Habermas & Communicative Actions
Jurgen Habermas is one of the most influential sociologists and philosophers of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Though his work on the public sphere, “The Structural Transformations of the Public Sphere,” is his best known work, it is his writings on communicative actions that remain most influential. Habermas believes that competent communicative actions is the key to constructing what is rational and creating a participatory democracy that can counter the administrative and coercive nature of formal systems, such as corporations and the welfare state. This article details the principles of communicative actions and the benefits Habermas believes are possible. The article then examines some criticisms of Habermas and gives examples of Habermas's continuing influence.
Keywords: Communicative Actions; Competent Speaker; Deliberative Theory of Democracy; First Philosophy; Ideal Speech Situation; Instrumental Rationality; Project of Modernity; Public Sphere; Strongest Argument; Universal Pragmatics
Jurgen Habermas is a German sociologist and philosopher most closely associated with the Frankfurt School, critical theory, and pragmatism. His theory of communicative action is detailed in two volumes, The Theory of Communicative Actions: Reason and the Rationalization of Society and The Theory of Communicative Actions: Lifeworld and System: A Critique of Functionalist Reason. The basic premise of these works is that language, and more specifically, communication between competent speakers, is the mechanism people use to understand the world, the people around them, and their own intentions, feelings, and desires (McCarthy, 1984). Habermas believes that through conversations, individuals participate in a process that constructs rationality, validates truth, and criticizes formal structures or institutions of power in our society. At his most hopeful, Habermas believes that communicative actions strengthen the democratic process and a rational scientific understanding of the world he terms the 'project of modernity.' One of the key things to understand about Habermas and his theory of communicative actions is that the ideas and methodologies he lays in this theory have remained influential, if not a key building block, for almost everything he has written since. To understand communicative actions is to take a grand step forward in understanding one of the most prolific and influential modern social theorists.
Habermas opens his first book on communicative actions by stating that from its inception, philosophy has attempted to describe the world as a whole, despite its myriad fragmented appearances, and subject it to discoverability through reason. Habermas believes this totalizing of knowledge (knowledge of nature, history, or society) is no longer feasible. Advances in science and the "reflective consciousness" that accompanies science have devalued the approach to philosophy which constructs large theories about the world and history and then tries to fit everything into the theory. All the efforts to establish a first philosophy, which claims to explain the first causes of foundational truths, have broken down. An additional problem Habermas identifies is the subjugation of rationality to formal systems, or what Weber might call bureaucracies. In this context rationality is merely instrumental; that is to say that reason serves as a tool of the formal system and its goal. Habermas believes this changes rationalism and its approach to nature and individuals. Instrumental rationality serves formal systems by gaining understanding through objectifying nature and individuals (Habermas, 1970a). For a reflexive understanding of one another and the world, as well as a critical understanding of and ability to question coercive formal systems, there needs to be a different form of rationality. This form is Habermas's communicative actions.
Habermas attacks rationality on two fronts. The first is an attack on the philosophical establishment. Philosophy can no longer be viewed as an autonomous discipline. Additionally, it cannot lay claim to universal truths or "First Philosophy" (Nielsen, 1993). The critique of "First Philosophy" brings into question almost every philosophical construct from Plato to Kant and more specifically challenges elements of Marxist theory at the heart of the Frankfurt School and critical theory. Habermas's communicative action locates reason in language as opposed to history such as Marx and Hegel or in the mind as Kant (Alfred, 1996). Habermas believes philosophy cannot stand out from the world and the sciences. Rather, philosophy should "stand in" providing science with foundations and logic as well as to integrate science back into the world of morals, politics, and art (Nielson, 1993).
The second front Habermas attacks is modern rationality. Habermas believes modern rationality is ambiguous and a distortion of reason (Bernstein, 1989) and ultimately becomes subjected to formal systems that reduce rationality to a means to an end. Habermas's fear is that scientific, economic, and governmental formal systems practice a form of instrumental rationality, or goal oriented value-free reasoning, which accomplishes a goal but does not take into account the rightness of such acts or their effects upon individuals (Habermas, 1970A). Instead of rationality guiding the actions of formal system, formal systems guide the use of rationality. Habermas believes this is just one of the negative results that arose from Enlightenment thinking, or what he calls the 'project of modernity.' However, unlike some critical theorists, Habermas believes there have been many good results from the project of modernity and a few worthy ideas that can be reclaimed from the Enlightenment. Habermas sees communicative actions, or communicative rationality, as the mechanism to reclaim the positive aspects of the project of modernity.
Communicative actions leverage the non-foundational universal rationalism located within language. By "non-foundational universal" Habermas means two things. First, the rational mechanisms in language are pragmatic. That is to say they can be observed in the every day and that they work. Second, they are not based in some sort of Aristotelian or Platonic "form" or philosophical or theological first principle (Meadwell, 1994). This pragmatic approach to language and philosophy is at the core of Habermas's work.
What makes this form of rationality so valuable is that it can be accessed by virtually everyone through conversations. Additionally, this very democratic form of rationality is powerful. It provides the competent speakers with the ability to validate truth claims concerning rightness, appropriateness, and legitimacy in relation to our shared values and norms (McCarthy, 1984). When brought into a public sphere, communicative rationality is the foundation of democracy allowing conversationalists to contest, defend, and revise truth claims.
Habermas also viewed communicative rationality as an integrative force. He believed that once the walls of philosophy were torn down that philosophy, through communicative actions, could integrate itself into science, providing science with the ideas for its hypotheses. Habermas termed this the "philosophization" of science. He also imagined communicative rationality eventually integrating science back into the everyday world (McCarthy, 1984). This was an important issue to Habermas. He viewed instrumental rationality as one of the dangers of science, based in an objectification of nature and individuals, which could lead to harmful actions. Communicative rationality can supplant instrumental rationality and integrate science back into the world putting considerations of the effects of scientific actions on nature and individuals back into play.
Ideal Speech Situation
According to Habermas, the fundamental communicative action is the ideal speech situation. The ideal speech situation takes place in a public setting and is free from any coercive power or force. In other words, conversationalists meet openly and discuss freely. Each speaker must be competent on the subject being discussed and be willing to accept the validity of the stronger argument. Each argument serves to raise the validity claims of each conversationalist and allow each to recognize the others' validity claim. Thus each conversation begins with the assumption that the conditions for the ideal speech...
(The entire section is 3771 words.)