Critical rationalism and the ‘emancipatory’ ideal type of human action

With the understanding of the actor as the author of the goals of action that the philosophy of critical rationalism provides, it is also possible to argue for dividing the ideal action type of value rationality into ‘emancipatory’ and ‘ordinary’ action. This distinction directs us to a new understanding of the theory of action. Kantian moral philosophy implies that practical reason gives the actor agency for defining a universal moral law towards which the ends of an action are oriented. I now suggest advancing the general theory of critical rationalism from the role of value rationality according to its Parsonian reading to the role played by ‘critical reason', which allows the actors to give themselves a system of values for determining the goals of action. This is what I call an ideal type of emancipatory action.

Non-justificationist epistemology facilitates a significant transition from the oversocialized man to an independent actor reflecting the capacity of the individual actor to create a universal moral law, i.e. a system of values, rather than merely respecting a given system of values common to all.

The emancipatory type of rational action

Parsons's (1968 [1937]) theory of voluntaristic action portrays human action through four major elements: (a) the ends (the state of affairs) towards which the process of action shapes, (b) the means by which the ends are to be realized.

(c) the environmental (social and natural) conditions within which an action takes place and (d) a normative orientation taken by the actor, i.e. an 'effort' combining the elements of a unit act to shape action as a whole. With this definition of a unit act in mind, the normative orientation of an action refers to the actor's usage of practical reason to internalize a given system of values in the ends of his action. Instrumental reason is also used as the cognitive capacity that the actor employs to find the most effective tools to meet the ends. Human access to instrumental reason allows the actor to realize how the environment of an action may contribute to the goals of the action. However, this definition of a unit act by Parsons forgets the emancipatory nature of Kant's model of rational action, which is critical for seeing an independent role for the actors as the authors of moral law given to themselves by themselves.

Due to its usage of pure reason for solving the practical problem of what one should do, Kant’s theory of rational action is significant for the emancipatory action type. Reason leads the human being to the realization that his capability to reason enables him to be the author of the moral law governing his action. By means of this moral law, the actor determines what ought to be the goals of his action. The general theory of critical rationalism replaces Kant’s practical reason with critical reason, which does not involve infinite regress. In order to be the authors of our goals, we do not have to justify the validity claims regarding the goals; we only need to falsify- them by checking the truth of the premises or inferences upon which the validity claims are formulated.

In this sense, the separation of justification and criticism in the theory of knowledge leads us to a new model of emancipatory action as an alternative not only for the Kantian model of action, but also for its imperfect applications by Weber's and Parsons's models of action. This alternative of emancipatory action for the creation of a system of values and social institutions demarcates itself from ordinarily action people perform in their daily life when taking their system of values as a given fact and using instrumental reason to find the most effective tools for the realization of ultimate values. Whereas Durkheim’s and Parsons’s justificationist epistemology reflects an oversocialized conception of man as merely respecting established values and institutions, the epistemology of critical rationalism introduces the concept of an emancipated actor using objective knowledge to act independently of his conditions and interests in order to express his capacity to give himself a universal moral law necessary for peaceful social order.

The ordinary type of rational action

The system of common values that individual actors create using critical reason is the basis on which social institutions may be established and becomes the given normative point of reference towards which individuals orient their action goals. The internalization of common values in the personal identities of individual actors refers to the ordinary type of human action. Within the context of these daily actions, actors use instrumental reason to consider social and natural conditions and find effective means for realizing the goals of action.

It is only in the ordinary action type that Parsons’s unit act finds its correct meaning in the assumption of a system of values and a set of social conditions as the given outcome of human action with the actor’s ends and means shaped pursuant to the optimal behaviour of the actor. According to Parsons's definition of the unit act, the actor uses practical reason to integrate common values into his goals through the socialization process. Moreover, the actor applies instrumental reason in his daily life in order to explore effective devices for turning ideal goals into reality. Hence, the action type of emancipatory behaviour remains outside of Parsons's concept model of unit act.

For the critical rationalist action type of ordinary behaviour, the Parsonian unit act requires revision to inform us how an ordinary action occurs. The justification-ist psychology Parsons borrowed from Freud's theory of ego development is no longer sufficient for explaining the process of socialization. We can understand the actor’s socialization by looking at the process of conjecture and refutation that integrates social values in personal identity. In addition, the actor benefits from instrumental reason to surmise effective means for a given end and check the validity of such a conjecture by experience. Hence, I suggest reformulation of the ordinary type of human action to base it on the epistemology of critical rationalism.

The critical rationalist theory of action proposes firstly examining the unit of action from a vertical perspective to divide it into emancipatory and ordinary action. Secondly, a horizontal viewpoint divides the action unit into value and instrumental actions. In the vertical level, the actor’s access to critical reason, in line with Kant’s moral philosophy of free will, enables him to use the faculty of reason to give himself a system of ultimate values for addressing the question of what one should do. The philosophy of critical rationalism allows the theory of action to rescue itself from infinite regress. At the horizontal level of ordinary action, critical rationalism enables the action theory to provide a new explanation of the socialization process and reproduction of the social order through individuals' voluntarily respect for an already established value system.

In addition, instrumental reason is used for exploring environmental conditions and formulating effective means with non-justificational eyes via the logic of conjecture and refutation. At this ordinary action level, the action types of value and instrumental rationality are united in one unit act, as Parsons (1968 [1937]) has proposed. It is by this unification that integration of a system of values in the interests of the actors does not contradict an instrumental pursuit of effective means and thus prevents a ‘war of all against all' in favour of a peaceful social order,

Now I propose my formulation of the critical rationalist theory of human action as follows:

Premise (i): Critical reason is the author of human action because action goals can be rationalized on the basis of objective knowledge, i.e. unfalsified conjectures about ultimate values.

Premise (ii): Critical reason is the author of human action because action means can be rationalized on the basis of objective knowledge, i.e. unfalsified conjectures about effective tools.

Conclusion: Critical reason is the author of human action because not only action means, but also action goals can be rationalized on the basis of objective knowledge, i.e. unfalsified conjectures about ultimate values and effective tools.

In brief, the critical rationalist model of action suggests that actors use critical rationality to determine an action in terms of (a) its goals by addressing what the ultimate values in human life should be and (b) the means by addressing what the best means are for realizing given goals according to the social and natural conditions surrounding the action in question. The critical rationalist model of human action replaces the oversocialized man in modern sociology with an actor who can use his objective knowledge not only for the creation of a system of values as the moral foundation of a peaceful social order but also for revising the system of values with goal of social change.

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