Reading Guide to: Habermas J (1972) 'A Postscript to Knowledge and Human Interests', Philosophy of the Social Sciences, September 1972, and also in Knowledge and Human Interests (second edition)

by Dave Harris

This a response to the criticisms that have been identified with the arguments in Knowledge and Human Interests (K&HI).

The status of historiography with a systematic intent

Habermas's aim was to criticise scientism. Briefly, operating with a notion of objects upon which one is not allowed to reflect, leads to an abstract focus on methodology. It is important to understand the history of scientism in order to deploy the tactic of 'remembrance', especially to rediscover things that have been banished by this methodological focus, and to recapture the self-reflection that led to it originally. There is a danger here of circularity, of using self-reflection in order to show there is no self-reflection in science.

Any criticism of science needs to be able to stand on its own feet, and here the tactic of 'immanent critique' is useful, and is being developed by Apel and Wellmer. [Immanent critique involves testing the claims of science that it makes for itself, without using any 'outside' sources -- it is a demonstration of the sort of self criticism that science needs to do]. Another tactic, more suitable in Anglo-Saxon circles is to confront science with its own history, as in Kuhn or Lakatos. This demonstrates that even logic has a history! In Apel's hands, it also shows that there is some universal pragmatic logic which predates scientific logic. Scientism is still dominant, but perhaps the need to criticise it is less urgent these days. Nevertheless, the critique of scientism is still needed when considering social theory -- we badly need some sort of cognitive anthropology to explain achievement and progress here, and to expose the connection between theory and its relation to action.

Self-objectification and self-reflection

Reflection in science is limited -- for example it is not common to think about the dynamics of the scientific community. This community and science itself tends to be objectivated. Discussions of method attempts to end whatever reflection takes place. This is achieved by:

(a) Reductionism, of intentions or motives and into subjective relations, and of social relations themselves. Behaviourism and cybernetics accomplished this reduction (page 356). However, the study of 'paradigms'show how even the categories of these approaches depend on the subjective.

(b) Displacement of the subjective by a 'theory language' (Feyerabend and Rorty are among the advocates of this). Perhaps a linguistic tradition rather than a behaviourist approach is better able to reconstruct the history of science and to be critical rather than objectivating, but, in Feyerabend at least, relativism and the proliferation of languages results. This leaves him unable to explain scientific progress, or indeed, unable to demarcate science from witchcraft.

(c) The reduction of everything to physics, which claims to offer universal categories: in this sense, physics is both a theoretical and a metatheoretical discipline. [In other words, physics is claiming to be the  proper and more fundamental theory of objects that are also studied by other theories or academic subjects. This kind of imperialism is also found in advocates of cybernetics or mathematics]. In fact, of course, it is only human language that meets this requirement). These are not new claims, and they affected both Kant and Darwin. Yet it is clear that [academic] subjects create their own objects .

K&HI tried to show this with Kant (his successors used his categories but saw them as generated in specific historic circumstances), or with Marx, (who tried to ground his work in some self reproduction of the species, [but the historical nature of his concepts also became apparent?]). Other philosophers have also tried to offer 'universal' or 'a priori' starting points, such as 'pragmatic a prioris' (Peirce), or 'communicative a prioris' (Dilthey).

Certain approaches to language kept alive the possibility of methodical self-reflection, and so did the emergence of psychoanalysis, but some new transcendental philosophy is needed, and this is what led Habermas and Apel to try and develop one. The argument goes that we need a transcendental level of analysis in order to explain the [coherent, consistent, and continuous] emergence of specific competencies in science [and thus to see these specific competences as only partial realisations]. No transcendental [human] subject is available, however [possible candidates include particular scientists, the whole group of scientists, or possibly Society itself].

However , the question arises whether any universal factors can be separated from the 'marginal conditions' which generate them, or the processes whereby they are learned, or the processes whereby competent actors emerge [which conventional sociologies or histories of science provide]. it is possible to argue for a notion of universal reason given the subtypes that exist -- pure and practical, pragmatic/communicative, empirical/argumentative. We cannot explain these by going back to earlier transcendental philosophies, which is what some critics want to do. Nor can we use Marx to explain these types as variants of some general process of social labour [Habermas insists that we need to separate labour and interaction]. Nor does the answer lie in the development of a scientific Freudianism.

Objectivity and truth

The processes of object construction, and the notion of truth need to be separated: a useful way to do this is via Apel on the difference between 'experimental and argumentative a prioris'. The former objectivate reality, and enable categorical statements, but the latter are about argumentative corroboration. These a prioris produce the 'objectivity' of science when they correspond to collective scientific experience. Science operates with a set of propositions and some notion of 'performative' or intersubjective validity. The latter produce facts out of objects of experience (361).

'Facts' are what true statements state, rather than things or events presented immediately through experience. A statement of truth is therefore always a proposition, not just a suggestion that something exists: it expresses some truth claim, which presupposes objects of experience, and takes a hypothetical form. All this implies there is some discourse to guide these claims and their acceptance, and it is this discourse, not experience which leads to a successful truth claim. Scientific discourses are 'purged of action and experience' [at their most theoretical and abstract]: there is no compulsion to accept them, and no information content double - they only offer persuasion by arguments, and some cooperative search for truth.

In practical conduct by comparison, experience is acquired and shared, and statements become actions (363). The objectivity of experience can be established through successful action, but this is not the same thing as the truth of the statement. Experience limits discussion, and settles issues by action: it operates with 'behavioural truth'.

Scientific discourses treat experiences as data for discussion. They do not attempt to establish truth by experience directly, but only by analogous experience -- truth is confirmed not by behaviour but only in 'successful reasoning'. The notion of truth expresses a consensus among parties to the discourse rather than what actually happens in the world, which is merely presupposed. Simple statements [as in the 'basic statements' which express some kind of rock bottom objectivity for Popper], such as 'this ball is red', show there can be a close correlation between experience and truth. But not all statements can show this -- 'negative' and 'general 'propositions, such as 'the present King of France is handsome', especially .

To summarise, experience can be clarified in the construction of objects, but truth only in the logic of discourse. Consensus in both cases can only be achieved by using language as some form of metacommunication, where two kinds of motives -- action/intersubjective, and cognitive/intersubjective are found together. This is unique to human language. Language transforms sense data, and helps us develop intentions which can become reciprocated.

This leads to the development of expectations, desires, and goals which can be made generalisable intersubjectively. One way of thinking about this is in terms of validity claims which are checked out in discourse: these also imply some universalisable norms. Apel's two a prioris are distinguishable in principle, but combine in empirical theories, and both can be tested within the limits of argument and experience. [Arguments provide us with an opportunity to test the validity claims, as above, but experience provides us with a useful intersubjectively agreed object domain].

Knowledge and interest

As Apel argues, there are different object domains according to different interests [three main ones as we shall see], but there is a unity in the reasoning found in different domains. Unity is not found in the common adoption of a scientific method.

The existence of different object domains has been argued by people such as Peirce and Dilthey [on the need to separate natural and human sciences, expressing the interests in 'work' and 'communication' specifically]:

(a) There are differences between observation and understanding in each case. Understanding [that is, the understanding of subjective meanings as in cultural sciences] is different from mere perception, and offers a procedure which resists objectivation. This kind of understanding emerges best in the form of narratives of action rather than descriptions of observations.

(b) The objects of sensory experience are not the same as the objects of communication -- different categories are applied differently in each system of reference.

(c) The pragmatic a priori is not the same as the communicative a priori, however [so here we are splitting Peirce and Dilthey]. The pragmatic one involves constructing objects in order to manipulate them, while the communicative one has a different transcendental intent [I think! The intent here is to relate to other people not as objects to manipulate, but as 'partners in a dialogue'?].

(d) There are different relations between the practice of life and research. Communication in action and experience is not the same as discourses in theory. Science builds on the former to establish an object domain, but then shifts to the latter when it 'seriously claims to be objective' (369). This shift is described as part of a 'logic of inquiry', but it is also 'institutionally guaranteed' (369) [that is, theorists are located in special institutions separated from every day life? Or perhaps theory has some different social location and status?]. The process of measurement is crucial to the shift as well -- it must remain within experience, and yet enable and permit theorising.

(e) Knowledge-constitutive interests are different. 'Objects of possible action-related experience' are constructed [ in all object domains?] rather than facts. Statements become hypothetical and thus theorisable, and presuppositions get to be tested in different ways, but otherwise there is still a link in language. The very syntax of [all] language is connected to feedback-regulated action, hence there is a connection between knowledge and interests in both pragmatic action and communication. These interests form the nexus between theory/discourse and action/communication.

(f) The emancipatory interest [ the new one added by Habermas and Apel to the old split between science and humanities] is derivative. It connects theories and objects only after distorted communication and repression has been detected (371). We experience constraint only when our cognitive activities dissolve pseudo objectivity (372).


(1) Bubner argues that interests are always limited, so they cannot be used as some transcendental ground for knowledge: they're always irrational rather than universal. Habermas thinks that it is possible to identify generalisable interests, but these have to be shaped and discovered, and are not immediately apparent. The  role of interests is clearest in the normative areas, less so in the cognitive ones -- but cognitive activity is still affected by interests. These have to be found or reconstructed in or from general areas of human life.

(2) Albert and others argue that reality determines the shape of science, not just a pragmatic interest, and that to argue thus is to reduce science to instrumentalism. Habermas insists that he is doing transcendental analysis, and seeing pragmatism as affecting the consensus that is so important to science rather than just instrumentalism, and suggests that transcendental pragmatism effects the very meanings of scientific terms not just the ways in which they are applied. He is not suggesting that scientists only pragmatically settle truth claims -- he has already argued that successful applications offer only one step towards the truth of statements. Theoretical progress arises from the development of theoretical language which is only adequate if it contain true statements. Experience stays the same, it guarantees the identity of a collection of truth statements but does not offer direct corroboration of them.

(3) The transcendental approach precludes realism, and correspondence theories hypostatise facts. Habermas uses transcendental analysis to show that this is an illusion. The quasi-transcendental human interests link discourse-related facts and object domains instead. The interests show why links are embedded in forms of life, and why true statements are essential to reproduce this life. There is no 'outside' objectivity -- these interests produce the criteria which help us construct objectivity. It is not just that perception restricts [limits, biases] our experience -- objectivity, as intersubjective agreement, is guaranteed by our pragmatic interests. These interests are transcendental, identified from reflection on the logic of inquiry. They are not 'empirical', unless seen as a result of some historical evolutionary process.

The distinction between objectivity and truth has been cleared up, but there is now the matter of the differences between reconstruction and self-reflection. Reflection does mean both reflection on the conditions of the potentialities of the subject (which is a Kantian notion and thus rather abstract), but also on the constraints in the processes of self formation (which is more critical, sociological, political -- although Habermas sees this as more in the Hegelian tradition, to do with dissolving the constraints of pseudo objectivity).

It is clear that language generates both rules and cognitive schemata, and we now know that it needs no subject, that language form subjects as well.. There is also the impact of Freud to consider. All this leads to new complexities in the relations between critiques/reflection and reconstruction [to argue for a place.for this version of critical theory against the claims of linguistics etc. The first step is to clarify intents...]

(a) critique is directed against pseudo objectivity, but reconstruction is based on actions which are subjective from the beginning

(b) critique is directed at particular blocks on reflection, but reconstruction attempts to explicate what is correct

These differences were blurred in K&HI, where the aim was to critique scientism rather than to found new theories.

[Then we go on to consider the more positive claims and see what we should have said about them in K&HI]:

Reconstructive sciences claim a universal status, as in linguistics or logic, and appear as candidates for replacing traditional transcendental philosophy. However, they are not components of practical life, but emerge because of criticisms and problems with the earlier approaches. Nor are they of hypothetical status only. In this way, they can appear as 'pure' knowledge [ nonsense, of course, and thus unsuitable for a properly critical investigation aimed at 'unblocking' constraints].

Critical sciences depend on the reconstruction of general rules -- for example to explain how communication gets distorted. But the aim is not to construct new objects, as conventional science does [nor to establish some claim to purity]. The idea instead is to produce some pre-notion of undistorted communication to trace distortions, then to unblock these to restore normal communication (379). It is not an empirical subject which bears the burden of the transcendental here, but some notion of universal pragmatics [as a capacity found in all human beings capable of using language]: the intention is to show that both truth claims and discourse are universal. This universal potential is counterfactual [that is, it cannot be confirmed by pointing to existing examples, but must be asserted critically against the claims of existing forms of communication to be natural or universal], but it is grounded in human reproduction itself [that is, human and social life would not be possible without this potential].

This is not claiming that universal pragmatics are 'natural'. It is arguing that empirical speech is only possible because of some transcendentally rational speech which is implicit in communication and inaction, as a 'fact of reason'.

 more notes on social theory