from Bereft of Reason
Eugene Halton

excerpt from chapter 6:
Jürgen Habermas's Theory of Communicative Etherealization

Mythical World-Views and the Structuralist Myth
     ...In the first chapter of Volume One (of TCA), Habermas attempts to come to terms with the concept of rationality in a number of ways, including extended sections on myth and action.  He turns to "mythical world-views" because they represent, in his view, an antithesis to the modern understanding of the world, and thereby provide a mirror of otherness through which we can reflect upon the modern world.  Habermas claims that this way of proceeding has the advantage of forcing him to turn from conceptual to empirical analysis, by which he means that, as he puts it, "for the sake of simplicity," he confines himself to the results of two structuralists, Claude Lévi-Strauss and Maurice Godelier.  He uses these two exemplars of twentieth-century French rationalism as the sole representatives of mythic thought, and assiduously avoids any concrete discussion of a single myth in his "empirical" review.  At least Lévi-Strauss, the "cerebral savage" as Clifford Geertz termed him, spent time studying specific myths, even if he did then divest them of their specific qualities in attempting to reveal an abstract universal structure of binary logic.  But here and throughout TCA Habermas never engages in specific analyses of ethnographic, historical, or empirical data and never goes back to the source materials used by Lévi-Strauss, Piaget, Weber, or others that he draws on.
     Habermas relies in particular on Maurice Godelier, a structuralist Marxist who appropriates the side of Marxism in which determining conditions of social life are "invisible," not consciously known in experience.  As a structuralist, Godelier must deny what is essential to Marx:  that there can be meaning in praxis.  Structuralism denies meaning to "surface" phenomena, such as parole or speech, because it views meaning as a "faculty" of langue or deep structure not susceptible to modification through experience.  From a structuralist perspective, myth is only interesting as a manifestation of the underlying logic of the system, not as a voicing and bodying forth of the inner life of humanity, of its achievements and tragedies, of recurrent experiences with wondrous and terrifying forces and movements of nature, and least of all, of the drama inherent in human communication.
     Structuralism denies meaning to praxis, and hence it is rather odd, to say the least, for someone like Habermas concerned with a broad-based theory of "communicative action" as means to a free social life, to limit himself "for the sake of simplicity" to structuralist technicians who deny meaning at the level of action and who represent perhaps the most intellectualistic and abstracted approach to myth within the much broader spectrum of schools of thought.  Strange also is his reliance on what I will call a totalitarian way of thinking: structuralism denies that flesh and blood human beings embody and body forth meaning and can criticize and revise the "code" of meaning, because it holds meaning and structure to be purely "skeletal," merely the property of a single underlying universal and unchanging code of binary opposition, to be found in all human endeavor regardless of time, place, or circumstance.  There is a myth to be found here, but it is the myth of twentieth-century binary thinking, itself the legacy of cultural nominalism.
     Structuralism reproduces the nominalist tendency to begin with a false dichotomy requiring synthesis.  It projects this view on to the world as an "objective" theory:  nature and culture are clear and distinct categories, surface phenomena and deep structure are clear and distinct categories, individual versus social are clear and distinct categories, logic is a rational, binary system.
     One gets the impression in Habermas's discussion of myth that those who live within mythic belief are extremely limited by our standards, that myth is a fuzzy and backward form of thought.  Habermas uses the dichotomous premisses of modern thought as found in structuralism and semantics to criticize myth as merely vague, as having "a deficient differentiation between language and world."
     That the primary purpose of myths might be precisely to express intensely felt relationships to the world--meaning "felt relationship" as that quality that literally lives in the transaction between person and world and not in system or logic or brain--escapes Habermas's single-visioned view.  The entire discussion of myth can be read as an example of how rationalism denigrates those "divine deep waters," as the Babylonians said, in which living myth swims: modalities of intelligence not reducible to the thin filmy surface of rationality. Habermas's two primary criticisms of mythical worldviews are that they are marked by: "insufficient differentiation among fundamental attitudes to the objective, social, and subjective worlds; and the lack of reflexivity in worldviews that cannot be identified as worldviews, as cultural traditions.  Mythical worldviews are not understood by members as interpretive systems that are attached to cultural traditions, constituted by internal interrelations of meaning, symbolically related to reality, and connected with validity claims--and thus exposed to criticism and open to revision."
     Both of these criticisms reveal a shallow ethnocentrism which disallows the voice of mythical worldviews as dialogical "other" in communicative debate.  But even if one were to concede Habermas's criticisms, they still reveal the superiority of mythic to rational "communicative" thought.  Mythic "thought" indeed does not view objective, social, and subjective worlds as autonomous in Habermas's sense, but rather as fluid and continuous.  And there is no reason why mythic thought should radically differentiate these three spheres, because these spheres, as I will argue later, have their existence within the cultural nominalism of modernity, and are mere distortions, mentally skewed forms of communicative action rather than constituent features of it or the world.
     Habermas's second criticism is that mythical understanding acts as a form of reification, and one not subject to criticism:  How can one criticize the myth one believes in when one believes in it as reality itself?  Although the possibility of critical perspective and of criticism itself is undeniably an important consideration in modern society, Habermas neglects the ways in which even a single mythic world-view allows for critical conflict and ambiguity of interpretation, as almost any of the Greek myths attest and as a close look at traditional village life will reveal.  More fundamentally, he neglects the facts that belief comes first and doubt comes after belief, and that myth and ritual involve more than just belief.
     We should remember that myth and ritual are living forms which transformed us into humans, a fundamental fact which never penetrates Habermas's rationalistic armor.  In Habermas's evolutionary perspective, earlier embodiments of human communication are absolutely "aufgehoben," that is, overcome or superseded by a seemingly ever-expanding rationality.  Ritually-based societies did and do place severe limitations on personal autonomy, but ritual, contra Habermas, was perhaps the original means of "reflexivity."  This was not the dispassionate reflexivity of rational communicators who know what their validity claims are about, but the humble reflexivity of humans confronted with a baffling world and a deeply-felt need to give it voice.  By their very restricted and repetitive natures ritual action and myth gradually peeled emergent humankind from pure participation and impelled us toward belief, toward the good and bad aspects of human belief. This process brought about the enlargement of imagination, but also the encasing of human perception within new webs constructed by these imaginings.
     If emerging humankind had only possessed Habermas's communicative action instead of ritual and mythic action, it could never have coped with the enormous anxieties produced by its surplus brain energy, it could never have unself-consciously formed the artistic expressions of the human psyche, the utterances of speech, the structures of language:  it could never have become human.  Rather than characterizing mythic-bound cultures as having "deficient differentiation," Habermas should have considered how they could have been so extraordinarily efficient, creating vital societies that often endured for millenia, creating art and language in paleolithic culture, developing the basis of virtually all modern grains in the neolithic age, inventing mathematics and astronomy in Babylonian civilization, giving birth to philosophy in ancient Greece.  The real question Habermas never asks is whether and in what ways myth might enhance rather than hinder communicative reason.
     Habermas does not allow the possibility of a non-critical yet perceptive and self-illuminating narrative...

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