The Aesthetic Judgement Critique of The Theory of Communicative Action

The aesthetic process of reflective judgement is the process by which we decide between and agree on many non-verbal cultural matters and it seems to be the main barrier to the extension of the Theory of Communicative Action to the process of symbolic negotiation that energises much cultural production.

Some arguments will be resolved by the clear demonstration of the superiority of one solution over another. Judgement in this case is a conscious process with verifiable reasons and can be known as practical judgement. But other contentious issues cannot reach a resolution through verbal argument, or the empirical weighing of alternatives, alone. These are often moral and aesthetic judgements that are a matter of intuitive syntheses which may not avail themselves of verbal explication or any demonstrations of pragmatic superiority.

This is an area known as reflective judgement. A process that relies on our faculties of imagination and intuition exercised within conditions that are non-coercive, in which people have a sense of communicative ethics and an intersubjective recognition around a demonstrable example. This is a way of describing the process of much artistic production and consumption. People will reach understandings on such matters as what constitutes a valued movie or part thereof without a verbal debate. This agreement is not arrived at through an explicit validation of reasons as demanded by Communicative Action. To a great extent agreement is reached through a barely perceptible alignment of a collective responses. This would seem to presuppose a group of viewers that shared a particular set of cultural codes and public spaces. Does this then not undermine Habermas' claim to the universality of the rational potential of communicative action?

'Critical power requires a universal fulcrum'.[1] Habermas's universal claim is not transcendent as was Kant's, it is a claim worked up from empirical findings within a pragmatist tradition. Habermas argues this is necessary to achieve a strongly argued theoretical foundation for a radical democratic process of liberation that is relevant to a 'global village'.[2]

In the move from the universal generalisation of theory to a concrete application in a particular culture the faculty of judgement is necessary.

As we have seen, culture can be defined as consisting of a set of agreements on meaning attribution. The process of reflective judgement has clearly worked well in such processes of coming to agreements even amongst large populations. This implies that if we are to have a critical framework to assess the rationality of such judgements we have to fall back on the definition of rationality which asserts that rational communication is basically the expression of undistorted thinking. This implies we should put more attention on what distorts thinking as well as ensuring conditions of fair argumentation and systematic research.

Nevertheless a rich and free discursive environment in which participants have equal chances to communicate their thinking clearly could surely improve the capacities for good judgement. In other words reflective judgements are likely to be improved in conditions in which such a theory of Communicative Action is esteemed.

Reflective judgements are fallible; they rely on an ongoing pragmatic feedback with results and are subject to ongoing re-evaluation. If a group shares a non-rational psychosomatic character such as a feeling of superiority or inferiority towards another group then the group's judgement is likely to contain this distortion in some areas. This may be challenged discursively but formal discursive challenges do not easily dislodge attitudes that exist as historically embedded psycho-somatic attitudes such as racism. For reflective judgement to be rational in areas subject to distortion there has to be a high degree of reflexivity which extends beyond rational discourses into what Habermas mentions as the therapeutic.[3]

At critical points in a process of reaching understanding communicative redemptions of reflective judgements may called for. These are typified in the critical discourses that arise in the wake of new art movements. In a way this thesis in itself could be seen as a communicative redemption of Exploding Cinema's practice.

This allowance for the redemption of reflective judgements post facto does not answer questions about the prediscursive production of the subject positions that constitute reflective judgement. Diana Coole makes the point that our societies are so 'thoroughly encoded with hierarchies of privilege' that our very identities are produced through these contagious mechanisms.[4]

These already forged identities then colour all subsequent communication. People outside of the dominant cultural sphere can never get to participate in the discourses that Habermas seems to promote. Those who are other are separated from those discourses by such prediscursive mechanisms as disgust.[5]

Coole reminds us that a democratic communications theory must include a broad range of discourses on the reflexive re-evaluation of identity as well as the discussion of issues external to the subject. The question is, how does such a discourse begin when the subjects are literally missing? Exploding Cinema's discourse is proclaimed as open to anyone with a (second-hand) Super 8 camera and a few pounds to spend on a roll of film. No technical competences, qualifications or cash payments are required to make or show a film.

Another line of criticism asks whether a separate form of therapeutic discourse is enough to deal with the question of emotion. Emotion self-evidently has its place in arguments from the heated debate to an evocative piece of music. It is a part of most aesthetic judgements. But the historical construction of academic discourse within the codes of good taste suppresses emotion as a lower realm, which has been banished and cannot be reintroduced without appearing as a threat to the rational order.[6] This rationality conspires to exclude women, amongst others whose cultures integrate emotion more easily, from the discourses that produce Western knowledge.[7]

Although Habermas acknowledges that the body situates and thus contextualises our knowledge, his discursive redemptions are never the result of an embodied knowing in this way and so reason's incarnate legacy is not acknowledged by him. Diana Coole in (D'Entreves and Benhabib 1996 p232)

Habermas' commitment to a linguistic view of the unconscious is so strong that he is forced to reject the existence of any putatively prelinguistic domain by assimilating its apparent prelinguisticality to the linguistic... Habermas ends up assimilating the realm of drive-related wishes and phantasies to that of language. (D'Entreves & Benhabib 1996 p22)

He reduces the unconscious to the verbal commentary and report of the psychoanalyst and avoids the cathartic experiences of the subjects of 'the talking cure'. These are somatic processes that are the result of the repressed early traumas (re)surfacing for some kind of evaluation. Formative childhood experiences are allowed back into consciousness as often visceral memories for their effects to be evaluated in the light of an adult present.

In a wider consideration of democratic discourse in general the same issues turn up to distort processes of reaching for understandings. As soon as a forum is opened up on any contentious issue speech becomes animated and debate heated. A theory of communicative action needs to be able to encompass the heat of discursive process raised by the somatic dimensions of argument rather than banish them to another compartment.

Although the linguistic turn is common to both Habermas and the postmodernists they each emphasise different functions of language. The postmodernists are said to point to language's capacity to disclose the world whilst Habermas has based his ideas on its inherent capacity to allow us to reach understanding and co-ordinate action. Although these are not, in fact, mutually exclusive positions they are the polarities around which many of the critiques of Habermas have been conducted.[8]

The critiques in the authoritative collection edited by D'Entreves and Benhabib (1996) tend to show disagreements between the two contrasting theoretical approaches. But these differences of position are not as distant as one might infer from the vehemence of the discourse. They see Habermas's attempt to find a universal basis to communication as tending to reduce the fluidity, heterogeneity and dynamism of human communication and lead to prescriptive certainty, exclusion and closure.

With regard to language's function of disclosure Habermas does admit it as one of the functions of language but categorises this function as being part of the 'background'.[9] This does not resolve the debate and simply shifts the critique back onto the Achilles Heel of TCA, reflective judgement. Worse still, reflectively judged values are argued to play a role in all language and so cannot be constrained to an area of aesthetic communication.[10] Habermas does not deny this and can only be said to be guilty of an emphasis on verbal language and a relative silence on the nonverbal, particularly in TCA.[11]

The alterity of language, the fact we do not all have the exact same meanings for words and signs in general, does not seem to impede the reaching of agreements as is evidenced by the neoterisms of any living language. Language itself would not be possible without linguistic communities having a dynamic consensus on the words they use. Social life is dependent on a galaxy of agreements even if many of these seem to be either fixed in tradition or renewed without discussion. But for postmodernists alterity seems to be a metaphor for the oppressed and excluded.

This implied exclusion induces a dissonance with Habermas' sense of the normative and even more with reference to the 'purified' discourse of an Ideal Speech Situation.[12] We have seen above how Habermas has called for an inclusive interpretation of his theory but critics often seem to be more interested in how the tone of his theory might be interpreted.

Non-verbal expressions in all sense media are necessary to think about, discuss and validate all things that are outside of language proper. This sort of communication may be particularly important to the empowerment of those outside of the dominant elite and whose culture does not revolve around formal written discourses. The communicative media of such people is often generalised as oral culture.  Although criticism of the exclusive connotations of Habermas' theory may at best seem to suggest the limits to critical theory, or renegotiate the definition of rational discourse, this does not negate the paradigmatic shift that Habermas makes from a subject centered philosophy of consciousness to a communication concept of reason and rationality.

As I have pointed out Habermas does in practice tend to promote a hierarchy of discourses in which the written is of more importance than the oral and the verbal is of more interest than the non-verbal and the legislative is more powerful than the cultural. This emphasis does seem to weaken his theorising of the possibilities of an inclusive communicative rationality even though this hierarchy is simply a reflection of the inevitable academic context of the production of critical theory. Diana Coole suggests that there should be more of a continuum and interweaving between pre-literary forms of communication - oral culture and all forms of sensory expression - and the literary forms.[13]

I have already argued that a full evaluation of Exploding Cinema requires an appreciation of oral culture using amateur film to illustrate my point. In this sense the framing of TCA within the discourse of critical theory may grate with the oral framing of such an event.

To show that Habermas is aware of the limitation of his position we can remind ourselves of the Weberian roots of his theory. Following a Weberian sociological tradition he argued that Modernisation led to cultural differentiation in increasingly separated spheres of science, morality and art. Each of these developed different rationality structures (cognitive-instrumental, moral-practical, and aesthetic-expressive) each of which has a distinct type of validity claim (truth, rightness, and authenticity). These have each become the preserves of experts who use a limited subject centered conception of reason. This has led to a cultural impoverishment made more poignant set as it is against a backdrop of our escalating technological prowess.[14]

Habermas calls for mediation between science, morality, art, and everyday life.[15] Philosophy is seen as suited to this task because it is an international discourse that has a reflective distance from everyday life. Habermas does not analyse, illustrate or test his proposal for am 'aesthetic/ expressive rationality structure' in any detail or theorise how it might become communicatively rational beyond the small field of art criticism, which by definition mediates the aesthetic with words.

In The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity (1985) Habermas does concede this but does not elaborate:

In this case aesthetic experience not only revitalises those need interpretations in the light of which we perceive our world, but also influences our cognitive interpretations and our normative expectations, and thus alters the way in which all these moments refer back and forth to one another.[16]

In the same book Habermas does also concede the importance of a broad range of nonverbal arts:

The processes of reaching understanding which transpire in the lifeworld require the resources of an inherited culture in its entire range.[17]

This is then extended to the formal arts that he proposes can be of use to the lifeworld, transcending their enclosure by institutionalised spaces:

Modern art harbours a utopia that becomes a reality to the degree that the mimetic powers sublimated in the work of art find resonance in the mimetic relations of a balanced and undistorted intersubjectivity of everyday life. Habermas in (Bernstein 1992 P33) [18]

He goes on to give an example of how expert cultures can be appropriated 'from the perspective of the lifeworld'. He also argues that lifeworld institutions need to be developed free from influence from state or commerce.[19]

Aesthetic revelation must prefigure and accompany the integration of different aspects of rationality in the verbal form - which seems to reverse the hierarchy of discursive media implied in TCA. But if the aesthetic cannot be a realm of universal validity claims as Habermas states,[20] and is then reintegrated with general communication, as he argues above, then it would seem that the aesthetic aspect of communication does begin to undermine the universal claims of TCA. This can be repaired if we consider ways in which aesthetic validity claims from different places can be made reflexively transparent.

This brings up the important problem of the supposed incommensurability of different cultures value codes. But to what extent are different cultures incommensurable? Each of our senses produces a perception of the world that is incommensurable with any other, yet the joint effect of the play of the senses produces a prediscursive synaesthesia - a synthetic appreciation of the manifold of the senses. This manifold sensation will give us an impression of overall health, ease or well being - if no pain or threat is implied. 

A similar ability may also allow us to metaphorically weigh up incommensurable cultural differences - at least to the extent that we are immersed in both cultures. An idea that could pragmatically be measured by the processes of assimilation between cultures in the years following displacement and immigration. Processes it must be said that at present are inevitably distorted by systemic representations.[21]

David Ingram quotes Habermas as talking about:

A 'free interplay' 'uninhibited and balanced' - between mutually interpenetrating cognitive interpretations, moral expectations, expressions and evaluations of the sort capable of grounding the critique of reification. David Ingrams in (D'Entreves & Benhabib, 1996, p275)[22]

In the end Habermas has to appeal to aesthetic revelation to give a prefiguration of the intergration of different aspects of rationality or of different subject positions. Richard Beardsworth summarises Jean-Francois Lyotard's objection to this:

Habermas's desire to articulate difference through the hegemony of cognitive judgement is unjust to the many strands of the social fabric, which resist translation into a common structure of language. Richard Beardsworth in (Benjamin 1992 p47)[23]

Lyotard challenges Habermas's implied aesthetic production of an ideal social harmony with reference to Kant's formulation of the sublime, which is an aesthetics of dissonance, of incommensurability. For him, in a philosophical tradition in which reason has been facade for ideological justification, all the talk of consensus or synthesis is suggestive of tyranny or exclusion whether totalitarian or majoritarian. It is he argues, more important to talk about inventive dissensus.

But according to Ingrams, Lyotard seems to agree with Habermas that:

The dynamics of postindustrial capitalism exacerbate the problem of the one sided cultivation of rational competences... the scientific and technological - at the expense of the moral and expressive. David Ingram in (D'Entreves and Benhabib 1996 p270)

The argument between Habermas and the Postmodernists seems to come down to the connotative meanings of theory. Postmodernists think that these are all important whilst Habermas holds out for a coherent theoretical argument which proceeds on a denotative level. The resultant tension seems, however, to be productive.



[1] See Jurgen Habermas' Communication and the Evolution of Society, (Polity Press 1991 pp202 - 203)


[2] TCA cannot be applied as a formula to build democratic institutions. See Ricardo Blaug's '7 components of the limit to theory' (Blaug, 1999, p75). A theory of communicative rationality that predefines democratic structures would be paradoxical so any such theory cannot be prescriptive. This is a statement that implies a rejection of ideology in the classical Marxist sense. "I can imagine the attempt to arrange a society democratically only as a self-controlled learning process." (Habermas 1991 p186)

Habermas is clear that such design can only be achieved through a process of rational discourse that includes everyone. "In a process of enlightenment there can only be participants" (Habermas, 1974 p40) This would seem to be a solid validation of forms of cultural production like Exploding Cinema that are both 'open access' in a formal sense and permeable to their surroundings in a network sense.


[3] TCA1 p20. See also Habermas' Knowledge and Human Interests (1972) for his discussion of psychoanalysis.


[4] See Maurizio Passerin D'Entreves & Seyla Benhabib, eds. Habermas and the Unfinished Project of Modernity: critical essays on the Philosophical Discourse of Modernity, (Polity Press 1996 p240) in which Diane Coole refers to Iris Marion Young's Justice and the Politics of Difference (Princeton UP 1990)


[5] See Diana Coole in (D'Entreves & Benhabib 1996 p235). We might also refer to Pierre Bourdieu's Distinction (Routledge 1984 p56):

"In matters of taste, more than anywhere else, all determination is negation; and tastes are perhaps first and foremost distastes, disgust provoked by horror or visceral intolerance of the tastes of others."


[6] Pierre Bourdieu (Routledge 1985 p163) admits, "One cannot objectify the intellectual game without putting at stake one's own stake in the game - a risk which is at once derisory and absolute."


[7] D'Entreves and Benhabib (1996 p26)

[8] D'Entreves and Benhabib (1996 p23)


[9] See Habermas' Pragmatics of Communication (1999 p335/6)


[10] D'Entreves & Benhabib (1996 p24)


[11] See Coole in D'Entreves & Benhabib (1996 p228)


[12] The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity (1985 p323)


[13] Diana Coole in D'Entreves & Benhabib (1996 p227)


[14] Habermas in D'Entreves & Benhabib (1996 p45)

[15] TCA2 p398


[16] The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity (1985 p51)


[17] The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity (1985 p49)


[18] Jurgen Habermas, 'Questions and Counterquestions' in R. Bernstein ed. Habermas and Modernity, (Polity/MIT 1992 p33 & p115-16)

[19] The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity (1985 p52)


[20] TCA1 p42


[21] The 'Bigos, Artists of Polish Origin' project mentioned earlier was premised on an exploration of cultural assimilation - making choices between two sets of cultural action. The evidence of systemic distortion in the process of assimilation are already cited in 'Polish Migration to Britain: war, exile and mental health' by Michelle Winslow, Oral History Journal, Spring 1999 pp 57 - 64.


[22] 'The Subject of Justice in Postmodern Discourse: aesthetic judgement and political rationality' by David Ingram in D'Entreves & Benhabib (1996 p275)


[23] 'On the Critical 'Post': Lyotard's agitated judgement' by Richard Beardsworth in Andrew Benjamin, ed. Judging Lyotard (Routledge 1992)