It's impossible to do justice to the complexity of Habermas' thought, for several reasons. One is that he is a systematic, or system-building, philosopher, in the grand Germanic tradition. Another is the comprehensiveness of his system: it touches on philosophy of language, epistemology, social theory, ethical theory, philosophy of history, political theory, and philosophy of law. It's probably not an exaggeration to call Habermas the most systematic German philosopher since Hegel.
This already raises some questions -- for example, is there a tension between the systematicity in defense of the Enlightenment and the notion of the Enlightenment as a ceaseless critique of totality?
Habermas, of course, presents his systematicity as a signal virtue of his approach. As he sees it, the Frankfurt School generation of critical theory ran into a dead-end, and they did so because they had an inadequate (because one-sided) theory of rationality. This already indicates something fascinating and controversial about Habermas's approach. He claims that
(1) Adorno and Horkheimer and Marcuse ran into a dead-end;
(2) They did so because they had an inadequate theory;
(3) The inadequate theory was an inadequate theory about the nature of rationality.
These claims are all indispensable for Habermas' attempt to revive critical theory on the basis of a new theory of rationality. Someone who disagrees with these assertions will not be getting on board the Habermas Express.
At the heart of Habermas' version of critical theory is the thought that critique necessarily presupposes normative standards. Thus the question is raised, where are those norms going to come from? On the one hand, they cannot be transcendent, God-given norms -- if the norms do not come from ourselves, then we not truly autonomous, in the Kantian sense, when we apply those norms to ourselves. (Critique, norm, and autonomy are closely intertwined here!)
On the other hand, the norms deployed in the work of critique cannot be grounded merely in particular communities at particular times and places, Habermas argues, because they would give in to relativism. (Habermas and Pope Benedict XVI share a hatred of relativism. The disagreement between them is whether relativism can be rejected without rejecting secularism.) Critique requires a moment of universal validity
-- when we say that cruelty is bad, or that torture is wrong, we're not saying that it's bad for us
-- we're saying that it is bad as such
The defense and continuation of the Enlightenment, Habermas thinks, requires a commitment to these two theses: that the norms of critique must be immanent
rather than transcendent, and they must be universal
rather than particular. The question therefore arises: how can we think of the norms of critique as immanent universals?
His solution to this problem lies in his "theory of communicative action." The immanent universals which underlie social critique are the structures of human language
. He calls such structures "quasi-transcendental." They are not purely formal and a priori
in the Kantian sense, because they can be empirically investigated by linguists and sociologists, but they are trans-historical, i.e. they operate in history but are not transformed by historical events. The quasi-transcendental structures are the norms that underlie different types of "speech acts" (here Habermas borrows from Austin and Searle). We are oriented through language in three directions: objectively, intersubjectively, and subjectively. Our objective orientation is regulated by the norm of truth; our intersubjective orientation is regulated by the norm of rightness; and our subjective orientation is oriented by the norm of sincerity.
Habermas argues that the Frankfurt School project failed, or ran into a dead-end, because it neglected the intersubjective dimension of human language. The Frankfurters correctly criticized the subject-object model of rationality, but without attention to the intersubjective dimension, they couldn't see that there is another model of rationality -- rationality as dialogue
. In Habermas' theory, the problem with modernity is that "rationalization" is one-sided
-- we've rationalized our relations with the natural world through science and technology, but we haven't rationalized our relations with ourselves through dialogue oriented towards mutual understanding.
In other words, Adorno was wrong; rationalization is not the problem. The problem is a one-sided, insufficient, inadequate rationalization.
Habermas' attitude towards Foucault changed somewhat over the course of their interactions. At first Habermas thought of Foucault as an irrationalist, and one can see this also in how Habermasians have criticized Foucault and Foucaultians. By the end of Foucault's life Habermas had come to see that Foucault was not an irrationalist, but was continuing the Enlightenment project in a very different way.
From my vantage point, I would say that the real issues between Habermas and Foucault concern norms and rationality. Is there such a thing as "Reason" as Habermas maintains in the Kantian-Hegelian tradition? Or is there only a plurality of "rationalities" (of medicine, of psychiatry, of law, of punishment, of biology) as Foucault argues? And: does the work of critique require the presupposition of quasi-transcendental structures? Or can it get by with a much weaker claim?
Ultimately, I would like to be both a Habermasian of a sort and a Foucaultian of a sort, but I haven't yet figured out how to do that. I also think that Habermas misses out on something of fundamental importance in Adorno and Marcuse -- but that's a subject for a later post.