Jürgen Habermas’ Theory of Communicative Action: An Incomplete Project

Richard Harvey Brown & Douglas Goodman. Handbook of Social Theory. Editor: George Ritzer & Barry Smart. 2001. Sage Publication.

As capitalism slouches into a new millennium, many of the most extreme predictions about it, both optimistic and pessimistic, appear to be coming true. For those within the advanced capitalist countries, it has provided material comfort that is as broad and enduring as any that humans have experienced. And, as a system, it continues to grow more efficient and pervasive. Capitalism’s global reach is now unchecked by any rival order. It has conquered the world and, by many, been welcomed with open arms. If democracy and peace spread around the globe, it will likely be because they provide a good environment for capitalism more than for any intrinsic value.

However, it is also true that many of the most dire predictions of the critics of capitalism have been realized—Marx’s prediction of alienation and fetishism of commodities, de Tocqueville’s fear of a capitalist aristocracy, Weber’s prediction of disenchantment and the iron cage of bureaucracy, Durkheim’s anomie and loss of collective morality. As the technicians diligently fine-tune the machinery of economic prosperity, its supposed beneficiaries increasingly see capitalism as an uncontrollable juggernaut headed towards an uncertain destination.

Even as capitalism’s progress seems inevitable, the concept of progress itself is looking more dubious. On both intellectual and political levels, the assumption of democratic progress through enlightenment rationality is increasingly difficult to believe. Rationality itself has been largely reduced in practice to technical calculation of efficient means without regard to the substantive rationality of ends, purposes, or values. This turns political and moral questions into technical or instrumental ones. Such a reduction of reason to calculations of efficiency tends to empower technical experts, to de power citizens, and to limit the public space available for civic discourse.

The triumph of capitalism and the technicization of reason has engendered a critique. Rationality itself is attacked from many directions. Post-structuralists insist that it is a form of power; feminists suggest that rationality disguises male domination; postmodernists argue that rationality is itself historical, a language game that constructs its own domains of application. But much of this criticism seems to be compromised by the rational arguments upon which they rely.

This is the situation that Jürgen Habermas attempts to address: the triumph of a seemingly indispensable capitalist system, the postmodern skepticism toward reason, and the failure of public discourse. Habermas aims to restore an ethical rationality to civic discourse by recovering rationality from its reduction to calculations of efficiency, on the one hand, and fending off postmodern skepticism on the other. He hopes that this would provide for a critique of capitalism and a revival of democracy.

Habermas’ theory is first and foremost a critical theory. Critical theory is meant here in both the generic sense and in the specific sense of a theory that is derived from the Frankfurt School—that collection of neo-Marxists which includes among its more famous members Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, Walter Benjamin and Erich Fromm. Habermas is generally considered to be the leader of the Frankfurt School’s ‘second generation.’ He was deeply influenced not only by the Frankfurt School’s concept of a critical theory, but also by the first generation’s failure in achieving one.

Habermas sees his work as an attempt to appropriate Weber in the spirit of Western Marxism. The primary intent of Habermas’ project is to provide an alternative to the formal, instrumental reason that Weber had shown to lead to both disenchantment and an iron cage of bureaucracy. According to Weber, Western culture has been characterized by the inescapable growth of a peculiar type of reasoning. While most forms of reason are tied to the accomplishment of a particular moral value, Western rationality is tied only to efficiency, calculability and control. This formal, instrumental rationality inevitably results in the loss of meaning and the growth of bureaucracy so evident in capitalist modernity.

Horkheimer and Adorno (1972) made Weber’s pessimism even more radical. They argued that this formal, instrumental reason is the corrupt heart of the Enlightenment project. According to Horkheimer and Adorno, the inescapable conundrum of the Enlightenment is this: the reason which is needed to create the objective conditions of freedom ends up destroying freedom’s subjective and intersubjective conditions. Because human beings have inescapable material needs, our freedom depends upon controlling nature. To better control nature, we control other people and, in the end, efficiency demands that we even control our own inner nature. The tragedy of ‘dialectic of Enlightenment’ is that we end up repressing and controlling the very human nature that is the motivation for our freedom. The opportunities opened up by our control of nature are confronted by a repressed and diminished subject.

Habermas believes that both Weber and the early Frankfurt School made the mistake of assuming that the only type of reason is one bent on control in order to satisfy material needs. Instead, for Habermas, the Enlightenment project encompasses the increasing rationalization of both an instrumental reason as well as a reason inherent to what Habermas calls communicative action. Habermas argues that communicative action can function as an alternative way of relating to others that does not just use them as means to self-interested goals tied to the necessity of producing our material needs. Instead, the goal of communicative action is understanding and, as a form of reason, it does not lead to either the subjective crisis of repression or the objective crisis of the excrescence of bureaucracy.

In 1970, Habermas (1980: 189-90) laid out the path that he was to follow by identifying two ways in which a theory of communication could be critical. One way would be ‘a rational reconstruction of a regulative system that adequately defines general linguistic competence.’ This approach would start from an ‘ideal’ speech situation and use that as a standpoint to critique our current situation. The other way would be to start from the experienced crises of everyday communication and develop a model of how society needs to change in order to correct these pathologies. The first approach can be called a theory of normalcy since it specifies what the non-pathological condition would be. The second can be called a theory of pathologies.

The theory of normalcy and the theory of pathologies are closely related, but they are not reducible to each other. Indeed, the theory of pathologies requires that a theory of normalcy be established separately in order for experiences of crises to be defined as pathologies instead of, for example, necessary growing pains. We can all agree that war is a crisis, but that, in and of itself, is not an argument against war. We need a further explanation showing that war is not a necessary stage that must be passed through on our way to a just and peaceful society.

Conversely, the theory of normalcy requires a theory of pathologies. It is needed to make the reconstruction of the historical development of necessary competences for communicative action into a critical theory rather than a conservative one. For example, a theory that reconstructs the way in which children are socialized into competent gender performances based upon biological sexual characteristics is only a critical theory if it is agreed that these gender performances are pathological. Otherwise the theory could be taken as a model of how one should socialize children into traditional gender roles. This means that Habermas’ diagnosis of modernity is critical only if he can show that the colonization of communicative action by an administrative system results in crises that are avoidable.

In the next section of this chapter, we present Habermas’ theory of ‘normalcy.’ In using the term normalcy, we mean non-pathological rather than normative or regularly occurring. Clearly Habermas does not claim that what he calls communicative action occurs regularly in modern capitalism. Instead, the very rarity of its occurrence is central to its critical force. Neither do we use the term normalcy to mean related to a norm, although Habermas’ theory of normalcy does have implications for norms and values. Instead, his argument is that what is ‘normal’ (1987b: 196) can be reconstructed from the necessary presuppositions for communication which is oriented toward understanding. Such a reconstruction demonstrates that communication has an inherent telos; and it also shows that other forms of communication presuppose such a telos even as they negate it in practice. This theory of normalcy allows Habermas to argue, in his theory of pathologies, that the experienced dilemmas of modernity are caused by the repression of communicative rationality. The theory of normalcy shows that the crises described in the theory of pathologies are not necessary stages.

Habermas’ Theory of Normal Communication

Habermas defines what is normal by reconstructing a communicative rationality that he argues is necessary to social reproduction and personal identity. The concept of a necessary communicative rationality has been a part of Habermas’ thought from his first book. A main theme of The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (1991a) was that society has suffered from the dismantling of the arena for public communication to make way for a manufactured publicity that merely appears to be communication.

Habermas’ first major theoretical work, Knowledge and Human Interests (1971), was an attempt to provide an epistemological justification for an alternative type of rationality that is distinct from instrumental reason. He developed the concept of cognitive interests in order to distinguish different types of rationalities. Communication with the aim of mutual understanding (the primary focus of Habermas’ later work) is one of three primary interests that are the conditions for knowledge. The other two are an instrumental and an emancipatory interest. Part of Habermas’ argument was for the autonomy of the communicative realm from the instrumental; however, his main focus in this early attempt was not the communicative, but the emancipatory interest which constituted the realm in which an ideology critique could function.

Ideology critique based on reflection was central to the critical theory of the early Habermas. However, the reliance on reflection was heavily criticized because Habermas could not explain how this seemingly interest-free, critical reflection was possible given his own theory of knowledge constitutive interests (Dallmayr, 1972; McCarthy, 1978; Ottmann, 1982). Consequently, the focus on ideology critique through reflection was abandoned in favor of a reconstruction of the necessary presuppositions for the reproduction of society through communication.

The reconstruction of the necessary presuppositions of such communication has two aims: first, to recover and validate the rationality that is embodied in everyday communication and necessary for social reproduction; and second, to establish the possibility of a context-transcending perspective within the current intellectual milieu that is skeptical of all such attempts to transcend contexts (Habermas, 1984: 137). In this way, Habermas proposes a theory of normalcy that is tied to everyday communication and yet transcends its local contexts.

Habermas proposes that the competences in the use of language that are presupposed in any communication can be reconstructed in what he calls a pragmatics of human communication. Such a pragmatics focuses on the formal (as opposed to substantive) properties of language use. He bases his reconstruction on the concrete use of language which is, of course, always bound to a particular context. By focusing on the abstract form of the necessary general competences, he hopes that he can define a concept of validity that does not simply reproduce the conventions of a particular society. It is upon the foundation of this context-transcendent validity that Habermas proposes to build his theory of normalcy.

The theory of communication that Habermas develops draws on the idea of George Herbert Mead and others that personal identity—our experience of our self as a self—is intersubjectively constructed through symbolic interaction, that is, communication. Because such communication constitutes our very selves, its necessary presuppositions are not to be viewed as norms, although they have a normative force (Habermas, 1979: 88). They do not represent ‘a particular value, for or against which we can take sides’ (Habermas, 1982: 226). Instead, the necessary presuppositions of communication are the source for our identity, as well as any position we might take and any norm to which we would accede. The intersubjective medium of language not only is the source of personal identity; it also is the medium through which we understand ourselves as a part of a social group and through which activity of individuals within such groups is coordinated.

For Habermas, language is intrinsically critical. Of course, any criticism of the status quo must be articulated through language. In this sense, language always has the potential to be critical. But Habermas means much more than that. For him, the necessary structure of communication contains an emancipatory goal latent within the concept of mutual understanding. This emancipatory goal inheres in normal communication, even though much use of language does not itself share this emancipatory perspective. Habermas’ own theory therefore provides for a critique of current conditions to the extent that actual communication does not live up to its emancipatory potential.

Strategic and Communicative Action

According to Habermas, communication can be divided into two types, one which he labels ‘strategic’ and the second, a true ‘communicative action’ aimed at understanding. Only communicative action fits Habermas’ concept of normal communication.

In strategic communication the goal of social action is pre-established and often hidden. The intent is not to reach agreement about the goals of the action but simply effectively to carry out the plans of the speaker, especially where the hearers may not agree with the speaker’s intentions. Although strategic action uses language and involves other people, its goals are not inherent to language use and other people are treated as if they were objects. Social norms and even the speaker’s own subjective expressions become tools to be used to further the speaker’s predefined goals. The rationality of communication is judged in terms of its efficiency in getting others to do what the speaker wants them to do (Habermas, 1982: 264). Strategic communication is under the spell of instrumental reason and leads to all of the problems that Weber and the Frankfurt School predicted.

In contrast, communicative action aims at achieving understanding—which Habermas takes to be the ‘inherent telos of human speech’ (1984: 287). The key to what Habermas means by communicative action is his special use of the term ‘understanding.’ The German term Verstàndigung can mean both understanding and the process of coming to an understanding. Habermas connects these two senses: ‘Reaching understanding [Verstdndigung] is considered to be a process of reaching agreement [Einigung] among speaking and acting subjects’ (1984: 286-7).

In communicative action, human beings are not objects to be used to further predefined goals; instead, goals are mutually agreed upon through a process of communication that recognizes the autonomous humanity of all persons involved. Social action is coordinated through the process of understanding itself. That is, the very process through which understanding is achieved also generates cooperative goals and agreements. Communicative action thereby offers a form of rationality that escapes the spell of instrumental reason and provides a definition of non-pathological communication upon the basis of which social crises can be diagnosed as pathologies.

The difference between strategic and communicative action is not that one is goal-oriented and the other is not. Both forms involve coordinating action to achieve goals. The difference lies in the distinct relation between the goal pursued and the language used. In strategic action, the relation between language and goal is one of means to end, with language reduced to a mere instrument for achieving any posited goal. In communicative action, however, the goal is understanding and the precise nature of that goal is inseparable from the processes of language use through which it is achieved (Habermas, 1991b: 241). For example, in trying to get a child to rake the yard, one could either tell her that there is money under the leaves or one could try to discuss with her why raking the yard may or may not be an important thing to do. In the former case, language is just one means among others (paying her to do it, threatening her with punishment if she doesn’t, etc.) to accomplish the goal of raking the yard. In the latter, understanding and coming to a consensus about the importance of raking is the goal, and this can only be done through language.

For Habermas, this distinction is not simply a matter of subjective attitude. He claims that communicative action requires a structure of presuppositions that is qualitatively different from linguistic interactions that simply manipulate others to achieve a predetermined goal. This is related to the different mechanisms for social coordination of strategic and communicative action. The distinction can be summed up as the difference between mutual understanding and mutual influencing. With communicative action, individuals are coordinated through building consensus that derives its coordinating force from ‘the binding and bonding energies of language itself’ (Habermas, 1998: 221). Strategic action, in comparison, is coordinated by complementing interest situations. Non-linguistic means are used to manipulate the situation so that it is in people’s ‘interest’ to cooperate. The egocentric goals of strategic action could be pursued without communication. When language is used, it merely transmits information or expresses power. In communicative action, by contrast, language itself integrates action.

Certainly, all language transmits information and all language that integrates action also involves interests. However, Habermas (1998: 224) argues that, in communicative action, the transmission of information about interests that lie outside of language is interrupted, and there is a shift of ‘perspective from the objectivating attitude of an actor oriented toward success who wants to realize some purpose in the world, to the performative attitude of a speaker who wants to reach understanding with a second person with regard to something in the world’.’ Consequently, Habermas (1998: 220) claims, ‘both these types of action are “entwined” although they occur in “different constellations”.’

Since the mechanism for coordinating action is intrinsic to speech in communicative action, Habermas (1987b: 196) argues that we should look at communicative action as the normal use of language. In contrast, strategic action uses language simply as one among other means for social coordination, and is therefore parasitic upon normal language insofar as it presumes normalcy of communication for the very effectiveness of its manipulations.

Of course, such terms as ‘parasitic’ and ‘normal’ carry a normative charge. Yet we believe that Habermas’ thought can be better understood if we take it primarily as a theory of normal and pathological communication, rather than as a normative argument against strategic and for communicative action. His is first a theory of normalcy and only secondarily a normative theory. Indeed, Habermas sees very well the attraction of strategic action. If our goals are clear and our cause is just, it is perhaps immoral to try to achieve them through such a risky and inefficient method as communicative action. In the causes of equality, justice and freedom—not to mention simply feeding hungry people—shouldn’t we engage in strategic action wherever necessary? Habermas’ question is why, given that, does communicative action still exist? Why hasn’t the world, in pursuit of mostly laudable goals, been reduced, willy-nilly, to the instrumental action that Weber, Horkheimer and Adorno foresaw?

Notice that this is a more subtle argument than Habermas is usually interpreted as making. He is not just saying that Weber’s, Horkheimer’s and Adorno’s pessimistic theoretical cul-de-sac must be countered with a theory of communicative action. Instead he is saying that their pessimism is historically inaccurate. Our culture has not been completely and irrevocably dominated by a formal instrumental reason. Communicative action is offered as a theory to explain why formal instrumental reason has not and ultimately cannot completely dominate a culture.

Understanding and Validity Claims

Habermas argues that communicative action continues to occur because even strategic action depends upon the kind of understanding that is tied to the idea of reaching an agreement. This is because, for Habermas, understanding cannot be adequately described as transferring meaning from the speaker to the hearer since meaning goes beyond the intention of the speaker. Nor can meaning be seen as awareness of the correspondence between the utterance and the world since this idea is based on a dubious copy theory of truth. Instead, understanding is an intersubjective process that occurs within the realm of language. It is language that provides both the medium and the telos of understanding.

To understand the meaning of a linguistic utterance is to take a stand in terms of its claims to being a valid statement, and such validity claims can only be justified linguistically. This linguistic justification takes the form of a rationally motivated agreement about something in the world. Even though understanding in strategic action may refer to reified norms or objects that appear to be external to language, these too ultimately depend upon rationally motivated agreement to the extent that they can be understood. The process of reaching an understanding means being able to rationally accept or reject the validity claims made by the speech act. This is the normal function of language and communicative action of this kind allows social action to be coordinated in a non-pathological way.

A validity claim coordinates social action because it is inherently intersubjective. It creates an intersubjective expectation for both speaker and hearer. There is a binding expectation upon the speaker to assume responsibility for reasonably justifying validity claims if challenged. There is also a binding expectation upon the hearer to agree or disagree with the validity claim and to be able to provide reasons for doing so. Seeing a statement as a validity claim implies that the participants are capable of bracketing the ‘truth’ of their statement and conceiving the statement as being open to challenge. This reciprocal openness to possible challenge and critique requires a reflective attitude on the part of both speaker and hearers.

Habermas’ is primarily a theory of normalcy rather than a normative theory. Hence, this binding expectation imposed by validity claims characterizes the normal state of communication. Yet Habermas’ formulation also has a normative force, because the binding expectation of communicative action makes an ethical demand upon speakers to assume responsibility for redeeming their validity claims through further communication and without resorting to external factors. This is the normative force intrinsic to understanding. Communicative action is distinguished by its attempt to comply with that norm whereas strategic action simply uses that expectation without intending to fulfill it.

The purpose of normal communication is the achievement of an agreement regarding the validity claim which does not necessarily conform to the expectations of either party. Habermas is not saying that theability to reach agreement is built into everyday processes of communication, only that this ability is implicit or presupposed as part of the goal of understanding. All true communication takes the form of validity claims that call for a reflective attitude and bind social action through their demand for recognition. In practice, however, many communications fail to achieve this agreement. Understanding is part of the form of communicative action and does not require that actual agreements be reached.

Validity claims are not a specialized and uncommon form of communication. According to Habermas, all communication that is oriented to understanding implicitly raises validity claims which are part of the general structure of possible communication. A theory of communicative action can locate in these validity claims ‘a gentle but obstinate, a never silent although seldom redeemed claim to reason, a claim that must be recognized de facto whenever and wherever there is to be consensual action’ (Habermas, 1979: 97). Claims to validity are often not explicit, and it is even rarer for them to be explicitly redeemed. None the less, that possibility of redemption is built into the structure of understanding and represents the paradigm case.

Validity claims always occur in and are tied to specific contexts. Nevertheless, Habermas thinks that they transcend the contingencies of their local genesis to make universal claims. To make a claim to validity is, for Habermas, always to presuppose universality, that is, to suppose that any rational person would be motivated to agree. It is the presupposition of universality in any validity claim that gives them a certain transcendence over their particular context. In this sense, Habermas’ theory of normalcy applies to any cultural context. Communicative action involving contestable validity claims is the normal form of speech and is able to provide a critical perspective on any society.

Necessary Presuppositions of Normal Communication

The necessary presuppositions for communication function like strong idealizations. This is why Habermas has often referred to them as an ‘ideal speech situation.’ The presuppositions are not always realized, but they must be supposed by the participants if the interaction is to be one characterized as communication. Habermas is quite aware of the burden of proof if he is to escape the accusation that his necessary presuppositions simply reflect the prejudices of Western academic culture. He ‘must show that these rules of discourse are not mere conventions; rather they are inescapable presuppositions’ (Habermas, 1990: 89).

In response, Habermas proposes what he calls reconstructions. The idea of a reconstruction went through several formulations for Habermas, but it essentially means to make the implicit knowledge of competent subjects theoretically explicit. In this way, a reconstruction is only descriptive of normal communication. Therefore the relation that everyday knowledge has to a reconstructive science is different than to an objectivating science, such as a natural science. An objectivating science can and often does debunk everyday knowledge, but ‘a proposal for reconstruction … can represent pre-theoretical knowledge more or less explicitly or adequately, but it can never falsify it’ (Habermas, 1979: 16).

The presuppositions are reconstructed from what competent actors must be assumed to be able to do given Habermas’ theory of understanding and validity claims. Remember that Habermas believes that the purpose of communication is to achieve understanding and that understanding means the ability to take a stand in relation to a validity claim based only on the rationality of the argument. The reconstruction makes explicit what competent actors are able to do intuitively in order for communication to achieve its goal of understanding.

According to Habermas, all communication must presuppose an ‘ideal speech situation’ of unforced consensus. Thus, taking a stand regarding validity claims means presupposing a situation where the validity claims are challenged and defended by rational argumentation alone and not by recourse to status, money or power. This ideal speech situation is the core of communicative action and stands as a metaphor for the normal state of communication. Strategic action also requires imagining this ideal speech situation, at least as a counter-factual. Even in the worst forms of manipulation, speakers must imagine how people would come to agree without manipulation, if only in order to more effectively manipulate them.

From this conception of the ideal speech situation, we can formulate two distinct presuppositions of normal communication (and several associated characteristics). First, participants must be able to take a stand based only on the rationality of the argument; and second, there must be reciprocity predicated on the mutual recognition of all competent subjects.

The first presupposition is necessary if the goal of the communication is understanding. Understanding that is based on any force outside of communication is not, according to Habermas, true understanding. Let us say, for example, that a teacher tells a student that he will receive a ‘C’ for a class. There is no understanding of the meaning of the ‘C’ unless they can both bracket the external forces so that the student can take a stand only in terms of the rationality of the teacher’s reasons for giving that ‘C.’ To the student, the ‘C’ might mean a lost scholarship. To the teacher, it might mean an average effort that fulfilled only the basic requirements. They understand one another only if the teacher sets aside her institutional authority and explains to the student her reasons for the ‘C’ and if the student sets aside the external pressures and takes a stand only in terms of the rationality of the teacher’s reasons. When the goal is understanding, the social action of assigning a grade becomes a matter of reaching consensus based on rational argumentation.

The second presupposition requires that we recognize all competent subjects as equally legitimate sources of validity claims and challenges. Taking a stand on validity claims based only on the rationality of the argument requires the recognition that other viewpoints may be more rationally convincing than our own. In order for the most rational argument to dominate, no relevant argument can be suppressed or excluded. Every subject who is capable of speech and action is allowed to participate in discourse. Each is allowed to call into question any proposal. Each is allowed to introduce any proposal into the discourse. Each is allowed to express her attitudes, wishes and needs.

In his more recent works, Habermas suggests that these presuppositions are somewhat flexible. For example, he wants to drop the term ‘ideal speech situation,’ because it ‘tempts one to improperly hypostatize the system of validity claims on which speech is based’’ (1996: 323). What is essential here are not the specific presuppositions, but that there are some counterfactual presuppositions that ‘open up a perspective allowing them to go beyond local practices of justification and to transcend the provinciality of their spatiotemporal contexts that are inescapable in action and experience’ (1996: 323).

Habermas insists that to argue against the existence of these communicative presuppositions is to engage in a ‘performative contradiction.’ By this he means that actual engagement in the argument contradicts the proposition being asserted. For example, the presupposition of reciprocal recognition of all competent subjects implies that all arguments necessarily presuppose that any rational person would agree if only they understood. It is always possible to maintain that arguments do not necessarily make such an assumption, but by engaging in the argument even skeptics are assuming, through their performance, that any rational person would agree with their proposition. The skeptic’s performance contradicts her position.

Of course, it could be imagined that these necessary presuppositions could be avoided by simply not engaging in real argumentation. However, Habermas believes that the type of socialization required to produce a human being necessarily includes communicative action, and this in itself makes it impossible to deny the universality of norms implied by such communication. As Habermas (1990: 100) put it, ‘The skeptic may reject morality, but he cannot reject the ethical substance of the life circumstances in which he spends his waking hours, not unless he is willing to take refuge in suicide or serious mental illness.’

This is not to say that actual discourses do conform to these presuppositions, but they are intelligible only in terms of them. In this way, the presuppositions necessary for normal speech carry a normative force (Habermas, 1975: 120). For example, the presupposition of reciprocal recognition of every competent subject calls for democratic decision-making and stands as a criticism of all discussions that exclude some category of persons.

This is really the basis of Habermas’ famous discourse ethics. He does not intend to provide any first principle or ultimate justification from outside the realm of argumentation, nor does he offer concrete precepts about what should, or should not, be done. He wants only to provide a methodological prescription about how moral decisions are to be made. ‘To that extent, morality as grounded by discourse ethics is based on a pattern inherent in mutual understanding in language from the beginning’ (Habermas, 1990: 163).

These necessary presuppositions of normal communication are a central part of Habermas’ analytic and descriptive sociology. They provide an internal logic against which the contingent circumstances and the development of concrete communicative situations can be assessed. More importantly, these necessary presuppositions are the heart of his critical sociology. With them, Habermas is able to recover a standpoint from which the present situation can be critiqued. Habermas believes that this critical standpoint is missing in non-transcendental approaches because of their cultural relativism.

System and Lifeworld: The Theory of Pathologies

Habermas’ critical theory springs from two intermingled but separate sources. The first, discussed above, is a theory of normalcy which defines a non-pathological situation in terms of the necessary presuppositions of communication. The second, which we now examine, begins from experiences of crises that Habermas theoretically diagnoses as pathologies of modernity. A theory of normalcy is necessary in order to show that current crises are pathologies and not merely unpleasant but necessary stages. Nevertheless, because the theory of necessary communicative presuppositions is a descriptive reconstruction from the status quo, it cannot possibly provide a critical approach to the status quo. For this reason, a critical theory of pathologies cannot simply be derived from the theory of normalcy. Instead, Habermas’ critical theory depends upon the argument that crises which are actually experienced and apparently unrelated are best diagnosed as the result of a conflict between a ‘lifeworld’ that requires communicative action and a ‘system’ that both depends on the lifeworld and yet destructively encroaches upon it. We are motivated to realize the ideal speech situation of communicative action because essential lifeworld processes would fail if given entirely over to a system that bypasses understanding.

Much of Habermas’ description of the crises of modernity is derived from Weber and the early Frankfurt School—loss of meaning, the growth of bureaucracy, alienation and reification to name a few. These manifest themselves as individual experiences of crises. But Habermas wants to theorize the crises as avoidable pathologies rather than as necessary stages or byproducts of modernity. Indeed, the criticality of his theory depends on this. Thus Habermas sees these crises as due to a particular relation between the system and the lifeworld that could be otherwise.

To grasp Habermas’ theory of pathologies we need to understand precisely what he means by lifeworld and system and the pathological relation between them under advanced capitalism. The distinction between system and life-world is introduced in Legitimation Crisis (1975) but not fully developed until the second volume of The Theory of Communicative Action (1987a). It would be a mistake to simply assimilate it to such sociological divisions as that between macro and micro or structure and agency. Instead, it demarcates different spheres of social reproduction, different functions of integration and different contexts of action. Put briefly, the system is a specialized sphere of material reproduction which is integrated by interconnecting the consequences of actions that are embedded in a strategic context. In contrast, the lifeworld is primarily the sphere of symbolic reproduction integrated through mutual understanding embedded in a communicative context. System and lifeworld are always together in practice, but a full understanding of modernity requires that they be analytically separated. These two models provide a two-level concept of society with each level developing increasingly autonomous modes of operation. Starting from the premise that they are increasingly autonomous, much of Habermas’ effort has been in trying to understand how the two are related.


The lifeworld refers to those interpretive patterns that are culturally transmitted and linguistically organized, which for Habermas includes the formation of group identities and the development of individual personalities. According to Habermas, these all share the characteristics of being symbolically structured and dependent on linguistically mediated social reproduction.

Habermas (1984: 70) speaks of the lifeworld both as a set of ‘more or less diffuse, always unproblematic, background convictions,’ and also as a form of integration. This corresponds to the two different perspectives from which the lifeworld can be examined: that of the participating subject, and that of sociological analysis. From the viewpoint of the participating subject, the lifeworld is a resource of implicit assumptions, pre-interpreted knowledge and traditional practices. As such, the lifeworld provides the necessarily assumed context for individual actions that are often in conflict with the actions of others. From the sociological perspective, the lifeworld coordinates social action not just in spite of, but also through, confiictual action. The lifeworld provides the necessarily assumed intersubjective grounds upon which all conflict is acted out (Habermas, 1991b: 247).

Strictly speaking, the lifeworld is precisely that part of society which cannot be thematized as an object of sociological study, although elements of it can be. In this sense, the lifeworld is the necessarily implicit background against which any given social object can appear. Habermas argues that the concept of the lifeworld only becomes sociologically fruitful when we focus on the functions that it performs in the reproduction of social life. He posits three forms of social reproduction. First, cultural reproduction in which participants reproduce and modify the stock of pre-interpreted knowledge upon which they draw in order to come to mutual understandings. Second, social integration through which participants manage interpersonal interactions and regulate membership in social groups to create societal solidarity. Third, socialization which reproduces the competences that make a subject capable of reciprocal participation in communicative processes. Habermas (1987a: 137-8) calls this set of competences a personality.

According to Habermas, the lifeworld requires normal communication in order to carry out these three functions of reproducing of social life. If the lifeworld cannot carry out these functions, social pathologies develop and manifest themselves as individual experiences of crises. Habermas argues that this is precisely what is happening in advanced capitalism as the system inappropriately takes over the functions of the lifeworld.


The system represents those parts of society where interpersonal actions are coordinated through their functional consequences in accordance with the adaptive goals of instrumental action. A system achieves social order through the functional integration of the consequences of actions of anonymous individuals based on abstract media.

The primary example of a system is a free market economy. If we try to discover, for example, who sets the price of a particular commodity in an ideal free market, we soon discover that no one really does. The price of the commodity is set by functionally relating the consequences of the actions of producers and suppliers with the actions of consumers, that is, by the coordination of supply and demand. The abstract medium for relating those actions is money. If the producer makes more of the commodity and the consumers’ demand does not increase, then the price of the commodity goes down. In a sense, we could say that the producer caused the price to go down, but that was hardly the producer’s intent. It makes more sense here to say that the functional relations that constitute the market set the price. Prices go up and down, companies prosper or fail, people are hired or fired, consumers are disappointed or satisfied all because of market actions that are impossible to trace to the intent of any particular person or even group.

Both conceptually and actually, systems are tied to processes in the lifeworld. In actuality, systems and the lifeworld are always intertwined and even when fully objectivated by sociological analysis, systems still must be seen as firmly anchored in the lifeworld. For example, the formal model of the market as a fully autonomous system is only an abstraction from the myriad informal relations that constitute the market. Prices are set not only by the functional relation of abstract media, but also by such lifeworld processes as mob psychology, con games, trust, personal competition, and the like.

A system is also tied to the lifeworld conceptually. A system represents those aspects of interpersonal processes that cannot be grasped as a product of communicative action in the lifeworld. The full extent of the system can only be discovered by starting hermeneutically with members’ knowledge in the lifeworld and then, through an objectivating analysis, uncovering the conditions and constraints that go beyond the knowledge of participants themselves.

Nevertheless, Habermas (1987a: 233) argues that ‘the systems model is no mere artifact.’ Admittedly, most aspects of society can be viewed either as a lifeworld from the participants’ viewpoints or as a functional system from an objectivating viewpoint. There are, however, some aspects of social reality that are not fully compatible with a lifeworld perspective. Habermas calls these ‘steering media’ and gives the examples of money and power. These media are the heart of a system and steer interpersonal relations without recourse to traditional norms or communicatively achieved consensus. In this sense, the system includes the operative mechanisms of society that function below or above the level of awareness of its members.

Systems such as the economy and political administration are primarily steered by money and power instead of by people. As the complexity of the system increases, its rationality no longer coincides with the rationality of any individual. People are able to pursue egoistic, even anti-social goals, that nevertheless result in the social order of the system. Indeed, people’s agreement on the goals of the system through rational ethical argument becomes unnecessary for social order. Actors no longer need to agree with or even understand the goals of the system in order for their actions to assume a pattern in pursuit of those goals. This is what Habermas means by the uncoupling of the system from the lifeworld. The functionalist interrelations achieved through media such as money mean that the coordination of actions can be increasingly uncoupled from the lifeworld of communication and are able to work, in effect, behind people’s backs.

Habermas argues that the current relationship between the lifeworld and the system is dangerously unbalanced, and that this imbalance leads to social pathologies. However, it would be wrong to interpret him as saying that any uncoupling of the system and lifeworld is necessarily bad. In fact, it may be inevitable given the complexities of the modern world. We simply cannot rely on our traditions to, for example, set the prices of commodities and we certainly do not wish to spend all of our time reaching a consensual agreement on the diverse prices.

Modern, complex societies are less and less able to coordinate action by a reservoir of traditional interpretations immune from criticism. Instead, any consensual agreement must be reached through rational discussions that often bring into question the very grounds for deciding any dispute. Consequently, agreements based on understanding are much more difficult to reach and much less stable if reached. Systems, such as economic markets, are able to coordinate actions in increasingly complex ways without the need for understanding or consensus. In our pluralistic society, it has become difficult to even imagine any other way to set the prices of commodities, to decide what will or will not be produced, what companies will or will not survive, who will or will not work. This is why Habermas sees the emergence of systems as an evolutionary advance.

Even though systems can be seen as increasingly uncoupled from the lifeworld, they must still be connected to processes in the lifeworld in the sense that the steering media of the system, such as money and power, need to be institutionally and motivationally anchored in the life-world. A capitalist system, for example, requires a lifeworld that esteems wealth and will define success in terms of its acquisition. Changes in the system also need to be grounded in the lifeworld for adherence and legitimation. Indeed, ‘every new leading mechanism of system differentiation must be institutionalized [in the lifeworld] via family status, the authority of office, or bourgeois private law’ (Habermas, 1987a: 173). For all these reasons, Habermas (1987a: 151) can say that ‘the inner logic of the symbolic reproduction of the lifeworld … results in internal limitations on the reproduction of the societies we view from the outside as boundary-maintaining systems.’

In sum, despite the usefulness of the system model, society cannot be conceived simply as a boundary-maintaining system. None the less, parts of society, especially those dominated by steering media, can be modeled as systems so long as we remember that they emerge from the lifeworld and are never totally separate from its processes. Habermas maintains that it is only by using the model of a system that we are able to perceive the threat to the lifeworld posed by current conditions. The distinction between lifeworld and system is central to Habermas’ theory of pathologies since it allows him to analyse the instrumental functions of the system, the communicative actions of the lifeworld and, most importantly, the pathological relation between the two.

Rationalization and Differentiation

The primary difference between the system and the lifeworld lies in the distinct ways in which they coordinate interactions between people. Habermas refers to one as system integration and the other as social integration. The life-world’s social integration coordinates interaction primarily through mutual understanding – whether traditionally secured or communicatively achieved—and depends on the conscious action orientation of individuals. System integration coordinates interaction by functional interrelation of consequences of actions, which is able to bypass the conscious intentions of individuals (Habermas, 1987a: 117). Habermas’ theory of pathologies depends upon the idea that pathological effects may occur when the mode of integration characteristic of systems replaces or bypasses the mode of integration achieved through communicative action.

Habermas’ theory contends that these two mechanisms of integration are not simply different perspectives for observing the same phenomena. Instead, he argues that they are two different forms that develop through distinct evolutionary processes. Thus Habermas presents the increasing complexity of the system and the increasing rationalization of the lifeworld as two separate but related processes. Habermas’ theory of pathologies requires that we recognize the internal, evolutionary logic of their separate development. If we cannot grasp the logic of their separate development, we are unable to criticize the actualdevelopment as pathological.

The difference between the development of the system and the development of the lifeworld increases over time. Moreover, differentiation within the lifeworld also increases as different ‘value spheres’ of the lifeworld—such as the aesthetic, the scientific and the normative – develop their particular ways of evaluating validity claims. This is, for Habermas, the very definition of rationalization, the development of the internal logic of a particular mode of integrating interactions through discursively redeemable validity claims. Differentiation and rationalization are therefore connected by definition—especially since the internal logic of any given differentiated sphere becomes explicit and capable of being expressed as discursively defensible validity claims only because there are external standpoints in other differentiated and rationalized spheres from which the internal logic of the pertinent sphere can be observed. For example, the taken-for-granted assumptions of a religious domain become in need of discursive defense and therefore rationalized because they can be challenged from a separate scientific domain.

In the differentiated, rationalized lifeworld of modernity, traditions cannot guarantee mutual understanding. Instead, traditions can only remain viable if they are no longer simply assumed, but rather become the explicit subject of communicative action—in other words, to the extent that they cease to be real traditions. In our rationalized, pluralistic lifeworld, traditions tend to lose their unifying power and shrink down to individual subjective reason (Habermas, 1987a: 302). Rationalization in the lifeworld means that procedures of justification become increasingly independent from traditional normative criteria of validity and increasingly dependent on communicative action. Habermas (1984: 340) contends that ‘a lifeworld can be regarded as rationalized to the extent that it permits interactions that are not guided by normatively ascribed agreement but—directly or indirectly – by communicatively achieved understanding.’

As interactions in the lifeworld become increasingly independent of traditional normative contexts, they rely more on the risky and unstable integration of consensual agreement. Thus it is precisely the reliance on inherently unstable consensual agreement that leads to the need for integration at the systems level. Consequently, rationalization in the lifeworld leads to the emergence of systems.

Not only do value-spheres within the lifeworld differentiate and rationalize, but so do the three processes through which the lifeworld is reproduced. In cultural reproduction, expert knowledge replaces sacred traditions; in social integration, a legal system is differentiated from moral norms; in socialization, a post-conventional stage of moral autonomy allows individuals to separate themselves from traditional norms and discursively defend their own moral choices.

The more the lifeworld and the processes for its reproduction are differentiated and rationalized, the more they come to depend on communicative action. However, it is also true that each of these areas of reproduction become separated from the everyday world of communication. Expert knowledge is separated from popular knowledge; legal interpretations are separated from everyday concepts of justice; and ethical and religious systems become separate from everyday moral intuitions.

Reintegrating this expert knowledge back into the everyday world becomes a major problem in modern society. Expert knowledge in scientific, legal and religious institutions tends to become reified into systems when separated from everyday communication. Questions of what to study, what laws are just, and what actions are moral are removed from the communicative contexts of everyday life and instead increasingly decided by functional relations based on money and power.

Furthermore, as the lifeworld becomes differentiated into distinct spheres of rationality, individual subjects become decentered. The functional and strategic rationality of the world of work, for instance, is so distinct from the communicative rationality of the family that individuals never feel at home in either one. This makes the subject vulnerable to what Habermas calls fragmentation—the feeling of being different people at work and at home.

The rationalization of the lifeworld provides the link between Habermas’ theory of necessary presuppositions for communication and his theory of social pathologies. In former times, communicative understanding could be used merely as the means for passing on traditions in the lifeworld. Now, however, with the collapse of traditions in modernity, the lifeworld increasingly is constituted by communicative understanding. The regulation of interpersonal interactions does not rely on understanding traditions so much as on understanding itself, that is on the interpretive accomplishments of the participating actors. The rationalized life-world requires communicative action for its reproduction.

As we have seen, however, communicative action is a risky and unstable method of social integration. It is vulnerable to many failures, but especially to having its essential functions taken over by the more efficient system. This is at the heart of Habermas’ theory of pathologies. Under current conditions, the lifeworld and communicative action are threatened by the expansion of systems.

Social Pathologies

In contrast to the rationalization of the life-world, the system develops through increasing complexity, differentiation and expanded capacities of steering mechanisms. Although a considerably rationalized lifeworld is one of the initial conditions for the emergence of a system, the system’s decoupling means the increasing complexity of the system is autonomous from the lifeworld’s rationalization. The system constitutes a distinct internal logic that becomes pathological when it takes over or ‘colonizes’ the essential functions of the lifeworld.

The type of understanding that Habermas describes may not be necessary for all communication, but he argues that it is at least necessary for communicative action which maintains the rationalized lifeworld and avoids pathologies. Habermas (1990: 102) claims that cultural reproduction, social integration, and socialization ‘operate only in the medium of action oriented toward reaching an understanding. There is no other equivalent medium in which these functions can be fulfilled. Individuals acquire and sustain their identity through communicative interactions. They do not have the option of a long-term absence from contexts of action oriented toward reaching an understanding.’ To withdraw from the communicative actions that constitute the lifeworld is to risk personal crises, such as schizophrenia or suicide, that are signs of social pathology.

Of course, it is not always clear whether individual crises are signs of social pathology. There is no obvious, universal definition of health in terms of which societies can be seen as pathological. The crux of Habermas’ critical theory depends upon showing these developments to be pathological in some context-transcendent way. His argument is that these crises are generated by the failure of symbolic reproduction in the lifeworld, a failure caused by the subordination of communicative action and its necessary presuppositions.

From the viewpoint of communicative action, Western modernization has been a one-sided development of instrumental rationality and strategic communication. As system complexity increases at the expense of the lifeworld, the system takes over functions that it cannot possibly perform, such as cultural reproduction, social integration and socialization. ‘These three functions can be fulfilled only via the medium of communicative action and not via the steering media of money and power: meaning can neither be bought nor coerced’’ (Habermas, 1991b: 259).

The systemic mechanisms based on power and money penetrate into areas, such as the socialization of children, that require a communicative coordination of action. For example, children increasingly are being socialized by television shows and advertising. However, the values, models and images that appear on TV are not a product of consensual discussion; instead they are decided by a market system using the medium of money. Habermas argues that while such a system may be very good at setting the price of commodities sold on TV, it cannot possibly be expected to properly socialize children, since it views them only strategically without any goal of reaching collaborative understanding.

This does not make the system inherently evil. It is not the uncoupling of the system from the lifeworld as such that Habermas sees as pathological, but the penetration of system processes into areas that are necessary to the symbolic reproduction of the lifeworld. These areas are forced to rely on economic and bureaucratic mechanisms that are inimical to mutual understanding. This is not, however, an inevitable process. The system and the lifeworld could uncouple in a way that would still allow the lifeworld to place restrictions on the functioning of the system. Instead, in advanced capitalist societies, it is the system that has restricted the lifeworld with pathological results.

Colonization of the lifeworld occurs when crises in the management of economic and political systems are avoided by disturbing the symbolic reproduction of the lifeworld. For example, the capitalist economic system inevitably develops problems that would lead to the failure of businesses and losses for investors. These dangers are now routinely minimized by government policies which often are not in the general public interest. In order to generate public support for such corporate welfare programs, public opinion comes to be viewed as something to be manufactured. In other words, the system is legitimized by top-down manipulations, rather than the bottom-up activity of citizens rationally and ethically debating the appropriateness of various public policies. Since consensus no longer emerges from communicative action in the lifeworld, democratic judgements are instead reduced to the aggregate opinions of isolated, atomized and easily manipulated individuals. Steering crises in the economic or bureaucratic subsystems are avoided by colonizing the lifeworld which increases personal alienation, fragmentation of identity and the unsettling of democratic solidarities (Habermas, 1987a: 386).

The primary example of colonization discussed by Habermas is jmodification. This is the redefinition of everyday situations so that they are subject to legal regulations. Like many of the effects of the system, juridification is both good and bad. On the one hand, juridification expands social rights; on the other, it creates a new type of dependency. The dependence of people on each other mediated by the lifeworld in families, communities, churches and schools, is replaced by dependence on legal or administrative bureaucracies with their own imperatives as systems. The orientation toward understanding and consensus that characterized the lifeworld is replaced by strategic relations to bureaucracies.

One recent example is the United States’ Supreme Court decision in Davis v. Monroe that made school administrators liable for sexual harassment between children. This expands the rights of children, but also introduces a new type of dependency, so that potential problems are avoided by the institution of explicit regulations under the threat of legal sanctions rather than by more flexible lifeworld discussions involving parents, teachers and administrators.

Habermas recognizes that the lifeworld, based on dominating traditions, has its own problems, and that juridification is an attempt to solve these problems. For Habermas (1987a: 362), the irony is that juridification itself endangers the basis of freedom in civic discourse at the same time that it is being used to guarantee personal liberties and rights. For example, the welfare state helps to address the traditional gaps regarding the care of the poor, but in so doing it erodes earlier traditions of care, and the consensual mechanisms that coordinate it, by imposing a new welfare bureaucracy onto what formerly was a function of the lifeworld.

The cure for these pathologies is a more vigorous lifeworld which allows the free interplay of the different systematized value spheres within everyday communication. The scientific, economic, legal and political spheres must be open to the uninhibited discursive challenges and reinterpretations of communicative action. This utopie vision stands as a criticism of present society because this free interplay is incompatible with advanced capitalism and a welfare state which must manage the lifeworld in order to manipulate public opinion. Nevertheless, Habermas claims that this vision is anticipated in everyday communication. Everyday communication necessarily refers to the presuppositions that Habermas believes characterize communicative action. The pathologies of modernity can only be avoided if communicative action is allowed to interpenetrate and curtail the workings of systems.


Habermas’ theory of normalcy has been subjected to various attacks. Underlying many of these has been a skepticism toward any notion of normalcy. It is not likely that any concept of what is normal—even one that is tied to process rather than substance, and even one that deals with such a universal phenomenon as communication—can ever escape the charge of ethnocentrism. This is especially so since Habermas attempts to discern normalcy from a particular historical instance. His analysis of the ideal speech situation admittedly begins from ‘idealised cases of the communicative action that is typical of everyday life in modern societies’ (Habermas, 1982: 236; emphasis added). This is hardly a promising beginning for a theory that seeks to transcend any local context.

In particular, Habermas’ contention that communicative action involving validity claims is the paradigm case of communication is not entirely convincing. Certainly, other forms of communication employ resources that are intrinsic to language. For example, rhetoric—which Habermas (1984: 331) clearly distinguishes from communicative action—may be the use of language par excellence. Rather than resorting to validity claims and a transcendental ethics of speech, rhetoric attains reasoned decisions through the persuasive powers of language itself. Habermas presents no reason why the expressive play of rhetoric is any less the inherent telos of communication than his conception of understanding. Clearly, there are cases where we may prefer communicative action’s focus on validity claims, but it cannot be said that communicative action rather than rhetoric is the normal or even ideal use of language.

Whether or not communicative action is the normal state of communication, it is difficult to argue with the proposition that communication and understanding are necessary both to the individual and for social reproduction. However, Habermas’ critical theory is not based on the necessity of an ordinary idea of understanding in everyday communication. He is only able to derive his necessary presuppositions from his special definitions of communication and understanding. Understanding a communication means, for Habermas, being able to take a stand on its validity claims that are motivated only by the rationality of the argument.

Even his friendliest critics have had a difficult time with Habermas’ definition of understanding. As Thomas McCarthy (1985) points out, you do not have actually to take a position to understand. Similarly, Jeffrey Alexander (1991: 64) calls the identification of understanding with rational consensual agreement in regards to validity claims, ‘a wishful equation.’ Communication and understanding, as those words are normally used, do not necessitate consensual agreement free of all non-rational force. Therefore, complains Alexander, Habermas is just incorporating his Utopian aspirations into his preliminary definitions.

Neither is communicative action essential to social integration. In fact, unquestioned traditional norms and non-rational sentiments integrate society much more effectively than validity claims, even in advanced capitalist societies. This appears to be as much a fact as any historical knowledge can be. Since Habermas can hardly deny that past societies have been successfully integrated with very little communicative action, his argument for the current necessity of communicative action rests on an unsupported evolutionary theory. He contends that, in the present situation, communicative presuppositions are necessary because now society can only be integrated on the basis of contestable validity claims.

This means that the core of Habermas’ argument is not that the presuppositions are necessary to social reproduction—the historical record clearly shows they are not—but that their evolutionary development is inevitable. He therefore must contend that although contestable validity claims have not been necessary in the past and although in comparison they are less effective integrators, nevertheless evolutionary developments now make them necessary. The necessity of the communicative presuppositions can only be derived from the inevitability of the evolutionary development. Unfortunately, Habermas’ theory of evolution is incomplete and, on the points he has clarified, dubious. (See, for example, Schmid, 1982; and for an immanent critique of the developmental logic of Habermas’s evolutionary theory, see Strydom, 1992.)

In any case, inevitability cannot be logically derived from historical trends, especially if one wants to develop a theory that is able to critique such trends. Moreover, it is both contradictory and unsupported to say that the move from unquestioned traditional norms to communicative action is inevitable, but that the move from communicative action to system integration is not. The most that can be said is that, in our present historical situation, we prefer communicative action over both traditional norms and system integration, and that, therefore, presuppositions such as reciprocity are preferred by communicatively competent individuals in post-conventional societies.

Furthermore, even in those modern situations where communication is most likely to take the form of validity claims, Habermas’ presuppositions do not appear to be necessary. In scientific discussions, for example, not everyone who is capable of speech and action is allowed to participate in discourse, to put any proposal into discussion, or to express their attitudes, wishes and needs. There are some special qualifications for participating in scientific discussions and these appear to be very helpful in reaching consensus.

From a postmodernist viewpoint, it has been argued that Habermas’ commitment to communicative rationality and evolutionary ethics is simply an attempt to portray controversial political judgements as a mythical metanarrative of emancipation (Redding, 1986; Rorty, 1985). Jean-Francois Lyotard (1984) holds that such metanarratives delegitimate other language games by defining truth in terms of a timeless universal pragmatics. This notion of an ideal truth based on consensus devalues the practical truths expressed by particular persons and groups—truths that emerge from their own creative activity. In addition, by requiring consensus for a statement to count as truth, universal pragmatics stifles new expressions, particularly by those who have traditionally been silent. For Lyotard, the only type of truth which is possible resides in the particular language games that create the heteromorphous, local narratives of everyday life, subject to heterogeneous sets of pragmatic rules. ‘For this reason,’ says Lyotard (1984: 65), ‘it seems neither possible, nor even prudent, to follow Habermas in orienting our treatment of the problem of legitimation in the direction of a search for universal consensus.’

Habermas’ response to this critique is that Lyotard is confusing different registers of rationality. The substantive rules that form the content of our reasoning are different from the formal rules with which we reason. The former are heterogeneous and may or may not encourage consensus. The latter—the rules with which we reason—are the necessary presuppositions that provide the framework of intelligibility and the possibility of any consensus or dissensus. However, it is doubtful that Habermas can make any such clear distinction between the content of the discourse and the rules that frame it. In fact, Habermas’ own critical theory depends upon there being a strong connection between the formal rules and the substantive goals that society should pursue. He argues that the formal rules of communicative action are linked to the substantive goal of equal recognition for all participants to the discussion. Clearly, this Diskursethik is simply a philosophical version of the liberal values of fair play and procedural justice. It is a mystification to take these controversial political values and move them into the transcendental realm of necessary formal presuppositions.

Because the local and pragmatic character of communication is obscured by universalist pretensions, Habermas’ critical theory comes across as convoluted and vague. His primary ideas, such as the ideal speech situation and reciprocity, are defined so abstractly as to have little of the normative force that Habermas ascribes to them. Even if, as Habermas claims, the ideal speech situation is universal and transcends local contexts, the actualization of such characteristics as reciprocity will vary widely depending on particular contexts of speech. Reciprocity in a tribal society must mean something very different than reciprocity in the functionally differentiated society of advanced capitalism.

Mendelson (1979: 73) argues that Habermas’ concepts are so abstract as to be politically irrelevant. Rather than appealing to a theory of communication, ‘one must … criticize these traditions immanently and not get sidetracked in an esoteric theoretical direction.’ Since it is the concrete form of reciprocity that matters, discussion of abstract communicative universals is sociologically unrealistic and politically empty. Thus Habermas’ core concepts are too vague to be practically meaningful or, if made practically meaningful, are no longer universal.

None of this is to be taken as an argument against the desirability of communicative action and its implied ideal speech situation of reciprocity. On the contrary, most democratically inclined persons share Habermas’ preferences. This, however, does not make communicative action necessary or universal; it only shows that communicative action is a central property of certain cultures and situations. But if this is true, what is required is not an argument invoking normalcy and universality, but a discussion that spells out the full implications for the reflexive emergence and practical viability of communicative action.

However, once communicative action is not seen as normal or necessary, some of its disadvantages come into view. Specifically, many of the crises that Habermas refers to in his theory of pathologies can be seen as due more to the trend toward communicative action than to the growth of the system. Anomie, alienation and disenchantment are related to the weakening of traditional norms, which are questioned and thereby undermined by communicative action. These crises are caused by the failure of communicative action to adequately perform the functions of traditional norms rather than the failure of a system to perform the functions of communicative action. We can certainly still prefer communicative action to unquestioned traditional norms, but we cannot pretend that communicative action is the panacea for all the pathologies of modernity, even though it may be central to any democratic search for solutions.

Furthermore, we should realize that the adequacy of communicative action is situational, not universal or essential. Whether communicative action is preferred cannot be derived from a notion of communicative action’s necessary functions. For example, the education of children can be done by a semi-bureaucratic system such as a school. The informal relations that actually make up such a system may be able to override the imperatives of money and power that guide the system. Certainly, as discussed above, juridifying the relation between school children carries considerable risks, but sometimes the persistence of regressive practices inclines us to take those risks. The dangers of sexual harassment between children may outweigh the dangers of juridification. In such cases, the formal ethics of a supposedly normal communication provide little guidance.

Habermas’ critical theory would be somewhat weakened if communicative action were changed from a necessary presupposition to a method of prudent judgement in specific settings. At the very least, it becomes impossible for an objective analyst to prescribe what is to be done. But Habermas’ analysis is still indispensable for understanding the full implications of our commitment to a democratic discourse. For example, his theory spells out the antagonistic relationship between interpersonal communication and such systemic structures as the economy. This means that the preservation of democratic communication requires a defense of the lifeworld from encroachments of such systems as the economy. Most importantly, Habermas’ theory provides us with some of the cognitive tools and analytic categories for pursuing our democratic project under the complex and difficult situations of a systematized modernity.

Nevertheless, Habermas’ theory of communicative action is not sufficient either to its intended task of critique nor to the practical requirements of democratic discourse. Indeed, Habermas’ emphasis on rationality and consensus as an ideal seems to ignore the essentially political character of democratic life and of language use itself. Language’s power to constitute an identity and to integrate social action does not lie in its formal presuppositions, but in the speech community that authorizes a language and invests certain users and usages with authority. Even less can these formal presuppositions provide our vision of what is to be done.

‘Language is real, practical consciousness,’ said Marx and Engels in The German Ideology (1970), and part of its being real and practical is that it masks as much as it reveals, suppresses as much as it expresses, takes as tacit more than it makes explicit. A critical theory cannot expect to find its telos in the formal presuppositions of language, because no theory of language can generate a practical program. Thus to accept Habermas’ theories of normalcy and pathologies is not to accept, or even to know, the Habermasian solution. His sociological insights are not the same thing as a civic discourse, much less a political agenda. They do not tell us how to move from the analyst’s ‘is’ toward the political ‘ought.’ In these important senses, for all its brilliance, Habermas’ theory of communication is an incomplete project.