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Habermas, narrative over argument

In “Philosophy as Stand-In and Interpreter,” Jurgen Habermas (1990) attempts to narrate a story to help put Rorty’s criticism of philosophy in perspective. Let me first explain Rorty’s criticism of philosophy and then explain what Habermas means by offering a narrative. First, Rorty criticizes Kant’s vision of philosophy’s role as judge and usher. According to Habermas:

There is a necessary link between the Kantian foundationalism in epistemology, which nets philosophy the unenviable role of usher, and the ahistoricity of the conceptual system Kant superimposes on culture, which nets philosophy the equally undesirable role of a judge parceling out separate areas of jurisdiction to science, morality, and art. (Habermas 1990, p. 239)

Kantian foundational epistemology plays the role of usher, and the Kantian conceptual system as superimposed on culture plays the role of judge. Rorty thinks these roles are too big for philosophy to fill. In addition, philosophy must abandon any claim to reason. By forfeiting any claim to reason, philosophy relinquishes exactly what had distinguished philosophical thought from other intellectual endeavors. Rorty concludes in favor of the demise of philosophy and denies that ideas like truth or the unconditional are a “necessary condition of human forms of collective life” (Habermas 1990, p. 240).

Habermas wants to narrate a story to clarify Rorty’s criticism of philosophy. A narrative should be able to put Rorty’s criticism in perspective. While Habermas agrees with Rorty that philosophy should renounce the role of usher and judge, Habermas remains unconvinced that philosophy surrender its age-old function as the ‘guardian of rationality’. Habermas, by using a narrative form, cannot settle the controversy, but he can investigate some of the argument’s presuppositions. Whereas argumentation wants to prove some conclusion true, the task of narrative is to shed light on some point. What Habermas meant by narrative was to elucidate some of the controversy’s presuppositions.

To my mind, Habermas does not rule out the use of argumentation. On the contrary, he seems to offer an argument in favor of philosophy retaining its claim to reason. Habermas (1990) on p. 240 writes: “I will argue that philosophy, while well advised to withdraw from the problematic roles of usher and judge, can and ought to retain its claim to reason, provided it is content to play the more modest roles of stand-in and interpreter.” Such an inclination can be somewhat confirmed by looking at the original German form, Habermas writes: “Im folgenden will ich nur eine Geschicte erzählen, in der Rortys Kritik der Philosophie ihren Platz findet” (Habermas 1983, p. 12). The translator of Habermas’s article has translated Geschicte erzählen as narrative, but a more literal translation would be a “historical report.” If “narrative” had been translated as “historical report,” then one would be less apt to discount argumentation. Primarily, Habermas’s notion of narrative means that he will look at the presuppositions of Rorty’s criticism without completely demolishing his argument. Most of the narrative comes in Sections 1 through 4 of this paper. The primary function of these parts is to tell the reader about some aspects of Kantian foundationalism and the Hegelian dialectic, including criticism and self-criticism and other thinkers on philosophy’s claim to reason. Habermas’s narrative is only meant to clarify the presuppositions of Rorty’s criticism rather than arguing for or against Rorty’s conclusion. The purpose of narrative is to unpack the important philosophical presuppositions of Rorty’s argument.

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