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Environment and Planning A 2002, volume 34, pages 1355 ^ 1372


Speech acts and space(s): language pragmatics and the

discursive constitution of the social

Wolfgang Zierhofer
Department of Human Geography, University of Nijmegen, PO Box 9108,
NL ^ 6500 HK Nijmegen, The Netherlands; e-mail:
Received 24 September 2001; in revised form 28 March 2002

Abstract. By referring to language-pragmatic versions of action theory, I attempt in this paper to

introduce a perspective which overcomes a series of modernistic legacies of earlier action theories in
human geography. Such a development allows a nonessentialist stance while preserving the concep-
tual richness and consistency of action theory. The concept of speech acts will be interpreted as a
blueprint for the analysis of interactions in generalnot only human communications but also those
involving nonhuman entities and physical conditions and is a perspective that is particularly
attractive for human geography. However, one of the consequences is that the notion of space and
its role for the identity of the discipline need to be reconsidered.

1 Introduction
If ideas were able to travel as easily as people from Western countries, this text might
have reached its audience earlier. Because it originates from a German-speaking
context, but addresses Anglo-American readers, it needs to be explicitly situated. My
main purpose in this paper is to introduce a perspective which has been developed
within a long-standing debate on action theory in German, Austrian, and Swiss human
geography, a perspective which nevertheless conforms in many ways with postmod-
ernist and poststructuralist positions that have gained attention in the Anglo-American
context. In what follows I will present a language-pragmatic version of action theory
by discussing how it copes with several of the most basic problems of the social
sciences. Furthermore, I will explore the specific geographical problem of how to
conceive of space and its significance for the self-conception of geography.
In general, sociological and philosophical theories of `action' and `speech acts'
imply an assumption of agency or free will. As a consequence, the Cartesian dilemma
between a deterministic realm of matter, on the one side, and an indeterministic realm
of mind, on the other, hangs like the sword of Damocles over these approaches. I will
first elaborate a proposal about how to escape this dilemma. As a result, a preliminary
understanding of a language-pragmatic and nonessentialist position will be gained. In
the following section this perspective will be contextualized in relation to developments
in epistemology. These developments are themselves decisive for successive versions of
action theory and for the way they deal with another major problem of the social
sciences and of the humanities, namely the conception of the social.
Language-pragmatic action theories take speech acts as their central analytical
concept. I will demonstrate in what way the notions of speech acts and of validity
claims are not only a key to understanding sociality, but are also important in
analyzing social structures and their reproduction. As speech acts imply expectations
of re-actions, they provide a kind of `binding force' between actions and, as a con-
sequence, they are the basis for the intentional integration of activities. It is argued,
subsequently, that the concept of speech acts, by incorporating the connectivity of
actions, thus representing action and interaction at the same time, overcomes the
1356 W Zierhofer

dualisms and dualities of microperspectives and macroperspectives, and of action and

structure, respectively.
Every speech act, including jokes, is intended to be understood and accepted as a
sincere expression. It tacitly claims to be valid. Although the concept of validity claims
has been elaborated in connection with the notion of speech acts, it may be applied to
actions and their tacit claims of efficiency in general. This opens a path to the analysis
of the coordination of actions that focuses on the roles of physical settings in inter-
actions. This is particularly relevant for geography, and it leads to an understanding
of society not as a container of pure human interactions, but as a structure of human
interactions which involves all possible nonhuman entities a perspective that is in
this specific respect similar to actor-network theory (Latour, 1996a; Murdoch, 1997;
Whatmore, 1999).
In the final section I elaborate a radical nonessentialist perspective of space.
Tendencies to conceive of space as something `out there' in which things or activities
could be located are rejected because this approach assumes that space takes on a
transcendental and universalistic status. In contrast to such quite common positions,
which take space as an object of observation, space(s) will be reconceptualized as an
instrument of observation, as a scheme of interpretation. I conclude by discussing the
principal consequences of such a move for the conception of geography.

2 Cartesian dilemmas and agency

Rene Descartes was not a geographer, but by postulating the dualism of res extensa
(matter) and res cogitans (mind) he tried to solve, or at least to cope with, a problem
that is also fundamental to geography. Later, his distinction was interpreted in many
ways, but for modern science the identification of matter with law-like causality, on the
one hand, and mind with free will and agency, on the other, became constitutive.
Descartes's problem was thus transformed into the question of how to take `determin-
ism' and `indeterminism' into account simultaneously. Any discipline which focuses on
human beings and their relations to their world has to deal with this problem in
one way or another, and although it assumes different formsand adopts different
vocabulariesit is the methodological axis around which the history of the humanities
and social sciences has revolved.
Modern epistemologies use the categorical distinction between `nature' and `cul-
ture' as a basic device to deal with the same issue. And it was, of course, this
dichotomy, translated into mutually exclusive categories of research objects, opposing
methodologies, and intellectual divisions of labor, that provided the taken-for-
granted background upon which the modern distinction between `physical' and
`human' geography rests. By the end of the 20th century a series of developments in
the epistemology and philosophy of science began to undermine the taken-for-
granted or even transcendental status of these categories. In their place, the world
came to be understood as a network of relations among hybrid entities. Their identities
are determined through practices which articulate specific relations, such as setting up
experiments in which ideas, machinery, and nature are put together in order to
produce new entities, such as the vacuum or the laws of thermodynamics (Latour,
1993). The scientific laboratory came to be not only one of the foundational sites for
this perspective but also its leading metaphor (Knorr Cetina, 1988).
In consequence, the categories of culture and nature have come to be regarded as a
result of a process of purification, and their transcendental status seen as an instrument
that has been deliberately chosen to organize systematic observation, rather than as an
empirical finding. The distinctions people make in the course of their ongoing practices
are always contingent. But this does not confer complete freedom upon discursive
Speech acts and space(s) 1357

practices, because only those categories which in some way make sense in respect of a
tradition, and which successfully inform actions, will enjoy widespread acceptance.
Accordingly, the validity of concepts and theories is limited to their particular
contexts. I will call those perspectives that are not based on transcendental a priori
or other universalistic claims `nonessentialistic'. Although it is largely synonymous with
Nigel Thrift's (1999) notion of `nonrepresentational theory', I prefer this term in order
to avoid any implication that language does not have any representational function.
The point is, rather, that epistemologies which reject the transcendental a priori
which is the key issue herecannot conceive of the correctness of knowledge being
measured by the way in which statements represent an objective reality because (for
them) there is no external guarantee of truth. Instead, the acceptance of knowledge as
valid and the corresponding criteria of validity are both discursively achieved. There is
no fixed point, no transcendental anchor, no independent distinction, no need for
metaphysicsand, ultimately, no way to reduce such perspectives to a single attribute.
Language does not represent the one and only reality: `to represent' means to constitute
discursively one of many possible realities.
Within the Anglo-American geographical communities such lines of thought have
mainly been inspired by feminism, French postmodernist philosophies, and science
studies. Taken together, these nonessentialist perspectives are often referred to as
`poststructuralism' (Gibson-Graham, 2000; Hasse and Malecek, 2000). More impor-
tant than the label about which there has been much lively debate is the way in
which these various approaches resonate with the broad critique of universal struc-
tures supposedly lying behind or beneath the observable, which were stipulated by
transcendental realism, historical materialism, psychoanalytic theory, linguistic
structuralism, structural anthropology, and, within geography, by spatial science.
Following the fundamental postulate of Max Weber (1985, page 1), who claimed that
social structures should be explained by referring to the intentions of the actors, the
sociological `action theories' in this tradition like the works of Peter Berger
and Thomas Luckmann (1966), Anthony Giddens (1976), Jurgen Habermas (1981), and
Alfred Schutz (1967)are deliberately nonstructuralistic.
Even so, most of them do not qualify as postructuralist perspectives and
deliberately so in several cases because they are partially based on modern, tran-
scendental categories which nonessentialist philosophies put into question. This also
holds for Habermas's action theory, which I discuss in more detail below. On the one
hand, Habermas's social scientific perspective is based upon modern transcendental
notions of culture, nature, and humanness. From an ethical political point of view, of
course, Habermas's notion of modernity as an unfinished project (1990) represents a
classical modernist stance. On the other hand, his language pragmatics offers a very
sophisticated account of the discursive constitution of entities, and in this sense
constitutes (as he says himself) a profoundly ``nonmetaphysical model of thinking''
(1992). In what follows I seek to strengthen this latter, postmodernistic side of
Habermas's work against the residues of modernism that are retained in some of his
basic concepts.
Such an attempt seems worthwhile because it makes it possible to adopt a non-
essentialist position while continuing to draw upon the terminological and conceptual
richness of those action theories that have been developed in the social sciences and
philosophy since at least the work of Weber. Nonessentialist perspectives cannot
simply declare these established categories as a priori `wrong' and do away with them
completely. This would be contradictory because it invokes precisely the sort of
absolute claim that nonessentialism sets itself against. If structures of meaning are to
be conceived as instruments that have a specific validity in specific contexts, as
1358 W Zierhofer

nonessentialism proposes, then reflexive contextualizationrather than peremptory

dismissalis the appropriate critical response to modern action theory.
More than this, however, I want to treat such a response as a contribution to the
systematic development of consistent accounts, although knowing that only limited
systematicity and consistency are possible. My intention to contribute to large theoret-
ical systems, such as action theory, might raise the suspicion of universalistic claims.
From a nonessentialist point of view there is certainly no way to defend the claim for
universal validity: theories are taken as sets of connected concepts and statements
which compete for validity and acceptance in various contexts. This does not affect
the attempt to work with terminologies that do not exclude some realms of reality by
virtue of their terminological architecture, nor does it reduce our understanding of the
world to one master concept. Such a priori limitations may themselves easily imply
absolute, essentialist, or metaphysical claims. Systematicity and consistency of theoret-
ical corpuses generate openness towards the world, and the ability to take in principle
everything into account, which includes the possibility of other, competing forms of
articulation. In many cases other approaches and other descriptions may turn out to be
more adequate. But, following nonessentialist perspectives, the evaluation of validity is
logically related to the context of application, and therefore the selection of social
theories should not precede those discourses in which they appear as competing
communicative instruments. The acceptance of a language-pragmatic version of action
theory requires us to formulate a nonessentialist `solution' for the old problem of
determinism/indeterminism. The concept of action, in its everyday sense as well as in
its social theoretical formulation, implies that agents are accountable. At least for
humans, but to a more limited degree also for other conscious beings, the ability to
act differently in comparable situations is assumed. Morality, responsibility, the ability
to learn, the ideas of negotiation, argumentation, dissent, and consensus, religion,
science, art, technology, and many other realms of sociality are implicitly based on this
assumption. The rejection of an assumption of this sort would render reflexive commu-
nication and the institutionalized sphere of society absurd. A position that categorically
denies any form of free will, agency, or indeterminism is actually hard to conceive and
very unlikely.
Whereas the social sciences and the humanities in general presuppose some form of
indeterminism, natural sciences and the technological realm of society are based on a
similar but contradicting assumption of determinism and natural laws. Descartes's
`solution' to this dilemma was to postulate two separate worlds, res extensa (matter)
and res cogitans (mind). This, however, only transformed the problem into another
one: how are these worlds connected? If they were unconnected we could not know
both. As this is not the case, deterministic processes and indeterministic processes
must be linked together. How else could the mind perceive and act with the body
and its physical environment?
Most contemporary social theories tend to ignore or to go around the problem of
the relation of concepts and notions which imply either determinism or indeterminism
by retreating into the sphere of indeterminism: they approach the social as purified
agency, intersubjectivity, or communication, and they systematically neglect the inter-
connections among social and physical phenomena. Increasing interest in technology
and environmental issues, on the one side, and in the sociality of the human body, on
the other, revealed the difficulties of modern social theories and stimulated alternative
perspectives, of which actor-network theory is a prominent one.
Seen from a nonessentialist position, the problem was actually that determinism
and indeterminism were regarded as natural or essential entities. They were granted a
transcendental or metaphysical status. After the paradigm change from the philosophy
Speech acts and space(s) 1359

of consciousness to the philosophy of language which I will further outline in the

following sectiona critical awareness of all these implicit transcendentalities, and
attempts to circumvent them, emerged. All kind of concepts and distinctions were at
first instance regarded as contingent, as entities that were created within specific
language games and situations. Thus, not only nature and culture, but also determin-
ism and indeterminism, law and agency, body and mind, have come to be understood
as communicative forms. Such nonessentialist perspectives provided new possibilities
to cope with the Cartesian dilemma. Although directed towards an epistemological
discourse, Richard Rorty's Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979) provides the
blueprint for ontological coping strategies. In this work, Rorty argues that the dis-
tinction between meaning or indeterminism, on the one side, and matter or determin-
ism, on the other side, is just a case of two different language games. When we look at
a brain it seems reasonable to regard processes of meaning as neuronal processes,
although processes of meaning, in contrast to neuronal processes, are taken as inde-
terminate. It is the language that, for certain purposes, creates phenomena of two
radically different kinds, although from another point of view they might be seen as
the same.
Still, in following Rorty's strategy, we do not know how mind and matter actually
interact, but we conceive this not as an ontological problem, but as a problem of
incommensurability of assumptions and of different rhetorical devices brought into
play. The gain from this is quite clear: an absolute and therefore irresolvable contra-
diction has been exchanged for a contradiction between two semantics that have been
developed in different contexts for quite different representational purposes. We do not
have to split up the world just because it suits us to play different language games in
different contexts. The latter problem, however, does not have to bother us much
because contextual validity is constitutive for semantics and terminologies of all kinds.
If we want to make clear the relation of mind and matter, we try to do that within
deterministic or indeterministic speech, or by applying or developing a third terminol-
ogy or other terminologies. A transcendental problem has been transformed into a
mundane one.

3 The autonomy of the social

In the 1980s, action theory received close attention from human geographers. Many
English-speaking geographers focused their critical attention upon structuration theory,
developed by the sociologist Anthony Giddens (1979; 1984), while the German debate
was initiated mainly through Benno Werlen's (1987; 1993) interpretation of Karl Popper
and above all of Alfred Schutz. Roughly in line with Schutz's interpretation of social
reality, both Giddens and Werlen regarded social structures as primarily the result of
intersubjectivity. In contradistinction, Habermas's theory of communicative action did
not replace `intersubjectivity', but anchored the explanation of social order in general
in the validity claims of speech acts (see section 5 for the elaboration of this notion).
This seemingly small maneuver has far-reaching consequences for the understanding of
the autonomy of the social sphere, which is the theme of this section, and of the
conception of social order, which will be discussed subsequently.
The move from intersubjectivity to the validity claims of speech acts brings social
theory into line with the shift from a philosophy of consciousness to a philosophy of
language (Schnadelbach, 1985). As Rorty (1992) notes, in the early decades of the 20th
century logical positivism sought to transform philosophy into a strict, empirical
science. It was claimed that linguistics could provide a methodological framework
for philosophical communication that would meet the positivistic standards of sci-
ence. This project to turn philosophy into a branch of linguistics for which Rorty
1360 W Zierhofer

(1992 [1967]) initially coined the term `the linguistic turn' was doomed to fail. But
its difficulties provoked the shift from a philosophy of consciousness to a philosophy
of language. Paradoxically enough, it was actually the failure of the linguistic turn (in
the narrow and positivistic sense of `linguistic') which formed the basis of later language
philosophy. The arguments that were advanced against the possibility of philosophy
as a linguistic science and as an ideal language supported the conception both of
ordinary languages and of philosophy as a communicative practice. One of the most
important consequences of this shift was that philosophy and science were no longer
to be understood as activities of cognition and representation (albeit structured by
language)observing, reflecting, or gaining evidencebut rather as practical activ-
ities: talking, writing, describing, and other intrinsically communicative activities.
Within this paradigm, all central problems of philosophysuch as how to conceive
of experience, knowledge, truth, norms were to be discussed by analyzing communi-
cation. To put this at its simplest, `language' replaced `thought' as the primary and
dominating medium of meaning.
Another way of saying this is that, outside of language, there is no `clear' thought
possible. This is, as I understand it, the essence of Ludwig Wittgenstein's argument
against the possibility of private languages. I will loosely follow Anthony Kenny's
(1973, page 178f ) account of Wittgenstein's argument. The debate hinges on the premise
that statements (or assertions) are only possible if they can be judged by reference to
an independent content that can be expressed by another statement. Something has
to serve as a criterion in order to check claims. The human mind, however, is unable to
provide an independent source because it works exclusively in the present. In our minds,
statements are thoughts. In order to evaluate if they are true or right, we should be able
to compare them with independent statements. But there is neither a possibility to store
statements in our memory without touching them, nor a possibility to exclude an
influence of former thoughts on following thoughts. All that our memory is able to
do is to compare present thoughts with the present memory of former thoughts. And
these two things are by no means independent. Although the human mind is capable
of forming thoughts that bear the structure of statements or assertions, it is never-
theless unable to work with them in a reliable way. Within the mind, statements are
meaningless forms.
If, however, an external medium is invoked, such as the memory of another person
or the trace of a written text, statements can achieve a certain independence from one's
own memory. Only under those conditions, which are achieved by spoken or written
language, are statements a useful form of meaning. Because sentences that state
something are the main form of language, we may come to several conclusions: it
is language that creates the forms of language, and the mind borrows these forms.
Although experiences are also a form of meaning, propositional meaning is primarily
created within communication, and the mind behaves in this respect like a parasite.
Wittgenstein's thesis implies that the meaning of communication cannot be reduced to
the meaning of thought. Propositional meaning certainly has to be thought in order
to come into existence, but it is produced by communication: thus, through interaction.
It follows, therefore, that Wittgenstein's argument against private languages is at the
same time an argument for a specific structural autonomy of the social sphere. Though
mental and corporeal processes are still necessary preconditions for communication,
they cannot determine the structuration of meaning in communication.
This insight is of more than philosophical consequence. For the social sciences it
parallels Emile Durkheim's notion of social facts as a reality which is independent of
its individual manifestations (1964, pages 1 ^ 13). But understanding communication as
a self-(re)producing process of speech acts has the distinct advantage over Durkheim of
Speech acts and space(s) 1361

not stipulating a social `reality' sui generis, that is to say, on its own. Through his
definition of the social, Durkheim made it a hermetically closed or categorically
separated world of its own. This would necessarily evoke the same kind of problem
that we encountered with Descartes's strategy to cope with indeterminism. As a
consequence, the acceptance of a specific social reality behind the accessible phenom-
ena of interaction leads to structuralistic and hence representational theories. On the
contrary, from the perspectives of language pragmatics and Rorty's epistemology, there
is no social world a priori to the activities of actors.
In moving from Descartes to Wittgenstein we have arrived at a tripartition of
`reality': a physical, a subjective, and a social world. As Werlen (1987, page 88; 1993,
page 79) has shown, a similar tripartite conception underlies Schutz's phenomenology.
Indeed, most social theories implicitly adopt certain prestructurations of the world (or
quasi-ontologies). But although language-pragmatic action theory explicitly works with
such categories too, they are not understood as transcendental a priori. As in Schutz's
approach, they are instead regarded as contingent distinctions which are applied by an
observer in order to constitute a reality. From a language pragmatics point of view,
such categories are instruments which are used to solve certain problems that emerge
in certain contexts. Accordingly, this tripartition provides a first and fundamental
differentiation of phenomena or classes of facts. By this means, a contingent world
of varying kinds of autonomy and agency is constituted. Entities are now differentiated
without either postulating the body/mind dualism (Descartes), or conceiving of social
facts as constituting a completely independent reality (Durkheim).

4 From action to speech act

Thinking through the implications of the philosophy of language for the social sciences
requires us to reflect upon the basic concepts which are used to describe the social
sphere. Within the sociological tradition of action theory, as I have explained, the
social is understood as constituted by interactions.
The concept of `action' represents certain activities as intentionally structured
events (Giddens, 1979, page 56; Habermas, 1981, page 150f ; Schutz, 1962, page 67f ;
Werlen, 1993, page 9f ). An activity is regarded as an action (including refraining from
acting) when it follows a purpose and strives to achieve a goal. The aim of an action is
to change a situation by using a particular means to effect an end. Although actions
are intentionally structured, they produce both intended and unintended consequences.
Nonessentialist perspectives cannot grant actions a transcendental status. Therefore,
action is regarded as a rhetorical scheme, applied by actors (and observers) in order to
make their activities mutually accessible or comprehensible.
But, there is another distinction that is important too. Think, for example, of
picking berries or working with a hammer: these are actions that we can perform on
our own. Contrast an action like this with a speech act, for which we need a partner
who re-acts. A speech act depends on both the `sender' and the `receiver' of the message
if it is to be a successful action. The re-action of the addressee is a necessary element of
the intention of the speech act. Therefore, the intentions of speech acts entail other
actions, forming units of interaction, of social activity. By consequence, then, it is
questionable to count utterances that are directed to oneself as speech acts, even if
their form may resemble speech acts. I propose to regard them instead as a different
class of actions, because their conditions of success are not related to other actors.
As we can always invent new activities that can be executed by utterances, there is
no limited list of classes of speech acts. However, examples such as to offer, to demand,
to advertise, to order, to accept, to promise, to cancel, to withdraw, to declare, to
judge, to criticize, to describe, and to explain all strongly suggest that the main
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institutions of modern society, such as economy, law, politics, and science, exist
primarily as chains of more or less systematically linked speech acts. Of course, the
production of goods for a market needs more than speech acts. Nevertheless, speech
acts determine what it is that bodies, animals, plants, and machines in the end have to
do. Whenever we do something with words, or even with signs or utterances, we try
to influence a subsequent action by executing a speech act. Language is thus not only
a means of representation, as earlier epistemologies would have it: it isindeed,
primarilyan instrument to coordinate actions and to regulate everything that people do.
John Searle (1996, page 59f ) emphasizes that all institutions are built up and
reproduced by speech acts. To be sure, not all of social life is structured by speech
acts, and society is certainly not built up by speech acts alone. Speech acts may
structure the metabolism of society, but the biophysical work cannot be done by words.
As geographers, we deal with a sphere that is composed of both meaning and matter,
as Martin Gren (1994) has put it, and so action theory has to incorporate both
ordinary acts and speech acts. Note, however, that, although every communication
depends on physical mediators, communication provides the potential to organize or
structure physical conditions, but not vice versa. Precisely because language is an
instrument that allows us to represent everything (which is not saying that meaning
is based on representation!), argumentation has the potential to explain, criticize, plan,
or regulate all related and relevant activities. It is for this reason that Karl-Otto Apel
(1990, page 36) calls argumentation the ``meta-institution'' of all social institutions.
Accordingly, we may regard language as a metalevel (or a reflexive sphere) of social
reality, and we may take speech acts as the key to the structuration of society.

5 Speech acts and social order

In emphasizing the significance of speech acts and referring systematically to language
philosophy, language pragmatics differs profoundly from other versions of action
theory deployed within human geography, such as Giddens's structuration theory and
Werlen's theory of everyday regionalizations. This can best be illustrated by comparing
the ways in which they conceptualize the classical problem of order. In their versions of
action theory, it is not the speech act which by its intention `includes' another action,
and which thereby binds the actions of different actors to each other. Instead, they
look to intersubjectivity and represent the coordination of action as the outcome
of similar or at least compatible subjective perspectives. Although the works of
neither Giddens nor Werlen represent essentialistic or representational epistemological
positions, their way of treating the social order, and their ignorance of speech acts
and validity claims, corresponds structurally with conceptions of meaning within the
paradigm of philosophy of consciousness: it is not communication that, at the end of
the day, structures meaning and social order, but only experiences of interactions.
Language is treated above all as a vehicle to transport meaning from one person to the
other, rather than as a means to generate meaning and to coordinate interaction
reflexively. To be sure, every successful speech act relies on mutually acceptable inter-
pretations of actions by the actors. In this respect the `interpretative' approach is
fundamental. Nevertheless, in a way that is decisive for the overall construction of a
theory of action, the notion of speech acts extends beyond what the concept of
intersubjectivity alone is able to accomplish. Speech acts bind activities of different
people by demanding a particular behavior: they are successful to the extent that their
words elicit a specific reaction. For instance, a question is successful if it was under-
stood and if the speaker gets an answer. An order was successful if the addressee
understood the order and did what the speaker wanted him or her to do. This means
that the success of the speech act depends not only on the mutually acceptable
Speech acts and space(s) 1363

interpretation of actions, but alsoand necessarilyon an agreement in respect of

the intention of the action. It depends not only on: `does she or he understand what
I say?', but above all on: `does he or she also accept what I say?'
It should now be clear how this level of agreement is ultimately constitutive of
social order, whereas intersubjectivity (in the sense of grasping what the other means
by what he or she does) is merely a necessary condition for social order. In other
words, intersubjectivity is the general `container' for meaning, whereas speech acts
form the meaning of coordination. Only speech acts involve a kind of binding force.
Where does this binding force come from? Actions, including speech acts, are
oriented towards a particular outcome. They may of course fail, but this in itself
implies that they made a claim to be effective. A speech act is effective if it is accepted
as a valid expression, which means that speech acts necessarily make validity claims.
The validity claims of a speech act are accepted by the addressee through his or her
fulfillment of the intention(s) of the speaker, whether the addressee knows these
intentions or not. More formally, then, validity claims are accepted when a speech act
successfully coordinates two actions. As this is more than just `intersubjectivity', the
concept of validity claims captures exactly that specific form of intersubjectivity which
intends the coordination of actions.
If an addressee accepts the validity claims then the speech act and the re-action
were both successful and come to an end. A speech act may, of course, be ignored or
misunderstood. But to reject a speech act is to express an alternative validity claim.
Although the rejection of a speech act is a form of coordination, this does not
represent a successful end for the actor who initiated the speech act. The actors may
continue their disagreement further by a physical fight, by shouting at each other, by
attempts to persuade with strategic discourse, or by convincing each other by providing
good reasons. But notice that every speech act offers the possibility of argumentation.
This is a necessary element of all communication. The strictest order cannot prevent
the addressee from arguing against it.
Generally speaking, then, argumentation putting validity claims in contentionis
an important way to generate and reproduce agreement not only about the intentions
of actions but also about standards of behavior and the use of words. Thus, argu-
mentation is the medium to reassure mutual understanding in the broadest sense. We
may understand each other without saying a word, of course, and we may test our
understanding by nonverbal actions, but this is not the point. The point is, rather,
that argumentation always provides us with the possibility of evaluating and thereby
(re)producing mutual understanding even if this involves (dis)agreement. Although
intersubjectivity is a necessary precondition for speech acts, therefore, it is primarily
communication and particularly argumentation that reproduce intersubjectivity.
Of course, not all intersubjectivity has to be reproduced by communication. Many
aspects of intersubjectivity rely mainly on individual experiences: on those forms of
meaning that may be produced by our body (for instance, pain), or by our mind (for
instance, emotions), in quite similar ways for different individuals. Nevertheless, lan-
guage always provides the possibility of talking about our experiences, whatever they are.
And this means that their meaning is checked and eventually revised. But propositional
meaning (meaning in the form of statements) can only be reproduced by talking or
writing about it. This reflects once more Wittgenstein's argument about the impossibility
of private languages and the relative autonomy of the communicative sphere.
Even as it provides the capacity to structure intersubjective meaning, communica-
tion depends on intersubjectivity as a resource. At the same time, communication
exists only as a corporeal activity, that is, as a performance. It is a praxis which
necessarily involves mind, body, and many other entities. Although the analysis of
1364 W Zierhofer

speech acts was originally developed with respect to propositional communication,

the concept of speech acts may also serve as a framework for the analysis of all
nonpropositional aspects of performativity, such as gestures, and also for those
expressivities which extend the human body, such as artifacts, media, architecture,
landscapes, technologies, and so on.
A certain distance between my interpretation of language pragmatics and ana-
lytical speech-act theory (Austin, 1985; Searle, 1988) becomes finally obvious. There
are several differences involved. The conception of speech acts that I have presented so
far corresponds to the phenomenological conception of action insofar as the unity of
action is determined by the intentions of the actor. But this whole conception is again
taken as a scheme of interpretation that is used in order to communicate about
activities. Classical speech-act theory is not conceived, by those who advocate it, as a
language game among others. Rather, as Jacques Derrida (1988) in a debate with
Searle (see also Spivak, 1980) points out, Austin and Searle attempt to establish a
comprehensive classification of speech acts. In order to achieve this they try to
reconstruct the conventionality of speech as a precondition of communication. This
implies, however, an assumption of, at least within a specific language, a universal
norm of correct speech. By reflecting and performing iterations, Derrida argues and
demonstrates that there is no fixed point for meaning available, but only temporal
and context-related agreements to take the ultimately different for the same. There is an
indissolvable tension between the repetition of the `identical' and the iterative change of
meaning. In other words, and as we have seen already with Rorty, there is no reality to
represent. Rather, reality is constituted through communication in order to create a
precarious basis for the coordination of interactions.
Although based on a social-phenomenological instead of a semiological terminol-
ogy, the conception of language outlined above is consonant with the general line of
Derrida's critique on the classical conception of speech-act theory. The success of a
speech act is, of course, in many ways related to, and dependent on, conventions of
communication. But both their intersubjective acceptance and their subjective inter-
pretation are regarded as contingent. Moreover, like Derrida, this language pragmatics
regards the `absence' of the other, that is, the nonidentity of speaker and addressee, as a
precondition of communication. After all, the similarities with Derrida do not stretch
too far: his notions of `text', `context', `writing', and his understanding of the uncon-
scious are not easily compatible with the above developed quasi-ontology and with
conceptions of meaning that are not derived from Saussurean sign-theory, but from
phenomenological accounts of the constitution of meaning.

6 Beyond the duality of action and structure

Seen in this way, argumentation is no longer to be grasped as a kind of philosophical
activity but is instead seen as a practical means of reproducing social order and of
structuring society. Habermas saw this quite clearly, and, inspired by Weber's typology
of rationalities, formulated two ideal types of structures of communication, namely
instrumental and communicative rationality, which, as he argues, correspond to two
distinctive forms of action coordination. I propose to interpret the `binding force' of the
speech act as the medium for the communicative coordination of actions. Beside this, it
is also necessary to take into account coordinations of actions, which are not based on
verbal expressions but on setting physical conditions. Physical artifacts are not only the
necessary basis of any oral and written communication, but, moreover, a profound
aspect of sociality in general. Although Habermas did not accord them any systematic
attention, I will argue that these kinds of interactions are also coordinated by validity
Speech acts and space(s) 1365

Habermas developed his typology of rationalities and coordinations of actions in

order to gain an instrument for his analysis and critique of modernity. Among other
purposes, these instruments had to link individual actions and their conditions the
level of aggregation which is most accessible to ethicswith forms of collectivity. Such
a methodological move provided him with the possibility to turn his normative con-
ception of communicative action into a critique of society. As a byproduct of his
critical ambitions he provided a blueprint for concepts which bridge the divide between
action and structure, and, by implication, also the divide between microperspectives
and macroperspectives.
When the actions are coordinated by their outcomes, Habermas speaks of `system-
atic integration'. Because this form of coordination is achieved by addressing validity
claims of truth and/or efficiency and by ignoring other validity claims, he calls such
communicative conditions `instrumental rationality'. We should note at this point that
his concept of rationality does not refer to individual behavior, but to qualities of
interactions, particularly of communications. Rationality becomes a collective project
and a quality of social relations, and particularly of organizations. Where interactions
are shaped according to instrumental rationality the bindings between actions realize
forms of functionality. And the notion of `system' refers to the social structures which
are based on such relations (1981, page 226). The analytical complement and normative
antagonist of instrumental rationality is `communicative rationality' (table 1). Habermas
defines it as those communicative conditions in which all kinds of validity claims may
be articulated. The corresponding form of action coordination is `social integration',
and the relations that are established by this are summarized as the `lifeworld'. The
lifeworld represents those contexts in which mutual understanding and dissent are
checked, revised, and regenerated: it is the sphere of unrepressed argumentation.
Contrary to many interpretations of Habermas's work, argumentation does not
happen in some sort of power-free sphere. Rather, by restoring mutual understanding,
and through its potential to regenerate agreement, argumentation is actually the means
par excellence of reproducing all those kinds of power that are not directly based on
violence. All validity claims that are involved in interactions establish their specific
kind of power relation between actors, such as powers of definitions and moral norms.
Argumentation in the sense of providing reasons for certain views plays an important
part in establishing legitimization, in securing the acceptance of legal systems, and in
negotiating mutual advantages and compromises. The `lifeworld' thus refers to those
sides of social life which are to a high degree structured by social integration, such as
family life, friendship, social movements, and the public sphere.
I suggest that we interpret the concepts of social and systematic integration as
means to cope with the classical dualisms and dualities of `micro' and `macro', as well
as `action' and `structure'. Trained by these classical distinctions, many readers tend
to interpret Habermas's notion of system and lifeworld as macroconcepts. Certainly,
they refer to interactions, but even a short conversation between two persons may be
part of either the system (for instance, when A tells B what to do) or the lifeworld
(when B asks A how he or she comes to think this way). Therefore, system and
Table 1. Illustration of Habermas's instruments for analysis and critique of society.

Classes of validity claims truth and/or efficiency all sorts of validity claims
Coordination of actions systematic integration social integration
Kind of binding functional agreement
Rationality instrumental rationality communicative rationality
Form of relation the system the lifeworld
1366 W Zierhofer

lifeworld do not refer to an aggregate level of actions, rather, they are classes of
interactions, distinguished by qualities of interactions. Habermas has replaced a semantic
of different levels of aggregation by a terminology that differentiates coordinations of
In order to elaborate a normative basis for the critique of functionalist rationalities,
which dominate modern society, Habermas chose to differentiate the coordination of
actions according to the possibility of articulating certain classes of validity claims, as
indicated in table 1. Other purposes might require other criteria. Following Searle
(1996) we might regard all institutions as networks of specific classes of speech acts.
This involves, for instance, analyzing markets as coordinations of offers, demands, and
payments. Unlike, for example, Giddens (1979, page 80), who, by bracketing either
institutional analysis or the analysis of strategic conduct, creates two mutually exclusive
methodological perspectives (Gregson, 1986, page 197f ), Habermas manages without a
methodological schism by addressing the `glue' of interactions and therefore institution-
alized structures directly. From a theoretical point of view, however, we are not at all
restricted to following his specific way of differentiating the coordination of actions.
Rather, we could instead generalize Habermas's approach: by paying attention to the
way that action provokes a specific re-action by intention, or as an unintended con-
sequence, we gain analytical access to those qualities of actions which in the end build
the social and its order. The duality of action and structure is approached within one
single perspective.
Put somewhat differently, language-pragmatic action theory provides the concep-
tual basis to analyze society in terms of discursive practices. The twin concepts of
speech acts and validity claims provide the key to the analysis of all kinds of
interactions and social structures. But, as language-pragmatic action theory offers a
terminology that highlights the discursive reproduction of power, many geographers
might raise an obvious objection to such a formulation. Within conventional social
theory, this scheme has been confined to the level of meaning and the communicative
reproduction of intersubjectivity. Physical conditions have not been taken into account.
And yet, plainly, the discursive constitution of society is not equal to its material
reproduction. This makes it necessary to elaborate complementary forms of action
coordination for the material sphere, and it is to this task that I now turn.

7 Coordination of actions and physical settings

The physical settings of actors are of considerable importance to the conduct of social
life, and there is, I think, a conceptual equivalent to the speech act that can address
their importance. Consider, for example, an artifact such as a tool or an instrument. It
was created with a particular application in mind: this is the purpose of its existence.
In this sense the intentional aspects of artifactsbut not their unintended consequen-
ceslay claim to a certain use, in much the same way that speech acts lay claim to a
particular re-action. From the point of view of its producer the use of an artifact may
turn out to be successful or not andreferring to normative criteriadeemed to be
acceptable or unacceptable. Users, however, may rightly or wrongly interpret physical
settings as artifacts, but if they do so they ascribe a constitutive purpose to them. Yet,
the use of both `artificial' and `natural' settings is typically subjective to social rules or
Where a physical setting is treated as an artifact, the user regards some if its
qualities as a result of the intentions of its creator: it is assumed that the artifact was
created for a specific purpose. It therefore lays claim to a particular use value. Just
as an addressee reacts to validity claims of a speech act, a user evaluates the use
values of an artifact. He or she can accept, reject, or ignore them, or interpret them
Speech acts and space(s) 1367

differently. An action which is undertaken with the intention to change conditions for
other actions, establishes a claim for success, which is confirmed or rejected by those
subsequent actions. The analogy with a speech act is not accidental, for the proposi-
tional speech act is only a specific subclass of those actions. There is even a remarkable
analogy with Weber's (1985, page 11) classical definition of social action, which is to
say, an action that intentionally refers to the expected behavior of other actors. And,
indeed, applying the concept of validity claim to actions in general provides us also
with an understanding of the coordination of actions which, besides merging action
and structure, also links meaning and matter within one concept. Both distinctions
are still in play, but, contrary to classical action theory, they are taken neither as a
transcendental a priori, nor as constitutive of the social sphere.
So far, our concept of action coordination refers to the match or mismatch of the
intentions of two actors, or at least to the erroneous ascription of intentions by a user
of certain physical conditions. But what if an actor just uses a physical setting, whether
it is artificial or not? What kinds of `coordination' of action may then be involved?
What are the consequences for the concept of sociality?
Suppose, we walk in the wilderness and find a tree lying across a river, which
provides a bridge. It might be a human construction or the effect of a storm many
years ago, but, in any case, we and many other hikers know how to use it. Although we
cannot decide if there is a coordination between a producer and users, that is, whether
its location was intended, the hikers coordinate their actions by using the tree. Observ-
ers note a regular pattern of behavior. We certainly can speak of a coordination of
action through the use value of physical settings in respect of similar purposes. Actors
interpret the range of possibilities that the material environment seems to provide them
with. Consequently, insofar as they pursue similar intentions they will also perform
similar actions. This is actually a very common and basic case, first, because routinized
uses of physical conditions do not necessarily involve a reflection of possible intended
forms of usage, and, second, because there is no pure or absolute artifact, the qualities
of which could be traced back to a mundane producer and to her or his intentions.
Technology, in the sense of using natural laws and qualities of materials, turns
out to be a major factor of action coordination. Walking a trail, eating wild berries,
using fire, sailing on the sea, `reading' the stars these are only a few examples of
action coordinated by physical conditions. Some of them are almost global, others
are restricted to certain types of locations or situations, and again others are in a
certain sense unique. Insofar as these conditions and qualities are propositional or
discursive knowledge, we may detect systematic or social integration, in the sense
used by Habermas. Usually, actors interpret their situation according to socialized
frames of reference. They learn to classify entities, to use them, and to deal with the
expectations that other actors direct towards their activities. This is still the sphere of
the negotiation of validity claims. Insofar, however, as the world is known by non-
communicated knowledge or by tacit knowledge, a quasi-natural integration of actors
takes place. As we are speaking of actions, this nondiscursive realm is still easily
accessible to discursive reflection, and therefore we can grant it only a marginal
significance for the analysis of social order.
By applying the concept of validity claims not only to speech acts but to actions in
general, we end up with a conception of a discursive constitution of society, but a
society which is not at all confined to purely human interactions, intersubjectivity, or
communication. Rather, language-pragmatic action theory comes to conceive of
society as a complement of intersubjectivity andto borrow from Bruno Latour
(1996b)`interobjectivity'. Although depending on certain physical preconditions,
communication is regarded as a metalevel which provides the possibility to reflect
1368 W Zierhofer

upon physical conditions, and to guide their transformation within the limits of
available technologies. However, besides human beings and their activities, all other
entities of the world participate in society. Plants, animals, landscapes, machines,
viruses are not excluded from the social but are acknowledged as its necessary con-
stituents. There is no way to exclude any entity from the coordination of human
activities. So, although actions are the center of the focus, society is no longer regarded
as a kind of container, but as the structure of that particular section of the world on
which an observer happens to focus.

8 Relocating `space'
Within a nonessentialist perspective, space is to be treated as a contingent category, not
as a transcendental a priori. We are, of course, free to give the term a meaning, but
not an arbitrary one: the significance of space is to be evaluated according to the
intentions which determine its use in particular contexts. What concept of space is
consistent with a language-pragmatic action theory? I want to argue that, in order to
be consistent with such an approach, concepts of space can refer neither to the
absolute, nor to the relative location of things and activities, nor to extensions and
forms of physicocorporeal structures, but only to the schemes of interpretation that are
used to ascribe attributes of any kind to entities of any kind. Some attributes may serve
the purpose of locating entities by establishing a frame of reference for distance and
direction. Several authors within German-speaking geography (Kluter, 1986; Reichert,
1996; Weichhart, 1999; Werlen, 1995, page 222f ) have elaborated concepts of spaces as
frames of reference for physical facts or for simultaneously existing entities. In taking
space as a scheme of interpretation, they represent similar positions. In contrast to
them, however, I will argue that space cannot be regarded a priori as a locational
framework: this is simply because the distinction between `physical' and `nonphysical'
attributes is itself contingent.
Werlen (1995, pages 141 ^ 243) has provided a careful evaluation of philosophical
conceptions of space from classical antiquity to modernity. In discussing the epistemo-
logical difficulties of successive conceptions of space, he concludes that the only
conception of space that is consistent with action theory is one that conceives of it
as a scheme of interpretation deployed in order to locate physical entities. In outline,
his argument is as follows. Western philosophy has conceived of space either as a part
of matter, the extension of matter, a container of matter, the distance relations or
relative locations of material items, or as the interpretative scheme which is used to
distinguish between locations of material items. These two sets of possibilities are
incompatible: to regard space as a thing or as a physical quality confounds the
possibility of using space to talk about the locations of things because, in effect, space
would then have to be located within space. If space is taken as a container for physical
entities or as the relative location of physical entities, but not as a scheme of inter-
pretation, some kind of metaphysics is necessarily involved: in other words, space has
to exist outside of meaning and matter. Such difficulties can be overcome if space is
regarded as a frame of reference, which observers use to locate physical entities. This
was in fact Immanuel Kant's solution. But Werlen (pages 229, 234f ) argues that
there is no need to attribute a transcendental status to this frame of reference.
Instead, we can regard it as a set of empirical possibilities made available for an actor
to experience his or her environment in a structured way.
If Werlen's position is extended into a strictly nonessentialist realm, then two
other restrictions need to be dropped. First, instead of a human actor, we may speak
of an observer: this could be any kind of organism or even a machine. Second, we
may regard the distinction between `meaning' and `matter' as contingent. Outside the
Speech acts and space(s) 1369

context of modernity and modern technologies it is probably of limited significance:

spaces are not limited to frames of reference that order physical entities.
In consequence, I propose to take `space' in the first instance as a scheme of
interpretation of any kind. What I called elsewhere `first-order space' (Zierhofer,
1999) is nothing but the bare possibility to draw one or more distinctions. Distinctions
are always the result of the application of a code. Instead of codes we may speak of
dimension, scales, terminologies, or semantics synonymously. We need, for instance, a
set of names in order to classify things or qualities, and we need units (or numbers) in
order to rank items or to calculate with them. We need semantics to tell stories.
Naming, ranking, calculating, and story telling are all operations that are based on
difference, on drawing distinctions. I propose to call the most abstract and general
form of differentiating `first-order space'. It is composed of one or more dimensions
which are not further determined, but which allow at least one distinction. It may best
be illustrated by the O/I distinction of informatics, which, just because it is not further
determined, can be applied to virtually anything (which, by the way, explains the
success of informatics). When we fill the dimensions which we use to draw distinctions
with a specific meaning, we move from first-order space to one or several second-order
spaces. One of the consequences is, of course, that times are regarded as temporal
codes. Times represent a class of second-order spaces.
The dominance of schemes of interpretation for the physical world, and their strict
separation from nonphysical dimensions, is characteristic for modernity and its `dis-
enchanted' view of the world. Distinctions between matter and mind, between nature
and culture, between body and soul, and between earth and heaven do not constitute a
problem per se. But taken as epistemological transcendentals they are problematical,
because, then, they tend to deny other possibilities, and by this they become instruments
of cultural hegemony. All cultures are able to apply physical differentiations, but they
may prefer spiritual dimensions, such as the distinction between the sacred and the
profane, or mythological frames of reference, to orient oneself and to coordinate activities.
I am aware that proposing such an understanding of space means taking a quite
marginal position with respect to the Anglo-American and the German geographical
debate on space. Instead of developing a detailed critique of a few widely accepted,
contemporary conceptions of space, I will confine myself to formulate below a
criterion that determines the compatibility or incompatibility of conceptions of space
with nonessentialist perspectives, and, by consequence, with language pragmatics.
With the emergence of postmodern and poststructuralist perspectives, a plurality of
conceptions of space has been established. In many ways, they filter out modernistic
legacies, such as physicalisms, universalistic claims, and transcendental binaries, and
to this extent they conform to nonessentialist theories. Nevertheless, within many
contemporary geographical texts we encounter semantics of produced, constructed,
perceived, or conceived spaces, and we observe that space is put in contrast to place(s)
and that spaces are taken as (locational) relations. These and other examples provoke
associations of a space `out there' and of space as surface of the earth, as city, land-
scape, environment, networks, etc. From a language-pragmatic point of view, however,
such interpretations are problematic: insofar as spaces are taken as objects for an actor
instead of instruments of an observer with which he or she constitutes objectsthey
are incompatible with nonessentialist epistemologies in general and with language-
pragmatic action theory in particular. Within academic discourse the notion of space
is generally used to refer to a class of items rather than to particular items (for which
we use other designations). If we want to maintain this specific semantic function of
space for academic usage, as contemporary geographical literature does, we must avoid
taking space as some sort of reality to represent. This would be incompatible with
1370 W Zierhofer

nonessentialist epistemologies, as we have seen. One of the consequences of presuming

a space a priori to observation (as `out there') is to ascribe implicitly a transcendental
status to one's own schemes of interpretation. This implies a claim for universal
validity, thus favoring one's own perspective, immunizing it against critique, and
imposing it upon others.
By insisting on the contingency of terminologies, including their own, nonessentialist
perspectives try to avoid colonizing gestures. Objectifying concepts of space are
regarded as a special class of second-order spaces, namely that class which is incom-
patible with the conception of first-order and second-order spaces. At the same time,
this distinction between first-order and second-order space is also regarded as nothing
but a second-order space. Precisely this incorporated reflexivity, this sort of `self-
domestication', should prevent transcendental claims from entering again through the
servants entry. The avoidance of colonizing gestures does not imply a refrain from
critique, as should have been obvious. From a language-pragmatics point of view,
conceptions of space should be evaluated with respect to their use for particular
purposes in particular contexts. Based on this rationale, only those social scientific
perspectives that take spaces as instruments of observation seem to be consistent and
ethically acceptable within nonessentialist approaches.

9 Conclusion
In the closing decades of the 20th century, action theory entered the corpus of human
geography in the twin forms of structuration theory (in Anglo-American geography) and
of the social geography of everyday regionalizations (in German-speaking geography).
By the turn of the century, however, a variety of postmodern and poststructuralist
perspectives had attracted critical attention. From these later points of view, action
theory is compromised by its foundation in thoroughly modern premises and con-
ceptions. Instead of rejecting action theory out of hand, however, I have tried to
show in this paper how a language-pragmatic version of action theory can provide a
nonessentialist and nonmodern approach. Although it has much in common with
poststructuralist approaches, language-pragmatic action theory is a complementary
alternative to them.
Starting from the central notion of a speech act, the discussion revolved around the
possibilities of coordination of actions. This provided a theoretical vocabulary that
focused on the discursive constitution of the social sphere without excluding non-
human entities and material conditions from it. By transgressing a purified human
sphere, and by complementing `intersubjectivity' with `interobjectivity', language-
pragmatic action theory corresponds with actor-network theory. Such approaches
are particularly valuable for human geography because they do not separate human
interactions a priori from those nonhuman entities that were traditionally constitutive
for geography, such as landscapes, resources, material infrastructure, settlements,
means of transport, and so on.
Taking nonessentialist or nonrepresentationalist positions, however, is not without
costs. The way space is most often conceived in contemporary human geography seems
to be incompatible with the position I have advanced here. What are the consequences
for the discipline of human geography? First, space cannot serve as a general point of
reference for geographical inquiry: geography cannot present itself as a discipline
which investigates `space', `spatial structures', `spatial processes', or the `spatiality' of
social life. Only a modern geography that essentializes space could accept such a self-
definition. As, on my reading, there is no object of space a priori, it cannot legitimize
a distinction between geography and other disciplines. Rather, like other disciplines,
geography has to find its identity through its analytical competence its critical
Speech acts and space(s) 1371

power in relation to problems that are defined in the first instance outside the
academic context of the discipline. Second, the terminologies which are used in human
geography are methodologically equivalent to those of other social sciences and the
humanities, and are therefore developed out of notions of activity, meaning, and
communication: but emphatically not from `space'. Spaces, in consequence, are seen
as phenomena which are constituted and applied by agents pursuing particular projects
by using their specific semantic competences.
Acknowledgements. Many thanks to Trevor Barnes, Henrik Bruun, Derek Gregory, Olivier Kramsch,
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2002 a Pion publication printed in Great Britain