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Pi Gamma Mu, International Honor Society in Social Sciences

Enlightenment, Counter-Enlightenment, and Beyond

Author(s): Thomas G. Walsh
Source: International Social Science Review, Vol. 68, No. 2 (SPRING 1993), pp. 60-71
Published by: Pi Gamma Mu, International Honor Society in Social Sciences
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Enlightenment, Counter-Enlightenment,
and Beyond
Thomas G. Walsh
4 West 43rd Street
New York, New York 10036

Hie Enlightenment is considered in the context of modernity in general,

for in many ways modernization has been a child of the Enlightenment, while
countermodernization and counter- Westernization have been progeny of
the counter-Enlightenment Analysis is made of the thought of Jürgen
Habermas, who has attempted to wrest the Enlightenment from the gallows
created by counter-Enlightenment advocates bolstered by the bankruptcy
of the Enlightenment's products: Marxist totalitarianism; liberal democra-
cies wallowing in corruption, despair, greed, and decay; science's techno-
logical mastery and concommitant subversion of our environment; the
demise of religion; and die radical meaning deficit that leaves empty the
vision and hearts of modern men and women. Habermas seeks to prevent
the baby of reason from being thrown out with the bathwaters mentioned
just above, for, after all, the legacy of the counter-Enlightenment has been
equally ugly, e.g., religious wars, cultural imperialism, tribalism, racism,
narrow fundamentalism, fascism, moral relativism, and authoritarianism.
Habermas's Enlightenment outlook, however, also stands in need of correc-

Born in 1949, in Louisville, Kentucky, Dr. Thomas Walsh has a BA. in

English literature from Western Kentucky University and both the MA
and Ph.D. in theological ethics from Vanderbilt University. He has taught
in both religious studies and philosophy departments with a specialization
in ethics. Currently, he teaches in an adjunct position in philosophy at the
College of Mount Saint Vincent's in Riverdale, New York. Since 1987, Dr.
Walsh has served as the executive director of the International Religions
Foundation, a nonprofit institution dedicated to interreligious harmony and
cooperation, located in New York. Professor Walsh has published several
articles on ethics and social theory in scholarly journals and books.

Debates concerning the Enlightenment are both epistemological and m
having to do with contrasting perspectives on what constitutes valid kn
and a good society. From a theological or religious point of view, th


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concerns the epistemological status of sacred

religious traditions and practices. The crux of the
Enlightenment dispute has to do with divergin
conditions under which reason best operates. T
under conditions of detachment, autonomy, and
mystery, emotion, authority, etc.? Or is the rev
analysis of the great civilizational shift represen
cluded that the emergence of a particular kind o
arose from the experiential soil of Calvinism
According to this view, rationality, initially in th
world, divorced itself from traditional value fac
Enlightenment is associated with scientific me
that grounds itself in the suspension of belief and
openness. In theory at least, the scientific comm
and unresponsive to previously held and cherish
science, we know, required a suspension of bel
Aristotelean physics and Cardinal Bellarmine
moralist, Jeremy Bentham, sought to apply a
establishing his utilitarian ethics, utterly indepe
In Kant's analysis, Enlightenment refers to
come to adulthood. The counter-Enlightenm
maintained that enlightened thinkers were pr
and were rather adolescents uprooting them
energies which gave rise to their hopes for kn
without which those hopes could never be ful
kill the geese that lay the golden eggs? C
harmed; but it is also true that the geese stoo
In what follows, I consider the Enlightenment
in general, for in many ways modernizat
Enlightenment, while countermodernization a
been progeny of the counter-Enlightenme
Enlightenment by appeal to the thoughts o
attempted to wrest the Enlightenment from t
Enlightenment advocates bolstered by the ban
products: Marxist totalitarianism; liberal dem
tion, despair, greed, and decay; science's
comcommitant subversion of our environmen
the radical meaning deficit that leaves empty th
men and women. It is not that Habermas want
Enlightenment, but he seeks to prevent the baby
out with the bathwaters mentioned just abov
that, despite Enlightenment excesses, the lega
ment has been equally ugly, e.g., religious

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tribalism, racism, narrow fundamentalism, fas

authoritarianism, etc. Habermas' s position, how
criticism, if we are to formulate a perspective that
enment-counter-Enlightenment quarrel.


In large part, the thrust of the work of Jürgen Habermas represents an
attempt to overcome the reduction of practical reason to a form of technical
reason. Reason, reduced to its role in technical employment, represents for
him "the repression of ethics as such as a category of life."1 Habermas thus
seeks to integrate the rational and the ethical, the theoretical and the critical;
hence, critical theory. Critical theory, as associated with the Frankfurt
School, emerged as the attempt to secure a theoretical foundation for
emancipatory interests. In this way, political and social existence might be
spared the domination of technocratic manipulation. The uniqueness of
Habermas's contribution to the Frankfurt School's efforts to resist the
reification of modern consciousness stands on the promise of his linguistic
turn, i.e., Habermas's effort to reconstruct historical materialism in accor-
dance with the theory of the universal features of discourse. As such, critical
theory is to be secured by means of a theory of discourse, rather than through
a theory of rationality. For Habermas, "the truth of statements is based on
anticipating the realization of the good life."2
Communication ethics represents, for Habermas, the fulfillment of the En-
lightenment project, as well as modernity itself, through the institutionalization of
practical discourse and the elimination of systematically distorted communication.
In an address he delivered at Frankfurt University in 1965, Habermas states his
thesis that normative communicative ideals are constitutive of language: 'The
human interest in autonomy and responsibility is not mere fancy, for it can be
apprehended a priori. What raises us out of nature is the only thing whose nature
we can know: language. Through its structure, autonomy and responsibility are
posited for us. Our first sentence expresses unequivocally the intention of universal
and unconstrained consensus."3
The institutionalization of discourse as a form of life entails conditions of
symmetry, reciprocity, and noncoercion; a speaking arena entirely free from the
constraints of any form of domination, be it economic, military, ideological (in the
Marxian sense), or psychological (in the Freudian sense). In this way, discourse
entails autonomy, or, as Kant referred to it , Mündigkeit. Habermas's Enlighten-
ment quest calls for a type of critical reflection that departs significantly, though
not entirely, from the classical notion of practical reason in Aristotle: phronesis.


Habermas's general estimation of the Enlightenment, and of modernit
general, departs significantly from the pessimism that characterize

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views of Max Weber. Habermas's enthusias

his Marxian rejection of Weber's desponde
forms the basis of his departure, not only
Frankfurt School thinkers, but also from a
neoconservative, and "young conservative"
While it may be said that Marx's analysis of
starting point for a critical theory of soci
evidences the fact that it is Weber, more than
to establish a theoretical foundation for critic
to Habermas of the primacy of rationality as
development of a sociology of modernity.
chantment) thesis holds that modernity is ch
reason to purposive rationality ( Zweckration
cratization of the life world and to the loss o
understood the inexorable process of rational
rationalization represented a form of emanci
domination. This "paradox of rationaliza
Schuluchter 's term,4 leads to the creation of an
ists without spirit, sensualists without heart,
bureaucratic efficiency . 5
Weber's "pessimistic appraisal of scientific c
the way of hope or guidance beyond this imp
Weberian legacy and its more dialectical, ambi
processes, by appeal to a developmental or n
history.7 Weber, according to Habermas, er
monologically conceived model of action," an
"precommunicative" theory of meaning. Web
society only in terms of a purposive ration
destructive of traditional society. He failed t
potential for discursive reason. Weber under
but failed, due to his neo-Kantian preoccup
consciousness, to grasp it as a "primitive term
Habermas's monumental project stands as an
of developing a rational foundation for critic
accomplish this task, Habermas must succe
character of modernity and its pathologies. H
Frankfurt School thinkers, who in many respect
their failure to assess adequately either the p
modernity. The problematic, according to Hab
refers to as "the colonization of the life world
with the discursive rationalization of the life world.
For Habermas, the fulfillment of modernity as a project - and, by the
same token, the ability to stave off any conservative or postmodern back-

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lash - involves the ability to institutionalize a t

organization" ( Organizationprinzip ). In archaic so
served as a primary Organizationprinzip. Traditio
by class domination in political form. In a liber
principle of organization is the relationship of
Habermas, of course, calls for a new principle of
which is not prey to a variety of legitimation, rat
crises. This is communication ethics. He says, "on
guarantees the generality of admissible norms an
subjects solely through the discursive redeemabil
with which norms appear."9 Only a communicative
guarantees autonomy and universality.
System and life world are to be decoupled. Most
system integration and survival should not run rough
Habermas says, "The concept of society has to be l
life world that is complementary to the concept
Then communicative action becomes interesting p
sociation ( Vergesellschaftung ): Communicative
dium for the reproduction of life worlds."10 Wit
oriented to achieving success - speech is perloc
while in the rationalized life world, action is oriented
ing. Pathologies emerge when these two are confu
The problematic of modernity, for Habermas
autonomy of instrumental reason or the autonom
certainly not from the emergence of universalist
problem is the "colonization of the life world." Th
being delinguistified, and governed by media appr
nance. Quoting Habermas, "The encroachment of f
administrative rationality into life-spheres that in
logic of moral-practical and aesthetic-practical rati
colonization of the life world. By this I mean
expressive and communicative possibilities which, a
necessary even in complex societies. These are the
individuals to find themselves, to deal with their p
solve their common problems communally by
To avoid colonization, Habermas calls for the ra
world in accordance with communicative rationalit
respects to the institutionalization of discourse as
for the life world. Habermas fears the increasin
monetarization of the life world. Yet, he sees
emerging at the seams of the system-life world bo
regions, there emerge new grammars of variant form

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the conventional forms of life. What began r

and universalistic morality emerges more sig
uncoupling life worlds from system imper
suggests that "fundamental convictions of co
perimental complexes of countercultures" a
tional models of social integration.12 That
developments on the horizon which attest to
world from the encroaching force of the cyb
ments are embodied in social movements su
ethics (the autonomization of morals) and avan
of art).
In setting up this framework for the analysis of modernity, Habermas
departs sharply from the critics of "aesthetic modernism," i.e., the
neoconservatives such as Daniel Bell who, in Habermas's estimation, fail to
recognize the unique pathology of modernity. Bell locates the problem of
modernity not with the imperialism of systems of money and power, but
within the "autonomous tendencies of Western culture." Bell speaks of "the
Great Profanation" as follows: "The interrelatedness (but not integration) of
these three we call modernity - the turning away from the authority of the
past, the shrinking of the realm of the sacred, and the Faustian quest for total
knowledge which sets man spinning into the vortex of the wissendrang, from
which there is no surcease." 13 Bell eschews the advance of esthetic
modernism, the "democratization of Dionysus in the acting out of one's
Habermas contends that Bell and other neoconservatives have missed
the mark in focusing on cultural factors to the neglect of system factors which
are destructive of the life world. Habermas says, "I do not want to be
misunderstood: the nonrenewable resources of our natural environment and
the symbolic structures of our life world - both the historically developed
and the specifically modern life forms - need protection. But they can be
protected only if we know what is threatening the life world. The
neoconservatives confuse cause and effect. In the face of the economic and
administrative imperatives...they focus on the specter of an expansive and
subversive culture."15
Habermas charges neoconservatives with being all too affirmative of
social modernity, while attributing the problems of modernity to an adversarial
culture, particularly esthetic modernism. He describes the neoconservative
line of argument as one which holds "that the bohemian life styles with their
hedonistic and unlimitedly subjective value orientations are spreading and
eroding the discipline of bourgeois everyday life." Habermas suggests that
neoconservatives are seeking "the safe shores of posthistory,
postenlightenment, and postmodernism." In interpreting the pathology of
modernity as essentially a "spiritual-moral crisis," effect is confused with

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cause. Their postenlightenment thesis cum a r

rollback on the advances which Habermas attr
particularly the emergence of universalistic m
says that "a universalistic morality naturally r
subjects political action to moral scrutiny. In co
desire to minimize the burden of moral just
political system." Habermas wishes to protect
abandoning the Enlightenment project. In neoco
"rejection of cultural modernity and the admira
tion will corroborate a general antimodernism
with the bathwater."16
Habermas seeks to uncover the reason that is embedded within a
particular practice of social reproduction, namely, communication, just as
Marx had sought to explain reason in terms of the concrete practice of labor.
Habermas sees the attempt to develop a notion of reason and critique based
on the practice of labor as fruitless. The alienation that characterizes modern
society is not attributable essentially to the division of labor, but rather
derives from the fact that the communicative function of the life world has
been subverted, i.e., reifîcation occurs because social integration is domi-
nated by mechanisms for system integration.17 His effort to reveal the
fundamental problematic of modernity in terms of communicative action
represents an attempt to salvage the Enlightenment project and its critical
and emancipatory thrust without giving in to either positivist theories of
rationality or to a regressive recovery of undifferentiated traditional society.
Habermas envisions the discursive rationalization of the life world as the
legacy of the Enlightenment tradition, and he fears the rollback of
neoconservatism. Only occasionally does Habermas indicate a sensitivity to
the concerns of post-Enlightenment thinkers as the following passage
suggests: "The achievement of cultural modernity consists in detaching the
formal structures of reason from the semantic contents of traditional world-
interpretation, that is, in letting reason come apart into its different moments.
The reverse side of this rendering autonomous of science, morality, and art is,
however, a splitting off from the streams of tradition that nourish the processes
of reaching understanding in everyday life."18
In seeking to graft systems theory with action theory, labor with interac-
tion, and life world community with modern rationality, Habermas is most
ambitious. That is, he seeks, with the theory of communication, to integrate
universalism and particularism, or criticism and traditionalism, i.e., the life
world can be rationalized discursively, without interference from adminis-
trative and economic forms of domination. He asks how the abstract,
universal, and "independent logic of moral-practical rationality" can be
mediated with "the context-boundedness of the faculty of moral judgment."19
The problem which he faces is that of mediating between the abstract and the

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concrete. While the abstract notion of practi

deontological critical principle in relation to
stract reason cannot itself form the basis of
does not serve to ground, generate, or reprod


Habermas is loyal to Kantian and neo-Marxian perspectives wh
to establish an intersubjectively valid foundation for critical and
democratic ideals. As such, he affirms a universalist morality as a fulf
of the Enlightenment's promise, in opposition to what is perc
counter-Enlightenment and postmodernist alliance. Habermas's ef
carry on the Enlightenment partiality for rationality thus repre
loyalty to modernity as a not yet fully ripened developmental st
with being undermined by the conservative and irrationalist tend
By his own definition, "the project of modernity formulated in
century by the philosophers of the Enlightenment consisted in the
to develop objective science, universal morality and law, and auto
art, according to their inner logic."20 While Habermas holds no un
commitments to the direction which "objective science" and "auto
art" have taken - toward positivism, on the one hand, and toward s
and avant-gardism on the other hand - he remains firmly committ
ideals of universal morality and law. However, insofar as attempts
to deconstruct the achievements of universalist morality and law,
rejects the "false programs" advocated by, in his words, "young c
tives," "old conservatives," neo-Aristoteleans, and neoconservatives
conservatives" - a term applied to French thinkers such as Bataill
cault, and Derrida - aré charged with espousing an irrationalist
modernism which is essentially antimodernism, i.e., they take
modernism and turn it into antimodernism. The "old conservativ
Habermas has in mind particularly neo-Aristoteleans such as Leo S
and Hans Jonas, are viewed as advocates of a recovery of the subs
reason of premodernity. One might also infer that a similar assessment
be made of thinkers such as Alan Bloom or Alexander Solzhe
Neoconservatives, finally, attack cultural modernism and univers
rality, while at the same time holding fast to the ideals of societal
ization, e.g., capitalism. Habermas concludes, "I fear that the ideas
modernity, together with an additional touch of premodernity, are bec
popular in the circles of alternative culture. When one obser
transformations of consciousness within political parties in German
ideological shift ( Tendenzwende ) becomes visible. And this is the
of postmodernists with premodernists."21
Habermas fears a Zeitgeist evidenced in the rise of neoconservati

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reject cultural modernism - as a form of esthetic t

the fabric of order and meaning - and yet accept
and its own social externalities, including the colo
the same time, he fears antimodernists and posts
capitalism and revel in an irrationalist cultural m
deconstruct universalist morality and law, as do postm
This creates "an unfortunate convergence (of postm
with the anti-modernist critique of growth." Hab
this is not leading to an ironic division of labor:
conservatives who want to give their functionalis
twist and young conservatives who combine their awa
of contemporary history, their important and cou
ened life-forms, and their exploration of new one
of post-structuralist renunciation of reason itself."22
Inotherwords, Habermas believes the growth-cri
tend to turn their criticisms into a complete renun
ment, espousing, in turn, a form of ethical relativi
geneity. Habermas, on the other hand, seeks to differ
esthetics, such that a critique of post-Enlightenm
(positivism) does not entail a rejection of either E
practical reason or esthetic modernism. He seeks
the context of the welfare state, between the moneta
and the life world, with the life world being characte
for both a consensus theory of truth and ethics, a
Habermas is certainly neither alone nor wholly unw
rising tide of conservatism that characterizes the c
Islamic worlds. Fundamentalism under Khomeni, Kaha
is always dangerous. Habermas, himself raised at the t
recalls the rise of Nazism as a kind of countermodernis
extreme honor of Nazism aside, along with certain form
talism, the disaffection with modernity is itself not w
solutions proposed are inadequate and at times excessiv
ment tradition is not something simply for liberal dem
face with fear and loathing. For anyone seriously c
completion of an Enlightenment project, as Habermas
Enlightenment must be taken with extreme seriousne
educator. In particular, those willing to weather out m
counter-Enlightenment's sensitivity to what Joel Whit
ing deficit" which Enlightenment emancipation fosters.
produces emancipation, even justice, but begs the q
In addition, Habermas 's own sociology of myth and religion betrays his
condescension toward the import of religious meaning systems or sacred

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symbolic forms. Habermas, like Hegel, seeks

the devastated power of religion in the med
son."23 He holds that the development of re
universal learning process. He sees "modern
grounded on the devaluation and "dissoluti
figures of thought."24 This position see
Rasmussen even admits that "Habermas appa
that peculiar position where he must appeal
discredited in order to make his case. Hence, h
the myth-modernity distinction." Rasmussen
from Ferdinand Saussure to Wittgenstein to
myth-modernity distinction dangling in the w
Habermas affirms postmodernism insofa
critical critique of capitalist modernization
postmodernism on the grounds that the mon
threatens the existence of the life world. Tha
maintenance undermine communicative action
of the life world occurs. This represents the
modernity, which can only be discerned
analysis, i.e., a critical social analysis governe
speech itself.
For similar reasons, Habermas, unlike neoc
Gehlen, does not view the excesses of estheti
pathological context of modernity. Habermas
disciplining of aesthetic modernity assumed
Baudelaire" and developed in a number of avan
larly the Cafe Voltaire of the Dadaists, and Su
"productivity and the liberating force of a
subjectivity set free from the imperatives of pu
conventions of everyday perception. Containe
art, in the discourses of art criticism, and in th
of values, such aesthetic experiences do have
effect or at least provide an instructive contrast
While critical of neoconservative affirmatio
with the popularity of Reagan, Kohl, and Th
ideal which rolls back from the welfare stat
guardedly appreciative of the achievements of
fully affirms what may be referred to as the
as the universalist foundations of law and
embodied in "the institutions of constitut
democratic decision-making, and in individualist
tion."28 It is apparent that Habermas seeks to
alienating effects of economic modernization

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political ideals or the " epater les bourge

anticybernetic thrust in esthetic modernism.
He is permitted this selective treatment of scien
features of modernization by appeal to a Kantia
differentiation of the realms of science, eth
operates in accord with its own inner logic. Eac
truth, justice, and taste, respectively - carries
abuses, e.g., objectivism, moralism, and est
underscores the dangers of objectivism and the
little to fear in the universalization of law and

There is a tragic dimension to, not only the pursuit of tribal purity, b
to the pursuit of nonparochial universalism. The strength of the Kan
neo-Marxian perspectives, for example, has created a social context
fosters a marginalization of traditional communities and their accom
values and virtues. Efforts to recover the kinds of community forms wh
certain traditional values and virtues may thrive may indeed in certa
be merely a mask for regressively conservative countermodernist m
ments. For example, one could view those religious movements
express strong disaffection with public education as part and parce
conservative recovery of racism, sectarianism, and fideistic fundam
ism. At the same time, the warrant for such measures is founded, n
in the propensity for the establishment of racist, self-affirming commu
but also in a human quest for a linking of substantive values and ordinar
For cultural conservatives, the "meaning deficit" that emerges under the
conditions of public discourse and intersubjective validity is untenably hi
There is peril in both an Enlightenment and a counter-Enlightenment c
and this can be historically verified. What is in order is to move beyond th
perils. However, moving beyond this dichotomy is not simply an acad
intellectual enterprise. For whatever the "beyond" turns out to be often
its energy and substance from a source which is not transparent in any im
way to reason. Thus, reason may not be the prophet of whatever civilization
we are currently going through or which awaits us after this time of purg
Reason may analyze what happened. Civilization has its roots in many lay
soil, only some of which are intellectual or rational. Civilization's deepest
are in cult and culture, conditions of trust and mistrust, fellow-feel
strangeness. To discover a new global civilization characterized by p
we must tap resources which provide the ground for culture, trust
fellow-feeling. In order to do this, neither the counter-Enlightenment no
Enlightenment should run roughshod over the other. The quest for m
and value is as humanly urgent as is the quest for equality and justi
wars can be fought as viciously over either.

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1 Jürgen Habermas, Toward a Rational Society, Boston: Beacon Pr
1970, p. 112.
2 Idem , Knowledge and Human Interests, Boston: Beacon Press, 1968, p.
3 Ibid.
4 Wolfgang Schluchter, Max Weber 's Vision of History: Ethics and Methods,
Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979, pp. 11-64.
5 Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, New York:
Scribner, 1958, p. 182.
6 Jürgen Habermas, The Theory of Communicative Action: Reason and the
Rationalization of Society, Boston: Beacon Press, 1984, p. 155.
7 J. Hall, "Gelmer and Habermas on Epistemology and Politics or Need We
Feel Disenchanted?," Philosophy of Social Science, December 1982, pp.
8 Habermas, op. cit., pp. 280, 339.
9 Ibid., p. 89.
10 Ibid., p. 337.
11 Idem, Observations on the Spiritual Situation of the Age, Cambridge: MIT
Press, 1985, p. 20.
12 Idem, Legitimation Crisis, Boston: Beacon Press, 1969, p. 90.
13 Daniel Bell, The Winding Passage, Cambridge: ABT Books, 1980, p. 335.
14 Ibid., p. 336.
15 Jürgen Habermas, "Neoconservative Culture Criticism in the United States
and West Germany," Telos, Summer 1983, p. 88.
16 Ibid., pp. 79-89.
17 Ibid., p. 226.
18 Ibid., p. 251.
19 Ibid.
20 Idem, "Modernity Versus Postmodernity, New German Critique, Winter
1981, p. 9.
21 Ibid., p. 14.
22 Idem, "The Dialectics of Rationalization, Telos, Fall 1981, p. 15.
23 Idem, Paris Lectures, taken from Richard Rorty, "Habermas and Lyotard on
Post-modernity," Praxis International, April 1984, p. 37.
24 Habermas, The Theory of Communicative Action, op. cit., p. 68.
25 David Rasumssen, "Communicative Action and Philosophy," Philosophy
and Social Criticism, Spring 1982, p. 19.
26 Habermas, "Modernity Versus Postmodernity," op. cit., p. 4.
21 Idem, "The Entwinement of Myth and Enlightenment, New German
Critique, Spring 1982, p. 18.
28 Ibid.

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