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Rational Reconstruction as a Method of Political Theory between Social Critique and

Empirical Political Science

Daniel Gaus


In political theory, the question of the fields objects and methods is an ever-recurring

theme. Again and again, this question occasions reflection on the relationship of political
theory, not only to the other subfields of political science, but also to neighboring disciplines
such as philosophy. Yet what might appear to be a search for disciplinary identity is a
manifestation of the function that political theory fulfills for the analysis of politics in
general. A bridge or broker between empirical political science, on the one hand, and
philosophy, on the other, political theory is especially vulnerable to conflicts that neighboring
disciplines can avoid by leaning back on their own specialized identities. By advancing its
ability to translate among disciplines, in one direction as well as the other, political theory
becomes the marketplace where well-established and often antithetical traditions of thought
and research regularly come into contact with one another and await exchange.
In present-day controversies on the methods of political theory, the concept of
reconstruction plays a special role in the question of how political theory understands itself
as social critique. Reconstruction is often discussed as a particular approach to specifying
those moral-practical standards that can ground a critique of political conditions. But
normative social critique encapsulates only one, though doubtlessly important, context of
political theorizing. A second context allows us to grasp political theory in terms of the
development of a general theory of politics. This type of theorizing is found in authors such
as David Easton and Giovanni Sartori, whose models and concepts are able to service a
political science proceeding with an empirical orientation.
The thesis I want to develop here is that the significance of the concept of
reconstruction for political theorizing is interpreted too one-sidedly from the purview of
normative social critique. It is easy to overlook the way in which the same complex of
problems, which forms the background of the debate surrounding the reconstructive approach

to social critique, also has important implications for a theory of politics that inquires after
suitable approaches to the empirical analysis of political practices. This one-sidedness betrays
itself nowhere more clearly that in the way political theory has received Jrgen Habermass
(1996) discourse-theoretic reconstruction of the democratic constitutional state, which tends
to be read almost exclusively from the standpoint of how it might contribute to an appropriate
critique of political relations. In opposition to this, I will show that the significance of
reconstruction in Habermass thought is not limited to the context of evaluative social
critique; it also has important implications for the empirical analysis of political practices. On
the other side of the idea of reconstructive social critique, there lies within Habermasian
theory a program for a reconstructive sociology of democracy (Habermas 1996, 287).
To this end, I will proceed in three steps. First, I propose that we understand the
concept of reconstruction in the sense John Dewey developed in 1920 when he called for a
reconstruction in philosophy. Here Dewey explained our transition to modernity as a
process of reconstruction of societys consciousness of world-disclosing practice (2). Though
Habermas makes no explicit reference to Dewey, his theory can nonetheless be interpreted as
a continuation of Deweys idea. However, this becomes apparent only if we do not take
Habermass expositions of the concept of rational reconstruction exclusively in the context of
a critical theory of justice. In a second step, I will argue that Habermass reasoning runs
deeper, and I will contrast it with Axel Honneths (2014) recent proposal for a critical
analysis of society cast as normative reconstruction (3). This will provide a background
against which we can then sketch out a way to grasp the discourse theory of the democratic
constitutional state as a form of rational reconstruction that also claims sociologicalexplanatory validity. This understanding of Habermass theory implies that rational
reconstruction can be an important supplement to existing empirical approaches that aim for
context-sensitive analyses of political practices (4).
2. John Deweys Reconstruction in Philosophy
In the following brief sketch of Deweys way of thinking, it is not my intent to give a
comprehensive account of Deweys philosophy, nor am I positing any direct connection
between Dewey and Habermas.1 Rather, it seems to me that Dewey introduced his concept of
reconstruction against a philosophical background that squares with Habermass that it will
Habermas himself has remarked that there is no such direct connection. On the relationship between Habermass thought
and Pragmatist philosophy, see Aboulafia et al (2002); Larmore (2000); and, for a critical view, Joas (1991).

facilitate our subsequent investigation of Habermass own reflections. In Reconstruction in

Philosophy, Dewey wants to call the currency of the classical conception of philosophy into
question by drawing attention to the social context in which it emerged. His thesis is that
philosophy is in need of renewal: in the course of our transition to modernity, a change has
taken place in our everyday worldview that has pulled the ground out from under the
essential postulates of classical philosophy. For Dewey, this change in worldview consists
primarily in perceiving everyday world-disclosing praxis more and more as an ongoing
reconstruction of human experience. In my view, Dewey and Habermas share a motivation to
thoroughly explicate the consequences of this transformation in everyday practice for the
theoretically-guided generation of knowledge.
According to Dewey, the emergence of classical philosophy traces back to a particular
societal constellation. The origin of philosophy is not grounded in an interest in pure
knowledge; rather, conceptions of theory separated from practice, or which are directed
toward pure knowledge, fulfill a politically legitimating function. They serve to sustain the
hitherto existing social order. Introducing an abstract, starkly systematized, ultra-scientific
form of reasoning, on the one hand, and dividing into noumenal and phenomenal worlds
two spheres of being, on the other, the contents of traditional mythic beliefs are shielded
against the challenges of a growing body of profane knowledge that is being gleaned from
experimental commerce with nature. In light of this duality of noumenal and phenomenal
worlds, philosophical knowledge is restricted to uncovering the ends and possible
manifestations of an already fixed order of being: A world of a limited number of classes,
kinds, forms, distinct in qualityand arranged in a graded order of superiority and
inferiority (Dewey 1920, 54-5).
According to Dewey, however, this premodern worldview was unable to stand its
ground against the pressure of a scientifically progressing understanding of nature. He
describes the Copernican dissolution of the geocentric into the heliocentric worldview as a
slow transformation of consciousness, which accompanied a change in attitudes regarding
many of the basic assumptions that formed the pillars of the dualist worldviewand hence of
classical philosophy. The representation of space and time as infinite and boundless dissolved
the assumption of a closed, fixed order of things. Instead of a hierarchical order of
predetermined ends, nature is to be encountered as an agglomeration of individual facts of
comparable value that human beings can mold to ends that they set themselves. We no longer
grasp everyday experience as something that merely befalls us, as an unfolding of that which
is always already determined. Rather than being unquestionably valid, knowledge can be

conceived as malleable, guiding our goals and methods toward the active production of new
experiences. Reason is no longer to be associated with the experience of a superordinate
realm of ideas; rather, it is to be grasped as a constructive intelligence, which operates within
the process of practically experiencing the world:
Reason is experimental intelligence. It liberates man from the bondage of the past,
due to ignorance and accident hardened into custom. It projects a better future and
assists man in its realization. And its operation is always subject to test in experience.
The plans which are formed, the principles which man projects as guides of
reconstructive action, are not dogmas. They are hypotheses to be worked out in
practice, and to be rejected, corrected and expanded as they fail or succeed in giving
our present experience the guidance it requires. (Dewey 1920, 96)
A further change of attitude concerns the conceptual status of ideals, and this coheres closely
with an altered stance toward the phenomenon of change. According to Dewey, in the
premodern worldview the transitory and fleeting reality of things in the phenomenal world of
experience was counterbalanced by the eternally unchanging order of noumena. Ideas and
ideals are perceived as unchanging and beyond experience: This is Ideal, the Form of
Forms, because it has no lacks, no needs, and experiences no change or variety (Dewey
1920, 111). Philosophy, as the highest form of contemplation and which concerns itself with
the vision of ideas, must appear from this perspective as an insular and self-contained
activity. It has no practical end; in its quest for a pure theoretical knowledge, it constitutes an
end in itself.
In contrast, modernity understands change not as an indicator of imperfection but of
progress. Modern science does not aim to discover the immutable order that lies behind
observed changes: Rather, the experimental method tries to break down apparent fixities and
to induce changes (Dewey 1920, 113). Thus the perception of ideas and ideals also changes.
They are no longer taken as being aloof and separate from practical experience; instead, they
take on an essential function in relation to practical world-disclosure:
When the belief that knowledge is active and operative takes hold of men, the ideal
realm is no longer something aloof and separate; it is rather that collection of
imagined possibilities that stimulates men to new efforts and realizations. [T]he
picture of the better is shaped so that it may become an instrumentality of action,
while in the classic view the Idea belongs ready-made in a noumenal world. (Dewey
1920, 118)
Deweys reference to becoming conscious of world-disclosure as an ongoing reconstruction
of human experience should not distract from the fact that, for him, the greater part of
practical experience plays out in a way that is unmediated and unreflective. In contrast to this
primary world-access [Weltzugang], the discussion of the reconstruction of human experience

relates to a reflexive commerce with the world. It always arises first when a routine action is
somehow encountered as problematic, leading the actor to begin to doubt that which
heretofore remained unchallenged (cf. Jrke 2003, 46-54). As Joas explains, for Dewey, only
a reconstruction of the interrupted context can point the way out of this situation of doubt:
Our perception must come to terms with new or different aspects of reality; action
must be applied to different points of the world, or must restructure itself. This
reconstruction is a creative achievement on the part of the actor. If he succeeds in
reorienting the action on the basis of his changed perception and thus continuing with
it, then something new enters the world: a new mode of acting, which can gradually
take root and thus itself become an unreflected routine. (Joas 1996, 128-9)
In our context, what is decisive is that Deweys reflections refer to a growing ambivalence of
the social validity of ideals in the practices of society, something that is also central for
Habermas. On one hand, ideals are conceptions whose social validity has an orienting effect
on actors that transcends various respective contexts of action. On the other hand, the validity
of those same ideals is not taken as absoluteas in the classical conceptionbut as having
grown out of past human experiences. As Jrke stresses, Dewey assumes that our world is a
world of contingency, one of an ever-shifting mixture of stability and precariousness (Jrke
2003, 47). In Habermas, this thought is expressed in the assumption that modern
consciousness is marked by a fallibilistic sensibility that allows every fact and valueconception to appear to be drawn into an ambivalence between facticity and validity. It is
in this sense that we can show in what way Habermass theory can be comprehended as a
condensed continuation of Deweys line of thought.
3. The Place of Reconstruction in the Context of Political Theory Conceived as Social

In present-day discourses, the concept of reconstruction mainly plays a role in

political theory understood as social critique. In debates over what form of a theory of justice
is best suited to an appraisal of political conditions in liberal-democratic societies, two
models stand opposite one another: constructivist and reconstructive theories of justice. 2 The
essential difference between them concerns the question: What kind of normative ideal of a
just order do we theoretically specify in order to critically evaluate the reality of liberal2

Now and again an additional model can be distinguished in the form of genealogical critique (Saar 2009). One can however
follow Honneths view that this works as a parasitic mode of critique: because it does not itself ground the normative
standards that it presupposes, it does not amount to a distinct approach to justice in the context relevant to us here. A more
refined discussion of various models of social critique can be found in Iser (2008).

democratic societies? Axel Honneth (2014) has recently put forth a critical theory of justice
in which he distinguishes the advantages of a Hegelian method of normative reconstruction
over constructivist theories of justice. Here he positions himself against, among others,
Habermass discourse theory, which he treats as a variant of constructivism. In my view,
Honneths reading of Habermas is typical of the abridged way discourse theory has been
received in the literature. Thus, I would like to begin by recapitulating the main features of
Honneths project (3.1). This will provide the background against which we will be able to
more precisely specify the differences in the place occupied by reconstruction in Honneths
and Habermass theories. The essential point is this: Habermas does not situate the method of
rational reconstruction in the context of the kind of critical theory of justice that Honneth is
chasing down. Only if we take seriously the sociological-explanatory intent to which
Habermas binds the concept of discourse and the method of rational reconstruction can we
uncover the full range of consequences that follow from his line of reasoning (3.2).
3.1 The Place of Normative Reconstruction in Axel Honneths Theory of Justice
Honneths argument is motivated by a critique of what he describes as the triumphant
advance of the Kantian constructivist approach to justice. His chief objection to constructivist
theories of justice is that, as ideal theory (Rawls 1971), they frame principles of just order
using thought experiments that are freestanding, that obtain via the suppression of actual
social relations. The weakness of constructivist theories of justice results from not being able
to know whether the gap between normative claims and social reality can be bridged at all
(Honneth 2014, 63).3 According to Honneth, this weakness cannot be remedied later on by
using non-ideal theory to confront principles of justice with social reality, in order to
ascertain realizable paths to a just state of society.4 The problem of both ideal and non-ideal
theory, for Honneth, lies in the gap implied in the way the division of labor is conceptualized
between the theory of justice, on the one hand, and the social-scientific analysis of society, on
the other: principles of justice constructed without regard for facts about society cannot be
identified as realistic or unrealistic by means of a social-scientific description of social reality
that takes no notice of which contexts are normatively relevant for questions of justice. Even
in non-ideal theory, we would only have presupposed a certain reality set up by a third

Raymond Geuss (2008) recently brought forth a similar objection against political theories in the Kantian tradition.

On the relation between ideal and non-ideal theory see Schaub (2010) and Simmons (2010).

party, to which we then apply normative standards after the fact (Honneth 2014, 5). To
overcome this gap between justification and application (Honneth 2014, 55), Honneth
proposes to normatively reconstruct the principles of just order by means of the claims that
have developed historically in liberal-democratic societies.
Normative reconstruction thus signifies for Honneth a method of deriving an adequate
conception of just social order that should be capable of developing a practical motivating
force. A conception of justice is adequate when it is pieced together from a systematic
investigation of the normative meanings of established practices, allowing it to be effectively
validated historically. The emphasis lies here on systematic investigation. For Honneth does
not limit the reconstructive theory of justice to a mere interpretation of practices (Honneth
2009, II ), which would amount to an attempt to hermeneutically adapt (Honneth 2014, 2)
principles to existing institutional structuresan affirmation of what already exists.5 Its key
feature consists in the following: Given institutions and practices will be analysed in terms
of their normative achievements and recounted in order of their significance for the social
embodiment and realization of socially legitimated values (Honneth 2014, 6).6
With this it becomes evident that, strictly speaking, Honneths theory of justice
consists of two stages. It begins by deducing a legitimate basic value of society, a normative
point of reference (63). Then the intent is to highlight, by means of a normativereconstructive social analysis, in what ways particular established institutions are significant
for the actualization of this value and in what measure its institutionalized potential for
fostering practices (8) has in fact taken effect. At the first stagethe determination of the
basic value of modern societiesHonneth begins by positing several premises.7 His first
presupposition is that in modern societies there is but one value that forms the basis for the
legitimacy of social orders (64)namely, the value of equal individual freedom. The second
premise is that the concept of individual freedom stands in an internal relationship to justice
(17). Third, this alloy of autonomy and justice developed as the result of a historical learning
process into the core of modern moral-practical consciousness (17-8). But this definition of

In this respect Honneth turns away from so-called immanent theories of justice, as taken up for instance by Walzer
(1983) or MacIntyre (2007).

Subsequent page references refer to this work.

It is noteworthy that Honneth does not really explain how he arrives at these premises concerning the basic value. The main
difference between Honneth and Habermas is that Habermass take on reconstruction is wider in scope, and his attempt to
rationally reconstruct the societal establishment of the basic value of equal individual freedom is what makes his claim
sociological-explanatory as well as normative. It is in this context that Habermas draws upon insights from his universal
pragmatics and theory of social evolution, among other things. I will return to this point in section 3.2 below.

the basic value of modern societies is, according to Honneth, still too indeterminate to
extrapolate from it the conditions of a just social order.
Instead, we must differentiate among the three typical ways in which the idea of equal
individual freedom has been interpreted in modern political thought: as a negative concept, as
a reflexive concept, and in terms of Hegels concept of social freedom. Honneth is not
looking to give up one concept of freedom in favor of another; rather, he is showing that the
concepts of negative and reflexive freedom, upon which most constructivist theories of
justice are based, are not self-sufficient concepts of freedom. Together with social freedom,
each forms an essential aspect of that which only as a whole constitutes the value of
individual freedom. Still, Honneth does take social freedom to be fundamental in another
sense: it is always present when individuals act communally in uncoerced relations of
reciprocal recognition. Social freedom thus designates, in a sense, the normal state of the
uncoerced production of community, while negative and reflexive freedom merely represent
guarantees. By allowing the individual to evade relations of recognition impaired by coercion
(negative freedom) and confront them with demands for justification (reflexive freedom),
they respectively fulfill a protective and corrective function for relations of communityformation that issue forth elsewhere.
At the second stage of his theory of justice, Honneth carries out a social analysis
under the assumption that each of these aspects of the basic value of individual freedom has
taken effect historically in different contexts of social practice. Normative reconstruction
aims to gradually etch into relief those individual spheres of action in liberal democratic
societies in which the value of individual freedom has taken on an institutional shape (66).
Accordingly, the concept of negative freedom was established as legal freedom in
connection with the positive legal order, and the concept of reflexive freedom was
incorporated into societal moral relations. In contrast to constructivist theories of justice,
however, neither legal nor moral freedom fulfills the social requirements for the existence of
individual freedom in liberal democracy.8 Both contexts presuppose that individuals
understand themselves as participants in social practices from which they can, qua legal or
moral freedom, exempt themselves if necessary. In relations of family, friendship, as well as
love, in the capitalist system of exchange, and in the democratic will-formation of the
political public sphere, cooperative spheres of social freedom have been institutionalized that
can be generated by neither legal nor moral practices. Honneths critical inference is that

For Honneth, Habermas (1996) provides an example of reducing the conditions of justice to legal freedom, while Forst
(2012b) provides an example of a theory of justice curtailed by moral freedom.

pathologies characteristic of our times can be traced back to circumstances under which
members of society understand legal and moral freedom, not as guarantors of social freedom,
but rather as the epitome of individual freedom. It is from this tendency in the history of
modern societies to misunderstand the element of social freedom (Honneth 2014, 124) that
attitudes and behavioral patterns arise that run contrary to the proper meaning of law and
morality, which is the facilitation of uncoerced social praxis. Hence, Honneth argues, we
need the clarifying diagnosis of a reconstructive theory of justice.
3.2 The Place of Rational Reconstruction in Habermass Theory
Using this background, we can now specify contrastively the place of rational
reconstruction in Habermass theoretical edifice. Honneth criticized Habermass discourse
theory for constricting its purview to the category of positive law, while disregarding the
practical sphere of the ethical life of society as a social condition of justice. This criticism is
in a certain respect surprising, as many of Honneths central theses overlap broadly with the
substance of Habermass explicationse.g., the normative meaning of democratic willformation, its dependence on undistorted relations of communication and recognition,9 as
well as the loss of meaning risked by a one-sided perception of the dual function of
democratically instituted law.10 At the same time, Honneths assessment is in line with a
prevalent reading that construes Habermass discourse theory as a theory of just political
order from the perspective of social critique. This is unfortunate, as it easily obscures the
sociological-explanatory sense of validity to which discourse theory is also connected.
In fact, Habermass discourse theory of the democratic constitutional state, like
Honneths theory of justice, demands among other things an investigation into the moralpractical self-understanding of modern societies. The decisive difference, however, lies in the
function this venture plays in their respective theoretical contexts. While Honneth uses it to
equip a practical critique of pathological conditions in liberal democracies, it is for Habermas
an essential building block in the framework of explaining the social order in modern
Western societies. One can hardly overstate the significance of this difference in goals.
Honneth uses the terms communication and recognition more or less synonymously in this context. Iser (2008) has
pointed out the relation between the concepts of relations of communication and relations of recognition.

Without the assumption of a dual function of democratically established law for system and social integration, Habermas
central thesis regarding the danger of a colonization of the lifeworld (1987) in present-day liberal democracies would
hardly make sense. I do not think Habermas retracts this thesis in Between Facts and Norms; rather, he gives it a more
precise specification.


Although Habermas does not contradict Honneths line of reasoning, he inverts the direction
of the thesis: the democratic constitutional state is not a condition of justice because it
facilitates participation in discourse (Honneth 2014, 40). The thesis of discourse theory
runs as follows: Because social practices are linguistically mediated processes of
intersubjective world-disclosure, which are always playing out as such in the shadows of the
discursive structure of justificatory praxis, the history of social struggles is also the history of
a cognitive learning process that brings to the fore a particular moral and epistemic
consciousness. This societal consciousness, in turn, can explain why the institutions of the
democratic constitutional state have been successfully established in Western societies and
remain up through today decisive for the preservation of social order. This thesis works as a
burning glass that focuses together the various building blocks of Habermass work,
including his formal pragmatics, his theory of social evolution, his moral theory, his theories
of knowledge and truth, as well as his legal and democratic theory.
Habermas and Honneth undoubtedly have similar motivations. Both hope ultimately
to achieve something practical with their theories. Habermas also sets out to defend the
normative self-understanding of modernity against its most sophisticated accusers
(Habermas 2000, 13). The decisive difference is that Habermas takes it to be essential to this
end to develop a theory that can persuade at the level of sociological explanation. And this
point of view can in turn be understood as the consequence of a fundamental conviction that
Habermas shares with Dewey: modern, increasingly reflexive societies ultimately know that
world-disclosure must be understood as a continuous problem-solving praxis that yields an
ongoing reconstruction of human experience. This also means they reflect the ambivalent
status of ideals between facticity and validityideals that have the practice-orienting
function of unproblematic value-conceptions, on the one hand, yet whose validity still
remains perpetually subject to historical transformation, on the other. For Habermas, it is here
that the following difficulty in Honneths theory reveals itself:11 If Dewey is right, then it is
no longer enough for a critical theory of justice, if it wants to persuade and motivate
reflexively conscious addressees, to suppose a basic normative point of reference by arguing
that the idea of social freedom is much more in line with pretheoretical intuitions (Honneth
2014, 60) than competing normative standards of social critiquethat is, not without further
explanation. Increasingly reflexive societies know that their self-understandingsand thus
Naturally, Habermas did not develop these ideas in reaction to Honneths theory, which came only later; he had been
developing them since the early 1970s. They represent an essential aspect of what we could identify as the linguistic or
pragmatic turn in Habermass thought (see, e.g., Habermas 1973, 182-185; 1984, xli-22). I am merely simulating the
following debate between Honneth and Habermas to more clearly demonstrate my point.


their shared pretheoretical intuitionsare situated in a process of ongoing transformation.

Thus they pose the question to themselves: Even if the institutions of the democratic
constitutional state correspond to our present-day moral consciousness, what reasons have we
to assume that the ideals of modern moral consciousness and consequently their
corresponding institutions are not long obsolete? What reasons have we to assume that they
still suitably orient us toward solutions to political-practical problems? Habermas assumes
that, to address this doubt, a theory is required that is able to explain two things: First, it must
offer an explanation for why the foundation of the practices of the democratic constitutional
state was not accidental; it must explain why it rather had to appear rational from the
historically-situated perspective of the participants, and why it thus had to appear to them as a
robust means of overcoming of the problem of social order under the requirements of justice.
Second, the theory must be able to demonstrate that relevant aspects of the problem of social
order continue to pose themselves today as they did then.
Habermas thus in a sense begins where Honneths theory leaves off. His theory aims
to explain that which Honneth takes as premise: first, that equal individual freedom did not
develop into a basic value by chance but should be grasped as the result of a learning process;
and further, that against this background, the historical foundation of the order of the
democratic constitutional state can be elucidated as rational problem-solving. The challenge
is thereby the following: How can the assumption of a historical learning process be
consistent with the pragmatist insight that value-conceptions are not metaphysically given but
issue continuously in world-disclosing practices? The sought-after explanation must evince a
standard for the rationality of social consciousness that allows the historical transformation of
human experience to be presented as directed in a way that appears neither historically
contingent nor metaphysically conceived. According to Habermas, we can cull such a
standard of rationality from the conditions of the possibility of a linguistically mediated
world-disclosing practice. The central assertion is, since language functions without
alternative as medium of communal world-disclosure, and since a speaker, every time she
reaches understanding with someone about something, automatically undertakes (and must
undertake) certain idealizing presuppositions, then every historical interaction situation is
necessarily underlain with various kinds of validity claims (for this see Habermas 2008, 2452). These idealizations in language use, which Habermas gathers under the concept of

discursive structure, are not moral ideals.12 They do not work like prescriptive oughts,
which we could follow or not on the basis of moral considerations. Rather, they are
presuppositions we cannot avoid when we engage in practices of common understanding. As
a condition for every type of rationality13 they form one and the same innerworldly
foundation from which the concepts of moral rightness, ethical suitability, and factual truth
are first derived. Habermas thus explains the elementary discursive structure of language
used as the motor of precisely that historical dynamic that Dewey identifies as the ongoing
reconstruction of human experience.
Now, it is important that we be able to visualize the place of this Kantian
pragmatism (Habermas 2003a, 30) as well as the method of rational reconstruction in the
context of Habermass theory. Habermas designates as rational reconstruction the procedure
of taking the example of the typical linguistic interaction situation and making explicit the
implicit idealizing presuppositions that are tacitly and unavoidably carried out by those
involved. This rational reconstruction of linguistic competences is one building block in a
broader line of argument. It is indeed Habermas goal to provide a theoretical explanation for
the modern intuition that the basic value of individual freedom represents an
achievementthat can only be reversed at the price of cognitive barbarism (Honneth 2014,
17). In this context, however, the rational reconstruction of linguistic competences does not
back the conclusion that communicative reason enforces a societal learning process leading
irresistibly toward a moral consciousness identical with its idealizations.14 In an increasingly
reflexive modernity, such teleological arguments about history have lost all purchase.
Habermass argument runs differently: If the formal-pragmatic reconstruction is correct, we
can surmise that, as a possibility-condition of world-disclosure, the discursive structure of
language use is operative in the background of every historical interaction situation. It
exhorts subjects, in the form of a weak transcendental necessity (Habermas 1996, 4), to
always test the validity of tacitly presupposed factual knowledge as well as shared ethical
convictions should a problem of understanding occur in a given situation. This compulsion is
felt by everyone as the bewildering sting of cognitive dissonance. If this is correct, these
circumstances can be comprehended as the motor of a historical dynamics of knowledge
Although the two claims exhibit strong parallels, at this point in Habermass theoretical architectonic, his basic concept of
discourse must be distinguished from Rainer Forsts basic concept of a right to justification. For more on this debate see
Forst (2012a) and Habermas (2012, 294-298).



For a critique of this assumption, see Schndelbach (1992).

This is the case, even though, at first glance, Habermass formulation of a telos of communication called forth in
language use might suggest such a conclusion.

accumulation through problem solving and justification (Habermas 2003a, 26) that is
nevertheless unable to foresee its actual course. Retrospectively, however, we can ground the
hypothesis that the history of modern societies can be taken as a process of transformation of
collective routines of interpretationof social consciousnessand that this process is carried
out under conditions of this dynamic and is hence not arbitrary. Admittedly, up to this point
the decisive step is still missing from this line of reasoning that would provide an answer to
our initial question. In order to establish that we can grasp modern normative selfunderstanding as the result of a societal learning process, it must first be shown that the
sequence of crucial transformations of historical states of consciousness do in fact indicate an
epistemic sense of direction, which runs parallel to the sense of direction of those
idealizations carried out in the background of the praxis of linguistic understanding. Only
then does a theoretical justification exist for grasping historical transformations of
consciousness as a process of rationalization that has found its merely tentative endpoint in
modern, increasingly reflexive consciousness.
With this we can now pin down the place of rational reconstruction in Habermas and
distinguish it from the critical-enlightening function of normative reconstruction in
Honneths theory of justice. It is necessary at this point to oppose two widespread
interpretations. First, the purpose of the rational reconstruction of linguistic competences is
not to establish a universal standard of moral rightness that was berthed in speech [in der
Sprache angelegt] (Scheppenhuser 2005, 229; Fuchs-Goldschmidt 2008)15 and is supposed
to set up a practical critique of societal conditions.16 Instead, the explication of normative
orientations, which, as (tacit) conditions of problem-solving, actively operate in the
background of interaction, fulfills a two-fold empirical purpose. It purports to be able to
retrace what we as speakers (always) do in an interaction situation. Beyond that, however,
formal-pragmatic reconstruction fulfills an important function at a higher level of
explanation. It serves the development of a hypothesis about the dynamics of the course of
historical practices, which must now be verified through our employment of it as an


Nor does it in my view have the purpose of showing that our moral intuitions are rooted in something universal (McCarthy
1994, 47). Rather, Habermas takes the demand for justification that is unleashed by the discursive structure of
communication to provide a catalyst for moral learning processes (Habermas 2003b, 256-66). Thus the universality of a
world of well-ordered interpersonal relationsthe projection of a moral universe toward which the arguments are directed
is explained as a kind of reflection of the egalitarian universalism that participants in discourse must always already buy into
lest they forfeit the cognitive import of their understanding (Habermas 2003b, 266).

In this sense reconstruction is sometimes understood as a theoretical foil with which Habermas sets up an evaluation of
practical questions (Flgel 2008, 117) or argues for a strengthening of intersubjective understanding in all its dimensions
(Iser 2008, 89). These interpretations may address fundamental concerns of Habermas, but they do not in my view capture
the theorys main claim.

input[]in empirical theories (Habermas 1990b, 32). This is precisely where Habermass
theory of social evolution17 and his discourse theory of the democratic constitutional state
line up. They analyze the sequence of institutional embodiments of innovative structures of
consciousness in history (Habermas 1990b, 32), and they are supposed to demonstrate that
this sequence may be described hypothetically as a process of rationalization. This stands
opposed to a second kind of reading, according to which the object domain of rational
reconstruction in Habermas is limited to the universal competences of speaking and acting
subjects.18 As I would now like to illustrate, the discourse theory of the democratic
constitutional state itself represents a rational reconstruction that appears in the context of
Habermass theoretical edifice with a sociological-explanatory claim to validity.
4. The Significance of Rational Reconstruction for the Empirical Analysis of Political
To better appreciate the significance of Habermass concept of reconstruction, it is
helpful to understand the discourse theory of the democratic constitutional state as a second
application-context of Habermass rational-reconstructive method. Here the issue is not about
the investigation of rationalitys general conditions of possibility; rather, it is about the
reconstruction of specific historically differentiated structures of rationality that we find
embodied in the modern institutional order of the democratic constitutional state. In order to
explore this, we must first ascertain the fundamental sociological significance that Habermas
attaches to the concept of reconstruction. Although he does not explicitly work this out, the
concept is tied to reflections that point toward a general model of social-scientific
explanation.19 This should be sketched out a bit first (4.1). Against this background, it will
then become clear in what way Habermass discourse theory of the democratic constitutional


Regarding Habermass theory of social evolution, which I cannot discuss here, see Gaus (2009, 148-233).

For this view see the nuanced readings of Habermass method of reconstruction in Celikates (2009) and Pedersen (2008).
My differences with Celikates and Pedersen are mostly limited to this point, but I do consider it to be decisive for the way
we understand the methodological implications of discourse theory for empirical political science.

Garz (2000) has rightly shown that there is a void in Habermass theoretical edifice with regard to the explicit elaboration
of method. From this, however, it does not in my view follow that Habermass approach necessarily loses its impact in a
research landscape changed by the emergence of qualitative-empirical methods (Garz 2000, 201). This is not just because
we can establish a connection between Habermas theory and more elaborated sociological methods of analysis: Garz
himself suggested such a connection with the example of Oevermanns (2000) methodology of objective hermeneutics.
Butpace Garznor is there any gap [Leerstelle] left in Habermass theory on the issue of engagement with objects of
social-scientific research. As I will subsequently show, not only does Habermas thematize fundamental methodological
aspects of the analysis of political practices, he also understands his theory of the democratic constitutional state to make a
contribution in this regard.


state may be understood, not primarily as social critique, but as a contribution to a

reconstructive sociology of democracy (Habermas 1996, 287) (4.2).20 If we accept the
discourse-theoretic assumption, there are consequences for the analysis of political practice ,
which, finally, shall be illustrated by the example of empirical research on political
legitimacy (4.3).

4.1 Rational Reconstruction as a Model of Social-Scientific Explanation

Habermas assumes that it is not the isolated acts of individuals, but the course of a
social interaction that we must treat as the smallest unit of study (Habermas 1998, 220-1). A
singular act is invariably both a response to antecedent actions and enabling and constraining
condition of subsequent actions. Accordingly, we understand the significance of an event
when we understand in what sense an action is connected to a preceding context of action.
Habermass action theory is a theory of action coordination. Bound up with this is a
methodological shift in focus from the motivation of the actor to the rationality of
connections among actions. Rather than inquiring into individual preference orders to
develop an intentional explanation of action, we need to reconstruct the interpretations of the
commonly experienced situation that each of the participants carries out in an ad hoc and
mostly unreflective way. To be able to infer the reasons for which participating actors act, we
must incorporate into our analysis the symbolic sphere that serves as the background of
these specific reasons (Peters 1996, 120). This methodological refocusing challenges two
assumptions that are central to many approaches to political analysis.
First, it expands the spectrum of the possible rationality of political interactions
beyond the self-interested strategic pursuit of subjective interests. Actor-centered
institutionalism (Mayntz and Scharpf 1995) has also turned against such a one-dimensional
concept of the rationality of action that is sometimes supposed in economic theories of








institutionalism proposes a game-theoretic model of explanation that does not limit the
category of individual preferences to self-interest, but expands it to include normative role
expectations as well as agent identity (Scharpf 1997, 60-66). Its explanatory power stands
beyond doubt in the sphere of policy analysis, yet an important limitation reveals itself from a

As explained above, this does not mean that the discourse theory of the democratic constitutional state cannot play a role
in social critiquequite the contrary. But what is crucial for me here is to emphasize the sociological-explanatory claim,
which remains mostly unappreciated in the way Habermass theory has been received. See, e.g., Forst (2012a), Gutmann and
Thompson (2001), Rehg and Bohman (2002), Schmalz-Bruns (1995).

discourse-theoretic perspective. On the one hand, actor-centered institutionalism concludes

from this expanded spectrum of rationality that, in political action, individual preferences
cannot be taken as given. Instead, the contents of the preference orders of participants are
each to be determined empirically, on a case-specific basis, before a policy can be explained
as the result of strategically interdependent action of participants. On the other hand, this
openness is limited by the supposition that one particular aspect of the actors preference
orders is normally dominant: both self-interest and normative constraints in political action
are shaped by the rules of the relevant institutional and organizational context in which the
agents act (Scharpf 1997, 38-43).
In doing so, actor-centered institutionalism adheres to a second premise that is
eschewed by discourse theory: the supposition that the rationality of empirical political
practices can be theoretically predetermined. Two considerations speak against this
supposition. First, empirical studies of deliberative-democratic theory suggest that individual
preferences do not remain constant in the course of political interaction; rather, they are
accompanied by (in part institutionally-conditioned) processes of communicative
understanding that alter political preferences in various ways (Landwehr 2009). Second,
political institutions are living institutions that themselves stand in a peculiar relation of
tension between change and continuity (Olsen 2010). They thus influence the normative
structuring of interaction contexts, but at the same time they are themselves subject to
continuing processes of transformation. Relations of political order are likewise seized by the
dynamic that Dewey identifies as the continuous reconstruction of human experience.
Viewed in this light, actor-centered institutionalism looks at political practices under quite
specific contextual conditionsi.e., in the context of a stable political order. In contrast,
elucidating political interaction in unconsolidated political orders (for example in the context
of the European Union) requires an open analysis that can embrace the respective empirical
interaction in a context-sensitive way. Here, for instance, we must proceed from the
possibility that political actors perceive the institutional context to be itself situated in
transformation, and that their actions are simultaneously oriented by the present political
order and directed toward the active transformation of it.
Habermass concept of rational reconstruction is here more open as a model of socialscientific explanation, since it puts the situatedness of political interaction in the foreground.
Understanding the rationality of an interaction thus requires a reconstructive procedure, since
the reasons for the observed actions can only be ascertained in light of interpretations of the
situation that each participant carries out more or less tacitly within their empirical action-

context. Now, there are two considerations that must be kept in mind with regard to the
theoretical reconstruction of situation-interpretations in politics. First, Habermas points out
that, in political practices, there is a third level of rationality at work alongside self-interest
and institutional orderswhat we could identify as the background of cognitive and moral
convictions shared by society or even as societal consciousness (cf. Peters 1996, 107). This
level is of particular importance in the context of unsettled political orders or in explaining
the emergence of political orders. Political orders are embedded in underlying narrative
frames of plausibility (Eder 2009, 70) insofar as their long-term stability depends on
whether or not they are consistent with essential convictions of societal consciousness.
Second, it must be borne in mind that, given the ever-present potential for new kinds of
action situations in political practice, the interaction of these three dimensions of rationality
must be considered normal. This does not contradict the way actor-centered institutionalism
typically considers one aspect of rationality to be pivotal to the situational interpretations of
political actors, so long as we keep in view the relevant contextual conditions under which
these assumptions are justified. But this premise of actor-centered institutionalism does not
affect the discourse-theoretic assumption that a political-scientific explanation ultimately
assumes the form of a rational reconstruction. The issue is always to explore in which
proportion the various aspects of rationality have conditioned the situational interpretations of
participants in a given case, in order to be able to comprehend on this basis the meaning of
the interaction that was carried out. In light of this exposition on the concept of rational
reconstruction, we can now trace the sociological-explanatory claim attached to the discourse
theory of the democratic constitutional state.

4.2. The Core of the Discourse Theory of the Democratic Constitutional State: The
Rational Reconstruction of Democratic Constitution-Making
It is well known that in the center of Habermass theory of the democratic
constitutional state stands a thought experiment that can, on the surface, be easily mistaken
for having the theoretical status of a state of nature or primitive condition that we find in
social contract theory. However, Habermass concern here is not simply to claim a means of
representing a philosophical construction, but to proffer a rational reconstruction of a
particular historical interaction situation: the constitutional conventions of Paris and
Philadelphia, by which the world-historically new political praxis of modern democracy
came to be established (Habermas 2006). Habermas wants to explain why the organizational

form of the democratic constitutional state could appear, from the viewpoint of those
involved in these events, as a rational answer to a specific problem-constellation. Two
empirical hypotheses are connected with this reconstruction in the context of Habermass
theory. First, it forms the most recent link in a theory of social evolution that describes the
sequence of historical shifts in worldviews as a process of rationalization. Second, Habermas
is calling for an investigation (on the basis of this theory of social evolution) of the normative
claim [Geltungssinn] that is embodied in the order of the democratic constitutional state.
Since the problem of order -- to which the democratic constitutional state is a response -- has
not fundamentally changed for Western societies, this normative claim continues to orient
political practice through the present day.21
The essential difference between Habermass thought experiment and philosophical
primitive-condition constructions is that the former must start out from the historical
conditions existing in a given time period. Habermas assumes that the situation-interpretation
of participants is shaped by a particular political constellation as well as an altered moralpractical and epistemic worldview. After breaking away from the old ruling orders sacral
modes of legitimation, participants at the end of the eighteenth century put upon themselves
the task of providing a new basis of legitimation on which to sustain public order. Like actorcentered institutionalism, Habermas supposes a particular aspect of rationality to be decisive
in this political contextnamely, an increasingly reflexive societal consciousness. In light of
this consciousness, the overcoming of problems associated with the founding of a new
political order appears to them, beyond their relevant cultural-historical circumstances, to
be dependent on three conditions. First, the participants know that there exists no functional
equivalent to the ordering power of the medium of positive law. Once individuals are grasped
as autonomous and unconstrained agents, state-sanctioned law alone makes possible a
scheme that is effective across interactions and can thus cover the regulatory needs of
increasingly complex societies, on the one hand, while safeguarding societally-shared moral
norms, on the other. Second, participants are able to guide themselves by the two ideas of
justice that form the pillars of a secularized moral-practical consciousness: the principles of
self-determination and self-realization. The political order to be established must harmonize
with the moral principles of universal justice and solidarity[and] with the ethical principles
of a consciously projected life conduct for which the subjects themselves, at both the
In my view, Habermass recent reflections on a multi-leveled world polity (Habermas 2006) as well as on the European
Union (Habermas 2012) primarily discusses in what way the same problem-constellation holds valid under different
historical-political conditions. I cannot delve further into this here, however.

individual and collective levels, take responsibility (Habermas 1996, 99). Finally, the
participants have a historical (and fallibilistic) sense at their disposalthat is, they know that
a decision judged as rational today can prove insufficient in light of future developments.
Under these circumstances, it makes sense from the perspective of participants to opt for the
order of the democratic constitutional state. The democratic constitutional state makes
possible the effective, coercively backed legal regulation of societal relationships; it realizes
within democratic law-making the principles of equal rights and collective selfdetermination; and it also institutionalizes via democratic law-making procedures a societal
learning process wherein previously struck rulings remain open to revision (cf. also Peters
1996, 110-111). In Deweys sense, one could say the democratic constitutional state, under
the requirements of justice, embodies the institutionally perpetuated reconstruction of
experience of a political community.
Habermas argues that one can understand the union of law, state, and democracy that
is common to Western democracies as a rational response to the fundamental problem of
generating order under the conditions of a modern, increasingly reflexive societal
consciousness. The order of the democratic constitutional state subjects the collective
management of political conflicts to the demands of collective moral, ethical, as well as
epistemic reflection equallyeven if it cannot always resolve the tensions that persistently
arise between them in individual cases.

4.3 Applying Rational Reconstruction in Empirical Political Analysis: Legitimacy


I will close by illustrating how rational reconstruction might be applied to the analysis
of legitimation in the European Union (EU). As noted above, rational reconstruction is
especially needed when the institutionally regulated context of political action is precarious.
In these circumstances, the significance of processes of justification, as a constructivist
element of politics, increases accordingly. The weaker the social validity of a political order,
the stronger the demand for legitimating activity that would designate political action
especially that of elitesas being consistent with standing cognitive convictions and values
shared by society as well as continuing a common history. In the context of the EU, this
demand is felt more acutely than in the framework of national politics. Thus we can examine
the dynamics of the formation and transformation of the European political order on the basis
of how far public legitimation practices have gone to establish and transform a political

narrative of justification that can fulfill a legitimating function (Eder 2011; Forst and Gnther
Empirical research on legitimacy has recently witnessed a communicative turn
(Schneider et al. 2007). Turning away from the tradition of assessing individual beliefs
through survey data, this research assumes that legitimacy should not be understood as a
stable condition but as a snapshot of ongoing processes of legitimation and delegitimation in
society (Bourricaud 1987). Accordingly, it concentrates on the analysis of public political
communication. Thus, on the one hand, public evaluative speech acts are quantitatively
compiled and categorized by justification type (Nullmeier et al 2010). On the other hand,
studies examine political documents using theoretically predetermined indicators in order to
assess the dissemination of polity ideas (Diez 2001; Jachenfuchs et al 1998) or legitimation
narratives in European politics (Della Sala 2010; Wiener and Hansen-Magnusson 2010).
These approaches rightly channel attention to the relevance of political
communication; however, they still remain, in virtue of their focus on the level of contents of
legitimation, rather ill-suited for the specifically political dimension that inheres at the
pragmatic level of processes of justification. Alternatively, the literature on framing
processes in European politics emphasizes the performative effects of political
communication (Daviter 2007; Rhinard 2010). Here the intended purpose of communication
is grasped as a political act that actors employ to procure validity for their interests in the
political process. Framing is defined as a political actors attempt to bring about a
particular policy by means of strategically asserting diagnoses of crises or problems and
proposing accompanying solutions (Rein and Schn 1996). In successful framing, the actors,
making reference to higher level values and norms (i.e., higher frames in the sense of
Goffman 1974), strategically establish that the problem diagnoses and proposed solutions are
necessary and justified, with the goal of prestructuring future political debates in a way
suitable to their own interests.
While research on acts of legitimation thus considers processes of justification
separate from interest politics, in framing analysis they come into view solely as components
of an (also) communicatively regulated pursuit of self-interest on the part of political actors.
In contrast, a reconstructive approach must assume that both perspectives can be integrated
within the hermeneutic analysis of political practice. It then depends on whether the
elucidation of political practices is open to appreciating dynamic, context-dependent
relationships between various aspects of rationality. This presupposes, among other things,
that legitimation practices be understood as situationally-bound justifications in connection

with the pursuit of political interests. Put differently, the strategic formulation of a policy
aims indeed to frame future interaction. But this always also takes place against the
normative background of an accepted, higher-order frame that influences the successconditions of strategic framing. Since elites must weigh this normative constellation in the
context of interest politics, legitimation practices can be grasped in terms of politics of
legitimation (Reus-Smit 2007, 159-60). In the context of an ever-transforming EU, this









[Legitimationskonkurrenz] (see Mllers 2005): the legitimation practices of a given actor

(e.g., the European Commission), while aimed at justifying its own individual actions, on one
hand, and the legitimacy of the EU as a whole, on the other, appear also to be aimed at
rearranging the institutional framework of the EU. In light of this legitimation dilemma
(Gaus and Schmidtke 2013), rational reconstruction is required in every case in which we
want to analyze the extent to which the concrete justification practices of European political
actors signal, respectively, the strategic pursuit of self-interests, the anticipation of valid
social background norms and convictions, and the institutional prescription of rules (or a shift
in their importance).

5. Conclusion

With the preceding reflections of the concept of reconstruction, I hope to have

achieved two things. The first is to draw attention to the long underappreciated importance of
Habermass discourse theory for political science. Habermass concept of reconstruction is
not only relevant in connection with a critical theory of justice or in the context of normative
political theory. If we take a step back and look at the logical connections that run through
the background of his diverse body of work, his concept of reconstruction also reveals itself
to be relevant in the context of a general theory of politics and its analytical methods.
Habermass program for a reconstructive sociology of democracy identifies, in the current
landscape of political science methodology, the need and the potential for a hermeneutic
approach to the empirical reconstruction of political praxis. Hence, this is not a proposal for a
reinterpretation of discourse theory that eschews normative political theory in favor of an
empirically-oriented theory or politics. Such a reinterpretation would be hardly justified
anyway, as Habermass work evinces an occasional ambivalence between a theoreticalreconstructive mode of argumentation and a normative-practically oriented mode of
philosophical construction. My second concern in the foregoing discussion has been to show

how this oscillation can be understood not as imprecision but rather as the manifestation of a
scholarly perspective that is symptomatic for the way political theory functions as a
subdiscipline. Habermas carries on a central idea of Deweys philosophythe consciousness
of world-disclosing praxis as the ongoing reconstruction of human experienceto the extent
that he thinks through its implications both for normative-critical contemplation as well as for
the empirical analysis of political practice. In this sense, Habermass theory can be viewed as
an exemplar of political theorys function as a bridge between political science and
philosophy. Its mediating power consists in its versatile ability to insert a genuinely
philosophical idea like a detonator into a particular context of research (Habermas 1990a,


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