Jürgen Habermas is at present the most celebrated of the successors of the Frankfurt School and the only one as yet well-known outside the Federal German Republic. In an article in nlr 63, I discussed the work of Horkheimer, Adorno and Marcuse, the original nucleus of the Frankfurt School. The younger successors of the School were referred to, but not discussed, for two reasons. First, that the older three were of the same generation and had much the same historical experience in common, and second that, until the last few years at least, despite fundamental political differences, the original members remained true to their Marxist origins philosophically. This article is an attempt to analyse Habermas’s thought, and its development away from the Marxist positions of the founders of the School. It is important to analyse Habermas’s ideas, because they are particularly attractive to reformist sociologists attempting to erect a ‘critical’ sociology in opposition to the conservative orthodoxy in that discipline.

Appropriately enough, Habermas’s inaugural lecture as Professor of Philosophy and Sociology in Frankfurt is the key text in establishing the origins of his position in Horkeimer’s ideas, but also the divergences which have supervened in the interval since Horkheimer originally formulated them. Entitled Erkenntnis und Interesse (Cognition and Interest),footnote1 this lecture invites comparison with the crucial statement of the classical Frankfurt School, Horkheimer’s Traditional and Critical Theory,footnote2 for Habermas claims that the latter article ‘underlies’ his lecture (twi, p. 147n.). However, classical critical theory is hardly discussed in the lecture, and it would be impossible to discern what the former was about from it. Horkheimer regarded critical theory as Marxism, albeit a very special interpretation of Marxism. In Habermas’s text, Marx and Engels are not even hinted at (with the exception of a negative reference to Soviet Marxism), Instead, the points of reference are Greek philosophy, Schelling, Husserl and Adorno’s critique of him, and contemporary hermeneutic philosophers such as Apel and Gadamer. With Horkheimer, critical theory was socially anchored in the revolutionary proletariat. In Habermas’s academic oration there is no room for any workers, still less for a revolutionary proletariat. The ‘emancipatory interest’ (to use a term of Habermas’s) which guided Horkheimer and which he regarded as the ‘only concern’ of the critical theorist, was ‘to accelerate a development which should lead to a society without exploitation’. It was clear from the context that this development was the proletarian socialist revolution. Habermas’s interest in emancipation produces merely ‘self-reflection’ (twi, p. 159).

Habermas’s project is epistemology, Erkenntnistheorie, the theory of the conditions of possible knowledge. Habermas argues that since the middle of the 19th century, theories of knowledge have been replaced by theories of science. The frame of reference is no longer the knowing subject, but rather systems of scientific propositions and procedures. Habermas’s aim is to bridge the gap between the traditions of Erkenntnistheorie and Erkenntniskritik (i.e. critique of knowledge).footnote3 He concludes that ‘ultimately a radicalized critique of knowledge can only be carried out in the form of a reconstruction of the history of the species’ (ei, pp. 84ff.). This argument is based on the Hegelian notion of the history of the species as a Bildungsprozess, a process of formation or education, in which the species constitutes itself. The link between the philosophy of history and the theory of knowledge is provided by the concept of ‘interest’, or to be exact ‘knowledge-guilding interest’ (erkenntnisleitendes Interesseei, p. 243). ‘I call interests the basic orientations which are responsible for determinate fundamental conditions of the possible reproduction and self-constitution of the human species’ (ei, p. 242). These interests determine the ‘conditions of possible objectivity’ for the various sciences (in the broad sense of the word Wissenschafttwi, p. 160).

Habermas distinguishes between three of these ‘knowledge-guiding interests’: 1. technical—‘adaptation to technical dispositions’; 2. practical—‘adaptation to the arrangements of practical life’; and 3. emancipatory—orientated to ‘emancipation from naturalistic constraint’. They correspond to or guide three types of sciences: the empirical-analytical, the historical-hermeneutic and the critical sciences, respectively. These interests, and the sciences they guide, develop in the three ‘media’ in which the social life of the human species unfolds: work, language and domination (Herrschafttwi, pp. 155ff.): ‘This viewpoint (i.e., one from which we necessarily conceive reality as transcendental) derives from the complex of interests of a species, which is bound up from the beginning with determinate media of socialization: with labour, language and domination. The human species ensures its survival in systems of social labour and coercive self-assertion; by a traditionally mediated common life in colloquial linguistic communication; and finally with the assistance of ego-identities which reinforce the consciousness of the individuals in relation to the norms of the group at every stage of individualization. Thus the knowledge-guiding interests are responsible for the functions of an ego which adapts itself to its external life conditions in learning processes; which is trained by formative processes in the communications complex of a social environment; and which constructs an identity in the conflict between instinctual demands and social constraints’ (twi, pp. 162ff.).

The critical sciences naturally have a special place in this triple trinity of interests, media and sciences. Its medium anchorage, i.e. ‘domination’, is at first sight rather unclear. The term Herrschaft (surprisingly, perhaps) includes socio-psychological processes of role-learning and personality formation. In Hegel’s ‘dialectic of morality’ (Sittlichkeit), these functions are fulfilled by the family.footnote4 In later formulations, Habermas himself has subsumed them—together with the symbolic sphere—under the concept of ‘interaction’.footnote4 He then conceptualizes Domination as ‘distorted communication’, deriving this concept from Freud.footnote5 In other words, critical sciences and emancipatory interest are linked to social action in the sense of Max Weber and Talcott Parsons, i.e. to conduct oriented to expectations of how alter will react to ego’s action.footnote6 We can now understand the task of Habermas’s critique: ‘The systematic sciences of action, i.e. economics, sociology and political science, have the aim of producing nomological knowledge, like the empirical sciences. Of course, critical social science has no complaints about this. However, it is concerned to see beyond this whether theoretical statements express invariant regularities of social action, or whether they express ideologically frozen, but in principle transformable relations of dependence.’ Its basic assumption can be summed up like this: ‘In so far as this is true, the critique of ideology, just like psycho-analysis, reckons with the fact that information about the complexes of laws governing consciousness can itself initiate a process of reflection in them; for this reason it is possible to transform the stages of unreflected consciousness which are part of the initial conditions of such laws. . . . The methodological framework which established the validity of this category of critical statements lacks the concept of self-reflection. The latter disengages the subject from dependence on hypostasized forces. Self-reflection is determined by an emancipatory knowledge-interest. The critically orientated sciences share it with philosophy’ (twi, pp. 158ff.). Habermas’s chosen method is then immanent critique: ‘The power of critical sociology lies in its remembrance of the original intentions behind the current goals of today and what has actually been established. It takes the pretensions of the existing arrangements at their word, for even where these words are utopian, they determine, realistically conceived, what the existing is not.footnote7 Thus the psycho-analytic situation is supposed to exemplify the critical process (ei, chs. 10–12).