Habermas and Giddens on Praxis and Modernity: A Constructive Comparison

Habermas and Giddens on Praxis and Modernity: A Constructive Comparison

by Craig Browne

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In Habermas and Giddens on Praxis and Modernity Craig Browne investigates how two of the most important and influential contemporary social theorists have sought to develop the modernist visions of the constitution of society through the autonomous actions of subjects. Comparing Habermas’s and Giddens’s conceptions of the constitution of society, interpretations of the social-structural impediments to subjects’ autonomy and attempts to delineate potentials for progressive social change within contemporary society, Browne draws on his own work, which has extended aspects of the social theorists’ approach to modernity. Despite the criticisms developed over the course of the book, Habermas and Giddens are found to be two of the most important theorists of democratization and social democracy, the dynamics of capitalist modernity and their paradoxes, social practices and reflexivity, and the foundations of social theory in the problem of the relationship of social action and social structure.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781783085033
Publisher: Anthem Press
Publication date: 01/02/2017
Series: Key Issues in Modern Sociology
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 314
File size: 630 KB

About the Author

Craig Browne is a senior lecturer in the Department of Sociology and Social Policy, University of Sydney. Working in the area of critical social theory, he is co-editor of Violence in France and Australia: Disorder in the Postcolonial Welfare State (2010).

Read an Excerpt

Habermas and Giddens on Praxis and Modernity

A Constructive Comparison

By Craig Browne

Wimbledon Publishing Company

Copyright © 2017 Craig Browne
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-78308-503-3



In the structures of diffracted intersubjectivity [...] singularization is just as impossible without the inexorable compulsion to universalization as is socialization without concomitant individuation. (Habermas 1991, 218)

Critical Theory and Social Identity: On Habermas's Conceptual Foundations

As I have discussed, the Marxian perspective of the philosophy of praxis derives its conception of the social from an interpretation of the intersection between the subject and history. A distinctive feature of this perspective is its synthetic orientation, generating a concern with the problem of mediation. Starting from Marx's critique of Hegel and Feuerbach, critical theory has sought to transform philosophical concepts through grounding them in social processes. In particular, this Marxian perspective considers that practice constitutes the linkage between the subject and history. This mediation is meant to be a process of transcending many traditional philosophical and political antinomies, like those of the divisions between essence and appearance, subject and object, freedom and necessity. Habermas diverges from several of the praxis perspective's synthetic aspirations, but I argue that he retains a founding interest in the problem of the mediation of the universal and the particular. The intersubjective approach that he develops to this problem of mediation is central to his defence of the continuing relevance of the 'project of modernity' and his claim that 'the rationality structures that became accessible in the modern age have not yet been exhausted and that they allow for a comprehensive institutional embodiment in the form of extensive processes of democratization' (Habermas 1979a, 129).

Habermas's specification of this mediation of the universal and the particular is based on his demonstrating the rationality intrinsic to communicative action oriented towards mutual understanding. He develops this basic consideration into a theory that is internally organized around the formation of social identity and its moral–practical translations. In Habermas's theory, identity is constitutive of the social, as the intersubjectivity of communication mediates processes of socialization and individuation. The principle of Habermas's discourse ethics exemplifies the normative implications of this mediation of the universal and the particular:

(D) Only those norms can claim to be valid that meet (or could meet) with the approval of all affected in their capacity as participants in practical discourse. (Habermas 1990a, 66)

The contention that social identity is the organizing problem of Habermas's theory does not mean that I dispute the accepted view of his discourse theory of morality and justice. That is, the view that Habermas's discourse theory represents a shift towards the more formal perspective of Kant's practical philosophy and a movement somewhat away from the Hegelian vision of morality as grounded in the substantive conditions of ethical life (see Honneth 2014). Rather, the contention that social identity is the organizing problem of Habermas's theory discloses some of the implications of this shift and the tensions that are intrinsic to Habermas's programme. Habermas's discourse theory reformulates the universalistic moral outlook of Kant's categorical imperative – that is, that one should morally 'act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law' (Kant 1993, 30).

In this chapter, I clarify the seminal connection between Habermas's notion of social identity and his arguments for a change from the paradigm of the subject to the intersubjective paradigm of understanding. Habermas acknowledges that George Herbert Mead anticipated this change in paradigm, and he elaborates important details of his intersubjective conception of social identity through a reconstruction of Mead's analysis. Mead's interpretation of social identity contains additional considerations that Habermas's reconceptualization does not expand upon, and these considerations are briefly recollected in order to highlight some of the limitations of Habermas's theory. In fact, many of these considerations overlap those aspects of the perspective of the philosophy of praxis that Habermas's theory tends to subordinate, such as the dynamic character of social conflict, the temporal content of practices and the linkages between emancipation and creativity. These themes of praxis philosophy will be shown to be relevant to the comparison with Giddens and more recent attempts to rethink the nexus of the subject and history, especially that of Jose Maurício Domingues (Domingues 1995; 2000; 2006).

The philosophical background to Habermas's conception of identity will be traced through a discussion of its parallels with, and divergences from, Hegel's and Adorno's notions of identity. Adorno's critique of the identity thinking is partly accepted by Habermas but principally transformed into a positive appreciation of social identity. Both Adorno and Habermas delimit conceptions of identity that can be traced back to Hegel. Habermas does so, however, in order to define a universalism intrinsic to the mediation of social relations. He replaces Adorno's critique of conceptual thought's formal logic category of identity, as well as the associated dialectical interpretations of subject–object relations, with an explication of the thoroughly social practice of intersubjective communication (Habermas 1984a; 1987b). In my opinion, the accomplishments of Habermas's perspective are profound and undeniable, yet it is more convincing in relation to questions that are proximate to that of social identity than it is to the other topics that it seeks to encompass, especially that of social systems. It will be later shown why Adorno's critique of identity constitutes an attempt to comprehend the deepest sources of instrumental rationality and how from Adorno's standpoint this dominance of identity logic represents the definitive limits to human emancipation in modernity .

Intersubjectivity and Identity

I argue that the axial problem that shapes the 'conceptual strategy' of Habermas's critical social theory is that of the mediation and reconciliation of the universal and the particular. Habermas has sought, above all, to clarify his core intuition concerning the significance of the intersubjective structure of communicative practice in relation to this problem (see Habermas 2008, 9–76). Charles Taylor (1991, 27) elegantly captures this central intuition in describing the discursive 'complementarity' of 'I' and 'We'. 'In discourse', referring to linguistic practices oriented towards mutual understanding, 'we talk about something. This means, however, that the matter in hand exists not just for me and for you, but for us'. This complementarity is intrinsic to the intersubjective meaning of mutual understanding, because, as Taylor (1991, 27) comments, 'we cannot, however, construe this process to be the attempt to synthesize "I-perspectives" which are completely independent of one another'.

Of particular significance, the mediation of the universal and the particular is conceived to be principally a question of social identity and its formation in Habermas's theory. Habermas's intuition concerning the intersubjective structure of understanding leads to a corresponding vision of the potentials for the progressive resolution of the major crisis tendencies of late-capitalist societies, notably, those of the crises of legitimation and the social pathologies of social and individual identity (Habermas 1979; 1987a). Despite the problems ensuing from the subordinating of several other considerations, Habermas's theory of communicative action represents a highly innovative approach to the question of social identity. In my opinion, this intersubjective approach is superior to many alternatives, both on account of the detailed intricacy of its elaboration and its capacity for practical-political illumination. Even so, arguments for its superiority are conditional on social identity being considered a problem that requires the mediating of the universal and particular.

Habermas (1979a, 88; 1990a, 102) believes that the denial of this requirement of mediation cannot be held to consistently. The denial is only really possible from a standpoint external to an identity. In his opinion, an identity that is social not only encounters this problem of mediation, it is constituted through the mediating processes of social interaction (Habermas 1974b; 1990a; 1992a). It is worth noting that it is possible to infer from the following remarks of Albrecht Wellmer some of the reasons why Habermas's original attraction to critical theory may be connected to the problem of identity:

Critical Theory proved to be in a position from which it was possible on the one hand to analyse those aspects of the German cultural tradition that were reactionary, repressive, and hostile to culture, and to do so more precisely than from any other standpoint; and on the other hand to reveal the subversive enlightening, and universalistic features of that same tradition, I would say that Critical Theory was the only theoretical position represented in postwar Germany that made a radical break with fascism conceivable without entailing a similarly radical break with the German cultural tradition, that is, with one's own cultural identity. (Wellmer 1998, 254)

In a similar vein, Richard Bernstein (1985) insightfully explains how Habermas's desire to respond to the twentieth-century German experience was significant for his entire theory. Bernstein finds that the sense of 'rupture' that the aftermath of National Socialism produced led to Habermas's 'strong affinity with the pragmatists' vision and understanding of radical participatory democracy' (Bernstein 1985, 3).

Habermas's explications of this core conviction is not just directed at the problem of individual and social identity in general, rather it is specifically addressed to the questions of a rational identity and its constitution. Habermas's overall premise is, though conceived differently, the same normative one as that of Hegel's philosophy: that an identity is individuated to the degree to which it is universalistic (Habermas 1987a, 97; 1992a, 148–204). Hegel's account of self-consciousness illustrates this interconnection:

A self-consciousness exists for a self-consciousness. Only so is it in fact self-consciousness; for only in this way does the unity of itself in its otherness become explicit for it[. ...] Spirit is – this absolute substance which is the unity of the different independent self-consciousnesses which, in their opposition, enjoy perfect freedom and independence: 'I' that is 'We' and 'We' that is 'I'. (Hegel 1977, 110–11)

Hegel's philosophy, Habermas claims, 'is essentially designed to solve' the question of social identity under the conditions of freedom and rationality institutionalized in modernity (1974b, 91). Indeed, Habermas claims that Hegel first formulated his notion of Spirit (Geist) in response to this question (1974a, 143–47; 1974b).

Despite the conflict between Hegel's commitment to the philosophy of consciousness and Habermas's formulation of the communicative paradigm of understanding, Habermas's approach exhibits sufficient continuities to be regarded as a rethinking of Hegel's conception of social identity. Habermas's approach is, however, comparatively delimited; he rejects the broader metaphysical grounding of the relationship between the universal and the particular in Hegel's dialectic. This commitment to 'post-metaphysical' thinking does not affect Habermas's consistent opposition to the post-Hegelian 'objectivist' conception of the relationship of the universal and particular (1976a; 1976b; 1992a). That is, objectivist conceptions equate the solution to this problem of the mediation of the universal and particular with the positive knowledge produced by scientific models and their formulating of universally valid law-like statements.

In Habermas's opinion, such conceptions occlude exactly what Hegel had shown to be crucial, that is, that social and individual identity cannot be considered to be like the identification of objects. In these cases, identity is not something that can be externally applied to phenomenon (1974b, 91; 1974a, 146). Social identity and individual identity are types of identity that presuppose a subject, and they are posited through the subject's activity. For this reason, Habermas suggests that in 'a certain sense a society achieves or, let me say, produces its identity; and it is by virtue of its own efforts that it does not lose it' (1974b, 91).

Hegel and Habermas agree that a social identity requires, in principle, some affirmation, that is, a consciousness of identity as justified, legitimate and authentic, irrespective of whether this is an individual or collective identity. Of course, this consciousness does not mean that an identity cannot be recognized as something that is conditioned, and of its being alienated, although Habermas is sceptical about the contemporary relevance of Hegel's notion of a 'false identity' (1974b, 91). Nevertheless, this recognition of the heteronomous conditioning of identity includes the possibility of some affirming of transformation; hence, there is an intimate connection between identity and the idea of freedom in the writings of both Hegel and Habermas. Freedom enables the authentic realization of identity, they argue, and Habermas has sought to reconstruct the equivalent moral consciousness of an autonomous subject (1990).

For Hegel, an unfree identity is not a real identity; it merely exists and does not realize the self-determination that is essential to subjectivity (Hegel 1977; 1967). Paradoxically, this determination is probably one of the reasons why Hegel was able to generalize the principle of subjectivity beyond that of the individual subject. Herbert Marcuse explains this in the following terms:

We must note that the logical category 'subject' does not designate any particular form of subjectivity (such as man) but a general structure that might best be characterized by the concept 'mind'. Subject denotes a universal that individualizes itself, and if we wish to think of a concrete example, we might point to the 'spirit' of a historical epoch. If we have comprehended such an epoch, if we have grasped its notion, we shall see a universal principle that develops, through the self-conscious action of individuals, in all prevailing institutions, facts, and relations. (Marcuse 1967, 155)

Habermas's interpretation of the reciprocity of communication implies a democratic and certainly less potentially repressive rendering of the relationship between the generality of the social and the particularity of the individual. It precludes, in principle, the subordination of the individual to the universal and discloses how this subordination would represent a distortion of the rationality, as well as the participatory democratic implications of communication. This normative content of Habermas's core intuition grants an undoubtedly critical significance to the axial problem that binds together the various different strands of his theory. The following three categorical features illustrate the critical significance of Habermas's approach to social identity: first, a notion of autonomy grounded in the intersubjective conception of the constitution of the subject; second, the idea that actualizing the potential immanent in communication would enlarge the existing institutional embodiment of democracy and justice; and, third, specifying a normative conception of rationality and adumbrating from this processes of social rationalization that would facilitate a reorganization of modern societies. In addition, the model of the communicative mediation of the universal and the particular ties together these three features. In so doing, Habermas rethinks the basic sociological problem of the relation of the individual to society from the standpoint of the constitution of identity.


Excerpted from Habermas and Giddens on Praxis and Modernity by Craig Browne. Copyright © 2017 Craig Browne. Excerpted by permission of Wimbledon Publishing Company.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgements; Introduction; Part I. New Paradigms and social theory Perspectives; Chapter One Habermas’s New Paradigm of Critical Theory; Chapter Two Giddens’s Theory of Structuration – an Ontology of the Social; Part II. Institutionalizing Modernity: Development and Discontinuity; Chapter Three Habermas on the Institutionalizing of Modernity: Communicative Rationality, Lifeworld and System; Chapter Four Giddens on Institutionalizing Modernity: Power and Discontinuity; Chapter Five Intermediate Reflections on Social Theory Alternatives: Contrasts and Divisions; Part III. The Political and Social Constellation of Contemporary Modernity; Chapter Six Globalization, the Welfare State and Social Democracy; Chapter Seven Deliberative Politics, the Democratizing of Democracy and European Cosmopolitanism; Conclusion; Bibliography; Index.

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From the Publisher

‘This is a careful and considered engagement with the work of Habermas and Giddens. It identifies their positive contributions to a theory of modernity while developing a critique of lacunae in their thought arising from social developments subsequent to their main body of writing. It is an important work of recuperation and reflection.’

John Holmwood, Professor of Sociology, University of Nottingham, UK

‘This is a book that lives up to its main promise, but goes well beyond it. It presents Habermas’s and Giddens’s works innovatively as well as sketches a renewal of critical theory with a timely emphasis on creativity and the development of the global modern civilizational constellation.’

José Maurício Domingues, Professor, Institute for Social and Political Studies, Rio de Janeiro State University, Brazil

‘Craig Browne’s new book is an original and thought-provoking exploration of social theory. Clarity always marks his work, a methodology based on the Budapest School’s approach, notably Maria Markus, from which Browne considers praxis and theory for a divided world society. Habermas and Giddens gave very influential directions to analysis in the 1980s that Browne assesses anew to show what social theory can achieve for our times. His book is an extremely welcome and imaginative intervention.’

Jocelyn Pixley, Honorary Professor in Sociology, Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia

‘Against a rapidly changing backdrop, Habermas and Giddens have towered over the last half-century of social thought. The range and complexity of their writings have been breathtaking, making any attempt at comparison a forbidding one. The significance of Craig Browne’s lucid, philosophically sophisticated and endlessly insightful achievement can only be fully appreciated against the magnitude of this challenge.’

Rob Stones, Professor of Sociology, Western Sydney University, Australia

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