Universal pragmatics

From Academic Kids

Universal pragmatics is a program that tries to explain all of the conditions that are necessary for an understanding between people to be reached. It is of special interest to many fields, including Pragmatics, Semantics, Discourse theory, Sociology, symbolic interactionism, Social philosophy, Ethics, Semiotics, Informal Logic, Epistemology, and the Philosophy of mind.

One of its most noteworthy proponents, and the one who coined the term, is the philosopher Jürgen Habermas. He suggests in his essay, "What is Universal Pragmatics?" (Habermas 1979), that human competition, conflict, and strategic action are really attempts to reach an understanding. The implication is that coming to terms with how people might understand one another would reduce conflict in the world.

For Habermas, the goal of coming to an understanding is "intersubjective mutuality... shared knowledge, mutual trust, and accord with one another" (3). In other words, to have the goal of coming to an understanding in one's mind would foster enlightenment, consensus, and good will. So, for these reasons, one might see how the project ought to be taken on with earnest.

By coming to an "understanding", he means at least when two or more actors share the same meanings about certain words or phrases, and at most when two or more actors share the meanings and are confident that those meanings fit relevant social expectations (or a "mutually recognized normative background" [3]).


Communicative Competence: the Basis for Validity of Speech

Habermas argues that when a speaker is communicating successfully, they will have to defend their meaning by using these four claims.

1. That they have uttered something understandably -- or their statements are intelligible;
2. That they have given other people something to understand -- or are speaking something true;
3. That the speaker is therefore understandable -- or their intentions are recognized and appreciated for what they are; and,
4. That they have come to an understanding with another person -- or, they have used words that both actors can agree upon. (4)

So, for an advocate of universal pragmatics, these four claims are the basis for valid communication.

Any meaning that meets the above criteria, and is recognized by another as meeting the criteria, is considered "vindicated" or communicatively competent.

In order for anyone to speak validly - and therefore, to have one's comments vindicated, and therefore reach a genuine consensus and understanding - Habermas notes that a few more fundamental commitments are required. First, he notes actors have to treat this formulation of validity so seriously that they might be a precondition for any communication at all. Second, he asserts that all actors must believe that their claims are able to meet these standards of validity. And third, he insists that there must be a common conviction among actors that all validity claims are either already vindicated or could be vindicated.

Goals and Methodology

Universal Pragmatics is associated with the philosophical method of "rational reconstruction".

The basic concern in universal pragmatics are utterances (or "speech acts") in general. This is in contrast to other fields of linguistics, which tend to be more specialized, focusing exclusively on very specific sorts of utterances such as sentences (which in turn are made up of words, grammars, morphemes, and phonemes).

For Habermas, the most significant difference between a sentence and an utterance is in that sentences are judged according to how well they make sense grammatically, while utterances are judged according to their communicative validity (see section 1). (31)

Universal Pragmatics is also distinct from the field of sociolinguistics (or "empirical pragmatics"). This is because U.P. is only interested in the meanings of utterances if they have to do with claims about truth or rightness, while sociolinguistics is interested in all utterances in their social contexts (31, 33).

Three Aspects of Universal Pragmatics

There are three ways to evaluate an utterance, according to universal pragmatics.

  • "Theory of elementary propositions" -- the things in the real world that are being referenced by an utterance, and the things that are implied by an utterance, or predicate it.
For example, the utterance "The first Prime Minister of Canada" refers to a man who went by the name of Sir John A. MacDonald. And the utterance, "My husband is a lawyer", implies that the speaker is married to a man.
More on these subjects can be found in the philosophy of language and formal semantics.
  • "Theory of first-person sentences" -- the expression of the intentions of the actor(s) through language and in the first-person.
  • "Theory of speech acts" -- the setting of standards for interpersonal relations through language.
This is the domain that Habermas is most interested in developing.

Theory of Speech Acts

The basic goal for speech act theory is to explain how and when utterances in general are performative. (34)

Central to the notion of speech acts is the idea of "Illocutionary force", a term coined by philosopher J.L. Austin. Illocutionary force means the effect an utterance has in the world, or more specifically, the effect on human relations.

A performative utterance is a sentence where the action being referred to is the utterance itself. For example: "I inform you that you have a moustache", or "I promise you I will not burn down the house".

Habermas adds to this the observation that speech acts can either succeed or fail, depending on whether or not they succeed on influencing another person in the intended way (35).

For more information on this subdiscipline, see speech acts.


  • Habermas, Jurgen. (1979). Communication and the Evolution of Society. Toronto: Beacon Press.

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