Universal pragmatics
Universal pragmatics, more recently placed under the heading of formal pragmatics, is the philosophical study of the necessary conditions for reaching an understanding
Understanding is a psychological process related to an abstract or physical object, such as a person, situation, or message whereby one is able to think about it and use concepts to deal adequately with that object....

 through communication
Communication is the activity of conveying meaningful information. Communication requires a sender, a message, and an intended recipient, although the receiver need not be present or aware of the sender's intent to communicate at the time of communication; thus communication can occur across vast...

. The philosopher Jürgen Habermas
Jürgen Habermas
Jürgen Habermas is a German sociologist and philosopher in the tradition of critical theory and pragmatism. He is perhaps best known for his theory on the concepts of 'communicative rationality' and the 'public sphere'...

 coined the term in his essay "What is Universal Pragmatics?" (Habermas 1979), where he suggests that human competition
Competition is a contest between individuals, groups, animals, etc. for territory, a niche, or a location of resources. It arises whenever two and only two strive for a goal which cannot be shared. Competition occurs naturally between living organisms which co-exist in the same environment. For...

, conflict, and strategic action are attempts to achieve understanding that have failed because of modal
Modal logic
Modal logic is a type of formal logic that extends classical propositional and predicate logic to include operators expressing modality. Modals — words that express modalities — qualify a statement. For example, the statement "John is happy" might be qualified by saying that John is...

 confusions. The implication is that coming to terms with how people understand or misunderstand one another could lead to a reduction of social conflict
Group conflict
Group conflict, or hostilities between different groups, is a pervasive feature common to all levels of social organization .. Although group conflict is one of the most complex phenomena studied by social scientists, the history of the human race evidences a series of group-level conflicts that...


By coming to an "understanding," he means at the very least, when two or more social actors share the same meanings about certain words or phrases; and at the very most, when these actors are confident that those meanings fit relevant social expectations (or a "mutually recognized normative background"). (1979:3)

For Habermas, the goal of coming to an understanding is "intersubjective mutuality … shared knowledge, mutual trust, and accord with one another". (1979:3) In other words, the underlying goal of coming to an understanding would help to foster enlightenment, consensus, and good will.

As an interdisciplinary subject, universal pragmatics draws upon material from a large number of fields, from pragmatics
Pragmatics is a subfield of linguistics which studies the ways in which context contributes to meaning. Pragmatics encompasses speech act theory, conversational implicature, talk in interaction and other approaches to language behavior in philosophy, sociology, and linguistics. It studies how the...

, semantics
Semantics is the study of meaning. It focuses on the relation between signifiers, such as words, phrases, signs and symbols, and what they stand for, their denotata....

, semiotics
Semiotics, also called semiotic studies or semiology, is the study of signs and sign processes , indication, designation, likeness, analogy, metaphor, symbolism, signification, and communication...

, informal logic
Informal logic
Informal logic, intuitively, refers to the principles of logic and logical thought outside of a formal setting. However, perhaps because of the informal in the title, the precise definition of informal logic is matters of some dispute. Ralph H. Johnson and J...

, and the philosophy of language
Philosophy of language
Philosophy of language is the reasoned inquiry into the nature, origins, and usage of language. As a topic, the philosophy of language for analytic philosophers is concerned with four central problems: the nature of meaning, language use, language cognition, and the relationship between language...

, through social philosophy
Social philosophy
Social philosophy is the philosophical study of questions about social behavior . Social philosophy addresses a wide range of subjects, from individual meanings to legitimacy of laws, from the social contract to criteria for revolution, from the functions of everyday actions to the effects of...

, sociology
Sociology is the study of society. It is a social science—a term with which it is sometimes synonymous—which uses various methods of empirical investigation and critical analysis to develop a body of knowledge about human social activity...

, and symbolic interactionism
Symbolic interactionism
Symbolic Interaction, also known as interactionism, is a sociological theory that places emphasis on micro-scale social interaction to provide subjective meaning in human behavior, the social process and pragmatism.-History:...

, to ethics
Ethics, also known as moral philosophy, is a branch of philosophy that addresses questions about morality—that is, concepts such as good and evil, right and wrong, virtue and vice, justice and crime, etc.Major branches of ethics include:...

, especially discourse ethics
Discourse ethics
Discourse ethics, sometimes called argumentation ethics, refers to a type of argument that attempts to establish normative or ethical truths by examining the presuppositions of discourse.-Habermas and Apel:...

, and on to epistemology and the philosophy of mind
Philosophy of mind
Philosophy of mind is a branch of philosophy that studies the nature of the mind, mental events, mental functions, mental properties, consciousness and their relationship to the physical body, particularly the brain. The mind-body problem, i.e...



Universal pragmatics (UP) seeks to overcome three dichotomies: the dichotomy between body and mind, between theory and practice, and between analytic
Analytic philosophy
Analytic philosophy is a generic term for a style of philosophy that came to dominate English-speaking countries in the 20th century...

 and continental philosophy
Continental philosophy
Continental philosophy, in contemporary usage, refers to a set of traditions of 19th and 20th century philosophy from mainland Europe. This sense of the term originated among English-speaking philosophers in the second half of the 20th century, who used it to refer to a range of thinkers and...

. It is part of a larger project to rethink the relationship between philosophy and the individual science
Science is a systematic enterprise that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the universe...

s during a period of social crisis. The project is within the tradition of Critical Theory
Critical theory
Critical theory is an examination and critique of society and culture, drawing from knowledge across the social sciences and humanities. The term has two different meanings with different origins and histories: one originating in sociology and the other in literary criticism...

, a program that traces back to the work of Max Horkheimer
Max Horkheimer
Max Horkheimer was a German-Jewish philosopher-sociologist, famous for his work in critical theory as a member of the 'Frankfurt School' of social research. His most important works include The Eclipse of Reason and, in collaboration with Theodor Adorno, The Dialectic of Enlightenment...


The term "universal pragmatics" includes two different traditions that Habermas and his collaborator, colleague, and friend Karl-Otto Apel
Karl-Otto Apel
Karl-Otto Apel is a German philosopher and Professor Emeritus at the University of Frankfurt am Main. Apel worked in ethics, the philosophy of language and human sciences. He wrote extensively in these fields, publishing mostly in German...

 have attempted to reconcile. On the one hand, ideas are drawn from the tradition of Plato
Plato , was a Classical Greek philosopher, mathematician, student of Socrates, writer of philosophical dialogues, and founder of the Academy in Athens, the first institution of higher learning in the Western world. Along with his mentor, Socrates, and his student, Aristotle, Plato helped to lay the...

, Aristotle
Aristotle was a Greek philosopher and polymath, a student of Plato and teacher of Alexander the Great. His writings cover many subjects, including physics, metaphysics, poetry, theater, music, logic, rhetoric, linguistics, politics, government, ethics, biology, and zoology...

, and Kant
KANT is a computer algebra system for mathematicians interested in algebraic number theory, performing sophisticated computations in algebraic number fields, in global function fields, and in local fields. KASH is the associated command line interface...

, wherein words and concepts are regarded as universally valid idealization
Idealization is the process by which scientific models assume facts about the phenomenon being modeled that are strictly false. Often these assumptions are used to make models easier to understand or solve. Many times idealizations do not harm the predictive accuracy of the model for one reason or...

s of shared meanings. And, on the other hand, inspiration is drawn from the American Pragmatist
Pragmatism is a philosophical tradition centered on the linking of practice and theory. It describes a process where theory is extracted from practice, and applied back to practice to form what is called intelligent practice...

 tradition (feat. Charles Sanders Peirce, George Herbert Mead
George Herbert Mead
George Herbert Mead was an American philosopher, sociologist and psychologist, primarily affiliated with the University of Chicago, where he was one of several distinguished pragmatists. He is regarded as one of the founders of social psychology and the American sociological tradition in general.-...

, Charles W. Morris
Charles W. Morris
Charles W. Morris was an American semiotician and philosopher.-Background:A son of Charles William and Laura Morris, Charles William Morris was born on May 23, 1901...

), for whom words are arbitrary signs devoid of intrinsic meaning, and whose function is to denote the things and processes in the objective world that surrounds the speakers.

UP shares with speech act
Speech act
Speech Act is a technical term in linguistics and the philosophy of language. The contemporary use of the term goes back to John L. Austin's doctrine of locutionary, illocutionary, and perlocutionary acts...

 theory, semiotics
Semiotics, also called semiotic studies or semiology, is the study of signs and sign processes , indication, designation, likeness, analogy, metaphor, symbolism, signification, and communication...

, and linguistics
Linguistics is the scientific study of human language. Linguistics can be broadly broken into three categories or subfields of study: language form, language meaning, and language in context....

 an interest in the details of language use and communicative action. However, unlike those fields, it insists on a difference between the linguistic data that we observe in the 'analytic
Analysis is the process of breaking a complex topic or substance into smaller parts to gain a better understanding of it. The technique has been applied in the study of mathematics and logic since before Aristotle , though analysis as a formal concept is a relatively recent development.The word is...

' mode, and the rational reconstruction of the rules of symbol systems that each reader/listener possesses intuitively when interpreting strings of words. In this sense, it is an examination of the two ways that language usage can be analyzed: as an object of scientific investigation, and as a 'rational reconstruction' of intuitive linguistic 'know-how'.

Goals and methods

Universal pragmatics is associated with the philosophical method of rational reconstruction
Rational reconstruction
Rational reconstruction is a philosophical term with several distinct meanings. It is found in the work of Jürgen Habermas and Imre Lakatos.- Habermas :...


The basic concern in universal pragmatics is utterances (or speech acts) in general. This is in contrast to most other fields of linguistics, which tend to be more specialized, focusing exclusively on very specific sorts of utterances such as sentences (which in turn are made up of word
In language, a word is the smallest free form that may be uttered in isolation with semantic or pragmatic content . This contrasts with a morpheme, which is the smallest unit of meaning but will not necessarily stand on its own...

, morpheme
In linguistics, a morpheme is the smallest semantically meaningful unit in a language. The field of study dedicated to morphemes is called morphology. A morpheme is not identical to a word, and the principal difference between the two is that a morpheme may or may not stand alone, whereas a word,...

, and phoneme
In a language or dialect, a phoneme is the smallest segmental unit of sound employed to form meaningful contrasts between utterances....


For Habermas, the most significant difference between a sentence and an utterance is in that sentences are judged according to how well they make sense grammatically, while utterances are judged according to their communicative validity (see section 1). (1979:31)

Universal pragmatics is also distinct from the field of sociolinguistics
Sociolinguistics is the descriptive study of the effect of any and all aspects of society, including cultural norms, expectations, and context, on the way language is used, and the effects of language use on society...

. This is because U.P. is only interested in the meanings of utterances if they have to do with claims about truth
Truth has a variety of meanings, such as the state of being in accord with fact or reality. It can also mean having fidelity to an original or to a standard or ideal. In a common usage, it also means constancy or sincerity in action or character...

 or right
Rights are legal, social, or ethical principles of freedom or entitlement; that is, rights are the fundamental normative rules about what is allowed of people or owed to people, according to some legal system, social convention, or ethical theory...

, while sociolinguistics is interested in all utterances in their social contexts. (1979:31,33)

Three aspects of universal pragmatics

There are three ways to evaluate an utterance, according to UP. There are theories that deal with elementary propositions, theories of first-person sentences, and theories of speech acts.

A theory of elementary propositions investigates those things in the real world that are being reference
Reference is derived from Middle English referren, from Middle French rèférer, from Latin referre, "to carry back", formed from the prefix re- and ferre, "to bear"...

by an utterance, and the things that are implied by an utterance
In spoken language analysis an utterance is a complete unit of speech. It is generally but not always bounded by silence.It can be represented and delineated in written language in many ways. Note that in such areas of research utterances do not exist in written language, only their representations...

, or predicate it. For example, the utterance "The first Prime Minister
Prime minister
A prime minister is the most senior minister of cabinet in the executive branch of government in a parliamentary system. In many systems, the prime minister selects and may dismiss other members of the cabinet, and allocates posts to members within the government. In most systems, the prime...

 of Canada" refers to a man who went by the name of Sir John A. Macdonald
John A. Macdonald
Sir John Alexander Macdonald, GCB, KCMG, PC, PC , QC was the first Prime Minister of Canada. The dominant figure of Canadian Confederation, his political career spanned almost half a century...

. And when a speaker delivers the utterance, "My husband
A husband is a male participant in a marriage. The rights and obligations of the husband regarding his spouse and others, and his status in the community and in law, vary between cultures and has varied over time...

 is a lawyer
A lawyer, according to Black's Law Dictionary, is "a person learned in the law; as an attorney, counsel or solicitor; a person who is practicing law." Law is the system of rules of conduct established by the sovereign government of a society to correct wrongs, maintain the stability of political...

", it implies that the speaker is married to a man.

A theory of first-person sentences examines the expression of the intentions of the actor(s) through language and in the first-person.

Finally, a theory of speech act
Speech act
Speech Act is a technical term in linguistics and the philosophy of language. The contemporary use of the term goes back to John L. Austin's doctrine of locutionary, illocutionary, and perlocutionary acts...

s examines the setting of standards for interpersonal relations through language. The basic goal for speech act
Speech act
Speech Act is a technical term in linguistics and the philosophy of language. The contemporary use of the term goes back to John L. Austin's doctrine of locutionary, illocutionary, and perlocutionary acts...

 theory is to explain how and when utterances in general are performative. (1979:34) Central to the notion of speech acts are the ideas of "illocutionary force" and perlocutionary force
Perlocutionary act
A perlocutionary act is a speech act, as viewed at the level of its psychological consequences, such as persuading, convincing, scaring, enlightening, inspiring, or otherwise getting someone to do or realize something...

, both terms coined by philosopher J.L. Austin. Illocutionary force describes the intent of the speaker, while perlocutionary force means the effect an utterance has in the world, or more specifically, the effect on others.

A performative utterance is a sentence where an action being performed is done by the utterance itself. For example: "I inform you that you have a moustache", or "I promise you I will not burn down the house". In these cases, the words are also taken as significant actions: the act of informing and promising (respectively).

Habermas adds to this the observation that speech acts can either succeed or fail, depending on whether or not they succeed on influencing another person in the intended way. (1979:35)

This last method of evaluation—the theory of speech acts—is the domain that Habermas is most interested in developing as a theory of communicative action.

Communicative action

There are a number of ways to approach Habermas’s project of developing a formal pragmatic analysis of communication. Because Habermas developed it in order to have a normative and philosophical foundation for his critical social theory, most of the inroads into formal pragmatics start from sociology, specifically with what is called action theory
Action theory (sociology)
In sociology, action theory refers to the theory of social action presented by the American theorist Talcott Parsons.Parsons established action theory in order to integrate the study of social order with the structural and voluntaristic aspects of macro and micro factors...

. Action theory concerns the nature of human action, especially the manner in which collective actions are coordinated in a functioning society.

The coordination and integration of social action has been explained in many ways by many theories. Rational choice theory
Rational choice theory
Rational choice theory, also known as choice theory or rational action theory, is a framework for understanding and often formally modeling social and economic behavior. It is the main theoretical paradigm in the currently-dominant school of microeconomics...

 and game theory
Game theory
Game theory is a mathematical method for analyzing calculated circumstances, such as in games, where a person’s success is based upon the choices of others...

 are two examples, which describe the integration of individuals into social groups by detailing the complex manner in which individuals motivated only by self-interest will form mutually beneficial and cooperative social arrangements. In contrast to these, Habermas has formulated a theory of communicative action. (Habermas 1984; 1987) This theory and the project of developing a formal pragmatic analysis of communication are inseparable.

Habermas makes a series of distinctions in the service of explaining social action. The first major differentiation he makes is between two social realms, the system and the lifeworld
Lifeworld may be conceived as a universe of what is self-evident or given, a world that subjects may experience together. For Husserl, the lifeworld is the fundament for all epistemological enquiries. The concept has its origin in biology and cultural Protestantism.The lifeworld concept is used in...

. These designate two distinct modes of social integration
Social integration
Social integration, in sociology and other social sciences, is the movement of minority groups such as ethnic minorities, refugees and underprivileged sections of a society into the mainstream of societies...

  • The kind of social integration accomplished in the system is accomplished through the functional integration of the consequences of actions. It bypasses the consciousness of individuals and does not depend upon their being oriented towards acting collectively. Economic and industrial systems are great examples, often producing complex forms of social integration and interdependence despite the openly competitive orientations of individuals.
  • The social integration accomplished in the lifeworld, by contrast, depends upon the coordination of action plans and the conscious action-orientations of individuals. It relies on processes of human interaction involving symbolic and cultural forms of meaning. More specifically, as Habermas maintains, the coordination of the lifeworld is accomplished through communicative action.

Thus, communicative action is an indispensable facet of society
A society, or a human society, is a group of people related to each other through persistent relations, or a large social grouping sharing the same geographical or virtual territory, subject to the same political authority and dominant cultural expectations...

. It is at the heart of the lifeworld and is, Habermas claims, responsible for accomplishing several fundamental social functions: reaching understanding, cultural reproduction, coordinating action-plans, and socializing
Socialization is a term used by sociologists, social psychologists, anthropologists, political scientists and educationalists to refer to the process of inheriting and disseminating norms, customs and ideologies...


However, Habermas is quick to note, different modes of interaction can (in some ways) facilitate these social functions and achieve integration within the lifeworld. This points towards the second key distinction Habermas makes, which differentiates communicative action from strategic action. The coordination of action plans, which constitutes the social integration of the lifeworld, can be accomplished either through consensus or influence.

Strategic action is action oriented towards success, while communicative action is action oriented towards understanding. Both involve the symbolic resources of the lifeworld and occur primarily by way of linguistic interaction. On the one hand, actors employing communicative actions draw on the uniquely impelling force of mutual understanding to align the orientation of their action plans. It is this subtle but insistent binding force of communicative interactions that opens the door to an understanding of their meanings. On the other hand, actors employing strategic actions do not exploit the potential of communication that resides in the mutual recognition of a shared action-oriented understanding. Instead strategic actors relate to others with no intention of reaching consensus or mutual understanding, but only the intention of accomplishing pre-determined ends unrelated to reaching an understanding. Strategic action often involves the use of communicative actions to achieve the isolated intentions of individuals, manipulating shared understanding in the service of private interests. Thus, Habermas claims, strategic action is parasitic on communicative action, which means communicative action is the primary mode of linguistic interaction. Reaching a reciprocally defined understanding is communication’s basic function.

Keeping in mind this delineation of the object domain, the formal pragmatics of communication can be more readily laid out. The essential insight has already been mentioned, which is that communication is responsible for irreplaceable modes of social integration, and this is accomplished through the unique binding force of a shared understanding. This is, in a sense, the pragmatic piece of formal pragmatics: communication does something in the world. What needs to be explained are the conditions for the possibility of what communication already does. This is, in a sense, the formal piece of formal pragmatics: a rational reconstruction
Rational reconstruction
Rational reconstruction is a philosophical term with several distinct meanings. It is found in the work of Jürgen Habermas and Imre Lakatos.- Habermas :...

 of the deep generative structures that are the universal conditions for the possibility of a binding and compelling mutual understanding.

From here, Habermas heads the analysis in two directions. In one direction is a kind of linguistic analysis (of speech acts), which can be placed under the heading of the validity dimensions of communication. The other direction entails a categorization of the idealized presuppositions of communication.

Communicative competence

Habermas argues that when speakers are communicating successfully, they will have to defend their meaning by using these four claims.
  1. That they have uttered something understandably — or their statements are intelligible;
  2. That they have given other people something to understand — or are speaking something true;
  3. That the speaker is therefore understandable — or their intentions are recognized and appreciated for what they are; and,
  4. That they have come to an understanding with another person — or, they have used words that both actors can agree upon. (1979:4)

Habermas is emphatic that these claims are universal—no human communication oriented at achieving mutual understanding could possibly fail to raise all of these validity claims. Additionally, to illustrate that all other forms of communication are derived from that which is oriented toward mutual understanding, he argues that there are no other kinds of validity claims whatsoever. This is important, because it is the basis of Habermas' critique of postmodernism
Postmodernism is a philosophical movement evolved in reaction to modernism, the tendency in contemporary culture to accept only objective truth and to be inherently suspicious towards a global cultural narrative or meta-narrative. Postmodernist thought is an intentional departure from the...


The fundamental orientation toward mutual understanding is at the heart of universal pragmatics, as Habermas explains:
"The task of universal pragmatics is to identify and reconstruct universal conditions of possible mutual understanding… other forms of social action—for example, conflict, competition, strategic action in general—are derivatives of action oriented toward reaching understanding. Furthermore, since language is the specific medium of reaching understanding at the sociocultural stage of evolution, I want to go a step further and single out explicit speech actions from other forms of communicative action."

Any meaning that meets the above criteria, and is recognized by another as meeting the criteria, is considered "vindicated" or communicatively competent.

In order for anyone to speak validly — and therefore, to have his or her comments vindicated, and therefore reach a genuine consensus and understanding — Habermas notes that a few more fundamental commitments are required. First, he notes, actors have to treat this formulation of validity so seriously that it might be a precondition for any communication at all. Second, he asserts that all actors must believe that their claims are able to meet these standards of validity. And third, he insists that there must be a common conviction among actors that all validity claims are either already vindicated or could be vindicated.

Examining the validity of speech

Habermas claims that communication rests upon a non-egoistic understanding of the world, which is an idea he borrowed from thinkers like Jean Piaget
Jean Piaget
Jean Piaget was a French-speaking Swiss developmental psychologist and philosopher known for his epistemological studies with children. His theory of cognitive development and epistemological view are together called "genetic epistemology"....

. A subject capable of a de-centered understanding can take up three fundamentally different attitudes to the world. Habermas refers to such attitudes as dimensions of validity. Specifically, this means individuals can recognize different standards for validity—i.e., that the validation of an empirical
The word empirical denotes information gained by means of observation or experimentation. Empirical data are data produced by an experiment or observation....

 truth claim requires different methods and procedures than the validation of subjective truthfulness, and that both of those require different methods and procedures of validation than claims to normative
Norm (philosophy)
Norms are concepts of practical import, oriented to effecting an action, rather than conceptual abstractions that describe, explain, and express. Normative sentences imply “ought-to” types of statements and assertions, in distinction to sentences that provide “is” types of statements and assertions...


These dimensions of validity can be summarized as claims to truth (IT), truthfulness (I), and rightness (WE). So the ability to differentiate between the attitudes (and their respective “worlds”) mentioned above should be understood as an ability to distinguish between types of validity claims.

M. Cooke provided the only book length treatment of Habermas's communication theory
Communication theory
Communication theory is a field of information and mathematics that studies the technical process of information and the human process of human communication.- History :- Origins :...

. Cooke explains:
“when we adopt an objectifying attitude we relate, in the first instance to the objective world of facts and existing states of affairs [IT]; when we adopt a norm-conformative attitude we relate, in the first instance, to the social world of normatively regulated interactions [WE]; when we adopt an expressive attitude we relate, in the first instance to the subjective world of inner experience
Experience as a general concept comprises knowledge of or skill in or observation of some thing or some event gained through involvement in or exposure to that thing or event....

 [I]”. (Cooke 1994)

This is fundamental to Habermas’s analysis of communication. He maintains that the performance of any speech act necessarily makes reference to these dimensions of validity, by raising at least three validity claims.

One way to grasp this idea is to take an inventory of the ways in which an attempt at communication can misfire, the ways a speech act can fail. A hearer may reject the offering of a speech act on the grounds that it is invalid because it:
  1. presupposes or explicates states of affairs which are not the case (IT);
  2. does not conform to accepted normative expectations (WE);
  3. raises doubts about the intentions or sincerity of the speaker (I).

Of course from this it follows that a hearer who accepts the offering of a speech act does so on the grounds that it is valid because it:
  1. presupposes or explicates states of affairs that are true (IT);
  2. conforms to accepted normative expectations (WE);
  3. raises no doubts concerning the intentions or sincerity of the speaker (I).

This means that when engaging in communication the speaker and hearer are inescapably oriented to the validity of what is said. A speech act can be understood as an offering, the success or failure of which depends upon the hearer’s response of either accepting or rejecting the validity claims it raises. The three dimensions of validity pointed out above are implicated in any attempt at communication.

Thus, communication relies on its being embedded within relations to various dimensions of validity. Any and every speech act is infused with inter-subjectively recognized claims to be valid. This implicitly ties communication to argumentation and various discursive
Discourse generally refers to "written or spoken communication". The following are three more specific definitions:...

 procedures for the redemption of validity claims. This is true because to raise a validity claim in communication is to simultaneously imply that one is able to show, if challenged, that one's claim is justified. Communication is possible because speakers are accountable for the validity of what they say. This assumption of responsibility on the part of the speaker is described by Habermas as a “warranty”, because in most cases the validity claims raised during communication are taken as justified, and communication proceeds on that basis. Similarly, the hearer is accountable for the stance he or she takes up in relation to the validity claims raised by the speaker. Both speaker and hearer are bound to the validity claims raised by the utterances they share during communication. They are bound by the weak obligations inherent in pursuing actions oriented towards reaching an understanding. Habermas would claim that this obligation is a rational one:
"With every speech act, by virtue of the validity claims it raises, the speaker enters into an interpersonal relationship of mutual obligation with the hearer: The speaker is obliged to support her claims with reasons, if challenged, and the hearer is obliged to accept a claim unless he has good reason not to do so. The obligation in question is, in the first instance, not a moral one but a rational one -- the penalty of failure to fulfill it is the charge not of immorality but of irrationality -- although clearly the two will often overlap" (Cooke, 1994).

This begins to point towards the idea of communicative rationality, which is the potential for rationality that is implicit in the validity basis of everyday communication, the shape of reason that can be extracted from Habermas’s formal-pragmatic analyses.
"The modern -- decentered -- understanding of the world has opened up different dimensions of validity; to the extent that each dimension of validity has its own standards of truth and falsity and its own modes of justification for determining these, one may say that what has been opened up are dimensions of rationality" (Cooke, 1994).

However, before the idea of communicative rationality can be described, the other direction of Habermas’s formal pragmatic analyses of communication needs to be explained. This direction looks towards the idealized presuppositions of communication.

Ideal presuppositions of communication

When individuals pursue actions oriented towards reaching an understanding, the speech acts they exchange take on the weight of a mutually recognized validity. This means each actor involved in communication takes the other as accountable for what they have said, which implies that good reasons could be given by all to justify the validity of the understanding that is being achieved. Again, in most situations the redemption of validity claims is not an explicit undertaking (except in discourses, see below). Instead, each actor issues a “warranty” of accountability to the other, which only needs to be redeemed if certain validity claims are thrown into question. This suggests that the validity claims raised in every communicative interaction implicitly tie communication to argumentation.

It is here that the idealized presuppositions of communication arise. Habermas claims that all forms of argumentation, even implicit and rudimentary ones, rest upon certain “idealizing suppositions,” which are rooted in the very structures of action oriented towards understanding. These “strong idealization
Idealization is the process by which scientific models assume facts about the phenomenon being modeled that are strictly false. Often these assumptions are used to make models easier to understand or solve. Many times idealizations do not harm the predictive accuracy of the model for one reason or...

s” are always understood as at least approximately satisfied by participants in situations where argumentation (and communication) is thought to be taking place. Thus, when during communication it is discovered that the belief that these presuppositions are satisfied is not justified it is always taken as problematic. As a result, steps are usually taken to reestablish and maintain the belief that they are approximately satisfied, or communication is simply called off.
  1. The most basic of these idealized presuppositions is the presupposition that participants in communicative exchange are using the same linguistic expressions in the same way. This is an obvious but interesting point, which clearly illustrates what an idealized presupposition is. It is a presupposition because communication would not proceed if those involved did not think it was at least approximately satisfied (in this case that a shared language was being used). It’s idealized because no matter how closely it is approximated it is always counterfactual
    Counterfactual thinking
    Counterfactual thinking is a term of psychology that describes the tendency people have to imagine alternatives to reality. Humans are predisposed to think about how things could have turned out differently if only..., and also to imagine what if?....

     (because, in this case, the fact is that all meanings are to some degree personally defined).
  2. Another, basic idealized presupposition of argumentation is the presupposition that no relevant argument is suppressed
    Self-censorship is the act of censoring or classifying one's own work , out of fear of, or deference to, the sensibilities of others, without overt pressure from any specific party or institution of authority...

     or excluded by the participants
  3. Another is the presupposition that no persuasive
    Persuasion is a form of social influence. It is the process of guiding or bringing oneself or another toward the adoption of an idea, attitude, or action by rational and symbolic means.- Methods :...

     force except that of the better argument is exerted
  4. There is also the presupposition that all the participants are motivated only by a concern for the better argument.
  5. There is the presupposition of attributing a context-transcending significance to validity claims. This presupposition is controversial but important (and becomes expanded and clarified in the presuppositions of discourse, see below). The idea is that participants in communication instill their claims with a validity that is understood to have significance beyond the specific context of their agreement.
  6. The presupposition that no validity claim is exempt in principle from critical evaluation in argumentation;
  7. The presupposition that everyone capable of speech and action is entitled to participate, and everyone is equally entitled to introduce new topics or express attitudes needs or desires.

In sum, all these presuppositions must be assumed to be approximately satisfied in any situation of communication, despite their being necessarily counterfactual. Habermas refers to the positing of these idealized presuppositions as the “simultaneously unavoidable and trivial accomplishments that sustain communicative action and argumentation”.

Habermas calls discourse
Discourse generally refers to "written or spoken communication". The following are three more specific definitions:...

those forms of communication that come sufficiently close to actually satisfying these presuppositions. Discourses often occur within institutionalized forms of argumentation that self-reflectively refine their procedures of communication, and as a result have a more rigorous set of presuppositions in addition to the ones listed above.

A striking feature of discourse is that validity claims tend to be explicitly thematized and there is the presupposition that all possible interlocutor
Interlocutor (linguistics)
An interlocutor is the person to whom speech is directed . In many Romance languages, the subject who is/are talking is/are the locutor. The use of the word 'locutor,' however, is not yet formally correct in the English language...

s would agree to the universal validity of the conclusions reached. Habermas especially highlights this in what he calls theoretical discourses and practical discourses. These are tied directly to two of the three dimensions of validity discussed above: theoretical discourse being concerned with validity claims thematized regarding objective states of affairs (IT); practical discourse being concerned with validity claims thematized concerning the rightness of norms governing social interactions (WE).

Habermas understands presupposition (5) to be responsible for generating the self-understanding and continuation of theoretical and practical discourses. Presupposition (5) points out that the validity of an understanding reached in theoretical or practical discourse, concerning some factual knowledge or normative principle, is always expanded beyond the immediate context in which it is achieved. The idea is that participants in discourses such as these presuppose that any understanding reached could attain universal agreement concerning its universal validity if these discourses could be relieved of the constraints of time and space. This idealized presupposition directs discourses concerning truth and normative certainty beyond the contingencies of specific communicative situations and towards the idealized achievements of universal consensus and universal validity. It is a rational reconstruction of the conditions for the possibility of earnest discourses concerning facts and norms. Recall that, for Habermas, rational reconstructions aim at offering the most acceptable account of what allows for the competencies already mastered by a wide range of subjects. In order for discourse to proceed, the existence of fact
A fact is something that has really occurred or is actually the case. The usual test for a statement of fact is verifiability, that is whether it can be shown to correspond to experience. Standard reference works are often used to check facts...

s and norms
Norm (philosophy)
Norms are concepts of practical import, oriented to effecting an action, rather than conceptual abstractions that describe, explain, and express. Normative sentences imply “ought-to” types of statements and assertions, in distinction to sentences that provide “is” types of statements and assertions...

 must be presupposed, yet the certainty of an absolute knowledge
Knowledge is a familiarity with someone or something unknown, which can include information, facts, descriptions, or skills acquired through experience or education. It can refer to the theoretical or practical understanding of a subject...

 of them must be, in a sense, postponed.

Striking a Piaget
Jean Piaget
Jean Piaget was a French-speaking Swiss developmental psychologist and philosopher known for his epistemological studies with children. His theory of cognitive development and epistemological view are together called "genetic epistemology"....

ian and Peircean chord, Habermas understands the deep structures of collective inquiry as development
Developmental psychology
Developmental psychology, also known as human development, is the scientific study of systematic psychological changes, emotional changes, and perception changes that occur in human beings over the course of their life span. Originally concerned with infants and children, the field has expanded to...

al. Thus, the presupposition shared by individuals involved in discourse is taken to reflect this. The pursuit of truth and normative certainty is taken to be motivated and grounded, not in some objective or social world that is treated as a "given", but rather in a learning process. Indeed, Habermas himself is always careful to formulate his work as a research project, open to refinement.

In any case, reconstructing the presuppositions and validity dimensions inherent to communication is valuable because it brings into relief the inescapable foundations of everyday practices. Communicative action and the rudimentary forms of argumentation that orient the greater part of human interaction cannot be left behind. By reconstructing the deep structures of these Habermas has discovered a seed of rationality planted in the very heart of the lifeworld. Everyday practices, which are common enough to be trivial, such as reaching an understanding with another, or contesting the reasons for pursuing a course of action, contain an implicit and idealized rationality.

In other words, communication is always somewhat rational. Communication could not occur if the participants thought that the speech acts exchanged did not carry the weight of a validity for which those participating could be held accountable. Nor would anyone feel that a conclusion was justified if it was achieved by any other means than the uncoerced force of the better argument. Nor could the specialized discourses of law
Law is a system of rules and guidelines which are enforced through social institutions to govern behavior, wherever possible. It shapes politics, economics and society in numerous ways and serves as a social mediator of relations between people. Contract law regulates everything from buying a bus...

, science
Science is a systematic enterprise that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the universe...

 and morality
Morality is the differentiation among intentions, decisions, and actions between those that are good and bad . A moral code is a system of morality and a moral is any one practice or teaching within a moral code...

 continue if the progress of knowledge and insight was denied in favor of relativism
Relativism is the concept that points of view have no absolute truth or validity, having only relative, subjective value according to differences in perception and consideration....


That said, it is a question how appropriate it is to speak of "communication" tenselessly, and of "everyday practices" as though they cut across all times and cultures. That they do cannot be assumed, and anthropology
Anthropology is the study of humanity. It has origins in the humanities, the natural sciences, and the social sciences. The term "anthropology" is from the Greek anthrōpos , "man", understood to mean mankind or humanity, and -logia , "discourse" or "study", and was first used in 1501 by German...

 provides evidence of significant difference. It is possible to ignore these facts by limiting the scope of universal pragmatics to current forms of discourse, but this runs the risk of contradicting Habermas's own demand for (5). Moreover, the initial unease with the classical and liberal
Liberalism is the belief in the importance of liberty and equal rights. Liberals espouse a wide array of views depending on their understanding of these principles, but generally, liberals support ideas such as constitutionalism, liberal democracy, free and fair elections, human rights,...

 views of rationality had to do precisely with their ahistorical character and refusal, or perhaps inability, to acknowledge their own origins in circumstances of the day. Their veneer of false universality torn off by the likes of Foucault
Michel Foucault
Michel Foucault , born Paul-Michel Foucault , was a French philosopher, social theorist and historian of ideas...

, it remains to be seen whether "universal" pragmatics can stand up to the same challenges posed by deconstruction
Deconstruction is a term introduced by French philosopher Jacques Derrida in his 1967 book Of Grammatology. Although he carefully avoided defining the term directly, he sought to apply Martin Heidegger's concept of Destruktion or Abbau, to textual reading...

 and skepticism
Skepticism has many definitions, but generally refers to any questioning attitude towards knowledge, facts, or opinions/beliefs stated as facts, or doubt regarding claims that are taken for granted elsewhere...


See also

  • Jürgen Habermas
    Jürgen Habermas
    Jürgen Habermas is a German sociologist and philosopher in the tradition of critical theory and pragmatism. He is perhaps best known for his theory on the concepts of 'communicative rationality' and the 'public sphere'...

  • Rational reconstruction
    Rational reconstruction
    Rational reconstruction is a philosophical term with several distinct meanings. It is found in the work of Jürgen Habermas and Imre Lakatos.- Habermas :...

  • Communicative rationality
    Communicative rationality
    Communicative rationality, or communicative reason, is a theory or set of theories which describes human rationality as a necessary outcome of successful communication. In particular, it is tied to the philosophy of Karl-Otto Apel, Jürgen Habermas, and their program of universal pragmatics, along...

  • Rationality
    In philosophy, rationality is the exercise of reason. It is the manner in which people derive conclusions when considering things deliberately. It also refers to the conformity of one's beliefs with one's reasons for belief, or with one's actions with one's reasons for action...

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