Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Habermas And Critique: Theoretical Bases Of A Radical Social Democratic Politics

Leet, Martin Ronald (1999) Habermas And Critique: Theoretical Bases Of A Radical Social Democratic Politics. PhD Thesis, Department of Government, The University of Queensland.


This dissertation aims to evaluate the philosophy of Jurgen Habermas with reference to the arguments it provides for a theory of radical social democratic politics. Habermas is a German philosopher and social theorist whose broad concern is the defence and elaboration of the 'project of modernity'. This means that he wishes to justify modern, developed societies as viable and worthwhile forms of civilization. He attempts to specify and redeem the claim that these societies represent, potentially, the most advanced and rational way of organizing human life. Habermas is committed, among the various political programs which raise this kind of claim and seek to realize it in practice, to a form of radical social democracy. This tradition of theory and practice pursues the task of human emancipation by means of fundamental reforms to the social, cultural, economic and political institutions of contemporary modern societies. Habermas' work can be understood as one of the most systematic contributions to this tradition. The central question guiding the dissertation concerns the theoretical and political adequacy of this contribution. The dissertation establishes two general criteria for evaluating Habermas' work. The first criterion requires identifying the normative foundations of social democratic politics. It is argued that a 'theory of the rational' is needed to satisfy this. Such a theory must demonstrate that the social structures and political institutions of the modern epoch represent an hitherto unprecedented opportunity for the expression of the human capacity for rationality. The exposition of normative grounds for social democratic politics determines the basis for social criticism and political struggle. A theory of the rational, in other words, informs us of why we are struggling. Nonetheless, such a theory, on its own, cannot provide guidance about how to struggle. The second criterion of evaluation relates to this question of 'how', of what theoretical direction can be given to political practice. The dissertation contends, in this regard, that a 'theory of the irrational' is necessary. It is argued that a theory of the irrational offers a framework for orienting social movements in struggles against those obstacles which stand in the way of a further expansion of rationality. Such a theory seeks to understand the irrationality of human life in an effort to recommend political strategies that can intervene prudently in the current state of affairs. It is maintained that a satisfactory construction of both theories is essential for an adequate comprehension of radical social democratic politics. The dissertation pursues this argument by clarifying the nature of three dimensions of 'critique' within Habermas' oeuvre. Conceptions of critique represent methodological frameworks for formulating theories of the rational and the irrational. Habermas deploys these methods of critique throughout his work. It is argued, however, that his application of critique focuses primarily on providing a theory of the rational. The central thesis is that while he offers the rudiments of a theory of the irrational, this theory is underdeveloped. Since this theory addresses the question of how social movements are to struggle, it is argued that Habermas' approach lacks a practical dimension. The dissertation concludes that his contribution in this regard needs to be elaborated more consistently and in more detail. The dissertation represents an internal analysis of Habermas' work. It seeks to ascertain whether his theory achieves the philosophical and political goals required by the tradition of thought to which it belongs. The dissertation contributes to the critical literature on Habermas' writings in three substantial ways. First, it establishes a framework for understanding how the separate elements of his theory fit together. The identification of general criteria with respect to which a theory of social democracy is to be evaluated means that the political purposes of these various elements can be understood more clearly. The tensions between them can also be illustrated. Second, with the help of this framework, the dissertation expands upon and sharpens longstanding criticisms of Habermas' thinking which have pointed to a missing practical dimension. Third, the dissertation identifies theoretical resources, elaborated by Habermas himself, which it is argued can be used to overcome these problems of impracticality. With this, the dissertation also contributes, in a more indirect way, to the current debate about the meaning of and possibilities for social democratic politics.

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