Theory of communicative action

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The theory of communicative action (abbreviated as TkH , TKH , TCA and TdkH ), the main work of Jürgen Habermas , addresses the practical and theory-critical importance of communicative action for the social life of (post-) modern society.



The work, first published in 1981, starts with mythical worldviews, problematizes the understanding of meaning and examines forms of rationalization . With strong references to Talcott Parsons , Thomas A. McCarthy and Niklas Luhmann, it contains an interpretation of modern communication theory that is critical of the validity of the theory ; with multiple references to Immanuel Kant , Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and Ludwig Wittgenstein , it presents the founding function of communicative reason and thus represents a thesis on theoretical solution not only of questions of truth and truthfulness , but also of normative questions of justice . It has been referred to as Habermas' "main work" since the 1980s, both in the press and in the broad spectrum of specialist literature. It is divided into two volumes:

Volume I.
Rationality of action and social rationalization

I. Introduction: Approaches to the problem of rationality

II. Max Weber's theory of rationalization

III. First interim observation: social action, purpose and communication

IV. From Lukács to Adorno : Rationalization as Reification

Volume II
On the critique of functionalist reason

V. The paradigm shift at Mead and Durkheim : From purposeful activity to communicative action

VI. Second intermediate consideration: system and lifeworld

VII. Talcott Parsons: Construction Problems of Social Theory

VIII. Conclusion: From Parsons to Weber and Marx .


Communicative action

The title of the work provides an operational and emphatically linguistic basic concept.

"The basic concept of communicative action opens up access to three complexes of topics that are interlinked: the concept of communicative rationality , a two-stage social concept that links the paradigms of action and system , and a theoretical approach that addresses the paradoxes of modernity with the help of a Subordination of the communicatively structured lifeworld to the imperative, independent, formally organized systems of action explained. "

- Habermas : theory of communicative action
Modern society

Communicative action is thus the fundamental concept of reproduction in all societies . These should be understood as a system and as a lifeworld . In the modern age , the systems of action would differentiate themselves through lifeworlds. The social-pathological consequences, for example in the economy and bureaucracy, would be coordinated and dealt with by communicative rationality . This overall draft of a social theory, to which Niklas Luhmann created a communication-oriented counter-draft three years later with Social Systems (1984), is one of the large, modern overall drafts for the systematic recording of (post-) modern society dealt with in the theory of communicative action .

Theory core

According to Habermas, “communicative action” is a type of action in order to be able to coordinate actions between conversation partners. In his opinion, the normative foundations of society lie in language , which, as an interpersonal means of communication, makes social interaction possible. Through communication , actors try to relate to one another in an understanding-oriented manner, in that people who are capable of speaking and acting coordinate their actions. The communicative rationality assumed in language forms the basis of social action.

According to Habermas, understanding is only achieved when every listener can agree to all validity claims of a statement. Otherwise, the validity claims would then have to be clarified in the discourse. According to Habermas, there are four validity claims to be fulfilled, each relating to four types of action. When acting on the opposite, the level of purposeful action is affected.

  • What is required is the validity of objective truth , because the point of reference is the "objective world" (world of equipment with its regularities). The alleged facts must be correct.
  • Norm-regulated action in turn relates to the world of human community, in which cultural values ​​are passed on, the social world (world of solidarity). For statements in this regard, the validity claim of normative correctness must be fulfilled. What is said must be in accordance with recognized values ​​and standards.
  • The validity claim of truthfulness is subjective in nature, embedded in the dramaturgical action of self-staging. It is required that the respective speaker is honest.
  • The communicative action is used for comprehensibility . The meaning of a statement must be understood by all interlocutors.

Habermas derives the validity claims from his universal pragmatics . According to Habermas, the results of communication free of domination that come about solely on the basis of these validity claims are optimally rational. For Habermas, these four validity claims correspond and overlap with the concept of intersubjective truth . Intersubjective truth means, however, that every theoretically possible participant in the discourse could agree to the statement ( proposition ). The optimal discourse is reflected in the ideal speech act situation. The speech act situation would be ideal if there is no distortion of communication, that is:

  1. equal opportunities for dialogue initiation and participation,
  2. equal opportunities for interpretation and argumentation quality,
  3. Sovereignty, as well
  4. no deception of the speech intentions.

Put simply, it can be said: A statement corresponds to communicative action if it is understandable, true, truthful and correct. If doubts remain, the statement must be clarified in the discourse.

These transcendentally pragmatic conditions enable understanding and a sensible discourse. Habermas knows that the ideal speech act situation does not exist in reality. However, he argues that we must make this idealization at least implicitly before any discourse . Only in this way can the “peculiarly informal compulsion of the better argument” come about. Communicative action then results from this communicative reason and organization of actions .

Habermas responds to his two predecessors Adorno and Max Horkheimer with this approach . He, too, offers a theory claiming Critical Theory to justify normativity, but it is intended to refute its pessimistic conclusion that man, using his reason, has failed to build a human world, which is why reason is a blunt sword. According to Habermas, the individual person is not naturally gifted with reason (cf. the philosophy of subjectivity and the philosophy of consciousness ), but instead he sees communication between people as a possible source of reason, especially that in the form of language (cf. the philosophy of intersubjectivity ). However, communication only works if it organizes its processes in a rational manner. This in turn means that the participants in the speech act have to forego trying to achieve effects in the sense of perlocutive speech acts, as long as what they are communicating should also remain justifiable and open to criticism .



Various critics accuse the theory of communicative action that it is based on false basic assumptions, that it is inadequate in terms of communication theory and that it cannot be put into practice. The first lasting criticism, which at the same time articulates the strengths of the theory of communicative action , was made by Herbert Schnädelbach (1982). Several experts refer to its “critique advanced”: Admittedly, reference is still made to the communicative rationality demonstrated by the theory of communicative action , but the preconceptions of those who describe and evaluate reasons would prevent an internally deducible connection, so that also for Answers to “practical questions” found argumentatively by consensus remain an “a priori that can never be completely objectified ”.

Niklas Luhmann, on the other hand, sees both rationality and human actions as unsuitable for grasping the decisive processes in society. Without questioning the communication paradigm, what Luhmann and Schnädelbach have in common is that their criticism relativizes Habermas' concerns about normative justifiability. Other protagonists with further relativizations were Hans Albert , Karl-Otto Apel and Jean-François Lyotard .


The work was honored, among other things, within the scope of the Kyoto Prize and the Holberg Prize , which Jürgen Habermas accepted. It influenced theoretical discussions around the world. It has been translated, commented on and criticized in numerous languages.

Further development

Influential changes and further developments of Habermas' main work include his works Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action (1983), Facticity and Validity. Contributions to the discourse theory of law and the democratic constitutional state (1992) and communicative action and detranscendentalized reason (2001).


Original sources

the work
  • Theory of communicative action. (Vol. 1: Action rationality and social rationalization, Vol. 2: On the critique of functionalist reason), Frankfurt am Main 1981. ISBN 3-518-28775-3 .
his further development with Jürgen Habermas
  • Moral awareness and communicative action. Frankfurt am Main 1983, ISBN 978-3518280225 .
  • Preliminary studies and additions to the theory of communicative action. Frankfurt am Main 1984, ISBN 978-3518287767 .
  • Factuality and effectiveness. Contributions to the discourse theory of law and the democratic constitutional state. Frankfurt am Main 1992, ISBN 3-518-28961-6 .
  • Truth and justification. Philosophical essays. Frankfurt am Main 1999, ISBN 978-3518293232 .
  • Communicative action and detranscendentalized reason. Stuttgart 2001, ISBN 3-15-018164-X .

Secondary sources

  • Andreas Dorschel: Types of action and criteria. On Habermas' "Theory of Communicative Action". In: Journal for philosophical research 44 (1990), no. 2, pp. 220-252.
  • Andreas Hetzel: Interpretation. Jürgen Habermas: Theory of communicative action. In: interpretations. Major works of social philosophy. Reclam, 2001, ISBN 3-15-018114-3 , pp. 249-266.
  • Axel Honneth , Hans Joas (ed.): Communicative action. Contributions to Jürgen Habermas' »Theory of Communicative Action«. Frankfurt am Main 1996, ISBN 978-3518282250 .
  • Walther Müller-Jentsch : Theory of communicative action . In Günter Endruweit / Gisela Trommsdorff / Nicole Burzan (Hrsg.): Dictionary of Sociology . 3. Edition. UKV, Konstanz 2014, pp. 551–557.
  • Herbert Schnädelbach : Transformation of Critical Theory. On Jürgen Habermas' theory of communicative action. In: Philosophische Rundschau 1982
Reprint: Reason and History. Lectures and papers. In: Philosophical Review. Frankfurt am Main 1987, ISBN 3-518-28283-2 .
  • Uwe Steinhoff: Critique of communicative rationality. A presentation and criticism of the philosophy of communication theory by Jürgen Habermas and Karl-Otto Apel. Paderborn 2006, ISBN 3-89785-473-2 .
see also

Individual evidence

  1. Herbert Keuth: Knowledge or Decision. On the critique of critical theory. Mohr, Tübingen 1993, ISBN 3-16-146096-0 , pp. 324-344.
  2. a b Herbert Schnädelbach: Transformation of the critical theory. On Jürgen Habermas' theory of communicative action. Philosophische Rundschau 1982, reprinted In: Vernunft und Geschichte. 1987; English: The Transformation of Critical Theory: Jürgen Habermas 'The Theory of Communicative Action'. in A. Honneth, H. Joas (ed.): Communicative Action: Essays on Jürgen Habermas' 'The Theory of Communicative Action'. J. Gaines, D. Jones (trans.), Polity, Cambridge 1991.
  3. ^ So Thomas A. McCarthy, 1984 a. 1987.
  4. Jürgen Habermas: Theory of communicative action. Vol. I, p. 40.