Habermas, Rationality, and Democracy

29 June 2017

This week we examine the philosophy of the great 20th century German philosopher, social theorist, cultural critic and public intellectual, Jürgen Habermas. We focus on his stirring and hopeful vision of democracy.

Habermas believes that genuine democracy is rooted in the principles of communicative rationality. Though I think it is very much an open question whether rational argument can ever take place in a democracy—especially one like ours that seems very far from what Habermas envisions—I do hold out some hope that we may eventually be able to design a public sphere in which reason regularly wins out over power and propaganda.  

The phrase ‘communicative rationality’ is not one that hears thrown around a lot in ordinary discourse. It’s something of a philosopher’s term. In fact, whenever I hear the phrase, I tend to think of what goes on in a philosophy seminar. In an ideal philosophy seminar, you’ve got a bunch reasonable people sitting around, attentively listening to each other, calmly arguing back and forth, everybody just trying to find the truth. No ego! No power dynamics! No gender biases! Politics isn’t often like that. In fact, most philosophy seminars aren’t either. And I don’t think Habermas intended to model society at large on a philosophy seminar. Still, I don’t think the analogy is completely inapt. And keeping it in mind can help us see what Habermas does have in mind. So with the image of a philosophy seminar sort of in the background, let’s begin by thinking about the nature of a rational conversation, then maybe we can see what that has to do with democracy.

Rational discourse is governed by various norms. Chief among them is the norm that you should only say things that you have good reason to believe. Philosophers tend to think of that norm as fundamental. Habermas might hold that if you violate that norm, you’re not really engaging in rational communicative action at all. Suppose that I’m a shyster, out to deceive and manipulate you. I tell you some BS story. It’s completely false. Plus, I’ve got no reason whatsoever to believe it myself. I’m just trying to pull one over on you. Clearly that makes me a crook, but ask yourself whether that makes me irrational or whether it means I am not communicating with you at all.

The answer is that if I am communicating with you in the imagined scenario I am doing so dishonestly and manipulatively. And though the shyster may be perfectly rational in one sense, but not rational in another, more important sense—at least not according to Habermas. Habermas distinguishes instrumental rationality from communicative rationality. Instrumental rationality is about adjusting means to ends. You want to achieve some goal. You believe doing such and such would be an effective means of achieving that goal. If you’re right, that makes it instrumentally rational to adopt that means. So, even a dishonest and manipulative shyster can be rational in that sense.  

Now instrumental rationality is not a bad thing. In fact, it’s a very important thing. Without it, we could not possibly thrive in the world. But instrumental rationality is not the be all and end all of rationality. It’s certainly not enough to ground democracy. Not according to Habermas, anyway.

And this is where communicative rationality comes in. Think more about how real conversations work—not sham conversations with snake oil merchants—but conversations among people all of whom are trying to get at the truth. Take Philosophy Talk itself, for example. Conversations that aim at truth have their own internal dynamics. When you make an assertion in that context, not only do you represent what you say as true, you hold yourself responsible for defending what you say, if challenged. And though that may sound a little combative, perhaps, but I am not talking about defending your views with the force of arms, but defending them solely with the force of the better reason! Of course, it’s reasonable to ask, “better” by whose lights? And the answer will be better by our collective lights. This is not to deny that we may sometimes disagree. But when we do disagree, if we are being communicatively rational, we will keep on talking until we manage to work it out.

Now we can see why Habermas wouldn’t count conversations with snake-oil merchants as communicatively rational. They might PARADE as communicatively rational. But that’s just a sham. Snake-oil merchants aren’t committed to truth. They are not committed to defending their views with valid arguments. And they are not content to the force of the better reason settle our disputes.  

It would be hard to deny that communicative rationality is a good thing. But it is not obvious what it has to do with democracy, especially not democracy as we find it in the here and now.   For Habermas, democracy is this sprawling conversation, in which all citizens are equal participants and all are committed not to the force of arms, or the power of propaganda, but only to the force of the better reason. That can sound like a hopeless fantasy. In the real world, power talks, not reason. But Habermas himself is fully aware of the many ways in which power distorts communication. To him that just means we have work to do, so that we can design a public sphere where reason rather than power does the talking. Only then can genuine democracy thrive.

Of course, whether we can successfully construct a public sphere in which reason rather than power does the talking is very much an open question.  But what better place to begin to talk about that open question than here on Philosophy Talk.

 
 
 
 

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