Monday, January 10, 2005

Habermas on Peirce (1)

Habermas’ conception of knowledge (positively) as constituted by cognitive interest is followed by his rejection of the mirror or copy theory of knowledge (negatively). Habermas rejects the mirror theory of truth because it is based on the naïve idea “that knowledge describes reality” (Knowledge & Human Interest, p. 69 (henceforthe referred to as KHI). The correspondence theory of truth is based on the same ‘objectivist illusion’ that is the basis of the representational theory of knowledge.

In KHI Habermas considered at least three promising theories but criticised all of them for ultimately succumbing to the objectivist illusion. I will briefly consider Habermas’ reasons for first praising these theories and then rejecting them as ultimately inadequate.

Habermas observes that “Peirce” did not “succumb to the objectivist attitude of early positivism” (KHI: 91). The insight which helped Peirce save himself from the menace of positivism was “his understanding that the task of methodology is not to clarify the logical structure of scientific theories but the logic of the procedure with whose aid we obtain scientific theories” (ibid.). Concentration on the process of inquiry rather than its product enabled Peirce to arrive at his crucial insight that:

We term information scientific if and only if an uncompelled and permanent consensus can be obtained with regard to its validity. This consensus does not have to be definitive, but has to have definitive agreement as its goal. The genuine achievement of modern science does not consist primarily in producing true, that is correct and cogent statements about what we call reality. Rather, it distinguishes itself from traditional categories of knowledge by a method of arriving at an uncompelled and permanent consensus of this sort about our views .(ibid; emphasis added).

Rather than succumbing to the positivistic myth of science as the true mirror of reality, Peirce tried to turn the table on positivism by redefining the achievement of modern sciences not as the true mirror of reality but as emanating from the notion of inquiry whose telos was “uncompelled consensus”. Thus Peirce to that extent shifts the focus of truth (reconceptualises it) from ‘mirror’ of reality to consensus among free inquirers thus shifting away from correspondence theory of truth, which is the basis of the objectivist illusion.

However, according to Habermas, Peirce does not go far enough to be able to overcome the correspondence theory of truth completely. He ultimately succumbs to the same objectivist illusion, which has been the hallmark of positivism. Peirce succumbs to the objectivist illusion despite his advancements because of his contradictory notion that the uncompelled consensus among inquirer aims at technical control, which is ultimately based on the instrumental notion of action. It is contradictory because;

The symbolic representation of matters of fact knowable from the transcendental perspective of possible technical control serves exclusively for the transformation of expression in process of reasoning. Deduction, induction, and abduction establish relations between statements that are in principle monologic. It is possible to think in syllogism, but not to conduct a dialogue in them. I can use syllogistic reasoning to yield arguments for a discussion, but I cannot argue syllogistically with another. Insofar as the employment of symbols is constitutive for the behavioural system of instrumental action, the use of language involved is monologic. But the communication of investigators requires the use of language that is not confined to limits of technical control over objectified natural process. It arises from symbolic interaction between societal subjects who reciprocally know and recognise each other as unmistakeable individuals. This communicative action is a system of reference that cannot be reduced to the framework of instrumental action (KHI: 137, italics in the original).

By reducing the telos of intersubjective inquiry to instrumental action, which according to Habermas is based on the notion of solitary subject, Peirce reaffirmed ontology with it’s accompanying objectivistic illusion and with it’s correspondence theory of truth (KHI: 131-132)* . It was essentially the notion of correspondence theory of truth that compelled Peirce to prioritise solitary subject constituted through the ‘transcendental perspective of technical control” (KHI: 137) which closely resembles the traditional line of a solitary subject engaged in the monologic pursuit for the ‘objective’ truth, over the ‘transcendental subject’ formed through the “communication of investigators” (ibid.). The dialogic model of communication was ultimately sublated since it did not suit the linear model of a solitary subject aiming at object, inherited in the correspondence theory of truth.

* It has not been my aim here to attempt an exhaustive survey of Habermas’ assessment of Peirce. I have been only aiming at selectively surveying the central points that are related to our problematic here. For a fuller treatment cf. Swindal ((Reflection Revisited: Jurgen Habermas's Discursive Theory of Truth ). For criticism of Habermas’ reading of Peirce see Rockmore, 2002 in (Habermas and Pragmatism.

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