Reading Guide to: Habermas, J (1984) The Theory of Communicative Action (two vols), (Trans. and intro. by Thomas McCarthy ) London: Heinemann.

by Dave Harris

McCarthy's Introduction

A reasoned criticism of modernity is needed, but we need to consider what sort of reason we can bring to bear. Habermas argues first that rationality can no longer be seen as an individualistic matter, as in Cartesian approaches; second that life world and system are co-ordinated in a twofold model in modern societies; and thirdly that [a Weberian] critical theory of modernity requires reconsideration. In order to achieve this, a number of major sociological theorists are reviewed and reconstructed: this is 'historical reconstruction with systematic intent'.

The first task is to critique Cartesian rationality and subjectivism as 'monological'. This conception came under criticism from materialism and social evolutionism, and, eventually, the discovery of the unconscious. The project was renewed, for example in Phenomenology [see file], but has come under attack once more [by 'post-modernism']. This time, arguments for the eclipse of subjectivity have become intertwined with anti-modernism, stressing the aggressive side of Western individualism, and leading to a new groundlessness for social theory. Any search for any universal connections between individuals is either seen as nostalgic reconstruction, or pointless foraging for insights in the past. Universalism is just debunked and rejected.

Habermas now shifts fully to the idea of language as the ground for social co-ordination [and as the source for a new universalism]. He is careful to distinguish action from communication here: 'action' describes strategic interlacings which require a limited understanding only, while 'communication', or 'language', refers to universal pragmatics, an underlying competence, including the competence to raise and question validity claims, which aims at a much fuller understanding. [This is going to be used to offer an interesting classification of types of 'action sociology' -- see below].

The notion of rationalisation also needs to be reconsidered. We are used to seeing this as a negative process, from Weber, but it also implies the demand to give reasons, and to discuss reasons free from coercion [and this refers back to discussion about the different validity claims in the ideal speech act]. Rational discussion can be seen as a way of identify mistakes, and therefore possibilities of learning, while rational institutions can be seen as a way of embodying these learning processes in culture -- in scientific, legal, or purposely critical institutions.

Turning to the problems of relativism, Habermas claims that some conception of universal interests is needed to explain theories of social evolution [rather Hegelian again here] it is useful to adopt this approach to question the claims that modernisation is just the development of rationalisation. Bourgeois society simply assumes that purposive rationality is some evolutionary advance, and this has been criticised by Weber. [Perhaps unusually] Habermas also wants to look at action sociology and its contribution to rationalisation in this sense, how action sociologies prioritise action rather than language [the connections between American interactionism and US pragmatism is perhaps the most obvious pointer here].

Not all action sociologies allow subjects to have a full communicative capacity, although the better ones do allow actors to share in the same kind of reflexivity that sociologists claim for themselves -- this sharing also helps to strengthen the claim that there is some universal interest shared by all human beings. Sociology that focuses on meaning is also useful for drawing attention to the existence of universal validity claims. (As an example, Weber's verstehen really needs to allow the actors being observed proper communicative facilities before it is fully useful in this sense).

Sociological accounts of meaning also need to allow for both internalist and externalist factors. This depends on them grasping first how a life world is actually articulated with the system. The internal as dimension is explored in evolutionary theory, where social developments are seen as solutions to problems rather than as externally caused. In practice, they may result from both: this requires some philosophical grasp of the social totality, rather than the development of specialist sub disciplines focusing on internal and external factors alone [sociology and psychology?]. Horkheimer's original project for Critical Theory needs to be revived -- see file. Neither internal nor external is to be prioritised, rather combinations of them need to be unearthed by both conceptual and empirical analyses, attempting to rationally reconstruct historical sequences, perhaps as stages of development, as in Piaget.

We have already begun to discuss the second issue, rationalisation. The classic analysis sees it as a matter of disenchantment rather than progress, extending control rather than permitting additional meanings, and leading to a decisionism [shown in an irrational choice of values, a purely private concern with meaning] rather than rational discussion. This account normally associated with Weber has also had a considerable impact on Western Marxism, leading to the deep pessimism of Dialectic of Enlightenment. The whole analysis depends on an over-emphasis on consciousness and its reification: this is to be remedied by a shift to notions of communication rather than action, and [rather strangely] a renewal of systems theory.

This is what is discussed in volume two, in the review of functionalist theories. For example, Mead is favourably assessed as offering analysis grounded in language, which is public and interpretable, rather than some inner consciousness, which must be private. The emphasis on language as public and emancipatory helps to replace the faith in the powers of the subject (as in Adorno) [and in theorists of 'rebellious subjectivity' such as Marcuse, addressed in Habermas's piece in the special edition of New German Critique, Fall, 1984]. Mead's work also addresses the reconciliation of social evolution and its psychological 'realisations' [manifestations], seeing individuals as acquiring meaning within universal structures, within which they are able to be self-critical.

Durkheim can also be reassessed. His notion of the 'conscience collective'can be united with Mead's notion of the Generalised Other, and with internal psychological mechanisms [the development of the superego is the usual example]. Durkheim's core of sacred values can only be changed once they have been rendered as topics for discussion in language --this was a reforming social policy held by members of the Chicago School [aimed at turning America into an 'melting pot']. Such 'linguistification' is the mechanism behind the shift from mechanical to organic solidarity, and from irrational to rational social binding forces: it allows both a more efficient reproduction of the social order and the formation of individuals. [There are also hints of Weber here on the role of professional intellectuals rationalising, and thus developing Protestantism].

The rationalisation of the life world is also alluded to as a problem. Again, rationalisation has a positive connotation for Habermas, permitting rational discussion. He surveys a number of accounts of the life world -- Schutz is seen as too culturally deterministic; Durkheim and Parsons as too concerned with institutions; Mead as too concerned with socialisation. None of them appreciate that just as communication is multi-dimensional, so is the lifeworld. For example, Schutz does not see that the 'stock of knowledge' also offers a stock of linguistic interpretive patterns. A focus on institutions tends to ignore the implications of 'personalities'. A proper understanding of communication addresses all these aspects, since it offers a way for people to understand, co-ordinate their actions, and become social, through the different types of speech acts (proposition will, illocutionary, and expressive).

Disturbances in patterns of communication produce crises. There are implications again for classic social theory here in explaining changes. For example, Durkheim explains the shift from mechanical to organic solidarity in terms of external material factors such as an increased division of labour -- but there are also internal factors, such as a shift in communication towards understanding. Marxism must also be re interpreted as an account of the constraints on communication emanating from material reproduction -- these result in splits between life world and system, internalist and externalist aspects, action and structure.

Systems theory is correct to point to 'latent functions' of social systems as emergent: [Habermas suggests we use systems theory as an methodological tool, a construct to explain unintended consequences and latent functions]. the latent functions are increasingly expressed in institutions or in mechanisms such as the market, which are not open to immediate subjective understanding. Evolution therefore involves, first increasing separation of institutional levels, and functional mechanisms appearing as semi autonomous; secondly a marked differentiation within and between system and life world.

These two processes are connected -- as the life world becomes more reflexive, it both enables and requires more complex steering mechanisms for systems. As autonomous individuals emerge, they need co-ordination as a separate function, as they relate not to the familiar organizations of the life world, such as the family, but to the new collectivities [sounds very much like Parsons on the functions of the school here]. Co-ordination requires some universalistic 'post conventional' morality, which puts strains on communication and requires new steering media to encode decisions and affect action. Money is one of the steering media, providing feedback on the effectiveness of decisions. Power is another one, although this one requires legitimation to be effective. Both media engage in symbolic and material forms of reproduction.

Turning to the third issue, modernism is not a linear process in either material symbolic terms. The steering media tries to join system and life world together, but can prioritise either, and have enabled the system to dominate the life world. This is described as 'colonisation', and it has weakened social integration through symbols

To grasp this, we need a 'reformulation of the reification problematic' (page xxxii), lying somewhere between Marx and Weber. Lifeworld pathologies in marxist terms arise from  processes of abstraction, illustrated best in the emergence of abstract labour [roughly , labour becomes an abstract commodity rather than being organically attached to any particular craft or institution]. Everyday life becomes commodified itself, dominated by utilitarianism, the pursuit of gain, the eclipse of the public sphere, and the decoupling of politics from the life world. Marx's analysis of the dual nature of labour helps too -- concrete labour remains in the life world, but abstract labour operates at the systems level.

Marx focused on one set of consequences in particular -- the tensions between system and social integration. Habermas has listed a number of other crisis tendencies, in Legitimation Crisis, for example where the economy is now connected to the administrative system, power becomes connected to money, and therefore both mediate the system and life world link. Class conflict and other political struggles may have become institutionalised as a result, but new burdens of normalising get placed on to individuals in the life world. An ever increasing colonisation leads to disturbances.

The development of social welfare offers an interesting case study. It can be seen as being increasingly colonised, as legal regulation intrudes into it, but this has paradoxical effects double - for example, it comodifies rather than properly reintegrates [This seems to fit beautifully with some recent changes in British social policy towards youth -- roughly, youth are now to be treated as consumers entitled to resources from the welfare state, but this is done on a completely individualised basis]. This offers an example of a process of abstraction in a concrete sphere, and might become an 'illustration of the kind of empirical research relevant to his thesis of the internal colonisation of the life world' (xxxiv). However, seeing social problems as located at the system/lifeworld interface helps explain some of the new political forms of protest about the dangers to a traditional way of life [green politics?]. These are as important as the older struggles about money and power.

Overall then, rationalisation has been treated as too general a process by Weber, and this has led to deep pessimism about the future, as in Adorno and Horkheimer. Such an analysis underestimates both the potentials and the conflicts. The former consist of the abilities to open up unreflected areas, such as the sacred, or, these days expert communications, to rational discussion. Rationalisation has been imbalanced in advanced societies, and has led to threats to the life world. But also leads to contradictions as in the case of welfare. The 'good side' needs to be restored -- communicative institutions are needed to recreate the public sphere and reawaken discussions about the good life. This sort of politics can offer no guarantees, however.

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