Habermas, in the Library of Living Philosophers Series, edited by Lewis E. Hahn, will be published by Open Court Press.