Bringing ideas to life

What theories can accomplish – and what they can’t

Published in Frankfurt School, Habermas/Parsons, Latest Posts, Method by Mark Murphy on November 4, 2015

image by thierry ehrmann

image by thierry ehrmann

This is the title of a chapter in a book called Jürgen Habermas: The past as future, most of which is devoted to detailing an extended interview with Habermas conducted by Michael Haller. This book is a nice way in for people who are looking for an accessible summary of Habermas’ ideas, delivered by the man himself in interview mode. It also reveals a somewhat tetchy side to the man, one who clearly reads his own press and is frustrated by what he considers over-simplified conceptions of his work.

On pages 99-100 he replies to the following question about the relevance of theory in an age of weariness (note the book was originally published in 1990 but whether or not there was more theory weariness then or now is hard to tell):

Q: Could the weariness with theory trace itself back to the simple fact that people are looking for a way out of panicked anxiety in the face of industrial society’s impending annihilation of the very natural foundations of human existence?

A rather overwrought question, to which Habermas replies:

A: That’s a lot of questions at once. The first key term was the ‘weariness of theory’ of young people, I don’t quite know how you’ve arrived at this diagnosis. For years my books have sold evenly, whether well or poorly. I enjoy my students; they are committed, reasonably well read, and eager for discussion.

He continues …

Of course compared with sociology, much more expectations are brought into contemporary philosophy. Young people today expect something more from philosophy, and they’re naturally disappointed when their studies don’t teach them how to solve the problems of their own lives – in Frankfurt, at any rate, nobody claims to be able to tell them.  Like sociology, philosophy is only a science, and it follows the dynamic of its own problems – so we flatter ourselves, at any rate. To get anything out of theoretical work, you have to follow it for its own sake. There’s a kind of therapeutic frustration that goes along with this.  … . It isn’t the denial of theory as such, but rather the appeal, that grants a particular reception to a given theory at a particular moment, that is related to the mood of the times … In any case, it’s good not to expect any more or anything different from theories than what they can achieve – and that’s little enough.

Later on, on page 116, he suggest that the best social theories can do is

make us more sensitive to the ambivalences of development: they can contribute to our ability to understand the coming uncertainties as so many calls for increased responsibility within a shrinking field of action.

This is arguably a much more modest account of theory and its uses than you might expect from Habermas (well, depending on who you read) – see also his fairly self-effacing remarks about his own grand theorising (or not) on pages 113-114.


Mark MurphyMark Murphy is a Reader in Education and Public Policy at the University of Glasgow. He previously worked as an academic at King’s College, London, University of Chester, University of Stirling, National University of Ireland, Maynooth, University College Dublin and Northern Illinois University. Mark is an active researcher in the fields of education and public policy. His research interests include educational sociology, critical theory, accountability in higher education, and public sector reform.

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