Technology and Justice: The Philosophy of Authenticity and Democratic Theory

By Matthew McManus
2013, Vol. 5 No. 10 | pg. 8/10 |

6: Inter-subjective Authenticity

6.1 The Theory of Communicative Action

Habermas' theory of communicative rationality represents a fascinating summation and critique of most philosophy since the Enlightenment, and is noteworthy amongst most comprehensive twentieth century social theories not just for its critical acumen but also its cautious optimism. Like Kierkegaard, Habermas' accepts the current epistemic limitations placed upon the single individual, and acknowledges the highly subjective foundation of systems of knowledge, though his reasons stem more from the sociologies the of Critical Theorists than the psychological individualism of the melancholy Dane.

While he accepts the historical contingency of knowledge expressed by Hegel, Habermas is in accord with Kierkegaard that these temporal cognitive spheres must be overcome through an individuating process to ensure an authentic morality. However, he rejects the latter's radical subjectivism by transforming the idea of dialectics in Hegel and appropriately restoring a dialogical, Socratic element he felt had been lost to philosophy. He is critical of Heidegger especially for not seeing in authentic communication a mechanism for overcoming the philosophy of the subject and its paradigms.

"The fact that Heidegger sees in the history of philosophy and the sciences after Hegel nothing but a monotonous spelling out of ontological pre-judgements of the philosophy of the subject can only be explained by the fact that, even in rejecting it, he still remains caught in the problems that the philosophy of the subject in the form of Husserlian phenomenology presented him.86"

This is an insightful critique of Heidegger, and Habermas posits a refreshingly optimistic solution to the tensions in Western thought, which is the single most striking and important element in his theory of communicative rationality. He did not believe that individuals could, or should, overcome the dissonant paradigms discovered within spirit alone. Rather, critical engagement with the other's viewpoint, preconditioned and facilitated by the proper psychological outlook, could serve to overcome to the immense limitations of space/time and break down epistemic barriers between otherwise insulated persons.

"Reaching understanding is considered to be a process of reaching agreement among speaking and acting subjects. Naturally a group of persons can feel at one in a mood which is so diffuse that it is difficult to identify the propositional content or the intentional object to which it is directed. Such a collective like mindedness does not satisfy the conditions for the type of agreement in which attempts at reaching understanding terminate when they are successful. A communicatively achieved agreement, or one that is mutually presupposed in communicative action, is propositionally differentiated. Owing to this linguistic structure, it has to be accepted or presupposed as valid by the participants. To this extent it can be distinguished from merely de facto accord."87

Or in the second volume, more explicitly,

"By internalizing the role of a particular in argumentation, ego becomes capable of self criticism. It is the relation-to-self established by this model of self criticism that we shall call "reflective.88"

Communicative rationality is therefore distinctly different from traditional conceptions of reason because it was not premised on the ideal of absolute and nihilistic subject centered objectivity; but rather on precisely the idea of creating a referential inter-subjective life-world which was hermetically open and self critical. Habermas is highly critical of functionalist reason because he sees it as unreflective and presumptuous. The utilitarian calculus of modern rationality which has become a standard methodology of all ethical, and especially governmental, action he saw as un-reflective and insufficiently realised. While the idea of a formal calculus to determine the most facile method of achieving the greatest possible communal happiness might appear a rational foundation for ethics, Habermas points out that such a method attaches no ethical value to the ends of our actions, only to the means through which we achieve them.

While acknowledging certain structural features which have served to ameliorate this concern, such as democracy and the rise of the welfare state, he remains critical of utilitarian positivism's foundations because of its basic, theoretical and practical flaws. It provides no mechanism to test ethical claims since it is premised purely on statements of desire, with no theoretical system in place to reconcile potentially competing ends within a social structure. More basically, it assumes a universal set of desires common to all persons which are knowable and capable of being provisioned.

This is connected to his sharp criticism of the philosophy of the subject, as articulated in Lukaks, Adorno and others. While these thinkers were equally critical of modernity, arguing with Habermas that the rationalization of society had led to the loss of individuality, they did so from the purely subjective perspective of a single consciousness engaging with the life-world. He sees them as unalterably under the spell of Neo-Kantianism and phenomenology; developing a concept of atomized consciousness in which all rationality could only be instrumental or contingent. Philosophy and speculative thought these thinkers saw only as a symptomatic development of systematically overlaid structures of knowledge/power—a position which Habermas, certainly more than myself, sympathized with.

However the Critical theorists also saw any attempt at reconciliation as a movement back towards metaphysics and in particular the speculative thought of the later, less historicist Hegel of the Encyclopaedia of the Philosophical Sciences. Social structures in a rationalized society were in-viably both overwhelming and atomizing, a contradiction Habermas feels the Critical Theorists considered to be irreconcilable without returning to a philosophic mindset which was similarly prejudiced.

Habermas would later expand this category of theorists in the Philosophical Discourse of Modernity to include many of the French thinkers of the latter half of the Twentieth century. In that work he paid particular attention to Foucault, whose theory on the nature of modern consciousness and formations of knowledge we have already looked and expanded upon in some detail through this piece. However, in that book as in his earlier one, Habermas is both sympathetic to their social critique while understanding the necessity of moving beyond it. He is un-swayed by the nihilism of Critical theorists, while seeking to move beyond the insufficiently realized subjective ethical pathos of Kierkegaard as a solution.

"The critique of instrumental reason, which remains bound to the conditions of the philosophy of the subject, denounces as a defect something that it cannot explain in its defectiveness because it lacks a conceptual framework sufficiently flexible to capture the integrity of what is destroyed through instrumental reason…the rational core of mimetic achievements can be laid open only if we give up the paradigm of the philosophy of consciousness—namely a subject that represents objects and toils with them—in favour of the paradigm of linguistic philosophy—namely that of intersubjective understanding or communication—and puts the cognitive instrumental aspect of reason in its proper place as part of a more encompassing communicative rationality."89

He reconceptualises rationality as not systematic, but rather critical in the Socratic sense. Habermas' concept of reason is rather like the critical positivism of Popper in the Logic of Scientific Discovery. Truth claims concerning the world are neither meant to be rejected offhand as merely subjective, or accepted passively by participants. Rather, they attain a greater acceptability to the degree that they are open to criticism and establish the preconditions on which they can be falsified. Like Wittgenstein, Habermas wishes to move philosophy beyond the Cartesian, and ultimately Platonic, concept of the lonely self, pondering its prejudices and attempting to transcend them by relentless self and conceptual examination. However, his aim for communicative rationality is not primarily theoretical, but rather to establish the preconditions for moral actions. By breaking down the prejudices of individuals and forcing them to reach both a theoretical consensus regarding the reification of the world, and ultimately a practical course of moral action premised on this consensus he hopes to retain the universalist pretensions of rationalist morality while avoiding its theoretical and practical contradictions and pitfalls. Most importantly, in abandoning their pretentions, individuals move from being mere elements within a social system to dynamic participants in alterations to their life world. Habermas' theory is centered on the idea of individuation both through and with the aim of evolutionary inter-subjective criticism.

Unfortunately, he sees this movement to communicative rationality as a further death blow for philosophy. At the end of the Theory of Communicative Action, Habermas is uncharacteristic in quite bluntly stating that humankind needs no speculative philosophy or comprehensive moral system to guide it. He denies the very possibility that such a system can be created. In this, his theory is influenced by both the Critical Theorists and the philosophers of language, who similarly wished to do away with metaphysical and speculative systems of thought. Unfortunately, while I respect and acknowledge the critical limitations he has placed on thinking, I disagree emphatically with his radical scepticism. My rationale for this shall come subsequently, but before then let us examine Habermas on his own terms somewhat further.

Most of his later works focused on broadening and explicating his theory in a practical fashion, with his latest writings in particular focusing on the idea of international law. International law, because of its "implicit universalism," he considers to possess a moral superiority to the unilateralism favoured by more conservative politicians and theorists. Unsurprisingly, Habermas is in favour of an evolutionary concept of human rights, in which their conceptual meaning develops over time, drawing their substance from democracy and the necessity of discourse itself.

"The discourse principle is intended to assume the shape of a principle of democracy only by way of legal institutionalization. The principle of democracy is what then confers legitimating force on the legislative process. The key idea is that the principle of democracy derives from the interpretation of the discourse principle and the legal form. I understand this interpretation as the logical genesis of rights, which one can reconstruct in a stepwise fashion. One begins by applying the discourse principle to the general right to liberties—a right constitutive for the legal form as such—and ends by legally institutionalizing the conditions for a discursive exercise of political autonomy."90

Rights are "Janus faced," with one foot rooted in positive law and the other in conceptions of morality and justice realized communicatively through democracy. Unlike most social theorists, he does not attempt to discern which of these comes first, but instead wishes to indicate how they develop in conjunction. In response to the traditional question of whether positive law or moral conceptions have more of an influence on our activities and prejudices, Habermas' collapses the distinction by saying that the two cannot be seen separately. Instead, we must embrace a holistic conception of rights as derived from the very fundaments of communication itself.

6.2 Authentic Dialogue

"When I use a word," said Humpty Dumpty in a rather scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less."

"The question is," said Alice "whether you can make words mean so many different things."

"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "Which is to be master—that's all."91

Unfortunately Habermas' theory can hardly be called complete so long as it does not provide a starting point from which communicative rationality can commence. Habermas mentions several times the necessity of coordinating plans of action as a practical pre-requisite for engaging in broader illuminating critiques—however, while doing so he seems to fall back on the functionalist reason which he undermined in the guise of a neutralized Kantian pragmatism. The ideal of communicative action remains abstract because he is unwilling to provide a psychological theory of consciousness which could serve as the basis of an individualized negative dialectics. To do so, Habermas likely felt he would need to engage in the phenomenological or critical paradigms, which his own theory of society and linguistically commiserated reification competes with. He fails to see that, much as he correctly criticizes theorists for atomizing the individual outside of the linguistically mediated lifeworld, this lifeworld cannot be understood completely without a profounder insight into the psychology of those making it up.

Spirit manifests itself both as what is transcendental and what is present— as the archive of our knowledge reflected in a present through participating individuals. The only way to overcome the latter is to understand the nature ecstatic time plays in shaping meditational paradigms and developing a theory by which the individual can engage with it communicatively—but as a critical and self reflective individual. In the language, if not the spirit of Hegel, in so doing geist transforms itself through the reflected self's movement into its abstract self wherein it realizes its freedom fully in and of itself through the negation of the merely abstract categories of the social and the individual by their evolution into a fully realized unity.

Part of Habermas' difficulty in recognizing this difficulty is his unwillingness to engage fully with the philosophy of Heidegger, which he dismisses in Truth and Justification as largely mystical and subjective, with the replacement of God as an end in favor of the idea of a transcendent reunion of the self with Being.

While this critique is not without merit, it misunderstands the key element of Heidegger's philosophy which is concerned with thinking, and attaining a proper understanding of the nature of one's own thought. Being, in that sense, acts as both a steering concept and philosophic end, much like a knowledge system, by which understanding is put under scrutiny and dissected into its linguistic and spiritual prejudices. As has already been mentioned, Heidegger's philosophy importantly emphasizes that genuine thinking, even and perhaps especially the rational thinking that Habermas favors, only begins when we indulge in what gives us food for thought, which is Being itself. Conceptually, reflecting on Being in an authentic way through inter-subjective language scenarios can serve as a starting point for the development of communicative rationality.

But the only way this can attain the proper practical connotation is by synthesizing this epistemological program with the ethical psychology of Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard understood, perhaps better than any other philosopher since Socrates that the prejudices and systems which we establish as morals are secondary in importance to the passion with which we act ethically. His deep rooted skepticism of the system was balanced by his understanding that to act rightly was the greatest imperative we are confronted with as human beings, and must be undertaken even in the absence of certainty. Kierkegaard's superior psychological insight is essential to comprehending the manner in which the individual engages with systems of knowledge, and most importantly, how they can interact with them as authentic individuals without descending into nihilism.

In the absence of God however, the question of Being must serve as the orientation of an inter-subjective evolutionary epistemology whose immediate aim is moral communicative action. Being is paradoxically both substance-less and the source of all substance, and therefore can serve as a super-foundational concept which both inspires existential pathos without content, and a starting point by which the validity of truth claims can be assessed. If one needs an example of how this might be important, one need only look to Wittgenstein's famous comments concerning the puzzling question of the soul, and how its nature only seems mysterious because the word is terminologically employed in the same manner as a physical object in language. Consideration of the question of Being can lead to the evaporation of these confusions, and many others, by clarifying the question of existence in particular, and, by proxy, truth itself.

The question of Being serves not only as starting point for communicative rationality, but as that which is of the highest existential and therefore ethical primacy for that being whose structural primordiality is care. The paradox articulated at the beginning of this work: that thinking cannot be explained without an answer to the question of Being, and that the question of Being remains untenable while we do not know what it is to think, becomes less an intellectual and more a dynamic question within this principle. It serves to orient the individual towards an authentic way of conceiving themselves, others, and the world as a whole outside its many and unified paradigms of understanding. Paradigms which are essential to the lifeworld and structure the social system should not necessarily be abandoned— but they must no longer dominate the thinking of modern man.

This is especially true of the more encapsulating paradigm of pre-Rawlsian liberal thought, which for all of its many advantages, has prevented a full flowering of thinking and acting. It has laid the structural foundation of an authentic and critical human community, but its merely physical libertarianism has been unable to provide a sufficient orientation which inspires internality. Indeed, in its embrace of un-reflective materialism, liberal societies frequently move away from just such potentialities. What is necessary for the future of political science is discovering a way to retain the undeniable structural advantages of liberal society while fostering a broader sense of individuality without sacrificing freedom or descending into tyranny. In this way, the conflict between Rousseau and Kant remains unresolved to this day.

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