Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Review of The Cambridge Companion to Critical Theory

Reviewed by James Gordon Finlayson, University of Sussex

"No doubt Habermas's theory of meaning as validity is the most controversial component of his theory, so White's criticism targets right general area. But even the idea, which seems to underlie the objection, that Habermas's social, moral and political theory are grounded on his pragmatic theory of meaning and theory of communicative action, and that therefore the former stand and fall with the latter, is erroneous. In fact Habermas's various research programmes, though interrelated, are relatively self-standing, and offer at best mutual collateral support. Failure in one programme would require revisions in another; it might weaken the overall structure, but not undermine it. Though conventional labels never quite seem to fit Habermas's philosophy, its kinship is with coherentism and pragmatism not foundationalism.

The theme of pragmatism provides an interesting undercurrent to several essays in the volume. While White aims to cure Habermas theory of its 'foundationalism' with a dose of pragmatism, Baynes, by means of a comparison with Robert Brandom, attempts to show how Habermas's Kantianism is already tempered by pragmatism. Whereas White repudiates Habermas's central thesis that Verständigung is the telos of speech as a 'strong ontological claim about the essence or telos of language'. (p. 318) Baynes shows, by contrast, and in my view correctly, that it is not an ontological but a pragmatic claim about the social function of speech. Validity-claims to truth and rightness are pragmatic presuppositions of agency. Habermas's 'claim concerning both the existence and presuppositions of communicative action is essentially a claim about what it means to be located in . . . the space of reasons' (p. 199). This links back to a point that Chambers makes. For Habermas, to be citizen a in a modern liberal democratic state means to give and take reasons, a practice one can only undertake as a participant in a community of other reason givers: the modern politikon zoon is very much still the zoon logon echon, but in a community held together by multiple discourses – moral, ethical, legal, and pragmatic (instrumental), by a market economy and the rule of law.

Though the quality of the essays varies, none are bland. Even the less convincing ones are inherently interesting. And though the collection falls miles short of being the 'overview of the entire history of critical theory' advertised on the back cover, the essays provide shafts of genuine illumination. Rush's opening chapter is well put-together and nicely written, if a little schematic. Unfortunately the same cannot be said for his introduction and the paragraph on the frontispiece, which, though brief, is replete with wild assertions and historical inaccuracies. Is Frankfurt School critical theory really still 'centrally important for philosophy'? Is it still a 'vital philosophical and political perspective', and not rather a tradition that has petered out? Honneth concludes his reflections on its intellectual legacy, much as Habermas did in the 1970's, with the claim that none of the 'core content' of critical theory 'can still be maintained today in the theoretical form in which the members of the Frankfurt School originally developed it .' (p. 357) Whilst these philosophical points are arguable, Rush's historical claim that critical theory 'remained central to European philosophical social and political thought throughout the Cold War period' is simply false. Even in Germany the first generation of Frankfurt School theorists operated on the margins of the academic establishment and were mostly ignored by it. Adorno never received a formal offer of a post at a German university, and only obtained a full professorship in Frankfurt in 1957 by dint of some (much resented) political maneuvering by Horkheimer. Habermas recalls that when he was at the Institute in the 1950's there wasn't such a thing as a Frankfurt School or a Critical Theory; these labels emerged retrospectively as the early work Horkheimer and Adorno became more widely known and appreciated and an understanding of their ideas gradually crystallised in the light of interpretation and criticism."

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