Irreducible Orientations: Habermas’s Knowledge and Human Interests

In his seminal essay, “The axial age in global history: cultural crystallization and societal transformation in R. Bellah and H. Joas. (Eds.). The Axial Age and Its Consequences,” Bjorn Wittrock (2012) asserts that beyond speech acts proper “there are certain unavoidable dilemmas posed by our very existence as reflecting human beings. These existential dimensions pertain to the finitude of our own existence, to universal anthropological necessities of drawing boundaries between the inside and outside of a community, and of recognizing the temporal and social location of our own existence relative to that of others.

This stance reflects basic properties inherent in reflexive human existence. Our capacity to reflect upon our own situation entails the inevitability of a boundary between the world and ourselves; the world is no longer a seamless web from which we cannot even reflectively distance ourselves” (p. 121).

Knowledge and human interests captured the imagination of many social thinkers

Proceeding from the latter assumption, Habermas’ theory of knowledge-constitutive interests has captured the imagination of many adult learning theorists and social thinkers. In this celebrated text, Knowledge and Human Interests (KHI), translated into English in the early 1970s (the 1971 version was published by Beacon Press, and the 1972 translation by Heinemann Press), Habermas offered a way of thinking about the relationship between knowledge, learning and the human condition.

KHI provided a powerful means of understanding the unity in the diversity of human learning processes and outcomes. Adult educators and learning theorists who were doing theoretical work in the decades following the 1970s responded to the capacious idea that not all human learning could be pressed into a single mold.

This epochal idea spoke to them in world in which technical control over things and people seemed all-pervasive; their own discipline consumed by technocratic impulses. In their joint essay, “Theory building in adult education,” in D. and A. Poonwassie. (Eds.) Fundamentals of adult education: issues and practice of lifelong learning Donovan Plumb and Michael Welton (2001) provided a more expansive analysis of how the Habermasian knowledge-constitutive interests could be understood as three conceptual paradigms—the technical, the humanist and the emancipatory—which would then frame the field for adult educators.

But this analysis was aimed at helping adult education practitioners find the necessary compass to guide them through a seemingly endlessly confusing landscape of human learning projects and sites. Plumb and Welton didn’t analyze Knowledge and human interests (1971) in any depth (For state of the art thinking on the continuing significance of Habermas’ classic text in adult education theorizing, see the essays by R. McGray, S. Brookfield, H. Doughty, D. Plumb and M. Welton in the Special Issue on Critical Theory, International Journal of Adult Vocational Education and Technology, vol. 5 (2), April-June, 2014).

Knowledge and human interests a difficult read for Anglo-Americans

Leading Habermas scholar Thomas McCarthy (The critical theory of Jurgen Habermas [1979]) thinks that Knowledge and human interests is “perhaps the most intrinsically difficult for Anglo-American readers to comprehend” (p. 53). One reason is the pragmatic bent of Anglo-Americans who don’t have much time to give to epistemological reflection: they want to just get on with it! Another reason is simply the difficulty of understanding long-winded German modes of doing philosophy.

In this first attempt at a systematic presentation of his ideas (which were crystallizing in the 1960s), Habermas sensed that epistemology itself had dissolved, leaving him to make his “way over abandoned stages of reflection” (p. 53) in order to “radicalize epistemology by unearthing the roots of knowledge in life” (p. 55). And Habermas made his way through the luxuriant jungle of German thought from Kant to Marx to Freud without thinking too much about how complex and difficult these ideas are for many of us.

This way of proceeding—it is called immanent theorizing–is foreign to most in North American universities. But rooting “knowledge” in life—that is, our embeddedness in and engagement with nature, others and forms of domination has the “form of a ‘learning process’” (p. 55)—certainly captivated serious adult learning theorists and critically oriented practitioners. It ought to goad us to dig in to this text.

Human interests are anthropologically deep-seated interests

Thus, the “interests” that we will be examining closely are “anthropologically deep-seated interest[s]” (p. 55). They cannot be avoided; they form our irreducible orientations to the world we inhabit; they are inescapable; they are built-in to our evolutionary species life.

Habermas’ inaugural lecture delivered at Frankfurt University in 1965 was a major event (It is included in the “Appendix to KHI (1971) and entitled, “Knowledge and human interests: A general perspective”). Now age 36, enmeshed in support and critique of the student movement (see M. Specter, Habermas: an intellectual biography [2010]), Habermas was profoundly aware that critical theory was now standing on shaky epistemological ground. During his boyhood in the 1940s and 1950s, hopes for a proletarian revolution had been decisively dimmed by the darkness of fascism, Stalinism and the culture industry.

He also knew that classical philosophy had sought to purge itself of grubby interests in order to present pure and objective truth. And that positivism was now ruling the day in the social sciences. Elaborated theoretically, Habermas’ brilliant intuition was that irreducible cognitive interests of the human species produced knowledge for thousands of years that enabled it to survive.

The irreducible cognitive interests manifest in three distinct modes of inquiry

Controversially, Habermas then linked our elemental cognitive interests to three distinct modes of inquiry that emerge historically: the empirical-analytical sciences link to our technical cognitive interests; the historical-hermeneutical sciences to our practical communication with others; and critically-oriented science to our emancipatory interest. For Habermas, three “general cognitive strategies guide the various modes of inquiry” (McCarthy, 1979, p. 58). It is essential for us to acknowledge that Habermas’ approach to uncovering the cognitive interests is thoroughly developmental. We didn’t start the human journey with self-reflective capacity. We had to learn to step away from ourselves and see how we actually were forced to orient our learning processes.

In the “Appendix,” Habermas (1971) states: “Orientation toward technical control, toward mutual understanding in the conduct of life, and toward emancipation from seemingly ‘natural’ constraint establish the specific viewpoints from which we can apprehend reality as such in any way whatsoever. By becoming aware of the impossibility of getting beyond these transcendental limits, part of nature acquires, through us, autonomy in nature. That, of course, is a disputed idea!

If knowledge could ever outwit its innate human interest, it would be by comprehending that the mediation of subject and object that philosophical consciousness attributes exclusively to its own synthesis is produced originally by interests. The mind can become aware of this natural basis reflectively. Nevertheless, its power extends into the very logic of inquiry” (pp. 311-312). As Fred Dallmayr (1972) put it, Habermas was seeking to “lodge the different types and variable content of knowledge in a ‘depth structure’ of human experience” (p. 212).

Habermas argues that our species cannot find an Archimedean point beyond our existential grounding or dependencies, a vantage-point that must be left to God. The best we can do is to understand our situation reflexively. But through reconstructive scientific work, so Habermas declares rather boldly, we can understand the way our development as human beings unfolds in specific directions. McCarthy (1979) observes that cognitive interests have “transcendental status, they have their basis in the natural history of the human species” (p. 59). This idea was sure to raise a few eyebrows, and it did.

Thus, as Habermas (1971) states in the “Appendix,” “Accordingly the interests constitutive of knowledge are linked to the functions of an ego that adapts itself to its external conditions through learning processes, is initiated into the communications system of a social life-world by means of self-formative processes (bildungsprozesse), and constructs an identity in the conflict between instinctual aims and social constraints” (p. 313).

Habermas rejects the “objectivist illusion”

McCarthy (1979) catches the epochal significance of this form of reasoning in the febrile 1960s. Habermas’ argument rejects the “objectivist illusion”—the idea that a “world of facts” exists independently of the knower; provides a “frame of reference” where different kinds of theoretical statements can be located; the classification of processes of inquiry into three categories is distinguished by their general cognitive strategies; and the connection of these strategies with the specific cognitive interests that have their basis in the natural history of the human species. This is, indeed, an exceedingly bold intellectual project. So much so, that McCarthy wonders if it is “conceivable that work, language, and power could play such a fundamental role in the theory of knowledge” (ibid.).

Another exemplary interpreter of Habermas’ work, Martin Jay (1984), reminds us in his important essay, “Habermas and reconstruction of Marxist holism,” in Marxism and Totality: the adventures of a concept from Lukacs to Habermas that although Habermas knew that hermeneutics and phenomenology were “holistic in their stress on the prior givenness of an already meaningfully constituted context for human action and thought—the famous hermeneutic circle in which parts illuminated wholes and vice versa—they provided no real criteria to move beyond an interpretive description of the whole to a critique of its oppressive dimensions” (p. 477).

Jay (1984) states that the Inaugural lecture was his first attempt (and then developed extensively in KHI) to spell out his theory of three “anthropological” interests which underlie human cognition. By anthropological interests, German writers like Habermas mean “philosophical anthropology” (or depth structures) and not the modern science of cultural anthropology.

Habermas took aim at positivism and its residues in Marxism

Jay, however, informs us that Habermas took serious aim at positivism and its residues in Marxism. Much was at stake: the very possibility of critical reflection on our human situation and the imagining of another world. He also took aim at the “defensive posture” (p. 478) of Adorno and Horkheimer who had lost confidence that “history was the likely arena for its [reason’s] realization” (ibid.). They doubted that history—as Hegel imagined it—“consisted of the organic growth of freedom and reason in civilization…” (T. Hunt, Marx’s general: the revolutionary life of Friedrich Engels [2009], p. 42).

Helmut Dubiel’s (1992) incisive essay, “Domination or emancipation? The debate over the heritage of critical theory,” in A. Honneth, T. McCarthy, C. Offe and A. Wellmer. (Eds.). Cultural-political intervention in the unfinished project of modernity offers crucial insights into the difference between classical critical theory (embodied deeply in Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of enlightenment) and contemporary Habermasian-styled critical social theory. Classical critical theory was pessimistic—history as narrative of catastrophes—and the dazzling duo’s conceptual dexterity focused on detecting the social and psychological mechanisms of domination and submission.

Adorno and Horkheimer could no longer imagine “people…as the subjects of their own living conditions” (p. 6). In sharp contrast, Habermas rejected the gaze of the outside observer—cool, detached—and set off on his long journey to discover a developmentalist approach to history and everyday life. Habermas was urged forward by the gloom of Adorno and Horkheimer’s negative philosophy of history to place significant emphasis on the “political public sphere, on the conditionality of decisions of the state, and on the phenomenon of domestic culture” (p. 7).

The Habermasian Project insists that as subjects we are capable of action

At the heart of the Habermasian Project is the belief that it is “anthropologically basic” that we can experience ourselves as subjects “capable of acting” (p. 9). Where Horkheimer’s critical theory aimed to detect the “mechanisms by which individuals reproduce their condition of submission,” Habermas focused on the “resources of the lifeworld that prevent the functionalization of domination as well as their moral weaknesses, their potential for rebellion, their buried capacities for self-determination” (p. 12).

But both styles (or forms) of critical theory shared the grave sense that the agent of revolutionary transformation, the industrial proletariat, had disintegrated as liberatory collective agent. We were left rather forlorn as we scanned the landscapes of global misery and fragmented forms of protest for the magic agent to deliver us from evil.

Jay (1984) and Specter (2010) also remind us that the intellectual confrontation with positivism was a continuation of his 1958 essay, “On the concept of political participation,” and his inaugural lecture at the Political Science Department at Marburg University in 1961, “The classical doctrine of politics in relation to social philosophy” (published in Theory and practice in 1973) continued this inquiry.

The engineers of the correct political order disregard ethical intercourse

Essentially, Habermas argued that the use of the methodology of the natural sciences occluded posing questions about the good life. After characterizing the “old politics” incisively, Habermas thought that with Hobbes the “classical doctrine of politics” had been replaced by the new ideas of science. Since then, “Human behaviour is therefore to be now considered only as the material for science. The engineers of the correct order disregard the categories of ethical social intercourse and confine themselves to the construction of conditions under which human beings, just like objects within nature, will necessarily behave in a calculable manner” (Habermas, 1973, p. 43).

This theme of the administered society finds echoes in both Adorno and Marcuse’s works. Specter (2010) comments: “In modelling itself on the natural sciences, a science of politics risks treating the human being more as an object than a subject of historical processes. Concern with the correct epistemology of the social sciences was an important thread in Habermas’s work from 1961 through 1968, but it ceased to the via regia after that” (p. 93).

In the “Preface” to KHI, Habermas hopes that by traversing over “abandoned stages of reflection” (p. viii) that he might be able to “recover the forgotten experience of reflection. That we disavow reflection is positivism” (ibid.). Habermas thought connecting “knowledge” and “interest” required a social theory. While this idea was implicit in Marx, so Habermas senses, one cannot gather this insight from his own self-understanding. Perhaps the most troubling aspect of this ideational frame for some intellectuals is the ontological status of the emancipatory interest.

Habermas tells us that he first expounded the “systematic perspectives” in the Frankfurt lecture, the section on positivism, pragmatism and historicism drew from his Heidelberg lectures in the winter semester of 1963-1964. He also acknowledges the contribution of his long-time friend and dialogue companion, University of Heidelberg professor Karl-Otto Apel, for “suggestions and disagreements” (ibid.; see Habermas’ essay on Karl-Otto Apel [“A master builder with hermeneutic tact: the path of the philosopher Karl-Otto Apel,” in Habermas The Liberating Power of Symbols: philosophical essays [2001]).

Apel, for one example, had encouraged his buddy Habermas to read the American pragmatists. Habermas confesses that he got around to reading John Dewey rather late and that his acquaintance with Freud stems from reading his writings and not from “practical experiences of an analysis” (p. viii). Alfred Lorenzer, an expert on psychoanalysis, is thanked for his assistance.

KHI has remained a brilliant and controversial work for forty-five years. Work, social interaction and domination—the fundaments of life.

Michael Welton retired from Athabasca University.  His recent books include Unearthing Canada’s Hidden Past: a Short History of Adult Education and Adult Education a Precarious Age: The Hamburg Declaration revisited.