- Hegel contra Sociology by Gillian Rose
Athlone, 261 pp, £18.00, May 1981, ISBN 0 485 11214 0
- The Political Philosophy of the Frankfurt School by George Friedman
Cornell, 312 pp, £9.50, February 1981, ISBN 0 8014 1279 X
- Metacritique by Garbis Kortian, translated by John Raffan
Cambridge, 134 pp, £12.50, August 1980, ISBN 0 631 12779 8
- The Idea of a Critical Theory by Raymond Geuss
Cambridge, 99 pp, £10.00, December 1981, ISBN 0 521 24072 7
- The Politics of Social Theory by Russell Keat
Blackwell, 245 pp, £12.50, August 1981, ISBN 0 631 12779 8
- Critical Hermeneutics by John Thompson
Cambridge, 257 pp, £17.50, September 1981, ISBN 0 521 23932 X
- Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences by Paul Ricoeur, translated by John Thompson
Cambridge, 314 pp, £20.00, September 1981, ISBN 0 521 23497 2
Natural man is born free but is everywhere in chains. ‘Civilised man’, unfortunately, ‘is born and dies a slave. The infant is bound up in swaddling clothes, the corpse is nailed down in his coffin. All his life man is imprisoned by institutions.’ Optimists will insist, as Helvétius did to Rousseau, that ‘l’éducation peut tout.’ Pessimists will reply, like de Maistre, that sheep are born carnivorous but everywhere eat grass. How do we know, if the men we see around us and we ourselves are slaves, that natural man is free? By introspection, says Rousseau – in tracing, through biography, the simplicity of the heart and its all but inevitable degradation by society. The biography may be theoretical, as in Émile and the discourse on inequality, or literary, as in the character of Saint-Preux, for instance, in La Nouvelle Héloise, or literal, as in the Confessions.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
[*] The Tragedy of Enlightenment by Paul Connerton. Cambridge, 176 pp., £14 and £4.50, 1980, 0 521 22842.
Vol. 3 No. 24 · 17 December 1981
SIR: Geoffrey Hawthorn reviews my book, Hegel contra Sociology (LRB, 19 November) as if I build the case for Hegel’s importance for social theory on a dismissal of the case for Habermas’s ideal speech situation. He also says that I see sociological reason as ‘a deluded world’ which is ‘uncomprehendingly stuck “at the Fichtean station” ’. In fact, the first and longest chapter of my book is devoted to discussing the ‘neo-Kantian paradigm’, in order to derive the conditions of intelligibility of sociological reason, not its ‘uncomprehendability’. My discussion of Habermas is merely a sideline in this argument, which examines the Fichtean station as already half-way on the road between Kant and Hegel.
Hawthorn accuses me of saying ‘three times that Hegel has no social import if the absolute cannot be thought,’ and yet I ‘never quite say how to think it’. Yet the main bulk of the book is devoted to explaining how the absolute might be thought in different areas of social life: in politics, art, religion, philosophy etc. Finally, Hawthorn indicts me for severity, for being ‘far too self-denying’ in insisting ‘that if a view is not secure it has no value.’ But my whole book is a defence and restatement of the view that Hegelian heights are, as he puts it, the most ‘sensational’ in offering a perspective on the recurrent issues of social theory. Furthermore, I try to show that Hegel himself provides an account of why his view is ‘not secure’, an account which, I suggest, may usefully be applied to the history of Marxism.
In short, Geoffrey Hawthorn’s strategy of reducing so many books to their common denominator by elliptical reference to Rousseau and Habermas has caused him to overlook completely my claim that a neo-Hegelian Marxism might provide the best answer to the problem of Rousseau’s new Héloise.
University of Sussex
SIR: Authors may show forbearance when their ideas are misunderstood: but when misunderstanding borders on distortion, both of one’s own ideas and of those about which one writes, then there may be some obligation for authors to respond. It is this sense of obligation which prompts me to comment upon Geoffrey Hawthorn’s recent review of books dealing with issues in ‘critical theory’.
Included within the scope of this sweeping review is Paul Ricoeur’s Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences. The themes of this book are summed up by Mr Hawthorn in one sentence: Ricoeur, it seems, conceives of language in terms of two poles ‘which ground reflection and hope together to reveal what we really may mean in what we say’. This is simply a misrepresentation of Ricoeur’s position. In Chapter Two of Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences Ricoeur is critical of the attempt to ‘ground reflection’ through an analysis of language. For Ricoeur, reflection is one stage in a process of interpretation which cannot be divorced from historical tradition and which does not stand in need of being ‘grounded’. As for the suggestion that the process of interpretation will ‘reveal what we really may mean in what we say’, it may be left to Mr Hawthorn, let alone Ricoeur, to tell us what this suggestion ‘really may mean’.
Mr Hawthorn’s treatment of my book, Critical Hermeneutics, is even more disconcerting. Apparently I have attempted ‘to rescue the whole of Habermas’s vertiginous ambition … by reconnecting the abstracted interlocutors of the ideal speech situation to what is, as put forward by Thompson, a disappointingly unargued and rather simple view of a very uncivil society’. Indeed such a view is unargued for, since I put forward no view of any society, uncivil or otherwise. What I argue for in the closing pages of my book (pages 209-13) is the following idea: to make sense of the notion of rationally resolving conflicts concerning the truth of interpretations, one must imagine the possibility that subjects could come to an agreement about the interpretations under conditions which were free from asymmetrical relations of power. I try to show how this idea can be elaborated so as to avoid some of the objections that may be levelled against Habermas’s formulation of the ideal speech situation.
I am sure that the careful reader could find difficulties in the arguments which I advance in Critical Hermeneutics. Mr Hawthorn dismisses these arguments out of hand, engaging in caricature rather than criticism. This, perhaps, is what he understands by ‘civility’.
Jesus College, Cambridge
Geoffrey Hawthorn writes: I did not intend to suggest that Gillian Rose makes her case for Hegel just against Habermas. I intended to say that she makes it against varieties of what may be described as ‘neo-Kantianism’. Habermas, about whom I was writing in the review, happens to be one of the most recent and most impressive ‘neo-Kantians’. Nor did I intend to reduce her book or any of the others. I intended merely to say in the space available to me how Hegel contra Sociology and the others connected to Habermas. However, I did intend to say, and would maintain, that Gillian Rose never quite tells us how to think the absolute. At page 204 she says that ‘if we cannot think the absolute this means that it is therefore not our thought in the sense of not realised. The absolute is the comprehensive thinking which transcends the dichotomies between concept and intuition, theoretical and practical reason. It cannot be thought (realised) because these dichotomies and their determination are not transcended.’ Yet, she continues, ‘once we realise this we can think the absolute by acknowledging the element of Sollen in such a thinking, by acknowledging the subjective element, the limits on our thinking the absolute. This is to think the absolute and to fail to think it quite differently from Kant and Fichte’s thinking and failing to think it.’ Other readers may take a different view, but the most charitable interpretation I could make of this paradox was that Gillian Rose was faute de mieux falling back upon a so-called ‘left Hegelian’ reading, in which, in her words (page 211), ‘speculative discourse [is] turned back into the discourse of abstract opposition.’ I believed myself to be confirmed in this by what she says about a possible Marxism at pages 219-220. She does indeed concede that Hegel himself saw the ‘historical barriers’ to his success (page 211), but does not defend his more purely logical and ontological arguments against the criticisms that have been made of them by Taylor and many others. So when I said that ‘we’, in ‘the international world of sociological reason’, are ‘uncomprehendingly’ stuck at the Fichtean station, I meant simply to record her view that we lack ‘comprehension’ in the true Hegelian sense of that term. I cannot speak for others, but I certainly do lack comprehension, because I cannot think the absolute any more clearly after reading Gillian Rose’s book than I could before, although I believe that I now understand why I cannot, which is a tribute to the book. Yet the paradox of not being able to do so and yet of not believing that Hegel has ‘no social import’, or no value, because I cannot, is a paradox that I would defend.
John Thompson misreads me on Ricoeur. I did not say, I do not understand what it would mean to say, that Ricoeur grounds reflection through language. I said, as Ricoeur himself says in the chapter to which John Thompson refers, that for him discourse is intelligible and so ‘grounded’ as a mediation between the memory of Exodus and the hope of Resurrection. My objection to John Thompson’s sociology is just that it is simple and tendentious. He sketches Society as consisting of nothing but putatively free and perspicuous subjects who are ‘dominated’ by unspecified institutions and ideologies. Accordingly, he supposes and does not defend the point of a critical theory.
Vol. 4 No. 1 · 21 January 1982
SIR: Mr Hawthorn insists on defending his ill-worded review of books dealing with issues in ‘critical theory’. In his reply to my letter he accuses me of misreading his account of Ricoeur and he alleges that I present a ‘simple and tendentious’ sociology (Letters, 17 December 1981).
According to Mr Hawthorn, Ricoeur ‘takes language rather “as a medium, a mediation, an exchange between Telos and Ursprung”: two poles, one of pre-theoretical intuition, the other of utopian ambition, which ground reflection and hope together to reveal what we really may mean in what we say’. Let me unfold step by step the confusions contained in this passage. 1. When Ricoeur spoke of language as ‘an exchange between Telos and Ursprung’, he was commenting on and endorsing certain aspects of the theory of language in Husserl’s Logical Investigations. In this context, ‘Telos’ refers to the ideal of logicity – that is, of a well-formed logical system; it has nothing to do with ‘utopian ambition’, as Mr Hawthorn says in his review, or with ‘the hope of Resurrection’, as he says in his reply. ‘Ursprung’ refers to the pre-linguistic experience which may be expressed in language; it is identical neither with ‘pre-theoretical intuition’, as Mr Hawthorn suggests in his review, nor with ‘the memory of Exodus’, as he suggests in his reply. 2. At best, it would be very misleading to maintain that any of the six terms just distinguished served, in Ricoeur’s philosophy, to ‘ground reflection and hope’. Anyone who writes on critical theory should be more sensitive than Mr Hawthorn is to the weight which is carried by the expression ‘to ground’. Habermas’s formulation of the ideal speech situation is only the most recent in a long history of attempts, stretching from Marx to Marcuse, to establish a standpoint which would ‘ground’ the critique of ideology. One of the key issues in the debate between hermeneutics and critical theory concerns precisely this point: critique and self-reflection, maintain hermeneutic philosophers such as Ricoeur, are part of a process of interpretation which cannot be grounded in an abstract conception of ideal speech. Mr Hawthorn’s account ignores this point and slurs over an essential distinction. 3. As for the final phrase, ‘to reveal what we really may mean in what we say’: in my letter I asked Mr Hawthorn to explain what this ‘really may mean’. Since he did not say in his reply, it may be assumed that Mr Hawthorn himself has no idea. In view of such confusions and absurdities, it would be charitable to conclude that Mr Hawthorn has misrepresented Ricoeur’s position. Need I add that nothing of the richness and importance of Ricoeur’s Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences is conveyed by his convoluted sentence ?
His account of my Critical Hermeneutics bears even less resemblance to the contents of the book. In his review he claimed that I put forward ‘a disappointingly unargued and rather simple view of a very uncivil society’, and in his reply he defends this claim as follows: ‘He sketches Society as consisting of nothing but putatively free and perspicuous subjects who are “dominated” by unspecified institutions and ideologies.’ I make no attempt to sketch Society with a capital ‘S’, or to sketch any number of societies with little ‘s’s’. What I try to do in Chapter Four of my book is to elucidate some of the social conditions of action, conditions which I discuss on the institutional and structural levels. I certainly do not maintain that subjects are ‘dominated’ by these conditions in a way which would render them docile, ‘putatively free’. On the contrary, I contend that the very concept of action presupposes that the subject ‘could have done otherwise’; and throughout the book I emphasise the creative and transformative character of action, arguing against all forms of ‘social determinism’. This does not mean that subjects are always aware of the social conditions of their action – at least it cannot be assumed that they are. One of the points of critical theory, as I conceive it, is to seek to clarify these conditions through a depth interpretation of action. Whether such interpretation results in a clarification of these conditions, and whether these conditions can in turn be criticised as unjust, is not for the critical theorist alone to say. For these questions could be answered only by the agreement, reached in circumstances freed from asymmetrical relations of power, of the subjects concerned. I do not know whether this amounts to a ‘simple and tendentious’ sociology, as Mr Hawthorn alleges: but it is, evidently, too complex for Mr Hawthorn to understand.
Jesus College, Cambridge