Skepticism and the Sociology of Rational Discourse
Social psychologists are often accused of skepticism nowadays. Explaining rational discourse in terms of social organization or social interests seems to deprive such discourse of its rationality. This paper argues that sociologically-inspired explanations of rational talk at least do not deprive it of denotational value. To assume that the social functions of rational talk cancel its denotational value is to presuppose that the denotational and social functions of speech are in principle separable. Those who complain about the skepticism of social psychology make this questionable assumption. They are, however, right to complain. Most sociologically-inspired accounts of rational discourse make their own questionable assumption, by presenting the denotational content of rational discourse as mere ideology. This skepticism leads to theoretical and practical problems. Theoretically, it undermines the social theory’s own denotational value. Practically, it often leads to paralyzing self-reflection. The skeptics and their critics share a way of thinking that is prone to skepticism. One embraces while the other ignores the sociology of rational discourse, but both assume discourse cannot be rational and yet thoroughly social. A theory of how language use can be both rational and social may help overthrow the opposition between skeptics and naive cognitivists. Toward this end, this paper sketches a theory of rational discourse as social action.
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