Back to Habermas Studies page an epistemic sense of truth
part 5 of “Habermas and Truth

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


There are numerous senses of ‘true’ in a dictionary, thus in the lifeworld. One sense is factuality, which I will interpret as accuracy about a certain state of affairs (in light of Bernard Williams, Truth & Truthfulness, Princeton UP 2002). I want to presume that intuitively ordinary sense of ‘true’ in my discussion of Habermas’ reading of the epistemic theory of truth (OPC 365-9).

A proposition is true if it is accurate about a certain state of affairs. So, what is accuracy? It is exact-enough accordance. ‘True’ means (among other meanings) exact-enough accordance, which is the result of action that accords a representation with a state of affairs exactly enough.

Is exact-enough accordance a correspondence? It could be (by some accepted criterion of correspondence), but it doesn’t need to be. Well, then, how does one decide? What is criteriological correspondence, when that’s an appropriate formulation of exact accordance; and what is a non-correspondent accordance that is exact enough?

There are degrees of exactness (and domain-specific criteria of what it is to be exacting, non-quantitative as well as statistical), so exact-enough accordance would be relative to a standard of exactness. This isn’t a crisply clear notion of ‘true’. But it’s pragmatically adequate, I claim, for testing Habermas’ pragmatic view, since an adequate theory of truth should at least accord with what we ordinarily mean by ‘true’ (and I claim that we may appropriately mean factuality or exact-enough accordance when we use ‘true’, i.e., we may mean exact-enough accordance of a proposition P when we say that P is the case or P is true).

In the following examination of Habermas’ examination of the epistemic theory of truth, I’m taking ‘true’ to mean an accurate expression of a certain state of affairs. Truth is, among other things, the accuracy of propositions.

Habermas wants to:

...distinguish “truth” from “rational acceptability” through an idealization of the conditions of justification. (OPC 365)

The “notion of truth” is “Janus-faced” or (apparently) discursive (363). Apparently, “The rain continues” is true because an idealization of the conditions of justification can be successfully applied to the assertion. Yet, the indication done by ‘the’ is context-specific, and ‘rain’ and ‘continues’ are English terms; so, the conditions of truth for the valid assertion of that proposition are contextual, and the indicated state of affairs is local to the assertion.

...a proposition justified by “our” standards is distinguished from a true proposition in the same way that a proposition justified in a given context is distinguished from a proposition that could be justified in any context. (ibid.)

Does this mean that a true proposition is one that could be justified in any context? Or is it just that a true proposition is always also interpretable as claiming for itself justiability in principle in any context? Assertion of ‘The rain continues’ is not justified in any context, but it’s justified when it’s true. True is not the same as possibly true; justified is not the same as could be justified, though true-in-any-context entails justifiable in any context. But how many true statements are true in any context? Isn’t it intuitively plausible that truth has contextuality so commonly that this possibility of truth claims belongs to the phenomenon, the “notion,” itself?

What is true is what may be accepted as rational under ideal conditions. (ibid.)

Norms may be valid under ideal conditions, so they’re rational under ideal conditions (and under less than ideal conditions). But norms aren’t true or false, so how can what is true be what may be accepted under rational conditions? Validity is what may be accepted as rational under ideal conditions. One’s self-representations are valid if they’re genuine; presumably, anyone would accept that self-representations are valid if they’re genuine. Self-representations may be accepted as rational under ideal conditions (as well as less than ideal conditions). So, it’s not the case that ‘true’ means “what may be accepted as rational under ideal conditions.”

Habermas, on the other hand, is presuming otherwise and presently moving on with his claim that a possible (practically idealized) unconditionality of justification makes good sense. I agree, more or less: Some truths may be unconditionally justified (so far!), like Newtonian physics (within given parameters, i.e., at a given macro-level of determination). There are cases in which truth conditions for a given proposition are more or less universalizable. But ‘The rain continues’ is not one of those propositions, though (yikes!) the rain continues.

Defending against the implausible (to me) objection that Habermas’ idealization of truth strives for the end of human history, Habermas writes:

As a regulative idea, the critical point of the orientation toward truth becomes clear only when the formal or processual properties of argumentation, and not its aims, are idealized. (OPC 365-6)

JH refers to his orientation now as a regulative idea, but regulative of what? Tendencies toward contextualism? I reject Rorty’s contextualist extremism, but contextuality seems to belong to truth itself (relativity doesn’t necessarily imply relativism), such that regulating “out” what genuinely belongs to truth would be invalid (e.g., an overbearing demand for unconditionality).

Anyway, “the critical point” is the idealization of structural properties of argumentation, rather than outcomes. Yet, to make the critical point of the orientation to truth be properties of argumentation, what’s to prevent a reader from suspecting an assimilation of truth to justification? I think I’ve indicated clearly how JH’s portrait of truth is so far untenable, so there’s no other basis for reading what he’s doing than to see an assimilation of truth to justification.

...justificatory practices are guided by an idea of truth that transcends the justificatory context in question. (366)

Yes, but context transcendence doesn’t require unconstrained idealization (unconstrainedness will soon become a focus), at least because interest in truth is always for persons (finite beings) in finite horizons (ultimately, evolving!); but also, perhaps, because there is no instance where we need unconditionality, even when it’s feasible (e.g., physics, which happens to break down at its extremes of universality [undecidability between supersymmetry and there being multiversality] and quantum level [untestability of string theory]). So, an “orientation toward truth” that idealizes structural conditions of argumentation, while JH claims that truth itself is acceptability under idealized conditions, looks like truth and justification are being defined in terms of each other, now via an assimilation of justification to an idealized conception of truth that has been earlier assimilated to an idealized conception of justification. [Could it be that the fusion of horizons is like a concordance of form and content in the evolutionarity of concording? In such a conception, there is no unconditionality available to unconstrained idealization beyond some kind of generative insight into Our evolutionarity, again re: the second half of "philosophy after Habermas."]

While I agree that...

...the formal and processual characteristics of justificatory practices in general...are to be found in all cultures.... (367)

...this seems to pertain to a claim upon the prospects for discourse ethical universalization, rather than anything about the content of form, in this case: truth (or a relationship between substantive truth to processual justification [that’s not assimilating truth to justification]). Indeed, JH’s explication of his point here leads to a footnote (367, ftn. 50) related to the ideal speech situation as revised in “Remarks on Discourse Ethics,” which pertains (like discourse ethics itself) to any validity claim. JH is not distinguishing what pertains to truth specifically (universalistic or not), but rather what pertains to valid discourse generally, because this is the modality of Rorty’s objection to universalistic justification, which JH is addressing at this point.

But then he does bring attention back to truth:

In these unavoidable presuppositions of argumentation, the intuition is expressed that true propositions are resistant to spatially, socially, and temporally unconstrained attempts to refute them. (ibid.)

Yes, but true propositions normally arise relative to action-oriented interests that don’t need such resistance, except inasmuch as one seeks truth relative to relative unconstraint, e.g., scientifically [where, parameters are always specified, like a universality of specified constraint, but which is never closed to revision; an ultimacy of provisionality is never annuled, as the horizon of corroborative wager is never known].

Yet, true propositions are normally prescientific in their pretensions. Very usually, scientificity is not required (nor feasible). What we mean by factuality is almost always modest. To look at truth from the interest in unbounded domain just begs the question of when does the domain (i.e., conditions) of a true proposition imply an unconstrained range. JH isn’t yet giving light on why action-interested, intuitively-constrained true propositions (the ordinary assertion) should suggest unconstraint.


What we hold to be true has to be defendable on the basis of good reasons...

But we hold to that “what” because it has been determined to be true (i.e., accurate enough), not because it has already been defended or anticipates defense. (Reliabilist epistemology is about this: the truth-conducive practices that have efficaciously built up confidence in belief). The conditions of holding good are very usually conditions of holding well-enough given that almost no situation corresponds to the controlled conditions of standard determinations of what “is” relative to standardized conditions of determination.

A true proposition P can be defended because it’s true, not true because it can be defended. Determining that P is true is commonly finding that P is accurate enough, and the value of this is its contribution to action-interested knowledge, i.e., purposive value, which commonly has open horizons (no instrumentalism), as in pursuing a way of life with fulfilling fidelity, advancing a career fulfillingly, or flourishing fruitfully.

JH has said it himself: “truth proven by practice”; yet the practice is that of life-oriented action, not primarily general recognition of what one knows from practice. Coordinative, cooperative, collaborative engagement is context specific, project specific, or organizationally specific, involving a life in so many non-intersecting interactions that one finds cohering of that only as the singular life of so much variability that has no duplicate. The truth of specific matters, given contexts, is oriented always for a life, whose life-centered interest in truth tends to orient all other interest in truth—a life whose living nature is never without constraints (orientations, interests, values, prospects), supplemented by scientificity. (Is medicine scientific enough? It’s certainly never without new knowledge that is annuling old “knowledge,” new expert guidelines antedating old ones. What scientificity is not evolving? I’ve never been attracted to Rorty's stridency, but it appears that I tend toward his view [but not for relativist reasons; rather for...well, my own reasons; call it evolutionary appropriativity], against which Habermas is defending himself.

...the inspiration for the discourse theory of truth [is that] a proposition is true if it withstands all attempts to refute it under the demanding conditions of rational discourse. (ibid.)

A discursive “proposition is true,” etc., but this doesn’t pertain to true propositions normally. The demanding conditions are hardly ever needed, let alone available, and yet there may so much of one's world that is reliablly presumed for orientation of action or dependent on belief that is accurate enough.

I agree that:

However, this [withstanding of all attempts, etc.] does not mean that it is also true for this reason. A truth claim raised for “p” says that the truth conditions of “p” are satisfied. (ibid.)

So, here truth is not assimilated to justification. But then, truth is never in a neighborhood of unconstrained unconditionality. The determination of the truth of P is a matter of finding that the truth conditions are satisfied (or even satisfying the truth conditions for the sake of the proposition’s efficacy), usually relative to an interest in action in light of that determined truth. As one grows up, discovery of what holds good works; capability for discovery improves with experience. A sense of reliabilist confidence grows with scale of engagement. And sometimes one needs to justify that to others. But the normal actor isn’t first claiming to himself that P is true, then arguing with himself. Even methodic determination or proper inquiry isn’t basically about anticipating justification (except in organizations operating under compliance and accountability standards); it’s about gaining knowledge. Therefore, a later truth claim will imply that truth conditions of P are satisfied.

Having this questioned, ...

We have no other way of ascertaining whether or not this is the case except by way of argumentation, for direct access to uninterpreted truth conditions is denied to us. (367-8)

But the decisive interpretations happen at the determination of truth that backs contested warrant, not the argumentative justification of interpretation post facto. Evidence may serve in discovery as reason for determining that P is true, but this precedes claims about what has been discovered or determined.

Thus, it’s true but irrelevant to the accuracy of P that:

...we have already had to interpret the truth conditions in light of the relevant sorts of reasons for the claim in question. (368)

That pertains to arguing the claim to truth, not determining that P is true.

A consistently epistemic reading of the discourse-theoretical explanation of truth....

...presumes a passage from the ordinary domain of true propositions (their reliabilist determination and employment) to discursive inquiry into the place of truth in knowledge or the growth of knowledge. This is like a passage from (1) a well-lived life that pertains to any mature, educated person to (2) specialized organizational domains, like research enterprises. No wonder, then, that discourse-theoretical explanation apparently...

...founders on the problem... [of its] “connection with human abilities.” (ibid.)

...because the formalization of inquiry isn’t a usual requirement in the lifeworld for determining that a proposition is true. Human abilities may be educated toward competence in systematic investigation, critical analysis, etc., but ordinary truth doesn’t require “discourse-theoretical explanation.”

Yet, we are interested in that, so here we are in discourse-theoretical explanation. But a valid explanation of ordinary truth requires that proper place be given to the lifeworld’s action-interested, action-oriented, determination of truth (largely via competence at truth-conducive practices). Adequate explanation pertaining to lifeworld practices is not the same as systematic epistemology about what is based in lifeworld practices, conversely as a child’s maturation toward college graduation is not about concordance with a developmental psychology about it. The scientific or discursive interest that calls for generalization of scale and formalization results in pieces of the living development that has no constellated duplicate; and is not accessible to unconstrained, unconditional explanation without highly-individualized appropriation of constellated piecemeal knowledge which tends to explain the singularity only by constraining the life into parametric, criteriological modeling. Scientificity about the lifeworld yields pieces that must be composed into more and more individuated constellations, the more that the explanation is efficacious. The scientist becomes an artist doing narratives.

The general basis of ordinary truth in epistemology (relative to practical inquiry) is separate from (though vitally related to) the place of justification in epistemology (relative to theoretical inquiry). But the discourses of appropriation get more pertinent the more distant they get from the scientificities that are selectively constellated for the appropriation.

Given this, and granting the more interesting focus on how discursivity goes, I’m happily Habermasian about the conditions of discourse itself, e.g., “what an approximately ideal satisfaction would look like,” which JH details (368). I’m especially in solidarity with him about our finitude in Time (ibid.).

But theory of truth as such is another matter. Habermas occludes the phenomenon of truth, while anticipating a theory of Truth that is a high discursivity truly deserving to be called philosophical: the appropriative circularity of discourse and application. (But the image of Janus confounds more than it facilitates, I think). Such mediational work properly requires that:

...we look at the pragmatic descriptions of [participants’] discourses, which are embedded in the lifeworld. (368)

Yet the lifeworld isn’t based in discourses (JH obviously appreciates), while truth is based in the lifeworld. But JH is disattuned to how this goes, in his present discourse (based in a discursive background reading of how the lifeworld goes, a reading that looks very coarse).

It’s a partial truth—I claim that it’s a supplementary truth—that:

...socialized individuals are dependent on behavioral certainties... (ibid.)

...supplementary regarding what’s practically relevant for modernized adults, more interested in individuation than socialization, I would argue—or more interested in socialization through individuation (e.g., the curious child who becomes the self-motivated learner) than individuation through socialization (e.g., the conformist individual). We should theorize from thriving in order to preserve appreciation of potential in conventionality, as a matter of principle. In a complex society, we are theorizing everyone’s fate: opportunity to flourish in complex society, in principle—as a matter of a model—flourishing and having flexible perspectivity, beyond the behavioral certainties of conventional life.

JH claims that “we have seen” (ibid.) that there is such dependence, and indeed we do, for the lifeworld is a hilly topography, entwining highly individuated persons with very conventionalized socialization, dependence and independence. But in all cases, a good life is oriented by its potentials, then practicalities, not project-specific collaborations and supplementary accountabilities. It’s not a:

...grammatical fact that...[by] assertion [of] “p”...we have to believe that “p” is true unconditionally. (369)

Not only is this not the case, but JH hasn’t even argued yet that this is the case. Up to now, he has not been writing about any unconditionality of truth predication in propositional assertion; rather, he’s been arguing about a relationship of given true propositions to idealized conditions of discourse (i.e., tending toward assimilation of ordinary truth into a theoretical scale of discursive testing). The focus on unconditionality may be coming up (as the reader is now close to his essay section on “The Pragmatic Conception of Truth”), but JH’s “grammatical fact” is at this point merely a validity claim, not an argumentative summation.

What does it mean to say that truth claims can be “vindicated” discursively?

Great question. But it presumes a discursive relevance of a given truth claim which doesn’t ordinarily belong to the lifeworld determination of propositional accuracy or other accordances with the meaning of ‘true’. [Habermas tends to collapse the distance between lifeworld and formalized inquiry, as happens three years later in his response to Putnam, which I’ve discussed in detail. His sense of discourse of application unduly constrains the hermeneutics of appropriation that would adequately respect the rich distance between living well and inquiring highly.] We might go further into the lifeworld than JH has done, before we fly off to the heights of discourse theory (but I’m not going to write my way into that before closing this discussion of JH’s sense of truth and justification).

In any event, most truth claims aren’t called to discursive vindication, due to their action-oriented locality. JH’s question above presumes a focus on truth claims that have been assimilated to discourse. But does the interest in truth ordinarily call for that? No.

...though we are among those philosophical creatures who long for discursive truth,
sailing on.

Next: “finitude of discursive truth

Also: This discussion is associated with the “conceptual inquiry” area of

Be fair. © 2014, g. e. davis