Habermas, Jürgen. The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity: Twelve Lectures Studies in Contemporary German Social Thought. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1987.

The Author – Jürgen Habermas

Associated with the Frankfurt School, Habermas’s work focuses on the foundations of social theory and epistemology, the analysis of advanced capitalistic societies and democracy, the rule of law in a critical social-evolutionary context, and contemporary politics, particularly German politics. Habermas’s theoretical system is devoted to revealing the possibility of reason, emancipation, and rational-critical communication latent in modern institutions and in the human capacity to deliberate and pursue rational interests. Habermas is known for his work on the concept of modernity, particularly with respect to the discussions of rationalization originally set forth by Max Weber. He has been influenced by American pragmatism, action theory, and even poststructuralism.

My Thoughts

Habermas seeks to navigate the turbulent waters “between the Scylla of absolutism and Charybdis of relativism.” ((Jürgen Habermas, The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity: Twelve Lectures, Studies in Contemporary German Social Thought (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1987), 300.)) This dichotomy has existed since the time of Plato and has been the source of much of Western Philosophy, and thus Western Culture’s, problems. Habermas seeks to link these two extremes by placing Reason not on one or the other side—which has been the project of most hermeneuticians throughout the Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment era—but in the communicative feedback between them.

Reason is not an abstract ideal that exists in a universal, non-material realm from which it dictates the material. Nor is reason conflated into the material realm of social labor or power. Reason is communicatively constructed from the prexisting Lifeworld and the everyday language praxis of interlocutors. The Lifeworld is continually constructed and developed throughout history, within specific cultural contexts. This Lifeworld creates the space in which language and communicative argumentation and meaning-making can happen.

Habermas’ Theory of Communicative Action (TCA) is helpful for my research because it gives a theoretical frame for the relationality of the Trinitarian structure of the universe. God is communicative and functions through communicative reason in the process of creating and recreating all things. TCA offers a bridging language between critical social theory and theology. TCA is also helpful for the missional church because it gives language and structure for the discernment process of communal decision and meaning-making as the local church discerns the movement of the Spirit and the praxis involved in participating with God’s activity in the world.

The following quotes are from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

There are three knowledge-constitutive interests, each rooted in human existence and expressed in a particular type of scientific or scholarly inquiry.

The first is the “technical interest,” the “anthropologically deep-seated interest” we have in the prediction and control of the natural environment. [positivist]

The interpretive, or cultural-hermeneutic sciences, rest on a second, equally deep-seated “practical interest” in securing and expanding possibilities of mutual and self-understanding in the conduct of life.

(By making these first two cognitive interests explicit, Habermas seeks to go beyond positivist accounts of the natural and social sciences. On his view, those accounts tend to ignore the role that deep-seated human interests play in the constitution of possible objects of inquiry.)

the third cognitive interest, the emancipatory interest

Three kinds of interests:

  1. technical
  2. practical
  3. emancipatory

A pluralistic mode of critical inquiry suggests a different norm of correctness: that criticism must be verified by those participating in the practice and that this demand for practical verification is part of the process of inquiry itself.

By linking meaning with the acceptability of speech acts, Habermas moves the analysis beyond a narrow focus on the truth-conditional semantics of representation to the social intelligibility of interaction. The complexity of social interaction then allows him to find three basic validity claims potentially at stake in any speech act used for cooperative purposes (i.e., in strong communicative action). His argument relies on three “world relations” that are potentially involved in strongly communicative acts in which a speaker intends to say something to someone about something (TCA 1: 275ff). For example, a constative (fact-stating) speech act (a) expresses an inner world (an intention to communicate a belief); (b) establishes a communicative relation with a hearer (and thus relates to a social world, specifically one in which both persons share a piece of information, and know they do); and (c) attempts to represent the external world. This triadic structure suggests that many speech acts, including non-constatives, involve a set of tacit validity claims: the claim that the speech act is sincere (non-deceptive), is socially appropriate or right, and is factually true (or more broadly: representationally adequate). Conversely, speech acts can be criticized for failing on one or more of these scores. Thus fully successful speech acts, insofar as they involve these three world relations, must satisfy the demands connected with these three basic validity claims (sincerity, rightness, and truth) in order to be acceptable.

three worlds of validity claims:

  1. inner world – belief
  2. social world – shared information
  3. external world

“Lifeworld” then refers to the background resources, contexts, and dimensions of social action that enable actors to cooperate on the basis of mutual understanding: shared cultural systems of meaning, institutional orders that stabilize patterns of action, and personality structures acquired in family, church, neighborhood, and school (TCA 1: chap. 6; 1998b, chap. 4).

The rationalization of the lifeworld in Western modernity went hand-in-hand with the growth of systemic mechanisms of coordination already mentioned above, in which the demands on fully communicative consensus are relaxed. If large and complex modern societies can no longer be integrated solely on the basis of shared cultural values and norms, new nonintentional mechanisms of coordination must emerge, which take the form of nonlinguistic media of money and power. For example, markets coordinate the collective production and distribution of goods nonintentionally, even if they are grounded in cultural and political institutions such as firms and states. Modernization can become pathological, as when money and power “colonize the lifeworld” and displace communicative forms of solidarity and inhibit the reproduction of the lifeworld (e.g., when universities become governed by market strategies). “Juridification” is another such pathological form, when law comes to invade more and more areas of social life, turning citizens into clients of bureaucracies with what Foucault might call “normalizing” effects. This aspect of TCA has less of an impact on Habermas’s current work, which returns to the theme of improving democratic practice as a means of counteracting juridification and colonization. Democratic institutions, if properly designed and robustly executed, are supposed to ensure that the law does not take this pathological form but is subject to the deliberation of citizens, who thus author the laws to which they are subject (see sec. 3.4).

Quotes from Habermas’ Lecture “An Alternative Way out of the Philosophy of the Subject: Communicative versus Subject-Centered Reason

“it behooves us to retrace the path of the philosophical discourse of modernity back to its staring point–in order to examine once again the directions once suggested at the chief crossroads.”



Heidegger (Being and Time)

Derrida (in discussion with Husserl)

…stood before paths they did not choose.

Hegel and Marx should have gone with a communication community rather than “swallowing the intuition concerning the ethical totality back into the horizon of the self-reference of the knowing and acting subject.”

Heidegger and Derrida should have moved toward communicatively structured lifeworlds that reproduce themselves via the palpable medium of action oriented to mutual agreement rather than ascribing meaning-creating horizons of world interpretation to a Dasein projecting itself or to a background occurrence that shapes structures. (294-295)

The lifeworld reproduces itself, which transcend the perspectives of the actors, when these factors are fulfilled:

propagation of cultural traditions

integration of groups by norms and values

socialization of succeeding generations. (299)

“steering between the Scylla of absolutism and Charybdis of relativism.” (300)

Habermas critiques the attempts to critique Reason through both diremption models and exclusion models. Both of these fail because they all operate within the subject-centered concept of reason. “The spatial metaphor of inclusive and exclusive reason reveals that the supposedly radical critique of reason remains tied to the presuppositions of the philosophy of the subject from which it wanted to free itself.” (309)

“Instead of overtrumping modernity, it takes up again the counter discourse inherent in modernity and leads it away from the battle lines between Hegel and Nietzsche, from which there is no exit.” (310)

“[communicative] rationality is assessed in terms of the capacity of responsible participants in interaction to orient themselves in relation to validity claims geared to intersubjective recognition. Communicative reason finds its criteria in the argumentative procedures for directly or indirectly redeeming claims to propositional truth, normative rightness, subjective truthfulness, and esthetic harmony.” (314)

The feedback process between lifeworld and everyday communication takes over the mediating role that Marx and Western Marxism reserve to social practice…this is not just another praxis philosophy.

The praxis philosophy of phenomenology and anthropology (which comes from Husserl) is caught in the dichotomizing structure that comes from the philosophy of the subject. “[it] proceeds…from the notion that an ontological difference exists between language and the things spoken about, between the constitutive understanding of the world and what is constituted in the world.” (319)

what they miss is the reciprocal causality that exists between the world of ideas and the world of social labor. one creates room for the other, while the other modifies the former.

“A totally different perspective results when we transfer the concept of praxis from labor to communicative action.” (321)

“Ever since Plato and Democritus, the history of philosophy has been dominated by two opposed impulses. One relentlessly elaborates the transcendent power of abstractive reason and the emancipatory unconditionality of the intelligible, whereas the other strives to unmask the imaginary purity of reason in a materialist fashion.

“In contrast, dialectical thought has enlisted the subversive power of materialism to undercut these false alternatives. it does not respond to the banishment of everything empirical from the realm of ideas merely by scornfully reducing relationships of validity to the powers that triumph behind their back. Rather, the theory of communicative action regards the dialectic of knowing and not knowing as embedded within the dialectic of successful and unsuccessful mutual understanding.” (324)

final paragraph in total:

“As a resource from which interaction participants support utterances capable of reaching consensus, the lifeworld constitutes an equivalent from what the philosophy of the subject had ascribed to consciousness in general as synthetic accomplishments. Now, of course, the generative accomplishments are related not to the form but to the content of possible mutual understanding. To this extent, concrete forms of life replace transcendental consciousness in its function of creating unity. In culturally embodied self-understandings, intuitively present group solidarities, and the competences of socialized individuals that are brought into play as know-how, the reason expressed in communicative action is mediated with the traditions, social practices, and body-centered complexes of experience  that coalesce into particular totalities. These particular forms of life, which only emerge in the plural, are certainly not connected with each other only through a web of family resemblances; they exhibit structures common to lifeworlds in general. But these universal structures are only stamped on particular life forms through the medium of action oriented to mutual understanding by which they have to be reproduced. This explains why the importance of these universal structures can increase in the course of historical processes of differentiation. This is also the key to the rationalization of the lifeworld and to the successive release of the rational potential contained in communicative action. This historical tendency can account for the normative content of a modernity threatened by self-destruction without drawing upon the constructions of the philosophy of history.” (326)

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