Thursday, April 14, 2011

looking back: Habermas and “lifeworld”

A practical way to get to the heart of the matter with Jürgen Habermas (hereafter: JH) is the short number of philosophical pages on lifeworld in Philosophical Discourse of Modernity (PDM): pp. 341-346; 359-366. There, he draws directly from Theory of Communicative Action, vol. 2 (TCA-2) to provide a synoptic of how he understands lifeworld, as a matter of rationalization for the sake of theorizing public communicative action. Lifeworld itself is a “resource” for his interest in political action. But through this PDM discussion, he’s also evocative about understanding the lifeworld itself. PDM is a good context (4+ years after TCA) to get at his philosophical interest. 

To a reader primarily wanting to just understand JH’s view, I’m not very helpful, I realize. It probably seems eccentric for me to provide notes on lifeworld as such, apparently only from my perspective. But that’s the fate of time.

Looking back at JH’s PDM discussion tonight, I recall how much I took it to heart (as well as TCA-2) when it became available. Years later now, I’m only implicitly in dialogue with JH’s views (unless I look back at his texts) as someone who’s been deeply influenced, moved on, and has occasion to come back because others are interested.

I see that this kind of condition is captured in his sense of an inevitable play of interpretations, which is fruitful.

But his interest (1981-1985) is properly biased by his project of re-founding social theory after Marxism (i.e., for formerly-Marxist readers during Cold War years in Europe), in TCA as well as in PDM. That was a long time ago.

It’s appropriate to want to think of lifeworld with respect to time since. That puts the very Habermasian reader (myself) in a non-orthodox position toward work whose thinking can be a highly important resource for times that his work wasn’t anticipating. Trying to re-found Marxism is a dead project. Habermas moved on as well, facing re-unification of Germany and contemporary issues of the 1990s and recent decade. But the notion of lifeworld is as important as ever. Yet, in a sense, a reader is on his own to re-think lifeworldliness apart from the sociocentric project of grounding conceptions of political life.

So, what becomes of notions of the lifeworld, given the importance of the notion, apart from times past, but with all due regard for what JH was doing? There’s as much importance in understanding what he was trying to do as there is obviously much insight still to find in what he wrote. If his social theory of the 1980s is regarded as excursions in an ongoing discourse of appropriation, what’s the Discourse across appropriations (i.e., across readings and formulations relative to contemporary issues)? What’s the especially-Habermasian Project? I would derive that relative to my own Project. (Such a derivation has been intended for some years, but still not soon.)

Anyway, there’s no way to appropriate JH’s stated understanding of lifeworld without close reading. I would enjoy doing a close reading of those pages from PDM. But I don’t know that others would find that useful.

Here’s a couple of my favorite passages from JH’s discussion in PDM:
Rationalization of the lifeworld means differentiation and condensation at once---a thickening of the floating web of intersubjective threads that simultaneously holds together the ever more sharply differentiated components of culture, society, and person....[toward] an individualistically isolating universalism...[and] a fragile and vulnerable universality by means of an extremely individualized socialization (346).

…[L]argely decentered societies maintain in their everyday communicative action a virtual center of self-understanding....This center is, of course, a projection, but it is an effective one. The polycentric projections of the totality[, i.e., universal features emergent from embodied perspectives]---which anticipate, outdo, and incorporate one another---generate competing centers. Even collective identities dance back and forth in the flux of interpretations, and are actually more suited to the image of a fragile network than to that of a stable center of self-reflection (359).