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The Validity of Validity Claims: An Inquiry into Communication Rationality


The communicative action theory of Habermas has been discussed and used within the research community of Language Action Perspective. The concept of validity claim is considered to be an important contribution. In his theory, Habermas has formulated three validity claims to be universal in communication: The claims for truth, rightness and truthfulness. A theoretical inquiry into the validity claim concept and the three validity claims is performed in the paper. A critical analysis is pursued based on communication examples from Habermas. The concept of universal validity claims is transformed to general communication claims. The truth claim is rejected as universal. Besides the claims emanating from Habermas several other general communication claims are formulated: Descriptive correctness, addressee relevance, respectfulness, deliberation, dialogical adequacy and argumentativeness.
The Validity of Validity Claims:
An Inquiry into Communication Rationality
Göran Goldkuhl
CMTO & IDA, Linköping University, Sweden
The communicative action theory of Habermas has been discussed and used
within the research community of Language Action Perspective. The concept
of validity claim is considered to be an important contribution. In his theory,
Habermas has formulated three validity claims to be universal in
communication: The claims for truth, rightness and truthfulness. A theoretical
inquiry into the validity claim concept and the three validity claims is
performed in the paper. A critical analysis is pursued based on communication
examples from Habermas. The concept of universal validity claims is
transformed to general communication claims. The truth claim is rejected as
universal. Besides the claims emanating from Habermas several other general
communication claims are formulated: Descriptive correctness, addressee
relevance, respectfulness, deliberation, dialogical adequacy and
1 Introduction
Information and communication can be studied from many perspectives. In the
disciplines of organisational communication and information systems (IS) there is a
growing interest for an action view on information and communication, e.g. [Dietz,
1994; Goldkuhl & Lyytinen, 1982; Ljungberg & Holm, 1996; Winograd & Flores,
1986]. Much of this interest emerges from speech act theory, which was originally
formulated by [Austin, 1962] and later refined by several scholars. Among later
contributions the best known seem to made by [Searle, 1969] and [Habermas,
1984]. The fundamental speech act thesis is that speech should be seen as a special
kind of action. Speaking (and writing) is not just describing the world. There are
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2 The Language-Action Perspective on Communication Modelling 2000
many kinds of communication - e.g. promising, commanding, issuing, thanking -
which can not be reduced to just describing. To promise is to perform an act of
promise directed towards other people. According to this theory, all speech acts
can be said to consist of two parts; one descriptive part (called locutionary or
propositional aspect) and one part expressing the action character of the speech
(often called illocutionary aspect). The interest from organisational communication
and information systems in speech act theory rests on this fundamental thesis but is
also oriented towards other aspects of the theory.
Many scholars foster an interest in the communicative action theory of
[Habermas, 1984]. One important contribution made by Habermas [ibid] is the
concept of validity claim. He states that the communication between a speaker and
a listener is constituted by the existence of three universal validity claims: The
claims for truth, rightness and truthfulness. These validity claims play a fundamental
role in communication according to Habermas: ”The concept of communicative
action presupposes langauge as the medium for a kind of reaching understanding, in
the course of which the participants, through relating to a world, reciprocally raise
validity claims that can be accepted or contested” [ibid p 99].
There are several IS researchers who have shown an interest in Habermas´
communicative action theory and his validity claim concept; e.g. [Dietz &
Widdershoven, 1992; Reijswoud, 1996; Auramäki & Lyytinen, 1996; Schoop, 1999
and Eriksson, 1999]. These authors, however, seem to take the validity claim
concept for granted. They all acknowledge the importance of it and they do not
question it. They discuss but do not really question the different validity claims
described by Habermas. If we should use the validity claim concept in theorizing
around information systems and communication in organisational settings, then it is
necessary to pursue a critical discussion concerning the validity claim concept. This
is the main purpose of this paper; to critically examine the validity claim concept
and the different universal validity claims put forth by Habermas. It is of great
importance to critically investigate one of the key concepts within the theoretical
underpinnings of the Language Action Perspective (LAP). This critical analysis will
be done in the critical spirit of Habermas. It is outside the scope of the paper to
discuss other theories in the field of communication pragmatics. The focus will be
on the validity claim concept of Habermas.
2 The Concept of Validity Claim
2.1 Validity Claims in Habermas´ Communicative Action Theory
Validity claim is an important concept in Habermas´ theory of communicative
action. [Habermas, 1984] is critical towards Searle´s ”speaker-oriented” theory.
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Instead of this one-sided view Habermas wants to establish a theory concerning
communication as a way to reach a shared understanding. In order to arrive at such
a shared understanding the speaker and listener must agree on universal validity
claims raised in communication. ”A validity claim is equivalent to the assertion that
the conditions for the validity of an utterance are fulfilled” [ibid p 38]. This view of
Habermas is rooted in his view of communication as a rational enterprise. To be
rational is to be able to present good reasons (grounds) for one´s action.
”Rationality is understood to be a disposition of speaking and acting subjects that is
expressed in modes of behavior for which there are good reasons or grounds” [ibid
p 22].
When a speaker is performing a speech act he is (often only implicitly) raising a
number of validity claims. These validity claims can potentially be challenged by the
listener. To accept a speech act the listener accepts the validity claims raised.
Habermas presents three kinds of validity claims which he asserts to be universal:
Claims to truth, normative rightness and sincerity. He also talks about
comprehensibility as a validity claim. But this a more fundamental claim directly
related to the use of language as a medium for communuication. Comprehensibility
can be seen as a basis for the three other claims. If the speaker can not present a
linguistically understandable utterance, then there is, by definition, nothing to
understand and assess. The three universal claims are associated with the three
functions of language which Habermas presupposes. He distinguishes three
fundamental uses of language: The cognitive use, the interactive use and the
expressive use [ibid and Habermas, 1979]. These three modes are rooted in
Habermas ontology. He divides reality into three worlds: The objective world, the
social world and the subjective world.
Each of the three claims is related to one basic function of language and also to
one ”world” (table 1). Although there is this primary relationship Habermas asserts
that all three claims are inherent in all speech acts. We relate to all these worlds at
the same time when speaking or as [Habermas, 1979 p 68] puts it the different
worlds ”come to appearance together”. In his analysis of validity claims, Habermas
also reformulates the speech act classes of [Searle, 1979]. Habermas reduces these
to three classes: Constatives, regulatives and expressives. A fourth class,
imperatives, is related to strategic action where there are no validity claims, only
claims to power according to Habermas.
The different validity claims raised in a speech act are assessed by the listener
and he can accept or contest them. [Habermas, 1984] differentiates three levels of
reactions in relation to a percived speech act: 1) ”The listener understands the
utterance, that is, he grasps the meaning of what is said” [ibid p 297], 2) ”with his
‘yes’ or ‘no’ the hearer takes a position on the claim raised with the speech act, that
is, he accepts the speech act offer or declines it” [ibid] and 3) ”in consequence of a
an achieved agreement, the hearer directs his action according to conventionally
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4 The Language-Action Perspective on Communication Modelling 2000
fixed obligations” [ibid]. With his second level, Habermas has formulated an
important operational principle for assessing validity claims. If a hearer accepts the
validity claims, then he takes a ‘yes’ position. If a hearer declines any validity claim
then he takes a ‘no’ position and when doing so he should present some ground for
his rejection. What are the reasons for his rejection? I will use this principle for
validity claims assessment in section 3 below when examining some examples of
speech acts.
Validity claims Functions of
language Worlds (domains
of reality) Speech act type
Truth Cognitive use Objective world Constatives
rightness Interactive use Social world Regulatives
Sincerity Expressive use Subjective world Expressives
Table 1 Validity claims and their relations to language functions, domains of reality,
speech act types; building on [Habermas, 1979 p 68 and Habermas, 1984 p 329]
2.2 Validity Claims in Information Systems Research
There are several researchers in the information systems area who have taken an
interest in the concept of validity claim as it is proposed by Habermas. [Dietz &
Widderhoven, 1992] have made a comparison between Searle´s and Habermas´
theories. They claim Habermas´ theory to be superior and one of the main argument
seem to be the importance of the validity claims. In their analysis they have related
Searle´s speech act classes to Habermas´ validity claims and speech act classes.
[Reijswoud, 1996] follows this comparison and conclusion in his analysis of
business communication. He seems to agree concerning the importance of the
vaidity claim concept of Habermas and this theory as superior to Searle´s.
[Ljungberg & Holm, 1996] comment on the analysis of [Dietz & Widderhoven,
1992]. They seem also to agree on the superiority of Habermas´ theory. They
question, however, if this superiority should have any impact on the design of
information systems. In the spirit of [Suchman´s 1994] famous critique of adopting
speech act concepts in IS design they question if the use of validity claims would be
a good design framework. They are very hesitant concerning explicitly accounting
for validity claims in communication supporting IT artifacts. [Ljungberg & Holm,
1996] propose another usage of Habermas´theory: ”An alternative approach, which
we would like to suggest, is applying Habermas´ theory as a vehicle for reflection,
rather than using his taxonomy in concrete design.”
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Another researcher acknowledging the superiority of Habermas is [Eriksson
1999], although he ascribes some benefits of Searle. Eriksson has made a similar
comparison between Habermas and Searle as Dietz & Widderhoven did. The
analysis of Eriksson goes into more detail concerning speech act types, validity
claims, directions-of-fit between word and world. He presents a communication
model which he claims is a partial synthesis between Habermas´and Searle´s
theories. ”The generic communication model presented cannot be considered to be
a full synthesis of Habermas´and Searle´s models, this is not possible because the
two models are based on different basic ontological assumptions” [ibid p 53].
There are researchers who do not want to give priority to any of these theories
of Searle and Habermas and who do not see any great problems in combining the
theories. [Auramäki & Lyytinen, 1996] and [Schoop, 1999] present such
approaches. In an analysis of speech act success [Auramäki & Lyytinen, 1996]
combine Searle´s speech act taxonomy and Habermas´ validity claims. Their
approach is an ”integration of the best features of” the two theories [ibid p 11].
[Schoop, 1999] has also combined the two theories in her work to develop a
methodological frameweork for the design of cooperative documentation systems.
She claims ”Contrary to Dietz and Widdershoven, we do not see Searle´s and
Habermas´ theories as contradictory. Rather we would argue that they consider
different aspects of speech.” ”The two theories can be integrated to provide a
powerful framework for communication analysis” [ibid p 70].
All these researchers, although their different standpoints in the Searle-Habermas
controversy, seem to acknowledge the importance of the validity claim concept.
There is no analysis of the validity claim concept as such and thus no questioning of
it1. [Eriksson, 1999] has made an analysis of the different validity claims. He
accepts the three universal claims proposed by Habermas, but he wants to add to
these a claim for satisfaction. [Auramäki & Lyytinen, 1996] do not want to rule out
power claims from an analysis of communication: ”Use of power is a part of
everyday action, and we do not want to exclude communication based on the use of
power (strategic action) from the analysis of communication” [ibid p 4].
My conclusions from this examination of validity claims in information systems
research are
the validity claim concept as such is not analysed in depth and its importance
is simply taken for granted
the different universal validity claims proposed by Habermas are not
contested; only some supplements are proposed
I will try to pursue such a critical analysis in the rest of this paper.
1 In the comprehensive debate concerning communicative action theory [e.g. Honneth & Joas,
1991] there are discussions concerning validity claims. [Seel, 1991] pursues an analysis of
relations between different validity claims.
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6 The Language-Action Perspective on Communication Modelling 2000
3 An Inquiry into Validity Claims
[Habermas, 1984] relates the three validity claims of truth, rightness and
truthfulness directly to three different types of speech acts (table 1). Each validity
claim can be seen as the primary claim thematized in each of speech act type. There
is not however this kind of 1:1 relationship between speech act types and validity
claims. Habermas emphasises that all three validity claims are at least implicitly
raised in all communicative action. ”Every speech act in a natural context can be
contested (that is, rejected as invalid) under more than one aspect” [ibid p. 306].
Habermas uses one example to illustrate this thesis of multiplicity of validity
claims of speech acts. The situation is a seminar with a professor asking one of the
participants to bring him a glass of water. I think this example is illustrative
concerning validity claims. I will use this example rather thoroughly below.
Habermas has used this example to show three types of objections made to this
request; each of these objections challenging each of the three universal validity
claims (truth, rightness and truthfulness). Habermas states as a conclusion of his
illustration ”What we have shown in connection with this holds true for all speech
acts oriented to reaching understanding. In contexts of communicative action,
speech acts can always be rejected under each of the three aspects” [ibid p 307]. He
is astonishingly sharp in regard to this thesis in connection to empirical evidence:
”This strong thesis can be tested against numerous cases” [ibid]. I can only notice
that Habermas does not account for numerous cases, only some simple fictitious
examples are shown.
I will question Habermas´ examples for the three validity claims. I propose, in
my opinion, some better examples; and I present several other examples of
rejections of the request. It is obvious (which will be shown below) that Habermas
has a very limited view of possible rejections of speech acts, when he adopts his
three validity claims. My analysis points at a much richer bunch of possible claims in
communication than the three validity claims.
The complete formulation of the request made by the professor (P) directed
towards one seminar participant (S) is as follows [ibid p 306]:
”Please bring me a glass of water.”
In the analysis I will use Habermas operational principle for contesting
utterances and their validity claim. ”A speech act may be called ‘acceptable’ if it
satisfies the conditions that are necessary in order to that the hearer be allowed to
take a ‘yes’ position on the claim raised by the speaker” [ibid p 298]. Later on
Habermas expresses this as ”the options open to the hearers to adopt rationally
motivated ‘yes’ or ‘no’ positions on the utterances of the speakers” [ibid p 306]. I
will in this spirit of validity contesting examine different possible ways to decline a
request of the illustrated type. I will use the principle proposed by Habermas and in
doing so I will question his analysis and conclusions.
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The Language-Action Perspective on Communication Modelling 2000 7
[Eriksson, 1999] has also refered to this example of Habermas. In doing so;
Eriksson has no objections towards the examples of rightness and sincerity
rejections, but he dismisses the truth claim example. I am questioning all three
examples as can be seen below.
I have chosen to use Habermas´ own examples since it will then be easier to
demonstrate my objections with clear references to Habermas´own formulations
and quoted argumentation. This "water glass" example can be questioned to be a
typical "armchair" example common in philosophical literature. At this stage of
analysis it has, however, proved to be useful and illustrative for the purposes of this
paper. For further research, I do think it is important with real-life examples.
3.1 Claims for Rightness
[Habermas, 1984 p 306] uses the following example to illustrate the normative
rightness of the utterance. The seminar participant declines the request of the
professor through the following utterance:
#1. ”No. You can´t treat me like one of your employees.”
Habermas says ”what is contested is that the action of the professor is right in
the given normative context” [ibid]. I partially question Habermas´ characterization.
Let us look closer at what seems to be done in the seminar participants utterance.
This speech act consists of a refusal of the request and an explanation why S makes
this rejection. In his explanation S makes a characterization of P:s action ”treat like
one…. employee” and with reference to this characterization he declines the
request. S interpretes P´s request as an attempt to establish a special kind of
relationship between them; not a formal employee-relationship, but a relationship
that at least resembles this kind of relationship. S declines the request because he
will not be engaged in such an inter-personal relationship. To fetch a glass of water
for P would be an act of an employee serving the professor according to S´ view.
Accepting the request would mean that such an undesired relationship was imposed
on S.
I would not characterize this rejection primarily as one against the normative
rightness1. A more apposite characterization would rather be a rejection of the
implicitly suggested inter-personal relationships between P and S. Another way to
1 I do not deny that S could claim that P violates a norm like ”do not treat seminar participants as
employees”. This norm can however seem to be constructed from the actual situation and it can be
disputed in different ways. P could claim the existence of an opposite norm like ”do not treat
seminar participants and employees differently” and thereby deny the general existence of the
norm claimed by S. This is also an example that many norms are contextually negotiated and that
situationally conflicting norms must be evaluated with reference to existing circumstances and
expected consequences.
G. Goldkuhl
8 The Language-Action Perspective on Communication Modelling 2000
put it is to say that to S the utterance is not respectful enough. S rejects the request
since he considers it to be disrespecfully to him in his role as seminar participant.
I think that Habermas could have chosen a more appropriate example to
illustrate rejections with reference to normative rightness. I will give one such
example below:
#2. ”No. I can not leave the seminar room. Participation at seminars is
mandatory according to faculty rules.”
In this rejection, S gives a clear reference to an established rule. This norm is
not subject to subjective interpretations (as can be seen to be the case in #1). The
mentioned norm can be checked according to its written formulations1. S rejects the
request because the bringing of water to the professor should imply that he had to
leave the seminar room since there is no water tap in the seminar room. Performing
such an action (leaving the room) is not permitted (according to social rules) and
would be negative to S. I find this example (in relation to Habermas´ utterance #1)
a more straight-forward example of questioning an utterance because it is not
considered to be in alignment with established social norms.
3.2 Claims for Sincerity
Habermas uses one example to illustrate rejection of the claim for sincerity
(truthfulness). The seminar participant declines the request of the professor through
the following utterance [ibid]:
#3. No. You really only want to put me in a bad light in front of the other
seminar participants.
Habermas says in relation to this example that ”what is contested is… that the
professor means what he says” [ibid p 306-307] and Habermas adds in parenthesis
the following explanation ”because he wants to achieve a certain perlocutionary
effect” [ibid p 307]. I question if this rejection should mainly be seen as a contest of
lacking sincerity. This reaction of S is rather similar to #1. It has to do with lack of
respect from P. S characterizes the action of P ”to put me in bad light”. He declines
the request because of its negative effects on himself. The primary concern does not
seem to be a question of sincerity (”you really only want”) which is a presumption
made by S concerning the intention of P. S explains his rejection with reference to
the negative effects to him. In this case S refers to the inter-personal relationships
which he has to the other seminar participants. These relationships will be
influenced in a negative way according to S. One can suspect that the self-respect
of S would be hurt if he performed the requested action. It seems also to be an
implicit reference to the inter-personal relationships between P and S. S does not
want to be treated in this way by P.
1 I do not presume that social norms must or should be recorded externally. Many norms exist
only as parts of the intersubjective field of a community [Berger & Luckmann, 1967].
The Validity of Validity Claims
The Language-Action Perspective on Communication Modelling 2000 9
There is a reference in this utterance (#3) that the intentions of P is something
else, but this does not seem to be the primary concern (and thus a thematized claim)
for S. There is an implicit contestation of sincerity, but this is not in the foreground.
The Seminar participant´s main concern seems to be the negative effects for him.
I have constructed another example which seems to be a more straight-forward
illustration of contesting lacking sincerity:
#4. No, dear professor. I don´t think you really want a glass of water. You only
use that utterance as an illustration of your theory of communicative action.”
In the case of #4, S makes an interpretation (characterization) of the intention
behind P´s action. S presumes that P does not utter his request in order to get a
glass of water, but he uses the request with another purpose. In this case, S makes
an assumption that P´s real intention deviates from the one that is inherent in the
utterance (i.e. to get a glass of water) and thus S declines the request. P´s sincerity
is questioned and an alternative presumed purpose is presented by S. In this
response of S, there is not either any reference to negative effects to S. It is the lack
of sincerity that is thematized.
3.3 Claims for Truth
Back to the examples given by Habermas! The third and last one is concerned with
contesting the truth claim. The seminar participant declines the request of the
professor by the following utterance [ibid p 306]:
#5. ”No. The next water tap is so far away that I couldn´t get back before the
end of the session.”
Habermas says ”what is contested is… the truth of propositions the professor
has to presuppose in the given circumstances” [ibid p. 306-307]. This explanation
seems to be very far-fetched. I can not see that this rejection has anything to do
with truth of the utterance made by P. Habermas translates the rejection of the truth
claim in this case to a denial that certain presuppositions obtain [ibid p.306]. He
does this obscure translation probably because it is obviously incorrect to say that
P´s request is not true. A request can not be true or false. This is one of the main
points behind Austin´s speech act theory1 and it is astonishing that Habermas
resides in this verificationist fallacy to put it sharply.
Let us look at the formulation of the utterance #5. In this case there is made a
reference to negative consequences for S, which was also made in the two other
examples of Habermas above (#1 and #3). Habermas classifies this rejection (#5) as
a questioning of the truth claim. The rejection does however not seem to be
concerned with truth issues. The refusal is not made with any reference to incorrect
description of circumstances. There is rather an implicit reference to the goal of S
1 Truth is only an appropriate claim for assertives/constatives. For all other speech act classes it is
inadequate to evaluate the truth claim.
G. Goldkuhl
10 The Language-Action Perspective on Communication Modelling 2000
which is to be present at the seminar. This is obviously a primary purpose for S. He
declines the request, since the requested action is inappropriate for him. He does
not decline the request due to any false or inadequate descriptions made by P.
There is no such deviations in the request. The action (bringing a glass of water) is
not impossible to perform, but its consequences are inappropriate since they
interfere with the desire to participate at the seminar.
Objections made with reference to propositional contents are not restricted to
truth matters. I will show additional examples below; some of them are concerned
with the material circumstances of fetching water. As will be shown, these are not
to be seen as issues of truth. The material circumstances, as e.g. the distance to the
water tap (in case #5) have significance for the efficiency and possibility of
performing the requested action.
When talking about ”existential presuppositions” Habermas seems to focus
aspects in the world talked about. The existential presuppositions in #5 did not
make the action impossible per se, but they were in conflict with the goals of S.
I will show one example where the material circumstances (existential
presuppositions) are preventing the performance of the suggested action:
#6. ”No. The water is turned off in this building, so it is impossible.”
This means a rejection of the request since the requested action of bringing
water is considered not to be executable. Water is not available and therefore water
can not be fetched as was presumed in the request. I think this is a better example
of rejection with reference to existential presuppositions than #5. It is however not
the issue of rejection of any truth claim of the initial utterance made by P. This
request is considered to be inappropriate since it was made based on inadequate
knowledge. P did not have adequate knowledge about the possibilities that his
request could be fulfilled. In this case there is no reference to negative consequence
for S. It is rather a fairly neutral remark on the impossibility to follow the request.
S explains to P why his goal can not be fulfilled.
The last two examples (#5 of Habermas and #6 by me) was treated under the
heading ”claims for truth”. As can be understood from my discussion I reject the
application of truth claims in relation to requests and also other directives. This is
totally in line with the main ideas within speech act theory [Austin, 1962 and
Searle, 1969]. The two examples were rather rejections concerning the
appropriateness of the requested action. Appropriateness1 is not a universal claim in
speech acts according to Habermas. Below I will present some more examples of
inappropriateness since we can learn more about possible claims in communication
from these examples. Appropriateness seems to be an important claim.
1 In some situations Habermas uses ”appropriateness” as a synonym to ”normative rightness” [e.g.
Habermas, 1979 p 54]. In these cases it is a question of whether the speech act is appropriate in
relation to existing norms. It is not case of the appropriateness of proposed actions.
The Validity of Validity Claims
The Language-Action Perspective on Communication Modelling 2000 11
3.4 Claims for Appropriateness of Action
Several of the examples given above mean rejection with reference to negative
consequences for S, the one to perform the requested action (#1, #3, #5). One
example did not involve any supposed negative consequences for S, but rather for
P, since the requested action was declared to be not executable (#6). I will give
another example with presumed negative examples for the requester P:
#7. ”No. It will take so long time for me to bring you the water. I have injured
my foot. It is better that someone else with quick legs brings you the water.”
S declines the request made by P. S explains that the proposed way for P to get
the water (by S bringing it to him) is not an appropriate way for P. This is done
with a clear reference to means-ends efficiency. The proposed means is
inappropriate (since it takes too long time) to reach the goal (P to obtain a glass of
water). In his rejection S does not refer to any negative consequences for himself
(as in case #5 for example), only to negative consequences for P.
As can be seen in this example there are no objections made to social norms,
truth or sincerity of the requester. Neither of Habermas´ three validity claims is
challenged. But S is taking a ‘no’ position towards the utterance of P. S is declining
the request. The challenge is done with reference to the presumed success of the
requested action. The success is questioned since the proposed means is found to
be inappropriate. According to Habermas claim for effectiveness (for success) is an
issue for strategic action and not for communicative action which is related to the
three claims of rightness, truth and sincerity. To me the objection made by S in this
case is a fair and legitimate one. Neither of the two utterances of P and S is made in
a ”strategic mood”. It is obvious that S is adopting a helpful attitude towards P
when proposing a better way for him to reach his goals.
I will present another example where S declines the request since he thinks the
consequences are negative:
#8. ”No. The water tap is in the other seminar room. I will disturb the people
S declares the means to be inappropriate. If he should fetch a glass of water he
should influence other people in an undesirable way. The bringing means that he
disturbs other people. Their goals will conflict with goals behind bringing the water.
In this case S does not give any reference to negative consequences for P and S (at
least not explicitly). The mentioned negative consequences apply to other people.
Implicitly one can presume that the suggested action, if performed, should lead to
deteriorated inter-personal relationships between S and the seminar participants in
the other room.
One can claim that this refusal involves a reference to normative rightness; to a
norm like ”one does not disturb other people”. I acknowledge this, but the rejection
should not be reduced to just that. The main point is not that the bringing of water
G. Goldkuhl
12 The Language-Action Perspective on Communication Modelling 2000
does not comply with a social norm. It is not a thematizing of such a norm in the
rejection, as it was in #2 above. The negative consequences for the other people are
emphasised as a legitimate obstacle for the requested action.
3.5 Claims for Appropriateness of Goal
There are several examples above where a rejection has been made with references
to problems in perfoming the requested action. These rejections are concerned with
the means of reaching the goal of a glass of water to drink. Some rejections have
been concerned with inappropriate side-effects. No response has been directed to
the beneficial of the aim. I will give one example with a thematization of the goal
part, i.e. a glass of water for P to drink:
#9. ”No. The water is poisoned. You can not drink it. You can be sick!”
This refusal is not oriented to any problems regarding the fetching of a glass of
water. S´ concern is about P when he should use the water for his purposes, which
S presumes, is that P will quench his thirst. S´ objections is concerned with the
presumed goals of P to drink a glass of water from this building. To drink such a
water will not lead to any positive effects. The drinking of water would hurt P.
This rejection is also an example of the difference of knowing between P and S.
S knows that the water is poisoned, which P does not know (or at least S presumes
that he does not know). Several of the other examples are also related to
differences in knowledge about existing circumstances for fetching a glass of water.
S knows about his injured foot (#7); he knows about the distance to the water tap
(#5); he knows about the place of the water tap in the other seminar room and the
existence of people in this room (#8); he knows that the water is turned off (#6).
The way he answers in these situations reveals that he presumes that P does not
have the corresponding knowledge about the state of affairs. Anyhow this is not, as
has been said above, a challenge to the truth claim. The differences in knowledge
concerning the surrounding circumstances are grounds for rejecting the request, but
there is no accuse from S towards P about not telling the truth. Having incomplete
knowledge and communicating from this incompleteness is not the case of telling a
3.6 Claims for Dialogical Adequacy
I have shown nine examples of communication between P and S above. Much of
the analysis has been focused on reconstructing the rationality behind the
utterances. All refusals of S can be found rational on grounds presented in each
case. Let me present one example, with an illustrative purpose, where the
rationality of S´ utterance can easily be challenged:
#10:A. ”No. I am not thirsty.”
The Validity of Validity Claims
The Language-Action Perspective on Communication Modelling 2000 13
In this case S rejects P´s request but on grounds which are easily questionable. P
could respond in the following way:
#10:B. ”I am thirsty and I need a glass of water to drink. Please bring me a
glass of water!”
This response was needed since S´ motivation in his refusal was considered to be
inadequate in this dialogue situation. P contests the motivation of S. In #10:B P is
taking a ‘no’ position towards the refusal. He does not accept S´ refusal, since he
does not accept the grounds for refusal. P finds S´ refusal inadequate in this
dialogue. P had no idea (in his initial request) about S bringing a glass of water to S
himself for drinking. P wanted a glass of water for himself to drink. S was a means
for this purpose.
3.7 Summarizing Different Grounds for Contesting Speech Acts
I have now shown ten examples of contesting a speech act (a simple request for
bringing water). In this section I will summarize and systematize the different type
of objections. The requested action is considered inappropriate in different aspects.
The responses of S are based on different apprehended deviations. There are
deviations between the request and some other circumstances:
desired inter-personal relationships (#1, #3)
self-respect (#1, #3)
established rule (#2)
existential circumstances (#2, #6, #8, #9)
interpreted purpose (#4)
plans and desires of listeners (#5)
proposed means (#7)
plans of other persons (#8)
motivation in refusal (#10B)
A request is a directive according to the taxonomy of [Searle, 1979]. It is an
attempt by a speaker to get a listener to perform an action. This kind of speech act
can be contested by the listener in several ways. Habermas has used this example to
show rejections according to his three universal claims (#1, #3, #5). I have raised
objections concerning the appropriateness of Habermas´ illustrations. The main
point behind my expansion of Habermas´example is that there can be other ways of
contesting a request as a speech act. These other examples are not possible to fit
into the three pre-defined validity claims of Habermas. They are concerned with
other issues than truth, normative rightness and sincerity. Most of the request
refusals are made because the requested action is considered to be inappropriate in
some aspect. I summarize these objections in relation to appropriateness of
proposed action. The requested action was considered to be
inappropriate for the listener to perfom
G. Goldkuhl
14 The Language-Action Perspective on Communication Modelling 2000
inappropriate for the speaker/requester concerning action efficiency (means)
inappropriate for the speaker/requester concerning action result (ends)
inappropriate for the relationships between speaker and listener
inappropriate for other people (disturbing actions)
not really requested
impossible to perform
4 Beyond Validity Claims: General Communication Claims
One conclusion from section 3 above is that Habermas´ three claims for contesting
speech acts are not complete. There are objections possible to make, which do not
fit into the three valididity claims. This is partially due to the validity claim concept
as such and partially due to the three validity claims.
There are claims raised during communication; claims which can be raised by
speaker and hearer. All such claims are not concerned with what can be called
validity. If we look closer to the validity claims proposed by Habermas, they are all
related to the past or at least to something given and not to the future. An utterance
is assumed to be valid in relation to some existing circumstance. Truth is concerned
with ”existing states of affairs” [Habermas, 1984 p 88]. Normative rightness is
concerned with ”the existing normative context” [ibid p 99]. Sincerity is concerned
with ”manifest intention of the speaker” [ibid]. All these claims are thematizing
what exists. They are not thematizing what is to be. This seems to be a fundamental
deficiency in Habermas´ theory; an orientation towards that which exists.
Communication is a lot about the future; what is intended or supposed to be.
Contesting a request for a glass of water, because the water is turned off or the
water tap is too far away, is not a concern for the validity of that request. The
addressee does not say ”your request is not valid”, he rather contests that it is not
reasonable due to the circumstances to act within. I would like to expand
Habermas´ concept of validity claim and instead speak of communication claims.
Such communication claims involve both claims concerning existing states and
future actions and states. They involve claims for validity and reason.
I find no problem with Habermas´ sincerity claim. I think it is easily justifiable in
a communication theory. It thematizes the speaker. I have however problems
concerning the other two claims. I have objected towards the truth claim several
times above. Truth claims can not be universal1 since it is only a feature of
assertives and not of other types of speech acts [Austin, 1962; Searle, 1969]. I
think that Habermas mixes truth with what I prefer to call descriptive correctness.
1 It is obvious that Habermas asserts truth to be a universal validity claim: ”The validity claim of
constative speech acts is presupposed in a certain way by speech acts of every type”. ”Truth is
universal validity claim; its universality is reflected in the double structure of speech” [Habermas,
1979 p 52].
The Validity of Validity Claims
The Language-Action Perspective on Communication Modelling 2000 15
It is possible to relate descriptive correctness with all types of speech acts and not
only assertives. Truth is to be seen as one special kind of descriptive correctness
and this feature is only valid for assertives. I distinguish between three types of
descriptive correctness: Truth, linguistic adequacy and descriptive completeness.
I use a single example for illustrations of these three categories: Person A is
uttering: ”I want something to drink”. Person B is responding: ”There is a glass of
water on the table”. A can assess B´s response, i.e. evaluate the communication
claims raised by person B. Concerning the communication claim of descriptive
correctness, he can contest it in different ways. He can say: 1) ”No, I can not see
any glass on the table”. In this case he is contesting the truth of the utterance. He
can also say: 2) ”Yes I see, but it is only some left in the bottom. I would not call
this a glass of water.” In this case he is not accusing B for not telling the truth.
There is a glass with some water on the table, but it is not considered to be enough
to drink. He is contesting the lingusitical adequacy of speaking of a glass of water.
He can also say: 3) ”No, I do not want to drink it. I think the water is poisoned”.
In this case he is contesting that the utterance of B is informative enough. B is not
telling the ”whole story”. Some important information is concealed. A is contesting
that B´s utterance is descriptively complete.
In all of these objections made by person A, he is evaluating it from an action
view, i.e. from his interest to drink something. It is not only objections concerning
desciptive correctness. The objections are concerned with appropriateness and
efficiency. He is recognizing obstacles for drinking.
The validity claim for normative rightness needs also some commenting. I am
not challenging that it should not be seen as a universal claim in the same way as I
did with the truth claim. I do think it is important to assess speech acts concerning
their concordance to social norms. The problem is that rightness sometimes seems
to be a residual category. All that is not truth and truthfulness claims can be
considered as rightness claims. Such a vague concept is not useful. Sometimes
”rightness” is substituted by ”appropriateness”. This is made by Habermas and
commented above (sec 3.3). Also [Schoop, 1999] is making such a substitution. I
take this as an expression of a need for more exhaustive claims, as I have showed in
sec 3 above. Normative rightness is the thematized claim related to the interactive
and regulative use of language in Habermas´ theory. I think this is the reason why it
is sometimes becoming a residual category for all aspects concerning social
interaction. But all aspects concerning social interaction can not be reduced to
issues of norm concordance. This objection is in accordance with the critical
observation made by [Joas, 1991 p 100] concerning Habermas´ action theory:
"interaction that is not normatively regulated, or is so only slightly, is lacking in
Habermas´ typology".
Normative rightness seems, however, mainly to be concerned with existing
normative background and I think that this claim should clearly be restricted to this.
G. Goldkuhl
16 The Language-Action Perspective on Communication Modelling 2000
Such a normative background consists of ”institutions, roles, socioculturally
habitual forms of life” [Habermas, 1979 p 54]. A speech act is said to ”actualize an
already-established pattern of relations” [ibid]. A speech act with thematized
rightness claims implies that it is ”covered by existing norms, and that means by (at
least) de facto recognition of the claim that these norms rightfully exist” [ibid].
When describing it in this way I think it is rather clear that normative rightness is
concerned with existing social rules, institutions etc. It can not be reduced to issues
of contingent action appropriateness, as I showed several examples of in section 3
above. To avoid ambiguity I will rename this claim and call it norm alignment.
Besides these three partially reformulated claims from Habermas (sincerity,
descriptive correctness and norm alignment) I would like to add some more
communication claims. I present a list of general communication claims (table 2):
General communication claim Communication aspect
Sincerity Speaker
Norm alignment Norms
Descriptive correctness Refered world
Addressee relevance Addressee
Respectfulness Addressee
Deliberation Means and ends
Dialogical adequacy Other utterances
Argumentativeness Utterance itself
Comprehensibility Language
Table 2 General communication claims and corresponding communication aspect
This list is to be seen as preliminary. There remains more work to be done; both
theoretically and empirically. I will briefly comment on the different claims which
have been added. First a general remark. Instead of talking about universal claims a
prefer to talk about general claims. By universal Habermas means that these claims
are applicable for all possible speech acts. The concept of general claims is not as
hard as that. By general claims I mean that these claims can in principal be raised
for different types of speech acts; that is they are applicable to the different speech
act classes. Every claim may not be appropriate to raise for every speech act due to
its characteristics and context.
The different communication claims can be related to different aspects of the
communication situation; not only the three worlds of Habermas. In table 2 the
relations between the utterance and these important communication aspects are
described. The claims can be seen as relational concepts, binding together the
utterance and the communication aspect.
The Validity of Validity Claims
The Language-Action Perspective on Communication Modelling 2000 17
Habermas´ model is considered to be more symmetric (than that of Searle) since
it considers the mutuality of speaker and listener. I think this is true but not in all
aspects. I have found it astonishing that the (world of the) speaker is apprehended
but not the (world of the) listener. The relations to the listener is in Habermas´
model reduced to be one (implicit) aspect of normative rightness. The listener
(addressee) must be considered to be one important part to relate that utterance to
and thereby to challenge its claims. I distinguish two claims which are related to the
the addressee: Addressee relevance and respectfulness. It is possible to challenge a
speech act for not being addressed correctly. The objection #1 (in the example in
sec 3) can be seen to be such a case. S contests that he, as seminar participant, and
not an employee, should perform the proposed action. In #1 and #3 it is contested
that the speech acts of P are not respectful enough. One could claim that
respectfulness should be special case of norm alignment, since it is concerned with
ethical treatment in communication situations. I would like to restrict norm
alignment to underlying norms, and having explicitly addressee respectfulness as a
general claim since it is directly related to the addressee.
Another deficiency of Habermas´ model is his reluctance of bringing in means-
ends rationality. Speech acts can be contested due to means and ends. In the
example there were objections concerning inappropriate means (#5, #6, #7) and
ends (#9). One way to put it is to say is that the request was not deliberate enough.
Appropriate ends or means were not chosen. I call this claim deliberation. The
speech act should be an expression of well deliberated ends and means. When
explicitly adressing ends and means one is addressing intended perlocutionary
Speech act theory has been criticized for being too narrow-sighted and only
viewing isolated speech acts [Ljungberg & Holm, 1996]. Discourse aspects are
mainly disregarded. A discourse is considered to be a collection of statements with
relations to each other [Coulthard, 1985]. A conversation is a discourse, in this
meaning, that is consists of several inter-related statements from different
participants. A text is a discourse when it consists of written inter-related
statements. A compound utterance can also be seen as a discourse.
An utterance can be challenged from a discourse perspective [Kreckel, 1981].
What is said in one utterance can be questioned if it is not an adequate response to
another utterance (#10:B). I call this dialogical adequacy. There can also be critique
towards a single utterance for not being argumentatively lucid, transparent and
The last general communication claim comes from Habermas. It is the
comprehensibility claim. The utterance must be understandable in accordance with
linguistic rules and competence.
When formulating these different communication claims I have used the
powerful operational principle of Habermas for assessment of speech act claims.
G. Goldkuhl
18 The Language-Action Perspective on Communication Modelling 2000
The intepreter can take a ’yes’ or ‘no’ position against the speech act. The
contesting position depends on what aspect is contested. I have above described
that such a questioning can be made concerning the following aspects: The
utterance´s relations to the speaker´s intentions, to social norms, to the refered
world, to the addressee, to means and ends, to other utterances, to the utterance
itself and to language.
5 Conclusions
The purpose of this paper was to critically investigate the validity claim concept of
Habermas´ communicative action theory. This should be interpreted as an analysis
of one important theoretical underpinning of LAP. The validity claim concept has
been used by IS researchers without any deeper analysis of it. I have questioned if
the validity claim concept is a valid concept in a theory concerning communication.
I have questioned the concept of validity claim in different respects. The concept in
itself is too narrow. Speech acts can not only be contested by ”historical validities”.
Speech acts can be challenged concerning their presence and suggested future. An
addressee can question whether the speech act is reasonable.
The concept of universal validity claims is transformed to general
communication claims. The claim concept was made more restricted in the sense
that these claims are not considered to be applicable for all speech acts, but
applicable for different speech act types in principal. The claim concept was made
less restricted in the sense that it covers other aspects than validity claims.
One of Habermas´ validity claims is the truth claim. This claim is rejected as
universal. Truth is one subclass of descriptive correctness, which is considered to
be a general communication claim. The rightness claim has been renamed norm
alignment. Besides the four claims emanating partially from Habermas (sincerity,
descriptive correctness, norm alignment, comprehensibility) several other general
claims were formulated: Addressee relevance, respectfulness, deliberation,
dialogical adequacy, argumentativeness.
There is a need for future research along the lines presented in this paper. The
different communication claims have been formulated based on a critical reading of
Habermas and an investigation of some of his prototype examples. Empirical
research is needed to further validate the communication claims presented in the
paper. There is also a need to look deeper into other communication theories and
compare the communication claims presented here with other theoretical
constructs; e.g. the felicity conditions of [Austin, 1962], the speech act conditions
of [Searle, 1969], the conversational maxims of [Grice, 1975] and the felicity
conditions of [Allwood, 1976].
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... Individuals engaged in social actions are able to undergo periods of critical reflection when validity claims are accepted or challenged (Habermas, 1984). To accept the validity claims within a social action, a listener has accepted the communicative act set forth (Goldkuhl, 2000) and accepts the communicative act in the context in which it was set forth. The context (Habermas, 1987) is commonly shared knowledge about a world set of circumstances and events, a social world of people and community, and an inner world of the individual. ...
... These validity claims are truth, normative rightness, and sincerity. Habermas states that communication is based on language as a medium of understanding and in this understanding, communication participants can raise validity claims that can be accepted or challenged (Habermas, 1984;Goldkuhl, 2000). That is, within every communicative act, claims of validity are set forth and these validity claims can be challenged or accepted by individuals who receive them. ...
... This validity claim is a basis for the three prior universal claims. If the language is incomprehensible, accepting or challenging the validity claims of truth, normative rightness, or sincerity is impossible (Goldkuhl, 2000). ...
... Potentially, the listener could challenge these validity claims. The validity claims were deemed accepted by the listener when the listener accept a speech act [29]. In summary, good communication is necessary in order to reach a consensus. ...
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