Библиографическое описание:

Пирожникова В. И., Хон С. Sociological theories of the 20th century and sources of communicative rationality // Молодой ученый. — 2016. — №13. — С. 748-751.

Until the 19th century, epistemological function of the concept of rationality is decisive for almost the entire history of thought. In the 20ies century rationality acquires social-cultural implications. Interest to social-cultural implications of rationality is determined by modern features which exist in connection with the paradigm shift in science communicative approach. This paper analyses the sources of communicative rationality in the sociological theories of 20th century, following the framework set by Weber, Durkheim, Mead, Parsons, Schutz, Habermas.

Key words: instrumental rationality, solidarity, interaction, intersubjectivity, communicative rationality

As can be seen, until the XIX century, epistemological function of the concept of rationality is decisive for almost the entire history of thought. In XX century rationality acquires social and philosophical implications. This is due to the work of Weber, Durkheim, Mead, Parsons, Schutz and other representatives of Western sociology of XX century.

Reason and rationality is so central to Weber’s thought. His understanding of the rationality he took from Kant in the way he place reason and understanding at the center of the individual’s life to help create order out of the chaos of everyday experience. Like the great philosopher, he drew sharp boundaries between scientific knowledge and subjective human values in order to preserve the integrity of both spheres.

The Weberian theory of social action defines rationality by the categories of end and means within a given situation, i.e. the achievement of “certain ends by choosing appropriate means on the basis on the facts of the situation” [1, p.5]. Rational action is thus purposive involving the “choice of means” for attaining these purposes [1, p.5]. Reason not only expresses itself in thought but also in action. It employs our rational ideas and acts on them in a deliberative manner by choosing the most efficient and effective means available to achieve a particular goal.

Weber identified two “ideal types” of rational social action: instrumentally rational (zweckrational) and value-rational (wertrational). Instrumentally rational action is characterized as involving means for attaining actors “rationally pursued and calculated ends,” namely the rational consideration of first, alternative means to ends; second, the relations of these ends to secondary consequences; and third, the comparative relevance of various possible ends” [1, pp.24–25]. In this sense, instrumentally rational action includes self-interested behavior, but cannot be subsumed under it insofar as these ends may be both self-interested and dis-interested ones, as Weber often suggests. Value-rational action, in turn, is seen as guided by a “conscious belief in the value for its own sake” of a certain type of human conduct (e.g. ethical, aesthetic, or religious), “independently of its prospects of success” [1, pp.24]. Hence, this is a course of action induced by immanent or transcendental (as opposed to instrumental) values and thus by intrinsic rather than extrinsic motivation.

From an instrumentally rational “point of view, however, value-rationality is always irrational. [On the other hands] the orientation of action wholly to the rational achievement of ends without relation to fundamental values is, to be sure, essentially only a limiting case” [2, p.26]. Although Weber approves of instrumental rationality, he is aware of its limitations and dangers. His discontent with the disenchantment which followed Occidental rationalization and his complaint about the conversion of the economic and technical means into ends in themselves led him to believe that in the rationalized society “the care for external goods [has] become an iron cage” [2, p.181].

Weber demonstrates the diversity of reason and how they operate at many different levels [3, p.30]. Reason not only links ideas together but it creates, organizes and assesses the contradictions between them. It binds concepts into principles which in turn become systems — law, politics, ethics, etc — connected to other systems until it seems all of life is one massively, unified rational construction.

So, finally we could note that Weber regards rationality as confined to the procedure through which one can attain an ultimate end or value “toward which experience shows that human action may be oriented” [1, p.5] He distinguishes between instrumentally-rational and value-rational orientations of action and calls the former rationally pursued and calculated ends. For Weber, values, on the other hand, are not rationally determined because they do not refer to a result ulterior to them their significance lies in the unconditional demand an actor believes to be called for by some ethical, aesthetical, religious, or other sources of obligation; value-ration action are carried out for their own sake and cannot be rational established. One can rationally pursue values without being able to rationally determine them. Such an approach robs values of their claim to universality and of any ground for determining the right values from the wrong ones. It is left to societies, groups or individuals to choose which values they want to pursue.

But how could we understand the subjective sense/meaning of communicative situation from a partner within the framework of the theoretical model? Does it assume that there is an intersubjective structure, referring to which we can clarify the subjective meaning? Weber didn’t raise such questions. In addition, he convinced of the coincidence of objective meaning attributed to the action of the subject with the subjective meaning of the actor.

Durkheim approaches rationality from a standpoint of the operation and application of reason. If we want to understand the roots of ought to found in validity claims and communicative action, Habermas argues that we can follow Durkheim's analysis of the binding power of a normative expression. This power is in turn rooted in the context of the demarcation of the world into sacred and profane realms. This action could, in fact, exist prior to symbolically-mediated language, and be constituted in non-verbal form through expressive gesture. The connection of social acts to the realm of the sacred is further evident, holds Habermas, in light of their ceremonial nature, and in the fact that the ceremony itself is only held to be legitimate when it fulfills a valid norm [4].

For Durkheim, we might recall, the sacred is by nature the projection of the ideal of a collective. This ideal serves the function of stabilizing group identity, all the while the concrete facts of reality feedback in the specific form the projected ideal itself takes. That is, ideals mediate between reality and goals/images.

One of Durkheim's central research interests was the various ways societies can function as more-or-less unified wholes. A distinction, which he thought critical to demarcating modern from basically primitive societies, was that between mechanical and organic solidarity. Mechanical solidarity, characteristic of earlier social formations, is essentially an enforced unity. Societies function as unities because of the threat of external sanctions, often rooted in religious or mythical concepts of guilt and necessity. Furthermore, the individual derives his or her personality directly from shared collective identities. That is, the degree of difference among individuals tends to be smaller, given that there are fewer differentiating resources to draw upon, and correspondingly less latitude for individuation. With more modern societies comes a form of organic solidarity anchored, in part, through differentiated labor spheres. As society becomes more complex, a greater number of increasingly specialized functions are required. In turn, individuals come to rely upon the collective efforts of many others in order for their own security and functioning. There is also a greater range of sources from which to build personal identity [5].

This, in effect, amounts to an organic form of solidarity, secured through the intermeshing of ideas, interest, and labor roles. Habermas, taking a slightly different focus, is more interested in the solidarity-ensuring effects of communicative action. Yet, following Durkheim, he inquires after the mechanisms or processes by which the socially-integrative functions supplied by religion pass over to communicative action. In other words, Habermas claims that the ritually-secured domain of the sacred gradually becomes replaced by the secularized realm of normative agreement arrived at through forms of argumentation premised on reasons [4, p.156].

If the sacred is the projection of an idealized group self-image, then this image reflects something of the group's hopes, wishes, norms, and so on. For the former, the motivating power of the sacred is replaced by a depersonalized morality. For Habermas, on the other hand, sacrality is rationalised into communicative practice where “moral agreement...expresses in rational form what was always intended in the symbolism of the holy: the generality of underlying interest” [6, p.156]. Religion, which once secured solidarity by way of a pre-linguistic consensus rooted in ritual practice, undergoes dissolution as consensus becomes not a pre-given reality, but an actually achieved phenomenon.

Since religion serves the function of providing pre-given interpretive schemes, experiences which conform to such schemes have the tendency to buttress the underlying religious belief system. As societies become increasingly complex, the need for increased differentiation builds a tension between the relative fixity of the religious interpretative patterns and the dynamic flow of experiential data coming from the realm of the profane. Religion can only ignore those ideas and facts with which it does not accord at its own peril. The result is that language more and more becomes responsible for processing disconsonant experiences, even as it surrenders the unity of its underlying structural components. This in turn devalues received tradition as the source of understanding and solidarity. Communicatively-achieved consensus takes over the solidarizing load traditionally handled by the sacred. As this happens, though, more and more of experience tend to open up to new communicative interpretation. Since all of these interpretative accomplishments are built upon criticizable validity claims, which in turns are contingent upon reasons, we can see why Habermas considers these to be examples of processes of (communicative) rationalization.

Parsons, analyzing oeuvre of Max Weber, emphasizes the objective transpersonal nature of rationality. Cultural standards, norms and values are regulators of instrumentally rational and value-rational actions, relating the behavior of the actor with the existing socio-structural reality. The action of the individual becomes clear understandable and is recognized only in the framework of culture. According to him, if there is no general culture, there is no way for meaningful interpretation what is designated the observed action for the actor in his system [4]. The rational action has a normative structure and serves as a means of legitimizing this structure and as a social control mechanism. Thus, rationality appears in the behavior of actors in the process of its correlation with cultural norms, samples and standards. In relation to them it has the status of an autonomous objective reality as a result of theoretical investigation into the social world. Rationality in Parsons’ theory — it is rather a normative rationality in the system of cultural phenomena hierarchy.

For Mead rationality or what he calls the rational process in a socio-psychological sense generally consists of the “indication of alternatives, different possible conclusions of the act which the particular social situation calls for,” with such acts presupposing intentions. Notably, according to Mead [6, pp.200–202], human rationality involves a continued social interchange, and consequently society is composed of rational beings in constant interaction. In this regard, rationality is a matter of social interaction rather than purely psychological or biological factors. In particular, for Mead actors are rational in the ethical sense that they act from the viewpoint of a “social situation” so that their moral acts “must take into account all the values involved” [6, pp.385–389]. In the context of the “mental development” of the individual, the “rational phase” particularly consists of language as a symbol and thus the means or mechanism by which individuals emit “organized responses in their implicated relationships to each other” [7, p.268]. In this sense, a universe of discourse as produced by language represents what is called the “genius of the rational self” or self-consciousness [7, p.268].

However, it is the social process which gives and demonstrates the means by which the individual comes back to himself and becomes an object to himself and thus through an identity in response reaches the rational situation. And the factor that makes the social process rational and thus represents the basis of social life is what Mead identifies as the universal element in the self or the essence of the mind. Since this universal is implicated in self-consciousness, rationality is seen as dependent on such consciousness [7].

Hence, the self constitutes a “rational entity” in the sense that it entails taking the role of other (or talking to oneself) in “terms of the group” or the “generalized other,” and this process is the “basis of all rational thinking and thought” [7, p.151]. Notably, the above noted universal” in self-consciousness is of a social nature given that the self is a “social entity” and the human organism is “involved in the social process.” Thus, the condition giving to the process of social adjustment a rational character consists in the fact that the “attitude of the other” is essentially the “attitude of the group” [7, pp145–151]. In this regard, a necessary precondition for rational acting (and thinking) is that actors “must take the attitude of the group” given the necessity of a social “organization among a set of individuals who are rational and who put this rationality into universal demands” [7, p.161]. Consequently, Mead infers that all rational individual action “is based on the feeling that one belongs to a definite group” [7, p.162]. In this sense, individual rationality derives from social or collective rationality.

Schutz's conception of rationality is in many respects an extension and elaboration though not a mere restatement of that of Weber. Thus following Weber, Schutz proposes defining rational action in terms of actors having “clear and distinct insight into the ends, the means, and the secondary results” [8, p.326]. Thus understood rational action is then distinguished from sensible and reasonable behavior, with the latter, for example, being characterized as involving judicious choice among different courses of action.

Like Weber, Schutz then recognizes the possibility for a discrepancy between subjective (actor) rationality and objective (observer) rationality, i.e. between common sense and scientific concepts of rationality. Namely, “a course of action which is perfectly rational from the point of view of the actor may appear as non-rational to the partner or observer or vice versa” [10, p.326]. Particularly, subjective rationality often implies the concept and meaning of rational in the sense of reasonable thus using judgment of reasonableness in reference to projects concerning the course of action as well as the choice among such alternative projects rehearsed in fantasy. In this sense, rational decision and thus action presuppose that actors posses a “clear and distinct knowledge” of the following: the concrete state of affairs serving as the setting for projected actions (e.g., specific definitions of their “biographical situation”), the state of affairs to be reached by these actions or simply the purpose, and the necessary means for reaching that purpose [8, pp.326–330].

In the view of Schutz, rational individual action leads to the “condition of ideally rational interaction” or “intersubjective behavior” insofar as one actor's project of rational action implicates and is implicated in other actors' rational (re)actions. In turn, such social interaction, especially the “interaction among consociates,” mutual participation and the sharing of anticipations, becomes the prerequisite for individual rational activity through the «success of intersubjective behavior” (e.g. resources, trust, information, conformity, etc) [8, pp.328–330]. However, to the extent that the “interaction among consociates” tends to involve “pure We-relations” these can be the irrational element of such an interrelationship [8, p.329]. In this regard, social interaction among consociates, involves a paradox of rationality in that it can represent both a precondition and an impediment of rational action.

For Schutz rational action is a matter of taken-for-granted framework of social rules rather than of natural propensities. Thus, the rationality of human (inter)action is accounted for by the fact that actors orient their behaviors on certain socially-approved standards, whose origins, existence and importance cannot be rationally explained, however [8, pp.330–333]. In light of such standards, rational behavior (at the common-sense level) appears as action within an “unquestioned and undetermined frame of constructs of typicality of the setting, the motive, the means and ends, the course of action, and personalities involved and taken for granted” [8, pp. 330–333].

The significance of the considered conceptual ideas as a theoretical base was assessed by Habermas. He made a fundamental step in this direction by creating a Theory of Communicative Action. Habermas's theory of communicative action represents one of the variants of the modern understanding of the reason in communicative aspect. The leading motive of the theory of communicative action was an attempt to create a new concept of rationality. With the formal pragmatic analysis of speech acts contained in the theory of argumentation, J. Habermas attempts to rethink the basic concepts of social action. He puts the task of creating a new communication-theoretical notion of rationality and on its basis framing the synthesis of two pillars of modern social theory — theory of action and systems theory, creating the basis for their qualitatively new social theory, which attempts to define its own critical scale [9].

Communicative rationality is the “intersubjective relation that speaking and acting subjects take up when they come to an understanding [Verständigung] with one another about something” [9, p. 392]. It is, therefore, a process rather than a capacity, in which argument is central. It emerges and manifests itself through different forms of communication, discourse and social interaction. And it is this fundamentally “social” form of rationality.

In addition to awareness of the rational basis of one’s actions, Habermas also states that reflection is also important in rationality. “A person is 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 value standards through which desires and feelings are interpreted” [9, p.20].

According to the above statement, reflective attitude towards one’s self-awareness should be based on normative value judgments, whose framework is culturally established. The normative element is crucial in this case, as culturally established standards of value seem to function as a critical criterion against which the rationality of actions should be judged. Culturally established standards mentioned in the above statement may have a normative function; however the element of interpretation of one’s actions, desires or feelings according to those standards renders them fallible.

Therefore, by definition, communicative rationality is a process rather than a capacity, based on mutual understanding between actors. It emerges and manifests itself through interactive and more specifically, through debate and argumentation, claim and counterclaim. It is precisely this model of rationality, embodied in argumentative practices, concerning contested validity claims, since the latter emerges and sustains itself through rational-critical debate. The validity claims mentioned above are, according to Habermas, propositional truth, normative rightness and subjective truthfulness and communicative rationality points to “different forms of discursively redeeming [these] validity claims” [9, p.75].

Unlike teleological forms of rationality, the aim of communicative rationality is reaching understanding, which requires communicative actors to overcome their subjective views. “This concept of communicative rationalitycarries with it connotations based ultimately on the central experience of the unconstrained, unifying, consensus-bringing force of argumentative speech, in which different participants overcome their merely subjective views and […] assure themselves of both the unity of the objective world and the intersubjectivity of their lifeworld” [9, p.10]. Understanding reached through processes of communicative reason, therefore, would be a prerequisite for the generation of consensus according to Habermas.

As part of the communicative rationality language plays an important role as the main tool for achieving a communicative consensus. According to Habermas, this idea became crucial for the problem of the social order. Through language it is achieved the necessary social cohesion which lies at the basis of social consensus. In this sense, social consensus itself, for Habermas, is based on the force of the better argument. Opening in communication the social space as a sharing the lifeworld, considers Habermas, is the key to communicative-theoretical understanding of society as a stable social system.


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  4. Habermas, J. (1987) The Theory of Communicative Action: Lifeworld and system: a critique of functionalist reason (Vo.2), Cambridge: Polity Press.
  5. Durkheim, E.(1966) The Rules of Sociological Method NewYork: Free Press
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  9. Habermas, J. (1984): The Theory of Communicative Action: Reason and the Rationalization of Society (Vol. 1), Cambridge: Polity Press


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