Tuesday, February 08, 2005

A critique of Joel Whitebooks' critique of Habermas

Joel Whitebook argues in his seminal piece “The problem of Nature in Habermas” [ Joel Whitebook, “The Problem of Nature in Habermas” Telos (SUM 79); 41-69.] that “Habermas’ transcendentalism necessarily precludes any reconciliation with nature.” (ibid; p. 41). He asserts that Habermas’ transcendental justification of critical theory comes at the expense of the ideal of early critical theorists (particularly Marcuse) [Whitebook does not consider Adorno or Horkheimer as propagating such vision however Dews and Dallmayr do think so] of reconciliation with nature. In this context Whitebook calls for “a non-regressive reconciliation with nature.” (ibid, p. 42). Such reconciliation with nature would be non-regressive, claims Whitebook, to the extent that it would be able to treat nature in non-instrumental terms while avoiding slide back to what he terms as “pre-rational, e.; mythical, forms of thought.” (ibid.).

However in my view Habermas is precisely aiming at ‘a non-regressive reconciliation with nature.’ Whitebook thinks otherwise. He thinks that Habermas’ transcendentalism bars any such solution (even if Habermas’ have tried in this direction). His acceptance of transcendentalism involves him in the paradox “that the constituted constitute the constituter. An anthropology of knowledge, if it is to avoid a vicious circle, cannot simply be an empirical theory, but must contain a “reflective” moment as well.” (ibid; p. 48). However this criticism is based on a misconception that Habermas is working with a conception of freedom that is essentially Kantian and Hegelian a conception of freedom that pits limits against freedom (and the capacity for reflection). However, Habermas goes beyond a conception of freedom that pits limits against freedom and thus does not have to be involved in a paradox in which Kant and Hegel would have involved if they had tried to “situate” the constituted and constituting on the same plane.

Whitebook’s above formulation is based on an implicit assumption that “reflection” cannot emerge from what is “empirical”. However this is based on a purely Kantian assumption according to which reflection cannot emerge form an empirical reality and that is the reason why Kant had to look for spontaneity in the realm of pure intelligibility: “. . . the dimension of historical facts, the “constitution” of which is to be explained, is the very dimension in which the transcendental subject of this constitution is itself “constituted” empirically. That this, from the standpoint of a transcendental critique of knowledge, is a paradoxical statement, is certainly not a decisive counter-argument: it merely shows the limits of transcendental philosophy.” Albrecht Wellmer, “Communications and Emancipation: Reflections on the linguistic turn in critical theory” in John O'Neill ed. On critical theory (Lanham : University Press of America, c1989), 231-263, here 249, emphasis retained). What Wellmer says about historical sciences is also true about knowledge in general.

Moreover Habermas in his post KHI writings ascribes “constitution” not to an “individual” or “specie” subject but to language and lifeworld, which are anonymous to the extent that there is no ‘subject’ of lifeworld and language as a whole. This second move absolves Habermas’ of the charge that might still be levelled against Marx for example who though detranscendentalises the subject, nevertheless attributes to it powers which are incompatible with human finitude as we have come to know since then.

Combined with the above two theses Habermas’ is able to circumvent the dilemma or paradox to which Whitebook refers. It was a dilemma for Kant for example to conceive subject as both constituted and constituting precisely because for him limits are the contrary of freedom so a free (constituting) subject cannot be located at the same plane as that of constituted subject (empirical subject). Hence Kant had to locate his constituting subject in the world of pure intelligibility and hence create a two-world (two - realm) dualism, reconciliation of which and demonstrating connection between which consumed rest of Kant’s energies. However there is no such need for Habermas to locate a free subject in the world of pure intelligibility precisely because he does not see freedom and limits in dualistic terms Kant saw. Thus for Habermas it is not a paradox in itself if empirical is construed as transcendental or transcendental as empirical.

Thus empirical subject are constituted in the context of lifeworld and language, and as far as lifeworld and language form the background of the subjects thus constituted and are not available to them as manipulable and observable entities, they act as “transcendental(s)”. However lifeworld and language are empirical (natural) in the following senses: a) they are located in “this world” and not in the realm of intelligibility which is above the world of phenomenon. b) Subjects formed within language and lifeworld are in turn capable of affecting lifeworld and language to certain extent (this is what Habermas means when he refers to the interpretive accomplishments of subjects formed within language and lifeworld). c) Thus lifeworld and language provide both resources and constraints.

Hence, language and lifeworld are simultaneously empirical/natural and transcendental(s). As far as language and lifeworld act from behind the back of actors they provide the condition of the possibility of not only their actions but also the conditions of the possibility of their agency and remain beyond their intervention. However this agency in turn can affect both language and lifeworld to a certain extent in the sense that both lifeworld and language can be partially objectivsed and thus affected by the agency formed within them. Thus Habermas’ “transcendentalism” is not engulfed by the dilemmas typical of Kantian transcendentalism.

Whitebook’s objection is in part based on confusing two senses of empirical: empirical in a broad sense and empirical in a narrow sense. Empirical in a narrow sense is equated by Habermas with objective knowledge and in this sense empirical can not contain “reflective” moment. However in a broad sense empirical cannot be equated with objective knowledge. Language and lifeworld are empirical to the extent that they can be partially objectivsed however they are not empirical in the narrow sense because their objectivisation is always partial and never complete. Thus it is not a paradox for empirical in this broad sense to contain a ‘reflective’ moment.

Whitebook then goes on to assert that in order to avoid the above paradox Habermas posits the conception of nature in itself thus differentiating objectivised nature and subjective nature from nature in itself . This, however, does not overcome the dilemma mentioned above (“The Problem of Nature in Habermas,” 48-49.). However this positing of nature in itself is in turn open to further objections and dilemmas of its own. Whitebook formulates these further objections deriving on McCarthy’s well known grilling of Habermas’ conception of nature in itself. As Whitebook puts it:

“. . . a serious difficulty arises concerning pre-human nature. Does the “materialist” claim that pre-human nature produces subjective, as McCarthy asks, not throw Habermas back into pre-critical ontology that violates this transcendental posture? The question cannot, account for the transition from pre-human to human nature. In both cases, he wants to say more than can legitimately be said from within the confines of his position.”(ibid; p. 49).

Now this objection even if has some relevance in the context of Habermas’ early work (for example his account in KHI) has no relevance whatsoever in the context of Habermas’ later mature work including TCA and TJ. The reason is succulently put forth by James Swindal:

“Habermas argues that learning processes must be grounded, not in a metaphysical concept of nature, a position which the later Peirce adopted, but in actual argumetnation with others about practical conflict. Habermas claims that we cannot break out of the sphere of language and argumentation: “we can only establish the relation to reality, which is not equivalent to ‘existence,’ by projecting a ‘transcendnece from within’”.
“For Habermas this view of inner transcendence both respects the ‘objectivity’ of the intersubjectivity of understanding that has become reflexive and avoids the ontologization of reality.”(Reflection Revisited: Jürgen Habermas’s Discursive Theory of Truth, p. 97 emphasis in the original).

Thus Habermas’ positing of reality from within is not ontological in the traditional sense and is compatible with the Kantian claim that we do not have access to pre-mediated reality.

continued from here

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