Avoiding the vortex

Avoiding the vortex.

I paced and read and thought for hours, trying to figure out how to describe the notions whirling around in my head. A few things are coming together, tenuously. They could fly apart at any second. So, instead of relating those, I’ll just back up and finish what I started yesterday.

In a few hours reading, under stress, I finally managed to grasp a few more particles of Jurgen Habermas’s Theory of Communicative Action. I felt sorry for the class, because the excerpt we were asked to read (I have read all of volume 1 at least) makes little sense if you don’t know speech-act theory. Dr. Kleine attempted to convey speech-act theory to everyone in a lecture that he claimed would take ten minutes. It took 45. But contextualizing Habermas within the indictment of dialectic found in the Weaver and Burke articles I wrote about yesterday pushed everything into sharper focus in my mind. It is still difficult to describe, but outside the excerpt the class read, I found the connecting link. Habermas cites the motives of “the first international symposium on questions of informal logic”:

  • Serious doubt about whether deductive logic and the standard inductive logic approaches are sufficient to model all, or even the major forms of legitimate argument.
  • A conviction that there are standards, norms, or advice for argument evaluation that are at once logical— not purely rhetorical or domain specific— and at the same time not captured by the categories of deductive validity, soundness, and inductive strength.
  • A desire to provide a complete theory of reasoning that goes beyond formal deductive and inductive logic.

As I dug deeper into the radically confusing thing, I saw more of what Habermas is up to. He is attempting to separate the constantive aspect of language from the performative, a project that originator of speech act-theory John Austin gave up on. In the end, Austin felt that all language was performative, that is to say that it accomplishes work. Language does things. Constantives, a term he thought could be used to describe language that just describes, in the end only make assertions about the state of the world, it does not reflect an actual state— they perform the action of bending the world to fit the language. Habermas does not directly refer to H.P. Grice’s theory of implicature, but it seems strangely close. Habermas wants to re-assert the value of language as a constantive force.

Here’s the magic part. Grice asserted that there were free particles of meaning which we draw on when we interpret indirect statements. We make inferences based on social conventions and other things outside the utterance which we turn into meaning. We generate meaning out of thin air. Habermas attempts to explore the possibility that beyond the performative level of language, there is deep structure of communicative action where we transmit the particles of implicature that societies use to create meaning. This makes a great deal of sense. Buried deep inside the stories, the logic, and all modes of communication there are these free particles which are in effect, the conventions or nomos of a society.

We make choices and form arguments based on these implicatures, not just the mechanisms of inductive and deductive logic. The deep implication is that we assign value based on a code that we just don’t understand yet— language.