Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Dichotomy of Enlightenment?

I wanted to conclude this series of posts on Bent Flyvbjerg’s work with a brief discussion of his analysis of Habermas and Foucault. To many social theorists with a critical orientation, Foucault and Habermas appear to represent the key theoretical paths available to social critique. It is therefore common for a theorist to choose either Habermas or Foucault, with Habermasian theorists insisting that Foucault lapses into nihilism, and Foucaultian theorists asserting that Habermas advocates an oppressive consensus that leaves no room for difference. Flyvbjerg falls on the Foucaultian side of this theoretical divide, and I will suggest below that this choice causes him to miss some of Habermas’ core strengths and understate some of Foucault’s core weaknesses. A less partisan approach to both theorists, I suggest, might lead beyond a simple choice between the two, and onto a more adequate conception of critical theory.

Flyvbjerg criticises Habermas for seeking universal normative standards as the basis for his critical social theory. Flyvbjerg cites Habermas’ concept of the ideal speech situation – Habermas’ contention that, as beings who engage in communicative practice, all humans universally and necessarily understand the potential for the development of uncoerced consensus achieved by free and equal participants engaged in rational communication.

Flyvbjerg objects to this concept on two levels: he argues, first, that Habermas’ ideal speech situation can never be fully realised in practice – that power is always already present in any communication – and that Habermas’ approach therefore necessarily involves a gap between “is” and “ought”, between ideal and practice; he argues, next, that the actual realisation of the ideal speech situation – with its aim of universal consensus – would necessarily be oppressive in that it would suppress the inherent difference and diversity that always characterises all human communities. Flyvbjerg goes on to claim that Habermas’ approach involves a completely uncritical appropriation of modernity, while it leaves Habermas blind to the reality of power relations in contemporary society.

These are very common criticisms of Habermas from a Foucaultian approach, and yet they represent fundamental misunderstandings of the strategic intent of Habermas’ theoretical claims. By exploring that strategic intent a little more closely, it should be possible to assess Habermas’ work in a more balanced light, appreciating his insights, as well as developing a more targeted critique of the weaknesses of his approach.

Contrary to Flyvbjerg’s assertions, Habermas’ theory is not weakened by the observation that an ideal speech situation can never be realised in social practice, nor is it challenged by the observation that power relations will always exist in any human interaction. Similarly, Habermas does not seek to achieve universal consensus as some kind of prescriptive social ideal. Critiques based on the notion that universal consensus would be oppressive are therefore somewhat beside the point.

Instead, the strategic intent of Habermasian concepts such as that of an ideal speech situation, or of different action orientations that social actors can assume toward one another in a speech situation, is to demonstrate that all humans have access to critical forms of perception and thought, which they can then direct against the power relations embodied in existing social institutions, practices, and ideologies. The important thing for Habermas is not whether we can attain an ideal speech situation in our social practice: it is whether, as social actors, we can conceptualise what an ideal speech situation would be, if one could exist – whether we have been exposed to some form of perception and thought that introduces us to concepts of freedom, equality, absence of coercion, intersubjective agreement, and other normative standards Habermas brings to bear in his social critique.

Habermas’ intent is explicitly counter-factual: he believes that, if he can demonstrate that we have access to these critical forms of perception and thought, he can then account for the possibility that a social critique of an existing social institution might emerge – that people might declare that a particular social institution is, in fact, riddled with objectionable power relations – while still remaining within the boundaries of a secular, materialist social scientific analysis that does not appeal to religious sensibilities.

From this perspective, when Flyvbjerg’s dismissively criticises Habermas against Rorty’s claim that the “‘cash value’ of Habermas’ notions of discourse ethics and communicative rationality consists of the familiar political freedoms of modern pluralist democracy” (p. 98), Flyvbjerg demonstrates how poorly he grasps Habermas’ strategic intent. For this is precisely what Habermas sets out to do: to explain, in secular terms, how these “familiar political freedoms” have come to feel so familiar – often in spite of their flagrant contradiction to the practical power relations we experience in our everyday social life. Regardless of how we evaluate Habermas’ attempt to account for the historical emergence of these values – and I am very critical of Habermas’ account – the key question Habermas raises must somehow be addressed by any critical social theory that seeks to be consistent, to explain the possibility for the emergence of critical sensibilities, just as it also explains the possibility for the emergence of power relations in contemporary society.

Where Habermas can be validly criticised, I would argue, is over his failure to achieve this goal without appealing to fundamentally asocial mechanisms for inculcating critical forms of perception and thought. For, although Habermas avoids religious or metaphysical foundations for critique, and thereby remains in the purview of “materialism” in the broadest sense, he does not truly provide an account of the emergence of fully historical and socialised critical forms of perception and thought. Instead, he offers an account of how potentials that were “always already” embedded in the logic of communication – in human speech acts as such – were historically realised under particular social conditions. Having been realised, however – and this is crucial for the resistance-oriented character of Habermas’ theory – these critical potentials can never completely be extinguished. Instead, the critical potentials embedded in the fundamental logic of human communication stand, in Habermas’ account, somehow outside of the ebb and flow of society and history – like Kantian a prioris, categories in terms of which humanity judges historically specific forms of domination and abuses of power, but not categories that are formed completely in and through a particular historical form of social life.

Flyvbjerg of course also criticises Habermas for his lack of historical specificity and, in light of his similar critique, the distinction I am drawing here may seem pedantic. The “payoff”, however, can be seen when examining Flyvbjerg’s uncritical appropriation of Foucault.

Flyvbjerg appropriates Foucault as a model for an analysis of power relations, and for an understanding of the relationship between power relations and forms of knowledge. He approves of Foucault’s consistently historical genealogical method, and cites Foucault’s meta-theoretical statements to prove that that Foucault does not regard himself as somehow outside or above the history and the power relations he analyses, but rather as operating on the same historically and socially specified plane of existence. Flyvbjerg therefore rejects the Habermasian critique that Foucault is relativistic – arguing in reply that Foucault has never believed that “anything goes” (p. 99), nor advocated “value freedom” ala Weber (p. 126). He finally cites Foucault’s belief that thought provides freedom for critical forms of perception and thought, arguing (p. 127):

For Foucault, “[t]hought is freedom in relation to what one does”. Thought is not what inhabits a certain conduct and gives it meaning. Thought is, rather, what allows one to step back from this conduct an to “question its meaning, its conditions, and its goals”. Thus thought is the motion by which one detaches oneself from what one does and “reflects on it as a problem”. Thought is the ability to think differently in order to act differently. Thought defined in this manner – as reflexive thought aimed at action – stands at the core of Foucault’s ethics, which, then, is an ethics antithetical to any type of “thought-police”. Reflexive thought is therefore the most important “intellectual virtue” for Foucault, just as for Aristotle it is phronesis.

In this account, where Habermas is at least seeking to account for the forms of perception and thought that appear to underlie the democratic institutions and ideals of modernity, Foucault appears to be postulating a generic human capacity for critical thought, as such. If Habermas’ approach falls short of a fully historical critical theory by grounding critical forms of perception and thought in specific attributes of human communication, how much shorter must Foucault’s approach fall, when it appears to ground critical forms of subjectivity in the completely decontextualised and oddly Cartesian move: I think, therefore I critique.

Both approaches – contrary to the assertions of advocates on either side – fail to take seriously the possibility that, just as we can analyse specific types of domination by embedding them in their historical context, so might we also be able to analyse our specific normative standards – those forms of perception and thought that enable us to perceive power relations as dominating in a specific way, as abrogations of a particular type of potential freedom – by embedding those in their historical context.

From this perspective, Habermas at least recognises the need to account for his own critical sensibilities, even if he fears relativism too much to account for these sensibilities in fully historical and social terms. And Foucault at least recognises the potential for a fully social and historical form knowledge, even if he does not fully understand the need to account for the emergence of critical sensibilities.

Yet these two halves do not quite combine to make a theoretical whole: for that, I would argue, we need a fully historical critical theory, one which would provide a consistently historical account of how our shared form of social life can generate specific forms of domination, together with the potential for particular kinds of freedom. It is through an exploration of this alternative vision of critical theory, I would suggest, that we will come closest to realising Flyvbjerg’s goal of achieving a future that points beyond the domination of objectivist and instrumental rationality, and toward the realisation of a shared social life governed by a more substantive form of reason.

One response to “Dichotomy of Enlightenment?

  1. Paula September 24, 2007 at 11:18 pm

    Given the comments above, you might be very interested to read Paul Healy’s 30-page article, Making Policy Debate Matter: Practical Reason, Political Dialogue, and Transformative Learning (, which addresses Flyvbjerg’s perceived under-appreciation of Habermas relative to Foucault.

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