‘Under Weber’s Shadow: Modernity, Subjectivity and Politics in Habermas, Arendt and MacIntyre’ reviewed by Jeffery Nicholas

Reviewed by Jeffery L Nicholas

About the reviewer

Jeffery L Nicholas is author of Love and Politics: Persistent Human Desires as a Foundation for …


Keith Breen provides an insightful overview of Weber’s philosophy and his influence on three of the most prominent critics of modernity—Jürgen Habermas, Hanna Arendt, and Alasdair MacIntyre. Breen argues that in each response to Weber, the individual thinkers open up alternative answers to Weber’s pessimism; yet each answer succumbs to its own internal contradiction. Of these three, Breen argues convincingly that MacIntyre’s thought provides the strongest way forward for undermining the contradictions of late modern bureaucratic capitalism.

Breen contends that Habermas, Arendt, and MacIntyre are united by three motivating questions: what are the defining characteristics of modernity and how does modernity challenge modern men and women; how does the modern subject come into being and “manifest itself socially and politically”; and what are the “normative grounds of politics” (1). Each attempts to answer these questions in light of Weber’s analysis of modernity. Thus, Breen begins with Weber’s “account of society as increasingly regimented and meaningless, of politics as a struggle over the means of domination and of ethics as a question of the inner will” (7). For Weber, modernity is disenchanted, a condition brought about by rationalization in the form of substantive rationality, theoretical rationality, and formal rationality. Underlying these forms of rationality are two forms of social action—instrumental rational action and value rational action. For Weber, formal rationality has become dominant in modernity through a rejection of religion as a source of meaning. Thus, in modernity all sources “for a sense-conferring unity have been irreparably closed off by the gradual rupture and subsequent advance of the internal logic of the life-spheres” (14). Within modernity, bureaucracy becomes the dominant form of social organization and capitalism becomes the “iron cage” of human freedom. The only form of resistance and true authentic life is to embrace an ethic of responsibility, available to the few politicians who realize they must “contract with ‘diabolical powers’” (21). The authentic politician is one who does not fear getting her hands dirty—someone devoted to a cause, who knows when to combine value-rational and purposive-rational action, and who distances herself with a “’sense of proportion.’”

Breen concludes that Weber sets up a certain irony: authentic politics in the face of darkness gains its strength from a willed choice, a belief that decency and freedom are possible. Weber denies the possibility of a modern Jesus or Buddha because of the overwhelming logic of bureaucracy and capitalism and, thus, the need to make deals with the devil. This problem motivates Habermas, Arendt, and MacIntyre to look, not simply toward the well-being or happiness of human beings, but to what kind of people human beings will become. Thus, “Habermas’s ‘public sphere,’ Arendt’s ‘political realm,’ and MacIntyre’s ‘local community of practice’ stand in direct opposition to ‘system,’ ‘the social,’ and the capitalist market and states as sites for an authentic politics in which speech, debate, and practical reasoning displace domination and violence” (25).

After setting up the problematic for the reader, Breen moves into three careful discussions, first explaining the positions of each of his theorists and then showing how each one ends in a dualism that undermines his or her answer to Weber’s pessimism.

First, Habermas accepts Weber’s rationalization thesis and places it within the context of a dualism of system and lifeworld. System provides the arena within which instrumental functional activities occur, while lifeworld represents the “intersubjective horizon of pre-given space and pre-theoretical knowledge and asumptions in which people exist, act, and interact” (35). Modernity has involved the differentiation of rationality spheres in the lifeworld into the legal and moral, the aesthetic, and the scientific, so that claims to justice, to beauty, and to truth are sought in each sphere but are united in communicative rationality. Within a speech act, individuals raise claims that they are willing to justify to others in an ideal speech situation. Habermas believes this structure defeats Weber’s pessimism: Weber claimed that the three rationality spheres inevitably conflict, but Habermas contends that philosophy mediates the claims of the spheres; second, Weber conflated moral with ethical norms, but Habermas distinguishes them.

In contrast, Arendt’s answer to Weber’s problematic relies, less on universalization, and more on “capacities for promising and forgiving internal to action, the virtue of moderation, and the thoroughly perfectionist ideal of a dignified, worldly life” (94). While Arendt “never publicly engaged with Weber’s thought,” Breen makes a convincing case that she is responding to the same issues in Weber that motivate both Habermas and MacIntyre. Arendt believes modernity represents a loss of meaning, similar to Weber’s theory of disenchantment, and a loss of freedom, similar to Weber’s iron cage (93).

Arendt develops the idea of a possibility of authentic political life in a worldly culture in which art and politics are intertwined as concerned with non-instrumental or external ends. Arendt conceives of two meanings of world, one that comprises things and objects that contrast with the self and another that is intersubjective. Reversing the understanding of modernity as a rationalization or differentiation of value spheres, Arendt contends that the boundaries between these value spheres have eroded. Thus, “’each human activity points to its proper location in the world’” (97). On this understanding, labor involves finding sustenance for life, whereas work entails fabrication and skill. For Arendt, Weber perpetuated an error begun with Plato who substitutes work for action. Arendt proposes, instead, the conception of citizenship—equality between actors. Power, then, is the wellspring of meaning of people acting together. Arendt does not want to return to Athens; rather she wants to understand how action and friendship can lead to a better world. Here, Arendt introduces her own dualism between the free citizen who acts creatively in the world and engages in politics free of force and coercion with the necessity to labor in the world for food and to give credence and acquiescence to political force, including totalitarianism.

MacIntyre, the third thinker Breen engages, is often rejected either for being reactionary, which Breen correctly notes he is not, or for presenting an inconsistent philosophy due to his changes over the years, against which charge Breen presents an underlying unity in MacIntyre’s Marxist spirit.

MacIntyre identifies three characteristics of modernity: a democratized self that lacks any social content, which entails a deformity of human identity; meaninglessness grounded in interminable conflict, which leads to emotivism (the conflation of manipulative and non-manipulative interaction); and compartmentalization. In response to these characteristics, MacIntyre introduces social practices, within which agents develop an “intersubjective” reason. Such practices are the arenas in which individuals seek internal goods; they are sustained by institutions that seek external goods to support the practice. Within modernity, however, internal goods have been subordinated to external goods. MacIntyre, further, rejects the compartmentalization of human beings with his idea of a narrative unity, in which individuals seek to understand the good of their lives. This good, however, must be placed within the context of the universal good for human beings, which is found within traditions. Traditions, however, are not ingrained or unquestioning authorities, but arguments over what the good is.

Such an understanding of the human being entails that “citizens [are] socialized within cultural networks comprising roles that enable, rather than inhibit, their capacity to reason in concert” (170). Thus, MacIntyre defends a politics of the local community to contrast with the bureaucratization and capitalistic form of the modern state. MacIntyre points to a variety of groups which exemplify the kind of politics of local communities he favors, including fishing villages, farming cooperatives, and mining towns. Breen situates this politics of the local community within MacIntyre’s Thomism, claiming that he combines it with “Aquinas’s insistence upon a hierarchically ordered universe, a unitary summum bonum and a perfected deductive science” (172-3).

Breen provides several trenchant critiques of each of these thinkers, in particular showing how Arendt advances over Habermas, and how MacIntyre advances over both Arendt and Habermas; yet Breen contends that each thinker ends in a dualism that eventually undermines their individual answers to Weber. Breen holds that Habermas’s division between ethics and morality undermines itself, because the theory of morality “is in the last instance an understanding of healthy identity formation, that is, a substantive ethical vision” (58). Habermas dichotomizes, further, norm-free systems from lifeworld in which moral norms find justification. This division results in a Weber-like division between power and legitimacy that Habermas cannot overcome. Similarly, Arendt bifurcates freedom and necessity, so that labor and economic activity are “denied a uniquely human status” (119). She further divorces motive, goals, and purposes from meaning, found in the aesthetic. This divorce entails that politics appears mysterious. Again, in MacIntyre, Breen sees a problem in practices, which tends toward a conventionalism that may be “insensitive to those processes of change ‘generated by debate across traditions” (181). Further, Breen believes MacIntyre subordinates “critique and reflection to the prevailing authorities of community and tradition.” Still, MacIntyre advances beyond both Habermas and Arendt, for MacIntyre dismisses the idea of norm-free sociality. Every part of life is subject to critique for MacIntyre.

What each of these thinkers fails to provide, and I think Breen is right about this, is an ability to think ethically about strategy. In their own ways, each thinker separates strategic or instrumental forms of rationality and activity from moral judgment—Habermas and Arendt by placing it in spheres free of ethical judgment, and MacIntyre by downplaying the role strategy can play in the pursuit of internal goods.

Overall, Breen’s book opens up a realm in which future thought on social critique must take place. He is able to do this by masterfully pulling together the three most prominent critical figures of the modern period. I say prominent and not most useful, though MacIntyre is only recently gaining prominence on a worldwide stage and because the usefulness of Habermas’ work is in reverse proportion to his prominence. Breen is generally evenhanded in his discussion of these philosophers, though I could quibble with some of his analysis of MacIntyre. For example, I do not agree that MacIntyre subordinates critique to authority, though I know others believe he does. Further, I would question whether in fact, MacIntyre’s Thomism entails the unification that Breen sees in it. Breen’s point, however, about the failure to think of strategy in an ethically viable way is most useful for carrying forward thought in this area. On this point, various persons are working within what is known as MacIntyrean empirics to understand the relationship between practice and institution (See, for instance, Philosophy of Management 7(1): 2008).

This book would make an excellent required text for courses on Contemporary Political Issues or a secondary text for courses in political theory and philosophy, social theory, or critical theory. Anyone interested in Weber, Habermas, Arendt, or MacIntyre would do well to read this, both to get a sense where each thinker succeeds and a sense of where each thinker fails. It would be difficult to take seriously any future critical work that does not at least acknowledge an engagement with the problems that Breen identifies in each thinker. In fact, anyone interested in political science, management, or business would do well to read this to understand just exactly how theorists have understood the modern world and how to think about their own future work.

7 July 2013

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