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Summary of the Theory of Communicative Action by Stefan Szczelkun,
Royal College of Art
LONDON
Copyright to this particular arrangement and interpretation
by Stefan Szczelkun: October 1999, with permission to Dear Habermas to publish.

A summary of Vol.1, Reason and the Rationalisation of Society

Jurgen Habermas 1981

This is a summary exposition of Habermas's argument that closely follows the linear sequence of his argument through the two volumes. It is of course a selective interpretation of what I judge are his key points. Page numbers given refer to the Polity Press paperback edition of 1986.

Rationality, Argument and Understanding

The study of reason has traditionally belonged to philosophy which can itself be defined as 'explicating reason's experience of itself'. However reason is difficult to define any more than saying that it is 'thinking codified in language'. (crit 1)

Referring to Richard Rorty (1967 &79) Habermas agrees with the typical postmodernist position that: a philosophical world view has become untenable and that there can no longer be a totalising knowledge. However this does not imply that a 'theory of rationality' could not be universal.

As the search for ultimate foundations by 'first philosophy' has now broken down, this must be a pragmatic theory with a relation to science and social science. Any universalist claims can only be validated by testing against counter examples in historical (and geographical) contexts - not by using transcendental ontological assumptions. Our definition of rationality in the scientific mode may now be redefined as thinking that is ready to submit to criticism and systematic examination as an ongoing process. A broader definition is that rationality is a disposition expressed in behaviour for which there are good reasons.

Another limited form of rationality is the defence of an action by relating it to a subjective preference. This sort of rational may be sufficient until wider consequences come into view.

As Weber points out there is rationalisation performed on representations with abstract concepts and on the other hand there is the practical goal attained by 'precise calculations of adequate means'. p.168) [crit 2. ]

He is now ready to make a preliminary definition of the process of communicative rationality: This is communication that is "oriented to achieving, sustaining and reviewing consensus - and indeed a consensus that rests on the intersubjective recognition of criticisable validity claims". p.17 With this key definition he shifts the emphasis in our concept of rationality from the conceptual to the social. This shift is fundamental to the theory of communicative action. It is based on assumptions about "the implicitly shared and imminent rationality of speech.."

Argument is central to the rationality process

Contested validity claims are thematised and attempts are then made to vindicate or criticise them in a systematic and rigorous way. In our society difficult or controversial claims are submitted to specialist theoretical discourses (eg. legal procedure, academics debate, journalistic investigation). There are also 'practical discourses' in which claims to normative rightness are made thematic and tested. [crit 3]

Such processes rely on rational participants: "We call a person rational who interprets the nature of his desires and feelings in the light of culturally established standards of value, but especially if he can adopt a reflective attitude to the very value standards through which desires and feelings are interpreted." p.20 Such a person also needs to be 'free from illusions' and self deceptions.

Communicative action also presupposes that actors are capable of mutual criticism. ...

Variations of argument to be included within the rational set are:- the aesthetic, the therapeutic, the explicative.

  1. The aesthetic discourse works by the critics arguments bringing us to see the work or performance which itself demonstrates a value. "A work validated through aesthetic experience can then in turn take the place of an argument and promote the acceptance of precisely those standards according to which it counts as an authentic work." p 20. Aesthetic arguments may then be less conclusive than practical or theoretical discourse... and depend for their force on the consensus achieved. [crit 4]

  2. The therapeutic discourse is that which serves to clarify systematic self deception. We call a person rational "who is both willing and able to free himself from illusions, and indeed from illusions that are based not on errors (about facts) but on self deceptions ..." p.21

    Such self deceptions typically arise from developmental experiences which have left certain rigidities of behaviour or value judgement. These rigidities do not allow flexible responses to present time exigencies.

  3. he explicative focuses on the very means of reaching understanding the means of expression. "We call a person rational if he is ready to come to an understanding and reacts to disturbances by reflecting on linguistic rules." p.21

Three aspects of argumentative speech which can produce valid results:

  1. A process of examining reasons which excludes force and is 'immunised against repression and inequality'.
  2. An interaction subject to special rules (eg as in a debate) see p.25.
  3. The production of cogent arguments around a thematised problem.

Steven Toulmin (Uses of Argument, Cambridge, 1958) proposes an argument structure to be defined by:

  1. A problematic utterance with a validity claim;
  2. The reason by which the validity of the claim is to be secured;
  3. Based on evidences

Wolfgang Klein (1980) criticises Toulmin and is concerned that we look at how people actually argue. He argues that 'reasons' can be masks for deeper motivations, which may not even be consciously articulated, towards a particular result. Validity claims may be made on the basis of propositional truth, normative rightness and sincerity or authenticity. [crit 5] (see p.249 for summary)

Is validity relative to cultural values?

Habermas seems to argue that although results would vary on the basis of cultural presuppositions it is possible to model a process of informal logic that would test validity claims in any language or against the background of any cultural system. However with aesthetic arguments the purpose is typically to "open the eyes of the participants, that is, to lead them to an authenticating shared aesthetic experience. Above all, however, the type of validity claim attached to cultural values does not transcend local boundaries in the same way as truth and rightness claims". p.42 Overal Habermas thinks that we lack a well worked out logic of argumentation which satisfactorily captures the internal connections between forms of speech acts. (p.249)

Habermas then compares mythical and modern ways of understanding the world considering arguments for and against a universalistic position. p.41. First he points out the individualistic nature of the discussion to date, before going to social anthropology to use studies of mythical societies to 'hold up a mirror' to our own. He also acknowledges the difficulties of universalising from an occidental viewpoint. [crit 6]

The arriving at agreement is fundamental to the existence of culture.

"The concept of reaching an understanding suggests a rationaly motivated agreement among participants that is measured against criticisable validity claims. The validity claims (propositional truth, normative rightness, and subjective truthfulness) characterise different categories of a knowledge embodied in symbolic expressions." p.75 Understanding is coming to a common definition of a subject (p.139).

Communicative rationality is: ( p75)

  1. The processes by which different validity claims are brought to a satisfactory resolution.
  2. The relations to the world that people take to forward validity claims for the expressions they deem important. [crit 7]

He identifies four sociological concepts of communicative action :

  1. Teleological (Aristotoelian) expanded to the utilitarian. (footnote on teleology)
  2. Normatively regulated. Common values, customs, roles
  3. Dramaturgical action. Self expressions (E.Goffman, Frame Analysis, 1975) "participants in interaction constituting a public for one another, before whom they present themselves." p.86 "Attributes of style, aesthetic expression, formal qualities in general have... great weight in dramaturgical action." p.92

He makes a preliminary specification of Communicative Action:

"The concept of communicative action presupposes the use of language as a medium for a kind of reaching understanding, in the course of which participants, through relating to a world, reciprocally raise validity claims that can be accepted or contested." p.99. Language here seems to be broadly defined as action upon which you can be reflective. [crit 7a]

The most open definition of communicative action given is that it is action in which: "the actors seek to reach an understanding about the action situation and their plans of action in order to coordinate their actions by way of agreement... A type of interaction that is coordinated through speech acts and does not coincide with them." p.101 (my emphasis)

Language has a prominent place in this model, which he associates with Mead, Garfinkel, Wittgenstein and Gadamer. Habermas case is that communicative action makes a full use of languages functions relating to objective, social and subjective worlds when the other models relate to only one or two. p.95.

"Every consensus rest on an intersubjective recognition of critisable validity claims; it is thereby presupposed that those acting communicatively are capable of mutual criticism". p.119.

Additionally: "Every process of understanding takes place against the background of a culturally ingrained preunderstanding.... The interpretative task consists in incorporating the others interpretation of the situation into ones own... this does not mean that interpretation must lead in every case to a stable and unambiguously differentiated assignment." p.100 .

Wittgensteins central insight was that we can only understand communicative acts because they are embedded in contexts which are orientated towards that understanding. p.115. Later: Everyday implicit knowledge is present in the "pre-reflective form of taken-for-granted background assumptions and naively mastered skills". p.335. [crit 7b]

Communicative actors renew the appearance of a normatively structured society but may also be seen to be "groping from one problematic, momentary consensus to the next." p.124. Understanding may be dependent on context but this doesn't jettison the importance of validity. Context becomes another object of our considerations. To rationaly study a phenomenon from the frame of sociology (or ethnomethodology), remembering the reflexive requirement of our earlier definition of rationality, we have to identify the specific paradigm of rationality that has been produced by this tradition. The question of what extent our rational interpretation of any phenomena can claim to be universaly valid rather than be relative to particular cultural and historical formations is central to this. p.137

Habermas now proposes a methodological way forward to stake a universal claim for the concept of communicative rationality:

  1. Formal pragmatic. "Hypothetical reconstructions of that pretheoretical knowledge that competent speakers bring to bear when they employ sentences in actions orientated to reaching understanding." p.138.
  2. Assess empirical usefulness by: explaining the pathologies of communication, mapping the evolution of sociocultural forms and studying human abilities for communicative action. (see p.139.)
  3. Work from Sociological approaches to rationalisation. (Habermas' proposes to take this path).

The Sociological Tradition: 1. Max Weber (1864 - 1920)

Max Weber is important because he conceived of modernisation as a universal process of rationalisation.

"Weber analyses the processes of disenchantment in the history of religion, which is said to have fulfilled the necessary internal conditions for the appearance of occidental rationalism." p.143

Whereas Marx saw the rationalisation of society taking place by the development of productive forces based on empirical knowledge. Weber focused on social evolution. Habermas criticises them both for having only a vague concept of societal rationality and overly simple concepts of social action. He starts by going back to the establishment of the ideal of rationality with reference to the writing of The Marquis de Condorcet. In his 'Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind' (1794, London 1955) Concorcet had seen Newtonian physics methodology of observation, experiment and calculation as a paradigm for a knowledge which threatened to reduce previous philosophical knowledge to the status of opinion. Condorcet was interested in the effect this paradigm would have on the human mind and culture. His four basic propositions for a philosophy of history were:

  1. A perfectibility not determined by a telos inherent in the human mind.

  2. The hope that the power of science can be introduced through education into social intercourse in general, banishing prejudice and superstition - enlightening society.

  3. This requires an autonomous (or mature) use of reason by individuals against the traditional power of church and state. But within the terms and against the background of the literary class.

    "All errors in politics and morals are based on philosophical errors and these in turn are connected with scientific errors." Condorcet, 1794. p.163 He expected this process to result in a "complete annihilation" of gender inequalities amongst other liberties.

    Foucault has pointed out how this was an overly neat and simplified linear view of scientific discourse when in fact the apparent 'continuum of scientific rationality' established itself above obscure and untidy relations between different paradigms within a field of power. Habermas acknowledges this without mentioning Foucault. Condorcet and Kant assume a unity of theoretical and practical reason. However since Hume it was clear that political and moral positions could not be inferred from empirical scientific investigations. This problem led through Hegel to Marxs positing of the necessity of a dialectic of theory and practice which provide another of the fundemental assumptions underlying Communicative Action. p.150

  4. Finally Concordet assumes that the argumentative potential of the rational mode would be self-evidently more effective than any other and that the resultant diffusion of knowledge would automatically brings about social advancement.

Max Weber takes up these theses and criticises them under four headings. (p.153)

  1. Evolutionary determinism was unsuitable as a guide to the development of culture and religion.

  2. Ethical naturalism confuses descriptive and evaluative statements. (NeoKantian philosophy of value)

  3. A cautious universalist position.

  4. Rationalism A paradigmatic status of a science and technology detached from ethical values is dismissed and Weber focuses on the moral/practical institutionalisation of purposive rational action.

    Habermas then goes into a re-reading of Weber to derive a critical reappraisal of the immanent ideas of rationality in Webers oeuvre.

    The realisation of the Enlightenment utopia needed the mystery of death to be overcome, or it was feared people would surely be drawn back to mysticism to deal with their own mortality. This may have been the reason that Weber chooses to study religion. Weber saw religion as being the first expression of an evolution of rationality with regard to the central questions of theodicy. From this base science and technology, autonomous art and expressive self-presentation and legal representation separate out and become internally differentiated fields of rationality. Modern rationalisation is preceded by religious rationalisation.

Weber thought in terms of two concepts of rationality p.168

  1. Increasing mastery of the world through increasingly precise abstract concepts. or:

  2. Methodical attainment of practical ends by way of calculation of the adequate means.

For Weber an action "can only be rational only to the degree that it is not blindly controlled by effects or guided by sheer tradition." p.170 "One essential aspect of the 'rationalisation' of action is the replacement of the unthinking acceptance of ancient customs by deliberate adaptation to situations in terms of self interest." Weber, Economy and Society p.30 1978 [crit 9] As we free outselves from the bonds of oppression we can think of a conscious evolution or as Habermas says to choose goals on the basis of clarified preferences. Choices of action to achieve these goals can then be evaluated by a rationality which is held in common which implies a "mode of life based on principles" detached from uninvited 'demands and commands'. p.171 [crit 10]

Habermas assumes that a few necessary structural properties of modern life forms are universal. And that it is possible to reframe occidental rationalism so that it does not embody mastery of other worlds.

Conduct is governed by the dynamics of mens interests, but ideas do effect the directions and forms taken in pursuit of those interests and in the legitimating forms used to support those actions. p.193

"Not ideas, but material and ideal interests directly govern mens conduct. Yet very frequently the 'world images' created by 'ideas' have, like switchmen, determined the tracks along which action has been pushed by the dynamics of interest." Weber SPWR (with ref to Marx) [crit ref] [crit 11]

"The magical world of ideas is an impediment to the adoption of an objectivistic attitude towards technical innovation, economic growth and the like." p.205 (see Weber on the Religion of China p.198)

For the rationalisation potential of the meeting of Christian and Greek religions in Humanism to transform society the knowledge locked away in the monastic cloisters had to penetrate the secular.

(I would add here that this theoretical knowledge had to be joined with the experiential knowledges of the artisans. Particularly those of the mill and ship builder who had an a renaissance in the early medieval period.) This resulted in the experimental natural sciences.

The first stage was realised through Calvin and Luthers reformations. This entailed a shift from the communality and mediated brotherhood of Roman Catholicism to the individualised relation to God and order, and work orientation of the Protestants. Webers central idea is that structures of consciousness that enable new modes of social action arise from the sphere of culture. [crit ref]

This process of rationalisation can be traced along three paths:

  1. Social movements (largely neglected by Weber).

  2. The specialisation of cultural systems of action ie the scientific/academic, the legal/ academic, the art / market, their centralisation and the increasing diminution of 3. role of the church as a source of interpreting the world.

At the same time the means of production including that of culture increasingly passed into the control of a new class. (Who source of wealth is through ownership of the means of production).

The result is the promotion of a 'purposive rational action' in all spheres. An action orientated to profit and power rather than understanding, arising from entrepreneurial capitalism.

"Modern structures of consciousness emerged from the universal historical process of world-view rationalisation, that is, from the disenchantment of religious-metaphysical world views." p.220.

Habermas suggests that this rationalisation is 'merely a partial [or selective] realisation of modern structures of consciousness' p.221. Weber essentialises this particular historical rationalisation which Habermas suggests is too narrow and in effect reduces the potential of rationality. He critiques Webers study of Protestantism as 'from above', and limited to a structuralist view, with no comparative study of the diverse lifeworlds drawn into this vortex of rationalisation and finally he point out how selective is the Protestant use of rationality.

"Thus the religious ethic of ascetic Protestantism is a monological ethic of individuation with unbrotherly consequences. It is precisely in this that I find its developmental potential." p.225 (Weber, ES p.321)

The point is that we shouldn't take this limited use of rationality as defining the potential of rationality per se. Habermas argues that Webers intuitions "point in the direction of a selective pattern of rationalisation, a jagged profile of modernization". p.241 [crit 13]

Habermas 's main criticism of Weber is that his derivation of rationalization soley from the Protestant ethic ignores the role modern law played in the moral practical institutionalisation of purposive rational action. p.242. Habermas criticises Webers legal positivism; he conceives law and legal domination too narrowly and he has no theory of legitimation which goes beyond established procedure and custom. Legal legitimation could be grounded in principles that are open to moral argument. [crit 14]

Habermas argues that Webers basic action theoretic assumptions prejudiced his analysis in the direction of the purposive rationality which arises from the conditions of commodity production. This creates 'bottlenecks' in his theory of action.

Theories of Action

Action is defined as human behaviour with intention, or with subjective meaning attached. Weber's theory of action is based on the solitary acting subject and does not encompass the co-ordinating actions that are inherent to a social body (p.280). This does not then adequately account for the complex concept of rationality that is implied from his cultural analyses.

Habermas looks for semantic theories that would be useful and discusses 3 theories:

  1. Karl Buhler organon model (1934) suggests three uses of the sign:

    1. Cognitive - representation - symbol
    2. Expressive - making experience known - symptom
    3. Appellative - requesting - signal

      He suggests that this leads us away from objectivist concepts of interactions towards a formal pragmatic sense of interaction mediated by understanding.

  2. He then moves from reference semantics to the truth semantics founded by Frege and developed by Wittgenstein and then Davidson and Dummett. (no frefs given). This "gives centre stage to the relation between sentence and state of affairs between language and the world." p.276 . This is a radical disengagement from the semantics based on names that represent objects. The limitation of such reference semantics means that the understanding of meaning cannot be separated from the recognition of its truth conditions. (see p.396 for a critique of the limitation of the semantic point of view) "Speakers and hearers understand the meaning of a sentence when they know under what conditions it is true." p.276

  3. J.L.Austin and John Searle extended this idea to speech acts no longer limited to representations. The 'speech act' is open to the 'multiplicity of illocutionary forces'. Habermas thinks that this direction could be fruitful if taken along with Wittgensteins concept of 'background knowledge' to construct the concept of lifeworld. And to help distinguish communications motivated by egocentric calculations of success from communications orientated to understanding. p.286.

    INSERT DIAGRAM p.285.

    Austin distinguishes locutionary, illocutionary and perlocutionary acts. p.288

  4. Locutionary acts - to say something
  5. Illocutionary acts - to act in saying something
  6. Perlocutionary acts - are the side-effects of acting in saying something. These arise because illocution is always embedded in contexts of interaction.

Perlocutionary effects may be strategic whilst the illocution appears orientated to reaching understanding. Not surprisingly there has been controversy about the demarcation between the illocutionary and perlocutionary. Habermas then defines communicative action as a type of speech act in which the participants 'pursue illocutionary aims' (p.295) 'first and foremost', in spite of the complex net of world relations surrounding each speech act.

"We mean to exclude cases of latently strategic action, in which the speaker inconspicuously employs illocutionary results for perlocutionary purposes." p.305 Further only those illocutionary acts to which actors connect 'criticizable validity claims' are constitutive of communicative action. We must be able to take issue with or argue with a speech act for it to be communicative action.

"In the context of communicative action, a speech act can always be rejected under any of the three aspects":

  1. Rightness of normative context.
  2. Truth claim of evidential basis.
  3. Truth claim of statement.

Searle has taken this further to allow the analysis of speech acts in everyday communication. (see Cobley, 1996) & Habermas p.326 "The illocutionary forces constitute the knots in the network of communicative sociation: the illocutionary lexicon is, as it were, the sectional plane in which the language and the institutional order of society interpenetrate. This societal infrastructure of language is itself in flux; it varies in dependence on institutions and forms of life. But these variations also embody a innovative mastery of unforeseen situations." p.321. Habermas comments in a footnote that this is an index of the flexibility of a society. I see this as the capacity to respond appropriately to changing conditions or to critically appraise obsolete modes. [crit 16]

"The linguistic demarcation of the levels of reality of "play" and "seriousness", the linguistic construction of fictive reality, wit and irony, transposed and paradoxical uses of language, allusions and the contradictory withdrawal of valididty claims at a metacommunicative level - all these accomplishments rest on intentionally confusing modalities of being." p.331

INSERT DIAGRAM p.333 - Essential

We may judge the rationality of any action in various ways:

  1. Teleological action - Are they effective?
  2. Constantive speech acts - Are they truthful?
  3. Normatively regulated speech acts - Is the form/content legitimate?
  4. Dramaturgical actions - Are they deceptions or self deceptions?

INSERT DIAGRAM p.334 [CRIT 17]

Habermas sees the 'traditional', (Orally transmitted knowledges?) as being 'differentiated out' and, at least in so far as they are institutionalised, put 'under the pressure of rationalisation'. He professes to be unclear about the implicit 'horizon of everyday action into which the explicit knowledge of cultural experts comes rushing'. This contextual implicit knowledge has been shown by Searle (1980) to determine the truth conditions of any propositional statement. Even literal meaning is not absolute and is incomplete without background, which has in the past often been regarded as trivial or obvious. In fact Habermas goes on to assert that background has 'remarkable features': It is implicit, holistically structured and steadfastly intuitive. (see Wittgenstein 'On Certainty', NY. 1969) [crit 18]

The Marxist reception of Weber: From Lukacs to Adorno, Rationalisation as Reification Habermas then finishes off the first volume by criticising the German school of the Philosophy of Consciousness and particularly his intellectual family The Frankfurt School. The three main works discussed are George Lukacs, 'History of Class Consciousness' (Orig. 1922, Cambridge, Mass. 1971), Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer's 'Dialectics of Enlightenment' (orig. 1945 NY 1972) and Horkheimers 'Eclipse of Reason' (orig. completed 1946, NY 1974), which is an exposition of the main themes of 'The Dialectics of Reason'.

This is both an acknowledgment of the influence of Lukacs and a demolition detour of the later work of Adorno and Horkheimer . "The programme of the early critical theory foundered not on this or that contingent circumstance, but from the exhaustion of the paradigm of the philosophy of consciousness. I shall argue that a change of paradigm to the theory of communication makes it possible to return to the undertaking that was interrupted with the critique of instrumental reason; and this will permit us to take up once again the since neglected task of a critical theory of society." p.386.

Having pointed out that it is a detour certain interesting concepts are unpacked on the way as he analyses the reception of Webers ideas by the Marxist tradition. According to Weber rationalisation creates three spheres of value as differentiated zones: Science - Art - Law.

"The transition to modernity is characterised by a differentiation of spheres of value and structures of consciousness that make possible a critical transformation of traditional knowledge in relation to specifically given validity claims." p.340. This disunity of reason is the danger of modernity. Not only through the creation of institutional entities but, something that Weber overlooks, the specialisation of cognitive, normative and aesthetic knowledge that then permeates and fragments everyday consciousness. This all pervasive rationalisation has negative effects on socialisation, social integration and cultural production. [crit 19]

This implies that culture moves from a traditional base in a consensual collective endeavour to forms which are rationalised by commodification and led by individuals with interests which are separated from the purposes of the cultural producers. This 'purposive rational action' is steered by the 'media' of the state which substitute for language as the medium of the coordination of social action.

There is then competition between these two principles of societal integration - language, orientated to understanding, and 'media', which are systems of success orientated action.

"Lukacs specific achievement consists in bringing Marx and Weber together in such a way that he can view the decoupling of the sphere of social labour from lifeworld contexts simultaneously under two aspects: as reification and rationalisation... He conceives of the reification of lifeworld contexts, which set in when workers coordinate their interactions by way of the de-linguistified medium of exchange value rather than through norms and values, as the other side of a rationalisation of their action orientations." p.359

Philosophy is in danger of being a contemplation that reproduces the reified structure of consciousness it has set out to critique, if it does not go beyond abstract concepts of reason. p.363

Contemporary critical theory arises from three historical experiences: The failure of Soviet communism, Nazi fascism and finally the ability of the mass culture of the USA to bind "the consciousness of the broad masses to the imperatives of the status quo". p.367

"The triumph of subjective, formalised reason is also the triumph of a reality that confronts the subject as absolute, overpowering." Horkheimer (Eclipse of Reason, NY. 1974)

"The socio-psychological costs of a rationalisation restricted to the cognitive instrumental dimension - costs that are externalised by society and shifted to individuals - appear in different guises, ranging from clinically treated mental illnesses through neuroses, phenomena of addiction, pyschosomatic distrubances, educational and motivational problems, to the protest actions of aesthetically inspired countercultures, religious youth sects and marginal criminal groups." p.369. Adorno and Horkheimer radicalise Lukac's idea of reification in pyschological and social ways. In the end they only show up the dead-end of Hegels pursuit of reason and a philosophy of consciousness, although at times they also manage to point beyond it. Lukacs thought that rationalisation, although it runs deep, has a limit. This limit can be seen as 'the formal character of its own rationality' that transcends its occupation use by oppressive agencies. Habermas thinks that freedom and ideals of reconciliation are 'ingrained' in the mechanisms of the linguistically mediated sociation of humanity. It is in such assumptions that his pragmatic optimism contrasts with other critical theorists. We can see from Weber through Lukacs to Adorno that thinkers have agreed that the rationalisation of society has produced a reification of consciousness.