April 17, 2010

Critical Theory

Jürgen Habermas

Disentanglement of Reason from Terror

German philosopher Jürgen Habermas (b. 1929) is an ardent champion of rationalism in a period of philosophy wherein rationalism has lost certain credibility. During the Age of Enlightenment in the 18th century Europe, the spirit of the time inspired many Europeans to believe that, for the first time in history, humans through the power of reason are grasping the expanding truths of science and natural rights of man, and that these truths will free mankind from ignorance, dogma, and tyranny. They firmly held that the new individuals of the age of science are now equipped with reason and theories that can be put into practice in order to eliminate or reform the unjust social and political institutions. The vision of the Enlightenment was the reconstruction of the human world through reason in order to serve the natural law of “progress”. They looked ahead to a bright future for all humanity, which they thought is guaranteed by the necessary natural law of progress. They deemed the natural law of progress as the natural law of human reason to discover scientific truths about nature and turn this expanding knowledge into practice in the form of technology for the benefit of humanity. In addition, the natural law of progress entailed discovering truths about human nature and turning these truths into practice in order to remove or rectify fraudulent social and political institutions. Never before had human beings been so confident in their knowledge of the natural world and human nature. With a great sense of optimism, they believed they could rebuild the social and political world on a foundation of universal truths. They believed they were, or would be soon, in command of all the knowledge necessary to improve the world. But, today, we are less confident of having the knowledge to solve the problems of poverty, hunger, healthcare, population control, unemployment, political uncertainties, economic crises, energy, and et cetera. Have we lost our Enlightenment sense of optimism?

§1. Critical Theory

Jürgen Habermas, as a great defender of the Enlightenment dream of renovating the human world through reason, ventured to reformulate a pre-existing theory known as the “critical theory”, a theory whose interest is in the practical, not just theoretical, emancipation of human beings. German philosopher Max Horkheimer (1895-1973), a pioneer of this theory, under whom Habermas had studied, stated in his Critical Theory that a theory is vital or critical to the degree it endeavors “to liberate human beings from the circumstances that enslave them”. Critical theory is based on and builds upon philosophy of Karl Marx. Indeed, the critical theory’s longing to liberate human beings in practice is reminiscent not only of Marx’s assertion “The philosophers have so far only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it”, but also of the Enlightenment idea to reconstruct the human world. Habermas is critically interested in human liberation from unnecessary life sufferings. There is a significant difference between living a relatively healthy life and dying at an old age, and living in poverty and dying at an early age. In concocting his theory, Habermas asserted that the human species has three fundamental, or critical, interests in labor, communication, and emancipation. He insisted that these interests are so fundamental and vital that we cannot meaningfully subsist without them.

§2. Fundamental Human Interests: Labor, Communication, and Emancipation

The first fundamental interest of the human species is in reproducing their lives through labor (or work). The second fundamental interest of the human species is in communication (or interaction) with one another. For Habermas, the formation of human self takes place in the spheres of both labor and communication within social context. However, he construed the communicative dimension of human interactions as having a primary role in development of human self because he was of the conviction that we become selves in our interactions with other selves. In this context, if an individual is incapable of adequately communicating with others and is incapable of psychologically and morally benefiting from her or his productive activities, the individual would be self-deficient. Human development is significantly contingent on how human beings externalize their creativity in their labor and how they interact with others. Besides labor and communication, Habermas asserted that the human race has a third fundamental interest: the critical interest in human emancipation, in human liberation from unnecessary constraints to their psychophysical and moral development, the unnecessary constraints to the fundamental interests in labor and communication. Indeed, a society that does not embody these three rudimentary factors in its composition would be in a state of disintegration, and the members of such a society would become alienated from their own selves and each other. One wonders that to what degree the three fundamental factors have been incorporated in the fabric of the American society. Without these deeply seated interests in labor, communication, and emancipation, the social bonds would disintegrate and society would parasitically consume itself.

§3. Instrumental Rationality and Communicative Rationality

Next, Habermas made a distinction between “instrumental rationality” (or instrumental reason) and “communicative rationality” (or communicative reason). Each mode of rationality is governed by a specific set of values that defines its unique functions, operations, and goals. Generally employed in diverse ways in spheres such as science, technology, medicine, healthcare, human labor, legislation, social engineering, economics, and politics, instrumental reason is a particular kind of human reason that is instrumental toward producing a specified, isolated result. For instance, in the realm of science, human reason has contrived investigative methods that are instrumental toward finding causes of natural phenomena. In the realm of politics, human reason has produced governmental agencies and policies that are instrumental in running the domestic and international affairs of the state. Or, in the sphere of human labor (where a current dominant value is efficiency for the sake of profit), human mind through use of technology has devised tools such as hammers or computers that are instrumental in producing certain products and services. In its obstinate pursuit of its objectives, instrumental reason is often insensate to moral, social, environmental, economic, and/or political concerns, just to name a few. Therefore, instrumental reason is characteristically unperceptive to the long-term consequences of its objectives. Further, instrumental reason is more monological than dialogical, and more unilateral than multilateral in its thinking process toward accomplishment of its individuated goals. (For a more thorough treatment of “instrumental rationality” see “Totalitarian Reason”.) On the other hand, communicative reason, commonly exercised in the spheres of the humanities and ethics, is dialogical and interactional. Communicative reason, with its own specific set of values, is a mode of human thinking geared toward interaction with one another and enlightenment.

§4. Communication and Labor

According to Habermas, the sentences that we utter fundamentally have built into them a desire or tendency for consensus or unconstrained understanding. When a person speaks a sentence (e.g., “Don’t count your chickens before they hatch.”), it has built into it the desire that others understand the person. In other words, our sentences already contain the “critical” impulse, i.e., the fundamental human interest in communication. Habermas insists that the fundamental human desire for clear communication, for the sake of understanding one another, is embedded in the structure of phonetic languages. Emphasizing the fundamental human interest in clear and unobstructed communication with one another, Habermas made a contrast between “undistorted communication” and systematically “distorted communication”.

§5. Undistorted Communication

Habermas laid out a series of stipulations for undistorted communication. According to the first stipulation, truly undistorted communication must have “symmetry conditions”. In political terms, it means that everyone must have an equal opportunity to talk and to listen, to question and to receive an answer, to command and to obey. This symmetrical communication is an egalitarian principle, without which the possibility of undistorted communication becomes problematic. When an employer holds power over a powerless employee, or when a government holds power over a powerless citizen—the inequality of power between them creates a condition for distorted communication. Unequal power distorts communication. This is why employees seldom get the undistorted truth from their employers, and employers seldom get the undistorted truth from their employees. The same also applies to marital relations; communication between a wife and her husband is often distorted by relations of unequal powers. To be communicatively rational, everyone must have the same right to speak and to be heard, to question and to receive an answer, to command and to obey.

Philosopher Socrates owned nothing and was virtually in no position of power in the ancient Athens. Yet, his charm was that when he engaged in an argument with an interlocutor who had power (either of political nature or of social status) over him, Socrates would compel him to depend solely on the force of his argument as opposed to his political power or social status. In other words, this was no situation where “might is right”. The only force that Habermas wants us to recognize is the unforced force of communicatively rational argument as opposed to money or power. A free human being is one who can change, without feeling any shame, her or his mind upon hearing a better argument. When a judicious argument has the force to make one see the weakness of one’s own argument and change one’s mind accordingly, this is the force that only a free human being can recognize.

According to the second stipulation, to achieve undistorted communication, one’s contribution in communicating with others should be true, sincere, and relevant. The third stipulation, in attainment of undistorted communication, is a moral condition, that one must try to make one’s contributions toward advancement of a right cause or what is right. Here, there is no theory of “right” other than being true, sincere, and relevant.

§6. Distorted Communication

The critical interest in human emancipation from unnecessary constraints to human development entails freeing ourselves from both the distortions of instrumental reason and the distortions of communicative reason. Is it the case that the American labor force, whose labor conditions are alienable, has managed to subsist in part because of the mass communication industry which actively distorts laborers’ perceptions of their own misery and compels them to pacify themselves with pacifiers such as consumer goods and services? In a nation where capital is of utmost value and where perpetual mass consumption of goods and services vitally sustain the heartbeat of the nation, there may not be any other way.

Habermas’ concept of distorted communication corresponds to Karl Marx’s concept of “ideology”: the ruling ideas are in every age the ideas of the ruling class—that the ruling ideas of the ruling class are ideologies that are purposefully devised to impoverish the masses and to maintain the elite in positions of power. Further, Habermas’ concept of distorted communication passes the test of ideology by asking: Is what you believe—in the interest of those who want you to believe it? For instance, let us consider democracy as it exists in the United States. The powerful—those who own and control the means of production, communication, information, and its dissemination—want the citizens to blindly believe that democracy is a present and immanent reality in this nation. Yet, American democracy and its exportation around the globe under the banner of freedom is an outstanding example of systematically distorted communication as our existing democracy gutlessly backstabs the principle of having a “government of the people, by the people, and for the people”. Work ethics in America is another striking example of systematically distorted communication. In reality, work ethics in America is not so ethical at all—for it is an ideology or codes of conduct that are systematically designed to manipulate and deprive the working class for the sake of benefiting the capitalists. The American work ethics, which has been so cunningly and subconsciously embedded in the minds of the American working class, has deprived them of their leisure, dignity, humanity, family, health, and et cetera. Do you suppose a capitalist boss is ready and willing to engage in undistorted communication with his employees?

§7. Interpretive Basis of Communication

For his communication model, Habermas employed an interpretive base. One way the humanities employ communicative reason to advance clear communication is through interpretation of texts. Habermas highly stressed the critical role of interpretation in our daily lives. A great many people have suffered grim consequences because of interpreting a certain text in a certain way. Consider the Bible: reading and interpreting it in certain ways have sent a great many people to their deaths. Or, take the U.S. Constitution. According to the First Amendment to the Constitution, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” What if one decides to exercise a religion of human sacrifice because the text says that “Congress shall make no law . . . prohibiting the free exercise [of religion]”? The Constitution must mean that; “no law” means no law! The point is that interpretation of text is quite indispensible and consequential in our lives. Habermas insists that we are interpretive beings, with the implication that interpretation is, perhaps, one of the fundamental conditions for formation of the human self. We are always interpreting our and others’ physical and mental states. Am I sad or cheerful, displeased or pleased, chubby or skinny? When we stop at a red traffic light, we are already engaged in an act of interpreting the color red. The color red can have many other meanings: danger, communist, sexy, or else. When we perceive smoke rising from behind a building, we immediately interpret the smoke as having been caused by a fire. People who have been married for over thirty years still keep interpreting each other’s moods and behaviors. This demonstrates the ubiquity of interpretation in human life. (And, one may add to this that, perhaps it is the television shows that interpret themselves to the viewers by bypassing their upper brain functions and directly injecting information into their subconscious minds. In other words, the viewers may not get to interpret the images on television screens; the images interpret or define the viewers.) Hence, Habermas’ theory of communication has an interpretive foundation.

In order to overcome systematically distorted communication, Habermas adopted Freud’s psychoanalytic method of removing problematic symptoms. Freud’s method of removal of symptoms was practiced in a setting where you have an analyst and a patient, wherein the latter “free associates” or reveals her or his train of thoughts while the analyst closely listens. In this setting, the goal is practical, that is, to cure the patient and to remove the symptoms. Further, for Freud, the way the analyst can bring the analysis or therapy of the patient to a conclusion is when the therapist intervenes by presenting a possible interpretation of the symptoms to which both the therapist and the patient are in agreement. In this manner, the psychoanalyst helps the patient to remove her or his own blocks to communication between his or her unconscious and conscious mind. This is the Freudian psychoanalytic method that Habermas adopted, with modifications, in removing blocks or ideologies that distort clear communication between various parties, let’s say between the citizens and their government or between those who own the means of productions and those who work for those who own the means of productions. A capitalist boss may never acquiesce to engage in undistorted communication with her or his employees; however, her or his employees’ enlightened consciousness of their own dehumanizing labor conditions would make it difficult for the boss not to submit.

§8. Distortion of Reason is not a Paradox of Reason

Habermas was cognizant of how instrumental reasoning led to mechanization of human life since the Enlightenment onward and the blow instrumental reason received as a result of the rise of Nazism in Germany in the 20th century. Nevertheless, in his passionate attempt to defend human reason, he tried to mark off a sphere of undistorted communication that can serve as the basis for his concept of communicative reason. His purpose was to untangle the entwinement of enlightened thought and the paradoxical barbarity that has been unfolding since the advent of modernity. The grand vision of the Enlightenment—through its unwavering trust in human reason—was the emancipation of mankind from oppression, yet paradoxically the Enlightenment led to a new form of oppression, irrationality, mechanization of human life, bureaucratization of human societies, totalitarianism of governing powers, and dogmatization of sciences. The promoters of the Enlightenment, such as Voltaire and Rousseau, could not predict an outcome so contrary to human reason. To Habermas, the failures of reason in events such as the rise of communism, fascism, the Cold War, the U.S. war against terrorism, or the fall beneath the level of civilization reached by capitalism—are not indicative of hypocrisy of the Enlightenment dream and of human reason. He attributed such failures to the distortions of reason and communication. According to Habermas, the trick is not to give up on modern life, but to disentangle enlightenment from terror and barbarism. Undoubtedly, modernity has given mankind certain benefits; it is better to have toothache in 2010 than in 1710. It is not human reason that we must abandon, but its distortions.

In conclusion, Habermas insists that communicative rationality is a process of enlightenment that includes all, janitors and senators. In his Theory and Practice, Habermas stated, “in a process of enlightenment there can only be participants.” Money and power, as abstract systems, need to be harmonized with the rest of our social system before we can be in a position to truly communicate with one another rationally without distortions, and be in a position to find our way out of this entwinement of enlightenment and terror. Habermas thought that such a possibility exits.


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