You are on page 1of 11

Habermas, critical theory and selves-directed

David O'Donnell
College of Business, University of Limerick, Limerick, Ireland
What raises us out of nature is the only thing
whose nature we can know: language
(Habermas, 1986, p. 314).
Philosophy and social theory converge, ac-
cording to Ju rgen Habermas (1984; 1987a), in
a project which one can broadly conceive of
as the reconstruction of rationality. This
form of philosophy, which has abandoned
foundationalist metaphysics, is complemen-
tary to the critical self reflection practised by
individual sciences. Habermas sees his
theory of communicative action as belonging
to the latter category and the key argument
presented in this paper is that this theory
provides the essential guidelines for devel-
oping a critical theory of self-directed-learn-
ing, or more accurately, selves-directed-
learning. Learning is viewed here as an
inherently motivational, cognitive, affective-
emotional and social process. Critical theo-
rizing in this sense is also explicitly evalua-
tional in that it sees as its purpose the
emancipation of individuals from domina-
tion and exploitation in an increasingly
individualized, commodified and reified
world. This approach follows a direct ``Ger-
man'' line of social theoretical thought de-
termined by Kant and Hegel and running
through Marx, Luka cs, Horkheimer and
Adorno to Habermas and others. Habermas'
approach not only allows us to critically
interpret our objective, social and subjective
worlds but also provides some essential
guidelines for potentially going ``beyond
ourselves'' (Vygotsky, 1978) and changing
these worlds.
Brookfield (1986, p. 47) identifies two forms
of self-direction in learning. First, there are
various techniques such as goal setting,
identifying resources, implementing strate-
gies and evaluating progress. Second, self
direction can refer to intrapsychic changes in
which ``learners come to regard knowledge as
relative and contextual, to view the value
frameworks and moral codes informing their
behaviours as cultural constructs, and to use
this altered perspective to contemplate ways
in which they can transform their personal
and social worlds''. It is this second form
which is the primary focus in this paper. If
one assumes, following Habermas (1984,
p. 397), that:
. . .the human species maintains itself through
the socially coordinated activities of its
members and that this coordination has to be
established through communication and in
certain central spheres of life, through com-
munication aimed at reaching agreement
then the reproduction of the species also
requires satisfying the conditions of a ra-
tionality that is inherent in communicative
Beck (1987) argues that the labour market,
through its interlinked processes of increas-
ing levels of education, mobility and compe-
tition has now become the driving force
behind the individualization of people's lives.
If we are presently witnessing ``a relentlessly
progressing and collectively experienced
process of individualization and atomization
in post-traditional societies'', as Beck (1994,
p. 348) contends, then newly formed social
relationships and social networks now have
to be individually chosen. Brookfield (1986)
cites research in which successful indepen-
dent learners report that learning networks
in which knowledge is transmitted through
oral encounters are their most important
resources in developing expertise. These
networks provide independent learners with
both an evaluative arena and a context where
successful learners can function as skill
models and ``resource consultants to neo-
phyte enthusiasts''. In an increasingly indi-
vidualized world a focus on learning
networks allows us to potentially move from
purely individualistic instrumental rational-
ity towards communicative interaction via
learning encounters and the possibility of
satisfying the conditions of communicative
rationality within communities of selves-
directed-learners. The purpose of this paper
[ 251]
Journal of European Industrial
23/4/5 [1999] 251261
# MCB University Press
[ISSN 0309-0590]
Communications, Interaction,
Learning, Networks,
Self-directed learning
Habermas' concept of communi-
cative rationality, in which reason
is construed in terms of the non-
coercive intersubjectivity of mu-
tual understanding and reciprocal
recognition, provides a valid foun-
dation on which the theory and
practice of selves-directed learn-
ing can be developed. In an in-
creasingly individualized world a
focus on learning networks allows
a perspective transformation from
the purely individualistic instru-
mental rationality of self-directed-
learning towards communicative
interaction via learning encoun-
ters and the possibility of satisfy-
ing the emancipatory conditions of
communicative rationality within
communities of selves-directed-
learners in life and work. The
orientation of communicative ac-
tion to criticizable validity claims
which are open to empirical in-
vestigation is the central core that
makes this learning process both
theoretically and practically pos-
is to explore and outline in very broad and
tentative terms what some of these condi-
tions might be and how they might be
satisfied. First, I will attempt a necessarily
brief exploration of Habermas' theory of
communicative action and his key lifeworld-
system distinction with potential linkages to
processes of selves-directed-learning; I will
then selectively investigate some aspects of
other approaches which I believe provide
further useful guidelines for moving towards
a theory of selves-directed-learning in life
and work whose fundamental foundation is
built on Habermas' concept of communica-
tive rationality.
Theory of communicative action
In the Cartesian, monological, atomistic and
individualistic perspective of much of mod-
ern thought and ideology the subject stands
over against a world of objects to which it has
two basic relations: representation and ac-
tion. The cognitive-instrumental rationality
associated with this model is one of an
individual subject who is capable of gaining
knowledge about a contingent environment
and using this knowledge effectively by
intelligently adapting to and manipulating
that environment. Habermas (1984; 1987a;
1987b) rejects this purely monological view of
rationality and meaning and proposes a more
dialogic, self-reflective and intersubjective
view where meaning must be understood as
something created between people (for an
excellent summary see McCarthy, 1984). This
discourse-theoretic approach is complemen-
ted by Vygotsky's (1978) affirmation of the
``philosophical and political power of the
ontological socialness of human beings''
(Newman and Holzman, 1993); by Brook-
field's (1986, 1987) use of the metaphor of a
``learning conversation'' to describe the pro-
cess of developing critical thinkers and by
his concept of facilitation, which incorpo-
rates elements of challenge, confrontation,
and critical analyses of both self and society;
by Engestro m's (1994) investigative learning
model which takes account of broad social,
cultural and environmental factors in a
community of practice and links to the
contexts of criticism, discovery and applica-
tion in both learning and work practice; by
Brookfield's (1987) and Marsick's (1987) ex-
ploration of possible new paradigms for
workplace learning; and by Young's (1989)
critical theory of education which draws
explicitly on Habermas' approach to critical
The theory of communicative action is not
a metatheory but the beginning of a social
theory concerned to validate its own critical
standards. Habermas does not conceive of his
analysis of the general structures of action
oriented to reaching understanding or
agreement as a continuation of the theory of
knowledge by other means. His reconceptua-
lization of action and rationalization allows
us to view rational action as a potentially
liberating rather than imprisoning or purely
oppressive force. He argues that the utopian
Enlightenment perspective of reconciliation
and freedom is ingrained in the conditions
for the communicative sociation of indivi-
duals; in this sense, it is built into the
linguistic mechanisms of the reproduction of
the human species. Such an approach en-
ables us to transcend Weber's pessimism and
the retreat into subjectivity or negativity of
earlier critical theorists such as Luka cs,
Horkheimer and Adorno, without losing
sight of Marx's core insight that society is
constructed from, and must therefore be
emancipated in terms of, the processes that
sustain social relations among individuals.
For such critique to be useful it must be
presented in terms of the fundamental pro-
cesses that integrate social systems, and in
this way it has some possibility of suggesting
ways to create new forms of social relations.
Without an empirical and theoretical under-
standing of how a society works, critique
becomes merely superficial debunking and
an exercise in futility (Turner, 1991). Haber-
mas claims that critical social theory should
not only be systematic but that it must also
proceed scientifically in that it can only
make pronouncements with a claim of pro-
positional truth. One must also see how it is
possible to consider the realms of experience
of both the moral and aesthetic-expressive
aspects without empiricist redefinitions and
without endangering the requirements of
theoretical descriptions. The use of herme-
neutic, or nonpositivist approaches ensure
the connection to the realm of experience of
everyday communicative praxis, which is
virtually defined by its lack of differentiation
between Kantian questions of truth, justice
and taste (Honneth et al., 1981). In order to
understand the structures of the lifeworld,
and the forms of collective learning or
unlearning processes which correspond to
them, one must initially seek to understand
people's actions in terms of the meaning it
has for them; and this requires that the
enquirer adopt the performative attitude of a
communicative participant, in which both
actor and interpreter belong to the same
``universe of discourse'' (Habermas, 1987a).
Critical thinking is therefore not an ab-
stract rarefied academic process confined to
college settings but an activity embedded in
[ 252]
David O'Donnell
Habermas, critical theory and
selves-directed learning
Journal of European Industrial
23/4/5 [1999] 251261
the mundane everyday contexts of adult lives
(Brookfield, 1987). Habermas' broadly inter-
pretative approach, whose object domain is
the ``symbolically pre-structured reality'', the
socio-cultural lifeworld constituted by peo-
ple's meaningful action, gives rise to the
problem of Verstehen or interpretative un-
derstanding. Giddens (1984) refers to this
interpretative requirement (first identified
by Winch, 1958 and Skjervheim, 1959) as the
``double hermeneutic'' which, according to
Habermas (1984, p. 108) provides the princi-
pal basis for the methodological distinction
between the natural and social sciences.
The object domain of the social sciences
encompasses everything that falls under the
description ``element of a lifeworld'' . . .Speech
and action are the unclarified fundamental
concepts to which we have recourse when we
wish to elucidate, even in a preliminary way,
what it is to belong to, to be an element of a
socio-cultural lifeworld. The problem of Ver-
stehen is of methodological importance in the
humanities and social sciences primarily
because the scientist cannot gain access to a
symbolically prestructured reality through
observation alone, and because understand-
ing meaning [Sinnverstehen] cannot be
methodically brought under control in the
same way as can observation in the course of
experimentation. The social scientist basi-
cally has no other access to the lifeworld than
the social-scientific layman does. He must
already belong in a certain way to the life-
world whose elements he wishes to describe.
In order to describe them, he must under-
stand them; in order to understand them he
must be able in principle to participate in
their production; and participation presup-
poses that one belongs.
An exclusively hermeneutic approach is
however insufficient and must be combined
with a systems-theoretic or functionalist
perspective. A verstehende sociology that
allows society to be wholly absorbed into the
lifeworld ties itself to the perspective of self-
interpretation of the culture under investi-
gation; this internal perspective screens out
everything that inconspicuously affects a
sociocultural lifeworld from the outside. The
fact that the project of a critical social theory
must combine a hermeneutic approach with
a systems-theoretic perspective, requires that
critical theorists, and by implication selves-
directed-learners, be able to move back and
forth between an internal (participant) and
external (observer) perspective, that is, with
an analytic perspective on society as life-
world and system. These conditions are
directly applicable to the communicative
rationality of selves-directed-learning pro-
cesses which can be construed as inherently
dialogic, interactive, social and collective.
This shift in perspective provides us with an
altar to the purely instrumental strategic
individualistic rationality which is the
dominant paradigm at the heart of modern
``technocratic consciousness''. Newman and
Holzman (1993, p. 187) note that the interjec-
tion of meta-level discourse teaching people
to communicate about communication may
help in reintroducing the dialectic, self-
reflexive component of the learning process
and of language as activity. As the theory of
communicative action establishes ``an inter-
nal relation between practice and rational-
ity'' (Habermas, 1987b, p. 76), we can propose
parallel relations between the participative
orientations of selves-directed-learners and
the four forms of action identified by Haber-
mas (1984, pp. 75-101). These allow us to
distinguish concepts of participative social
action according to how mechanisms of
coordination are specified among the goal
directed actions of different learners.
Teleological or goal-oriented action in-
volves a decision based on instrumental,
means-end, or purposive rationality in We-
ber's sense given a certain interpretation of a
situation. A variant is ``strategic action'' in
which the actor takes into account the likely
behaviour of other goal-directed actors. Ha-
bermas stresses that although the teleologi-
cal-instrumental structure is fundamental to
all forms of action, it is too often taken to be
the sole form of rational action in other
conceptualizations of rationality, a fact he
refers to as one of the ``illusions of moder-
nity''. Blossfeld (1996, p. 198), in a review of
the rational choice literature, finds that the
only common denominator seems to be ``a
commitment to purposive individualism''
an epistemological position that social phe-
nomena can only be explained in terms of the
intentional actions of individuals. This uti-
lity-maximizing model underlies game theo-
retic, decision theoretic and rational choice
approaches in economics, sociology and so-
cial psychology. It provides the essential
foundation for the neo-classical theory of the
labour market and human capital ap-
proaches to education and skill formation;
Ashton and Green (1996) and Maurice et al.
(1986) provide comprehensive critical ana-
lyses of this hegemonic approach to skill
formation in the business literature.
Normatively regulated action is that of
members of a social group who orient their
action to common values and comply with
agreed norms, thus fulfilling agreed beha-
viour expectations as in functionalist role
theory. Dramaturgical action involves the
conscious, face-to-face, ego-centred and social
manipulation and presentation of oneself
before an audience or public. Goffman's
(1959, 1983) dramaturgical theory, the
[ 253]
David O'Donnell
Habermas, critical theory and
selves-directed learning
Journal of European Industrial
23/4/5 [1999] 251261
``interaction order'', provides the fundamen-
tal foundation. Turner (1991, p. 452) cites two
of Goffman's key propositions which are
highly relevant here: the more individuals in
a setting can orchestrate their performances
and, at the same time, accept one another's
performances, the more likely are they to
develop a common definition of the situation;
and the more individuals can develop a
common definition of the situation, the
greater will be the ease of their interaction.
Communicative action is the verbal or non-
verbal interaction between two or more actors
who ``seek to reach an understanding about
their action situation and their plans of action
in order to coordinate their actions by way of
agreement'' (Habermas, 1984, p. 86). This
unique conceptualization, a perspective for
analysing interaction, synthesizes elements of
Mead's behaviourist-interactionist theory and
Schutz's phenomenological-interactionist
ideas with portions of ethnomethodology and
linguistic analysis (Turner, 1991). Habermas
(1984, p. 95) argues that communicative action
represents a higher form of rationality in that
``only the communicative model of action
presupposes language as a medium of uncur-
tailed communication whereby speakers and
hearers, out of the context of their pre-
interpreted lifeworld, refer simultaneously to
things in the objective, social, and subjective
worlds in order to negotiate common defini-
tions of the situation''.
The concept of validity claims is crucial
both to the concept of communicative ra-
tionality and to the procedural and structural
aspects of selves-directed-learning processes.
Within communicative action participants
may implicitly or explicitly raise the sub-
stantive and real validity claims of proposi-
tional truth, normative correctness or
rightness, and sincerity or authenticity.
Selves-directed-learners can thus implicitly
or explicitly assess and critique each other in
terms of the effectiveness, normative appro-
priateness or sincerity of their speech acts. A
key goal for such learners, therefore, is to
identify and expose both the intrapsychic
and societal conditions which prevent such
processes from occuring for all three types of
validity claim. All speech acts make these
three claims although one may be empha-
sized more than the other two. Claims in this
instance are not settled by recourse to power
or authority, but by providing reasons for or
against in the mutual give-and-take of a
rational argumentative discourse. The per-
spective of reconciliation and freedom is thus
ingrained in the conditions for the uncoerced
communicative sociation of individuals and
is built into the linguistic mechanisms of the
reproduction of the human species.
Validity-claims raised in these forms of
action relate to the three worlds to which
speakers relate which in turn link to three
relations contained in the concept of commu-
nicative rationality. These are; first, the
relation of a knowing subject to a world of
events or facts; second, the relation to a social
world of an acting, practical subject entwined
in interaction with others; and finally, the
relation of a suffering and passionate subject
(in Feuerbach's sense) to its own internal
nature, to its own subjectivity and the sub-
jectivity of others (Honneth et al., 1981,
p. 16). This process of differentiated world
views takes place in or against the set of
background assumptions and stocks of
knowledge of the lifeworld and is a central
process in its rationalization which involves a
shift from ``normatively ascribed agreement''
to ``communicatively achieved understand-
ing''. The orientation of communicative action
to validity claims admitting of argument and
counterargument is the central core that
makes learning processes possible, which can
lead to transformations of our world views
and thus of the very conditions and standards
of rationality (McCarthy, 1987) within com-
munities of selves-directed-learners.
Lifeworld and system
Habermas divides capitalist societies into
three basic subsystems; the economic, sig-
nified by the steering medium of money; the
politico-administrative, signified by the
steering medium of power; and the lifeworld
which is the domain of communicative action
and in this instance, the primary domain of
selves-directed-learning. He insists that it is
crucial to distinguish between ``the commu-
nicative rationality of cultural modernity''
and the functionalist rationality of self-
maintaining economic and administrative
action systems. He suggests that the confla-
tion of these two distinct aspects of moder-
nity, ``the rationalization of the lifeworld''
and the ``increasing complexity of the social
system'' underlies much of the confusion
surrounding the theme of postmodernity
(Habermas, 1987a, p. 396).
Habermas states that the lifeworld ``stands
behind the back'' of each participant in
communication out of which the process of
mutual understanding is supported through
the procedural aspects of grounding criticiz-
able validity claims in context. Members of a
social collective normally share a lifeworld
which only exists in a ``uniquely pre-reflexive
form of background assumptions, back-
ground receptivities or background rela-
tions'' (Honneth et al., 1981, p. 16). Parsons'
[ 254]
David O'Donnell
Habermas, critical theory and
selves-directed learning
Journal of European Industrial
23/4/5 [1999] 251261
trichotomy of culture, society, and personal-
ity is linked into the processes of interaction
within a lifeworld which must be conceived
of as a ``culturally transmitted and linguisti-
cally organized stock of interpretative pat-
terns'' (Habermas, 1987a, p. 124). The
structural components of the lifeworld (cul-
ture, society, personality) meet correspond-
ing needs of society (cultural reproduction,
social integration, and socialization or per-
sonality formation) through three dimen-
sions along which communicative action is
conducted (reaching understanding, coordi-
nating interaction, and effecting socializa-
tion) which in turn are rooted in the
structural components (propositional, illocu-
tionary and expressive) of everyday speech
acts (see Figure 1). The evolutionary trend is
thus for lifeworld processes (stocks of
knowledge with respect to culture, society
and personality) and system processes (in-
stitutional clusters such as economy, state,
law and family) to become increasingly
internally differentiated and differentiated
from each other. Societal integration depends
on a balance between lifeworld and system
processes, but as modern societies have
evolved this balance has been upset as the
functional system processes of the market
economy and the administrative state ``colo-
nize'' and dominate lifeworld processes.
Modern society is thus poorly integrated
because system processes ``decouple the life-
world'' from its societal integrative func-
tions. This paradox of societal rationalization
is central to Marx, Weber and the Frankfurt
school of critical theory.
Habermas (1987a; 1987b) argues that the
internal dynamic of these two functionally
intermeshed subsystems of money and power
reacts back on the rationalized life forms of
modern society that first made them possible,
to the extent that processes of modernization
and bureaucratization penetrate the core
lifeworld domains of cultural reproduction,
social integration, and socialization. Forms
of interaction shaped by these media cannot
therefore encroach on realms of life that by
their function are dependent on action or-
iented to mutual understanding without the
appearance of pathological side-effects
(Figure 2). The imperatives built into the
dynamics of capitalist growth are today only
fulfilled through a substantial growth in the
monetary-bureaucratic complex, such that
we now observe and feel and suffer an
``overspill'', an encroachment by the system
on areas no longer at all related to material
reproduction (Beck et al., 1994; Gorz, 1989).
These areas of cultural tradition social
integration through values and norms, edu-
cation, socialization of coming generations
are, however, ontologically speaking, held
together by their very nature through the
medium of communicative behaviour. Once
the steering media such as money and power
penetrate these areas, for instance by rede-
fining relations in terms of consumption, or
by bureaucratizing the conditions of life, then
it is more than an attack on traditions. The
foundations of a lifeworld that is already
rationalized are under assault. What is at
stake is the symbolic reproduction of the
lifeworld itself. In sum, crises that arise in the
area of material reproduction are intercepted
at the cost of a pathologizing of the lifeworld
(in Honneth et al., 1981, p. 22).
In an earlier work, Habermas (1976) suggests
that a universal property of social systems is
that their exchange with their environments
involves both production and socialization;
and that learning in both dimensions, pro-
duction and socialization, determines the
level of development of a society. Two features
of this learning process are central; first,
whether learning is reflexive, that is invol-
ving the discursive thematization of validity
claims; and second, whether theoretical and
moral-practical questions are differentiated
(Layder, 1997; Outhwaite, 1994; Young, 1989).
Societies can thus be viewed as reflexive
learning systems where the contents of tradi-
tions, institutions and the processes of socia-
lization become increasingly subject to
reflection and critical analysis.
This is the type of approach broadly
investigated by Beck et al. (1994) as ``reflexive
modernization''. These authors note that in
today's context of global cosmopolitanism,
traditions are called on to defend themselves
and are routinely subject to interrogation.
This modern world of developed reflexivity,
where the interrogation of social forms has
become commonplace, is one that is capable
Figure 1
Contributions of reproduction process to maintaining the structural
components of the life-world
[ 255]
David O'Donnell
Habermas, critical theory and
selves-directed learning
Journal of European Industrial
23/4/5 [1999] 251261
of stimulating active critique. Even within
this modern reflexivity, however, individuals
cannot step out of their lifeworlds; nor can
they objectify them in a supreme act of
reflection (McCarthy, 1984). Reflexive mod-
ernization is a theory of the ever increasing
powers of social actors, or agency, in regard
to structure; there are, however, new struc-
tural conditions of such free and knowledg-
able agency in that receding social structures
are becoming largely displaced by informa-
tion and communication structures (Lash,
1994). This is a theory of compelled rather
than free choice in that people are now forced
to choose among a range of alternatives
leading to ``reflexivity winners and reflexiv-
ity losers'' (Lash, 1994) and the ``individuali-
zation of inequality'' (Beck, 1994); in other
words, to further forms of colonization. A key
goal of selves-directed-learning remains to
make this critique explicit through engaging
in communicative action within the contexts
of everyday life and work.
Towards selves-directed-learning in life and
Habermas goes back to Hegel and Marx to
find an approach to social reality identified,
but not pursued, by these giants, the devel-
opment of which leads to his concept of
communicative rationality. McCarthy (1984,
p. 405) suggests that this concept serves
Habermas both theoretically and practically;
``theoretically it serves as the fundamental
concept in an interpretative framework for
critical social research [in that] the entire
edifice of his theories of individual and social
development are built on it. Practically it
provides the key to diagnosing the socio-
pathologies of modernity and a way of sorting
out proposed remedies to these ills''.
McCarthy (1984) also notes Habermas' left-
Hegelianism in that he is not seeking to
demonstrate conceptually that what is ra-
tional is, or will be, real and what is real is, or
will be, rational, but to identify empirically
the actually existing possibilities for
embodying rationality structures in concrete
forms of life. The social practices which he
proposes cannot be identified solely with
Marx's conception of labour; productive
activity is viewed as too specific and too
restricted a notion to serve as a paradigm of
rational practice. With the paradigm of
communicative action the decentred subject
remains as a participant in social interaction
mediated by language open to universal and
criticizable validity claims (McCarthy, 1987).
It thus provides a valid foundation on which
a critical theory of selves-directed-learning
can be developed.
Brookfield's (1987) concept of critical
thinking, Knowles (1980, 1984) concept of
andragogy, Revans (1980) theory of action
learning, Engestro m's (1994) investigative
learning model, Marsick's (1987) exploration
of new paradigms for workplace learning, the
action science of Argyris and Scho n (1974),
and Young's (1989) critical theory of educa-
tion are all based on the idea of communities
of learning in action. Purely individualistic
nomothetic theories are not worthy of ser-
ious consideration here. Following Marsick's
(1987) comparison of the developmental
paradigms identified by Carr and Kemmis
(1983) (technical, interpretative, strategic)
with Mezirow's (1985) domains of learning
(instrumental, dialogic and self reflective)
the following relationships can be proposed
in the context of Habermas' key distinction
between instrumental and communicative
Instrumental learning refers to task or-
iented problem solving as in the dominant
technical reductionist paradigm. Learning
involves deductive inference in which a
hypothesis is tested and verified. Behaviour-
ist oriented learning processes can provide
successful outcomes but reflection is limited
to simple cause and effect. This broadly
nomothetic approach is based on logical
positivism and comfortably related to the
bureaucratic ideal, behaviourist theory and
the task idea of scientific management. The
Figure 2
Manifestations of crisis in reproduction disturbances (pathologies)
[ 256]
David O'Donnell
Habermas, critical theory and
selves-directed learning
Journal of European Industrial
23/4/5 [1999] 251261
task idea permeates the training literature in
this paradigm, with the trainer's role being
merely to select technology as a means to an
end (Holloway, 1991) and both workers and
trainers become reified as mere factors of
production. At the core of this state propa-
gated ``technocratic consciousness'' rests an
emphasis on Horkeimer and Adorno's ``in-
strumental reason'' or Weber's ``means-end
rationality'' where ``criteria of the efficiency
of means in realizing explicit goals increas-
ingly come to guide evaluations of social
action and people's approach to problems''
(Turner, 1991, p. 264). Contemporary sociali-
zation thus regularly eliminates an aware-
ness both of the facts that one is a learner and
of Bateson's (1972) concept of deutero-learn-
ing (learning how to learn) in favour of the
instrumental learning of an object or thing
(Newman and Holzman, 1993). The domi-
nance of behaviourist approaches in psy-
chology during this century can be viewed as
matching the needs of the taylorist and
fordist mass-production system for a legiti-
mating ideological praxis for a disciplined
and predominantly deskilled workforce; this
can be viewed as a colonization of the
lifeworld of both workers and the discipline
of developmental psychology by the impera-
tives of the system and mode of mass-
production; in my opinion this phenomenon
represents an outstanding example of the
contribution of the social sciences to the
colonization of the lifeworld.
Dialogic learning is directed at interpret-
ing consensual norms as in learning about
organisational culture or in interpreting
policies, procedures, goals and objectives; the
purpose being greater understanding of one's
situation as in the interpretative paradigm.
Learning is seen as a process of mutual
interaction, but without a critical component
this form of learning corresponds only to a
form of normative instrumental action.
Self-reflective learning is all about perso-
nal and collective change. The emphasis is on
critical reflection and this change involves a
transformation in meaning perspectives.
This is the learning paradigm most directly
influenced by the critical social science of
Habermas; facilitators and selves-directed-
learners, while accepting the interpretative
paradigm, emphasise critical reflection on
the way in which social, cultural, historic
and economic forces shape meaning and how
learners can examine and act to change these
forces. Mezirow (1985, p. 25) claims that
critical reflectivity ``the bringing of one's
assumptions, premises, criteria, and sche-
mata into consciousness and vigorously cri-
tiquing them'' is the process which most
effectively interconnects learning in all three
domains. Communicative rationality is only
possible here with the communicative inter-
action between two or more people who seek
to reach an understanding about not only
their action situation, as in the dialogic or
interpretative paradigm above, but also their
plans of action in order to coordinate their
actions, learning or otherwise, by way of
agreement. The validity claims of proposi-
tional truth, normative correctness and sin-
cerity will all come into play here within a
community of selves-directed-learners who
seek to expand their collective zone of
proximal development. This Vygotskian
(1978) ``zone'' refers to the contested area
between traditional practices and alternative
future directions and potentialities (Enges-
tro m, 1994).
Recent cognitive theories include the con-
cept of a circular model of learning in which
knowledge is tested and modified by experi-
ence and the environment in a constant
process of assimilation and accommodation
(Plowman, 1989; Gardner, 1993). The devel-
opmental nature of cognition is taken as its
most fundamental characteristic and many
agree with the Vygotskian school of devel-
opmental psychology (surprisingly neglected
by Habermas who adopts a more Piagetian
perspective) in insisting that development
occurs as much by interaction with others
and the social and cultural aspects of the
environment as by internal mental, affective
and physical processes. An awareness of the
emotional-affective dimension, too often ig-
nored, is crucial to critical reflection and
central to the effective functioning of com-
munities of selves-directed-learners. Brook-
field's (1987) personal theory in use of how
people engage in critical thinking identifies
five aspects; first, processes of critical think-
ing are person-specific; second, emotions are
central; third, both intrinsic and extrinsic
reasons are important; fourth, critical in-
sight often occurs unexpectedly; and fifth,
peer support is crucial. Brookfield (1987,
p. 231) notes that ``challenging unquestioned
assumptions, looking skeptically at givens
we have lived by, and trying to shake off
habitual ideas and behaviours so that we can
try out alternatives are emotionally potent
activities''. Fear, anxiety, resentment and
feelings of being threatened may surface.
Alternatively, feelings of joy, relief, release,
and liberation at the thought of abandoning
internal chains and becoming aware of
external constraints that have blocked our
routes to development and personal growth
may result. Providing guidance on these
potent and potentially damaging or liberat-
ing affective processes is a crucial activity of
[ 257]
David O'Donnell
Habermas, critical theory and
selves-directed learning
Journal of European Industrial
23/4/5 [1999] 251261
both facilitators and more experienced
selves-directed-learning peers.
Engestro m's (1994) investigative learning
model provides some useful guidelines for
introducing forms of communicative selves-
directed-learning. This process is divided
into six steps, each demanding specific
learning actions from the learner and related
actions from the facilitator which, in this
instance, can refer to the interactions be-
tween self-directed-learning peers. A sub-
stantial Motivation based on cognitive
conflict raised either by the selves-directed-
learner or facilitator, represents the context
of criticism in learning. Orientation and
Internalisation represent the context of dis-
covery. Externalisation, application of the
model in solving concrete problems, influen-
cing change in the surrounding reality and
innovation, represents the context of appli-
cation and is a necessary condition for
successful internalisation. Critique and Con-
trol again represent the context of criticism
and are critical in the development of meta-
cognitive skills. Each context has its own
tools and modes of discourse. Engestro m
stresses that learning in which some of these
steps are weak or absent remains superficial
and fragmented. He suggests that the cyclic
idea may be somewhat simplistic and that
different phases often occur in parallel which
is consistent with the recent ``parallel dis-
tributed processing'' approach (Gardner,
1993) to explaining human cognition. Enges-
tro m's (1994) idea of ``expansive learning'' as
collective construction of the future for a
community of practice which involves creat-
ing visions and then turning those visions
into practical action can be viewed here as
approaching Habermas' criteria of commu-
nicative rationality.
Outhwaite (1994) notes how in recent
decades authority relations in organisations
have become more informal, apparently
consensual, and loosely democratic.
Schluchter (1987) notes the apparent collapse
of the unity of official and functional
authority; official refers to authority in the
position, such as a supervisor or manager
whereas functional refers to authority in the
person through possessing unique expertise
or skills. Schluchter cites Hartmann's cri-
tique of Weber for not having fully clarified
the unique nature of functional authority and
thus, for failing to see clearly the relation
between increasing rationalization, and we
might add increasing cognitive and system
complexity and globalized commodity com-
petition and communications, and the ex-
pansion of forms of functional authority.
This leads to the significance of expertise or
competence, which is linked to the person
and not to the position, and the structural
problems of bureaucratic organisations in
moving from hierarchies towards teams and
networks. This leads to the link between
managing people and managing learning
processes and the extent to which theories of
human resource management (HRM) and
human resource development (HRD) are
``latently strategic'' in Habermasian terms or
ideological in that they serve particular
interests. Outhwaite (1994, p. 118) notes
Kunneman's (1991, p. 212) argument that this
move towards workplace democracy may be
something of an [unitarist] illusion:
The role of communicative processes in formal
organizations can . . .be analysed more closely if
one represents the formal, juridically struc-
tured framework of enterprises and state
bureaucracies as a ``container'' into which
communicative processes are squeezed in and
dammed up. As soon as these threaten to
become dysfunctional for the goals of the
organization, sanctions which are not commu-
nicatively criticizable can be brought into play.
The history and present condition of the
capital-labour relationship and its linkages to
processes of skill formation and utilization
must be investigated in its organizational and
societal context (Ashton and Green, 1996;
Dore, 1973; Gallie, 1978; Littler, 1982, 1985;
Maurice et al., 1986; Sorge and Warner, 1986).
Questions of power, which Foucault has
shown to be manifest in every societal pore,
are therefore central to any discussion of
possible ways of developing processes of
selves-directed-learning at the workplace. I
will not explore this aspect in any detail here
but an example from industrial relations is
illustrative for those who, following Haber-
mas ``believe that it is a question of injecting
communicative everyday praxis into institu-
tions'' (Honneth et al., 1981, p. 27). Within
trade unions, it appears that active participa-
tion in union affairs in a manner which
satisfies Habermas' conditions of communi-
cative rationality is very much a minority
pursuit. Between 10 and 20 percent of the
members surveyed participate in union af-
fairs in a communicatively rational fashion
with the majority exhibiting a much more
instrumental orientation towards trade union
activism (Flood et al., 1998). If, as Habermas
suggests, the degree of communicative action
identified in a domain provides a useful
measure of its degree of reification, then this
study should make us somewhat sanguine
about the possibility of simplistically intro-
ducing large scale processes of selves-directed-
learning to the workplace. Engestro m (1994)
provides further useful guidelines.
The need to analyse changing work practice
is integral to Engestro m's approach. In the
[ 258]
David O'Donnell
Habermas, critical theory and
selves-directed learning
Journal of European Industrial
23/4/5 [1999] 251261
context of criticism learners identify pro-
blems and contradictions in work practice. In
the context of discovery investigative lear-
ners discover and appropriate intellectual
tools and models for mastering and develop-
ing work practice. In the context of applica-
tion these newly found tools and ``intellective''
(Zuboff, 1988) skills are practised and applied
in work practice, thus contributing to its
continuous redesign. In this model a ``learn-
ing community'' can refer to groups of
learners and trainers who share the same
learning objectives and can take the form of a
network connecting teams in workplaces and
institutions that provide training. Rules can
refer to given or negotiated guidelines, pro-
cedures and plans that normatively regulate
the learning process. Division of labour can
refer to how tasks and roles are distributed
among selves-directed-learners and facilita-
tors; this can be flexibly altered according to
the nature of the activity or the step in the
learning cycle. The flexibility inherent in
Engestro m's model is very relevant to the
emerging social role of the trainer as a highly
flexible professional knowledge/expertise fa-
cilitator who can move in and out of the
learning process as the situation requires
(O'Donnell and Garavan, 1997).
Communicative action, under the functional
aspect of reaching understanding, serves to
transmit and renew cultural knowledge;
under the aspect of coordinating action, it
serves social integration and the establish-
ment of group solidarity; and under the
aspect of socialization, it serves the forma-
tion of personal identities (Habermas, 1987a).
The rational internal structures of the pro-
cesses of reaching understanding can be
characterized in terms of:
the three world-relations of actors and the
corresponding concepts of the objective,
social, and subjective worlds;
the validity claims of propositional truth,
normative rightness, and sincerity or
the concept of a rationally motivated
agreement, that is, one based on the
intersubjective recognition of criticizable
validity claims; and
the concept of reaching understanding as
the cooperative negotiation of common
definitions of the situation.
This structure can be shown to be univer-
sally valid in a specific sense, thus satisfying
the scientific requirements of objectivity
(Habermas, 1984, p. 137).
Thus, within the integrating processes of
differentiated societies which gives a certain
priority to a lifeworld perspective, and not
individual subjective processes as earlier
critical theorists claimed, there exists, fol-
lowing Habermas, a potential for a critical
theory of selves-directed-learning, and not
instrumental self-directed-learning, that
seeks to restore communicative rationality
in the face of impersonal economic and state-
bureaucratic steering media. The purpose of
critical theory, whose logical status Haber-
mas has established as a rational recon-
struction of universal human competences, is
to release this rational potential. The core
argument presented in this paper is that the
concept of communicative rationality pro-
vides the essential theoretical and practical
foundation on which to subsume forms of
instrumental learning under the higher ra-
tionality of forms of communicative selves-
directed-learning. The relations and validity
claims built into the medium of communica-
tive action, and the constraints under which
they stand are substantive and real social
phenomena. They are thus open to empirical
investigation which can assist in the process
of theory building.
Baynes (1989-90) suggests that Habermas'
project implies a more modest conception of
the relation between theory and practice
than that found in traditional Marxism or
earlier critical theory. While a developmen-
tal logic would be useful, history does not
contain an inevitable telos; both the philoso-
phy of consciousness and the philosophy of
history are no longer tenable. The nature of
the social conflicts, and their resolution,
which arise on the ``seams'' between system
and lifeworld will determine whether more
balanced processes of societal rationalization
will occur in the future. Critical theorists can
identify practices of oppression and exploi-
tation in daily life and recommend proce-
dures by which they can be changed (Young,
1989) and in this way perhaps contribute to
what is more or less progressive within new
social movements, forms of social protest and
various avenues of personal and collective
development, but the realization of a more
rational society ultimately depends on the
collective learning and praxis of people
themselves (Baynes, 1989-90). Habermas'
concept of communicative rationality in
which reason is construed in terms of a
noncoercive intersubjectivity of mutual un-
derstanding and reciprocal recognition
(McCarthy, 1987) provides a valid foundation
on which the theory and practice of selves-
directed-learning can be developed. The
future and the past are open.
[ 259]
David O'Donnell
Habermas, critical theory and
selves-directed learning
Journal of European Industrial
23/4/5 [1999] 251261
Ashton, D.N. and Green, F. (1996), Education,
Training and the Global Economy, Edward
Elgar, Cheltenham.
Argyris, C. and Scho n, D.A. (1974), Theory in
Practice: Increasing Professional Effectiveness,
Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, CA.
Bateson, G. (1972), Steps towards an Ecology of
Mind, Chandler, New York, NY.
Baynes, K. (1989-90), ``Rational reconstruction and
social criticism: Habermas' model of inter-
pretive social science'', Philosophical Forum,
Vol. 21, pp. 122-45.
Beck, U. (1987), ``Beyond status and class: will
there be an individualized class society ?'', in
Meja, V., Misgeld, D. and Stehr, N. (Eds),
Modern German Sociology, Columbia Univer-
sity Press, New York, NY, pp. 341-55.
Beck, U. (1994), ``The reinvention of politics'', in
Beck, U., Giddens, A. and Lash, S., Reflexive
Modernization, Polity, London, pp. 1-55, 174-97.
Beck, U., Giddens, A. and Lash, S. (1994), Reflexive
Modernization, Polity, London.
Blossfeld, H.-P. (1996), ``Macro-sociology, rational
choice theory, and time'', European
Sociological Review, Vol. 12 No. 2, pp. 181-206.
Brookfield, S.D. (1986), Understanding and Facil-
itating Adult Learning, Open University
Press, Buckingham.
Brookfield, S.D. (1987), Developing Critical
Thinkers, Open University Press, Milton
Carr, W. and Kemmis, S. (1983), Becoming Critical:
Knowing Through Action Research, Deakin
University Press, Victoria.
Dore, R. (1973), British Factory-Japanese Factory,
University of California Press, Berkeley, CA.
Engestro m, Y. (1994), Training for Change: New
Approach to Instruction and Learning in
Working Life, ILO, Geneva.
Flood, P., Turner, T., Willman, P. and O'Donnell,
D. (1998), ``Trade union activism: a case of
class segmentation?'', forthcoming.
Gallie, D. (1978), In Search of the New Working
Class, Cambridge University Press, Cam-
Gardner, H. (1993), Frames of Mind, 2nd ed.,
Fontana, Guernsey.
Giddens, A. (1984), The Constitution of Society,
Polity, Cambridge.
Goffman, E. (1959), The Presentation of Self in
Everyday Life, Doubleday, New York, NY.
Goffman, E. (1983), ``The interaction order'',
American Sociological Review, Vol. 48, pp. 1-17.
Gorz, A. (1989), Critique of Economic Reason,
Verso, London.
Habermas, J. (1976), Legitimation Crisis, Heine-
mann, London.
Habermas, J. (1984), The Theory of Communicative
Action, Polity, Cambridge.
Habermas, J. (1986), Knowledge and Human
Interests, Polity, Cambridge.
Habermas, J. (1987a), The Theory of
Communicative Action, Vol. 2, Polity, Cam-
Habermas, J. (1987b), The Philosophical Discourse
of Modernity, Polity, Cambridge.
Holloway, W. (1991), ``Scientific management and
the task idea: precursors of industrial psy-
chology'', in Holloway, W. (Ed.), Work
Psychology and Organisational Behaviour:
Managing the Individual at Work, Sage,
London, pp. 13-33.
Honneth, A., Kno dler-Bunte, E. and Widmann, A.
(1981), ``The dialectics of rationalization: an
interview with Ju rgen Habermas'', Telos,
No. 49, pp. 5-31.
Knowles, M.S. (1980), ``How do you get people to be
self-directed learners?'', Training and
Development Journal, May, pp. 96-9.
Knowles, M.S. (1984), Andragogy in Action,
Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, CA.
Kunneman, H. (1991), Der Wahrheitstrichter:
Habermas und die Postmoderne, Campus,
Lash, S. (1994), ``Reflexivity and its doubles:
structure, aesthetics, community'', in Beck,
U., Giddens, A. and Lash, S. (1994), Reflexive
Modernization, Polity, London, pp. 110-73,
Layder, D. (1997), Modern Social Theory, UCL
Press, London.
Littler, C.R. (Ed.) (1982), The Development of the
Labour Process in Capitalist Societies, Heine-
mann, London.
Littler, C.R. (Ed.) (1985), The Experience of Work,
Gower, Aldershot
Marvick, V.J. (1987), ``New paradigms for learn-
ing in the workplace'', in Marvick, V. J. (Ed.),
Learning in the Workplace, Croom Helm,
London, pp. 11-36.
Maurice, M., Sellier, F. and Silvestre, J.-J. (1986),
The Social Foundations of Industrial Power,
MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.
McCarthy, T. (1984), ``Translator's introduction'',
in Habermas, J. (Ed.), The Theory of
Communicative Action, Vol. 1, Polity, Cam-
bridge, ppvii-xxxix.
McCarthy, T. (1987), ``Introduction'', in Habermas,
J. (Ed.), The Philosophical Discourse of
Modernity, Polity, Cambridge, pp. vii-xvii.
Mezirow, J. (1985), ``A critical theory of self-
directed learning'', in Brookfield, S. (Ed.),
Self-Directed Learning: From Theory to
Practice, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, CA,
pp. 18-22.
Newman, F. and Holzman, L. (1993), Lev Vygotsky:
Revolutionary Scientist, Routledge, London.
O'Donnell, D. and Garavan, T.N. (1997), ``New
perspectives on skill, learning and training:
a viewpoint'', Journal of European Industrial
Training, Vol. 21 No. 4, pp. 131-7.
Outhwaite, W. (1994), Habermas: A Critical Intro-
duction, Polity, Cambridge.
Plowman, L. (1989), ``Learning from learning
theories: an overview for designers of inter-
active video'', Interactive Learning
International, Vol. 5 No. 4, pp. 165-74.
Revans, R.W. (1980), The ABC of Action Learning,
2nd ed., Charterwell-Bratt, Bromley.
[ 260]
David O'Donnell
Habermas, critical theory and
selves-directed learning
Journal of European Industrial
23/4/5 [1999] 251261
Schluchter, W. (1987), ``Modes of authority and
democratic control'', in Meja, V., Misgeld, D.
and Stehr, N. (Eds), Modern German Sociol-
ogy, Columbia University Press, New York,
NY, pp. 291-323.
Skjervheim, H. (1959), Objectivism and the Study
of Man, Oslo. rep., in Inquiry 1974.
Turner, J.H. (1991), The Structure of Sociological
Theory, 5th ed., Wadsworth, Belmont, CA.
Sorge, A. and Warner, M. (1986), Comparative
Factory Organisation, WZB, Berlin.
Vygotsky, L. (1978), Mind in Society, Harvard
University Press, Cambridge, MA.
Winch, P. (1958), The Idea of a Social Science and
its Relation to Philosophy, Routledge and
Keegan Paul, London.
Young, R. (1989), A Critical Theory of Education,
Harvester Wheatsheaf, Hemel Hempstead.
Zuboff, S. (1988), In the Age of the Smart Machine:
the Future of Work and Power, Basic Books,
New York, NY.
Further reading
Bernstein, J. (Ed.) (1994), The Frankfurt School:
Critical Assessments, 6 Vols, Routledge,
Brookfield, S. (Ed.) (1985), Self-Directed Learning:
From Theory to Practice, Jossey-Bass, San
Francisco, CA.
Giddens, A. (1994), ``Living in a post-traditional
society'', in Beck, U., Giddens, A. and Lash, S.
(1994), Reflexive Modernization, Polity,
London, pp. 56-109, 184-97.
Habermas, J. (1988), On the Logic of the Social
Sciences, Polity, Cambridge.
Habermas, J. (1996), ``Postscript to Between
Facts and Norms'', in Deflem, M. (Ed.),
Habermas, Modernity and Law, Sage, Lon-
don, pp. 135-50.
Honneth, A. (1982), ``Work and instrumental
action'', New German Critique, No. 25,
pp. 31-54.
[ 261]
David O'Donnell
Habermas, critical theory and
selves-directed learning
Journal of European Industrial
23/4/5 [1999] 251261