Three Aspects of Universal Pragmatics

“It is further assumed that communicative competence has just as universal a core as linguistic competence. A general theory of speech acts would thus describe precisely that fundamental system of rules that speakers master to the extent that they can fulfill the conditions for a happy employment of sentences in utterances, (..).” J. Habermas in ‘On The Pragmatics of Communication’, edited by Maeve Cooke, P.47, MIT Press, 1998.

I have a great sympathy for some of the failed philosophers like Popper, Habermas and Jaynes. They have a research program based on a great hunch after which they fail to come up with the technical details and get sidelined because of the fact that progress is mostly – and luckily also still in philosophy – a matter of technical progress. 

Habermas is important to me because his goal is also my goal: to trace back the moral stance to the basic structure of language and to the preconditions of communication. Such an unashamed aprioristic starting point is to me the only possible route to a really universal claim to humane behaviour; a claim that is not based on traditionalist or maximalist or essentialism assumptions that cannot but lead to a morality characterized by the final non-morality of exclusion.

But he fails in the details.

In working from the notion of intrinsic competences (whether or not mitigated by the instinctive use of ‘implicit’ & the explicit disclaiming of the need for an innate neurological counterpart to the methodological assumption) there is bias towards the idea that somehow the source of humanity (i.e. communicative ability) comes from within – and that it can hence be ‘discovered’ if one digs ‘deep’ enough; when one so to speak goes to the ‘core’ of the matter. Using this notion, even if it is presented as a temporary, purely instrumental, helper thesis,  leads to a commitment of their being more to it than just mere process. It commits whomever posits it to the idea that there is something original – and something somehow more basic – than that which is accessible at the surface.

The image that is hovering before my eye now for some time is that of a convex and a concave view of personhood and language. In the convex (Kantian, Chomskian, Habermasian, traditionalist Western) world view there is a center point on the inside of what is delineated as an individual human being.  Using more dramatic words, this focal point may well be called The Soul; using more post-modern words one may call it individual responsibility; staying in the middle one is winding up with words like conscience or so. But, whatever words one uses, the focus is on what is inside an individual. This makes one individual unavoidably distinct from other individuals. The only way to avoid sociopathic conclusions is by positing some original connection between individuals that is mysteriously binding and bonding them and that is, because of common sense, somewhere in the past and therefore authorized in some traditionalist sense.

I do not debate that a lot of the consequences above (and ad hoc solutions to the less-than-ideal consequences) are, in se, reasonable. The reality of delineation between individuals is undeniable along with the reality of likeness of human individuals and the reality of the compellingness of a minimum respect for common traditions. But it is not because of some by-products being healthy and reasonable that the over-all construction is not flawed. It’s also not because some by-products are healthy that all of them are either healthy or can be reasonably solved by ad hoc solutions that feel at all reasonable.  I think this is the story of a history of war and strife.

Anyway, there is a distinct possibility that the reasonable outgrowth of the wrong starting point is reasonable because it is reasonable and not (or: in spite of) the wrongness of the starting point.

Let me explain coming back to the picture of convex and concave. In a concave world view convergence comes about by something that is on the outside of individuals and their communicative ability. What is on the surface produces the alignment in language and ultimately also produces the concepts that allow to delineate individuals. In the strongest of senses: the self is a product of the community instead of the community being a product of interaction of selves. There is for sure in this view a lot which is problematic or may give rise to problematic consequences, specifically the risk of collectivist modernist or oriental subsumption of the individual for the benefit of the community. But I believe that all these problems may be shown to be structurally at odds with the concavity of the world as seen from the individuals & I believe that most of these problems can be traced back to not radically maintaining concavity and instead reverting to convexity (e.g. in allowing for leaders of whatever sort being able to more truly see the future instead of truth being an outcome of a process that does not recognize specific claims of authority but integrates the (communicative) activity of all). This however will have to remain for further study.

If there is something to this concave world view there are no competences either explicit or implicit. There is no core. There is just a process that starts with probability (I’m tempted to associate all of this with a Humean approach to the establishment of morality) and association and that goes, progressively, towards better understanding because it is the nature of that process to lead to better understanding just as it’s the nature of the evolutionary process to wind up with better adaptation to the surrounding. This process will not end (or at least we cannot predict that it will end) but it will be such to ‘lock in’ what is reasonable. One may call this mysterious in exactly the same way that the truths of logic are mysterious but the mystery is out there and can be ‘inspected’ and can never become a matter of exclusive insight.

This is, technically, what I wound up researching in my thesis. I say ‘wound up’ because it wasn’t part of a grand master plan but of following hunches like the one of Habermas and trying to articulate what technically could be the basis of a phenomenon like common sense which is neither individualist nor collectivist, which cannot be forced but does force, which appears to come from the inside just as much as it comes from the outside.

In the end one can trace the many positive notions associated to a convex world view as necessary results of a concave world view. For instance, tradition is to be respected because it is on the basis of a tradition that we’re comprehensible to each other in the first place. Commonality between humans is also required because without such a commonality it would be entirely impossible to point to similar things and pick them out as similar things (as the similarity of things is, at the very least, largely determined by us perceiving them as similar). Finally, even the priority of the individual is the consequence of cancavity for it is concavity that produces individuality as a necessary and ‘locked in’ concept that will allow us to have a communicative process where each and every one contributes to the building of progressive insight.

I do not know whether I was convincing. Sometimes being convinced gets in the way of being convincing. What I think I know is that my assumptions as to the basis of communicative ability are more true to Habermas’ hunch and allow it to be worked out not only in a technically more satisfying and precise manner but also in a way that is more clear as to the origins and nature of the universality of morality as based in our communicative ability.

That would be my research program if I the conditions were created in order to follow through on it. I’m sure it would do the world some good. I’m also sure that if I don’t do it somebody else will, and: that there’s a good chance that in some very indirect round-about way it can be traced to me expressing what I expressed. I’m an optimist, you know.

[Whilst writing this I was listening to: Chucho Valdès, “Chucho’s steps” and  Cosey Fanni Tutti, “Time To Tell”.]

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