Communicative Action, Tell Your Wife I said ‘Hello’

Jürgen Habermas, a German philosopher and sociologist, has several matured positions related to dialogue processes, including his widely cited Theory of Communicative Action. Habermas is known for combining philosophy with social sciences to explain dialogue processes. His explanations of the actions required to form mutual understandings are pioneering and powerful. They’re considered highly influential in political discourse, public policy and critical thinking. After exploring his theories, I realized why a conversation I had nearly a decade ago stayed so memorable.

Jürgen Habermas

Jürgen Habermas

Habermas, 83, remains involved today in political discourse. He co-published an article for “The Guardian” last August about saving the Eurozone through greater unification. Putting forth a debatable topic, Habermas et al. called for a transfer of sovereignty to end the region’s financial crisis: “(The people of Europe) must pool their resources – if they want to exert any kind of influence on the international political agenda and the solution of global problems.” The UK-based newspaper posted the article on its website, receiving nearly 300 responses in four days. The resulting online discourse combined a mix of emotions; some suggested the commentary offers creative solutions, while others referred to it as senseless propaganda.

His opinions are often provocative, but he’s globally respected. Habermas will receive the Erasmus Prize at a ceremony this fall, according to a press release Jan. 28 by the Praemium Erasmianum Foundation. The annual prize is awarded to people who’ve made an exceptional contribution to culture, society or social science. Laureates are selected based on their proven ability to value the importance of tolerance, cultural collaboration and non-dogmatic critical thinking. The foundation will honor Habermas this year as one of the leading thinkers in the fields of sociology, philosophy and politics. Under the theme “the future of democracy,” it’ll highlight more than 50 years of contributions, emphasizing the importance of his research into dialogue, democracy and human dignity.

Every act of speech that strives for mutual understandings consists of three validity claims: truth, rightness and sincerity.

The philosopher and social scientist says people who seek cooperative reasoning use communication to convey meaning, establish relationships and express opinions. The Theory of Communicative Action, which Habermas first described in 1981 by publishing a two-volume book in German, assumes language is linked to specific actions. Every act of speech that strives for mutual understandings consists of three validity claims: truth, rightness and sincerity. Claims of truth must pass the test of continued discourse, as conversationalists carefully examine evidence. Rightness is tested through discussing what we ought to find acceptable, legitimate and moral. Sincerity is confirmed by probing the actions of those sharing their ideas.

I recognize communication as an active and strategic exchange of ideas. When people sustain verbal interactions under a rational context, as reasonable receivers of new data, they’re allowing a disruption of existing understandings. I also appreciate how an acceptance or blending of ideas requires comfort in the actions the new understanding implies. Mutual appreciation requires a claim to pass the validation test of each participant in the dialogue process. For that reason, an understanding cannot be reached unless claims are open to vibrant exchanges — debate and inquiry. If people cannot collaboratively test the three validity claims articulated by Habermas, they cannot change their understandings. What’s more, when we stop criticizing our own ideas, we suspend our desire to understand.

When people sustain verbal interactions under a rational context, as reasonable receivers of new data, they’re allowing a disruption of existing understandings.

There are many examples of communicative action worthy of citing, especially in the area of politics and religion. I’m reminded of a conversation in 2004, combining both topics.

While living in Qatar, I spent many nights in dialogue with a Yemeni. The tan, slender man wore Arabia’s customary long, white thobes and preserved an untrimmed black beard. His demeanor combined a soldier’s ruggedness with a child-like curiosity. We discussed the differences between American and Arabian cultures. Fuad accommodated my desire to understand Arabic letters and phrases, while I indulged his interest in Western ways of life. I always felt his eagerness to renew our discussions. He trusted my truthfulness, knowing my U.S. citizenship and respecting my prior military service. Validating the rightness of accepting my cultural perspectives was tricky, as it often contradicted his traditional Arab-Muslim values. To mitigate, I never expected him to embody my country’s views. He’d smirk at my critical presentations of American values. Our dialogue continued for more than a month, as he tested my sincerity. He surveyed my authenticity, including my actions to understand his culture, too.

After many nights together, a mutual friend from Texas passed by, greeted us, and then walked away. Exercising his new understandings of U.S. courtesies, Fuad shouted, “tell your wife I said ‘hello.’”

He swiftly paused and turned. Eyebrows raised, he voiced a somber concern: “Was that OK?” I confirmed. “Good,” he said.

“In Yemen, you never tell a man to say ‘hello’ to his wife.”

One thought on “Communicative Action, Tell Your Wife I said ‘Hello’

  1. Pingback: what I do | Ulli Shei

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