LINGUIST List 10.480

Wed Mar 31 1999

Review: Habermas: Pragmatics... (Review #2)

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  1. Bert Bultinck, RE: Habermas Review

Message 1: RE: Habermas Review

Date: Wed, 31 Mar 1999 11:24:35 +0200
From: Bert Bultinck <>
Subject: RE: Habermas Review

Jurgen Habermas, (1998), On the Pragmatics of Communication, edited 
by Maeve Cooke, trans. Bohmann, Cooke et al., MIT Press, Cambridge, 
Massachussetts. 454p, 35 USD.

Reviewed by Bert Bultinck

This anthology collects ten essays by the German
 philosopher Jurgen Habermas (translated in English by 
various translators), outlining his project of "universal 
pragmatics" or "formal pragmatics". This project 
attempts a reconstructive understanding of the way in 
which competent language users employ sentences in 
various types of speech acts in order to relate to three 
domains of reality. The pragmatic function of 
representation enables the speaker to relate to an external 
state of affairs ("external nature"), the expressive 
function allows the speaker to focus on her "internal 
nature" and the third ("appellative" - the term, just as the 
blueprint of this schema, is Karl Buhler's) function 
allows her to establish interpersonal relations 
("society"). This analysis is reconstructive because it 
tries to reconstruct the rules (in a Chomskyan sense) that 
constitute the adult speaker's competence/intuitions to 
use sentences in utterances. It examines the necessary 
presuppositions that enable successful speech, as 
opposed to an empirical study of concrete situations of 
language use, as in, e.g., sociolinguistics.
Habermas' preoccupation with social theory and the 
analysis of communicative action provides the larger 
framework for his interest in pragmatics. In his view of 
communication, he takes the type of action aimed at 
reaching understanding to be fundamental and treats 
insincere, persuasive or manipulative communication as 
derivative. Throughout the evolution of his thinking on 
universal pragmatics (this volume spans his efforts from 
1976-1996), he will maintain a strict distinction between 
communicative action with the purpose of reaching 
understanding on the one hand, and what he calls 
"strategic" communication on the other. This emphasis 
on the process of understanding (Verstandigung) leads to 
a rather strong idealisation of the communicative 
situation: a basis of mutually recognised validity claims 
together with the vindication of these claims is 
presupposed. More specifically, these validity claims 
mirror the aforementioned functions of communicative 
actions: (a) external nature: the speaker must make a true 
statement, or make correct existential presuppositions 
(the latter for non-representatives) (b) internal nature: 
she must be truthful in expressing her beliefs, intentions, 
feelings etc. and (c) society: she must perform a speech 
act that is "right" with respect to a given normative 
context. Habermas then defines "understanding a speech 
act" as knowing what makes it acceptable: besides the 
fact that a speech act obviously has to be 
comprehensible, the speaker and the hearer also assume 
that the speaker can provide grounds (truth claim) and 
justification (rightness) for her speech act, and that she 
can prove her trustworthiness (truthfulness). It is 
important to stress that Habermas believes that every 
speech act at the same time raises these three validity 
claims. I will reproduce one of his examples: the speech 
act Please bring me a glass of water can be contested on 
all three levels. First, concerning the normative 
rightness of the utterance (No. You can't treat me like 
one of your employees.); second, concerning the 
truthfulness of the utterance (No. You really only want 
to put me in a bad light in front of the others.) or 
concerning the existential presuppositions of the speech 
act (No. The nearest water tap is too far away). 
Nevertheless, there usually is one claim that is far more 
foregrounded than the other two, depending on the 
illocutionary role of the speech act (compare: a 
statement, a promise, an expression of grief).
After this general introduction, I will now deal with 
some of the finer points of each of the chapters 
separately. The first paper, "What is Universal 
Pragmatics" (1976), presents the views described above, 
but also provides the methodological justification for the 
proposed project. It elaborates on the procedure of 
rational reconstruction, on the reasons why this 
programme should not be called "transcendental" and on 
a categorical distinction between linguistic expressions 
that appear in sentences with a representational function 
and those that appear in sentences with interpersonal or 
expressive functions. It also explicitly positions 
Habermas' ideas with regard to Austin's and Searle's 
proposals regarding speech act theory.
The second article sets out to correct Weber's theory of 
action by replacing the latter's emphasis on purposive 
rationality by an emphasis on communicative practices 
aimed at reaching understanding, as the mechanism for 
coordinating action. Habermas claims that Weber 
cannot explain the whole scala of societal 
rationalisations: there is, for instance, no place for an 
ethics of responsibility, as the result of interpersonal 
conflicts of interaction, because Weber starts from 
monological action. This also involves a finetuning of 
Habermas' distinction between action oriented toward 
success (consisting of instrumental and strategic action) 
and action oriented reaching understanding 
(communicative action). A view of communication as 
fundamentally aimed toward reaching understanding can 
be extended so that it can also explain strategic uses 
("perlocutionary effects"), but when teleological action 
is taken as a starting-point, the successful 
accomplishment of processes of reaching understanding 
cannot be adequately explained: "If the hearer failed to 
understand what the speaker was saying, a teleologically 
acting, success-oriented speaker would not be able to 
bring the hearer, by means of communicative acts, to 
behave in the desired way" (p.126).
In the third article Habermas counters Charles Taylor's 
criticism on the project of formal pragmatics, by 
pointing out Taylor's preoccupation with self-
consciousness. This bias leads to a view of the self as 
one among many and as one against all, and this leaves 
no room for linguistically structured society. Taylor's 
claim that on the basis of the project of formal 
pragmatics only some kind of procedural ethics is 
possible, is taken to be basically correct, but one cannot 
attempt a universal morality on the basis of an analysis 
of the universal potential of speech along Humboldtian 
lines. Also the world-disclosing function of language 
should not be allowed to overshadow the fact that this 
language-disclosing function has to prove its worth 
within the world. The universal, the particular and the 
individual are released from their relation to a totality 
and are conceived as reference points that are equally 
The importance of the fourth chapter lies first and 
foremost in the clarification of the Husserlian concept of 
"lifeworld". It starts off with yet another comparison 
between action ("running") and speech ("statement"), 
stressing the latter's reflexive characteristic self-
interpretation (it makes itself known as the action that is 
planned to be). Further differences lie in the goal's 
independence/dependence of the means of intervention, 
the causal/cooperative way in which the action is 
brought about and the objective/interpersonal world in 
which the results of the action/speech are to be located. 
The lifeworld, then, is that conception of society that 
explores the terrain of the preflectively familiar and the 
unquestionably certain and allows a vision of the 
sociocultural context of life from within. It consists of a 
linguistically mediated intermeshing of culture 
(knowledge), society (legitimate orders) and personality 
structures (identity). 
The next two chapters are rather short and repetitive: the 
fifth chapter specifically discusses Searle's intentionalist 
theory of meaning, which is deemed to be one-sided in 
its emphasis on the expressive function of language. 
Habermas contends that the representational and the 
interpersonal functions are equally important and show 
that a classification of speech acts by means of Searle's 
concept of "direction of fit" is not adequate. The sixth 
article deals explicitly with the three theories of meaning 
that Habermas regards as fundamental (intentionalist 
(Searle), truth-conditional (Frege) and use theories of 
meaning (Wittgenstein, Austin)); his own adoption of 
Buhler's schema incorporates these three approaches to 
The recent seventh article (1996) presents an answer to 
Schnadelbach's criticism that Habermas is fixated on 
one type of rationality, namely the discursive type. 
Habermas does not follow Schnadelbach in his reduction 
of rationality to "a disposition of rational persons" 
(because that ignores the interpersonal aspect), but 
accepts epistemic rationality and teleological rationality 
as complementary forms of rationality, alongside 
discursive rationality. Nevertheless, these three types of 
rationality all relate to the criticisability of and hence the 
accountability for one's speech acts (communicative), 
beliefs (epistemic) and actions (teleogical). Admittedly, 
discursive rationality does not have a foundational role 
for the other types of rationality, but "it owes its special 
position [?] to its integrative role" (p.309). This 
motivates Habermas to introduce a distinction between 
weak and strong communicative action: the first 
concerns reaching understanding relative to facts and 
one-sided actor-related intentions (truth and 
truthfulness), the second also includes reaching 
understanding on "normative reasons for the selection of 
the goals themselves" (p.326) (rightness).
The next two chapters explicitly deal with two other 
thinkers. In the eighth article Habermas reflects on 
Richard Rorty's Pragmatic Turn. The Pragmatic Turn 
includes a conception of truth as public agreement 
achieved in the communication community. In Rorty's 
view, our desire for objective truth is not an urge for 
transcending the speech community, but a desire for "as 
much intersubjective agreement as possible" (p.353). 
According to radical contextualists, we can only check 
our beliefs by comparing them with other beliefs; truth is 
nothing but coherence. Habermas responds that we 
always already find ourselves in a linguistically 
disclosed lifeworld (i.e., intersubjective convictions that 
prove their worth in practice) and hence, that there is no 
point in trying to resolve a false dualism between inner 
and outer: "What is at stake is not the correct 
representation of reality but everyday practices that must 
not fall apart" (p.359). The discursively founded truth of 
a claim allows a return to prereflective modes of dealing 
with the world. It is this intertwining of truth in rational 
discourses (argumentation) and truth in action-contexts 
(behaviour) that favours the context-independent truth of 
the belief in question.
The ninth article centres around the debate between 
Jacques Derrida and John Searle. Habermas criticizes 
the former because he unjustifiedly blurs the distinction 
between poetic language and everyday communication. 
Ordinary language is under constraints that are different 
from those of poetic or fictional language, because of its 
power to coordinate actions, due the illocutionary 
binding and bonding force of speech acts in everyday 
language. The chapter also includes Habermas' views 
on art and art criticism.
The volume closes with an article in which Habermas 
responds to a diversity of questions and critiques. Once 
again, he responds to Richard Rorty who tries to 
demonstrate the pointlessness of any attempt to 
determine a foundation for knowledge. Habermas 
argues that philosophy rightly clings to the role of 
"guardian of reason", because the question which beliefs 
are justified is still held to be different from the question 
which beliefs are socially accepted. Other critiques that 
are responded to in this chapter deal with doubts whether 
Habermas' procedural rationality can be treated 
theoretically, with his thoughts concerning an aesthetic-
practical rationality , with Weber's theory of culture and 
with the idea of truth in materialist traditions.


Habermas' views on communication and his comments 
on speech acts, meaning theories and the concept of truth 
are at the very least enlightening. They include very 
systematic surveys of the theorisations at hand and shed 
new light on often ill-defined areas of linguistics, the 
philosophy of language and sociology. It is also one of 
Habermas' strong points that he convincingly shows 
how interconnections between these disciplines can be 
clarifying rather than confusing. As far as speech act 
theory is concerned, for instance, the need to bring 
society into the picture (and, hence, the need for an 
adequate conceptualisation of what society is) can hardly 
be contested. Also his systematisation of theories of 
meaning offers a highly intelligible, if somewhat 
oversimplified, introduction to some of the more 
prominent views on semantics available.
Nevertheless, Habermas' emphasis on systematisation 
and organisation at times forces linguistic phenomena 
into pre-established categories, which leaves little room 
for nuances and details.
I will elaborate on just one example. In his comments on 
Austin's and Searle's classifications of speech acts, he 
tries to systematise such a classification on the basis of 
the tripartite structure of the external world, the internal 
world and the interpersonal world. He claims that every 
utterance can be contested on the basis of its relation to 
these three structures, via the concepts of truth, 
truthfulness and rightness. Many critics have argued that 
this is not always the case: especially what Habermas 
calls expressives seem to lack a truth-claim (or: the 
truth-claim is the same as the truthfulness-claim) and 
constatives can hardly be contested on the basis of 
normative rightness. Habermas' reaction refers to the 
existential presuppositions that are necessarily implied in 
non-constatives: "if need be, these presuppositions can 
be rendered explicit in the form of assertoric sentences. 
To this extent, nonconstative speech acts, too, have a 
relation to truth" (p.146). This does not appear to be a 
very large extent, however. Habermas' idea that even a 
simple greeting like hello has as one of its existential 
presuppositions the well-being of the adressee, is 
contrived, to say the least. Of course, it could also be 
argued that it is an existential presupposition of such a 
greeting that there is an addressee. But surely no one 
would be willing to say that a greeting, uttered in utter 
isolation, amounts to an untrue statement. It would be 
inappropriate or odd, but not false. Likewise, an 
imperative statement that cannot be executed due to 
circumstantial situations (Turn that iron fork into a 
golden one) is not false, but foolish or unfair.
Also Habermas' reaction to the objection that for first-
person expressive statements, the truth claim and the 
truthfulness claim coalesce, is not at all convincing. He 
admits that, unlike for other utterances, the employment 
of an expressive statement is also always a guarantee of 
truth. Nevertheless, he also claims that I've been in pain 
for days and He's been in pain for days (I and He 
referring to the same person) can be contested on 
different grounds (the first utterance: truthfulness; the 
second: truth) and that therefore truth and truthfulness 
claims must be distinguished even for expressives. The 
second utterance, however, quite obviously is not an 
expressive speech act, but a constative (as Habermas will 
admit) - it is therefore somewhat surprising that 
Habermas supposes that the different validity claims to 
which both are related is supposed to provide ground for 
a distinction between truth and truthfulness for 
expressives. His statement that "the truth claim relates 
to the existence of the state of affairs 'p,' whereas the 
truthfulness claim has to do only with the manifestation 
of the opinion of the belief 'that p' " (p.148) suggests an 
ontological status of experiences that is independent of 
the subject's experiencing it, which seems to be absurd. 
If A says I love him, and B reacts: That's not true, this 
always also means that B assumes that A is being 
untruthful. Conversely, if B responds You're not being 
honest, then this also always means that she thinks A's 
statement is false.
The example I just gave concerns of course a rather 
small detail, seen in the larger frame of Habermas' 
theories, even if the doctrine of the triple validity claim 
remains an essential part of his Formal Pragmatics-
programme from 1976 up to 1996. But there are more 
general and perhaps also more pernicious consequences 
of Habermas' exaggerated emphasis on schematisation. 
I do not have room for a detailed analysis of these larger 
problems, but I will just mention some of them here. His 
assessment of the history of semantics, for instance, 
reduces the multitude of very diverse accounts of 
meaning to three essential views: the formal semantic 
(truth-conditional) one, the intentionalist approach and 
the use theories of meaning. There are two problems 
with this: first, Habermas ignores some very 
fundamental problems with, and unresolved puzzles 
concerning all of these approaches (especially with the 
truth-conditional one). In the development of formal 
semantics, for instance, Habermas readily detects an 
evolution towards more contextualization. Dummett 
reformulates the truth-conditional dictum 
("understanding the meaning of a sentence is knowing 
under what conditions the sentence is true") as follows: 
understanding an assertion is knowing what reasons a 
speaker can give for the truth of the utterance (Dummett 
1976). This indeed solves problems with deixis and 
other elements that have to be inferred pragmatically. 
But this does not yet give us insight into the question of 
how meanings of single words can be managed (What 
does the word philantropist mean? - can one explicate 
the meaning of a word by giving the reasons for uttering 
it?) or how the meaning of an utterance can be richer 
than or different from the reasons a speaker can give for 
uttering it. Take for instance speaker A's utterance C 
seems to be really fond of my wife. The hearer B knows 
that A is rather jealous and that C is always very 
friendly, and hence, B, in the light of this contextual 
information takes A's utterance to mean: 'C is not really 
very fond of A's wife, he's just being friendly. And A is 
jealous again'. Whether A will confirm this assumption 
or not, is not necessarily going to influence B's assigning 
this meaning to A's statement. Note that the example we 
are considering here is an assertion - and for assertions 
the truth validity claim is deemed to be utterly important 
as far as their meaning is concerned. Habermas' notion 
of truth-conditional meaning (even after Dummett's 
revision of it) is not always very adequate.
The second problem with Habermas' well-nigh 
historiographical account of meaning theories is the fact 
that he omits some very influential theories of meaning, 
as for instance the conceptual view of meaning (the 
meaning of a word is a structured concept in the mind, 
cf. networking, prototypes, metaphors, etc.), or the 
structuralist concept of meaning (less prominent in 
linguistics but still highly influential in postmodernist 
philosophies). His decision to select three out of all 
available theories is not presented as a strategic decision, 
but rather as a natural, logical result of the history of 
semantics. Because Habermas silently ignores some 
important paradigms in semantic theories, he also 
disposes of some of the latter's questions and puzzles 
somewhat too easily. Moreover, the three theories he 
does adopt are piled onto each other with a less than 
healthy inattentiveness to mutual inconsistencies. For 
example, I am not sure whether the intentionalist dogmas 
can be reconciled to Wittgensteinian use theories of 
meaning as easily as Habermas suggests. And he 
unfortunately does not really dig into the interplay 
between truth-conditional meaning, intentionality and 
communicative norms. He only states that there is such 
an interplay, but does not develop a model of how these 
various aspects should be integrated.
Also his conception of truth is, however thought-
provoking, not really convincing either. His first ideas 
on truth, making use of the concept of the ideal speech 
situation, have been criticised astutely by Barbara 
Fultner (Fultner 1996). She also points to a confusion 
between truth as a concept and truth as a criterion. But 
Habermas' later shift in perspective (in his answer to 
Richard Rorty) seems to be off the mark. His claim that 
the somewhat ideal character of the notion of truth 
derives from the fact that what is regarded as true also 
proves its worth in everyday interactions with reality 
seems to hide the fact that this ideal character is 
progressively less present in truth talk. People seem to 
use words like "truth" more and more hesitantly. In so 
far as there still linger ideal aspects in the semantics of 
the word truth, Habermas' explanation may be adequate, 
but it seems to me these connotations have faded away. 
He states: "[?B]ecause in the linguistic paradigm truths 
are accessible only in the form of rational acceptability, 
the question now arises of how in that case the truth of a 
proposition can still be isolated from the context in 
which it is justified" (p.356). I am not sure whether this 
question indeed arises.


Dummett, Michael (1976). "What is a Theory of 
Meaning?", in G. Evans and J. McDowell, eds., Truth 
and Meaning (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

Fultner, Barbara (1996). "The redemption of Truth: 
Idealization, Acceptability and Fallibilism in Habermas' 
Theory of Meaning", in International Journal of 
Philosophical Studies, 4 (2), 233-251.
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