Habermas’ enterprise has often been described as Kantian pragmatism in recent days. The Kantian side of the equation is pretty clear however there is not much agreement on “in what sense Habermas is a pragmatist”. We had posted earlier some thoughts on this here and here.
In a recent excellent article on Habermas’s “Kantian pragmatism” Kenneth Baynes concludes his argument in the following way:
“Habermas, like Brandom, locates normativity in the attitudes we suppose actors to take up towards one another – there is no normativity apart from the statuses instituted via these attitudes. For Habermas, these attitudes are importantly and irreducibly second personal in that to adopt the deliberative stance is to treat them as “coparticipants” in the “space of reasons.” In adopting the deliberative stance, we view others as at least virtual participants in the exchange of reasons that must convince us as well. So construed, the deliberative stance, generally – can be seen as a “pragmatic” rendering of Kant’s claim that, insofar as we view ourselves as capable of acting for reasons at all, we must view ourselves as acting under the idea of freedom.”("The transcendental turn: Habermas' "Kantian pragmatism" in The Cambridge Companion to Critical Theory, pp. 194-218, here p. 215).
The use of ‘pragmatic’ in above can be described as vague at best. However Robert Brandom has recently made a distinction between two senses of pragmatism which in my opinion can be very useful in understanding Habermas’ pragmatism. Brandom writes:
“Pragmatism can be thought of narrowly: as a philosophical school of thought centered on evaluating beliefs by their tendency to promote success at the satisfaction of wants, whose paradigmatic practioners were the classical American triumvirate of Charles Peirce, William James and John Dewey. But pragmatism can also be thought of more broadly: as a movement centered on the primacy of the practical, initiated already by Kant, whose twentieth-century avatars includes not only Peirce, James and Dewey, but also the early Heidegger, the later Wittgenstein and such figures as Quine, Sellars, Davidson and Rorty. I think the broader version of pragmatism is much more important and interesting than the narrower one.”("Pragmatics and pragmatisms" in Hilary Putnam: Pragmatism and Realism, pp. 40-58 here p. 41, emphasis added).
I think if pragmatism is defined as a movement that gives primacy to the practical then certainly Habermas is pragmatism. I believe this is the main sense in which Habermas is pragmatist.
Brandom goes on to further explicate the meaning of practical in the following way:
“It is characteristic of pragmatism in the broad sense to see knowing how as having a certain kind of explanatory priority of knowing that. This is one influential form taken by an insistence on the explanatory primacy of the practical over the theoretical. Explicit theoretical beliefs can be made intelligible only against a background of implicit practical abilities. Pragmatism in this sense – call it ‘fundamental pragmatism’ – is opposed to the kind of Platonistic intellectualism that seeks to explain practical abilities in terms of some sort of grasp of principles; some sort of knowing that behind each bit of know how.” (ibid; p. 46).
The above squares nicely with Habermas’ prioritization of know how on know that in developing his formal pragmatics.
Moreover Brandom considers the above to be the heart of Heidegger’s Being and Time:
“Opposing intellectualism by seeing the capacity to know or believe that something is the case as parasitic on more primitive kinds of know how – capacities to do something that is not yet saying, thinking or believing anything – is the basic thesis of the first part of Heidegger’s Being and Time.” (ibid.).
This is in tune with what we said earlier (here) about relation between Heidegger and Habermas and the primacy of action in both. This also explains Habermas’ insistence that Heidegger "Heidegger also praticipated in the anti-Pltantonic thrust of pragmatism".