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The Theory of Communicative Action, Volume 1: Reason and the Rationalization of Society Paperback – March 1, 1985
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"A substantial study that displays all the rigour and systemicity, the vision and the originality, which have justly earned Habermas the reputation of being the foremost social and political thinker in Germany today ... The Theory of Communicative Action represents a major contribution to contemporary social theory. Not only does it provide a compelling critique of some of the main perspectives in twentieth-century philosophy and social science, but it also presents a systematic synthesis of the many themes that have preoccupied Habermas for thirty years." – Times Literary Supplement
"One of the broadest, most comprehensive, elaborately and intensely theoretical works in social theory. Social theory and philosophy may never be the same again" – Philosophy and Social Criticism
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He wrote in the Preface to this 1981 book, "More than a decade ago... I held out the prospect of a theory of communicative action... The theory of communicative action is not a metatheory but the beginning of a social theory concerned to validate its own critical standards. I do not conceive of my analysis of the general structures of action oriented to reaching understanding as a continuation of the theory of knowledge with other means... the theory of communicative action is intended to make possible the conceptualization of the social-life concept that it tailored to the paradoxes of modernity." (Pg. xli-xlii) He adds, "I have written this book for those who have a professional interest in the foundations of social theory." (Pg. xliv)
He outlines, "I shall first inquire into the conditions that the structures of action-orienting worldviews must satisfy if a rational conduct of life is to be possible for those who share such a worldview. This way of proceeding... forces us to turn from conceptual to empirical analysis and to seek out the rationality structures embodies in worldviews; and... it keeps us from supposing without further ado that the rationality structures specific to the modern understanding of the world are generally valid and forces us instead to consider them in an historical perspective." (Pg. 44) He suggests, "A complementary error of modernity is the UTOPIANISM which thinks it possible to derive the `ideal of a completely rational form of life' directly from the concepts of a decentered world understanding and of procedural rationality." (Pg. 73)
He clarifies, "the communicative model of action does not equate action with communication. Language is a medium of communication that serves understanding, whereas actors, in coming to an understanding with one another so as to coordinate their actions, pursue their particular aims. In this respect the teleological structure is fundamental to ALL concepts of action." (Pg. 101)
He observes, "modern structures of consciousness emerged from the universal-historical process of worldview rationalization, that is, from the disenchantment of religious-metaphysical worldviews. These structures were present in a certain way at the level of cultural tradition; but in the feudal society of the European High Middle Ages they penetrated only a relatively small carrier stratum of religious virtuosos, partly within the Church, above all in monastic orders, and later also in the universities. The structures of consciousness locked up in the cloisters needed to be implemented in broader strata before the new ideas could bind, reorient, permeate social interests, and rationalize the profane orders of life." (Pg. 220)
He summarizes, "It is only at this stage of development that modern structures of consciousness can be embodied in a legal system... which is distinguished primarily by three formal properties; positivity, legalism, and formality. POSITIVITY: Modern law ... expresses the will of a sovereign lawgiver who regulates social states of affairs conventionally with juridical means of organization. LEGALISM: ... modern law does not attribute to legal subjects any moral motives... It is ... behavior deviating from norms (presupposing accountability and guilt). FORMALITY: Modern law defines domains in which private individuals may legitimately exercise free choice... In this domain, anything that is not legally forbidden is allowed." (Pg. 259)
He states, "For a theory of communicative action only those analytic theories of meaning are instructive that start from the structure of linguistic expressions rather than from speakers' intentions. And the theory will have to keep in view the problem of how the actions of several actors are linked to one another by means of the mechanism of reaching understanding..." (Pg. 274) Later, he adds, "I shall speak of COMMUNICATIVE action whenever the actions of the agents involved are coordinated not through egocentric calculations of success but through acts of reaching understanding. In communicative action participants are not primarily oriented to their own individual successes; they pursue their individual goals under the condition that they can harmonize their plans of action on the basis of common situation definitions. In this respect the negotiation of definitions of the situation is an essential element of the interpretive accomplishments required for communicative action." (Pg. 285-286)
This 2-book series is important reading for anyone studying Habermas or the Frankfurt School.
The sociologist being cross-examined in this volume is Max Weber, whose influence on critical social theory was direct (in the form of his friendship with Georg Lukacs before he went communist) and widespread due to the world-historical sweep of his scholarship and the philosophical acuity of his typology of action. Habermas starts with Weber's famous distinction between "purposive rationality" and "value rationality", and then expands the catalogue of rational justifications for individual actions and social institutions with two more: "dramaturgical" rationality, personified by Erving Goffman and his famous studies of the "presentation of self in everyday life", and finally "communicative rationality" -- Habermas's candidate for an all-encompassing form of rational justification. He sees his focus on unforced coming to agreement as a human activity foreshadowed in George Herbert Mead's "taking the attitude of the other", and the expansion of the concept of rationality found in Anglo-American analytic philosophers like Stephen Toulmin and Peter Winch, along with the speech-act theory of the younger John Searle, is applied to sharply delineate this category.
Younger people with a couple of books by Hardt and Negri may find the social critique in Habermas, who once called himself "the last historical materialist", unbearably tepid: but he has seen the worst of the worst in his lifetime, and remained at this time intent on avoiding the mistakes of those he called "left fascists" in the '60s (often such people lapsed into the merest liberalism a few years later and cursed anyone still seeing a value in the works of Marx or any other "sanguinary" socialist). As a systematic work of social theory this has not been surpassed.