Work and Emancipatory Practice: Towards a Recovery of Human Beings' Productive Capacities


This article argues that productive work represents a mode of human flourishing unfortunately neglected in much current political theorizing. Focusing on Habermasian critical theory, I contend that Habermas’s dualist theory of society, with its underpinning distinction between communicative and instrumental reason, excludes work and the economy from ethical reflection. To avoid this uncritical turn, we need a concept of work that retains a core emancipatory referent. This, I claim, is provided by Alasdair MacIntyre’s notion of ‹practice’. The notion of ‹practice’ is␣significant in suggesting an alternative conception of human productivity that is neither purely instrumental nor purely communicative, but rather both simultaneously: a form of activity which issues in material products and yet presumes a community of workers engaged in intersubjective self-transformation. However, we can endorse MacIntyre’s notion of ‹practice’ only if we reject his totalizing anti-modernism and insist on the emancipatory potentialities of modern institutions.

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Correspondence to Keith Breen.

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Breen, K. Work and Emancipatory Practice: Towards a Recovery of Human Beings' Productive Capacities. Res Publica 13, 381–414 (2007).

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  • alienated labour
  • ethics
  • Habermas
  • MacIntyre
  • practices
  • self-transformation
  • work