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The virtuous circle of discourse : why Habermasian critical theory is blind to social traps Goenaga Orrego, Agustín Alonso

Abstract

This paper raises a critique concerning the limitations that Habermas’s Theory of Communicative Action (TCA) faces to engage with topics such as social traps. The main argument is that the developmentalist explanation of ego ontogenesis that supports the possibility of the “discourse principle” reduces the TCA’s effectiveness to explain social transformation in less-than-ideal situations. The paper introduces the concept of social traps through Rothstein’s account of the recursive dynamics between individual agents and social structures in non-cooperative scenarios, and follows his criticisms of rationalist and culturalist approaches. The same problems that these strands of the literature suffer are present, although for different reasons, in the TCA: wrong assumptions about human action, deterministic views of social reality, and a narrow understanding of social transformation. Along these lines, the paper explores the implications that the Habermasian notion of praxis as discursive competences and autonomy has for a wider conception of agency in cases where discourse is inhibited or disrupted. Moreover, this becomes a real problem due to the circular relationship between, on the one hand, the development of the cognitive and moral competences necessary to participate in discursive practices and, on the other, how these practices foster the very same competences that they require to prevail (“the virtuous circle of discourse”). The combination of these elements raises a number of challenges for the TCA to provide convincing explanations about the way in which social traps operate and, especially, how social transformation can be generated in those situations from the micro-level. Finally, the author concludes with some suggestions to be considered in the development of a critical methodology to observe social traps.

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