Back to Habermas Studies page reason for democracy
a brief on grounding democracy in our form of life
January 7, 2008

In Theory of Communicative Action (English as 2 vols., 1984/87 [German, 1981]), Habermas develops an anthropological philosophy of sociality (social “lifeworld” vis-à-vis social systems) grounded in a “formal pragmatic” view of meaning: There’s a natural connection between the sense of utterances and our interest in reaching understanding for the sake of orienting action. This leads to a justification of democracy based in our communicative form of life.

The lifeworld is our open-ended world of living a life (existential meaning), which is fundamentally informal. Social systems are goal-oriented organizations of activity that can be formalized (and be quantitatively evaluated). Interactions between individuals are implicitly socialized by shared background and overtly coordinated through speech necessarily implying commitment to truthfulness and appropriateness. If there’s really reason to formally claim that something is valid (systematically true or appropriate or genuine), then everyone concerned would, in principle, come to accept that claim, given procedurally ideal opportunity (e.g., time and competence all around)—which implies interest in enabling capability and opportunity for understanding. Ideally, every participant sincerely desires to understand (also desiring to make oneself understood); no one is prevented from satisfactory participation (while everyone participates as best they can), and (most ideally) everyone reasons competently and appropriately, such that a plan, value, etc. prevails for activity only due to its real validity appreciated by all involved. So, particular plans, values, assertions, etc. that deserve action-orienting prevalence necessarily imply justifiability (given enabled capability and opportunity for understanding by all those questioning a matter), due immanently to internal relations of linguistic components (intentionality, performance, and propositional content) to kinds of justification (though the pragmatics of justification may require extended learning processes).

Communicative interests are primordial for social self-understanding, so analysis of social systems of action should distinguish (1) the communicativity of action from (2) action’s efficacy or functionality: (1) Communicative action is motivated by open-ended interests of understanding, where actors base their actions on (and coordinate their interactions by) mutual appreciation of shared (given) backgrounds and constructed common grounds. (2) Functional—instrumental/strategic—action is motivated by measurable interests of goal attainment, where coordination of actions is linked to plans, or action is programmatic. Habermas argues that interests of communicative understanding generally deserve to prevail over interests of functionality because interests of communication are primordial for social self-understanding, while understanding (whatever the kind—be it epistemic, ethical, etc.) is primordial for lifeworld Meaning (fulfillment and durable efficacy). 

Motivated by interest in democratic human development, Habermas critically advances his linguistic-pragmatic social theory (which is not ontologically committed) for diagnosis of pathologies in contemporary life, especially inasmuch as systems are defined by money (monetization of relations, which by the way are commonly valid) and power (organizational authority, which is commonly legitimate), which often become overbearing in the market and government. The problem with modern society is not that it’s too rationalized, as Weber and the Frankfurt School argued (using a constricted conception of rationality), but that society is hardly rational enough: Systems of action (especially relative to the market or/and government) commonly tend to “colonize” the lifeworld and thereby suppress natural reservoirs of communicative potential for problem-solving, especially regarding problems originating in the market. Market power commonly promotes institutions, policies, and laws (especially as a coordinated political package) that are unjustifiable in venues of transparency, while commonly suppressing democratic potential for innovation and reformation.

Habermas’ proffered democratization of social development involves theoretical and practice appreciations of rationality that are philosophically discursive. But, for most purposes, rationality is simply a matter of accessibly procedural justification: the rule-governed practice of argumentation implied whenever persons are required to back up the claims (implicit or explicit) of their utterances, which usually needs to be exemplified only very preliminarily (for misunderstanding or in disagreement), especially since most disagreement is basically about misunderstanding. Yet, conflicts of interest in the lifeworld often require further learning, inquiry, and development in order to obtain mutually satisfactory resolution, and the potential of learning and inquiry is always discursive.

The conceptual basis for Habermas’ sense of democratization is “discourse ethics,” which is a metanormative theory built from the ideality of communication (re: “Ideally....” above). Habermas argues that a rational reconstruction of discursive method, with respect to the modern meaning of “moral” justification of regulatives, warrants a theory of normativity which is universalizable.

His political theory (e.g., Between Facts and Norms, 1996 [1992]) applies his discursive sense of democratization to a version of liberal democracy which does justice to the ideals of inclusiveness, equality, and universal solidarity that are really entailed by the pragmatic presuppositions of communicative life. The legitimacy of democratic laws and institutions is discursively traceable to a complex of ethical, moral, and pragmatic criteria, relative to a community’s conception of the good, what’s really moral, and what’s practicable.

Also: This discussion is associated with the “good thinking” area of

Be fair. © 2017, g. e. davis.