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Why I Believe in Communicative Action: A Response to Geuss

Discursive democracy is a culture and a praxis rather than a matter of theory

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Raymond Geuss begins his insightful yet occasionally misleading essay, “A Republic of Discussion,” with the following three questions, each an entry point into his critical account of Jürgen Habermas’s treatment of deliberative discourse in his Theory of Communicative Action and elsewhere. Here’s my gloss on them:

“Is ‘discussion’ really so wonderful?” Occasionally yes, equally occasionally no. I don’t think Habermas, or for that matter Geuss or anybody else would disagree. The true disagreements are on what conditions must prevail for discussion to be “wonderful,” i.e. for communication to be, as in Habermas’s language in Knowledge and Human Interests, not just instrumentally but practically efficacious, even a key element in social or political emancipation. While Geuss remains sympathetic to the aims and achievement of Critical Theory he suggests that it took a wrong turn after Adorno, a Kantian turn that received its fullest expression in Habermas’s theory of communication and its application to a politics of deliberative democracy.

While I agree with Geuss in his criticism of this Kantian turn, I nevertheless believe he misunderstands Habermas’s goals, and overestimates their fit with the ideological obfuscations of the late-capitalist neoliberal order. Put simply, Habermas’s heart is in the right place (the same place as Adorno’s and Geuss’s I think), but his theoretical and practical program is flawed. Which should surprise no one, since everybody’s theoretical and practical programs are flawed. The problem is figuring out where.

“Does ‘communication’ actually exist?” It had better. Otherwise we are totally screwed. But, I shall argue, we are not totally screwed and can’t be, therefore given modus tollens it does exist, even though it can be monstrously difficult at times.

“What if I were to deny it does?” The answer to this depends on the way the scare-quotes around ‘communication’ are interpreted. If the scare quotes are interpreted as meaning “as grounded in transcendental conditions for normative validity,” Geuss is right to deny the existence of ‘communication’. But if interpreted as “defined by common if historically variant aims, with a commitment on the part of all parties involved to truthfulness and respect,” communication is possible, and Geuss misses the mark. The latter is simply “democratic discourse,” which is not just possible but actual, if not prevalent. To paraphrase Samuel Johnson on infant baptism: Do I believe in deliberative democracy and communicative action? Yes. I’ve seen it done.

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Geuss begins his critique of Habermas by citing the Brexit fiasco in Great Britain. He properly notes that the national discourse about the relationship between Great Britain and the EU resulted not in benefit but a disaster. The hot mess that is Brexit, however, was the result of a number of “highly contingent historical factors” the most important of which “was the ability of the Brexiteers to convince people (falsely) that harms they had in fact suffered at the hands of politicians in Westminster were actually the direct result of action by bureaucrats in Brussels.” Geuss writes that national “discussion,” ideologically distorted and filtered by Right-wing nationalist demagogues brought about this catastrophic misperception:

A strange sequence of accidents, including the inflexibility and monumental incompetence of the Prime Minister, has now created a situation in which 30 percent or 40 percent of the electorate really is anti-European, and no discussion, no matter how ideal the conditions under which it is conducted, can now in the short run change that.

In the face of such propagandistic manipulation and manipulative appeals to a sense of national identity, any future prospects of “undistorted communication” un-doing the damage of Brexit have been scotched:

When I talk with Brexiteers, I certainly do not assume that what Habermas calls the “power of the better argument” will be irresistible. And I am certainly very far from assuming that an indefinite discussion conducted under ideal circumstances would eventually free them from the cognitive and moral distortions from which they suffer, and in the end lead to a consensus between them and me.

Geuss seems to be suggesting that the fact of Brexit is a kind of reductio ad absurdum of the Ideal Speech situation. I am not sure this hits the mark. Brexit, much like the media-events that led to Trump’s election in 2016, could be viewed as a paradigm case of distorted communication on the part of political-economic elites wearing a populist cloak. The circumstances are manifestly not ideal, and Habermas is certainly not saying that achieving ideal communicative circumstances in late-capitalist society isn’t going to require lots of hard, contentious practical work. Nevertheless, there is something of the unfalsifiable, “dormitive-powers” explanation that threatens to de-fang a Habermasian critique of disasters like Brexit. If “indefinite discussion under ideal circumstances” does not work, then ipso facto the circumstances were not ideal and the discussion distorted by instrumental mischief. And this leads to the core of Geuss’s claim, that Habermas’s Kantian turn was a serious mistake, and that this renders incoherent Habermas’s defense of discursive democracy and political liberalism. I think Geuss is right about Habermas’s neo-neo-Kantianism, but wrong in assuming, with Adorno, that this also dispatches liberal democracy as a part of the baneful residue of the sinister dialectic of the Enlightenment. Let me argue these points in turn.

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“When, at the beginning of his Minima Moralia, Adorno expressed grave reservations about the ‘liberal fiction which holds that any and every thought must be universally communicable to anyone whatever,’ he was criticizing both political liberalism and the use of ‘communication’ as a fundamental organizing principle in philosophy.” Geuss captures a central insight of Critical Theory circa Adorno here: that the ideological distortions of late-capitalism and late-modernity are rooted in a totality. Thus one should not be surprised if the thoughts of those who challenge this totality find themselves impossible to be understood by adherents of that totalizing ideology. This is a kind of Kuhnian incommensurability thesis applied not to science but to socio-political groups. In an admirably ecumenical gesture, Geuss cites Quine’s theses on radical translation to make a similar point:

Even, Quine claims, in the inner dialogue my soul conducts with itself, I encounter a speaker who uses a language that is utterly alien and completely opaque to me. This language, too, must be “translated,” and the only basis on which the translation can be done is the actions of the speaker (to the extent to which they are visible or otherwise accessible to me), that is, in this case, the actions of the person with whom I speak when I am speaking with myself. If, then, I do not even stand in a fully transparent relation of normative understanding with myself . . . and if it is true, according to Quine, that the very idea of such a state is incoherent, what are we to make of Habermas’s ecstasies about normative understanding and genuine consensus in politics?

If I can be incommensurable with myself, why should I be surprised if I cannot communicate with others?

I think we can tease out several layers from Geuss’s Adorno-esque incommensurability thesis.

First: there is no reason to suppose that there is a “fact-of-the-matter” that can settle the issue of translation. On this score, I think, both Quine and Geuss are correct.

Second: that there is no transcendental structure that undergirds communication and provides a priori conditions for the possibility of communication undistorted by ideology or the hijinks of instrumental reasoning. On this score also I think Geuss is on-point.

Third: that any attempt to champion a politics based on undistorted communication is fated to failure, for the reasons that both Adorno and Quine have shown — that the liberal commonplace that free discussion is essential to a just polity is bankrupt, and that sometimes we need to conclude that “there’s just no talking to these people.” It’s Geuss’s third layer that’s problematic. Sometimes there is no talking to people. Woody Allen, in his morally-compromised but occasionally insightful film Manhattan, has his chief character proclaim that when your opponents are militant Nazis baseball-bats are far more effective and appropriate than biting satire and “the better argument.” But not all opponents are Nazis, and this does not mean that appeal to “the power of the better argument” is always a fool’s errand.

Let’s start with Quine’s argument about radical translation in “Ontological Relativity ” and Word and Object and work our way back to Habermas. In American analytic philosophy, Quine begat Davidson, who in “On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme” identified a “third dogma of empiricism” still endorsed by Quine: the scheme-content distinction, and the correlative notion of “radically incommensurable conceptual schemes.” If Davidson’s arguments are correct there can be large swaths of radical translation/interpretation that will result in communication breakdown. Some degree of incommensurability between translated and translating languages is reasonable to expect. But the idea of radical incommensurability is incoherent: if nothing in the language one wishes to translate is translatable, as the radical incommensurability thesis claims is possible, then there is no reason to suppose that one is dealing with a language at all. Untranslatable language is just noise. But while “fully transparent” normative understandings are not in play that does not mean that some degree of transparency is ruled out. There are always some beliefs and pre-understandings one can latch onto to make translation or interpretive understanding possible if not actual. There is no transcendental communicative theory that isolates and identifies those beliefs and pre-understandings, but then again on Davidson’s account there need not be. Theory is not what we need. What we need is relentless plugging away, interpretive triangulation between world, self, and other. Praxisif you will, interpretive praxis that is both transcendentally ungrounded yet much of the time quite effective.

If Davidson is right, you can de-transcendentalize Habermas and still have an intelligible way of talking about the need for undistorted communication as a central element in liberal democratic discourse. Habermas de-transcendentalized is shorn of the Kantian emphasis on the rigid distinction between fact and norm, and the political-moral priority of the Right over the Good. But for all that transcendental baggage Habermas rightly views political communication — in the form of public discussion of common goods and individual rights, where each communicator is considered an equal, and each communicant is committed to interpretive charity and “the power of the better argument” — as central to liberal, democratic, republican politics.

Habermas de-transcendentalized looks a lot like John Dewey. Geuss mentions Dewey as a naturalistic alternative to Habermas, and then drops the topic quickly: no one in the German Federal Republic after WWII was crazy about political “experimentalism.” But if Dewey is right, to relinquish the idea that politics is experimentalism-through-democratic-dialogue is to give up on the idea and practice of democracy altogether. And that’s an awful lot to give up.

Dewey was, unlike Habermas, a kind of naturalist, albeit one whose idea of “nature” was significantly different from, say, a Hobbes or, closer to home, a Steven Pinker. Nothing of the Kantian architectonic of transcendental conditions can be found in him: there is nothing that timelessly validates liberal republican democracy as “the” communicatively pure form of government. But purity is not the point. The point, made by commentators on Habermas as different as Richard Bernstein and the late Richard Rorty, is that the worth of democracy is validated on the ground, as a practice that, for all its faults and occasional ugliness, sustains a hope that things can be made better by dialogue, inquiry, and debate. This re-emphasis on democratic hope, in fact, was something Habermas himself imported into his later, post-Theory of Communicative Action work. It’s a hope that we will miss if we show discursive democracy the door because it lacks a viable foundational theory. It is a culture above all.

What Dewey was advocating, along with Whitman and Lincoln, was this democratic culturedemocracy as the very form of community life. So while Habermas is guilty of overreach in insisting that this culture requires a synthetic a priori of communicative competence, Geuss is similarly overreaching when he assumes that, without such an a priori, we are mysteries to each other as well as ourselves, adrift in the morass of late-modernity where ignorant armies clash by night, and wind up delivering Brexit and Donald Trump. Dewey’s defense of liberal republican democracy — participatory, deliberative, and discursive democracy — is not a matter of theory. But as a kind of shared attunement and set of shared judgments, it is a culture, and a pretty desirable one given the present alternatives.

Michael J. Quirk is a Philosopher who specializes in the intersection between Analytic and Continental thought.

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