Bereft of Reason:

On the Decline of Social Thought and Prospects for its Renewal

by Eugene Halton

Published by The University of Chicago Press, 1995, paper, 1997

from Ch. 7: The Neopragmatic Acquiescence: Between Habermas and Rorty

....Pragmatism Versus Fragmatism
        Peirce distinguished his pragmatism from what he considered distortions of the doctrine in James and others, by renaming it "pragmaticism," as a more specialized doctrine.  In order to avoid further confusion of Rorty and Habermas's positions with that of the spirit of pragmatism, I shall announce the birth of a new term, Fragmatism, which, like Peirce's term, is not without its rhyme or reason.  The term denotes in particular the relativism of Rorty (and like-minded so-called neopragmatists), expressed in his idealization of contingency and unquestioning belief in the incommensurability of belief communities. Fragmatism is the reason why Rorty can see nothing of value in Peirce's pragmatism except that he gave it its name, and fragmatism is the more proper name for Rorty's own brand of "pluralism." In a broader context fragmatism is a synonym for late twentieth-century "postmodernism," and therefore includes those poststructuralists, such as Jacques Derrida, who react against the totalistic outlook of French structuralism with a seemingly antithetical view of the continual "fissioning" and "creativity" of arbitrary signs. This outlook continues the antinaturalistic, antipersonal, and binary view of meaning characteristic of structuralism, but merely swings the pendulum from a single, all-encompassing standard--the deep code--to the opposite view that one standard is as good as any other.  Habermas's clear-headed critiques of this position--Rorty's as well as poststructuralists--would seem to put him at odds with fragmatism.  Yet in Habermas's tendencies toward Kantian compartmentalization we see what I will venture to call Transcendental Fragmatism.
        Both Habermas and Rorty, in their opposing ways, make language to be the basis for public life, as well as the medium of science and human belief. Though Rorty claims to be against the Enlightenment view of reason, he and Habermas share the Enlightenment endorsement for the "disenchantment" of the world, for the progressive unfettering of human institutions and habits of conduct from overarching religious or metaphysical world views.  Yet between their common enthusiasm for modern disenchantment lies a vast difference of opinion and even of temperament. Habermas seeks to overcome the tendencies toward a subjectivist, consciousness-based outlook in modern social theory, by building a truly intersubjective theory of "communicative action/rationality."  His aims are grand: to rescue the modern project of establishing universal norms for rational conduct, and thereby to further the goal of emancipating human societies from unreasonable practices and institutions.
        Rorty's postmodern fragmatism is quite different from Habermas's transcendental fragmatism. Rorty is skeptical of tight divisions between forms of rationality, or of distinct disciplinary boundaries, but he thinks that the disenchantment of the world in the sense of a release from fixed foundational moorings is part of the progressive development of any free society. "Disenchantment" thus works in opposite directions to enable the rational foundations of Habermas's ideal society to be established, and to make possible the destruction of rational foundations in Rorty's ideal society.  Rorty believes that the very idea of a universal reason--the whole idea that there are logically valid, universal norms--is the great fallacy of modern thought.  He repeatedly states that norms are made, not discovered, and therefore would consign the very attempt to discover universal norms to the dungheap of historical contingency.  He believes further that human creativity is revealed in original acts of private consciousness, which distinguish the creative ones--the "poets" and "revolutionaries"--from socially binding conventions and the hoi polloi.
        Where Habermas is earnest and heavy in temperament, Rorty is frequently casual and light. Who could be further apart: Habermas, the arch defender of rationality, Rorty, the carefree attacker of rationality?  Yet between their opposed positions are some common assumptions which perhaps help to explain why they have held such a fascination for contemporary philosophers and social theorists.  Though both thinkers seek justice and freedom in their theories of public life, their conceptualist premisses frustrate the conditions for a flourishing contemporary culture and remain inadequate to meet the needs for contemporary theory.  In their overreliance on conventionalist theories of language and meaning, I claim that one sees the desiccating effects in the late twentieth-century of what William James termed "vicious intellectualism." ........

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