Habermas and occidental rationalism: The politics of identity, social learning, and the cultural limits of moral universalism

Sociological Theory 15 (1):30-59 (1997)
Abstract
While Habermas's theory of communicative action is deeply critical of all kinds of ethnocentrism, proposing a discursive concept of universal morality which transcends culture, a residual Eurocentrism still pervades it. Habermas's theory rests on a notion of modernity which is tied to Occidental rationalism, and when viewed in the global context or in the context of deeply divided societies it is problematic. The theory fails to grasp that universal morality can be articulated in more than one cultural form and in more than one logic of development. However, his theory can be defended against its Eurocentric bias if it shifts its emphasis from a de-contexualized and transcendental critique of communication rooted in Occidental rationalism to a cosmopolitan model of contemporary cultural transformation. Crucial to that task is a weaker notion of rationality which recognizes that the problem of universality is also a cognitive cultural problem and not just a normative one. Bringing culture and identity to the foreground will involve making room for a level of discourse focused less on consensual agreement than on cultural understanding
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