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?

Habermas rightly discounts the two extreme replies to these questions which seek, from diametrically opposite standpoints, to deny that they are problematic at all. He refuses to follow either the relativists, whose answer is that Western science is just another parochial myth, or the positivists, whose answer is that any question not answerable by Western science is arbitrary and therefore meaningless. Against the relativists, he insists that the relations of cause and effect which underlie the demonstrable efficacy of science in matching ends to means have for that very reason, whether we like it or not, to be put on a different epistemological footing. Against the positivists, he insists that there is more to human attitudes and behaviour than they are willing to accept and that the demonstrable meaningfulness of actions which are not merely instrumental depends precisely on there being other criteria of validity than those of science. This leads him to introduce his own proposed solution by way of a critique and reformulation of the approach of Max Weber, whom he sees as having made the most deservedly influential attempt to reconcile the merits and limitations of the two untenable extremes; and it leads him to follow Weber also in acknowledging that not only can the epistemological and the substantive aspects of the problem not be divorced from each other but that the nature of their connection is itself bound up with the choice of views of man’s place in nature.

The nub of his criticism of Weber is his exposure of the paradox at the heart of Weber’s answer to the two big, basic questions. The progressive rationalisation and ‘disenchantment’ (Weber’s Entzauberung) of the world both separate out the sphere of ‘purpose-rational’ action in institutional terms and expose other spheres of action as ‘value-rational’ and therefore arbitrary in methodological terms. But to take purpose-rational action as the paradigm of rationality is to appeal not to logic and science but to a criterion of value which accords the reasoning linking means to ends a priority outside of its own proper sphere, where it is, on Weber’s own argument, on all fours with the old gods in the irreconcilable polytheism of contending world-views. Weber’s economic history thus becomes not merely an explanation but a celebration of the evolution of capitalism through its elective affinity with a disenchanted world-view, and his sociology of law succeeds in construing its history and functions in purpose-rational terms ‘only at the cost of an empiricist reinterpretation of the legitimacy problematic and a conceptual separation of the political system from forms of moral-practical rationality – he trims back political will-formation to processes of acquiring and competing for power.’ To Habermas, Weber’s error is that he both equates progressive institutional differentiation with progressive rationalisation and at the same time (and for the same reasons) undervalues the modes of action which in consequence of this differentiation are subordinated to the dominance of the purpose-rational – the dominance, as it is phrased in one of Weber’s most celebrated passages, of ‘specialists without spirit’ and ‘sensualists without heart’.

What, then, is Habermas’s proposed solution? He starts from the preliminary conclusion that ‘To sum up, we can say that actions regulated by norms, expressive self-presentations, and also evaluative expressions, supplement constative speech acts in constituting a communicative practice which, against the background of a lifeworld, is oriented to achieving, sustaining, and renewing consensus – and indeed, a consensus that rests on the intersubjective recognition of criticisable validity claims.’ But the difficulty posed by this formulation is that it is hardly more than a platitude. Short of the kind of radical scepticism which renders self-defeating any attempt to generalise about human capabilities and experiences at all, I do not see how Weber or anybody else could find it contentious. We do indeed communicate with one another in ways that presuppose appeal to ‘criticisable validity claims’ other than those about technical means to utilitarian ends. But to remind us that we do is no help in answering the big, basic questions unless it is supplemented by an argument showing that this appeal entails acceptance of a universal criterion of validity as incontestably privileged as the criteria of logic and science; and the catch is that just as we all know that we do appeal to criteria for the assessment of dramaturgical self-expressions, and of aesthetic and moral norms, so do we also know that these appeals do not command the same degree of consensus from China to Peru that is accorded to the discoveries of logic and science. It may be that this is a purely contingent sociological fact; and certainly, the realisation that other people do not share our extra-scientific norms does not require us to abandon them – or vice versa. But if it is a purely contingent fact, then what are the as yet unformulated criteria to which we are implicitly appealing and which do, after all, carry as incontestable a badge of privilege in the eyes of the ‘universal auditor’ as do logic and science? Habermas’s answer consists of two related theses of which I have to say that I do not find either of them tenable.

The first rests on the contention that the appeals which we make to criteria for the assessment of other than purpose-rational actions would lose the point which they self-evidently have if divorced from a prior conviction that ‘responding affirmatively to a validity claim is not merely an empirically motivated decision.’ This, however, like the preliminary conclusion which I quoted above, is still too un-contentious to take us very much further by itself. The crucial step follows from the further claim that ‘access to the object domain of social action through understanding of meaning of itself makes the rationality problematic unavoidable’ – which, for Habermas, is to say that to claim to understand non-purpose-rational action is to be thereby committed to there being a standard of rationality applicable to it which is no less privileged than the standards of logic and science. But this step – or rather, leap – is unwarranted. It is true that we can and do understand expressive and normative actions just as well as instrumental, and that in so doing we assign meaning to criteria of sincerity/insincerity, right/wrong and so forth: to understand what the Azande are doing is to understand that they do genuinely believe in witches, that the dances of the witch-doctors have, for the Azande, an authentically expressive significance and that they have their own good grounds for disapproving of what they believe witches to do. But at this level of understanding, all actions (and beliefs) are as rational as each other. The universal standard of mutual intelligibility to which the historians and ethnographers appeal, just as Habermas says they do, is what underlies the fact that no historian or ethnographer has ever reported a society whose collective norms, institutions and beliefs, however alien from ‘ours’, are literally impossible to grasp. To conclude, however, that because we can grasp them in ‘their’ terms and do appraise them in ‘ours’ we are therefore invoking an equally binding standard of universal rationality at the second stage is simply false. Once we ask, ‘how is it that they can believe and do what observers of all theoretical persuasions must agree that they do?’ we are back up against the original problem that we can be confident that our view of why their crops don’t grow is one to which they could in principle be brought to agree by an education in Western agronomy, but when we find ourselves unable to share their interpretation of their rituals and performances and their view of what constitutes good or bad behaviour, or beautiful or ugly art, we have no such confidence. It is one thing to agree with Kant that what we mean in saying that something is beautiful is that everyone else ought to give approval to it too. But it is quite another to hold that people whose conflicting aesthetic standards are irreconcilable can ever be brought to agreement by an appeal to ‘rationality’ in some sense as binding as the ‘rationality’ of logic and science.

This, however, will not be counted a decisive objection by Habermas himself: and the reason why it will not is, I think, that he believes that when the ‘theory of communicative action’ which gives this work its title has been fully worked out, it will furnish the necessary foundation for the bridge which links criteria of meaning to criteria of validity. The notion of rationality is crucial here too, because what the theory will enable us to specify is precisely the ‘rationally motivating conditions for accepting a criticisable validity claim’. But it is now underpinned by the second major thesis: namely, that analysis of speech acts in terms of illocutionary aims discloses that their meaning depends not just on the actors’ intentions but on the mutually acknowledged context of expectations within which the intentions are framed. It is not just that expressive and regulative speech acts also presuppose some non-contingent standard of validity on which their meaning depends, but that ‘in coming to an understanding about something with one another thus making themselves understandable, actors cannot avoid embedding their speech-acts in precisely these world-relations [corresponding to constative, expressive and regulative speech-acts] and claiming validity for them under these aspects.’ Now it is true both that shared onto-logical as well as epistemological presuppositions underlie the performance of speech-acts of all three kinds and that the analysis of illocutory aims can do much to clarify what they are. But once again, the further conclusion which Habermas wishes to draw is simply not warranted. We can readily agree with him both that Weber’s analysis of rationality and therewith his typology of social action is inadequate and that actions other than purpose-rational are, as Habermas puts it, ‘embedded’ in objectively ascertainable contextual relations to a world taken by speaker and audience alike to be real. But the claims to validity of a non-purpose-rational kind are not thereby vindicated as privileged in the same incontestable way. Again, it is one thing to assess an interlocutor’s sincerity, to test the conformity of his stated intention to the institutional norms on which it depends, and to establish that the context of interaction is not distorted by force or fraud. But it is quite another to suppose that this somehow circumvents or dislodges the objection that the appraisal of the speech-acts and related behaviour which have then been properly classified and understood can be conducted by reference to universal criteria at this higher level.

Yet even if Habermas’s reach exceeds his grasp, to point this out is not to exhaust the interest of his arguments. He is not, after all, trying to write the kind of philosophy concerned only to appraise criteria of validity, and still less the kind of sociology concerned only to explain the history and workings of particular sets of human institutions and practices. He is writing what is unkindly labelled ‘substitute religion’ and more conventionally, as well as more fairly, ‘philosophical anthropology’ – that is, an exposition of man’s place in nature which seeks, without contradicting any of the accepted findings of either philosophy as logic or sociology as science, to integrate them into a wider conception of the meaning of human existence and the possibilities open to mankind for a wiser, freer and happier future. He may be mistaken to suppose that his own, or for that matter anybody else’s, philosophical anthropology can ever aspire to universal assent. But he is perfectly entitled to hope that his writings when taken as a whole may present a view of the world which is not only less bleakly cynical than Weber’s, less unrealistically utopian than Lukacs’s, and less despairingly metaphysical than Horkheimer’s or Adorno’s, but more coherent in its own chosen terms and therefore more appealing to those who share with him a desire for a world in which the pursuit of power and profit is somehow subordinated to the value-rational imperatives of an intellectual community whose commitment to mutual understanding unforced by either coercion or self-interest will restore to Weber’s specialists their spirit and to his sensualists their heart.

This summary account of a large book about complex issues which some of the most gifted intellects of the century have failed to resolve cannot possibly have done full justice to its author’s ideas. But unless I have seriously misrepresented its two central theses, it should have made it possible to answer the questions posed in my opening paragraph. Habermas is not an emperor without clothes, even if the enthusiasm with which his writings are received is due more to the congeniality of his aspirations than to the force of his arguments. He is unquestionably original: it would be quite wrong to dismiss him as offering no more than a critical exegesis of Weber or a retrospective defence of the doctrines which he shares with other members of the so-called Frankfurt School. But he is not profound, if by that is meant that he has redefined the terms in which his Problematik will from now on have to be discussed even by theorists of rival persuasions. This, admittedly, is a very demanding criterion. But it is one which his own stated aims invite his readers to apply; and to understand why he fails to meet it is to understand better than before the obstacles which stand in the way of success.