1986 * Foundational Research as intermediate Function between everyday and socio-scientific Action. A Research Design

The search is open for a new articulation of the relationship between philosophy and empirical sciences. It is against this background that I try to exploit Habermas’ writings concerning ‘universal pragmatics’ (abbreviated UP) to determinate that relationship in a new way. The empirical science that I have in mind is economics1.

Reading introductory textbooks in economics one mostly finds two distinct contexts of action spoken of: the context of everyday-life with its (economic) problems and ways of handling them (= context I), and the context of economic science within which rational solutions are sought for ‘social’ problems (= context II). It is, however, very hard to find a detailed analysis or good examples that make clear, how actions within each of these two contextes do relate to actions within the other, nor is usually told how to demarcate the two contextes. Within this setting two ways of speaking frequently do occur, in which two different philosophical presuppositions are implied. First the presupposition of an unbroken continuity between the subject matter of economic dealings on the market and the subject matter of economic theory, and second the presupposition that what the subject matter of economics really is all about is generated by the scientific process itself in which economists engage. That is: there is no conceptual continuity at all between the common-sense notion of economics and the scientific conception thereof.

The implicit philosophical presuppositions one is led by in expressing a view concerning the relation of the two contexts can, in my opinion, only become a matter of rational discourse, when it is possible to find a theoretical context of action which goes beyond contexts I and II. Otherwise one is always forced to use either context I or context II as frame of reference for the comparison of the two. What is searched for is a context of action that allows argumentation about the choice of a frame of reference by providing criteria for the choice (= context III).

It is here that in my opinion Habermas’ ‘universal pragmatics’ can be brought in to make an innovative move2. The concept UP (which is his name for a general theory of social action) designates theoretical attempts of constructing hypothetically the overall structure of an action situation. This construction is intended to provide a common denominator for the three contexts to be distinguished. Its function is to make within context III rational argumentation possible about the frames of reference embodied in the various action forms of contexts I and II and, not to be overlooked, in the positions held concerning their relationship (context III). With his conception of UP Habermas breaks ground for a differentiation of two forms and contexts of theoretical action: the action form and context of specific researches in the area of empirical social sciences and the action form and context of foundational research of which ‘universal pragmatics’ is an instance. He calls the form of action proper to the context of foundational research ‘rational reconstruction’3.

What is the overall structure of an action situation? I will present here what I consider to be the hard core of Habermas’ UP4. The hypothetically constructed essential features of an action situation are the following. It has to be assumed that an action situation:      (1) does possess three distinct constitutive dimensions, named subjectivity, objectivity andnormativity;                                                                                                                    (2) is characterized by three non-reducible positions, each of which represents a capacity to contribute in a specific way to the constitution of a social and intelligible world. For each position this capacity is differentiated according to the three dimensions summed up under (1). The manner in which this capacity, seen from the three non-reducible positions, relates to the social world to-be-constituted can be qualified as action design. Two of these positions represent the capacity of what usually is called the competence of an individual or collective actor. The remaining third position represents the capacity of what may be called the potentiality of available resources actors exploit.
(3) further requires three positions which represent the material realizations of action designs, realizations that have to be such that in principle they are perceptible, understandable, and acceptable from both actor positions.
(4) finally requires a position representing a realized social world.

To understand the structure of an action situation it is not enough to know the elementary features as outlined above. The systematic interdependence of these features has to be made explicit. In this respect it must be stated that the construction of the structure of an action situation is based upon two axioms5.
— its constitutive dimensions are relations between two positions producing a third position.                                                                                                                               — each position is specified by its belonging to three different constitutive dimensions or relations. Due to these axioms the structure of an action situation is a unique structure of seven positions and seven relations6.

According to my research design it is assumed, that the underlying basic frame of reference is the same for every action form in whatever social context. Arguments have to be developed which can make this assumption plausible on the conceptual, the methodological, and the empirical level of argumentation. If this can be done, then the conclusion is justified, that the reconstructed structure of an action situation is a good explanatory framework for the comparison of contexts I and II.

One can interpret parts of Habermas’ writings on UP as the beginnings of an operationalization of the presented formal conception. In particular his theses about rationality and about processes of rationalization are of this kind. Linked up with these theses is his concept of validity or rationality claims (see diagram)7.

Figure 1: rationality claims

I use this diagram to clarify further the intermediate function I attribute to UP. It is to indicate one line of argumentation (among others) that I have been following in trying out the viability and fertility of my tentative thoughts about these matters.

I did a couple of small comparative studies concerning the way in which we use in an everyday context the concept ‘need’ and other terms that refer to need situations, and the way in which economists in their discipline have defined and use the concept. Taking the actiontheoretical reconstruction here proposed as frame of reference I have been able to show that ordinary people as well as economists do appeal implicitly to many more aspects of rationality than those accounted for in current economic theory. The economic concept incorporates almost exclusively the rationality aspects 2. and 6., while actor’s claims concerning the aspects 1., 3., 4. and 5. are either not considered on their own merits by reducing them to the aspects 2. and 6., or they are completely overlooked. The approach proposed in this paper intends to foster more differentiated analyses of economic rationality, and new ways of argumentation about the frames of reference involved.


1.See for ex. Editor’s Introduction of the new periodical Economics and Philosophy vol I (1985), p. 1-6.

2.Habermas, J., Was heißt Universalpragmatik?, in K.O. Apel (ed.), Sprachpragmatik und Philosophie (Frankfurt a. M. 1976a), p. 174-272, and id., Some Distinctions in Universal Pragmatics, Theory and Society vol 3 (1976b), p. 155-167. See also Th. McCarthy, The Critical Theory of Jürgen Habermas (Boston 1978), chapter 4, par. 4.1.

3.Habermas, J., Theorie und Praxis (Frankfurt a. M. 1971), the new introduction, and id. Erkenntnis und Interesse (Frankfurt a. M. 1973), the new postscript.

4.Habermas, J., (1976a), p. 255f. and id., Theorie des kommunikativen Handelns t. I, p. 148f; id., Interpretative Social Sciences vs. Hermeneuticism, in N. Haan e.a. (eds.), Social Science as Moral Inquiry (New York 1983), p. 251-270.

5.My interpretation of Habermas’ writings is rather free, more concerned with the internal consistency of his position on UP than with exegetic accuracy.

6.A formal treatment of Habermas’ foundational concepts is given in F. van Doorne and P. Ruys, Die Struktur einer Sprechhandlung in Habermas’ Forschungsprogramm, in W. v. Reyen and K.O. Apel (eds.), Rationales Handeln und Gesellschaffstheorie (Bochum 1984) p.  201-218. The pages 215-216 do need substantial revision.

7.Compare J. Habermas (1976a), p. 259.