By Lasse Thomassen

Lasse Thomassen, University of Essex

On the Pragmatics of Social Interaction and The Liberating Power of Symbols stand at each end of Jürgen Habermas’s attempt to develop a theory of communicative action, universal pragmatics, and discourse ethics.

On the Pragmatics of Social Interaction is a collection of preliminary studies of communicative action and universal pragmatics from the 1970s leading up to the publication of The Theory of Communicative Action in 1981. The volume is a translation of parts of the companion volume to The Theory of Communicative Action, Vorstudien und Ergänzungen zur Theorie des kommunikativen Handelns, which was published in German in 1984. Another, well-known essay from the latter volume has previously been published as “What Is Universal Pragmatics?” in Communication and the Evolution of Society.

In addition to a useful introduction by the translator, On the Pragmatics of Social Interaction contains three essays by Habermas. First, his Gauss Lectures from 1971 where he lays out the parameters of his programme of universal pragmatics through an engagement with, among other things, speech act theory. Habermas wishes to build a normative critical theory on this foundation. This is by far the most interesting (and longest) essay of the volume. Second, there is an essay on the philosophy of action, in particular on the role of intentionality. Third, the volume is closed by an essay on the notion of pathology within the programme of a universal pragmatism of language. In this essay, Habermas seeks to show how a universal pragmatics of language can serve to detect systematic pathologies of communication.

On the Pragmatics of Social Interaction serves as a good introduction to Habermas’s theory of communicative action and universal pragmatics of language. The first essay of the volume, which should be read together with ‘What Is Universal Pragmatics?’ and his later writings on discourse ethics, is particularly helpful in this regard. The volume also gives the reader an idea of Habermas’s disputes with other theorists, among them Ludwig Wittgenstein, Wilfrid Sellars, and Edmund Husserl. It is through an engagement with these, as well as other thinkers, that Habermas develops his own approach.

The Liberating Power of Symbols is also an example of Habermas’s engagement with other theorists, containing essays from the 1990s. Here Habermas engages with, among others, Ernst Cassirer, Karl-Otto Apel, Karl Jaspers, Georg Henrik von Wright, Michael Theunissen, and Gershom Scholem. Whereas in On the Pragmatics of Social Interaction Habermas uses his critique of his theoretical opponents actively to develop his own approach, in The Liberating Power of Symbols he is reading his opponents more passively simply to point out the weaknesses in their arguments in light of his own project. In particular, Habermas tries to show the superiority of the communicative and intersubjective paradigm in general, and of discourse ethics in particular, in dealing with the challenges of pluralism in contemporary Western societies.

In both volumes, Habermas tries to show the necessity of a communicative or intersubjectivist approach. Habermas distinguishes communicative rationality–-aimed at reaching mutual agreement—from instrumental rationality, from the arbitrary decision by a subject, and from contextualism. Thus, Habermas aims to show the universality and unavoidability of communicative action and of the presuppositions of communicative action. With our first utterance, he argues, we put forward the implicit claim that we could, if necessary, vindicate the validity claims implied in our speech act before a universal communication community (which is not to say that the result will in fact be a universal vindication of our validity claims). Thus, from the very outset, social action is intersubjective. We should, then, be able to avoid the problem to which Habermas refers as the philosophy of consciousness, namely, how to make the move from a state of ‘private’ consciousness to a state of mutual agreement and cooperation.

Habermas seeks to reconstruct the different aspects of what he believes to be the universal and unavoidable structures of communicative action. This, in turn, serves as the foundation for social critique. Hence, for Habermas, the philosophy of language has moral and political implications. As an answer to the problem of how to organize our lives together peacefully, Habermas reconstructs universal procedures (of public deliberation, and so on). It is in this way only, and not by relying on a substantive ethos, that we can integrate the plurality of conceptions of the good in modern, complex societies. In short, by showing the universality and unavoidability of certain structures of communication, Habermas believes to be able to include the other without violating her otherness.

Habermas has changed his position in some respects since the original publication of the essays in On the Pragmatics of Social Interaction. For instance, he no longer uses the term ‘ideal speech situation’ to refer to a situation of perfect symmetry among participants in discourse. In order to avoid the connotation of a normative ideal, Habermas now refers to this as presuppositions about rational discourse that we inevitably make when engaging in argumentation. This is just one example that Habermas’s work is an ongoing research programme.

Another point on which Habermas has changed, or at least clarified, his position concerns the role of experience in the vindication of cognitive claims to truth. Habermas believes that validity can only be established discursively, that is, through the testing of validity claims in discourse. The criteria of truth, for example, is then a rational consensus and not, for instance, correspondence to an external reality. This is the reason why Habermas refers to his theory of truth as a consensus theory of truth. However, in On the Pragmatics of Social Interaction, Habermas has not taken the full consequences of this. Thus, he sometimes, but not always, refers to experience not mediated by discourse as the criteria of truth.

A general problem that the reader may find with Habermas’s programme is that Habermas conceives of intersubjectivity, that is, of our being together in the world, in terms of rationalistic, and often linguistic, communication. This is also a problem in the two texts under consideration here. Rational communication becomes divided from the body, passions, desires, religious feelings, and so on, all of which are confined to a secondary status, and Habermas cannot answer adequately how to reconnect rational communication to the non-rational and non-linguistic.

Neither On the Pragmatics of Social Interaction nor The Liberating Power of Symbols are major works, but they serve as companion volumes to The Theory of Communicative Action and to Between Facts and Norms respectively. Thus, they will be of interest to those who wish to get a taste of Habermas’s more important, but also less accessible, works. The two volumes will also be of interest to those trying to compare Habermas’s interpretations of, for instance, Wittgenstein and Husserl with those of, say, Stanley Cavell and Jacques Derrida. In addition, for those interested in Habermas’s work from a more scholarly point of view, On the Pragmatics of Social Interaction will provide a source for the development of Habermas’s theory of communicative action, universal pragmatics, and discourse ethics.


Lasse Thomassen

Lasse Thomassen has recently submitted a PhD dissertation with the title “Democracy, Inclusion and Exclusion: Habermas, Laclau and Mouffe on the Limits of Democracy” in the Doctoral Programme in Ideology and Discourse Analysis at the University of Essex. He teaches political theory at the University of Essex and lectures in social philosophy at the University of Westminster. He has published articles and book reviews on Habermas and post-structuralist thought.