Rethinking the Normative Content of Critical Theory: Marx, Habermas and Beyond.

Author:Calder, Gideon
Position:Book Reviews - Book Review

Bob Cannon

Palgrave, Basingstoke, 2001, pp. Xiv+211.

ISBN 0-333-91809-6 (hbk) [pounds sterling]45.00

It is in the nature of the theory business that it is hard to find fresh interventions which are nor advertised as 'groundbreaking'. As strap-lines, 'Challenging the foundational categories of x' and 'Calling into question the boundaries between a and b' have numbingly over-familiar rings to them. Going by back-cover blurbs, social theory's ground has been turned over so much in the past 20 years or so that by now it must be mushy pulp. It is a wonder that there is anything left to overturn.

Sure enough, this book is billed as incorporating 'a groundbreaking analysis of the normative content of Marx's critical strategy'. Oddly, this is exactly what it does. It is a penetrating and provocative work, which both sheds light on existing problems in well-trodden areas and raises new, indeed challenging, points of contention. Cannon's prose is mercifully masturbation-free. He weaves thoughtful takes on the German philosophical canon--from Kant, fichte and Hegel down--into an overall narrative of the right and wrong turnings of modern critical theory. His agenda is timely, well-articulated, and--because of its depth and nuance--difficult to sum up in a review.

A selective account, then, will have to suffice. Cannon argues that Marx is insufficiently historicist in his conception of labour, and as a result neglects its normative dimension. He makes labour itself the transcendental source of value, at the neglect of the moral perspectives of participants in modern social life. This squeezes out consideration of the way the labour movement allows for the expansion of ways in which modern subjects might constitute themselves in active struggle against the imperatives of the capitalist system. It squeezes out, in other words, the normative importance of intersubjectivity. Moreover, this move is rehearsed, rather than overcome, in subsequent developments of critical theory in the Frankfurt School tradition. By relying on an objectified sense of social order, and a transcendental model of 'ethical life', both Jurgen Habermas and Axel Honneth maintain an unfortunate wedge between the world of social interaction and struggle and the means by which we might criticize it. Cru cially, this splitting is at odds with the distinctively modern ethos of self-constitution that underlies constructive explorations of the possibility for progressive change. Cannon sees...

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