Back to Habermas Studies page pragmatics of justification
gary e. davis
October 2005 / March 2006 / June 2014


The following engagement with pp. 164-65 of Jürgen Habermas’ Justification and Application—largely from December, 2004—was not a basic explication of his claims, rather an intense working with his text in high fidelity to his project (I hope)—seeing in a short passage the occasion for a rather large-scale interpretation of his sense of the practicality of idealizing.


Justification lives out a mediation between idealism and realism (i.e., being prudent). The idealized conditions of argumentation “must be satisfied to a sufficient degree here and now if we want to engage in argument at all” (J&A 164). Participants implicitly decide that the idealized conditions are sufficiently satisfied by continuing to argue without questioning the conditions for doing this, such that idealized conditions are realized well enough in the acceptable interactivity.

“But this doesn’t mean that...the unlimited communication community...is thereby transformed into an idea that constitutes reality. The conceptual schema of world constitution is inapplicable here” (ibid.) Rather, “we must make these presuppositions of argumentation,” which he called “the ideal speaking situation” early in his career, “as a matter of fact, despite the fact that they have an ideal content to which we can only approximate in reality” (ibid.), but which “we” really do approximate—if there’s genuinely acceptable justification—to an avowedly sufficient degree of satisfaction.

[June 3, 2014: I have a detailed analysis of the ideal speaking situation, which is here. Habermas never gathered together his various portraits of the ideal speaking situation—a communicative ethic—into a singular analysis in the 1970s (nor afterward). I did that. His discourse ethic complements his earlier idealization of a communicative ethic. The ideal speaking situation was never left behind in his thinking.]

Therefore, “an ideal tension is imported into social reality itself” (ibid.), between the appreciable unlimitedness of the communication community (which is finite for we finite creatures) and the certifiable sufficiency of satisfaction in real time and locality for given real participants.

This tension, I would argue (in explicit Habermasian terms of learning processes), is the critical (vital) force for learning that makes reasoning capable of insight—though it seems a little hyperbolic to say that this tension is always emancipatory, i.e., that it “comes to conscious awareness in participating subjects as a force that explodes the limits of the given context” (164-5), since the cognitive capability for enlightening “field independence,” in normal individuation (on which emancipatory potential depends), works in cognitive development (cf. JH’s discussion of moral development in the 1970s) less explosively than, say, exuberantly or delightfully (the classical eureka!). Such reflective capability for reframing and enlarging or shifting perspective or accommodating new models of understanding, etc., etc., is the so-called transcending of what (the force that) “transcends all merely provincial standards” (165).

The constitutive learning processes—constitutive for that normal “transcending” which is existentially fundamental learning—those shared learning processes (at our backs, so to speak) may—way up the road of individuation (at a discursive level)—enlighten our appreciation of the unavoidable idealizations of reason which belong to the formal pragmatics of communicativity, located in that communicativity, facing all of us, in terms of “a procedure of interpretation and communication that transcends the limits of social space and historical time from within the world” (ibid.) because the formal pragmatic nature of rationality in communicativity belongs to us all, facing each of us with what validity means.

“The learning processes of the unlimited communication community” is an idealization resulting from what we face (pretenses of validity) in what We (as species) are: in a Learning that never ends, such that “we have no way of knowing whether...assurance that ‘p’ will be able to withstand all future objections” (164), evidenced retrospectively by the accelerating learning we witness in our history, our social evolution. Thus we hope and, to the best of our resourcefulness, may presume that “the learning processes of the unlimited communication community should form an arch in time bridging all temporal distances, and in the world they should realize,” to a sufficiently satisfactory degree all around, “the conditions whose [idealized] fulfillment is a necessary presupposition” (165) of the trans-temporalized (anthropologically deep-seated) validity basis of speech.

Such socially generative learning processes through reason result from living appropriations of evolved (historized) formal pragmatics of communication via ontogenic (developmental) learning processes that have also evolved. But the evolutionary conditions of communicative rationality aren’t the same as the evolutionary conditions of our lifeworldliness whereby we naturally learn (given decent parenting, etc.). “This notion” of such learning processes through communicative rationality “structures a concept of society grounded in communicative action, since communicative interactions are regulated by intersubjectively recognized validity claims” (165), arising from the formal pragmatic nature of rationality which has been appropriated to real lifeworlds via individuations of capacities for learning in terms of communicative action. “These unconditional validity claims”—unconditional due to the formal pragmatic nature of rationality—“introduce into the lifeworld a moment of transcendence that permeates its symbolic structures” (ibid). This “moment” is that existentially fundamental learning indicated above (the essential sociality of reflectivity) in the cognitive development of intelligence (or “reason”). What is “introduced” to cognitive development is a formal pragmatic binding of speech to rationality that not only socializes understanding communicatively, but also historizes understanding in terms of frames of knowledge, identity, values, etc., that real communicative life inherits and adapts.

Thus, “even the counterfactual assumptions of communicatively acting subjects can expect to meet with support from the side of social reality” (ibid.) because the individuation of communicative action was already always socialized rationally (if individuation happened decently). Others can accordingly recognize and appreciate the validity claims of “I” because the formal pragmatic implicature of communicative action belongs to each interacting person.

“[E]very actually-raised claim to validity that transcends the limits of a given lifeworld”—in the sense of transcending that a social generality or kind has relative to a token or instance (distinct from the active “transcending” of individual reflectivity)—“generates a new fact with the ‘yes’ and ‘no’ responses of its addressees” (ibid.) as to the sufficiency of satisfaction that the idealized presuppositions of justification have met really (according to the consensus-forming avowal of the discerning participants—i.e., not just those participants who are discerning enough to accept some fait accompli; rather, all those participants who genuinely, in fact, i.e., really, say [or show by continuing on agreeably] their “yes” or “no”).

“Mediated by this cognitive-linguistic infrastructure of society,”—historized communicating (i.e., what socializes) in natural individuations—“the results of the interplay between inner-worldly learning processes”— existentially fundamental learning (which is weakly "natural")—“and world-disclosing innovations”—historically fundamental learning (i.e., social innovation, which is real)—“become sedimented [in living social realities]” (ibid). This sedimentation takes the form of cultural, personal, and epistemic frames, values, resourcefulness, etc., which are hybridized via new individuations, organizations, etc.



Also: This discussion is associated with the “good thinking” area of gedavis.com.