Friday, January 28, 2005

Peter Dews and Habermas' weak Naturalism (1)

“Many of the influential philosophers of the twentieth century . . . have felt compelled to contest the cognitive exclusivity of the natural sciences in the domain of nature, without believing that it is possible to establish a metaphysical theory of nature. Since for all these thinkers subjectivity emerges from nature, yet also remains a part of –intrinsic to-nature, we cannot, as thinking subjects, make nature the target of a theory of any kind without distorting an essential co-belonging. But this fact does not preclude philosophical elucidations of a reality which merits the title ‘Nature an sich’ in so far as it cannot be reduced to the forms of its interpretation. Furthermore, such elucidations need not fall victim to the illusion, which both Seel and Habermas so fear, that one could derive detailed prescriptions for the conduct of human life from a totalizing speculation on the meaning and purpose of nature. They can freely advertise their own provisional status.” (The Limits of Disenchantment Essays on Contemporary European Philosophy p. 160).

1) Dews claims that “cognitive exclusivity of the natural sciences in the domain of nature” can be contested without necessarily relegating to “a metaphysical theory of nature.”. I believe that this is a defensible claim if it does not imply (as it seems to imply) that Habermas holds the position it is rebutting. In fact Habermas allows three sorts of claims to be made within communicative action and one of those claims is claim about ‘objective nature’. In so far as communicative action presupposes space of freedom (on which the emergence of the space of reasons is dependent)[for this see "The transcendental turn: Habermas’s ‘Kantian pragmatism’", by Kenneth Baynes; in The Cambridge Companion to Critical Theory] claims raised within it cannot be construed as objectivistic claims in the sense of treating objects of nature as necessarily instrumental. All claims made within communicative action (including claims related to the ‘objective nature’) reveal a primordial space of freedom as the condition of making any such claims. In fact this was Habermas’ point against positivism and scientism. Positivism and scientism come into existence when they forget their root in self-reflection. Self-reflection and (hence freedom) is the condition of the possibility of science, claimed Habermas, as early as in his Knowledge and Human Interests. The fact that we can abstract from the conditions in which scientific claims emerge and depend on, makes us forget that that those conditions are needed to make the very abstraction that are claimed as evidence of the non existence of those conditions. Habermas’ later move from semantics to pragmatics (formal) and his rejections of Chosmskian notion of linguistic competence as abstraction and his making the notion of linguistic performance as the corner stone of his explanation of linguistic competence and hence his move from the monological conception of competence to communicative competence [see T. A. McCarthy, "The theory of Communicative Competence" Phil. Soc. Sci. 3(1973): pp. 135-156] is based on the insight that performance (and hence freedom) is primary and on it depends any abstractions. Freedom is the condition of making any abstraction, communication and performance is the condition of the instrumental use of language and our cognitive faculties (see The Theory of Communicative Action, Volume 2 : Lifeword and System: A Critique of Functionalist Reason, pp. 77-118> and "Individuation through Socialization: On George Herbert Mead's Theory of Subjectivity", in Postmetaphysical Thinking, pp. 149-204). The same point is the basis of Habermas’ critique of monological conceptions of modern truth semantics as it has come to us from Frege up to Quine and Davidson. And so is his positive appraisal of Dummet’s move from sentences to assertion (through his distinction between ‘truth’ and ‘assertibility’) as the basic element of semantic analysis ( On the Pragmatics of Communication, pp. 287-288). All this makes it clear that Habermas in no way limits “cognitive exclusivity of the natural sciences in the domain of nature”. Habermas considers scientific enterprise as essentially abstraction but the one, which is legitimate and useful, as far as it acknowledges or at least does not suppress the very conditions of its possibility (i.e. space of freedom, reason and self reflection).

2) Dews further on mentions contemporary scholars who have emphasised the “co-belonging” of human beings and nature. He mentions that for these thinkers although subjectivity emerges from within nature it remains part of nature and thus we cannot talk about nature as whole without compromising this essential ‘co-belonging’. There are few things that should be noted in this context. First, I would emphasise that what Dews says about other contemporary thinkers is also true for Habermas. Dews, tends to think that Habermas only belatedly realize these facts. In fact Habermas’ work from Knowledge and Human Interests to Truth and Justification is permeated by this realisation. Habermas conception of lifeworld, which he rightly equates, with Heidegger’s conception of Being in the world (The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity, p. 144),is meant to emphasise the “co-belonging” of human beings and nature Dews talks about. Again Habermas talks about the language as that which brings us out of nature (Knowledge and Human Interests, p. 314), however it should be emphasised that this language for Habermas is always a natural language ( On the Pragmatics of Communication, p. 297). Thus what brings us out of nature is itself natural. A further point which needs to be emphasised in this context is Dews’ ambiguous use of the term nature. We can take nature in a broad sense as including all that is the case, and nature in the narrow sense of objective nature. The former will include human beings, objective nature including living and non living beings while the latter depending on how we define it can be restricted to all other beings except human beings or just to non living beings. Now Dews does not differentiate his concept of nature in the way indicated here and uses the ambiguity that results to make his point. However once we clearly differentiate the concept it becomes clear that there is no justification for expecting more than a general affinity between human beings as natural beings in the broader sense and objective nature. The fact that human beings are natural beings does not entail that they share there distinctive characteristics (i.e. subjectivity or freedom) with objective nature. By ignoring this difference Dews tend to equate (or at least confuse) objective nature with natura naturans.

3) The above takes us to Dews’ final point in the above quote that the conception of co-belonging is compatible with an endeavour to arrive at a conception of ‘nature in itself’ in so far as nature is not reducible to ‘forms of its interpretation.’ However Dews’ use of 'thing in itself' is ambiguous here (as is his use of the term nature). The notion of ‘nature in itself’ can be construed in the Kantian terms and contrasted with ‘nature as it appears to us’ or nature as phenomenon. However this reading of nature in itself is unacceptable given Habermas’ rejection of the whole dichotomy between ‘appearance’ and ‘reality’ (with his rejection of the philosophy of consciousness), which is ultimately derived from Heidegger’s critique of Kant. True that Habermas concedes that Kantian distinctions reappear on the level of formal pragmatics (Truth and Justification, p. 90 but they play different role than creating dichotomy between appearance and reality (essentially their role is to preserve Kantian distinctions, however without reproducing Kantian dichotomies). The purpose is not to reduce an interpretation of reality to reality as such, however without creating the dichotomy between appearance and reality. The notion of ‘nature in itself’ on the other hand can also be construed as ‘ground’ in the Heideggerian sense. According to this interpretation ‘nature’ in the broader sense is the ground of both human subjectivity and nature in the narrower sense. This is a fundamental presupposition of Habermas’ weak naturalism but as we will see (in the next post) it does not lead however to conclusions Dews wants to draw.


Thivai Abhor said...

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Ali Rizvi said...

I have following two reviews available on my personal website, If you want to publish any of them, you may in any form you like. I will also tell couple of friends and see if they can help out.



Thivai Abhor said...

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When you get around to it--if you want, give me a title or two that you would want to read/review and I'll request the books for you.

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