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Habermas and Contemporary Sociology in the Classroom

California State University, Dominguez Hills
University of Wisconsin, Parkside
Latest update: August 3, 1999
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Thinking Beyond and Through Privileged Categories

We were asked to provide a brief summary of Habermas' contributions and importance in the teaching of sociology in 1999. Suppressing a giggle, not unlike the one we suppressed when our students presented hypotheticals attached to "What would Habermas say if . . .?", we set to creating this brief summary, relying on one of Outhwait's comments that even when Habermas is open to criticism through inadequately defined concepts, that isn't what matters; what matters is the broad conceptual outline with which he sketches alternative foundations for and ways to see social theory. What matters is the thinking of it.

What Habermas Offers Our Students

Habermas has a fervent belief in the possibility of communicative action, by which he means rational argument in which all are heard in good faith, and in which all agree to come to consensus for action that is essential to the community. We believe that his emphasis on community is important in an age that has forsaken the neighborhood for manicured lawns and isolation. We also believe that the academy, especially, should give a fair chance to application of a theory of social action that builds on a foundation of rational argumentation, skills that traditionally belong to the academy. As Calhoun and Outhwait point out in their criticisms, it matters less whether rational argument is the answer than that Habermas sets our ways of thinking upon such a path.

Habermas Is Hard to Read

So are most textbooks, and with less excuse. Habermas' thought has grown and developed over the years. Those seriously interested in the issues he addresses are familiar with the turns and switchbacks in this thought. For students, this is sometimes more difficult. But this is actually how ideas grow. Habermas understands the disillusionment with metanarrative, the all-encompassing single social theory that explains all, but he struggles with the need for synthesis, and seeks ways around the privileged subjectivity of political and economic power with self-reflexive corrections. As in the old battle of the Anciens and the Modernes, there is a need to find as Calhoun phrases it, a middle path. If students read for the major concerns Habermas addresses, and for a view of his theory as "one plausible approach to the problem," and if they will compare the ways in which others approach the same and similar problems, then they will have grasped what they and Habermas are seeking.

The Postmodern Issue

Habermas still seeks some overall encompassing theory, though he backs often away from the metanarrative of the past. His hope lies in his belief that there are underlying human factors that will pull humanity together, and that we can discover the discourse that will enable that. On the other hand, postmodernists like Lyotard believe the very essence of postmodernism to be the ability to resist metanarrative. We, like Calhoun, seek a middle path. But because our chosen field of inquiry is the academy and higher education, we do at least feel that we are experiencing the kind of postmodern epochal break that led to the coinage of the term. We agree with Calhoun that the postmodern may very well be a subset of the modern, and that there have been really few chaotic breaks that were not already present in modernity.

Nonetheless, in the world of liberal arts education, as we attempt to bring it into the 21st Century, there are some very real breaks. With very few exceptions the concept of education being the whole pursuit of the young person, with a clearing of obstacles that he/she may focus on learning has crumbled. Finances, the increased rate at which we are bombarded by stimuli, and the changes in life world that so affect learning have created a set of professors with the old world in mind, and a set of students for whom that world no longer exists. We will think on this. Perhaps we will agree with Calhoun that such indicators were there along. But in the world we experience, this break feels chaotic. And that break is at the heart of our field.

We do not ascribe postmodernism to Habermas. But much that Habermas stands for helps us understand the "postmodern" condition in which we find ourselves. And so we claim the right to answer for "Dear Habermas" when our students contemplate these drastic changes in the academy and ask what Habermas would say.