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naturalism and discourse ethics
March 7, 2007


Early February, Daniel Henrich provided an English abstract of the dissertation he did under Axel Honneth recently, “Metaphysical Implications in the Discourse Ethics by Jürgen Habemas: Between philosophy of mind and naturalism,” to which I responded (Part 1). He then provided a short, useful elaboration of his argumentation strategy, to which I'm responding today (Part 2).


Part 1: February 4, 2007

Thanks to Daniel Henrich for providing a link to the English abstract of his dissertation
(May 2009: no longer available via my valid link here) on Habermas’ discourse ethics.
It inspires the following comments, which have to be more about my view than Daniel’s claims, since one can’t infer much from an abstract. My informed opinion is that Daniel’s claim seems prima facie implausible; it’s contrary to the pragmatic character of Habermas’ work. In any case, the abstract provides an occasion to think about the notion of “naturalism” in relation to Habermas’ work. But this short discussion doesn’t pretend to properly frame the issue of naturalism and discourse ethics, which Daniel’s dissertation presumably does very well.
Rather, this discussion expresses my interest in the issue and my stance that extended argumentation would take (so far lacking Daniel’s insights). This is the “before" inviting an “after”—otherwise: a preface to a tenable case to be detailed.



I make a distinction—which I would apply to Habermas’ work—between metaphysics and metaphysicalism. Daniel’s inquiry is evidently about metaphysicalism. Metaphysics is inquiry into constitutivity—a kind of inquiry, not a kind of result or doctrine. Any discursive inquiry may imply stances on issues of constitutivity like those explored by The Oxford Handbook of Metaphysics, 2003. Metaphysicalism, on the other hand, is a dogmatic relation to particular results of inquiry into constitutivity, often called “essentialism” or “ontologism”, targeted by critique of conceptual dogmatism.

Critique of transcendentalism doesn’t annul concern for constitutivity, of course. Problems which the discursive formation called “metaphysics” are about critique of particular results.

But an evolutionary sense of cognitivity may avoid essentialism (though may fail to anticipate creative misreading). It seems to me that JH’s recent work on mind in nature (his “free will” essay recently noted) avoids essentialism quite explicitly, which complements a consistent avoidance of essentialism implicitly in his earlier work. In other words, recent work isn’t a change of mind from earlier work.

Habermas’ basic commitments are ontologically open-ended. His conceptuality is evolutionarily cognitivist, continuing a spirit of discursive pragmatics which has been with him from the 1970s onward (and which has never depended on the blunt notion of naturalism per se). For example, formal pragmatics doesn’t require ontological commitment to anything more than its historical problematic (linguistic phenomenology) and logic of inquiry in order to be strongly tenable. It’s not invested in any “naturalism”, strong or weak. Formal pragmatic claims about the inherence of validity claims to the “nature” of language remain unavoidable, whether or not Chomsky is right, whether or not a cognitive grammar constitutes linguisticality. His argumentation, across his career, is basically evolutionarily cognitive or ontologically open,
I would argue.

Any examination of his conceptual engagements that doesn’t take place in this kind of context—an evolutionary cognitivity of discursive pragmatism that is ontologically open—misses the character of Habermas’ “naturalism” (meant weakly as “naturalism,”
but whose cognitivity is strongly justifiable in evolutionary terms).

My reading of his “free will” essay finds his essay strongly supporting my claim (a support requiring explication, of course, which I could provide, but haven’t). His recent essay in no way connotes any change in his thinking relative to earlier views. He’s as evolutionarily cognitive now as he was in the late 1970s, though now more clearly: His free will essay is a discourse of application (or appropriative discourse, in the spirit of “Remarks on Discourse Ethics”) which focuses on mind-in-nature explicitly, in contemporary terms, which he hadn’t explicitly done earlier.

Contrary to Daniel (evidently), I don’t take Rorty’s reading of Habermas very seriously, so
I just don’t know what would plausibly motivate someone to suspect a problematic naturalism (i.e., a metaphysicalist sense of this) in Habermas’ work—a concept that carries little discursive weight when it’s a passing focus: It's a topic of inquiry, not a basis of understanding (i.e., not
a useful concept for ontic focus that calls for ontological analysis due to discursive dependence on the concept).

To be “strongly influenced” by Mead and to find Apel “crucial” is about what is done with that influence. He’s also influenced by Piaget (who is more Darwinian than Kantian, by the way)
and many others, such that the hybrid result is Habermasian, irreducible to the background of influences employed. There’s nothing Meadian about the existential sense of ethical self-understanding at the beginning of Justification & Application: It’s Habermasian. A few years earlier, a post-Freudian/Piagetian (not Meadean) sense of self consciousness precedes his proposed discourse ethics in Moral Consciousness & Communicative Action; what dependence on a “naturalism” per se is there? His anthropological-evolutionary sense of ethical life is signaled in later notions like “ethic of the species” (Future of Human Nature). And there’s nothing Apelian about JH’s “detranscendentalized use of reason.” Relative to the Habermasian scale of pragmatic self-understanding, the notion of naturalism is not very useful (and, again, not importantly employed by Habermas beyond being a topic of applied discourse, such as in the “Introduction” to Truth & Justification).

To claim that [Daniel} “the naturalistic argumentation strategy [of JH’s career?] implicates ethical aspects that undermine central claims of Discourse Ethics” seems to me to misunder-stand what discourse ethics is about, relative to ethical/moral consciousness. It’s like saying that ethical life undermines procedural rationality. Daniel’s critical claim (albeit a claim with presumably the entire dissertation backing it) should not miss the highly derived relationship between immanent lifeworld (moral-ethical life) and highly-distributed system (institutional-ization of universalistic norms), which involves an evolutionary efficacy that lifeworld and system may have on each other, through education and political process. The “universal aspirations of Discourse Ethics” is a project of moral engagement, to be pragmatically actualized through education and political process, not a quasi-transcendentalist map of some sort that presumes the outcome of all possible deliberations.

JH’s “free will” essay presumes that, in a phrase, mind in nature is evolved and is evolving.
This seems uncontroversial to me. So, too, is our moral universe evolving—by deliberate
social programs and by political deliberation. Discourse ethics is a philosophical program whose sense of implementation or application is explicated in Justification & Application and Between Facts and Norms. In that way, discourse ethics participates in the social evolution that makes it explicable; and possibly furthers social evolution.

Habermasian discourse exemplifies a pragmatic kind of fundamentally-open inquiry in which any implied constitutivity belongs open-endedly to that inquiry as well. Appearing otherwise is pragmatic (hypothetical) for the sake of educing fallibilistic progress in finite inquiry, thereby also, perhaps (one hopes—one idealizes) facilitating advances in the self-understanding of discursive inquiry per se; and, at best, furthering the evolution of its domain. Such advances also may transform the character of future-oriented idealization about constitutivity for that domain of inquiry. The character of constitutivity evolves in the growth of knowledge and advance of inquiry.

One might respond: Well, Habermas’ “implied constitutivity” happens to quite clearly “belong open-endedly to that inquiry” quite questionably, if not invalidly, which undermines my grand view of discursive generativity. I disagree. So, we shall see (I hope).

Habermas is constructivist, in an evolving sense, I would argue. Developmental historicality of inquiry may become tightly isomorphic with the evolutionarity of its domain. This expresses a view toward inquiry, based in psychological research on originality, that complements a pragmatics of justification, outlined earlier. Ultimately, the philosophical inquirer may participate in the evolution s/he researches, via the diversity of cohering voices emergently constituting the advance of inquiry. Occasionally, particular researches endeavor to conceptualize the advance, which is a philosophical project of a grand sort, which at least may significantly refocus the character of research into constitutivity (e.g., discourse on “innateness” has recently found new life in light of “evo-devo” biology, biological anthropology, evolutionary psychology, and cognitive science). The notion of naturalism is weakly good for understanding such an evolutionarity of discursive engagement.

Anyway, “my” Habermas faces “your” Habermas in a conflict of interpretations that may further understanding all around, even perhaps furthering some generalizable understanding generally. So obviously, all this expresses that I look forward immensely to understanding Daniel’s argument, especially inasmuch as it proves need for my view to be emancipated from transference blindnesses in my own reading! But I would have to rely on an English translation—which I would expect to be based on a revised German argument, in light of Habermas’ recent essay on mind in nature, which has merit for interpreting the intent of Habermas’ earlier, developing views (whose early potential deserves to be retrospectively read in terms of what has been actualized), inasmuch as the evolutionarity of discursive inquiry is implicated.

In any case, thanks, Daniel, for inspiration provided merely with the abstract!



Part 2: March 7, 2007

Thanks, Daniel, for taking time to expand your abstract into a fuller English argumentation sketch of your project (which is no longer available, May 2009).

Given that there’s a valid distinction between inquiry into constitutivity (“metaphysics” as kind of inquiry, like epistemology) and doctrinism about results (“metaphysicalism”), I’ve supposed that you’re concerned about metaphysicalism in your dissertation. This distinction is echoed in Dieter Henrich’s notion of “bad metaphysics,” which would have to be contrastible with metaphysics that isn’t bad. (In the following, I can’t just call him “Henrich,” so I’ll say “Dieter,” though I’ve never met him.)

I wouldn’t expect your expanded sketch to attend to my earlier comments, but the “good” / “bad” distinction is pertinent, inasmuch as implicature in open-ended inquiry may not imply commitments that are plausibly problematic.

To say that Habermas “never gave an explicit definition…[of] the concept of metaphysics” (not yet a matter of metaphysicalism) in his work plausibly entails that the concept isn’t very important for JH apart from its traditional meaning (which is metaphysicalist). Apparently, this becomes your conclusion, too: That JH’s work isn’t metaphysicalist (it’s “postmetaphysical” but pays an empiricist price for this, in terms of the merely “empirical status” of norms?).

If metaphysics isn’t especially important to what JH is seeking to do, one could wonder what’s wrong with a [Dieter> “semantic naturalism” that’s not naturalistic (since JH doesn’t advocate any strong naturalism about anything and, I would argue, doesn’t rely on the notion for his own discursive inquiry). Frankly, I’ve not read a Dieter critique that I found thought-provoking, so I don’t know why he reads JH as he does.

A claim that there’s no problematic naturalism in JH’s work would be strengthened by an examination of “naturalizing self-consciousness” in JH’s work which shows that [Daniel> “Habermas tries very hard to get rid of every metaphysical implication.” At this point, I wonder what the problem is, apart from responding to Dieter in favor of JH’s endeavors via an explication of JH’s reading of Mead. If “self-consciousness is a communicatively constituted phenomenon,” Dieter’s concern that “Habermas has to presuppose some kind of self-relation in order to use the concept of socializing individuation” wouldn’t by itself imply that the presupposition is problematically naturalistic. For example, cognitive efficacy or learnability expresses a self-relating to experience prior to self-consciousness, theoretically explicable in JH’s work at the interface of a Piagetian sense of cognitivity and JH’s formal-pragmatic cognitive-linguisticality. JH’s sense of self-consciousness would then be understood in terms of socialized ontogeny, given basic learnability.

With all due regard for the fact that I don’t know the details of your argument, the comments above suggest that here would then be no plausibility to your claim that “Habermas's explanation of language and its meaning for individualization is in a way functionalist.” This implausibility pertains to the lack of functionalism in JH’s sense of cognitive development. You would have to claim that there is indeed functionalism in his sense of cognitive development (contrary, I think, to everything he says about cognitive development in two extensive essays on moral-cognitive development). But you appear to move rather directly from your discussion of Mead to JH’s ethical theories.  In any case, you’re not hinting in your sketch what causes you to believe that Habermas's concept of self-consciousness is functionalist, i.e., how it’s valid to do what you do: “…interpreting Habermas's concept of self-consciousness in a pure functional[ist] way.” Since JH’s interest in naturalism is rather recent—apparently not part of the earlier work that you’re apparently relying on to explicate his sense of self-consciousness—it doesn’t seem plausible to see his recent sense of weak naturalism as especially incriminating.

Regardless of whether or not “the difference between his weak naturalism and the concept of a strong naturalism isn't as clear as it seems to be without further consideration,” that issue seems to have no bearing on whether or not his sense of self-consciousness is functionalist (I would argue that it’s not functionalist). That does suggest the value of focusing further on the distinction between weak and strong naturalism, perhaps to help JH validate the difference (which, by the way, I don’t find problematically unclear, as open-ended inquiry goes, for a distinction on which he’s not basically dependent).

You write: “Is Habermas's concept of a universal justification of ethical norms metaphysical?....

But JH distinguishes between ethical and moral reason. He never recommends “universal justification of ethical norms.”

Daniel> I … show that Habermas's concept of justification may indeed not be metaphysical. [But t]he price he has to pay for this postmetaphysical structure of justification is that his norms have - as Schönrich says - only empirical status.

G: So, you’re claiming that JH confuses his own distinction between facticity of regulatives and normativity of regulatives? This, despite so much work done by him on that difference?

Daniel> … this is a straightforward result of the postmetaphysical approach.

G: That’s not plausible.

Daniel> The fourth part [of the dissertation] stresses the influence of Hegel's philosophy for the naturalizing strategy of Habermas…

G: That would be an Hegelian influence on the relationship between formal pragmatics and individuation of communicatively constituted self-consciousness? I don’t think so.

Daniel> [And I argue] that Hegel's concept of intersubjectivity might also implicate possibilities of reconstructing the concept of self-consciousness without naturalizing aspects.

G: Sorry, but that looks regressive---which is only to say that your summary raises more issues than offering clarity about your reading of Habermas. Thanks again for taking time to provide your sketch.