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Jürgen Habermas

Jürgen Habermas

The German philosopher and sociologist Jürgen Habermas (born 1929) challenged social science by suggesting that despite appearances to the contrary, human beings are capable of rationality and under some conditions are able to communicate with one another successfully; the barriers preventing the exercise of reason and mutual understanding can be identified, comprehended, and reduced.

Jürgen Habermas was born in Düsseldorf, Germany, on June 18, 1929. He grew up in nearby Gummersbach, where his father was director of the local seminary. He was 16 when World War II ended. At that time he experienced a sense of revulsion with the Germans' "collectively realized inhumanity, " which characterized, he believed, their lack of response to the revelations in the Nürenberg trials about the Nazi death machine. His own very different reaction, one of shock and horror, constituted what he described as "that first rupture, which still gapes."

He entered the University of Bonn in 1946. Here he began to speculate about the meaning of such concepts as reason, freedom, and justice, in part by reading such German philosophers as Hegel and Marx, as well as 20th-century Marxists, particularly the Hungarian Georg Lukács.

The Frankfurt School

Habermas obtained his Ph.D. in 1954 with a dissertation on the philosopher Friedrick von Schelling. Shortly thereafter he moved to the University of Frankfurt where, until 1959, he served as assistant to Professor Theodor Adorno, who was associated with the Institute for Social Research. The Frankfurt Institute, originally established in the 1920s, had resumed its activities there several years earlier after moving to the United States during the Nazi period. The Frankfurt School became famous as a movement of philosophical and social thought. It breached traditional boundaries that separate literary criticism, philosophy, psychoanalysis, and social science and attempted to understand critically the various elements comprising modern society. In time Habermas would become the successor to the tradition of the Frankfurt School.

Even before he came to Frankfurt, Habermas had begun publishing criticism and social commentary which ranged over a variety of areas, from analyses of Konrad Adenauer's postwar Germany to commentaries on Marx. This wide range of topics continued throughout Habermas' career. As he developed more powerful ideas, and as these ideas appeared in books rather than scattered among many periodicals, his impact became widespread. As he once commented, "There has never been any need to complain about lack of attention among the scholarly and political public."

Habermas' overall goal was to construct a social theory that could affect the emancipation of people from arbitrary social constraint. Over the course of his writing (more than 200 articles and books) he pursued this goal in a variety of ways.

During his years as an assistant to Adorno, Habermas collaborated in a survey of the political disposition of Frankfurt University students which resulted in the book Student and Politics. He returned to this subject when he analyzed the student movement of the late 1960s.

He became an important spokesperson for academic reform on the one hand and against militant student behavior on the other. In a famous address at a student congress in 1968 he accused the students of mistaking their agitation for a revolution and, in the process, of threatening democratic processes in Germany. A lively debate ensued, which was published in The Left Answers Jürgen Habermas.

Habermas' early theoretical works examined broad changes in the way Western civilization treats political ideals; in Theory and Practice (1962) he traced the change from the study of Platonic ideas of goodness and decency to the study of effective means for manipulating citizens, as exemplified by modern social science. In Strukturwandlung der öffentlichkeit (1962) he examined changes in concepts of the public and the private spheres. During this period Habermas also engaged in a comprehensive examination of the methods of the social sciences (Die Logik der Sozialwissenschaften, 1967). He considered the differences between natural science research and social science research and reviewed the methods on which historical, sociological, and linguistic work was based. This work was the first which reflected his lifelong preoccupation with the ways in which social scientists study human behavior:the application of scientific measurement to human beings contains contradictions whose implications Habermas continued to explore.

This work was followed by Knowledge and Human Interests (1981), which contains his 1965 inaugural lecture at the University of Frankfurt, where he emphasized the importance of language. "What raises us out of nature, " he stated, "is the only thing whose nature we can know:language. Through its structure autonomy and responsibility are posited for us."

The nature of contemporary society and the way it has been transformed by science and technology were of continuing concern to Habermas. In the early 1970s he examined the ideological roles science and technology play (Toward a Rational Society, 1971) and studied the social and cultural contradictions in modern societies in which the legitimacy of political systems has been increasingly challenged (Legitimation Crisis, 1973).

The Max Planck Institute

Habermas spent most of his work life as a professor in a university setting. However, between 1971 and 1983 he directed the Max Planck Institute for Social Research in Starnberg, near Munich. He assembled a group of young scholars from various disciplines—anthropology, economics, political science, developmental psychology, philosophy, sociology, and linguistics—and embarked upon an ambitious plan to comprehend the basic conditions for modern society. His theoretical perspective became even broader and began to include evolutionary anthropology and linguistic theory, as well as theories of moral development as espoused by Piaget and Kohlberg. From these diverse sources Habermas developed the broad interests that characterized his later studies, processes of what he called "communicative action" and "discourse ethics."

Habermas was often at the center of controversy. In the early 1980s, when he was still directing the Max Planck Institute, either his ideas or his politics were too controversial for the University of Munich to appoint him even as an adjunct professor. On the other hand, he received many prizes, awards, and honors, including the Hegel Prize, the Sigmund Freud Prize, the Adorno Prize, and the Geschwister Scholl Prize. He served as Theodore Heuss Professor at the New School for Social Research in New York, which also awarded him an honorary degree, as did Cambridge University. He was invited to lecture at major universities in Europe, America, and Japan from the mid-1960s on.

Although Jürgen Habermas stated in an interview in the mid-1980s that he had been interested exclusively in problems of theory construction, he in fact continued to involve himself in political questions of the day. In the late 1970s, when the German government was suspending civil liberties in an effort to stop terrorism, he feared that there were threats to democratic institutions and a possible witch hunt of left-wing intellectuals. He sent a circular letter to 50 German critics, writers, and social scientists and asked them to contribute to a book that would express the diversity of concerns about the spiritual situation of the age (Observations on "The Spiritual Situation of the Age," 1979).

In 1981 Habermas published what he called his "magnum opus, " The Theory of Communicative Action. In this book he brought together much of his previous work and developed the concept of rationality; he constructed a concept of society that integrated what he called "the lifeworld paradigm" with a system paradigm; and he elaborated a critical theory of modernity. He carried out "historical reconstructions" of a number of classic and modern writers, such as Max Weber and Emile Durkheim, as well as such 20th-century figures as Adorno and Parsons. The aim was to "excavate and overcome their weaknesses."

When Habermas left the Max Planck Institute in 1983 he returned once again to the University of Frankfurt as professor of philosophy. He was married and had three children.

It was generally agreed that the scope of Habermas' work was encyclopedic. He was called the "leading social thinker in Germany today" and was compared to Hegel and Marx.

Certainly Habermas had close intellectual ties to Marx; however, he objected to the Marxian reduction of history and culture to mere economic processes, and humanized Marxian dialectic through his introduction of his theory of knowledge and ideas which forge historic changes.

With Hegel, Habermas shared the belief in the power of reason and discourse to establish social truths; but he placed greater emphasis on the individual's ability to reason and the social group's ability to reach a consensus of opinion on values and social norms of behavior.

Since his volume Theory of Social Action, (1981), Habermas has published a second volume, The Critique of Functionalist Reason (1984.) In both volumes he sought to integrate the individual's life experience with his total social context, the "system paradigm." He also took to task the views of several historic and contemporary social thinkers, such as Max Weber, Emile Durkheim, Theodor Adorno and Talcott Parsons, pointing out weaknesses in their reasoning and conclusions.

Habermas' 1996 volume in English, Between Facts and Norms:Contributions to a Discourse Theory of Law and Democracy, was reviewed by Cass R. Sunstein in the New York Times Book Review in August, 1996.

Further Reading

Many of Habermas' books are available in English, through the MIT Press and Beacon Press. A number of his articles have been translated; many appear in the journal Telos. The first volume of his "magnum opus, " The Theory of Communicative Action (1981), is available in English, translated by Thomas McCarthy; the second volume was scheduled to be published in 1987. A convenient place to begin a study of Habermas is with Thomas McCarthy, The Critical Theory of Jürgen Habermas (1978, 1982). This book contains a clear exposition of his ideas, not including the ideas expressed in The Theory of Communicative Action. Also see Rick Roderick, Habermas and the Foundations of Critical Theory (1986). A lively interview with Habermas appears in the May/June 1985 issue of New Left Review. There is no biography of Habermas, but several works are devoted entirely to his ideas and give a good introduction to the wide range of his interests in philosophy and social science. See Richard J. Bernstein, editor, Habermas and Modernity (1985) and J. Thompson and David Held, Habermas:Critical Debates (1982).

More current secondary reading which explicates clearly Habermas' complex philosophy are Stephen K. White's The Cambridge Companion to Habermas, New York:Cambridge University Press, (1995); and Joanna Meehan's (editor) Feminists Reading Habermas:Gendering the Subject of Discourse. (New York:Routledge, 1995), the essays in which consider Habermas' social concepts from a feminist perspective. □

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Habermas, Jürgen

Habermas, Jürgen 1929-


Jürgen Habermas is a philosopher and a prominent public intellectual in Germany. He is considered the leading representative of the second generation of the Frankfurt School, whose Critical Theory he has sought to reinvigorate in his sustained reflections on social theory. Habermas, however, diverges from his predecessors in his analysis of the emancipatory promise of the Enlightenment, whose political legacy, he maintains, remains unrealized. Drawing on the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, one of the foundational theoreticians of modernity, Habermas perceives a sublated potential in modernity. He posits the realm of communication as a counterweight to the Frankfurt Schools disillusionment with a modernity corrupted by the destructive ascendancy of instrumental reason.

In his first book, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (1962), Habermas demarcates theoretical concerns with public discourse and reason that would animate much of his later writings. This sociological and historical work examines the emergent bourgeois public sphere in Western Europe in the eighteenth century, tracing its origins as a sphere of private people come together as a public (1989, p. 27) and the concomitant transformations in modes of communication that it fostered as the new public deployed reason against the contemporary absolutist political order. As he chronicled the subsequent decline of the public sphere, Geoff Eley notes, Habermas was also criticizing the straitened confines of West Germanys authoritarian postwar political culture of the 1950s and 1960s (Eley 2002, p. 292). Many scholars have engaged Habermass thesis, extending his analysis to other settings while also arguing for greater attention to the exclusionary mechanisms that hinder participation in the public sphere (Calhoun 1992, Gilroy 1993, Landes 1988).

Habermass Knowledge and Human Interests (1968) is a critique of positivism elaborated through a comparison of social theory and psychoanalysis. Knowledge and Human Interests represents an early iteration of Habermass theory of communication, and prefigures the linguistic turn of his magnum opus, The Theory of Communicative Action (1981). Here Habermas argues that the sphere of the everyday, or the life-world, has been progressively colonized by instrumental reason. Habermas asserts that the counterbalance to this process must be found in an intersubjective reciprocity arising in the sphere of language, arguing for a distinct communicative rationality in which language coordinates action among subjects as it socializes them. Habermass writings on political theory, such as Legitimation Crisis (1973), Between Facts and Norms (1992), or The Inclusion of the Other (1996), anchor a theory of discursive democracy in his analyses of communicative practice in the public sphere. Critics counter that Habermass theory of discourse is totalizing, wrongly assuming that all actors ultimately seek consensus as the outcome of their communicative interventions in the world (Lyotard 1979).

In The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity (1985), Habermas turns to the debates about postmodernism, criticizing Theodor Adornos negative dialectics, Michel Foucaults genealogy, and Jacques Derridas deconstruction for providing insufficient grounds for breaking free from the totalizing reason their practitioners critique. He holds that the predicament of the transcendental subject that philosophies of consciousness pose can only be surpassed in the realm of intersubjectivity.

Habermas has often participated in the public sphere he analyzes in his scholarly writings. He was a leading spokesman for the student movement of the 1960s, and in the 1980s, he intervened in the Historians Debate against the attempts of revisionist West German historians to lay the Nazi past to rest. More recently, Habermas has weighed in on issues of European identity and integration.

SEE ALSO Critical Theory; Foucault, Michel



Habermas, Jürgen. 1962. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society. Trans. Thomas Burger and Frederick Lawrence. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1989.

Habermas, Jürgen. 1968. Knowledge and Human Interests. Trans. Jeremy J. Shapiro. Boston: Beacon Press, 1971.

Habermas, Jürgen. 1973. Legitimation Crisis. Trans. Thomas McCarthy. Boston: Beacon Press, 1975.

Habermas, Jürgen. 1981. The Theory of Communicative Action. 2 vols. Trans. Thomas McCarthy. Boston: Beacon Press, 1984.

Habermas, Jürgen. 1985. The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity: Twelve Lectures. Trans. Frederick G. Lawrence. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1987.

Habermas, Jürgen. 1992. Between Facts and Norms: Contributions to a Discourse Theory of Law and Democracy. Trans. William Rehg. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996.

Habermas, Jürgen. 1996. The Inclusion of the Other: Studies in Political Theory. Ed. Ciaran Cronin and Pablo De Greiff. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1998.


Calhoun, Craig, ed. 1992. Habermas and the Public Sphere. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Eley, Geoff. 2002. Politics, Culture, and the Public Sphere: Toward a Postmodern Conception. positions: east asia cultures critique 10 (1): 219236.

Gilroy, Paul. 1993. The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Holub, Robert C. 1991. Jürgen Habermas: Critic in the Public Sphere. New York: Routledge.

Landes, Joan B. 1988. Women and the Public Sphere in the Age of the French Revolution. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Lyotard, Jean-François. 1984 (1979). The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Krista Hegburg

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"Habermas, Jürgen." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . 21 Aug. 2017 <>.

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Habermas, Jürgen

Jürgen Habermas (yûr´gən hä´bûrmäs), 1929–, German philosopher. He is a professor at the Univ. of Frankfurt (emeritus since 1994) and is the best-known contemporary proponent of critical theory, which is a social theory with Marxist roots developed in the 1930s by the Frankfurt School. In the spirit of his Frankfurt School predecessors, Habermas has criticized modern industrial societies for excessive emphasis on instrumental action, i.e., on doing whatever is necessary to attain given ends. This emphasis, he argues, has prevented them from appreciating the importance of communicative action, which is understanding and coming to agreement with others. Habermas has also constructed a theory of "discourse ethics" according to which moral judgments would have validity if agreed to by agents in an ideal speech situation. His works include Knowledge and Human Interests (1968, tr. 1971), Theory of Communicative Action (2 vol. 1981, tr. 1981–84), and Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action (1983, tr. 1989).

See M. G. Specter, Habermas: An Intellectual Biography (2010); D. Rasmussen, Reading Habermas (1990); G. Finlayson, Habermas: A Very Short Introduction (2005); D. Ingram, Habermas: Introduction and Analysis (2010).

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