Jürgen Habermas Essay - Critical Essays

Habermas, Jürgen


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."

Principal Works

Das Absolut und die Geschichte: Von der Zwiespaltigkeit in Schellings Denken (philosophy) 1954
Strukturwandel der Offenlichkeit [The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere] (social philosophy) 1962
Theorie und Praxis [Theory and Practice] (essays) 1963; revised and expanded, 1971
Zur Logik der Sozialwissenschaften [On the Logic of the Social Sciences] (essays) 1967; revised and expanded, 1970
Erkenntnis und Interesse [Knowledge and Human Interests] (social philosophy) 1968
Technik und Wissenschaft als "Ideologie" (essays) 1968
Protestbewegung und Hochschulreform (essays) 1969
Arbeit, Erkenntnis, Fortschritt (essays) 1970
Toward A Rational Society: Student Protest, Science, and Politics (essays) 1970
Philosophisch-politische Profile (biographical sketches) 1971
Theorie der Gesellschaft oder Sozialtechnologie: Was Leistet die Systemforschung? 1971
Kultur und Kritik (essays) 1973
Legitimationsprobleme im Spätkapitalismus [Legitimation Crisis] (social philosophy) 1973
Zur Rekonstruktion des historischen Materialismus (essays) 1976
Communication and the Evolution of Society (essays) 1979
Theorie des kommunikativen Handelns I-II 2 vols. [The Theory of Communicative Action] (philosophy) 1982
Moralbewusstsein und Kommunikatives Handeln [Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action] (essays) 1983
Philosophical-Political Profiles (essays) 1983
Vorstudien und Erganzungen zur Theorie des Kommunikativen Handelns 1984
Autonomy and Solidarity: Interviews with Jurgen Habermas (interviews) 1986; expanded edition, 1994
The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity: Twelve Lectures (lectures) 1987
Nachmetaphysisches Denken [Postmetaphysical Thinking: Philosophical Essays] (essays) 1988
The New Conservatism: Cultural Criticism and the Historians' Debate (essays) 1990
Faktizität und Geltung: Beiträge zur Diskurstheorie des Techts und des demokratischen Rechtsstaats [Between Facts and Norms: Contributions to a Discourse Theory of Law and Democracy] (social philosophy) 1992
Justification and Application: Remarks on Discourse Ethics (essays) 1993
The Past as Future (interviews) 1994

∗Selected essays from these works appear in Toward a Rational Society.

†Selected essays from these works appear in Philosophical-Political Profiles.

‡Selected essays from this work appear in Communication and the Evolution of Society.


Jürgen Habermas with Boris Frankel (interview date November 1973)

SOURCE: "Habermas Talking: An Interview," in Theory and Society, No. 1, 1974, pp. 37-58.

[In the following interview originally conducted in November, 1973, Habermas discusses the place of socio-political, Marxist, and psychoanalytic theories in his own linguistic and epistemological philosophy, addressing various critiques of his historical materialist analysis.]

It was at Frankfurt University that Jürgen Habermas made his reputation as the new theoretical force continuing the tradition of the Horkheimer-Adorno-Marcuse brand of Critical Theory. It was also at Frankfurt that Habermas' popularity with the Left student movement changed dramatically from mutual support...

(The entire section is 9443 words.)

Martin Jay (review date 9 November 1986)

SOURCE: "Standing Up to Paris and Bitburg," in The New York Times Book Review, November 9, 1986, p. 26.

[In the following review, Jay suggests that Autonomy and Solidarity "provides a marvelous point of entry" into Habermas's thought.]

One of the major ironies of contemporary thought is surely the fact that a champion of enlightened rationality is now more likely to speak German than French. No one represents this reversal of roles more clearly than the Frankfurt philosopher and sociologist Jürgen Habermas. Vigorously defending what he calls the "uncompleted project of modernity" as an emancipatory learning process, he has come squarely into conflict with...

(The entire section is 768 words.)

Onora O'Neill (review date 22 November 1990)

SOURCE: "The New Restoration," in London Review of Books, Vol. 12, No. 22, November 22, 1990, p. 13.

[In the review below, O'Neill examines various themes of The New Conservatism in terms of Habermas's engagement with contemporary cultural and political debates, concluding that his work proves that "philosophical writing may be engagé without being ephemeral."]

Should philosophers be politically committed, engagés in the manner of Socrates or of Sartre? Or should they adopt an aloof and distanced posture, like Plato after his early political disappointments, who views concern with this-worldly affairs as (at best) a conscientious return from the...

(The entire section is 1878 words.)

Douglas Kellner (review date March 1992)

SOURCE: A review of Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action and The New Conservatism, in Contemporary Sociology, Vol. 21, No. 2, March, 1992, pp. 278-79.

[In the following review, Kellner outlines the main concerns of Habermas's thought in Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action and The New Conservatism.]

Jürgen Habermas's New Conservatism and Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action are collections of his recent essays on his major political and theoretical concerns of the 1980s. The New Conservatism assembles articles which provide critiques of recent forms of conservative thought, while the articles in...

(The entire section is 1045 words.)

David Weberman (review date July 1992)

SOURCE: A review of Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action, in The Philosophical Review, Vol. 101, No. 3, July, 1992, pp. 924-26.

[In the following review, Weberman explains Habermas's contribution to the field of discourse ethics, defining his methodology and its application to ethics.]

[Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action] is a well-translated edition of a book that first appeared in 1983. It has been expanded to include a fifth, more recent essay. The last three essays (two of which are short treatises in themselves) address pivotal issues in ethical theory, such as cognitivism, justification, Kantianism, and moral psychology. They...

(The entire section is 1014 words.)

Frederick J. Antczak (review date November 1992)

SOURCE: A review of Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action, in The Quarterly Journal of Speech, Vol. 78, No. 4, November, 1992, pp. 510-11.

[In the review below, Antczak summarizes Habermas's theory of communication ethics and various potential objections from the communication scholars' perspective.]

It is a truism now accepted even by some philosophers that modern medicine saved ethics, that moral theory had been mired in the same concerns with ever-diminishing returns until it confronted the new problems that emerged from the advances in medical practice, with consequences that significantly changed both ethics and medicine. It's hardly shocking when...

(The entire section is 1228 words.)

Peter Dews (review date 13 May 1993)

SOURCE: "Agreeing What's Right," in London Review of Books, Vol. 15, No. 9, May 13, 1993, pp. 26-7.

[In the review below, Dews detects a change in Habermas's discourse ethics in Faktizität und Geltung, offering a thematic analysis of the philosophical principles addressed in the book.]

On 9 November last year, the anniversary of Kristallnacht, the philosopher Manfred Frank was invited to give the principal address at the memorial service which is held annually in the Paulskirche in Frankfurt. The Paulskirche was the home of the first democratically elected German national assembly, which flourished briefly amidst the revolutions of 1848–9, and, in keeping...

(The entire section is 3258 words.)

William Outhwaite (review date May 1994)

SOURCE: A review of Autonomy and Solidarity and Postmetaphysical Thinking, in Contemporary Sociology, Vol. 23, No. 3, May, 1994, pp. 456-58.

[Below, Outhwaite detects Habermas's "practical-political concerns" in Autonomy and Solidarity and outlines his philosophical approach in Postmetaphysical Thinking.]

The first edition of Autonomy and Solidarity: Interviews with Jürgen Habermas, published in 1986, rapidly established itself as the fast track into an understanding of Habermas's life and work, as well as an indispensable complement to his own massive oeuvre and the equally massive accretion of secondary literature which surrounds it. This...

(The entire section is 1237 words.)

Per Fjelstad (review date November 1994)

SOURCE: A review of Postmetaphysical Thinking and Philosophical Interventions in the Unfinished Project of Enlightenment, in The Quarterly Journal of Speech, Vol. 80, No. 4, November, 1994, pp. 500-03.

[In the following review of a festschrift dedicated to Habermas and Postmetaphysical Thinking, Fjelstad examines the "communicative implications" of Habermas's notion of "the self-hood of the individual" in the philosopher's book.]

Jürgen Habermas has afforded the self-hood of individuals a remarkably central place in his philosophy of social life. This commitment is not always evident, given Habermas's better known attention to the ideal of...

(The entire section is 2216 words.)

Dieter Misgeld (review date March 1995)

SOURCE: A review of Justification and Application, in The Review of Metaphysics, Vol. XLVIII, No. 3, March, 1995, pp. 657-58.

[In the review below, Misgeld describes the themes of Justification and Application.]

In all of his works Habermas pursues the elucidation of the modern age ("modernity") and of the principles and processes constitutive of it. The affirmation of modernity and its critique are integral to the elucidation. [Justification and Application] also pursues these themes. It is a collection of four recently published essays, all dealing with the issue of ethics, and concludes with a long and informative interview. There is also a lengthy,...

(The entire section is 549 words.)

Richard A. Posner (review date 6 May 1996)

SOURCE: "Law's Reason," in The New Republic, Vol. 214, May 6, 1996, pp. 26-30.

[In the following review, Posner details Habermas's central laim in Between Facts and Norms, concluding with two criticisms and two questions.]

Jürgen Habermas, who is professor emeritus of philosophy at Frankfurt University and is widely regarded as Germany's leading philosopher and social thinker, was a month short of his sixteenth birthday when Hitler's Reich collapsed. Shocked to learn of the Nazi atrocities, and free from any complicity in them, Habermas proceeded through the West German university system appalled by its unapologetic continuity with the past. Its philosophy...

(The entire section is 3982 words.)

Cass R. Sunstein (review date 18 August 1996)

SOURCE: "Democracy Isn't What You Think," in The New York Times Book Review, August 18, 1996, p. 18.

[Below, Sunstein reviews the question of political legitimacy addressed in Between Facts and Norms, especially Habermas's concept of "deliberative democracy."]

Most people know that the Constitution's First Amendment provides the rights to freedom of speech and to the free exercise of religion. But in the first Congress some people seriously proposed that the First Amendment should contain another right: the right on the part of constituents "to instruct" their representatives how to vote. The first Congress ultimately rejected the proposal. Roger Sherman made...

(The entire section is 1468 words.)

Timothy Dykstal (review date Fall 1996)

SOURCE: A review of The Past as Future, in Southern Humanities Review, Vol. 30, Fall, 1996, pp. 375-79.

[In the review below, Dykstal questions Habermas's standard of "the norm" in The Past as Future.]

Conversation is indispensable to Jürgen Habermas. In the German philosopher's "theory of communicative action," the values that sustain a good conversation—that is, one that produces greater understanding—are perhaps the only transhistorical imperative that we have. We speak in order to be understood, and we can use that desire for understanding to criticize whatever—from material deprivations to immaterial, or ideological, distortions—would defeat it....

(The entire section is 1872 words.)

Further Reading


Bauman, Zygmunt. "The Adventure of Modernity." Times Literary Supplement, No. 4376 (13 February 1987): 155.

Favorably reviews Autonomy and Solidarity, identifying Habermas's work as "a staunch and resolute defence of the essential values and ambitions of modernity."

McCarthy, Thomas. "Kantian Constuctivism and Reconstructivism: Rawls and Habermas in Dialogue." Ethics 105, No. 1 (October 1994): 44-63.

Dialectical comparison of John Rawl's theory of justice and Habermas's moral and political theory.

Poster, Mark....

(The entire section is 242 words.)