Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Habermas's Critical Theory : Rationality, Reflexivity and Its Limits

Jürgen Habermas, one of the forerunners of critical theory in the second generation of the Frankfurt School, criticizes his seniors, Adorno and Horkheimer that their critique of modernity leads to a cultural pessimism, which blind the "unfulfilled potential of Western Modernity" because of their attachment to the philosophy of consciousness that fails to distinguish between two types of rationalization: instrumental rationality and communicative rationality. (Ray, 1993: 11-12) Habermas believes that modernization and rationalization involves not only purposive rationality but also communicative rationality which is oriented towards consensus that can be the basis of critique and progress.
However, to my impression, it is questionable if Habermas's critical theory is fully critical. To be sure, Habermas's theory has been criticized by many theorists including post-colonial theorists and feminists (interestingly, one of their critical article was titled "What is Critical about Critical Theory?" (Fraser, 1985)). Indeed Habermas's theory tends to attach to western notion of rationality, and neglect so-called "politics of difference" which draws attention to the categories of "the other." This is because Habermas's theory is based on the notion of rationality, which presuppose an agreement or consensus, and rule-following. It looks like a significant departure from the conventional Marxism which emphasizes conflicts between different social factions [classes] to a kind of socio-pathological approach which originated from the Durkheimian tradition and has developed through Parsonsian functionalism. As a result, whereas Habermas's theory has an implicit theory of "communicative reflexivity," he also lacks a significant portion of the notion of reflexivity which is struggling against others or, more importantly, which is both critical and hermeneutic in that while in the given context, it thinks beyond the given contexts. The problem of Habermas's theory of communicative rationality is not only that it neglects the context, but also that it fails to show how to transcend the context in spite of his effort because he fails to see the coexisting another contexts of action; actors does not fully share their contexts. The purpose of this paper is to clarify and reconstruct a Habermasian theory of communicative reflexivity and then to point to its limits.

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