Formal Pragmatics – Preliminary Thoughts

Formal pragmatics serves two important functions in Habermas’s philosophy. First, it is the theoretical underpinning of the theory of communicative action, this being a crucial element of his theory of society. Second, it contributes to ongoing philosophical discussions regarding truth, meaning, rationality and action. Originally conceived of as ‘universal’ pragmatics, Habermas sought to differentiate his approach from earlier pragmatic approaches to language, which tended to analyse specific contexts of language-use. Universal pragmatics, as the name suggests, attempted to reconstruct the universal, context-transcendent, features of language-use. Habermas came to reject the term ‘universal’ in favour of ‘formal’, which reminds us of formal pragmatics’ relationship with formal semantics of which the nature between the two is particularly important for Habermas’s accounts of meaning and truth.

Habermas extends the traditional concept of the formal analysis of language to include pragmatics as well as semantic. ‘Pragmatic’ dimensions of language are just those which pertain to the actual employment of sentences in utterances, whilst formal here refers to the rational reconstruction of general competences that make speech possible. Formal pragmatics can be roughly summarised, then, as the rational reconstruction of linguistic competences that are intuitively known by and deployed by a subject. Rule consciousness occurs on a sort of pre-theoretical level; if you asked a speaker to explicate the rules at play in a particular utterance, it is unlikely and indeed unnecessary that she need be able to do so in order to make herself intelligible. In examining this pre-theoretical knowledge, formal pragmatics draws our attention to the unavoidable presuppositions that guide our linguistic exchanges and interactions in everyday communication. Habermas distinguishes his programme from empirical pragmatics, since he wants to uncover the general formal properties of speech situations as opposed to particular situations of use.

Habermas is interested in reconstructing the universal competencies involved in interaction oriented toward mutual understanding between social actors. This type of action is crucial to his social theory, for Habermas contends that action oriented toward mutual understanding is the fundamental type of social action. He calls this ‘communicative action’; everyday linguistic interaction of this sort has an inbuilt connection with validity. Indeed, he contends that all linguistic interaction is a matter of raising and responding to validity claims. In strong communicative action, a speaker will raise all three validity claims: 1) the claim to truth; 2) the claim to rightness; 3) the claim to truthfulness or sincerity. In a typical communicative exchange, however, only one claim will be in contention whilst the other two remain implicit presuppositions of understanding the utterance.

Habermas’s thesis of three universal validity claims provides a basis for classifying speech acts (constative, regulative and expressive). As well as having implications for language theory, the thesis also has implications for social theory, in that social order is reproduced through communicative action as a consequence of its inbuilt connection with validity claims.

The linking together of communicative action and social order, i.e. a social order that has mutual recognition at tits core, gives rise to two important characteristics. The first is cooperative relationships based on commitment and responsibility, for example, by entering into communication with another speaker, I undertake to behave in certain ways, and the success of our encounter depends on our ability to cooperate. Second, mutual recognition has a thoroughly rational dimension, in that I undertake to provide reasoning for the validity of claims raised in interaction, which can either be accepted or rejected by my communicative partner. Everyday communication is thus bound up with the process of argumentation, giving reasons for and against, which in turn points to the more demanding practice of discourse as a process for deciding on the validity of more controversial claims to truth, rightness and truthfulness.

In discourse, participants necessarily presuppose that they share the common goal of reaching agreement through the open, honest, forceless force of the better argument with regard to the disputed validity of some claim. These idealising suppositions, for Habermas, unavoidably guide both the process of the argument and its outcome; they are what gives meaning to the concepts of truth and justice as ideas that transcend all local contexts. As such, validity claims themselves are inherently context-transcendent, and this feature in turn is the rational potential built into everyday processes of communication.

Everyday communicative action thus has important implications for critical social theory. First, it opposes models of social order based solely on strategic relations between subjects, as we see in, for example, decision or game theory. Second, it embeds rationality in everyday life, including the concepts of truth and justice. Moreover, communicative rationality is not reducible to local standards of validity governing action, thereby providing a standard of critique for local practices of justification with regards to both outcomes and practices. Lastly, it locates a basis for communicative rationality in a post-metaphysical sense due to the context transcendent potential of the validity claims raised in everyday communication.

Though Habermas significantly amended his original account of the pragmatic theory of truth presented in ‘Wahrheitstheorien’ without proposing a fully revised version, his engagement with philosophers such as Richard Rorty uncovers some key beliefs that he holds on this area. He agrees with Rorty on the aim of radicalising modern philosophy through a pragmatic level of analysis. He criticises Rorty, however, for drawing the wrong conclusions from his critique of the philosophy of language. They clash on the point of truth and justification, with Rorty reducing truth to practices of justification and Habermas wanting to hold onto the moment of unconditionality present in the idea of truth whilst also maintaining an internal connection between truth and justification. Habermas argues that in flattening out truth, Rorty loses sight of the potential power of validity claims to explode contexts of justification. Thus, Habermas’s aim is to provide a pragmatic theory of truth that nevertheless reaches beyond all the empirical evidence available to us at any given time.

During the 1980s, Habermas attempted to work such a theory out through a conception of truth as idealised rational acceptability (not unlike Putnam). On this account a proposition is true if and only if it can be justified under the conditions of the ideal speech act. Truth is thus a regulative idea, the anticipation of an infinite rational consensus. More recently, Habermas has acknowledged the various objections to this account, including conceptual difficulties with the notion of the ideal speech act itself (paradoxical since reaching the ideal would result in the end of history of man) and with the connection between truth and justified acceptability (seems unattainable in human practices, but this unbridgeable gap is necessary to maintain truth’s context-transcendence). Consequently, he has abandoned the idea of truth as idealised rational consensus, and now focuses on the idealising suppositions guiding the process of argumentation rather than the outcome.

For Habermas, then, it is a matter of conduct in discourse rather than agreement to which speakers aspire. Truth draws its power as a regulative idea from ideal suppositions such as that everyone may speak, all are motivated by communicative rather than strategic aims and so on. If a claim were true it would be able to withstand all attempts to refute it under ideal discursive conditions. Truth also has a decentring function, since it serves to remind us that what is true for us now may be open to refutation in the future, since our current capacity for understanding is inherently limited.

(The above is Habermas on the idea of truth, rather than an explanation of what makes a proposition true. As to the latter, Habermas holds the standard position that a proposition is true if and only if its truth conditions are satisfied. Satisfaction is not an epistemic fact; nonetheless, Habermas’s account clearly shows that the concept of truth can only be unpacked pragmatically, that is, through how we talk about truth in terms of an idealised practice of argumentation.)

The pragmatic theory of meaning also holds that other forms of speech such as figurative, symbolic or fictional, are parasitic on communicative language use, that is, speech oriented toward achieving mutual understanding. He argues for their derivative status by contending that everyday communicative use of language fulfils indispensable problem solving functions that require idealising presuppositions not demanded in the aesthetic realm.

Lastly, Habermas’s pragmatic theory of meaning attempts to do justice to the relations between utterances and the situations and contexts in which they are embedded. Background knowledge of a speaker’s personal history, cultural heritage, can be rendered explicit without too much trouble and this sort of knowledge is contrasted with the deeper, pre-reflective background knowledge that constitutes the horizon of our shared experiences. The latter sort of knowledge of the lifeworld is the indispensable context for the communicative use of language, without which any meaning would be impossible. In this way, it safeguards against social disintegration, thus forming a crucial part of the overall programme of formal pragmatics.


The Performative Contradiction

The Performative Contradiction

In the late 1980’s Jurgen Habermas published his influential Philosophical Discourse Of Modernity, a work that hurled a deadly epistemological spear into the heart of French poststructuralist thought. According to Habermas, poststructuralist thinkers like Foucault and Derrida are unable to offer a convincing critique of reason because their arguments eventually fall into what he described as the performative contradiction.

It occurs when there is a discrepancy between act and content, between performance and proposition. The following assertion from Michel Foucault is a shining illustration of this discrepancy:

Truth isn’t outside power or lacking in power…truth isn’t the reward of free spirits, the child of protracted solitude, nor the privilege of those who have succeeded in liberating themselves. Truth is a thing of this world: it is produced only by virtue of multiple forms of constraint. And it induces regular forms of power…it is produced and transmitted under the control, dominant if not exclusive, of a few great political and economic apparatuses (university, army, writing, media)…

The statement above, like virtually all other statements, is a “performance”: a reflection of what the thinker takes to be the truth. If he doesn’t take it to be “true” — if indeed he is merely jesting — there is no reason for us to pay any attention to it; we may or may not be amused, but in either case we can happily move along. The problem is that Foucault does take the statement to be “true,” which means we’re left with a paradox: if his statement is ‘true’ it must be false, since he is rejecting the standard notion of truth as “that which is.” If “truth is a thing of this world, produced only by virtue of multiple forms of constraint,” then isn’t Foucault’s own statement a species of just such constraints? Can he make a truth-claim while denying the existence of truth? No, says Habermas, because to do so would be to commit the performative contradiction.

There is another way to conceive of the problem. Imagine two distinct formulations:

Truth= “What is”

Truth2 = Whatever I claim truth is.

(e.g., “Truth is a social construction.”)

One cannot “do” Truth2 without presupposing the existence of Truth1. Foucault and others believe they can both renounce Truth1 and do Truth2 simultaneously. The act of asserting anything, however, always brings the asserter back into 1’s orbit. The question can always be asked, “Is what you’re saying true?” and “What are the implications of your statement if true?” Moreover, the asserter always acts as if his statement were true (otherwise he wouldn’t utter it). That is, he acts as if Truth1 exists even if he denies that it does.

Why do thinkers like Foucault lay certain socio-political problems at the doorstep of rationality rather than at the doorstep of social structures and individuals? How does advancing an obviously fraudulent notion of truth help the poor and weak and defenseless of modern societies — those presumably on whose behalf Foucault and others write? What could be more evident than that individuals can stand apart from their society, pass judgment on it, break free from the bonds of ideology, and by pursuing the truth also achieve a kind of emancipation?

Further Reading

1. “Transgressing the Boundaries”. New York University physicist Alan Sokal takes up some of the problems of the poststructuralist’s methodology.

2. Martin Jay, “The Debate Over The Performative Contradiction: Habermas Versus the Poststructuralists,” in Philosophical Interventions in the Unfinished Project of Enlightenment, ed. Axel Honneth, Thomas McCarthy, Claus Offe, and Albrecht Wellmer, pp. 261–279. MIT Press.

3. George Santayana, Egotism In German Philosophy, Chapters XI through XIII. His criticisms of Nietzsche raise interesting questions about the scholar’s approach to truth. Are thinkers like Foucault possibly more interested in the play of ideas than in truth itself? Nietzsche, says Santayana, “confessed that truth itself did not interest him; it was ugly; the bracing atmosphere of falsehood, passion, and subjective perspectives was the better thing…This impulse to turn one’s back on truth, whether in contempt or in despair, has a long history. Lessing had said that he preferred the pursuit of truth to the truth itself; but if we take this seriously (as possibly it was not meant) the pursuit of truth at once changes its character. It can no longer be the pursuit of truth, truth not being wanted, but only the pursuit of some fresh idea. Whether one of these ideas or another comes nearer to the truth would be unimportant and undiscoverable. Any idea will do, so long as it is pregnant with another that may presently take its place; and as presumably error will precipitate new ideas more readily than truth, we might almost find it implied in Lessing’s maxim that, as Nietzsche maintained, what is really good is neither truth nor the pursuit of truth (for you might find it, and what would you do then?), but rather a perpetual flux of errors.”

– Return Home –

Review of Habermas’ Truth & Justification – NDPR








Truth and Justification

Habermas, Jurgen, Truth and Justification, edited and with translations by Barbara Fulmer, MIT Press, 2003, 349pp, $40.00 (hbk), ISBN 0262083183.

Reviewed by Richard Rorty , Stanford University

The range of issues discussed in this collection of recent essays by Jürgen Habermas is suggested by the title of its Introduction: “Realism after the linguistic turn”. Habermas says that that turn shifted “the standard of epistemic objectivity from the private certainty of an experiencing subject to the public practice of justification within a communicative community”. It thereby encouraged a “contextualist challenge to the realist intuition”, for it raised the question of “whether any sense of context-independent validity can be salvaged from the concept of truth” (249).

Habermas formulates this challenge in the terms suggested by the title of one of the essays: “From Kant to Hegel and back again: the move toward detranscendentalization”. His expositions and criticisms of the work of Robert Brandom, Hilary Putman, and other contemporary philosophers are written with an eye to the Kant-Hegel contrast—the opposition between the universalism aimed at by transcendental philosophy and the particularism and localism necessitated by Hegelian historicism.

Habermas is one of the few philosophers who is as much at home with Hegel, Hamann and Heidegger as he is with Davidson, Sellars and Dummett. So he is able to move back and forth, smoothly and perspicuously, between small-scale critical analyses and insightful historical comparisons and generalizations. The result is a survey of the contemporary philosophical scene that is far more imaginative, and far more stimulating, than the sort found in books whose authors’ range of reference is limited to the last few decades’ worth of work within analytic philosophy.

This book will be of great interest both to students of Habermas’ universalistic discourse ethics and to philosophers interested in the debate between philosophers sympathetic to Wittgenstein and to pragmatism (such as Davidson, Putnam and Brandom) and their critics—especially those critics who, after conceding a great deal to Wittgenstein’s attack on empiricism, are still concerned to preserve what McDowell calls “answerability to the world”.

Habermas regards Brandom as representing “the state of the art of pragmatic approaches in analytic philosophy of language”, but thinks that Brandom’s “assimilation of the objectivity of experience to the intersubjectivity of communication is reminiscent of an infamous Hegelian move” (7-8). He reads Brandom as an arch-contextualist, whose inferentialist theory of the nature of propositional content “obliterates the distinction between the intersubjectively shared lifeworld and the objective world”. Brandom, he says, “does not rescue the realist intuitions by recourse to the contingent constraints of a world that is supposed to exist independently and for everyone” (155), and so is driven to a linguistified version of Hegel’s objective idealism.

Habermas argues that we need a concept of empirical truth that “connects the result of successful justification with something in the objective world” (42). This means keeping intact the distinction between the availability of a “justification-independent point of reference” for assertions of empirical fact and the absence of such a point of reference when we turn to moral judgments and norms. In morality, he says, we lack “the ontological connotation of reference to things about which we can state facts” (42). So he criticizes Brandom’s refusal to accept any version of the Kantian distinction between theoretical and practical uses of reason.

Habermas treats Putnam more sympathetically. He shares Putnam’s fear of relativism, and thinks that Putnam succeeds in offering a “theory of direct reference” that enables us to “recognize objects under different descriptions, or if, necessary, across paradigms” (219). But, although he thinks Putnam to be sounder than Brandom on the subject of empirical truth, he is dubious about the absence of what he calls “the moment of unconditionality” in Putnam’s account of moral norms. Putnam’s Deweyan and Aristotelian “virtue ethics”, he thinks, does not do justice to the distinction between “a universalist morality of justice and particularist ethics of the good life” (228).

Throughout this book, Habermas is concerned to keep distinctions in place that Hegelians and pragmatists urge us to dissolve. In particular, he sees the historicism common to Hegel, Heidegger and Dewey as endangering Kantian claims to the universal validity of, for example, the prohibition against torture. He is not willing to think of that prohibition as something local and recent—an innovation of the European Enlightenment. He insists that such absolute prohibitions are grounded in the nature of linguistic communication—in the ability of human beings to give and ask for reasons. He sees pragmatism’s assimilation of empirical truth to practical advantage as smoothing the way for moral relativism.

Like Putnam and the late Bernard Williams, Habermas wants to naturalize and de-transcendentalize philosophy, and to disconnect morality from metaphysics. So he is willing to concede a lot of ground to Nietzsche’s polemics against Plato—and in particular to give up on the correspondence theory of truth. But he nevertheless holds on both to claims of unconditionality and to what he calls “the natural Platonism of the lifeworld”—a Platonism that insists on “a justification-transcendent standard for orienting ourselves by context-independent truth-claims” (254).

The philosophers whom Habermas thinks have gone too far in an Hegelian direction agree with him that in the modern world “the moral universe loses the appearance of an ontological given and comes to be seen as aconstruct” (263). But they differ from him on two points: (1) whether to respond to this change by giving up the notion of “an ontological given” across the board–in empirical science as well as in morality; (2) whether, after recognizing the moral universe to be a construct, we need worry about whether it is a local construct or whether it contains elements that are more than merely local.

One’s reaction to Habermas’ new book will depend on whether one believes that retention of something like the “natural Platonism” of common sense is essential to our hopes for a decent society, or instead thinks that a change in common sense might help us realize these hopes. Those who follow Dewey in thinking of context-independence as a Platonist shibboleth will see Habermas as trying to nudge us back from Hegel to Kant at just the wrong moment—the moment when Hegelian ideas are beginning to revitalize analytic philosophy of mind and language. But if one thinks that Plato and Kant were on to something that Hegel was wrong to abandon–that playing the game of giving and asking for reasons requires both the notion of ontological givenness and that of unconditional obligation–then one will find this book very welcome indeed. Both sorts of readers will find the book as broad-gauged as it is incisive, and as forcefully argued as it is fair-minded.


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.