Universal Pragmatics

In Communication and Evolution of Society Jurgen Habernas distinguishes between linguistic analysis concerned with sentences and pragmatic analysis concerned with utterances or “speech acts.” For Habernas, linguistically oriented theories of meaning do not put sufficient emphasis on the pragmatic dimension; as he explains, “the use theory of meaning developed from the work of Wittgenstein has shown that the meaning of linguistic expressions can be identified only with reference to situations of possible employment” (Habernas, 30). For Habernas, a sentence on its own can be analyzed linguistically but as soon as it is uttered it enters into relations with reality and is therefore subject to specific conditions of validity. As Habernas explains, “a consistent analysis of meaning is not possible without reference to some situations of possible use” (Habernas, 46).  While acknowledging that grammatical correctness is a prerequisite for intelligibility, Habernas’ hermeneutics emphasize the specific dynamics associated with the situations of possible use of grammatical formations.

In a general sense, the goal of reconstructive language analysis (or universal pragmatics) “is an explicit description of the rules that a competent speaker must master in order to form grammatical sentences and to utter them in an acceptable way” (Habernas, 26). Habernas uses an approach similar to linguistic analysis to produce a general theory of speech actions; that is to say he develops a system of rules for the successful employment of sentences in utterances. As Habernas explains, “the production of sentences according to the rules of grammar is something other than the use of sentences in accordance with pragmatic rules that shape the infrastructure of speech situations in general” (Habernas, 27). The condition of validity of a grammatical sentence is that it should obey the established rules of grammar and should therefore be comprehensible, but the meaning of the sentence once it is uttered or expressed takes on a whole new form. A successful utterance is not merely a grammatically correct sentence; it is the expression of a pragmatic function with several other claims to validity. As Habernas explains, “whereas a grammatical sentence fulfills the claim to comprehensibility, a successful utterance must satisfy three additional validity claims: it must count as true for the participants insofar as it represents something in the world; it must count as truthful insofar as it expresses something intended by the speaker; and it must count as right insofar as it conforms to socially recognized expectations” (Habernas, 28). The first validity claim, “truth,” has to do with the hearer’s belief that the speaker is saying is actually true. Therefore, when the hearer questions the truth of the speaker’s utterance, the relation to reality represented by this claim is broken. The second validity claim, “truthfulness,” is the hearer’s belief that what the speaker is saying corresponds to what the speaker is intending to say. If the speaker’s communicative abilities are such that one may question whether or not the speech act aligns with the reality of the intended thought behind it, then the second validity claim is not met. Finally, the third validity claim, “rightness,” has to do with the sharing of values between speaker and hearer. For Habernas, successful communication establishes a legitimate interpersonal relationship between the speaker and the hearer; for this to occur, the speaker’s utterance must align with the hearer’s self-image. If the utterance offends the hearer’s value system, such as may be the case for instance when two individuals from separate religious backgrounds discuss matters of faith, the speech act does not relate to the hearer’s normative context and is therefore not validated by the hearer as something which relates to reality.

Universal-pragmatic analysis measures the fulfillment of the three general pragmatic functions described above – representation, expression, and establishing legitimate interpersonal relations – against the validity conditions of truth, truthfulness, and rightness. For Habernas, these are the criteria according to which we may assess the communicative competence of the speaker and the communicative successfulness of a speech action. It is by way of the evaluation of these general pragmatic functions that we may perform an analysis of the meaning of sentences as speech acts; it is how we evolve from linguistics (rules for generating sentences) to pragmatics (rules for using sentences in utterances).


Works cited:

Habermas, J. (1979). Communication and the evolution of society. Boston: Beacon Press.


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