Saturday, November 27, 2004

Habermas' naturalism/anti-naturalism

The issue of naturalism/anti-naturalism of Habermas can be dealt with from three different angles. In what follows I shall briefly explain these three different approaches and their interrelation:

a)Initially the issue of naturalism/anti-naturalism was raised by environmentalists within Critical theory tradition (mainly by followers of Marcuse such as Hans Joans and minor figures such as Joel Whitebook. In English speaking world Peter Dews has consistently followed this line of argument). Here the debate focused on the concept of “nature” in Habermas. The critique/questioning concentrated on Habermas’ presumed privileging of human beings over nature. Thus the object of questioning in this line of critique has been Habermas’ alleged “anthropocentricism” and his “humanism”. This kind of thinking focuses on Habermas’ early take on Schelling and urges him to expand his conception of “nature” in such a way that it can be rendered sensitive to new environmental ethos.

b)While the first line of critique questions Habermas’ alleged anti-naturalism the second kind of critique questions his alleged naturalism. The second line of critique focuses on the ‘mind’ ‘body’ problem. Habermas’ so-called weak naturalism has been the object of speculations in this context. Habermas’ critique of ‘subject’ and his proposal for the detranscendnetalisation of the subject have been interpreted as drift towards ‘naturalism’. Dieter Henrich is a key figure in this debate. His allies in English speaking world in this context are Peter Dews (somewhat surprisingly given his position in a) and Dieter Freundlieb among others.

c)There is a third consideration which has been absent from the discussion to this day. The position can be best understood as classifying naturalism into ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ naturalism.Soft naturalism can be understood in contrast with supernaturalism, while hard naturalism should be understood as a position within ‘soft naturalism’ which tries to explain all natural phenomena including human mind and subjectivity in physicalistic terms. Thus there can be a a naturalist position in the first sense (soft naturalism) which is not necessarily naturalist in the second sense (hard naturalism) [I have taken the distinction between 'soft' and 'hard' naturalism from Frederick A. Olafson's excellent short study Naturalism and the Human Condition: Against Scientism

As a thinker of the stature of master thinkers Habermas focuses mainly on the question of ‘soft naturalism’ and its compatibility with certain idealist/anti naturalist assumptions about subject and reason.

If we approach the issue from third angle, the first two approaches can be reformulated in a way in which they do not necessarily remain exclusive approaches. It may be the case that Habermas is anti-naturalist and naturalist at the same time and this would require a total reconfiguration of debates in a and b.

"P.Dews correctly characterizes my account of the consistency of an uncommon combination as follows: "It is the combination of the anti-idealism with anti-scientism and a propensity toward naturalism which makes for the distinctiveness of Habermas' work. It marks him out as belonging to a sub-tradition which ultimately derives from the world of Hegel's left-wing followers during the 1830s and 40s""

Truth and Justification p. 296 n. 37


Anonymous said...

Gary at is a soft naturalist on ecological grounds and is opposed to the hard naturalism of the Australian materialist or the physicalists.

As an environmentalist within Critical Theory tradition I am critical of that tradition because of its privileging of human beings over nature.Adorno & Horkheimer were aware of this in their Dialectic of Enlightenment---eg the domination of nature thesis --but they did little with it.they did not push in an ecological direction at all.

It was their enemy Heidegger who did so.

You can this criticism surfacing over at philosophical conversations.As an aside, Habermas is not too hot on the bodily being-in the world-either.

So you can link a & b. However, I'm not why one would bother with Habermas on this kind of stuff.

Ali Rizvi said...

Habermas is interesting for me because he raises the important question of how soft naturalism is compatible with the transcending force of reason without reverting to supernaturalism (of the Kantian or theist kind). This sort of question and analysis is important for the future of soft naturalism. The question obviously does not even make sense to a hard determinist and consequently does not bother him.

I agree with what you say about Heidegger and also what do you say about Adorno and Horkheimer but Habermas does incorporate the crux of Heidegger’s analysis on Being in the World (I intend to show this in my thesis but see my working paper on Habermas’ conception of freedom for detail).

With all the merits of Heidegger’s analysis it is undeniable that Heidegger has trouble describing the question of agency as his move from analysis in B & T to the later thinking and also as his involvement with Nazism shows. Habermas’ though harsh and unfair to Heidegger in some ways does raise the genuine question about the role of agency and its viable conceptualisation both in early and later Heidegger.

If you are an environmentalist within the tradition of critical theory then the question would be how your position is different from somebody like Hans Joans or Peter Dews (who follow Joans and Henrich but is not exactly a member of Frankfurt School) for example? It would be interesting to know.

Finally I have just started to engage with work of Gary so am not in a position to comment on relation of his work to that of Critical theorists.

Ali Rizvi said...

Andrew Bowie nicely summs up the problem of reconciling nature and freedom I refer to in my comments above "The significance of the work of the early Schelling (1795-1800) lies in its attempts to give a new account of nature which, while taking account of the fact that Kant has irrevocably changed the status of nature in modern philosophy, avoids some of the problematic consequences of Kant's theory. For the Kant of the Critique of Pure Reason (1781, 1787) nature is largely seen in the ‘formal’ sense: nature is that which is subject to necessary laws. These laws are accessible to us, Kant argues, because cognition depends on the subject bringing necessary forms of thought, the categories, to bear on what it perceives. The problem this leads to is how the subject could fit into a nature conceived of in deterministic terms, given that the subject's ability to know is dependent upon its ‘spontaneous’ self-caused ability to judge in terms of the categories. Kant's response to this dilemma is to split the ‘sensuous’ realm of nature as law-bound appearance from the ‘intelligible’ realm of the subject's cognitive and ethical self-determination. However, if the subject is part of nature there would seem to be no way of explaining how a nature which we can only know as deterministic can give rise to a subject which seems to transcend determinism in its knowing and in its ethical doings. Kant himself sought to bridge the realms of necessity and spontaneity in the Critique of Judgement (1790), by suggesting that nature itself could be seen in more than formal terms: it also produces self-determining organisms and can give rise to disinterested aesthetic pleasure in the subject that contemplates its forms. The essential problems remained, however, that 1) Kant gave no account of the genesis of the subject that transcends its status as a piece of determined nature, and 2) such an account would have to be able to bridge the divide between nature and freedom."

also see my Habermas' Ontological conception of Freedom: Some preliminary Reflections @

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