Back to Habermas Studies page finitude of discursive truth
part 6 of “Habermas and Truth

gary e. davis
October 3, 2003 / June 1, 2014


Given an engagement in epistemic inquiry (a specialized mode of interest in truth), Habermas’ characterization of “an approproximately ideal satisfaction” of argumentative presuppositions (OPC 368) is accurate[; i.e, a formal-inquirial and discursive relativity of interest in knowledge is ordinary in formal epistemology]. He is clear about how it is that “real discourses” (ibid.) provide at best an approximate satisfaction of ideal conditions, because that’s all that is needed by actual participants in discourse (369). [Even formal inquiry proceeds within parameters of interest.]

But, as he begins his discussion of his pragmatic conception of truth, he has provided no argument for the claim that any “...‘p’ is true unconditionally” (369); rather, he has provided argument for sufficient confidence in the truth of P.

If the matter had been one of a derivability of a well-formed formula (wff), then logically “truth” might gain unconditionality (relative to systemic formalization), because the confidence sufficient for a wff to be accepted as true relies on an “absolute” or rigorously formal standard of demonstration. Likewise (but not identically) for very highly corroborated “laws” of physics. But we never have unconditionality in a human world, and JH’s explication of discourse compellingly corroborates and accords with that fact, viz., that real discourses provide at best an approximate satisfaction of ideal conditions.

I recommend that JH talk about certainty (as he also does) rather than unconditionality, as we live in a world where certainties are seldom absolute (since mathematization has bounded relevance in a human world[; I’m now enchanted with a notion of ontomathesis], while high confidence in the reliability of belief (having component elements that are demonstrably true) is common. We all readily rely on degrees of certainty. But beyond metaphysicalism, we seldom venture to claim any confidence as unconditional; who needs it?

Habermas indicates how it is that “in the course of a process of argumentation....all motives for continuing argumentation [get] used up...,” such that actors return to their activity that was temporarily postponed for the sake of a questionable presumption (369). Otherwise—which is normally—...

...their language games and practices...“prove their truth” in being carried on. (370)

Indeed. Habermas, too, anticipates a pragmatism that balances idealization with realism:

The pragmatic authority responsible for certainty— interpreted in a realist way with the help of the [lifeworld-based] supposition of an objective world..... (ibid.)

But it’s not the case that:

...the reflexive level of discourses...depends...[on an] orientation toward unconditional truth.... (ibid.) any sense other than the relative certainty (as rendered above) that belongs to “pragmatic authority” (unless one stipulates that one’s conception depends on such orientation; but that’s what is under question, and I find the dependence unnecessary and untenable). As JH begins to present his pragmatic theory (369), he provides no basis for claiming, let alone presuming, that it’s valid to generally refer to discourse’s orientation toward truth as “unconditional.” JH writes inaccurately that, as we should phrase it, an idealized orientation toward truth...

...compels participants in argumentation to presuppose ideal justificatory conditions.... (370)

Rather, an idealized orientation toward truth compels participants to idealize justificatory conditions or to suppose ideal justificatory conditions, in accord with (or relative to) the real finitude of real inquiry and argument. It’s up to participants to gauge the degree of “decentering of the justification community” (370) that is required for the scale of validity claim that is the matter at hand. That doesn’t call for presupposing ideal conditions.

For scientific issues, that scale would be a fully unlimited communication community, ideally; but real science doesn’t second guess its contemporary corroborative strength in being in principle always open for review, as real science results from real budgets in real time, usually resulting in real consequences (technological) that are an endless test of earlier-proffered reliabilities. Real science doesn’t need to so idealize, because time tells, regardless of contemporary rigor. Likewise, mutatis mutandis, with most all normative deliberations: Generalizing perspective is an idealized condition for a real group or community whose members die, whose heirs will review and revise according to situations that earlier legislators could not anticipate; and it’s all evolving: communities in mitosis, hybridization, and re-origination.

Habermas himself is explicit about the temporal limits of idealized discourses. The openness afforded by idealized orientation is generative for contemporary confidence. But such engagement in confidence-gaining is missing in a “presupposing” of ideal conditions, because actual discourse engages the conditions that it has, often requiring educational processes to improve process (in the short run, replacing project members who lack presumed competences), even sometimes delimiting project aims relative to the competences and means for establishing sufficient confidence that one has in time-limited conditions; splitting projects into more more-manageable projects.

There is just no place or stance from which a requirement for standard orientation to an unlimited communication community exists, other than by stipulation. So, it’s inaccurate, thus invalid, to assert that an idealized orientation toward truth... ever-increasing decentering of the justification community.... (370)

...except inasmuch as a general statement about discourse (discourse theory) pertains to a wide range of possible discourses. [That is, discourse theory itself may anticipate a comprehensiveness of its self-conception, its manifold kinds of endeavor—which is philosophically interesting—but real knowledge formation has project-defined parameters; and sufficient, discernible peer review, standards of inquiry, etc., which have evolved to allow fruitfulness—thus funding—in time-limited enterprises. Anticipating an unlimited communication community is not cost effective—and godknows, research program leaders can never escape need to show cost effectiveness.] Discourse theory requires accomodation to, or accord with, a full range of possible discourses; but specific discourses never do aspire to idealize all possible degrees of discourse, because that’s impertinent to the self-corrective recursiveness of inching-along knowledge formation: testing so many little parts in the formation of the constellated enterprise.

I agree that:

...the lifeworld with its strong action-related conceptions of truth and knowledge projects into discourse and provides the reference points—transcending justification—that keeps alive among participants in argumentation a consciousness of the fallibility of their interpretations. (370-1)

But appreciation of fallibility is contrary to a general requirement of unconditionality.

Given the modifications of a “pragmatic” theory that I’ve outlined (or better: an appropriative approach to theory of truth), I find no problem with JH’s characterization of the application of discursive results to lifeworld practice (the other direction—the downhill—of the “Janus-faced concept of truth” [371] whose uphill is idealized orientation), i.e.,...

....the entwining of the two different pragmatic roles played by the Janus-faced concept of truth in action contexts and in rational discourses respectively.

But that pertains to the pragmatic theory of justification and application (theorizing discourses of appropriation), not a pragmatic theory of truth (which balances inquirial idealization and practical prudence). The “entwining” for truth, I think, involves a polarity of concepts of truth, from modified idealization of formalization (mathematization in science; scientificity of knowledge) to fully localized interpretations of knowledge gained. (The practice of medicine seems exemplary to me.) The entwining is an appropriative process of inquiry (idealizing scientificity) and applied practice.

The truth of the Janus-faced concept is the efficacy of appropriative action (which is commonly project-oriented, not single-action-oriented)—a project-ive truthfulness that takes place and emplaces knowledge relative to the finitude of our needs and nature.

By the way, it’s not the case that:

...a justification successful in a local context points in favor of the context-independent truth of the justified belief. (ibid.)

Rather: A justification successful in a local context may point in favor of the context-independent justification of the true belief.

Next: “pragmatics of justification

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

© 2014, g.e. davis