Habermas on Committed Reason

HabermasIn the final chapter of Theory and Practice (1973) Habermas provides a response to the question: What are the commitments of reason? The positivist answer to this question has been a resounding, “none.” Habermas argues that this is not only incoherent; it is politically dangerous.

Habermas’s argument is supported by a genealogy of the relationship between reason and praxis in Western thought. In the Enlightenment tradition, Habermas finds a link between reason and “emancipation for adult autonomy” (276). Reason is defined as the dissolution of dogmatism, error and ignorance, which are linked with suffering and the denial of freedom and autonomy (257). Kant’s sapere aude (dare to know), links reason with the will. Reason is committed because it is invested in the human interest of Enlightenment (257-8). In this way, in Fitche one finds the unity of reason and moral decision and in Marx the emancipatory potential of the critique of ideology (261-2).

In positivism Habermas locates the isolation of reason and practice. In contradistinction with the  Enlightenment view that knowledge of nature and knowledge of right action are linked, the function of knowledge associated with modern science is to extend and rationalize “our power of technical control over the objects or—which comes to the same thing—objectified processes of nature and society.” (264) Implied is a distinction between facts and values. The scientific commitment to ethical neutrality blocks rational consideration of values.

Thus, Habermas illustrates the relationship between positivism and decision: “practical questions are not ‘capable of truth;’” they “cannot be discussed cogently and in the final instance must be simply decided upon, one way or another.” (265) A political application of this line of thought is exemplified in Schmitt’s decisionism, an ethical application is provided in Sarte’s existentialism. Despite what sets them apart, both share the conviction that values “are not accessible to rational consideration and cannot form a rationally substantiated consensus.” (266)

But what is the basis of positivism’s commitment to rationality? Reason remains counterposed to ideology, error, and dogmatism, but “from what source does this critique draw its power, if reason divorced from commitment must be wholly devoid of any interest in an emancipation of consciousness from dogmatic constraint?” (267) Positivism must secretly presuppose a substantial notion of rationality (an interest in truth and enlightenment), one that it cannot acknowledge as a value because it rests on the claim that science and technical/instrumental rationality stands outside of subjective values, and that science cannot enter into deliberations about praxis.

Habermas explicates four levels of rationalization that illustrate the incoherence and danger of positivism. The first level is “technological rationality in the strict sense: we employ techniques placed at our disposal by science for the realization of goals.” The second is the “translation of technical recommendations into praxis.” Decisions are to be made on the basis of economy/efficiency  to achieve an end external to technological rationality. (270-1) At these first two levels, values remain removed from cogent discussion.

In the third level of rationalization, even the formation of value systems is subject to technological rationality. This is made possible through the design of decision mechanisms. But given that decision mechanisms must themselves be oriented toward some end, they end up “organized to meet the basic value of survival in a given situation and to avoid risks.” (272-3) Finally, in the fourth stage of rationalization, “[t]echnological rationality extended over all domains of praxis.” Habermas claims that this is largely a fiction at the time of his writing, one of “learning machines,” and the “negative Utopia of technical control over history.” (273-4) This final imaginary contains a tacit philosophy of history (a dubious one, in Habermas’s view), one in which “human beings control their destinies rationally to the degree to which social techniques are applied, and that human destiny is capable of being rationally guided in proportion to the extent of cybernetic control and the application of these techniques.” (274)

Reason uncommitted cannot justify itself. Because of this, attempts to build a political philosophy on the basis of positivism fail. “The proponents of positivistic enlightenment, who have confidence in their rationalism only as an article of faith,” Habermas writes, “cannot reflect on what they thus presuppose as reason, as an interest identical with that of reason, for although they themselves have only been infected with the dogmatism of the technologists, they cannot see through it.” (281)

The political corollary of the divorce between theory and practice is “an exclusively technical civilization … threatened by the splitting of its consciousness, and by the splitting of human beings into two classes—the social engineers and the inmates of closed institutions.” (282) Habermas thus call for self-awareness of reason’s investment in the “interest in the progress of reelection toward adult autonomy, which is indestructibly at work in every rational discussion.” (281) He defends committed reason against those who would attempt to divorce theory and practice.

Discussion Questions:
What are the implications in Habermas’s critique of positivism for social science?
What would he say to someone like Clifford Geertz who sees the role of the social scientist to be interpretive (i.e. neither committed to discovering objective laws nor to the emancipatory project, but to describing the “webs of significance” that constitute culture/social structures etc.)
What are the implicit commitments of the social scientist?
What would social science look like if committed to “substantial rationality” (which admits the interconnection/mutual constitution of theory and praxis) rather than technological/instrumental rationality?
Is it possible?
Can we provide any “real life” exemplars?

Habermas, Jürgen. Theory and Practice. Boston: Beacon, 1973.

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