Review of Habermas Theory of Communicative Action [Book Review]

Symbolic Interaction 12:333-360 (1989)
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Jürgen Habermas’s two-volume Theory of Communicative Action is at once an attempt to develop a socially-based theory of action as an alternative to the subjectivist and individualist underpinnings of much of social theory, a “two-level concept of society that connects the ‘lifeworld’ and ‘system’ paradigms,” a critical theory of modernity which retains the enlightenment ideal of rationally-grounded societies, and a theory of meaning rooted in a developmental logic of world­historical rationality. Habermas seeks to find a via media between totalitarian closure and relativism, to show why the modernist project of a universal reason is still viable, and to propose a “public” discourse of rationally-grounded argumentative speech, or communicative action, as his answer. Despite the widespread attention Habermas’s work has received, and despite my sympathy for issues Habermas has raised, I show why his project is fundamentally flawed because of its uncritical assumption that only critical rationality can provide a legitimate standard for communicative reason: reasonableness is far more than that constricted view. These flaws become particularly evident in examining his analyses of myth, action, lifeworld, George Herbert Mead, and the “three spheres” of modernity.
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