LINGUIST List 10.475

Tue Mar 30 1999

Review: Habermas: On the Pragmatics of Communication

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  1. Radu Daniliuc [Shared], Review: J. Habermas - "On the Pragmatics of Communicatoin"

Message 1: Review: J. Habermas - "On the Pragmatics of Communicatoin"

Date: Sun, 21 Feb 1999 22:28:36 +0200
From: Radu Daniliuc [Shared] <>
Subject: Review: J. Habermas - "On the Pragmatics of Communicatoin"

Jurgen Habermas, 1998 "On the Pragmatics of Communication",
MIT Press, 454pp., $35 cloth

reviewed by Laura and Radu Daniliuc

The MIT Press offers the reader an anthology of ten essays, in revised or
new translation, selected with the aim of providing general access to Jurgen
Habermas's program in formal pragmatics. The reader is encouraged to follow
the developments and revisions in Habermas's treatment of formal pragmatics,
from his earliest programmatic theory ('What Is Universal Pragmatics?',
1976) to his most recent accounts of meaning and truth ('Some Further
Clarifications of the Concept of Communicative Rationality', 1996; 'Richard
Rorty's Pragmatic Turn', 1996).

Chapter 1 introduces us to formal pragmatic conceived as a research program
aiming at a systematic reconstruction of the intuitive 'rule consciousness'
that a competent speaker has of his/her own language, that is reconstruction
of the universal 'validity basis of speech'. In this respect, the general
functions of speech and the modes of communication are characterized by
Habermas in terms of claims to validity: comprehensibility, truth,
truthfulness, and rightness. The task of formal pragmatics 'to identify and
reconstruct universal conditions of possible mutual understanding
(Verstaendigung)' can be achieved both by empirical-analytic approaches and
Kantian transcendental analysis. The universal-pragmatic point of view from
which Habermas selects and discusses the theory of speech acts leads to an
interpretation that diverges in several important respects from Austin's and
Searle's understanding of speech-act theory, which remains a semantically
determined one.

Chapter 2 ('Social Action, Purposive Activity, and Communication', 1981)
illustrates the thesis that action orientated towards reaching understanding
is the fundamental type of social action. It focuses not on sentences, but
on utterances, and draws attention to the multiplicity of meaningful ways of
using the language, that is to the connection between the meaning of
utterances and social practices. The theory of communicative action must
keep in view the problem how the actions of several actors can be linked up
with one another with the help of the mechanism of reaching understanding,
i.e. how they can be interlaced in social spaces and historical times.
Habermas's pragmatic theory of meaning is an attempt to overcome the
limitations of semantic theories through drawing on Karl Buhler's schema of
language functions and on speech-act theory and on Austin's distinction
between 'illocutions' and 'perlocutions'.

In Chapter 3 (1986), Habermas defends and explains once again his theory of
communicative rationality (criticized by Charles Taylor) and presents a
brief review of the history of the theory of language, 'to show that the
comprehension of linguistic expressions already requires an orientation
toward validity claims and that a rationally motivating force is already
inherent in linguistic processes of reaching understanding as such'. Thus
everyday language has an in-built connection with validity, and action
coordination with validity, and this action coordination must satisfy the
condition of an agreement reached communicatively, without reservation,
while linguistic processes of reaching understanding are generally not used
as a mechanism of action coordination. However, subjects acting
communicatively, in their superficially autonomous achievements in reaching
understanding, are dependent on the resources of a background knowledge of
the lifeworld that is not at their disposal.

Chapter 4 (1988) develops the concept of lifeworld as a kind of
deep-seated, implicit background knowledge and of society as a symbolically
structured lifeworld. The importance of this concept lies, Habermas
stresses, in a presupposition for understanding utterance meaning and in a
risk-absorbing counterpoise to the potentially disintegrative effects of
action oriented towards reaching understanding. The reader is offered a
perspicuous overview of the multiple interconnections between action and
speech in which action is exemplified by means of everyday or practical
activities, and speech by means of speech acts, such as commands, avowals
and statements. Further on, action is divided into communicative and
strategic action as two variants of linguistically mediated interaction.
Starting from the conception of society that can be connected up with the
perspectives on action and interpretative efforts of the participants in
interaction, the reader acquaints with the formal-pragmatic concept of

Chapter 5 presents a critical discussion (1988) on John Searle's 'Meaning,
Communication, and Representation'. Habermas's starting point is that every
analysis of linguistics processes of communication can be analysed in terms
of intentional notions and he reads Searle's view as a modified
intentionalist one, arguing that his own pragmatic theory has many more
possibilities of accounting for the meaning of - in particular - imperatives
and promises. Understanding the meaning of a linguistics expression is
certainly not the same as reaching understanding about something with the
help of an utterance held to be valid, for in language, the dimensions of
meaning and validity are internally connected. Searle elucidates the
intrinsically linguistics force of the very act of raising a validity claim
through the force of an institution that enables a speaker, via his/her
social roles, literally to call something into existence. What Searle
forgets is that language is an institution only in a metaphorical sense;
thus his explanation of how performatives work reaches no further than this

As its title clearly suggests ('Toward a Critique of the Theory of Meaning',
1988), chapter 6 clarifies the status of Habermas's pragmatic theory.
According to him, a theory of meaning should answer the question of what is
'to understand' the meaning of well-formed symbolic expression. There is a
three-fold relation between the meaning of a linguistic expression and what
is 'intended' by it, what is 'said' in it, and the way in which it is used
in the speech act. Intentionalist semantics treats as fundamental only what
the speaker intends by the expression he employs in a given situation;
formal semantics begins with the conditions under which a sentence is true;
and the use theory of meaning has recourse to the habitualized contexts of
interaction in which linguistic expressions serve practical functions. All
these theories, Habermas implicitly suggests, are one-sided, and he discuss
the limits of what they are capable of achieving and tests the
problem-solving potential of a fourth approach, namely that of the theory of
speech acts. He regards speech-act theory as a fruitful starting point, but
an insufficient one as it stands, and attempts to build into it the
formal-semantic emphasis on truth and assertibility conditions.

Chapter 7 responds to Herbert Schnadelbach's criticism of Habermas's concept
of 'communicative rationality'. Accepting Schnadelbach's point of criticism
that he has hitherto accorded it a privileged position, Habermas assumes
that we use the predicate 'rational' in the first instance 'to refer to
beliefs, actions, and linguistic utterances because, in the structure of
knowledge, in the teleological structure of action and in the communicative
structure of speech, we come upon various roots of rationality: epistemic,
teleological and communicative. This leads him to make some new distinctions
between different modalities of language use. Following on from the
distinction between communicative and non-communicative use of language, he
undertakes differentiation in the concept of 'reaching understanding'
itself. Thus, he speaks of communicative action in a weak sense whenever
'reaching understanding applies to facts and to actor-relative reasons for
one-sided expressions of will' and of communicative action in a strong sense
whenever 'reaching understanding extends to the normative reasons for the
selection of the goals themselves'.

Chapter 8 examines Richard Rorty's neopragmatism, interpreted by Habermas as
an attempt to carry the linguistic turn through to its conclusion, and
criticizes it for its assimilation of truth claims to justified
assertibility. Richard Rorty is, Habermas says, 'one of the most outstanding
analytic philosophers, consistently arguing in an informed and astute way:,
who 'whishes to complete the linguistic turn in a pragmatic way', but for
the pragmatic radicalization of the linguistic turn Rorty obtains 'a
nonrealist understanding of knowledge'. Habermas compares the contextualist
approach with the epistemological doubt of the modern skeptic, recalling
thus the problem of how truth is to be distinguished from rational
acceptability. He takes issue with the deflationary strategy that relies on
a semantic conception of truth and criticizes a kind of epistemization of
the idea of truth that he himself once proposed, developing thus an
alternative to the liquidation of unconditional claims to truth.

Chapter 9 focuses on the relation between the poetic use of language and
language usage in everyday communication. Habermas argues that the
communicative use of linguistic expressions is the basic mode of language
use on which other modes, for example, strategic or fictional ones, are
parasitic. His argument for the parasitic status of the symbolic, the
figurative and the fictional modes of language use is that everyday
communicative use of language fulfills indispensable 'problem solving'
functions that require idealizing suppositions not demanded by the
world-creating and world-disclosing use of language characteristic for the
aesthetic realm. Habermas criticizes Jacques Derrida and his adepts for
faulty accounts of everyday and poetic language, for a consequent
problematic leveling of the distinction between literature and communicative
action, and for a failure to recognize the peculiar status of discourses and
to appreciate the distinctive mediating roles of philosophy and literary

Chapter 10 ('Questions and Counterquestions', 1985) responds to several
criticisms that Richard Rorty, Martin Jay, Thomas McCarthy and Joel
Whitebook brought to Habermas's theory of communicative action. Against
Rorty, Habermas defends the view of philosophy as 'guardian of reason', role
that 'can hardly be dismissed as an idiosyncrasy of self-absorbed
intellectuals', especially in a period in which basic irrationalist
undercurrents are being transmuted once again into a strange form of
politics. In respond to Jay's statements, he clarifies his position with
respect to modern art and art criticism and the validity claims imposed by
them. Against McCarthy, Habermas reaffirms the thesis that 'we cannot
understand reasons without at least implicitly evaluating them,' and
clarifies his idea of the unity of reason as an interplay of validity
dimensions. In the end, Habermas concludes by taking into account the
objection that he has cut too much from Hegel and totalizing forms of
thought (McCarthy), or too much from Marx and materialism (Whitebook) and
the statement that his theory concentrates on justice at the expense of


The ten essays collected in this anthology introduce the reader to
particular details of Habermas's formal pragmatics, and especially to his
theories of meaning, truth, rationality and action. Moreover, the
bibliography added by the editor Maeve Cooke is meant to lead readers
further into the literature related to Habermas's program of formal

The reviewers - Laura and Radu Daniliuc Suceava, ROMANIA - are BA in
English Language (Linguistics) and Literature, members of SSA, co-authors of
the first Romanian translation of F. de Saussure's 'Courses' and of other
articles on generativism and applied linguistics. Their main interests
include: generativism (P&P theory, minimalist structures etc) and
computational linguistics. [other info available on request]
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