The relevance of disagreement : a critique of Jurgen Habermas' notion of a 'rational consensus'.
The notion of a `rational consensus' is an essential feature of Jürgen Habermas's
discourse-based theories of truth and rightness. Although he has somewhat toned down
his earlier stress on consensus in recent years, the notion remains of great importance for
his account of `understanding' that is at the heart of his formal pragmatic approach to the
problem of meaning. My thesis is concerned with that approach and whether Habermas
succeeds in building a sustainable theory of truth and rightness on its basis.
I start off by trying to elucidate the crucial notions of `the lifeworld',
`communicative action' and `formal pragmatics'. I explore Habermas's pragmatic
conception of understanding and its relation to the formal semantic account of meaning in
terms of the truth conditions of sentences. In the second part of my thesis, I introduce
Habermas's early `consensus theory' of truth and rightness and mention some of the
criticisms that theory has provoked. I then focus on his revised 'janus-faced' account of
truth and show how it overcomes some of the shortcomings of his earlier theory. I then
raise some critical points about the revised approach, and go on to point out a
fundamental difficulty any account of truth and meaning that incorporates the notion of a
`rational consensus' faces. I try to overcome that difficulty by attempting to incorporate
some kind of meaning holism into Habermas's pragmatics.
The third part of this thesis is concerned with the practical consequences of the
pragmatic notion of understanding. I examine what exactly the implications of formal
pragmatics are for discourse ethics, and argue that there arises a problem in connection
with the distinction between discourses of justification and discourses of application.
Finally, I look at the relation between understanding and impartiality, and compare
Habermas's account of impartiality as tied to a `rational consensus' with Rawls's notion
of impartiality that draws on an `overlapping consensus'.
In a last step, I argue that the various difficulties that arise in the context of
Habermas's pragmatic approach to truth and rightness and are ultimately due to an
overburdening of the notion of understanding and (intersubjective) agreement. I end up
suggesting that in the light of these problems, we should be interested in the notion of
`rational disagreement'. I offer some very cursory remarks as to how one might go about
an enquiry into that notion.