My critique of Habermas on rationality

I’m thrilled that the European Journal of Political Theory has accepted my constructive critique of the great German philosopher and social theorist, Jürgen Habermas. The final paper is now online.

JHab

I challenge Habermas’s caricatures of means-ends rationality (the ability to choose good means to ends), and argue that properly understood, it changes how we think of communicative rationality, his mind-blowingly important idea about the rationality of genuine communication.

Habermas never explains what he means when he says that means-ends rationality is ‘egocentric’, and none of five plausible understandings of egocentrism fit the claim that means-ends rationality is egocentric.

I suggest that sincerity and autonomy, not non-egocentrism, are the key distinguishing features of communicative rationality.

Communicative rationality thus overlaps with means-ends rationality – completely against what Habermas and most of his followers say.

Moreover, Habermas and his followers actually need means-ends rationality. I exemplify this by showing the use of means-ends rationality in deliberative democracy, to work out how to implement it, and even in Habermas’s ‘discourse ethics’, using the example of gay marriage.

My article thus challenges decades of what Habermas and critical theorists have written on means-ends and communicative rationality.

But I stay broadly true to – and hopefully improve – Habermas’s account of rationality.

The article was a very long time in the making. I started thinking about this in about 2006, and drafted a very different version of this paper in 2011. If I remember rightly, it got rejected by 5 or 6 journals without a single reviewer from those journals saying that the article should be accepted! Then I significantly rewrote it, and went back up the journal chain to a high-ranking journal, where an angry reviewer angrily told me that I needed to read Uwe Steinhoff’s angry book about Habermas.  😛

I submitted another version to the European Journal of Political Theory, where I got a big ‘revise and resubmit’ (i.e. I had to make certain changes, then the revised article would be sent back to the reviewers to see if they thought it was now good enough). It took me two years to find the time to address this, and even then I still needed a few months to work out what to do. Thanks to my perceptive referees, the final version is much better at justifying my position and explaining why it matters.

So, I’ve amassed many debts over this time, not only to the people I specifically acknowledge in the article, but also to my anonymous referees – and not just the excellent ones chosen by the European Journal of Political Theory, but also the anonymous referees of previous versions of the paper who helped me gradually get this paper into publishable shape.

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