Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Samantha's notes on Habermas - formal pragmatics

Jürgen Habermas and Critical Theory: the emancipatory potential of modernity

Earlier critical theorists
(Adorno, Horkheimer, Marcuse, Benjamin)

a. unorthodox Marxists - trying to redefine the nature of the Marxist enterprise in changed historical circumstances of c20 (drawing on Marx, Weber, Lukacs, Nietzsche and Freud).
b. explanation - general historical dynamic of enlightenment and domination; increased knowledge has brought increased technical mastery over external nature and human subjectivity - reification.
c. develop framework for understanding fascism, the culture industry, etc.

Habermas is working in this tradition but has redefined it substantially.

Basic premises

1968 (1971) publication of Technology and Science as Ideology. Disputes Marcuse's claim that science and technology are intrinsically oppressive. Science and technology are oriented toward control, but this in itself is not a problem; the problem is that science and technology get out of control and overrun other spheres of action and knowledge.

In The Theory of Communicative Action (1981/1984 &1987) Habermas develops a systematic framework for the analysis of modern societies that avoids the pessimism of the earlier critical theorists. Posits:

a. two types of action:
(i) purposive rational action/action oriented to success;
(ii) communicative action/action oriented to reaching understanding.

b. two processes of rationalisation:
(i) rationalisation of purposive rational action - complexity, bureaucracy and steering capacity;
(ii) rationalisation of communicative action - differentiation of worldviews, growth of criticism, validity claims in speech increasingly open to scrutiny, demands for reasons/justifications for authority. This is the rationality potential of communicative action.

We can understand the distinctive tensions of modernity by examining how (i) and (ii) intersect - rationalisation of (i) threatens to stifle potential of (ii) - this threat is the threat of the 'colonisation of the lifeworld' (see session 12). Habermas takes this up by developing a philosophical and a substantive theme.

The scientisation of politics

Theory and Practice (1963/1974) uses the idea of a dialectic of enlightenment and domination to interpret the nature of politics: politics as praxis, distinct from theoria and techne, was lost c17-c18. Praxis replaced by techne - politics as technical expertise.

Enlightenment provided the way for this, but also produced the possibilities of an alternative in the development of critical reason.

Universal pragmatics and deliberative democracy

Habermas develops an argument that communication itself contains critical potential, and that this is revealed by examining the rationality basis of speech. See 'What is universal pragmatics?' in Communication and the Evolution of Society (1976/1979), also Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action (1990) and Postmetaphysical Thinking (1992).

Puts forward an argument about speech acts:
a. everyday utterances implicitly and inevitably raise validity claims;
b. some of these are such that they can only satisfactorily be upheld in discourses with the structure of an 'ideal speech situation' (the implicit goal of all communication).

Speech acts raise validity claims, these are internally connected to reasons or grounds - this is the rationality basis of speech. Four types of claim:

(i) intelligibility
(ii) truth
(iii) correctness
(iv) sincerity

If these are called into question, we try to provide grounds for our claims = discourse.

An 'ideal speech situation' (later reformulated as 'unlimited communication community') is a situation with a symmetrical structure, in which there is full participation and the reasoned force of the better argument, rather than power, determines decisions. This ideal is, according to Habermas, implicit in communication; it makes sense of what it would be to resolve a problematic claim in a genuine way, to achieve a rational consensus. This is a counterfactual, an imagined possibility against which we can judge truth and correctness.

This argument is important: Habermas is attempting to tackle the question of how we can have normative grounds for our criticisms by developing this counterfactual. In Between Facts and Norms (1996) and elsewhere, Habermas uses this argument concerning the validity basis of speech to provide a normative foundation for deliberative democratic mechanisms. In particular, in BFN, he develops a theory of law and democracy which emphasises deliberative democracy as an alternative to liberal representative democracy and its model of politics as the aggregation of private individual interests. On Habermas’s account, deliberative discourses of justification and application of norms could enable us to develop just laws that answer to the problems of contemporary constitutionalism (e.g. problems of administrative power, problems concerning the democratic negotiation of difference, etc).


a. This account privileges communicative action, it presumes that the primary use of language is to achieve understanding; is it?
b. Can truth adequately be identified with rational consensus?
c. Problem b. is exacerbated in relation to discussion of correct norms and values.
d. Habermas's account of communicative rationality is purely procedural; can this help in practice to resolve disputes?

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