Back to Habermas Studies page “pragmatic” truth
part 4 of “Habermas and Truth

gary e. davis
October 2, 2003 / May 31, 2014


Habermas next (OPC 363ff.) introduces his “pragmatic” theory of the relationship between truth and justification, first round of three modes of the “and” (second will be relative to an epistemic theory and third unto itself). I put ‘pragmatic’ in quotes because he has his own sense of the term; it’s the Habermasian pragmatic of truth and justification—the Habermasian linguistic, sociocentric sense of what ‘pragmatic’ means, which is Habermas’s special contribution to—his emphasis, in and for—an evolution of pragmatic thought.

What is at issue in the lifeworld is the pragmatic role of a Janus-faced notion of truth that mediates between behavioral certainty and discursively justfied assertibility. (OPC 363)

JH says this immediately after noting that “a semantic conception of truth simply does not help us at all.” More accurately, it seems, is this: For those of “us” who do not find a semantic conception “useful,” etc., the pragmatic role, etc., is at issue. But I’m not interested in pressing the usefulness of a semantic conception against a lack of finding such a conception useful; rather, I would emphasize the usefulness of a semantic conception along with the obvious usefulness of a pragmatic conception. [Desire for a hermeneutic of appropriation comes to mind, relative to my capsule sense of pragmatics in “philosophy of Truth,” middle of the page at “A pragmatic theory...”] At the moment, though, JH is changing the subject, and I’m riding along. [Commentator feeling unduly constrained by Habermas’s context.]

There are three important aspects of JH’s above assertion: (1) What is at issue in the lifeworld?; (2) What is the indicated notion of truth?; and (3) What is the pragmatic role of that notion of truth? One might imagine that a hermeneuticist would advocate a mediating notion [between semantical and pragmatic], and a Hegelian would, too. So, one might take JH at his word: He’s not saying that the issue is merely the Janus-faced truth [one way or the other; hermeneutically, it’s both ways, but...]. We don’t know how Janus’ truth works. (Later, JH says that it’s “circular”). But however it goes, it’s the pragmatic role that is at issue[, not an interplay]. (We might suspect that the ultimate truth here is that circularity—which, I believe, would be the appropriative hermeneutic explicated in JH’s “Remarks on Discourse Ethics,”Justification and Application[, re: “discourses of appropriation”]. Aha! Gary’s Appropriative thinking will find kinship with Jürgen’s sense of appropriation, as the two ride off together into the Conversation of Humanity. Whatever.) [You wonder why I don’t delete my Attitude? There, I was feeling a longrunning frustration of finding more potential in Habermas’s thinking than I find him appreciating of his own views, due on his part to a sociocentric conception of most everything, rather than a complementarity of flourishing individuality and constructive sociality, where the "and" is, I'll say (for brevity), an interdisciplinarity of understanding, inquiry, and engagement, which could be troped as a hybrid kind of discursive inquiry, like a philosophically cognitivist anthropology of progressive cultural individuation. I'm improvising.]

Next: [Talk about hermeneutical circling!]

In the network of established practices, implicitly raised validity claims that have been accepted against a broad background of intersubjectively shared convictions constitute the rails along which behavioral certainties run.

Hmmm: Behavioral certainties are like a train on rails of presumed validities?

JH is presuming that behavioral certainties are what is at issue, rather than a flexible confidence; or rather than a heuristic attitude toward things; or rather than a satisficial attitude; or rather than a reliabilist attitude. He is, in effect, ignoring the developmental variability of perception, understanding, dispositions, and intentionality, as if that dimension is not at issue for Janus[, because all of this is about justifiability, more than—if not rather than—lifeworldly sense of “truth,” which is very, well, organic]. Indeed, he’s interested in the bedrock of the background, rather than the layered tropics of its nature (so to speak). [The implicit thought here is that a pervasive interpretivity of flexible perspectivity is the lifeworldly truth of the matter, which is awash in heuristics, satisficing, and reliabilism.] So, one validity claim he implicitly raises is that the lifeworld is made of certainties (which is an epistemological notion that prejudges ordinary, tenuous relations to beliefs, as if he’s generalizing from dogmatic life to the nature of the lifeworld as being without flexiblility).

Behavioral certainties, for JH, get their direction and support from validity claims (implicitly raised), rather than from the validity basis of a smoothly “running” individuated background (i.e., rather than from an individuated validity basis). This point relates to Habermas’s presumption of a prevailing primacy of the recognizing other in one’s own convictions [which are presumably not open minded], which apparently echoes his Meadian analysis of individuation-in-socialization, [(at merely a preconventional and conventional level)], which in turn echoes an account of paleosymbolic gesture. Of course, the other is important in the ontogeny of one’s background, but his assertion rides on an analysis of lifeworld action and individuation that is decisive for now presuming in passing that implicit claims toward an other are inherent to efficacy of any action (e.g., his analysis can be plausibly read to counter tendencies toward a post-conventional understanding of one’s beliefs and capabilities[, which I now associate with individuation of capability for flexible perspectivity]). In any case, there is that kind of issue [i.e., sociocentric orientation of lifeworld action or of understanding one's Life] implicitly riding as one of JH’s background validity claims, [a constitutive “claim” in the sense of overriding implicature about the coherence of lifeworldliness] and this presumption of codependent primacy is a very questionable feature, connected (I will argue later) with a sense of consciousness left over from the critique of psychologism a century ago, inherited by Horkheimer and Adorno and passed on to Habermas, who assimilates the conception of consciousness[ as invalidated notion], perhaps, to [or as or in] the critique of subject-centered reason.

Postponing pursuit of JH’s discursive background further at this point[; i.e., improvising a sense of his thinking which is many years, many texts in the making], I only want here to indicate one way in which a large-scale Question of the Background is implied by JH’s passing statements, which (it will turn out) are vital to his very useful position (that may gain greater usefulness with revision).

Pertinent presently is the role of his discursive background for his sense of pragmatics, which tends to assimilate action to communication (even though, again, he explicitly wants to be read otherwise, and can be very fruitfully read otherwise—with revision). Pragmatics is about action-oriented thinking and analysis, including kinds of action in complement to communicative action; JH acknowledges this. But carrying this theme (contemporaneous, evidently, with “Truth and Justification,” in the previous chapter of OPC, on “Some Further Clarifications...) into the conception of pragmatics itself has dramatic implications (I think) for a “theory” or philosophy of truth that is cognizant of how the lifeworld of well-individuated (educated, say) persons normally goes ([e.g., flexible perspectivity,] which would include JH, most obviously; so, I expect that what I will argue should be recognizable as applying to us[, as readers who would endure theoretical discourse!], though the drift will be that this pertains to ordinarily modern, moderately individuated persons all around).

(I know my paragraphs are too long. Sorry.)

Skipping no text, JH next writes, after noting “the network of established practices,” etc.:

However, as soon as these certainties lose their hold in the corset of self-evident beliefs, they are jolted out of tranquility and transformed into a corresponding number of questionable topics that thereby become subject to debate. (363)

Well, I don’t know about corsets, but I don’t doubt that a release from severe constraint can be jolting. But more likely, the loss would be a great relief and release, rather than a jolt. But, yes, a jolt for those who needed a corset and had it ripped off (not knowing how to breath deeply or move freely and finding oneself overextended in small spaces). [His trope corroborates my suspician that he’s generalizing from a dogmatism of the life world to a view of the lifeworld itself.] But there’s the rub: Is the lifeworld rightly thought of as generally a severe constraint? Or is JH mapping the condition of distortion into a presumptive background sense of the lifeworld?

No, the lifeworld is not, for the sake of positive theory, rightly thought of as generally a severe constraint (let alone general condition of distortion). For me, my mentors, friends, and many persons I know and don’t know (but read about), the loss of certainties brings on the interest in inquiry (questioning in this sense, not yet questioning for derivative accountability), or better: a fascination with possibility; or best of all, an opportunity for exploration. [This kind of appreciability is a better basis for conceptualizing a general sense of the lifeworld, so that we may better understand what a distorted, dogmatic sense of the world is a distortion of. ] Such “questionable topics” are thereby derivatively “subject to debate,” because they are likely primarily subjects of inquiry, discovery, opportunity, and exploration—communicative, yes, but the search for truth prevails over the call to account. [Truth-conducive practices express a generative interest in truth—individuation, self efficacy, Meaningfulness, etc.—that also thereby gains justifiability.]

Philosophical pragmatics is a calling of investigation over (before) justification— justification for the sake of consolidating or sustaining or advancing our interests (via the critical spirit, critical learning), not living to be found justified. (Creative minds are less interested in recognition than in feeling that they’re making progress). Yet, I appreciate (I believe) the critical spirit that the focus on justification provides. But pragmatics is above all about constructiveness, because openness to deconstruction serves that constructiveness, that development which can be progressive (“Classical” pragmatics in America grew up during the so-called Progressive Age of the last turn-of-the-century, and philosophical pragmatics has always, I believe, associated itself with political progressivism; take John Dewey as exemplar).

Well, JH might want to agree, because he’s tending in that direction, too—sort of:

The argumentation takes the form of a competition for the better arguments in favor of, or against, controversial validity claims, and serves the cooperative search for truth. (ibid.)

Yet, what is the necessary background for a competition in the search for truth?: [1] Substantive positions to argue; [2] individualities in contention (interested stances or performative positions taken by discursive individuals/groups in contention); [3] an interest in truth that inspires the search; and [4] a conception of truth that fosters not mere cooperation, but collaboration in a solidarity of interest. All of this is not yet about justification; it’s about the conditions that may critically (not normally) call for justification of truth (beyond mere claim to truth in the call to accountability). Insofar as justification is called for, there must first be something worthwhile to justify—something important enough that the call for justification is there (compelled so as to be compelling).

[1] Substantive positions: How is insight gained? How is insight turned into knowledge (and organized for practical efficacy)? What is the basis of truth? This is not basically a matter of justification.

[2] Individualities in contention: What drives the search for truth? What makes truth interesting? If “only individuals learn” (JH, Communication and the Evolution of Society, 1979, “Development of Normative Structures”; and TCA2 passim.), then only individuations motivate advocacies, and the nature of individuation is the background to creative contention, thus the basis for interest in justifiability.

[3] Interest in truth: Among interests, what is truth such that its prospective appeal motivates a search? What is the wonder, what is the appeal that calls individuals into a search? What is truth in the critical bond between truth and justification? Habermas is moving from a dissatisfaction with the semantic conception of truth to a socio-pragmatic conception of justification, but where is the concern for
[a living, fruitful relationship to] interest in truth?

[4] What about the interest in truth and the search fosters collaboration, rather than just happening to be prudently cooperative? (It’s not mere cooperation that leads to important, difficult discovery).
It’s not justifiability that leads to desire to collaborate constructively, let alone creatively.

So, in short, Habermas is setting a precedent in this first round of his pragmatic case that counters his implicit claim that he is on the way to presenting a valid conception of the relationship between truth and justification (while we’re a long way from the issue of unconditionality in justification, which JH poses as an unconditionality of truth itself).

With this description of justificatory practices guided by the idea of truth....” (ibid.)

What idea? Again, the reader has been taken directly from JH’s dissatisfaction with the usefulness of a semantic conception of truth to his sketch of the situation of justification. “Idea” of truth? I’ll have to leave the interest in truth behind. [I’ve recently given more attention online to the interest via “notes on Truth” and “philosophy of Truth,” both being precursory, of course. The “Idea” that I have in mind, a notion of progressive appropriativity, has no succinct version yet.] To continue with JH is to ride the rails toward unconditionality in justification/truth—a position I wish to support (if only to spite a Rortyean), but with modification in terms of the evolutionary condition of conceptions (though with no interest in, or connotation of [I hope], a neo-Darwinian naturalism). [I’m surprised that I wrote that. Indeed, an evolutionary relativity of conceptualization has been an appealing idea for me, for many years. There was not much improvisation in my recently-written second half of “philosophy after Habermas.” I’ve been on a path like that for many years, including many pages of notes that—like any philosophical notebook may be—aren't presentational, Not Ready for Prime Time (a delightful notion, because the Saturday Night Live players go on to play anyway!).]

So, one long paragraph by JH beyond the alleged uselessness of a semantic conception of truth, the issue is no longer the relation to Janus, but much more specific: the systematic mobilization of good reasons... [can be] adequate for...discriminating...justified and unjustified truth claims.... (ibid.) ....What still remains to be explained is the mysterious power of the discursively achieved agreement that authorizes the accept unreservedly justified assertions as truths. (364)

In epistemology, we expect accounts to work with justification and belief (acceptance) independently of true propositions, because justified belief may not constitute knowledge; the belief may be false-but-justified. [Establishment of what’s factual may be different from establishment of what one believes to be factual, which may be different from establisment of warrant for the belief—the Gettier Problem] But despite JH’s acknowledgement earlier in his OPC discussion that truth can’t be assimilated to justification (quoted in my discussion earlier; and later in a new instance), it appears that we are in store for an assimilation. (I’m writing after having carefully read the entire chapter, and indeed we are in store for an Assimilation, against which I hope to find a promising way to the redemption of the socio-pragmatic conception of truth-and-justification.)

In any case, the issue now is a matter of knowledge in the lifeworld (coming up for JH), which indeed implies lots of confidence in lots of assumptions, like the reliability of basic physicality and the reliability of other persons; so the issue is the nature of our confidence that we’ll live through the day:

...everyday routines rest on an unqualified trust in...knowledge....We would step on no bridge, use no car, undergo no operation...if we did not hold the assumptions employed in the production and execution of our actions to be true. (364)

I would like to confront Habermas with reliabilist epistemology, based in the everyday capability for truth-conducive practices, thus intuitions, automaticities, etc., as explicated by Alvin Goldman, Ernest Sosa, John Greco, and Keith Lehrer (see: Virtue Epistemology: essays on epistemic virtue and responsibility, ed. by A. Fairweather and L. Zagzebski, Oxford UP 2001), but I’m not going to do that in upcoming discussion. I’ll depend on the background osmosis of reliabilism that we have in feeling ordinary confidence about how things go in daily life.

Truth may be assimilated neither to behavioral certainty nor to justified assertibility. (ibid.)

Good! He’s implying once again that his notion of truth is a two-fold that mediates. Also, he asserts a “pragmatic relation” to this ("What is at issue in the lifeworld is the pragmatic role of a Janus-faced notion of truth... [OPC 363]). Is truth the mediation itself? No, evidently: Truth is not merely a two-fold mediation; there is a “notion of truth that mediates.” Truth is evidently the discursivity of mediation, which accords with his notion of discourses of application vis-à-vis his discourse ethic. This suggests that truth is ultimately the discourse that takes understanding into discursivity in itself[, which gels with my notion of hermeneutical appropriativity mentioned above].

In any case, if behavioral certainty is not a fair characterization of general lifeworld, everyday dispositions toward belief and capability (since flexibility, curiosity, open mindedness, etc., deserve to orient our concept of lifeworld employed for critical work), then his pragmatics of truth is untenable generally by having an untenable basis, and the issue is how to improve this basis of discursivity, giving to interest in truth a richness of lifeworld that is integrally interested in the value of “truth” for one’s future.

Next: “an epistemic sense of truth

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

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