Habermas and Pragmatism

Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews 2004.03.07,
Aboulafia, Mitchell, Myra Bookman, and Catherine Kemp (eds.), Habermas and Pragmatism, Routledge, 2002, 256pp.
Reviewed by Christopher F. Zurn, University of Kentucky
This volume is a well-conceived and important new addition to the secondary literature on the wide-ranging philosophical work of Jürgen Habermas. …
…The volume is capped by the short three-part “Postscript: Some Concluding Remarks” by Habermas, consisting of, first, a “Response” that acknowledges his debt to the contributors and briefly responds to specific criticisms presented in the volume by Apel and Michelman, second “Reflections on Pragmatism” in the form of responses to six questions posed by Aboulafia to Habermas concerning his relationship to the work of the American pragmatists, and third a short, previously untranslated Die Zeit piece from 1998 “On John Dewey’s Quest for Certainty.”
In this “Postscript,” Aboulafia receives Habermas’s pithiest response to the question “What are the greatest strengths of pragmatism?”: “The combination of fallibilism with anti-skepticism, and a naturalist approach to the human mind and its culture that refuses to yield to any kind of scientism” (p. 228). Of course, we can read this claim not only as a relatively dispassionate assessment of the history of philosophical movements, but also as a self-attribution of what Habermas himself hopes to have achieved in his work by drawing on specific pragmatist insights and philosophical strategies.
Stylizing somewhat, we might even speculate that Habermas aims for a measure of anti-skeptical fallibilism in his methodological and epistemological projects by drawing on C. S. Peirce’s attempt to save the cognitive content of the Kantian ideas of reason without recourse, however, to a metaphysical appeal to the noumenal realm. Perhaps he hopes to have achieved an anti-scientistic—let us say, anti-reductivist—but nevertheless naturalistic theory of human culture and subjectivity by drawing on G. H. Mead’s account of human ontogenesis and phylogenesis in terms of universal structures developed through intersubjective symbolic interaction. The strategy that Habermas shares with Peirce is two-fold: on the one hand, an empirical, hence fallibilistic, appeal to the unavoidable presuppositions built into the everyday use of language, and, on the other hand, an idealizing, hence anti-skeptical, appeal to the meaning of epistemic presuppositions in terms of an asymptotic progress towards truth and objectivity as achieved by an unlimited community of problem-solving interlocutors. The strategy that Habermas shares with Mead is also two-fold: on the one-hand, an appeal to the best contemporary naturalistic accounts of individual and socio-cultural development in terms of the irreducibly intersubjective structures of language use, without, on the other hand, supposing that one could simply ignore the normativity of such developmental structures through a positivistic reduction of the problems of the social sciences and philosophy to the results of the so-called ’hard’ sciences and thereby sidestep the difficult hermeneutic issues raised by the linguistic milieu of the structures.
Of course, realizing such aspirations towards an anti-skeptical fallibilism and an anti-reductivist naturalism involves one in a sort of philosophical high-wire act, finding just the right path between the dead-ends of dogmatism and skepticism, between over-confident rationalism and a dismissal of philosophy as passé. This volume attests to both the interest and the precariousness of that balance through a compelling series of essays which add weight to one or another side in their respective attempts to show the unsustainable character of Habermas’s theoretical equilibrium.
Contemporary English-language philosophers who sail under the banner of pragmatism are, of course, somewhat more skeptical than Habermas about the possibilities for any non-metaphysical, naturalistic, and fully fallibilistic account—no matter how ’detranscendentalized’—of Kantian and post-Kantian ideas of reason such as unconditional truth, objectivity, rational accountability, freedom, normativity, linguistic universals, context-transcendent justification, and so on. …
… By bringing Habermas’s work into explicit conversation with both historical and contemporary forms of philosophical pragmatism, Aboulafia, Bookman and Kemp have put together a book that will be of service to specialists and those new to the field alike. It should also provoke further debates about the tenability of Habermas’s pragmatist-inspired high-wire act, balancing between fallibilism and skepticism, as well as between naturalism and reductivism.