Secularisation and the Place of Religion in Modern Society

Habermas starts his dialogue with Joseph Ratzinger with a question and a doubt. He questions whether or not the modern secularised state is able to guarantee the normative presuppositions upon which it is based; the very fact that this question has been raised gives rise to the doubt that the state is able to renew ‘from its own resources’ (21) these normative presuppositions. Underpinning this scepticism is the assumption ‘that such a state is dependent on ethical traditions of a local nature’ (21). This post will focus on the issue of whether or not the state can self-legitimate, focusing on two questions: How rational are the foundations of the democratic constitutional state? What do we do with religion in a secular society?

The modern constitutional state is founded upon democratic procedures; to the extent that such procedures are able to flourish – free elections and universal voting, for example, a state can be deemed as democratic. That the state is rational depends on the extent to which the democratic process ‘satisfies the conditions for an inclusive and discursive formation of opinion and will’ (26). Democratic procedures are enshrined by legal institutionalisation, which demands that basic liberal and political rights are granted ‘simultaneously’ (26). It is, moreover, the rule of law that governs the ‘innermost core’ (26) of state authority; as such, political power is ‘totally permeated by the law’ and there ‘is no ruling authority derived from something antecedent to the law’ (27). Nevertheless, systems of law are legitimated self-referentially, that is ‘on the basis of legal procedures born of democratic procedures’ (27). Following Kant, the proceduralist understanding of the constitutional state requires that the basic principles of the constitution have ‘autonomous justification and that all citizens can rationally accept the claim this justification makes’ (28). In sum, the rationality of the state depends upon the legal institutionalisation of democratic procedures, the principles of which must be autonomously justified and universally accepted.

For Habermas, the state is able to satisfy its own need for legitimation ‘on the basis of the cognitive elements of a stock of arguments that are independent of religious and metaphysical traditions’ (29). By this, he means that the state can self-legitimate in a rational and self-sufficient manner. However, a doubt remains ‘with regard to the question of motivation’ (29), for in reality the ‘normative presuppositions for the existence of a democratic constitutional state’ (29) place a higher demand upon citizens, than if they were merely citizens of society and addressees of the law rather than authors of it. The higher demands issues from the basic principle of the democratic state – equality; citizens must participate not purely on the basis of their own interests but also ‘with an orientation to the common good’ (30). To be motivated to act on behalf of others, particularly others with whom one has no direct connection, is a ‘more costly commitment’ (30), which cannot simply be imposed by the law. Thus, the democratic procedures upon which the state is founded, purportedly enshrined in legal institutions, require motivation that cannot be explained in purely rational terms. Rather, as Habermas argues, ‘all one can do is suggest to the citizens of a liberal society that they should be willing to get involved on behalf of fellow citizens whom they do not know and who remain anonymous to them and that they should accept sacrifices that promote common interests’ (30).

It would seem, then, that political virtues originate, rather than motivate, in socialisation. What is that socialisation founded upon? Habermas seems to suggest that the status of the citizen, the socialised individual, is ‘nourished’ (30) by the ‘“pre-political”’ (31). Pre-political feelings, intuitions or insights contribute and support the solidarity upon which the state depends; solidarity is the ability to put oneself in another’s position, the willingness to take on their position, thereby opening one’s horizon up to the possibility of otherness. I read Habermas as saying that the pre-political exists side-by-side with normative presuppositions, and that the former is able to bridge the gap between what is rationally acceptable, such as giving up food for one’s family in times of food crises, and a more abstract solidarity with human beings in general, whereby one extends bread to a stranger. Here it is worth quoting Habermas at length:

Taken by themselves, moral insights and the worldwide consensus in moral indignation at massive breaches of human rights would suffice only for the wafer-thin integration of the citizens of a politically structured world society (if that were ever to become a reality). An abstract solidarity, mediated by the law, arises among citizens only when the principles of justice have penetrated more deeply into the complex of ethical orientations in a given culture. (34)

In the modern state, the markets have penetrated into an increasing number of regulatory functions in areas of life that were previously ‘held together in a normative manner’ (36), in other words, by political structures of pre-political forms of communication. Not only does the private sphere aim more and more for realisation of individual interests; at the same time, ‘the sphere where public legitimation is necessary is likewise shrinking’ (36). There is an entrenched feeling that the global community is utterly powerless when the need for action has never been greater; our political leaders continue to be driven by national interests in the face of a global economic crisis. Habermas attributes the depoliticisation of citizens to precisely the ‘dwindling of any genuine hope that the global community would be a creative political force’ (36). For when the leaders fail to deliver, the individual retreats further away from the public sphere of symbolic interactions, from precisely the democratic procedures that should, theoretically, empower engagement.

The radical scepticism with regards to reason that resonates in the post-Enlightenment world is ‘profoundly alien to the Catholic tradition’ (37). The continued existence of religion perhaps shows that, in spite of the gains made in humanism, Enlightenment and political liberalism, there is nevertheless an audience for whom ‘the theory that the remorseful modern age can find its way out of the blind alley only by means of the religious orientation to a transcendent point of reference’ (37) really makes sense. This is not just true in the case of the mundane congregation who attend church dutifully every Sunday. Religion still yields an enormous amount of power in the political sphere even when it is unashamedly fanatical, as evidenced by the powerful pro-life lobbying seen in the US and now the UK. Thus, it is the task of philosophy to take this phenomenon ‘seriously from within…as a cognitive challenge’ (38). It is no longer enough to dismiss religion out of hand as ‘simply irrational’ (51).

Habermas identifies the starting point for the philosophical discourse about reason and revelation (knowledge and faith) as the idea that ‘when reason reflects on its deepest foundations, it discovers that it owes its origin to something else’ (40). The continued existence of religion is down to the ‘something’ that remains intact in the communal lives of the fellowships it engenders, ‘something that has been lost elsewhere and cannot be restored by the professional knowledge of experts alone’ (43). Again we return to the ethical considerations upon which the principle of justice must be based, to the sense that motivation to correct societal pathologies, distorted patterns of behaviour towards other human beings and alienation or disassociation from society, springs from the pre-political. Nevertheless, the principle of tolerance, particularly in pluralistic societies, requires believers and non-believers to grasp the fact that dissent exists and will continue to go on existing. It is only the neutrality of the state authority on questions of worldviews that ‘guarantees the same ethical freedom to every citizen’ (51).

All quotes refer to Habermas’s essay ‘Pre-political Foundations of the Democratic Constitutional State’ in Dialectics of Secularisation.


Kohlberg’s Six-Stage Development Theory

Kohlberg, a former Professor at Harvard University, developed the six-stage theory via extensive case study work. Its basic idea is that there are three levels, each containing two stages, of moral development. His theory adds to the claims of Piaget among others that philosophical/critical reasoning is acquired progressively.

Kohlberg’s classification is as follows:

Level Stage Social Orientation
Pre-conventional 1 Obedience and Punishment
2 Individualism, Instrumentalism and Exchange
Conventional 3 ‘Good boy/girl’
4 Law and Order
Post-conventional 5 Social Contract
6 Principled Conscience

Pre-conventional is early level development and is observed in children, particularly of primary school age. In the first stage, individuals act according to social norms because they are told to do so by a figure of authority, usually involving the threat or application of punishment in case of disobedience. In the second stage, individuals are motivated to behave obediently out of self-interest, for instance, obtaining reward or avoiding punishment.

Conventional is middle level development found in society. In the third stage, individuals are motivated to act according to social norms out of desire to gain the approval of others, for instance, other people in one’s community. In the fourth stage, one develops an awareness of what is right behaviour according to the law, as well responding to obligations of duty.

Post-conventional is the level of development that Kohlberg did not believe most adults obtained during their life times. In the fifth stage, the individual develops a genuine concern for the welfare of others, particularly those others with whom one has no direct contact i.e. outside of one’s immediate community. In the sixth stage, the individual finds her highest attainment in respect for the universal principle and the demands of her individual conscience.

It is interesting to note that moral development depends to a large extent on social interactions. For example, individuals progress through the stages by being exposed to examples of moral dilemmas that require response at a higher level. This has implications for moral education, insofar as Kohlberg’s theory would seem to suggest that individuals can be ‘taught’ to become better people. Nevertheless, he maintained that it is impossible to skip stages in development, say by going from 2 straight to 4.

Some Criticisms

Kohlberg has come under criticism for inherent gender bias, following from evidence that he based female moral development entirely on the model which was tested exclusively on male case studies.

The validity of his research has been further questioned. Given that the moral dilemmas are artificial, it is arguable whether the subjects tested would have reacted in the same way had the situation arisen in real life. There would seem to be a difference in knowing what one ought to do versus how one actually acts in a given situation.

Kohlberg’s theory emphasises the role of justice in moral reasoning. This could be problematic in light of other motivations for moral action, such as compassion, ethics of care, empathy, sympathy.

Finally, Kohlberg’s findings may only be relevant for Western cultures which tend to emphasise individualistic thinking over collective consciousness. Thus, one should be cautious about extracting generalisations from his findings.

The Intersection Between Public and Private: Rorty and Habermas

How do we deal with situations in which our conception of ourselves as individuals does not overlap with collectively held norms and values?

In the history of contemporary moral philosophy, Habermas argues that practical reason takes on three different tasks: pragmatic (purposive), ethical (good) and moral (just). He finds himself facing two important questions: 1) Does it makes sense to think of practical reason as a unified faculty when it encompasses these three divisions; 2) If it is not unified, how do we deal with the relationship between them ad properly mediate the point at which public and private intersect? Habermas concludes that ‘the unity of practical reason can be realised in an unequivocal manner only within a network of public forms of communication and practices in which the conditions of rational collective will formation have taken on concrete institutional forms’ (On the Moral Employment of Practical Reason, 17).

Habermas follows the Kantian conception of liberal society, in that the political and legal sphere is crucial to social harmony. He tends to emphasise public issues such as social justice, public discourse and community, over private issues such as identity, authenticity and fulfilment of individual goals. Rorty, also a liberal and also interested in the relationship between public and private, draws on thinkers like Nietzsche to claim that the private and public are subject to a division that cannot be closed. This is because he sees an inherent opposition between private interests and public needs. As such, Rorty argues that private (ethical) thinking must be set aside in order to participate in dialogue about public issues.

Moral reasoning for Habermas is fundamentally communicative and public, grounding its own standards and procedures in the collective agreement of the community. Private conceptions of the good do not have to be entirely sacrificed to the wider interest of the people, as it is a communicative practice. Habermas draws upon Kant’s negative liberal right, for, in giving up some of our individual freedom in a collective agreement, we avoid doing violence to others and therefore ensure that everyone has some measure of freedom. Whilst Habermas agrees with Kant’s call for a civil society based on reason, he posits reason against the Kantian definition as communicative, historical and rooted in social realities. In this way, he hopes to avoid having to say that reason is a priori transcendental.

For each function of practical reason, a sense of ‘should’ is involved in making claims. In the pragmatic sense, one ‘should’ do something in a given set of circumstances, for example, I should take my bicycle to be fixed if it is in need of repair. In the ethical sense, one ‘ought’ to do something, where there is room to question whether the ‘ought’ should be fulfilled, for example, I ought to make it up with my Aunt. In the moral sense, one ‘must’ do something, where there is no room for questioning whether one may or may not do it, for example, one must treat every person as his or her equal. Habermas distinguishes between the moral and the ethical thus: ‘in the first case, what is being asked is whether a maxim is good for me, or appropriate in the given situation, and in the second, whether I can will that a maxim should be followed by everyone as a general law’ (Ibid., 7).

In moving between the ethical and the moral, the identity of the individual is overcome by an orientation toward what is in the wider interests of the community/society/collective. Authenticity too is left behind as it is dealt with solely on ethical concerns, not moral ones. In fact, the only time we may live by our individual maxims is if ‘my identity and my life project reflected a universally valid form of life’ thus ‘what from my perspective would be equally good for all [would] in fact be equally in the interest of all’ (Ibid., 8). The complexity demands compromise in order that private interests are not unreasonably subordinated to collective will: herein lies the importance of public institutions based on the spirit of communicative reasoning. Communicative action is therefore the unifying force that keeps the ethical, moral and pragmatic aspects of practical reason together.

Does Habermas give enough weight to the force of aesthetic feeling – as well as practical reason – on the part of the individual? Could such a non-rational way of living be compatible with his project? Rorty, following Nietzsche, argues for a poeticised and stylised private sphere whilst claiming that the ethical and moral aspects of practical reason are incommensurable. He argues that his ‘poeticised culture is one which has given up the attempt to unite one’s private ways of dealing with one’s finitude and one’s sense of obligation to other human beings’ (Contingency, Irony and Solidarity, 68). If we give up on a point of mediation, what do we stand to lose?

Rorty argues that our identities, beliefs and institutions are a matter of historical contingency; that is not to say that we cannot commit to individual or social projects with any less passion than when we laboured under the spell of metaphysics. Instead, we commit to such projects because of a common belief in enlarging the conditions in which human beings live, to make things less cruel. In removing reason and philosophy from public discourse and moral consensus, and replacing these with ‘a historical narrative about the rise of liberal institutions and customs’ (Ibid.), Rorty gives up on the notion of universal validity. This is in sharp contrast to Habermas, who maintains that universal consensus (and validity) can be achieved through communicative action. Nonetheless, it is Habermas’s particular deployment of universal reason that is problematic here, for, though he acknowledge that concepts like community and identity are historically contingent, he nonetheless wants to claim transcendence for reason, even though that transcendence has been brought about by contingent communicative action.

Against Habermas, Rorty proposes that solidarity is the basic unit of our social engagement, and, further, that this does not always rely on rational justification nor completely submitting to social institutions. Art and literature, for instance, can awaken the same sense of obligation and responsibility towards others. Rorty argues in this way to support his claim that reason is just another vocabulary, with no more or less priority than the other vocabularies in our toolbox. Does Rorty minimise the potential for private ethical considerations to impact on public moral concerns by drawing too sharp a distinction between public and private? One is left with the image of practical reason producing a schizophrenic citizen who cannot always make the right call when laying down his individual projects out of obligation to a wider cause. Compared with Habermas, who attempts to link the ethical with the moral by showing how it plays a role in communicative action, Rorty’s position seems less worked out and, paradoxically, reliant upon the political theorism of Habermas in order to save the idea of a fully functioning liberal society. Where would we be without the social institutions and rationality that binds their maxims? Nonetheless, Rorty does seem to be right in point out that reason is only one of the ways in which we can engage in the politicised public sphere, whilst Habermas’s account leaves little or no room at all for aesthetic self-determination.


The Value of Sincerity

Preliminary definitions:

Discourse Theory of Ethics: is the attempt to establish norms of critical judgement for everyday communication

Communicative Action: commitment to a rationalist account of intersubjective agreement. It appropriates the notion of the lifeworld (a collection of unquestioned cultural norms derived from differentiated value spheres, which contain sources of validity claims). It strives for understanding on the basis of non-coercive forms of argumentation.

Habermas has argued that moral theory should clarify the ‘universal core of our moral intuitions’ and ‘refute value scepticism’. Trust is a fundamental value in this kind of model of argumentative exchange, because, in trying to convince my conversation partner of the legitimacy of my arguments, I cannot rely on coercion; rather, I must trust the neutral force of the better argument to function as the ground of my validity. Argumentative competency also derives from my ability to differentiate between diverse modes of thinking, and to apply the proper form of judgement to each domain of thought.

There are three types of validity claim:

Domains of Thought Classes of Speech Acts Domains of Focus







Rightness (justice)

Sincerity (taste)

NB: note how ‘truth, rightness, and taste’ correspond to Kant’s division of pure, practical and aesthetic reason.

Though Habermas spends a considerable amount of time discussing how shared propositional knowledge and normative accord are amenable to consensus, he never explains why consensus ought to be the goal of communicative exchange. His account seems to miss out discussion of mutual trust, yet the sincerity derived from mutual trust is a fundamental aspect of our argumentative competency and a condition for intersubjective participation; in other words, when I enter into an exchange, I must be sincere in my beliefs, in my commitment to justification and in my desire for consensus. Moreover, we must be sincere about the ways in which we exercise power, for, as Habermas argues, agreement that is ‘brought about by manipulating one’s partner in interaction…cannot even be considered an agreement’.

Habermas is committed to non-coercive discourse, yet the structural role of sincerity remains unacknowledged as a feature of the ethics of communication. We engage in dialogue in order to reach agreement and because we trust our conversational partner; sincerity guarantees mutual trust. As such, issues of trust (and truth) can erupt in any dialogical encounter, and must be settled by sincerity acting as a guarantee of the validity claim at stake, as well as being an attribute in making any validity claim in the first place.

Performative contradiction can be both positive, as the principle guaranteeing non-coercive communication, and negative, as an indirect corrective for speech participants. The performative contradiction implies a certain ‘moral know-how’ built intot he structure of communication, which asserts its normative status when thinking goes astray. The performative contradiction is thus invoked as a standard of legitimacy, for in order to speak properly and have what one says considered to be valid, one is required to speak as though one is telling the truth oneself in public. Thus the ethical part of communication is the promissory obligation that what I say reflects what I truly think. By not holding anything back, participants satisfy the criterion of sincerity (imposed by the performative contradiction) and thus engage in communicative rather than strategic action.

Nonetheless, can sincerity by prompted by untruthful motivations, such as protecting one’s reputation against the accusation of lies or manipulation? And does this jeopardise the grounds of successful communication? It is striking that Habermas’s model looks surprisingly monological, when viewed from this angle, for, as Davide Panagia argues:

‘Though it is not absolutist in principle, the aesthetic features [performative contradiction] of communicative action make it so that there is only one possible mode of successful communication, namely, argument [rather than conversation]. The alternative is, indeed, contradiction and miscomprehension; an alternative that is, by its very nature, anathema to Habermas’s understanding of communicative action as “the unforced force of the better argument [that] determines the ‘yes’ or ‘no’ responses of the participants”.’ (835)

From Knowledge and Human Interests to The Theory of Communicative Action: Changes in Habermas’s Philosophy

Habermas bases his philosophy on the centrality of language as the medium of rationality and sociality. In doing so, he firmly situates himself against the prevailing philosophy of consciousness, as espoused by Husserl and others around the turn of the twentieth century. Whilst he agrees with the general positivist theory of the natural sciences,[1] Habermas refutes the extension of positivism into areas traditionally seen as the domains of the social and cultural sciences. Contrary to Dilthey’s theory of empathy,[2] Habermas outlines a hermeneutic conception of the social and cultural sciences, in which language is the medium of cognition. The hermeneutic conception states that knowledge about humans as objects are statements about facts, facts that have been pre-constituted by the pragmatic motivations of human beings. The ordering of the world of social action is effected by the shared medium of language, thus language is the primary repository of the facts with which the social and cultural sciences are concerned.

Habermas argues that positivism misses out this prior conceptualisation of facts as social norms; in other words, positivism models knowledge and explanations according to law-like regularities, but these models are of little use when applied to the porous and flexible norms generated in social and cultural life. Thus, Habermas opposes positivism in these domains, instead asserting the essentially historicised and non-universal character of the concepts of social sciences. In this way, the fundamentally social character of knowledge is revealed, and Habermas builds this social character into his model of knowledge, which is based upon three aspects: manipulative/strategic, understanding and emancipatory.

Modern societies tend towards objectivism,[3] which according to Habermas is an alienated understanding of science and society resulting from obscuration of the social and pragmatic character to which they owe these interests. As such, the communicative and ethical interests of society are subordinated to the imperatives of the technologies that control our economic and political life. It is the responsibility of philosophy to critique this ideology, supplanting objectivism with a theory of knowledge that emphasises the intersubjective nature of human interaction.[4] This sort of engagement realises understanding and agreement dialogically, as opposed to the monological discourse that is characteristic of the natural sciences. This kind of communicative understanding would also be capable of grounding ethical relationships, for there is a recognition of identity and difference built into the process of dialogical engagement: I recognise you as another I. Consequently, recognition demands a symmetry in transaction, which is defined by norms that both conversational participants understand and acknowledge. This ideal speech situation[5] can be extended to set the terms for wider social and ethical relationships. Because ‘all speech is oriented toward the idea of truth’ and ‘this idea can only be analysed with regard to a consensus achieved in unrestrained and universal discourse’, the ideal speech situation and the symmetries it entails amount to ‘a linguistic conceptualisation of what are traditionally known as the ideas of truth, freedom and justice’.

From the publication of Knowledge and Human Interests in 1972, to the publication of The Theory of Communicative Action nearly ten years later in 1981, Habermas was concerned with developing an empirical basis for the philosophical claim to universality and rationality. To a degree, Habermas sets aside the earlier theory of cognitive interests in favour of a postmetaphysical approach to reconstructing the shared competences and normative presuppositions that are necessary for actors to participate in acts of communication, discourse and inquiry. The postmetaphysical approach is weakly transcendental, insofar as it is reconstructive; however, it is also weakly naturalist, insofar as the practices it aims to reconstruct are consistent with empirical theories of the natural evolution of the species.[6] The continuity with Knowledge and Human Interests lies in the tripartite model of knowledge, which is modified in The Theory of Communicative Action. So, cognitive instrumental rationality (manipulative/strategic) is still to do with the search for truth, the realisation of the goals of action, and its rational character is expressed in the claim to universal validity. Justification to others (understanding) is now to do with bringing one’s conduct under norms that are valid for others, and less to do with the normative aspect of understanding others. Emancipation now has to do with public avowals of personal attitudes and feelings, rather than particular assertions of right. The subjective character of emancipatory knowledge is retained in Habermas’s use of such phrases as ‘inner’ and ‘subjective states’. Emancipatory knowledge is also apparently intended as the validity claim that will cover the areas of art and symbolism.

All three validity claims are modes of communicative action, thus the theory is a theory of argumentation, which establishes the validity of argument types in a strong normative sense. The process of argumentation also imparts a performative character to the social science that is doing the inquiry.

[1] Positivism is philosophy of science based on the view that in the social as well as natural sciences, data derived from sensory experience, and logical and mathematical treatments of such data, are together the exclusive source of all authentic knowledge. (Wikipedia)

[2] At the beginning of the 20th century, empathy understood as a non-inferential and non-theoretical method of grasping the content of other minds became closely associated with the concept of understanding (Verstehen); a concept that was championed by the hermeneutic tradition of philosophy concerned with explicating the methods used in grasping the meaning and significance of texts, works of arts, and actions. (For a survey of this tradition see Grondin 1994). Hermeneutic thinkers insisted that the method used in understanding the significance of a text or a historical event has to be fundamentally distinguished from the method used in explaining an event within the context of the natural sciences. This methodological dualism is famously expressed by Droysen in saying that “historical research does not want to explain; that is, derive in a form of an inferential argument, rather it wants to understand” (Droysen 1977, 403), and similarly in Dilthey’s dictum that “we explain nature, but understand the life of the soul” (Dilthey 1961, vol. 5, 144). Yet Droysen and authors before him never conceived of understanding solely as an act of mental imitation or solely as an act of imaginatively “transporting” oneself into the point of view of another person. Such “psychological interpretation” as Schleiermacher (1998) used to call it, was conceived of as constituting only one aspect of the interpretive method used by historians. Other tasks mentioned in this context involved critically evaluating the reliability of historical sources, getting to know the linguistic conventions of a language, and integrating the various elements derived from historical sources into a consistent narrative of a particular epoch. The differences between these various aspects of the interpretive procedure were however downplayed in the early Dilthey. For him, grasping the significance of any cultural fact had to be understood as a mental act of “transposition.” Understanding the meaning of a text, an action, or work of art requires us to relate it to the primary realm of significance; that is, our own mental life accessible through introspection. (See for example Dilthey 1961, vol. 5, 263-265). Even though Dilthey himself never used the empathy terminology, his position certainly facilitated thinking about understanding as a form of empathy. No wonder then, that at this time the concepts of empathy and understanding were used almost interchangeably in order to delineate a supposed methodological distinction between the natural and the human sciences. (See Stueber 2006 for a more extensive discussion).

Ironically, the identification of empathy and understanding and the associated claim that empathy is the sole and unique method of the human sciences also facilitated the decline of the empathy concept and its almost utter disregard by philosophers of the human and social sciences later on, in both the analytic and continental/hermeneutic traditions of philosophy. Within both traditions, proponents of empathy were—for very different reasons—generally seen as advocating an epistemically naïve and insufficiently broad conception of the methodological proceedings in the human sciences. As a result, most philosophers of the human and social sciences maintained their distance from the idea that empathy is central for our understanding of other minds and mental phenomena. Notable exceptions in this respect are R.G. Collingwood and his followers, who suggested that reenacting another person’s thoughts is necessary for understanding them as rational agents (Collingwood 1946, Dray 1957 and 1995). Notice however that in contrast to the contemporary debate about folk psychology, the debate about empathy in the philosophy of social science is not concerned with investigating underlying causal mechanisms. Rather, it addresses normative questions of how to justify a particular explanation or interpretation. (

[3] Objectivism, in this context, is an alternative name for philosophical realism, the view that there is a reality, or ontological realm of objects and facts, that exists independent of the mind. Stronger versions of this claim hold that there is only one correct description of this reality. If it is true that reality is mind-independent, then reality might include objects that are unknown to consciousness and thus might include objects not the subject of intentionality. Objectivity in referring requires a definition of truth. According to metaphysical objectivists, an object may truthfully be said to have this or that attribute, as in the statement “This object exists,” whereas the statement “This object is true” or “false” is meaningless. For them, only propositions have truth-values. Essentially, the terms “objectivity” and “objectivism” are not synonymous, with objectivism being an ontological theory that incorporates a commitment to the objectivity of objects. (Wikipedia)

[5] In his various essays on empirical truth, Habermas usually regards propositions as the truth-bearer: in making an assertion, “I am claiming that the proposition [Aussage] that I am asserting is true” (1971/2001, 86; cf. 2003a, 249ff). In his early treatment, however, he immediately equated empirical truth with ideal justifiability—the consensus theory of truth mentioned above. According to that theory, the “truth condition of propositions is the potential assent of all others”; thus “the universal-pragmatic meaning of truth…is determined by the demand of reaching a rational consensus” (1971/2001, 89; cf. 86). Such formulations suggest that Habermas equated the meaning of truth with the outcome of a universal, rational consensus, which he understood in reference to the ideal speech situation (ibid., 97–98). However, he soon saw the difficulties with consensus theory, and he never allowed “Wahrheitstheorien” (1973a), his main essay on the consensus theory of truth, to appear in English. Like the “epistemic” theories of truth that link truth with ideal warranted assertibility (e.g., Hilary Putnam, Crispin Wright), consensus theory downplays the justification-transcendent character of truth (2003a, 250–52). (Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy)

[6] Some commentators also describe this transitional period as Habermas’s ‘linguistic turn’, as he comes to use speech act theory as the basis for a conception of communicative competence. Formal pragmatics, for instance, is the model for on of the reconstructive sciences, which aim to theoretically explicate the intuitive know-how underlying our basic abilities to speak, act and judge etc. The reconstructive sciences do not yield necessary knowledge in the manner of Kant, however; rather, the knowledge that they reveal is hypothetical, empirical and fallible. They nevertheless raise universal but defeatable claims about practical reason.

Some Problems with Grounding Procedural Reason

Key words: procedural reason, differentiation, argument, unity

Pragmatism is appealing to many American social theorists because, in failing to challenge the purported sovereignty of actors’ interests, theories such as rational choice, contractarian theories of the state, and symbolic interactionism, remain compatible. Pragmatism is challenged by any social theory that credibly claims to rest on a grounded standard of reason, because such a theory questions both the behaviour of humans in economic and political terms in the marketplace, as well as their subjective interests elsewhere in civil society. Habermas’s social theory rests on this notion of grounding, for he recognises that social theory can only be critical if it grounds itself in reason, thereby positioning itself against subjectivism and relativism.

Habermas breaks with several approaches taken by his predecessors, namely: a) Marx’s notion of the disalienation of labour; b) Weber’s notion of substantive rationality; c) his teachers for example Marcuse’s attempt to establish a grounding of substantive reason on a Freudian set of irreducible needs. Rather, Habermas seeks grounding on a standard of procedural reason (also universal or formal pragmatics, or communicative rationality), which does not challenge the sovereignty of subjective interests by a set of objective interests, such as disalienation or needs. Instead, subjective interests are challenged on the basis of a set of irreducible intersubjective needs, which can claim conceptual grounding.

Conceptual grounding contributes to social theory a foundation from which historical and contemporary shifts in the direction of social change can be explained. Whilst accepting Weber’s description of excessive bureaucratisation and the ‘iron cage’ – the result of actors’ unmediated and competitive motivations in the economic and political sphere – Habermas argues that both actors and social scientists have a stake in figuring out which subjective interests are reasoned and which contribute directly or indirectly to excessive rationalisation.

Procedural reason is needed to distinguish between the two, for such a distinction rests on asking whether social behaviour remains consistent with actors’ intersubjective interest in establishing and maintaining mutual understanding, which is only possible when all parties are freed from coercive or manipulative rationality. The macrosociological assumption upon which American pragmatism rests – that actors’ decisions in the economic and political marketplace are likely to be benign – is overly optimistic, complacent and therefore indefensible.

Habermas’s project is to demonstrate that the unity of reason rests on an undifferentiated, procedural standard of argumentation, which is both comprehensive in its range of application and equally generalisable. Toulmin’s question is: won’t procedural reasons’ possible manifestation in practice likely rest on increasingly differentiated standards of argumentation, standards differentiated by their functions and purposes within such fields as law, medicine etc? Toulmin’s point threatens Habermas’s project to the extent that the relativism of substantive reason is reintroduced into his purportedly grounded standard of procedural reason. If each field’s existing standards subordinate generalised procedural standards to specialised and local functions, and, further, that there are differentiated reasons for each field, the unity of reason is shattered.

In responding to Toulmin, Habermas shows that he has failed to distinguish between a) normative orientations that are institutionalised by the presence of forms of organisation; b) normative motivations that actors either internalise or else negotiate in their interactions. Habermas leaps from Toulmin’s question to his own undifferentiated theory of argumentation, when he could have taken a step in between. In other words, he could distinguish organisational forms from the substantive projects to which particular organisations happen to become dedicated, in practice, within particular fields.

On the one hand, Habermas addresses in general terms the ultimate bases of the state’s legitimacy, which he finds to be more manipulative and controlling than communicative and legitimate. On the other hand, he develops an account of the individual’s moral motivation. What he cannot do it to move these principles of the individual to their behaviour in group situations. At the same time, he concedes that certain institutions, such as courts of law, may not be so easily reducible to strategic action. As such, in clinging to this grounding standard of procedural reason, Habermas cuts off empirical research into the ‘middle’ ground between the legitimacy of macrosociological institutions and the actions that actors take at local levels. As David Sciulli argues:

Having gutted the grand “middle” of social life from his concepts’ possible empirical or detailed application, and having failed, as a result, to link his theory to “practice” or to detailed empirical research, Habermas places himself in an untenable position when he confronts symbolic interactionists and pragmatists in their own domain: individuals’ immediate actions and negotiations of meaning. Within this domain, his undifferentiated standard of argumentation cannot possibly survive in colloquy with these theoretical street fighters. (305)

Nevertheless, Habermas shares a problem with the pragmatists and symbolic interactionists: why can’t communicative action be increasingly consensual and consistent locally, even whilst the institutions in which these interactions take place become increasingly rationalised? The pragmatists and symbolic interactionists fail to account for such organisational change; at least Habermas attempts to offer an explanation in the form of the legitimation crisis theory. Still, Habermas must confront two problems which the pragmatists and symbolic interactionists do not, since the latter two accede to normative relativism when describing and explaining actors’ local prejudices and interactions.

1) Habermas must demonstrate that procedural reason is grounded conceptually against normative relativism.

2) He must also demonstrate that its manifestation is recognised unambiguously by all different groups and actors.

In response to (1), Habermas’s critique of Neopositivists copy theories of truth does demonstrate convincingly that any credible claim to grounding must remain a procedural meditation rather than being more immediately substantive. In the case of (2), Habermas seems unable to respond because he does not link theory and practice; in other words, he can only explain communicative action from interpersonal relations because he can’t see how competing actors can recognise communicative action in common.

David Sciulli argues that:

Habermas’s critical theory may be brought to practice and to detailed empirical research by drawing two distinctions: the distinction between organisational forms and organisations’ differentiated functions and purposes, and the distinction between institutionalised normative orientations and actors’ internalised motivations or local negotiations of meaning. (307)

On the first distinction, if Habermas can show how procedural grounding is intrinsically interrelated with a particular form of organisation, then the presence of such an organisation confirms that communicative action is a possibility. Its absence provides evidence that actors and groups lack an institutional normative orientation that would enable them to reach mutual understanding. The latter distinction enables actors and groups to recognise when they are acting communicatively in spite of divergent motivations and competing interests.

An Adequate Theory of Human Rights: Universality and Prescriptive Determinacy in Rawls and Habermas

There are four criteria for an adequate theory of human rights: universality, prescriptive determinacy, priority and completeness. Over the course of this post, I am going to focus on the first two in the cases of Rawls and Habermas, drawn from analysis provided by David Ingram. Some preliminary definitions: universality refers to an acceptance in spite of cultural allegiances, and it can be actual in the case of agreements already reached, or potential in the case of hypothetical but probably circumstances in which we could plausibly reach agreement. Prescriptive determinacy refers to the idea that such rights are not just regulative, but actually enforceable, for instance in laws within states and internationally. The notion of priority refers to the idea that basic rights provide the necessary conditions in which one is able to exercise non basic rights, and completeness refers to all categories of rights – cultural, social and economic.

There are two main types of liberal theories: cosmopolitan, in which individuals are the primary addressees of international law, and political, in which nations are the primary addressees. Habermas’s discourse ethical theory of law is an example of the first, and Rawls’s political liberal theory of the second. There are common points of overlap between the two, however. First, both depart in different ways from Kant’s liberal theory of international justice. Second, both agree that national sovereignty must be limited by respect for human rights. Third, both agree that different people should be able to interpret these rights according to their own traditions, within reason. Disagreement between the two centres upon the limits of reasonableness: Habermas affirms the importance of liberal political institutions for realising a proper system of rights, and Rawls denies this importance.


In the case of universality, Rawlsian political liberalism ‘does an admirable job at establishing a factual basis for universal human rights, [but] it does so by relinquishing prescriptive determinacy’ [360] because it tries to make room for radically incommensurable views of such rights in working towards international consensus.

In the case of prescriptive determinacy, Habermasian discourse theory goes some way to remedying this situation by prioritising dialogue as the basis of negotiating between cross-cultural differences. The theory has practical limitations, however, as it represent an ideal goal, but this goal does seem achievable if we drop the Rawlsian notion of the incommensurability of cultures and assume that eventually all nations will modernise and move towards democracy (modernisation theory).

In the case of priority, Ingram disputes the ranking system employed by Rawls to systematise the relative priority of basic and non basic rights. Rawls argues that human rights have priority over liberal (political and civil) rights, and the latter have priority over economic, social and cultural rights. Ingram wants to argue for an alternative ranking scheme that ‘acknowledges the equal weight and complementarity of different categories of rights’ [361].

For a theory of human rights to be complete, Ingram argues that it must include cultural rights, which furnish the basis of group rights. Rawlsian political liberalism only acknowledges group rights in the context of illiberal, undemocratic societies. In Habermas, ‘reluctant’ [361] allowance of the fact that group rights might realise individual rights in a liberal democracy, is not ‘reconciled with [the theory’s] own liberal individualistic assumptions’ [361].

Universality and Prescriptive Determinacy

In Rawls’s opinion, legitimacy can be maintained to the degree that minority groups are tolerated, dissenting groups are adequately responded to, and each group is fairly represented in a consultation hierarchy (Law of Peoples, 69). Thus, on this view, we would be able to accept as minimally just a state that did not promote socioeconomic equality, for instance, meaning that we can allow for larger differences in economic well-being, and consequently rights, in different states. As a result, the consensus required on basic human rights is considerably weakened, because we are taking into account a broad range of states from illiberal and undemocratic to liberal and democratic. This reflects a more tolerant and pluralistic attitude towards the inclusion of reasonable people in the dialogue about human rights. Indeed, it could be argued that it is in fact illiberal for one set of states to impose their own institutional structures on another set and, moreover, the former often already acknowledge the equality of illiberal hierarchical institutions e.g. churches, within the organisation of their own states.

‘In sum, Rawls’s theory of international justice follows from his desire to extend the idea of a real social contract as far as reasonably possible. This realist – or pragmatist – decision to achieve global stability by being maximally inclusive privileges toleration of minimally decent but otherwise illiberal and undemocratic states. This extension of political liberalism presumes that any international consensus on rights and economic justice will at best be rather thin and overlapping. It will be thin because the content agreed upon will perforce be very general and all encompassing. It will be overlapping because the (assumed) cultural insularity and economic self-sufficiency of distinct peoples make agreement on a thicker, more comprehensive political-economic culture virtually impossible’. [364-5]

The point about being overlapping is particularly inimical to Habermas’s position, which seeks to distinguish stable agreement based on moral trust from an unstable ‘modus Vivendi based on strategic expediency’ [365]. Thus, when leaders of both illiberal and liberal staets fcome together to discuss human rights, individuals will not draw uponthe specific non-shareable (moral, ethical) features of their liberal doctrines, even though ‘it is precisely these doctrines that gournd their belief in the deeper truth of these rights and principles in the first place’ (Law of Peoples, 171). Such considerations of public reason do not apply to private citizens, who can appeal to members of an illiberal state by referring to non-shareable beliefs. So, ‘given reasonable pluralism among rights interpretations at the international level, Rawls’s ideal of public reason will effectively shield illiberal consultation hierarchies from officially authorised pressures to liberalise and democratise’ [366]. This can lead to the propping up of corrupt governments by Western democracies, and may provoke extreme feelings of anger against the latter amongst minority groups victimised by such regimes. Therefore, unless the Rawlsian notion entails a deeper level of accountability – and agreement on more substantive norms and ideals – one will not know if one has reached an agreement for anything other than purely strategic reasons.

This calls for something like the Gadamerian ‘fusion of horizons’, in which our understanding of basic rights is enlarged by genuine conversation between willing, reasonable and trustworthy participants. Mutual understanding enables us to reach and refine consensus, and individualism is ‘mitigated and transformed by the ecological communalism of more spiritual traditions’ [368]. Under Habermas’s model, legitimacy is engendered by consensus, which in turn entails a sense of what is reasonable, i.e. when it derives from inclusive conversation in which all relevant assumptions are open to criticism.

‘The disagreement between Rawls and Habermas thus largely boils down to a disagreement about reasonableness. For Habermas, reasonableness imposes an ideal demand to criticise comprehensive assumptions in open and inclusive dialogue; indeed it stems from a comprehensive philosophical demand that agreement be ceated where none exists and that it be created autonomously, through the radical questioning, if need be, of all assumptions. Rational conviction is both egalitarian and deep; for genuine dialogue is distinguished from rhetorical manipulation by being motivated solely by reasons that would be accepted as true – grounded in deeper, comprehensive philosophical theories – by persons who speak to one another as free and equal moral subjects, unhindered by material inequality or ideological coercion’. [368]