Social Theory: The Multicultural and Classic Readings

By Charles Lemert | Go to book overview

Jürgen Habermas ( 1929-) was born in Düsseldorf. After studies at Göttigen and Bonn, he taught at Heidelberg, then Frankfurt. From 1971 to 1983, he was director of the Max Planck Institute in Frankfurt. He is considered heir to the tradition of philosophically based critical social theory in the Frankfurt tradition. Habermas's writings include Theory and Practice ( 1971), Toward a Rational Society: Student Protest, Science and Politics ( 1970), Communication and the Evolution of Society ( 1979), Theory of Communicative Action ( 1984, 2 vols.), and Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action ( 1990).

"Emancipatory Knowledge" is from the conclusion to Habermas's 1968 book, Knowledge and Human Interests. Though a tightly written summary, the selection illustrates Habermas's theoretical debt to the great critical theorists Adorno and Horkheimer and represents the basis for his theory of communicative competence that evolved over the years. It suggests the outlines of a critical theory of society that frankly admits that knowledge is never pure, always founded in universal human interests, of which emancipation is the most fundamental. "Social Analysis and Communicative Competence" is one of Habermas's earliest statements of his general theory of communication. The selection clearly shows his concern to link social analysis to language. Here, he develops that link from a technical discussion of the ideal speech situation derived by philosophical analysis from the social implications of discourse. Language performance, he argues (following a prominent school of language philosophy), rests on the assumption of the possibility of dialogue--an assumption that must be universal in language and thus in social life. Though the theory was developed in great detail over the years, this remains a reliable guide to Habermas's attempt to found a theory of social life on a theory of communication.


Emancipatory Knowledge

Jürgen Habermas ( 1968)

The sciences have retained one characteristic of philosophy: the illusion of pure theory. This illusion does not determine the practice of scientific research but only its self-understanding. And to the extent that this self-understanding reacts back upon scientific practice, it even has its point.

The glory of the sciences is their unswerving application of their methods without reflecting on knowledge-constitutive interests. From knowing not what they do methodologically, they are that much surer of their discipline, that is of methodical progress within an unproblematic framework. False consciousness has a protective function. For the sciences lack the means of dealing with the risks that appear once the connection of knowledge and human interest has been comprehended on the level of self-reflection. It was possible for fascism to give birth to the freak of a national physics and Stalinism to that of a Soviet Marxist genetics (which deserves to be taken more seriously than the former) only because the illusion of objectivism was lacking. It would have been able to provide immunity against the more dangerous bewitchments of misguided reflection.

But the praise of objectivism has its limits. Husserl's critique was right to attack it, if not with the right means. As soon as the objectivist illusion is turned into an affir-

____________________
Excerpt from Knowledge and Human Interests ( Boston: Beacon Press, 1971), pp. 315-317. Copyright 1971 by Beacon Press. Reprinted by permission.

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