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


  1. Bob Test says

    Interesting points. I’ve tried for years to engage in civil discourse with those having differing views. I find that people aren’t interested in entertaining the idea that they might be wrong and if they think I’m wrong they should try to poke a hole in my argument. I even offer to help by showing them which premises I use seem to me to be the most vulnerable.

    A continuing back and forth conversation with the intention of carefully examining each others arguments seems to be a dead or at least a dying art.

    I’ve never heard of this concept of a ‘validity claim’ before.

    Seems to me that there are several things wrong with the list. The second item says that factually true statements have a validity claim.

    The first item seems to suggest that factually false statements have the same validity claim. For example, the claim, ‘the earth is flat’ is a fully comprehensible statement. It’s a false statement. We couldn’t say it is false unless we understand it.
    Yet because it is comprehensible it seems to have a “validity claim” equal to true statements.

    This is strange, that true and false statements have an equal validity claim.

    Secondly, many arguments involve a normative premise, such as the Golden Rule. But while there is room for factually true statements in the list of types of validity claims there is no place for fundamental principles such as the Golden Rule.

    • Robert A. Letcher says

      Bob T. — Thanks for commenting. Before addressing your comments re “validity claims”, let me first attempt to convey a broader sense of the ambiguities involved here, by posing two questions. Do parallel lines ever meet? And, what would you say if i claimed that I have a least three heights (not having to do with units; let’s use feet and inches here, the more common units among USers. I’ll address these questions tomorrow. bob letcher

      • Robert A. Letcher says

        Bob T. —-The answer to the parallel lines question is, it depends on which type of geometry is taken for granted. In common experience with “flat” space, the answer seems obvious: NO! Parallel lines don’t meet; r even, NO!!! SILLY, OF COURSE THEY DON’T, THEY CAN’T. Bu what about lines of longitude on a sphere? At the equator, lines of longitude are parallel, and they all intersect at two places. So, the answer to this easy question is, it depends on your assumptions.

        On my other question, you may wonder, what in the world is he talking about? Well, where does it say that height is measured while standing upright and erect? For example, it could be measured while lying on one’s back, or side. And we would have to agree that the measurement should be taken under earth’s gravity (1.0 G). And even then, we would still need to agree on how to take the measurement in an airplane while it flew on one of those “Weightlessness-Simulating paths”

        My point is that unless we somehow allow ourselves to discover the differences in our premises, we would condemn ourselves to endless, unproductive argument. Ultimately, habits are not only difficult to break; they can also be difficult even to be aware of.

        And that is the sort of discussion that will in my view be necessary both to having and to learning how to have civil discourse.

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