Human Studies

, Volume 34, Issue 4, pp 393–406

Habermas on Understanding: Virtual Participation, Dialogue and the Universality of Truth

Theoretical / Philosophical Paper


Although the success of Habermas’s theory of communicative action depends on his dialogical model of understanding in which a theorist is supposed to participate in the debate with the actors as a ‘virtual participant’ and seek context-transcendent truth through the exchange of speech acts, current literature on the theory of communicative action rarely touches on the difficulties it entails. In the first part of this paper, I will examine Habermas’s argument that understanding other cultural practices requires the interpreter to virtually participate in the “dialogue” with the actors as to the rationality of their cultural practice and discuss why, according to Habermas,such dialogue leads to the “context-transcendent truth”. In the second part, by using a concrete historical example, I will reconstruct a “virtual dialogue” between Habermas and Michael Polanyi as to the rationality of scientific practice and indicate why Habermas’s dialogical model of understanding based on the methodology of virtual participation cannot achieve what it professes to do.


Theory of communicative action Performative understanding Virtual participation Dialogue Universality of Truth 


  1. Bauman, Z. (1976). Towards a critical sociology: An essay on commonsense and emancipation. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.Google Scholar
  2. Bernstein, R. J. (1983). Beyond objectivism and relativism: Science, hermeneutics and praxis. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.Google Scholar
  3. Bernstein, R. (1985). Introduction. In R. Bernstein (Ed.), Habermas and modernity (pp. 1–32). Oxford: Basil Blackwell.Google Scholar
  4. Bloor, D. (1991). Knowledge and social imagery (2nd ed.). London: RKP.Google Scholar
  5. Bourdieu, P. (1991). The peculiar history of scientific reason. Sociological Forum, 5, 3–26.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Bourdieu, P. (2000). Science of science and reflexivity. London: Polity.Google Scholar
  7. Bourdieu, P. (2003). Participant objectivation. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 9, 281–294.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Collins, H. (1985). Changing order: Replication and induction in scientific practice. London: Sage.Google Scholar
  9. de Grazia, A. (1963). The scientific reception system and Dr. Velikovsky. American Behavioral Scientist, 7(1), 45–51.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Giddens, A. (1984). The constitution of society. Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  11. Habermas, J. (1983). Interpretive social science vs. hermeneuticism. In N. Haan (Ed.), Social science as moral inquiry (pp. 251–270). New York: Columbia University Press.Google Scholar
  12. Habermas, J. (1984). The theory of communicative action (Vol. I). Boston, MA: Beacon.Google Scholar
  13. Habermas, J. (1985). Questions and counterquestions. In R. Berstein (Ed.), Habermas and modernity (pp. 192–216). Oxford: Basil Blackwell.Google Scholar
  14. Habermas, J. (1990). The philosophical discourse of modernity: Twelve lectures. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  15. Habermas, J. (1996). Coping with contingencies. In J. Niznik & J. T. Sanders (Eds.), Debating the state of philosophy: Habermas, Rorty, Kolakowski (pp. 1–30). Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers.Google Scholar
  16. Habermas, J. (1998). Between facts and norms. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  17. Habermas, J. (2000). Richard Rorty’s pragmatic turn. In R. Brandom (Ed.), Rorty and his critics (pp. 31–55). Oxford: Blackwell.Google Scholar
  18. Hacking, I. (1999). The social construction of what? Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  19. Hammersely, M. (1992). What’s wrong with ethnography? London: RKP.Google Scholar
  20. Hollis, M. (1982). The social destruction of reality. In M. Hollis & S. Lukes (Eds.), Rationality and relativism (pp. 67–86). Oxford: Blackwell.Google Scholar
  21. Hoy, D. C. (1994). Critical theory and critical history. In D. C. Hoy & T. McCarthy (Eds.), Critical theory (pp. 101–214). Cambridge, MA: Blackwell.Google Scholar
  22. Kim, K.-M. (2005). Discourses on liberation : An anatomy of critical theory. Boulder, CO: Paradigm.Google Scholar
  23. Kim, K.-M. (2009). What would a Bourdieuan sociology of scientific truth look like? Social Science Information, 48, 57–79.Google Scholar
  24. Lynch, M. (1993). Scientific practice and ordinary action. New York: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  25. McCarthy, T. (1985). Reflections on rationalization in the theory of communicative action. In R. Bernstein (Ed.), Habermas and modernity (176–191). Oxford: Basil Blackwell.Google Scholar
  26. McCarthy, T. (1988). Scientific rationality and the ‘strong programme in the sociology of knowledge. In E. McMullin (Ed.), Construction and constraint: The shaping of scientific rationality (pp. 75–96). Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.Google Scholar
  27. McCarthy, T. (1994). Philosophy and critical theory: A reprise. In D. C. Hoy & T. McCarthy (Eds.), Critical theory (pp. 1–100). Cambridge, MA: Blackwell.Google Scholar
  28. Merton, R. K. (1973). The sociology of science: Theoretical and empirical investigations. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  29. Mulkay, M. (1976). Norms and ideology in science. Social Science Information, 15, 637–656.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Mulkay, M. (1980). Sociology of science in the west. Current Sociology, 28, 1–168.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Newton-Smith, W. (1981). The rationality of science. London: Routledge and Keagn Paul.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Polanyi, M. (1958). Personal knowledge. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  33. Polanyi, M. (1966). The tacit dimension. Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Company Inc.Google Scholar
  34. Polanyi, M. (1967). The growth of science in society. Minerva, 5, 533–545.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Rorty, R. (2000). Universality and truth. In R. Brandom (Ed.), Rorty and his critics (pp. 1–30). Oxford: Blackwell.Google Scholar
  36. Winch, P. (1958). The idea of social science and its relation to philosophy. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of SociologySogang UniversitySeoulSouth Korea

Personalised recommendations