The original plan was to write the final part of this three part series as a single post. However, it became clear that this would not be ideal, and for one main reason: TLDR! As such, Part 3 will be split into 4 posts, each dealing with a different part of critical social theory (and its influence on CSH).
Looking at Figure 1 in Part 1, we see that critical social theory falls under practical philosophy, along with Pierce, James, and Dewey (covered in Part 2). While a number of notable social theorists existed, there was one of particular interest to Ulrich: Jürgen Habermas.
Habermas is a German sociologist and philosopher in the tradition of critical theory and pragmatism, and is best known for his theories on communicative rationality and the public sphere. Of all the work he has published (and he has published a lot), there exist three important texts (for CSH). These are:
- Knowledge and Human Interests (1972)
- The Theory of Communicative Action. Volume 1 (1984)
- The Theory of Communicative Action. Volume 2 (1987)
Habermas’ works (particularly the three above) have been described as opaque, convoluted, and “full of detours” (, p. 7). Other descriptions include “rich and dense” (, p. 23), “intrinsic[ally] difficult” (, p. 108), having a “thematic breadth [which] … is extraordinary” (, p. 97), and including passages which read as “far-reaching relativization[s]” (), p. 181).
For this reason (and because I have yet to get my hands on a copy of each text), I will, throughout this post, be referring to one book by Ulrich, and in particular to its second chapter – The Critical Theory of Jürgen Habermas: Toward a Transformed Transcendental Approach. In it, Ulrich discusses Habermas’ work (and its influence on CSH) by focusing on:
“(1) his conception of a transformed transcendental philosophy and the role of the “theory of cognitive interests” in it; (2) his model of of oppression-free discourse and the underlying approach toward a “universal pragmatics” or “theory of communicative competence,” … (3) the application of this model to the problem of practical reason and morality … [and (4)] the difficulties and … unpractical nature of Habermas’ model” (, p. 108).
These four ‘themes’ also provide a neat way of structuring this, and the remaining, posts. So, let’s begin!
(1) The Conception of a Transformed Transcendental Philosophy, and the Role of the Theory of Cognitive Interests in It (, p. 109 – 115)
Knowledge and Human Interests: Toward a Renewed Transcendental Approach
As with Peirce, James, Dewey, and Ulrich, the origin for Habermas’ work was Immanuel Kant. Kant’s work brought together the traditionally separated schools of thought of British empiricism and German rationalism, and in doing so, produced an “epistemological approach whose philosophical level of (self-) reflection was and remains unique” (, p. 109). For Habermas however, post-Kantian philosophy (particularly the works of Hegel and Marx) could not maintain this level of reflection.
While necessary and insightful philosophical steps, Hegel’s critique of Kant, and Marx’ metacritique of Hegel, both “contributed to the … self-abolition of epistemology in favor of a positivist methodology of science” (, p. 110). It was this self-abolition which resulted in positivism’s triumph. Over time, epistemological reflection became “just another part of “mother philosophy” from which the sciences … emancipated themselves” (, p. 110), and was eventually replaced by a logic or methodology of science. Kant’s transcendental logic, as an organon for criticism, was thus, eventually replaced by deductive logic of logical positivism and critical rationalism. This, for Habermas, was exactly what positivism was.
“the denial of the very possibility of a transcendental reflection on the conditions and meaning of knowledge, and the elevation of the procedures of empirical-analytic science itself to a guarantor of meaningful knowledge” (, p. 110).
That said, there were three thinkers who made “first steps toward a revival of epistemological (transcendental) self-reflection from within the boundaries of positivist science” (, p. 111, emphasis in original):
Habermas associated each thinker with one of his three forms of science:
- Empirical-analytic science (Peirce)
- Historical-hermeneutic science (Dilthey)
- Emancipatory or critically oriented science (Freud)
However, much like Hegel and Marx, these thinkers, in Habermas’ view, also “succumbed to a “scientistic self-misunderstanding” of [their] respective approach[es]” (, p. 111). In order to overcome these misunderstandings, and get one step closer to a transformed transcendental philosophy, Habermas reconstructed the “critical epistemological implications of the work of Peirce, Dilthey, and Freud” (, p. 111) by way of his theory of cognitive, or knowledge-constitutive, interests.
This theory of Habermas gave the technical, practical, and emancipatory interests a constitutive role as “three basic “starting points” for transcendental reflection on the conditions and meaning of possible knowledge” (, p. 111). These “starting points” refer to the “transcendental limits” of objective knowledge, and are rooted in the three basic modes of social organization:
- Work (instrumental action)
- Langauge (communicative action, mutual understanding)
- Power (ideological and institutional barriers to emancipation from oppression)
It is upon these transcendental limits that “meaningful description of “reality” depends” (, p. 112) and the interests, in the form of these limits, provide comprehensive rationality with a means of making transparent to itself its dependency on anticipated social practice.
In the face of this transparency, the validity of instrumental reason becomes restricted to “the realm of objectified processes in the context of instrumental action” (, p. 112) i.e. to its proper object domain. Instrumental reason, no longer being universal, is thus replaced (in those parts outside of its proper object domain) with practical reason. And practical reason’s ‘job’ is to maintain good life and a “just, oppression-free, society (mutual understanding and emancipation)” (, p. 112).
At this point in the text, Ulrich asks whether or not Habermas’ theory of cognitive interests can, in fact, resolve Kant’s “unavoidable transcendental analysis of the necessary (subjective) conditions of possible (objective) knowledge” (, p. 112).
As Ulrich points out, following its publication in Knowledge and Human Interests, doubts arose regarding the theory’s transcendental status, particularly with regard to emancipatory interests, because it is “not transcendental in the full Kantian sense of absolute a priori categories, i.e., [it does] not stand for strictly universal conditions of possible knowledge that … go beyond (transcend) any empirical or historical contingencies” (, p. 112).
Habermas himself wrote that “these conditions are no longer a priori in themselves, but only for the process of inquiry” (Habermas, as cited in , p. 112, emphasis in original).
And it is this position of Habermas’ theory, somewhere between being “empirically contingent and strictly transcendental” (, p. 112), that, for Ulrich, gave it both its strength and weakness.
Strength, because it overcomes the Kantian abstractions from “historical and social contexts of discovery and application[s] that alone give practical meaning to knowledge; [and] weakness, because [it] can no longer serve as an absolute ground of determination of knowledge but only as [a guide] to critique, i.e., reflection on the … sources limiting the validity and meaning of possible knowledge” (, p. 112, emphasis in original).
Some of the difficulties surrounding Habermas’ theory of knowledge-constitutive interests are however, for Ulrich, unavoidable and “necessarily involved in any attempt at a post-Kantian renewal of transcendental reflection” (, p. 113). This is because Kant’s transcendental question gives rise to philosophical difficulties only avoidable through abstraction. There are other difficulties however, not related to the transcendental question, but rather to Habermas’ own understanding of critical social theory.
Ulrich highlights some of these difficulties later on in the text (and how his heuristic approach may help resolve them) but first provides a summary of Habermas’ own responses to the difficulties surrounding his theory (up next!).
The A Priori of Experience vs. the A Priori of Argumentation
In response to the difficulties of a post-Kantian approach to transcendental reflection, Habermas made use of Karl-Otto Apel‘s distinction between ‘constitution of meaning’ (Sinnkonstitution) and ‘reflection on validity’ (Geltungsreflektion) to “distinguish two types of “transcendental” questions that a transformed transcendental philosophy, as he calls it, would have to consider” (, p. 113). These were:
- the question of the “a priori of experience” (Erfahrungsapriori), and
- the question of the “a priori of argumentation” (Argumentationsapriori, also called “a priori of communication)
Each question takes up a different intention of Kant’s transcendental question:
- What are the conditions that precede (are a priori to) the constitution of objects of experience and give it meaning? (a priori of experience)
- What are the conditions for justifying the truth claims of statements about objects of experience (or values), i.e., assertions of “facts” (or “norms”)? (a priori of argumentation)
In Kant’s transcendental approach, objectivity and truth implied one another and the a priori of experience and argumentation were congruent. This was because he assumed his transcendental approach could, taking as its “point of departure an abstract transcendental subject, … yield universally necessary and sufficient conditions of objective experience” (, p. 114). However, once we recognize that “any viewpoint from which we can apprehend reality or assert the validity of statements about “facts” or “norms”” (, p. 114) is of a limited, normative character, Kant’s position no longer holds.
Instead, objectivity of experience becomes “a question of sharing intersubjectively the categories … constitutive of our experience … [and] truth (validity) of assertions … a question of establishing mutually binding standards of valuation by means of intersubjective discourse” (, p. 114, emphasis in original).
According to Ulrich, Habermas’ theory of cognitive interests only responds to the a priori of experience because it only “investigates the fundamental conditions of the possibility of “objective” (intersubjectively shared and meaningful) experience” (, p. 114). Answering the question concerning the a priori of argumentation requires, what Ulrich calls, a consensus theory of truth:
“a theory of truth that demonstrates how theoretical and practical statements can be discursively validated so that we know a factual consensus about them is not merely contingent but can be justified with good reasons” (, p. 114)
Addressing the above, Habermas speaks of a model of rational consensus or rational discourse, making a distinction between theoretical discourse (consensus) (for validity claims concerning the assertion of facts), and practical discourse (consensus) (for validity claims concerning the assertion of norms).
This concludes Part 3a of CSH & its Theoretical Frameworks. Part 3b will deal with A Model of Oppression-Free Discourse, Part 3c with Practical Discourse and Morality, and Part 3d with some Conclusions.
Until then, ciao for now!
The Nine Texts
- Churchman, C.W. (1968). The Systems Approach. New York: Delta/Dell Publishing.
- Churchman, C.W. (1971). The Design of Inquiring Systems: Basic Concepts of Systems and Organizations. New York: Basic Books.
- Churchman, C.W. (1979). The Systems Approach and its Enemies. New York: Basic Books.
- Dewey, J. (1925). The development of American pragmatism. Studies in the History of Ideas2(Supplement), 353–377.
- Habermas, J. (1972). Knowledge and Human Interests. London: Heinemann.
- Habermas, J. (1984/87). The Theory of Communicative Action. 2 Volumes, Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.
- James, W. (1907). Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking. New York: Longman.
- Peirce, C.S (1878). How to make our ideas clear. Popular Science Monthly 12 (January), 386–302.