Congenial Aspirations

W.G. Runciman

  • The Theory of Communicative Action. Vol. One: Reason and the Rationalisation of Society by Jurgen Habermas, translated by Thomas McCarthy
    Heinemann, 456 pp, £25.00, May 1984, ISBN 0 435 82391 4

In the bad old days of academic insularity, when Anglo-Saxon philosophers dismissed Continental philosophy as so much hot air, Continental philosophers were equally ready to dismiss analytical philosophy in its Anglo-Saxon form as flippant and trivial. It is a measure of how far things have changed for the better that Professor Habermas of Frankfurt not only commands a substantial following in the English-speaking world but is himself as willing to proffer a citation from Austin or Ryle as from Husserl or Heidegger. He is a frequent visitor to the philosophy departments of American universities. His writings are regularly translated into English and supplemented by commentaries and symposia in which they are exhaustively re-analysed and discussed. This latest volume is the first of two which are announced by his English publishers as his ‘long-awaited magnum opus’. Hazardous, therefore, as it may be to try to assess the significance of so prolific an author on the strength of a single volume which is only the half of a two-part work, the attempt has to be made as best it can. Is this the distillation of a theory both original and profound? Or the manifesto of an emperor with no clothes?

There is the residual difficulty – for this reviewer, at any rate – that both the mode and the style of the argument are at times uncomfortably opaque. English-speaking readers brought up to savour the elegance, lucidity and wit of Austin or Ryle (to say nothing of Russell or Quine) can hardly fail to find Habermas repetitive, turgid and obscure. This ought not to matter in itself: an academic argument is not necessarily stronger because it is more clearly stated, or less potentially misleading because it is more concise. But the less transparently simple it is, or could ever be made without distorting its meaning, the more important it is that the reader should be clear what kind of argument it is – that is, what would count against it as a genuine objection in its own terms as opposed to a mere dogmatic counter-assertion from within the presuppositions of an alternative metaphysics. There are several, albeit not many, points at which I have to confess, not merely that I am unable to tell exactly what sort of counterargument would count for Habermas himself as telling against him, but that I am unable to tell whether the inability is his fault or mine.

This reservation once entered, however, there is no difficulty in concurring in Habermas’s formulation of the familiar problem to which his work is addressed. It is the problem posed by the incontestable privilege which attaches to the methods and results of the modern – which is also to say, Western – view of the world in which we find ourselves. Magic and religion have been dispossessed by science and logic, and it is no more plausible to suppose that the process will go historically into reverse and the workers in the research laboratories of Frankfurt, Princeton and Leningrad come to share the beliefs of the Azande about witchcraft than that the results of their researches will suffer an epistemological collapse and the atomic structure of a protein molecule turn out to look incomprehensibly different tomorrow from what it is agreed from China to Peru to be today. But how is it that this state of affairs has come about only as and when it has? And what are the consequences for our study of it as an instance of what, along with everything else, we cannot but observe through eyes from which the scales of magic and religion have fallen?

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