Habermas and Rorty on intersubjectivity and truth

12 August, 2017 at 12:30 | Posted in Theory of Science & Methodology | 4 Comments

We teachers do our best to be Socratic, to get our job of re-education, secularization, and liberalization done by conversational exchange. That is true up to a point, but what about assigning books like Black Boy, The Diary of Anne Frank, and Becoming a Man? The racist or fundamentalist parents of our students say that in a truly democratic society the students should not be forced to read books by such people – black people, Jewish people, homosexual people. They will protest that these books are being jammed down their children’s throats. I cannot see how to reply to this charge without saying something like “There are credentials for admission to our democratic society, credentials which we liberals have been making more stringent by doing our best to excommunicate racists, male chauvinists, homo-phobes, and the like. tolerance-does-not-mean-tolerating-intoleranceYou have to be educated in order to be a citizen of our society, a participant in our conversation, someone with whom we can envisage merging our horizons. So we are going to go right on trying to discredit you in the eyes of your children, trying to strip your fundamentalist religious community of dignity, trying to make your views seem silly rather than discussable. We are not so inclusivist as to tolerate intolerance such as yours.”

I have no trouble offering this reply, ​since I do not claim to make the distinction between education and conversation on the basis of anything except my loyalty to a particular community, a community whose interests required re-educating the Hitler Youth in 1945 and required re-educating the bigoted students of Virginia in 1993. I don’t see anything herrschaftsfrei about my handling of my fundamentalist students. Rather, I think those students are lucky to find themselves under the benevolent Herrschaft of people like me, and to have escaped the grip of their frightening, vicious, dangerous parents.

Richard Rorty

Although Rorty’s view is pointing in the right direction re handling intolerance, his epistemization of the concept of truth makes the persuasive force of the argumentation weaker than necessary. Jürgen Habermas gives the reason why:

As soon as the concept of truth is eliminated in favor of a context-dependent epistemic validity-for-us, the normative reference point necessary to explain why a proponent should endeavor to seek agreement for ‘p’ beyond the boundaries of her own group is missing. The information that the agreement of an increasingly large audience gives us increasingly less reason to fear that we will be refuted presupposes the very interest that has to be explained: the desire for “as much intersubjective agreement as possible.” If something is ‘true’ if and only if it is recognized as justified “by us” because it is good “for us,” there is no rational motive for expanding the circle of members. No reason exists for the decentering expansion of the justification community especially since Rorty defines “my own ethnos” as the group in front of which I feel obliged to give an account of myself.

Here I think one can also invoke Adam Smith’s ‘impartial spectator’ to reduce the risk of making public decisions based solely on history, vested interests, and cultural or religious traditions. The decisions we as ‘reasonable persons’ make for building a ‘good’ society must be justifiable from more than one perspective.

Reasoning and intellectual probing are our most important allies when evaluating different ‘cultural’ and ‘religious’ claims. There is no other justifiable way than the ‘path of reason.’ Even those who don’t want to follow that path have to give reasons for why.

In a global world, we have to go beyond local perspectives and prejudices by taking a ‘view from nowhere.’ Building a just and open society in such a world, considerations of universality and impartiality are always necessary.

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4 Comments

  1. I hope public policy will encourage individuals inside and outside of markets to develop the knowledge and technology needed to create context-dependent, virtual, parallel realities we get to pick and choose among. Hitler gets to be intolerant to his heart’s content in a holodeck where presence is voluntary. See the “Ship in a bottle” episode of Star Trek for more on the implications of virtual reality technology … https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ship_in_a_Bottle_(Star_Trek:_The_Next_Generation)

  2. Rorty is talking about values, about valuation of different behaviour and thought systems in a society or in a sub-system of society, while Habermas equates valuation with truth. Truth and valuation in social systems is not the same and accordingly there is nothing like universal values that is true for all mankind but for the particular society where the specific valuations are honoured. Obviously values are not the same in Saudi Arabia and in the US or in Sweden and values follows cultural boundaries within a country and between countries, if culture is looked upon as values and behaviour commonly accepted in a certain Culture e.g. Sweden, Muslims in Sweden, Catholics in Sweden, universities in Sweden etc. There is a major difference between natural science, where it at least is possible to talk about tentative truth in Poppers hypothetical deductive scheme and social systems depending on man’s behaviour as a biological being with intrinsic capability to evaluate the surrounding social system and natural surroundings. But obviously it’s possible in to study social systems from a Popper viewpoint and we may state that different values are created and maintained in social systems. Looking on the individual as a system in its own referencing and relating to other systems it’s also possible to analyse the psychology in systems terms and define degrees of freedom of the individual, but also to define the basis of individual demand in the systems the individual refers to, the systems where valuations are created and maintained. Poppers view on tolerance, that a tolerant society can’t tolerate intolerance is very basic, but it’s also true that a society can’t tolerate threats to its own existence as a society based on certain culture and certain values and certain productive capacity meaning there’s a limit to the degree of obligations, particularly to people in other countries or systems.

  3. There are limits on the cognitive capacities of groups, their members, to understand and explain their positions to others. In the Social Sciences, delimiting society to nations and states or culture to particular social organizations raises contrasting positions. Who will take a view from nowhere and establish the issues and the possible procedures for reconciliation – how will the problems get solved? If we take Habermas’ dual-level theory of system and lifeworld as a metaphor of the typical problematic in any given situation where contrasting positions are taken up, we also should consider Habermas’ principles of Discourse and Universalization with their panoply of rights and morals, or Rawls’ two principles of Equal Rights or Equal Basic Liberties and Fair Equality of Opportunity. So, when we use terms like society or culture we need to realize the abstract nature of these entities, the particular concrete groups in question and the real obligations, the real interests, of the relevant stakeholders in and around the conflict.

  4. “natural science, where it at least is possible to talk about tentative truth in Poppers hypothetical deductive scheme”

    I think nature is not only stranger than science imagines, but stranger than natural scientists can imagine.

    “define the basis of individual demand in the systems the individual refers to, the systems where valuations are created and maintained.”

    But the systems use nature with no compensation. Thus the valuations are capricious, arbitrary. Ranchers slaughter cows without their consent; loggers fell thousand-year-old trees for plush toilet paper; miners level mountains and pollute streams; nowhere does the cow’s will, the tree’s knowledge, the mountain’s history appear on a balance sheet. Nature’s labor goes uncompensated, indeed a ruthlessness in extracting from nature is encouraged by the valuation systems. The systems should give me a way out of their valuations. Let me define my own relation to nature, leave me interact with nature without the mediation of markets and cultures … Thus can public policy help me, by providing an alternate system than market/dominant culture valuations.

    “a tolerant society can’t tolerate intolerance is very basic, but it’s also true that a society can’t tolerate threats to its own existence as a society based on certain culture and certain values and certain productive capacity meaning there’s a limit to the degree of obligations, particularly to people in other countries or systems.”

    I think public policy should encourage the virtualization of violence. Let hate speech out online, and fight it with better speech. Governments should be encouraging strong encryption so I can troll ISIS’s twitter anonymously. Banning ISIS is an admission that your recruiting is inferior.


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