response to a comment about Habermas
and critical thinking

January 8, 2021

This is an extended reply to two comments at a posting I did today at the Facebook/Habermas page, which was basically just linking to a discussion
of my own elsewhere.   

I rarely do postings there that link to my own views (against or for, either way). The purpose of the Facebook page is to link to resources for persons interested in Habermas.   

I want to be supportive of interest in my own views, but I also have involvements that keep me from giving fair time to respond.  

Today, I’m offering an example of fair response (I hope). I’ll quote the entire comments at Facebook, while adding a lot now. You will see how involved my sense of fair response can become.  

 Vladislav, I’m glad to see your serious interest. You can imagine that complexities easily arise which short comments conceal.  

So, I’ll go back to your first comment, then to your reply to me. Thanks for your thoughts!  


Vladislav: Argumentation is a procedure that may lead to agreement. Besides; manipulation behind fake news and conspiracy theories may result in destructive actions, overcoming critical thinking.  

Gary: You’re right about argumentation. A reader facing a view may agree, due to the view’s argument—or just accept the view (without thinking) because it’s appealing.   

So, a reader’s or viewer’s ability to evaluate a view is important. The view may be appealing because it is consistent with reader values that are unrelated to any argument for the view. But why a reader agrees or disagrees with a particular view depends on that given case.   

So, what’s involved in good reasoning? That was a basic interest of my neo-Habermasian discussion about critical thinking vis-à-vis fake news.  

Apart from assessing the validity of a view, the author of the view may be faking. A valid view might be irrelevant to what the author is using it for. Manipulations behind the view may hide intent to carry out some unknown action. It’s common in marketing to associate appealing, valid values with a product, but those views are irrelevant to the quality of the product. You mentioned the extreme situation of intending destruction.   

So, I replied: “Good thought. Manipulation is often a misuse of instrumental action.” Then I hastily made points about valid “manipulation.” (Below, I’ll express that I gave confusing merit to the notion of manipulation. It’s best to keep manipulation associated with invalid instrumentality.)  

But you were mixing two kinds of issues: [1] the validity of views (or invalidity, which good reasoning may decide about) and [2] the use of views to conceal destructive intentions. That’s an important confusion! You’re showing that you’re nearly making the distinction, but here it’s not yet made. The latter issue is common with propaganda, which seeks to look acceptable—even very appealing (for political support or marketing success)—but is an invalid manipulation of opinion for hidden purposes.   

A reader/viewer can assess that a view is invalid, but have no information about author intent, if that intent was deceptive. The phony author might just want to advance phony views because he wants followers (or he makes money from selling a product). There’s no way to tell, just from the phony view, what the author really wants, if that’s not obvious. A phony author can hide their actual motives. Maybe selling a decent product is for funding a crime.  

So, I was being hasty, jumping into a comment about valid manipulation. In social theory, the difference between valid means (which may involve valid manipulations) and invalid means has been elusive, because “radical” theorists have written as if all instrumentality is invalid—as if action is primarily expressive (genuine) or coordinative (normatively rational or factually determinable). But the result of that has often been little attention to how to get genuinely valuable actions accomplished. Valid reasons for action don’t entail how to get worthy actions accomplished.  

A classic kind of case is a program or product proposal that sounds great to accomplish—so it gets funded or supported by others—but the proponent doesn’t really know what’s involved in getting it done.    

So, you joined two kinds of issues, compacted into a couple of sentences (but, again, that’s useful: You’re implying an important distinction that you’ve not yet clearly made—but you’re close!). And I chose an abstract comment: “Manipulation is often a misuse of instrumental action. But manipulation is sometimes necessary: children who are unable to make good decisions, persons who are incapacitated, etc.”  

Then, continuing your comment:  

V: May we say that the main dichotomy of discussion between Michel Foucault and Jürgen Habermas may be a triad: competences - arguments - manipulations? All of them can lead to a sense of truth, while this sense and power are two sides of the coin.  

G: Interesting—and a large jump to a new kind of issue. To say that a triad is a dichotomy might mean a triarchic dichotomy: The two different views of Habermas and Foucault are about three notions: (a) competences, (b) arguments, and (c) manipulations. The view that manipulations can be valid relates to my choice to focus briefly on valid manipulations: 
So, it's invalid manipulation that causes a Foucault to worry about “power.” There is also good power: discretion to implement good social policy. A distinction that Habermas makes—though not often (but essential to his thinking)—is the difference between instrumentality (which all action needs, in order to achieve its purpose: "purpose-rational action") and instrumental-ism, which confuses means for ends. Thanks for causing this distinction to be pertinent. Your point is definitely important.
So, you reply, in part:  

V: According to that, it is no reason to be worried about. Fake news and conspiracy theories, distributed via social media, are just a well known phenomenon forced by the modern instrumentality.  

G: But “according to that”—according to what I wrote—there’s a distinction between valid and invalid manipulation. Given your context of destructive intent, there’s much “reason to be worried about that.” The fact that fakery is “well known” is unrelated to the degree of phoniness that may have destructive intent.  

V: Nevertheless, there is one problem. What if the action is irrational, and there is no purpose at all?  

G: If a person can perceive that, then of course they ignore the view or the action, if there’s no risk of personal harm perceived. So,…  

V: … [Suppose that] Manipulation was meant for some groups of people that for some reasons were unable to think critically at that particular moment.   

G: You have focused on assessment of action that is evidently unrelated to making a case for a belief.   

An irrational action that others can’t recognize as irrational is then misperceived, of course. But you’re implicitly close to making another important distinction by mixing [a] the motives of the actors (below), and [b] the perception of the action (above):  

V: This manipulation leads these groups to act destructively and accomplish one irrational (or subconscious) action. There was no purpose - just an expression of frustration (performance). This may explain what has been done in Washington some days ago.  

G: Indeed. But issues of perceiver support for irrational action is passed by, in your continuation of comment, in order to make a point about irrationality of the action itself.   

The perceiver of the action is indeed in a position of perceiving the action (irrational or not), but assessment of the action and assessment of the perceiver’s competence are two different issues, though the latter depends on the former. That is, taking a stance toward an action is what a perceiver of an action has to do. But taking a stance toward the perceiver is different from taking a stance toward the action as perceiver.  

In the case of assessing the action oneself, which appears irrational (and is so), we attend to what skills are involved in making that accurate assessment.  

In the case of the perceiver as topic—an audience who is unable to accurately assess the irrationality of an action—we attend to a question like: How does a person become a good assessor of actions? What has to happen in education, social group communication, and media to build the ascertainment skills required to curb support for irrational action?  

V: May we make a distinction between Washington's "flash mob" (or performance) and for instance French / Russian revolutions that had rational purpose behind the action, forced by instrumentality of those times?  

G: Of course.   

However, the Washington violence this week wasn’t a flash mob. It had been planned for weeks. Part of the outrage of commentators and government officials is that the clear signs of intent to destroy property was clearly circulated around right-wing media, but wasn’t taken seriously enough by Washington police. And worse yet, Trump inflamed the right-wing intents, which were clear to him (or should have been, since he’s got all available kinds of information available to him—but ignores it, because he’s an incompetent golf course salesman pretending to “be” president without the slightest desire, the past few years, to learn how to do it).   

But the “rational purpose” of the French and Russian revolutions were not “forced by instrumentality,” though I believe I understand your point: Those revolutions were forced by severely violated values (rights, principles, etc.) that monarchies enforced for many years, which required radical mass actions which had an instrumentality that served the interest of overthrowing the monarchies.  

But in each case, the revolutionaries were unprepared for instituting durable government. The French and Russian revolutions both became dictatorships, even though they both had existing parliamentary models to learn from: England (relative to France in the 18th century) and several Western nations (relative to Russia, in the early 20th century). There was a history of durable good government as models.   

Both revolutions showed an instrumentalism that confused overthrow with readiness to form a government. That is: If the reins of power are captured, then stable government will magically emerge from pre-existing notions of how to govern.   

Indeed, both the French and Russian revolutionaries had plenty of chances to learn how stable governments work (England for France; then England, U.S., and France for Russia). And the revolutionaries had time, once in power, to form durably good governments (if they had known how). But they were unable to do it. So, France gained an emperor, and Russian gained dictators.   

V: If I got that right competent people that have power may use either manipulation (something Foucault was worried about) or argumentation (meant for them who are able to that).   

G: Let’s say that manipulation is simply equated with invalid means to an end. I earlier used ‘manipulation’ relative to a point that was confusing: Sometimes resistant persons need strong direction for their own good—which begs the issue of how to understand the validity of that—a complex issue about knowledge-based norm formation. Largely, it’s a matter of professional norms and institutionalized organizational policies. (In the case of parenting, it may be a matter of good parenting background, pediatrician advice, or counselor advice.)  

So, “competent people that have power” may validly act (relative to good values, principles, and norms) for a purpose that serves valid reasons, and do so with means that are appropriate. The aims may be basically communicative: gaining solidarity, gaining coordinative agreement, etc. Solidarity and coordination may then be employed for particular projects. Understanding can be an end in itself (good relationships); or it can be instrumental for coordination in doing something technical or difficult.  

When persons seek communicative success for its own sake (or for the sake of coordination, solidarity, etc.), they may do so by conveying understanding, through clarification of their views; or through defense of their views when others disagree; or by teaching others how one understands views that are different from other persons who disagree; or by criticizing the views of the disagreeing other. Solidarity and/or coordination may be good for technical/systemic action (e.g, organizational goals); or communicative action may be just for the sake of understanding, which is the case here, with my commentary.  

Relative to Habermas, we have here, basically, his difference between practical action (having largely communicative aims) and purposive action (largely technical) that he examined in his 1967 book Knowledge and Human Interests.   

Since then, he has developed his sense of action through many books: The Theory of Communicative Action (1981 in German; as 2 volumes in English: 1984 and 1987) details differences between life-oriented action (practical rationality) and system-oriented action (instrumental rationality). I provided a compact overview of that book some years ago: “reason for democracy.“ (The font is too small, sorry. I need to change that.)  

V: What if there is an incompetent person who's got the power because of some unforeseeable reasons? Power will mislead this person to irrational behaviour and end to power loss.  

G: For example, Trump. This man has led himself to shamefully irrational behavior. But the U.S. electoral system prevailed against him. Authoritarian arrogance did not survive.   

Listen up, Putin and Xi: Your days are numbered. Democracy works, though it can get messy.

So, folks, you can see how involved things can get relative to a few short comments.