Lifeworld and Interactions: Mediations on Habermas example

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Lifeworld and Interactions: Mediations on Habermas


This paper discusses aspects of Habermas’s theory of communicative action that are related to symbolic interaction in the lifeworld. According to Habermas, contemporary societies have two structural components: the system and the lifeworld. The former is politics and economics, mediated by power and money. The latter is the realm of meaningful human communication and interaction. The two realms depend on and influence each other. For example, professional identities are shaped in the lifeworld, but matter for the system as well.

Lifeworld and Interactions: Mediations on Habermas

Some philosophical ideas are so profound that can be unpacked by a reference to a seemingly simple everyday experiences. Indeed, there is certain dialectic between simplicity and profundity. Scientific technical jargon applied to the simplest phenomena of our daily life can be confusing and often reducible to banality instead of being profoundly illuminating. A case to the contrary can be made in relation to Habermas’s theory of communicative action. Take the example of a phrase we hear quite often ourselves adding to our conversations with others: “you know…” Why do we say it and what does it mean?

In order to unpack the meaning of this simple phrase, one has to look at Habermas’s social theory. Habermas viewed contemporary society as consisting in two parts which he termed, respectively, the “system” and the “lifeworld”. The former refers to the realms of the economy and politics, where people act rationally and in view of their selfish, instrumental goals. Money and power mediate human interactions within the “system”. I pay the seller to buy the shoes, and we can call it quits: we do not need to enter in any more lasting or meaningful mutual relations beyond the simple act of monetary exchange. The military does what politicians tell them to do, because, as members of an organization, they are subordinate to a higher authority. On the contrary, the “lifeworld” refers to the realm of everyday human interactions that are not instrumental, but communicative: they aim to create and convey meanings, not just make other do something or optimize ends and means of the action. A friendly talk, an emotional experience of art, an exchange of symbols of mutual sympathy (gifts, greetings), all these are examples of symbolic action in the lifeworld. The lifeworld is what makes all these actions meaningful for us and others, so that we can understand each other. In that respect it is different from the systemic realms governed by money and power. In Brookfield’s words, lifeworld denotes “all those assumptions that frame how we understand our experience of life and how we try to convey that experience to others. [It is] the background rules, assumptions, and commonsense understandings that structure how we perceive the world and how we communicate that perception to those around us. This kind of primordial, prereflective knowledge hovers on the periphery of consciousness, a shadowy frame to all we think and do” (2005, pp. …

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