Thursday, July 19, 2001

Introduction to my thesis


Habermas’ work from the start has two seemingly contradictory aspects to it. On the one hand he emphasises the natural origin of human beings, their knowledge and reason and adopts a position that though avoiding all kinds of reductionism can be termed as materialist, realist and naturalist. On the other hand Habermas also aims to preserve the distinction between human beings and their surroundings by emphasising the transcending powers of reason and thought.

Habermas’ first mature philosophical work Knowledge and Human Interests starts with a Hegelian note endorsing the essence of Hegel’s critique of Kant. In its claim that knowledge is based on and founded on human interests, the interests that connect human beings to nature and the material world, it is a thoroughly anti Kantian and Marxist-Hegelian work. Habermas’ later weak naturalism is already present in KHI. Habermas’ Frankfurt inaugural lecture on which KHI is based contains a scathing critique of the notion of pure theory divorced from practice. The lecture shows the deep influence of Heidegger. Habermas’ critique of pure theory emanates from the deep anti intellectualism whose roots go back not only to Heidegger’s Being and Time but also to the Marxist and Frankfurt schools’ distrust for pure theory.

In Habermas’ later writings the above results in Habermas’ adoption of a full blown pragmatism and a conception of knowledge that recognises the epistemic value of practice and action.

Hegelian themes are also all pervasive in Habermas’ later work. Habermas’ theory of communicative action is based on the insight that our explicit contact with our fellow beings and the world around us is based on a prior and implicit contact with them. The theory of communicative action gives centrality to the embedded and social character of the process of reaching understanding. The subjects of communicative action are thoroughly socialised and embedded subjects. The theory of communicative action also emphasises the importance of the process as against the product of that process in correctly analysing rational activity.

The above mentioned aspects of Habermas’ work can be seen as his adherence to realism, naturalism and materialism and can be regarded as emanating from his commitment to the Hegelian and Marxist espousal of what has been termed as detranscendentalisation. This aspect also represents Habermas’ anti-Kantianism.

However to conceive the above as standing on its own would be a grave mistake. Habermas’ naturalism, materialism and realism is never metaphysical and he never abandons the transcendental/Kantian standpoint altogether. KHI is also a very Kantian work. It is a critique of the positivistic/scientistic/empiricist tendencies of modern philosophy and in this regard is thoroughly Kantian in its spirit. Positivism is criticised as the abandonment of reflection and KHI is an attempt to articulate the transcendental basis of human knowledge even if it is termed ‘weak’ transcendentalism. Habermas’ later work specially his formal pragmatics, his attempt at articulating the conditions of the possibility of the process of reaching understanding and his method of rational reconstruction bear more than superficial resemblance to Kant’s transcendentalism. This second aspect of Habermas’ work can be justifiably seen as his anti naturalism, anti realism and his commitment to the core of the idealist tradition despite his critique of it.

The two strands of Habermas’ work briefly explained above cannot be understood separately because in a crucial sense they define each other not only negatively but also positively. For Habermas the whole idea of detranscendentalisation is unthinkable without transcendentalism and detranscendentalisation for him is the positive condition of the possibility of any viable transcendentalism in a post metaphysical world.

In order to understand the above we need to understand Habermas’ work as aiming at a synthesis of transcendentalism and detranscendetnalisation, the synthesis which claims to be open ended in that it aims to achieve the synthesis without sublating the tension between the two altogether. Arguably even in KHI Habermas was aiming at such a synthesis which at that time he hoped to find in a new critical science modelled on the Freudian example. The widespread misunderstanding of Habermas’ work stems from the fact that this main task of Habermas’ enterprise is not sufficiently realised and his work is one sidedly branded as either Hegelian Marxist or Kantian depending on the relative emphasis put on the two sides of the synthesis. This is also the reason for the constant misunderstanding of Habermas’ mature work by some as die hard Kantian transcendentalist and by others as Hegelian. Thus understanding this synthesis is necessary for grasping the significance of Habermas’ philosophical enterprise as a whole.

In Habermas’ own work and in secondary literature as well we do not see any sustained effort to understand this synthesis. The main reasons for this in my opinion are two: The first has to do with the way Habermas’ work has developed over the years. Habermas’ philosophical work has largely developed in essay form written for special occasions such as to announce a programme of research, clarify or rebut critics or engage in a dialogue with his chosen interlocutors. Though these works contain all the elements of his synthesis they nowhere contain its elaboration in a sustained manner. The second reason is Habermas’ fateful polemic against French post structuralist/post modernists and the followers of Heidegger. The result of this polemic has been an untenable drift away from the synthesis and undue emphasis on one element of the synthesis at the expense of the other.

Habermas’ opponents have accused him of harbouring untenable Kantianism, transcendentalism and formalism. In other words his opponents have largely focused on Habermas’ transcendentalism and his alleged Kantianism as if it were good enough reason to discredit his whole work as an anachronism. Habermas’ supporters on the other hand tend to put the emphasis on his Hegelianism and his detranscendentalisation project.

The result of both tendencies has been the same, namely that there has been insufficient attempt to understand the synthesis. Nonetheless there is an urgent need to understand the synthesis in order to grasp the significance of Habermas’ work as a whole. Habermas’ work continues to be of the highest importance from the perspective of the modern European and Western thought and to the extent this thought affects the rest of the world, from the perspective of world thinking as well. This alone provides sufficient reason to try to understand his work as a whole.

Habermas in his recent work has provided on more than one occasion sufficient hints which could provide the basis for an attempt to understand his theoretical philosophy as a whole rather than just from one sided perspectives. Important in this respect has been Habermas recent frequent use of the term transcendence from within/immanent transcendence. The present dissertation is based on a conviction that a thorough understanding of the notion of transcendence from within may facilitate and provide the basis for understanding the relation between transcendentalism and detranscendentalisation in the work of Habermas.

Apart from the obvious need to fill in a significant lacuna within Habermasian scholarship the overall movement in European philosophy also demands and will benefit from the emergence of an overall picture of Habermasian synthesis. I shall briefly mention three such ‘events’ within European and Anglo-American scholarship that point towards increasing interest in understanding the relation between detranscendentalisation and transcendentalism and in the phenomenon of transcendence:

•In French philosophical theological scholarship the phenomenon of transcendence and its different interpretations have acquired great attention from philosophers and philosophical minded theologians from a variety of perspectives. A debate has emerged between those who deem that transcendence without God is possible and those who deny the possibility of any such transcendence. Moreover, an eminent Foucault scholar Béatrice Han has developed an interpretation of Foucault that reads him as developing a conception of transcendence from within, even if he does not use exactly the same terminology or methodology as Habermas. Han is currently working on a book entitled Transcendence without Religion, which uses the work of Foucault and Heidegger to develop a notion of transcendence from within.

•In the Anglo American philosophical scene it is safe to say that mainstream analytic philosophy is still largely dominated by philosophical naturalism (in Habermas’ terminology strong naturalism). However the hold of philosophical naturalism on Anglo American philosophy has been vigorously contested from within by influential philosophers even if they are still minorities. In this context the work of John McDowell is of great philosophical import. McDowell, while using resources almost entirely different from that of Habermas has developed a version of soft naturalism that resembles very much in its aims and structure to that of Habermas.

•Finally Mark Sacks and his colleagues are working on a project which aims to understand the relation between philosophical naturalism and transcendentalism.

All these events attest to my conviction that there is a growing interest in understanding the relation between what can be broadly termed as detranscendentalisation and transcendentalism. An interpretation of Habermas’ notion of transcendence from within can make a contribution to this ongoing concern and debate.

The thesis then is an interpretation of Habermas’ notion of transcendence from within. It is hoped that such an interpretation would help us understand the relation between transcendentalism and detranscendentalisation in Habermas’ work as well his overall synthesis and it’s logic. However the thesis does not make any claim to provide a full account of the relation between detranscendentalisation and transcendentalism or Habermas’ synthesis. Moreover the dissertation does not discuss Habermas’ notion of transcendentalism or detranscendentalisation as such but rather presupposes a detailed account of them. The purpose of the thesis is rather to understand Habermas’ claim that detranscendentalisation itself can provide the basis of preserving certain distinctions that are the basis of transcendentalism. It is hoped that a thorough understanding of Habermas’ notion of transcendence from within can provide the basis for any such understanding.

Finally the dissertation is an interpretation of Habermas’ notion of transcendence from within and no attempt has been made to assess the viability of any such interpretation. It is hoped that by telling the story itself one would have contributed to the subsequent discussions which can evaluate the story from different perspectives. However some general remarks are ventured in the conclusion to indicate possible lines of critique.

The dissertation is divided into 7 chapters. The first three chapters are introductory and provide the basis for further discussion in the next four chapters which are reconstructions of different aspects of Habermas’ notion of transcendence from within.

In chapter 1, I give a general introduction to the idea of transcendence from within by introducing the notion of Kantian pragmatism. Habermas’ move towards pragmatism can be understood as his adoption of a thoroughgoing detranscendentalisation of the conception of knowledge and experience and their deintellectualisation. Habermas’ pragmatism can be seen as his attempt to overcome the dichotomy between knowledge and action, and knowledge and experience. The overall effect of this is to emphasise the overall continuity between human beings and their surroundings, their ways of beings (passivity?) and their ways of acting.

However, though Habermas rejects Kantian dichotomies, he wants to preserve the relevant distinctions emphasised by Kant and others between knowledge and actions, language and experience. It follows from the above that Habermas must show how the relevant distinction emerges from within overall continuities. I further explain this by direct reference to the notions of transcendentalism and detranscendentalisation. The emphasis on detranscendentalisation means that Habermas intends to reembed the Kantian subject within its surroundings as his emphasis on the natural origins of the subject and his notion of socialised individuality shows. Similarly Habermas brings the Kantian realm of intelligible down from the heaven of otherworldly to the earth of “this” world.

However Habermas also wants to preserve the transcending powers of reason and the Kantian subject as well as the Kantian realm of intelligible. Habermas wants to do this while stripping these conceptions of their otherworldly origins and connotations in Kant. Habermas can combine the theme of detranscendentalisation and transcendentalism only if he can show that the transcending power of reason can emerge from within. That is, he must show that the process of detranscendentalisation is also the process which establishes the transcending power of reason and the subject. The notion of transcendence from within conveys this very idea as is the case with the notion of individuation through socialisation.

In chapter 2, I introduce the idea of weak naturalism. Weak naturalism continues the overall thrust of Habermas’ enterprise to establish continuities between human beings and their surroundings. However, Habermas’ rejection of ‘strong’ naturalism means that he does not want to collapse the distinction between human beings and their surroundings altogether. In our terms, although he wants to overcome the dichotomy between human beings and nature he does not want to abolish the distinction between the two. For this reason Habermas must show how the distinction between nature and human beings emerges from within. The hypothesis of weak naturalism aims to provide the basis for establishing such a link from within. The idea of transcendence from within operates at the level at which ‘social’ has already clearly emerged and has been demarcated from the rest of nature and when we already possess propositionally differentiated language. However weak naturalism provides the ontological underpinnings to the idea of transcendence from within by putting forth a working hypothesis that human beings and society have emerged from ‘nature in itself’ in the long process of evolution. Weak naturalism also provides the key link between the ‘intersubjective’ side of Habermas’ notion of transcendence from within and the ‘objective’ side.

In chapter 3, I explore Habermas’ attempt to go beyond empiricism and linguistic idealism. I introduce the issue by briefly considering Habermas’ critique of Quine and Heidegger respectively. Empiricism is criticised on the grounds that it totally dispenses with the participant’s perspective and relies exclusively on the observational model. However human language and its primordial relation with the world cannot be understood from the perspective of the observer. By trying to understand language and our relation with the world solely from the observer’s perspective empiricism ends up with an instrumental conception of language and a causal understanding of our relation with the world.

Heidegger on the other hand gives so much prominence to the holistic aspect of language and of our primordial relation with the world that he neglects the role of causality and innerworldly learning experiences altogether. Habermas on the other hand wants to give both the observer perspective and the participant perspective their due. Habermas particularly emphasises the capability of innerworldly learning experiences to revise our linguistic knowledge. In this context Habermas introduces the concept of the indirect effect of our innerworldly experiences on our linguistic knowledge. While innerworldly experiences cannot play any direct role in the revision of linguistic knowledge they can play an indirect role. Thus what is needed is to go beyond the one sided reductionism of Quine and Heidegger and to establish a dialectical yet open ended relation between the linguistic knowledge and innerworldly experiences, between implicit and explicit knowledge and between the primordial and causal.

In chapter 4, I introduce the idea of the ontological conception of freedom in Habermas. The idea is not explicitly present in Habermas; however, I argue that it is necessary for developing a conception of transcendence from within. The idea of transcendence from within requires that the dichotomy between freedom and limits be overcome and limits should be seen positively as the conditions of the possibility of freedom and not just negatively as hindrances. I argue that though the idea is not explicitly present in Habermas it is implicitly working in his analysis.

In chapter 5, I start reconstructing the idea of transcendence from within directly. In chapter 5 and 6 I reconstruct the idea from the ‘subjective’ angle, i.e. from the side of language, lifeworld and subjects capable of speech and action. In chapter 7, I construct the idea from the ‘objective’ angle, i.e. from the side of the objective world and nature and reality as a whole.

In chapter 5, I concentrate on a single meaning of transcendence from within from the subjective side. I argue that Habermas wants to maintain Kant’s distinction between causality of nature and the causality of reason (freedom), which in contemporary terms can be understood as the distinction between the space of reason and the space of law, without positing a Kantian otherworldly realm of pure intelligibility. In other words the distinction between the causality of nature and causality of reason must be established from within. I aim to do this by concentrating on Habermas’ theory of communicative action, especially on his distinction between strategic and communicative action. I argue that, for Habermas, the space of reason and Kant’s realm of intelligibility emerge when the participants ‘lock’ themselves within the space created by communicative action by pursuing the aim of mutual understanding with their co participants without reservation and without regard for any instrumental and strategic aims. Within such a space, claims Habermas, a this worldly version of Kant’s space of reason can be experienced as long as one remains within that space by solely aiming at the purpose of mutual understanding and disregarding strategic aims.

In chapter 6, I build on the analysis in chapter 5, further exploring related meanings of transcendence from within from the subjective side. In this context I explain how unconditionality emerges from within conditional and without positing unconditioned, and how validity emerges from within the factual. In other words I explain the emergence of the critical force from within the factual. In the same manner I also explain how generality emerges from within particular. In explaining the above I discuss Habermas’ notion of idealisations as the conditions of the possibility of communicative action and argumentation in general and how these idealisations set in motion in this world the resources of Kant’s intelligible realm without positing any separate otherworldly realm of intelligible.

In chapter 7, I explore the meaning of transcendence from within from the ‘objective’ side. Until recently Habermas’ strategy for transcendence from within was solely explained from the ‘subjective’ side. The theory of communicative action presupposes the notion of objectivity only as a formal concept. However Habermas’ recent move away from an epistemic conception of truth and his development of a full blown pragmatic conception of knowledge has helped him to explain the role played by nature and objective world in making transcendence from within possible. Habermas now sees a more pro-active role of the world in making transcendence from within possible. Although there still remains a difference in kind between the objections of participants within argumentation and the objections of the world and nature, in that the world and reality object to our claims only figuratively and indirectly in that if it goes along with our claims and our linguistic knowledge or refuse to cooperate with us, a more prominent role is given to both objective world and nature in making transcendence from within than was the case previously.

By resisting our empirical as well as linguistic knowledge the world and nature create the possibility of transcending our existing empirical knowledge from within. The world and nature also provide the possibility of overcoming the bridges between historical times by overcoming the distance between the two different historical epochs from within. The world and nature provide the continuum across historical time which answers that changes across historical time are not haphazard and that learning is possible across historical times.

The world as well as reality as a whole does not only provide the basis for transcendence from within it also forms the basis of objectivity of not only our empirical knowledge and factual claims but also of our linguistic knowledge. If empirical knowledge and linguistic knowledge can stand the resistance of reality they pass the test of objectivity and ensure their own survival. The knowledges that cannot pass this test are transcended in turn.

The above ensures that the claims justified in the space of reason are not mere chimera of our imagination. However since there is an ultimate gap between reality and language and we do not have direct and immediate access across to the naked reality and since reality can only unsettle our beliefs indirectly and can never directly prove or disprove them, the objectivity remains fallibilistic and open ended.

Thus for Habermas transcendence from within is the result of an open ended but complex dialectic between language, action, world and the subjects capable of speech and action. Furthermore it presupposes modern (post conventional) fallibilism and open endedness towards ourselves, others and our own world. It also requires presupposing the ‘weak’ naturalist hypothesis which though, a hypothesis is necessary for assuming continuity between language, action and world, essential for proving the possibility of transcendence from within.

In brief concluding comments I speculate about possible objections to Habermas’ strategy for establishing the possibility of transcendence from within. I suggest that one of the main weaknesses of Habermas’ enterprise might be the enormous amount of presuppositions that it involves. Furthermore I suggest that it has implications which might lead to the abandonment of any substantive conception of truth.

Ali Rizvi (2006), draft please do not quote.
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