Theory of Communicative Competency
Habermas' Theory of Communicative Competency
Acclaim for Habermas
W. Arthur Frank writes of Jurgen Habermas: “What rings clear and present is Habermas’ reorientation of social theory to the pragmatics of discourse,and of discourse to the ethical issue of how we can come to terms with each other in some form of mutual understanding. In these reorientations he has, I contend, written a masterpiece for and of our time.”
Peter Wilby, in his essay, “Habermas and the Language of the Modern State” (New Society) calls Habermas “one of the intellectual giants of the century.” In their book, Contemporary Perspectives on Rhetoric, authors Foss, Foss and Trapp write: “Jurgen Habermas is the dominant figure on the intellectual scene in Germany today, as he has been for the past decade.”
Foss, Foss and Trapp offer this summary of Habermas’ work : “The overall purpose of Habermas’ work is to develop a theory of society that aims at the self-emancipation of people from domination, and a theory of communication lies at its core.” Two other communication scholars, Burleson and Kline, have offered their view that within Habermas’ theory of communication lies an elemental theory, Habermas’ theory of communicative competency, which, when taken separately from the overall theoretical framework, has by itself significant impact for the field of communication studies. In their essay, “Habermas’ Theory of Communication: A Critical Explication” (QJS 412-28), they offer the following insight on the purpose of critical theories: “Critical theories ultimately aim to aid the members of a society to become more liberated, responsible, and enlightened agents by exposing and overcoming the forms of individual, social and political domination that unduly constrain autonomy of thought and freedom of action.”
Burleson and Kline – A Critical Exposition
Burleson and Kline provide a critical exposition of Habermas’ theory of communicative competency. They suggest that while Habermas’ theory of communicative competency is initially viewed as an “integral element” of a more general framework, it is analytically separable from the larger framework and therefore should be analyzed and evaluated independently.” Furthermore, they believe that Habermas’ theory of communicative competency represents a “significant achievement,” and in their concluding remarks, they offer this observation: “Through the integration of previously unconnected literature, the theory establishes a comprehensive framework for the study of communicative processes and phenomena. Indeed, the scope of Habermas’ theory is such that it has important implications for traditional areas of speech communication scholarship as disparate as rhetorical and communication theory, rhetorical criticism, and argumentation theory.”
Central to Habermas’ theory of communicative competency is the assumption that problematic truth claims and claims to normative appropriateness can be redeemed in discourse . This assumption presumes the “mutual supposition of rational accountability” which Habermas acknowledges is all too often unrealized empirically. Burleson and Kline explain it this way: “Habermas attempts to dissolve the complications created through the supposition of mutual accountability by introducing the concept of systematically distorted communication or theory of deviant communicative competency.” Habermas believes that systematically distorted communication manifests itself at two levels, the individual and the cultural. “When individuals communicate with themselves in a systematically distorted manner; that is, when they unconsciously deceive themselves about themselves, then they suffer from a neurotic disturbance.”
Habermas – Ideologies
Burleson and Kline discuss Habermas’ claim that such neurotic disturbances are the individual prototypes for all ideologies. “Thus, when systematically distorted communication is manifest at the social or cultural level, an ideology emerges.” They explain that at this point Habermas effectively moves to employ and extend Freud’s concept. “At both the individual and social levels systematically distorted communication is generated by the same mechanisms: structural repressions and resistances which remove key semantic contents (meanings, assumptions, validity claims, etc.) from the realm of public communication and critical examination, and at the same time explain or justify these semantic contents as real, true, correct, and necessary.”
To Habermas, then, ideologies not only work on a social level by masking from the population specific information necessary for “self-emancipation from domination,” ideologies also characteristically employ a self-cloaking device which effectively blinds the population to the ideologies’ very existence, thereby avoiding exposure and scrutiny. Burleson and Kline describe this phenomenon as follows: “In Habermas’ view ideologies are belief systems whose foundational assumptions are at once concealed and protected from rational assessment; i.e. from discourse. Ideologies are characterized also by communication structures that prevent discursive inquiry about their foundational semantic contents. These contents and their nature as social constructions are repressed, and ideological communication structures resist their uncovering.” According to the authors, Habermas believes that an ideology provides self-legitimizing mechanisms that secure it as rationally based. “Ideologies both generate and perpetuate inconspicuous power and domination structures that defend the ‘rationality’ of claims which could not be redeemed in otherwise unfettered discourse. Thus, the power of ideologies derives from the erection of institutional communication structures which prevent claims from being discursively examined.”
Ideologies Brought to Conscious Reflection
The authors explain that Habermas further develops his construct of communicative competency, by addressing the need to incorporate in discourse the means by which ideologies and their inconspicuous dominating influence can be brought to conscious reflection. To achieve this aim, Habermas offers a consensus theory of truth which he claims will forestall “the danger of falling into an infinite regress” when attempting to determine the criteria for a rational consensus. A “warranted consensus” is reachable through his concept of the “force of the better argument,” which is achievable through application of the “formal properties of discourse.” Habermas believes that the only motive legitimate in discourse is “that of a cooperative readiness to arrive at an understanding.”
To facilitate arrival at understanding, Habermas incorporates the work of Stephen Toulmin. On this point the authors explain that for Habermas a “rationally motivated consensus” is reachable only when all parties are free to “examine critically the conceptual fields within which the data and warrants of substantial arguments lie.” To achieve this necessitates the freedom to move from a given level of discourse to increasingly reflected levels.”
Thus, it is Habermas’ contention that a consensus is achievable through the force of the better argument, which is produced when communicators are able to “move back and forth between the different levels as often as necessary until the consensus emerges.” Further, because this consensus is possible only when freedom of movement between levels of discourse is guaranteed, Habermas defines the “formal properties of discourse.” These properties constitute the characteristics which define his concept of an “ideal speech situation.”
For a more detailed and faithful representation of Habermas’ concept, I once again hasten to refer the reader to the Burleson and Kline article. In keeping with the constraints of this effort I offer only an abbreviated overview of the essential elements of Habermas’ ideal speech situation and the four levels of abstraction on which, Habermas contends, communication ideally proceeds.
The Ideal Speech Situation
1. All participants must have equal opportunity to initiate and perpetuate discourse, that is, employ communicative speech acts.
2. All participants must have an equal opportunity to put forth assertions, challenges, and explanations, interpretations— in short, to draw upon and utilize constative speech acts. (Insures that the discussion is free from distorting influences stemming from domination, strategic behavior, or self-deception.)
3. This requirement insures the freedom of speakers, and holds that all speakers must have an equal chance of “making their inner nature transparent” through the expression of intentions, attitudes, feelings, and other representative speech acts.
4. Participants must be equal with respect to power; i.e. the selection and implementation of regulative speech acts, those through which actors command, forbid, permit, etc.
Four Levels of Abstraction
1. Validity claims are made the object of critical inquiry.
2. “Warrant-using” arguments are advanced to defend the contested validity claim.
3. Appropriateness of conceptual/linguistic frame of argument is called into question: goals of field, basic methods of inquiry, competing paradigms are examined.
4. Arguers are free to examine systematic alterations in the initially chosen conceptual and linguistic system. The progress of knowledge is scrutinized by reflection of both what should count as knowledge and what role knowledge should play in forming theoretical and practical interests.
Burleson and Kline offer this summary of these requirements for an ideal speech situation: “They insure not only unlimited discussion, but discussion free from the external constraints of systematic distortion or ideology. Further, such conditions guarantee freedom of movement within the levels of communication.
Ideals Speech Situation – A Critical Standard
The authors explain that Habermas readily acknowledges that his concept of the ideal speech situation is rarely, if ever, empirically attained. Habermas believes the ideal speech situation is “neither an empirical phenomenon nor a mere construct, but rather something we must unavoidably reciprocally impute in discourses.” He prefers to think of the ideal speech situation as a prefiguration which anticipates the claim of a rational consensus, and serves at the same time as a “critical standard against which every actually achieved consensus can be brought into question and subsequently examined as to whether it is a sufficient indicator for a warranted consensus.”
Habermas’ theory claims that speakers anticipate the ideal speech situation because it is built into the very structure of intersubjective communication. “Within every act of communication are the suppositions that actors are free to select and employ a communicative act (autonomy) and that actors are able to account for their validity claims in a rational way (responsibility).” The authors explain: “Because the ideal speech situation rests on the interrelated values of truth, freedom, and justice, and because the ideal speech situation is implied in every act of intersubjective communication, the theory of communicative competency uncovers a set of a priori normative standards. A substantive normative structure is prefigured by the nature of communicative action itself. Every act of communication—and thus the possibility of social life—necessarily presuppose the responsibility and autonomy of human actors.”
Burleson and Kline interpret Habermas as claiming that not only are responsibility and autonomy presupposed in every act of communication, but “in the very possibility of human community.” They suggest here that the human interest in and striving for freedom from domination comprise a “universal constitutive feature” of human existence. Thus, reason “obeys an emancipatory, cognitive interest, which aims at the pursuit of reflection.” At this point I turn to an application of Habermas’ theories.
Ideal Speech Situation as Critical Tool in Discourse Analysis
Habermas further explains that in the first two levels of abstraction the communicators are free to: (1) make validity claims the “object of critical inquiry,” and (2) advance “warrant-using” assignments to defend the contested validity. It is at the third and fourth levels of abstraction that Habermas’ analytical perspective produces a significant insight and perhaps eventually even produces the promise of the social emancipation he forecasts in his theory. At the third level of abstraction the participants are free to examine the appropriateness of the “conceptual/linguistic frame of argument.” A simple application of this perspective encourages us to focus on the appropriateness of the term “smoking” itself, and investigate the conceptual field which produced this reference. We are free to ask: is the term smoke appropriately conceived or is it a misconception?
Pre-Scientific Conceptual Field v. Scientific Conceptual Field
The word “smoke” as it applies to tobacco use traces back to the 1500’s (World Health 4). Its conceptual field is the 16th century, so now the historical significance of this term’s evolution can be examined by constructing a continuum extending from circa 1560 to the present. The historical life of the tobacco controversy can be plotted on the continuum, and arbitrarily subdivided into two distinct periods: (1) the pre-scientific era corresponding to that period of time previous to any concerted, global scientific effort to study the health consequences of smoking, and (2) the scientific era corresponding to the time period during which a concerted, global scientific investigation of the health consequences of smoking was conducted. While this could be as early as the 1964 Report of the U.S. Surgeon General Terry (Time, March 8, 1982) which concluded that cigarette smoking was the primary cause of lung cancer in men and probably in women, I am arbitrarily using the timeframe 1955-1988. This continuum can be used to locate the conceptual fields which produced the significant terms used in the discourse and also determine whether or not these terms are appropriately conceived given the progress of knowledge. (See short video in appendix.)
Habermas’ fourth level of abstraction specifies examination of systematic alterations in the initially chosen conceptual linguistic system. This abstraction accounts for the progress of knowledge and scrutinizes this progress by reflection of both what should count as knowledge and what role knowledge should play in forming theoretical and practical interests. From this perspective one can explore for any systematic alteration in the original 16th century conceptual field which produced the term smoke. One is free to ask: what is semantically true about the word smoke that may: (1) work to unconsciously support an unsuspected distortion, and (2) simultaneously work to repress potentially crucial, missing key semantic contents necessary to produce consensus?
The etymology and definition of “smoke” (Webster’s, 2007) clearly establishes the word as a symbol for a visual phenomenon, identifiable in the external landscape and by implication an external referent taking place outside the body. The linguistic appropriation of a 16th century term which historically promotes external referencing as a modern symbol for an internal phenomenon is at best anachronistic; at worst this outdated usage is the evidence of a misconception which inconspicuously functions to perpetuate a lethal ideology.
Those descriptors which find their roots in the 16th century pre-scientific conceptual field (and thus promote external referencing) automatically generate semantic distortion. For example: The terms tobacco, smoke, smoking, puff, cigarette, cigar are misnomers and as such have no factual correspondence to the abusive event that takes place inside the lungs where poisonous particles and gases initiate on contact physical disease.
If communicators employ an external reference to discuss an essentially internal event, then a more immediate problem exists in that when communicators think they are talking about the problem, they are, in fact, not talking about the problem at all. The problem thus becomes semantogenic (Communication Handbook, 1986): “Caused by semantics or labels; used most widely in reference to a problem or disorder whose origin may be found in the labels assigned to it.”
Internal References v External References
The scientific investigation of the health consequences of “smoking” correctly locates the problem inside the body. A spectroanalysis of tobacco smoke reveals some 4,000 constituents (Koop, 1987) including significant amounts of poisonous and cancer causing particles and gases. Koop reports that nicotine is the drug in tobacco that causes an addiction as serious as heroin and cocaine (Nicotine Addiction, 1988, p.i). And, while nicotine addiction has been determined to cause diseases (i.e., lung cancer, respiratory and cardiovascular diseases) addictions, themselves, are now being reconceptualized as “disease addictions” (The Addictions 145-50), and diseases of substance abuse. Anne Wilson Schaef and Diane Fassel (Addictive Organization 95) offer this definition: “An addict is a person who is powerless over a substance or a process in his or her life to the point that progressive immersion in the addiction will lead to death.”
Koop characterized the scientific investigation of tobacco in his February 17, 1987 address: “Over the past 30 years biomedical researchers, physicians, and public health professionals from more than 80 countries have generated more than 50,000 studies on smoking and health. About 2,000 more are added each years. It’s an embarrassment of riches.”
This enormous scientific effort offers a significantly fertile conceptual field from which to draw terms that more factually represent the internal consequences from sustained exposure to poisonous, addictive, diseasing and lethal tobacco smoke. An argument can be warranted for invoking a process of post-scientific re-identification to determine employment of scientifically correct physical event descriptors to accurately state the central issue at controversy. Thus, in Habermas’ ideal speech situation the discourse would, by redefinition, focus on the question of the health consequences resulting from sustained exposure of the lungs and other internal organs to addictive, poisonous, diseasing and lethal tobacco smoke. The discourse is thus reframed to honor the progress of knowledge. Internal referencing descriptors are correctly employed to explain the diseasing attack on the body’s internal physical integrity whether or not all communicators agree with these appropriately conceived terms. Calling the world flat did not physically alter its actual roundness. It did, however, alter how humans conceived it to be in their cognitive processes.
From Burleson and Kline we know that Habermas believes that an ideology emerges when systematically distorted communication is manifest at a social level. The ideology in question here, one which promotes inconspicuous external referencing, appears to fit with and extend Thomas Kuhn’s concept of a paradigm. The shift from external to internal referencing is paradigmatic in the sense that it requires a revolutionary way of thinking about the problem. This revolutionary approach to the issue is essentially a cognitive restructuring of the issue’s initial conception. This cognitive restructuring, or reframing, requires a sustained conscious effort to avoid unconsciously re-engaging the previously undetected ideological communication structures which so effectively repressed key semantic connections.
This paradigm shift is essentially a shift in the perceiver’s worldview. The translation to this new worldview includes the conscious admission that the act of smoking tobacco comprehensively translates to the harmful act of diseasing the lungs with poisonous, cancer-causing particles and gases. The incorporation of semantically correct terms into broad cultural language use becomes the present challenge. Employment of scientifically correct physical event descriptors is essential to more effectively educate the community at large. It seems that the internal event descriptors — poisonous, addictive, diseasing and lethal – are more likely to promote the mental sets necessary to automatically generate vivid images which correctly represent and caution against an internal diseasing attack which does both immediate and long-lasting damage to the lungs.
Ideal Speech Situation Applied
While the pre-scientific, ideologically driven and unconscious identification process inconspicuously mislabeled Reynolds as a tobacco company, the progress of scientifically acquired knowledge requires a concrete re-identification to promote full disclosure on the actual physical hazards of poisonous, addictive, lethal, tobacco. The Reynolds Company wants its customers to heat up poisonous, addictive particles and gases and suck this diseasing, lethal concoction into their lungs. Should we not brand this company correctly as the Reynolds poisonous, addictive, lethal, diseasing tobacco company?
This new internal referencing paradigm allows for the reformulation of the discourse. With the application of scientifically established internal event descriptors, the discourse can be effectively updated to allow for the progress of knowledge.
Litmus Test Essential
In 1987, U.S. Surgeon General Koop claimed there was “nothing vague” about the stronger warnings then required on cigarette packages. As an example, he cites the warning, “Pregnant women who smoke risk fetal injury and premature birth.” Yet, when replacing the external term smoke with scientifically established internal event descriptors, the previous undetected vagueness becomes obvious: Pregnant women who suck poisonous, addictive, cancer-causing particles and gases into their lungs 200 to 400 times a day risk fetal injury and premature birth. This reframed warning now articulates a worldview which more factually represents the physically harmful event. The conscious employment of scientific evidence forces communicators to expand their worldview to include the real life location of the physically harmful act. It also simultaneously forces conscious consideration of the inescapable harmful consequences that extend from this purposeful and preventable diseasing, lethal behavior.
At this point full disclosure on the physically harmful consequences becomes an effective litmus test. A standard requiring the universal employment of internal event descriptors — poisonous, addictive, diseasing and lethal — acts as a remedial measure for persistent denial. Any effort to use external references focuses attention away from the actual poisonous attack on the body and denies information essential for adequate warning. And the use of external event descriptors — i.e., smoke, cigarette, tobacco – is correctly relegated to the sole purpose of subject identification.
Application of Internal Event Descriptors - - Reframing the Discourse
“Tobacco use is the single most preventable cause of death and disease in the United States. An estimated 45 million American adults currently smoke cigarettes. Smoking harms nearly every organ in the body and half of all long-term smokers die prematurely from smoking-related disease. All tobacco, including smokeless tobacco and cigars, cause cancer, and all forms of tobacco are addictive. Secondhand smoke causes premature death and disease in children and adults who do not smoke. There is no risk-free level of exposure to secondhand smoke.”
When reframed to employ internal event descriptors, the above paragraph might more effectively read as follows:
Poisonous, addictive, diseasing, lethal tobacco use is the single most preventable cause of death and disease in the United States. An estimated 45 million American adults currently heat up poisonous, addictive, diseasing particles and gases and suck this lethal smoke into their lungs 200 to 400 times every day. Sucking these poisonous, diseasing particles and gases into the lungs harms nearly every organ in the body and half of all long-term poison suckers die prematurely from addictive poison-sucking related diseases. All poisonous, addictive tobacco products cause cancer. Secondhand poisonous smoke causes premature death and disease in children and adults exposed to ambient poisonous tobacco smoke emitted by addicted poison suckers. There is no risk-free level of exposure to secondhand poisonous, addictive, diseasing, lethal tobacco smoke.
Resistance is the Wall of the Box
Resistance to applying internal event descriptors is both natural and expected. It helps if we imagine being inside the box we’re trying to think outside of. The resistance we experience is the wall of the box. The job is to push through the wall, thus breaking through the resistance which keeps us locked in past behavior.
We can also take some solace and encouragement from Daniel Webster who reminds us that “In time, all terms are redefined,” and from Dorothy L. Sayers, who cautions that, “The only crime against science is to misrepresent the evidence.”