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Habermas vs Putnam

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  • gedavis1
    Hilary Putnam has just published a new book of essays, in which he briefly discusses his sense of Habermas discourse ethics. One might believe from the
    Message 1 of 3 , Nov 4, 2002
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      Hilary Putnam has just published a new book of essays, in which he
      briefly discusses his sense of Habermas' discourse ethics. One might
      believe from the title---_The Collapse of the Fact/Value Dichotomy and
      Other Essays_, Harvard 2002---that the book is *primarily* directed
      toward Habermas, but it's not. However, the book comes out just before
      Putnam and Habermas hold a discussion, Nov. 13, on the topic of the
      fact/value difference, which must be more than coincidental for the
      scheduling of the discussion.

      The essay "Values and Norms" in the book focuses on Habermas (or more
      accurately: Apel's and Habermas's use of the ideal speaking
      situation), while the entire book pursues the fact/value difference in
      various contexts, all of which will be useful to Habermas readers,
      inasmuch as Putnam's own views on the difference are valuable,
      independently of his sense of Habermas' discourse ethics, which is
      important for its typicalness of disagreement with Habermas'
      orientation toward universalization. I'm especially pleased to see
      Putnam focus on Amartya Sen, since I've several times recommended
      attention to Sen's approach to economic development.

      "As I see it," Putnam writes, "the critical issue [with Habermas] is
      the justification of the step from saying that any true claim about
      our duties is 'knowable by us' to 'would be the outcome of an ideal
      discussion, if that discussion were sufficiently prolonged" (125).

      The first objection for Putnam is the status of the aspects of the
      ideal speaking situation. "*[T]heir* justification--and they
      constitute essentially the whole of Habermasian ethics--*isn't* that
      they are the *outcome* of an indefinitely prolonged Peircean inquiry
      at all!" (125), rather (according to Putnam) Apel's "transcendental

      The second problem for Putnam is the notion of "sufficiently
      prolonged." "*[T]here is no reason to believe that the outcome of an
      ideal and sufficiently prolonged discussion of an ethical question
      would inevitably be correct*" (126).

      Thirdly, for Putnam, there is a objection he has "once seen Lyotard
      make against Habermasian discourse ethics, to the effect that
      discourse ethics marginalizes or excludes the 'inarticulate'" (129).

      But Putnam hasn't, as list subscriber Vic Peterson put it, "done his
      homework"--specifically in the sense that Putnam is evidently unaware
      of anything Habermas has written after the mid-80s essay on discourse
      ethics, in particular the essays of _Justification and Application_,
      which annul Putnam's belief that discourse ethics encompasses the
      entirety of ethics. Putnam is objecting to a view that Habermas has
      left behind: applying a consensus theory of truth to norm formation.

      "[I]t seems to me," concludes Putnam, "that at bottom his desire to
      treat all value discourse *outside* the narrow limits of discourse
      ethics as mere negotiation of differences between 'life words,' [sic]
      and also the reason that he fears conceding any objectivity that goes
      beyond this to such value discourse--namely that such a concession
      would not be compatible with 'modernity' (meaning here the modern
      suspician of everything that is supposed to be 'metaphysical')-- are,
      at bottom, *positivistic* desires and reasons. The idea that one can
      concede so much to the positivists and still retain a tiny bit that,
      it is thought, will be sufficient to rebuild all the ethical
      objectivity that one wants or needs is an error in exactly the way
      that the positivist idea that one can concede so much to the skeptics
      and still retain a tiny bit that, it was thought, would be sufficient
      to rebuild all the scientific objectivity that one wants or needs was
      an error" (133).

      In the end, though, Putnam is supportive of what Habermas is trying to
      do. "[F]allibilism is not all that rational inquiry in general
      requires, and discourse ethics, *Habermasian* discourse ethics, can
      and should be seen (or so I have long urged) as spelling out in more
      detail what rational inquiry worthy of the name requires. Recognizing
      that there must be *more* to ethics than discourse ethics in no way
      diminishes the importance of discourse ethics" (133-4).

      Earlier, I've sketched a view of ethics that looks for a
      complementarity of virtue and duty, so I'm glad to see that Putnam
      anticipates something similar, though in traditional terms that I find
      counterproductive: "I have often remarked to friends that in ethics we
      need both Aristotelian and Kantian insights, and I never cease to be
      astonished at the resistance I meet when I say this....But...our
      imperfect but indefinitely perfectible ability to recognize the
      demands made upon us by various values is precisely what provides
      Kantian (or "discourse") ethics with *content*" (134).

      I think this is the wrong way to go about gaining a balance,
      encompassing valuational delibleration within a deontic view. A
      converse approach is more tenable, encompassing deontic views within
      virtue-ethical deliberation--or "agent-based" ethics, as Michael Slote
      argues in _Morals from Motives_ (Oxford 2001). The converse view is
      more tenable because, in short, "moral-cognitive development" (_MCCA_)
      is the keynote of Habermas' basic value of mature autonomy, and a
      post-conventional *cognitive* stance toward ethical-moral issues gives
      virtue-ethical considerations primacy over deontic considerations (a
      claim I've hardly begun to argue beyond brief sketches).

      By the way, Putnam's other Aristotelian (besides Sen) is Bernard
      Williams, which pleases me, since my own reservations about Kantian
      moralism began in the mid-80s with Williams' _Ethics and the Limits of
      Philosophy_. But all that Putnam says against Williams (and he *is*
      against Williams) is annuled by Williams' new book, _Truth and
      Truthfulness_ (Princeton 2002), which understands truth in terms of
      "Accuracy" and "Sincerity" (capitalized by Williams due to the
      technical sense of these terms that he develops). Putnam seems to
      think that Rorty and Williams have similar views, while Williams finds
      Rorty very unappealing.

      Anyway, I hope that Habermas uses his discussion with Putnam to
      clarify how he understands the place of discourse ethics in the
      broader venue of ethical considerations, particularly in light of
      recent work which Putnam apparently isn't aware of.


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