Said Simon

Inchoate thoughts on my stuff

Habermas on rationality in TCM: what gives?

So I’m just going to write out here what my problem was with Habermas’s view of rationality as I saw it. Perhaps someone who knows his views better than I do can correct me if I’ve misread him.

Habermas seems to say that the way we evaluate the reasons people adduce in defending claims is by relating those reasons to a communal body of presuppositions through certain procedures of analysis in order to determine whether those reasons are valid or not. Essentially, then, evaluation is a function: reasons go in, they get processed, and a yea/nay output gets spat out. This is a computational view of evaluation: people are nothing but logic machines made of meat.

Of course, I don’t actually think Habermas wants to say this. Instead, I think he has an implicitly pragmatist view of agency. That is, evaluation isn’t computational because there is a human creativity to all reasoning, whereby when we evaluate a claim we are flexibly interpreting our presuppositions in a way that cannot be summarised in a rule. Wasn’t it Wittgenstein who commented that every attempt to follow a rule is also the creation of a new rule? Or am I imagining this? Anyway, the point being, the agentic component of evaluation is ultimately based upon creativity.

The issue here, however, is that creativity arises from iterated transactions between actors and their experiences. In other words, if evaluation is agentic because creative, then evaluation is ’empirically’ sensitive. Doesn’t this make Habermas’s epistemic separation of moral and factual claims specious? Obviously these things can be analytically separated or functionally divided by a community of enquirers, but I feel like he wants to also distinguish them on epistemic grounds. The problem here, though, is that the way we evaluate something like ‘abortion is murder’ is ultimately not different from how we evaluate ‘it is currently raining’, in that the former ultimately depends upon lived experiences just as does the latter.


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