Dewey and Habermas:
A Public Confronting its Problems
Our panel proposes to critically explore lines of overlap in the work of John Dewey and Jürgen Habermas. The two strike us as natural and valuable interlocutors for multiple reasons. First, both are what Cornel West has termed "organic intellectuals," that is, intellectuals whose work transcends (which is not to say ignores) academic circles in pursuit of responses to problems afflicting the community at large. We wonder, therefore, whether each rode similar horses beyond the walls of academe, or whether their engagements with social life lack common themes. Second, Habermas owes a great debt to Mead and often refers to Pragmatism approvingly, but he virtually ignores Dewey. We wonder why Habermas so conspicuously avoids Dewey’s work, and whether Dewey has resources that might complement or even improve Habermas’s own efforts. Third, both are robust champions of democracy, and thus fellow democrats would do well to compare and contrast the models of democracy orienting the work of these grand figures. Finally, given Habermas’s affinities with Pragmatism, this dialogue points to the possibility of a larger dialogue between the traditions to which each belongs, namely, American Pragmatism and neo-Marxist social-theory.
In assembling our panel, it dawned on us that Dewey and Habermas share many common interests, and that we might begin a critical comparison of their work around three in particular: the public, social inquiry, and liberalism. We have elected these themes because each marks a point of contact between philosophical labor and general social concern. For better or for worse, liberalism remains the default political theory and institution of the day, and thus those who would address the political imagination of the day must engage liberalism as a form of social arrangement. Second, if the presumption is that the fruits of inquiry ought to be shared with folk beyond the confines of expert communities, reflexive consideration concerning the nature of inquiry strikes us as prudent. Otherwise ethical and political deliberation devolve into what the positivists took them to be: irrational pomp and circumstance. Finally, since shared inquiry presumes a public wherein communication occurs, one ought to consider the nature and goals of the public in order to best pursue public deliberation.
Now, our goal is not to begin and conclude a dialogue between these two in one session. Instead, our first goal is to clearly articulate lines of overlap and departure, e.g. the value of proceduralism. Only then will we critically reflect upon these authors’ differences and take up positions within the disputes they mark.
Concerning our format, each paper will last no longer than twenty minutes, leaving thirty minutes for open discussion.
Habermas and Dewey: The Problems of the Public
recent years, Habermas has emphasized the risks of valorizing the notion of
a constitutional democratic state without paying sufficient attention to what
he has termed the "public sphere." The public sphere plays a legitimating/critical
role in the constitutional democratic state by providing a venue for mediation
between citizens and different interest positions. It is surprising, in
light of this focus, that Habermas has had relatively little to say about Dewey’s
political philosophy which is an extended plea for the development of a "public"
consistent with American democratic commitments.
One explanation for Habermas’s silence is revealed in an investigation of the differences in the idea of a public sphere envisioned by these two socially concerned intellectuals. Whereas Dewey emphasizes the need for a public sphere to enable and facilitate inquiry, Habermas focuses on the legitimating function of social policy formed through mediation. Despite recognizing the ethically permeated nature of debates in the public sphere, Habermas’s vision is overly impressed with procedural solutions to the problem of public will formation.
On the one hand, Habermas is right to recognize the need for the state to guarantee participation in the public sphere, but on the other hand, Habermas doesn’t adequately appreciate the distinction between a social self that is consulted and a desiring creature undergoing a process of growth and transformation. It’s true that the project of legitimation, classically conceived, is easier served by downplaying the transformative nature of communicative engagements. If one presumes the static nature of participants then agreement to accept state formations and legislations is binding and legitimacy a secure matter. Yet, one will always wonder whether state authority or legislation merits perpetuation or stands in need of reconstruction. Drawing on The Public and Its Problems and other texts as well as his philosophy of education, I offer a Deweyean alternative to Habermas’s account of the public sphere that evaluates legitimacy less in terms of achieving mutual understanding than realizing conditions conducive to mutual growth. Such a shift in understanding has desirable consequences given that it allows us not only to take advantage of the dynamic and transformative nature of communicative engagement, but it opens to the status quo to ongoing invention in ways that a more procedural concern with legitimacy can.
Habermas’s theory of communicative action suggests that the pursuit of interests and the achievement of goals ("strategic action") require a form of "inquiry" that is logically distinct from the procedure of providing a rational justification of those interests and goals ("communicative action"). The latter concerns the legitimacy of social practices which is established through the raising and defending of validity claims, and terminates with the establishment of a common definition of a given situation. The former presupposes a communicatively-achieved consensus with regard to the validity of the practices in question and determines the means that will allow social actors to realize their interests and goals most effectively. For Habermas, validity and success are irreducible to one another.
I will argue that Dewey’s theory of social inquiry collapses this distinction. Because the primary experience of a community of inquirers remains for Dewey the final court of appeal, the successful resolution of a problematic situation takes precedence over questions of legitimacy. Inquiry always proceeds out of a shared background of norms and values that defines its parameters and directs it toward the preferred outcome. But if the validity of those norms and values remains in dispute, there is no common definition of the situation and inquiry lacks its ‘starting-point’. While I do not believe that Dewey’s theory of inquiry is finally reducible to a form of "instrumentalism," Habermas’s distinction between the criteria of success and validity implies logically-distinct "action orientations" that take us profitably beyond the theoretical scope of Dewey’s conception of inquiry.
Habermas’s theory of social evolution accounts for this distinction between the criteria of success and validity. His theory of communicative action does justice to the ethical and cultural experience of particular communities, but also specifies the conditions under which dialogue can proceed between different communities that do not share a common definition of a given situation. It is Habermas’s emphasis on language— particularly the ‘quasi-transcendental’ norms that are built into the structure of language —that provides a rational basis upon which communication can proceed between groups with very different ethical identities and values. Dewey reproaches social theories that impose abstractions onto the primary experience of a community and that presume to identify principles of social development that supposedly determine the course of organism-environment interactions and their consequences "from the outside." Habermas, however, eludes this charge. In fact, as I will show, Habermas’s transcendental pretensions are consistent with the naturalism that underwrites Dewey’s theory of inquiry given that for Habermas the formal conditions of the possibility of understanding, that provide the basis for the rational assessment of the validity claims implicit in all social practices are historically emergent.
Dewey and Habermas: Liberalism
In Liberalism Old and New, Dewey concludes with a call for a "vital and courageous democratic liberalism," one that eludes the anti-democratic snares of fascism and communism. According to Dewey, such a liberalism will differentiate itself from what has become mere ideology for the status quo, namely the laissez faire liberalism of Adam Smith who, in limiting individual freedom to the economic sphere, enables entrenched wealth to justify its undue influence over social life under the ironic banner of individual freedom. And yet, Dewey pulls away from ‘outlining a program for renascent liberalism,’ arguing that the questions that face democrats, e.g. hopw to overcome economic inequalities and the impoverished opportunities for individual growth they establish, cannot be answered by argument. Instead, they must be confronted in social experiments that evaluate the consequences of various policies.
In my paper, I will argue that we are still awaiting a renascent liberalism, although now the worn opposition involves communitarianism on the one hand and an individualistic liberalism on the other. Interestingly, Habermas has also grown weary of this opposition and has offered deliberative democracy as a path out of our current political antinomy. I want to evaluate his position from a Deweyean perspective, asking, in effect, whether deliberative democracy might serve as a model of renascent liberalism.
First, Dewey would support Habermas’s view that state action can never be neutral vis-à-vis the good life but is always already a vehicle of social reconstruction, not simply a protector of negative liberties. Such an insight only intensifies the following question, however: what ends should guide reconstruction?
Concerning the concrete ends that will orient his renascent liberalism, Dewey calls for experimentation. I find such a call limited in that intelligent disagreement may persist concerning the implications of various experiments, e.g. affirmative action, and thus experiments may not resolve serious disputes about ends.
Given that his understanding of democracy is driven more by a commitment to intelligent inquiry than a set of substantive ends, I will argue that Dewey should be drawn to Habermas’s deliberative democracy. On Habermas’s view, both republican and individualistically liberal models of democracy produce legislation that functionally involves the extension of a particular will as the general will, thus undermining democracy. His response is to subject political action to ongoing deliberation organized along the lines of a discourse ethic ("political action" entailing legislation, constitutional formation, and social experimentation). By installing normatively rich deliberative mechanisms into sites of political action, deliberative democracy is thus better able to defend itself against authoritarianism than its rivals.
Despite its attractiveness to Deweyean democrats, I do not think that Habermas has nothing to learn from Dewey. In closing, I will sketch, therefore, two Deweyan emendations of deliberative democracy as conceived by Habermas. First, and this more recalls Habermas to earlier commitments than modifies his view, one shouldn’t suppose that we know how to institute effective deliberative mechanisms. Ongoing inquiry and experimentation is required concerning forces, e.g. the popular media, that either facilitate or distort and undermine deliberation. Second, and this emmendation is more decisive, Habermas needs to cease regarding deliberation as a truly procedural value. Rather, as Dewey might argue, it is core value for those who seek to foster the growth of individuals, not a value commanding the allegiance of any and all rational agents.
Word Count: 1822
Submission Made by:
Evan Haney, Graduate Teaching Fellow, University of Oregon
John Lysaker, Assistant Professor, University of Oregon
Michael Sullivan, Assistant Professor, Emeory University
Correspondence should be directed to:
Dept. of Philosophy
University of Oregon
Eugene, OR 97403-1295