Habermas Commentary/Discussions/Brand Outline

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Outline of Habermas’s Theory of Communicative Action, based upon an interpretation of A. Brand (1990), The Force of Reason: An Introduction to Habermas’ Theory of Communicative Action. Sydney: Allen & Unwin.


Habermas believes that reason operates in history. As Hegel put it, “Reason rules the world.” But for Habermas, this does not mean that humans are determined by Absolute Spirit. Rather, it means people have a capacity for rationality. Rationality is inherent in language, and language is how “communicative” action takes places.

People begin by using sacred symbols in ritual ways. But social integration eventually becomes less a matter of sacred symbolism, and more a matter of communicative action. Passive subjugation to religious tradition becomes replaced with shared, rationally motivated understanding. This is the process of “rationalization.” Language is a key part of the process. Language pushes in the direction of shared understanding.

There is a collective learning process. Communicative rationality advances through that process. Ethical progress results. Law is the best example of that progress.

The Frankfurt School shared Weber’s pessimism about progress. Those thinkers erred in neglecting certain important aspects of rationality. This happened because they were too preoccupied with consciousness.

Progress is not inevitable. Communicative rationality is not guaranteed. It depends on historical chance. There is a difference between what could have happened (according to logic) and what actually happens (because of events).

Our world has experienced a loss of freedom and meaning. This is because western society has been experiencing two distinct rationalization processes. First is the Lifeworld process. A Lifeworld has social, cultural, and personal dimensions. The social dimension is the one we are talking about here. On the social level, the Lifeworld process refers to the complete set of human relations in society, which are organized by communicative action.

Society perpetuates itself in two ways. One is symbolic. Through language, society reproduces its symbols. This is what happens in the Lifeworld.

The other way in which society perpetuates itself is material. By setting up certain action-oriented subsystems – especially government and the capitalist market – society arranges for physical preservation. These subsystems are part of a larger System. The System is the second of the two rationalization processes mentioned above.

The rationalization that occurs in the System is rationalization of the Lifeworld. This occurs especially through law.

The capitalist market generates crises and social tensions. The System expands to counteract these crises and tensions. When it expands, the System damages the Lifeworld. It “colonizes” it.

At the point of damage, shared understanding is no longer occurring through language (particularly the language of law). Instead, it is happening through the action-oriented systems just mentioned, i.e., government and the market. The complexity of these systems frustrates the attempt to rely on language for shared understanding.

In government and the market, people and actions are held together, not by the quest for shared understanding through language, but rather through power and money. Capitalist markets expand in order to counteract the problems caused by capitalist exploitation.

The market expands into the Lifeworld’s sphere of symbolic (i.e., non-material) reproduction. This damages the Lifeworld by crippling its ability to maintain its integration through communicative action. Social pathology (e.g., loss of meaning) results.

This is not the only possible outcome. The System is not necessarily evil. It becomes dangerously bloated only when the Lifeworld ceases to control it. The Lifeworld fails to exercise that control when it loses its perspective on what is happening in the big picture. That loss of perspective occurs because society’s accumulated knowledge is not being effectively shared. That happens because knowledge becomes buried among the experts and is not broadly available. The result is fragmented consciousness.

People should take the position of participants – they should use communicative rationality – when trying to understand the Lifeworld. But they should take the position of outside observers – they should use functional rationality – when trying to understand the System. Critical theory seeks to reconstruct basic communication.

Transition from Previous Views[edit]

Horkheimer and Weber agreed that rationalization led to a loss of meaning and freedom. They said the decline in religion meant a decline in religion’s ability to hold society together. Science was not the answer: it could not explain the world’s existence, or how humanity fits into the grand scheme of things.

Lukács pointed out that, in capitalist production, social relations became more like the relations among things. People began to take mechanical, calculating attitudes toward themselves and one another. They used “identifying” thought; that is, they approached things from an instrumental perspective. Science was their guide in this; it was their ideology.

Positivism held that knowledge is a relation between an objectively known object and a knowing subject. The solitary, knowing subject’s relation to objects was to know them and to manipulate them. This was a philosophy of consciousness, in which the important relationship was the subject-object relationship, i.e., a focus upon the conscious manipulation of things.

Early critical theory failed because it adopted a basically positivist perspective. For example, Weber focused on the isolated actor. This approach is “goal-rational” rather than “communication-rational.” It reflects a flawed epistemology: that is, it has a mistaken idea about what knowledge is and where it comes from.

Positivism ran into the problem that there are no theory-free observational statements. Even basic statements about objects rest upon assumptions and hypotheses. Basic statements make sense, not because they are foundational, but because the consensus of scientists is that they make sense.

Thus, philosophical reason leads us to see that these questions of truth arise from historical and sociological developments. In other words, reason is a result of sociohistorical processes; and yet, in saying so, philosophical reason is once again trying to pretend that it occupies an observational position above history and sociology.

Instead, Habermas suggests, reason is found in subject-subject relations, in which people achieve shared understanding of the meaning behind subject-object cognition and manipulation. This calls for an entirely different perspective.

A positivist might say that a focus on subject-subject relations would allow arbitrary issues, involving norms and values, to enter into the objective world of science. Habermas says there is no objective world of science as the positivist conceives it. Instead, what is happening is that norms and values (and inner states and feelings) are now seen to be within the realm of science too. The zone of rationality is far larger than we previously thought.

Animals have the ability to communicate and to convey facts. The human use of language goes beyond that. As soon as a person uses language, s/he implies that s/he is participating in a common human effort to achieve consensus. (Of course, consensus requires freedom to express one’s views.)

In the ideal speech situation, communication shows its full potential for rationality. An ideal speech situation can occur if everyone has a fair and equal chance to participate in discussion. Language contains a built-in orientation toward achieving ideal speech situations. This is ahistorical; it is there for people of all eras.

Action and Communicative Rationality[edit]

Shared understanding is achieved intersubjectively, i.e., among subjects. Upon achieving shared understanding, people can undertake coordinated action.

Action that focuses on achieving shared understanding is “communicative action.” By contrast, action that focuses on achieving success is “strategic” if it is oriented toward subjects, and “instrumental” if oriented toward objects. In communicative action, people exchange language (or nonverbal forms of expression) to persuade one another and reach understanding.

In the market and the government, action is coordinated strategically to achieve individuals’ complementary but egocentric goals. People might also pursue personal goals when they participate in communicative action; but those goals are pursued within the context of consensus.

Communication-rationality, on the large scale, entails the belief that everyone is getting a fair outcome. The market is not structured toward equality, however, but rather toward goal-rational activity that benefits oneself privately. The action decision rests upon material (i.e., empirical) influences – not on validity claims, expressed in language, that are capable of being critiqued.

There are three kinds of criticizable validity claims. Each refers to a separate world. Thus, in addition to its flawed epistemology (above), goal-rationality also has a flawed ontology (i.e., a mistaken understanding of reality).

Communication-rationality and goal-rationality agree that there are (1) truth claims, which refer to an objective world. But communication-rationality also says there are (2) normative claims, which refer to the social world, where interpersonal relationships are regulated, and (3) subjective claims, which refer to the individual’s personal experiences.

These three kinds of validity claims occupy separate ontological worlds, in the sense that they supply three different perspectives on the attempt to reach shared understanding regarding a situation. These three perspectives correspond to the grammatical third person (i.e., “he,” “she”, or “it” or, in the plural, “they”), second person (i.e., “you,” whether singular or plural), and first person (i.e., “I” or “we”). In other words, when we talk about “it,” we are speaking objectively, in a third-person perspective. When we talk about “you,” we are speaking normatively (e.g., “you should do that”). And when we talk about ourselves (“I”), we are speaking subjectively.

Chomsky invented a concept of “linguistic competence.” Linguistic competence means you have a limited number of words in a language, an ability to arrange those words in an unlimited number of ways, and an ability to decide whether each of those infinitely many sentences conforms to the rules of the language. Habermas invents “communicative competence” for a similar purpose: you have the ability to apply rules regarding the use of sentences in communication. We rely on those rules to figure out which world a statement is referring to.

There are two levels of communication: discourse (i.e., verbal discussion) and communicative action. Discourse is communication that tries to convert everything to verbal terms. Validity claims (regarding e.g., your subjective perspective) can be put forth on the level of action; but in theory those actions can also be explored verbally, and vice versa.

There is a difference between true consensus and forced or pretended consensus. Discourse can lead to true consensus. Getting there requires the availability of an ideal speech situation (above) that allows discussion as needed. These speech situations combine, over centuries, to create a situation where the structure of speech contains human rationality.

So we can describe communicative competence (above) as the ability to achieve rationality via language. It includes the ability to choose the right kind of discourse for a situation. We use theoretical discourse to discuss the objective world; we use practical discourse to discuss the normative, social world; and we use _____ discourse to discuss the subjective world.

In theoretical discourse, we talk about what is true. In practical discourse, we talk about what is right. In subjective discourse, we talk about ____.

Austin originated the idea of the speech act. You utter something. If your utterance states a meaningful proposition, then it is “locutionary.” But your utterance also typically performs an action: it makes a promise, or expresses a feeling. Austin described this speech act, this performative aspect, as being “illocutionary.”

So language does a lot more than just make statements about the objective world as imagined by the positivist and the “philosophy of consciousness.” The speech act (i.e., the illocutionary part) provides the valuable service of indicating what kind of validity claim is being made. How should we interpret a statement? The speech act tells us whether the proposition pertains to the objective, normative, or subjective world.

Austin distinguished locutions and illocutions from perlocutions. You could say, “I will not go there.” That is a locution. You could rephrase it as, “I promise that I will not go there.” This is an illocution. But suppose you are lying. You will actually go there, despite your promise. You cannot say, “I am now deceiving you by promising I will not go there.” Doing so would defeat your purpose.

Unlike the locution and the illocution, this perlocution (i.e., saying you will not go there, when you plan to do so) consists, not of the actual verbal content of the statement, but rather of the effect that you intend to bring about (i.e., deception). In the perlocution, you have concealed your actual goal. To achieve shared understanding, you need illocutions. The existence of perlocutions shows that the speech acts belong to strategic, not communicative, action.

In genuine communicative action, illocutionary goals are the subject of open discussion, and they can change as participants keep reorienting themselves with respect to the validity claims that the other participants are making. But perlocutionary goals do not necessarily change as reason would dictate. The pursuit of concealed strategic goals depends – is parasitic – upon others’ use of language in communi¬cative action toward shared understanding.

In addition to communicative and strategic action, which are oriented socially (i.e., toward subjects), there is instrumental action, which is oriented toward objects. It can be assessed in terms of the efficiency of its intervention in the physical world. Thus communicative action is the only form, of the three, that is oriented toward shared understanding rather than toward achieving predetermined results.

Interpretive Understanding and the Lifeworld[edit]

Society is not just a large discussion. For one thing, many communications are nonverbal. More importantly, communication has the effect of coordinating action; it has implications for action. People understand the meaning of a claim presented in a speech act. They affirm or dissent. If they affirm, they act in response to socially imposed obligations. If they dissent, they may end the interaction, or may proceed with discussion that may result in one or more parties changing their positions.

We understand the claim presented in a speech act when we believe the speaker could present convincing reasons for that claim. Through this understanding, an illocution coordinates action. One kind of convincing reason is logical; another kind has official authorization (e.g., police). The thing that you understand may be the logic; or, in the latter case, you have a regulative speech act, and you are persuaded to do what the man says despite your lack of any knowledge that would explain his command.

“Constative” speech acts refer to the objective world. “Regulative” speech acts refer to the normative world. “Expressive” speech acts refer to the subjective world. If I say I hate chicken, I am expressing an internal, subjective state. Its truth can be tested by my behavior (e.g., I do not eat chicken).

An imperative (i.e., a command) is a matter of strategic, not communicative, action. To be communicative, there must be a presentation of a claim that could be defended with reasons, so that agreement may result.

Shared understanding is achieved through communicative action when all three worlds are involved in an interpersonal relation. On the objective level, there is a sharing of what is believed to be true knowledge about the world. On the normative level, the speaker has tried to perform a speech act that is appropriate for the situation. On the subjective level, the speaker generates trust by appearing to have stated his/her true belief or feeling. In this way, speech acts enhance interpersonal relations. They can also be challenged when one of these three aspects seems to be missing.

Communicative action that is oriented toward shared understanding tends to involve all three worlds. But it is possible to have relatively pure types of communicative action that consist primarily of speech acts oriented toward just one of the three worlds. Conversation consists primarily of constative speech acts; norm-regulated action consists primarily of regulative speech acts; and dramaturgical action consists primarily of expressive speech acts.

Each of these three kinds of action can be judged or challenged against the corresponding standard. The same is true of the fourth type of action, namely, teleological or goal-oriented (i.e., strategic or instrumental) action (i.e., goal-rationality). The standard for each is: teleological speech acts should be effective; constative speech acts should present valid claims to objective truth; norm-regulated acts should represent what is right; and dramaturgical acts should be sincere.

Verstehen (German for “understanding”) means, in this context, the social scientist’s achievement of interpretive understanding. Weber thought this precluded the making of judgments about what the scientist is observing. Habermas says the scientist cannot behave like a dispassionate external observer: s/he must adopt the viewpoint of participants and make the judgments they would make. This is the “performative” stance, or attitude.

The test of interpretive understanding is being able to anticipate the kinds of reasons a person would present, in support of a certain speech act. Reasons make sense only because of some standard of rationality, by which a reason is seen to be persuasive. To understand someone’s reasons, you have to evaluate them. If you want to evaluate them by their own standards, you have to adjust your sense of how their concept of rationality relates to yours. But in any case, the social scientist has to make judgments about what s/he is observing. This is the only way to determine how, or whether, the subject’s behavior was rational.

Rationality has a universal structure; it is not culture-bound – assuming, of course, that we are talking about rationality in connection with the four different kinds of action listed above, and are not limiting it solely to goal-rationality. Every culture has its objective, normative, and subjective claims to truth. Like the social scientist, the participant in a situation can theoretically switch to another (e.g., objective) level of discourse, though in practice the scientist may experience fewer constraints that would prevent him/her from doing so.

The Lifeworld is the huge collection of unstated, assumed ideas that everyone has. People in a culture share the same Lifeworld. This facilitates shared understanding about things in the objective, social, or subjective worlds. Communicative action occurs in, renews, and changes the Lifeworld.

You cannot become aware of your Lifeworld as a whole. Beyond the horizon you see is always another horizon. But you can become aware of parts of it when, for example, you are dealing with someone from another culture, who doesn’t have the same shared understanding.

The Lifeworld has three structural components: social, cultural, and personality. Thus, the Lifeworld concept is not just a theory of knowledge. It is a place where people develop and renew their social group memberships and personal identities. In the Lifeworld, communicative action facilitates mutual understanding, coordinated action, and socialization.

The relationship between the Lifeworld and the three formal (i.e., objective, social, or subjective) worlds is this: communicators achieve an understanding about something in their objective, social, or subjective worlds on the basis of their common Lifeworld. Hence, the Lifeworld is not the same as those three formal concepts.

The Lifeworld becomes rationalized. The result of the rationalization is that the elements of the Lifeworld become more sharply differentiated. As that occurs, interaction becomes more dependent on formation of consensus through rational argument.

There are three aspects of this rationalization. Structural differentiation is one. Structural differentiation means (1) institutional systems become increasingly disconnected from cultural worldviews; (2) inter¬personal relations become prominent in the relation between personality and society; and (3) individual activity becomes increasingly important to the renewal of tradition, in the relationship between culture and personality.

A second aspect of rationalization is differentiation between form and content in each element of the Lifeworld (i.e., culture, society, and personality). On the cultural level, direct involvement with the contents of traditions is replaced by abstract concepts. Much the same happens on the social level, as moral and legal principles become less concrete and more abstract. On the level of personality, cognitive structures become separated from concrete experience (e.g., a person learns math and can use it in many different jobs, in place of occupation-specific knowledge).

The third aspect of rationalization of the Lifeworld occurs in increased functional specification of processes by which culture, society, and personality are reproduced. Education of children becomes more refined and specialized; specific institutions and kinds of discourse are developed for dealing with various intellectual pursuits; specialized political institutions evolve.

Rationalization of the Lifeworld results in the conversion of its implicit worldviews into explicit terms. Everything becomes clarified and more subject to formulation and criticism. This results in what Weber described as loss of meaning and freedom. Weber said this results because goal-rationality becomes unduly prominent. Habermas replies that this explanation neglects the entirely distinct role that the System plays in the process.

Rationalization and the System[edit]

[to be continued]