Nikolas Kompridis, Critique and Disclosure: Critical Theory between Past and Future, MIT Press, 2006, 333pp., $37.50 (hbk), ISBN 9780262112994.
Reviewed by Fred Dallmayr, University of Notre Dame
The fate of reason today hangs in the balance. This is no small matter. Ever since its historical beginnings, reason or rationality has been the central focus and point of honor of Western modernity -- a focus enshrined in Descartes' cogito, Enlightenment rationalism, and Kantian (and neo-Kantian) critical philosophy. The result of this focus was an asymmetrical dichotomy: separated from the external world of "matter" (or nature), the cogito assumed the role of superior task master and overseer -- a role fueling the enterprise of modern science and technology. During the past century, the edifice of Western modernity has registered a trembling, due to both internal and external contestations. Subverting the modern asymmetry, a host of thinkers – with views ranging from American pragmatism to European life philosophy and phenomenology -- have endeavored to restore pre-cognitive "experience" (including sense perception and affect) to its rightful place. In the context of French "postmodernism," a prominent battle cry has been to dislodge "logocentrism" (the latter term often equated with anthropocentrism). In the ambiance of recent German philosophy, the battle lines have been clearly marked: pitting champions of modern rationalism, represented by Jürgen Habermas, against defenders of experiential "world disclosure," represented by Martin Heidegger. In his book, Nikolas Kompridis endeavors to shed new light on this controversy, with the aim not so much of bringing about a cease fire but of providing resources for arriving at better mutual understanding.
Kompridis does not exactly assume a position above the contestants (he repeatedly rejects the "view from nowhere"). As the book's subtitle indicates, his point of departure is "critical theory" as championed by the Frankfurt School, and his attempt is to nudge that theory beyond a certain rationalist orthodoxy in the direction of possible "future" horizons. While appreciating some of its merits -- such as the "linguistic turn" and the emphasis on "communicative" rationality -- Kompridis finds Habermas's reformulation of the Frankfurt program on the whole unhelpful and debilitating. In his words (p. 17): "For all there is to recommend it, Habermas's reformulation has produced a split between new and old critical theory so deep that the identity and future of critical theory are at risk." The main reason is that the "normative gain" deriving from the linguistic turn remains attached to narrow rationalist premises that have "needlessly devalued" the theory's potential. In Kompridis's view, Habermas's evolving thought exhibits a break or rupture (quite apart from the linguistic turn): namely, a move toward pure "theory" which happened soon after the publication of Knowledge and Human Interests. "That turn to theory," he writes (pp. 232-234), "refashioned the project of critical theory as a strenge Wissenschaft, less bound by or beholden to the historical and existential exigencies of modernity" -- thereby undermining modernity's intrinsic "relation to time." As a result of this refashioning, critical theory was catapulted in the direction of an abstractly rational universalism disdainful of cultural and practical modes of pluralism. The upshot was a growing "insensitivity to particularity," justifying the suspicion that the basic concepts of communicative rationality had from the start been "rigged in favor of the universal." But, the book adds sharply, "a provinciality-destroying reason is a meaning-destroying reason" and the latter is "a history-destroying reason."