Communicative Rationality, Autonomy, and Community
Habermas uses the concept of consensus to articulate an ideal of socialization and enculturation, an ideal of the just society, and an epistemological theory of justified belief. For Habermas, the coincidence of these various functions in one particular type of social relationship—a rationally grounded consensus—is no accident. Defining the ideal consensus as one in which no point of view is excluded or arbitrarily discounted, Habermas argues that the confidence that one has in being freely and openly convinced of the best argument is also the basis of genuine social mutuality and trust, as well as that of democratic and just institutions.
The ideal of consensus also holds sway in much of feminist practice. The consensual method of feminist practice shares with Habermas’s ideal consensus the interest in overcoming relationships of dominance and submission, in sharing power, and opening discussion to all perspectives. However, the feminist practice of consensus, unlike Habermas’s ideal discourse, only occasionally takes the rarified form of theoretical-scientific or ethical-judicial discourse (the two forms of universal consensus-oriented discourse). Normally, except perhaps in the academy, the feminist effort to arrive at consensus is meant to elicit more individual truths and needs, in order to shape and consolidate consensual support for substantive practical and political goals. This does not entail a rejection of the ideal of universal truth in relation to scientific claims or issues of justice. Nor does it entail that feminists have no stake in how claims about scientific truth and universal principles of justice are adjudicated. It simply means that procedures for testing scientific theories or the formal virtues of a principle of justice do not figure centrally in reaching consensus on practices and goals that feminists consider. But if Habermas’s consensual procedure is designed for purposes that might really be peripheral to feminist ends, then how pertinent can it be to our conception of feminist communication, thinking and analysis? And if feminist thought is not principally scientific-theoretical, or ethical-judicial in Habermas’s sense, then what is it? Bearing these questions in mind, let us examine his vision of communicative rationality.
Habermas’s interest in overcoming domination is expressed in his requirement that a consensus is valid only insofar as each individual participant is “motivated,” by consideration of the full range of observations, interpretations, analyses, counter-examples, and replies offered to accept the “forceless force of the better argument.” Thus, rational consensus is based not on the power or charisma of individuals, but upon the most cogent position. The cogency of a position, in turn, is decided on the grounds of the strength and consistency of the inductive relation between observation and theory, and ideally, because there are no further possible reasons for conflict with the consensual position. Because acceptance of a consensual position is based only on this activity of collective hypothesis generating, testing, and accepting or rejecting (without any coercive or otherwise undue pressure from anyone), each participant is fully autonomous, while at the same time maximally respectful of the other participants in dialogue. As in Kant’s Kingdom of Ends, autonomy coincides both with freedom from coercion (or self-legislation) and with community.
Habermas’s implicit claim that the ideal speech situation represents the ideally emancipated, coercion-free form of human interaction rests upon specific concepts of autonomy and coercion, community and social disintegration. His conception of autonomy owes a great deal to the work of Jean Piaget and Lawrence Kohlberg, who had their own allegiances to Kant. It is a conception of cognitive and intellectual autonomy or ‘maturity’ (Mundigkeit) whose opposite, heteronomy, is less a state of constraint in the usual sense than of intellectual immaturity (Unmundigkeit). As in Piaget’s and Kohlberg’s work, autonomy amounts to freedom of thought from prejudice and the cognitive deficits of incomplete logical development.6 It is an intellectual ability to put any and every hypothesis or ethical principle to a systematic test. Coercion (Zwang) or “force,” then, is any interference with cognitive autonomy whose origins are ultimately social or historical (e. g. deceit, obviously, but Habermas might also include such things as poor education and mass media production techniques), rather than physiological (brain tumors, etc.).
Likewise, Habermas constructs a specific conception of community, or as he calls it, “communication community.” Community is analytically distinguished both from administrative or corporate organizations and from solidarity. “Communication community” refers to all actual and potential co-participants in communicative action and in principle encompasses all human beings capable of communicative action.7 Participants in functionally or strategically organized institutions, such as government regulatory commissions or corporate directorships, are not in this capacity members of the communication community. They are members only in virtue of their ability to participate in discourse—the systematic contestation of truth, justice, and cultural integrity claims. Thus, Habermas’s concept of community, again echoing the Kingdom of Ends, is tied to an essentially justificatory activity and abstracts from geographical, cultural, racial, religious, class, familial or tribal, ancestral, ideological, organizational, or otherwise affilia – tive associations.
Habermas’s concept of solidarity is narrower than his concept of community. It evolved out of his reading of Emile Durkheim and George Herbert Mead.8 Durkheim understood solidarity in the context of traditional and tribal societies as ordered group membership, the value or meaning of which is expressed in religious ritual. Integrating Mead’s analysis of communication as a process of individual socialization and enculturation, Habermas identifies solidarity as a dimension of the “reproduction of the lifeworld,” or the passing of culture, social order, and personal identity from one generation to another in communicative action. Specifically, solidarity is membership in “legitimately ordered interpersonal relations,” where legitimacy is judged by commonly recognized norms of association.9 In the modern context, which has by and large abandoned “nonrational” traditional and religious morality, these norms of legitimate interpersonal relations are “rationalized,”10 In other words, they are procedurally justified principles of justice and legal principles, intended to apply to all concerned alike. As general principles, Habermas concedes, they are “less and less tailored to concrete forms of life.”11
In summary, Habermas’s theory of rationality embodies interdependent concepts of rational justification, of the autonomous rational agent, and of community and solidarity. In the process, each of these terms acquires a highly technical definition, and one that does not necessarily converge with its usage in feminist theory. What I have tried to show in presenting these concepts is that while the consensus theory departs from Kant in theorizing reason as inherently dialogical, it retains the Kantian association of community with autonomy, of autonomy with rationality, and of rationality with the ability to discover laws both natural and ethical. Questions remain as to whether and how this conceptual apparatus compares to feminist ideas about knowledge and community. In the next section of this paper, I argue that however attractive Habermas’s definition of the ideal speech situation may be for its emphasis on exposing the forces of domination in human interaction, his reliance on procedures of epistemic justification in developing this ideal as an ideal of community countervails the basic premises of feminist epistemology. To give Habermas his due, I must point out the importance to my argument of his insight, that an understanding of emancipatory thought and reason is inseparable from analysis and evaluation of forms of relationship. Along the way, I will look more closely at points of convergence and divergence between Habermas’s and feminists’ conceptions of reason and community.