I feel that David Ingram’s synoptic review of Jürgen Habermas: Key Concepts, ed. by Barbara Fultner, is the best brief introduction to Habermas’s Project that I’ve ever read, at least because he’s reviewing an outstanding collection of essays.
A spirit of disagreement with Habermas that emanates from the review (common to readers of Habermas) is a feeling that reality tends to undermine the ideality of Habermas’ systematic interest. It’s notable that Ingram repeatedly refers to Habermas’ “research,” not to anything suggestive of transcendentalism.
The status of ideality in our evolving reality is ideal-typical, which has discursive, normative, and inquiry-orienting value.
For example, Ingram notes that Kevin Olsen notes that Habermas’ theory of government, “is limited by the non-egalitarian and, to some extent, non-discursive and non-deliberative factual political reality it is supposed to critically reconstruct and describe.”
But Habermas’ theory is prospective in its reconstruction, thereby gaining ideal-typical argumentative merit for critical readings of facticity. We, the people, assess the validity of the results of our legitimate system (expressed emergently in trends of public opinion and voting), and Habermas proposes that we best do that (an educational issue, in my view) relative to the deliberative merit of those results, which is at best discursive. (For example, evaluative standards based in theory of law are better than evaluative standards based in party platforms—and better platforms are deliberatively based, ideally). While everything works relative to constraints of time, development, and resources, one can tenably argue that the result which is most deliberative and the deliberation which is most oriented by the best discursive view is the best result and view. The ultimate venue of Habermas’ political thought is an extended claim about discursive merit, thus deliberative merit, which affords justification for preferring some evaluative standards over others relative to assessing real validation processes.
Ingram’s summary of Zurn’s chapter on Habermas’ political theory of discourse types exemplifies this ideal-typical relativity of practical reason: “Neat distinction[s]” in theory express conceptual claims that are ideal-typical, in Habermas’ case expressing an isomorphism about conceptuality which is highly distributed (resonating at the level of linguistic cognition—Ingram notes the “‘grammar’ and ‘integrity’ of the lifeworld”—which I associate with developmental and evolutionary aspects of conceptuality). Isomorphism has a fractalic or hologramic nature, if you will: One discernible domain embodies (mirrors and represents) its complementary domains. As Ingram says of Zurn reading Habermas, “executive, legislative, and judicial bodies often are forced to entertain a variety of pragmatic, judicial, normative, and ethical discourses.” This does not “threaten” the separation of powers, contrary to what Zurn apparently claims. Rather, it expresses that systems of engagement (governmentally separate) embody all modes of deliberative life in each division. Political life expresses “all levels of formal deliberation” (“vertical”) in “horizontal” systemicity.
And realities compel compromise. “We” have to decide whether a compromise is acceptable, given constraints of time and resources—at best keeping in mind preferable outcomes (competing views) for ongoing interaction (education, resource gathering, organization), pending a cyclical review of what we did.
I like to say that pragmatism is a mirrorplay of idealism and realism. Whatever one takes to be ideal, there is some sense of “reality” which instructs ideality. But we can be enabled to shape reality to a great degree. If a top-down, bottom-up sense of this mirrorplay is the model, then one might argue that the “conservative core of the legal system” expresses an ideality of institutional and intergenerational continuity. The sway of precedent, like the sway of a genome, is vital to life. But historicality is compelled to face an evolving reality.
So, Habermas’ sense of cosmopoly, in Ingram’s summary of Ciaran Cronin’s discussion, “rejects both classical political realism…and classical moral idealism” in a view that is quite sensitive to our evolving planetarity. I like the image of a soap bubble with streams of color circulating around the surface like jet streams. The “telos” of Our evolving plays out, at best, through highly-distributed interactions of highly-distributed institutional bodies (“a network of intermediary bodies,” especially the G20, G8, and its subdomains writing global parameters of transnational interaction) and various kinds of multilateralisms that altogether muddle us along between recessional cycles, each of which changes global culture permanently. For example, “we” will emerge from the current recession with a very different environment for enabling developing economies.
I want to emphasize the notion of culture. Economic cultureS, political cultureS, Internet cultureS, regional cultureS, embodied cultureS (i.e., literally-interpersonal networks, across distributed localities, across distributed organizations, across distributed regions), altogether hybridizing inestimably, are the prevailing character of our nature. We are tending to become essentially-cultural beings, thereby “social” derivatively. (Trans-sociality is psychocultural. Finding differentiations of social levels of development is a cultural insight.)
I would argue for an increasing primacy of cultural (symbolic) systems over “social” (literally interpersonal) systems in the prevailing flow of human life. A comprehensive conceptuality of this is very likely untenable. But pretenses of this are implied by discursively “global” (in the gestaltist, life-worldly sense of ‘global‘) notions of cosmopoly, generalizable theory, validity, and discourse.
I tend to want to map the inter-domainal structure of the university onto the world as a framework for understanding what we are, such that the practicality of Habermas’ work belongs to a school of public policy. The real world is at least as manifoldly inter-domainal as the university of interpretive frames itself (e.g., physically anthropological, culturally anthropological, psychologically anthropological...culturally economic, politically economic, behaviorally economic, etc., etc). To my mind, every philosophical question implicitly implicates questions of the inter-domainality of environments—emblemized by questions of the place and future of higher education in global culture. The university is essentially catholic (small ‘c‘). The evolution of culture is at least about what has led to, in effect, a singular (though nebulous) global entity that is “the” university (in the sense that science is science; medicine is medicine; or, let’s say, Chinese culture is Chinese culture wherever it’s studied)—and an interdomainity that is universalistic.
Ingram notes, in an understated way, that the book under review doesn’t substantially address “Habermas’s extensive writings on knowledge, truth, science, rationality, and technology,” which might be read to culminate for Habermas with Truth and Justification (edited by Barbara Fultner, it so happens). Anyway, the discursivity of Habermas’ work is something to behold and dwell with in its own way, at least as a great exemplarity of conceptual research with practical intent.
In a sense, the “front” of human evolution is vested in the university and the research that only gains integrative coherence through discursive work. Ingram notes of Yates’ essay on Habermas’ postmetaphysicalist research program: “Yates observes that, unlike many philosophers, Habermas refuses to assign his philosophy any privileged epistemic status above or prior to the empirical sciences. This serves as a corrective to those who mistakenly believe that Habermas is a transcendental philosopher in the Kantian vein.”
Ingram, summarizing Yates, goes on to characterize Habermas’ project in a way which I want to amplify, relative to comments above about the ideal-typical character of Habermas’ discursive work. Ingram writes: “In this [post-Kantian] way, Habermas’s notion of philosophy defends—in a weakly transcendental way, with the aid of an equally weak naturalism—claims about universal normative assumptions to which we must all appeal if we are to make [generalizable] sense of our speech action, argumentative practice, and modes of moral, ethical, and legal deliberation.” I’ve added ‘generalizable’.
On the one hand, we don’t generally wish to make generalizable sense of what we do, beyond the environments of interaction which concern us. On the other hand, of course, Habermas argues that any linguistic sense (there’s also non-linguistic “sense” to intelligence) implies tacit assumptions having universalistic scale (or rather, the better views tenably do so). However, we don’t usually “appeal” to those assumptions in merely making sense, day to day. This appeal is an ideal-typical potential of generalizable claims. The great merit of Habermas’ discursive view is what it provides to inquiry inasmuch as generalizable results are sought. His work provides a way to evaluate competing generalizable claims that reach the point beyond given empirical conditions, in an interest of setting normative and evaluative standards for future practices.
To call this “weakly transcendental” and “weakly natural” is a heuristic for expressing a lack of better terms for the non-ontologistic character of conceptual research, displacing the question of what exactly the nature of discursive claims can be, given that we are, in some definite-but-elusive sense, biocognitive and culturally cognitive beings (i.e., we are developed instances of an evolving species whose evolution has “left” primate biology through human culture). Yet, in discursive work, we are cognitively cultural, more than culturally cognitive, inasmuch as the culturality of work (inquiry, research) belongs to cognitive motives rather than to cultural inheritance. (Indeed, the culturality of cognition is a cognitivity about culture in such a way that the distinction dissolves in terms of research into culturality as such.)
Odd as it may seem to say, research and scholarship is a matter of trust in our capability to understand and fidelity to that, as well as trust in the integrity of the work we employ as well as fidelity to standards of inquiry and evaluation. I want to pose a sense of culture whose ideal nature is discursive and whose leading value is a kind of trust and fidelity. The leading character of cultural evolution, I would argue, is a trust and fidelity intrinsic to discursive work. Anyway, such a notion—later Heidegger might call it a “heartfulness” of thinking—serves a claim that we are an essentially-cutural evolving. Developmental levels of understanding can be mapped into reconstructive work about culture, just as developmental levels can be mapped into ontogeny.
Religion is an approach to being deliberately cultural (i.e., not merely emergently or factically cultural, but intentionally so), relative to evolutionarily-preceding conceptions of trust and fidelity that are rethought as “faith” relative to foundational times and Originist visions (which tend to insist on a hermeneutics of the generative Concept: Nature, gods, Being, God, Christ). Being religious is not a natural kind apart from the cultural kind it is, i.e., comprehensible as created by regionalist cultural evolvings now dissolving into our planetary culture (i.e., the planetarity of everyone’s regionalism).
Given that Habermas’ interest in “religion is especially appropriate insofar as Habermas has recently emphasized the limits of rational moral and legal systems in providing motivation for social justice reform movements” doesn’t imply that religion is an especially privileged resource of cultural motivation, since it’s easy to translate “religious” motives into historical versions of human interests that are quite “natural.”
“Religion anchors commitment to distinctly ethical values and utopian goals within solidaristic forms of life,” but so does culture generally. One way or another, we all need anchors, but the values that we’ve grown to call “ethical” and the goals that some call “utopian” emerge from engagements and aspirations of human flourishing which preceded religion and which antedate mere faith in such values. If you substitute ‘culture’ for ‘religion’ or ‘cultural’ for ‘religious’ in claims about “religious” understanding, you easily get plausible statements that show “religion” to just be a brand of culture. Though “this commitment seems unsurpassable even in modern, secularized societies,” that’s only an appearance. It’s easy to provide psychological explications of commitment and easy to translate “religious” forms of that into psychological views (ornamented in an Originist historicism that anchors itself to The Parent, if you will). I’m quite fascinated by “theological motifs,” like I’m quite fascinated by developmental psychology and cultural anthropology. I agree that “secularization” does not undermine religious faith, but rather situates faith in a historicity of cultural development which implies a historicality of cultural evolution--an evo-devo condition of cultural life—which ultimately de-mystifies “religious” faith as a kind of regional culture, but in terms of trusts and fidelities that make good sense in psychological terms of human flourishing.
I would argue that “the great religious awakening of the Axial Age” was really a great cultural awakening in regional terms (a trans-tribalization of cultural life), as cultural evolution was obviously going on richly before “the” Axial Age (a notion whose tenability has never been uncontroversial), and now the various Originisms (at best: metaphysicalisms) are being antedated by “the” global cultural evolution that led to inter-regional trade around 3 millennia ago (thus need for regional consolidations). The appeal of “messianic roots” is “simply” the appeal of conceptions of historicality in terms of leading figures of Originist cultural life.
I have no trouble “‘translat[ing]’ the insights of religion into a neutral, secular idiom.” I’m just not especially interested in doing so, because psychocultural senses of human flourishing work just fine for me. I appreciate (I think) “the burden that believers shoulder in reconciling their beliefs to the modern idiom of science and universal morality.” Yet, burden can be transposed into a challenge of curiosity which develops into enthusiasm for open-minded inquiry. But that can be difficult for educational venues to gain adequate chances to enable.