So over the past six weeks I have delivered the Open Day project for my university, and travelled to China on a recruitment trip that lasted two weeks. Luckily, I built some slack into my schedule, so although I have missed my goal of completing another chapter draft six weeks after completing the first one, I can reassure myself that I am still basically on track. For the moment!
Habermas wants to clarify the subtle differences between his own position and similar approaches:
|Against Brandom: Accounts of Objectivity|
|“Structural objectivity” is built into our practices of giving and asking for reasons: the distinction between something’s being true and being taken to be true is a pragmatic one, built into the structures of communication||The formal presupposition of a single objective world existing independently of us is, after all, also a structural feature of discourse|
|Against Putnam: Truth|
|The objectivity of value is the inverse of the value-ladenness of facts. There are ought implying facts and, therefore, value judgements can be true or false||There are different senses in which judgements can be correct. Norms must not be assimilated to facts for the facts are not up to us in the same way that moral or ethical norms are. Reaching consensus does not therefore exhaust the meaning of truth|
|At issue in this dispute is whether it is legitimate to allow for different types of truth that in turn require different types of justification or whether “truth” is a notion that applies to statements about the objective world only whereas moral judgements, though they have cognitive content, are subject to a different kind of validity. (xx)|
|Against Putnam: Pluralism|
|Instrumentalist conception of the value of pluralism: it involves more than mere tolerance, for a consistent pluralist cannot hold that some other form of life is “wrong” and furthermore, such a pluralist must accept that other such forms of life may have insights available to them that are not available to her, but may be of use to her and her own community||Habermasians are confined to approaching a value judgement from another community or culture in only two ways, by asking a) whether it is deontologically admissible (whether it violates any universal norms), or b) whether it contributes to a collective form of life that is in the interest of those affected. But when we add to this Habermas’s emphasis on learning processes, and the dialogical nature of communication, we see that these surely allow for the possibility of our learning by interacting not only with the objective world but also with others|
|Pragmatic conception of knowledge|
|Pragmatist deflation of Kantian transcendental analysis shows how the background structures of our lifeworld are embodied in our practices and activities and emphasises the participant perspective||Participants presuppose the existence of a single objective world that is the same for everyone. This is how we are able to refer to objects in the world, and so underlies the representational function of language|
|A strictly causal theory of reference is unacceptable to Habermas||This representational function of language nevertheless remains tied to contexts of experience, action and discursive justification|
|Empirical knowledge of the world and our linguistic knowledge are interdependent||Language makes possible our access to reality, but our engaged coping with the world has the power to lead us to revise our linguistic practices|
|The world-disclosing power of language is “weakly transcendental”||Language does not fully determine what we can know of the world or what the world is for us.|
|Objectivity is crucial for learning. Problem solving is the key activity underlying knowledge acquisition||The resistance that we encounter when coping with the world demonstrates that reality
constrains our thinking, which provides the foothold for a robust notion of objectivity
|Ontological implications: weak naturalism complements Habermas’s epistemological realism||Nature and culture are viewed as continuous with one another, but Habermas refrains from making any sort of reductionist claims about social practices since these are to be analysed from the participant perspective as norm-governed|
The question of truth for [Habermas] is a question of objective validity (Wahrheitsgeltung). (xv)
Objective validity has to do with what one ought to believe, so in this sense it is okay to speak of truth as a normative concept.
However, truth, for Habermas, must not be assimilated to (merely) holding true. Ultimately, objective validity is a matter of what is, in fact, true, not of what we take to be true (despite the fact that we can confidently say that some of our truths have replaced earlier beliefs that we now know were false, and the fallibilist insight that, for all we know, our own beliefs may be similarly replaced in the future). Truth, in contrast to normative rightness, in other words, is not an epistemic notion. (xv)
Since writing “Wahrheistheorien” Habermas has generally confined himself to the view that in raising a truth claim, a speaker claims that some state of affairs or facts obtains. (xv)
Rejection of traditional theories of truth:
|Correspondence Theory||Coherence Theory|
|Assumes the possibility of direct access to “brute” or “naked” reality: too strong a notion of truth||Fails to capture important aspects of our concept of truth for beliefs/statements can only be corroborated by other beliefs: too weak a notion of truth|
|Statements are not true because they cohere with other statements that we accept, but because the states of affairs they describe actually obtain, even though they can only be established by means of other statements.|
|Consensus Theory of Truth|
|Started life as a “discursive” conception of truth (until mid to late-90s)||Truth is ideal warranted assertability (see Putnam etc)|
|Abandoned epistemic conception of truth in response to criticism of the above||We agree that a proposition is true because it is true, not because it can be agreed to by all concerned|
|The problem: validity of moral judgements and norms has been over-generalised||The validity of a moral claim is exhausted by ideal warranted assertability since there are no facts independent of the ideal community of those affected to which normative rightness claims purport to refer|
|In contrast: talk of truth has specific ontological implications||It presupposes reference to a single objective world that exists independently of our descriptions and is the same for everyone (Putnam’s direct theory of reference)|
Truth on the level of a theory of meaning
Although truth, as one of the three validity claims, is indispensable to the theory of communicative action, Habermas has argued against taking truth as a semantic primitive. Rather, it is but one dimension of validity. (xvii)
Communication, action, and representation are equiprimordial…In performing a speech act, a speaker represents a state of affairs, establishes an intersubjective relation with a hearer, and expresses her intention. In other words, she raises three validity claims: a claim to truth, to normative rightness, and to sincerity. (xvii)
The insistence on these three mutually irreducible validity claims underpins Habermas’s critique of e.g. Davidson, Quine, Brandom and Putnam, for all are seeking to find a common denominator or to level the conceptual landscape in ways that Habermas rejects. (xvii)
- Quine and Davidson: turn the communicative actions of others into mere observable behaviour
- Brandom: assimilates norms of rationality to norms of action
- Putnam: levels the fact-value distinction by associating value judgements with “ought-implying facts”
Truth on the level of metaphysics and ontology
How should truth be defined? This question is, for pragmatists, ill put:
Indeed, one might argue that a major advantage of Habermas’s present account over that he offered in “Wahrheitstheorien” is that he no longer provides a definition of truth or equates it with anything. (xviii)
A better question: how does truth function?
In everyday coping: the unconditionality of truth is most evident in this practical context since we presuppose certain truths as unconditionally valid.
This unconditional acceptance is the pragmatic corollary of a realist conception of truth. (xviii)
In discourse: we are aware of the “cautionary” uses of the truth predicate and the fallibility of our claims.
Habermas as an epistemological realist:
The objects we can refer to may fail to meet the descriptions we associate with them (fallibilism and theory of reference). (xviii)
In defence of his version of a pragmatic conception of truth, he argues that the connection between truth and justification is epistemically, but not conceptually necessary. In other words, truth may always “outrun” justified belief, even under (approximately) ideal conditions, but he nevertheless insists on the fact that from the agent’s perspective, practical certainties are and must be taken to be true absolutely at the risk of incapacitation. It is only in discourse that such practical convictions come under a fallibility proviso. (xviii)
Habermas as a conceptual nominalist:
1) Commitment to the revisability of language by experience
2) The world does not consist of facts but of things: facts are not things (cf Davidson)
3) Facts are what make sentences true
4) There is both a mind- and language-independent objective world
5) Antireductionist in the sense that he defends the mutual irreducibility and equiprimordiality of subjectivity, objectivity and intersubjectivity
Pragmatism after the Linguistic Turn
There are two major current in twentieth century philosophy, i.e. after the linguistic turn:
|Wittgenstein and Heidegger||Quine and Davidson||Putnam, Dummett, Apel and Habermas|
|Linguistic world disclosure: access to reality is always filtered and made possible by language/conceptual schemes||Embraces an empiricist outlook||Linguistic turn is not just a methodological shift but a paradigm shift.|
|Against: jeopardises the notion of objectivity, we are at the mercy of “Being” or the grammar of our language games||Against: does so at the expense of doing justice to the participant perspective of language users since all normative social and linguistic practices are assimilated to observable events in the world (strong naturalism)||Seeks to do justice both to the constitutive nature of language and to the objectivity claims of truth.|
|Both traditions limit themselves to the “semantic aspects” of language and treat pragmatics as secondary||Humboldt goes beyond these two traditions: he argues that there are three aspects of language, world disclosure (hermeneutics), representation (formal semantics) and pragmatics|
|Missing an adequate account of the representational function of language, or reference and propositional truth||Does not engage in cultural critique. Truth conditional semantics is too narrow for it privileges the representational dimension of language over its expressive and communicative dimensions||Habermas remedies what is missing in Continental philosophy by drawing on the Analytic tradition, specifically Putnam: he stresses the sameness of reference is a formal pragmatic presupposition of communication, and this presupposition is independent of the specific – and possibly divergent – descriptions that two speakers may associate with a term or referent.|
Humboldt…emphasises the possibility of cross-linguistic and cross-cultural communication and retains a notion of objective reference. (x)
Humboldt lays the foundations of the kind of Kantian pragmatism [Habermas] defends. (xi)
Indeed, for two speakers to disagree about the appropriate description of a referent presupposes that they are referring to the same thing. (xi)
Kantian pragmatism: how do we detranscendentalise Kant?
What follows, in other words, from understanding the transcendental conditions of possibility of experience as something in the world, or situating them in our practices? (xii)
|Kant’s necessary subjective conditions of objective experience are transformed and given the “quasi-transcendental” role of intersubjective conditions of linguistic interpretation and communication.||If taken too far, we end up with undesirable consequences, of which Hegel is the prime example: Hegel was right to historicise reason, but he subsequently went too far in the direction of an “objective idealism” according to which objectivity is ultimately reduced to intersubjectivity.|
|When we give too much constitutive authority to e.g. lifeworlds or linguistic frameworks, the result is linguistic determinism and cultural or epistemological relativism, for if there are as many way of knowing as there are languages, and these languages, furthermore, are incommensurable, the concept of objectivity loses all its bite.|
|Even though Habermas would agree that we do not have unmediated access to reality, he rejects relativism in epistemology, just as much as in moral theory. Habermas will argue that the threats of objectivism and relativism stem from an insufficiently thorough pragmatism.|
Habermas argues the above problems follow not from the project of detranscendentalisation per se, but from a (continued) privileging of the representational model of knowledge…which has traditionally gone hand in hand with the correspondent theory of truth. (xii)
All references are to the translator’s introduction in Truth and Justification
In communicative language use, if I am challenged I am expected to produce a satisfactory answer to that challenge, which will then be either accepted or rejected by my communicative partner.
There are four types of validity claims, which are also mapped onto four domains of reality:
|Truth||Challenge to the cognitive content of the utterance||‘The’ world of external nature|
|Rightness||Challenge to the speaker’s right to initiate a conversation. Roles are normatively prescribed, so the validity claim demands that speakers consider the legitimacy of those roles or relevant norms, and their relationship to them||‘Our’ world of society|
|Intelligibility||The basic sense of an utterance may be glossed or interpreted by the hearer in the event of a challenge||Language itself|
|Sincerity||The degree to which an utterance accurately reflects the speaker’s intentions||‘My’ world of internal nature|
Empirical evidence or experience disrupts our taken for granted assumptions on which we usually base our actions. Far from supporting the current language game, evidence is actually a disrupting force that runs counter to our normal routine. Thus, an appeal to further experience will only redeem the claim in the most humdrum of cases.
A proposition is said to be true if and only if it could be accepted by everyone else who could enter into discourse with me. However, this is not to say that truth is relative to a specific community. Rather, truth is determined by the agreement not just of those directly present, but also of all those who could be present. As such, a proposition that is held to be true now is done so only in the most provisional sense, continually waiting for further disruptive evidence or argumentation. Here Habermas is close to Peirce, in the sense that truth is arrived at within a community of participants, but is never finally arrived at as it is subject to continual revision.
Truth is therefore redeemed in discourse, which is contrasted with the more mundane communication. Discourse is defined by certain normative requirements, for instance, that no competent speaker can be excluded from conversation. Habermas acknowledges the circularity of this claim: insofar as participants cannot be excluded, their competence cannot be established independently of discourse itself. This is not necessarily problematic, however, since it coheres with the view that truth is only provisional.
In Wittgenstein, we see that it is rather like language games float free of non-linguistic reality and that meaning is wholly constituted by the rules of a particular language game. For Habermas, it is the universals of communicative competence (as explicated by formal pragmatics) that constitute not reality as such, but the possibility of our experience of language. This deliberately Kantian formulation emphasises the transcendental role of communicative competence insofar as communicative competence structures the way in which human beings engage with reality. Habermas further distinguishes his project from truth semantics by introducing the concept of illocutionary force to his argument.
|Illocutionary content||Propositional content|
|To do things with words||To make statements about the world|
|Mention of propositional content||Assertion of propositional content|
|Focus on intersubjective or performative aspects||Establish truth or falsity|
Truth semantics reduces the validity dimension of meaning solely according to representational formulations that admit of variation only as far as the direction of a ‘fit’ between language and the world is established. As such, truth semantics are too narrow for distinguishing the several illocutionary forms that express the authorised imperatives and commission speech acts with which a speaker sincerely binds his own will to a normative obligation. Nonetheless, the determination of truth does depend in part upon semantic analysis, since speech acts can have action-coordinating effects only if one understands the obligations implied in the acceptance of a claim. This is coupled with a further reflective process, which consists in analysing language use relative to its conditions of verification within the shared contexts of its actual use. Thus, successful speech acts can be said to have aspects of both competence and performance insofar as they must be both a well-formed proposition and competently used statement.
Mutual understanding is encapsulated in the illocutionary force, for far from being just a conversation between two speakers, a speech act can only be judged as successful if and only if it has the force to generate an interpersonal relationship between two or more subjects that is freely entered into by all parties. Speech acts generate the contexts within which questions, agreements, objections and so on may make sense. Within this horizon, we may come to understand another participant’s intention, which is crucial for opening up free and unforced communication. We aren’t thrown into language games, they are not thrust upon us, for we can be given good or bad reasons for selecting which ones we choose to play. Thus, Habermas renews the challenge to instrumental reason for in explicating the rationality of illocutionary forces, one moves towards a conception of communicative rationality as a viable alternative to instrumental reason.
Rules are constitutive of any game, insofar as they define what it means to play a particular game. An agent expresses competence to the extent that they demonstrate an ability to abide by the rules of the game. But, the agent does not necessarily have to be able to explain the rules. Thus, competence is bound up with knowing-how – practical ability – rather than knowing-that – theoretical knowledge. This is manifest in an agent’s ability to continue to play a particular game even when a situation arises that he has never encountered before.
There are two consequences of drawing a parallel between playing a game and using language. First, philosophy of language must give up monological explanations because the phenomenon of following a rule cannot be explained monologically. Language presupposes a community to check that one is following the rules, for instance (against private language). Second, it calls for a fundamental reassessment of the nature of language and meaning. In correspondence theories, the meaning and truth of a proposition are largely dependent upon reference to objects in the non-linguistic world. Their emphasis is upon the cognitive role of language (as a means to communicate facts). They are rule bound, but in a subtly different way.
Wittgenstein is not interested in the truth of a proposition, that is, in its adequacy to the non-linguistic world as in correspondence theories, so much as the appropriateness of a sentence in a given context. Following a rule means that the rules can differ in any given context, for instance the expression of religious beliefs or governing scientific experiments. Thus, what is true or meaningful is distinctive to a particular language game. Further, following a rule gets you beyond deep grammar, since the competence of a speaker rests not just in the tacit understanding of the rules that govern part of the sentence, but also in the ability to engage with other speakers in concrete situations.
Here, Wittgenstein flips from the philosophy of language into social theory. The former is concerned with sentences and the latter with speech acts. Speech acts include questions, promises, orders, requests and baptisms. Beyond the words spoken, they entail a normative commitment. In so doing, speech acts establish specific social and moral relationships between the speaker and hearer. They are distinguished from language games, because they are irreducible communicative units that occur within the broader context of a language.
For Habermas, though Wittgenstein approaches social theory, he remains tied to a therapeutic rather than theoretical approach and so does not constitute a whole. This is because language for Wittgenstein has no systematic or universal core, whereas universal pragmatics transcends specific language games. Second, Wittgenstein’s position entails perspectivism since he offers no ideas as to how certain rules are legitimated or accepted because the speaker is so embedded in the language game that he is unable to get a critical purchase on it.
Habermas thus identifies two weaknesses in Wittgenstein. First, he fails to adequately grasp that relationship that exists between competent communicators. Second, there is too little emphasis on the role of cognitive language in which an agent must relate to another human subject, and to the matters about which he is communicating. In fact, the games analogy distorts ordinary language use, as in the former one is able to conceal their intentions, but if we were to do this in the latter communication would break down. Thus, Wittgenstein’s games players are forced to merely accept the legitimacy of the rules of the game, but Habermas’s players are capable of accessing the legitimacy of social conventions as part of playing the game.
Universal pragmatics is the theoretical reconstruction of the competences people use in everyday communication. Universal refers to the fixed, underlying structures present in all communication, regardless of which language one is speaking. In this rational reconstruction of competences, universal pragmatics seeks to understand the capacity of social actors to produce and sustain everyday social life so that it is stable, ordered and meaningful.
Universal pragmatics is a comprehensive social theory:
Non-Social Instrumental Action
Oriented toward success
Agent takes up an objectifying stance towards the social world and seeks to manipulate social objects
Oriented toward mutual understanding
Agent treats others as subjects with whom one establishes meaningful intersubjective relations
The generation of society can be explained through communication between agents, which takes the form of speech acts. Speech acts are a form of social practice and enable us to realise social relationships between actors.
Universal pragmatics is the culmination of attempts to rationally reconstruct the generation of society. Previous attempts have failed because they have been constitutive theories, characterised by an appeal to the transcendental subject. Society is made possible by the powers of the subject, for example through labour (Marx), hermeneutic interpretation (Dilthey and Gadamer), and theorisation of the lifeworld in which society is merely cognition (Husserl and Schultz).
Habermas criticises constitutive theories for neglecting the dimension of interaction through their monologism. Though language has priority over all other rational media, Habermas rejects the ontological conclusion that being itself is a linguistic reality. Constitutive powers are attributed to either discrete members of society or to a holistic social subject. Thus, such theories cannot explicate constitution as something that is realised only intersubjectively.
Habermas also criticises systems theories (the structuralism of Levi-Strauss, or Luhmann), in which society is referred to only as subjectless rule systems. Habermas contends that one cannot distinguish between system and lifeworld in these theories, and so the social actor is reduced to a judgemental dope. Systems theories do have the merit of according importance to the deep-seated rules that generate society, for example in Chomsky’s ‘deep grammar’, which is a set of rules that competent speakers follow, without being able to bring to consciousness what those rules consist in. In the next post, we will look at Wittgenstein’s analysis of rule following in relation to language games.
The Theory of Communicative Action
To get to Habermas’s theory of truth and knowledge, we have to start with The Theory of Communicative Action (1971), a critical study of the theories of rationality that informed the classical sociologies of Weber, Durkheim, Parsons, Lukacs, Horkheimer and Adorno. TCA probably marks the start of Habermas’s mature philosophical position, through which he deals with the themes of the task of philosophy and its relation to the social sciences, whilst defending normativity and the universalist ambitions of philosophy within a framework that includes specific kinds of empirical social research with which philosophy interacts. For Habermas, philosophers work with social scientists to understand normative claims within current historical contexts, which are characterised by social and systemic modes of integration. By recognising both modes of integration, Habermas avoids the pessimism associated with other theories of modernity that traditionally focus on a primarily instrumental conception of rationality that misses the cultural dimension of modernisation.
Traditional large-scale macrosociological and historical theories have long been held as the most appropriate explanatory basis for critical social sciences. Such theories, however, have two main drawbacks. First, comprehensiveness does not guarantee explanatory power; indeed, there are many large-scale theories, each with their own distinctive social phenomena, that attempt unification. Second, explanations typically appeal to a variety of different social theories. Habermas’s employment of critical explanations runs along two levels: a micro-theory of rationality based on communicative co-ordination and a macro-theory of the systemic integration of modern societies through mechanisms such as the market. These are two levels of his social theory, which includes an analysis of communicative rationality (the rational potential built into everyday speech), and a theory of modern society and modernisation. On the basis of this theory, Habermas hopes to overcome the one-sided versions of rationalisation in order to better assess the losses and gains of modernisation.
Traditional comprehensive critical theories also make two problematic assumptions, first that there is just one preferred mode of critical explanation, and second that there is one preferred goal of social criticism. Such theories typically employ historical materialism, one consequence of which is that the correctness or incorrectness of a particular critical model depends on the adequacy of the theory to objective historical necessities or mechanisms, into which the critical theorist alleges that he has superior insight. On the other hand, a pluralistic mode of inquiry suggests a different norm of correctness: that criticism must be verified by those participating in the practice and that this demand for practical verification is part of the process of inquiry itself.
Though he does not explicitly say so, Habermas would appear to favour the practical plurality approach, going as far as Dewey in arguing that the logic of the social sciences is pluralistic and eludes the apparatus of general theories. In the absence of general theories, the most fruitful approach to social scientific knowledge is to bring all the various methods and theories into relation with each other. It is Critical Theory that takes on the role of unifying the plurality of approaches, which all have their own legitimacy as developed lines of empirical research.
In order to achieve these theoretical and methodological aims, Habermas develops his own definition of rationality that is epistemic, practical and intersubjective. Rationality on this account is not so much the possession of particular knowledge but rather ‘how speaking and acting subjects acquire and use knowledge’. Habermas’s account is pragmatic because it views interpreters as competent and knowledgeable agents, in line with other pragmatic theories. Moreover, the account of practical knowledge is in the performative attitude, from the point of view of a competent speaker. Habermas’s account is formal because in attempting to reconstruct the practical know-how that is necessary for being a knowledgeable social actor amongst others, he attempts to articulate invariant structures of communication.
The perfomative attitude requires speakers to adopt a stance oriented toward reaching understanding. When speakers address each other with this kind of practical attitude, they engage in communicative action. Communicative action is distinguished from strategic forms of social action, in which actors are more interested in achieving individual goals rather than reaching mutual understanding. In communicative action, speakers coordinate their action and pursuit of goals on the basis that the goals are inherently reasonable or worthwhile. Strategic action succeeds insofar as speakers achieve their individual goals whereas communicative action succeeds insofar as all actors freely agree that their goal(s) is reasonable and thus merits co-operative behaviour. Communicative action is thus inherently consensual, and mobilises the potential for rationality given with ordinary language.
What makes rationally motivated agreement possible? Habermas argues for a particular account of utterance meaning based on acceptability conditions, by analogy to the truth conditional account of the meaning of sentences. Rather than linking meaning with representational semantics, however, Habermas takes a pragmatic approach by analysing the conditions for the illocutionary success of the speech act. According to the core principle of his pragmatic theory of meaning, we understand a speech act when we understand the speaker’s reasons for claiming validity for his utterance i.e. meaning is tied to the practice of reason giving, and in turn, to the processes of criticism and justification. A speech act succeeds in reaching understanding when the hearer takes up an affirmative position toward the claim made by the speaker. If this does not occur, the conversation shifts reflective levels from ordinary speech to discourse, in which the claim being made is submitted to argument and dialogue to test for their rational justifiability as true, correct or authentic.
In opposition to the positivist fixation on fact-stating modes of discourse, Habermas’s account enables him to recognise a far broader spectrum of intersubjective validity than just empirical truth, a spectrum that includes claims to moral rightness, ethical goodness or authenticity, personal sincerity and aesthetic value. Such claims to do not, for Habermas, represent a mind-independent world in the same manner as empirical truth claims, but they can nevertheless be publicly criticised and defended. As such, intersubjective validity involves a notion of correctness analogous to the idea of truth: validity claims do not have a narrow logical sense (truth-preserving argument forms) but rather connote a richer social idea, that a claim (statement) merits the adressee’s acceptance because it is justified or true in some sense, which can vary according to the sphere of validity and dialogical context. Habermas thus moves beyond the narrow focus of truth-conditional semantics of representation to the social intelligibility of interaction.
A constative speech act functions on three world relations, first, it expresses an inner world (intention to communicate a belief); second, it establishes a communicative relation with the hearer (relates to a social world); and third, it attempts to represent an external world. The triadic structure suggests that speech acts involve three tacit validity claims. These are that the speech act is sincere (non-deceptive), socially appropriate or right, and factually true (representationally adequate). Speech acts can be criticised for failing on one or more of these claims, so fully successful speech acts that involve these three world relations must satisfy the three validity claims in order to be acceptable.
Strong communicative action is at one end of a spectrum of possibilities, in which social cooperation is both deeply consensual and reasonable. On a day-to-day basis, however, it is not really practical to maintain such deep consensus in complex, pluralistic societies, so it makes sense that weaker forms of communicative action can be permitted in certain types of situations. In these situations, not all three validity claims need be satisfied. The system pre-defines those situations in which communicative action is relaxed within legally specified limits. Markets and bereaucracies are prime examples of systematic coordination, in which non-linguistic media such as money or power take up some of the burden in coordinating actions. The lifeworld refers to domains of action in which consensual modes of action coordination predominate i.e. the background resources, contexts and dimensions of social action that enable actors to cooperate on the basis of mutual understanding. Such contexts might be the family, church, neighbourhood or school, all of which stabilise patterns of action.
Analytic philosophers have criticised Habermas’s theory for its perceived failure to account for the compositionality of language i.e. how a finite set of words can be used to form an infinite number of sentences. However, one could reply that this criticism has little bearing on Habermas’s project, since from an early point in his career he has chosen to focus on communicative rather than grammatical competence i.e. the ability of speakers to use grammatically correct sentences in social situations. His focus on acceptability conditions points to a rather different sort of project to the analytic theories of meaning, one which articulates the validity basis of social order itself.
In terms of modern society, rationalisation of the lifeworld is shown by Habermas to go hand in hand with the growth of systematic mechanisms of coordination, to the extent that if large societies are unable to integrate solely on the basis of shared cultural values and norm, new nonintentional mechanisms of coordination based on non-linguistic media emerge. Colonisation of the lifeworld occurs when these media, like money and power, displace communicative forms of solidarity and inhibit the reproduction of the lifeworld. Juridification is the term Habermas uses to name the process by which law invades more and more areas of social life. Both colonisation and juridification are pathologies of modernisation.
Truth and Knowledge
Habermas is a realist insofar as he holds that the objective world rather than ideal consensus is the truth maker; in other words, a proposition is true because it accurately refers to existing objects or represents states of affairs, albeit only those that we can describe using our current linguistic resources. He eschews theories such as correspondence, which attempts to explicate the relationship between a proposition and the world metaphysically. Instead, Habermas argues for a theory of meaning in terms of accurate representation that is pragmatic; in other words, a proposition has meaning insofar as it has consequences for everyday practice and discourse.
Our daily practical engagement with reality is based on well-corroborated beliefs about objects in the world. Habermas argues that theoretico-empirical discourse becomes necessary when our everyday beliefs use their unproblematic status, for instance, when novel circumstances pose new questions about the natural world. These situations call for empirical inquiry, in which truth claims are submitted to critical testing. Critical testing is a combination of discourse with experimental actions, reinforcing the link between Habermas and Peircean pragmatics of scientific inquiry. The implications of this discourse theory are not fully worked out by Habermas, though it is most developed in the natural sciences as an argumentation theory. The theory has three levels, briefly: the logical level (discursive justification relies on empirical reasons), a dialectical level (chief challenge arises from theories that conflict with the claim at issue), and a rhetorical level (in which one seeks the agreement of a universal audience). I would be inclined to agree with commentators who say that the theory needs further work to make it a more interesting discourse theory of science.
Formal pragmatics serves two important functions in Habermas’s philosophy. First, it is the theoretical underpinning of the theory of communicative action, this being a crucial element of his theory of society. Second, it contributes to ongoing philosophical discussions regarding truth, meaning, rationality and action. Originally conceived of as ‘universal’ pragmatics, Habermas sought to differentiate his approach from earlier pragmatic approaches to language, which tended to analyse specific contexts of language-use. Universal pragmatics, as the name suggests, attempted to reconstruct the universal, context-transcendent, features of language-use. Habermas came to reject the term ‘universal’ in favour of ‘formal’, which reminds us of formal pragmatics’ relationship with formal semantics of which the nature between the two is particularly important for Habermas’s accounts of meaning and truth.
Habermas extends the traditional concept of the formal analysis of language to include pragmatics as well as semantic. ‘Pragmatic’ dimensions of language are just those which pertain to the actual employment of sentences in utterances, whilst formal here refers to the rational reconstruction of general competences that make speech possible. Formal pragmatics can be roughly summarised, then, as the rational reconstruction of linguistic competences that are intuitively known by and deployed by a subject. Rule consciousness occurs on a sort of pre-theoretical level; if you asked a speaker to explicate the rules at play in a particular utterance, it is unlikely and indeed unnecessary that she need be able to do so in order to make herself intelligible. In examining this pre-theoretical knowledge, formal pragmatics draws our attention to the unavoidable presuppositions that guide our linguistic exchanges and interactions in everyday communication. Habermas distinguishes his programme from empirical pragmatics, since he wants to uncover the general formal properties of speech situations as opposed to particular situations of use.
Habermas is interested in reconstructing the universal competencies involved in interaction oriented toward mutual understanding between social actors. This type of action is crucial to his social theory, for Habermas contends that action oriented toward mutual understanding is the fundamental type of social action. He calls this ‘communicative action’; everyday linguistic interaction of this sort has an inbuilt connection with validity. Indeed, he contends that all linguistic interaction is a matter of raising and responding to validity claims. In strong communicative action, a speaker will raise all three validity claims: 1) the claim to truth; 2) the claim to rightness; 3) the claim to truthfulness or sincerity. In a typical communicative exchange, however, only one claim will be in contention whilst the other two remain implicit presuppositions of understanding the utterance.
Habermas’s thesis of three universal validity claims provides a basis for classifying speech acts (constative, regulative and expressive). As well as having implications for language theory, the thesis also has implications for social theory, in that social order is reproduced through communicative action as a consequence of its inbuilt connection with validity claims.
The linking together of communicative action and social order, i.e. a social order that has mutual recognition at tits core, gives rise to two important characteristics. The first is cooperative relationships based on commitment and responsibility, for example, by entering into communication with another speaker, I undertake to behave in certain ways, and the success of our encounter depends on our ability to cooperate. Second, mutual recognition has a thoroughly rational dimension, in that I undertake to provide reasoning for the validity of claims raised in interaction, which can either be accepted or rejected by my communicative partner. Everyday communication is thus bound up with the process of argumentation, giving reasons for and against, which in turn points to the more demanding practice of discourse as a process for deciding on the validity of more controversial claims to truth, rightness and truthfulness.
In discourse, participants necessarily presuppose that they share the common goal of reaching agreement through the open, honest, forceless force of the better argument with regard to the disputed validity of some claim. These idealising suppositions, for Habermas, unavoidably guide both the process of the argument and its outcome; they are what gives meaning to the concepts of truth and justice as ideas that transcend all local contexts. As such, validity claims themselves are inherently context-transcendent, and this feature in turn is the rational potential built into everyday processes of communication.
Everyday communicative action thus has important implications for critical social theory. First, it opposes models of social order based solely on strategic relations between subjects, as we see in, for example, decision or game theory. Second, it embeds rationality in everyday life, including the concepts of truth and justice. Moreover, communicative rationality is not reducible to local standards of validity governing action, thereby providing a standard of critique for local practices of justification with regards to both outcomes and practices. Lastly, it locates a basis for communicative rationality in a post-metaphysical sense due to the context transcendent potential of the validity claims raised in everyday communication.
Though Habermas significantly amended his original account of the pragmatic theory of truth presented in ‘Wahrheitstheorien’ without proposing a fully revised version, his engagement with philosophers such as Richard Rorty uncovers some key beliefs that he holds on this area. He agrees with Rorty on the aim of radicalising modern philosophy through a pragmatic level of analysis. He criticises Rorty, however, for drawing the wrong conclusions from his critique of the philosophy of language. They clash on the point of truth and justification, with Rorty reducing truth to practices of justification and Habermas wanting to hold onto the moment of unconditionality present in the idea of truth whilst also maintaining an internal connection between truth and justification. Habermas argues that in flattening out truth, Rorty loses sight of the potential power of validity claims to explode contexts of justification. Thus, Habermas’s aim is to provide a pragmatic theory of truth that nevertheless reaches beyond all the empirical evidence available to us at any given time.
During the 1980s, Habermas attempted to work such a theory out through a conception of truth as idealised rational acceptability (not unlike Putnam). On this account a proposition is true if and only if it can be justified under the conditions of the ideal speech act. Truth is thus a regulative idea, the anticipation of an infinite rational consensus. More recently, Habermas has acknowledged the various objections to this account, including conceptual difficulties with the notion of the ideal speech act itself (paradoxical since reaching the ideal would result in the end of history of man) and with the connection between truth and justified acceptability (seems unattainable in human practices, but this unbridgeable gap is necessary to maintain truth’s context-transcendence). Consequently, he has abandoned the idea of truth as idealised rational consensus, and now focuses on the idealising suppositions guiding the process of argumentation rather than the outcome.
For Habermas, then, it is a matter of conduct in discourse rather than agreement to which speakers aspire. Truth draws its power as a regulative idea from ideal suppositions such as that everyone may speak, all are motivated by communicative rather than strategic aims and so on. If a claim were true it would be able to withstand all attempts to refute it under ideal discursive conditions. Truth also has a decentring function, since it serves to remind us that what is true for us now may be open to refutation in the future, since our current capacity for understanding is inherently limited.
(The above is Habermas on the idea of truth, rather than an explanation of what makes a proposition true. As to the latter, Habermas holds the standard position that a proposition is true if and only if its truth conditions are satisfied. Satisfaction is not an epistemic fact; nonetheless, Habermas’s account clearly shows that the concept of truth can only be unpacked pragmatically, that is, through how we talk about truth in terms of an idealised practice of argumentation.)
The pragmatic theory of meaning also holds that other forms of speech such as figurative, symbolic or fictional, are parasitic on communicative language use, that is, speech oriented toward achieving mutual understanding. He argues for their derivative status by contending that everyday communicative use of language fulfils indispensable problem solving functions that require idealising presuppositions not demanded in the aesthetic realm.
Lastly, Habermas’s pragmatic theory of meaning attempts to do justice to the relations between utterances and the situations and contexts in which they are embedded. Background knowledge of a speaker’s personal history, cultural heritage, can be rendered explicit without too much trouble and this sort of knowledge is contrasted with the deeper, pre-reflective background knowledge that constitutes the horizon of our shared experiences. The latter sort of knowledge of the lifeworld is the indispensable context for the communicative use of language, without which any meaning would be impossible. In this way, it safeguards against social disintegration, thus forming a crucial part of the overall programme of formal pragmatics.