Thursday, December 28, 2006

Habermas's realism and his epistemic concption of truth

I want to bring together two important comments posted on this topic. The comments were response to the abstract of "Habermas between Metaphysical and Natural Realism." I hope to write a more substantial post on this topic in the coming days: Here are the two comments:

"This is bullshit, in the typical publish-or-perish sense of rhetoric for the C.V. If a conception of truth is relative to conditions of rationality, then it's a discursive conception, not an "epistemic conception". There's no "decisive rejection" of his epistemic conception of truth, because realism requires an epistemic conception of truth. To claim that Habermas "severs any conceptual link between truth and justification" shows that the author hasn't really read the "truth and justification" section of "Further Clarifications on Communicative Action" in On the Pragmatics of Communication, nor Truth and Justification. Besides, one can't logically "respect[] the epistemic relevance of justification for ascertaining the truth" without a conceptual link between truth and justification. Furthermore, it's implausible to acknowledge Habermas' appreciation for fallibilism in justification while also claiming he "veers too close to a form of metaphysical realism." To say that Hilary Putnam is more successful is only to say that the author doesn't understand Habermas, because Habermas clearly understands Putnam ("Some Further Clarifications"), while Putnam doesn't understand Habermas (Collapse of the fact / value dichotomy)."

Dr. Spinoza replied:

"If an "epistemic conception of truth" is taken to mean that truth is indistinguisable from idealized warrant -- what would be warranted under ideal conditions -- then I cannot see how realism requires such a conception.

On the contrary, I would tend to think that it is a commitment to such a conception, as found in "middle" Putnam and also in Rorty -- is crucial for the rejection of realism.

More generally, I tend to think that realism -- however "natural," "direct," "metaphysical," etc. -- requires a distinction between truth and justification. Where Rorty is usually regarded as having gone off the rails is where he follows James, or a certain strand in James, in thinking that there's nothing to be said about the difference between truth and justification. As he puts it, the phrase "justified but perhaps not true" only means "justified to us, but perhaps not justified to our descendents." Here the distinction between truth and justification collapses.

In more recent work, it should be noted, Rorty makes a distinction between a concept of truth that is identical with justification and a concept of truth that is expressed in disquotation. And that clearly cannot be an epistemic conception of truth, but it is a conception of truth that can play no idealizing or regulatory work for us at all. Hence, as Rorty puts it, truth cannot be "a goal of inquiry."

That aside, I do wonder at how sophisticated a reading could be which identifies Habermas' new-found respect for "weak naturalism" as veering too close to "metaphysical realism." The real bugbear for Habermas, it strikes me, is the danger of lapsing into idealism. The Frankfurters tried to keep their idealist tendencies in check through an eclectic borrowing from Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud -- which gave their work an emphasis on materiality, historicity, embodiment, and desire. But the giants of "German Materialism" (as Brian Leiter calls it) have been abandoned by Habermas.

On the other hand, if idealism is a manifestation of metaphysical realism (as Kant himself suggested, empirical idealism is transcendental realism), then perhaps there's something to the worry after all."

I think there is much to learn from both comments and I shall write on some of the issues raised in these comments in the coming days. However, here I wish to retract my earlier hasty agreement with the first comments. I am reading the paper more carefully now and though the author misunderstands Habermas at points the paper is worth reading and raises important questions about Habermas' conception of truth. More on the paper in the coming days...

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