This is a guest blog post by Professor Frederic Vandenberghe of Sociology in the Institute of Social and Political FredStudies at the State University of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. Frederic is a leading expert in the field of Critical Realism. He has been working on CR and the social sciences since 1994 when he completed his doctorate in Sociology from Ecole des hautes etudes en sciences sociales. His work operates at the intersection of philosophy and sociology with a special interest in hermeneutics, phenomenology, and critical realism. He recently published a series of essays in a book titled, “What’s Critical about Critical Realism? Essays in Reconstructive Social Theory”. 

This is Part 1 of 4 in a blog post series by Professor Frederic Vandenberghe on Reconstructive Sociology.

Reconstructive Social Theory

In Europe, I belong to three theoretical clubs: the “Habermasian family” in Germany, critical realism in the UK, and the anti-utilitarian movement in the social sciences (MAUSS) in France. Standing in the tradition of critical theory (Frankfurt School for Jürgen Habermas, the British New Left for Roy Bhaskar, and Socialisme et barbarie for Alain Caillé), all three share a reconstructive intent and replace the grand gesture of catastrophism with a well-tempered optimism that wants to encourage practical social change. In reaction to the totalizing claims of a hypercritique of industrial capitalism that had become the symptom of its own diagnosis, each of them had to break with the discourse of revolution and counterrevolution to open up other vistas beyond the instrumental-strategic-utilitarian nexus of action, alienation, and reification. Each of them knew that to open the system, they had to devise an alternative to rational choice and retrieve an emphasis on intersubjectivity, interaction, and alterity. Habermas did it by means of a simple distinction between interaction and labor, strategic and communicative action, life-world and system. Bhaskar had to go back to Aristotle to supplement Marxist structuralism with a humanist transformative praxeology, while Alain Caillé plumbed the intricacies of reciprocity and giving in Marcel Mauss’s essay on The Gift, extending the generosity from the small worlds of family, friends and neighbors to the politics of civil society. Instead of a catastrophic approach to the ontology of the present, to avoid the dead end of their predecessors, all three explored the possibilities of radical reformism. It is remarkable that they displaced the attention from aesthetics to ethics and politics. Rationalizing hermeneutics, Habermas systematically worked out Gadamer´s dialogism into a discourse ethics and a theory of deliberative politics. Towards the end of his life, Bhaskar explicitly invoked eudemonia and openly talked about human flourishing, not only at the individual, but also at the collective level – “the flourishing of each being a precondition for the flourishing of all” (Bhaskar, 1993: 264, 294-297) – while Caillé invited his friends to compose a Convivialist Manifesto and release a declaration of interdependence (Caillé et al. 2014).

Inspired by the work of Habermas, Bhaskar and Caillé, I conceive of reconstruction as a successor and an alternative to hypercritique. Reconstruction is the opposite of deconstruction (a euphemism for Martin Heidegger’s Destruktion of inherited meanings). Or, better, to the extent that it incorporates critique and deconstruction, it overcomes the negativity of dialectics in a positive synthesis that prepares for the worst, but hopes for the best. Like Romain Rolland, who was closer to Tagore, Ramakrishna and Vivekananda than he was to Freud and Gramsci, it subdues violence to generosity and corrects the pessimism of the intellect with the optimism of the will.

The difference between deconstruction and reconstruction is one of purpose. The emphasis is not on removing the rubble and clearing the ground. Reconstruction is neither creation ex nihilo (out of nothing), nor cum nihilo (without constraints). It is not foundation, but re-creation of the old through its re-orientation to something new. It is an attempt to reorganize the existing structures into a new building and to give it a new function, a new purpose, and a new end. The end is human flourishing. The theories that interest me are those that share the purpose of eudemonia and are concerned with humanist ethics and democratic politics. The selection of theories is always a bit arbitrary. It is determined as much by scholarship as by personal factors. But to the extent that the selection follows some well-established metatheoretical criteria of theory construction, which I will expose in a moment, it is closer to intellectual craftsmanship.

I know of least three books by three exemplary intellectuals that carry reconstruction on their cover, exemplify its spirit, and specify its tasks.

  1. In Zur Rekonstruktion des historischen Materialismus, Jürgen Habermas (1976: 9) analyses Marxism habermaswith a critical-reconstructive intent. He “takes it apart and puts it back together” in a different way so that it “attains the goals it has set for itself”. By injecting a good deal of philosophical idealism and developmental sociology into historical materialism, he reworked it as a form of developmental historical idealism that learns from its experiences and its failures, redirecting it towards the future so that it can realize its potential.

dewey2. In his Reconstruction of Philosophy, John Dewey (1920), the eternal optimist, also reformulated the antinomies of inherited philosophy and proposed pragmatism as a progressive theoretical and practical solution to all conceptual problems. The solution is not to be found in the state, but in the joint participation in the associations that make up society and that make the full contribution of all its members possible. Both Habermas and Dewey knew that social and cultural change also has an existential dimension.

3. In Man and Society in the Age of Reconstruction (1940), Karl Mannheim put the democratic man-and-societyplanning for freedom on the public agenda. Concerned with the rise of authoritarianism in his native Germany, exiled in London, he investigated the prospects for the construction of free interdependent individuals in democratic societies through education. “It is only by remaking man himself that the reconstruction of society is possible” (Mannheim, 1940: 15). To reconstruct the social sciences, society, and the individuals all at once, inaugurating an epoch of generalized morphogenesis, is the horizon of reconstructive social theory.

To overcome the reigning negativism, one has not only to reform social theories and practices, but also oneself. The focus on malfunctioning and distress has to be supplemented with an investigation of the conditions of possibility of happiness and flourishing. This is the message of humanist positive psychology (Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi, 2000). Although I am not calling for a positive sociology (and certainly not for a positivist one), I share the disillusionment of clinical practitioners and academic psychologists with the almost exclusive attention to failure and to the concomitant neglect of individual fulfillment and the thriving of the community. Just like psychology, sociology should not just study social pathologies, damaged lives and crises. It is not so much a branch of medicine that dispenses diagnosis as a propedeutics that explores alternative ways of living and being together in the world. In order not to be misunderstood, let me, however, underscore that reconstruction presupposes domination, reification, and alienation. To overcome it, it also focuses on resistance, reliance and change at all levels. It is an exodus from reification – not an attempt to deny structural domination, but an attempt to overcome it by focusing on the common practices that challenge it and that are already constructing another world. As a variation of the emancipatory interest, the reconstructive interest of humanity does not negate reification, but it unmasks and understands it as an alienated sedimentation of collective action. As a transformative ontology of social practices, it calls for a reflexive reactivation of the energies that have crystallized into second nature. If it slightly exaggerates the possibilities of change at all levels, it is only because it is aware that the forces of destruction have the upper hand.