Jurgen Habermas and his three tests of truth

These are notes for my talk to the Rochester Russell Forum at Writers & Books Literary Center, 740 University Ave., Rochester, NY on Thursday, September 10, 2015

One of the things that Bertrand Russell wrestled with all his life with a theory of knowledge—how we can know anything for sure.  It is a question we have discussed in different ways at the Russell Forum.

I plan to discuss some ideas of the German philosopher Jurgen Habermas that have helped me understand these questions better —specifically, his idea that there are different kinds of knowledge, each with their specific tests for validity.

Jurgen Habermas is the grand old man of German philosophy.  He is now in his 80s, and occupies the same position in German intellectual life as Bertrand Russell and John Dewey did in British and American intellectual life at that point in their lives.  Habermas by the way was an admirer of the American pragmatists.

Jurgen Habermas

Jurgen Habermas

He served his philosophical apprenticeship as a member of the Frankfurt School – the Institute for Social Research at Frankfurt – which sought to develop ideas of Hegel and Karl Marx.

Max Horkheimer, the director of the Frankfurt school, believed (like John Dewey, but unlike Bertrand Russell) that philosophy was not a separate academic discipline, over and above the natural and social sciences, but rather must be integrated with and draw on all of them.

Neither did the Frankfurt school believe that philosophy could be separated from the times and the social setting of philosophers.  Its members believed in something they called Critical Theory, which showed how the ideas of any given time were a product of a historical process.

The Frankfurt school transplanted itself to New York City during the Nazi era, and its leaders, like many cultivated Europeans before them, were horrified by the vulgar industrialized American culture.  They thought that Americans in their way were just as manipulated by propaganda and just as lacking in independent thought as Germans under Hitler.

Horkheimer and his follower Theodore W. Adorno wrote a treatise called The Dialectic of Enlightenment, which I haven’t read, but in which I understand that he said that the ideals of reason and science, developed during the 18th century Enlightenment, have failed.  They have been turned against themselves, and merely resulted in new methods of oppression and social control.

But, as Habermas said, if we are all products of our particular society and historical era, and if the public opinion is controlled by the manipulation of the powers that be, how it is possible from something such as Critical Theory to have any objective validity?  How is it possible that any progress or improvement takes place at all?

Habermas concluded that there must be a way to achieve intellectual freedom.  There must be a way for what he called the “life world” to escape the “system world.”   The “system world” consists of organizational bureaucracies and of the impersonal economic market.  In both, individuals must respond to the needs of the system rather than their own needs.  The “life world” consists of individuals associating freely to fulfill their own needs rather than the needs of the system.

The key to the “life world” according to Habermas was for individuals to come together freely – as we are doing tonight – to engage in what he called “communicative action.”

In communicative action, there are three types of discourse.  The point that I want to emphasize is that we have different criteria for validity for each of the different types, and that, if we keep the differences in mind, some of the difficulties and paradoxes in thinking will go away.

In communicative action, the three types of discourse are as follows.

  1. Theoretical discourse, which covers scientific-practical subjects and whose test is factual truth.
  2. Aesthetic discourse, which covers subjective feelings and whose test is truthfulness.
  3. Moral-practical discourse, which covers morality and law and whose test is consensus.

These distinctions are not hard-and-fast.  Most people move through these different types of discourse in the same conversation and sometimes in the same sentence.  I hope we don’t spend time discussing whether this or that statement is theoretical, aesthetic or moral-practical, because that is not the point.

The important thing about Habermas’s idea is that we judge things in different ways, and the different ways we judge things each have criteria for judging things valid and invalid.

Scientific thought, what Habermas calls theoretical discourse, is regarded by many philosophers and scientists as the whole of knowledge.

The basic test of factual truth is observation and experience, plus rational deductions that can be made based on observation and experience.

This applies not only to science, but to less exacting searches for knowledge, such as journalism and everyday commonsense understanding.

We accept that our understanding at any given time is fallible and partial, and, as Tedda B. Wibberly pointed out, filtered through our cultural eyeglasses.

John Dewey said we never can speak of truth as something we have discovered for once and for all.  We can only speak of “warranted assertions.”  But he never meant to say that truth can be anything you want it to be, or that any assertion could be warranted.

When our theories about the nature of the world prove inadequate, the only cure is new and better observations and better thinking.

Freethinkers, humanists and rationalists such as Bertrand Russell perform an invaluable service to society by defending the frontiers of science and reason against religious and political dogmatists.

But what Bertrand Russell called our knowledge of the external world is not our only source of knowledge.  We also have self-knowledge, inside knowledge as opposed to outside knowledge.

We communicate our knowledge of the inside world through art.  The philosopher Suzanne Langer said that “art is the symbolic representation of human experience.”

Great art tells us things about human nature – our own human nature and that of others – that experimental psychology and anthropology do not (which does not mean I disparage experimental psychology and anthropology).

The art of other cultures and other historical eras makes us aware of our societal eyeglasses in a way that science alone cannot.

Objective and subjective knowledge are knowledge of the same reality, and are complementary, not opposed.  As a wise person once said: If you want to understand yourself, observe other people; if you want to understand other people, know yourself.

History, the social sciences and philosophy itself depend on inner as well as outer knowledge.  Empathy and sympathy – the ability to imagine yourself in someone else’s place – are important tools of knowledge.

Bertrand Russell’s critique of religion as a source of factual knowledge is unanswerable.  But there is another dimension of religion, an aesthetic dimension, the modeling and shaping human experience.  That is how religious ritual and so-called spiritual practices can be meaningful to people who do not have any metaphysical religious belief.

Ludwig Wittgenstein once said that John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress was literally true.  Of course it was not literally true.  It was a parable.  It didn’t even make sense as a story.  Christian treated people he met on the way to the City of God abominably, including the wife and children he left behind in the City of Destruction.

As a representation of the experience of the typical religious convert, it is completely convincing and probably as accurate at Wittgenstein said.

Religious teachings, religious art and religious rituals can be morally good and authentic in terms of human experience, and also morally bad and inauthentic.

It is important to make this distinction, and it is possible to have rational discourse on the basis of this distinction.

But the basis for making the distinction is different from how you make a judgment about a claim for the truth of a scientific theory.

The part of Habermas’ philosophy that I head the greatest difficulty accepting was his idea that the test of right and wrong is consensus.  I think it is possible for a single individual to be morally right and everybody else to be morally wrong, just as it is possible for a single individual to understand what is true and everybody else to be in error.

But what Habermas is talking about is the test of truth, what he calls validity claims, how people resolve their differences and come to agreement on what is right or wrong.  This requires some basis of agreement as a starting point.

For an American, it might be the political values of the Founders.  For a Christian, it might be the Gospels.  For a Communist, it might be the writings of Marx or Lenin.  But when we have different societal eyeglasses, this can be very difficult.

Bertrand Russell thought that the starting point of moral reasoning was emotion, and, although he was highly moralistic about some things, he did not claim to be able to prove his moral judgments are correct based on fact and logic.

I myself believe that there is a universal moral sense which provides a starting point for moral reasoning between any two non-sociopathic persons.  This is partly based on logic (there are certain things all rational beings would publicly advocate) and partly on innate human nature.

Experimental psychologists have determined that human infants and higher animals all have a sense of compassion, a sense of gratitude and a sense of equity or fairness.

On these foundations codes of morality can be erected.

Habermas was much impressed by the ideas of a psychologist named Lawrence Kohlberg on the moral development of children.

Kohlberg thought the children’s moral development came in three stages:

  1. Pre-conventional morality, in which the child first understands right and wrong, first in terms of punishments and obedience, and avoidance of harm to others, and then in terms of satisfying one’s own interests and allowing others to do the same.
  2. Conventional morality, in which the child seeks to meet the expectations of the family first in terms of being a good boy or girl, following rules and showing concern for others, and then in terms of fulfilling one’s duties and promoting the welfare of the society or group.
  3. Post-conventional morality, in which the individual learns to follow moral norms independently of authority or the expectations of the group, first in terms of upholding basic laws, values and legal contracts that service the interests of society, and then in terms of following universal, self-chosen moral principles consistent with justice, equality and the dignity and worth of all human beings.

Habermas believed that humanity as a whole, through communicative action, could rise through these moral stages.  I’m not sure this is true, but I think it is worth trying.

The basic thing I want to leave you with is that there are at least three different ways of looking at things, all of them necessary to the thinking of a normal human being (whether we are consciously aware or not) and each with its test of validity.  I’ll sum them up in my own vocabulary rather than Habermas’s.

Scientific-empirical knowledge is based on conformity to fact.  Aesthethic-expressive knowledge is based is based on conformity to your true feelings.  Moral-legal knowledge is based on conformity to agreed-on principles.

You could say the first is truth, the second is truthfulness and the third is justice. 

Or the first is understanding of external reality, the second is understanding of internal reality and the third is understanding of social reality.

Using this division, I would say the error of the materialist is to reduce morality and art to questions of empirical fact; the error of the dogmatist is to reduce science and art to questions of moral principle; and the error of the postmodernist is to reduce science and morals to questions of feeling.

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2 Responses to “Jurgen Habermas and his three tests of truth”

  1. Jay Says:

    An awful lot of our arguments involve disagreements over which level to address each issue at.


  2. peteybee Says:

    Reblogged this on Spread An Idea and commented:
    More great stuff from Phil.

    He reviews work of philosopher Jurgen Habermas. Dividing human thought/expression into 3 categories: scientific-empirical, aesthetic-expressive, and moral-legal — each with distinct and different criteria for evaluating thought/expression within them.


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