Jurgen Habermas, Theory of Communicative Action “Intermediate Reflections”

Habermas’ systematic theorizing plucks various theories and concepts from a from the fields of sociology, critical theory and analytic philosophy in his two volume work The Theory of Communicative Action. This work’s third chapter is where he breaks down the action and the communicative parts with the help of sociologist Max Weber and philosophers like J.L. Austin.

First, action. Weber defined action in opposition to other forms of behavior in that the actor has a conscious meaning behind what they are doing. Weber creates a typology of action based on the rationality behind it, from most rational to least rational he describes it as: purposive-rational (which includes means, ends, values and consequences), value-rational, affective, and traditional (habits which include only means and not the other three components of rationality). Habermas finds that Weber’s theory is insufficient when it comes to explaining social action, which involves the coordination of multiple actors working together. To supplement the first typology, Habermas finds a second typology implicit in Weber’s work, where an action is either instrumental or, if it tries to reach success against another person, strategic. To this he adds a form of action which is not oriented towards success, but towards reaching an understanding. That is Communicative Action.

But what is an action that works on understanding rather than success? For this Habermas infuses Austin’s speech act theory into Max Weber’s action theory. In Austin, speech acts are composed of locutionary, illocutionary and perlocutionary aspects. The locutarionary are statements and propositions, whereas the illocutionary deals with actions using words. These are actions such as promises, vows, notifying, commanding or legally binding proclomations. The perlocutionary aspects are the affects the speaker intends to evoke within the hearer. For Habermas, the distinction between illocutionary and perlocutionary acts is important. The illocutionary deals with the level of meaning and so its success are defined by hearer understanding the speaker. Habermas gives the example from the statement “S asserted to H that he gave notice to his firm.” The illocutionary act of this speech is successful if H understands this assertion and accepts it to be true. But for the perlocutionary aspect, another statement is needed: “Through informing H that he had given notice to his firm, S gave H a fright (as he intended to)” The act of giving the fright in this context is the perlocutionary success, although in other contexts it might have failed; H might have been on the contrary relieved about this case.

The illocutionary stays on the level of speech while the percloutionary depends on things external to the speech themselves, it uses speech as an instrument towards another goal. The illocutionary act’s success depends on having an open intention but for the most part perlocutionary acts have their motives hidden, or at least not within the context of the speech act itself (you can inform a person by giving the information; you cannot frighten them by saying “I frighten you”). Illocutionary, dealing with meaning, is primary in speech and the perlocutionary aspect is external to it because understanding is the teleology of language. And Habermas takes very seriously the idea that Communicative Action should be free of any hidden strategy of instrumental goal: “It is certainly true that in communicative action unintended consequences may appear at any time; but as soon as there is a danger that these will be attributed to the speaker as intended results, the latter finds it necessary to offer explanations and denials, and if need be, apologies, in order to dispel the false impression that these side effects are perlocutionary effects. Otherwise, he has to expect that the other participants will feel deceived and adopt a strategic attitude in turn, steering away from action oriented to reaching understanding.

Infused with these two concepts, the idea of Communicative Action depends on social groups of people reaching an understanding based on statements. The speaker makes a claim, and the listener accepts the claim. In most illocutionary statements like making promises or requests, accepting the speaker’s claim creates conditions for future action. By making a promise, and by the listener accepting the meaning of that promise, the speaker and listener create an interpersonal bond. This bond can be created by warrancy of other normative forces, such as the case of making a request or command.

How is a speech act considered invalid in Communicative Action? Habermas gives the example of a professor asking a participant in the seminar to bring him a glass of water. The participant refuses, and this refusal can be on one of three grounds. It can be based on normative grounds- “you have no right to treat me as one of your employees”- questioning the subjective truthfulness of the speaker- “You really only want to put me in a bad light in front of the other seminar participants”- or questioning the existential presuppositions of the statement- “The next tap water is so far away that I couldn’t get back before the end of the session.” In the context of communicative action speech acts can be rejected under each of those three aspects: the rightness of the speech act, the truthfulness of the speaker’s subjective experience (sincerity), the truthfulness of the statement or its presuppositions. To these three refusals Habermas links three major forms of speech acts.

The first is constative speech acts, or assertions. These are propositions about the world, which Habermas links to the objective world. Next are normative claims- or regulatives- judgements of what is right and wrong: this is the social world. Finally there is dramaturgical, or expressiveness of the subject, the internal world. Each of these speech acts have different criteria for reaching understanding or judging a statement; for assertives, it is empirical observations or theorizing and the truth of the statement; for the regulative, it is discussion of the rightness of an act based on a norm (or even the questioning of a norm) and the criteria is rightness; the dramaturgical is judged on the truthfulness and criticized in terms of self deception, with the form of argumentation being therapeutic dialogue or discussions on values. Habermas ends with the following typology:

Type of knowledge: Technically and strategically useful knowledge
Form of argumentation: Theoretical discourse
Model of transmitted knowledge: Technologies, strategies

Type of knowledge: Empircal-theoretical knowledge
Form of argumentation: Theoretical discourse
Model of transmitted knowledge: Theories

Type of knowledge: Moral-practical knowledge
Form of argumentation: Practical discourse
Model of transmitted knowledge: Legal and moral representations

Type of knowledge: Aesthetic practical knowledge
Form of argumentation: Therapeutic and aesthetic critique
Model of transmitted knowledge: Works of art

Communicative action finally acknowledges one more aspect of speech act: tacit knowledge. For communication happens within a wider horizon of cultural understanding and background knowledge of speaker and listener. That is not to say that statements are merely relative, but any understanding would be incomplete without planting itself in this horizon.

“It is only with the turn back to the context forming horizon of the lifeworld, from within which participants in communication come to an understanding with one another about something, that our field of vision changes in such a way that we can see the points of connection for social theory within the theory of communicative action: the concept of society has to be linked to a concept of the lifeworld that is complementary to the concept of communicative action. Then communicative action becomes interesting primarily as a principle of sociation: Communicative action provides the medium for the reproduction of lifeworlds.” With the idea of speech act and lifeworld, Habermas plants the seeds for his future theories.

This summary is part of the presentation for the Seoul Contemporary Philosophy Club, meeting Saturday February 4th in Jong-gak, Seoul. Come join us on our meetup or facebook group.


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