Jürgen Habermas Introduction - Essay


Jürgen Habermas 1929–

German social philosopher and cultural critic.

The following entry presents criticism of Habermas's work through 1996.

Widely regarded as the most influential philosopher in late-twentieth-century Germany, Habermas has focused his career on the nature of the public realm. His scholarly writings have influenced a broad range of disciplines, including philosophy, social theory, hermeneutics, anthropology, linguistics, ethics, educational theory, and public policy. Beginning with Strukturwandel der Offenlichkeit (1962; The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere), Habermas has produced major works on the development of public discourse, the relation between radical theory and political practice, the conflicting influences informing human understanding, crises of legitimacy in the modern state and capitalist society, social evolution, and communicative social action. Habermas's best-known and most accomplished theory is a synthesis of linguistic philosophy and sociological systems theory. In addition he has formulated what has come to be called "discourse ethics," a normative philosophy which postulates how moral consensus is achieved through public discussion by a community of rational, self-interested subjects. Habermas's dense essays possess a sharp critical edge that requires reflection about a wide range of contemporary political, cultural, and theoretical issues. Often characterized as a modern proponent of the philosophe of the Enlightenment, Habermas also has publicly denounced violations of civil rights and historical revisionism of the Holocaust. Douglas Kellner has remarked that Habermas is "very much a public intellectual who involves himself in the key social and political debates of the day."

Biographical Information

Born June 18, 1929, in Düsseldorf and raised in Nazi Germany, Habermas was deeply affected by the moral and political unrest of his youth. After World War II, he attended the universities at Göttingen, Zürich, and Bonn, where he received his Ph.D. in 1954. During the late 1950s, he turned radical while serving as Theodor Adorno's assistant at the University of Frankfurt, where he studied the works of Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud. Written as his "habilitation" (a dissertation qualifying a person to become a professor) at Marburg in 1961, the widely acclaimed Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere established Habermas's reputation as a social scientist, endearing him to the Leftist student movement and earning him a lecturing position in philosophy at the University of Heidelberg in 1962. The next year he published the essay collection Theorie und Praxis (1963; Theory and Practice). Habermas left Heidelberg in 1964, taking a position as professor of philosophy and sociology at Frankfurt where he met and began associations with members of the so-called Frankfurt School of critical theory—Adorno, Max Horkheimer, and Herbert Marcuse. Here, Habermas wrote the pivotal Erkenntnis und Interesse (1968; Knowledge and Human Interests) and Toward A Rational Society (1970), both of which granted him recognition as the new theoretical force of Frankfurt. In 1971, he assumed the directorship of the Max-Planck-Institut in Starnberg, where he produced Philosophisch-politische Profile (1971), Legitimationsprobleme im Spätkapitalismus (1973; Legitimation Crisis), and Communication and the Evolution of Society (1979). By 1982 Habermas had achieved renown as a great philosopher, especially with the publication of his two-volume masterpiece, Theorie des kommunikativen Handelns (1982; The Theory of Communicative Action). Habermas resumed teaching philosophy and sociology at Frankfurt in 1983, and since then he has continued to lecture and write; among his recent publications are Moralbewusstsein und Kommunikatives Handeln (1983; Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action), The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity (1987), Nachmetaphysisches Denken (1988; Postmetaphysical Thinking), The New Conservatism (1990), and Faktizität und Geltung (1992; Between Facts and Norms).

Major Works

Habermas's scholarly writings strive for a comprehensive critical theory of contemporary society. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere traces the development and eclipse of the public sphere in modern society and contains the seeds of Habermas's formulation of discourse ethics and communicative action. The essays collected in Theory and Practice elaborate the relation between theory and practice through criticism of positivism, reason, philosophy, and politics. Zur Logik der Sozialwissenschaften (1967; On the Logic of the Social Sciences) compares and analyzes positivistic, functional, and behaviorist approaches and historical, narrative, and hermeneutical approaches to social theory, demonstrating the limitations and inadequacies of each approach. Habermas's first systematic development of his ideas, Knowledge and Human Interests formulates a tripartite cognitive theory comprising the "technical interest" of the empirical-analytical sciences; the "practical interest" of the historical-hermeneutical sciences; and the "emancipatory interest" of critical social sciences. Legitimation Crisis treats crises of economic life, motivation, rationality, and legitimacy in advanced capitalist societies. Communication and the Evolution of Society contains Habermas's revision of Marxist historical materialism in terms of his theory of communicative action. The Theory of Communicative Action interprets Habermas's theories of social action and of modernity in the context of the classic theoretical positions of Marx, Max Weber, George Mead, and Talcott Parsons, among others. The articles in Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action present Habermas's evolved positions in philosophy, the social sciences, and ethics, while defending a notion of critical rationality rooted in his theories of communicative action and discourse ethics. Illuminating some key themes found in his previous works, Postmetaphysical Thinking focuses on the nature of reason and the question of metaphysics, attempting to hold a middle position that is postmetaphysical without relinquishing the role of reason and philosophy. Between Facts and Norms addresses the question of political legitimacy by developing new understandings of law, democracy, and the relationship between them in terms of "deliberative politics." However, Habermas's works often speak to audiences who do not follow his basic work in philosophy or social theory. He practices the communicational ethics that he defends theoretically by contributing pieces to a range of contemporary cultural and political debates. Toward a Rational Society features essays on student protests of the 1960s, the democratization of German universities, the role of technology and science as ideology, and the "scientization" of politics and public opinion. The biographical sketches in Philosophical-Political Profiles focus on select twentieth-century philosophers, notably Martin Heidegger, Walter Benjamin, and Hannah Arendt. The lectures in the Philosophical Discourse of Modernity engage the current debates about modernity versus postmodernity in light of the critical theories of such writers as Freidrich Nietzsche, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Derrida. The New Conservatism reflects on contemporary neoconservatism and recent German debate about its Nazi past. Critics usually concede that the interview collections Autonomy and Solidarity (1986) and The Past as Future (1994) offer "a marvelous point of entry" into Habermas's thought, as Martin Jay put it.

Critical Reception

Since he began to formulate his discourse ethics in the 1970s, Habermas has often been accused, from various directions, of confusing a principle of political democracy with one of morality. Peter Dews has observed that "Habermas, when sympathetically interpreted, has failed to capture philosophically our core sense of morality, while offering a compelling basis for the regulation of public issues through discussion and collective decision-making." Jay perhaps has summarized best the critical reaction to Habermas's thought: "To his admirers, Habermas has accomplished a much-needed reconstruction of historical materialism by incorporating insights ranging from ordinary language philosophy and hermeneutics to developmental psychology and sociological systems theory. To his detractors, the result has been an amalgam of ill-fitting elements that merits comparison more to Rube Goldberg than with that of Marx." Yet Onora O'Neill has concluded that Habermas's achievement demonstrates that "philosophical writing may be engagé without being ephemeral."