Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Planning Theory Fragment

I haven’t had the opportunity to update the blog recently, as I’ve been putting together a proposal and doing other writing. On the way to the final proposal, I generated various false starts and fragments, including the following on planning theory that, while it didn’t make the final cut, I felt was worth posting here.


Historians of urban planning have traditionally explained the emergence of the discipline with reference to the problems created by capitalism, industrialisation and the associated rise of large cities. This traditional narrative answers the historical question “Why are things the way they are?” by arguing that the forms of practice and thought associated with planning represent a “discovery” – an objectively superior technical solution to the problems posed by increasing complexity, whose timing and qualitative character can therefore be explained quasi-naturally, by the need to manage historically new kinds of problems. The traditional narrative thus sees the discipline of planning as contributing to the cumulative advance of human knowledge and to the growing human technical mastery over nature – as being, therefore, a form of “progress”.

This traditional historical narrative is grounded in ontological and epistemological assumptions that are so taken for granted that they are rarely made explicit within the narrative itself. A detailed examination of these assumptions will be required in the thesis. For present purposes, a brief sketch will suffice to set up the contrast between traditional and alternative narratives.

The traditional narrative tends to answer the ontological question “What is the nature of reality?” by dividing reality into a series of stark antinomies – between the knowing, active subject and the inanimate, passive object; between contingent historical events, and timeless, objective truths; between humanity and nature; between society and the individual. These ontological assumptions carry epistemological quandaries in their wake: once we assume a sharp subject-object dualism, the issue of how to bridge that dualism immediately arises. The traditional narrative remains largely silent on the resulting epistemological question of “How do we know what we claim to know?”, relying on a tacit assumption that our perceptions correctly and objectively reflect the reality that we perceive, in spite of the ontological barrier between perceiving subjects and the perceived objective world.

While this traditional narrative still arguably dominates professional planning discourse, it has come under heavy criticism in both political and academic planning discourse since the 1970s. While diverse in its origins and political objectives, this surge of critical thought can be productively parsed into several major tendencies, each differentiated from one another by how they answer fundamental historical, ontological and epistemological questions. For purposes of the present discussion, I will sketch the historical, ontological, and epistemological assumptions in two broad tendencies within contemporary critical discourses, which I shall call the postmodern and the communicative action theories. I will then suggest the possibility for a third, unexplored option, which I would call a fully historical, self-reflexive critical theory.

What I am, for convenience, calling postmodern planning theory represents a diverse body of theoretical and political work influenced by post-structuralism, postmodernism, and deconstruction. Postmodern planning theory, I would argue, is distinguished by the fact that it comprehensively rejects the historical conclusions of the traditional account, while only incompletely contesting the core ontological and epistemological assumptions of the traditional narrative. While I cannot develop this position fully here, I can sketch the argument that would need to be more completely articulated in the thesis.

In the traditional ontology, as I have mentioned above, true knowledge is knowledge of an objective world – timeless and unchanging. In postmodern planning theory, I would argue, true knowledge is still knowledge of an objective world – timeless and unchanging. But, where the traditional narrative posits that we can overcome the subject-object dualism and transparently perceive this objective reality, postmodern planning theory adopts one of two stances: it either rejects the possibility of overcoming the subject-object divide or, alternatively, posits that reality is ever-changing and that timeless knowledge is therefore impossible. In either case, postmodern planning theory moves from these assumptions to the claim that true knowledge can never be attained – a move that, I argue, ironically still retains the traditional concept of truth as a “gold standard”, albeit by asserting that this standard can never be met. A more fundamental rejection of the traditional ontology and epistemology, I would argue, would entail the construction of an alternative vision of truth – a task that a more adequate post-traditional theory of planning would need to undertake.

If its rejection of the traditional ontology and epistemology does not go far enough, the postmodern rejection of the traditional historical narrative may go too far. In many fundamental respects, postmodern critiques are devastating to the traditional historical narrative. These critiques challenge us to consider whether progress – understood in terms of the accumulation of objective knowledge and the growing mastery of humans over nature – has actually occurred, whether it beneficial for humans or for nature, and whether it can be validly associated with core democratic values such as increased freedom or an improved capacity for self-determination. These are pivotal challenges to the traditional narrative and, I would argue, raise historical questions central to any effort to construct a more adequate post-traditional planning theory.

At the same time, postmodern planning theory loses sight of a pivotal historical question that the traditional narrative can answer: why did planning emerge historically? The traditional answer to this question, which views planning as the handmaiden of progress, may not be correct. The underlying question, however, remains important. Unfortunately, postmodern planning theory fails to provide an alternative answer to this question – and overlooks the way in which its own historical emergence complicates the question even further, for we now need to explain why planning originally emerged (and embraced a traditional self-understanding), while also explaining why specific kinds of challenges to the traditional narrative emerged at a specific time.

Ironically, by remaining silent on this question, postmodern planning theory tacitly slides back into the very form of historical reasoning it criticises in the traditional narrative: by not offering an alternative explanation, but simply criticising the shortcomings of earlier forms of perception and thought, postmodern planning theory implies that its own forms of critical reasoning are “discoveries” – objectively superior modes of perceiving the world, contributions to the cumulative advance of human knowledge. The explicit ontological and epistemological claims of postmodern planning theory are, of course, not compatible with this tacit historical self-understanding. This tension, I would argue, highlights the need for a post-traditional theory of planning grounded in a more robust historical theory.

The other main critical planning discourse – communicative action theory – attempts to provide this more robust historical theory. More unified in its theoretical inspiration than postmodern planning theory, communicative action theory draws heavily on the work of Jurgen Habermas, whose grand project is to reconstruct the potential for self-reflexive critical theory after the failure of more traditional Marxist critique. Although I cannot completely develop this argument here, I contend that Habermas’ approach, while more sophisticated in its epistemological and historical theory than either traditional or postmodern approaches, still fails to move sufficiently beyond the traditional ontology – and therefore only incompletely succeeds with its attempt to resolve key epistemological dilemmas through its historical theory.

At the core of Habermas’ work is a pivotal historical question: how can we understand the historical emergence of forms of thought that are critical of dimensions of our own society? Operating within what he calls an “historical materialist” framework, Habermas cannot resort to religious explanations for the origins of critical sensibilities. Instead, he seeks an origin embedded in human history, and claims to find a source of critical values embedded in the structure of human language – in communication.

To arrive at this conclusion, Habermas first makes strong ontological claims for a distinction between the self, the natural world, and community. In Habermas’ account, humans have access to multiple “action orientations”, depending on whether they are addressing their actions to the subjective world of the self, the objective world of nature, or the intersubjective world of the community. Different forms of reason, and different modes of practice, are appropriate to each: aesthetic modes of reason for practices directed to the subjective realm; instrumental reason for practices directed to the objective world; and communicative rationality for practices directed the intersubjective world. Having set out these ontological distinctions, Habermas then focuses on the intersubjective world – and communicative rationality – as the potential source of critical sensibilities.

To derive critical sensibilities from communication, Habermas argues that the intersubjective character of communication necessarily involves participants’ assuming hypothetical stances. The capacity to adopt hypothetical stances provides the most basic precondition for the emergence of critical theory, as it grounds the possibility for humans to adopt a counter-factual attitude toward the world – to contemplate the possibility that things might be other than what they actually are. This basic precondition for critical thought, however, does not explain the specific qualitative character this thought might assume – why, for example, a critic might advocate for greater equality, or for greater freedom, rather than for other specific goals.

For Habermas, the tacit logic of communication also resolves this problem, by giving all participants access to a pivotal hypothetical stance: the concept of the ideal speech situation. For Habermas, the concept of the ideal speech situation does not reflect a concrete, determinate goal that society might someday be able to realise, but rather a nexus of counter-factual values, against which existing institutions, practices, and ideals can always be evaluated. All participants in a communicative process, according to Habermas, can envision the conditions that would have to be present for ideal communication: absence of coercion, mutual commitment to reaching understanding, a level of substantive equality, etc. These critical values can then be applied to assess the ways in which existing social institutions, practices, and ideals abridge communication and deviate from the hypothetical ideal. For Habermas, these critical values represent a perpetual mainspring for critique and protest – one which cannot fully be dampened, as communicative action can never be excised from human practice.

Habermas has thus explained, in a consistent “materialist” fashion without recourse to cultic ideals, how his form of critical theory might emerge. In the process, however, he has created an historical dilemma: if the process of human communication generates these specific critical values – the core values of democratic society – why is it that political ideals and institutions began reflecting these values so late in human history?

To answer this question, Habermas attempts to reconstitute a narrative of progress, sweeping across human history. In his reconstructed vision, however, the stars of the narrative are not the accumulation of scientific knowledge and the mastery of humans over nature – as in the traditional vision of progress – but rather the forms of intersubjective reason associated with communicative practice. Habermas argues that, while critical sensibilities were always embedded in the logic of communicative action, for much of human history these sensibilities were not readily accessible, due to what Habermas describes as the “undifferentiated” character of earlier societies – the tendency of earlier societies to apply similar practices and forms of thought to the self, the community, and nature, rather than recognising the distinctive character of each ontological realm.

Habermas then appropriates the Weberian concept of “disenchantment” to describe the process by which humans began to assume differentiated action orientations to the subjective, objective, and intersubjective realms. In Habermas’ account, this process of disenchantment could have led to the freeing up of the potentials of the forms of reason associated with all three realms, such that instrumental, aesthetic, and communicative rationalities could all have been equally expressed in the emerging societies. Instead, the process of disenchantment was historically mediated by the emergence of capitalism, which hijacked the historical process, enabling a full expression of the potentials associated with instrumental reason, while impeding the full expression of other rationalities.

Our present historical moment, for Habermas, is characterised by this incomplete process of rationalisation: subjective, intersubjective, and objective worlds have been differentiated, giving us access to the critical sensibilities embedded in communicative action. The ascendancy of instrumental reason, however, has prevented the fuller realisation of democratic values. This partial rationalisation has in turn provoked a series of reactions – from postmodernism to fundamentalism – that confuse instrumental reason with reason per se, and therefore advocate a regression back to a pre-differentiated world, rather than a progression to a society in which all facets of reason can be more fully expressed.

Habermas represents the most ambitious contemporary attempt to develop a self-reflexive critical theory – a theory that accounts for the historical emergence of its own critical sensibilities, in addition to the historical emergence of what it criticises. Where postmodern theories can be challenged, as I did above, over their failure to anticipate key epistemological or historical questions, Habermas does anticipate, and offer an answer, for each of the historical, ontological, and epistemological questions I have raised above. For this reason, a critique of his approach – and of the strains of planning theory that draw on his approach – needs to take the form of a competing theory – one that can offer a more powerful resolution to the same core questions.

While I cannot provide such an alternative here, I can suggest that the historical sweep of Habermas’ account renders him vulnerable in key respects. Habermas’ historical argument is similar in form to the traditional narrative of progress: both posit that something that was “always already” true, comes to human awareness only at a particular time – that recent history can be understood as the historical realisation of nature. This approach is vulnerable, I would argue, to a competing theory that could provide a more fully historical explanation for the emergence of the same critical ideals – one that does not need to posit the “stealth” pre-existence of forms of perception and thought for which we can find no historical evidence. Such a competing theory could retain the insight of postmodern theories that the concept of timeless, objective truth may always have been an historical artefact – and thereby react back on the traditional ontology that Habermas also imports into his critical theory.

This competing theoretical approach – which I have earlier described as a fully historical, self-reflexive critical theory – would require a different historical, ontological, and epistemological approach. It would seek to explain, with reference to an historical analysis of its own social context, how the forms of perception and thought associated with traditional planning theory came into being – and also why those forms of perception and thought have come to be contested in specific ways at specific times. By linking the historical emergence of particular kinds of critique to the historical emergence of particular potentials within society, it can avoid recourse to notions of timeless and objective truth – without, however, having to lapse into relativism or surrender the ability to make moral judgements about the forms of thought and practice that characterise our society. While this point cannot be fully developed here, a fully historical, self-reflexive critical theory should be able to answer the questions Habermas raises, while retaining the core insights of both postmodern and traditional theory.

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