On Jürgen Habermas’ “Actions, Speech Acts, Linguistically Mediated Interactions, and the Lifeworld” (1998), with guest John Foster.
What’s the relation between individuals and society? Habermas says it’s language. But don’t picture this as fully formed but isolated animal individuals that then acquire language and thereby come together to form a society. Rather, what constitutes the human mind itself is largely sedimented language. We would not have self-consciousness in any robust sense without language. There would be biological organisms with qualia and some relations to each other, but the greater part of what we consider our mentality would be absent.
This is to say that the human being is a social being, and the social framework that allows individuals to emerge is language. When we relate to one other, it can be in one of two ways: I can treat you like I treat a tool, ordering you around, manipulating you, just trying to get you to do what I want to fulfill some plan that I have. Or by contrast, I can try to get you to understand and agree with my plan so that it becomes our plan. In the course of this, I may in fact compromise my vision so that this cooperation is possible. Non-linguistic animals can deal with each other in the first way (which he calls “strategic action”), but according to Habermas, language is all about the second way (“communicative action”). Built into language itself is a telos (a purposive tendency) toward mutual understanding and cooperation. This is how Habermas gets “ought” from “is”: Already in just speaking to each other, we’re implicitly trying to be straight with each other, to see things in the same way and hence cooperate.
Of course, people do lie, do use language to manipulate each other, but this practice is parasitic on correct use of language. Habermas is taking this insight from Kant: Lying as a concept wouldn’t make sense if everyone lied all the time. In fact, we couldn’t even understand each other. Lying has to be the exception rather than the rule, a derived (corrupted) practice rather than the norm. And because of this telos of ordinary language, we can see that lying and manipulation are wrong.
But apart from the ethical implication (which is important for Habermas, but not actually the goal of this essay), this means for Habermas that language is a binding force between us because it allows us to (in non-lying circumstances) access the motivations of other people. Habermas describes this as putting us in a “transmundane” position with regard to one another, almost like magic. If I just see you running on the street, I as an observer may or may not be able to figure out why you’re doing that, but speaking is unlike running, because in speaking you (implicitly) announce your intentions, which in the case of an assertion is just for me as the person you’re talking to understand and accept as valid whatever statement you just asserted. Or if you’re commanding me, then you want me to accept that as a legitimate command and feel obliged to do the thing.
Here’s where things get a little tricky, and you may want to refresh our episode 186 covering J.L. Austin on performatives. In that text, Austin describes certain sentences as accomplishing by their very utterance an action in the world, as when you say “I promise…” then you’re not just describing yourself but creating an obligation for yourself. Austin implies at the end of the text that even assertions are in fact performative, that there’s no strict distinction between performative and merely assertive utterances, but what he meant by this is not clear, and so we’ve been somewhat confused subsequently by, for instance, Judith Butler’s claim that gender is performative.
Habermas fills in the gap here. Following Austin, Habermas claims that the basic thing we should be analyzing in the philosophy of language is not the sentence, but the utterance on a specific occasion, i.e. the sentence plus context. Austin divided the notion of linguistic meaning into the locutionary meaning, i.e. what the actual words mean in the dictionary, the illocutionary force, i.e. what the utterance performatively is supposed to accomplish (shared understanding in the case of an assertion, the feeling of obligation through a now-shared goal in the case of a command), and the perlocution, which includes the subsequent changes in the world brought about by the illocution (so maybe I now act based on believing your assertion or actually follow through and obey your command).
Habermas gives us the case of one person asking the other person to give a third person some money. The hearer understands (illocuationary success!) and accepts (another illocutionary success!) the request, and gives the money (the intended perlocutionary effect), which also happens to make that third person’s wife very happy (another perlocutionary effect, but not the one actually intended).
Now, what if in this case I was giving you this command with the intention that the recipient of the money would then on my behalf commit a crime, like use the money to set up a robbery. The robbery would also be a perlocutionary effect, but different from the others mentioned above, because that intention of mine for the robbery to take place wasn’t something I told you, and if I did, you likely wouldn’t have given the robber that money. Habermas describes this action as “latently strategic” action. It seemed like I was engaging in an honest communicative action with you, but because I was hiding this intention, I was actually just using you. Sorry!
For something to be a truly communicative action, it has to pose a disputable claim to you, a question really: Will you accept what I’m saying as valid or not? If I make a request of you, you can clearly say no. If I’m your superior in the armed forces, which you’ve joined willingly and identified yourself as legitimately a soldier in this chain of command, even a command do you that you obey is something that you’re participating in. If on the other hand I threaten you, then it’s not really consent on your part: It’s a strategic action for me, trying to get you to do what I want and not engaging in outreach to get your approval.
We wrap up part one here by being worried about whether this distinction is really as hard and fast as it looks. What about Stockholm Syndrome, when you joined an enterprise unwillingly but then are won over to it? What about if you join the military willingly but then your superior gets you to remember your place by threatening you? Aren’t in real life there often sanctions looming over us to discourage us from disagreeing? How many of our choices or truly free?
In part two we get more into the idea of what the “validity claims” of a statement are and also into the “lifeworld,” a term Habermas gets from Husserl about the shared web of belief that allows us to understand each other and is chock full of normative judgments about what’s appropriate to do when.
This essay is chapter 4 in the collection On the Pragmatics of Communication. Buy it.
Image by Solomon Grundy.