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The Philosophy of Jürgen HabermasA Critical Introduction$

Uwe Steinhoff

Print publication date: 2009

Print ISBN-13: 9780199547807

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: September 2009

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199547807.001.0001

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(p.243) Appendix 1 Habermas's Relativist and Decisionist Turn

(p.243) Appendix 1 Habermas's Relativist and Decisionist Turn

The Philosophy of Jürgen Habermas
Oxford University Press

(p.243) Appendix 1

Habermas's Relativist and Decisionist Turn

Habermas's Relativist and Decisionist Turn Habermas's Relativist and Decisionist Turn

Jürgen Habermas likes to see himself as the defender of universalism against relativism or contextualism and of moral cognitivism against decisionism. Recently, however, hobbling behind the trend somewhat but still finding a way to “link” to it—we are speaking now of a pragmatism oriented towards Dewey and James rather than Peirce—he has taken the rather interesting turn described in this title—not so much in his self‐understanding but rather unwittingly through the logical implications of his new position (which is philosophically more significant).

The following brief critique of Habermas's linguistic and pragmatic [sprachpragmatisch] realism is not just undertaken for its own sake; it should also serve as a foil against which the advantages of the less fashionable but correct realistic correspondence theory of truth can once more be cast in their proper light. Pointing out the decisionist implications of Habermas's arguments is a matter of fairness, since after someone spends decades criticizing decisionism it is only fair to put it on record when he himself, despite lip service to the contrary, becomes a party to it, whether he will or not.

Habermas sees two problems connected with the linguistic and pragmatic turn that he himself is known to espouse and with the “detranscendentalization” that it entails. After this turn, he writes,

the classical form of realism that relies on the representational model of cognition and on the correspondence between propositions and facts is no longer viable.1

Moreover, “[d]etranscendentalization alters the very concept of the transcendental”,2 and

transcendental rules…mutate into expressions of cultural forms of life and have a beginning in time. As a consequence, we may no longer without qualification claim “universality” and “necessity,” that is, objectivity for empirical cognition…3

As an avowed universalist, Habermas would like to get around this problem, and moreover to do so on the basis of a pragmatist concept of reality and thus a pragmatist concept of truth. Let us take a closer look at this.

From a pragmatist perspective, reality is not something to be copied; we take note of it performatively—as the totality of resistances that are processed and are to be anticipated—and it makes itself known to us solely in the constraints to which our problem‐solving activities and learning processes are subject.

The representational model of knowledge…misses the cognitive‐operational significance of “overcoming” problems and of the “success” of learning processes.4

Is this accurate? Hardly. Typically it is precisely the proponents of the representational model of knowledge who place the greatest emphasis on our learning through a “cognitive—operational” interaction with the world, for example, in the form of experiments, arguing that only in this way do we learn what the accurate descriptions of the world are, after which these accurate descriptions (such as in the form of true propositions or convictions) are in (p.244) turn of great use to us in overcoming problems. It is Habermas who misses the point, that is, the point of the representational models of knowledge. And how can Habermas claim on the one hand that reality is not something to be copied, while on the other hand he concedes: “To be sure, everything that is the case and can be represented in true propositions is true”? Moreover, even if it were true, as he thinks, that we do not assume a view of the world, based on its resistance to us, as the totality of facts (which of course Habermas himself does as soon as he concedes that everything is real that is the case) but rather “as a totality of objects”5—why should we not be able to describe parts of this totality of objects with propositions? Habermas gives us no answer to this.

He does, however, offer another specious assurance of the falsity of the correspondence theory:

Certainly, within the linguistic paradigm, the truth of a proposition can no longer be conceived as correspondence with something in the world, for otherwise we would have to be able to “get outside of language” while using language.6

This justification sounds very deep and poetic, but, to paraphrase Nietzche, it is not even shallow, just flat. I do not have to get out of my hand while using my hand in order to grasp something else with my hand, such as a cup of coffee. I also do not have to get out of language while using language in order to grasp something else with language—such as a cup of coffee, a neutron star, a nuclear explosion or the social behaviour of chickens.

Moreover, Habermas goes on to cite Michael Williams in his defence:

We need only ask whether or not the “direct” grasping of facts on which such comparison [between linguistic expression and facts] depends is supposed to be a cognitive state with propositional content. If it isn't, it can have no impact on verification. But if it is, all we have been given is another kind of belief.7

My wish that the sun shine is a propositionally structured cognitive state, but not a belief: rather, it is a wish. My perception that it is raining is also not a belief, but rather a perception. This is shown by the fact that I could believe that it is raining without perceiving it, and conversely (since I might distrust my senses) I could perceive that it is raining without believing it. Thus it is that I can also compare my beliefs or any linguistic expressions with perceived facts as well. But then, one might object, is the propositionally structured perception, as propositionally structured, still outside of language? We can begin by answering, with William P. Alston, that there is “such a phenomenon as the presentation or givenness of something to one's awareness”, which brings with it a visual differentiation of objects but by no means has to entail any conceptualization or propositional structure8 (it should be added that I do not share Williams' rather curious premise that cognitive states without propositional content are irrelevant to verification, for how could we suppose sensory perceptions to be irrelevant to verification?). More important, however, is the simple fact that propositional structure or propositional content does not by itself constitute language. A brick building structured according to architectural principles is still a brick building and not, say, an architectural principle. And thus when we check whether the building accords with a certain architectural principle, we are not comparing an architectural principle with architectural principles or concepts, but we are comparing a principle with a building. The building is just as non‐principle or non‐conceptual as the principle or the concepts are non‐building. Or, to put it more concisely: a ball with a name written on it is still a ball and not a name. Accordingly a propositionally structured or linguistically interpreted or conceptualized perception is still a perception and not language. For this reason, as mentioned, we can quite easily and fortunately compare our merely linguistic propositions with the extra‐linguistic facts accessible to us through propositionally structured perception. To quote Alston again: (p.245)

Why can't the whole perceptual package—sensory consciousness structured by conceptual‐propositional‐judgmental activity—be a way of cognizing external facts?9

Habermas, like the other linguisticists, does not have even a rudimentary sketch of a plausible response to this; thus linguisticism is and remains unjustified. (We might also be tempted to ask, merely in passing: on the assumption that Williams was right in the statement quoted by Habermas, where does Habermas get the idea that this does not apply to the pragmatist conception as well? In Habermas's pragmatist conception, which he explicitly labels a realist conception, is the resistance offered by reality not conceived as something outside of language, something that true propositions have to accord with or at least measure up to? But what is this supposed to mean, if the extra‐linguistic is supposed to be entirely inaccessible as such? As a good pragmatist, Habermas might say that the truth of sentences shows itself in the successful cognitive—operational interaction with the extra‐linguistic reality. But if the truth can show itself in this successful interaction, why could it not show itself in successful, that is, correct, perception and description?)

After this rather hurried defence of the realistic correspondence theory of truth, let us turn directly to our critique of the Habermasian conception of reality and truth. We should first note that often the resistances that “are to be anticipated” are absent or, conversely, resistances make themselves felt that were not to be anticipated. Thus I assume that, for Habermas, reality makes itself known to us in the actual “constraints” (whether past, present or future) “to which our problem‐solving activities and learning processes are subject”. But to whom does “our” refer? “Universal‐pragmatists”, “Germans”, “people”, “animals”, “living creatures”? It is quite obvious that the resistances I encounter in the course of my life are not the same as those Habermas encounters—which would mean that we apparently inhabit different realities. And since we cannot uncouple the concept of truth from the concept of reality any more than we can uncouple the system from the “lifeworld”, a relativism of truth follows from the relativism about reality that emerges here. (We can also see this in Habermas's talk of overcoming problems and the success of learning processes: since we do not all have the same problems or pursue the same goals, it could be that, given my particular problem, my confidence in a certain assertion leads to shipwreck for me, whereas for another person with a quite different problem confidence in the very same assertion brings nothing but smooth sailing.)

On the other hand, we would also run into a rather severe problem if Habermas meant this “our” to refer to all creatures sensible of resistance, and conceived reality as the totality of all resistances that these creatures encounter, such that the one and only reality, hence my reality as well, included those resistances that other fellow creatures besides myself encounter. If my reality includes resistances that I never experience, why should reality not also include resistances that no one experiences simply because there is not and never was or will be anyone in the right place at the right time? Clearly there is no reason to exclude that which no one ever notices. But then Habermas's consensus theory of truth has to be false. Yet he has by no means abandoned this theory, rather only attenuated it in one respect. He still continues to claim that

a proposition is true if it withstands all attempts to refute it under the demanding conditions of rational discourse.

Then he attenuates this by saying:

However, this does not mean that it is also true for this reason. A truth claim raised for ‘p’ says that the truth conditions for ‘p’ are satisfied.10

(p.246) Yet, as we have already suggested, this qualification is incompatible with the claim preceding it. Even if Habermas were right that “we can only establish whether these conditions are satisfied by way of discursive vindication of the truth claim”11—and of course he is not at all right about this12—the question arises: if the conditions of truth are found in a reality that for Habermas is characterized precisely by its resistance, why should they suddenly be so obliging, complaisant, tame and docile as to keep within the domain of what can be ascertained through discourse? Pre‐established harmony in “postmetaphysical thinking”?

Furthermore, the question arises as to what is actually supposed to be so “pragmatic” or “pragmatist” about this attenuated or realist version of the consensus theory. Reference to the fact that the theory takes the significance of overcoming problems and successful learning processes into consideration is not sufficient, since, as mentioned, the representational model does this as well (as do a slew of other theories of truth). And in point of fact, when Habermas characterizes his “pragmatic conception of truth” in greater detail, he tells a very different story—he outlines a kind of doubt‐removal theory,13 according to which “[t]he practices of the lifeworld are supported by a consciousness of certainty that in the course of action leaves no room for doubts about truth.”14 These “certainties of action”, however, could become “shaken” by contrary experiences, which leads to the “transition to discourse”. And Habermas then attributes to this discourse the exceedingly important role of the “retransformation of rationally acceptable assertions into performative certainties”.15 If this astonishing “reconstruction” of the “lifeworld” as a realm of pure naivety were right, then people who indulge in such practices as parachuting, diving or driving would hardly use a reserve parachute, the buddy system or a seat belt, and people with an important appointment would hardly set three alarms next to their bed or get up an hour or two earlier in case the car fails to start or the train is delayed, and finally the flourishing of the insurance industry would be entirely inexplicable. Yet Habermas, the philosopher, believes: “We don't walk onto any bridge whose stability we doubt.”16 Sometimes we do, the director Steven Spielberg objects, quite rightly: when, for example, we are being chased by a gang of sabre‐wielding followers of the goddess Kali, whose ability and intention to kill us we have no doubt of, and the only way out is a rather questionable‐looking bridge (cf. Indiana Jones, part II). And we do not just make risk—utility calculations in extreme situations—as the other examples show, they are part of how we negotiate our way in the world daily and an essential component of pragmatics, that is, the art of acting correctly.17 Moreover, a thinker who loves to criticize theories that displease him for allegedly not being faithful to the actors' “self‐understanding”18 should expect to face questions about whether the description of lifeworld‐actors as dogmatic simpletons uncritically abandoning themselves to all kinds of “certainties of action”, without taking the fallibility of actions and convictions into account, does a better job of capturing their “self‐understanding”. Be that as it may, even if we overlook the flaws in the Habermasian doubt‐removal theory just described, it is still a complete mystery how praise for the supposed re‐dogmatizing achievements of discourse is supposed to make such a discourse theory “pragmatist”. In short, it has all nothing whatsoever to do with pragmatism.

Let us now let the matter rest and turn to a second problem of relativism, namely, the problem confronting a transcendental philosophy that would like to continue to be transcendental yet without losing its connection to de‐transcendentalization (clearly a lot could be said about this kind of schizophrenia, but we will spare ourselves that here). I have already quoted Habermas's assessment of this problem. What does his solution look like? It consists of “a single metatheoretical assumption”. According to this assumption, (p.247)

the structures that form the transcendental conditions of possibility for the learning processes of our species themselves turn out to be the result of less complex, natural learning processes—and thereby themselves acquire a cognitive content.19

The learning analogy, which we apply to developments that are governed by mutation, selection and stabilization, portrays the endowment of the human mind as an intelligent solution to problems that itself developed under the constraints of reality. This perspective pulls the rug out from under the very idea that worldviews are species‐relative.20

Aside from the fact that a species‐relative worldview is the least of Habermas's relativist problems (since his position, with its emphasis on the transcendental function of the “lifeworld”, is obviously also threatened by cultural relativism, subcultural relativism and familial relativism), in light of the Habermasian conclusion, the question arises: why? The development that the functional design of shock absorbers has undergone in interaction with a resistant reality—for example, in the form of bad streets and rough terrain—qualifies them “as an intelligent solution to problems that itself developed under the constraints of reality”. Yet, first of all, the cognitive content expressed in the design of shock absorbers is not found in the things themselves, but in the theories of the engineers. Accordingly, it would be more consistent to attribute the cognitive content of natural learning processes to the quasi‐subject of these learning processes, that is, natural history, rather than to its products. Second, the developments in the design of shock absorbers are relative to the particular vehicle. A civilian car meant for city traffic has a different kind of shock absorber from that of a military off‐road vehicle, and with good reason. The former are quite sensitive to small irregularities that the latter do not even register. The same holds for the brains of various species—which, from a pragmatist viewpoint, are the shock absorbers of reality. Since we cannot assume that the problems faced by the ancestors of humans in the course of evolution were exactly the same as those faced by the ancestors of water rats, chimpanzees, dolphins or the microscopic inhabitants of XLYEKRZFWZQRZ City on the planet &%$*‘’, Habermas's “transcendental‐pragmatist interpretation of evolution” (or whatever one might wish to call it) makes the notion of a species‐relative world view unavoidable. Thus Habermas tries to refute relativism with an argument that in fact implies it.

Let us now turn to the topic of decisionism. Habermas makes a series of concessions (without, incidentally, even mentioning Hans Albert):

That a cognitive conception of morality is possible means only that we can know how we ought legitimately to govern our lives together if we are determined to take the sharply delimited questions of justice that—like questions of truth—are subject to a binary code out of the broad spectrum of conceptions of the Good about which it is no longer feasible to reach a consensus.21

Given the premise that “rightness” reduces to “rational acceptability”, the binary decision, which must be unequivocal, somewhat acquires the character of a posit.22

Yet he still claims:

Nonetheless, talk about “decision” and “positing” points in the wrong direction. The skeptical move of opting out of the language game of warranted moral expectations, verdicts, and self‐reproaches exists only in philosophical reflection, but not in practice: it would destroy the self‐understanding of the subject acting communicatively…as soon as [sociated individuals] seek to privilege a universally binding system of rules without the backing of a worldview, the only way open to them is that of a discursively produced agreement. The continuation of communicative action by discursive means is part of the communicative form of life, and this is the only form of life available to us.23

(p.248) Since I have already dealt with the Habermasian (and/or Apelian) positions involved in this argumentation quite thoroughly, I will allow myself to be brief here. First, the “if” in the first quotation and the “as soon as” in the third hardly leave any room for cognitivist categorical moral principles. Instead, we are now obviously dealing with hypothetical imperatives. Even if, as Habermas claims, we cannot help but make the decision described in the “if”‐ and “as soon as”‐clauses, this still in no way makes the consequent clause into a categorical imperative; at most it allows for a hypothetical imperative with a necessarily true conditional sentence.24 Second, this hypothetical imperative is false anyway. Habermas himself concedes that even discourse ethics is “dependent upon a form of life that meets it halfway”;25 accordingly it is a central motif, the very premise actually, of Between Facts and Norms that a sanctioned enforcement of the binding system of norms is not superfluous. Moreover, even the very assumption that communicative action refers to discourse as the source of legitimation and arbitration in whatever conflicts may arise is erroneous.26 Third, on the narrow definition of communicative action, which Habermas himself intends to be decisive, it can be shown that there is no communicative action.27 Accordingly there are also no subjects of communicative action. Accordingly it is also not particularly tragic when the “self‐understanding” of these non‐existent subjects gets subverted. Fourth, even if we interpret communicative action in a broader sense,28 it still by no means plays the part in the “symbolic reproduction of the lifeworld” that Habermas always ascribes to it whenever he finds it necessary for the justification of his moral conception (even though elsewhere he has acknowledged it to be illusory). Thus it should be no problem at all to leave this communicative action, and one does not have any need to fear certain pathological consequences for one's own psyche, as Habermas claims.29 Fifth, even if we could drop out of the communicative form of life only at the cost of madness, this would not overcome us from one second to the next. Thus until it begins to set in, we “dropouts” would be healthy and competent speakers for whom, due to our decision, discourse ethics would have no validity. In summary, Habermas's conciliatory remarks change nothing about the actual implications of his current moral theory—which is decisionist.


(1.) Habermas (2003d), p. 10.

(2.) Ibid. p. 17.

(3.) Ibid. p. 18.

(4.) Ibid. p. 27.

(5.) Ibid. p. 27.

(6.) Habermas (2003c), p. 357.

(7.) Williams (1996), p. 232, as quoted by Habermas (2003c), p. 378, n. 26. The text in brackets is mine.

(8.) Alston (1996), p. 90.

(9.) Ibid. p. 94.

(10.) Habermas (2003c), p. 367. Compare also idem (2003d), p. 251.

(11.) Habermas (2003c), p. 368.

(12.) See pp. 81f. and 269–86.

(13.) Habermas (2003d), pp. 36ff. and 252ff., as well as (2003c), pp. 369ff.

(14.) Habermas (2003d), p. 39.

(15.) Ibid. p. 253.

(16.) Ibid. p. 39.

(17.) Elsewhere I have invoked the relation between risk—utility calculations and the distinction between truth and justification to criticize Rorty's claim that his distinction makes no difference in practice. See Steinhoff (1997).

(18.) Habermas (2003d), pp. 24 and 241.

(19.) Ibid. p. 27, translation corrected, see Habermas (1999c), pp. 37f. The translation mistakenly renders what is in fact meant as the learning processes of our species (Lernprozesse unserer Art) as “our kinds of learning processes”.

(20.) Habermas (2003d), p. 29, translation slightly modified; in line with the original I substituted “an intelligent” for “the intelligent”.

(21.) Ibid. p. 272.

(22.) Ibid. p. 273.

(23.) Ibid. pp. 274f.

(24.) See pp. 67–70.

(25.) Habermas (1999b), p. 207.

(26.) See pp. 75–80.

(27.) See pp. 34f., 115–18 and 360–3.

(28.) See p. 34.

(29.) See pp. 91, 333–43, 354–60 and 366–71.