We might roughly classify the way Habermas uses other philosophers into two streams. The largest of these streams is his analysis of what we might call analytic strategies. Last time we saw him read Weber as a source of analytic strategies and he evaluated these in terms of their coherence and effectiveness. There is, however, another use of other philosophers and that is more as the ground. Habermas is working in a post-Kantian mode. He doesn’t say much about this. The ground, after all, tends to be there and we are usually more interested in the structures built upon it.
A key figure in this ground is Charles Sanders Peirce. Habermas doesn’t have a whole lot to say about Peirce but his name keeps cropping up at key moments. He comes up twice in Volume one and five times in Volume 2 three of those five times in Volume 2 occur in the section where Habermas identifies where the analytic strategy of Mead is inadequate before moving on to Durkheim. And it is precisely here where religion enters the discussion.
What is Post-Kantian about Peirce? In rough terms, I would explain it as follows. Peirce accepts the Kantian notion that there are percepts and precepts and uses them in similar fashion. However, for Kant, reason is one thing. He can write a book and call it, Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone. The key point being that “religion” is singular. If we set out to understand religion within the limits of reason alone, everyone should come up with the same answer. If we ask whether there is a religion possible within the limits of reason alone, there is, for Kant, only two possible answers: 1) That there is none or 2) that there is one.
(What of Peirce? The answer there is complicated. His colleague William James thought it was possible to have several, possibly even many, religions that satisfied the requirements of reason. Peirce should be willing to accept that but he argued that ultimately our views should converge. On what grounds he argued that I have never been able to figure out. It seems a statement of faith to me.)
To return to the question of Peirce as post-Kantian, Peirce looked at non-Euclidian geometry and realized that Kant's assumption that the dictates of reason were universal would no longer do. The precepts that we have are not given and universal. They have to be invented and applied. Which precepts get applied will, as a consequence, be determined by how well they work. Peirce’s contemporary, Ernst Mach, argued that Newton’s Euclidean notions of space could not be generalized to subsume the notions of space from Non Euclidean geometry. And then Einstein came along and proved them both right.
And yet, when we drive a car, we are much better off operating in a Euclidean world.
And that raises a problem for these precepts tend to be normative. We acquire them socially. For example, in Ontario where I live, doctors as a child of 18 months to identify body parts. A child is expected to be able to point at and name two. Mothers teach this to children by singing a song called head and shoulders. The song is sung to the tune of London Bridge is Falling Down and she touches her head, shoulders, knees, toes, eyes, ears, mouth and nose while singing. At first, the child imitates the pattern along with her. The child has not known all along that she has knees and is just now learning the name for them. She is just learning a pattern. The business of attaching names to things comes well don the line. The first step is learn the pattern and that pattern is normative. If I point at my elbow when the song says ears, then I am wrong. Likewise, if I distinguish green and blue in different ways from everybody else in this room, that proves that I am green-blue colour blind. It does not establish that I see green and blue in different ways. A mother teaches these names with absolute authority. There is no question that she might be wrong.
Habermas says there is a kind of “social control” that serves “to integrate the individual and his action with reference to the organized social process of experience and behaviour in which he is implicated.” And that is fine so far as it goes. Indeed, how could it be otherwise? But there is a chicken and egg problem: How does an “organized social process of experience and behaviour” arise?
As I have emphasized, Mead reconstructs this developmental step only from the ontogenetic perspective of the growing child …” and he adds, “This methodological restriction is legitimate so long as he is dealing with the genesis of the self.” That’s not going to be enough because society precedes the individual.”The genetic primacy of society in relation to socialized individuals follows from the basic assumptions of the theory of socialization developed by Mead.Here is how Habermas spells out the circle: “Oddly, Mead uses the generalized other, the phylogensis of which is to be explained, only in the role of explanans … Mead is moving in a circle: in order to explain the phylogenetic transition from symbolically mediated to normatively guided interactions. he resorts to something that figured in ontogenesis, even though the “ontogensis” of this "generalized other" cannot be explained without recourse to phylogenesis.
Religion, before we bring in Durkheim, is a thing that exists. A child can be raised and taught right and wrong in terms of this thing. A convert can enter into it. But we have no explanation of how it can be evaluated against other forms of “social control” that serves “to integrate the individual and his action with reference to the organized social process of experience and behaviour.” Inside the form of life, there is room for a critical stance but it’s not clear how we would work between forms of life.
I don't mean that we cannot criticize forms of life. That we do so is empirical fact. We might make a distinction between types of criticism. If I play a melody from Chopin I might be criticized for getting the notes wrong. In that case, the person making the criticism might point at the score and showing that, for example, I played F natural where I should have played F sharp. A second type of criticism might acknowledge that I followed the score correctly but still argue that I played it "wrong". The difference between the two is that there is no external authority that everyone accepts that can be pointed at.
This a problem that springs up over and over again in contemporary philosophy. Consider Sartre’s famous question of the young man who wants to choose between joining the resistance or staying how to care for his widowed mother. Sartre says, just choose. And it is true that once you have chosen one or the other a whole raft of norms come along. But there is this weird, friction-less universe outside the two choices where it feels like you are just leaping across a void. Sartre seems to have thought that place was where true freedom lived and pretty much nobody was convinced by that suggestion.
Still, we have to give the devil his due. When it comes to choosing between forms of life, there don’t seem to be any authoritative norms. There are authoritative people, much as the mother is an authority to the child. Further, these people are following a norm. The mother's effectiveness teaching depends on her using the same terms for body parts every time, There is no final authority, however, as to what language she should choose.
Wittgenstein had an answer to this that I accept but many others don't. That answer is in two steps: the first is to say that “explanations must come to an end somewhere.” That is to say, there is no ground for anything where it is not possible to ask how that ground is to be grounded. The second step is to point at human activities and say, “look around, this is what human beings are like.”
I’ll finish up for now by returning to the distinction between Peirce and William James I discussed at the top. For Peirce there was a real convergence on truth. As the slogan from the X Files had it, the truth is out there. We choose between different precepts based on whether they work and ultimately this working will converge on the truth. James, famously or infamously, said that we choose based on what works and that is the end of it. The truth may be out there or it may not but we have no way of knowing. Ultimately, I think Wittgenstein and James agree on this. Beginning with Bertrand Russel, that answer has scandalized philosophers and, I would note, Catholic theologians. In Veritatis Splendor John Paul II wrote the following, “the dangers of relativism, pragmatism and positivism.” Them is cusswords!
All of these rest on a claim that there is not, to put it in religious terms, a non-trivial difference between acting as if something were true and acting on the belief that it is true. Ultimately, Habermas is going to attribute a Peircean, as opposed a Frege-James-Wittgenstein account of truth.
If we go to Volume one p. 276
The idea of truth can get from the concept of normative validity only the impersonality—supratemporal—of an idealized agreement, of an intersubjectivity related to an ideal communication community. This moment of a “harmony of minds” is added to that of a “harmony with the nature of things.” The authority standing behind knowledge does not coincide with moral authority. Rather, the concept of truth combines the objectivity of experience with a claim to the inter-subjective validity of a corresponding descriptive statement, the idea of a correspondence of sentences to facts with the concept of an idealized consensus. It is only from this combination that we get the concept of a criticizable validity claim.