Archive for the 'the theory of communicative action' Category



I wrote too soon about Habermas and his use of Popper’s “third world”:

In what follows I shall no longer employ the Popperian terminology. My purpose in reviewing Jarvie’s action-theoretic translation of Popper’s three-world theory was only to prepare the way for the thesis that with the choice of a specific sociological concept of action we generally make specific “ontological” assumptions. (TOCA, 84-85)

So it is not clear at this point in the text what Habermas’s actual metaphysical commitments are. Later in this chapter, he provides a taxonomy of actions and is explicit about the ontological assumptions of each, and I would assume that Habermas is committed, at the very least, to the ontological assumptions of communicative action theories.

My guess is that the answer to the question of what it means for an expression to embody knowledge (DFN-EXP-EMBODY-KNOWLEDGE-?) lies within this more elaborate taxonomy.


Popper’s third world

In my last post, I raised the following question in the context of TOCA:

(DFN-EXP-EMBODY-KNOWLEDGE-?) What does it mean for an expression to embody knowledge?

I didn’t find a lot to help me in the opening chapter I’ve been writing about here for some time. But thankfully, I’ve been reading faster than I’ve been blogging, and recently hit a section that should help me out.

It turns out, to my surprise, that this notion of embodiment is largely Popperian. In the third section of TOCA, Habermas introduces the Popperian notion of a “third world” of objective semantic contents.

We may first distinguish the following three worlds or universes: first the world of physical objects or physical states; secondly, the world of states of consciousness, or of mental states, or perhaps of behavioral dispositions to act; and thirdly, the world of objective contents of thought, especially the scientific and poetic thoughts and of works of art. (Popper, “Epistemology Without a Knowing Subject,” in TOCA, 76)

According to Habermas, Popper sees these three worlds as ontologically distinct. Apparently, the objective existence of the third world is intended to provide a way for objective science to proceed without dependency on a subject–which would, I suppose in Popper’s opinion, pollute the project. To this end, it is necessary for there to be both “embodied” and “unembodied” semantic contents:

Popper distinguishes between explicit semantic contents that are already embodied in phonemes and written signs … and those implicit semantic contents that are not yet “discovered,” not yet objectivated in carrier objects of the first world, but are simply inherent in already embodied meanings.
These “unembodied world 3 objects” are an important indicator of the independence of the world of the objective mind. Symbolic formations are, it is true, generated by the productive human mind; but though they are themselves products, they confront the subjective mind with the objectivity of a problematic, uncomprehended complex of meaning that can be opened up only through intellectual labor.

Habermas goes on to correct Popper’s story and especially its application to sociology. But I suspect that he finds the metaphysical commitments here OK. Unfortunately, those commitments spook the hell out of me. To put my cards on the table: I’m currently a physicalist as far as the mind/body debate goes, for reasons that I think are best elucidated in Papineau’s Thinking about Consciousness, so I already disagree with the the distinction between Popper’s first and second worlds. And the third world? Well, I think it can be reduced back down to causal relations as well.

None of this is to say that I think Habermas’ project is fundamentally misguided. But I do think it would be easier to work with it if I could work out some adjustment to a more plausible metaphysical story.


Knowledge embodied in expressions?

Habermas’ theory of rationality is broad in scope and he appears to develop it throughout TOCA, but be begins with a preliminary account grounded in some conceptual analysis.

What does it mean to say that persons behave “rationally” in a certain situation or that their expressions count as “rational”? Knowledge can be criticized as unreliable. The close relation between knowledge and rationality suggests that the rationality of an expression depends on the reliability of the knowledge embodied in it. (TOCA, 8 )

This is Habermas’ first stab: to tie the definition of rationality to the idea of knowledge “embodied” in an expression.

Consider two paradigmatic cases: an assertion with which A in a communicative attitude expresses a belief and a goal-directed intervention in the world with which B pursues a specific end. Both embody fallible knowledge; both are attempts that can go wrong. (TOCA, 8, emphasis mine)

I am initially skeptical of the free use of “embody”–it appears to be doing a lot of work for Habermas, and he refrains from defining it explicitly, and instead builds it by example only. My fear is that such an explanatory tool built out of ad hoc examples without an overarching principle will be this theory’s weakest link. But despite my reservations, let’s open up the term to the possibility of definition within our system.

(DFN-EXP-EMBODY-KNOWLEDGE-?) What does it mean for an expression to embody knowledge?

Moving on:

In both cases, the critic refers to the claims that the subjects necessarily attach to their expressions insofar as the latter are intended as assertions or goal-directed actions. This necessity is of a conceptual nature. For A does not make an assertion unless he makes a truth claim for the asserted proposition p and therewith indicates his conviction that his statement can, if necessary, be defended. And B does not perform a goal-directed action, that is, he does not want to accomplish an end by it unless he regards the action planned as promising and therewith indicates his conviction that, in the given circumstances, his choice of means can if necessary be explained.” (TOCA, 9)

There are a number of presuppositions in the passage that I would rather not take for granted, but there is one in particular which we have already explored reasons for doubting. It appears, at least on a first reading, that Habermas believes that all goal-directed actions are tied to linguistic claims and explanations. But we have already discussed here and here that the connection between know-how and language is a weak one. It might be possible, then, for there to be goal-directed action that is not tied to language at all.


Rationality, for Habermas

If we seek the grammatical subjects that go with the predicate expression “rational,” two candidates come to the fore: persons, who have knowledge, can be more or less rational, as can symbolic expressions–linguistic and nonlinguistic, communication or non-communicative actions–that embody knowledge. We can call men and women, children and adults, ministers and bus conductors “rational,” but not animals or lilac bushes, mountains, streets, or chairs. We can call apologies, delays, surgical interventions, declarations of war, repairs, construction plans or conference decisions “irrational,” but not a storm, and accident, a lottery win, or an illness. (TOCA, 8 )

A few observations on this passage:

First, Habermas appears to be adopted at least preliminarily the methodology of linguistic analysis that we would expect to find in analytic philosophy. I’m personally skeptical about the power of this methodology, but reading ahead I have been impressed with Habermas’ use of it. More on this later, for now I would just like to point it out.

Second, what a headache keeping all these definitions is going to be! We already have one definition of the predicate “rational,” which is Lukacs’ predicate that he uses, a predicate whose “grammatical subject” is limited to systems. Now, at the very least, we have a new predicate that applies only to persons for which we use the same word. Let’s introduce this in a new definition, which we will have to leave undetermined for the moment.

(DFN-RATIONAL-PERSON-?) For given person, it is possible that that person is a rational person. What does that mean?

In addition, Habermas claims that there is another use of “rational” which applies to “symbolic expressions.” I think that my parsing here takes “linguistic and nonlinguistic, communication or non-communicative actions” to be in apposition to “symbolic expression,” hence defining it. And the former phrase pretty clearly logically reduces to “actions.” So “symbolic expressions” is just a fancy way of saying “actions.” Let’s propose the following (blank) definition:

(DFN-RATIONAL-ACTION-?) For given action, it is possible that that person is a rational action. What does that mean?

I think that in the future, I will disambiguate when necessary between these three predicates by subscripting them to note the category of their subjects. So, “rationals“, “rationalp“, and “rationala“, refer to the predicates relating to systems, persons, and actions, respectively.



Let’s jump back to Habermas:

In linguistic utterances knowledge is expressed explicitly; in goal-directed actions an ability, an implicit knowledge is expressed; this know-how can in principle also be transformed into know-that. (TOCA, 8 )

Here Habermas is doing his best to relate all knowledge to linguistic claims. I think he’s doing this because later he will try to make the rationality of such knowledge depend on the defensibility of those linguistic claims in discourse.

I disagree with Habermas here, however.

The distinction Habermas between knowledge-that and knowledge-how is a distinction drawn by contemporary psychology as well, under the names declarative (or descriptive) knowledge and procedural knowledge. A primary difference between these kinds of knowledge is that people’s procedural knowledge is stored in procedural memory, which is a functionally and biologically distinct kind of memory. This is the kind of memory that lets you remember how to ride a bicycle, or tie your shoes, as opposed to remember what you ate for lunch yesterday or the capital of Vermont.

Much psychological and neurological work has been done on both kinds of memory, and one very robust result to come out of that work is this: while declarative memories can be easily brought to consciousness and articulated, it is very difficult if not impossible to do so for procedural memory. Typically, the question which proves this point to an introductory psychology student is: can you describe, in words, how to ride a bicycle?

The link between know-how (procedural knowledge) and linguistic utterances, then, is relatively weak.


Propositional knowledge and beliefs

Our knowledge has a propositional structure; beliefs can be represented in the form of statements. I shall presuppose this concept of knowledge without further clarification…’ (TOCA, 8 )

Habermas is reluctant to elaborate on this presupposition. Thankfully, Christopher Hill, in Thought and World (T&W), isn’t:

When one has a belief, one is thereby related to a proposition. Thus, for example, if one believes that the universe is expanding, one stands in a certain psychological relation, the relation of believing, to the proposition that the universe is expanding. (T&W, 1)

Hill fleshes out what he means by “proposition” by making some assumptions about them:

…I will assume that that [propositions] have logical structure, and that concepts are their fundamental building blocks. ….
The assumption that propositions have logical structure should be stressed. It is intended in a very strong sense — specifically, as claiming that it is appropriate to view propositions as having constituent structures that parallel the logical structures of sentences. It is meant to entail, for example, that it is appropriate to regard the proposition Hannibal crossed the Alps and Caesar crossed the Rubicon as a complex structure consisting of two simpler propositions and a logical concept (the concept of conjunction). It is also meant to entail that it is appropriate to think of each of the simpler propositions as having an internal logical organization, an organization that can be expressed by saying that the proposition consists of two nominal concepts and a predicative concept that plays the role of a transitive verb. (T&W, 2-3)

The congruence between Habermas’ brief characterization of the propositional nature of beliefs (“beliefs can be represented in the form of statements”) and Hill’s characterization of the nature of propositions makes it tempting to conflate the two positions; so tempting, in fact, that I’m going to do it until it gets me into trouble. One of the purposes of this blog is to trace the extraction of a philosophical theory from the various sources that it draws from in a disciplined way. To this end, I will list some of the positions that have come up (at least under a cursory interpretation of the sources) so far below:

(T&W-1) When one has a belief, one is related in a certain way (the relation of believing) to a proposition.
(T&W-2) Concepts are the fundamental building blocks of propositions.
(T&W-3) Propositions have structure that parallels the logical structure of the sentences.

(TOCA-8-A) Beliefs can be represented in the form of statements.


Beginning without foundations

We have to bear in mind that philosophical thought, which has surrendered the relation to totality, also loses its self-sufficiency. To the goal of formally analyzing the conditions of rationality, we can tie neither ontological hopes for substantive theories of nature, history, society, and so forth, nor transcendental-philosophical hopes for an aprioristic reconstruction of the equipment of the nonempirical species subject, of consciousness in general. All attempts at discovering ultimate foundations … have broken down. In this situation, the way is opening to a new constellation in the relationship of philosophy and the sciences. (TOCA, 2)

In Habermas’ introduction to The Theory of Communicative Action, he pronounces that an old conception of philosophy has failed. Under this conception, the philosophy is intellectually primary. It provides the grounds on and means with which we can build an ontological or transcendental theory; this latter theory in turn provides the grounds and means for natural and social sciences. All knowledge stems from basic philosophical knowledge.

When this foundationalist approach fails, as Habermas claims it has, how can we recover? One option is that we declare the entire project of the search for truth to be a failure. This is skepticism or nihilism.

But for the purposes of the inquiry of this blog, let us proceed instead with a more hopeful course. Rather than denying ourselves access to the world for lack of grounds, we can instead be more risky and promiscuous in our choice of grounds. We can tentatively hold the claims from a wide variety of sources–philosophy, psychology, social theory, methodologies of every stripe–as unproblematic, and see where the force of their arguments takes us. If a starting point leads to a contradiction or is confronted with a compelling argument against it, then we can always revise our position on the fly.

Of course, this fallibilist and anti-foundationalist methodology applies to itself.