A Sociological Autobiography: 28 – Reading Habermas

By | May 22, 2014

If my new life within UCL required adjustment, other more intellectual matters offered succour. I have mentioned my use of Habermas’ theories in my edited collection Sociological Theory and Medical Sociology, published in 1987. We academics in particular learn from others all the time, whether we realize it or not; but Jurgen Habermas and Roy Bhaskar have been my principal sources (I baulk at using the word ‘mentors’ since, like the notion of sports ‘fans’, it smacks uncomfortably of deference). Ironically I discovered Bhaskar first, latching on immediately to his Realist Theory of Science in the mid-1970s; but it was only when my attention turned to health inequalities in the 19900s that I re-read and applied his philosophy of critical realism. The critical theory of Habermas attracted me a decade earlier.

Heinemann had published the two-volume Theory of Communicative Action, if I recall correctly in 1984 and 1987 (Polity Press subsequently took them over). These tomes were my starting point. When I had digested these I went forward to his no less ambitious critique of a clutch of ‘postmodern’ thinkers who had announced the end of a modernity rooted intellectually and politically in the European Enlightenment of the late eighteenth century, and back to his earlier texts on the formation, flowering and decline of the public sphere; on a formal pragmatics underpinning communicative competence and action; on the link between knowledge and human interests, the evolution of society; and so on. I found much that was impressive. So how would I characterize his impact on my own thinking?

A short prolegomenon is called for. Eclecticism, implying a jackdaw-like collecting of the work of others, is understandably scorned. But faithful discipleship is no more desirable, at least in my view. I may not have been able to formulate it early on in my career, but I have in fact always been motivated first and foremost by an urge to make sense of the world we inhabit. I do not think exegesis or defending or attacking others’ contributions, however eminent, is intrinsically worthwhile (although it may occasionally serve an extrinsic purpose). So I have only stuck with the input of others when they served my (Max Weber would say ‘value-referenced’) purpose. I have used, one might almost say hijacked’the theories of Habermas and the philosophy of Bhaskar! I readily acknowledge, of course, that their contribution to contemporary thought, if there is such a thing, is extraordinary. Maybe this last statement needs qualification.

I admit that Foucault has Wittgensteinian attributes that hint at genius. Habermas does not. In my judgement he is a quite remarkably productive synthesizer of others’ writings and an engaged intellectual, feeding into and fuelling public debate, latterly in constitutional, Germanic and European issues. Bhaskar, I should add, is an original philosopher, wrongly neglected, much as Popper was, by a sad, etiolated Oxbridge-led orthodoxy (more of him in later fragments I am sure).

Back to Jurgen, whose generous response to my 1987 chapter is in my study somewhere, and the pluses and minuses of his theories for my own work. First the positives. I agree with his theses that the thrust of the European Enlightenment – that we should use reason to ease our way towards the good society – is (a) worth preserving and fighting for, and (b) needs ‘reconstructing’ before this is possible. I think his stab at such a reconstruction is admirable. Old American friend Terry Boswell once insisted to me that Habermas’ concept of the ‘ideal speech situation’ is utopian. I disagreed then and I disagree now. The gist of the concept is that whenever humans converse they sign up to a potential to achieve consensus; otherwise, why would they bother communicating? Of course sometimes we just want to get our own way, coax, manipulate or cajole somebody, but these are necessarily exceptions to the rule. The universal or ‘procedural‘ nature of the ideal speech situation is its strength: no ‘particular’ substantive consensus is anticipated, so charges of utopianism just bounce off. Perhaps Habermas’ perspicacious insistence that we should keep our nerve against the ‘relativistic’ postmodern assaults of the late 20th century are better supported now the latter have faded away.

The second positive feature is the reach and scope of Habermas’ theory of communicative action. His elaboration of the concept of the ideal speech situation allows us to identify and analyze ‘non-communicative’ or strategic action (action oriented to outcome rather than consensus). As I showed in my early chapter on childbirth, strategic action can be overt or covert, and if covert, intentional or unintentional. I used the notion of strategic action that is covert and unintentional – or systematically distorted communication – to suggest that doctors can act in good faith when persuading pregnant women that the hospital to be the safest place to give birth, notwithstanding the lack of an evidence base for their counsel.

But the theory of communicative action encourages us to link the micro-sociology of face-to-face interactions like doctor-patient encounters with the macro-sociology of structural, institutional and cultural change. Thus even the minutiae of the day-to-day doings of the lifeworld can only be comprehensively grasped by reference to system rationalization and its colonization of the lifeworld, that is, to the encroachment of the economy (via money and commodification) and the state (via power and bureaucratization) on our everyday affairs.

A third positive takes us back to Habermas’ earliest work (for his habilitation thesis). This re-inserted the notion of a (bourgeois, masculine) ‘public sphere’ into sociological discourse. To simplify, this was the ideal speech situation writ large: it signaled the institutionalization of the ‘public use of reason’ in the coffeehouse of late 18th century Europe, most notably in England.

And a fourth incursion into theory informs Legitimation Crisis, made available in English in the mid-1970s. There was remarkable perspicacity here too. It still strikes me at the time of writing that the principal threat to Britain’s Cameron-led ‘ConDem’ regime is a crisis of legitmation triggered by civil disobedience, direct action or a contingent event like the shooting of Mark Duggan that precipitated the angry, raucous yet articulate howl that constituted the recent London riots.

There is much more that might be said on these and allied topics, but this is not the place. Suffice to say that I have learned much from Habermas and that his work helps frame much of my own. I retain an interest in and commitment to his reconstructed Enlightenment ideals; his theory of communicative and strategic action; his highlighting of civil society and the public sphere of the lifeworld; and his concentration on assorted crises of legitimation. I have written on each of these and applied them in different domains.

And the negatives? Well, Habermas gradually – almost against his better judgement – left his Marxism behind; and he lacked an ontology, hence my interest in Bhaskar and later attempts to re-frame my sociology. But this can wait awhile.

So much went on in my head even as UCL insinuated itself into my academic life.



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