Home > Uncategorized > Greg on How We Habermas

Greg on How We Habermas

Dear Shane,

I ended my last post with my favorite quotation from Jürgen Habermas, about how emancipation is only possible within “an already accustomed communicative way of life.”  So now would be a good time, I hope, for me to spell out for the world what you already know, namely how we have adapted Habermas’s thought to the educational enterprise.  Once upon a time we made the disclaimer in writing that we didn’t consider ourselves to be experts in Habermas, a statement that the critics were all over like white on rice.  So, okay, we’re a heckuva lot more expert about H than most people are.  What we were really trying to get at is that Habermas has been wildly prolific for five decades and has produced a body of work comprehensive as only that of a German scholar can be.  Moreover, Habermas has proven himself more willing than any other famous intellectual that I know of to respond to criticism and to change his way of thinking if it has been shown to be in error.  The bottom line is that we draw upon the work that is generally considered Habermas’s most comprehensive, the Theory of Communicative Action, and we employ those insights and conclusions that we regard as most applicable to education:

  1. That human social interaction is, at its most basic and its most extensive, verbal interaction.
  2. That interaction aims primarily at carrying out actions.
  3. That certain conditions apply if interactions are to be both ethically right and practically effective.


  1. Education consists fundamentally of verbal interactions among teachers and students.
  2. Education is oriented almost exclusively toward the action of the student’s learning.
  3. The teacher is responsible for establishing a situation in which participants cooperatively carry out that action.

Beyond his analysis of interpersonal activity, Habermas also recognizes in society another tendency for the mobilization of action, which he terms system.  Abstract, impersonal institutional structures and almost animistic “market forces” pervade government, economy, and culture.  Among the biggest problems facing education today is the conflict of the teacher-student relationship on one hand and the systemic mandates (of curriculum, record-keeping, and teaching practice) of educational bureaucracy on the other.  In this overview I’ll discuss first our adaptation of the Habermasian schema of social interaction and second how teachers and students might negotiate the system-lifeworld duality.  (Or maybe I should suspend that second topic for a later post.)

For Habermas, communication is best understood as the achievement of (to which we add, “rather than merely the attempt to achieve”) mutual understanding.  Thus communication has little to do with the sending and or receiving of messages (or “information”), nor has it much to do with command-hierarchies.  Communication is the outcome, rather than the process, of a verbal interaction oriented toward understanding.  Communication exhibits an odd already, present-perfect status: when two people understand each other, they have (already) communicated.  Nevertheless, despite the oddness that theory leads to, communication is the most practical and natural thing in the world.  Of course, to confuse natural and social categories is strictly forbidden, but the point is that people manifestly can and do reach understanding with each other, and they do so with little training beyond the verbal competence already in place.  On one level, a theory of communicative action must account for what people actually and normally do, that is, communicate, that is, reach understanding with each other.  On another level, the theory should lay out a pathway for improved, more ethical and effective, communication.  Hence, Habermas’s attempt to theorize communication begins with the pragmatics of social interaction: what do people actually and normally do when they reach understanding; it ends up with a critique of social situations and institutions that operate to support or to undercut communication.  (Historico-biographically Habermas’s career begins with questions about The Enlightenment: Schiller’s historical writing, the political effect of the salons in the Eighteenth Century, and so forth.  But the theory of communicative action begins with the practical question of how people go about understanding one another.)  People reach understanding by speaking and listening to one another; they engage in discourse.

No doubt all discourses involve encoding and decoding messages.  And no doubt pre-verbal cues confirm, for example, that a discourse has in fact led to understanding.  But message transmission and extra-verbal signals are subordinated in communicative discourse to the achievement of understanding.  When people want to understand each other they find the means.  Therefore, prescriptions for achieving communicative success are superfluous at best and false or even tyrannical at worst.  On the other hand, participation in verbal exchanges is a skill that can presumably be improved.  Theoretically, each person is competent to enter into discourses oriented toward understanding.  On the other hand, participation in discourse of presumably any kind is a skill that people can get better at—hence our jobs as teachers of English.

When we look at communication pragmatically—what people actually do when they communicate—we must note first of all that any attempt to reach understanding begins with the dual assumptions that the participants want to understand each other and that they employ a mutually intelligible language.  In other words, there’s a kind of consensus that precedes consensus: that both of us want to communicate and that we both share the capacity to communicate in a particular medium, namely that of English or Esperanto or American Sign Language or whatever.  But why would people want to understand one another?  This is actually an absurdly simple question, but in our experience, Shane, many people have great difficulty with it.  Many people are so distracted by the “message-transmission” theory of communication, that they don’t get around to asking why people would go to the trouble of transmitting messages in the first place.  And so people say things like, “I just wanna say,” and “Let me tell you one [damn] thing.”  It’s a rabbinical truism that the good Lord gave us one mouth for talking and two ears for listening.  And yet people are generally more concerned to speak that to hear, which is why rabbis employ that figure: rabbis want to help us become better people.  People want to transmit messages, but it’s a depressing fact of life that you can’t make another person decode a message that you have transmitted.  Thus, John Goodman tries to kill John Turturro in Barton Fink because “You.  Don’t.  Listen.”  Turturro as Barton really doesn’t listen, and that’s terrible, but killing him seems a bit much.  So why the compulsion to speak despite the frustrating fact that you can’t force another person to listen, much less understand?   People apparently believe that speech has the power to make things happen in the world, hence the common practices of spells, incantations, and daily affirmations.  What people forget, or more likely never get so far as thinking, is that words have power only if somebody picks up on them.  If I shout, “Clean your room” in a forest and my teenage daughter isn’t there to hear me, nothing happens in the world.  Ironically, if my daughter hears me shout the same thing from the doorway of her bedroom, still nothing happens.

A slightly more sophisticated theory of communication than the notion that language transmits messages is that the content of those messages is always, at least at some level, in the imperative mood.  So if I say, “Shane, how are you?” I’m supposedly saying “Shane, I hereby command you to give an account of your state of being.”  If I say “Helena is the capital of Montana,” I’m supposedly saying “I hereby command you to accede to the proposition that Helena is the capital of Montana.”  Now, when I shouted “Clean your room” from the doorway, I really was issuing a command, but there’s no reason to assume that command is the essential or fundamental function of language.  More to the point, my command did not make anything happen in the world.  I probably interpret my daughter’s inactivity as bespeaking an attitude such as “I’ll clean my room when I’m good and ready” or “My room doesn’t need cleaning,” or (most likely) “You’re not the boss of me.”  But I don’t really know what motivates her torpor because I haven’t asked her.  I was concerned only to issue a command, not to understand anything about my daughter.  Indeed, I was really concerned only with the outcome of a clean room.  So if we begin with the purely practical question of how I might bring about my daughter’s clean bedroom, we reach the inevitable conclusion that I must either win her cooperation or do it myself.  It would appear that the imperative theory of communication leads to the infantile conception of society as exclusively a system of command and control.

Contrast this dysfunctional moment in my daughter’s and my relationship with the way you and I work, Shane.  At any given moment we already enjoy the consensus that precedes consensus: we’re going to cooperate to achieve short- term (like the presentation we have to give next week), ongoing (like this blog), and long term (like that book we’re going to write) goals.  But if anybody were to ask either of us what it is we do, we wouldn’t answer “achieve goals.”  We would answer, “write.”  We’re co-writers; we write together.  True, many of our verbal interactions have little to do with writing.  We’re friends; we share many interests, in literature, popular culture, and so forth.  And, as is typical among people generally, much of our verbal interaction consists of mere socializing: “How’s it going.  How ‘bout those Falcons.  Sorry about bringing up the Falcons,” and like that.  But gabbing about movies or indulging in ice-breaking chit-chat do not explain the many hours we have put in over the last several years moving from one question, “What do teachers and students do together?” to the next, “What should teachers and students do together?”  That’s what we do as co-writers.  And so, while we do cooperate to achieve goals of various scope, what we do at a more comprehensive level is to read, discuss, and record—that is, we write.  If we cooperate in the action of writing, the goals will take care of themselves.  Now we can answer with confidence the question, “Why to people want to understand one another?”—So that they can coordinate action.

Now let’s return to my daughter and her messy bedroom.  My issuance of a command did not exactly encourage her to announce her objection(s) to the action that I was proposing, er, commanding.  Perhaps if I had employed a different opening gambit, one that acknowledged an already existing consensus, she might have given reasons against cleaning her room instead of silently sulking.  I won’t bore you, Shane, with the reasons I (a notoriously untidy adult) might give in favor of a clean bedroom.  I will instead focus on reconstructing the objections that Lydia (a reasonably tidy teenager) might enunciate had I established with her a more understanding interaction.  She might say, hopefully in terms more polite than these, “I’ll clean my room when I’m good and ready.”  That is, there is a reason in me—my unreadiness—that works against room-cleaning at this time.  Or she might state the claim, “My room doesn’t need cleaning.”  That is, the already-cleanness of my room is an observable fact.  Or, most likely, she might lash out, as Sisyphus never does, against the social order: “You’re not the boss of me.”  That is, our family’s political regime as currently constituted cannot legitimately require the daughter’s acquiescence to this command from the father.  In sum, Lydia might construct arguments along the subjective (in me), objective (observable fact), and social (ethical or at least legitimate) axes of understanding.  And for my part, I can criticize each of these claims.  What is this “readiness” you speak of, and how do you propose to achieve it?  Do the empty soda can and the pile of clothes next to the laundry hamper in fact indicate an already-clean bedroom?  Is Dad’s issuance of a command really illegitimate?  Well, with this last one, she might have a point.  When Lydia was three years old, she required external control to prevent her from running into the street, eating soap, or joining a dinner party naked.  But now that she is old enough to control herself and to recognize the facts of the observable world, she can freely participate in the family’s actions and decisions.  (I can’t remember whether it was Kant or Habermas who said, “In Enlightenment there are only participants.”)  People reach understanding in order to coordinate action, and understanding involves the subjective, the objective, and the social dimensions.

Cleaning a bedroom is a task that is part of the greater action of living together as a family just as preparing a presentation is a task that is part of the great action of co-writing.  Those greater actions grow out of a deep consensus that only a full understanding—that is, of all three dimensions, subjective, objective, and social—can bring about.  Much more needs to be said about sincerity (the subjective dimension), factuality (the objective dimension), and ethics (the social dimension), especially as they relate to the teacher-student relationship, which I haven’t treated at all.  My plan today was to define communication, to describe the why and wherefore of communication, and specify the conditions that necessarily support communication.  I have given the last of these short shrift, but two out of three ain’t bad, I hope you will agree, Shane.  Communication means the achievement of—and not merely the attempt to achieve—mutual understanding.  People communicate in order to coordinate action.  The necessary conditions of communication are sincerity (non-deception),  factuality (non-denial), and ethics (non-coercion, non-instrumentalization).  We need to go into more detail about conditions, and we need to begin relating the theory more practically to the educational enterprise.  We need to discuss how people establish discourses oriented toward understanding and how one person (a teacher, say) initiates such a discourse.  We need to talk about how in the educational system as currently constituted, English teachers initiate a discourse oriented toward understanding discourses oriented toward understanding.  We need to understand and to express our understanding of the relation of the educational enterprise to the educational system.  We need to explore the unexpected implication of our project that communicative education serves as a form of social criticism.  Most of all, we need to create a programmatic treatment of a communicative teaching practice.  We need to get busy.  Wait a minute—we are busy.  Good.  Let’s keep up the good work.



Categories: Uncategorized
  1. October 29, 2013 at 9:40 am

    I seem to have included the following scandalous claim in the foregoing letter: “prescriptions for achieving communicative success are superfluous at best and false or even tyrannical at worst.” Let me try to clarify. To communicate means to achieve mutual understanding. Communication is the achievement of understanding, not the process whereby understanding is achieved. One could say, rather inelegantly, that communication is understanding having been achieved. People achieve understanding with each other through a process that Habermas terms “a discourse oriented toward understanding.” To understand means to understand something, in the subjective world of another person, the objective world of fact, or the social world of interactions. Hence we can say with confidence that for understanding, certain conditions must be in place, namely sincerity (truthful expression of subjectivity, non-deception), factuality (truth in relation to relevance and sufficiency), and ethics (rightness in social interaction, non-instrumentalization). All this is mere description, not prescription. If I lie to you I am both concealing my true intentions and using you as an instrument for my own profit. I’m not concerned with understanding. We may be interacting verbally, but because our discourse is not oriented toward understanding (even if one of us thinks it is), the outcome will not be communication. If in fact I gain the profit that I hope my lie will confer, I may regard our interaction as successful, but it is by definition not a discourse oriented toward understanding.

    There are plenty of books available with titles like How to Close the Sale, How to Pick up Women, and How to Bend Others to the Unconquerable Fountainhead of Your Will. They share the promise of success for one-sided agendas in discourse. But there is nothing more nauseating than a Nietzschean superman in a committee meeting. Lots of people think that the ordinary decencies of honesty and fairness don’t apply to themselves. This is the worst thing on earth. Oppression is the inevitable outcome of self-determined exemption from ethical norms, when such exemption succeeds. And there is at least one universal ethical norm: the obligation of regarding each person as a person, not as an object, an instrument, or an impediment.

    If by “success” we mean an outcome achieved through mutual understanding, that is, by consensus and consent, then a prescription for achieving it is superfluous. People find ways to understand each other. No doubt, a theoretical description of discourse might help people understand discourse better, and indeed this concept is the origin of our communicative education project. We don’t often employ Habermas’s term “ideal speech situation,” and Habermas himself points out that by definition (of ideal) nobody achieves absolute sincerity, factuality, or ethics. But Habermas goes on to say that when people try to understand one another, they have something like the ideal speech situation in mind. The theory of communicative action begins with the attempt to understand what people do when they communicate. It is a pragmatic theory, a theory of practice. You and I, Shane, are trying to bring the theory (with our own pragmatic additions and modifications) back into concrete social interactions in order to improve teaching practice, increase student achievement, and make the world a better place.

    If, however, by success we mean the achievement of one person’s—or one side’s—agenda and to hell with everybody else, then recipes for such success are either falsehoods or the naked tactics of oppression. In the movie Beetlejuice the wicked stepmom says, “You have to take the upper hand in all social situations; otherwise people will walk all over you.” The absurdity, the wickedness, of this claim is obvious. For one thing, many social situations are organized hierarchically—this is one of the unfortunate effects of system—and there’s no way to guarantee that one will be assigned a rank near the top. When we first started are conversations about communicative ed, you, Shane, observed that the teacher-student situation is so organized and that for many people the very word “teacher” expresses connotations of tyranny. So one of our challenges is to establish the teacher-student relationship on a more equitable footing.

    I might as well here address another objection that has occasionally been leveled against our scheme: that communicative education or communicative action generally provide no way to defend against being lied to or being injured in other ways. We say, the participants in discourse must be truthful and they must observe the norms of ethical interaction. And our hearers or readers (some of them) reply, but what if they’re not? People are going to lie; they’re going to do bad things. I want to say, are you? Then remind me never to make plans with you or to invite you to serve on a jury or enter into the most trivial contract with you. The most basic concept in civil law, to say nothing of ethics, is that of good faith—which means simple truthfulness. When do we call a halt to a discourse oriented toward understanding? Well, the person who speaks untruthfully or who acts with nefarious intent never entered into a discourse oriented toward understanding in the first place. That person has violated the terms of the consensus which precedes consensus: that we will coordinate action instead of extracting action from others without their consent. The other participant(s) might or might not catch the perpetrator’s wickedness, but as Alfred Hitchcock once pointed out, people get away with murder sometimes because the perfect crime is the one never discovered. On the other hand, and this is the idealism of the educational enterprise, people manifestly can and do coordinate their actions through understanding.

    And so, while you and I are both eager to get to the practicalities of a communicative teaching practice, we must nevertheless discuss, at the outset and from time to time, the more abstract, theoretical issues of ethics and freedom. It’s bad form for me to put important business in this—what is it?—addendum, and the points I’m making here require more extended treatment. For example, given the infinitude of fact in the world, how do people determine which facts are relevant and sufficient for a given situation? I have tried in the foregoing thumbnail sketch to summarize our adaptation of Habermas. In looking over it I find that summaries require explanation. You may wish to reply, and I hope you do, but as I say, we’re both eager to get to the concrete particulars. I have a proposal for whenever the pouring of that concrete begins. You are quite expert, Shane, in that one-on-one interaction that we in the academic biz call the “teacher-student conference.” It seems promising that if we (by which I mean you) analyze the one-on-one learning situation, we can use that as a model of teacher-student interactions generally.

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