Habermas and Communicative Action: An Introduction

By Jason MacLeod on February 22, 2011 — 2 mins read

In the 1970’s and 1980’s Jurgen Habermas began to develop the theory of communicative action.  Inherently, humans are communicative beings.  In these works (Communicative Action Vol. 1-2) Habermas analyzes the way in which humans communicate to create, sustain, and develop social relationships.  Habermas suggests that in making any utterances (statements, questions, accusations, etc.), the speaker raises four validity claims.  Meaning, there are four levels the speaker can be challenged upon as to the meaningfulness of the utterance.  These are: (1) The speaker can be challenged as to the meaningfulness of what is said; (2) the truth of the utterance can be questioned (the utterance will assume certain facts about the world and these can be mistaken); (3) the speaker’s right to speak may be challenged (one may question the person’ authority to make an assertion or order); And, (4) the sincerity of the speaker may be questioned (accusations of lying, teasing, or irony).  These levels undergird the process of communication between individuals in social interactions.  Put more eloquently by Habermas, “The concept of communicative action presupposes the use of language as a medium for a kind of reaching understanding, in the course of which participants, through relating to a world, reciprocally raise validity claims that can be accepted or contested.”  Communicative action can be used to convey information, establish social relationships with others, and to express ones own opinions and feelings.

The meaning of a speech-act depends on its validity claim.  Validity claims function as a guarantee that the speaker could adduce supporting reasons that would convince the listener to accept the utterance.  Usually, the guarantee is tacitly accepted, and this makes for a successful communicative action. In other words, “[w]hen someone understands and complies with a simple verbal request, both speaker and hearer, by reaching a consensus, move seamlessly from communication to action, and actions are tacitly coordinated by validity claims.”  Communicative action is the underlying theory in which communicative power and communicative reason/rationality refine themselves.

Communicative power is the influence that citizens exert upon a state through rational discussions of their interests and values.  Habermas discusses this in relation to law, particularly, how laws are enacted, created, enforced, and how people are subjected to them.  Communicative reason is considered the capacity to engage each other in critical and rational argument.  It presupposes the possibility of dialogue whereby participants in a conversation can justify and provide evidence for what they are uttering.  When an utterance is challenged, yet enforced anyways, this is considered a breakdown in communicative reason.  This enforcement can manifest in threats, appeal to authority, intellectual superiority, etc.

The big picture (and rather abruptly) is that these communicative actions create our social order and discourses.   For example, why do citizens maintain and reproduce institutions that hinder or go against their own interests.  Why do the poor, marginalized, oppressed play along with the very institutions that oppress and marginalize them?  It is through the communicative actions that people embrace particular discourses and institutions.  A great example in the media today is the Tea Party.  The Tea Party speaks to middle class women and workers and effectively gets them to believe and support ideas that reproduce the oppression and marginalization of women and workers.  How do these ideas and discourses succeed in influencing the individual?  Through communicative action, there is a theoretical construct to analyze unjust social institutions and examine how discourses are enforced and reproduced in academia, wall street, and the white house.