The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Response to Rodger

October 5, 2005

This started out as a comment on Rodger’s post, but quickly got too long for that and so I converted it into a stand-alone post.

Rodger’s probably right about the actual use of the term “critical constrctivism” in the discipline these days; truth to tell I haven’t been paying much attention to those labels, being more concerned with labels like “realist” and “rationalist” because of the realism-constructivism project in which Dan and I are engaged. So, I’ll stand with Rodger: critical constructivism doesn’t just mean post-structuralism in the current common linguistic practice of the IR discipline.

Where Rodger and I will part company — and this should not come as a surprise — is on the question of the relevance of Habermas’ work for IR. Ron Krebs and I have argued, in a paper that has been making the rounds at several journals for a while now, that the international sphere is a very poor candidate for anything approaching a Habermasian ideal speech situation in which the unforced force of the better argument will prevail. More to the point, since the “ideal speech situation” was never intended to be an empirical description of anything actually existing but instead functions as a transcendental regulative ideal that we can use to evaluate actually existing social arrangements, Ron and I argue that the kinds of discursive developments that Rodger and Nayef discuss under the heading of increasing legitimacy are better thought of as inextricably power-laden examples of rhetorical coercion. In our view, the strategic element of social interaction never vanishes and the observed effects signal not unequivocal progress towards a normatively desirable goal but instead the temporary victory of one set of concepts and practices over others. There isn’t any such thing as “legitimate social purpose,” in our view; instead, there are legitimation processes that render particular sets of social practices and institutions acceptable to a given audience, but tell us nothing whatsoever about the ultimate normative desirability of those practices and institutions.

In the end, the disagreement between Rodger and myself comes down, I think, to this question of an emancipatory project. Habermasian critical theory, like other forms of critical theory, revolves centrally around the project of bringing a group of people from a normatively undesirable circumstance to a normatively superior one, and does so by showing that the old circumstance is in some way rationally unsustainable — that it is only being held in place by the arbitrary and unjustified exercise of coercive power. The new circumstance, presumably, features a diminution of that arbitrary coercive power, and a corresponding increase in the “reasonability” of the situation. I am deeply skeptical about this normative project, not because I am not in favor of trying to change things, but because I am constitutionally allergic to any attempt to place those changes on a transcendentally justified basis. The metaphysical baggage implicitly involved in designating a social arrangement “illegitimate” in a real, profound, transcendentally true sense scares the living daylights out of me, because it opens up the possibility of justifying reform actions on the basis of an absolute principle. And if the history of the twentieth century teaches us nothing else, I’d argue, it should teach us that justfying social reforms in the name of an absolute principle all too easily tips over into persecuting heretics, expelling unbelievers, and putting the “diseased” and the “criminal” and the “deviant” to death in order to preserve the health of our rational, “legitimate” body politic.

No thanks.

Is Habermas a liberal? Well, this obviously depends on what we mean by “liberalism.” If we mean individualism, then no, Habermas is no liberal. if we mean instrumentalism, then no, Habermas is no liberal. But if we mean the Enlightenment project of placing everything on the basis of Reason alone, and trying to eliminate the arbitrary use of coercive power by subsuming such power under Reason, in effect transforming it into something that isn’t really power at all…then yes, Habermas is a liberal. This kind of broadly liberal approach to social order maintains that there are social arrangements that are superior to others because they are in some sense inherently more legitimate, more in line with the dictates of Reason, more to be preferred on transcendental ethical grounds — grounds which are, in the last instance, rational ones.

I don’t buy this. With Foucault, I don’t think that one can eliminate power from the social equation by normalizing or rationalizing or legitimating it; rather, these operations are themselves exercises of power, not its transcendence or its dismissal. With Wittgenstein, I’d posit that “ethics and aesthetics are one” and that ethical questions will never be decided on purely rational grounds. And with Weber I’d highlight the existence of irreconcilable, insurmountable value-commitments that ground social actions of all sorts; the “clash of divinities” to which that irreducible diversity gives rise simply can’t be subsumed under any purely reasonable solution (unless we come to an agreement and then drive out all of those who stubbornly persist in disagreeing, which gets us back to the persecution and the expulsion and the potential mass death — even if that mass death isn’t the death of the body but “merely” the death of a culture or a community). In short, I’m pessimistic. Government is about power, social life is about power, period. The trouble begins when we try to get ourselves “beyond” that situation somehow. Instead, we should just accept it and then try to pragmatically erect institutions and arrangements that sustain our values. When I self-identify as a “progressive” this is what I have in mind: progress on my values, which I would never try to conflate with value in general.

I’ve said enough for the moment. Except for the “patron saint” issue: I have no problem with a polytheistic realm of patron saints for our little cathedral of knowledge here, as long as it is understood that not all of us worship in all of the little side-chapels featuring each one of those saints’ relics :-)

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Patrick Thaddeus Jackson is Professor of International Studies in the School of International Service, and also Director of the AU Honors program. He was formerly Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of International Relations and Development, and is currently Series Editor of the University of Michigan Press' book series Configurations: Critical Studies of World Politics.