Friday, August 23, 2013

Seeing the World as System and Lifeworld

When Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, German Jews, looked out at the world as refugees in California they were, even as Marxists, forced to concede that there was something wrong in the program of the Enlightenment.  As they wrote in Dialectic of Enlightenment,
What men want to learn from nature is how to dominate it and other men.
In other words the program of the Enlightenment, to learn how the world works, ends up as a program to use nature for the ends of man in a much more systematic way that in the practical life skills that we see, e.g., in the hunter gatherer.  And that systematic way ends up as domination.

It's not until we get to Adorno's student that we get a thinker determined to deal with the challenge of Enlightenment and its program of domination.  J├╝rgen Habermas accepts the systems of Enlightenment and their domination as a fact about our world.  But he takes the concept of Lebenswelt developed by Husserl, or lifeworld, as an opposing possibility.  Whereas domination is coded into the very definition of reason, the intersubjective lifeworld offers a possibility of discourse rather than domination, interchange rather than injunction, emancipation rather than subordination.

Of course, as David Ingram reminds us, system and lifeworld are not independent entities; Habermas himself writes about the "colonization of the lifeworld."  Indeed, a recurring Frankfurt School theme is the analysis of the way that the system's mass media colonize the lifeworld of the home and the family.  System and lifeworld are opposed to each other as much as they complement each other.

But what do they mean?  Habermas injects the idea of the philosophy of consciousness and the philosophy of language as a means to understanding.  The philosophy of consciousness, from Descartes ego to Kant, thinks in unipolar terms, of the observer in the world.  That outlook necessarily reduces the human relationship with the world to a strategic, instrumental outlook described above by Horkheimer and Adorno.  But if we define the world through a philosophy of language then we define our knowledge of the world as necessarily social and shared.  It is not the single consciousness that lives in the world but all of us together, and we test and share our experience of the world in conversation with each other using the language we share.

On this view, system and lifeworld cannot exist without the other.  You may construct the most amazing system of knowledge imaginable, but it means nothing until it is communicated to the world.  You may develop in conversation the most amazing dialog, but it does not count in the world until it is developed into a system with the power to replace the old ways of thinking and doing.

We are seeing a huge test of this notion right now in the rollout of Obamacare.  The Democrats went into a room together and wrote a bill.  But they did not bring it out into the light of day to have a conversation about it and give people a chance to critique it and improve it.  They just rammed it through by force.

Now Obamacare is rolling out and the beautiful system is revealed as a solipsist nightmare.  The single Democratic ego imagined a wonderful health care future, trusting in the unified liberal consciousness to create the perfect system.  But system is nothing without lifeworld, without people conversing and adjusting to individual circumstances and needs.  So the president has to resort to extra-legal acts of force to fit the square peg of Obamacare into the round hole of reality.

What our liberal friends cannot admit is their dominatory administrative systems are doomed to failure.  What they cannot bear to confess is that the free market is the answer to the cruelty of systems and administrations, because it ceaselessly adjusting between system and lifeworld.  It constructs the most imposing systems, but it is always responding to the feedback, expressed through the price system, of the individual.  And the great commercial systems are always getting pruned back by some new group of innovators that got together in a coffee shop to come up with something new.

Instinctively, you know that this must be so, because otherwise liberals and their clients wouldn't be insisting on the perfection of their system and pretending that the daily diary of domination, in Obama administration scandals, is merely "phoney."

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