Part 6a: Communicative rationality and formal
pragmatics – Habermas 1 Our review of Kant's practical philosophy (Ulrich, 2009b) ended
with a powerful message:
there exists a deep, inextricable link between ethically tenable
action and consistent reasoning. Kant was the first philosopher
to work out the link between ethics and rationality systematically. With his principle
of moral universalization, he found a methodologically rigorous
formula for this link: from a moral point of view we reason properly about a proposed action
if we put ourselves in the place of all the people concerned and make
sure we can then still want to act in the same way, without thereby
entangled in argumentative contradictions.
can be little doubt that the principle of universalization is a
fundamental, indeed indispensable, principle of clear thinking about
issues of rational practice. Unfortunately
the universalizing thrust of Kantian ethics appears to have history
against it. Both philosophically and sociologically
claims to moral universalization tend to become ever more problematic.
of modernization' Philosophically speaking, it seems doubtful whether Kant's
argumentation still offers a widely acceptable or even universally convincing means for
establishing objective principles of rationality and ethics. The
arrival of many new strands of theorizing about rationality and
ethics based on hermeneutics, philosophy of language,
philosophical pragmatism, critical social theory and social science, and so on,
is apt to raise
some doubts about the universalizability of the universalization
principle. Sociologically speaking,
the historical process of rationalization has created increasingly
differentiated spheres of rationality (e.g., politics, bureaucracy,
the market, the juridical system, science, art, etc.) which employ different
concepts of rationality and steering media (e.g., politically legitimated
power, bureaucratically established rules, money, law, peer review,
etc.) and thereby tend to undermine the unity of reason that Kant could still
associate with the dawn of modernity.
Modernity meanwhile is
no longer modern, as it were. Whether rightly so or wrongly, it has become
almost synonymous with a process of rationalization that appears to
create as many problems as it solves, for example, by subjecting
all domains of life to an increasingly economic and technical kind of rationality;
by exploiting natural resources in an ecologically unsustainable
way; by creating excessive discrepancies of welfare among people;
by intruding into democratic
processes of decision-making as well as into the private lives of citizens
with an expert-driven logic of "material constraints"
(Sachzwänge); and, quite generally, by prioritizing forms of instrumental, managerial,
and bureaucratic reasoning that are blind to social, cultural, and spiritual
values. This is what led Max Weber (1978, orig. 1922) to describe modernization as a progressing
disenchantment of the world, and Horkheimer and Adorno
(2002, orig. 1947) to see in it a negative dialectic of
enlightenment – an apparently inherent tendency of modernity
to undermine its own foundations, by reducing the rationalization
of society to a "one-dimensional" (Marcuse, 1964) triumph
of Zweckrationalität (purposive-rationality) and technocracy.
Habermas (1984, p. 241) puts it, the problem consists in a "jagged profile
of modernization" that promotes a selective pattern of
rationalization, namely, by allowing a growing
predominance of one cultural value sphere – the sphere of science
and technology, including social technologies (and, I would add,
economics) – over other spheres that have equally been differentiated out
in the process of modernization, among them particularly the spheres
of law and morality on the one hand and of art and eroticism on
the other hand. These three spheres have come to form three different
"rationalization complexes" or complexes
of rationality (1984, p. 238f), that is, domains of society that are understood
and coordinated according to different notions of rationality –
cognitive-instrumental rationality in the sphere of science and
technology, moral-practical rationality in the sphere of law and
morality, and aesthetic-practical rationality in the sphere of art
and eroticism (Habermas, 1984, pp. 237-242).
central aim: strengthening
noninstrumental patterns of reasoning and
societal rationalization While
Habermas basically agrees with Weber, as well as with Horkheimer, Adorno, and Marcuse,
about this current state of the matter, he is not prepared to accept
that such a selective pattern of rationalization is an inevitable consequence of modernization;
a situation against which we can do nothing except resign and give
in to fashionable neoconservative anti- or postmodernism. Rather,
as he sees it, the situation calls for efforts to recreate a new
and better balance among the different spheres of value and rationality, by strengthening
noninstrumental patterns of reasoning and
societal rationalization; strengthening in the double sense of developing
noninstrumental patterns of thought and argumentation (a philosophical
project) and of also institutionalizing conforming new arenas for
public opinion-forming and decision-making (a sociological and political project). Consequently,
what he calls the "unfinished project of
modernity" (Habermas, 1996b) both as a philosopher and as a
social and political theorist. What do rationality and ethics mean under contemporary
societal and political conditions? Is there still a place for practical
reason as Kant conceived it? What does enlightenment mean today?
On what grounds can we hope to continue the unfinished project of modernity
towards a positive vision of global society? What has philosophy
to say on this effort of rethinking modernity, and what is the part
democracy has to play in it?
is the sort of questions that motivate the wide-ranging
work of Habermas and also explain its intrinsic difficulty. In an
effort to adapt Kant's critical philosophy of reason to the challenges of our epoch without abandoning
its philosophical level of differentiation or losing sight of the
Kantian vision of an enlightened global
society of world citizens, Habermas reviews
and mobilizes virtually all contemporary strands of philosophy that
one might expect to contribute, from phenomenology (W. Dilthey, E.
Husserl, A. Schütz),
analysis (L. Wittgenstein, K. Bühler, N. Chomsky, J.L. Austin and J.R.
Searle) and hermeneutics (M. Heidegger, H.G. Gadamer) to American philosophical pragmatism
(C.S. Peirce, G.H. Mead, C.W. Morris, R. Rorty, K.H. Apel), to the Frankfurt School of critical theory (M. Horkheimer, A. Adorno)
and to postmodernism (Foucault, Derrida). Moreover he draws on major authors of
social theory (E. Durkheim, M. Weber,
T. Parsons, G.H. Mead, N. Luhmann) as well as of cognitive and developmental
psychology (G.H. Mead, J. Piaget, L. Kohlberg) and other disciplines
of empirical science
that he finds relevant to his project. There is thus
much to learn from reading Habermas; but unfortunately, his scholarly
language and level of differentiation in discussing all these sources
provide demanding reading for a majority of readers, who find it difficult to
handle such an extraordinary spectrum of specialized
language and theoretical considerations. It
is indispensable, therefore, that we simplify.
central notion: 'communicative rationality' I
propose we focus on a few of Habermas' main ideas that promise to be particularly relevant to our aim of promoting
reflective professional practice, and which at the same time are characteristic
of the main lines of his theoretical
As I understand Habermas, there is indeed a central concern that
runs through his work, one that I find equally relevant to theoretical and practical
aims, I mean the notion of communicative rationality – the idea that there is
a rational core in all attempts to achieve mutual understanding.
Table 1 tries to summarize Habermas's thinking on
communicative rationality in terms of three levels of theorizing
that I find useful for grounding reflective practice.
Table 1: Selected aspects
of Habermas' work on communicative rationality
theory of the
communicative rationalization of society
can we understand and improve the on-going process
of communicative action: a model of
the communicative rationalization of society
of rational discourse and action
Ideal speech situation
can we justify claims to knowledge and rightness?
a model of the discursive validation of
theory: theory of competent
of mutual understanding
makes speakers competent?
of communicative competence: a model of the
structure of competent speech acts
2009 W. Ulrich
explanation of how I arrive at the three levels may be useful
before we start discussing each of them. My starting point is Habermas'
aim of strengthening
noninstrumental patterns of reasoning and
societal rationalization. With a view to this aim, the Kantian notions
of practical reason and of a global society of world citizens
(both of which are tied to the principle of moral universalization)
are of obvious continuing importance. However, two centuries
after Kant we cannot simply return to his project of a self-critique
of reason without taking into account the "jagged profile
of modernization" that Habermas diagnosed. We need to take
seriously the social turn of epistemology
that Hegel initiated
with his critique of the abstract and ahistorical bent of
Kant's philosophy of reason and which led not only to Marx'
theory of historical materialism but also to the development of philosophical pragmatism, phenomenology,
and hermeneutics, along with the other previously mentioned
strands of contemporary philosophizing.
They have all made us more aware of the deeply intersubjective,
because language-mediated and socially constructed, nature of
all claims to reason, including claims to knowledge and proper action. Reason
is essentially communicative. Habermas therefore takes as his basis
the linguistic turn of twentieth-century philosophy,
rather than Kant's assumption of an abstract,
"transcendental" consciousness. To understand
the nature of "reasonable"
claims – reason's validity claims, that is – we consequently need to analyze
first of all the basic conditions that make linguistically mediated
communication (henceforth simply referred to as communication)
succeed or fail – the bottom level in Table 1.
successful communication, while securing mutual understanding
about our claims,
does not automatically imply that these claims, and the reasons
by which we support them, are justified; much less that we
agree about what justification means in the specific case. I may understand and
even accept your claim
yet disagree (i.e., find it unjustified); or we may agree, but other people might still
disagree; or everyone may agree, yet be wrong. Consequently, we need to analyze the basic conditions
that would allow us to justify or criticize disputed claims
"reasonably," whereby "reasonably" (or "rationally")
basically that we rely on argumentative means – advancing
good "reasons" or grounds – rather than on
non-argumentative means such as authority, manipulation, deception,
or others. It follows that some kind of generic argumentation
theory (we might also say: theory of rationality)
needs to replace Kant's transcendental concept of
reason – the middle level of Table 1.
we need to analyze the ways rational argumentation would
translate into non-selective patterns of societal rationalization
– the top level of Table 1. Critical social theory
thus becomes at heart an effort of rethinking the ways we successfully
use – or fail to use – language and communication, along with
other mechanisms of social coordination, to establish claims
to reason, with the ultimate aim of gaining some theoretically
defendable standards for criticizing and improving the historically
on-going process of rationalization. A communicative
turn of social theory is required. Science and expertise
alone cannot do the job; for "rationality has less to do
with the possession of knowledge than with how speaking and
acting subjects acquire and use knowledge." (Habermas,
1984, p. 8)
this aim in mind, Habermas finds it necessary to reconstruct mainstream
philosophical concepts at all three levels of theorizing.
If the linguistic turn is to supply an adequate framework, we need
to extend its original grounding in analytic philosophy so as to bridge
the conceptual gap that has opened between the language-analytic
mainstream and the Kantian tradition of practical philosophy.
To this end, Habermas suggests to conceive of language analysis
as a theory of competent speech acts (What makes speakers
than just the analysis of well-formed linguistic structures
(How do we use language correctly?); and further, of argumentation theory as
a theory of rational
discourse and action (How can we justify claims to knowledge and
rightness?) rather than just a deductive logic
of inferences (What makes inferences logically correct?); and finally,
of social theory as a theory of the communicative
rationalization of society (How can we understand and improve the on-going
process of rationalization?) rather than just a description
of the mechanisms of social integration and
disintegration (How do societies form and perpetuate themselves?).
The idea of a rational core of successful communication matters
at all three levels. We can, then, organize our review of Habermas' ideas
on communicative rationality according to these three levels
of theorizing. Following Table 1, we can focus on these three
- The rational core
of speech: "mutual understanding"
- The rational core of argumentation: "discourse"
- The rational core
of social practice: "communicative action"
the remainder of the present essay, we want to familiarize ourselves
with the first two concepts, that is, the two bottom levels
of Table 1; the next essay will then turn to the top level.
I will take the liberty, though, to deal with discourse
ethics (which methodologically belongs to the middle level)
in the next essay, so that in effect the present essay is laying
the methodological foundation for the "applied" concepts
of the subsequent essay.
rational core of speech: 'mutual understanding' In
an interview about the motives and aims of his work, Habermas
(1985, p. 173) once remarked that his attempt
to ground critical social theory in a Theory of Communicative
Action (1984 and 1987) elaborates one central intuition: namely,
that all reasonable speech has an intrinsic telos
(finality) of mutual understanding. That is, all communication through
speech anticipates that
those addressed are willing to listen; and those speaking, to substantiate
their claims if challenged to do so. Without this anticipation of
a mutual will to reach some understanding, communicative rationality is not
conceivable and it makes hardly sense to communicate at all. Habermas
therefore recognizes in this presupposition an indispensable normative core
of all intersubjectivity.
Similarly to Kant, who found a minimal
normative foundation of practical reason in the principle of universalization
(see Ulrich, 2009b, pp. 26-28, section "Why
a purely formal moral principle?"),
Habermas thus finds in the telos of mutual understanding a minimal normative
foundation for rational social practice, and thus also for a concept
of societal rationalization that would not from the outset succumb
to a merely instrumental pattern of societal rationalization. The
next question, then, is this: How should we conceive of the essential conditions
for achieving such a fuller, not merely instrumental, rationality?
Table 1 suggests, Habermas' answer is complex in that it touches on the meaning
of rationality at three different levels of communicative rationality
– the linguistic level of "rational" speech, the discourse-theoretic
level of "rational" argumentation, and the sociological
level of "rational" social practice. However, the
answer he gives at the linguistic level is basically (although
not in its details) simple: we must consider as essential
for "rationality" those conditions of speech which
are required to bring to life its built-in telos of achieving
understanding: linguistic vs. communicative competence But
this leads us into a first difficulty: what exactly does
it mean to reach "mutual understanding" with others? In a basic sense
it means that as a competent speaker I manage to make myself
clear to others, and vice-versa. Whether we mutually
agree does not matter for this notion of understanding, only
whether we comprehend each other's intentions. In this limited
sense the term has traditionally been used in language analysis.
competence has been defined as a speaker's ideal ability to use
the phonetics, morphology,
syntax, and semantics of a language correctly, so as to make
herself understood. This may not always work perfectly in practice,
so that we need to distinguish between linguistic competence
linguistic performance in a specific situation (Chomsky, 1965).
In a fuller sense, reaching understanding involves not only the idea of mutual comprehension (i.e., clarity
of meaning) but also the idea of mutual agreement (i.e., acceptance
of validity). Thus understood, a competent speaker knows
not only to make herself comprehensible to
others but also to motivate them to agree with her intent. Beyond
linguistic competence, communicative
competence then requires a speaker's ability to argumentatively convince the hearers that what
is said deserves to be accepted; which implies that the judgments involved
(both judgments of fact
and of value) are valid and moreover that the speaker's intent is sincere (cf.
1979a, pp. 26-33, and 1984, pp. 115f, 276f, 297, and 307f).
understanding: meaning vs. validity
With this kind
of consideration, a pragmatic link
between meaning and validity enters the analysis of speech
acts: "We understand a speech act when we know what makes
it acceptable." (1984, p. 297) This
link causes Habermas
some difficulties, as it bursts the scope of conventional language analysis yet
is constitutive for communicative competence as Habermas understands
it. In essence, when
it comes to the pragmatics
of speech, the crucial concept
that we need to understand is the idea of validity
claims. As it is fundamental, I would like to introduce
it in some detail, although still very much in a summary form
as compared to Habermas' (1971a; 1971c; 1973a,b,c; 1979a; 1984;
2009, vols. 1&2) lengthy and complex
understanding: the double structure of speech
To better understand what it means to reach understanding
in view of this link, Habermas turns to the theory of speech acts of John L.
Austin (1962) and John R. Searle (1969). The term "speech acts" (Searle,
1969, p. 16) stands for the idea that we use language not
only to provide information but also to establish or clarify
For example, we offer advice, warn others, convince them to
do something, and so on. Thus understood, speech embodies a
kind of intersubjective action – "by saying something, we do something"
(Austin, 1962, p. 94, cf. p. 5). As speakers, we are
at the same time acting social subjects, or agents. In
a well-known formulation, Habermas (1971c, p. 104; 1979a,
p. 41f) refers to these two aspects or levels of
communication – its propositional content and its relational
aspects – as a characteristic double structure
of speech.1) Unlike conventional
linguistics, speech-act theory therefore does not analyze language abstracting
from its use in speech by acting subjects (Habermas, 1979a, p. 6).
speaking, speech acts convey a speaker's intent in three respects:
assert some proposition about the world ("the" world
of external phenomena and events), and/or about the speaker's
expectations towards the hearers ("our" interpersonal
relationship), and/or about the speaker her- or himself ("my" inner
world). According to this three-world model,2)
Habermas (1979a, pp. 53-68, esp. p. 68; 1984, p. 309) distinguishes three different, though interdependent, "idealized
or pure cases" or "basic modes" of speech acts, which
I prefer to reformulate slightly here in terms of three basic functions of speech:
constative function of speech consists in stating the
speaker's views about states and events of "the" world
of external nature; that is, it asserts relevant
opinions and knowledge.
regulative function of speech consists in conveying
the speaker's intention with respect to "our"
social world of interpersonal relations; it stipulates
criteria of proper action or evaluation.
expressive function of speech, finally, consists
in disclosing the speaker's subjective world of "my"
wishes, attitudes, and emotions; together with actual
behavior, it reveals the speaker's motives.3)
a simple example, let's imagine a couple's conversation during
a mountain hike. "It's clouding over, we are sure to get
rain soon." (constative) – "We better hurry."
(regulative) – "I hate getting wet!" (expressive).
These are three different speech acts, but the first one might
very well perform the function of expressing all three intentions
in one and the same utterance, especially in a
conversation among partners who know each other well. Some of the
functions of speech will thus often be implicit (speech-act
immanent) rather than explicit (articulated as separate speech acts).
Speaking of "speech functions" rather than "speech
acts" has the advantage of leaving it open whether we are
effectively dealing with separate utterances (explicit "speech
rather with speech-act immanent functions of one and the
same utterance. When they remain
speech-act immanent rather than being made explicit, it matters the
more for a competent speaker to be aware of their being at play;
for only thus can we grasp
the full meaning of an utterance and are able to question
its validity in all respects.
crucial point in distinguishing the three functions of speech
is indeed that they are always at play together yet appeal to different sources of credibility.
The husband who tells his wife "we're in for some rain"
obviously expects her to find his observation of imminent
rain accurate, as she must know he is an experienced
mountaineer (source of credibility: experience). Given the dangers of mountain hiking in bad weather,
he also anticipates his wife must agree they had better
hurry (source of credibility: a basic principle of precaution
in mountaineering). The more as she must know he hates getting wet
– how often has she experienced his foul mood when bad
weather caught them in the mountains! (source of credibility:
the husband's record of behavior)
speaking, in uttering a statement
we expect others to accept:
- that its
propositional content (i.e., what it states about the world) is true
(factual and accurate);
- that its
normative content (i.e., its
effect upon others and their relationship with us) is right
(acceptable and legitimate); and
- that its
subjective content (i.e., what we thereby disclose about
ourselves and our motives) is truthful (i.e., authentic and sincere).
kinds of validity claims
consciously or not, we thus raise with every speech act three basic
kinds of validity claims: claims to truth, rightness, and
truthfulness (cf., e.g., Habermas, 1979a, pp. 3 and 63-68;
1984, pp. 23f, 38, 99, 278, 307f, and 329). This multidimensional structure
of speech has important consequences for the concepts
of "competent" speech and "rational" communication.
Unlike what is often assumed popularly as well as in science
theory and practice,
validity claim contained in constative speech acts (truth
represents only a special case among the validity claims that
speakers, in speech acts, raise and offer for vindiation vis-à-vis
hearers. (Habermas, 1979a, p. 51)
be sure, we tend
to take most of the claims raised in communicative practice
for granted or in any case discuss one or two at a time only,
as it is not practical to question them all at once. Nevertheless,
the three claims are implicitly raised with every utterance
and each may become thematic at all times, if we choose so. As Habermas
explains in somewhat different terms:
course, individual [read: each kind of] validity claims can be thematically stressed,
whereby the truth of the propositional content comes to the
fore in the cognitive use of language, the rightness (or appropriateness)
of the interpersonal relation in the interactive, and the truthfulness
of the speaker in the expressive. But in every instance of communicative
action [read: search for mutual understanding] the system of all validity claims comes into play; they
must always be raised simultaneously, although they cannot all
be thematic at the same time. (Habermas, 1979a, p. 66,
already suggested, each
kind of validity claim requires its specific form of vindication.
Claims to truth imply an obligation to provide evidence of relevant
facts; claims to rightness an obligation to justify underlying
norms (or principles of action); and claims to truthfulness
an obligation to prove trustworthy. All three claims
need to be redeemed argumentatively; truthfulness, in addition,
calls for consistency of
the speaker's subsequent behavior. The three
claims are to some extent interdependent; I can hardly expect
others to accept the truth and rightness of what I say without giving them
reason to believe in my sincerity, nor will others be inclined
to assume that my value judgments or action proposals are
right if I get my facts wrong. Despite this interdependence,
however, evidence for one kind of claim cannot replace missing evidence
of another kind. It is thus clear that communicative action – "the type
of action aimed at reaching understanding" (1979a, p. 1)
requires our willingness to supply all three forms of evidence
when asked to do so. Table 2 gives an overview.
Table 2: Speech
functions and related validity claims
from Habermas, 1979a, pp. 58 and 68; 1984, p. 329;
and Ulrich, 1983, p. 136)
about the world
evidence of relevant facts
for our interpersonal relations
good grounds (or reasons)
2009 W. Ulrich
universal validity basis of speech
the three kinds of validity claims, and the specific forms of
vindication they require, constitute for Habermas (e.g., 1979a, pp.
2 and 5; 1984, pp. 99 and 137f) the universal validity basis of speech. It is universal
because whoever engages in genuine communication cannot help but to
raise such claims, and thus also to imply that one is willing and
able to substantiate them. At the same time, whenever we engage
in communication, we cannot help but anticipate that all others
involved are equally willing to redeem all three kinds of claims.
Without this reciprocal assumption of accountability, it would be
clear from the outset that mutual understanding
cannot be reached, which would mean that the telos of
speech is missed.
In this universal validity basis, Habermas consequently also
locates the rational core of the "communicative
model of action" (1984, p. 101), that is, the
idea that we can coordinate our individually goal-directed actions
through communication – the effort to reach understanding –
rather than through the use of force.
and argumentation The
relevance of this conception of a rational core in competent
speech and cooperative action can hardly be overestimated, for
two basic reasons. First, the fact that validity claims entail an obligation of
vindication means they are rationally criticizable; consequently
there exists, as a matter of principle, a rational basis for securing
mutual understanding and peaceful cooperation among people; and the principle in
question is the argumentative principle. Second, because not
only claims to truth (assertion of facts) and to truthfulness
(expression of motives) but also claims to rightness (stipulation
of norms) admit of argumentative vindication and challenge,
there also exists a rational basis for Habermas' vision of strengthening
noninstrumental patterns of reasoning and
societal rationalization. Tapping this double rationality potential
is what the guiding idea of communicative
rationality is all about.
pragmatics' It is accordingly important to
Habermas to clarify the conditions that make communicative rationality
possible. If we want to tap the mentioned rationality potential
systematically, what is required is a language-analytically
informed theory of argumentation that would supply a "rational
reconstruction of the double structure of speech" (1979a,
p. 44). To this theoretical effort of elucidating
structures of rational communication, and of translating them
into a framework for rational discourse, he gives the name formal pragmatics.4)
The rational core of argumentation: 'discourse' We
have thus far familiarized ourselves with the overall aims of
Habermas' practical philosophy and have considered in some detail
the language-analytical and speech-act-theoretical foundation
he proposes for it – the bottom level of communicative rationality
in Table 1. Let
us now move to the second level in Table 1, the level of discourse,
and consider how Habermas uses formal pragmatics to help
us understand the nature and role of discourse. This is crucial
for his enterprise, as discourse is the main vehicle for breathing
life into the vision of a communicative rationalization of social
practice and society.
a radicalization of communicative action – or of the
orientation towards mutual understanding that motivates
– in the following sense. In everyday communicative practice,
we do not and cannot usually make all the validity claims involved
thematic. Most claims remain implicit and we simply suppose
we (or those raising them) can support them if asked to
do so. What matters in the first place is not that
we actually do challenge and examine all validity claims but only, that
as a matter of principle they are criticizable;
that is, if for any reason they should become problematic,
they can be examined in a rational and cooperative
way. Therein resides the basic rationality
potential of a communicative model of action coordination (Habermas,
1984, pp. 99 and 101).
makes a good argument? To
harvest this potential, we
must be clear about what it means to rationally
assess or examine (defend and criticize)
a validity claim that has become problematic. That is, what conditions need to be fulfilled
for such an examination to be possible and successful? What
kind of "logic" of argumentation can help us in this
task? It is the
task of the second, argumentation-theoretic level of Habermas'
conception of communicative rationality to analyze these rationality
I would like to discuss them along the lines of Table 3.*
Table 3: Rationality
aspects of discourse, or:
What makes a "good"
from Habermas, 1984, pp. 8-42, and Wenzel, 1992, pp.
or "process" perspective
(communicative competence guided
by cooperative attitude)
from strategic to communicative action
or "procedure" perspective
(uncoerced and undistorted
from communicative action to discourse
or "product" perspective
(pragmatic logic of argumentation)
from a deductive to a pragmatic logic of argumentation
of the above)
(radicalization of discourse)
Step from initial to higher levels of reflection
2009 W. Ulrich
perspectives of argumentation theory
(1984, pp. 25-42, esp. p. 26) finds it useful to discuss the requirements
of rational argumentation from three perspectives: we
may look at arguments as process, as procedure,
and as product.
He treats these three perspectives as roughly equivalent to Aristotle's
well-known distinction between rhetoric, dialectic, and logic.
But in relating the "process," "procedure,"
and "product" perspectives to the aims of these three classical
disciplines of argumentation, he at the same time redefines
these aims. The link he establishes between his three perspectives
and the three classical disciplines
of argumentation serves him to highlight what is new and different
in his approach to argumentation theory:
replaces the classical "rhetorical"
aim of persuasion with the aim of convincing others
by communicative, rather than strategic, means – that
is, through communicative competence guided by a cooperative
attitude or, as Habermas calls it, by rational motivation;
replaces the classical "dialectical" aim of
convincing or challenging others through debate with
the aim of achieving rationally motivated, rather than
merely factual, agreement – through undistorted discourse;
replaces the classical "logical" aim of achieving
rationality through syllogistic reasoning with
the aim of deciding on disputed validity claims through
a pragmatic logic of substantial argumentation – that
is, through clear rules and models of what it means
to criticize and redeem validity claims, or agreements
reached in discourse, with a view to securing sound
would also like to refer readers to Wenzel's (1992, orig. 1979)
somewhat different account of the three perspectives; the way
he sums them up has equally helped me in abstracting Table 3
from Habermas' discussion:
as the term "argument" may be construed differently,
so the question "What is a good argument?"
may elicit at least three responses.… From the standpoint of
rhetoric, a good argument is an effective one; from the
standpoint of logic, it is a sound one; and from the
standpoint of dialectic, it is a candid and critical
interchange. (Wenzel, 1992, p. 136)
as process, then, is about the effectiveness
of communication in achieving the telos of mutual understanding;
as procedure, about the provisions for securing rationally
defendable agreement; and as product, about the
assessment of the strength of validity claims.
fourth perspective: radicalization of discourse
Habermas discusses the requirements of discourse from a fourth
perspective, at which all three previous aspects come into play.
He refers to it in terms of "radicalization of discourse." Remember
we characterized discourse as a radicalization of communicative
action in the first place; discourse has as its subject the
way we exchange information and "reasons" (grounds,
motives, arguments) in ordinary everyday communication. Just
as discourse represents a self-reflective level of ordinary
communication, we may thus understand this fourth perspective
as aiming at a self-reflective level of discourse; that is,
by "radicalizing" the idea of discourse, Habermas
means in essence that discourse may and should become its own subject,
in ways that we will discuss later, towards the end of the present
us see, then, how Habermas employs these four perspectives to
reconstruct the methodological basis of good argumentation.
The task is difficult, as it wages war on two fronts:
formal pragmatics should overcome the limitations of traditional
logic on the one hand, and those of conventional linguistic
analysis of "competent" speech and argumentation on
the other hand.
Habermas' constructive effort
It should be clear that this double reconstructive effort is
bound to raise many difficult and crucial issues of argumentation
theory. With all due attempts on my part to simplify and structure
this discussion, it is still likely to demand a considerable
effort of study and patience from my readers, whom I mean to
address as professionals but not as professional philosophers. In
any case, it will at times be difficult to keep a good sense
of overview and orientation as to where exactly we stand, at
each moment of the discussion, with our quest for developing
the idea of communicative rationality. Not only Habermas will
be our guide but also two other (as I see it) major argumentation
theorists, I mean Aristotle (whom we know from an earlier
essay in this series) and Stephen E. Toulmin (whom we have yet
to meet). For this much is clear: we are just about to
engage with the second, middle level of Table 1, the level
of argumentation theory (as distinguished from the
previously discussed level of language theory). Our aim at this
level is to unfold the idea of discourse, whereas before it
was to unfold the basic idea of communication that we described
as "mutual understanding." As a further tool of orientation,
I propose to structure our effort of unfolding the idea of discourse
by aligning the four mentioned perspectives of argumentation
theory with these four key requirements that Habermas, throughout
his writings, associates with good argumentation: "rational
motivation," the "ideal speech situation," "cogent argumentation," and
of discourse," as suggested in Table 3. Readers may
find it helpful later on to return to this table from time to
time, to remind themselves of the basic ideas.
the idea of discourse: four crucial steps
Habermas (1984, p. 26) makes
it clear that in a proper analysis of the requirements of argumentation,
the analytical distinction of these four perspectives and corresponding
requirements cannot ultimately
be maintained, and I agree. Even so, I find it helpful to associate the
four perspectives with four crucial
steps that lead us from ordinary everyday communication to increasingly
reflective discourse practice: I mean the four steps (1) from strategic
to communicative action; (2) from communicative action to discourse;
(3) from a deductive to a pragmatic logic of argumentation;
and finally, (4) from initial to higher levels of reflection.
Let us, then, introduce Habermas' understanding of discourse
by taking with him these four steps.
1. 'Rational motivation': the
from strategic to communicative action
The most basic condition of
any search for mutual understanding is that those involved are sincerely
interested in securing cooperative action, rather
than just pursuing their own ends (i.e., using speech as a form
of merely purposive-rational action). In the first case, Habermas
speaks of communicative action; in the second,
of strategic action. When we act communicatively rather
than strategically, we try to coordinate our actions with those
of others on the basis of mutual understanding and agreement,
rather than achieving our goals through the use of force, deception,
or other non-communicative means. This is not to say that the
idea of communicative action requires us to renounce the pursuit
of individual goals, as little as it means to replace
action by communication. Rather, the point is that when we act
in pursuit of our individual goals, we try to coordinate our
actions communicatively, namely, inasmuch as they are not of
a purely private nature but through their consequences may affect
or concern others. There are two elementary traps to be avoided,
then: we must not equate rational practice with rational
communication – communication is a means and constituent of
rational practice but cannot replace it – and we must not
equate a cooperative stance with altruism. As Habermas (1984, p. 101)
makes clear, "communicative action designates a type of
interaction that is coordinated through speech acts and does
not coincide with them."
a merely strategic attitude, but not individual goals
avoid such possible confusions, we may think and speak of communicative
vs. strategic action as the alternative of acting either
with a communicative or a strategic attitude (or orientation),
whereby a "communicative attitude" means that we try
to avoid or resolve conflicts of interests based on mutual understanding, whereas a "strategic attitude" means that we pursue our
individual advantage without concern for mutual understanding
but rather rely on authority and power, or withhold information
and use it tactically, do not disclose our true motives, or employ
other means suitable to impose our goals or at least to give
us a competitive advantage (note the managerial and military
origin of the concept of "strategic" action).
cooperative, but not altruistic, core of rational practice
why exactly is a communicative rather than strategic attitude
required for rational discourse? It is not because we are expected
to act altruistically but rather, to respect the universal validity
basis of speech. As long as we
communicate with an openly or latently strategic orientation, we do not reciprocally
recognize the minimal normative core of rational practice that
we have earlier described as the telos of mutual understanding. In
Kantian terms, our communication risks being ethically inconsistent:
fact that we do communicate means we expect others to hear and
what we say, yet at the same time we are not prepared to take seriously what
they may have to say on our claims, except when it suits
our purposes. In this precise sense, we refuse the cooperative attitude
that constitutes the very core of communicative rationality.
In the terms of Habermas, when we disregard the telos of mutual understanding
that is built into the universal structure of rational speech,
we thereby undermine the minimal normative
foundation of rational social practice. In one word,
a strategic attitude renders the search for genuine mutual understanding inoperative:
communicative action, the validity basis of speech is presupposed.
The universal validity claims (truth, rightness, truthfulness),
which participants at least implicitly raise and reciprocally
recognize, make possible the consensus that carries action
in common. In strategic action, this background consensus
is lacking. (Habermas, 1979c, p. 118, my italics; cf. similarly 1979a,
motivation, then, means that we are willing to renounce a merely
strategic attitude in favor of a genuinely cooperative attitude;
or, with the short labels used by Habermas, that whenever we enter
into dialogue, we engage in
communicative rather than strategic action.
2. 'Ideal speech situation': the
communicative action to discourse
are basically two grounds on which we may want to see validity
claims examined: either because their consequences concern us
in ways that we find unacceptable or else, because we want to
make sure an understanding we reach is adequate. In the first
case, examining the validity claims in question is important
because we disagree;
in the second, because we agree
and wish to make sure the agreement we have reached represents
a rationally defendable rather than just a factual consensus,
so that we may rightly expect others to agree, too.
or the quest for 'reasons' The crucial point
is the same, though: any understanding we reach must
be based in the end on reasons that we are willing and able to defend (cf.
Habermas, 1984, p. 17).
To put it differently: the option of moving from the
tacit consensus that carries communicative action to explicit
discourse must remain open. On this option depends the rationality
potential of communicative action. The "ideal speech situation"
is Habermas' original, though somewhat controversial, attempt
to explain the conditions that would make sure the discursive
option indeed remains open and can be relied upon.
we consider these conditions, let us make sure we understand
why the quest for "reasons" – the step from communicative action to discourse
conditions are to secure – is crucial to Habermas' practical
philosophy and its project of a communicative rationalization
of practice. Obviously, the tacit consensus that constitutes
the validity basis of communicative action is fragile; it holds
as long as we are prepared to assume that those with whom we
try to reach understanding are willing and able to back their
claims with sound reasons. The situation can change swiftly when
the validity claims some participants raise, and the way they
defend them, become, for whatever reason, doubtful. When "the
consensus that carries action in common" (as quoted above
from Habermas, 1979c, p. 118)
breaks up, communicative
action risks breaking down. People may be tempted to switch
back to a strategic (i.e., competitive rather than cooperative)
mode of thinking and acting. It is then essential
that we are able to maintain or regain a basis for communicative
action. This is the moment to mobilize the mentioned rationality
The rationality proper to the communicative
practice of everyday life points to the practice of argumentation
as a court of appeal that makes it possible to continue communicative
action with other means when disagreements can no longer be
repaired with everyday routines and yet are not to be settled
by the direct or strategic use of force. For this reason I believe
that the concept of communicative rationality, which refers
to an unclarified systematic interconnection of universal validity
claims, can be adequately explicated only in terms of a theory
of argumentation. (Habermas, 1984, p. 17f, my italics)
In everyday communicative practice, discourse in
strict sense in which Habermas understands it will usually play a minor
role. Even so, the power of a communicative model of the rationalization of society
– of everyday problem solving and decision making in all domains
of society, that is – hinges upon the principle of argumentation. The rationality potential that interests
us depends on it. If we want to resolve our human differences with reason
rather than with force, we need to find ways to employ "argumentation
as a court of appeal"
(1984, p. 17)
whenever communicatively coordinated practice risks breaking
says Habermas (1996a, p. 225f), are "reasons proffered
in discourse that redeem a validity claim." The trick, as it were, is to take communicative
practice a crucial step further – from communicatively secured coordination
of action, which relies on the mentioned tacit consensus, to
communicatively secured reflection about what endangers
this consensus. This move to a self-reflective metalevel of
communicative action is what we mean with the step from communicative
action to discourse. It offers us an opportunity to maintain
a basic cooperative orientation even though the shared validity
basis on which it depends has become problematic – a cooperative
alternative to taking a merely strategic attitude.
communicative action it is naively supposed that implicitly
raised validity claims can be vindicated (or made immediately
plausible by way of question and answer). In discourse, by contrast,
the validity claims raised for statements and norms are hypothetically
bracketed and thematically examined. As in communicative action,
the participants in discourse retain a cooperative attitude.
(Habermas, 1979a, p. 209n; similarly 1971c, pp. 115-117,
1973a, p. 18,
and 1975, p. 107f)
When we enter into discourse, we switch to a form
that focuses on exchanging
arguments rather than information, opinions, valuations, and
expressions of subjectivity. That is, we "render inoperative
all motives except solely that of a cooperative readiness to
arrive at an understanding" as to
how we want to handle a contested claim (1973a, p. 18f; similarly
1971c, pp. 115-117 and 1973c, p. 214f; 2009,
Vol. 2, p. 212). We therefore suspend (or "bracket,"
as Habermas likes to say with Husserl) all issues other than
those tied to the critique and vindication of that claim, with
the aim of regaining the unanimity that previously existed but
which has become problematic. In this way we can try to recover
a shared validity basis for communicative action, whereby that
shared validity basis is now located at the metalevel of a shared
procedure for deciding rationally and cooperatively for
or against disputed validity claims, rather than at the level
of a "naively supposed" assertability of the claims
themselves. "Discourse" is the specific form of communication
that embodies this procedure.
speech situation' The
suspension of all motives except a cooperative search for the better argument
is also what Habermas (1971c, pp. 136-141; 1973c, pp. 252-260;
2009, pp. 259-269) had in mind when he originally associated the
discursive procedure with an anticipated
ideal speech situation:
call a speech situation ideal where communications are not only
not hindered by external, contingent influences but also not
hindered by constraints originating in the structure of communication
itself. The ideal speech situation excludes systematic distortion
of communication. More precisely, the structure of communication
produces no constraints if and only if there is a symmetrical
distribution of the chances of all participants in the discourse
to select and perform speech acts. From this general requirement
of symmetry we can then derive specific requirements [of symmetry]
for the different classes of speech acts. (Habermas, 1973c,
p. 255, and 2009, Vol. 2, p. 262, my transl.)
far as I am aware, Habermas
has not really outlined these specific requirements systematically;
nor is such a specification indispensable to grasp the essential
idea of a free and undistorted exchange of arguments. In The
Inclusion of the Other, I find this helpful characterization
of the ideal conditions of such an exchange:
practice of argumentation sets in motion a
competition for the better argument, where the orientation to
the goal of a communicatively reached agreement unites the participants
from the outset. The assumption that the competition can lead
to "rationally acceptable," hence "convincing,"
results is based on the rational force of arguments. Of course,
what counts as a good or a bad argument can itself become a
topic for discussion. Thus the rational acceptability of
a statement ultimately rests on reasons in conjunction with
specific features of the process of argumentation itself. The
four most important features are: (i) that nobody who
could make a relevant contribution may be excluded; (ii) that
all participants are granted an equal opportunity to make contributions; (iii)
that all participants must mean what they say; and (iv) that
communication must be freed from external and internal coercion
so that the "yes" or "no" stances that participants
adopt on criticizable validity claims are motivated solely by
the rational force of the better reasons. (Habermas, 1998, p. 44)
can be little doubt that this is an ideal account of argumentation
– the intent is not to give a "realistic" description
but rather, to provide methodological orientation. The four
features that Habermas mentions define the essential intent
he associates with the "ideal speech situation." We
may sum them up in terms of four key concerns towards which
argumentative practice is to work, even if it cannot fully meet
to everyone concerned,
argumentative chances for everyone participating,
of all participants, and
of external and internal coercion or other sources
of distortion (authority, manipulation, etc.).
can always do better with regard to these four concerns; at
least in this sense they are not hopelessly idealistic. And
of course, Habermas' point is that when we enter into an argument,
we have "always already" accepted the four concerns;
otherwise, argumentation cannot improve mutual understanding
and thus is pointless. Still, the question remains: In what
way can an exchange of arguments under such anticipated conditions
be assumed to produce arguments that are not only "better"
(i.e., better acceptable to the participants) but also more
"rational" (justified) than others? Isn't "better" a
hopelessly normative category? As if to respond to such doubts,
everyone who engages in argumentation must make at least these
pragmatic presuppositions, then in virtue of the (i) public
character of practical discourses and the inclusion of all concerned
and (ii) the equal communicative rights of all participants,
only reasons that give equal weight to the interests and evaluative
orientations of everybody can influence the outcome of practical
discourses; and because of the absence of (iii) deception and
(iv) coercion, nothing but reasons can tip the balance in favor
of the acceptance of a controversial norm." (Habermas,
1998, p. 44)
is, a proper argumentative process must give "equal weight"
to all concerns – be "fair" – and in this procedural
sense may be called "rational" (or more precisely,
"rationally motivated") whatever the outcome. If such
an understanding of the intent of the ideal speech situation
is not entirely mistaken, we may define it as follows.
The ideal speech situation stands for the sum-total
of all those conditions of discourse which in principle would
to meet as equals, so that the only force at work would be the
more or less compelling nature of their arguments.
yet real To the
extent a discourse situation comes close to such conditions,
we can have faith in the outcome
of a discourse, as we have reasons to assume that the validity
basis of speech (as explained earlier) is given and that the participants are indeed rationally
motivated (cf. 1971c, pp. 122 and 136f; 1973b, p. 386;
1973c, pp. 252-260; 1984,
p. 25f; 2009, Vol. 2, pp. 259-269). However, more important
is another implication of the concept, one that does not depend
on the extent to which real-world discourse situations are ideal.
The point is, as Habermas argues, that discourse participants
cannot help but anticipate an ideal speech situation
– otherwise it would be pointless
for them to enter into a discourse, as we have said above. However
counter-factual the idea may remain, it is nevertheless effective. The
conditions of the ideal speech situation are in this sense ideal and real at once (cf. 1971c, pp. 120,
122, and 137; 1973c, p. 258; 2009, Vol. 2, p. 266f).
towards more symmetry
avoid a one-sidedly ideal reading of his intentions, Habermas now prefers
to speak of general
or formal (rather than ideal) pragmatic presuppositions of
argumentation (e.g., 1984, pp. 25 and 34; 1998, p. 44) or simply of "the
presuppositions of argumentation" (e.g., 2009, Vol. 2,
p. 266, a passage that has been slightly reformulated
as compared to 1973c, p. 258).5)
Unfortunately, this newer formulation lacks
the clout of the original term and may not be particularly
helpful to readers not familiar with Habermas' theoretical framework.
It might be more helpful for them to think and speak of general symmetry conditions of
speech, a formulation that Habermas uses less often (1984, p. 25).
It sems to me this latter term nicely sums up the core idea that should
matter to us practically with a view to promoting discursive
practice, I mean the idea of allowing people to meet as equals,
or in other words, enabling them to voice and argue their concerns
at eye-level – the core idea of the definition suggested above. To be sure, such symmetry remains no
less an ideal than "ideal speech," but again:
it nevertheless provides orientation, for we can always
do better. It is largely in our power to make such progress;
we can actually do
quite a lot to create more (though imperfect) symmetry,
here and now, wherever and whenever we have a chance to settle
our differences discursively. Working towards argumentative
makes sense regardless of how unrealistic an ideal
it may be; for the only alternative is to accept that implicitly or explicitly,
differences are handled through a strategic rather than communicative
mode of interaction.
the next, second part of this three-part review of the practical
philosophy of Habermas, we will consider the methodological
piece de résistance of the formal-pragmatic approach,
the theory of argumentation. What does formal pragmatics teach
us about the nature of a sound (compelling, "rational")
argument, and how can we practice it with a view to fostering
For a hyperlinked overview of all issues
of "Ulrich's Bimonthly" and the previous "Picture of the
see the site map
This introduction to Habermas has grown longer than originally
I have therefore devided it into three parts. The present essay
offers the first part. The second part will appear in the Bimonthly
2009, and the third part is planned for 2010.
(for Part 6a/7)
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