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critical theory

  A European tradition of social and political thought, which is centrally concerned with the historicity of social action: in particular, the connections between human agency and social structure which exist under capitalism and which can be recognized and restructured through a process of critical reflection. Critical theory owed its inspiration to classical Marxism, but it was also a vital presence within the critical reformulations and extensions of historical materialism associated with so-called \'Western Marxism\': that is to say, it sought to move away from the priorities of political economy in order to address, in full and equal measure, the concerns of philosophy, aesthetics and culture (cf. Merquior, 1986).

It is usual to distinguish between two main schools (although there are connections and continuities between them): (i) the original Frankfurt School; and (ii) the later work of Jürgen Habermas, the focus of attention here, which includes and is variously described as a \'reconstruction of historical materialism\' and a \'theory of communicative action\' (see Held, 1980). There are three main planks to Habermas\'s platform.

(a) In his early writings Habermas argued that critical theory had to reflect on the conditions that made it possible: more specifically, he claimed that a critique of epistemology is only possible as a social theory. To that end, he developed a concept of cognitive (or \'knowledge-constitutive\') interests. In his view, any society necessarily entails both (i) social labour, which is organized through a system of instrumental action, and (ii) social interaction, which is organized through a system of communicative action. The first of these involves the realization of a technical interest, so Habermas claimed, because any labour process has to have some means of achieving control over its materials and components (including human beings considered as objects); the second involves the realization of a practical interest, because any communication process requires some means of ensuring that the participants understand one another. These two interests, which are supposed to be deep-seated or \'quasi-transcendental\' structural rules, thus constitute two different but dependent forms of knowledge by specifying their domains of study and the criteria for making valid statements about them: the empirical-analytical sciences, which deal with a world of objects and make predictions about their interactions; and the historical-hermeneutic sciences, which deal with a world of subjects and provide interpretations of their interactions (Habermas, 1972). These twin trajectories are summarized in figure 1. At the time, Habermas suggested that a critical science would be directed towards the realization of a third, emancipatory interest which would necessarily involve the considered conjunction of both forms of knowledge — neither of them was self-sufficient. This scheme has been used in human geography to advance the critique of positivism and, in particular, to argue for the development of a critical human geography that would be committed neither to the \'objectivist\' analysis of spatial systems and spatial structures nor to the \'subjectivist\' construction of place, but would use and rework both traditions together (Gregory, 1978).(b) Habermas subsequently proposed that a critical social theory is possible only as a theory of social evolution, and his reconstruction of historical materialism depends on the \'argumentation sketch\' summarized in figure 2 (Habermas, 1975, 1979). There, different forms of society are supposed to be characterized by different \'organizational principles\', each of which is vulnerable to a distinctive form of crisis. Habermas\'s central claim is that a crisis is both \'objective\' and \'subjective\', both caused and \'experienced\', so that a crisis is caused by an interruption in the prevailing mode of system integration but will only be realized (in the fullest sense of the term) if it is consciously experienced; in other words, if human subjects \'feel their social identity threatened\'. Habermas\'s argument is that the resolution of successive crises depends on an evolutionary learning process which takes place in two dimensions: technically useful knowledge and moral-practical consciousness. It is that \'learning process\' which Habermas sees inscribed within the Enlightenment project of modernity and which has prompted a number of critics to charge him with ethnocentrism. Habermas\'s major concern, however, is with the distortion of the project of modernity by the development of capitalism — through the intrusion of domination into labour (alienation) and interaction (\'systematically distorted communication\') — in such a way that the possibilities of informed democratic debate within a genuinely public sphere have been foreshortened: issues are increasingly constructed as purely technical matters which may be decided without the involvement of a moral-practical consciousness (Habermas, 1989; see also Gregory, 1980). Here too Habermas is vulnerable to criticism, and feminist scholars in particular have objected to his failure to recognize the significance of gender as an axis of discrimination and domination; it is also necessary to offer an historically and geographically more nuanced account than Habermas was able to provide at the time (see Fraser, 1987; Calhoun, 1992). But Habermas\'s commitment to the project of modernity is unwavering and has generated sharp criticism of postmodernism and post-structuralism (see Habermas, 1981, 1987b; Bernstein, 1985).(c) In the early 1970s Habermas focused on the involvement of the state in mediating and managing the various crises of so-called late capitalism, and he paid particular attention to its propensity for sociocultural crisis or legitimation crisis (figure 3; see also Habermas, 1975; McCarthy, 1978). This model was widely if informally used in political geography. Although Harvey and Scott (1989) have implied that it was subsequently overtaken by events — notably by what they saw as the shift from Fordism to flexible accumulation — Habermas has since revised his account in the direction of a theory of communicative action. In the late twentieth-century world, he now argues, the instrumental and strategic rationalities of social systems (the domains of technically useful knowledge) have been overextended: the economic system and the politico-administrative system have encroached on the lifeworld through processes of monetization and bureaucratization (figure 4). At the limit, Habermas suggests, this amounts to a colonization of the lifeworld, which occurs as soon as those processes reach \'beyond their mediating roles and penetrate those spheres of the lifeworld which are responsible for cultural transmission, socialization and the formation of personal identity\'. When the scope of communicative action is confined in this way, Habermas concludes, people are made to feel less like persons and more like things. New conflicts may arise at the seam between system and lifeworld, around \'the grammar of forms of life\', where they are articulated by new social movements which overlie the traditional politics of economic, social and military security, and revolve around the symbolic reproduction of the lifeworld itself (Habermas, 1984, 1987a; see also Ingram, 1987; White, 1988).These are important and provocative suggestions, and as such they have been subject to considerable critical scrutiny (see Honneth and Joas, 1991). Oddly, however, neither Habermas nor his critics have paid much attention to the different spatialities involved: although the theory of communicative action is plainly deeply embedded in the dilemmas of post-war Germany, it is none the less a Grand Theory (Giddens, 1985) which pays no attention to the significance of webs of difference and connection over space. But it is possible to bring Habermas\'s project into dialogue with human geography, in particular with concepts of space and place (Gregory, 1989), to chart the territoriality of social struggles (Miller, 1992), and to explore some of the parallels and contrasts between Habermas\'s advance of the system into the lifeworld and Lefebvre\'s account of the superimposition of abstract space over concrete space (Lefebvre, 1992; Gregory, 1993). It may even be possible to turn the ethnocentrism of Habermas\'s project against itself, and to examine the imposition of colonial systems and spatialities on the life-worlds of native peoples (Harris, 1991). (DG)

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critical theory 1: Cognitive interests

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critical theory 2: Society, organization principle and crisis in Habermas

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critical theory 3: Crises in late capitalism

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critical theory 4: Lifeworld and system

References Bernstein, R.J., ed., 1985: Habermas and modernity. Cambridge: Polity Press. Calhoun, C. 1992: Habermas and the public sphere. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. Fraser, N. 1987: What\'s critical about critical theory? Habermas and gender. In S. Benhabib and D. Cornell, eds, Feminism as critique: essays on the politics of gender in late-capitalist societies. Cambridge: Polity Press, 31-56. Giddens, A. 1985: Jürgen Habermas. In Q. Skinner, The return of grand theory in the human sciences. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 121-39. Gregory, D. 1978: Ideology, science and human geography. London: Hutchinson. Gregory, D. 1980: The ideology of control: systems theory and geography. Tijdschrift voor Economische en Sociale Geographie 71: 327-42. Gregory, D. 1989: The crisis of modernity? Human geography and critical social theory. In R. Peet and N. Thrift, eds, New models in geography, volume 2. London: Unwin Hyman, 348-85. Gregory, D. 1993: Geographical imaginations. Oxford: Blackwell. Habermas, J. 1972: Knowledge and human interests. London: Heinemann. Habermas, J. 1975: Legitimation crisis. London: Heinemann. Habermas, J. 1979:Communication and the evolution of society. London: Heinemann. Habermas, J. 1981: Modernity versus postmodernity. New German Critique 22: 3-14. Habermas, J. 1984: The theory of communicative action, volume 1: Reason and the rationalization of society. London: Heinemann. Habermas, J. 1987a: The theory of communicative action, volume 2: The critique of functionalist reason. Cambridge: Polity Press. Habermas, J. 1987b: The philosophical discourse of modernity. Cambridge: Polity Press. Habermas, J. 1989: The structural transformation of the public sphere. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. Harris, C. 1991: Power, modernity and historical geography. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 81: 671-83. Harvey, D. and Scott, A. 1989: The practice of human geography. In B. Macmillan, ed., Remodelling geography. Oxford: Blackwell, 217-29. Held, D. 1980: Introduction to critical theory: Horkheimer to Habermas. London: Hutchinson. Honneth, A. and Joas, H. 1991: Communicative action: essays on Jürgen Habermas\'s The theory of communicative action. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. Ingram, D. 1987: Habermas and the dialectic of reason. New Haven: Yale University Press. Lefebvre, H. 1992: The production of space, trans. D. Nicholson-Smith. Oxford: Blackwell. McCarthy, T. 1978: The critical theory of Jürgen Habermas. London: Hutchinson. Merquior, J. 1986: Western Marxism. London: Paladin. Miller, B. 1992: Collective action and rational choice: place, community and the limits to individual self-interest. Economic Geography 68: 22-42. White, S. 1988: The recent work of Jürgen Habermas: power, justice and modernity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Suggested Reading Giddens (1985). Gregory (1989). Holub, R. 1991: Jürgen Habermas: critic in the public sphere. London: Routledge. Ingram, D. 1990: Critical theory and philosophy. New York: Paragon House, chs 1 and 7.



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