Habermas’s critical theory is a theory of society with a practical intent: the self-emancipation of people from structures of domination such that humanity may create its own history in a more self-aware manner. Habermas saw the way capitalist and socialist societies changed over time as instrumental reason and bureaucracy grew rapidly at the cost of the public sphere. The ways of thinking about societies had to be rethought. His idea of critical theory draws upon the more systematic uses of theorists such as Marx and Freud, but it finds its underpinnings in more classical Greek and German philosophy.
Habermas originally found some common ground with the Frankfurt school. He observed an increasing interdependence between state and society and also between science, technology, and industry; this created an environment in which instrumental, means-end rationality comes to dominate ways of thinking about knowledge. People of technical knowledge are called upon more frequently to intervene in social and economic affairs, and hence the social order begins to be justified more technocratically. Habermas saw this as detrimental to a public sphere of society in which conflicts are handled discursively through public reason under an onus of free assembly. Those practical problems are defined as technical problems and are handled as such. Thus, a system of domination is created as the technocratically consciousness becomes interested in handling and demarcating human affairs. Habermas’s critical reflection sought to more fully understand the mechanisms and historical significance of this move toward technological knowledge and instrumental reason, as well as its societal implications.
In Knowledge and Human Interest, Habermas presents his theory of cognitive interest. He recognizes that man’s perceived history and social reality are the product of the “constituting labor” of the human species. Man creates his own reality. However, Habermas rejects Kant’s idea of a transcendental cognizing subject who is removed from historical interest. Instead, man produces and reproduces his existence organized around guiding interests, which are to produce from nature objects of worth for material existence. This is done through manipulation of natural objects as well as communication centered around commonly understood symbols within the context of rule-governed institutions. Thus, man maintains an interest in creating knowledge which allows him to control natural processes and maintain communication. Additionally, there is a reflective interest inherent in man which allows him to fully grasp his interested nature. This leads him to be interested in acting rationally so as to increase his own autonomy. Therefore, along with technical and practical interest, man also possesses an emancipatory interest regarding himself. Cognitive interests are labeled “quasi-transcendental” in that their purpose is transcendental of humans but they are generated by actual human activity.
Habermas found it necessary to investigate the nature of human interest at large and its implications regarding knowledge. The growing idea of instrumental knowledge meant that knowledge was being defined in a positivist sense. Knowledge was put on a linear trajectory of progress in which usefulness toward interested ends and efficiency were prized, but this destroyed the milieu for effective reflection on the historical significance of that trajectory. While positivist philosophy was originally meant to emancipate man, it eventually destroyed the grounds for investigating the meaning of knowledge by defining it so rigidly. According to a positivist standpoint, critical theory would be regression in that it undermines the concept of certainty. The pragmatist theory of Peirce provides a better environment for inquiry about the nature of scientific inquiry because the logic of the procedure, not the resultant theories of scientific knowledge, is the main point of analysis.
Under this lens, scientific facts are really just success-or-failure observations within a purposeful environment, so the resultant “reality” is skewed in the direction of constitutive interest. The interests are in cognitive control of defining the world. Science, then, is a product of social activity.
These three interests give rise to three kinds of means of social organization, or media: instrumental action, interaction, and power. The three media in turn create the conditions for the three kinds of science: the empirical analytic, the historical-hermeneutic, and the critical.
In connecting human knowledge and human activity, Habermas also posits the theory of communicative competence. Critical theory begins with the idea of a rational consensus regarding the truth of a statement of the veracity of norms. Rational consensuses are attained in an ideal speech situation where language is governed by common rules which ensure an idealized complete understanding between subjects. Communicative competence, then, demands an ability to be open to the potential truth claims of others and to be able to think critically about one’s own beliefs. Ideologies are created in situations where consensus is coerced or distorted, and critical theory seeks to subject these systems to rational discourse which may have been sidestepped in their creation, thus unveiling potentially hidden forms of domination.
Kant’s categorical imperative becomes, for Habermas, a process in which an individual actor must submit his maxims to others such that they may be tested discursively to determine their degree of universality. Under ideal speech conditions, people would be able to generate a rational will which produces universal norms.
Habermas defines the scope of human life activity as praxis, which includes human work and interaction. Work may be defined as purposive rational action, which is governed by technical rules which imply conditional predictions. In contrast, interaction is governed by mutually consensual norms which define expectations. Humans’ capacity for freedom, then, relies on theoretical and practical learning which produces knowledge which may be used for technical mastery of the natural and social worlds as well as for the organization of human social interaction, thus expanding praxis. Humans evolve in two ways, then: the development of forces of production, and the development of normative structures for interaction. These two dimensions of evolution each produce their own logic of development. In the work sphere, there is a cumulative amassing of technical or scientific knowledge. In the interactive, communicative sphere, a pattern of reflexivity and discursiveness emerges which ideally generates a universality of beliefs.
Habermas saw the rising power of the “technocratic consciousness” through the disproportional power of a group to control the institutions of society as destroying the public sphere. The public sphere originated in the eighteenth century with the rise of forums for public discourse, such as newspapers and journals, which then produced an informed public opinion. However, the ideal of free speech with it, full discursive will formation within the public sphere always remained utopian, and was less and less realized as a capitalist economy grew. Journalism’s main motivation of principled conviction gave way to mere commercialism.
Indeed, Habermas noted Western capitalism’s growing tendency toward state intervention to stabilize economic growth. Thus, society is no longer autonomously regulated by the market, but it is rather dominated by the state in ways which must be reflected upon. As the capitalist economy grows, it produces new needs which must be met in order to maintain social stability. Politics, then, moves away from “the realization of practical goals” and becomes more concerned with “the solution of technical problems,” and capitalism is increasingly legitimated technocratically through technicians and politicians who can guarantee a certain level of stability.
As an ideology, this technocratic consciousness is not as opaque as others in that its interests are not so baldly created and laid out. However, it is socially more inevitable and comprehensive in scope than other more traditional ideologies because it blurs the lines between the ‘practical’ and the ‘technical,’ thus removing an ethical aspect from societal action and rendering reflective attempts within the system moot. The usefulness of technical knowledge comes to bolster domination through Weberian rationalization. Society moves toward “an entire organization [in which] technology becomes autonomous, dictates a value system – namely, its own – to the domains of praxis it has usurped.” There are four levels of the rationalization of technical domination. First, there is the application of scientific technique to social problems toward specific goals. The second occurs when there are conflicting technical views on how to handle those social problems. Here, values are independent of the rational decision processes and exist only as subjective goals. These values are appraised of their technical worth in the second level where a decision must be made rationally between conflicting views. Hence, the third level of rationalization is when technical rationality applies to the values themselves. Habermas had yet to see the fourth level in effect – decision-making delegated entirely to computers – though it does appear to have actualized in many ways, and continues to be the direction in which technocratic politics is moving.
The hermeneutic sciences, rather than being aimed at technical control, are aimed at understanding different interpretations of reality with regard to a possible intersubjective understanding given a particular hermeneutic starting point. Put more generally, it is meant to facilitate the process of self-reflection in order to generate autonomy. This entails penetrating the language and social context of a subject to understand their meaning for the subject. This may be extended to the researcher, for whom knowledge is inextricably understood through a historical understanding. Social action can only be fully understood in a context that recognizes language, labor, and domination, which all impact the objective meaning of social action.
Habermas also set out to reconstruct Marx’s theory of historic materialism, in which all forms of social thought, such as the institution of the family or the state, arise as superstructures founded on an economic base. These manifestations of social thought change according to class struggle. However, Habermas sees Marx’s lumping together of the two aspects of praxis to be a mistake. Marx focuses too much on the concept of economic modes of production. Habermas finds great discord with the linear development of society which Marx’s historic materialism. Habermas focuses more on the interactive aspect of praxis and notes that language is also necessary for the reification of social roles and norms in ways that are not reactionary to modes of production.
Habermas saw interrelation between Marx’s modes of production and Freud’s repression of wants and needs which affords social institutions the ability to facilitate survival. As societies gain technical power to control the outer world, scarcities become less culturally relevant and the level of necessary repression decreases. Freud’s repression also produces distorted communication which prevents actualization of the ideal speech situation.
Freud’s psychoanalysis also represents to Habermas an attempt at emancipatory knowledge which increases reflection and therefore, self-determination, which represents an interest in reason. The degree to which subjects may be deluded by ideology is examined methodically. This interest, however, is an interest in reason as a means, not an end, and indeed it is only through the process of self-reflection that one may comprehend reason as interested. Reason is a will to reason. It is an important distinction here that freedom is the main goal of emancipatory freedom, and happiness is the secondary goal. A freer person may be happier, but he just as soon may not be. Freedom and happiness may even be juxtaposed in their ability to coexist. Regardless of these questions, happiness is a prescriptive end while freedom is a means, so freedom will always be the preeminent goal of emancipatory theory.
True emancipation, then, means that we do not fall under the sway of complete scientism, where science becomes the only form of knowledge, rather than one possibility. Additionally, epistemology must be reexpanded to interrogate the role of the epistemic subject rather than being primarily concerned with purely methodological issues, such that the results of science are routinely criticized from a reflective perspective; there must be the third kind of knowledge aimed at freeing consciousness in addition to that which expands technical control. This is where Habermas sees Marx’s flaws. Marx oversimplified the concept of self-consciousness to one where true freedom could be achieved through technical control. Emancipation for Habermas is an ongoing struggle for reflective understanding. The social sciences may determine regularities in social action, and critically analyze what may be dependent upon anachronistic, ideologically frozen beliefs.