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Jürgen Habermas is perhaps the most renowned member of the second generation of the Frankfurt School for Social Research. Like other members of the school, Habermas was strongly influenced by the work of philosophers Karl Marx and George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Habermas, however, rejects the pessimism of Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, earlier members of the Frankfurt School. Instead, he conceives of his life’s project as an attempt to formulate a critical theory of society with the practical intention of helping individuals emancipate themselves from various forms of domination. To develop a critical theory of society, Habermas’s first concern was to develop systematically its philosophical underpinnings. In the early 1970’s, he began to formulate elements of a theory of language, communication, and the evolution of society, intending to build up a framework for his larger view of emancipatory action. Early in his career he had argued that the system, especially the economy, dominated the whole of society at the expense of the “lifeworld,” the immediate milieu of the individual. He also held that science in the capitalist era was being turned against human beings and impoverishing their cultural lives because of its emphasis on instrumental reason. His thinking about these issues culminated in the two volumes of The Theory of Communicative Action.

The Theory

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Habermas begins The Theory of Communicative Action by distinguishing between instrumental rationality, or reason geared toward self-maintenance and adaptation to a contingent environment, and communicative rationality, through which people reach agreement on the validity of proposed assertions. He then argues for the authenticity of collective validity as a rational means of understanding reality.

This concept is a key one because Habermas claims that most Western societies promote a distorted understanding of rationality fixated only on instrumental aspects. Using the work of Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget on learning as an evolving structure of consciousness, Habermas claims that an individual learns to differentiate between the objective world, the social world, and the self. These three aspects of reality form three different contexts in which individuals can come to collective agreement. Agreement on an assertion about the objective world constitutes agreement about a fact and depends on cognitive instrumental rationality. Agreement about the justification of a way of ordering social life constitutes a norm in the evaluative domain and depends on ethical rationality. Agreement regarding the authenticity of a subject making an assertion about his or her own condition constitutes agreement rationally reached in the expressive domain. Thus an assertion must be accepted on all three levels. It must be true, it must be right in the existing normative context, and it must manifest the intention of the speaker.

The consensus a society reaches rationally on all three levels composes the “lifeworld” of the individuals who compose that society. In equating communicative action with consensually agreed upon validity, Habermas argues that all three aspects of meaning come into play. In attempting to come to an understanding with one another, participants share in a cultural tradition that they both use and renew. In doing so, they also strengthen the integration of the group and internalize its values. Structurally, the lifeworld consists of three interpenetrating entities: the culture, the society, and the individual. Communicative action, with its mutual understanding, coordination of action, and formation of personal identity, strengthens all three components and is crucial to the healthy functioning of the lifeworld.


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Habermas realizes that he must demonstrate that his model has universal validity without falling back on the guarantees of past philosophical traditions. In pursuit of this goal in the remainder of the work, he explains the sociological approaches to a theory of how rationality functions in society. He points out the conceptual strategies, assumptions, and lines of argument for these approaches and lays out the various problems encountered. He then demonstrates how these problems can be solved by the application of his threefold approach to rationality in his theory of communicative action.

Habermas then begins this indirect process of proof by arguing that previous approaches to interpretive sociology that did conceive of society as a lifeworld, whether that term or a synonym was used, were one-sided, emphasizing only one of the structural components of the lifeworld. They all exhibit, therefore, an impoverished and incomplete notion of rationality. To account for this lack, Habermas recapitulates the evolution of modern society, relying heavily on the work of German sociologist Max Weber. In his work with world religions, Weber found that religions that developed a dualism between God and the world came to emphasize the ethical aspect of rationality and stressed adhesion to norms. Such a worldview tended to reject the world and objectify it. In dealing with the rise of capitalism and the Protestant ethic, Weber claimed that the Protestant vision of an ordered hardworking life as the path to salvation was washed away under capitalism in favor of an instrumental attitude toward work that enshrined an instrumental rationality. Weber, in dealing with the evolution of law and legal institutions, claimed that in the modern era, the validity of law based on traditional consensus has been replaced by reliance on rational consensus, a kind of belief in the legality of enacted laws.

Habermas believes that Weber’s work still has much to offer, but it is fundamentally flawed. He sees Weber’s model as an atomistic one, a model of action for individual actors but lacking any process for coordinating actions through which interpersonal relations come about. Therefore, Weber’s model can be assessed only under the aspect of purposive rationality, where actions are coordinated solely for the purpose of individual success, not for reaching understanding. After a lengthy discussion of speech act theory, Habermas launches his topology of communicative action to complement the instrumental action and rationality he found in other theories: conversation (cognitive), normatively regulated (evaluative), and dramaturgical (expressive).

Habermas also argues that while society is relying more and more on instrumental rationality, the reservoir of traditional knowledge that a society accepts as unproblematic has been shrinking; therefore, communicative action is even more necessary for the vital preservation of the lifeworld. Habermas see that the “uncoupling” of communicative action from the processes of reaching understanding has resulted in coordinating actions through nonlinguistic media such as money and power. As he sees it, increasingly actions are set loose from an integration provided by value consensus and become governed by purposive or instrumental rationality to the denigration of the lifeworld.

Habermas then turns to the work of earlier members of the Frankfurt School, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, who set the foundations for a critical view of society to explain how capitalism simultaneously heightens the forces of production and immobilizes the forces of subjective resistance. He argues that their work floundered because they operated within the paradigm of a philosophy of consciousness. He insists on a paradigm centered not on the relation of a solitary actor to an objective world but on the intersubjectivity of actors relating simultaneously to something in the objective world, something in the common social world, and something in one another’s subjective world. Habermas sees such a shift in the work of philosophers George Mead and Émile Durkheim, which he discusses in detail.

From Mead, Habermas stressed the notion that as human beings mature and interact with one another on a symbolic level, authority no longer rests on sanctions but on moral as well as cognitive perceptions of collective good. From Durkheim’s study of the evolution of law from its origins in belief in the sacred to modern legal institutions, Habermas saw a transition from accepting the binding force of moral agreement founded in traditional values to moral agreement binding because of the generality of underlying interest achieved through communicative action. Habermas called this process the linguistification of the sacred.

Lifeworld and System

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From Durkheim, Habermas also gleaned another significant insight, one he would later develop through the work of philosopher Talcott Parsons: the need to see society differentiated into both lifeworld and system. He takes up the question as to how the lifeworld is limited and changed by the structural transformation of society as a whole. He argues that communicative action, as a simultaneous process of mutual understanding, coordination of action, and socialization, renews cultural knowledge, strengthens social integration, and enhances the formation of personal identity. He also argues that social integration is different from system integration. System integration, he insists, more and more occurs in ways that have been “delinguistified”: ways that operate mainly through the media of money and power, media independent of the lifeworld. Habermas then turns to Parsons and his work with integrating systems theory with a theory of society.

However, whereas Parsons started with individuals and then added an intersubjective concept of order, Habermas’s theory begins with and is centered in a cultural system with intersubjective values shared from the start. He likewise disagrees with Parsons’s contention that the formation of consensus can be replaced by delinguistified media. The lifeworld can expand technologies of communication but cannot itself be technicized.


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Additional Reading

Berstein, J. M. Recovering Ethical Life: Jürgen Habermas and the Future of Critical Theory. New York: Routledge, 1995. The author places Jürgen Habermas’s work in the context of critical theory as a whole—past, present, and future. He also focuses on the evolution of Habermas’s thinking on communicative action. Sympathetic as this study is, Berstein contends that Habermas contributes to the very problems of ethical dislocation and meaninglessness that he is trying to diagnose and remedy.

Braaten, Jane. Habermas’s Critical Theory of Society. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991. The author explains Habermas’s theory of rationality, which she sees as the core of his social theory and method. She also examines his philosophy of social theory, which offers a preliminary outline of and method for a theory of societal rationalization. She assess his critical theory by looking at three applications in the United States.

Chambers, Simone. Reasonable Democracy: Jürgen Habermas and the Politics of Discourse. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1996. This book highlights Habermas’s contributions to political science and discuss Habermas’s view of the social aspects of democracy.

Deflem, Mathieu, ed. Habermas, Modernity, and Law. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage Publications, 1996. A riveting overview of Habermas’s work, with chapters ranging from human rights to law. Extremely helpful to professionals and students studying legal, political, or social theory.

Foss, Sonja K., Karen A. Foss, and Robert Trapp. Contemporary Perspectives on Rhetoric. Prospect Heights, Ill.: Waveland Press, 1985. The chapter of this book that focuses on Habermas summarizes his contribution to the field of rhetoric. The book also offers a chapter on Stephen Toulmin, whose work Habermas claimed influenced his.

Held, David. Introduction to Critical Theory: Horkheimer to Habermas. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980. Although this book was written before publication of many of Habermas’s works, it is helpful in providing a detailed picture of the evolution of critical theory in the Frankfurt School and Habermas’s continuities and discontinuities with it.

McCarthy, Thomas A. The Critical Theory of Jürgen Habermas. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1982. After translating several of Habermas’s works into English, the author realized that many misreadings of Habermas arose because so few of his works were available in English. This book provides a systematic and comprehensive overview of Habermas’s thought by explicating, interpreting, connecting, and systematizing Habermas’s works.

Rehg, William. Insight and Solidarity: A Study in the Discourse Ethics of Jürgen Habermas. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994. The author examines Habermas’s most important writings on moral theory. This book will be of interest to all who are concerned with moral, social, political, or legal theory.

White, Stephen K., ed. The Cambridge Companion to Habermas. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1995. The author presents a collection of essays that contextualize Habermas’s ideas within European political, philosophical, and sociological thought and that critique various aspects of his work, especially from feminist and postmodernist positions.


Critical Essays