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.