Shared Autonomous Reasoning: Interpretations of Habermasian Discourse for The Community of Philosophical Inquiry

  • Natalie M. Fletcher


Introduction: Can autonomous reasoning be shared? According to many philosophical perspectives, from Kantian ethics to libertarian theories, this question seems incoherent – the purpose of an individual being able to think rationally for herself, to determine what she finds important and advance her own ends in accordance, seems to lose its appeal if she must engage in this process jointly with others and result in having the same concerns, perspectives, and goals in common. A crucial motivation for many accounts of autonomy is to safeguard the individual’s will from the influence or interference of the other, and enable her to authentically express the identity and life she freely chooses for herself. From this vantage point, what could be gained from having the capacity for autonomous reasoning be shareable?

Throughout his writings and notably in his theory of communicative action, Jürgen Habermas examines the potential for shared autonomous reasoning, challenging monological approaches in favour of a discursive understanding that seeks to preserve the emancipatory features of popular notions of self-determination while adding a crucial intersubjective component.1 From his perspective, it appears that autonomous reasoning not only can be shared but indeed must be shared, given his stance that all human meaning is intersubjectively constituted. But what does this particular construal of autonomy involve? As Gerald Dworkin has noted, autonomy is a term of art—its characterization varies depending on the field and usage, making it a notoriously difficult concept to define without compromising the intricacy of the facets of human reality it denotes.2 This burden of characterization intensifies when considering the breadth of the Habermasian corpus.

To begin, then, if we define autonomous reasoning simply as the capacity to freely and willingly engage in critical processes of reason generation and justification, the question of whether it can be shared is interpretable in three ways. First, on a descriptive interpretation, we can argue that autonomous reasoning is shared in that it takes place in a context of common understandings and meanings established linguistically that gives us the basis for our reasons and makes interpersonal exchanges possible. Second, on a normative interpretation, we can argue that autonomous reasoning ought to be shared in that we are responsible for ensuring no one lives under norms they do not themselves endorse, and therefore, we must include them in the collaborative process of generating and justifying reasons, and respect their capacity to do so. Third, on an epistemic interpretation, we can argue that autonomous reasoning benefits from being shared in that the combining of our efforts in terms of both procedure and content can increase knowledge and advance learning in ways that expand the scope and integrity of our collective communicative agency.

Through an exploration of these three interpretations, this essay will contend that autonomous reasoning can and must be shared, as Habermas would maintain, but that to fully benefit from this “sharedness,” we must understand it as a capacity comprising a range of faculties driven not only by our commitment to establishing justifiable norms but also by a sense of integrity that recognizes others as epistemic agents whose worth stems from both their discursive aptitudes and concrete particularities. The essay will begin with an overview of the context for Habermas’s interest in discursive autonomy, then consider the descriptive, normative and epistemic interpretations in turn, and end with a look at how shared autonomous reasoning might be honed through a Community of Philosophical Inquiry (CPI) practice.