About my pre-gerontological work in Critical Theory – from a Berkeley dissertation

From: The Actuality of Critical Theory in the Netherlands, 1931-1994

By Nicolaas Peter Barr Clingan -- Dissertation Spring 2012, University of California, Berkeley (Chair of Committee: Martin Jay)

I. From: The Pragmatic Reception of Habermas

For a less militant group of younger scholars at the University of Amsterdam in the 1970s, the answers to the problems of late capitalist society were to be found not in Paris but in Frankfurt and Starnberg, where Habermas had become director of the Max Planck Institute after his association with the Institute of Social Research. It is perhaps difficult, particularly for readers of Habermas's mature theory, to imagine a group of young intellectuals reading his work undergoing the kind of conversion experiences that are so abundant in European intellectual history. One thinks of such famous instances as the Hegelians of the late 1810s and 1820s,[1]or the many students who flocked to Freiburg after Martin Heidegger published Being and Time in 1927 to witness, in Hannah Arendt's famous phrase, the emergence of this "hidden king" who struck out against the dominant forms of academic philosophy.[2] Although the young Habermas himself was drawn to Heidegger's thought, whose influence was still visible in the former's 1956 dissertation on the philosophy of Schelling at the University of Bonn, his disillusionment with Heidegger's postwar failure to comment on, let alone apologize for, his earlier defense of the "inner greatness of National Socialism" occasioned a fundamental break with the archaic pathos of Heidegger and the tradition of conservative Kulturkritik more generally.[3] All of his subsequent work, beginning with his Habilitationsschrift, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (1961), was marked formally and substantively by an allegiance to the Enlightenment ideals of rational argumentation and linguistic clarity, also in great contrast to the rhetorical style and paratactic, essayistic form favored by Adorno. Indeed, despite his politically radical Marxism during his assistantship at the Institute of Social Research between 1956 and 1961, Habermas's mature work displays an exhaustive and even cautious scholarly quality that is densely analytical and eminently unquotable. In short, his emphasis on rational communication and the ideal of consensus is hardly the stuff of radical fervor. Nonetheless, a kind of intellectual conversion is precisely what happened for a significant number of scholars in the Netherlands. As Habermas had correctly claimed, 1968 would not be a revolutionary moment; instead, his evolving theory conceptualized an alternative with both intellectual and political potential for actualizing an emancipated, rational society from within.

For the central figures of the Dutch reception of Habermas, the student movement and the moment of 1968-1969 were indeed formative, but already in those years, the dogmatism of revolutionary Marxism was apparent to those of a more scholarly than activist bent. Marx and Engels's work, for all its subsequent historical failures, remained a normatively rich tradition, but the methodological rigidity of Dialectical Materialism and the general air of anti-intellectualism of the various Marxist activists was evident to those who took philosophical questions seriously. On the other hand, the predominant analytical and positivist tendencies within the methodological discussions of the social sciences displayed an agnosticism toward normative questions that still corresponded too closely to the technocratic institutions to which they had traditionally contributed. What Habermas's thought offered, then, was a methodologically rigorous model for thematizing normative questions, and further, for interpreting how the rational discussion of such questions in the realm of symbolic interaction---what he called the "rationalization of the lifeworld"---could generate socially responsive institutional and political structures.

One of the great strengths of Habermas's work was its critical appropriation of insights from classical theorists and contemporary interlocutors and opponents. Although he refined and defended his theory through each encounter, sometimes polemically, this dialogical approach appealed to younger Marxists seeking to keep abreast of wider theoretical debates. The study of these alternative figures thus accompanied the reception of Habermas, even as the latter was often favored, along with Habermas's German colleagues.

In November 1975, Jan Baars organized a major conference on "Theory and Praxis in Sociological Theory" at the Free University of Amsterdam, which offered the first major introduction of the systems theorist Niklas Luhmann to the Netherlands. Also attending were the "second generation" Critical Theorists Alfred Schmidt and Claus Offe, the phenomenological sociologist Thomas Luckmann, and Alvin Gouldner. Baars had taught a year-long course on their writings and viewed the events and congress report as a much needed corrective to the limitations of the Dutch literature on these topics.[4] He located the origins of this problem in the "scienticization" (verwetenschappelijking) of society itself: through techniques of policy and planning, science became the legitimating and regulating force of all social processes. Because sociology is itself a "moment" of its object of study, it had to be understood as contributing to this tendency, thus necessitating critical reflection on its own social significance and relation to praxis. Sociology's positivist tendencies could be corrected not by subordinating it to philosophy, but by using modern philosophy as a resource for grounding critically its theories and methods.[5] On the other hand, sociology could be understood as a form of self-analysis of society with practical consequences, necessitating a consideration of the theory-praxis relation as a theoretical problem.

In the Dutch sociological tradition, theory and the reflection on its points of departure and foundations have never received the attention they deserve. Most theories are taken up from other countries in rather unmediated ways. Heated discussions, such as the German "Positivism" debate and the now contemporary Habermas-Luhmann discussion, often stand far from the concerns of the Dutch sociologist. Dutch sociology is in fact to a large degree integrated into social life, in comparison with sociology in other countries. In this sense one can state that where its praxis is concerned it is well developed, but it is theoretically very immature.[6]

Luckmann, who spoke on the first day under the title of "Phenomenology and Sociology," was taken to emphasize the subjective moment of the theory-praxis relation in the realm of concrete experience and language. Baars's preferences were rather plain: the second day would seem to be something of a "corrective" to this "fixation" on the subjective moment, with Alfred Schmidt emphasizing a dialectical relationship between subject and structure and introducing a Marxist approach to themes such as labor, history, nature, human needs, and social violence.[7] The third day was to bring the previous phenomenologically- and Marxist-inspired approaches to sociology into relief, pitting Luhmann against Claus Offe on the position of systems theory in sociology. To the extent that Baars's critique of Dutch sociology remained true, then, younger scholars were soon absorbing new theoretical approaches at the forefront of contemporary international debates.

Thus by the time the German Positivist Dispute was reenacted by Dutch sociologists in the 1970s, some scholars cautioned against hypostatizing the opposition, for some theoretical approaches claiming to be "critical" failed to be reflexive about Marxism's own normative foundations. In the introduction to his first edited book, Wetenschap en ideologiekritiek (Science and ideology critique, 1978), Harry Kunneman, soon a leading figure in the reception of Habermas, suggested that despite the real differences between Positivism and Marxism, it was only in their exaggerated versions that they were fully incompatible.[8] In fact, insofar as they both claimed to be scientific, the former on the basis of its value-neutrality and the latter on its putative foundation in objective historical developments, they became vehicles for repression, by exclusively privileging scientific knowledge: "Scienticity itself becomes an ideology, where science comes to function as the exclusive path toward the true and the good."[9] This did not mean, however, that science was inextricably bound up in the instrumental domination of nature.

Indeed, one of Habermas's major departures from early Critical Theory was his more positive and differentiated conception of science. "Science as a productive force can work in a salutary way when it is suffused by science as an emancipatory force, to the same extent that it becomes disastrous as soon as it seeks to subject the domain of praxis, which is outside the sphere of technical disposition, to its exclusive control."[10] Instead, Habermas and his Dutch interpreters sought to build a more reflexive approach within the sciences.

Habermas's reconstruction of historical materialism appeared to be a solution to the problems of Marxist social science. Having observed some of the deficiencies of the "scientific Marxism" of their peers in the late 1960s, Kunneman and a similarly-minded cohort of younger scholars absorbed Habermas's work in its evolution towards its mature form in the Theory of Communicative Action. Together with Michiel Korthals, who had also studied philosophy at the University of Amsterdam, Kunneman founded the Werkgroep Kritische Theorie (Critical Theory Workgroup) in 1978, an inter-university group that grew to nearly thirty members and remained active collectively until the end of the 1980s. Soliciting both well-established professors and younger, unhabilitated instructors (that is, doctoral graduates having yet to publish a second major work analogous to a German Habilitationsschrift) for membership, their initial aim was to create an inventory of research and pedagogy concerned with Critical Theory and to assess the prospects for the national coordination of future research projects. There were roughly twenty participants for the first meeting, who by 1979 constituted three research subgroups: anthropology and social theory; foundations of social science; and science, technology, and society. A secretary for each subgroup would be responsible for reporting on its discussions and activities to the rest of the collective group prior to a national meeting. Regular subgroup meetings were held to discuss specific articles written by either the group's members or by Critical Theorists. The geographical density of the Dutch universities facilitated centralized meetings of scholars from across the country, often held in Amsterdam and Utrecht, in more frequent intervals than would be possible through organizing formal conferences. The more informal structure also made their research on Critical Theory a more collaborative effort.

II. The reception of Adorno

The affinity between the Dutch political culture of pragmatic discussion and Habermas's social theory---a loose, "elective affinity," to be sure, but one that was apparent to observers such as van Reijen[11]---explains in part the predominance of Habermas within the Dutch reception of Critical Theory. As Jan Baars, who had also become a Werkgroep member, noted in his 1987 philosophy dissertation on Horkheimer and Adorno, Dutch scholars seemed to have largely overlooked Critical Theory in its original formulations.[12] Indeed, the immanent critique in Korthals and Kunneman's Arbeid en interaktie quickly transitioned from Marx to Habermas, with only a two-page discussion of Horkheimer and Adorno, in which they claimed that the latter's analysis had remained beholden to Marx's concepts in the critique of political economy.

As such, two of the problems they identified, that of the inherent link between the domination of nature and of humans in the process of rationalization, and the culture industry's disruption of any possible proletarian consciousness, could not be solved without being fused with concepts from non-Marxist theories, for which they credited only Habermas, apparently overlooking the considerable degree to which the first generation had integrated Marxism with aspects of Nietzsche, Freud, and Weber (AI, 73-75). Starting in the late 1980s, perhaps with an impetus from the approaching fortieth anniversary of the publishing of Dialectic of Enlightenment in Amsterdam in 1947 and the growth of new studies in Germany and the United States,[13] the first generation of the school received a revived interest, generating a number of interesting commentaries. However, this early reception appears to be partially predetermined by Habermas's criticisms of Horkheimer and Adorno.

Baars's book explored the redemptive motifs in Horkheimer and Adorno's work, which he connected, especially in Adorno's case, to Walter Benjamin's philosophy of history. He began with the familiar assertion of the ideas' present-day relevance: Ronald Reagan's Star Wars program was given as an example of a totalizing instrumental rationality.[14] But while he found value in the motif of non-oppressive relations in Adorno's later aesthetics for contemporary theories of intersubjectivity, Baars argued that Horkheimer and Adorno brought a "myth of total domination" back to Germany after the war, with the result that their own social critique ultimately came to a dead end. This limitation was caused by a Nietzschean identification of  identity thinking with the will to power, an aspect that had been perhaps over-emphasized in the reception of their work. But while he sought to highlight some of the more productive tensions in Adorno's thought, he concluded that Habermas had supplied the necessary solution to the overly messianic quality of the Frankfurt School's hopes:

A negative practical consequence from this standpoint could be that the transformation of the world is conceived as (and thereby left to) the totally other, which as an until-now hidden superior being, would hopefully [quoting Horkheimer] "provide for resistance to injustice...." The finite subject exists in the dualism as a blind and helpless solitary individual versus a totally-other transcendence. Thus finitude inevitably means desolation and the end of any intersubjectivity that could be something more than manipulation. It is the great contribution of Habermas that he recognized these dangers and started in a new direction.[15]

As one of the major studies of Horkheimer and Adorno in this period, Baars's work buttressed the reception of Habermas as an "actual" or applicable model for social analysis. This is not to say that Baars fully accepted Habermas's critique of his predecessors. In a recent essay, Baars challenged Habermas's reading of Adorno's concept of reconciliation (Versöhnung) in the former's Theory of Communicative Action as a stunted prefiguration of his communicative notion of intersubjectivity, going so far as to characterize Habermas's appropriation as "a peculiar form of strategic action."[16] Nonetheless, Baars's earlier assessment was representative of the widespread judgment at the time that the early Frankfurt School's work was a dead end---aesthetically suggestive but incapable of recognizing, let alone supporting, the learning processes that were evident in society.

III. From: Conclusion

In a lengthy reply to his critics in 1982, Habermas mentioned the Netherlands, along with the Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian countries, as places where his work had found "the hermeneutic willingness requisite for its reception" and where he was "encountering a critique that over-indulges me with careful argumentation, that unsettles me with interesting objections, and that involves me in very instructive discussions."[17] In the course of the 1980s, the Werkgroep produced several more collaborative studies on Habermas that explored not only his theory but also its application in the Dutch context. For example, in a joint publication, Kunneman and Jozef Keulartz offered a sustained analysis and application of Habermas in diagnosing contemporary crises in the Dutch welfare and healthcare systems.[18] Increasingly, these scholars took the notion of scientific reflexivity championed by Habermas and incorporated it into more specialized fields. Significantly, many of the major participants of the Critical Theory Workgroup obtained professorships outside of the major university philosophy faculties.

Korthals and Keulartz joined the agricultural University of Wageningen in the area of Applied Ethics, following Habermas's lead in incorporating American pragmatist philosophy into their work. Kunneman, who, as we shall later see, turned increasingly away from Habermas and towards postmodern theories of identity, became a professor and later the rector of the newly established University for Humanistic Studies in Utrecht. Jan Baars became a specialist in "critical gerontology" at the latter institution, exploring issues of aging, both philosophically and in social contexts.[19] As these scholars became more established professionally, their approaches to the issues of public communication and democratic responsiveness---in short, the principle of zeggenschap that emerged in the long 1970s---were increasingly brought to bear in governmental and professional committees and organizations beyond the confines of academia.

  1. John Edward Toews, Hegelianism: The Path Toward Dialectical Humanism, 1805-1841 (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1980), esp. chap. 5.

  2. See Peter E. Gordon, Continental Divide: Heidegger, Cassirer, Davos (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010).

  3. Habermas's first publication as a student was "Mit Heidegger gegen Heidegger denken," published in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung _(July 25, 1953), which drew the favorable attention of Adorno. On Habermas's break with Heidegger's thought, see Specter, _Habermas, 10.

  4. Jan Baars ed., "Theorie-praxis in de sociologische theorie: Kongres map" (Amsterdam: Afdeling Theoretisch-Wijsgerige Sociologie, Subfakulteit Sociologie, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, 1975), 1.

  5. Ibid., 7.

  6. Ibid., 9.

  7. Ibid., 11.

  8. Harry Kunneman, ed., Wetenschap en ideologiekritiek (Meppel and Amsterdam: Boom, 1978), 9.

  9. Ibid., 17. Emphasis added.

  10. Jürgen Habermas, "Dogmatism, Reason, and Decision: On Theory and Praxis in Our Scientific Civilization," in Theory and Praxis, trans. John Viertel (Boston: Beacon Press, 1973), 281.

  11. Van Reijen, Jan Baars, and Bert van den Brink (the latter two interviewed on February 8, 2008, Utrecht) all spoke about the affinity of Habermas's system to the Dutch context.

  12. Jan Baars, De mythe van de totale beheersing: Adorno, Horkheimer en de dialektiek van de vooruitgang(Amsterdam: Uitgeverij SUA, 1987), 16.

  13. Martin Jay's The Dialectical Imagination appeared in Dutch in 1977 as De dialektische verbeelding: Een geschiedenis van de Frankfurter Schule en het Institut für Sozialforschung, trans. Chris Kooyman (Baarn: Ambo, 1977).

  14. Baars, De mythe van de totale beheersing, 10.

  15. Ibid., 254.

  16. Jan Baars, "The Anamnesis of the Non-identical in Adorno's Negative Dialectics," in De omheining doorbroken: Economie en filosofie in beweging, ed. Johan Graafland and Frans van Peperstraten (Budel: Uitgeverij DAMON, 2004), 129.

  17. Jürgen Habermas, "A Reply to my Critics," in Habermas: Critical Debates, ed. John B. Thompson and David Held (London and Basingstoke: The Macmillan Press Ltd., 1982), 219.

  18. Harry Kunneman and Jozef Keulartz, Rondom Habermas: Analyses en kritieken (Meppel and Amsterdam: Boom, 1985).

  19. Jan Baars, ed., Aging, Globalization, and Inequality: The New Critical Gerontology (Amityville, NY: Baywood Publishing, 2006).