The Theory of Ideology and the Ideology of Theory? Habermas contra Adorno Habermas’s Marxism

Is Habermasian Social and Political Theory Merely Positivist Ideology?

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6. Is Habermasian Social and Political Theory Merely Positivist Ideology?

In her article Cook accuses both Habermas’s social and his political theory of being ‘ideology’. In fact she makes two rather different accusations. First she claims that the process of colonization is itself reinforced ideologically through the medium of advertising. This seems to ignore the whole point of introducing the theory of colonization in the first place. According to Habermas the pathologies of modern capitalist societies have causes that are more mundane and less mysterious than the theory of ideology in the pejorative sense makes them appear. The economic system does not need the arcane power of ideologies to make people in the lifeworld accept the disturbances it causes. Secondly Cook asserts, without argument, that Habermas’s ‘notion of reason’ is ‘ideologically suspect’. I take the objection to be that Habermas’s social theory underestimates the need for radical change, that it shows too much faith in the ‘rational potential’ of existing liberal democratic states, and that it justifies, instead of criticizing, existing institutions of law, democracy and morality. The passage of Between Facts and Norms, which Cook adduces to back up her second claim, runs as follows:

…[C]ontext-transcending validity claims…are not themselves transported into the beyond of an ideal realm of noumenal beings. In contrast to the projection of ideals in the light of which we can identify deviations “the idealising presuppositions we always already have to adopt whenever we want to reach mutual understanding do not involve any kind of correspondence or comparison between idea and reality.”’ (BFN 323)

As interpreted by Cook this passage makes ‘the critical leverage once offered by the concept of communicative reason (which was already much less critical than many radicals would have liked)’ disappear entirely.38 What radicals of whatever stripe would have liked is neither her nor there. The question at issue here is (as ever): on the basis of what normative criteria is social theory entitled to criticize existing institutions, and what is the force of those criticisms? In this passage Habermas makes the now familiar point that there is no transcendent, Platonic idea of the good ready to hand for the social theorist to apply, nor any thick conception of goodness (or comprehensive metaphysical doctrine) on which everyone can agree, as the basis of political justification. There are, however, ‘thin’ context-transcending validity claims to truth and moral rightness respectively, but these are pragmatic presuppositions of existing communicative practice, i.e. of the non-strategic use of speech oriented towards reaching understanding. Cook concludes from this that ‘[s]ince no salient distinction can now be made between the ideal dimension of reason and existing discursive practices, it becomes difficult to understand how communicative reason can continue to serve even as the normative basis for social criticism.’39 Cook repeats her claim, ‘there is no opposition between the ideal and the real because “particles and fragments of an existing reason [are] already incorporated in political practices, however distorted these may be.” …Sociologists are to confirm what the philosopher Habermas apparently already knows: the real is rational. Indeed, as Marcuse observed with respect to Hegel’s equally affirmative Philosophy of Right: at this point, critical philosophy cancels itself out.’40 This is a travesty of Habermas’s position. Recall that Habermas’s point is simply that the universal and context-transcendent standards of criticism to which his social theory appeals are immanent to practices of communication. If he is right, then these standards do allow us to criticize the social world, to say how it ought to be and ought not to be. For example, they make it possible for us to judge whether institutions or policies are morally acceptable, by seeing whether or not they are based on principles which every affected person has reason to accept. This is exactly what Hegel, in the Preface to the Philosophy of Right, warns his readers against doing, and what he says philosophy anyway comes to late to do, namely to make normative judgments about how the world ought to be. So it is quite wrong to equate Habermas and Hegel here.41 Cook would be on much safer ground if she offered arguments against Habermas’s rational reconstruction of speech oriented towards understanding and challenged his conception of communicative rationality, but she does not do that. Instead she asserts that Habermas’s thesis normative ideals are immanent to the communicative use of language, that discourse and communicative action are the essential structuring principles of social interaction, and that they have to some extent been embodied in the democratic institutions of western liberal democracies, is just ‘positivist ideology’.

After totally misrepresenting Habermas’s theory Cook’s concludes that Habermas’s critical theory be rejected in favour of a critical theory based on transcendent, ideal, normative standards. It appears then that Cook has shifted position. In her conclusion she accepts something like the strong version of Adorno’s negativism outlined above, which implies that there is no extant goodness or rightness in the world and thus no immanent basis for normative social criticism. But her response is to adopt a position that is much more like Marcuse’s rehabilitation of transcendent criticism, than Adorno’s in principle, if not always in practice, resolutely immanent and negativistic approach. Marcuse claims that the ‘judgement that human life is worth living’ is ‘the a priori of social theory’.42 It would be interesting, and perhaps not before time, for someone to defend Marcuse’s metaphysically and normatively much richer conception of critical theory. But it is a different position to Adorno’s, and not one that Cook can happily adopt. For this Marcusean view is clearly in conflict with her initial claim that Adorno conducts an immanent critique on the basis of bourgeois liberal ideology – the hidden rational potential of culture, i.e., that he is what I call a weak negativist.

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