The Theory of Communicative Action

The Theory of Communicative Action

"The Theory of Communicative Action" is a book by Jürgen Habermas published in 1981 in two volumes, the first subtitled "Reason and the Rationalization of Society" ("Handlungsrationalität und gesellschaftliche Rationalisierung") and the second, "Lifeworld and System: A Critique of Functionalist Reason" ("Zur Kritik der funktionalistischen Vernunft"). It is a thesis based on a concept developed by him, communicative reason, which is distinguished from the rationalist tradition in that it considers the site of rationality to be the structures of interpersonal linguistic communication rather than the structure of either the cosmos or the knowing subject. He makes the assumption about identity that we learn who we are as autonomous agents from our basic relations with others.

The theory of communicative action has been deemed one of the most important and understudied theoretical works to have come out in the second half of the C20th.Fact|date=May 2008 In summary, it challenges the Marxist focus on economics (or alienated labour) as the main or sole determining factor of oppression. Habermas argues that the key to liberation is rather to be found in language and communication between people.

The study of reason has traditionally belonged to philosophy, and philosophical reason can most simply be defined as an unpacking of reason's experience of itself.Fact|date=May 2008 However, philosophers have so far been unable to define reason any better than by saying that it is "good" thinking codified in language.Fact|date=May 2008 Referring to Richard Rorty, Habermas agrees with the postmodernist position that a philosophical worldview has become untenable and that there can no longer be a totalising abstract knowledge. Yet Habermas argues that it does not then follow that an empirically tested theory of rationality could not be universal.Fact|date=May 2008

With this failure of the search for ultimate foundations by "first philosophy" or "the philosophy of consciousness", an empirically tested theory of rationality must be a pragmatic theory based on science and social science. This implies that any universalist claims can only be validated by testing against counterexamples in historical (and geographical) contexts - not by using transcendental ontological assumptions. This leads him to look for the basis of a new theory of communicative action in the tradition of sociology. He starts by rereading Max Webers description of rationality and arguing it has a limited view of human action. Habermas argues that Weber's basic theoretical assumptions with regard to social action prejudiced his analysis in the direction of purposive rationality, which purportedly arises from the conditions of commodity production.Fact|date=May 2008 Taking the definition of action as human behaviour with intention, or with subjective meaning attached, then Weber's theory of action is based on a solitary acting subject and does not encompass the coordinating actions that are inherent to a social body. [TCA:280]

According to Weber, rationalisation (to use this word in the sense it has in sociological theory) creates three spheres of value: the differentiated zones of science, art and law. [TCA:340] For him, this fundamental "disunity of reason" constitutes the danger of modernity. This danger arises not simply from the creation of separate institutional entities but through the specialisation of cognitive, normative, and aesthetic knowledge that in turn permeates and fragments everyday consciousness. This disunity of reason implies that culture moves from a traditional base in a consensual collective endeavour to forms which are rationalised by commodification and led by individuals with interests which are separated from the purposes of the population as a whole.

This 'purposive rational action' is steered by the "media" of the state, which substitute for oral language as the medium of the coordination of social action. An antagonism arises between these two principles of societal integration—language, which is oriented to understanding and collective well being, and "media", which are systems of success-oriented action.

Following Weber, Habermas sees specialisation as the key historical development, which leads to the alienating effects of modernity, which 'permeate and fragment everyday consciousness'.

Habermas points out that the "sociopsychological costs" of this limited version of rationality are ultimately borne by individuals, which is what Georg Lukacs had in mind when he developed Marx's concept, reification, in his History and Class Consciousness. They surface as widespread neurotic illnesses, addictions, psychosomatic disorders, and behavioural and emotional difficulties; or they find more conscious expression in criminal actions, protest groups and religious cults. [TCA:369] Lukacs thought that reification, although it runs deep, is constrained by the potential of rational argument to be self-reflexive and transcend its occupational use by oppressive agencies.Fact|date=May 2008 Habermas agrees with this optimistic analysis, in contrast to Adorno and Horkheimer, and thinks that freedom and ideals of reconciliation are ingrained in the mechanisms of the linguistically mediated sociation of humanity.Habermas finds in the work of George Herbert Mead (1863 - 1931) and Emile Durkheim (1858 - 1917) concepts which can be used to free Weber's theory of rationalisation from the aporias of the "philosophy of consciousness". Mead's most productive conceptFact|date=May 2008 is his theoretical base of communication and Durkheim'sFact|date=May 2008 is his idea of social integration. Mead also stressed the social character of perception: our first encounters are social. [TCA2:29]

From these bases, Habermas develops his concept of communicative action: communicative action serves to transmit and renew cultural knowledge, in a process of achieving mutual understandings. It then coordinates action towards social integration and solidarity. Finally, communicative action is the process through which people form their identities. [TCA2:140]

Society is integrated socially both through the actions of its members and systemically by the requirements of the economic/hierarchical/oppressive system in a way that tends to interpenetrate and overwhelm autonomous action orientations.Who|date=May 2008 This gives rise to a dual concept of modern society; the internal subjective viewpoint of the "lifeworld" and the external viewpoint of the "system".

Following Weber again, an increasing complexity arises from the structural and institutional differentiation of the lifeworld, which follows the closed logic of the systemic rationalisation of our communications. There is a transfer of action co-ordination from 'language' over to 'steering media', such as money and power, which bypass consensus-oriented communication with a 'symbolic generalisation of rewards and punishments'. After this process the lifeworld "is no longer needed for the coordination of action". This results in humans ('lifeworld actors') losing a sense of responsibility with a chain of negative social consequences. Lifeworld communications lose their purpose becoming irrelevant for the coordination of central life processes. This has the effect of ripping the heart out of social discourse, allowing complex differentiation to occur but at the cost of social pathologies. (TCA2 p267)

"In the end, systemic mechanisms suppress forms of social integration even in those areas where a consensus dependent co-ordination of action cannot be replaced, that is, where the symbolic reproduction of the lifeworld is at stake. In these areas, the mediatization of the lifeworld assumes the form of colonisation". [TCA2:196]

Habermas argues that Horkheimer and Adorno, like Weber before them, confused system rationality with action rationality. This prevented them dissecting the effects of the intrusion of steering media into a differentiated lifeworld and the rationalisation of action orientations that follows. They could then only identify spontaneous communicative actions within areas of apparently 'non-rational' action, art and love on the one hand or the charisma of the leader on the other, as having any value.

According to Habermas, "lifeworlds" become colonised by steering media when four things happen: [TCA2:356]

1. Traditional forms of life are dismantled.

2. Social roles are sufficiently differentiated.

3. There are adequate rewards of leisure and money for the alienated labour.

4. Hopes and dreams become individuated by state canalization of welfare and culture.

These processses are institutionalised by developing global systems of jurisprudence.He here indicates the limits of an entirely juridified concept of legitimation and practically calls for more anarchistic 'will formation' by autonomous networks and groups.

"Counterinstitutions are intended to dedifferentiate some parts of the formally organised domains of action, remove them from the clutches of the steering media, and return these 'liberated areas' to the action co-ordinating medium of reaching understanding". [TCA2:396]

Once we have extricated ourselves from Weber's overly negative use of rationalisation, it is possible to look at the Enlightenment ideal of reason in afresh light.Rationality is redefined as thinking that is ready to submit to criticism and systematic examination as an ongoing process. A broader definition is that rationality is a disposition expressed in behaviour for which good reasons can be given.

Habermas is now ready to make a preliminary definition of the process of communicative rationality: this is communication that is "oriented to achieving, sustaining and reviewing consensus - and indeed a consensus that rests on the intersubjective recognition of criticisable validity claims".(TCA1 p17) With this key definition he shifts the emphasis in our concept of rationality from the individual to the social. This shift is fundamental to the Theory of Communicative Action. It is based on an assumption that language is implicitly social and inherently rational.

Argument of some kind is central to the process of achieving a rational result. Contested validity claims are thematised and attempts are then made to vindicate or criticise them in a systematic and rigorous way. This may seem to favour verbal language but allowance is also give for 'practical discourses' in which claims to normative rightness are made thematic and pragmatically tested. Non-verbal forms of cultural expression could often into this category.

Habermas proposes three integrated conditions from which argumentative speech can produce valid results:

"The structure of the ideal speech situation (which means that the discourse is) immunised against repression and inequality in a special way… The structures of a ritualised competition for the better arguments… The structures that determine the construction of individual arguments and their interrelations".TCA1 p25

If we accept such principles of rational argumentation, Communicative Rationality is:

1. The processes by which different validity claims are brought to a satisfactory resolution.

2. The relations to the world that people take to forward validity claims for the expressions they deem important.(TCA1 p75)

Habermas then discusses three further types of discourse that can be used to achieve valid results in addition to verbal argument: these are the Aesthetic, the Therapeutic and the Explicative. Because these are not followed through in the Theory of Communicative Action the impression is given that these are secondary forms of discourse.

1. Aesthetic discourses work by mediators arguments bringing us to consider a work or performance which itself demonstrates a value.

"A work validated through aesthetic experience can then in turn take the place of an argument and promote the acceptance of precisely those standards according to which it counts as an authentic work".(TCA1 p20)

Habermas considers the mediation of the critic, the curator or the promoter as essential to bring people to the revelatory aesthetic experience. This mediation is often locked into economic interests either directly or through state agency.When Habermas considers the question of context he does refer to culture.

Every process of understanding takes place against the background of a culturally ingrained preunderstanding... The interpretative task consists in incorporating the others interpretation of the situation into one's own... this does not mean that interpretation must lead in every case to a stable and unambiguously differentiated assignment.(TCA1 p100)

What seems to be missing is the idea that the context itself is malleable and is as much a part of the production of communication as any specific speech act (Wittgenstein). Speech acts are embedded in contexts that are also changed by them. The relationship is dynamic and occurs in both directions. To see context as a fixed background or preunderstanding is to push it out of the sphere of communicative action.

2. Therapeutic discourse is that which serves to clarify systematic self-deception. Such self-deceptions typically arise from developmental experiences, which have left certain rigidities of behaviour or biases of value judgement. These rigidities do not allow flexible responses to present time exigencies. Habermas sees this in terms of psychoanalysis but does not expand on this in TCA. (Habermas discusses psychoanalysis in Knowledge and Human Interests (1972))

A related aspect of this discourse is the adoption of a reflective attitude, which is a basic condition of rational communication.(TCA p20)

But the claim to be free from illusions implies a dimension of self-analysis if it is to engage with change. The most intractable illusions are surely embedded within our subconscious.

3. Explicative discourse focuses on the very means of reaching understanding - the means of (linguistic) expression. Rationality must include a willingness to question the grammar of any system of communication used to forward validity claims. The question of whether visual language can put forward an argument is not broached by Habermas. Although language is broadly defined as any communicative action upon which you can be reflective it is verbal discourse that is prioritised in Habermas' arguments. Verbal language certainly has the prominent place in his model of human action. Oral contexts of communication have been relatively little studied and the distinction between oral and literary forms is not made in Theory of Communicative Action.

As the System colonises the lifeworld most enterprises are not driven by the motives of their members.The bureaucratic disempowering and desiccation of spontaneous processes of opinion and will formation expands the scope for engineering mass loyalty and makes it easier to uncouple political decision making from concrete, identity forming contexts of life.(TCA2 p325)

The system does this by rewarding or coercing that which legitimates it from the cultural spheres. Such conditions of public patronage invisibly negate the freedom that is supposedly available in the cultural field.



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publication-date =1984-87
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title =The Theory of Communicative Action. translatd by Thomas McCarthy
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The summary above is an abridged version of chapters from a Royal College of Art, London, doctoral thesis (2002) 'Exploding Cinema 1992 - 1999, culture and democracy' by Stefan Szczelkun. Copy available in the RCA library and from the British Library. Abridged for Wikipedia by the author.

See also

*communicative action

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