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Philosophy and Rhetoric 36.1 (2003) 1-21

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Did Habermas Cede Nature to the Positivists?

Gordon R. Mitchell

Jürgen Habermas's "colonization of the lifeworld" thesis (1987, 332-73) posits that many of society's pathologies are due to the tendency of institutions to convert social issues that ought to be sorted out by a debating citizenry into technical problems ripe for resolution by expert bureaucracies, thus pre-empting important public discussion. Habermas has attempted to lay bare the pernicious effects of this colonization process in his analysis of public opinion polling, welfare policy, education, German reunification, immigration, and other social issues (see Habermas 1997, 1994, and 1970; Holub 1992). In each of these contexts, Habermas has publicly challenged the encroachment of scientistic modes of decision-making into spheres where joint communicative action by deliberating citizens would yield more appropriate and legitimate judgments. This critical impulse is also evident in Habermas's methodological reflections on the proper role of academic scholarship, where he has argued vigorously against attempts to graft "objectivating" methods of natural scientific inquiry onto research projects in the social sciences (1971, 304-17).

From all of this, one might gather that Habermas's commitment to rolling back the influence of technical forms of reasoning is connected to some intrinsic quarrel he has with the natural sciences. Yet such a sweeping generalization is hard to sustain in light of the fact that Habermas does not oppose technical reasoning per se; he recognizes that the daunting complexity of social life in late capitalism requiresthat certain "steering" tasks be delegated to systems that utilize largely instrumental logics to co-ordinate action. Likewise, he acknowledges that the disciplines of the natural sciences necessarily play important supporting roles in such steering projects.

One normative presupposition of Habermas's colonization thesis is that there exists some proper boundary demarcating where the sphere of technical reasoning ends and the realm of communicative rationality begins. [End Page 1] On one side of this boundary, Habermas has provided many details on what he sees as the essential qualities of a properly functioning "public sphere," where "new social movements" continuously reweave the threads of communicative fabric holding society together (1996, 359-87), and where "historico-hermeneutic" academic study reflects on public life, sluicing insight back into the capillaries of democratic deliberations (1987, 374-403).

What lies on the other side of the boundary is murkier. The proper role of natural scientific investigation has received relatively scant attention in Habermas's critical theory of society, and this has led to some confusion regarding his account of the natural sciences, as well as debate over whether this account has political purchase. One would think that sympathetic commentators, such as Helen Longino (who bases much of her own coherence theory of scientific truth on Habermas), would have reassuring things to say on this point. Yet her lukewarm assessment that, "in trying to clear a space for an autonomous social and critical theory, [Habermas] has ceded nature to the positivists" (1990, 202), raises questions about the flexibility and scope of Habermas's theory of communicative action as a basis for critique of scientific practice.

One way to test Habermas's account of the natural sciences on this count is to put his views in conversation with science studies commentators who share a similar commitment to the idea that dialogue and argumentation are constitutive elements of scientific practice. Such an approach recasts the "ceding to positivism" question into a moment of controversy over the role of dialogue, not only as an essential motor driving the scientific enterprise, but also as a vehicle for democratic decision-making on issues related to the purpose and direction of scientific inquiry in society.

Part one of this essay locates discursive norms embedded pragmatically in the notion of scientific objectivity. By bringing a modified version of Habermas's theory of communicative action into conversation with other approaches to science studies that foreground intersubjective dialogue as the key motor driving the scientific enterprise, I develop a foundation for robust criticism of systematically distorted scientific communication. Specific strategies of...


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