Theory and Practice
The essays by Jane Braaten and Simone Chambers reflect on Habermas’s discourse ethics from the perspective of political praxis, assessing its importance and limitations in light of women’s lives, and with respect to feminist goals and practices.
Jane Braaten argues that to a significant extent, Habermas’s theory of communicative rationality converges with the ideals of feminism and can be put to good use by that community as it formulates its political critiques and projects. She criticizes Habermas’s understanding of communicative rationality as non-substantive, and develops the thesis that feminists in the pursuit of solidarity, in effect, reverse the order of the development of Habermas’s argument, deriving criteria of rationality and knowledge from substantive ideals of solidarity and community, rather than deriving ideals of solidarity from notions of rationality and abstract ideals of equality. Braaten contends that what makes an engagement with discourse ethics so promising is that it emerges from a critique of the Cartesian philosophy of the subject important for feminist theory. Habermas recognizes that fully human social relationships require a mutuality of understanding; this mutuality is achieved when a justified consensus is reached. It is in this reliance on “a procedure for epistemic justification as the guarantor of autonomy, community, and knowledge,” that Braaten locates the legacy of the epistemological scepticism of the early moderns.
In Habermas’s account of communication and the competencies that make it possible, it is the mutual recognition of and compliance with the rules constitutive of communicative action which make non-coercive communicative relationships possible. Braaten argues that this identification of the norms of communication clarifies the grounds for epistemic justification, but does not provide an adequate account of the ideals of social association. While recognizing and acknowledging that discourse theory was never intended to offer a substantive vision of societal institutions and associations, she contests the notion that these shared epistemological norms are “the sole fundamental constitutive activities of community, solidarity and society.” One can recognize with Habermas the emerging of a distinctly modern rationality employed in the settling of normative disputes without conceding “that it constitutes the basis for the entire edifice of socialization, social integration and enculturation.” Sympathy, affection, and other emotions, as well as mimetic relations, are equally important for the achievement and maintenance of social relationships.
While justice and truth can function as constitutive values of a political community, Braaten claims that substantive ideals of solidarity and community are also important. Indeed, Braaten argues that in the burgeoning feminist community it is commonly the experience of solidarity in a community, which is often defined by its oppression, that clarifies the norms of the community and clarifies the nature and possibility of this solidarity. As we experience ourselves as parts of a community of women we “learn to cultivate the norms that make that experience possible.” It is in this sense, Braaten claims, that “feminist knowledge is the creation of solidarity-building.” Though the ideals of this community may, as Habermas argues, converge with modernity’s ideals of reason and knowledge, they are not identical to them. Braaten concludes her paper by introducing a model of feminist thought she calls “communicative thinking.” While “communicative thinking reflects Habermas’s notion of communicative rationality it rejects a “univocal axiomatic structure, or a regimented semantics.” Braaten suggests that communicative thinking must be evaluated, not in terms of an internal structure, but “in the worth of its ideals of solidarity and community.” These ideals should function as both the end and the constitutive ideals of that community.
Simone Chambers juxtaposes an analysis of Habermas’s discourse theory with her reflections on the feminist anti-nuclear encampment at Greenham Common, England. While Habermas lays out the procedural conditions necessary for engaging in consensual decision making, Chambers argues that he does not consider what it would take to be able to institute those conditions. Taking the Greenham Common women as an instance of consensual community, Chambers details the commitment of these women to fully consensual decision making, and exploring the complex demands created by such a commitment, Chambers considers some of the conditions constitutive for instantiating a discourse community that Habermas does not consider. For instance, while Habermas argues that fully consensual discourse requires that all those affected by the discourse be able to speak, he does not explore what would make exercising this right either possible or meaningful. Consensual discourse requires not only the right and wherewithal to speak, but in addition, the possibility that speech will be listened to and heard in the fullest sense possible. It requires that participants adopt attitudes and responses towards one another that create a positive environment in which the procedural norms of discourse become more than abstract and significantly unexercised rights. Chambers uses the discursive practices of the Greenham Common women as an illustration of the arduous process of creating a truly consensual discourse community and argues that such a goal is not a realistic one for the day-to-day decision making in complex contemporary societies. This does not lead her to reject Habermas’s discourse ethics as impossibly utopian and impractical however. Chambers argues that a distinction should be drawn between the processes of discursive decision making and discursive will-formation. While discursive decision making is impossibly clumsy from all perspectives, including that of administrative bureaucracy, Chambers accepts as a normative ideal that public opinion should be constructed and reconstructed discursively.