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Some Distinctions in Universal Pragmatics: A Working Paper Jürgen Habermas Theory and Society, Vol. 3, No. 2. (Summer, 1976), pp. 155-167.

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A Working Paper


One can intuitively distinguish between the objectivity of external nature, the normative character of society, the intersubjectivity of language, and the subjectivity of internal nature. If this distinction has any systematic impact, one should be able to demonstrate corresponding structures in speech, that is in the medium through which the subject realizes those delimitations within every-day life. This attempt can be made by adopting the viewpoint of a universal pragmatics, which should rationally reconstruct the general struc- tures of speech and should thereby exhibit the communicative competence of the adult speaker. From this perspective, the membranes become visible by which language not only bounds itself off from external or objectified nature, against the normative reality of society, and against internal subjective nature, but also, as it were, opens itself osmotically to them. In what follows I can only deal summarily with the results of universal pragmatic studies whlch have been more extensively dealt with elsewhere.*

1.1 Speech Act

We regard the speech act as the elementary unit of speech-i.e. as the smallest (verbal) utterance sequence which is comprehensible and acceptable to at least one other competent actor within a communications context. Universal

Max PIanck Instirut, Sturnberg

Copyright O 1976 by Jurgen Habermas. All rights reserved. Translated by Pieter Pekelharing and Cornelis Disco.

* "Was Heisst Universal Pragmatik?" in K. 0.Apel, ed., Sprachpragmatik und Philosophie (Frankfurt alM, 1976). pp. 174-273, where further references will be found.

pragmatics aims at a reconstruction of the rule systems over which adult speakers must have mastery in order to use sentences in utterances at all, regardless of the specific natural language to which the sentence belongs or the context in which it happens to be embedded. Thus, when there is mention of speech acts below, abstract utterances are alwzys intended; these do not, like concrete utterances, correspond to some contingent context, but solely to a generalized, speech-act-typically limited context. For example, we will be referring only to those contextual requisites which must in general be fulfilled in order for a speech act to pass for an assertion instead of e.g. a promise, a piece of advice, an order, etc. The empirical impact of this type of analysis is secured in the assumption that context-dependent verbal or non- verbal utterances without change in meaning can be replaced by speech acts of an explicit and standardized form. Searle's "principle of expressibiLtyW does justice to this idea: It is in principle possible that every speech act which one performs or could perform is unequivocally specified in a sentence (or a number of sentences) to the extent that one assumes that the speaker has expressed his intuition precisely, explicitly, and literally.

  • 1.2 Illocutionary Force

With the successful completion of a speech act, an interpersonal relationship between two competent actors is simultaneously produced and represented. "Doing things in saying something"-this is what Austin saw as the illo- cutionary force of speech act. It is this which ties down the communicative role of the uttered contents. We can say of a speech act that it is successful if the intended relationship between a speaker and a hearer is brought about and if H understands and accepts the contents uttered in the communicative role which is indicated by S; for example, as a promise, an assertion, or an order. The illocutionary comprehensibility and acceptability of an utterance depends on whether the general context, required for the particular type of

speech act,

holds, and on whether the speaker is prepared to engage in a

specific relationship through his act. This relationship implies the guarantee that certain conditions will be met as a consequence of his utterance: e.g. regarding his question as fulfilled when a satisfactory answer has been given; dropping an assertion when its untruth becomes apparent; or re-emphasizing an order when it is not followed. The illocutionary force of the speech act thus resides in its ability to move the hearer to basing his own actions on the assumption that the speaker is making a serious offer.

  • 1.3 Invariance of Propositional Content in Different Speech Acts

The characteristic double structure of every speech act becomes visible in its standard-form. This form consists of two sentences: a) a sentence charac-

terized by a performative verb in the first-person present tense and b) a dependent clause of propositional content. The illocutiotzary conzporlent is thus supplemented by a propositional one. This propositional component, when used in constative speech acts, always assumes the form of a proposi- tion. In non-constative speech acts the propositional content is not asserted, but only mentioned ("propositional content" is equivalent to Frege's Gedan- ken, or to what others call "unasserted proposition"). A fundamental feature of language is exhibited in the abstraction of the propositional contents from the assertion of a proposition: we can hold the same propo- sitional content invariant over against changing types of speech acts.

  • 1.4 Two Levels of Communication

The uncoupling of illocutionary and propositional components in the for- mation and transformation of speech:acts is a necessary condition for the seperation of the two levels of communication:

  • a) the level of intersubjectivity, on which the speaker and hearer, through

illocutionary acts, bring about the interpersonal relationships which allow them to achieve mutual understanding and

  • b) the level of objects in the world, or states of affairs about which they

would want to achieve a consensus in terms of the communicative role as laid down in a).

A speech act can only succeed if the participants fulfill the double structure of speech and carry on their communication on both levels at once: they have to unite the communication of a content with meta-communication about the role, in which the communicated content is to be taken. Certainly, speakers can focalize either the level of intersubjectivity, on which they deal with interpersonal relationships, or the level of communicated contents. Thls differentiates the interactive from the cognitive use of language. In interactive language use we focalize the type of relationship entered into by a speaker and hearer, as e.g. a warning, a promise, or an order, while the propositional content of the utterance is only mentioned. In cognitive language use we focalize the content of the utterance as a proposition about something which happens (or could happen) in the world, while we express the type of interpersonal relationships only in passing.

  • 1.5 Validity Claims

Constative speech acts, following Austin, are those speech acts which are permissible in cognitive language use. They can be distinguished from other

speech acts by the fact that they imply an unmistakeable validity claim:

namely, a truth claim. Of course, other types of speech acts also imply at least some validity claim; but when it comes to demonstrating exactly which validity claim they imply, we seldom come up against such a clearly demarcated and universally acknowledged claim as "truth" (in the sense of propositional truth). Grounds for this are obvious: the validity claims of constative speech acts are, in a certain sense, presupposed for aN types of speech acts. The meaning of the propositional content which is expressed in non-constative speech acts can be made explicit by transforming the speech act into an assertion and the dependent sentence of propositional content into a proposition-the truth claim then belongs essentially to the meaning of the proposition expressed therein. Thus, truth claims are validity claims of a sort which are built into the structures of all possible speech. Truth is a universal validity claim: its universality is reflected in the double structure of speech.

Of course, truth is only the most conspicuous and by no means the sole validity claim which is anchored in the formal structures of speech itself. The illocutionary force of a speech act, which brings about an interpersonal relationship between consensually interacting participants, arises from the binding force of acknowledged norms of action; to the extent that a speech act is part of consensual interaction it actualizes an already established value-pattern. The validity of a normative background of institutions, roles, socioculturally accepted forms of life and so on, is always already presup- posed. This is in no way limited only to institutional speech acts which, like "betting," "greeting," "baptizing," "naming," and so forth, directly fulfill norms of action. In promises, advise, prohibitions, and prescriptions-which are not ab origine regulated by institutions-the speaker also implies a validity claim which, for the speech act to be successful, must be in accordance with existing norms: and that means, with the, at least, factual recognition of the claim that these norms legitimately exist. Such relations between the validity claims implicitly made in speech acts and the validity of their normative background is particularly emphasized in interactive language use, that is, .in ~erformingregulative speech acts (like giving orders, permission, making recommendations, etc.). In the same way, emphasis is laid on truth claims in cognitive language use and in the performance of constative speech acts. But even assertions, reports, explanations, etc. also give rise to interpersonal relationships which, in order to arise at all, must merge with established value-patterns; this means that they must accord to an existing normative background. So through the illocutionary force of speech acts, the normative validity claim-i.e. rightness or legitimacy-is just as universally built into the structures of speech as is the truth claim.

The same goes for the veracity of the speakers. From the moment that a speaker falls to live up to this claim and thereby loses his credibility, communicative action can no longer be carried on. Either the participants shift over to strategic action; or they continue consensual interaction with different means by entering into argumentation; or they cease communicating forthwith. Veracity guarantees the transparency of a subjectivity representing itself in speech. It becomes especially emphasized in expressive language use, where neither the interpersonal relationship nor the propositional content, but rather the intentions of the speaker as such become thematic. Con- sequently, veracity corresponds to those representative speech acts allowable in expressive language use in the same way that truth corresponds to the constative, and legitimacy to the regulative, speech acts. But even in asser- tions or promises the speaker expresses intentions with the claim that the expressed intentions are meant in fact. Thus, the veracity claim too is universally implied in all possible speech, insofar as the premises of consensual interaction are not totally suspended. (The same is trivially so for the claim for the comprehensibility of an utterance. The fulfillment of this claim is presupposed in every communication.)

The modes of language use can only be paradigmatically bounded. I do not want to say that given speech act sequences can be unambiguously classified from this viewpoint. I only want to assert that every competent speaker in principle has the possibility of choosing among one of the three modes of communication when he unambiguously wants to state a propositional content as such, stress an interpersonal relationship as such, or express an intention as such. Correspondingly, we differentiate between the pro- positional attitude of a non-participating third person, the performative attitude of a participant conforming with the expectations of a second person, and the expressive attitude of the first person, presenting himself in front of other persons.

Having introduced several concepts of and assumptions in universal prag- matics, I would like to undergird the original thesis with three more or less speculative suggestions.

2.1 Domain Deliminations

A breakdown of consensus-oriented non-strategic interaction can be avoided, and speech acts succeed, only under the assumption that the speaker credibly raises four validity claims simultaneously: he claims truth for a proposition

(or for the existential presupposition of the propositional coiltent men- tioned); then legitimacy with respect to the norms or the values which justify a performatively generated interpersonal relationship in a given context; further, veracity with respect to the self-presentation of the speaker's inten- tions; and, finally, comprehensibility with respect to the semantic content of the sentences used in an utterance. It is possible, of course, for individual validity claims to be thematically emphasized; whereby the truth of pro- positional contents in cognitive, the legitimacy of interpersonal relationships in interactive, and the veracity of the speakers in expressive language use, comes to the fore; in every consensual interaction, however, the system of all four validity claims comes into play-they are universal, that is, they must always be raised simultaneously, even when they cannot all be focalized at the same time.

This universality of the validity claims which are embedded in the structure of speech can now be explained by means of the systematic locus of language. In speech there is consistent reference to all four domains-external nature, society, internal nature, and speech itself. Thus, we grant objectivity to those experiences which can be expressed explicitly as propositional content. Objectivity is hereby characterized as the mode in which objectified reality appears in speech. "Truth" is the claim we maintain with respect to the objectivity of experiences. The societal reality of values and norms enters into speech through the illocutionary components of speech acts, as it were, through the performative attitude of the speaker, while internal nature manifests itself in speech through the intentions expressed by the speaker. We have introduced normativity and subjectivity to denote the way in which the domains of a non-objectified society and a non-objectified internal nature appear. Legitimacy and veracity are the corresponding validity claims. In this way, the universal structures of speech not only secure reference to objec- tified reality, but also allow for the normativity of utterances as well as for the subjectivity of uttered intentions. Finally, I use "intersubjectivity" as a term for the communality between competent actors which is brought about through the understanding of identical meanings and the acknowledgement of universal claims to validity. The claim which can be asserted with regard to intersubjectivity is comprehensibility-this is the validity claim which is specific to speech itself.

We can examine each seperate utterance to see if it is true or not, justified or not, veracious or not, comprehensible or not. This is so because in speech, no matter what is emphasized, portions of external nature, of society, of internal nature, and of language itself continually and simultaneously achieve expres- sion. That this is also the case for language itself arises from the nature of

speech, viz. that it is the peculiar medium in which the means of language are not only instrumentally applied but also mirrored on every occasion of their use. The reflexive language use of indirect speech (citations, references, etc.) only makes explicit what is implicitly the case for all speech: in speech, speech itself stands out from the domains of external nature, society, and inner nature as a reality sui generis, as soon as the child learns how to distinguish symbols, meanings, and referents from one another.

2.2 Pragmatic Universals

By adopting the standpoint that four domains simultaneously achieve expres- sion in speech, it may also be possible to order the most important universal properties of speech.

Each specific language offers a reference system which permits a sufficiently reliable identification of something in the world about which one would want to make propositions. In particular languages we observe various realizations of one single elementary structure, which yields to the fundamental catagorization of all possible objects. In each language, mechanisms are available which allow us to classify, serialize, localize, .and temporalize the objects of possible experience. The universality of the reference systems within which we objectify reality arises from the development of cognitive operations related to the manipulation of physical objects (things and events). The child learns the logic of using denotative expressions through concrete operations (in Piaget's sense) and not immediately with grammatical func- tions.

Each specific language offers a system of personal pronouns and a system of speech acts with the aid of which we can bring about interpersonal relation- ships. The concern here, again, is with the differing realizations within particular languages of one single elementary structure, which allows for communicative experiences within the performative attitude (and subsequent- ly for the objectification of these experiences in a propositional attitude). No matter which performative verbs and functionally equivalent forms are distinguishable in a particular language, it is possible, in any case, to construct speech act typologies from the viewpoint of what is acceptable for cognitive, interactive and expressive modes of language use.

Each particular language offers a system of intentiona! expressions for the self-presentation of subjectivity which, in spite of the degree of variation of its expression in particular languages, reflects the system of ego-delimitations. Again, the child does not automatically learn the logic of speech act types

and the use of intentional expressions with its language; this depends, rather, on his ego development, to which linguistic, as well as cognitive and inter- active development contributes.

Those properties which emerge from the function of meaning, from the syntactical organization of signs, and from the phonetic rule system, are of autochtonic linguistic origin; that is, they are linguistic universals in the narrower sense. The theory of phonetics has been developed to the point where it has in principle become possible to specify the rules according to which any given linguistic sound can be produced by combining a limited number of phonetic elements.

2.3. Communicative Development

Our concept might stimulate new perspectives for the development of com- municative competence. I should like to distinguish roughly three general stages of this development with respect to the degree of differentiation between speaking and acting as well as according to the degree of integration of speaking and knowing. In the first stage the child learns to master sym- bolically mediated interactions (and the proto-forms of a cognitive language use which is not systematically tied in with interaction). In the second stage, the maturing child can not only perform communicative acts in a general sense, based on the already but can choose among interactive, cognitive, and expressive language use, on the basis of an already developed system of speech acts. In the third stage, the adolescent acquires the ability to pass from action to "discourse."

At the stage of symbolically mediated interaction, speech and action are not clearly differentiated: the semantic content of an utterance is bound up with behavioral dispositions. The propositional attitude of the observer has not yet sufficiently seperated itself from the performative attitude of the par. ticipant and the expressive attitude of an ego, involved in self-presentation. We can formally characterize this stage of communication with the help bf the fundamental (and mutually inter-defming) concepts advanced by Mead:

viz. "the reflexive attitude" and "identical meaning." In symbolically mediated interaction, A can anticipate the behavioral reactions which his gestures call out in B. Moreover, he knows that, in turn, B can anticipate the behavioral reactions which he would call out in A with corresponding gestures. With this awareness, A can not only anticipate B's behavioral reactions, but also his symbolic utterance-regardless of whether ths is an immediate social act or whether it is the symbolic expression for the anti- cipation of a social act. Mead therefore speaks of a reflexive intelligence,

which becomes possible in this stage: “Tile importance of what we term 'communication' lies in the fact that it provides a form of behavior in which the organism or the individual may become an object to himself."

When the child has gained mastery of a natural language, the double structure of speech has been developed. The differentiation between the interpersonal relationship entered into by speaker and hearer and the propositional content about which they communicate, means, on the one hand, that a systematic connection arises between communicative action and cognition and, on the other, that speech acquires the status of an independent medium over against the societal reality of established values and norms. The speech-act invariance of the propositional content has as a consequence:

  • - the differentiating out of a cognitive language use concentrating on propositional content.

  • - the linguistic organization of experience, in fact of all cognition, which makes possible a use of language independent of situational context, by virtue- of denotations referring to situations different from the situation of actual speech.

The liberation of speech acts from the imperative network of interactions expresses itself in the differentiation between speech and its concomitant normative background. This implies:

  • - a diversity of speech act types which presupposes the validity of norms of action, as well as a diversity of intentional expressions which presupposes the validity of cultural values

  • - the differentiation between the understanding of an utterance and the acceptance of the validity claim thematized by the speaker.

The integration of cognition into speech and the differentiation between speech and action further implies:

  • - the possibility of objectifying a speech act after its performance adopting a propositional attitude.

  • - a differentiation of two reference systems which, in a nutshell, contain the pre-scientific ontologies of an objectified reality which is accessible through instrumental action and of a non-objectified society which is experienced through communicative action. This occurs in such a way that the speakers, through distantiations both from external nature and normative reality, also achieve a certain remove from their own internal nature.

The stage of formal operational thought leads to the separation out of pure discursive speech (or argumentation). Both of the aforementioned develop- ments, viz. the integration of speech and cognition and the uncoupling of speech and interaction, terminate herein. Elsewhere I have dealt with "discourse" as that form of communication which is free from the constraints of the very processes of action and experience, and which allows for an exchange of arguments on hypothetical validity claims, (whereby truth and legitimacy may count as discursively redeemable validity claims, while veracity can only be subject to a test of consistency over of a period of continued interactions).

With the transition to the fully developed system of speech acts, it becomes possible for the propositional content of an utterance to be seperated from its relational aspect and for it to become thematized as an utterance in cognitive language use; nonetheless, the propositional content in this stage remains embedded in action contexts to such an extent that the validity claim raised for it can only naively be accepted or rejected, but cannot be problematized as such. It is only with the transition to "discourse" that the validity claim of an assertion or the claim for the legitimacy of a command, viz. the underlying norm, can explicitly be questioned and topicalized in speech itself. The propositional content of an assertion, in "discourse," is deprived of its assertive force and is treated as a state of affairs which can either be the case or not (the same goes for the content of a command, viz norm, the validity of which we treat hypothetically.) This differentiating out of discursively redeemable validity claims in the third developmental stage corresponds to that of propositional contents in the second.

With regard to the dimensions of speech and interaction, one might suspect a development complementary to the stage by stage integration of speech and cognition. With the transition to the fully developed system of speech acts, the individual utterance has, on the one hand, seperated itself off from the normative background of institutions, forms of life, cultural values, and, on the other, from the intentions of the speaker. Thls occurs in such a way that both the interpersonal relationships and the expressive content of an utterance can be especially emphasized; neither merges any longer with the propositional content of an utterance into a meaning-amalgam, as, for example, in the exclamation "Fire!" Nonetheless, the differentiation among cognitive, interactive, and expressive language use by no means implies the exclusion of speech from contexts of communicative action: even statements, insofar as their validity is naively presupposed, are an immediate component of interaction.

It is only with the transition to "discourse" that the action and experiential contexts are relegated to the status of marginal preconditions for communica- tion. In a trivial sense, argumentation can still be regarded as a type of communicative action; what is interesting, however, are the restrictive con- ditions which underlie the actions of the participants in "discourse": these participants, to the extent that and as soon as they wish to enter into argumentation, must assume:

  • - that the normative validity claims of the speech context remain beyond consideration in order to facilitate the cooperative search for truth

  • - that the actual process of experience (including) the communicative experiences created in the performance of speech acts) is considered irrelevant and that experiential contents may be brought into "discourse" from outside, but may not be generated within it.

These three tentative and very roughly sketched stages in communicative development, which is partly based on, partly corresponding with, and complementary to cognitive development, show that the child learns to delimit, through the formation of a system of speech acts, the subjectivity of his own intentions over against the objectivity of objectified reality, the normativity of society, and the intersubjectivity of language. But only the adolescent who is capable of stepping outside of the contexts of com- municative action from time to time and who can negate not only proposi- tions and speech acts but also validity claims as such, (i.e. think hypothetical- ly) learns to master the modalities of being: ie. he learns to distinguish being from appearance, is from ought, essence (Wesen) from existence (Er- scheinung), and sign from meaning.

Up to this point we have defined the system of ego delimitations in terms of domains (external nature, society, inner nature, language) which are experi- enced or which are "given" in a certain way (objectivity, normativity, subjectivity, intersubjectivity), whereas the corresponding language use thematically focusses on specific validity claims (truth, legitimacy veracity, comprehensibility). As soon as these validity claims can be hypothetically grasped and negated, then the individual domains are no longer taken for granted in their objectivity, normativity, subjectivity, or intersubjectivity, but become modal. This means that these regions are experienced or expressed with a view to the possibility of the negation of the form in which they present themselves. We impute "being" to objectified reality in view of the possibility that our experiences may turn out to be mere "appearance" (and the corresponding assertions to be untrue). This distinction between "being"

(Sein) and "appearance" (Schein) corresponds to that between "is" and "ought" on the one hand, and "essence" (Wesen) and "existence" (Erschei- nung) on the other. We accept a command, backed by a legitimating norm, as something which I "ought" to do, in the awareness of the possibility that the "ought"-validity of the underlying norm may rest on wish-fantasies or on a purely enforced acknowledgement, i.e., in both cases on mere empirical processes, on a "being" (so that a corresponding request in "discourse" would have to turn out as ungrounded). Lastly, it is only against the background of his possible un-veracity, that we are convinced that a speaker brings his intentions "essentially into existence" in his utterances and that he does not, thereby, hde his "essence" (so that, were we to continue the interaction with him long enough, we would have to assume his un-veracity at the hand of inconsistencies).

The affirmative modes of the "is" of an objectified reality, the "ought" of a normatively valid reality, the "essential existence" of an expressed sub- jectivity, are defined as the negation of a possible deception: they are not merely appearance, not only seeming validity, not simply a deceptive existence. Such deceptions, again, arise from a non-intentional confusion of being and appearance (as evidenced in hallucinations and dreams) from the confusion of is and ought (which shows itself when wish-fantasies distort societal reality or when the legitimacy of a particular social order is a mere facade) and, finally from the confusion of essence and existence (manifest in self-deception and "blindness"). Analogously, we can also relate non-trivial misunderstandings back to a confusion in modes of being. We are able to distinguish between "sign" and "meaning" in the sense of the separability of semantic contents from a particular symbolic representation or a represen- tation within a specific language. This ability allows us to understand the meaning of a propositionally structured utterance while remaining conscious of the fact that this meaning could have been stated in another way (in another medium, another language, by another expression etc.) or more precisely (in more exact formulations) or more happily (in more appropriate formulations). Utterances in which the speaker is mistaken about the public character of the symbols which are used must lead to misunderstandings, because the semantic content forfeits its flexibility in a private language, i.e. here, sign and meaning no longer stand in a conventional relationship to one another, but are fused into one syndrome.

To the extent that we can distinguish between being and appearance, is and ought, essence and existence, sign and meaning, and to the extent that we are capable of perceiving or avoiding the deceptions of mere appearance, of seeming validity, of false existence, and of misunderstandings, that is, capable

of perceiving or avoiding unintended consequences, we are in a position to exploit modal errors i?~tentionall+v.

In literary fiction and in imitative play we presuppose that a fantasized reality becomes identified as appearance; simultaneously, however, we intentionally utilize the confusion of being and appearance because the fantasized reality of literature, of exemplars, of the theatre, of legends, etc. serves the indirect communication of an experience which ought consistently to be taken seriously. With the typification and idealization of actions and situations, we presuppose that the subjective, in a certain sense seeming, character of these normalizations (Normiemngen) will be exposed; in spite of this we are still intentionally making use of the confusion between is and ought, because the idealizations of reality which are entailed in simplifying it through classifica- tions, in physical measurement, or in entering into argumentational speech etc. serve cognitive goals which we have to take seriously In symbolic or allegorical representation, in the use of ironic or metaphorical language, we presuppose that a hypostasized appearance only seemingly represents a sub- stantial content, i.e. is identified as an illusion; At the same time, we intentionally utilize the confusion between essence and existence, because it is precisely the irreality of the appearance of the essence which provides us with the disclaiming clue that the literal meaning of ironic usage or of a metaphor, i.e. that which is immediately perceived in an allegorical image, ought not to be taken literally or directly. Analogously, we can intentionally employ the confusion between sign and meaning (which, when non-inten- tional, characterizes pseudo-concrete thought) for the task of formalization, that is, for the introduction of an algorithm which allows us to disregard the specific contents of the operations: meaning, then, shrinks down into the formal options to use signs within the framework of a calculus.

These intentional modal confusions have one element in common: viz. they strip illusory phenomena (which primarily serve to denote the insufficient delimitations of subjectivity from the domains of objectivity, normativity, and intersubjectivity,) of their subjectivistic character and utilize them as media of communication and of knowledge. Because this intentional employ- ment of illusory phenomena presupposes the mastery of the mechanism of illusion, we may, contrariwise, regard the understanding of derivative moda- lities of play, of idealized constructions, of symbolic imagery, of irony, of formalism, etc. as a test of the stability of ego deliminations. The joke lends itself particularly well as a test case, because the comic effect of a joke springs from relief that one has not allowed oneself to be led into modal confusions.

meory and Society, 3 (1976) 155 -167 Elsevier Scientific Publishing Company, Amsterdam - hinted in the Netherlands