Monday, April 18, 2005

Habermas and McDowell: Two conceptions of transcendence

I have just finished reading McDowell’s interesting piece entitled “Towards rehabilitating Objectivity,” in Rorty and his critics ed. By Robert Brandom, pp. 109-123, that was suggested to me by Carl Sachs.

I believe that McDowell’s position in the article is not only compatible with Habermas’ position but is in Habermasian spirit as well. I have noticed several interesting parallels which I will try to allude to in the future post, but here I will limit myself to describing the most important parallel that come up in the essay. The parallel is between Habermas and McDowell’s respective conceptions of “transcendence.”

McDowell takes issue with Richard Rorty’s interpretation of Putnam’s claim that “norms expressible with notions like that of truth are internal to our world view.” (p. 118). McDowell challenges Rorty’s interpretation of Putnam’s above insight in terms of his claim that “the norms that govern claim-making can only be norms of consensus” (ibid.). According to McDowell the act of raising and defending claims also inevitably refers to the world which is not of our own making and hence is “transcendent.” Rorty rejects any reference to this “transcendent world” on the ground of the above mentioned Putnam maxim, which McDowell also accepts (and so does Habermas). However McDowell claims that Rorty confuses between two conceptions of transcendence when he rejects any reference to the “transcendent world.” McDowell terms these two conceptions of transcendence as a) Illusory concept of transcendence and b) Innocuous concept of transcendence, respectively. McDowell further claims that accepting Putnam’s insight entails rejecting a) but not b).

Le us see how McDowell understand these two different conceptions. Illusory concept of transcendence is succumbing “to the illusion that we need to climb outside our own minds, the illusion that though we aim our thought and speech at the world form a standpoint constituted by our present practices and competences, we must be able to conceive the conformity of our thought and speech to the world form outside any such standpoint.” (p. 118).

Innocuous concept of transcendence on the other hand rests on the insight that “in claim-making we make ourselves answerable not just to the verdicts of our fellows but to the facts themselves. That is, if you like, to say that norms of inquiry transcend consensus.” (p. 119). McDowell goes on to add that: “These norms are internal to our world view, just as Putnam urged that the relevant norms must be. It is just that the world view to which they are internal has the world in view otherwise than as constituted by what linguistic performances will pass muster in our present practice. But that is merely a requirement for us to have the world in view at all – for moves within the relevant practices to be expressive of a world view, as opposed to merely aspiring to vocalize in step with one another. Taking this transcendence in stride requires no more than confidence in our capacity to direct our meaning at, say, whether or not cold fusion has occurred.” (p. 119).

What McDowell calls an “innocuous conception of transcendence," I believe, is precisely what Habermas terms as “transcendence form within.” This should be clear from what Habermas says in the following:

“. . . the objectivity of experience cannot be made dependent upon the agreement – no matter how rational – of a contingent number of participants, i.e; a contingent agreement within any particular group. Better arguments, which would refute what is here and now held to be true by you and me, might emerge in different contexts or on the basis of further experiences. With the concept of reality, to which every representation necessarily refers, we presuppose something transcendent. As long as we move within a particular linguistic community or form of life, this transcendent relation cannot be supplanted by the rational acceptability of an argument. Since we cannot break out of the sphere of language and argumentation altogether, we can only establish the reference to reality . . . by projecting a “transcendence from within.” . . . . If we understand realty as the conceptual totality of all assertions that are true . . . we are able to do justice to its transcendence without having without having to surrender the internal connection between the objectivity of experience and the intersubjectivity of reaching mutual understanding.” (PT: 103).

Despite difference in terminology the concept of “transcendence form within” which Habermas describes here with reference to Peirce’s ideas (the concept is better defended in more recent writings) shows very interesting parallels with McDowell’s idea of “innocuous conception of transcendence.”

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Carl Sachs said...

I'm glad you found the McDowell article helpful. Looking over your comment on it suggested to me that there's some ambiguity over what is meant by "transcendent world." In one sense--the 'illusory' sense--the transcendent world means "some other world which transcends this one." In another sense--the 'innocuous' sense--the transcendent world means "this world which transcends our beliefs and desires." So maybe there's just some confusion about what "transcendent world" means?

Rorty might wonder how even the innocuous sense of a transcendent world can be sustained without falling into Cartesianism. But here I think that Davidson and McDowell have done a great deal to show us how that can work, how we can have objectivity--or at least all the objectivity we need!--without Cartesianism.

Ali Rizvi said...


It is not clear to me what the confusion is? I think what (both) Habermas and McDowell are saying is that though world transcends our desires and beliefs it is still a "this worldly" world and not something beyond the "this worldly" world.

Rorty is a very smart man but it seems to me that his position regarding "objectivity" vs. "solidarity" is a very weak position, as both McDowell and Habermas show, from two different angles, in their contributions.

Rorty is right to object to the old Cartesian/metaphysical conception of objectivity which severe the concept of objectivity from subjectivity or intersubjectivity entirely, but Rorty seems to be heading towards another extreme of reducing objectivity to intersubjectivity.

In order to avoid both kinds of reductions we need to adopt what Brandom calls “relational thinking.” However relational thinking can only prosper if we give due to both terms as well as recognise the priority of relations.

In order to do that we need, as Habermas keep telling us following Hegel, a third term. In order to avoid reductionism of subjective as well as objective type what we need is a third term, which has been called "being in the world" following Heidegger.

It is only by giving priority to the notion of being in the world that we can reconceptualise the Cartesian notions of ‘subject’ and ‘object’ in such a way that not only the gulf created between subject and object is overcome but also both types of reductionisms are avoided. Both subject and object are individuated within "being in the world." and this is what Habermas means when he talks about individuation through socialisation.

Ali Rizvi said...

As an afterthought, I thought I should add that, Habermas and McDowell can escape Rorty's objection only if they accept Rorty’s basic position that mere appeal to "the world" cannot solve certain fundamental questions which are the basis of disagreement among interlocutors "within a particular lifeworld" or across different lifeworlds. However Habermas and McDowell are right to insist that from the acceptance of the above Rortian position it does not follow that we are not “answerable to the world," for claims we raise within a conversation.

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