Jürgen Habermas

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2377

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...

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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 cognitive utterances. In the discourse mode, nothing is taken for granted and usual assumptions are suspended. Although resolution is sought on the discourse level when either truth or appropriateness claims are leveled, Habermas makes a distinction between the two cases. When truth is questioned, theoretic discourse must ensue. When appropriateness is questioned, speakers engage in practical discourse. However, beyond these lies another level of discourse: metatheoretical discourse in which the basic conceptual framework that grounds arguments is questioned. Beyond this level of discourse lies metaethical discourse in which participants argue about how knowledge is conceptualized and about the criteria used to determine what counts as knowledge

In 1968, Habermas published Knowledge and Human Interests. In this work, he argues that all human beings have three basic orientations or interests: work, interaction, and power. By work, he means what one does to provide for material existence. It demands a basic way of knowing that allows one to exert control over nature. This approach, in modern society, has culminated in the use within the empirical, analytical sciences of instrumental rationality, a form of rationality used to achieve a goal. Because humans are social beings, they must interact functionally and symbolically and strive for mutual understanding with others in order to survive. Such interaction requires practical reasoning and, as a way of knowing, has been systematized in the hermeneutical sciences. Finally, humans must also deal with domination or power. Although power is unavoidable in social groups, unnecessary power results from distorted communication or ideologies embedded so deeply in society that they remain outside consciousness. Members of society make these ideologies conscious by employing critical rationality, which has been formalized in the science of critical theory. To Habermas, these three domains penetrate one another, and any one-dimensional approach to understanding the world is, therefore, inadequate. Furthermore, it is by examining the interaction of these domains of work, language, and power in modern society that trouble spots and emergent crises can be discerned.

Habermas’s work with speech acts and levels of discourse constitutes fundamental building blocks in subsequent writings, especially The Theory of Communicative Action. To Habermas, communicative action occurs when at least two competent speakers seek to reach an understanding about an action situation (a teleogical action, or action taken to achieve a goal) in order to coordinate their actions. He also discusses three domains of activity. The first is the external or objective world. The validity claim is truth, the correspondence between the external world and statements made about it. The second domain is that of social interaction, where speech acts are directed toward the conforming of behavior to shared norms or values and where the validity claim is rightness. The final domain is the subjective world to which each person has exclusive or privileged access. The communicative act here is presentational or dramaturgical and allows for free and selective self-expression. Sincerity is the validity claim characteristic of this domain. The domain of communicative action incorporates and transcends these domains as speakers and hearers refer simultaneously to things in the objective, social, and subjective realms in order to arrive at a mutually shared understanding of a situation.

Habermas also discusses the concept of the “lifeworld,” the general storehouse of knowledge, traditions, and customs that form the background consensus of everyday life and get passed on unconsciously from one generation to the next. However, Habermas also claims that societies consist of systems, the structural features of life that are governed not by the medium of language as in the lifeworld but by nonlinguistic media, especially the media of money and power.

Habermas contends that it is necessary to make the assumptions of the lifeworld problematic by raising them to the conscious level so members of a society can act rationally and make informed decisions. This is particularly necessary in modern times when the systematic forces at work in society—institutions, rules, bureaucracies, economics—exert greater influence than language. The systematic side of life has proven stronger than the lifeworld and “colonized” it, with two major results: First, members of a culture are less likely to be in agreement about the basic assumptions of the lifeworld. Second, there is less need for achieving consensus because disagreements can be settled by recourse to laws and established structures of power.

Habermas also argues that modern societies are more rational than traditional societies because consensus has been replaced by critical thought and evaluation. He holds, however, that modern societies have not achieved emancipation—the desired outcome of critical theory. For him, an emancipated society is not one in which the lifeworld is subjected to the demands of maintaining systems but rather one in which the mechanics of the system accommodate the needs of the individuals. He points to environmental and women’s liberation movements as demanding an end to the colonization of the lifeworld and a return to the correct balance between lifeworld and system.


The influence of Habermas, long a dominant intellectual figure in his native Germany, extended outside his native land through visiting professorships at various universities in the United States, the translation and dissemination of his works in English and other languages, and his great eagerness to engage in intellectual debate. The breadth of his intellectual inquiries and his ability to synthesize knowledge from a wide variety of disciplines made him a key figure with influence in almost every area of the humanities and social sciences.

Habermas’s major contribution to philosophy and sociology lies in the way he recasts critical theory. He diverts attention from the analysis of concrete social and political situations and details the changing structure of consciousness in modern societies. Ironically, Habermas makes it clear that modernity embodies an almost intractable paradox. Increasing differentiation between the objective, social, and subjective worlds and between the lifeworld and systems has forced greater critical reflection and rationalization and provided more processes for communicative action. Differentiation has also allowed the colonization or technocratization of the lifeworld and a subsequent devaluation of communicative action as a means of meeting human needs.

Additional Reading

Berstein, J. M. Recovering Ethical Life: Jürgen Habermas and the Future of Critical Theory. New York: Routledge, 1995. The author places Jürgen Habermas’s work in the context of critical theory as a whole—past, present, and future. He also focuses on the evolution of Habermas’s thinking on communicative action. Sympathetic as this study is, Berstein contends that Habermas contributes to the very problems of ethical dislocation and meaninglessness that he is trying to diagnose and remedy.

Braaten, Jane. Habermas’s Critical Theory of Society. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991. The author explains Habermas’s theory of rationality, which she sees as the core of his social theory and method. She also examines his philosophy of social theory, which offers a preliminary outline of and method for a theory of societal rationalization. She assess his critical theory by looking at three applications in the United States.

Chambers, Simone. Reasonable Democracy: Jürgen Habermas and the Politics of Discourse. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1996. This book highlights Habermas’s contributions to political science and discuss Habermas’s view of the social aspects of democracy.

Deflem, Mathieu, ed. Habermas, Modernity, and Law. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage Publications, 1996. A riveting overview of Habermas’s work, with chapters ranging from human rights to law. Extremely helpful to professionals and students studying legal, political, or social theory.

Foss, Sonja K., Karen A. Foss, and Robert Trapp. Contemporary Perspectives on Rhetoric. Prospect Heights, Ill.: Waveland Press, 1985. The chapter of this book that focuses on Habermas summarizes his contribution to the field of rhetoric. The book also offers a chapter on Stephen Toulmin, whose work Habermas claimed influenced his.

Held, David. Introduction to Critical Theory: Horkheimer to Habermas. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980. Although this book was written before publication of many of Habermas’s works, it is helpful in providing a detailed picture of the evolution of critical theory in the Frankfurt School and Habermas’s continuities and discontinuities with it.

McCarthy, Thomas A. The Critical Theory of Jürgen Habermas. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1982. After translating several of Habermas’s works into English, the author realized that many misreadings of Habermas arose because so few of his works were available in English. This book provides a systematic and comprehensive overview of Habermas’s thought by explicating, interpreting, connecting, and systematizing Habermas’s works.

Rehg, William. Insight and Solidarity: A Study in the Discourse Ethics of Jürgen Habermas. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994. The author examines Habermas’s most important writings on moral theory. This book will be of interest to all who are concerned with moral, social, political, or legal theory.

White, Stephen K., ed. The Cambridge Companion to Habermas. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1995. The author presents a collection of essays that contextualize Habermas’s ideas within European political, philosophical, and sociological thought and that critique various aspects of his work, especially from feminist and postmodernist positions.


Critical Essays