Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Mcdowell and Habermas in a Post-Traditional World

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Mcdowell and Habermas in a Post-Traditional World

Article excerpt

John McDowell indicts modern philosophy's contrast between the "space of reasons" and the "organization of nature."1 He challenges this framework as a limitation of options-meanings marked off from causes, mind segregated from world-and outlines an alternative, which draws upon Aristotle's ethics. McDowell's reading of Aristotle avoids this "distinctively modern" anxiety, by demonstrating a different conception of what is natural. Aristotle's "practical wisdom" serves as a model for how we come to understand, how our experiences become intelligible and are placed in the "space of reasons." For Aristotle, "virtue" is distinguished from mere habit and responds to reason but this response is never completely severed from habitual ways of living. Therefore it brings into view what McDowell means by "naturalism," wherein the duality between natural laws and rational justification is eliminated. This reconciliation rejects the tension that pits a "bald naturalism" against a "rampant platonism" and not only diagnoses but, in Mc Dowell's view, "cures" the anxiety of modern philosophy-one from which Aristotle and his contemporaries did not suffer. "The picture is that ethics involves requirements of reason that are there whether we know it or not, and our eyes are opened to them by the acquisition of a 'practical wisdom.'"2 This, for McDowell, exemplifies a "second nature."

Habermas, too, acknowledges ways in which the intentions of modernity have been fractured and have gone astray. However, unlike McDowell, he sees modernity's "cognitive potentials" as a way to correct "a life praxis still dependent on blind traditions."3 He insists that moral statements can be justified, therefore must have cognitive content-and that this content approaches an "ethically neutral" form (ethical, for Habermas, refers to local decisions about the everyday "good life") for "decentered" individuals and societies. Such recognition of norms that supercede the parochial in a post-traditional pluralistic world is imperative for Habermas. "In the absence of substantive agreement on particular norms, the participants must now rely on the 'neutral' fact that each of them participates in some communicative form of life which is structured by linguistically mediated understanding."4 Here Habermas follows the lead of Hegel, Humboldt, and Mead in philosophy, speechact theorists in linguistic pragmatics, Piaget and Kohlberg in moral psychology, and the historicist perspective of two of his own teachers, Gadamer and Adorno. He expands and interweaves these theories into a strong cognitivist argument for the possibility of context-transcendent moral validity claims.

Habermas's writings contain only rare engagements with McDowell and McDowell has none with Habermas. Habermas's few references reveal intense skepticism as to whether McDowell's moral theory, which Habermas categorizes as weak cognitivism, is sufficient to explain how reliance on Aristotelian "practical reason," even though there is a role for "insight," can ever rise above particular forms of life-a feature of morality so necessary in a post-metaphysical world. Once questions of justice arise across cultures, sub-cultures, or nations, such neo-Aristotelian views reveal their limitations for maintaining the "absolute priority of the right over the good . . . [and] fall short of the universalistic content of a morality of equal respect and solidaristic respect for everyone."5

While there are surprising similarities in the "relaxed naturalisms" of Habermas and McDowell, Habermas's stronger form of cognitivism reduces a tension in McDowell's argument regarding the relationship between "potentialities" and "upbringing" (Bildung). In fact, McDowell's weak cognitivism is never convincing as to why one moral language game is superior to another. Like other neo-Aristotelian standpoints, it doesn't transcend community in the way Habermas's "formal pragmatics" provides a neutral procedure to adjudicate conflict. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.