Rethinking the Critique of Instrumental Reason

Social Philosophy Today 22:169-184 (2006)
Abstract
My paper argues that Jürgen Habermas’s transformation of critical social theory seriously weakens the potential of the concept of instrumental reason as a tool of social critique. I defend the central role of the concept of instrumental reason in both i) the critique of social injustice, and ii) the diagnosis of pathologies of meaning stemming from cultural modernization. However, I argue that the root of these problems cannot come into view from within the Habermasian paradigm. Contra Habermas, I argue that the problem of a ‘loss of freedom’ is better characterized as a process of integration through power; the problem of a ‘loss of meaning’ must also be reconceived as a problem of moral disintegration. My claim is that a proper understanding of these processes requires an engagement with the understanding of instrumental reason in earlier critical theory as primarily a distortion of the relation of language and experience. This necessitates rethinking the task of critical social theory along the lines of the concept of Selbstbesinnung (self-awareness) rather than according to Habermas’s Kantianized version of self-reflection
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