Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Habermas's Developmental Logic Thesis: Universal or Eurocentric?

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Habermas's Developmental Logic Thesis: Universal or Eurocentric?

Article excerpt

One of the more controversial elements of Jurgen Habermas's critical theory of society is the theory of social evolution. It is controversial largely because it is formulated on a developmental model, and as such it distinguishes between the logic and the dynamics of social evolutionary change. By virtue of this distinction the developmental model reconstructs the universal sequence of hierarchically ordered stages that determine the range of possible forms societies can assume in the course of historical change. A common objection to the developmental model is that it is justified on the basis of an analogy between the structures of ontogenesis and phylogenesis, that is, between the development of the individual and of society, and that this analogy is far too weak to support the claim that the evolution of societies follows a universal developmental logic.2 This objection is significant because it argues that Habermas's developmental model of social evolution is conceptually problematic from the start. In this essay, I will argue that while this objection is relevant and carries some force against Habermas's early arguments for the developmental model, it is not relevant to the arguments Habermas later formulated in TCA and which appeal to different grounds. Nevertheless, there is a different though related problem with this later justification. As before, the problem lies with the difficulty in justifying the universal claims of the developmental model. If the developmental logic of social evolution cannot be shown to be universally valid, then it is open to the charge of being ethnocentric. I will argue that Habermas cannot sustain the claim that the developmental logic of lifeworld structures is universally valid on the basis of only the conceptual and theoretical resources of the theory of communicative action.

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At the most general level, the overarching scheme of Habermas's theory of social evolution is inspired in a significant way by Piaget's application of the concepts of genetic structuralism to epistemology.3 For genetic epistemology, knowledge is predetermined neither by the subject, nor by the object; rather, it involves a moment of `novel elaboration' by the subject in response to the object. This moment of novel elaboration manifests itself in the form of structures of consciousness that mediate between the subject's explicit knowledge and the object itself. Habermas wants to adapt this general model of individual, or ontogenetic, learning to the macro-level of collective, or sociocultural, learning. The developmental theory of social evolution is the result of applying the model of genetic epistemology to the problem of understanding sociocultural learning. By appealing to the formal pragmatic analysis of the theory of communicative action, the resulting theory of social evolution explains sociocultural learning as a rationalization process.

The essential premises of Habermas's theory of social evolution can be summarized as follows.5 (1) Development occurs in two dimensions, the dimensions of cognitive-technical knowledge and of moral-practical insight. These two dimensions of development are mutually irreducible, and each ofthese logical sequences is universal. (2) The logic, or pattern, of development should be distinguished from the dynamics of development, which depends upon contingent empirical factors. (3) The logic of development can be understood in terms of an increase in rationality. And (4), developments in moral-practical insight serve as the "pacemaker" of evolution since such developments are necessary to stabilize the systemic crises generated in society by endogenous developments in the cognitive-technical dimension.

It is important to note that since Habermas distinguishes between the logic and the dynamics of development, it does not follow that development must occur. Whether or not a society in a given sociohistorical context does develop is strictly a contingent matter; but if a society develops, it will do so according to the universal developmental logic. …

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