Discourse ethics and the normative justification of tolerance

Pauline Johnson*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review


Remaking a commitment to the accommodation of difference from a ‘weak’ liberal call for toleration into a ‘strong’ communitarian demand for recognition brings losses as well as gains. The modern liberal formulation of the principle of toleration, bequeathed by J.S. Mill, had upheld a general commitment to the accommodation of the dissenting and unfashionable point of view. It was to this generaliseable principle, and not to the contingent judgement of any communication community that oppressed difference might appeal. Habermas agrees with those critics who find a loss of critical power in Taylor’s turn towards the problematic of recognition. In particular, he cites Susan Wolfs concern at the critical limits of his neocommunitarianism. In her view: At least one of the serious harms that a failure of recognition perpetuates has little to do with the question of whether the person or the culture who goes unrecognised has anything important to say to all human beings. The need to correct those harms, therefore, does not depend on the presumption or the confirmation of the presumption that a particular culture is distinctively valuable to people outside the culture. (1994, p.79) Habermas rejects the paradoxical postmodern proposition according to which the affirmation of difference rules out the search for shared commitments through which the reasonableness of the accommodation of difference might be justified (1987). He cannot, on the other hand, overlook the neo-communitarians‘ failure to offer an account of those principles to which dissenting difference might appeal against the empirical consensus achieved by a given communication community. And yet, there is, for Habermas, no going back. As we will see, according to him, liberalism has lost the capacity to persuade us of the rationality of its own commitment to the principle of toleration. It is, therefore, necessary to identify a new basis from which a universalising commitment to the principle of tolerance can be normatively grounded.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationCulture and enlightenment
Subtitle of host publicationessays for György Markus
EditorsJohn Grumley, Paul Crittenden, Pauline Johnson
Place of PublicationLondon ; New York
PublisherRoutledge, Taylor and Francis Group
Number of pages21
ISBN (Electronic)9781351749305, 9781315190501
ISBN (Print)9781138728431
Publication statusPublished - 2018

Publication series

NameRoutledge Revivals

Bibliographical note

First published in 2002 by Ashgate Publishing. Reissued 2018 by Routledge.


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