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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 215

Jürgen Habermas is perhaps the most renowned member of the second generation of the Frankfurt School for Social Research. Like other members of the school, Habermas was strongly influenced by the work of philosophers Karl Marx and George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Habermas, however, rejects the pessimism of Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, earlier members of the Frankfurt School. Instead, he conceives of his life’s project as an attempt to formulate a critical theory of society with the practical intention of helping individuals emancipate themselves from various forms of domination. To develop a critical theory of society, Habermas’s first concern was to develop systematically its philosophical underpinnings. In the early 1970’s, he began to formulate elements of a theory of language, communication, and the evolution of society, intending to build up a framework for his larger view of emancipatory action. Early in his career he had argued that the system, especially the economy, dominated the whole of society at the expense of the “lifeworld,” the immediate milieu of the individual. He also held that science in the capitalist era was being turned against human beings and impoverishing their cultural lives because of its emphasis on instrumental reason. His thinking about these issues culminated in the two volumes of The Theory of Communicative Action.

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The Theory

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 346

Habermas begins The Theory of Communicative Action by distinguishing between instrumental rationality, or reason geared toward self-maintenance and adaptation to a contingent environment, and communicative rationality, through which people reach agreement on the validity of proposed assertions. He then argues for the authenticity of collective validity as a rational means of understanding reality.

This concept is a key one because Habermas claims that most Western societies promote a distorted understanding of rationality fixated only on instrumental aspects. Using the work of Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget on learning as an evolving structure of consciousness, Habermas claims that an individual learns to differentiate between the objective world, the social world, and the self. These three aspects of reality form three different contexts in which individuals can come to collective agreement. Agreement on an assertion about the objective world constitutes agreement about a fact and depends on cognitive instrumental rationality. Agreement about the justification of a way of ordering social life constitutes a norm in the evaluative domain and depends on ethical rationality. Agreement regarding the authenticity of a subject making an assertion about his or her own condition constitutes agreement rationally reached in the expressive domain. Thus an assertion must be accepted on all three levels. It must be true, it must be right in the existing normative context, and it must manifest the intention of the speaker.

The consensus a society reaches rationally on all three levels composes the “lifeworld” of the individuals who compose that society. In equating communicative action with consensually agreed upon validity, Habermas argues that all three aspects of meaning come into play. In attempting to come to an understanding with one another, participants share in a cultural tradition that they both use and renew. In doing so, they also strengthen the integration of the group and internalize its values. Structurally, the lifeworld consists of three interpenetrating entities: the culture, the society, and the individual. Communicative action, with its mutual understanding, coordination of action, and formation of personal identity, strengthens all three components and is crucial to the...

(The entire section contains 1991 words.)

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