Habermas’s Later Pragmatist Turn
By Ali Rizvi
Robert Brandom describes pragmatism “as a movement centered on the primacy of the practical.” This primacy of practice over theory is manifested in Habermas’s writings in two ways. First, it emerges in his lifelong insistence on the primacy of “know how” (what he often calls intuitive knowledge) over “know that.” This is a key Heideggerian distinction, which Habermas uses in his theoretical analyses and his formal pragmatics, as well as in developing his social theory. Second, it is manifested in Habermas’s rejection of what he calls the “spectator model” of knowledge, and his insistence that action has “cognitive” significance – in other words, that our way of acting is also our way of knowing the world. This is also derived from Heidegger’s notion of “being in the world.”
Habermas has always been a pragmatist in the senses mentioned above, but after Knowledge and Human Interest (KHI) he did not pay much attention to issues in theoretical philosophy; therefore, with his Truth and Justification (TJ) he wanted to amend this situation. In TJ, Habermas went back to revive the “weak naturalism” he espoused in KHI, and in so doing he aimed to achieve two things. First, he wished to relate his theoretical enterprise both to his formal pragmatics and to his theory of communicative action. Second, he wanted to overcome certain impasses and aporias that his theories of communicative action and social evolution face. His renewed emphasis on pragmatic themes is of crucial importance to both these endeavors.
In KHI, Habermas tried to marry Kantian transcendentalism with naturalism (in the broad sense of the term) by maintaining a distinction between “subjective/objective nature” and “nature in itself.” This, according to Habermas and his critics, led to an aporia similar to the one that Kant faced when making a distinction between “phenomenon” and “noumenon.” The aporia is this: in order to maintain the distinction between “subjective/objective nature” and “nature in itself,” it appears necessary to have a “glimpse behind the stage set by the human mind.” (TJ: 22). But to do this would be to violate the basic assumption of post metaphysics, which is something that Habermas wanted to avoid at any cost. In TJ, however, Habermas aims to show that the afore-mentioned aporia is not so much a result of attempting to marry a transcendental approach to naturalism, but is rather the result of a representationalism which must be abandoned in the wake of pragmatism. Representationalism conceives knowledge in terms of a two-way relation between subject and object, where access to what is beyond the object must be conceived in terms of a glimpse behind the constitution of the human mind. However, if knowledge is considered in pragmatic terms, and if we consequently abandon the representational model of knowledge and give action its cognitive due, we can transcend this aporia. Habermas claims that this requires the adoption of what he calls a “non-classical” form of realism.
In developing his formal pragmatics and theory of communicative action, Habermas initially tried to go beyond the representational model of knowledge, replacing the two-way model of representation with a three-way model in which an actor tries to reach an understanding with another actor about something in the world. Similarly, in his theory of communicative action, Habermas conceptualized objectivity as a condition of reaching an understanding between two or more interlocutors. However, this theory of objectivity is a far cry from our own realist intuitions about the world, and so Habermas’s renewed emphasis on pragmatism leads him to reconsider and deepen this model. The world is not only a condition of mutual understanding, but is also something we encounter in pursuing actions. We experience the resistance of reality when our plans are frustrated; we experience its cooperation when we are able to fulfil our plans of action.
The world that we experience in pursuing our material goals is beyond objectification (because objectification involves “mind” and not “being in the world” as such), and so we are able to get a “glimpse” into the existence and reality of a world beyond our “objectification,” albeit through our actions and not through our minds. This world which is beyond the world of our objectification is nothing but “nature in itself.” Thus we gain access to “nature in itself,” in this model, not on the level of perceptions of mind but through “disclosures” of action. This in turn helps us overcome the aporia mentioned above, of having to “glimpse beyond the stage set by the human mind” without having to relinquish the distinction between subjective world, objective world and nature in itself. The distinction is pertinent on the level of mind, but on the level of action we experience something which is beyond the distinctions which are made indispensible within the bounds of our mind and our language. Here, the world overwhelms us in a way, and we experience its resistance or cooperation on an immediate, direct and unmediated level.
The resistance (or cooperation) of the world that we face at the pragmatic level must also feed back to our linguistic and mental apparatus. This suggests that our mental and linguistic apparatuses have also developed under the constraints of reality, even if the constraint is an indirect one. This suggests a way out of contextualism that haunts any serious version of transcendentalism and linguistic turn. Habermas now claims that if our conceptual apparatus has developed under the constraints of reality, which has been shown to be a reality that resists us and is beyond the whims and caprice of our individual or communal desires, then we must take the continued viability of our conceptual repertoire as proof of their objectivity. This pulls the rugs from under the feet of any contextualism. However this doesn’t entail a return to conceptual realism, as the constraint on our conceptual apparatus is an indirect one and there is a certain distance between the constraints of reality and the workings of our language and our conceptual apparatus (Habermas calls it “half transcendence”). In this way, in Habermas’s “later” theoretical philosophy pragmatism plays a crucial role in combining transcendentalism and naturalism on the one hand, and realism and transcendentalism on the other.
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© 2009, Ali Rizvi.
[This is the English version of “Pragmatische Wende,”in Habermas-Handbuch: Leben –Werk – Wirkung, Herausgegeben von Hauke Brunkhorst, Regina Kreide und Cristina Lafont, Verlag J.B. Metzler, Stuttgart, 2009: 360-362.].