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Why Habermas?

WBY BA.BERMAS ?

LINDA J. NICHOLSON’

There exist two ways to deny an idea. One is to
label it false. The other is to call it non-important,
more effectively achieved by not discussing it all.

Mainstream philosophy in both England and the United
states has skilfully employed the art of nondiscussion to deny ideas antithetical to the accepted.

A similar phenomenon has existed in English radic al
philosophy regarding the work of Jtirgen Habermas.

Hegel himself is little taught or read in the country.

Those who took up the dialogue he began, such as
Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Husserl or Heidegger are
not widely discussed. Marx is most frequently
treated as primarily an economic or political
theorist, more concerned with the theories of value
or of the state than theories of cognition, and thus
more in dialogue with Smith than with Hegel.

Whereas France may produce a theorist such as
Althusser who takes pains to deny the connection of
Marx with Hegel, the climate of England has been
more conducive to ignoring the issue. In this
context, one does not need a complex explanation
to account for the fact that in 1979 Jtirgen
Habermas’s philosophical work is still not widely
read in England. The themes which Habermas
explores, such as the relation of theory to practice,
or of cognition to politics, continue in the tradition
of issues dealt with by Hegel, which Habermas,
and his earlier Frankfurt school predecessors,
self -consciously acknowledge as their own.

In part the English dismissal of the Hegelian
tradition has stemmed from an underlying suspicion
of any theory too concerned With the ‘subjective’.

Thus both psychoanalysis and the women’s movemEmt have had more difficulty gaining acceptance in
England’s intellectual community than in the comparable community in the United States. When
English philosophers do allow credence to theorists
concerned with the ‘inner life’, it is to theorists
such as Sartre or Freud too major to ignore. Moreover, the study of the ‘psychological’ or ‘subjective’

when so admitted is kept in its own compartment,
not allowed interaction with the more serious subject of political philosophy. However, it is just at
this juncture of psyche with politic s that the work
of Habermas becomes important, if not necessarily
for the answers it gives, at least for the questions
it raises. Moreover, the critique which Habermas
levels at positivism needs also to be listened to in
England. English philosophy, like other English
disciplines, has been so importantly shaped by this
school of thought that it may be as difficult for its
critics as for its upholders to see through its
dominance. English Marxists as well as philosophers of science cannot justifiably ignore a theorist
who attempts this task.

I Habermas’ Critique
of Positivism
The issue of the relation of theory to practice
serves as an underlying threat in Habermas’ work.

As Thomas McCarthy describes it in his recent
work on Habermas(1), this theme began its development with an examination of the transformation of
the classical notion of politics to its modern form.

For the Greeks, the study of politics and the study
of the good life were one activity. It was only in
the seventeenth century, in the work particularly of
Thomas Hobbes, that the modern conception of
politics arose. With Hobbes, we begin to see the
early precursor of contemporary conceptions of
‘political science’: politics as a body of laws about
human behavior which could be used to bring about
a variety of ends. Thus one distinguishing difference
between the classical and modern-conception of
politics is that the latter conceives of itself as
being value-free or as needing its values supplied
from other sources. This separation of theory and
its uses reflects a second separation between
theory and its application. For the Greeks, to study
politics was to become a virtuous person. We need
the contemporary example of psychoanalysis to
remind us of the classical immediacy of connection
between understanding and self-transformation.

If theory and its application are separate, what
becomes a possibility is a further separation between
the originators of the theory and those whom it is
about, those who understand and those who are
transformed through another’s understanding. What
is made possible is political science, or social
science generally, as an instrument of control.

Such control need not be malevolent or even, at
least in theory, guided by the ends of the theorists.

The above separation of theory from goal negates
any necessary connection between the personal
goals of the scientist and the creation or application
of the theory. While theory need not necessarily
reflect the goals of its creator, it also need not
reflect the goals of those whom it is about. Control,
meaning direction from without, becomes a theoretical possibility.

This modern conception of politics, and of social
science, reflected the rise of the dominance of
natural science conceived in a particular manner.

That social theory could bring about the kind of
control in the social world, comparable with that
which natural science was accomplishing in the
natural world, was an understandable desire. Its
fulfilment seemed only a question of following the

21

model which natural science had established.

While C omte led the way in first articulating the
equation of knowledge with science, it became the
task of later positivists to explicate what science
was about. What appeared cent:r:,al was the construction of laws capable of prediction which were
generated and tested through empirical observation.

Such features seemed clearly to differentiate the
method of science from, for example, the method
of religion. What was less obviously noticed was
that it was not only religion that was being dismissed from the category of knowledge. What also
did not conform were the deliberation procedures
by which the model itself was created. This point
of blindness was exemplified in the irony of Ayer’ s
dictum that statements were either in principle
verifiable or nonsense, as itself being nonsense.

It manifested itself more seriously in a lack of
discussion within positivism on the justifiability of
its own presuppositions. Its own methodology
entailed the impossibility of such self-justification.

Not only did its commitment to empirical confirmation negate the possibility of any confirmation of
itself, but its claim of the fundamental irrationality
of value commitments equally negated any reasoned
defence of its own commitment to the methods of
science. Such contradictions as these were lost in
positivism’s growing replacement of epistemology
with philosophy of science. The explication of the
procedures of natural science replaced reflection
on the knowing subject which did not presuppose
science but sought to explain it.

What was exciting to many in Habermas’ early
book Knowledge and Human Interests (2) was that it
not only articulated the above critique but also took
up as its own aim this lost process of reflection.

As Habermas made clear in the first paragraph of
the preface, this renewal of the activity of reflection had to be historical. That positivism eliminated history in its intent to construct nomological
laws was itself the process by which it abandoned
reflection:

I am undertaking a historically oriented attempt
to reconstruct the history of modern positivism
with the systematic intention of analyzing the
connections between knowledge and human
interests. In following the process of the dissolution of epistemology, which has left the
philosophy of science in its place, one makes
one’s way over abandoned stages of reflection.

Retreading this path from a perspective that
looks back toward the point of departure may
help to recover the forgotten experience of
reflection. That we disavow reflection is
positivism (3).

Positivism, with its emphasis on nomological
laws, or that which repeats itself through time,
has always had difficulty with history with the
latter’s emphasis on change through time. Positivism’s lack of concern with the generation of knowledge has also resulted in the dismissal of the
importance of the history of a discipline in comparison with the present results of that discipline. Thus
history of science is viewed in most El1-glish and
American universities as an interesting but not very
serious component of science itself. Habermas, in
his attempt to break through the hold of positivism,
recognized that more was required than arguing its
incoherence or constructing an alternative framework. While Knowledge and Human Interests does
attempt both of these latter tasks, it does so through
22

intellectual history ~ Habermas constructs his arguments against positivism and creates his alternative
model by elaborating the strengths and weaknesses
of certain major nineteenth and twentieth century
philosophers who both indicated ways out of positivism’s hold and were trapped within it. For the sake
of brevity I would like to separate this process in
my own exposition, giving a simple sketch of his
model and then examining certain of his remarks on
Marx and Freud.

If any single phrase could serve to define positivism, it might be ‘the equation of knowledge with
science’. Thus Habermas in Knowledge and Human
Interests attempts to uncouple this equation. He
does so by differentiating three different forms of
knowledge, only one of which corresponds to the
scientific. This form of knowledge Habermas
labels ’empirical-analytic’ and differentiates it
from ‘historical-hermeneutic understanding’ on the
one hand and ‘critical theory’ on the other. These
three types of knowledge are the products of three
different orientations to the world motivated by
three different fundamental human interests.

Empirical-analytic knowledge is ultimately motivated by the interest in technical control which
underlies the human activity of work or ‘purposiverational action’. Historical-hermeneutic understanding is motivated by the interest in successful
communication which underlies all forms of human
interaction. Finally” critical theory is an expression of the human interest in autonomy or freedom
from unnecessary forms of domination, and underlies the human activity of reflection.

The relation that Habermas constructs between
the above three interests and human knowledge goes
beyond an understanding of interest as representing
that which is idiosyncratic and a possible source of
distortion for understanding. Rather for Habermas
in Knowledge and Human Interests, these interests
partially constitute that which they are about. Thus
the domain of science, objects and their interaction,
are constituted as objects by humans who have
arisen through a particular natural history. This
history has resulted in a certain ‘bodily organiza–E>ft
tion’ which results in the necessity of objectification
of the basis of such characteristics as space and
time. Thus while Habermas’ theory of scientific
knowledge possesses certain similarities to Kant’s,
unlike Kant he roots his description of the conditions of scientific knowledge in natural history. A
dilemma which arises for Habermas is how we can
escape from these conditions in accounting for this
history. A circle appears inevitable: how can we
describe nature as both the ground of human knowledge, and that which is constituted in human knowledge? There here appears to be a tension between
the Hegelian conception of nature as a social construct, and a materialist grounding of sOCiety in
natural history.

Rather than discussing Habermas’ success or
failure in resolving this issue, I refer the reader to
McCarthy’s excellent discussion of this (4). Whether
or not Habermas provides us with an exit from the
enclosure of our forms of knowledge, he at least
provides us with diverse forms of knowledge in
which to move, corresponding to the different
interests. As our interest in control underlies the
necessary characteristics of our world of objects
(or as Habermas expresses it ‘of things and
happenings ‘), so our interest in communication
underlies the necessary characteristics for us of

‘persons and utterances’. In other words, as
Habermas grounded the necessary characteristics
of objects qua objects in our specific evolutionarily
derived ‘bodily organization’ oriented to technical
control, so he grounds our grasp of ‘persons and
utterances’ in our equally evolutionarily derived
characteristic of being participants in communicative interaction. In contrast, the emancipatory
interest is not thus grounded in such ‘deeply rooted
(invariant?) structures of action and experience'(5).

Rather he labels it ‘derivative’, ‘having as an
object domain the socially contingent fact of systematically distorted communication. This contingency
of its object domain explains the contingency of the
activity in which it manifests itself, reflection.

11 Habermas and Revolution
The above account of the tripartite nature of
knowledge had for Habermas political implications.

As noted, positivism’s equation of knowledge with
science enabled an explication of theory as an
instrument of prediction and control. It was not only
positivist philosophers of science who came to view
theory in such a manner. Policy makers, politicians
and social bureaucrats have also come to believe in
the possibility of social science as a tool for social
governance .. Moreover, a large section of the
radical critics of capitalism have shared this perception of the nature of theory, even if perceived
as necessary for the accomplishment of alternative
ends. A distorted conception of theory has entailed
a distorted notion of the revolutionary process.

These distortions have their genesis, for Habermas,
in Marx’s understanding of theory.

Habermas makes a distinction between Marx’s
historical and descriptive accounts of capitalism
and his self -understanding of his theory. In Marx’s
investigation of capitalist and pre-capitalist SOCiety,
social transformation is viewed, according to
Habermas, as both the result of technological
development and struggles concerning human interaction. It is for this reason that Marx includes under
the category ‘mode of production’ both the ‘forces’

and ‘relations’ of production. If Marx had not
incorporated both technical and communicative
practice in his actual historical work, he would
have been forced, according to Habermas, to view
history as the development of a unified subject. In
actuality, for Marx, history is the unfolding of
class struggle. In other words, a technological
account of history could not incorporate or explain
class struggle, which is clearly central to Marx’s
historical work. Unfortunately for Habermas, Marx
was not sufficiently aware of the methodological
implications of his own social theory. Rather his
self -understanding of his work expressed itself in
a philosophy of history which saw the self -constitution of the human species as the result of labour
alone. What became lost in this understanding was
the role of reflection as a motive force of history
not reducible to the act of technical appropriation.

The two versions that we have examined make
visible an indecision that has its foundation in
Marx’s theoretical approach itself …. Selfconstitution through social labor is conceived
at the categorial level as a process of production,
and instrumental action, labor in the sense of
material activity, or work designates the
dimension in which natural history moves. At
the level of his material investigations, on the

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other hand, Marx always takes account of social
practice that encompasses both work and interaction. The processes of natural history are
mediated by the productive activity of individuals
and the organization of their interrelations.

These relations are subject to norms that decide
with the force of institutions, how responsibilities and rewards, obligations and charges to the
social budget are distributed among members.

The medium in which these relations of subjects
and of groups are normatively regulated is
cultural tradition. It forms the linguistic
communication structure on the basis of which
subjects interpret both nature and themselves
in their environment (6).

The constraints placed on human beings by the
natural world are dealt with through labour or
instrumental action. However, the results of the
labour process are not necessarily equitably shared,
as exhibited in class societies, which justify such
inequality through ideology. Whereas freedom from
natural domination is achieved through technological
innovation, freedom from social domination can only
be achieved through processes of reflection not
reducible to technological appropriation:

The course of the social self-formative process,
on the other hand, is marked not by new technologies but by stages of reflection through which
the dogmatic character of surpassed forms of
domination and ideologies are dispelled, the
pressure of the institutional framework is sublimated, and communicative action is set free as
communicative action. The goal of this development is thereby anticipated: the organization of
society linked to decision-making processes on
the bases of discussion free from domination.

Raising the productivity of technically exploitable
knowledge, which in the sphere of socially necessary labor leads to the complete substitution of
machinery for men, has its counterpart here in
the self -reflection of consciousness in its manifestations to the point where the self -consciousness of the species has attained the level of
critique and freed itself from all ideological
delusion. The two developments do not converge.

Yet they are interdependent; Marx tried in vain
to c.apture this in the dialectic of forces of production and relations of production. In vain – for
the meaning of this ‘dialectic’ must remain unclarified as long as the materialist concept of
the synthesis of man and nature is restricted to

23

the categorial framework of production (7).

Freedom from natural and soc ial domination,
while interdependent, are not identical. Scarcity
demands the repression of needs which forms a
motive force for class rule. Technological development may remove this motive force ·but by so doing
it need not remove those forms of repression which
are specific to a society organized by class. In
other words, there is always a question of the
difference between the degree of repression that is
necessary at any given stage of production and that
which is a function of social ‘domination. Technological development, while making possible the
elimination of the latter, need not on its own effect
it. For that, what is required is the critique of
ideology.

In Knowledge and Human Interests Habermas
uses psychoanalysis, with qualifications, as a
model for elaborating the method of such a critique.

In both cases the goal is the recovery of repressed
needs and desires which have through repression
become ex-communicated from language. In both
cases what is required is a recovery of a past that
has been blocked from consciousness. The revolution thus sets as a model communication free from
domination where such history can be recovered
and where all needs can be verbalized. Some have
therefore interpreted Habermas in his early
writings as describing the revolution as a mass
psychoanalytic encounter. It therefore should be
noted that Habermas does differentiate between the
development of theory, the process of enlightenment
and the conduct of political struggle:

The mediation of theory and practice can be
clarified if to begin with we distinguish three
functions, which are measured in terms of
different criteria: the formation and extension
of critical theorems, which can stand up to
scientific discourse; the organization of processes
of enlightenment, in which such theorems are
applied and can be tested in a unique manner by
the initiation of processes of reflection carried
on within certain groups towards which these
processes have been directed; and the selection
of appropriate strategies, the solution of tactical
questions and the conduct of the political
struggle (8).

Thus if Habermas was innovative in introducing the
model of psychoanalysis in an understanding of
revolution, it was only as a component part.

III Habermas and
Critical Theory
The intent of Habermas’ early work was to
recover social theory from positivism. Habermas
was not the first to attempt this task. Beginning
with such nineteenth-century German philosophers
as Dilthey, continuing in the twentieth century with
Husserl and phenomenology and even surfacing in
British and American philosophy as in Winch, many
have come to uncover crucial weaknesses in positivism’s conception of social theory. One often
recognized difficulty with positivism has been its
inability to comprehend how the fact that human
speech and behaviour have social meaning in turn
affects the nature of any theory designed to describe
or comprehend such speech and behaviour. To pIt
the matter simply: human beings unlike rocks have
24

things to say about what they do. At some level
social theory has to take into account this selfunderstanding of social actors if it is merely to
live up to one criterion of theory positivism itself
judges important~ the ability to provide successful
prediction (9). The comprehension of social meaning
seems however to entail activities not adequately
comprehended in positivism’s conception of sensory
observation. The hermeneutic tradition, reactivated
by Dilthey, amongst others, appeared to many to
provide at least the beginnings of a more adequate
account. Thus when Habermas in Knowledge and
Human Interests differentiated ’empirical-analytic’

from ‘historical-hermeneutic’ knowledge, he was
not introducing an unknown distinction. What was
more novel in Habermas’ account of the structure
of knowledge was his differentiation of critical
theory fro!ll historical-hermeneutic knowledge.

There existed at least one strong reason for making
such a differentiation. Hermeneutics recognizes
that soc ial theory takes as its subject matter that
which is meaningful. It equally recognizes that the
specific meanings which humans assign to their
speech and behavior can only be comprehended
through an understanding which relates such meanings to the larger symbolic context in which such
meanings are generated. Thus hermeneutics
rec ognizes the necessary historicality of its subject
matter. It equally recognizes the historicality of
the language in which such subject matter can be
described and explained. As noted, the ideal of
positivism is the creation o~ nomological laws
whose only relation to history concerns the time of
their instantiation. The components of such laws
must of themselves be non-historical, otherwise
invalidating the conception of law itself.· Thus for
example, a behaviourist such as B. F. Skinner would
prefer to translate ordinary language description of
behaviour to the language of physical movement,
not only because of its greater ‘precision’, but also
because it represents a language which can be
employed to describe any human society. The
response to this position by hermeneutics is that
we cannot avoid being historical. To attempt otherwise is either to limit ourselves to a language too
thin to be interesting or else to employ a language
covertly our own. If hermeneutics insists on the
historical situatedness of both the subject and
language of study, the danger it encounters is the
possibility of relativism. How can we use the
historically specific symbolic framework, of our
language to describe the equally historically specific
framework of another? Moreover, if we need to
attend to the specific meanings which humans give
to their speech and behaviour, or take into account
the subjects’ own interpretation of what they say and
do, how do we allow for the possibility that agents
themselves are not necessarily the best describers
or explainers of their own actions?

There lay a possible road out of this impasse for
Habermas in his description of psychoanalysis.

Habermas criticizes Freud for the latter’s tendency
to interpret his own work according to a model of
natural science, manifesting itself for example in
Freud’s conception of id, ego and superego as
elements in an energy distribution model. Rather,
for Habermas, what psychoanalysis illustrates is a
mode of social understanding where hermeneutics
is central. Freud himself recognized the analogy
between dream interpretation and the understanding
of a text. What is distinctive however about psycho-

analysis is that while hermeneutics is employed,
many of the meanings it describes are not accessible to the subject. In Lukacsian language, they
have become alienated from the subject, operating
in the manner of a ‘second nature’. Thus psychoanalysis ‘unites linguistic analysis with the psychological investigation of causal connections ‘(10).

Secondly, psychoanalysis distinguishes itself from
hermeneutics in its requirement of being theoretically grounded. To account for the distortions in
communication which mark this alienation, psychoanalysis must have available a model of nondistorted communication. It also requires a theory
of socialization which would account for the acquisition of communicative competence as well as its
deformation. In short, what psychoanalysis as
opposed to hermeneutic s reveals is the need for
theory which can ground the process of critique.

One can view Habermas’ later work as the
attempt to provide this theoretical grounding.

Notable amongst the projects of his later writings
are a theory of communicative competence, that is,
a theory which makes explicit those species-wide
rules which underlie and make possible successful
communication. Also important are his attempts to
dev.elop a theory of socialization, and, most recently, a reconstructed theory of historical materialism
which takes the form of a theory of social evolution.

All of these projects intend to fulfil the aim of
grounding what is necessarily historical in social
inquiry. Rather than attempt to summarize these
theories, I would prefer to examine in the remaindeI
of this article a problem which McCarthy cogently
discusses in his summarization of Habermas’ later
writings and their relation to the early work.

In a paper published some years after Knowledge
and Human Interests, Habermas put forward the
following criticism of his position there:

It occurred to me only after completing the book
that the traditional use of the term ‘reflexion’,
which goes back to German Idealism, covers (and
confuses) two things: on the one hand, it denotes
the reflexion upon the conditions of potential abilities of a knowing, speaking and acting subject as
such; on the other hand, it denotes the reflexion
upon unconsciously produced constraints to which
a determinate subject (or a determinate group of
subjects, or a determinate species subject)
succumbs in its process of self-formation. In
Kant and his successors, the first type of reflexion took the form of a search for the transcendent·
al ground of possible theoretical knowledge (and
moral conduct). What does it mean for a theory,
or for theoretical knowledge as such, to ground
itself transcendentally? It means that the theory
becomes familiar with the range of inevitable
subjective conditions which both make the theory
possible and place limits on it, for this kind of
transcendental corroboration tends always to
criticize an overly confident self-understanding
the theory may have of itself. In the meantime,
this mode of reflexion has also taken the shape of
a rational reconstruction of generative rules and
cognitive schemata. Particularly, the paradigm
of language has led to a reframing of the transcendental model in a way which makes it unnecessary to add a transcendental subject to the system
of conditions, categories or rules established by
linguistic theory. While language philosophy used
to be transcendental philosophy in the days of
Humboldt, it suffices now to grasp the generative

nature of rules themselves, whereas the mastery
of these rules, i. e. the emergence of competence
and hence the formation of a competent subject,
becomes a second, analytically and empirically
independent, issue. It was Wittgenstein’s analysis
of the notion of ‘following a rule’ and, in the
Humboldtian tradition, Chomsky’s concepts of
‘generative rules’ and ‘linguistic competence’

which contributed most directly to this specific
variant of a rational reconstruction of the conditions which make language, cognition and action
possible.

In his Phenomenology, Hegel combined the
self -critical delimitation of consciousness,
effected by a transcendental analysis of the
conditional nature of something we know naively
and intuitively, with reflextion in another sense of
the term which denotes the critical dissolution of
subjectively constituted pseudo-objectivity. In
other words, he embraced a concept of reflexion
which contains the idea of an analytical emancipation from objective illusions. Later, Freud
removed this self -critical notion of reflexion
from its epistemological context by relating it to
the reflexive experience of an empirical subject
which, under the compulsive sway of restricted
patterns of perc eption and behaviour, deludes
itself about its own being. By understanding these
illusions the subject emancipates itself from
itself (11).

If however Habermas comes to differentiate, as he
does, between ‘critical self -reflection’ and
‘rational reconstruction’, between reflection on the
particular, historically specific conditions of knowledge and those that are universal, then he is left
with a problem which seems to haunt piS later
writings: a possible remergence of positivism’s
separation of theory from practice. For, in the
attempt to provide grounding for critique, Habermas
has come to emphasize a form of theory – rational
reconstruction – whose relationship to the particular
and practical is problematic. Moreover, his reliance in his later writings on many developmental
theorists, such as Kohlberg, raises the issue of
whether or not he remains sufficiently sensitive to
hermeneutics’ insistence on the necessary
historicality of much of social theory. While
Habermas is correct in recognizing the necessity
of theoretical grounding, is he still sufficiently
cognizant of the hazards inherent in providing this
grounding? McCarthy treats these problems as
unresolvable, by describing both rational reconstruction and critical self-reflection as interconnected aspects of critical social theory:

It should be evident that the aims of a critical
social theory are not exhausted in the construction
of a theory of social evolution. Primary among
these aims is the analysis of contemporary
society; and this analysis requires both a practical and a historical orientation. It requires, that
is, a critical, historical account of how we came
to be what we are, a reflection on the particulars
of our self -formative processes …. My point
here is that the theory of social evolution does
not replace the earlier conception of critical
social theory as historically situated, practically
interested reflection on a formative process.

Rather it represents a further enrichment of its
theoretical basis. In addition to a horizontal
account of the structure of non-distorted communicative interaction, critical self -reflection

25

can also draw on a vertical account of the
development of structures of interaction.

Despite this enrichment, however, critical
theory – in so far as it is a theory of contemporary society – retains its essentially historical
and practical nature (12).

The question whether McCarthy is correct in
believing that Habermas’ later writings do represent an adequate integration of that which is historical and that which is general cannot be answered on
the basis of the above depiction of Habermas’ later
writings. Rather what I hope to have illustrated in
the above is merely the nature of the issues with
which Habermas is dealing. The reason I have
proceeded along this path is because I believe that
whatever the validity of Habermas’ specific claims,
in his later as in his earlier works, the issues are
crucial. To paraphrase Sartre on Marx: Habermas
is dealing with problems we have not yet gone
beyond. Whether Habermas has adequately provided

us with a critical social theory, he has at least
provided us with an important description of its
necessary components. Most importantly, he has
helped elaborate the conception of social inquiry
as fundamentally a process in which ‘all are participants’ and whose object is the transformation of
our lives.

1 Thomas McCarthy, The Critical Theory of Jurgen Habermas,- cambridge,
Mass., 1978. The book is reviewed in the Reviews section of this issue of
Radical Philosophy.

2 Jurgen Habermas, Knowledge and Human Interests, Boston, 1971.

3 ibid, p. vii.

4 Jurgen Habermas, Theory and Practice, London, 1974, p285 n38. See also
McCarthy’s discussion of this issue in op. cit. pp110-25.

5 Jurgen Habermas, ‘A Postscript to Knowledge and Human Interests’,
Philosophy of the Social Sciences, vol. 3, no.2, p176.

6 Knowledge and Human Interests, pp52 -53.

7 ibid, p55.

8 Theory and Practice, p32.

9 A good discussion of this point is in Charles Taylor, The Explanation of
‘Behavior, New York, 1964, Chapters VI and VII.

10 Knowledge and Human Interests, p217.

11 The Critical Theory of Jurgen Habermas, pp94-95.

12 ibid, p270. Note McCarthy’s more extended discussion of this issue on
pp261-71.

LACAN: A REPLY TO REE
ANTONY EASTHOPE
I won’t comment on Jonathan Ree’s harsh and
over-personalised attack on Coward and Ellis
(Radical Philosophy 23) except to say it was at the
least unfraternal – whatever the inadequacies of
Coward and Ellis’ position it is not one that offers
much comfort to Sir Keith Joseph and his like. But
it was a pity that Lacan, about whom we are sure
to hear a lot more, should first surface in Radical
Philosophy in this context. He deserves better. It
may be that people trained in modes of representation (e. g.literary criticism) find Lacan easier
meat than those trained in philosophy. Ree honestly
confesses his difficulties; he finds Lacan’s relation
of signifier and unconscious ‘particularly obscure’

and cannot tell whether his theory of ego formation
is superior to Freud’s. Rather than run through an
irritating list of disagreements with Ree it would
be more constructive to attempt a positive if
simplified and abbreviated summary of two main
areas in Lacan’s projected integration of Saussurian linguistics and Freudian psychoanalysis, the
construction of the subject in language, the entry
of the subject into language (‘subject’ because
‘thrown under’ and into a pre-existing process
rather than ‘individual’, the self-sufficient subject
from Latin individuus, ‘undivided’).

That the ego is in and for itself (‘I think therefore
I am f), owing nothing to anyone, dependent upon
nothing but itself and thus freely owning commodities, freely exchanging labour power for wages,
acting freely according to or against the law, freely
choosing its political representatives – all this is
the central support in bourgeois ideology, as
Althusser (under the influence of Lacan) tries to
argue in the ISA’s essay. Lacan offers to explain
how the ego comes to conceive itself in an autonomy,
to think itself as a source of meaning. It really is
26

very hard to root out the idea (it saturates our
language) that there is somehow an’!’ already
there prior to or back from its ‘expression’

(expression means to make outward what was
inward without altering its nature). For example,
M. A. K. Halliday in Language as Social Semiotic
says
In essence, what seems to happen is this. The
child first constructs a language in the form of
a range of meanings that relate directly to
certain of his basic needs. As time goes on
the meanings become more complex, and he
replaces this by a symbolic system – a semantic
system with structural realizations – based on
the language he hears around him; this is what
we call his ‘mother tongue’.

(p27)
Here we are shown a little man at work – he has
needs, replaces them, he hears language. The
subject is already there prior to language. And
sexed. On Lacan’s showing 1 don’t speak since the
‘1’ which speaks only exists within language; I
don’t learn to talk since this ‘I’ we persist in
referring to only comes into existence in learning
to talk. In other words you can’t step over your own
feet.

The Subject in Language. Saussure demonstrated
the relation of signifier (‘sound image ‘) and signified (‘concept’) as arbitrary not inherent. Obviously
the meaning holding together signifier and signified
is social, a semantic organisation ideologically
constituted. Yet there must be a process by which
language is internalised in and for the subject, how
the signifier is lined up with the signified for the
subject to intend meaning. Because signifiers
relate only to each other in a system of differences
(‘each linguistic term derives its value from its

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