In some earlier, never published work, I explored the work of Jurgen Habermas, the German philosopher/sociologist, who has written extensively on the failure of modernity to bring forth the humanity of our species. I would add, rather, he was writing about flourishing or, better, the inability of modern humans to flourish. More explicitly, he developed his “Theory of Communicative Action” as a way to preserve the idea of the human as a rational creature and to avoid the domination he sees inherent in modernity. He, perhaps most among other living modern philosophers, has been concerned about creating a “rational” society, free of domination. He argues that the predominant form of action in modern cultures is what he and others call instrumental action, a mode that is fundamentally dominating. His work rests on forms of speech acts, and, I will argue, also is closely related to the divided-brain-model of McGilchrist. Both he and McGilchrist see modernity as a threat to human beings. Habermas’s work, although in no way directly connected to the bi-hemispheric model, is completely consistent with it. (Before continuing, I warn you that this post is long and quite academic.)

Some kinds of speech acts will inevitably create interruptions. Requests/directives, in one form or another, always interrupt what is going on; they are always made against a background of other actions, brings those actions from the background presences (foregrounds them), and invokes assessments in the listener as to what is happening right then. The right hemisphere will get involved in a major way. The nature of the subsequent response of the listener to the request depends on his or her assessment of the validity of the speaker’s speech act in three (or four) classes of claims (Habermas, 1979). Each one is related to a separate domain of rationality. Rationality in this discussion has a practical sense and might considered simply “what constitutes good reason for actions” (White, 1988). The Cartesian model of the mind as mirroring reality leads, more or less, to learning as the acquisition of positive knowledge about the world and the development of skills in manipulating that knowledge. Action follows from a utilitarian calculus of maximizing or optimizing. The broader rationality of Habermas leads to a very different concept of action and learning and how to design systems so that both the action and the learning are normatively satisfying.

In the positivist paradigm, only one form of rationality and action is consistent with the universal, ahistorical notion of reality. This corresponds to the way the left hemisphere works. Actions are based on our representational theories of the external world and are for strategic purposes by an individual. Strategic, here, has an instrumental or utilitarian sense. White (1988), in his interpretative work on Jurgen Habermas, writes that this form of action is,

the intentional, self-interested behavior of individuals in an objectivated world, that is, one in which objects and other individuals are related in terms of their possible manipulation. The rationality of action is correspondingly conceptualized as the efficient linking of actions-seen-as-means to the attainment of individual goals. [I have temporarily lost some of the page references for the quotes in this post. Sorry.]

This is the fundamental model on which all rational choice systems of thought and action are built, particularly economics and decision theory.

Contextual rationality is a second model where rationality is thought of as “conformity…to norms” (Peter Winch, cited in White (1988) . As to this form of rationality, White (1988)  says, “Action is understood as norm-guided behavior and can be evaluated as being rational or irrational depending whether or not it conforms to beliefs and social norms in the context in which it occurs. Thus, on the contextual account, what counts as rational action will vary with the social context.”

Habermas, in a complex critique extending over many years and in several major works, develops a more encompassing form of rationality which he calls “communicative rationality,” and deems the kinds of actions that flow out of it as “communicative action.” Habermas (1981) argues, as others have, that understanding based only on analytic, Cartesian claims is insufficient to explain how we act in general. This could come right out of McGilchrist. Habermas noted that the two above forms of action, intentional-strategic and norm-guided, and their underlying rationality are insufficient to explain and be useful as a model for the coordination of everyday social interactions.

He discusses a third mode, dramaturgical, in which an inner set of motivations or affects can be rationally associated with a subject’s behavior. This is another place where Habermas anticipates McGilchrist. White (1988)  comments, “[t]hat ordinary language competence is now envisioned as giving actors the capacity to use this entire system of world relations and validity claims in a distinct fashion for the purpose of coordinating action.”

White (1988) further describes Habermas’ basic sense of understanding as transcending the Cartesian view of knowing and ties understanding to communicative action.

When a speaker orients himself towards understanding – that is, engages in communicative action – his speech acts must raise, and he must be accountable for three rationality or ‘validity claims’ [Geltunganspruche]: truth, normative legitimacy and truthfulness/authenticity. Only if the speaker is able to convince his hearers that his claims are rational and thus worthy of recognition can there develop a ‘rationally motivated agreement’ [Einverständis] or consensus on how to coordinate future actions.

These are all contextual conditions for creating socially beneficial norms that I see as consistent with flourishing. Habermas’s goal is “intersubjective mutuality … shared knowledge, mutual trust, and accord with one another. (Habermas, 1979, p.3”) “Intersubjective mutuality” is simply a philosopher’s term for accepting the legitimacy of the other’s existence. I see this term as related to the way that Humberto Maturana [and I] defines love:

Love is the domain of those relational behaviors through which another arises as a legitimate other in coexistence with oneself under any circumstance [inresubjective mutuality]. Love does not legitimize the other, love lets the other be. Through seeing the other, love entails acting with the other in a way that they do not need to justify their existence in the relation (Maturana and Nisis 1997, p. 5).

Habermas argues that the present norms of modernity produce what he and others call instrumental action, a form of action in which human actors are reduced essentially to means to some private end. This short passage contrasts this with communicative action, which I find consistent with a culture that can flourish.

We call an action oriented to success instrumental when we consider it under the aspect of following rules of rational choice and assess the efficiency of influencing the decisions of a rational opponent. …. By contrast, I shall speak of communicative action whenever the actions of the agents involved are coordinated not through egocentric calculations of success but through acts of reaching understanding.

In communicative action participants are not primarily oriented to their own individual successes; they pursue their individual goals under the condition that they can harmonize their plans of action on the basis of common situation definitions. In this respect the negotiation of definitions of the situation is an essential element of the interpretive accomplishments required for communicative action (Habermas 1984, p. 285-6).

Habermas is particularly concerned with the conditions under which action takes place in a consensual, cooperative, non-coercive manner, that is, how language can function as “a medium of unhindered understanding” (Habermas, 1981) .

Within this model, actors are conceived of as seeking an understanding in regard to some practical situation confronting them, in order to coordinate their actions consensually. Reaching an understanding requires ‘a cooperative process of interpretation aimed at attaining intersubjectively recognized definitions of situations.’… one must assume a more complex competence on the part of actors than is postulated in other models of action. Within the communicative model, actors are envisioned to relate simultaneously to all three of the aforementioned worlds (objective, social, and subjective). Moreover, they can relate to them reflectively in the sense that they have the competence to differentiate the three types of relations and select one or the other as the most appropriate for interpreting a given situation and working out an agreement on a common definition of it. Thus, the three modes of world relations together constitute a ‘commonly imputed system of coordinates,’ which actors have at their mutual disposal to aid them in understanding one another.

Actors within the communicative model are not only accorded the competence to dispose reflectively over the three world-relations, but also the competence to assess the rationality or irrationality of one another’s actions according to all three of the respective sets of criteria (truth/success; normative legitimacy; and truthfulness/authenticity) which are implied by the different possible world-relations.

Habermas strives to avoid all sorts of dominating acts. He argues that a request (directive in the vocabulary of speech acts) will produce a consensual, non-dominating result if four validity claims are met. In his objective to defend and preserve his modernist concept of rationality, he calls any conversation that includes the following four conditions as being a form of “communicative rationality.” The act that follows is a form of “communicative action.”

1.     The request is comprehensible. Easier said than done. What he means is that both parties understand the request as having exactly the same semantic meaning. (Comprehensibility)
2.     The requestor has a legitimate right to make the request. (Legitimacy)
3.     The outcome of the action and the reasons given for it is objectively true. (Truth)
4.     The requestor is being truthful about the reasons for the request. (Truthfulness)

In other words, the target actor can choose to act in a non-dominated, consensual (Habermas’s rational) manner if the answer to all following questions is “yes.”

1.     Do I understand you what you mean?
2.     Is what you say objectively true?
3.     Can I trust you to speak the truth?
4.     Do you have a right to be in this conversation and ask me what you just did

The speech acts that form the explicit dance of negotiation tell only part of the story. Requests are a special kind of speech act which has the distinctive character of inevitably interrupting the transparent flow of action and thereby raising assessments to the surface or at least to some level of cognitive activity. Habermas (1981) goes beyond the general ontological sense of seeing the world revealed in a specific way, through the raising up and establishing of the three specific sets of validity claims. These claims show up as assessments made by a listener assessing the validity of a speaker’s claims in the domains of communicative rationality: truth, truthfulness or sincerity, legitimacy, (and comprehensibility).

The assessment of truth relates to the objective reality context of the action being contemplated. This family of claims deals with objective rationality; the effective choice of means to some end otherwise specified. Such a truth claim is always at the base of grounding for a request; the requester’s intentions are buried in it. It is a set of assessments pertaining to the future that would show up as a consequence of taking the actions proposed. In a Cartesian world, all claims collapse into this domain.

In the general social situation prevailing today, the second category or truthfulness claim is frequently questioned, often in association with offers or promises made in response to requests, and may be completely absent in extended breakdowns where the identity of one or more of the parties includes a record of previous broken promises. Truthfulness corresponds to the subjective world that Habermas mentions. Claims about sincerity, reliability, or competence are related forms. Truthfulness generally is an assessment about an assertion being made in the present; sincerity and competence are assessments about the speaker’s intention and ability to follow through in the future. Habermas claims that this domain belongs to the subjective or dramaturgical dimension of rationality. It is connected with the inner set of intentions and cognitive states of the party or parties who are expected to be the actors in the pending action. The third class of validity claims, legitimacy, forms the basis of much social, as opposed to personal conflict. Legitimacy relates to the intersubjective domain and largely includes assessments about the other party’s sharing of concerns or cares of the listener.

The fourth class of validity claims, that of comprehensibility, is a bit different from the three discussed above. This claim is fundamental; one cannot enter into a conversation leading to action without understanding the language itself or the conventional idiom that the speaker is using.  Comprehensibility also may enter into complex technical arguments where the parties speak in jargon and technical distinctions. But it is also an important factor in ordinary conversations where the parties may take for granted that the words they use have been understood by the others. In the interpretive model herein, this is not the fundamental situation.

Disciplinary barriers, buried in the worlds inside the left hemispheres, confound communicative action in all domains by rendering a conversation incomprehensible. Every discipline has its own vocabulary and world-view. If anyone proposes some sort on interdisciplinary project, they must be prepared to build-in the long time it takes to come to a common understanding of the words and concepts that will be used.  Despite the comprehensibility problems inherent in language itself, the communicative action model of Habermas could well serve as a means to restructure existing institutions.

The connection between the divided-brain-model and the thinking behind Habermas’s theory is to note that the validity claims are also buried in the context of the immediate situation. The means the right hemisphere is going to be the more important in determining the listener’s response. Objectively true means true in the sense of the moment, not in the general, decontextualized sense of the beliefs and facts stored in the left hemisphere. If the request is to put on one’s raincoat, it better be raining outside for the subsequent act to be rational in Habermas’s terms. Assessments of trust are highly subjective and also depend on the context, but in that case of the listener’s knowledge of the speaker over time. In an unfamiliar situation, the listener must depend on the right hemisphere’s ability to connect and, in a sense, read the mind of the other. And, lastly, assessments of legitimate authority are always context-dependent (right-hemisphere determination). The authority of one’s boss to make requests in the work space is different from the same person’s authority at a bar during an after-work gathering.

1. Giddens, A. (1984). The Constitution of Society. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
2. Habermas, J. (1979). Communication and the Evolution of Society. Boston, Beacon Press.
3. Habermas, J. (1984). The Theory of Communicative Action, Vol. 1, Reason and the Rationalization of Society. Boston, Beacon Press.
4. Maturana, H. R. and S. Nisis (1997). “Human Awareness: Understanding The Biological Basis Of Knowledge And Love In Education.” The 6th Conference of the International Association for Cognitive Education. Stellenbosch, South Africa. p. 5 (available at
5. White, S. K. (1988). The Recent Work of Jurgen Habermas. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

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