File spoon-archives/habermas.archive/habermas_1997/habermas.9708, message 37

Date: Sun, 24 Aug 1997 22:28:40 -0800
Subject: HAB: On being reasonable: Ken's understanding

Since this is my first contribution to this collective, please excuse my
reference to y’all by first names....

I want to distinguish (1) what you, Ken, set out to do and basically
believe about issues and (2) your reading of Habermas, which is so
dissatisfactory to yourself and others. Scott and others claim,
generally, that Habermas’ thinking is concordant with your views that
seem valid, but that some of your views are invalid, regardless of your
view of Habermas. Also, your view of Habermas is variously invalid, yet
(I believe) *importantly* so, in that you are genuinely engaged with the
issues, more so than others seem to acknowledge. With Erik, “I would
like to thank [you] for courageously addressing this fascinating topic”
(though I don’t think the topic is basically “communicative and
strategic rationality”).

“[I] am,” you write, “simply trying to note that language does not
exhaust reason” (8/24), as (presumably) the latter is normally
conceived. With Benhabib and Wellmer, “we owe our alligences to people -
not to reason” (8/22), as reason is traditionally understood. Because
one should “speak[] to a concrete other without presuppositions about
who that other is (in a universalist sense)” (8/19), a richer sense of
reason is desired: “Emphatic reason is a way of [nonviolent] living
[and] a way of knowing put into form in our expressions, our drama...”
(8/20). Here,“the force of the better argument...will be based upon
desire more than [rationalistic] good reasons” (8/21), and rationality
can be “aesthetic and personal[,which is] how language is actually used
by people” (8/19). 

Granting that you would distinguish reason as such from totalistic
reason, in those contexts of your comments where you aren’t overt about
this, I think all would agree with your basic disposition, as synopted
above. As a student of Habermas’ works for over 25 years, I believe
Habermas wouldn’t  disagree with your basic sense of living. 

It appears to me that your thinking has been more influenced by the
early Frankfurt School than yet by Habermas, and that your investment in
the dialectic of Adorno cannot find validation in Habermas’ work, which
appears to you objectivist, relative to your sense of interpersonal
life. “Following D of Enlightenment - i think we can gleam an insight
into how emphatic reason theorizes things” (8/22), for the sake of
“incorporating earlier elements of critical theory into habermas's
theory of communicative action” (8/19). Thus, the fundamental nature of
dialectics is at stake for you, and your sense of emphatic reason is a
way to bridge Adorno and Habermas, preferably through “a more
psychoanalytic discussion,” as early Habermas and the first Frankfurt
School was wont to do. Indeed, emphatic reason could be a way to bridge
early Habermas with later Habermas, if he’s out-of-touch with his youth. 

Emancipatory bridging—critical hermeneutic practice—requires a degree of
immanence and interpersonalness that is different from a venue of
argumentative discourse; rather, critical reflection with another calls
for a therapeutic of reason that must look to the immediate “other” not
as Other, but as “mine,” in “our” search for understanding. Yet, as your
partner, I must be a mystery to discover, and in that sense an
Other-to-be disclosed in my true *lack* of Otherness. In the meantime,
though, I'm another who can embody an aura of Otherness, even your own
unconscious sense of Otherness, as is common in the therapeutic
alliance. This can be eerie when one’s own Otherness shows up in another
and is reflected back through interpretation. 

Anyway, I agree with you (to a degree) that “truth is constructed, by an
individual, in accord with their understanding of rightness, and in the
context of their sincerity (as far as such things are possible)” [8/20].
Consider, though, a distinction between truth and factuality, where
truth involves rightness and sincerity, but factuality as well. That is,
consider a sense of truth (in the holistic sense) distinguished from
truth-conditionality, in the logical sense or propositional sense. Your
point, I believe, was that factuality is constructed in accord with an
understanding of rightness and a context of sincerity. To claim, though,
that factuality emerges in accord with rightness and sincerity is not to
reduce the former to the latter, and I presume you would agree; rather,
the question of how this accordance takes place, “the way, the form, the
context of how these things are arrived at” (8/20) is at issue. You
suspect that “the force of the better argument is in the eye of the
beholder...” (8/20), implicating an integrity of subjectivity that
objectivism and rationalism cannot recognize, viz., “the idea of
[factuality] and rightness within the particular in which it finds
itself...entwined in actual use” (8/20), but also engaged in a larger
interest in truth, in the holistic sense which “accounts for the role of
desire, humanity, in the drive for truth, rightness, of truthfulness -
and the drive for reason” (8/20), which you don’t find appreciated by
Habermas in an integrable way that comprehends “desires, reasons, social
constructions, biology etc.” (8/20). You write that “i am trying here to
give primacy to the objective via the subjective which IS a paradoxical
process” (8/22), if only because “an emphatic idea of rationality
locates universality with[in a] context of the whole rather than in the
static particular” (8/22) even as “the empathic [sic] idea of
communication is one that encompasses...truth and rightness within the
particular in which it finds itself” (8/20).

This perspective of subjective vs. objective and universal vs.
particular is different from Habermas’ 3-fold sense of things, but not
incompatible. One might claim that the former is really “dialectical”
and the latter (Habermas) has lost an authentic sense of The Dialectic
(or never had it). Yet, one may also claim that the former is *not yet*
authentically dialectical.

But the matter is not: Who’s really dialectical? The matter is—what?
What are we basically trying to accomplish here? 

To *understand* Habermas? You want to understand Habermas, sure—or
depart from him—*in order to* do—what?

This is all part of the career of thinking. Clearly, Ken, you’re being
pretty spontaneous in your emails, throwing out a lot of material off
the cuff (as your typographical errors imply), which is fascinating: the
mind in ferment.

But you’re not yet genuinely engaged with Habermas’ texts. Ironically,
your emphasis on the immanent, the interpersonal, and the non-Othered
partner—a concern which is quite to-the-point and important—is quite
cavalier toward Habermas, making him into quite an Other, in a haunting

Let me review your critical sense of Habermas (distinct from your
expository sense, which I’ll get to later), without defense of Habermas
against your view of him, just reiteration. But let me refer to him as
an Other.

“What [Other] has missed in his two tiered idea of language” (8/19)
involves “the generalized other - in effect a mushroom living in the
vale of ignorance” (8/20). “For [Other] rationality is a club which
knocks people over the head -hence it is enforced by the power of law”
(8/20). Other’s “(U) is incoherent because it creates normativity,
conceptually, out of itself” (8/20). Other’s “project [of] communicative
rationality has little to do with rationality at all.  [Other is] unable
to maintain a coherent idea of reason and communication.  What we have
here is an expression of desire - a utopian image - ... an image of what
[Other] thinks the world[] should be like - in accord with a specific
and local understanding of reason.  In other words - [Other’s] project
is philosophically trivial - since it expresses a version of
contextualized reason which does not speak to a universal audience
rather... i read [Other] as being far more poetic tha[n] rational.
[Other] unsuccessfully entwines motivation with reason... ” (8/20).
Other “possesse[s] a static concept of reason” (8/22). Other’s “idea of
reason is too strong and cannot address its own incoherency and circular
formulation” (8/22).

I will skip your posting where you wax strong and poetic about “the
Other”. Instead, I want to acknowledge that you seem to be genuinely on
the way to understanding Habermasian thinking, but your “Habermas” is a
figure in your own development of thought, which is a nonetheless good
thing, just as it’s a good thing that an analysand is at times confident
about the nature of the psychoanalyst: It promotes the analysis
*because* it feels independent of “mere” perception. It is important
that the Other *be* another (a not-Other) in order for the entwinement
of understanding and unconsciousness *out there* to create insight. 

In the case of Habermas, this process has been often (in the literature
of Critical Theory) veiled by insisting that an interest in universality
answer to particularities or that issues of objectivity answer to issues
of subjectivity (or vice versa). The veil here is the implicit demand
that duality itself remain primary (after all, isn’t reality
"dialectical"?). Readers of Habermas play into this with explanations
that are abstracted from the context of the critic, thereby tacitly
perpetuating a duality of abstract-concrete in the act of defending
against a demand to be concrete (which they may be unable to carry out). 

Though I don’t read Scott as playing into this dynamic, it’s nonetheless
odd that your wonderfully interesting response to Ken (8/20.1) has
little to do with what Ken has specifically posted. And your response to
him later that day is certainly unconvincing, though your views are
fascinating and your sense of Habermas is quite insightful and
appropriate generally, just not attuned to Ken. Likewise, the next day
(8/21), Scott: wonderful writing (worth the full reiteration that Rob
enacts the next day), but arguably irrelevant to Ken’s context of

Back to Ken and “Habermas,” now in terms of exposition: “Habermas
divides language into two categories - communicative and strategic”
(8/19). More appropriately:  Habermas divides *action* into those two
types. James’ corrective (8/20) is quite accurate, but I think an
emphasis on the *action*-theoretical character of Habermas’ work is most
useful for Ken’s context.

Ken writes: “For Habermas, communicative action is language-use oriented
by an intention to speak to a generalized other - a univeral being who[]
agrees a priori to discuss generalized interests” (8/19). More
accurately: Communicative action intends a relationship with a
particular other, always, and that other’s interests are individual,
general (cultural) and even universal (e.g., human rights). I may share
some of those individual interests, surely many of the general
interests, and certainly any universal interest (e.g., educational
opportunity). Inasmuch as I address others relative to general
interests, then my communication may appeal generally. But, if you’ve
ever been in a one-to-one interaction with Habermas (where you have his
full attention), you know that he is frighteningly respectful of your
particularity, to the point that you may wonder why he takes your views
so seriously, AS IF your views have as much integrity as his (gulp)! 

“Strategic language use includes deception, ideology, and manipulation”
(8/19). But not basically. Strategic communication is simply
goal-determined communication, which is distinct from communication as
such, whose telos is within itself, i.e., having the unspecific goal of
furthering understanding, wherever it goes. Now, one’s strategic designs
may be deceptive (ingenuine, if not malicious), but that’s a matter of
one’s intentions, not strategic communication itself. 

“[W]hat habermas understands as private i understand to be public”
(8/20). One would think you wish to say the opposite: What Habermas
understands as public, you understand as private. Anyway, it’s quite
valid, I think, to insist that “the dynamic of the two spheres is one of
mutuality,” but to then immediately say “they cannot meaningfully be
defined - without reifying the experience of either” is not plausible.
Indeed, they cannot be strictly delimited, etc., but that’s another
matter. A concern for boundaries or boundedness is not in itself
hegemonic, especially given a “dynamic...of mutuality.” This indicates
to me that you are just beginning to think theoretically about the
difference between public and private, and it’s vital, of course.
Indeed, “the public/private divide a conceptual
framework,” but not as *just* this (“the public/private divide does not
exist except as a conceptual framework,” you write). *All* distinctions
exist within conceptual frameworks—which are embodied (and thereby given
cogency, value and, finally, validity) by action that, in order to be
politically meaningful, is communicative in a fair way (one hopes).

And now I come to the heart of the matter, Ken. First, I’m in total
agreement with your assertion that “Habermas's theory of communicative
rationality is an attempt to put [the communicative] element of
reflection into practical terms” [8/20] (I hope I’m interpolating
correctly here). But you think he is not successful, of course. Thus, a
call for “emphatic reason”. Yet consider this: The difference between
understanding and interpretation has always been inherent to Habermas’
sense of communication, and what you want to honor through the notion of
emphatic reason has always been what the hermeneutical approach (and
Habermas’ tutledge, as well as his overt sense of communicative action)
has honored through the notion of *understanding*. If you substitute
‘understanding’ in all your employments of ‘emphatic’, you will get a
wonderfully appropriate sense of what communicative action has always
been thought by Habermas to advance. To wit: “[Understanding] is not
just a way of knowing (as critical theory [was for the Institute]) but a
way of living....[Understanding] is a way of relating to things in a
nonviolent way...The idea of [understanding] descibes a way of knowing
put into form in our expressions, our drama, and our living - however it
takes shape” (8/20). 

Voila!  If you will pursue the hermeneutical features of Habermas’ work,
you will find all the emphasis on embodied reason that you could expect
from a philosopher (whose commitments are philosophical, obviously).
Alas, it is a universality of the value of situated *understanding* that
Habermas is possibly most concerned to advance, albeit in
institutionalizable (read: educable) forms. The idea of
understanding—the Idea of understanding: Understanding—is indeed “one
that encompasses the idea of truth and rightness within the particular
in which it finds itself” (8/20)!  Understanding proceeds from desire,
while reason proceeds from calls for validation of one’s understanding
(and desires) that figure into coordination of action with others. 

“What good reason do i have for obeying the rules of discourse?” (8/22).
A desire to understand. “What would motivate me to participate in a
discussion, a real life discussion, where predetermined rules exist
about what is and is not acceptable[?]” A desire to understand. “Of
course I WANT to participate in discussions - but i don't have,
ultimately, a completely rational reason for participating.” Sure you
do: the same reason that caused you to read this email: a desire to

Best regards,

Gary E. Davis

--- End of forwarded message from Gary <>

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