Lescek Kockanowicz – The Choice of Tradition

Koczanowicz explains his choice of focus on Habermas and Rorty as first that they ‘contributed the most to the renaissance of pragmatism’ (56) and second, that they both employ radically different concepts related to pragmatism thus representing two extremes of pragmatic philosophy. Furthermore, whilst Rorty actively describes himself as a pragmatist, Habermas does not, though his attempt to incorporate pragmatism into his own philosophy discloses a powerful interpretation of it.

Habermas seems to hold Mead in special significance with regard to two aspects of his philosophy: the philosophy of language, analysis which leads to the theory of communicative action, and analysis of the constitution of the individual in post-conventional society. In both cases, Habermas employs pragmatism to overcome the ‘aporias’ (56) of the philosophy of consciousness in its classic formulation as well as the ‘marxist reception of Weber’s theory of rationalisation [in which] the rationalisation of society was always thought as a reification of consciousness’ (Habermas).

A key figure against whom Habermas kicks back is Adorno, particularly the latter’s merely negative conception of freedom and community. Habermas draws upon the concept of the ideal speech community as the result of the positive development of these ideas through Mead’s concept of action, thus ‘the idea of an ideal community of communication is thus a defined point of reference in Habermas’ interpretation of Mead’ (57). The ‘utopia’ of the ideal speech community ‘serves to reconstruct an undamaged intersubjectivity that allows both for unconstrained mutual understanding among individuals and for the identities of individuals who come to an unconstrained understanding of themselves’ (Habermas). The community is at once both a community of language and community of action, with logical priority being given to language meaning that action is deducted from language. Habermas’s main objection to Adorno is that ‘he neglects the mechanisms of reaching understanding between individuals and ignores the inner structure of language’ (57).

Habermas identifies three instances of ‘taking the role of the other’ in Mead’s philosophy. The first is the internalisation of some objective meaning of a particular symbol, enabling a shared response with another person to the same object. The second is the learned ability to use a gesture oriented toward meaningful interaction between speaker and hearer. The third, which Habermas claims was undeveloped by Mead, is the construction of rules that enable people to set up unanimous meanings of symbols and gestures. Habermas connects this third instance of taking on the role of another through Wittgenstein’s notion of following a rule, where a rule is seen as allowing for ‘meaningful action and for the correction of action when there is a confusion in mutual understanding’ (57). As Habermas notes, ‘if we explicate Mead’s thesis in the way I have suggested, it can be understood as a genetic explanation of Wittgenstein’s concept of rules – in the first instance, of rules, governing the use of symbols that determine meanings conventionally and thereby secure the sameness of meaning.’ (Habermas).

Habermas’s interpretation of Mead as not providing the concept of forming meanings in the context of action ‘gives a distorted meaning of Mead’s real intentions’ (58). Mead wanted to demonstrate the process of setting up meaning in communication at every level from basic utterances to complex discourse, yet Habermas ‘reduces the achievement of his theory to merely making rules and checking their validity’ (58). Hans Joas has criticised Habermas’s interpretation of Mead, arguing that his limitation of Mead’s concept to an exchange of signals and an interest in the origins of human communication belies an influence from the analytic tradition of the philosophy of language. Furthermore, Joas criticises Habermas’s contention that Mead’s social theory is idealistic, arguing that Mead works on the problem of social integration, which is not communicative in nature and therefore not reducible to communicative action. Joas also argues that Habermas misses out on a distinction within the concept of action itself, namely action directed toward goals outlined in advance and action in which goals are set up in the process of activity. Both Mead and Dewey draw on creative action, for example, to show how this latter type of action need not be necessarily instrumental only. By neglecting this distinction, ‘Habermas tries to show that pragmatic concept of action is a certain version of goal-means paradigm’ (58).

This is all part of his project, it is claimed, of transcendentalism, for example, the assumption that rules given in advance is the most important instance to which behaviour has to adopt ‘enables Habermas to subordinate pragmatism to his own idea of the quadi-transcendental rationality of communicative action: rationality which does not arise out of transcendental rules of monological character but is grounded in the dialogical situation of requirements of any possible discourse’ (59). In terms of the ideal speech community Mead’s idea of communication as a complex process taking various forms and always threatened by error must be ‘cleared on inconsistencies’, which Habermas does by bringing in Wittgenstein’s concept of rule following and by criticising Mead’s idealism. Other instances of his transcendental urge appear in his analysis of the normative and cognitive expression of the individual’s self-consciousness; Habermas’s mistake is to split the two from each other, whereas for Mead both sides of the self seem inseparable and unified, and so to develop a kind of ‘Kantian transcendentalism [which] loses its monological character but…is still language-oriented transcendentalism’ (60).

Habermas’s final use of his interpretation of Mead’s concept leads him to place his work in the tradition of speech-act theory and assumes that basic categories can be derived from pragmatics: ‘He ascribes to Mead the thesis that there are universal assumptions of communicative action which form the historically shaped concepts referring to action, self and the mind-body relation’ (61). In this interpretation, pragmatism appears as a not fully articulated version of transcendental pragmatics. Pragmatists sought to demonstrate the relationship between universal principles of discourse and their historical and cultural forms, however they reconstructed universal principles out of their historical forms, being unfamiliar with contemporary philosophy of language, and understood the ideal speech community to be a useful idealisation rather than a source of conceptual schemes and their ultimate point of reference. This interpretive scheme is used in different domains of language, but in every case pragmatism is considered to be an inspiration that requires reinterpretation through transcendental pragmatics. This process of reinterpretation requires two operations; first, proving that what has been described in sociological categories can be represented in universal principles, and second that these principles can be shown to be deductively derived from the rules of transcendental pragmatics. As Koczanowicz says, using the terminology of transcendental pragmatics, where their own dialogical version of transcendentalism is presented as a quasi-transcendentalism, I would say that successful completion of this procedure allows us to depict pragmatism as proto-quasi-transcendentalism, not conscious of its essence’ (61).

Koczanowicz now turns to look at the interpretation of pragmatism running through Rorty’s work. It is true that Rorty declares himself to be a pragmatist and that many of his ideas can be identified with pragmatism in general. However, a great deal of the pragmatist tradition is outside of Rorty’s interest (he primarily focuses on Dewey, for example); though he uses the phrase ‘we pragmatists’, he rarely refers to classical pragmatism; though it is possible to reconstruct his idea of pragmatism, one can only do this in very general terms; and finally, Rorty consistently reminds his readers that ‘“Pragmatism” is a vague, ambitious, and overworked word’ (Rorty).

The ambiguity he has in mind stems from what he sees as two contradictory tendencies in pragmatism, namely the tendency to link pragmatic philosophy to analytic philosophy, ‘which in turn is a version of standard, academic neo-Kantian philosophy focused on epistemological questions’ (61). Though Rorty very minimally recognises this interpretation’s validity, he is primarily interested in understanding pragmatism as ‘a radical rupture with traditional philosophy’ (62), insofar as there are no longer questions about the nature of truth, the world and knowledge but rather discourses about these concepts, which are fundamentally aware of their own historical and cultural limitations.

Rorty develops three main arguments within this vision of pragmatism. First, pragmatism ‘is simply antiessentialism applied to notions like “truth”, “knowledge”, “language”, “morality” and similar object of philosophical theorising’ (Rorty). Rorty emphasises the non-essential and non-referential character of truth (James’s theory of truth); truth is important in the context of action so there is more to be gained from inquiring about the results of that action rather than whether it accurately represents the world. Second, pragmatism is described as the doctrine in which ‘there is no epistemological difference between truth about what ought to be and trutha bout what is, or any metaphysical difference between facts and values, nor any methodological differences between morality and science’ (Rorty). Third, ‘there are no constraints on inquiry save conversational ones – no wholesale constraints derived from the nature of the objects, or of the mind, or of language, but only those retail constraints provided by the remarks of our fellow-inquirers’ (Rorty). It is pragmatism’s job to uncover and reject the illusion that we are able to present ultimate statements about the world and outer reality which can be confronted with reality itself, and to put in its place the notion that knowledge is ‘only of a discursive character, deriving its limitations from the reactions of others involved in the same discourse’. (62).

Rorty’s reading depends upon the introduction of a line of division within the pragmatic tradition between Peirce on the one hand, who merely gave the name to the tradition and inspired James, and Dewey and James on the other, who together embody the ‘spirit of pragmatism’. Further to this Rorty introduces division within the philosophers themselves. We see that Dewey, for example, turns out to be in contradictory relation with himself: he understands philosophy as a critique of culture but continues to strive for a metaphysical system; he does not know whether it is possible to overcome the dualisms through building up a new form of metaphysics or critiquing a certain form of philosophy attached to certain historical and cultural particularities. According to Rorty, this dualism stems from the development of two different philosophies that are influenced by Locke’s naturalism and Hegel’s historicism.

Only one, however, is substantially significant; whilst praising Dewey’s imagination, Rorty concludes that Dewey’s mistake ‘was the notion that criticism of culture has to take the form of redescription of ‘nature’ or ‘experience’ or both’ (Rorty). Dewey’s importance lies nevertheless in having ‘opened up the road to a new understanding of philosophy and its role in culture’ (63) along with Heidegger and Wittgenstein. That is to say, philosophy becomes a ‘voice in the conversation of mankind’ rather than a special type of knowledge with privileged access to reality and to universal statements of eternal truth. In this way, Rorty connects pragmatists like Dewey with the tradition of poststructuralists like Derrida and Foucault; indeed, they are the forerunners of this style of thinking, ‘which gives up any claims to transcendentalism, discovering eternal truths, which wants to respond to the challenges of its times and its culture, and which expresses itself most fully in postmodernism’ (63).

Thus pragmatism has a part to play in current debates, but at the price of a distorted image of the movement, which Rorty himself has admitted. Rorty turned toward pragmatism because he was disappointed with the results achieved by analytic philosophy; the future development of philosophy, he says, ‘will centre on the issue of reform versus description, of philosophy-as-proposal versus philosophy-as-discovery’ (Rorty). Pragmatism allows one to go beyond the limits of analytic philosophy by refiguring truth in the manner that Davidson would later go onto elaborate, namely by holding to the view that there are no relations as ‘being made true’ which ‘holds between beliefs and the world’, the result of which is the antiessentialisit epistemological utopia of replacing explanation with interpretation. Pragmatism also attracted Rorty because of its social concepts particularly its idea of democracy and community; pragmatists, unlike Nietzsche and Heidegger, ‘did not make the mistake of turning against the community which takes the natural sciences as its moral hero – the community of secular intellectuals which came to self-consciousness in the Enlightenment’ (Rorty). That is to say that pragmatism enables Rorty to both defend Western civilisation whilst at the same time denying the metaphysical assumptions that fundamental to it. He also used pragmatism to show that ‘contrary to Lyotard, there exists the possibility of mutual understanding between cultures without relying on the metaphysical principles that must inevitably entail terror’ (64). He nevertheless retains an out and out rejection of the transcendental fallacy.

Pragmatism, on these two extreme readings, is trapped between two utopias: ‘the transcendental utopia of undamaged communication and society based on this principle on the one hand, and on the other, the postmodern utopia of dominating interpretation and society without principles’ (65). Koczanowicz believes that he might have the means of solving this controversy.

The problem with Habermas’s position is that it rests on his interpretation of Mead as a transcendental philosopher; though Mead makes reference to ideas like the ‘universum of discourse’ or ‘mankind point of view’, Koczanowicz believes that Mead ‘derives such principles from the rules of social action understood as a complicated process of exchanges of gestures which functions first at a biological level and in the case of human individuals, becomes socialised’ (65). The act changes in two respects: first, the stage of manipulation comes to dominate, but second the individual disappears in the need to relate to the whole act. This is the foundation of normativity for Mead: goals arise through action rather than being decided in advance. Both Mead and Dewey convince us that ‘there are no given-in-advance goals of communication. They must be set up in the process itself’ (66). Thus the rules involved in communication depend on a specific situation; even reaching understanding between diverse societies requires ‘abandoning the belief that it can be grounded in a set of concepts common to the whole of humankind or governed by a single regulative idea’ (66). As such, success cannot be guaranteed in advance: ‘the only consolation lies in the fact that success is always possible’ (66). Strife is worthwhile, however, because it enables us to achieve a more general perspective: ‘put another way, the measure of social progress is the achievement of more complex perspectives, including partial ones, without approaching closer and closer to any universal principles of rationality’ (66).

On the other side, there is an interpretation of pragmatism at play that relegates it to a minor development in addition to the mainstream of philosophy, one which expresses an American version of life philosophy. Rorty, Koczanowicz claims, ‘in his utopias of society without principles and ultimate community of interpretation seems close to such an interpretation’ (66). Moreover, he is misplaced in heralding pragmatism as a kind of post-Nietzschean philosophy: science for pragmatists was a crucial sphere of reality in which creativity sand social recognition come together.

It would seem, then, that both interpretations of pragmatist philosophy ‘reveal intentions of their authors rather than attempt to report the real content of pragmatism’ (67).