Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Henrich on Habermas: some observations

Note: Moving to the front (from Feb 24) due to recent comments

“. . . the capacity for language can only develop along with the spontaneous emergence of a self relation. This emergence in turn requires explanation. And this world require us to speak of an implicit self-relation, which already appears or function at the most elementary level of language acquisition. For it is clear that the capacity to use the grammatical first-person singular (the pronoun ‘I’) is acquired only at late stage in the process of language acquisition. If the existence of a self-relation were dependent on, and determined by, the acquisition of this capacity, then the thesis of the priority of interaction would be unproblematic; it would be a trivial and obvious truth.” (Dieter Henrich, "What is Metaphysics - What is Modernity? Twelve Theses against Jürgen Habermas" in Habermas: A Critical Reader, p. 311).

Consdier however the following:

•Habermas does not deny the biological/physiological/neurological bases of human spontaneity (freedom). Evidently language use and capacity for it presupposes certain degree of freedom and capacity for it. However such capacity is intermeshed, from the start with and ultimately undifferentiated from the capacity to use language. [As Habermas notes: "By no means does (linguistic analysis of the development of consciousness) exclude prelinguistic roots of cognitive development for early childhood: even with primitive rule consciousness, a rudimentary relation-to-self must already develop itself. Such ontogenetic assumptions do not, however, prejudice the description of the functioning of metacognitive abilites at the developmental stage of the mastered mother tongue, where achievements of intelligence are already linguistically organized." (Postmetaphysical Thinking, p. 27 n 18).].

•What Habermas is saying is that human spontaneity (freedom) cannot be explained in terms of biological/physiological/neurological capacity alone. A fuller explanation must involve understanding of the processes individuation through socialization (which obviously involves language use).

• In a sense for Habermas, in a quite contrast with Henrich, the proposition that there is a biological/physiological/neurological basis of human freedom is “unproblematic,” in fact it is “trivial and obvious truth.” What needs explanation is how this capacity grows into a full fledged capability in the face of a thorough going socialization which every individual under goes during his lifetime.

•In order to explain the existence of spontaneity in the fullest sense one needs to understand it in the context of our being in the world and our being with the others.

The above is borne out by what Habermas says here:

“I see the . . . far – reaching contribution of Mead in his having taken up themes that can be found in Humboldt and Kierkegaard: individuation is pictured not as the self.-realization of an independently acting subject carried out in isolation and freedom but as a linguistically mediated process of socialization and the simultaneous constitution of a life history that is conscious of itself. The identity of socialized individuals forms itself simultaneously in the medium of coming to an understanding with others in language and in the medium of coming to a life-historical and intersubjective understanding with oneself. Individuality forms itself in relations of intersubjective acknowledgement and of intersubjectively mediated self-understanding.” (Postmetaphysical Thinking, pp. 152-153).


Jesse said...

In Habermas's work, "The Future of Human Nature", he begins to question whether he can maintain his weak naturalism. That Human freedom is an "obvious truth". One should note that he does (try and) move away from the inauguration of the subject being an act of self-reflection. One where the self takes itself for an object and in doing so realizes its own autonomous being, independent from the world of objects. Instead, Habermas sees this process as occurring AS A RESULT of the self's encounter with the other. So, as for Kierkegaard it is in the encounter with an other that the self (not ego-identity, but the I) is able to be a self.
Habermas goes to great length to argue, along the lines of Mead, that the our autonomy is dependent on linguisitic mediation and it is only within the an embedded network of reciprocal relations that an individual, aware of their own individuality and irreplacability, is able to emerge.
Myself, I have never been convinced of this line of argument. Undoubtly the subject is socially constituted, but the network of relations or communicative action, seems to be similar to Leibniz's pre-established harmony. How did individual's emancipate themselves to become subjects when they were still operating at the level of gestures? No doubt the liberal idea of autonomy is increased through the demarcation through languagea of an individual who sees himself as taking yes/no position. This leaves the question of what the status is of the transcendental subject. That is, the "I" as world-constituter is the ground for the ego-identity (Habermas sometimes uses the "id" analogy) and is the undetermined unity of apperception.
In TFHN Habermas identifies this necessity for us to consider this ground as wholly undetermined in order to view ourselves as autonomous beings. In light of Eugenic intervention and the possibility for an other to determine a future subject SPECIFIC capacities, there is the risk that we will not be able to have a self-understanding that assumes that our participation in the lifeworld is reflects our choices. I.e, we need to be able to see ourselves as free, as making our own choices and feeling that we can take responsibility for those choices in the way that a designed or programmed entity cannot.
It is my feeling that Eugenics not only puts into peril the liberal project of modernity, but sheds light on the fact that what we had previously considered as categorical distinctions between the "grown" and the "made" are in merely lines in the sand. With the disillusion of such boundaries, the current Aristotlean lifeworld perspective may be radically altered.

Ali Rizvi said...

Thank you for your thought provoking comments.

I think, we need to differentiate between two interrelated yet different problems. What Habermas analyses with reference to Mead is the constitution of subject/subjectivity in a way which is able to take into account the fact that we are 'being in the world'.

The analysis in "The Future of Human Nature", as you clearly recognise, deals with a different question, the question of the normative status of the subject.

Certainly such an analysis presupposes Habermas' ontological/factual analysis of the constitution of subjectivity with reference to Mead, but it is not the same question as the latter.

It is another way of saying that we should recognise two different senses of freedom involved here, the factual and normative. Both are interrelated however they are not the same questions.

Jesse said...

Thanks for pointing out his distinction.

I agree that that there are two different sense of freedom. However, I think that the consideration of ethical norms, depends upon a SPECIFIC idea of ontological freedom.

Habermas's concern, in TFHN is with the radical alteration of our present ethical self-understanding; our normative freedom. Moreover, he is concerned that we will have difficulty viewing our actions as autonomous if we cannot see our biological ground, our body, as wholly undetermined. But there is a factual element here as well. The subject as both: in-the-world and as world-constituter finds himself, paradoxically, in the unique position to consider himself as the GROUND of his own being. Although the development, in Meads sense, of particular kinds of subjectivity including the ability to consider oneself as autonmous actor, depends upon intersubjective relations of reciprocity that are linguistically mediated, the ontological ground for this possibility is, contrary to what Habermas claims, prepared a priori. In fact, this ontology of freedom is required for Habermas' discourse ethics to function.
Normative claims to validity are raised and decided in and through language. The rightness of a moral norm, for Habermas, depends upon all concerned being able to consent to that particular moral norm.
This is were I see it necessary for Habermas to address the ontological aspect of autonomy. If one cannot FULLY assume responsibility for their yes/no position in a moral dialogue because that subject no longer views the ground of their own being as being something wholly undetermined, then UNIVERSAL moral validity-claims lose the process by which they can be considered as justified.
Moreover, without something that all human beings share it is impossible to maintain the universal APPLICABILITY of moral claims. For Kant it was the universality of our faculty of reason which enabled us to be autonomous beings and therefore moral agents.

Habermas, in a postmetaphysical world, replaces reason with our 'ability to be' autonomous, but the possibility conditions for being able to be singular are not something that can come about by an opening in intersubjective space. There must linger a weak ontology: the possibility to conditions which enable one to "become" autonomous (in the normative sense) need to be part of human "nature".

Habermas himself sees this problem in "Religion and Rationality" (sorry I don't know the page) where he says: "the transcendental grounding of selfhood needs to represent something like a general anthropological fact."

Therefore, the normative question of freedom in fact depends upon a specific ontological claim regarding our ABILITY TO BE autonomous. A claim that I think Habermas cannot maintain.

Ali Rizvi said...

This seems to me a very forceful articulation of basically what Henrich is saying. It can cut both ways though, and this is what Habermas realises.

If the strong ontological claims of the possibility of freedom are so strongly linked to possibility of continuing freedom based moral and political visions then demise of the former would be the undoing of the latter for ever.

The humbleness of Habermas' weak ontology of freedom is the outcome of the realisation that the strong Kantian ontology of freedom is on shaky grounds after persistent critiques from Humboldt down to Heidegger, Gadamer and Foucault on the one and from Frege up to Quine and Davidson on the other hand.

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