03/02/2010 17:06

Crises Undeniable, Ideological: Jürgen Habermas and the Legitimacy of Critical Theory

Miles Hentrup
University of Oregon

Crises Undeniable, Ideological: Jürgen Habermas and the Legitimacy of Critical Theory

In his 1968 essay “Technology and Science as ‘Ideology,’” Jürgen Habermas develops in outline the ways in which, in advanced capitalism, an effective critical social theory must depart from the Marxian framework. In evaluating Herbert Marcuse’s claim that technology and science have increasingly served ideological, legitimating roles in the course of capitalist expansion, he identifies two “developmental tendencies” absolutely critical to the analysis of modern society: (1) “an increase in state intervention in order to secure the system’s stability,” and (2) “a growing interdependence of research and technology, which has turned the sciences into the leading productive force.” On the one hand, the state has ceded its political function of legitimating economic activity, in favor of the technical role of system maintenance, that is, of “steering” the economic system away from impending crises. For Habermas, this represents an epistemic shift away from politics as the “the realization of practical goals” to a system geared “toward the solution of technical problems.” In an apparent inversion, the economic system, according to Habermas, becomes the state’s source of legitimation. On the other hand, the profusion of government-contracted technological research has reached the critical point at which it has outstripped the role of “simple,” human labor to provide the economic base. Not only does this mean that the proletariat has lost its revolutionary potential:

What seems… more important is that it [technological advancement] can also become a background ideology that penetrates into the consciousness of the depoliticized mass of the population, where it can take on a legitimating power (Toward a Rational Society).

In short, the very space in which the congelation of ideology may be effectively resisted – for Habermas, communication in ordinary language – is beginning to come under the sway of “technocratic consciousness.” As a result of these developments, Habermas argues that “capitalist society has changed to the point where two key categories of Marxian theory, namely class struggle and ideology, can no longer be employed as they stand.” In his subsequent efforts to reground critical social theory through offering a comprehensive theory of rationality – of which ‘instrumental action’ (the impulse toward technical control) and ‘communicative-action’ (action oriented to mutual understanding) are two corresponding components – Habermas attempts to come to grips with the new problems of advanced capitalism.

It in his 1971 work, Knowledge and Human Interests, that he first undertakes this systematic regrounding of social theory. In retracing the process by which epistemology “has been undermined by the movement of philosophical thought itself,” leaving positivistic philosophy of science in its position, Habermas endeavors to restore a dimension of self-reflection once open to Kant, in which philosophy could maintain the distinction between scientific knowledge and knowledge as such – the same space of critical reflection that Marx sought to cultivate for the proletariat. He strives, in this way, to revive epistemology, articulating a ground for the sciences which does not ultimately restrict their activity to the paradigm of technical rationality. Although it is undoubtedly true that critical social theory must be reformulated in order to account for the vicissitudes of advanced capitalism, and moreover, that such a reformulation ought to take its lead from a comprehensive critique of rationality, as many critics have pointed out, Habermas’ own efforts in Knowledge and Human Interests toward the reciprocal regrounding of the critique of knowledge and social theory are not without crucial problems. He situates these efforts as a response to what he calls “the crisis of the critique of knowledge” – in a word, that modern science has lost contact with its roots in human activity, and has in this way disavowed the task of legitimation through critical self-reflection. In approaching the specific epistemological problems emerging with the advancement of capitalism through the lens of “the crisis of the critique of knowledge,” a crisis which fails to meet his own requirement, in Legitimation Crisis, to permit of rational justification, Habermas’ efforts of ‘crisis management’ in Knowledge and Human Interests appear not unlike that of the technician working to maintain the stability of the system – a system, moreover, which capitalism has an interest in successively maintaining. On his own terms then, the former stands as a theoretical false start. Not only this, but also, in contributing in this way to the development of ‘crisis consciousness’ as the mode in which we relate to the world, he submits to the ideological ‘technicization of the life-world.’