Truth, post-truth, and the mess we are in
A guest blogpost from Ralph Hammond
“The Tories should not underestimate how basic decency, reason, focus on detail and the importance of our institutions will hold a lot of appeal for reasonable people of all persuasions” — Alastair Campbell, Former Director of Communications to Tony Blair, UK Prime Minister 1997 – 2007, April 22, 2022, on Twitter.
The UK has been engulfed in political turmoil since the success of the Brexit campaign. Accusations of treachery, deceit, and subterfuge have swirled around the airwaves. This has culminated in the present furor about whether our Prime Minster has knowing misled the UK Parliament, which would normally be a resigning offense.
Suddenly ideas about truth, honesty, integrity, and the value of institutions, have become important.
Enter Jurgen Habermas.
Jurgen Habermas is a German philosopher and social theorist (1929 to date). His work has never seemed so relevant.
Habermas developed a critical theory that is post-metaphysical, yet non-defeatist (Cooke, 1994). He is post-metaphysical in recognising that the move of societies from traditional to modern ways of life has meant that the values, norms, and actions of individuals can no longer be conceived in one unified manner. He is non-defeatist because he stresses the value of rationality and the use of reason (Cooke, 1994).
Habermas does not see the progress of society since the late eighteenth century as negative and wishes to avoid the relativism that might emerge from radical critiques of reason. The benefits of greater self-reflection and the use of reason in a society of mixed values and opinions can be harnessed through communicative rationality (Habermas, 1987).
Communicative rationality is the potential for rationality that is implicit in the everyday linguistic practices of modern societies (Habermas, 1987). This is the giving and accepting of reasons for an utterance that informs understanding and agreement in communication (Habermas, 1987).
Three underpinning and interconnected sets of theories support this central idea:
Theory of communicative action: this is the idea that two people can talk about something in the world and in doing so mutually orient themselves to understanding each other, as opposed to achieving a goal (which would be called strategic action).
Formal pragmatics: the competent communicator intuitively raises three types of validity claim in any given speech act, to the truth, to truthfulness, and to normative rightfulness.
Pragmatic theory of meaning: to understand an utterance is to understand the claim that it raises. Habermas claims that language coordinates action in a cooperative way rather than through force or manipulation (Habermas, 1987).
One way of distinguishing between Habermas and, for example, postmodernists, is to consider the ethical orientation from which they draw: Habermas is centered around a responsibility to act, whereas postmodernists are oriented by a responsibility to otherness (d’Entrèves and Benhabib, 1996). Habermas prioritizes the responsibility to act in a justifiable way, postmodernists celebrate the responsibility to otherness, to difference, to ambiguity. These two senses of responsibility are linked to different understandings of the primary function of language: its capacity to coordinate action (Habermas) or disclose the world (postmodernists).
These two senses of responsibility are not mutually exclusive, but they do represent the difference around which postmodernists and Habermas debate.
In the UK, the prime minister’s personal identity, personal attributes, values, beliefs, and motivations, though well known, have not hindered his professional success and has become a talking point when the consequences have undermined his professional statements: particularly whether he partied at home while telling the country not to
The current discussions about the actions and behaviour of our political leaders at work are prompting many to reconsider how much we value what people first say, and then do, at work, and what institutions we have that can hold them to account.
In physiotherapy, we might do well to reconsider how we engage in such thinking; what is it that orients our sense of ethics in professional life?
Cooke, M. (1997). Language and Reason. Massachusetts; MIT Press.
D’Entreves, M.P. (1996). Introduction IN D’Entreves M.P. & Benhabib, S. (Eds.) Habermas and the unfinished project of modernity. Cambridge; Polity Press.
Habermas, J. (1987). The Theory of Communicative Action. Cambridge; Polity Press.
Ralph is a founding member of the critical physiotherapy network. He is a lecturer in advanced practice at the University of Plymouth, research lead at Somerset NHS Foundation Trust, and on secondment to the Somerset AHP Faculty.
His interests are professional identity, critical theory, and history. He is past president of the International Neurological Physical Association, father of two, and reserve wicket-keeper in his village Sunday team.