Monday, 25 May 2009

Gordon Finlayson on Adorno and Habermas

We were very happy when we found - quite by chance - Gordon Finlayson's blog. It has been a long time and Gordon doubtless no longer remembers us, but we were lucky enough to be present at a party once where Gordon, wearing one of those very Continental-looking striped T-shirts (where the stripes run horizontally and alternate between a very dark blue, if I remember correctly, and white), was playing the guitar, and playing it well. He is now - we gather from the address on his blog - working at the University of Sussex.

What led us to his blog was a link on the Habermasians blog to Gordon's article on the foundations of Critical Theory (published in Telos in Jan 2009). We were keen to read it.
But it is an odd article, though, and we are not sure what to make of it. The last paragraph was a bit disturbing, especially the following sentence:

"Insofar as Habermas, the social theorist, eschews broadly moral reasons as the basis of critical social theory, he stands squarely in the tradition of first generation Frankfurt School critical theory."

I don't think Gordon set out to put Habermas and Adorno in the same bag, but the fact that he ended up doing that makes us less than enthusiastic.

Apparently, the main aim of the piece is to argue that Adorno (forgive me while I identify Adorno with "first generation Frankfurt School critical theory") does not rely on moral grounds when he develops a critical theory that has, amongst other things, clearly moral conclusions. Gordon says there are six reasons why Critical Theory needs to eschew moral grounds:

1 The experience of WWII showed that culture in general and morality in particular failed to provide any resistance to evil.

2 The distinctively moral discourse is a dubious one, being a coercive imposition of reason on sensibility.

3 A morality of principles tends to undermine a person's affective ties to other people and things, giving rise to a cold, authoritarian mentality.

4 In a bad society we can have no (untainted? independent?) conception of the good, which would be central to any moral theory.

To Adorno's own reasons for eschewing a moral foundation, Gordon adds two other considerations.

5 Moral criticism is only really appropriate when criticising deeds for which individuals can be held responsible, but Critical Theory is more concerned with systemic trends that exceed individual responsibility.

6 In a multicultural society with its endemic value pluralism, a (suitably thick) moral theory would be rejected as too parochial.

More important for Gordon is the dilemma that Critical Theory then seems to be faced with. Since Critical Theory has moral conclusions it must have moral foundations, but if it resorts to those it is guilty of a self-contradiction (given the disavowal of a moral theory as a ground).
Isn't that just a little too neat, though? For one thing, the talk of conclusions and grounds fits Adorno's thinking into a mould that just isn't his. Gordon notes Adorno's antipathy to logic, but insists on forcing him into the square holes labelled "ground" and "conclusion". For another thing, there is a certain amount of linguistic juggling going on here. When arguing that Critical Theory has moral "conclusions" Gordon uses one understanding of "moral": "I use the term ‘moral’ here in the broadest sense to refer to the domain of norms and values that relate to and flow from the deepest and most central questions concerning the life, character and actions of social agents, and their relations to the lives, character and actions of others." But when arguing that Critical Theory can and must do without moral grounds, the concept becomes more specific, and is either the principled Moralitat (sorry no umlaut) or the tradition-bound Sittlichkeit.

Ending his reconstruction of Adorno's position, Gordon says Adorno leaves his conclusions unsupported by anything other than the description of our historical situation, which is meant to make it clear why a "healthy" set of moral/ethical/normative concepts are just not available to us.

Habermas said such a position was unacceptable. Does Gordon agree? Yes, he does. We must have, he implies, a foundation, and it needs to be (for the six reasons given above) non-moral and yet be capable of leading to moral conclusions. Does Habermas come up with the goods? Unfortunately not. The discourse ethic is empty. It abstracts from the language and concerns of the lifeworld, which happens to be the only source of the moral norms and ethical values that might be used to criticise current social practice.

On a different reading, what is genuinely critical in Habermas's work is a "diagnosis of social pathologies", where the pathology can be identified without making any moral judgments. Society is "sick" and in need of a spell in rehab, but it is not morally bad (or at least the logically consistent critic doesn't want to say it is). Does gordon think this is a fruitful line of thinking? He is not convinced. But he is glad to see that, either way, the discourse ethic (which, it turns out, is not really ethical - not in a nice thick sense anyway) and the social pathology approach both involve eschewing moral grounds, which is what Adorno did, and that makes Habermas a good torch bearer for this proud tradition of social critique.


My response in brief (because too much has been written already):

1 Anything that puts Hab and Adorno in the same bag is, prima facie, unpleasant.
2 What Adorno says, the way he says it, and our interest in reading the stuff (despite the tremendous effort required) just don't make sense unless we begin (or find somewhere pretty damn close to the beginning) concerns that have something moral/ethical/normative about them (concerns that certainly fit into the very general concept of "moral" that Gordon postulates, despite concept postulation being anathema in Frankfurt).

3 The insistence on logical consistency and the idea that Adorno might actually be a closet functionalist reduce thinking to theory. Adorno is a great thinker about the limits of rationality - the irrationality of rationality - not because of value pluralism but because of the entwinement of reason with the domination of nature. You get to a point - don't you? - where you see the need (psychological, social, political, historical) to loosen the grip of reason. Reason is put, once more, in the dock, and is found guilty. Of course, we can't just drop reason, because there is no alternative. But we can keep turning reason against itself to recall and keep in mind the injustice being done to the real substrate of life. To insist on the unreflective forms of systematising reason is to insist that the sad story of domination continue (even if the purported aim is to develop a "critique" of society).

4 Do we need grounds? Gordon seems to assume we do. Personally I feel quite happy without them. What I see in the Dialectic of Enlightenment is the best description yet of how fucked up we are. It is a description that chimes with my own sense of being out of joint and my own initial hunch that society went off the rails somewhere down the line. The description includes values - nature being the most prominent - and I can accept such a value-laden description without thinking that a grave abuse of logical propriety is being commited in mixing fact and value; and I accept it without thinking: "Hey, where's the argument for the principle that nature is a value? What's the Reason for thinking that nature is a value? And doesn't science tell us that nature is just a bunch of facts, and how do you get from that to those lofty values?" There is a sense in which questions like this keep us trapped within the circuit of self-agrandising, instrumental rationality. The point, though, is, without giving up on reason and without giving up on the historical project of liberation of which the development of rationality is so much a part, to see that reason risks denying the very real grounds (not premises) of a more fulfilling life and a more rational society.

No comments: