The Unforced Force of the More Familiar Argument: A Critique of Habermas' Theory of Communicative Rationality

By Kaufman, Cynthia | Philosophy Today, Winter 1999 | Go to article overview

The Unforced Force of the More Familiar Argument: A Critique of Habermas' Theory of Communicative Rationality


Kaufman, Cynthia, Philosophy Today


A CRITIQUE OF HABERMAS' THEORY OF COMMUNICATIVE RATIONALITY

The present hegemony of the West is assumed, that is, the outcome is determined, the "diagnosis" is complete. The task remains to account for why this outcome occurred. In short, the question is, "Why did the West rise to hegemony?" Past historical events are integrated selectively to answer this question.1

In the debates over postmodernism that have raged over the past ten years, those interested in defending rationality, and worried about the relativism they believe postmodemism to imply, have often turned to JOrgen Habermas for support.2 Throughout his work Habermas claims that there are universal standards that we can use in making judgments. He has seemed especially attractive as he shows a deep awareness of the limits to most traditional notions of reason. For Habermas, there is no a priori content to what views are to count as rational. Rather, for him, a rational viewpoint is one that was reached through a process of good argumentation. Thus, people are said to be rational to the extent that they are willing to defend their views through arguments and respond to the force of the arguments of the partner in argumentation. From this it would follow that we could engage in arguments to settle disputes, and could use this method to undermine the abuses we have uncovered in current discourses on rationality, while still engaging in legitimizing practices.

Many of Habermas' followers hope that this view of rationality will allow us to make critical judgments, while avoiding the obvious problem of most rationalist systems that what is taken to be rational is usually based on the prejudices and "common sense" of a particular society. In this essay I will argue that Habermas' theory of communicative rationality relies strongly on notions of common sense and, more seriously, cannot stand without the notion of Western superiority on which it is founded.

I

Habermas' approach to epistemology has been described as an attempt to move beyond the dualism of objectivism and relativism.3 Habermas is critical of objectivist or transcendental approaches to epistemology, arguing that they ignore the inherent linguisticality of truth relations. However, in spite of his skepticism about the possibilities of a priori grounding for truth claims, he wants to preserve some form of universalism in order to preserve the possibility of making critical judgments. Therefore, as a way out of the dilemma of universalism and relativism, he proposes grounding judgments in the universal requirements of the use of language. The project of "universal pragmatics" then is to reveal these universal structures and the normative implications they carry with them. In The Theory of Communicative Action, Habermas claims that a rational discourse is one in which the result is based on the uncoerced consensus of the participants in the discussion. Habermas claims to derive the universal component of his theory of rationality from the notion of the force of the better argument and from a theory of human evolution-in which we develop as we come increasingly to accept argumentation as the court of appeals for all judgments.

In his essay "Wahrheitstheorien," Habermas gives a critique of traditional approaches to epistemology and offers his consensus theory of truth as an alternative. In this essay, which is Haben-nas' clearest enunciation of his own epistemology, he attempts to ground his theory of truth in the rules of good argumentation. The relationships between argumentation and rationality on the one hand and rationality and progress on the other are left to be developed in the Theory of Communicative Action.

In "Wahrheitstheorien," Habermas claims that sentences can have different meanings depending on the context in which they are uttered, he further claims that these differences of meaning effect the truth content of sentences. Because of this we need to look at truth claims as arising out of propositions, or speech acts, rather than out of de-contextualized sentences. …

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