Jurgen Habermas is a sociologist and philosopher in Germany. One of the wonderful things about his work is his insistence that we cannot understand human experience without understanding relationships and communication. His ideas are useful in thinking about our own relationships and interpersonal interactions.
I have been reading about Habermas in a book called “Philosophy of the Social Sciences,” by Patrick Baert. (A wonderful book, by the way.) Baert summarizes Habermas’s views as follows: Habermas argues for what he calls “undistorted communication” which is when people can openly criticize and defend each other with regard to what he calls validity claims.
Habermas writes about communicative competence, which is the skill people have that allows them to distinguish between communication oriented toward success (being right or persuasive) and communication oriented toward understanding. The fundamental goal of communicative action is aimed toward understanding, he says.
Habermas says that in any communication, four validity claims are assumed: intelligibility, propositional truth, moral rightness, and sincerity. In other words, when we are communicating together with someone, we are assuming that what we are each saying makes sense, we are assuming that what we are saying is true, we are assuming we are saying the right thing, and we are assuming we are not trying to deceive the other person.
In order to have this sort of free exchange of ideas, Habermas is describing what would be called the “ideal speech situation.” In order to arrive at this ideal, we have to be free of worry about the consequences of our communication. But, in addition, we need to be free of internal, psychological obstacles to freely expressing our ideas.
It may be that an awareness of these assumptions and the obstacles that exist both internally and externally would allow us to move toward more ideal communications with the people around us. And, in situations of disconnection, we may be able to identify where the error occurred. In many situations the ideal of understanding is missed, and each person is trying to be right or persuade the other person. If we back up and re-establish understanding as the goal, that alone could change the conversation.
Likewise, we could go through each of the validity claims and see if there is one point where we do not accept those claims. In other words, we may feel that the other person’s idea doesn’t make sense, is untrue, is unjustified, or is intended to deceive. Sometimes working toward clarity in the process of communication can resolve conflicts that appear to be intractable.