Habermas’s theory of social evolution: the logic of social development

The two concepts of system and lifeworld forms determine key aspects of Habermas's theory of social evolution, with communicative and instrumental action providing an explanation of social evolution through the mechanism of social learning. As Habermas (1981b: 118) observes, . we conceive of societies simultaneously as systems and lifeworlds. This concept proves itself in ... a theory of social evolution that separates the rationalization of the lifeworld from the growing complexity of societal systems ..The ideal types of rational action help Habermas to suggest that the expansion of a child's cognitive development to include the stages of moral development in society may lead to awareness of the evolution of society in terms of normative and systemic integration.

Habermas (1981b: 153-154) understands

social evolution as a second-order process of differentiation: system and lifeworld are differentiated in the sense that the complexity of the one and the rationality of the other grow. But it is not only qua system and qua lifeworld that they are differentiated; they get differentiated from one another at the same time. It has become conventional for sociologists to distinguish the stages of social evolution as tribal societies, traditional societies, or societies organized around a state, and modern societies . . . From the system perspective, these stages are marked by the appearance of new systematic mechanisms and corresponding levels of complexity. On this plane of analysis, the uncoupling of system and lifeworld is depicted in such a way that the lifeworld, which is at first coextensive with a scarcely differentiated social system, gets cut down more and more to one subsystem among others.

However, from a micro-perspective, the question is how Habermas uses his ideal types of rational action to develop his theory of social evolution.

For Habermas,

The rationalization of social systems can be characterized in terms of their growth in complexity. From this perspective one can analyse the formation and expansion of markets organized around the medium of money and the steady growth of political and administrative organizations. The rationalization of life-worlds, on the other hand, can be characterized in terms of both the separation of spheres of values and the advancement of levels of learning.

(Thompson 1983: 287)

Given these two levels of social rationalization, the action type of instrumental rationality shows the extent to which the growth of complexity is an unintended outcome of instrumental actions pursuing self-interest, whereas the sense rationality of the lifeworld makes use of communicative actions in order to improve mutual understanding.

Habermas argues that social evolution can be understood on an analogy with the moral and intellectual development of individuals growing to maturity. ... It is in this context that Habermas refers to the moral learning process as "the pacemaker of social evolution”.

(Kirkpatrick 2003: 93)

However, this raises the question of whether the equivalence between the individual's maturation and social development explains how human action contributes to social evolution.

In Communication and the Evolution of Society, Habermas (1979: 99) argues:

Cognitive developmental psychology has shown that in ontogenesis there are different stages of moral consciousness, stages that can be described in particular as preconventional. and postconventional patterns of problemsolving. The same patterns mm up again in the social evolution of moral and legal representations. The ontogenetic models are certainly better analyzed and better corroborated than their social-evolutionary counterparts. But it should not surprise us that there are homologous structures of consciousness in the history of the species, if we consider that linguistically established intersubjectivity of understanding marks that innovation in the history of the species which first made possible the level of sociocultural learning (emphasis added).

It is this homologous expansion of the child’s stage of cognitive/moral development to the stages of moral consciousness of society that provides Habermas with his logic of social development.

Michael Schmid (1982: 164) argues that the ontogenesis of the individual refers to a specific developmental logic that can be documented in several spheres:

in a cognitive sphere (the capacity for formal thought), a moral sphere (the capacity for moral judgment), and in a sphere of interaction (referring to an interactive competence based on normatively guided actions which are oriented to the actions of others).

These remarks underline Habermas’s conception of the relation between the stages of normative development in society and the ontogenesis of the individual.

In order to address the question of how worldviews have developed in the transition from a traditional to a modern society,

. . . Habermas draws on Piaget’s ontogenetic studies of cognitive development. These studies suggest that the development of world-views can be grasped as a progressive demarcation of the objective and social worlds from the subjective world of experience - that is, as a "decentration” of an egocentric understanding of the world. Piaget’s work also enables one to distinguish several stages of development within the dimension of moral-practical insight. Thus, Habermas employs the distinction between pre-conventional, conventional and post-conventional structures of moral consciousness in order to reconstruct the logic of development of law and morality in the transition from clan societies to the modern day.

(Thompson 1983: 286)2

However, communicative reason has not been used to indicate how mature actors rationalize their worldviews in the evolution of social order.

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