Ape Man’s Theory of Communication

Talking about a theory of communication yesterday somebody mentioned our “national master thinker” Jürgen Habermas.

From time to time I have to think about him, too. By this means – most recently – I have collected various ideas, one of which I would like to paraphrase by “ape man’s theory of communication”.

Habermas - Nationalintellektueller
Habermas – German “nationalintellektueller”

Habermas focuses his communication theory on the human skill to achieve consensus and group harmony. If we follow him, we must say that even scientific work consists mainly of harmonizing dialogues.

In deed, harmonizing in groups seems to be a major issue in science – even in evolutionary anthropology.

Studies show (e.g. Robin I. M. Dunbar) that our ancestors had to spend much of their days to achieve the appropriate level of cohesion and consensus in groups and social systems – the level, which was necessary to survive. In this regard, Habermas is right: As ape men we had to use mechanisms to reach harmony and consensus in our groups. We did that by practising social grooming – we had to spend hours and hours to clean and maintain one another’s bodies to get in good mutual vibrations.

Social Grooming: reaching harmony and consensus in groups

So far so good – but: The problem with Habermas seems to be that he has overlooked that mankind has got over this phase:

Due to the development of the human neocortex the human ability to speak and to use language has arosen. New social mechanisms had become available for our ancestors to perform vital functions in social systems.

For example: From now on former ape men have been able to talk together to achieve harmony and consensus – so social grooming has been replaced as exclusive means to reach harmony.

Back to Habermas and his theory of communication:

Obviously he limits the function of human communication primarily to the function of harmonising and getting consensus – so to speak: to the substitute for the good old social grooming.

Why does he leave out other important mechanisms and functions of human speech?

For example those functions, which are essential for the practise of successful science: sharing of information; the ability to intervene by the use of speech (during experiments); making assumptions, building and testing of theories, using logical and mathematical fictions etc.

Have we to assume that Habermas is living in quite a different time than we do?

Let’s have a rest and think about it!

Have a rest – think about it!



Dunbar, Robin I. M.; “Brains on Two Legs: Group Size and the Evolution of Intelligence”; in: de Waal, Frans B. M.; Tree of Origin – What Primate Behavior Can Tell Us about Human Social Evolution; Cambridge, Mass., London 2001; p.  173-191.

Habermas, Jürgen; Theorie des kommunikativen Handelns, 2 vol.; Frankfurt 1981.


Photo credits

Photo credit Mr. Habermas: Európa Pont via photopin cc
Photo credit Grooming ape men: Joachim S. Müller via photopin cc
Photo credits gorillas: sxc