Limits of Communicative Action

Jurgen Habermas was no ivory tower theorist but was visible public intellectual who participated in public discussions across the world, particularly in Germany. Habermas is well known for his theory of communicative action. He distinguishes four kinds of actions of rational actors: teleological actions, normatively regulated actions, dramaturgical actions, and communicative action. Teleological action is where an actor makes decision among alternative course of action with a view of realization of an end, guided by maxim, and based on interpretation of a situation. Strategic action is a subset of teleological action whereby an actor would anticipate what other actors directed by goals will do. Normatively regulated actions consist of actors in a social group pursuing common values or norms of the group fulfilling a generalized expectation of behaviour. This kind of action reminds us of role theory in sociology. This action often arises out of shared habits and is mostly spontaneous. Habermas teaches that dramaturgical action occurs when the actor is acting in front of people who form a public for one another and before whom they present themselves. In this context, the actor invokes in the public a certain image of oneself. Here, there is a presentation of the self which is not spontaneous but stylized or cultivated. Communicative action occurs when two or more actors establish a relationship to seek understanding about their action situation and plan of action and coordinate their action by way of agreement.

Habermas later presents two simple models of social action: Instrumental action ( strategic action) and communicative action. Instrumental action is oriented to success and communicative action is oriented towards understanding. Strategic action is a special type of action wherein actors tries to influence the action of rational opponents while communicative action reaches understanding by building consensus. Communicative action does use language but is not reducible to speech. Habermas gives great importance to language and thinks that society could be understood through structures of language. Linguistic community has great impact on the individual and Habermas thinks that communicative reason can become emancipative through the right use of language. This privileging of language has been criticized by several philosophers. This is because language can be used to manipulate others for strategic purpose and thus intrumentalize the listeners or the participants for one’s own advantage. This is why I think Habermas’s theory of communicative action is workable only in ideal situation where all participants seek to reach understanding and have linguistic competence and commitment to truth.

Participants involved in a communicative action come to an understanding in the horizon of a life world. Life world is composed of unquestioned assumptions and certainties. Habermas thinks that rationalization of the life world is a condition of our emancipation. By rationalization of the life world he means that claims of validity are increasingly exposed to critical scrutiny rather than accepted merely on faith. Habermas gives a crucial role to communicative action in the rationalization process to fight its colonization by systems like monetization of transactions, markets, law and bureaucracy. It is life world that is producing what Habermas call’s normatively regulated action. This means a life world when rationalized by communicative action supports normative action which becomes almost second nature of the actors and rise out of shared values and mutual trust. Therefore, life world can be thought as the social capital of a society that maintains its stability and balance.

Life world is constituted by network of communicative actions that branch out through social space and historical time. When the life world itself is colonized by systems of money and power, Habermas thinks that it is communicative rationality that can emancipate it by rerationalizing it.
Interpreting Habermasian theory of communicative action, we may say that Habermas is moving away from success principle and solidarity principle to the argumentative power of communicative action. He thinks that our social conflicts and problems can be solved by communicative action. But it requires preconditions like communication ethics, linguistic competence and openness to democratic participation. Often we see that in the name of democratic participation a consensus is manufactured and hence, the failure of communication ethics makes Habermasian theory of communicative action suitable only in an ideal situation. It is not easy to get out of this trap. The fact that it is inter-subjective and believes in the power dialectical reason, it has power to reach a high level of consensus. But dialectical reason defeats its opponent and hence dialecticism may not be suitable to build consensus where societies are broken by trauma and pain of the past. We need to move to dialogical dialogue. In this context, diatopical hermeneutics of Raimundo Panikkar or pluritopical hermeneutics of Walter Mignolo might become more useful. Dialectical reason can break hearts while dialogical reason may mend the broken hearts. This is why we may hold that it is the belief in the dialectical power of reason to serve emancipation is that which is limiting Habermasian theory of communicative action. If the communicative action is transformed into dialogical dialogue some of it limitations might be overcome. We may have to expand the dialogical dialogue into a polylogue so that multiple voices gets a validation of being heard and offered space to collectively seek resolution of their problems. Habermas stresses on the ethics of communication, we may have to move to transform our communicative action into a virtuous action under the guidance of phronesis or practical wisdom.

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Hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue.

- Fr Victor Ferrao