Universal pragmatics

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Universal pragmatics is a central term in Jürgen Habermas' theory . It was developed by him since the beginning of the 1970s as part of his discourse ethics in dealing with the transcendental pragmatics of Karl-Otto Apels . In his later works, Habermas mostly uses the term “formal pragmatics”. Habermas understands universal pragmatics as a reconstructive science that aims to identify our pre-theoretical knowledge of language and action in harmony with the empirical sciences. It “has the task of identifying and reconstructing universal conditions for possible understanding”.

Speech act theory background

Searle and Austin

The basis of universal pragmatics is the theory of speech acts developed by John L. Austin and John R. Searle . At the center of the theory is the knowledge that speaking is always also action, ie "a rule-based form of behavior". The basic unit of linguistic communication is therefore not a symbol, word or sentence, "but the production of the symbol or word or sentence in the performance of the speech act".

Austin explains that many of the traditional philosophical problems arose from the belief that utterances should either be considered utterances about facts (constative utterances) or not worth analyzing. This has led to neglecting the fact that speaking always means acting at the same time. Austin also calls this “factual fixation” of language analysis a “descriptive fallacy”.

locutionary act illocutionary act perlocutionary act
Destination at Austin / Searle Production of a syntactically and semantically correct utterance Raising a certain understanding in the interlocutor Producing a certain effect on the interlocutor
Habermas terminology ibid .; Content aspect of the statement ibid; illocutionary force; Relationship aspect of the statement -
Assigned mode of action at Habermas all communicative action strategic action

According to Austin, a speech act has the following partial acts:

  • locutionary act: the production of utterances on the articulatory, syntactic and semantic level
  • illocutionary act: the execution of an utterance in its communicative validity (e.g. as a question, request, warning, recommendation, threat)
  • perlocutionary act: achieving the effect of the utterance intended by the speaker and actually achieved by the listener (e.g. convincing, changing mind, annoying, unsettling, offending, comforting).

Habermas adopts Austin terminology in a simplified form and distinguishes between illocutionary and locutionary or content and relationship aspects of statements. The relational aspect of statements is determined by the illocutionary component of a speech act and is therefore responsible for the generative power of speech acts. According to Habermas, this generative power of the illocutive part causes a speech act to succeed or fail at all, since its use attempts to build a relationship between speaker and listener. If this attempt fails, the communication has failed, but if the listener accepts the form of the relationship implied in the illocutive part, the attempt is successful.

The aspect of an utterance, which Austin describes as a perlocutionary act, is treated by Habermas as a specific case of strategic action or, more generally, of teleological action. This generally denotes an action that is oriented towards a purpose or the creation of a desired state. Teleological action becomes strategic action "if the actor's calculation of success can include the expectation of decisions made by at least one other target-oriented actor". Habermas understands a perlocutionary act in such a way that it adds the characteristic of deception to the definition of strategic action: a speaker can only pursue a perlocutionary goal if he deceives the listener about the actual goal of the speech act. For Habermas, the perlocutionary effect is therefore a certain form of purpose-oriented action and can thus be distinguished from illocutionary action, which is not part of strategic action. Habermas describes this counterpart to strategic action as communicative action:

So I count those linguistically mediated interactions in which all participants pursue illocutionary goals with their speech acts, and only those, as communicative acts .

Forms of action

Habermas distinguishes four universal forms of action to which corresponding speech acts and types of rationality are assigned:

  • The teleological action refers to the "objective world" to the "facts". We decide on a certain alternative course of action which appears to us to be the most promising means of achieving certain ends. Success often depends on “other actors”; However, these are “oriented towards their own success” and “only behave cooperatively to the extent that it corresponds to their egocentric benefit calculation”.
  • In norm-regulated action, on the other hand, the actor is related to two worlds: the world of facts and the social world. “A social world consists of a normative context that defines which interactions belong to the totality of legitimate interpersonal relationships”. It includes all actuators "for which the corresponding standards apply" and "by whom they are accepted as valid".
  • The dramaturgical action is based on the actors' self-portrayal. They are “participants in interaction who form an audience for one another, before whose eyes they present themselves”. Habermas does not understand this “self-representation” as a “spontaneous expressive behavior”, but rather as a “viewer-related stylization of the expression of one's own experiences”.
  • Finally, in communicative action , the linguistic dimension gains the decisive weight. It refers to the "interaction of at least two subjects capable of speaking and acting" who are looking for "an understanding of the action situation", "in order to mutually coordinate their plans of action and thus their actions". The communicative action is by no means the "normal case of communicative everyday practice", which makes it difficult to prove it is generally valid. In order to provide this evidence, Habermas tries in the theory of communicative action to “work through the sociological approaches to a theory of social rationalization” from Weber to Parsons.
teleological action norm-regulated action dramaturgical action communicative action
Central concept of action decision Compliance with standards Self-representation interpretation
Speech act constative speech act regulative speech act expressive speech act communicative speech act
Type of rationality cognitive-instrumental rationality moral-practical rationality aesthetic-practical rationality communicative rationality
Validity claim truth accuracy truthfulness Comprehensibility
World reference Objective world Social world Subjective world reflective reference to all three "worlds"
Role of language Influencing other speakers Transmission of cultural values; Consensus building Self-presentation Understanding (consideration of all language functions)
Compared to Kant theoretical reason practical reason aesthetic reason Unity of reason
Sociological concept individualistic program of sociology Action theory by Talcott Parsons ; Role theory Action theory by Erving Goffman Mead ; Garfinkel

Methodological status

Habermas understands universal pragmatics as a "reconstructive science". It focuses on the speaker's implicit, "pre-theoretical" knowledge, which it tries to systematically explicate. Your subject area belongs to the “symbolically structured reality” of the social world and examines its “ deep structure ”. Its goal is the explicit knowledge of the rules and structures, the mastery of which is the basis for the competence of a subject to generate meaningful expressions.

As a reconstructive science, universal pragmatics also works empirically, but its approach differs in important points from the natural sciences. "The relevant data for the formation and verification of reconstructive hypotheses are primarily provided by the current executions and instrospective reports of competent subjects".

The subject's implicit knowledge is usually not directly queryable and has to be justified discursively. It can be made conscious through a “ maeutic questioning method”: “through the choice of suitable examples and counterexamples, through contrast and similarity relations, through translations, paraphrases, etc.”.

Reconstructive theories therefore differ from empirical theories in their relationship to everyday knowledge. While these “can replace the everyday knowledge that we initially have pre-scientific about an object area again and with a correct knowledge that is temporarily regarded as true”, this is not possible with reconstructive theories. A reconstruction proposal can “present the pre-theoretical knowledge more or less explicitly and appropriately, but it can never falsify it. At most the reproduction of the speaker's intuition can prove to be wrong, but not this intuition itself ”.


  • Jürgen Habermas: What does universal pragmatics mean? (1976), in: Preliminary studies and supplements to the theory of communicative action (1984), pp. 353-440
  • Jürgen Habermas: Theory of communicative action (Vol. 1: Action rationality and social rationalization ; Vol. 2: On the critique of functionalist reason ), Frankfurt a. M. 1981. ISBN 3-518-28775-3 .
  • Jürgen Habermas: Discourse Ethics - Notes on a Justification Program , in: Moralconsciousness and communicative action (1983), pp. 53–125
  • Thomas McCarthy: Critique of the mutual understanding. On the theory of Jürgen Habermas , Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt am Main 1989, ISBN 3-518-28382-0 , pp. 309-329


  1. Habermas: What does universal pragmatics mean? , P. 353.
  2. ^ Searle, spoken files , p. 31
  3. ^ Searle, Sprachakte , p. 30
  4. Austin: On the theory of speech acts , p. 27 u. 117
  5. Habermas: Theory of communicative action , Vol. 1, p. 127
  6. Habermas: Theory of communicative action , Vol. 1, p. 396
  7. Cf. Habermas: Theory of communicative action , Vol. I, p. 126 ff.
  8. Habermas: Theory of communicative action , Vol. I, p. 131.
  9. Habermas: Theory of communicative action , Vol. I, p. 132.
  10. Habermas: Theory of communicative action , Vol. I, p. 128.
  11. Habermas: Theory of communicative action , Vol. I, p. 128.
  12. Habermas: Theory of communicative action , Vol. I, pp. 198-200.
  13. See Reese-Schäfer: Jürgen Habermas , p. 53
  14. Cf. Habermas: The new confusion . P. 175
  15. Cf. Habermas: What does universal pragmatics mean? , P. 370
  16. Thomas McCarthy: Critique of the Understanding Relationships , p. 315
  17. Habermas: What does universal pragmatics mean? , P. 376
  18. Habermas: What does universal pragmatics mean? , P. 372f.