Language and Social Criticism: On the Philosophical Foundations of Normative Social Inquiry

Dissertation, Boston University (1985)
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The social critic must be able to supply participants with truthful insights into their practices, particularly with regard to the representation and constitution of these practices in speaking and acting. Marx offers one form of such criticism in the critique of ideology and lays its foundations in a general theory of linguistic representation; the particular theory he employs must be criticized, but this methodology should not abandoned. His error was to restrict the function of language to mere reflection and meaning to mere denotation. Without these restrictions, however, a theory of language use and understanding is central to a normative reinterpretation of critical social theory. The most fruitful direction for such an attempt is Habermas's theory of communicative action, since it brings together in a pragmatics of communication various philosophical and empirical disciplines. By drawing upon a wide variety of literature in the philosophy of language, Habermas's formal pragmatics can be elaborated and modified so as to provide the philosophical foundations for a normative social inquiry. ;A fundamental result of this investigation is that the historical rootedness of thought does not preclude the possibility of normative social inquiry. With the rise of the social and historical sciences, philosophers have had to take seriously the relation between culture and society, between modes of thought and forms of life. Whereas Marxists have treated the problem in terms of the distinction between "true" and "false" consciousness, others, from sociologists of knowledge to cultural anthropologists, have tended toward an explicit relativism. Rather than accept these alternatives, this dissertation locates the normative basis for social criticism in the pragmatic analysis of the formal structure of communication and the meaning components of utterances. Any utterance may be criticized according to the formal structure of language use of its type, whether expressive, interactive or representational; social criticism is then the criticism of distortions in the social uses of language. Such normative social inquiry reconciles the historicity and sociality of thought and action with the critical potential of strong philosophical notions of true and false, right and wrong, and authentic and inauthentic.



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James Bohman
PhD: Boston University; Last affiliation: Saint Louis University

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Ideology, first-person authority and self-deception.Robert Welshon - 1991 - Social Epistemology 5 (3):163 – 175.

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