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Western Philosophy
20th century
Jürgen Habermas
Name: Jürgen Habermas
Birth: June 18, 1929 (Düsseldorf, Germany)
School/tradition: critical theory
Main interests
social theory, epistemology, political theory, pragmatics
Notable ideas
communicative rationality, discourse ethics, deliberative democracy, universal pragmatics
Influences Influenced
Immanuel Kant, Karl Marx, Martin Heidegger, Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse |
Seyla Benhabib, Rainer Forst, Nancy Fraser, Axel Honneth, Antanas Mockus, Robert Shelly

Jürgen Habermas (born June 18, 1929 in Düsseldorf) is a German philosopher and sociologist in the tradition of critical theory and American pragmatism, best known for his concept of the public sphere based in his theory and pragmatics of communicative action. His work, sometimes labeled as Neo-Marxist, focuses on the foundations of social theory and epistemology; the analysis of advanced capitalist industrial society and of democracy; the rule of law in a critical social-evolutionary context; and contemporary – especially German – politics. He developed a theoretical system devoted to revealing the possibility of reason, political emancipation and rational-critical communication embedded in modern liberal institutions and in the human capabilities to communicate, deliberate and pursue rational interests.


Habermas burst onto the German intellectual scene in the 1950s with an influential critique of the philosophy of Martin Heidegger. He had been studying philosophy and sociology under the critical theorists Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno at the Institute for Social Research at the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University Frankfurt am Main since 1956, but because of a rift over his dissertation between the two - Horkheimer had made unacceptable demands for revision - as well as his own belief that the Frankfurt School had become paralyzed with political skepticism and disdain for modern culture - he took his Habilitation in political science at the University of Marburg under the Marxist Wolfgang Abendroth. In 1961, he became a privatdozent in Marburg, and very unusual in the German academic scene at that time, he was called to an "extraordinary professorship" (professor without chair) of philosophy at the University of Heidelberg (at the instigation of Hans-Georg Gadamer and Karl Löwith) in 1962. In 1964, strongly supported by Adorno, Habermas returned to Frankfurt to take over Horkheimer's chair in philosophy and sociology.

He accepted the position of Director of the Max Planck Institute in Starnberg (near Munich) in 1971, and worked there until 1983, two years after the publication of his magnum opus, The Theory of Communicative Action. Habermas then returned to his chair at Frankfurt and the directorship of the Institute for Social Research. Since retiring from Frankfurt in 1993, Habermas has continued to publish extensively. In 1986, he received the Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Prize of the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, which is the highest honour awarded in German research. He is also a Permanent Visiting Professor at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. In 1988 he was elected as a member of Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts.

Habermas visited the People's Republic of China in April 2001 and received a big welcome. He gave numerous speeches under titles such as "Nation-States under the Pressure of Globalisation." Habermas was also the 2004 Kyoto Laureate in the Arts and Philosophy section. He traveled to San Diego and on March 5, 2005, as part of the University of San Diego's Kyoto Symposium, gave a speech entitled The Public Role of Religion in Secular Context, regarding the evolution of separation of Church and State from neutrality to intense secularism. He received the 2005 Holberg International Memorial Prize (about € 520 000).

Teacher and mentor

Habermas is famous as a teacher and mentor. Among his most prominent students have been the political sociologist Claus Offe (professor at Humboldt University of Berlin), the social philosopher Johann Arnason (professor at the La Trobe University and chief editor of the Thesis Eleven), the sociological theorist Hans Joas (professor at the Free University of Berlin and at the University of Chicago), the theorist of societal evolution Klaus Eder, the social philosopher Axel Honneth (the current director of the Institute for Social Research), the American philosopher Thomas McCarthy, the co-creator of mindful inquiry in social research Jeremy J. Shapiro, and the assassinated Serbian prime minister Zoran Đinđić.


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Habermas in 2006

Habermas has integrated into a comprehensive framework of social theory and philosophy an extreme wealth of ideas:

Jürgen Habermas considers his own major achievement the development of the concept and theory of communicative reason or communicative rationality, which distinguishes itself from the rationalist tradition by locating rationality in structures of interpersonal linguistic communication rather than in the structure of either the cosmos or the knowing subject. This social theory advances the goals of human emancipation, while maintaining an inclusive universalist moral framework. This framework rests on the argument called universal pragmatics - that all speech acts have an inherent telos (the Greek word for "purpose" or "goal") — the goal of mutual understanding, and that human beings possess the communicative competence to bring about such understanding. Habermas built the framework out of the speech-act philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein, J. L. Austin, and John Searle, the sociological theory of the interactional constitution of mind and self of George Herbert Mead, the theories of moral development of Jean Piaget and Lawrence Kohlberg, and the discourse ethics of his Heidelberg colleague Karl-Otto Apel.

He carries forward the traditions of Kant and the Enlightenment and of democratic socialism through his emphasis on the potential for transforming the world and arriving at a more humane, just, and egalitarian society through the realization of the human potential for reason, in part through discourse ethics. While Habermas concedes that the Enlightenment is an "unfinished project," he argues it should be corrected and complemented, not discarded. In this he distanced himself from the Frankfurt School, criticizing it and much of postmodernist thought for excessive pessimism, misdirected radicalism and exaggerations.

Within sociology, Habermas's major contribution is the development of a comprehensive theory of societal evolution and modernization focusing on the difference between communicative rationality and rationalization on the one hand and strategic/instrumental rationality and rationalization on the other. This includes a critique from a communicative standpoint of the differentiation-based theory of social systems developed by Niklas Luhmann, a student of Talcott Parsons.

His defence of modernity and civil society has been a source of inspiration to others, and is considered a major philosophical alternative to the varieties of poststructuralism. He has also offered an influential analysis of late capitalism.

Habermas sees the rationalization, humanization, and democratization of society in terms of the institutionalization of the potential for rationality that is inherent in the communicative competence that is unique to the human species. Habermas believes communicative competence has developed through the course of evolution, but in contemporary society it is often suppressed or weakened by the way in which major domains of social life, such as the market, the state, and organizations, have been given over to or taken over by strategic/instrumental rationality, so that the logic of the system supplants that of the lifeworld.

The public sphere

For more details on this topic, see public sphere.
File:2004 katholische-akademie-habermas-ratzinger 1-799x533.jpg

Jürgen Habermas (left) speaking with Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, 2004.

Jürgen Habermas wrote extensively on the concept of the public sphere, using accounts of dialogue that took place in coffee houses in 18th century France. It was this public sphere of rational debate on matters of political importance, made possible by the development of the bourgeois culture centered around coffeehouses, intellectual and literary salons, and the print media that helped to make parliamentary democracy possible and which promoted Enlightenment ideals of equality, human rights and justice. The public sphere was guided by a norm of rational argumentation and critical discussion in which the strength of one's argument was more important than one's identity.

According to Habermas, a variety of factors resulted in the eventual decay of the bourgeois public sphere of the Enlightenment. Most importantly, structural forces, particularly the growth of a commercial mass media, resulted in a situation in which media became more of a commodity – something to be consumed – rather than a tool for public discourse.

Habermas described this sphere in terms of both the actual infrastructure that supported it and the norms and practices that helped the critical political discourse flourish. He distinguished between looking at the public sphere as a concept and as a historical formation. In his view, the idea of the public sphere involved the notion that private entities would draw together as a public entity and engage in rational deliberation, ultimately making decisions that would influence the state. As a historical formation, the public sphere involved a "space" separated from family life, the business world, and the state.

In his magnum opus Theory of Communicative Action (1984) he criticized the one-sided process of modernization led by forces of economic and administrative rationalization. Habermas traced the growing intervention of formal systems in our everyday lives as parallel to development of the welfare state, corporate capitalism and the culture of mass consumption. These reinforcing trends rationalize widening areas of public life, submitting them to a generalizing logic of efficiency and control. As routinized political parties and interest groups substitute for participatory democracy, society is increasingly administered at a level remote from input of citizens. As a result, boundaries between public and private, the individual and society, the system and the lifeworld are deteriorating. Democratic public life only thrives where institutions enable citizens to debate matters of public importance. He describes an ideal type of "ideal speech situation"[1], where actors are equally endowed with the capacities of discourse, recognize each other's basic social equality and speech is undistorted by ideology or misrecognition.

Habermas is optimistic about the possibility of the revival of the public sphere. He sees hope for the future in the new era of political community that transcends the nation-state based on ethnic and cultural likeness for one based on the equal rights and obligations of legally vested citizens. This discursive theory of democracy requires a political community which can collectively define its political will and implement it as policy at the level of the legislative system. This political system requires an activist public sphere, where matters of common interest and political issues can be discussed, and the force of public opinion can influence the decision-making process.

Several noted academics have provided various criticisms of Habermas's notions regarding the public sphere. John Thompson, a Professor of Sociology at the University of Cambridge, has pointed out that Habermas's notion of the public sphere is antiquated due to the proliferation of mass-media communications. Michael Schudson from the University of California, San Diego argues more generally that a public sphere as a place of purely rational independent debate never existed.

As regards his views on secularism and religion in European public sphere, he said in his essay Time of Transition of 2004, "Christianity, and nothing else, is the ultimate foundation of liberty, conscience, human rights, and democracy, the benchmarks of Western civilisation." He also maintains that "recognising our Judaeo-Christian roots more clearly not only does not impair intercultural understanding, it is what makes it possible." [2]

Habermas and Derrida

Habermas and Jacques Derrida engaged in somewhat acrimonious disputes beginning in the 1980s and culminated in a refusal of extended debate and talking past one another. Following Habermas' publication of "Beyond a Temporalized Philosophy of Origins: Derrida" (in The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity), Derrida, citing Habermas as an example, remarked that, "those who have accused me of reducing philosophy to literature or logic to rhetoric ... have visibly and carefully avoided reading me" ("Is There a Philosophical Language?" p. 218, in Points...). Others prominent in postmodern thought, notably Jean-François Lyotard, engaged in more extended polemics against Habermas, whereas Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe found these polemics counterproductive. In hindsight, these contentious exchanges contributed to divisions within continental philosophy by focusing too heavily on a purported opposition between modernism and postmodernism — these terms were occasionally elevated to totemic if not cosmological importance in the 1980s, due in no small part to works by Lyotard and Habermas and their often enthusiastic and sometimes uncautious reception in American universities. It may be suggested that schematic terminology like "poststructuralism", trafficked heavily in the United States but virtually unknown in France, found expression in Habermas' understanding of his French contemporaries, bringing with them the baggage of the "culture wars" raging within American academic circles at the time. In short: although the differences between Habermas and Derrida (if not deconstruction generally) were profound but not necessarily irreconcilable, they were fueled by polemical responses to mischaracterizations of those differences, which in turn sharply inhibited meaningful discussion.

In the aftermath of 9/11, Derrida and Habermas established a limited political solidarity and put their previous disputes behind them in the interest of "friendly and open-minded interchange," as Habermas put it. After laying out their individual opinions on 9/11 in Giovanna Borradori's Philosophy in a Time of Terror: Dialogues with Jürgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida, Derrida wrote a foreword expressing his unqualified subscription to Habermas's declaration, "February 15, or, What Binds Europeans Together: Plea for a Common Foreign Policy, Beginning in Core Europe,” in Old Europe, New Europe, Core Europe (Verso, 2005). Habermas has offered further context for this declaration in an interview. Quite distinct from this, Geoffrey Bennington, a close associate of Derrida's, has in a further conciliatory gesture offered an account of deconstruction intended to provide some mutual intelligibility. Derrida was already extremely ill by the time the two had begun their new exchange, and the two were not able to develop this such that they could substantially revisit previous disagreements or find more profound terms of discussion before Derrida's death. Nevertheless, this late collaboration has encouraged some scholars to revisit the positions, recent and past, of both thinkers, vis-a-vis the other.

Major works

1962   The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere
1963 Theory and Practice
1967 On the Logic of the Social Sciences
Toward a Rational Society
1968 Technology and Science as Ideology
Knowledge and Human Interests
1973 Legitimation Crisis
1976 Communication and the Evolution of Society
On the Pragmatics of Social Interaction
1981 The Theory of Communicative Action [1]
1983 Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action
Philosophical-Political Profiles
1985 The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity
The New Conservatism
1988 Postmetaphysical Thinking
1991 Justification and Application
1992 Between Facts and Norms: Contributions to a Discourse Theory of Law and Democracy
On the Pragmatics of Communication
1996 The Inclusion of the Other
1997 A Berlin Republic  (collection of interviews with Habermas)
1998 The Postnational Constellation
Rationality and Religion
Truth and Justification
2003 The Future of Human Nature
2006 The Divided West

Works on Habermas

  • Jürgen Habermas : a philosophical--political profile / Martin Matuštík.
  • Postnational identity : critical theory and existential philosophy in Habermas, Kierkegaard, and Havel / Martin Matuštík.
  • Thomas McCarthy, The Critical Theory of Jürgen Habermas, MIT Press, 1978.
A highly regarded interpretation in English of Habermas's earlier work, written just as Habermas was developing his full-fledged communication theory.
  • Raymond Geuss, The Idea of a Critical Theory, Cambridge University Press, 1981.
A clear account of Habermas' early philosophical views.
  • J.G. Finlayson, Habermas: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press, 2004.
A recent, brief introduction to Habermas, focusing on his communication theory of society.
  • Erik Oddvar Eriksen and Jarle Weigard, Understanding Habermas: Communicative Action and Deliberative Democracy, Continuum International Publishing, 2004 (ISBN 082647179X).
A recent and comprehensive introduction to Habermas' mature theory and its political implications both national and global.
  • Rene von Schomberg and Kenneth Baynes (Editors). Discourse and Democracy: Essays on Habermas's Between Facts and Norms. SUNY Press, 2002 (ISBN 0-7914-5497-5).
  • Detlef Horster. Habermas: An Introduction." Pennbridge, 1992 (ISBN 1-880055-01-5)


  • In 2005, the Norwegian Ludvig Holberg Memorial Fund awarded Habermas the €520.000 endowed Holberg International Memorial Prize.


See also

External links

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