Jürgen Habermas Biography


(Survey of World Philosophers)

Article abstract: An important member of the Frankfurt School for Social Research, Habermas is best known for his attempts to articulate a comprehensive and emancipatory theory of language, communication, and the evolution of society within an ethical framework.

Early Life

Jürgen Habermas, the son of Ernst Habermas and Greta Kottgen Habermas, grew up in Gummersbach, Germany, where his father was the head of the bureau of industry and trade. His parents supported neither the Nazis nor the opposition, but Habermas was, for a time, a member of Adolf Hitler’s youth group. His attitude toward Nazism changed when, at age fifteen, he listened to reports of the Nuremburg trials and saw documentaries about life in the German concentration camps. These experiences shattered his sense of normality and raised his level of political consciousness.

After graduating from high school in 1949, Habermas studied philosophy, history, psychology, German literature, and economics at the Universities of Göttingen, Zurich, and Bonn. At this time, he was struck by the fact that World War II had not affected the thinking of his professors and had not caused them to reflect critically on the philosophical views they held and taught. Their indifference to self-reflective criticism generated his interest in and enthusiasm for critical theory. He received his doctorate from the University of Bonn after completing his dissertation on the Absolute and history in the work of German philosopher Friedrich Schelling. He married Ute Wesselhöft in 1955 and fathered three children.

Habermas’s burgeoning interest in critical theory brought him to the Frankfurt School for Social Research, where he served as a research assistant for philosopher Theodor Adorno from 1955 to 1959. After this initial association, Habermas became a professor of philosophy at the University of Heidelberg, a position he held until 1964, when he became a professor of philosophy and sociology at the University of Frankfurt. In 1971, he took over the directorship of the Max Planck Institute in Starnberg.

Life’s Work

The critical theorists of the Frankfurt School advocated three tenets that became influential in Habermas’s work. They wanted to see society move in the direction of the rational and to see it free itself from unnecessary domination. They understood reason or rationality in terms of progressive self-consciousness and saw the apparent unconscious acceptance of technological rationality as inimical to human concerns. They also advocated a unity of theory and practice. Although the school grounded its work in Marxist thought, Habermas did not accept all of Karl Marx’s teachings. Habermas was also strongly influenced by hermeneutics, which sees understanding arising out of a dialogue between text and interpreter. He was likewise influenced by the psychoanalytical psychology of Sigmund Freud. Psychology’s paradigm of an individual trying to access the unconscious gave Habermas an analogy for critical theory’s attempt to uncover, through language, the ideologies that work toward domination within society. Another positive influence on Habermas was the philosophy of language as detailed by philosophers Ludwig Wittgenstein, J. L. Austin, and John R. Searle, especially the last two’s formulation of the speech act. A negative influence to which Habermas frequently reacted was positivism, which tended to separate the knower from the object studied so that it could be examined objectively.

Cumulatively, these influences induced Habermas to recast the study of society as a study of communication. His work falls into four major stages. The first stage consists of his examination of the universal aspects of reason embedded in language. The second stage involves an exploration of the nature of human knowledge. The third stage is his work with explicating communicative action, the possibilities for a rational society arising from the use of language in interaction with others. The final stage deals more explicitly with critical theory, an exploration of the ways that communication is enhanced or confined by social institutions and structural parameters. In each of these stages, Habermas remains interested in the way language usage affects society’s capacity for rationality and how systemic distortion of language use impedes the realization of rationality.

In 1963, Habermas published Theory and Practice. In this book and related writings, he develops his theory of universal pragmatics, uncovering what he held were the universal aspects of language use and the types of rationality connected with them. Habermas argues that every speech act has a dual content: a propositional one that makes factual sense and an illocutionary one that leads to performance. He then concerns himself with three different types of speech acts and the validity claims arising from them. Constative speech acts assert facts, have propositional content, and make a truth claim. Regulative speech acts, such as commands, prohibitions, and promises, govern the relations between speaker and hearer, have an interpersonal relationship content, and pose a claim of rightness or appropriateness. Avowals are speech acts that disclose the speaker’s intention, feelings, or wishes. Avowals raise the validity claim of sincerity.

Each type of validity claim is based on a different type of rationality, and when a validity claim is challenged by the hearer, resolution must be pursued differently. If sincerity claims are challenged, participants must engage in further communicative action. When truth or appropriateness claims are leveled, participants must move to the level of discourse, a level of performance where one seeks to share the grounds of...

(The entire section is 2377 words.)