Formal Pragmatics – Preliminary Thoughts

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.


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