Saturday, January 12, 2008

a note on objectivity vs. factuality vs. normativity

I sent the following note today to Brian Leiter, Professor of Law and Philosophy, U. of Texas, Austin:

Professor Leiter,

You know, Jürgen Habermas has received a lot of attention in philosophy, including philosophy of law (e.g., the anthology Habermas on Law and Democracy, 1998, oriented around his Between Facts and Norms). So, when you write, in "Leiter Reports," that "I don't think much of Habermas as a philosopher-—who does?" (11/06/03), I think: Gee, what's wrong with me

You say "Habermas is too philosophically insubstantial, and too derivative when he tries to be substantial" (9/14/03). Such a waste of paper, then, at MIT Press over the years. 

Granted, you change moods: "Although, I have my reservations about Habermas as a philosopher, there is no question that he is an important public intellectual and critic,....And the integrity of Habermas...comes out very nicely" (8/27/03). 

Yet, the most, perhaps, that you've said blogwise about your ambivalence (reservations in August become dismissal in November) is at your Legal Philosophy Blog, where you rely on someone else's brief characterization of Habermas' sense of meaning (re: David Gray, 11/16/07), which happens to be invalid; but you apparently don't see that. So, I surmise that you haven't given much attention to Habermas' work---OK, who does? 

Have you given substantial attention to Habermas' work offline? I would hope so from a Chair in Law and Professor of Philosophy. 

Anyway, at your Legal Philosophy Blog, you write: "Habermas's understanding of objectivity as intersubjectivity may actually be inconsistent with what is alleged to be the original meaning of 'cruel'....For it seems that on the Habermas view, the objective referent of a moral term like 'cruel' is constituted by intersubjective agreement [under the right conditions] about that referent, which is not really a view that any moral realists would, in fact, accept as adequate to their realism.  Maybe someone can think of a counter-example?"

I find something quite useful here: an opportunity to distinguish objectivity, factuality, and normativity, in keeping with Habermas' view of meaning.

We may both entertain the same proposition, though one of us believes it to be false and the other believes it to be true. There's an objectivity about the proposition, as to the shared conditions under which its validity can be established. The false proposition is still a proposition. The objectivity of the proposition (as to what the proposition is: its components, its proper pronunciation, what may be logically implied by it, etc.) is quite intersubjectively determinable. Its validity isn't a matter of simple agreement, but that we have the same proposition before us is quite so.

"The original meaning of 'cruel'" is an odd thing, quite different, I would think, from what's going on with "originalism" in law, since originalism is about a determinate first stipulation of meaning, whereas ordinary terms of language have an etymology and, commonly, a range of meaning that has become normative as range, such that a given token of 'cruel' expresses a context-dependent choice among lexically-normative options. "Cruel" punishment (re: def. 1a at Webster's Unabridged) is no "cruel" joke (def. 2a). There is no such thing as the original meaning of 'cruel', unless you're getting etymological. But etymologism is obviously not a valid approach to meaning-in-use. 

So, "the objective referent of a moral term like 'cruel'" may be "constituted by intersubjective agreement," in the sense that we may agree that a given use of 'cruel' is closest to a specific lexical sense of the modifier, such that a specific referent is cruel in a specifiable sense. But there's no suggestion by Habermas anywhere that meaning is some--what?---simple denotation? It's an evidentiary matter whether or not a person is "disposed to inflict pain especially in a wanton, insensate, or vindictive manner" (def. 1a). The moral claim here is not yet met by saying that, of course, the actual infliction is unacceptable (and punishable). Why is the actual infliction unacceptable? A response to this question is likely a "moral" issue, but a moral response to that question doesn't require a moral realism, though a moral-realist response is an option. 

There's a substantial distance between issues of evidentiary meaning and moral theory. This distance is expressed in the difference in kinds of validity claims that issues of factuality and normativity are. I submit to you that Habermas has a substantial appreciation of the difference.