Justin Evans's Reviews > Communication & the Evolution of Society

Communication & the Evolution of Society by Jürgen Habermas
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Nov 09, 2009

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bookshelves: philosophy, history-etc
Read in November, 2009

A collection of essays which is probably the best introduction to Habermas' work in his own words. The five essays introduce one aspect of his project: his reliance on an interpretation of speech-act theory to provide the normative grounding for his own project (he considers other critical theorists, such as Adorno, to lack normative grounds; that is, he thinks they're more or less forced to be relativists); his use of cognitive developmental theories (which he re-casts in more linguistic terms, as per his first essay) to explain the evolution of societies; two essays deal with his insistence that this is nevertheless a 'materialist' project (thanks to his re-interpretation of historical materialism as explanation of "levels of social integration" rather than modes of production); and his discussion of the modern welfare state.

Easily the best essay is the last one on the welfare state; it might even be more timely now, post GFC, than in the late seventies when it was first published. Basically, he argues that the state takes on the role of guardian for both the economy and the population. If the economy fails, the state loses face; if the population feels the bad effects of a growing economy, the state loses face. More or less, it's a lose lose game for the modern state. The stuff on historical materialism is terrible, as you might expect when someone's trying to theoretically describe not only the shift from pre-modern to modern societies (interesting, possibly doable) but also the shift from pre-human to human societies (not going to happen.) The essay on cognitive development is almost as absurd. And the first essay, on speech act theory and Habermas' 'universal pragmatics' shows us why Habermas will go down in history as the single worst theoretician of the twentieth century as far as displaying his own views goes: he takes an easy to understand, interesting theory (speech act theory) and tweaks it in an easy to understand, interesting way (insisting on the importance of illocutionary force outside of institutional bounds)... but takes 70 pages to do so, and makes the whole thing seem like a mess. Too bad. Anyway, read this rather than his massive tomes. The introduction by McCarthy, too, is excellent.
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