From communicative rationality to a theory of truth and knowledge

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.

Communicative Rationality

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.

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Some Problems with Grounding Procedural Reason

Key words: procedural reason, differentiation, argument, unity

Pragmatism is appealing to many American social theorists because, in failing to challenge the purported sovereignty of actors’ interests, theories such as rational choice, contractarian theories of the state, and symbolic interactionism, remain compatible. Pragmatism is challenged by any social theory that credibly claims to rest on a grounded standard of reason, because such a theory questions both the behaviour of humans in economic and political terms in the marketplace, as well as their subjective interests elsewhere in civil society. Habermas’s social theory rests on this notion of grounding, for he recognises that social theory can only be critical if it grounds itself in reason, thereby positioning itself against subjectivism and relativism.

Habermas breaks with several approaches taken by his predecessors, namely: a) Marx’s notion of the disalienation of labour; b) Weber’s notion of substantive rationality; c) his teachers for example Marcuse’s attempt to establish a grounding of substantive reason on a Freudian set of irreducible needs. Rather, Habermas seeks grounding on a standard of procedural reason (also universal or formal pragmatics, or communicative rationality), which does not challenge the sovereignty of subjective interests by a set of objective interests, such as disalienation or needs. Instead, subjective interests are challenged on the basis of a set of irreducible intersubjective needs, which can claim conceptual grounding.

Conceptual grounding contributes to social theory a foundation from which historical and contemporary shifts in the direction of social change can be explained. Whilst accepting Weber’s description of excessive bureaucratisation and the ‘iron cage’ – the result of actors’ unmediated and competitive motivations in the economic and political sphere – Habermas argues that both actors and social scientists have a stake in figuring out which subjective interests are reasoned and which contribute directly or indirectly to excessive rationalisation.

Procedural reason is needed to distinguish between the two, for such a distinction rests on asking whether social behaviour remains consistent with actors’ intersubjective interest in establishing and maintaining mutual understanding, which is only possible when all parties are freed from coercive or manipulative rationality. The macrosociological assumption upon which American pragmatism rests – that actors’ decisions in the economic and political marketplace are likely to be benign – is overly optimistic, complacent and therefore indefensible.

Habermas’s project is to demonstrate that the unity of reason rests on an undifferentiated, procedural standard of argumentation, which is both comprehensive in its range of application and equally generalisable. Toulmin’s question is: won’t procedural reasons’ possible manifestation in practice likely rest on increasingly differentiated standards of argumentation, standards differentiated by their functions and purposes within such fields as law, medicine etc? Toulmin’s point threatens Habermas’s project to the extent that the relativism of substantive reason is reintroduced into his purportedly grounded standard of procedural reason. If each field’s existing standards subordinate generalised procedural standards to specialised and local functions, and, further, that there are differentiated reasons for each field, the unity of reason is shattered.

In responding to Toulmin, Habermas shows that he has failed to distinguish between a) normative orientations that are institutionalised by the presence of forms of organisation; b) normative motivations that actors either internalise or else negotiate in their interactions. Habermas leaps from Toulmin’s question to his own undifferentiated theory of argumentation, when he could have taken a step in between. In other words, he could distinguish organisational forms from the substantive projects to which particular organisations happen to become dedicated, in practice, within particular fields.

On the one hand, Habermas addresses in general terms the ultimate bases of the state’s legitimacy, which he finds to be more manipulative and controlling than communicative and legitimate. On the other hand, he develops an account of the individual’s moral motivation. What he cannot do it to move these principles of the individual to their behaviour in group situations. At the same time, he concedes that certain institutions, such as courts of law, may not be so easily reducible to strategic action. As such, in clinging to this grounding standard of procedural reason, Habermas cuts off empirical research into the ‘middle’ ground between the legitimacy of macrosociological institutions and the actions that actors take at local levels. As David Sciulli argues:

Having gutted the grand “middle” of social life from his concepts’ possible empirical or detailed application, and having failed, as a result, to link his theory to “practice” or to detailed empirical research, Habermas places himself in an untenable position when he confronts symbolic interactionists and pragmatists in their own domain: individuals’ immediate actions and negotiations of meaning. Within this domain, his undifferentiated standard of argumentation cannot possibly survive in colloquy with these theoretical street fighters. (305)

Nevertheless, Habermas shares a problem with the pragmatists and symbolic interactionists: why can’t communicative action be increasingly consensual and consistent locally, even whilst the institutions in which these interactions take place become increasingly rationalised? The pragmatists and symbolic interactionists fail to account for such organisational change; at least Habermas attempts to offer an explanation in the form of the legitimation crisis theory. Still, Habermas must confront two problems which the pragmatists and symbolic interactionists do not, since the latter two accede to normative relativism when describing and explaining actors’ local prejudices and interactions.

1) Habermas must demonstrate that procedural reason is grounded conceptually against normative relativism.

2) He must also demonstrate that its manifestation is recognised unambiguously by all different groups and actors.

In response to (1), Habermas’s critique of Neopositivists copy theories of truth does demonstrate convincingly that any credible claim to grounding must remain a procedural meditation rather than being more immediately substantive. In the case of (2), Habermas seems unable to respond because he does not link theory and practice; in other words, he can only explain communicative action from interpersonal relations because he can’t see how competing actors can recognise communicative action in common.

David Sciulli argues that:

Habermas’s critical theory may be brought to practice and to detailed empirical research by drawing two distinctions: the distinction between organisational forms and organisations’ differentiated functions and purposes, and the distinction between institutionalised normative orientations and actors’ internalised motivations or local negotiations of meaning. (307)

On the first distinction, if Habermas can show how procedural grounding is intrinsically interrelated with a particular form of organisation, then the presence of such an organisation confirms that communicative action is a possibility. Its absence provides evidence that actors and groups lack an institutional normative orientation that would enable them to reach mutual understanding. The latter distinction enables actors and groups to recognise when they are acting communicatively in spite of divergent motivations and competing interests.