Universal Pragmatics

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

Social Action

Strategic Action

Communicative 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.


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