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.


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.

‘Big Thinkers’ event at KCL tomorrow (13 November 2014)

There’s still a few spaces left for an event tomorrow on ‘big thinkers’ (Marx, Derrida, Hayek) and how they can be applied in empirical research.

The main speakers are Alex Callinicos, Vivienne Jabri and Mark Pennington.

I’ll also be talking on the use and abuse of these thinkers in empirical research, including misreadings and arms-length usage of Habermas and Foucault.

The talk is run by the KCL social-science Doctoral Training Centre. The talk is mainly aimed at PhD students but all are welcome.

To register please click here.

Big Thinkers: Exploring Important Theorists of Social Issues

Karl Marx, Jacques Derrida & Friedrich Hayek

13 November 2014, 2:00 – 6:00 pm

Franklin Wilkins Building 1.71, Waterloo Campus

This afternoon event will involve three 30 minute presentations in which KCL academics will present key conceptual ideas from a major social theorist of specific value to their work. A question and answer session will follow each talk and there will be refreshments and a talk to provide ideas and advice on using big thinkers in your own research.

The schedule is as follows:

2:00 – 2:15 – Introduction (Gerhard Schnyder, Management, KCL)

2:15 – 3:00 – Marx (Alex Callinicos, European & International Studies, KCL)

3:00 – 3:45 – Derrida  (Vivienne Jabri, War Studies, KCL)

3:45 – 4:15 – tea/coffee

4:15 – 5:00 – Hayek  (Mark Pennington, Department of Political Economy, KCL)

5:00 – 5:30 – How (Not) To Use Big Thinkers (Adrian Blau, Department of Political Economy, KCL)

5:30 – 6:00 – Roundtable

6:00 onwards – drinks/refreshments