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California State University, Dominguez Hills
University of Wisconsin, Parkside
Created: March 3, 2002
Latest Update: February 12, 2006

E-Mail Icon jeannecurran@habermas.org
takata@uwp.edu

Index of Topics on Site Explication de Texte of a paragraph from Seyla Benhabib on Hearing One Another

Continued from Letters to My Students: Seyla Benhabib and Theory as a Foundation for Our Discussion Forum

Now, that paragraph I was so excited to find because I realized that it meant that Seyla Benhabib was confronting the very issues we have been discussing. Let's read the text carefully, what we would call in French an "explication de texte." Explaining the text by going over it, line by line:

"The elements of a postmetaphysical, interactive universalism are: the universal pragmatic reformulation of the basis of the validity of truth claims in terms of a discourse theory of justification; the vision of an embodied and embedded human self whose identity is constituted narratively, and the reformulation of the moral point of view as the contingent achievement of an interactive form of rationality rather than as the timeless standpoint of a legislative reason." Situating the Text. At p. 4.

Here's what I think Seyla Benhabib is saying: One of the most bitterly fought arguments in the academy is over the universal and the local. This is what Lyotard calls postmodernism - the absolute rejection of metanarrative - or the universal. Metanarrative relates to universalism. When you develop a metanarrative, you're trying to tell the story or myth that is universally true, for all people. More and more today we are coming to realize that there is relatively little universal truth. Habermas agrees with the inappropriateness of our overreliance on metanarrative, but he believes that we cannot discard all attempts to find some overriding metanarrative, at least to the extent that we could have a universal understanding about how to critique validity claims. He wants us to turn to a metanarrative that will guide us all in trying to understand whether a claim has truth.

I think I agree with him on that, at least until someone else confuses me. I find my tolerance for ambiguity increasing daily as I try to cover all these aspects of social theory. And I can imagine someone making a validity claim that we know reasonably well to be false, such as, that the earth is flat. Now, the earth could someday be shown to be flat in some other sense, from some other perspective, but we can be pretty certain that we aren't going to fall off the edge of the earth unless there are some pretty drastic cosmic changes. I'm not going to make any attempt to figure out what the metanarrative Habermas is looking for in critique might be, but I can imagine that those who don't have 300 students might be able one day to figure it out. It just makes common sense to me that we might be able to find some way of agreeing on how to tell the absurd from the likely, given our present state of knowledge.

Now, Lyotard simply rejects metanarrative. I reckon that's because anything that claims to be true for all cases, is using such a macro perspective that it ignores the complexities built in when we consider the local narrative. That's true enough. But it doesn't take into account our understanding of the commplexities in the sense that what we preceive on the metanarrative level may be altered by a good faith hearing of the local narrative, or micro perspective. This is why I suggested that we must always be aware of the tension between macro and micro, between community and individual. Truth is not the prerogative of either the macro or the micro. The truth we live by is an interdependent mixture of the two.

And that leads to my concern that good faith requires more than our listening honestly and openly. Where we have been trained or gifted with skills of persuasion, we need to use those skills in a good faith attempt to help those bringing validity claims to explain those claims and meet honest critiques of their claims. Lending our skills to the process of understanding does not mean that we agree with the claim, but that we acknowledge the inequality of skills and training and refuse to let that deter the community from understanding.

We've pretty much come to terms with the importance of public discourse to raise the understanding of the whole community with respect to all truth claims. My limited time condemned me to wondering why no one esle was struggling with this dilemma. And then I read Benhabib's introduction:

"The elements of a postmetaphysical, interactive universalism are:"

This first phrase speaks of postmetaphysical. There's "post" tacked onto everything. So someone like David, who despises postmodernism, and uses the name only pejoratively, is already poised to find fault. But postmetaphysical just refers to the criticsims that have been made of philosophy as being metaphysical, that is, "a: of or relating to the transcendent or to a reality beyond what is perceptible to the senses b : SUPERNATURAL." Merriam Webster's 2nd definition.

The criticism of metaphysics is that it takes us beyond lived reality; it transcends the real world as we are able to perceive it, and takes us into the "supernatural." Once we do that, we're beyond our ability to "prove" anything in the sense of our lived reality, and we must "just believe." Postmodernism, with its understanding of the importance of the local narrative and of the dissimilarities between local narratives, suggests that, not able to "prove" who is right, all we can do is opt for "relativism" and say that your truth is as good as my truth, and that we cannot in good faith choose. That's the argument of "relativism" against "universalism."

What I was saying in my own inept way was that in public discourse the objective is not to make a judgment. We cannot "know" what, if anything we have construed as a metaphor is the right metaphor. But we can and must hold such discourse because a reasoned awareness and understanding of the many validity claims is essential to removing the affect they trigger when we encounter each other in irate disagreement. Conflict is OK, as long as we are in control of our anger and frustrations. And the best way to control that anger is to look at it, acknowledge it, and then find alternative releases for it, once we are assured that our claims have been heard in good faith.

Now, I could justify all this with many theoretical approaches. (Think "conceptual linking."

  • Jonathan Lear's "knowingness" would account for our intolerance of ambiguity and of leaving answers open to further argument and evidence. We have a "need to know," to find a "right" answer.

  • Peacemaking Primer by Hal Pepinsky, Backup, would explain the difficulty of coming to peace before we clear the negative affect that has built between us or between us and a hostile environment in which our interpersonal transactions unfold.

  • The search for universal laws, laws that would explain social interactions and communities for all humans, through all time, reflect the search for physical laws that would govern all material bodies, something like (f=ma) the force accrued by any material body (f) is equal to it's mass (m) times it's acceleration (a). That's why it hurts so when you get hit by a speeding car. Its force is equal to its weight (or mass) times its acceleration. For a long time throughout the 20th Century, we thought we could explain our lifeworld that exactly. Then came Einstein, and Heisenberg's uncertainty priniciple, and we had to learn a little humility. And relativity was with us. The physical laws change when we are dealing with atoms and nuclei and quarks and all those other little atomic particles. One clue, the world is not static. Yes, a table is a table, but the atoms within it give a different perspective.

    When even physics confronts the need to tolerate ambiguity, the social sciences can no longer afford the arrogance of insisting that science can tell us "the truth" about our world. Science can tell us many things, and we must not denigrate what it can do, but we must also seek a transparency and self-reflection that acknowledge that pretty much what we see is what we know how to look for. In that sense, the purpose of public discourse is to aid that understanding, to encourage discourse and expression of our needs and beliefs, so that differences can exist peacefully.

    So Benhabib is saying, I think, that universalism in the sense that Habermas contends that we need some overarching reason on how to judge the truth of validity claims, that universalism need not be lost, even taking into account the critiques of feminists, postmodernists. And here's the first element Benhabib sees as necessary to this reinterpretation of universalism:

    " the universal pragmatic reformulation of the basis of the validity of truth claims in terms of a discourse theory of justification;"

    Now this is cheating. I was reading the whole text, remember. So I knew that Benhabib was comparing the need for judgment as in legal reasoning, to the need for hearing truth claims in good faith, for the purpose of understanding, the kind of understanding to which Hal Pepinsky refers in Peacemaking Primer, as a pre-condition to any real progress in peacemaking.
    ". . . the vision of an embodied and embedded human self whose identity is constituted narratively, and the reformulation of the moral point of view as the contingent achievement of an interactive form of rationality rather than as the timeless standpoint of a legislative reason."
    And now the second element necessary to Benhabib's reinterpretation of universalism: "an embodied and embedded human self." This refers to the lived reality of the local narrative. It doesn't do to say that thousands were killed in the attacks on the World Trade Center. Benhabib is telling us that we must recognize and take into accocunt that those were real people, with real lives, and real social interactions with other real people. The "embedded" refers to what we often refer to as the structural context that limits our agency.

    And she adds that the "self whose identity is constituted narratively" There we have the local narrative. She's saying that the context matters to the extent that the body is embedded in that context. I may be caught in poverty or war or great wealth. That matters. But also my identity is made up of the stories I live, of the many unique experiences that are mine.

    "and the reformulation of the moral point of view as the contingent achievement of an interactive form of rationality"

    "reformulation" --- reinterpretation. And now the "moral point of view" is contingent. That means it depends on - and what does it depend on? Well, on how well we manage this new form of interactive rationality. That is, I think, that Benhabib means that the rationality of our public discourse at this point is not to be legislative. That is, it should not be hierarchical and controlling. Instead, it should actively attempt to understand all validity claims, rather than coming up with an answer that says basically, but this is how we do it, and this is the "right" way. That means our goal is not to tell others what to do, a legislative goal, but a communicative goal, to increase our mutual understanding of the complex structure and feelings that underlie our truth claims.

    "rather than as the timeless standpoint of a legislative reason."

    "the timeless standpoint" - as though a law is a law is a law in 1942 and still in 2002. Time matters. It's part of the embeddedness. And the law doesn't deal with that as a regular factor of its judgments. We must. For our goal is understanding, and we are embedded in time.

    Now read the paragraph again:

    "The elements of a postmetaphysical, interactive universalism are: the universal pragmatic reformulation of the basis of the validity of truth claims in terms of a discourse theory of justification; the vision of an embodied and embedded human self whose identity is constituted narratively, and the reformulation of the moral point of view as the contingent achievement of an interactive form of rationality rather than as the timeless standpoint of a legislative reason."

    Easier to understand now? Question the essay. If something isn't clear post your questions on transform_dom. Ours is a public discourse goal: Understanding. Not competitive certification.

    Then read this paragraph:

    " What I propose is a procedural reformulation of the universalizability principle along the model of a moral conversation in which the capacity to reverse perspectives, that is the willingness to reason from the others' point of view, and the sensitivity to hear their voices is paramount."

    Behold! Postmodernism and universalism living peacefully in the same paragraph. And they said we couldn't do it.

    [Addition on February 12, 2006: Violent Crime Rising Sharply in Some Cities, By Kate Zernike. New York Times. February 12, 2006. At p. A 1. Backup.

    Though violent crime rates have been dropping since the highs of the 90s, incidents of squabbles that lead to murder are increasing, and violent crime rates in cities, suburbs, and rural areas across the country are rising along with the prolifereation of guns. The drop in gang and drug related violence in the major cities has obscured the fact that "rage" factors are counteracting that drop all across the country. Cited in relation to violent conflict over validity claims.



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