November 2010 Ireland in Turmoil – The Relevance of Habermas and the Theory of Communicative Action

It may seem odd to make a connection between the current upheavals – the political, economic and national identity crisis in Ireland – and the work of Jurgen Habermas, a German social philosopher and critical theorist born in 1929.  However, I believe that insights from the work of Habermas have something to offer by way of explanation for the current predicament in which we now find ourselves and more enticingly, may also provide useful pointers for our emancipation through discourse and communicative action.

Habermas is still a very active writer and he comments regularly on political and social issues of our time. You can keep up to date with his outputs via the Habarmas forum website.  Of note also is that Habermas was a recent recipient of the Ulysses Medal conferred by UCD – an interesting interview conducted by the Irish Times is also available.

The most notable work by Habermas is The Theory of Communicative Action published in German in 1981 and translated to English in 1984.  This publication is in two volumes: Volume 1: Reason and the Rationalization of Society and Volume 2: Lifeword and System: A Critique of Functionalist Reason.  These works integrate and draw upon the work of other critical thinkers (Mead, Durkheim, Weber, Adorno, Marx) to unfurl Habermas’ own insights on language, reason, rationality, society, discourse and communications. The works of Habermas are the subject of active scholarship and because of the (relative) recency and complexity of his theories most people have not had a chance to become acquainted with his ideas and to make meaningful connections to their own life and circumstances.

What I’d like to do is to introduce some of the core concepts from Habermas’ work and to invite the reader to reflect on the implications for what is happening today.  These are my interpretations of Habermas; understandably, I  have had to summarise and reduce some quite complex theory.  What’s intended here is a beginners guide, an appetiser – if you want the main course go directly to the works cited above.

Instrumental and Communicative Rationality
Let’s start where Habermas starts with a re-examination of the notion of rationality. In Reason and the Rationalization of Society Habermas suggests that we distinguish between two forms of rationality; first cognitive-instrumental rationality and secondly communicative rationality.

The first of these relates to how we act instrumentally on the world – this is the realm of science, mastery of the environment and logical problem solving.  When we make predictions based on empirical evidence or use mathematics to propose new theories of physics or even apply our knowledge of forces and structures to build bridges, in all these practices, we draw on instrumental rationality.

In contrast, communicative rationality is a wider concept and

“… carries with it connotations based ultimately on the central experience of the unconstrained, unifying, consensus-bridging force of argument of speech, in which different participants overcome their merely subjective views and, owing to the mutuality of rationally motivated conviction, assure themselves of both the unity of the objective world and the intersubjectivity of their lifeworld.”

(Habermas, 1984, Vol 1 p 10)
What does Habermas mean by this?  Look again at the quotation above and consider what he is suggesting.  He is proposing that communicative rationality is process oriented rather than mastery or output oriented.  What is this process?  It is the ‘consensus-bridging force of argument’.

Here is my own explanation for understanding communicative rationality.  Let’s say that you are a jury member in a criminal trial and on completion of the hearing you retire with others to consider a verdict.  You consider the evidence – forensic scientists have made assertions, witnesses described their perspectives – all together the case is quite compelling: the woman certainly killed her husband.  But was it murder or self-defence?  Together you discuss further aspects of the case.  Was she defending herself, or her children, did she have other options? Was her action justified?  In this scenario we see both forms of rationality at work – instrumental reasoning establishes the basic ‘facts’ but in this case, and many aspects of human endeavour, we need another form of thinking, we need to deal with something altogether more complex (guilt versus justification) and instrumental reasoning is of little value.  We need a process of communicative rationality to establish an acceptable truth.  In our society we see this as a collective process – that’s why we have juries and even when we rely on judges for verdicts they need to cite precedence – wisdom from the collective.

The Lifeworld
Habermas also introduces the concept of lifeworld (Lebenswelt).  In deriving this concept Habermas builds on the work of the learning theorist, Jean Piaget.  Piaget is best known for his stage theory – descriptions of the phases in which children develop cognitive structures for abstract reasoning and formal thought. Piaget’s basic idea is to distinguish between two forms of learning – that which adds to our existing knowledge and that which transforms the structures we use to deal with new knowledge.  It is through this second form of learning (often called development) that we develop our capacity for thinking.  As adults we have developed these structures into rather elaborate models of the world.  It’s as if we have an internal working model of the universe that we constantly adjust as we gain more and more insights from the external world through experience. So, for Habermas, this internal lifeworld is of critical importance when it comes to communication.

Here is my own  explanation.  Suppose people are engaged in conversation about the “knowledge economy”.  For each participant, we can regard the subjective view of what constitutes the knowledge economy as comprising part of their lifeworld.  Obviously, for a socially-construed construct such as the knowledge economy, there will be elements of common understanding among the participants.  However, it is also likely that their will be considerable differences among the participants as to what constitutes the knowledge economy.  Each participant will bring their own pre-formed assumptions into the conversation.  Lifeworld’s are both personal and social, and this is why Habermas talks about ‘the intersubjectivity of their lifeworld’ in the quotation above.  Habermas argues that “subjects (LC people) acting communicatively always come to an understanding in the horizon of a lifeworld” (p 70). So it is through these conversations, or larger communicative processes, that we form and change the foundational assumptions upon which we build our understanding of the world.

Discourse and Communicative Action
We use the term discourse to describe the truth seeking process or quest involving communicative rationality.  In this we seek a course of action that best serves the needs of society – the common good so to speak.  Thus, the discursive process may be regarded as a universal value underpinning humanity; transcending cultural, religious  and social norms (this relates back to Kant’s notion of universalism) .   What I am really saying, and what I think is the key message from Habermas,  is that quality in how we listen, discuss, argue, accept (other perspectives), reason and decide is an essential quality and is core to what it means to be human.

What constitutes the ideal argument? Or to put it another way, what are the ideals of argument?  Habermas proposes ‘discourse ethics’ as a means of articulating these ideals.  Simon Chambers discussion on  “Discourse and Democratic Practices” summarises Habermas:

Communicative actors are primarily interested in mutual understanding as opposed to external behavior. Therefore, they attempt to convince each other that there are inherently good reasons to pursue one course of action over another. Only the “force of the better argument” should have the power to sway participants. Discourse, as an idealization of this kind of activity, must set conditions such that only rational, that is, “argumentative convincing,” is allowed to take place. It must be a structure that is immunized in a special way against repression and inequality.

The immunization is gained through a set of rules designed to guarantee discursive equality, freedom, and fair play: No one with the competency to speak and act may be excluded from discourse; everyone is allowed to question and/or introduce any assertion whatever as well as express her attitudes, desires, and needs; no one may be prevented, by internal or external coercion, from exercising these rights.


Ireland Today
Where and how can we participate in discourse to find the best way forward for the common good?  The first and most important point is that collectively we have failed so far because we have ‘out-sourced’ argument.  We have left it to the politicians, media commentators and academics to do our reasoning for us.  When we seek expertise to fix the problem we look to the epitome or instrumental rationalists, the economists, for guidance.  But our problem is not economic, or political or cultural or national; it is the abandonment of discourse. 

We are all responsible!

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One thought on “November 2010 Ireland in Turmoil – The Relevance of Habermas and the Theory of Communicative Action”

  1. Thinking along these lines is so needed. Our changing world is difficult to manage for the good. Democracy seems to require us all to acquire a great deal of understanding in order to handle the choices arising at an accelerating rate.

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