Basic Concepts in Habermas’s
Theory of Communicative Action
Habermas begins his construction of the theoretical framework he develops in Theory of Communicative Action with a theory of action. He aims to go beyond standard conceptions of rational action to generate a theory of “communicative action.” In this form of action—or, more properly, interaction—participants pursue their goals either on the basis of an existing consensual understanding or with the aim of developing that kind of understanding (see section 1.1). Habermas sets his concept of communicative action within a concept of society: a concept that, following the phenomenological tradition in philosophy and social theory, Habermas calls society as “lifeworld” (see section 1.2).
Both in Theory of Communicative Action and later in Between Facts and Norms, Habermas takes the notion of the “lifeworld” as the basic conception of society, to be amended or supplemented only for cause. As I suggested in the Introduction, Habermas argues that in the course of social evolution—specifically, with the rise of a capitalist economy and a bureaucratic state—systems of economic and political action develop in which action is coordinated not by consensual understanding by the consequences of self-interested action. I consider in section 1.3 Habermas’s idea of such “systems.” Habermas’s thinking here is inspired by his reading of Talcott Parsons, the preeminent American sociologist from the early 1950s until perhaps the early 1970s. In section 1.4, I consider how Habermas puts the lifeworld and system concepts together in his model of system/lifeworld interchange. This model is the basis of Habermas’s critical theory, from its development in 1981 at least until Habermas revised it in his 1992 work Between Facts and Norms.