Harvard Educational Review
  1. Summer 2004 Issue »

    Editor's Review of Jurgen Habermas' Truth and Justification

    Tere Sorde Marti
    Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003. 327 pp. $40.

    Changes in social and political theory are closely related to the development of new theories and practices in education. Each theoretical development or paradigm shift in our view of society leads us to reexamine and reframe our understanding of the purpose of education, of the learning process, and even our conceptions of what are regarded as the best pedagogical practices. The work of Jürgen Habermas has been key in social and educational research. In his writings, social agents recover their centrality, which was lost in a society dominated by bureaucratization.

    Associated with critical theorists of the Frankfurt School, Habermas simultaneously conceives of society as a lifeworld and as a system. A highly original disciple of Adorno and Horkheimer, his work continues the line of thought originated by the Frankfurt School, drawing on Marxian tradition and Kantian philosophy. Habermas’ work has influenced and been applied to a variety of fields: psychology, sociology, philosophy, literature, multiculturalism, economics, and political science. While Habermas does not write directly about education, his works have provided transformative perspectives that underlie the projects of many intellectuals and educators who seek to reform education systems (e.g., adult education, educational research, evaluation, and curriculum).

    Habermas’ influence has not been limited to Western European and North American thought. In Korea, for example, there have been efforts to connect Habermas with Asian philosophy, including the work of Confucius (Kyung, 1995). Habermas’ ideas have also been connected to the work of Paulo Freire (see Torres & Morrow, 2002). Exploration of the confluence of these two great intellectuals — Freire and Habermas — has been especially relevant in Latin America and has resulted in sophisticated analyses of the field of literacy (Endres, 1998). Besides theory and research, there are educational practices around the world that rely on the basic conditions of communicative action proposed by Habermas. For example, his work has influenced the Brazilian citizen schools of Porto Alegre (Gandin & Apple, 2002); democratic adult education experiences, like the School for Adult Education of La Verneda Sant Martí in Barcelona (Sanchez, 1999); and dialogic literary circles from different parts of the world (Suda, 2001). In short, Habermas’ works have contributed to the present and future of educational theory and practice.

    In this essay, I focus on the concept of communicative action within the context of the modern and postmodern debates. In adopting this focus, it is necessary to acknowledge that I leave out many ideas of Habermas that are of great value for educational reflection. In this essay, I first review the main aspects of Habermas’ theory of communicative action as delineated in his seminal work, The Theory of Communicative Action (1984, 1987b). I then critically expose the discussions related to previous work that Habermas presents in his recently published book, Truth and Justification (2003). Finally, I point out how concepts like communicative action or deliberative politics can contribute to the work and projects of educational theorists, researchers, and practitioners. I argue, in particular, that Habermas’ work has been influential in the field of education, and that despite their complex nature his theories open up an alternative position for educators and researchers that go beyond the limitations of modern and postmodern thought.

    Habermas’ ideas arose amid the decline of industrial society, the crisis of traditional authorities, and the central tenets of modernity in the Western world. In 1984, Habermas introduced The Theory of Communicative Action (TCA), a work that became a landmark in the dialogic turn of the social and political sciences — the scientific recognition of the increasingly important role that dialogue plays in current societies (Flecha, Gómez, & Puigvert, 2003). In TCA, Habermas formulates the notion of communicative rationality, that is, the way subjects use knowledge to reach understanding, rather than how they acquire this knowledge. Furthermore, he places this notion within a dual understanding of society that connects the social structures and the lifeworld. Contemporary social scientists have made dual analyses that look at agents (individuals or any kind of social group) and structures to explain society and social changes (Beck, 1992, 1997; Beck, Giddens, & Lash, 1994; Giddens, 1984, 1990, 1991; Touraine, 1997, 2000). Finally, TCA does not dismiss but instead reorients some elements from the project of traditional modernity, such as reason, subject, and emancipation — elements that many postmodern intellectuals have challenged and even rejected. Habermas thus offers his theory as an alternative path to overcome this crisis:

    I have tried to introduce a theory of communicative action that clarifies the normative foundations of a critical theory of society. The theory of communicative action is meant to provide an alternative to the philosophy of history on which earlier critical theory still relied, but which is no longer tenable. . . . Social theory need no longer ascertain the normative contents of bourgeois culture, of art and of philosophical thought, in an indirect way, that is by way of a critique of ideology. (Habermas, 1987b, p. 397).

    In TCA, Habermas sought to offer normative procedures based on dialogue in response to the vacuum created by the head-on collision of modernity and postmodernity. But it is through publication of The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity (1987a) — a series of twelve lectures — that Habermas enters the modern-postmodern debate and articulates a complex response to the critique of reason posited by French poststructuralists. Making a strong case for what he calls the unfinished modern project, Habermas goes back to previous reactions against modernity and points out their direct connection to contemporary poststructuralists — from Heidegger to Derrida, Bataille to Foucault, and the generalized influence of Nietzsche’s works to postmodernism. The opposition to modernity can be characterized as a rejection of subject-centered reason in favor of irrationality; a denial of an objective world that is external and knowable; and a refusal of any attempt to universalize values, knowledge, or agreements. In the course of their lectures, Habermas addresses such movements of French poststructuralists as Lyotard’s (1999) announcement of the end of grand meta-narratives like science, Derrida’s (1967) dissolution of the rational subject, and Foucault’s (1995) exhaustion of emancipatory power. All of these authors argue that the normative criteria that once organized modern society and guided educational systems no longer prevail.

    Habermas’ work refuses both authoritarian (and even violent) modern values (e.g., values coined during the French Revolution — liberté, égalité and fraternité) and the postmodern dissolution of any kind of value that leaves people vulnerable to the interests of power or money. Historically, modern values such as those of the French Revolution have been imposed on many nations in the world through colonialism. Habermas opposes any kind of imposition or dissolution of such values but does not refuse the values themselves. Instead, he elaborates a communicative procedure that leaves the last word regarding their acceptance, or not, to all the people involved. The communicative perspective suggests that focusing on the deterministic nature of structures and power results in the denial of human agency and the impossibility of relationships of solidarity. Freire (1997) defended a similar position and argued that “one of the most important tasks for progressive intellectuals is to demystify postmodern discourses with respect to the inexorability of this situation [i.e., the hegemony of power]” (p. 36), leading to the immobilization of history.

    Habermas’ work also helps educators challenge the blind acceptance of values and reject the chaotic elimination of any norm or value. Subsequent works explore the possibilities opened up by his theory of action more deeply. For example, in Between Facts and Norms, Habermas (1996) examines the legal and political implications of his proposal to strengthen a normative account of the rule of law by including deliberative processes in the normative frame. Habermas contributes to political theory with the development of deliberative politics, a process by which citizens’ participation is not reduced to their vote and which allows them to express their concerns and opinions in order to be taken fully into account. Through deliberative politics, the voice of the minority is heard and not silenced, which is often the case in a majority vote system. Further, collective decisions go beyond the mere aggregation of preferences because all of them can be discussed, exchanged, and contrasted. Habermas continues his work on political philosophy in The Inclusion of the Other (1998). In this text, he elaborates on the extension of deliberative democracy, points out central tensions such as universal human rights versus cultural diversity, and discusses the inclusion of all voices in the creation of a common political culture.

    In his most recent book, Truth and Justification, Habermas addresses some of the loose ends left open in his earlier writings. In chapter one, Habermas reviews the hermeneutic and analytical versions of the linguistic turn (i.e., the shift from the subject’s consciousness to the role of language to explain human actions and thought). This linguistic turn — the move from the philosophy of consciousness to the philosophy of language — coincides with the crisis of traditional modernity described above. Habermas walks the reader through the hermeneutic and analytic versions of this turn, as held by Heidegger and Wittgenstein, respectively. Despite their different understandings of language, reality, and the knowledge they generate, Habermas identifies some interesting complementary aspects among them. In particular he explores the epistemic and ontological consequences derived from each perspective by asking, How is reality defined? Are we able to know it? Are we able to act upon it?

    Pushing against the hermeneutic understanding of language, Habermas’ pragmatism recovers the agency of the subject so that language becomes a means that the subject uses to coordinate actions and to mediate the way in which people experience reality. In this context, dialogue becomes a powerful tool for people to learn from one another and about the objective world. One of the most important premises discussed in TCA is that any subject has a universal capacity for language and action, making it possible for any subject to participate in intersubjective egalitarian dialogues. Furthermore, the recognition of the universal communicative capacity to understand and generate new knowledge leads to the demonopolization of scientific knowledge (Beck, 1992). People are able to articulate the reasons and motivations underlying their actions in their own words and ways of expression. The problem of comprehension in the social sciences is transposed from the figure of the expert to the agent. Researchers and educators should not ignore or dismiss people’s own explanations about their reasons to act as if they were nonscientific; rather, they should recognize them as the basis for their scientific conclusions. For example, if immigrant parents do not show up to a school meeting, teachers (as experts in schooling) can make up an explanation for it, such as that low-socioeconomic-status families are less interested in the education of their children. But it might be more appropriate to ask the parents for the reasons they do not attend such meetings. They may then discover that parents do not feel welcome in the school, or that they do not attend because of language barriers. As educators, it is our responsibility to take a stand against unsupported conclusions — usually based on personal assumptions, biases, or stereotypes. Habermas’ connection between rationality and the universal capacity to communicate forces us to establish certain conditions to guarantee that everybody’s opinion is taken into consideration on equal terms.

    In the next three chapters of Truth and Justification, Habermas starts the task of reviewing the process of detranscendentalization of the Kantian rational subject that is connected to the linguistic turn mentioned above. He explains this process as “the task of ‘situating reason’ as one of detranscendentalizing the knowing subject. The finite subject is to be situated ‘in the world’ without entirely losing its ‘world-constituting’ spontaneity” (p. 84). In chapter two, the author clarifies the pragmatic character of the idealizing performative presuppositions of communicative action by going back to Kant’s ideas of pure reason. He points out four presuppositions: the existence of a common objective world, the rationality of accountable agents, the unconditionality of validity claims raised in communicative actions, and rational discourse as the unavoidable forum of possible justification. After discussing the genealogy of these presuppositions, Habermas continues his revision of Kant’s heritage in the contemporary philosophy of language. In chapters three and four, Habermas brings the subject back to the center of social analysis, countering the idea of decentralization proposed by postmodern theorists. Through a historical account, he goes back to the transcendental Kantian subject and analyzes previous attempts to detranscendentalize this subject, particularly through the work of Hegel. The Kantian subject, omnipotent and transcendental in the sense that it is able to act on reality, relies on the basis of the modern division between the object to be transformed and the subject of the transformation. Hegel tried to detranscendentalize this subject, placing it in its origins (the historical context). However, Habermas, who does not critique Hegel’s efforts, reviews other authors’ efforts to detranscendentalize, for example, Robert Brandom’s pragmatic linguistics. He points out the limitations of Brandom’s work, focusing especially on the objectivist and conceptual nature of the world. Habermas argues that Brandom’s notion of an objective world does not take into account the active role that agents should take in defining the objectivity of this world — not overcoming the transcendent subject. In particular, Habermas says, “Rational beings who find themselves in an intersubjectively shared lifeworld [also have] to assume discursive responsibility before one another for how they cope with a contingent reality” (p. 173). This responsibility does not end by saying what we see or get to know in the world, but requires that we reach an agreement regarding the norms we want to follow in order to live together in this world. In the TCA, Habermas overcomes the limitations of the division between the transcendental subject and the objective world with his notion of intersubjectivity.

    A group of persons engaged in an intersubjective dialogue can reach an agreement that overcomes “objective decisions” that were previously made individually or with the participation of only a few. Traditionally, only a privileged minority has had the chance to participate in the scientific process considering these decisions as objective. If we are analyzing the factors that understand dropouts, for example, we will need to take into account the adolescents’ reasons for dropping out or continuing their studies. The scientific explanation about these factors cannot only be based in the subjectivity of the expert or the researcher that is considered objective; it should also be based in the intersubjectivity resulting from the dialogue among the parents and the researchers. In this newly defined communication process, each participant brings his or her knowledge and experiences to the table. It is through the intersubjective process of sharing experiences that objectivity is guaranteed. That is why Habermas announces that the “epistemic authority passes over from the private experiences of a subject to the public practices of a linguistic community” (p. 134). The opinions or experiences of those who hold the decisionmaking power will not be the only things taken into account.

    The truth — or in our case, what the most appropriate curriculum is for our children — will not be defined according to an objective model in which only the rationality of the expert is taken into account. Instead, family members, teachers, experts, and students will have a say in what will better help students learn. It is within this context that expert knowledge can be challenged. For instance, a teacher in a classroom with students from different cultures may want to make the classroom more inclusive for all. The purpose will not be to become an expert in the students’ cultures, but to really create a space where families and students feel comfortable, valued, and recognized. The knowledge about how better to integrate the elements of such cultures into the school curriculum will come via families’ involvement, not from teachers’ travels or multicultural training.

    In chapter five of Truth and Justification, Habermas continues his analysis of the consequences of the linguistic turn, this time critiquing Hilary Putnam’s contributions to epistemology. Putnam argues for a unified sense of validity to be used in both evaluations and descriptions of the objective world. After connecting Putnam with the work of Dewey and Aristotle, Habermas redirects the discussion to the fact that, in order to solve questions of values or justice, it is necessary to ensure that a horizontally and “inclusive We-perspective by mutual perspective-taking” exists (p. 235).

    In TCA, Habermas identifies two different kinds of intentions that orient our actions when participating in any communicative exchange: validity and power claims. When someone participates in a dialogue with the intention of arriving at truth and oriented toward understanding, this person holds a validity claim. On the other hand, a person that holds a power claim will intend to impose his or her own view and will not be open to any challenge. Habermas (1984) defined five different kinds of validity claims that depend on the kind of intention, the situation, and the forms of argumentation used in the dialogue.8 He delineates the concept of discursive truth as a response to the challenges posed to the concept of validity claims — of truth and normative rightness — by authors like Foucault, Derrida, and Lyotard. These authors’ proposals question whether a consensus regarding a true statement reached from a particular linguistic community can possibly transcend its originating context, whether truth actually exists, or whether we are able to get to know it or not. As a response, the notion of discursive truth is basically defined as the idealization of the discourse conditions that make possible to reach agreements about true statements and correct norms, and not as the reality or truth of what is idealized. Habermas outlines such conditions:

    The form of communication is to ensure the full inclusion as well as the equal, uncoerced participation oriented toward reaching mutual understanding on the part of all those affected so that all relevant contributions to a given topic can be voiced and so that the best arguments can carry the day. Accordingly, a proposition is true if it withstands all attempts to invalidate it under the rigorous conditions of rational discourse. (p. 251)

    The definition of a true statement or a right norm does not depend any more on how a single person, or a few, experience a given reality, but on what has been agreed upon in an egalitarian and inclusive intersubjective dialogue between individuals. Habermas points out the differences between a validity claim of truth and a validity claim of normative rightness. In the case of the former, we have the objective world as a reference to have in mind in the course of the communicative action. For example, a group of students, a teacher, and volunteers in a communicative based classroom — a space where the ideal conditions of speech are respected and everybody holds validity claims — can never possibly reach the conclusion that the Mississippi River does not exist. Their shared responsibility and common intention in seeking the truth and accepting the best argument prevent them from reaching conclusions that go against the existence of a brute fact — as John Searle (1995) denominates — those facts whose existence does not depend on our attitude toward them. Because they take as a reference the objective world and bring the accumulated knowledge of their shared lifeworld, they would never conclude that the Mississippi River does not exist. The truth of a proposition is based and agreed upon the better reasons that emerge during the communicative situation. Given ideal conditions of speech, the best argument will be the one that will survive throughout the deliberative process. In the case of norms of action, any agreement reached will be considered valid when the participants act according to validity claims and bring their experiences and background knowledge — including previously agreed normative frames — into the dialogue. Thus, in the same classroom the participants will agree, drawing from previously accepted normative frames like the principle of equality, that any religion will be respected and recognized in equal terms.

    One of the most common criticisms of Habermas’ proposal is the unattainable or even naïve character of his theory. However, disagreement also has a place in his theory of communicative action. Habermas does not say that discursive truth guarantees the acceptability of a given argument forever; as with any other statement, it will be susceptible to discussion at any time. For each validity claim, this situation will be dealt with differently. While it will be impossible to refute the statement about the true existence of the Mississippi River, we are able to reformulate and reconsider the validity of social norms, for example, historical achievements like the expanding liberation of women. Since education cannot be detached from a system of values, educators need to create educational spaces as close to the communicative ideal as possible. They can open the doors “to a world that is rounder, less angular, more humane” (Freire & Macedo, 1996, p. 222). In his final chapter, Habermas takes the case of philosophy as one of the disciplines that is more likely to be disconnected from practice or reality. By presenting an overview of the different tasks that philosophy has acquired throughout history, Habermas recommends that all philosophers be aware of the limits of expert knowledge. However, it should be said that, despite critiquing the platonic notion of philosophy that idealizes the figure of the philosopher and considers itself as a superior discipline, Habermas’ own reflections about the role of philosophy in contemporary society do not avoid this privileging altogether.

    Habermas’ works represent a bridge between a wide variety of disciplines — philosophy, psychology, linguistics, sociology, law, and political science. He also seeks to create a dialogue between basic and contemporary theories. The core of its uniqueness and richness is at the same time the origin of the complexity of his work. It would be misleading to reduce the scope of Habermasian thought to a critical review of its most relevant contributions, as he moves social theory forward, as Merton (1965) would say, “on the shoulders of giants.” Rather, given the excellence of his work, we can say that there are many social scientists today who are already standing on Habermas’ shoulders, as he is already regarded as one of the “giants” of critical theory in our time.

    This collection of essays confirms once again the importance of TCA as one of the philosophical works that has received widespread attention in a variety of disciplines due to the role it has played in the debate around the crisis of modernity. The importance of Truth and Justification relies on its direct connection to the author’s previous work, something that certainly delimits its readership. Yet, this latest book will serve various readers who are daring to engage in a challenging journey. In the discussion about the ideal speech conditions, educators will find a theoretical framework to guide their practices to be more democratic and inclusive. Ideas like the universal capacity of communication and the argumentation theory as a learning process about the objective world connect Habermas’ theory to the core of any kind of educational process. This book reinforces those theories that will help us make our education more responsive and democratic. It will also help convert our schools into sites of transformation and resistance, rather than sites of social reproduction.
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    Summer 2004 Issue


    Hiding in the Ivy
    American Indian Students and Visibility in Elite Educational Settings
    Bryan McKinley Jones Brayboy
    “Halal-ing” the Child
    Reframing Identities of Resistance in an Urban Muslim School
    N. Suad Nasir
    Names Will Never Hurt Me?
    Manju Varma-Joshi, Cynthia Baker, and Connie Tanaka

    Book Notes

    Tough Fronts
    By L. Janelle Dance

    Temperament in the Classroom
    By Barbara K. Keogh

    Same, Different, Equal
    By Rosemary C. Salomone

    The Gatekeepers
    By Jacques Steinberg

    Applied Longitudinal Data Analysis
    By Judith D. Singer and John B. Willett