Sunday, October 29, 2006

A review of "Truth and Justification"

Magda Dumitru, The University at Buffalo, SUNY

Written by 'the greatest philosopher alive', as many would put it, this
volume will be particularly rewarding for specialists in Semantics and
Pragmatics in the field of Linguistics and Philosophy of language, but
also for those interested in less 'advertised' aspects of the philosophies
of Kant, Hegel, and Juergen Habermas himself, among others. It is the 17th
of his volumes Habermas sees appearing in the series "Studies in
Contemporary German Social Thought", under the series editorship of Thomas
McCarthy. The volume is a translation of the 1999 edition of "Wahrheit und
Rechtfertigung" -- except for chapters 2 and 5, which have been replaced.
The editor of "Truth and Justification" is Barbara Fultner who, apart from
editing the Notes and Index, is doing a nice job of translating chapters
2, 5, 6, and 7, editing earlier translations of chapters 1, 3, and 4 (by
Hella Beiser, Maeve Cooke, and Peter Dews respectively), and writing an
excellent "Translator's Introduction", where she confesses that great care
had to be taken in translating the original articles, under the danger of
creating "confusion in transposing a philosophical debate from one
language into another, one philosophical culture into another, even
challenging one's faith in the principle of translatability" (p. XXI).

The book includes seven chapters, preceded by the author's "Introduction:
Realism after the Linguistic Turn", which is a welcome synopsis of the
volume, with further implications for Habermas' philosophical thought. In
the following, I am presenting summaries of the chapters, including
several examples of the author's wording, followed by a short critical


Chapter 1 "Hermeneutic and Analytic Philosophy: Two Complementary Versions
of the Linguistic Turn"

The first chapter traces the road from hermeneutics (the fief of
continental philosophy) to formal pragmatics (Habermas's own theory). The
linguistic turn initiated by Frege has given rise to three 'currents',
according to Habermas. The first current, represented by the philosophies
of Wittgenstein and Heidegger, takes the linguistic turn as a paradigm
shift: it is true what is taken to be true. The second current,
represented by Russel, Carnap, Quine, and Davidson, views the linguistic
turn simply as a methodological device. The third current, represented by
Putnam, Dummett, and Apel, sees the linguistic turn as a paradigm shift
towards a formal pragmatics, defined as a theory of the general structures
of action. Habermas, whose philosophy is centered around both language and
culture, salutes the third current, since it is in discourse that
participants challenge "the truth for propositions about things and events
in the objective world, and rightness for propositions about normative
expectations and interpersonal relations" (p. 79). This challenging of
truth in discourse is made possible by a "decentering of lifeworld
perspectives" (p. 78).

Chapter 2 "From Kant's 'Ideas' of Pure Reason to the 'Idealizing'
Presuppositions of Communicative Action: Reflections on the
Detranscendentalized 'Use of Reason'"

The second chapter establishes a Kantian genealogy for Habermas' formal
pragmatics, by analyzing his idealizing presuppositions of communicative
action: the presupposition of a common objective world is based on Kant's
idea of the unity of the world; the rationality of accountable agents
corresponds to Kant's idea of freedom; the unconditionality of validity
claims raised in communicative action corresponds to the Kantian
unconditionality of reason; rational discourse as the forum of possible
justification echoes the Kantian idea that reason is 'the highest court of
appeal'. The main difference between Kantian philosophy and the concept of
communicative action is the level at which idealization operates: the
objective world for Kant, and the social world for Habermas. The latter
believes in an "ineluctable grounding of objectivity in linguistic
intersubjectivity" (p. 130); intersubjectivity leads participants in
communication to decenter their interpretive perspectives, approaching
thus the ideal limit of complete inclusiveness of all relevant
contributions to discourse. Truth can only be ascertained through
discourse: the two-place relation of validity is replaced by a 3-place
relation: a proposition is true for a certain audience.

Chapter 3 "From Kant to Hegel: On Robert Brandom's Pragmatic Philosophy of

The third chapter aims at presenting "the state of the art of pragmatic
approaches in analytic philosophy of language". William Brandom's "Making
it Explicit", a milestone in theoretical philosophy, outlines the theses
of 'conceptual realism': there is no difference between thoughts and the
world captured in thoughts ("facts are just true claims"); the objectivity
of the world is not attested by sensations, but only "through the
discoursive resistance of persistent objections" raised in discourse;
discoursive practice generates concepts and is not "hostage to a knowledge
of meanings inherited a priori"; the utterance of an interlocutor is taken
to be true (has objective content) by another interlocutor if the latter
comes to acknowledge it as correct. Habermas has several objections to
Brandom's theory: rational norms are unduly assimilated to practical
norms; Brandom neglects the cognitive significance of the second person
since, as a consequence of Brandom's proposal, interlocutors do not answer
each other and hence do not coordinate each other's action plans, but just
inform each other about their beliefs and intentions; a consequence of
assimilating norms to facts is a moral realism, not likely to be

Chapter 4 "From Kant to Hegel and Back Again: The Move toward

The fourth chapter discusses the Hegelian origins of the phenomenon of
detranscendentalizing the knowing subject. Kant introduced the
transcendental turn; post-Hegelian philosophy is marked by the
detranscendentalization of the knowing subject, as a result of the
postmentalist turn introduced by Hegel. Decentering one's perspective is
considering everyone else's perspectives. Kantian mentalist dualism can be
overcome by assimilating the subject-object relations to intersubjective
relations, which would presuppose, according to Habermas, that
interlocutors assume the existence of "an independent world of objects
that is the same for all of them" (p. 193). This is the reason why
Habermas believes that Hegel's theory still maintains a Kantian gap, not
between the world of appearances and the things in themselves, but between
the social world (shared intersubjectively) and the objective world we
must cope with. The issue becomes vital in cases where the law is enforced
selectively, giving rise to what Habermas refers to as 'Brazilianization'
(p. 210); the danger awaits even contemporary democratic societies, if
there is an unbalance between globalized markets and international

Chapter 5 "Norms and Values: On Hilary Putnam's Kantian Pragmatism"

The fifth chapter is centered around Hilary Putnam's "Norms and Values",
in order to investigate how one can be a realist epistemologist without
being a moral realist as well. The question Habermas raises in this
chapter is whether Hilary Putnam would not have been "better off if he
remained a Kantian all the way", that is, if he adopted not only a Kantian
metaphysics and epistemology, but also a Kantian practical philosophy. It
should be reminded that Putnam maintains the core of Kant's philosophy,
namely that "subjects are rational beings operating with reasons". Also,
he believes, with Kant and against Quine, that there are a priori
analythic thruths, e.g. that ethics (values) makes possible the
epistemology (the knowledge of the world), since reason is practical.
However, Putnam does not make a deontological distinction between
universal norms of action and particular values, since he considers that
the objectivity of value judgments is always indexed to particular
communities; the universal and the ideal would result from an ever
inclusive universe of perspectives. Putnam does not make a distinction
between judgments of fact and judgments of value neither; he believes that
both objective and normative validity must be justified by reasons, albeit
of a different sort. What Habermas notices though is that the two
validities are not identical, but similar: whereas 'rightness' is an
epistemic concept, the meaning of true statements "cannot be reduced to
epistemic conditions of confirmation, no matter how rigorous they might
be: truth goes beyond idealized justification." (p. 230). The chapter ends
with the following critique: "given a pluralism of legitimate world views,
conflicts of justice can be resolved only if the disputing parties agree
to create an inclusive We-perspective by mutual perspective-taking" (p.
235); only in a horizontal We- perspective (not vertical, as Aristotle and
Dewey -- and eventually Putnam himself -- propose) are individuals unique,
since "only as irreplaceable and unmistakable persons do they belong to
the moral realm." (p. 235).

Chapter 6 "Rightness versus Truth: On the Sense of Normative Validity in
Moral Judgments and Norms"

The sixth chapter aims at distinguishing between truth and moral
rightness. Moral knowledge is different from empirical knowledge in
that "it says how people ought to act, and not how things are with objects
in the world" (p. 239). However, both rightness of moral judgment and
truth of descriptions are found through argumentation (can be justified or
validated), as a result of the linguistic turn. Habermas proposes a
pragmatic conception of truth, since contextualism (another consequence of
the linguistic turn) cannot explain how a belief is true just because
it 'hangs together' with other beliefs: "beliefs are confirmed in action
by something different than in discourse" (p. 254). The concrete moral
world has become procedural, as a result of giving up the simple concept
of 'collective good' (vertical We-perspective) and assuming an
intersubjectively shared lifeworld (horizontal We- perspective). This
leads to a functional equivalence -- not to an assimilation - of the
projection of the moral world to the presupposition of the objective world.

Chapter 7 "The Relationship between Theory and Practice Revisited"

The last chapter shows that a division between truth and rightness is
advisable in the sociocultural forms of life as well. The chapter opens
with a historical perspective on the role of philosophy in politics,
culture, and education, from Plato and Aristotle to Kant, Hegel, and Marx.
Habermas notes that, since the disastrous consequences of Marx's praxis,
philosophy has lost its power to give direction to people's lives. Also,
since philosophy has become an academic endeavour -- fallible by default,
it has relinquished "the claim of holding the key to the Truth" (p. 285).
However, philosophy continues to maintain a unique 'polyglot trait'
through its connection to truth, law, morality, and art. What philosophy
can do today, according to Habermas, is evaluate competing expert
opinions, handle questions concerning ecology, medicine, and genetic
engineering, discuss criminal political regimes and 'unmasterable pasts'
(in terms of trial and forgetting), make individual lives 'meaningful' and
provide the society with 'public intellectuals'. In the second part of the
chapter, Habermas turns to the importance of the intersubjective approach
developed in philosophy: it is only through individuation and
socialization incorporated by an intersubjective approach, that legal
persons become individuals; the concept of 'human rights' is thus
translated into 'subjective rights'. Also, acknowledging that "every
person is of equal value precisely as a person" (p. 292), which is the
result of taking up an intersubjective approach, ensures that different
cultures and societies agree on binding norms (reciprocal rights and
duties). However, very importantly, the practice of argumentation insures
that such an agreement need not and must not "require the mutual
appreciation for one another's cultural achievements and life style" (p.


Special credit goes for novelty; according to the author, the present
volume is investigating a domain neglected in his previous
writings: 'theoretical philosophy', that is, issues in epistemology,
metaphysics, and philosophy of language. In so doing, Habermas wishes to
reconcile the hermeneutic tradition and the analytic tradition, since he
believes that the former is lacking a semantics (a theory of truth, after
all), while the latter is lacking a cultural perspective (of
the 'Zeitgeist', for instance).

Credit goes also for style; it is a pleasure to follow the 'hypertext' the
author is constantly establishing between different philosophical
theories, both hermeneutical and analytical, and the beauty of the
argumentation, running in typical German style. The volume does not make
for an easy reading though, which is the inescapable effect of
translation; the 'shortcoming' is however largely compensated for by the
generous introductions to the volume, mentioned above.

Much credit goes for richness; there are various issues disscussed
throughout the volume, but perhaps the most interesting one, from a
linguist's point of view, is Habermas's definition of truth. It is a
formal pragmatic definition, according to which something is true if it
comes forward as being certain. It is important to understand that, from
this point of view, something is taken to be true prior to becoming
certain to someone; therefore truth is not the result of consensus, as one
could have infered from the earlier "Wahrheitstheorien". Habermas's is not
a mere pragmatic theory (something is true if it is taken to be true), but
a Kantian pragmatic theory, since it embraces a linguistic transcendental
perspective, in the sense that both propositions and reality are
considered to be already filtered by language. Once something becomes
certainty, it becomes a symptom of truth, so to speak; further,
certainties are beliefs that guide actions.

Less convincing is the rationale for which, after rejecting both the
correspondence theory (something is true if it corresponds to a fact), and
the coherence theory (something is true if it is part of a coherent set of
beliefs), Habermas seems to favor deflationist theories (truth is
redundant). Such theories are far from being unproblematic within the
analytic tradition, while the author offers no detailed discussion of the

More problematic, in the absence of a well argued definition of truth from
the analytic perspective, are the consequences of the 'marriage' between
the two philosophical traditions -- continental and analytical. One is
told where truth resides -- beyond justification (the goal of
justification is to "discover a truth that exceeds all justifications" p.
40) - and how to access it -- by switching from discourse to action and
thereby 'finding' certainties. The problem of reconciling the hermeneutic
and the analytical traditions is not solved, but eliminated: a
deflationist account of truth - 'truth is truth', so to speak -- prevents
the hermeneutic tradition from having a 'terminus ad quem'. The issue of
defining truth has further consequences for solving the problem of
reference which, under the present circumstances, does not arise at all
from an analytic point of view, although Habermas keeps a distinction
between 'reference' and 'description', which may be a starting point for
further analysis.

No credit goes for the black cloth used as cover - it may color your hands
accordingly; therefore either keep the outer backcover (a green glossy
paper, handsomly designed) when reading, or wait for the paperback -- yet,
by all means, read the book if you are interested in issues of truth,
reference, discourse, moral theory, political theory, and globalization!


Brandom, W. (1994) Making it Explicit: Reasoning, Representing, and
Discursive Commitment. Cambridge Mass.

Davidson, D. (1984) Inquiries Into Truth and Interpretation, Oxford.

Dummett, M. (1993) The Origins of Analytical Philosophy, London.

Dummett, M. (1993) Truth and Meaning. The Seas of Language, Oxford, pp.

Habermas, J. (1984) Wahrheitstheorien. Vorstudien und Ergaenzungen zur
Theorie des kommunikativen Handelns, Frankfurt, pp. 127-183.

Habermas, J. (1984/1987) Theory of Communicative Action, trans. Thomas
McCarthy, 2 vols, Boston.

Hegel, G.W.F. (1949) Phaenomenologie des Geistes, Leipzig. Kant, I. (1996)
Critique of Pure Reason. trans. Werner S. Pluhar, Indianapolis.

Putnam, H. (1994) Dewey's Logic. Words and Life, Cambridge Mass., p. 214.

Putnam, H. (2001) Werte und Normen. Die Oeffentlichkheit der Vernunft und
die4 Vernunft der Oeffentlichkeit, Ed. Lutz Wingert and Klaus Guenther,
Frankfurt am Main, pp. 280- 313.


Magda Dumitru is mostly interested in representations and reference, in
the domains of Phonology and Semantics.

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