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James Bohman on Discourse Theory - Dictionary of Arguments

Gaus I 156
Discourse theory/Bohman: (...) several approaches to discourse theory need to be distinguished along three important dimensions: whether they are normative, empirical, or both.
Limits of discourse theory: Bohman thesis: [I] suggest that the issue is properly
epistemic rather than linguistic, a matter of the precise nature of the critical know-how necessary to participate in discursive practices.
The proper goal of such a discursive political theory is to avoid the impasses of past debates: the Scylla of an empty idealization of discourse and the Charybdis of a blind scepticism that offers no guide to the practices in which discourse is employed.
Development: Discourse theory has been developed through three competing approaches.
1) Constructive approach/normative approach: The first and broadly 'constructive' approach is fundamentally normative, where the practical know-how of speaking and acting subjects is developed into a theory of communicative rationality that has implications for how we ought to think of political and legal institutions (Habermas, 1984(1); Rawls, 1999(2)). It construes discourse as a rule-governed activity, the rules of which may be reconstructed as procedural idealizations (such as giving all the opportunity to speak, to engage in all forms of speech and so on).
Institutions: Such a theory permits political theorists to develop explicit rules for governing discourses, rules that may have either a role in criticizing existing discursive practices or a constructive role in evaluating and designing institutions. >Discourse/Habermas, >Understanding/Habermas; - VsNormative approach: >Discourse/Bourdieu.
Gaus I 157
2) Structural approach: (...) other theories of discourse try to capture deeper, more
structural assumptions and presuppositions that shape actual discussion and practices (Foucault,
1977(3); Bourdieu, 1991(4); Butler, 1993(5)). This approach identifies deep linguistic structures and thus eschews explicit rules, aiming instead to uncover deep practical constraints operating through norms. It alerts us to relations of power within discourses. >Discourse/Social sciences.
3) Reconstructive approach/critical approach: combines the best features of both (Bohman, 1996(6); Hoy and McCarthy, 1994(7)). It seeks a theory that is normative without relying solely on idealizations and counterfactual ideals, and empirical without becoming sceptical of all attempts to institutionalize discursive practices of justification. Such an approach is operative in some proponents of the deliberative turn in democratic theory. >Deliberative Democracy/Dryzek, >Deliberative Democracy/Bohman.


1. Habermas, Jürgen (1984) The Theory of Communicative Action, vol. I. Boston: Beacon.
2. Rawls, John (1999) 'The idea of public reason revisited'. In Samuel Freeman, ed., John Rawls: Collected Papers. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press: 573—615.
3. Foucault, Michel (1977) Discipline and Punish. New York: Vantage.
4. Bourdieu, Pierre (1991) Language and Symbolic Power. Cambridge: Polity.
5. Butler, Judith (1993) Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex. London: Routledge.
6. Bohman, James (1996) Public Deliberation. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
7. Hoy, David and Thomas, McCarthy (1994) Critical Theory. London: Blackwell.


Bohman, James 2004. „Discourse Theory“. In: Gaus, Gerald F. & Kukathas, Chandran 2004. Handbook of Political Theory. SAGE Publications


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Explanation of symbols: Roman numerals indicate the source, arabic numerals indicate the page number. The corresponding books are indicated on the right hand side. ((s)…): Comment by the sender of the contribution. Translations: Dictionary of Arguments
The note [Author1]Vs[Author2] or [Author]Vs[term] is an addition from the Dictionary of Arguments. If a German edition is specified, the page numbers refer to this edition.
Bohman, James
Gaus I
Gerald F. Gaus
Chandran Kukathas
Handbook of Political Theory London 2004


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