The Question of Becoming

What is Antirepresentationalism?

Antirepresentationalism, on Rorty’s account, ‘does not view knowledge as a matter of getting reality right, but rather as a matter of acquiring habits of action for coping with reality’ (1). The account is in stark contrast to traditional representationalist theories of knowledge, which aim to show how our statements or representations of phenomena converge at one point thereby giving us an accurate picture of reality. Rorty seeks to pull away from offering an epistemological account of inquiry; in doing so, he also wants to flatten the epistemological differences between areas of inquiry as diverse as ‘theoretical physics and literary criticism’ (1). ‘It is unnecessary,’ he argues’ ‘to draw distinctions between explaining hard phenomena and interpreting soft ones’ (1). This levelling of difference makes way for a ‘sociological’ interpretation, and is part of Rorty’s strategy for rendering traditional distinctions such as objectivity and subjectivity obsolete. For whilst the representationalist believes that “we can select among our beliefs and features of our world picture some that we can reasonably claim to represent the world in a way to the maximum degree independent of our perspective and its peculiarities” (B. Williams quoted on p. 8), the antirepresentationalist argues that there is ‘no sense in which physics is more independent of our human peculiarities than astrology or literary criticism’ (8).

The antirepresentationalist account has come under criticism for its inherent ethnocentrism. Rorty himself admits this when he says that the antirepresentationalist view of inquiry ‘leave one without a skyhook with which to escape from the ethnocentrism produced by acculturation’ (2). The difference between Rorty and the representationalists is that he does not see this as entirely problematic; this is because he seems to have perhaps more faith in contemporary liberal culture, which ‘has found a strategy for avoiding the disadvantage of ethnocentrism’. (2) Liberal culture, Rorty tells us, is a willingness to be open to ‘encounters with other actual and possible cultures, and to make this openness central to its self-image’ (2). Critical to its suspicion of ethnocentrism is liberalism’s commitment to increasing such encounters, rather than on anything like possession of truth: ‘it suits such a [democratic] society to have no views about truth save that it is more likely to be obtained in Milton’s “free and open encounter” of opinions than in any other way’ (1).

Another criticism raised by representationalists is the view that antirepresentationalism is ‘simply transcendental idealism in linguistic disguise…one more version of the Kantian attempt to derive the object’s determinacy and structure from that of the subject’ (3). Just as he will be showing that distinctions between objectivity and subjectivity, realism and antirealism, collapse, so Rorty also urges the importance of showing that neither does thought determine reality, nor does reality determine thought, for ‘ “determinacy” is not what is in question…both of these claims, the antirepresentationalist says, are entirely empty. Both are pseudo-explanations’ (5).

Distinction between Realism and Antirealism

In contemporary debates from the twentieth century onwards, discussion has shifted from talking about the mind-dependence of material reality to questions about whether true statements stand in representational relations to non-linguistic items. This is a result of the linguistic turn. The distinction between realism and antirealism has shifted correspondingly. In one sense, the term antirealism has been used to mean the claim that there is no “fact of the matter” which true statements represent. In another sense, it has been used to mean the claim that no linguistic items can represent non-linguistic items. Rorty explains that ‘in the former sense [antirealism] refers to an issue within the community of representationalists – those philosophers who find it fruitful to think of mind or language as containing representations of reality’, whilst ‘in the latter sense, it refers to antirepresentationalism – to the attempt to eschew discussion of realism by denying that the notion of “representation”, or that of “fact of the matter”, has any useful role in philosophy’ (2).

The realist wants to hold on to the idea that non-linguistic items – material reality – can cause linguistic items to be used in the various ways that they are, both in terms of particular statements and in social practices as a whole. Whilst the antirepresentationalist is prepared to insist on the point that ‘our language, like our bodies, has been shaped by the environment we live in’ (5), she nevertheless denies that it is useful to ‘pick and choose’ among our beliefs to support the conclusion that this linguistic item corresponds to reality in a way that another item does not. Thus, she answers the representationalist sceptic’s fear that our minds or language could be “out of touch” with reality, whilst at the same time suggesting that ‘we throw out the whole cluster of concepts which are used to make us think we understand what “the determinacy of reality” means’ (6). As Rorty argues, this cluster of concepts (such as “fact of the matter”, “bivalence”) is dispensable to the antirepresentationalists because we have no way of figuring out an independent test of accuracy of representation which is ‘distinct from the success which is supposedly explained by this accuracy’ (6).

Whereas the realist holds on to the idea that we can somehow break out of our own language and beliefs to test the accuracy of our statements about reality – to adopt, in Putnam’s words, the “God’s-eye standpoint” – antirealists take this to be an impossible position, for we have no idea what it would be like to take such a standpoint: there is no other way to talk about true statements apart from through other statements. Here, Rorty also follows the lead of the later Wittgenstein in suggesting that we drop the representationalist presuppositions which are shared by both realism and idealism, in other words, those presuppositions that rest on ‘questions which we should have to climb out of our own minds to answer’ (7).

Still, representationalists claim that just because we can never know when we have reached a “complete” or “mature” physical theory is ‘no reason to deprive ourselves of the notion of “being off the mark”’ (6). Indeed, they claim that to think otherwise would be to adopt a “verificationist” standpoint, which is ‘undesirably anthropocentric in the same way in which nineteenth century idealism was undesirably anthropocentric’ (6). In Nagel’s words, to deprive ourselves of such notions as “representation” and “correspondence” would be to stop “trying to climb outside of our own minds, an effort some would regard as insane and that I regard as philosophically fundamental” (Nagel, quoted on p. 7).

Overcoming the Urge towards Transcendence

The attempt to stand outside of our humanity – to “transcend” our local contexts to corroborate a series of general principles once and for all, is a human need that antirepresentationalists think ‘culturally undesirable to exacerbate’ (8). They claim that we can eliminate the urge toward transcendence through a ‘suitable moral education’ (8) that raises people up from humility and obsequiousness to some higher order of reality or transcendent being. This is not to cut ourselves off from reality altogether, as the representationalists would suggest; rather, as Davidson argues, we are in touch with reality in all areas of culture, ‘in a sense of “in touch with” which does not mean “representing reasonably accurately” but simply “caused by and causing”’ (9).

Rorty is keen to assert this point against the representational sceptic, who, as we have seen, wants to criticise the antirepresentationalist as being out of touch with reality. He argues, for instance, that ‘from a Darwinian point of view, there is simply no way to give sense to the idea of our minds or our language as systematically out of phase with what lies beyond our skins’ (12). Moreover, he uses Davidson’s argument that we must assume that the beliefs held by other beings are largely true to support the claim that ‘we shall not take ourselves to have found such a coherent pattern unless we can see these organisms as talking mostly about things to which they stand in real cause-and-effect relations’ (10). This is all part of his principal motive, that is, to show ‘that we can still make admirable sense of our lives even if we cease to have what Nagel calls “an ambition of transcendence”’ (12).

‘Whatever good the ideas of “objectivity” and “transcendence” have done for our culture,’ Rorty writes, ‘can be attained equally well by the idea of a community which strives after both intersubjective agreement and novelty’ (13). That is, our traditional notions no longer help us in our goal of enlarging the freedom and opportunity of open encounters. Traditional notions such as “objectivity” and “transcendence” led to us asking questions about how to get in touch with reality; these questions, the questions that Wittgenstein considered to be no longer relevant, can be replaced with questions about the limits of our community, how we can expand our conversational community to include outsiders who might have new ideas that challenge our own and so on. Once we have completed this turn toward questions of intersubjectivity or solidarity instead of objectivity, we will leave behind metaphysics and epistemology, focusing instead on the political and social: ‘the important question will be about what sort of human being you want to become’ (13).

The Question of Becoming

The question of becoming takes two forms: the first is related to our public self and asks what communities with which we will identify. The second relates to our private self and asks ‘what should I do with my aloneness?’ (13). Becoming is intrinsically linked with our acculturation, and, more specifically, how we can transcend the limits of our culture or ethnos. We cannot do away with acculturation altogether, for it is through acculturation that we are alive to certain options as opposed to options which are trivial or optional. Rather, Rorty tells us, the best chance we have of transcending our acculturation is ‘to be brought up in a culture which prides itself on not being monolithic – on its tolerance for a plurality of subcultures and its willingness to listen to neighbouring cultures’ (14).

Thus, “progress” is not measured by the apparent accuracy of our statements about reality. Rather, our minds ‘gradually [grow] larger and stronger and more interesting by the addition of new options – new candidates for beliefs and desire, phrased in new vocabularies’ (14), in other words, precisely through increased contact with a plethora of other cultures. This is not a revolutionary move, but one that is aimed at reformation (14). Whilst Rorty considers that most of his leftist critics would agree with the brand of antirepresentationalism that he has been advocating, he does not think that they would follow him down the culture of liberalism that he identifies himself with. And yet, he writes, ‘I do not see them as having developed an alternative culture, nor even as having envisaged one’ (15). Rorty locates their desire for revolution in ‘an understandable rage at the very slow extension of hope and freedom to marginal social groups’ (16), but he does not think that this calls for more theory or more philosophy. Rather, he follows Dewey in advocating for a sense of ‘gradual change in human beings’ self image… the change from a sense of their dependence upon something antecedently present to a sense of the utopian possibilities of the future, the growth of their ability to mitigate their finitude by a talent for self-creation’ (17).




The Pragmatic Conception of Knowledge

Pragmatic conception of knowledge
Pragmatist deflation of Kantian transcendental analysis shows how the background structures of our lifeworld are embodied in our practices and activities and emphasises the participant perspective Participants presuppose the existence of a single objective world that is the same for everyone. This is how we are able to refer to objects in the world, and so underlies the representational function of language
A strictly causal theory of reference is unacceptable to Habermas This representational function of language nevertheless remains tied to contexts of experience, action and discursive justification
Empirical knowledge of the world and our linguistic knowledge are interdependent Language makes possible our access to reality, but our engaged coping with the world has the power to lead us to revise our linguistic practices
The world-disclosing power of language is “weakly transcendental” Language does not fully determine what we can know of the world or what the world is for us.
Objectivity is crucial for learning. Problem solving is the key activity underlying knowledge acquisition The resistance that we encounter when coping with the world demonstrates that reality

constrains our thinking, which provides the foothold for a robust notion of objectivity

Ontological implications: weak naturalism complements Habermas’s epistemological realism Nature and culture are viewed as continuous with one another, but Habermas refrains from making any sort of reductionist claims about social practices since these are to be analysed from the participant perspective as norm-governed

The question of truth for [Habermas] is a question of objective validity (Wahrheitsgeltung). (xv)

Objective validity has to do with what one ought to believe, so in this sense it is okay to speak of truth as a normative concept.

However, truth, for Habermas, must not be assimilated to (merely) holding true. Ultimately, objective validity is a matter of what is, in fact, true, not of what we take to be true (despite the fact that we can confidently say that some of our truths have replaced earlier beliefs that we now know were false, and the fallibilist insight that, for all we know, our own beliefs may be similarly replaced in the future). Truth, in contrast to normative rightness, in other words, is not an epistemic notion. (xv)

Since writing “Wahrheistheorien” Habermas has generally confined himself to the view that in raising a truth claim, a speaker claims that some state of affairs or facts obtains. (xv)

Rejection of traditional theories of truth:           

Correspondence Theory Coherence Theory
Assumes the possibility of direct access to “brute” or “naked” reality: too strong a notion of truth Fails to capture important aspects of our concept of truth for beliefs/statements can only be corroborated by other beliefs: too weak a notion of truth
Statements are not true because they cohere with other statements that we accept, but because the states of affairs they describe actually obtain, even though they can only be established by means of other statements.
Consensus Theory of Truth
Started life as a “discursive” conception of truth (until mid to late-90s) Truth is ideal warranted assertability (see Putnam etc)
Abandoned epistemic conception of truth in response to criticism of the above We agree that a proposition is true because it is true, not because it can be agreed to by all concerned
The problem: validity of moral judgements and norms has been over-generalised The validity of a moral claim is exhausted by ideal warranted assertability since there are no facts independent of the ideal community of those affected to which normative rightness claims purport to refer
In contrast: talk of truth has specific ontological implications It presupposes reference to a single objective world that exists independently of our descriptions and is the same for everyone (Putnam’s direct theory of reference)

Truth on the level of a theory of meaning

Although truth, as one of the three validity claims, is indispensable to the theory of communicative action, Habermas has argued against taking truth as a semantic primitive. Rather, it is but one dimension of validity. (xvii)

Communication, action, and representation are equiprimordial…In performing a speech act, a speaker represents a state of affairs, establishes an intersubjective relation with a hearer, and expresses her intention. In other words, she raises three validity claims: a claim to truth, to normative rightness, and to sincerity. (xvii)

The insistence on these three mutually irreducible validity claims underpins Habermas’s critique of e.g. Davidson, Quine, Brandom and Putnam, for all are seeking to find a common denominator or to level the conceptual landscape in ways that Habermas rejects. (xvii)

  • Quine and Davidson: turn the communicative actions of others into mere observable behaviour
  • Brandom: assimilates norms of rationality to norms of action
  • Putnam: levels the fact-value distinction by associating value judgements with “ought-implying facts”

Truth on the level of metaphysics and ontology

How should truth be defined? This question is, for pragmatists, ill put:

Indeed, one might argue that a major advantage of Habermas’s present account over that he offered in “Wahrheitstheorien” is that he no longer provides a definition of truth or equates it with anything. (xviii)

A better question: how does truth function?

In everyday coping: the unconditionality of truth is most evident in this practical context since we presuppose certain truths as unconditionally valid.

This unconditional acceptance is the pragmatic corollary of a realist conception of truth. (xviii)

In discourse: we are aware of the “cautionary” uses of the truth predicate and the fallibility of our claims.

Habermas as an epistemological realist:

The objects we can refer to may fail to meet the descriptions we associate with them (fallibilism and theory of reference). (xviii)

In defence of his version of a pragmatic conception of truth, he argues that the connection between truth and justification is epistemically, but not conceptually necessary. In other words, truth may always “outrun” justified belief, even under (approximately) ideal conditions, but he nevertheless insists on the fact that from the agent’s perspective, practical certainties are and must be taken to be true absolutely at the risk of incapacitation. It is only in discourse that such practical convictions come under a fallibility proviso. (xviii)

Habermas as a conceptual nominalist:

1) Commitment to the revisability of language by experience

2) The world does not consist of facts but of things: facts are not things (cf Davidson)

3) Facts are what make sentences true

4) There is both a mind- and language-independent objective world

5) Antireductionist in the sense that he defends the mutual irreducibility and equiprimordiality of subjectivity, objectivity and intersubjectivity


From communicative rationality to a theory of truth and knowledge

The Theory of Communicative Action

To get to Habermas’s theory of truth and knowledge, we have to start with The Theory of Communicative Action (1971), a critical study of the theories of rationality that informed the classical sociologies of Weber, Durkheim, Parsons, Lukacs, Horkheimer and Adorno. TCA probably marks the start of Habermas’s mature philosophical position, through which he deals with the themes of the task of philosophy and its relation to the social sciences, whilst defending normativity and the universalist ambitions of philosophy within a framework that includes specific kinds of empirical social research with which philosophy interacts. For Habermas, philosophers work with social scientists to understand normative claims within current historical contexts, which are characterised by social and systemic modes of integration. By recognising both modes of integration, Habermas avoids the pessimism associated with other theories of modernity that traditionally focus on a primarily instrumental conception of rationality that misses the cultural dimension of modernisation.

Traditional large-scale macrosociological and historical theories have long been held as the most appropriate explanatory basis for critical social sciences. Such theories, however, have two main drawbacks. First, comprehensiveness does not guarantee explanatory power; indeed, there are many large-scale theories, each with their own distinctive social phenomena, that attempt unification. Second, explanations typically appeal to a variety of different social theories. Habermas’s employment of critical explanations runs along two levels: a micro-theory of rationality based on communicative co-ordination and a macro-theory of the systemic integration of modern societies through mechanisms such as the market. These are two levels of his social theory, which includes an analysis of communicative rationality (the rational potential built into everyday speech), and a theory of modern society and modernisation. On the basis of this theory, Habermas hopes to overcome the one-sided versions of rationalisation in order to better assess the losses and gains of modernisation.

Traditional comprehensive critical theories also make two problematic assumptions, first that there is just one preferred mode of critical explanation, and second that there is one preferred goal of social criticism. Such theories typically employ historical materialism, one consequence of which is that the correctness or incorrectness of a particular critical model depends on the adequacy of the theory to objective historical necessities or mechanisms, into which the critical theorist alleges that he has superior insight. On the other hand, a pluralistic mode of inquiry suggests a different norm of correctness: that criticism must be verified by those participating in the practice and that this demand for practical verification is part of the process of inquiry itself.

Though he does not explicitly say so, Habermas would appear to favour the practical plurality approach, going as far as Dewey in arguing that the logic of the social sciences is pluralistic and eludes the apparatus of general theories. In the absence of general theories, the most fruitful approach to social scientific knowledge is to bring all the various methods and theories into relation with each other. It is Critical Theory that takes on the role of unifying the plurality of approaches, which all have their own legitimacy as developed lines of empirical research.

Communicative Rationality

In order to achieve these theoretical and methodological aims, Habermas develops his own definition of rationality that is epistemic, practical and intersubjective. Rationality on this account is not so much the possession of particular knowledge but rather ‘how speaking and acting subjects acquire and use knowledge’. Habermas’s account is pragmatic because it views interpreters as competent and knowledgeable agents, in line with other pragmatic theories. Moreover, the account of practical knowledge is in the performative attitude, from the point of view of a competent speaker. Habermas’s account is formal because in attempting to reconstruct the practical know-how that is necessary for being a knowledgeable social actor amongst others, he attempts to articulate invariant structures of communication.

The perfomative attitude requires speakers to adopt a stance oriented toward reaching understanding. When speakers address each other with this kind of practical attitude, they engage in communicative action. Communicative action is distinguished from strategic forms of social action, in which actors are more interested in achieving individual goals rather than reaching mutual understanding. In communicative action, speakers coordinate their action and pursuit of goals on the basis that the goals are inherently reasonable or worthwhile. Strategic action succeeds insofar as speakers achieve their individual goals whereas communicative action succeeds insofar as all actors freely agree that their goal(s) is reasonable and thus merits co-operative behaviour. Communicative action is thus inherently consensual, and mobilises the potential for rationality given with ordinary language.

What makes rationally motivated agreement possible? Habermas argues for a particular account of utterance meaning based on acceptability conditions, by analogy to the truth conditional account of the meaning of sentences. Rather than linking meaning with representational semantics, however, Habermas takes a pragmatic approach by analysing the conditions for the illocutionary success of the speech act. According to the core principle of his pragmatic theory of meaning, we understand a speech act when we understand the speaker’s reasons for claiming validity for his utterance i.e. meaning is tied to the practice of reason giving, and in turn, to the processes of criticism and justification. A speech act succeeds in reaching understanding when the hearer takes up an affirmative position toward the claim made by the speaker. If this does not occur, the conversation shifts reflective levels from ordinary speech to discourse, in which the claim being made is submitted to argument and dialogue to test for their rational justifiability as true, correct or authentic.

In opposition to the positivist fixation on fact-stating modes of discourse, Habermas’s account enables him to recognise a far broader spectrum of intersubjective validity than just empirical truth, a spectrum that includes claims to moral rightness, ethical goodness or authenticity, personal sincerity and aesthetic value. Such claims to do not, for Habermas, represent a mind-independent world in the same manner as empirical truth claims, but they can nevertheless be publicly criticised and defended. As such, intersubjective validity involves a notion of correctness analogous to the idea of truth: validity claims do not have a narrow logical sense (truth-preserving argument forms) but rather connote a richer social idea, that a claim (statement) merits the adressee’s acceptance because it is justified or true in some sense, which can vary according to the sphere of validity and dialogical context. Habermas thus moves beyond the narrow focus of truth-conditional semantics of representation to the social intelligibility of interaction.

A constative speech act functions on three world relations, first, it expresses an inner world (intention to communicate a belief); second, it establishes a communicative relation with the hearer (relates to a social world); and third, it attempts to represent an external world. The triadic structure suggests that speech acts involve three tacit validity claims. These are that the speech act is sincere (non-deceptive), socially appropriate or right, and factually true (representationally adequate). Speech acts can be criticised for failing on one or more of these claims, so fully successful speech acts that involve these three world relations must satisfy the three validity claims in order to be acceptable.

Strong communicative action is at one end of a spectrum of possibilities, in which social cooperation is both deeply consensual and reasonable. On a day-to-day basis, however, it is not really practical to maintain such deep consensus in complex, pluralistic societies, so it makes sense that weaker forms of communicative action can be permitted in certain types of situations. In these situations, not all three validity claims need be satisfied. The system pre-defines those situations in which communicative action is relaxed within legally specified limits. Markets and bereaucracies are prime examples of systematic coordination, in which non-linguistic media such as money or power take up some of the burden in coordinating actions. The lifeworld refers to domains of action in which consensual modes of action coordination predominate i.e. the background resources, contexts and dimensions of social action that enable actors to cooperate on the basis of mutual understanding. Such contexts might be the family, church, neighbourhood or school, all of which stabilise patterns of action.

Analytic philosophers have criticised Habermas’s theory for its perceived failure to account for the compositionality of language i.e. how a finite set of words can be used to form an infinite number of sentences. However, one could reply that this criticism has little bearing on Habermas’s project, since from an early point in his career he has chosen to focus on communicative rather than grammatical competence i.e. the ability of speakers to use grammatically correct sentences in social situations. His focus on acceptability conditions points to a rather different sort of project to the analytic theories of meaning, one which articulates the validity basis of social order itself.

In terms of modern society, rationalisation of the lifeworld is shown by Habermas to go hand in hand with the growth of systematic mechanisms of coordination, to the extent that if large societies are unable to integrate solely on the basis of shared cultural values and norm, new nonintentional mechanisms of coordination based on non-linguistic media emerge. Colonisation of the lifeworld occurs when these media, like money and power, displace communicative forms of solidarity and inhibit the reproduction of the lifeworld. Juridification is the term Habermas uses to name the process by which law invades more and more areas of social life. Both colonisation and juridification are pathologies of modernisation.

Truth and Knowledge

Habermas is a realist insofar as he holds that the objective world rather than ideal consensus is the truth maker; in other words, a proposition is true because it accurately refers to existing objects or represents states of affairs, albeit only those that we can describe using our current linguistic resources. He eschews theories such as correspondence, which attempts to explicate the relationship between a proposition and the world metaphysically. Instead, Habermas argues for a theory of meaning in terms of accurate representation that is pragmatic; in other words, a proposition has meaning insofar as it has consequences for everyday practice and discourse.

Our daily practical engagement with reality is based on well-corroborated beliefs about objects in the world. Habermas argues that theoretico-empirical discourse becomes necessary when our everyday beliefs use their unproblematic status, for instance, when novel circumstances pose new questions about the natural world. These situations call for empirical inquiry, in which truth claims are submitted to critical testing. Critical testing is a combination of discourse with experimental actions, reinforcing the link between Habermas and Peircean pragmatics of scientific inquiry. The implications of this discourse theory are not fully worked out by Habermas, though it is most developed in the natural sciences as an argumentation theory. The theory has three levels, briefly: the logical level (discursive justification relies on empirical reasons), a dialectical level (chief challenge arises from theories that conflict with the claim at issue), and a rhetorical level (in which one seeks the agreement of a universal audience). I would be inclined to agree with commentators who say that the theory needs further work to make it a more interesting discourse theory of science.

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.


Verificationism and Transcendental Arguments – Richard Rorty

Strawson and Wittgenstein represent two philosophers in the anti-idealist camp, drawing on Kant, where representation figures as the general term for any object at any stage in its determination by the subject. In Individuals (1959), Strawson argues for a description of the world entailed by interconnected concepts, through an examination of our basic particulars and how these are brought under general concepts to do with space and time. This project is metaphysical, insofar as it attempts to delineate the structural features of our thoughts about the world, thus continuing the idea that the world constrains reality. In Philosophical Investigations (1953), Wittgenstein enlarges upon his account of the private language argument. This claims that the idea of a private language is incoherent, that language is at bottom an entirely public, social phenomenon. The private language argument thus has repercussions for the idea that we represent internally through e.g. qualia, from which language gives rise to the concept.

Now, both Strawson and Wittgenstein’s arguments can be said to refute the sceptical argument, which claims that there is nothing but representations, where representations are limited to pure experience. This is because we would not be able to talk about representations at all if we did not know what constituted a non-representation; the way in which we learn the difference is through material objects or people. Thus, the sceptical argument can be said to be parasitic upon the conventional idea of how we view the world.

Philosophers have queried the neo-Kantian programme, however, and Rorty chooses to focus on two in particular, Judith Thomson and Barry Stroud, in order to show how the transcendental argument evidenced in Strawson and Wittgenstein is, to a degree, reliant upon some form of the verification principle. At most, these arguments make the case for what seems to exist rather than what actually exists, thus transcendentalists are some way off being able to make claims about reality. This is because they have equated appearance with reality; the only way to get around this is through an appeal to the verification principle, which states that a statement is valid if and only if one can prove its truth or falsity by appealing to observed evidence. Transcendentalists, so the arguments goes, will not be able to prove that objects necessarily exist without appeal to the verification principle, for example:

In order for ‘X’ to have meaning there have to be criteria for identifying X’s, and the sceptic cannot even talk about X’s unless he accepts that these criteria are sound. Since these criteria are obviously satisfied, he cannot deny that there are X’s. (4)

But, as stated above, all that this arguments shows is that it must ‘seem’ as though there are X’s, not that there actually are.

Nevertheless, the parasitism argument remains intact. The transcendentalist need only reply to the sceptic by stating that because the sceptic does not advance an idea of her own, she cannot be refuted. Thus, the force of the transcendental argument remains intact as there is nothing for it to rebut. At most, the sceptic’s argument makes the case for the possibility of other explanations in other vocabularies, for instance. As Rorty points out, ‘the force of ‘parasitism’ arguments here is to show that we cannot in fact describe such a language’ (5)

In her analysis of the private language argument, Thomson identifies an appeal to the verification principle (step 3):

(1)…if a sign which a man uses is to count as a word in a language, his use of it must be governed by a rule – here specifically, if a sign which a man uses is to count as a kind-name in a language, his use of it must be governed by a rule of the following sort: You may call anything of a kind X ‘K’, and you may not call anything ‘K’ which is not of kind X

(2) If a sign which a man uses is to be governed by a rule of this sort it must be possible that he should call the thing a ‘K’ thinking it is of the kind to be called a ‘K’ and it not be…

(3) There is no such thing as a man’s thinking a thing is of the kind to be called ‘K’ and it not being so unless it is logically possible that it be found out that it is not so. (6)

Consequently, if one’s experience of a certain object is the only sound criterion for a statement about that object, we do not know anything about the object at all, for ‘nothing…follows from ‘There is a K now’ and it follows non-trivially from nothing (to our knowledge)’ (7).

Now, Wittgensteinians would counter that ‘K’ has not been given a meaning in that it has not been correlated with a set of utterances ‘K’. Any yet, even before the utterance, the statement ‘there is a K now’ must bear some ‘non-trivial inferential relations before it has a place in the language game’ (7). This is the meaning is use slogan. Rorty then demonstrates how the verificationist can get out of this objection, since meaningfulness does not have to depend upon a world connection, but rather ‘upon connections between some bits of linguistic behaviour and others’ (9) thereby emphasising the shared social conceptual schema over and above private language.

Stroud argues that transcendental arguments not only require the verificationist principle for their completion, but also that the invocation of such a premise makes these arguments superfluous. There are two main points in this strand of Rorty’s argument. First, he argues that the verificationist principle Stroud analyses is simply false, not up for debate as Stroud suggests. This is because the principle might be expanded indefinitely to allow for the many particulars of different situations. As a result, we would not know whether the conditions of the principle have been fulfilled at all, and so the principle fails on this basis. Furthermore, meaningfulness too fails to convince i.e. an appeal to understanding meaningfully or not. This would only work if we could show that certain words cold only be taught ostensively, ‘and only by ostention of genuine examples of its referent. This latter claim should be the last which anyone impressed by Wittgenstein’s remarks on meaning would want to make’ (11).

Second, transcendental arguments bear the onus of demonstrating the parasitism of alternative arguments if they are to prove that certain concepts are necessary for thought and experience. But how are we to know the alternatives in advance? Natural science, for example, does not proceed via conventional arguments remaining primary whilst alternative theories supplement. There is no room on this view for an account of revolutionary thought, or paradigmatic shifts. As such, ‘there is reason to suspect that the force behind any such claim will actually be for arguments for the parasitical character of certain particular alternatives’ (11).