Friday, November 24, 2006

A reveiw of Habermas' Truth and Justification

Since the publication of Richard Rorty's Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature in 1979 there has been a vigorous debate about how to elaborate a pragmatic position that can integrate the gains of the linguistic turn. Jürgen Habermas's Truth and Justification is a landmark intervention into this debate. Drawing upon his intricate theory of language, as well as by engaging the work of contemporary pragmatists like Rorty, Putnam, Brandom, and Apel, Habermas elaborates a position that he calls Kantian pragmatism. Habermas's penetrating advancement of this position is sure to take these debates to a new level of sophistication and subtlety.

Kantian pragmatism is meant to address a lacuna in Habermas's work that has stood since Knowledge and Human Interests, namely, the relative neglect of issues in theoretical philosophy. For while Habermas's formal pragmatics has obvious relevance for theoretical philosophy, its explicit purpose was to formulate a theory of communicative action which itself was meant to ground a critical theory of society and a discourse-theoretic conception of morality, law, and democracy (1). Kantian pragmatism, on the other hand, addresses two theoretical questions that arise in light of the linguistic turn: the epistemological question of realism and the ontological question of naturalism. The first question asks how we can secure the notion of an objective reality that is the same for all even if our access to the objective world is always mediated by language. The second asks how the normativity that pervades the lifeworld can be "reconciled with the contingency of sociocultural forms of life that have evolved naturally" (2). These two questions are most intensively taken up in the lengthy introduction and the first three chapters. The last three chapters of the collection attempt to show how Habermas's answer to these questions can be made consonant with his practical philosophy. For just as Kant had to restrain the pretension of theoretical reason to make way for the priority of practical reason, Habermas must formulate his Kantian pragmatism in such a way that it can make room for his stringently deontological discourse ethics. This requirement more then anything else determines the shape of Habermas's position.

Kantian pragmatism finds its origin in the post-Hegelian movement towards detranscendentalizing the knowing subject (176). This takes the form of internally reformulating Kant's critical philosophy in light of the linguistic and pragmatic turns. The first 'turn' attempts to show that the categories of the understanding, which for Kant are rules by which a manifold is reduced to unity in a judgment, are in fact rules of inference. If all judgments are inferences, then theoretical reason in general can only be understood in the context of rule-governed inferential practices that are linguistic or semiotic. This move detrancendentalizes the categories, placing their disclosive function not in a reason conceived as standing over-against the world, but rather in the inter-subjective moves that are made in a historical language. The second (pragmatic) 'turn' involves situating this linguistic, specifically semantic, practice in the context of rule-governed behavior in general. Here, "intuitive and habitual know-how - the practical understanding of generative rules or of a practice - enjoys primacy over explicit knowledge of rules" (11).

In making these two turns, transcendental consciousness is brought "down to earth" (17). For Habermas, this does not require the abandonment of transcendental philosophy tout court. Instead of investigating the structures of pure consciousness, a reformed transcendental philosophy can now aim "to discover the invariant features recurring in the historical manifold of sociocultural forms of life" (12). But can this reformed notion of transcendental philosophy deliver the benefits of transcendental idealism, namely the ability to "allay doubts about the objectivity of cognition" (20)? Transcendental idealism can allay these doubts because it is able to secure the universality and necessity of the rules that govern intentional mindedness. In situating reason amongst the mundane practices of the lifeword, however, it becomes an open question whether we are lead to "historicism and contextualism, or whether a reason embodied in historical contexts preserves the power for immanent transcendence" (84).

As is well known, Habermas wants to preserve the immanent transcendence of reason through the formal pragmatic thesis that agents participating in communicative action necessarily make idealizing presuppositions that in fact transcend the limits of the immediate communicative situation. Vindicating this thesis is a difficult task, however, because on Habermas's view, historicism and contextualism are "built into the basic concepts of the linguistic paradigm just as skepticism is built into mentalism."[1] These results are delivered by two theses that are basic to the linguistic turn as Habermas understands it: first, that all "experience is linguistically saturated such that no grasp of reality is possible that is not filtered through language" (30); and second, that the languages that are the condition of possibility for grasping reality are both plural and temporal. Avowing these two theses, in turn, generates two problems: 1) whether the fundamental practices built into a language are invariant across languages and forms of life; and 2) whether these practices are contingent owing to the fact that they have a temporal origin. If these problems cannot be met, then the universality and necessity of the fundamental practices that govern our ability to access reality cannot be secured.

Here we can see the interconnection between the epistemological question of realism and the ontological question of naturalism. If one is to grant a type of universality and necessity to certain fundamental practices - as Habermas's weak transcendentalism wants to do - one cannot only focus on overcoming contextualism with the resources of formal pragmatics; one must also show that the genesis of these practices is itself rational. But how is one to do this if our fundamental practices have not only a normative, sociocultural history, but a causal history as well? If this causal genesis, which is in a sense the condition of possibility for the socio-historical development of a normatively governed form of life, cannot be accounted for except as a fully contingent happening, then Habermas's project of vindicating the rationality of our most fundamental practices would be hopeless.

In accord with his notion of post-metaphysical thinking, Habermas cannot address this issue by 're-enchanting nature' in the manner of a Schelling. Instead, he will attempt to 'solve' both the epistemological problem of realism and the ontological problem of naturalism with a single move, namely, by combining his normative pragmatics with a pragmatic theory of action and hence a pragmatic theory of learning. At the level of discourse, it remains the case that for agents to communicate with one another about things they must pragmatically presuppose the 'the world,' i.e., a "totality of independently existing objects that can be judged" (89). However, we are not only cognitive agents taking part in communicative action at the level of reasons, but also practical agents who act in the world through intelligent problem-solving. Because this type of behavior is internally connected to cognition, agents, through a type of controlled feedback, can learn from their practical confrontations with the world. Knowledge emerges from this economy. One thing that agents know, at first in an implicit manner, is the resistance that objects offer to their action. To ensure practical success, agents learn to anticipate this resistance. In this anticipation we find the origin of the pragmatic presupposition of a language independent world. When this presupposition is made explicit in discourse, agents not only assume an independent world; they also know that there is one.

To uphold this result, however, Habermas must solve the aporia that results from the fact that the fundamental practices of our lifeworld have both socio-historical and causal conditions. This aporia can be untied by combining the result arrived at above with "a single metatheoretical assumption," namely, that the learning processes that are undertaken within a sociohistorical form of life are "simply the continuation of prior 'evolutionary learning processes' that in turn give rise to our form of life" (27). This thesis does not enchant nature, nor does is reduce the normativity of the lifeworld to the objective processes of nature. Rather, it maintains a distinction between the internal perspective of the lifeworld and the external perspective of 'objective' nature, "connecting them at the metatheoretical level by assuming a continuity between nature and culture" (28). The point of assuming this continuity is to assure us that when we recapitulate the learning stages that have led up to our own, the previous stages acquire cognitive content. "This, in turn, explains why the contingent circumstances of its genesis need not detract us from the universality and necessity of 'our' view of the objective world" (29). This bestowing of cognitive content upon previous learning stages is not a form of idealism, for while the linguistically articulated lifeworld from which we approach these past stages has an epistemic priority, the language-independent reality which our practices confront has an ontological priority. Under this assumption, the human mind's cognitive endowment developed as "the intelligent solution to problems that itself developed under the constraints of reality. This pulls the rug out from under the very idea that worldviews are species relative" (29-30). Instead of idealism, we here have "a nonclassical form of epistemological realism" (22).

One can only agree with Habermas that attaching his formal pragmatics to a pragmatic theory of action and learning undermines the framework that generates contextualism and historicism. Indeed, from a pragmatic point of view, making explicit the practical dimension that underlies our ability to have representational knowledge so undermines both of these pitfalls that it is not necessary to call upon Habermas's weak transcendentalism at all. Because this criticism has been made on many occasions, I shall not dwell on it. What I want to examine instead is whether Habermas has exorcised anxieties about our ability to cognize an intersubjectively accessible yet language-independent world in the right way.

As I mentioned above, Habermas thinks a proper realism is served by maintaining a distinction between the epistemic priority of the lifeworld and the ontological priority of a language-independent reality. Habermas describes this difference by recalling the medieval debate about universals. Agents participating in the lifeworld are 'conceptual realists' (in the medieval sense) insofar as they behave in accordance with rules, while agents who objectivate the world through hypothesis testing are 'nominalists' who realize that the structure of their propositions (and hence concepts) should not be reified "into the structure of what there is" (33). Here we find another parallel with Kant: as it is illegitimate for metaphysics to make statements that have their ground beyond the boundary of possible experience, it is illegitimate to project the conceptual realism of the lifeworld onto the objective world. This is the basis of Habermas's critique of Brandom and Hegel. But Habermas does not offer a counter-proposal to answer the question of how the conceptual realism of the lifeworld relates to the nominalism of the objective world. Instead, he opts out of this area all together. It is true that Habermas integrates Putnam's direct theory of reference into his theory of learning. This latter move is an undeniable gain insofar as Putnam's theory explains how we are able to hone in on the same objects through time and through different descriptions. But this move is not a counter-proposal because it is grafted onto a reading that takes the distinction between the conceptual realism of the life world and the nominalism of the objective world to be methodological in nature (32). But this distinction is ontological and must be treated as such. The question at issue concerns the actual relationship between reasons and causes, between the order of norms and the order of the real. In not approaching this ontological question in a substantive way, Habermas's leaves a lacuna at the center of his thought.

Habermas upholds this distinction because it provides the metaphysical background for his view that in a disenchanted modernity only a post-conventional discourse ethics can have validity. Habermas thus wants to retain the pragmatic radicalization of the linguistic turn, yet reject the idea that this radicalization forces one to overrun the Kantian boundary between theoretical and practical reason. This is of course a difficult line to walk insofar as one of the founding insights of pragmatism is that this boundary, when drawn in an absolute manner, is artificial. Theoretical reason is constituted by practical norms, while practical norms have a type of truth-value. As such, for the pragmatist there is a continuum between judgments of fact and judgments of value, not an absolute break (214).

Habermas counters this position by elaborating a theory of truth that flows from his non-classical realism. This theory of truth claims that the assimilation of truth to ideal assertibility - an assimilation that was the basis of Habermas's previous epistemic conception of truth - cannot account for the fact that truth is a "property of propositions that cannot be lost" (250). While there is an inner connection between truth and justification insofar as agents have nothing but justificatory reasons at their disposal to decide on truth claims, a theory of truth must make a place, at least conceptually, for a notion of truth that is justification-transcendent. Habermas, without irony, calls this a pragmatic theory of truth because he claims that the notion of unconditional truth has its origin in the certainty that pervades our everyday un-thematic coping. "To the realism of everyday practice, there corresponds a concept of unconditional truth, of truth that is not epistemically indexed - though of course this concept is but implicit in practice" (39). Because concepts implicit in practice circulate into discourse, this non-epistemic concept of truth can provide "a justification-transcendent point of reference from discursively thematized truth claims. It is the goal of justifications to discover a truth that exceeds all justifications. This transcending relation guarantees the difference between truth and rational acceptability" (39-40).

This is an ingenious theory. However, I don't think it necessitates the conclusion Habermas draws from it, namely, that there is an absolute distinction between the justification-transcendent truth of theoretical statements and the ideal rational acceptability of practical statements. For Habermas, we can draw this distinction because while both the rightness of moral judgments and the truth of theoretical statements are established discursively through argumentation in an ideal speech situation, the "meaning of 'rightness' consists entirely in ideal warranted assertibility," while truth refers to conditions "that must be met by reality itself" (248). Making this point is very important for Habermas because he thinks it grounds his claim that there is an unbridgeable divide between theoretical and practical reason. But does it?

Habermas takes it that the practice-certainty that generates this notion of truth comes from our everyday coping with the objective world. But don't we also have practical certainty with respect to our dealings with other people and the social world in general? Even though novelty and unpredictability pervade our lives in the social world (giving rise to reflective discourse), there is still a core of certainty that underlies our social being in the world. Why could we not say, mimicking Habermas's logic, that this certainty is the origin of a notion of practical or value-oriented truth, just as our implicit practical dealings with the objective world is the origin of our notion of theoretical truth? We could maintain a methodological distinction between these types of truth claims, but insist - insofar as they both have their origin in practical certainties - that they are ontologically continuous with each other and with claims that have less justificatory standing then those which are epistemically transcendent. This, of course, would complicate the picture required by post-metaphysical thinking and, as such, would complicate the notion that a deontological discourse ethics is the only one appropriate for the modern age. But that should be the goal for all of those like myself who think that Habermas has implicitly taken on - contravening his explicit self-understanding - the ontological picture that stands at the heart of his positivistic and strongly naturalistic enemies. In my view, this undermines Habermas's ability to redeem the legitimate claims of modernity. And that would surely be an ironic result for modernity's greatest defender.


[1]Habermas, "Richard Rorty's Pragmatic Turn" in On the Pragmatics of Communication (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1998), 355. This important article, which was included in the German edition of Truth and Justification, was replaced in the English edition by "Norms and Values: On Hilary Putnam's Kantian Pragmatism." Both articles are essential for understanding the contours of Habermas' Kantian pragmatism.


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