Developing Civil Discourse

debateIf we as Earthlings, occupants of various bio-regions of Earth, are ever to hope to return some sort of sanity to our living on Earth, we’re going to have to add that item to our already long and still growing list of efforts that we must talk about.

If we are to progress on any of them, we will certainly have to begin working toward developing some sort of grounding, in terms of which we can risk engaging in such talk. For me, that sort of grounding requires more frequent calling upon serious thinkers and less frequent calling upon incendiary speakers.

For me, that means calling upon Jurgen Habermas for his “Theory of Communicative Action” (TCA), which is itself a development of JL Austin’s “ordinary language philosophy” and of Karl-Otto Apel’s “validity basis of speech”. In case you aren’t familiar with their writings, Austin argued (against the notion that talk is just that: talk) that certain verbs, and then only in certain conditions (first-person, singular, present, indicative, active), speakers do things by speaking.

For example, If a person says, “i bet.” that counts as having bet, constitutes the bet; nothing else need be “done”. Austin termed such verbs “performative”, and the action that saying them effected “performative action”. Subsequently, Austin had the further insight that all verbs uttered under those conditions were “performative” in the same sense.

I don’t know as much about Apel’s writing, beyond the fact that Apel’s insights are central to Habermas’s TCA. In particular, Habermas conjectured that reaching mutual understanding is imminent in speech itself, though he also writes of a category he termed “systematically distorted communication”.

On that brief intro, let me say why i think this is important. Habermas claimed that there are precisely FOUR kinds of validity claims, which can be thought of as premises that a speaker grounds statements upon, whether intentionally or inadvertently, and which each speaker must stand ready to “redeem” if other people involved in a conversation request it. Of course, this requirement is reciprocal (which sort of recalls thet “Golden Rule… for communication”).

The four types of validity claims are:

  • that a statement is comprehensible (possibly “comprehensible as [some X]“;
  • that it is factual, correct;
  • that the speaker is being sincere, truthful in uttering it–alternatively that the apparent reason for uttering the statement is precisely the one the speaker intended (here is where my criticism of Senator Kyl in last week’s column finds its most solid footing: he could hardly defend a sincerity claim); and,
  • that the person doing the uttering has normative standing to make the utterance (if two people each say “I do” in response to questions from a duly authorized person, they marry each other).

robert letcherThis is important because it’s crucial to be able to challenge each other’s premises, because they form the formidable defenses for each and every political position people take. I think we are going to have to become acquainted and comfortable with other people “digging” into our most holy places, our often tacitly adopted and tacitly held beliefs–if we are ever going to mutually talk ourselves out of the mess we’ve ignored each other into. And this is the only way i can think of that even might have a chance of succeeding. Otherwise, we’ll just have to hope for our different ships passing in the night, and still all hitting the same iceberg.

I hope it doesn’t come to that, as it is difficulrt for me to foresee any group agreeing to being voted off the iceberg.

Bob Letcher

Published by the LA Progressive on April 27, 2011
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About Robert Letcher

Robert A. Letcher, Ph.D. is a political economist who describes himself as "an academic without portfolio, writer, political activist, and Qigong practitioner who tries to help people learn".