The Emancipatory Value of Habermas' Critical Theory to Education

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The Emancipatory Value of Habermas' Critical Theory to Education



Jürgen Habermas is well known not only for his prolific writings pertaining to Critical Theory but also for his revolutionary perspectives on human emancipation in the modern capitalist society. Among others, his theory of communicative action and his discourse ethics are most prominent and influential. They contribute to an ideal situation where humans can competently participate in democratic life and thus attain political emancipation. These theories have much potential for guiding both policymakers and practitioners in contributing to the success of educational change and reform projects.


Jürgen Habermas (1929–) is a German philosopher and social theorist whose prolific writings cover a wide range of topics centring on and defending the Enlightenment goal of political emancipation—that is, the freedom of human beings in modern societies. Enlightenment, also known as the Age of Reason, was a broad movement within seventeenth-and eighteenth-century European philosophy which criticised all forms of traditional authority, especially religion and feudalism. Seeking to replace fear and superstition with consent and truth, it espoused the establishment of a social order that was based on reason. This would then result in a universal humanity capable of infinite perfectibility. Among its several proponents or progenitors such as Locke, Voltaire and Diderot, Kant (1784) famously defines the Enlightenment as man's emergence from a self-incurred immaturity and writes that the motto for Enlightenment is “Sapere aude: have courage to use your own understanding” (p. 54). The primary narrative of the Enlightenment project is that reason will free the world from superstition and produce a universal knowledge. Human rationality is thus seen as necessary for human freedom.

Against this backdrop, it is understandable that Habermas essentially views the modern society as an incomplete modernity project, since human beings in modern capitalistic and administered societies have yet to attain the total freedom to engage in democratic political decisions. The quest for human freedom and emancipation where human beings are free to not only participate in the democratic process but also transform their social conditions is consistent with the critical theory that is associated with the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research—or, in short, the Frankfurt School. The Frankfurt School was established in 1923 by two key founders—Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno. Habermas is said to represent the second generation of Frankfurt School's Critical Theory. The Frankfurt School espouses three theses pertaining to Critical Theory (Geuss, 1981, pp. 1–2), one of which states that critical theories have special standing as guides for human action in that

  • they are aimed at producing enlightenment in the agents who hold these theories, that is, at enabling those agents to determine what their true interests are;
  • they are inherently emancipatory, that is, they free agents from a kind of coercion which is at least partly self-imposed, from self-frustration of conscious human action.

The early founders of Critical Theory at the Frankfurt School, however, drew their inspiration mainly from Marxian perspectives and less from the Enlightenment project. In terms of the Enlightenment project, Horkheimer and Adorno reject Kant's claim that the Enlightenment is a linear process that will eventually free human beings from superstition and tyranny and lead them to infinite perfectibility. In their Dialectic of Enlightenment (1976), they argue that the Enlightenment has contradictory tendencies especially in light of the functioning of the advanced industrial and administered society. While the primary objective of the advanced industrial or capitalist society is the maximisation of profits and the control of mass production and consumption, that of the administered or bureaucratic society is the control and efficient use of economic resources. In other words, the sole privilege and value is given to money and control or power. Likewise, efficiency and effectiveness becomes the sole legitimate reason for the functioning and maintenance of society.

Although it can be said that reason does free human beings from superstition, it simultaneously establishes itself as the only legitimate objective in the transformation of the world and by which the world can be subjugated and manipulated. Reason thus becomes downgraded to an “instrumental reason” governed solely by the logic of ends and means, and vis-à-vis effectiveness and efficiency. In modern capitalist and bureaucratic societies, decisions are governed by reasons pertaining to what is considered to be the most efficient or cost-effective means to achieve a specific end, but which do not in themselves reflect the value of that end. In essence, Horkheimer and Adorno claim that the eventual outcome of the Enlightenment undermines the critical capacity and promise of reason by reducing it to a mere instrument that serves to perpetuate and strengthen the domination of people (Alway, 1995). The Enlightenment thus becomes a form of totalistic knowledge of control and domination over the natural world and reduces the latter to no more than a collection of resources to be exploited. In the same vein, humans are treated as resources to be exploited. They also argue that the Enlightenment has become the most advanced ideological tool for the rising bourgeoisie class—the capitalists—who seeks to establish a new production process or economic order and solidify its political control over the working class—the proletariat (Bronner, 1994). However, Habermas, unlike Horkheimer and Adorno, has not dropped the value of reason or rationality in contributing to Critical Theory's emancipatory project.

In terms of Marxian perspectives, critical theorists are essentially inspired by Marx's utopian goal of a better world. Marx believes in the “natural” or inevitable revolution led by the proletariat, who provides the labour, against the bourgeoisie, who owns the means of production. This would mark the end of capitalism and social classes and the beginning of socialism and communism where the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all. This theoretical core of Marxism is also known as “historical materialism”. Marx argues that human life, and human history, is primarily determined by social class struggles over material or economic modes of production as opposed to individual and collective consciousness. Critical theorists, however, categorically reject Marx's notion of historical materialism; they instead emphasise issues of consciousness and culture, and the role of human agency, as opposed to a social class, in affecting revolutionary or radical social change.

What the early critical theorists have built on is the Marxian perspective on the critique of ideology. In fact, Geuss (1981) claims that the “very heart of the critical theory of society is its criticism of ideology” (p. 3). Notwithstanding other writers such as Walter Benjamin, Eric Fromm and Herbert Marcuse, critical theorists in general believe that modern capitalistic states essentially have the tendency to produce human persons who are “unfree” as a result of ideological beliefs or consciousness that are false. These false ideological beliefs or consciousness are unconsciously self-imposed upon the individual—a kind of self-imposed coercion. This brings about a kind of “unfree existence” in human persons. The strength of false ideological beliefs or consciousness derives from the fact that human persons do not realise that it is self-imposed (Geuss, 1981). This strength is also dependent on the degree of legitimacy—permission or right—given by human persons to societal and institutional ideology or consciousness. Human persons in societies impose societal and institutional ideology or consciousness on themselves by participating in it and accepting it without question, and in so doing reproducing relations of coercion. Furthermore, critical theorists believe that human persons in modern capitalistic societies are, unconsciously or consciously, caught up in a web of power inequalities. This too contributes to the “unfree existence” of human persons. Critical Theory's primary goal is therefore to enlighten and emancipate human persons from forces of ideological beliefs or consciousness that are false.

Against this backdrop, and still maintaining the emancipatory focus of both the Frankfurt School and the Marxian project, Habermas set out to reconstruct Critical Theory in a revolutionary way—essentially replacing the paradigm of consciousness with the paradigm of communication and shifting from struggles with classes to struggles with crises.

I want to maintain that the program of early critical theory foundered not on this or that contingent circumstance, but from the exhaustion of the paradigm of the philosophy of consciousness. I shall argue that a change in paradigm to the theory of communication makes it possible to return to the undertaking that was interrupted with the critique of instrumental reason; and this will permit us to take up once again the since-neglected tasks of a critical theory of society (Habermas, 1987, p. 386).

Habermas' Theory of Communicative Action and Discourse Ethics

In one of his earlier writings, Knowledge and Human Interests (1971), Habermas focuses mainly on proposing the notion of crises in society to replace ideas that are related to Marx's historical materialism. His later writings, beginning with Legitimation Crisis (1973), followed by The Theory of Communicative Action I and II (1985, 1987), and culminating with Between Facts and Norms (1992), are all concerned with developing a defence of constitutional democracy. His later writings are considered to be significant insofar as they continue the critique that others at the Frankfurt School have started and sustained of the advanced or modern capitalist society. In this regard, he is in agreement with Marcuse (1964), who claims that in the advanced or modern capitalist society the true conditions of democracy still have to be created.

Habermas essentially conceptualises society as constituted at two levels—the lifeworld and the system. The lifeworld is described as the preconscious and taken-for-granted presuppositions, understandings and perceptual filters that determine how people experience reality. It forms a blurred and shadowy backdrop to all we think, speak and do. The lifeworld

forms the indirect context of what is said, discussed, addressed in a situation … the intuitively present, in this case familiar and transparent, and at the same time vast and incalculable web of presuppositions that have to be satisfied if an actual utterance is to be at all meaningful, that is valid, or invalid (Habermas, 1987, p. 131).

The lifeworld is also cultural and linguistic in essence—a “culturally transmitted and linguistically organised stock of interpretive patterns” (p. 124). It not only has a linguistic component in terms of content and structure, but it also is intersubjective (Habermas, 1987). It represents a set of shared meanings for people to draw upon to communicate with each other so as to refer to items in the objective, subjective and normative worlds (Outhwaite, 1994).

As the lifeworld has a preconscious and taken-for-granted nature, most of us are not fully appreciative of its existence and significance. For example, when we communicate with another person, we are usually not conscious of the linguistic interpretive schema or knowledge that we use to convey our intentions or interests to that person. As an example, let us analyse the following utterances between two close friends:

George: Hi, Susie. (cheerful)
Susie: Oh, hi. (indifferent)
George: How are you? You look like you are under the weather.
Susie: Oh, do I? (elusive)
George: Hm, well that's what I can see. Let me know if you need a listening ear, ya.

In order to enter into this dialogue, the following linguistic interpretive backgrounded schema may be used by both George and Susie:

  • Our facial expressions indicate our emotional moods.
  • The phrase “under the weather” means, among others, to be slightly ill.
  • It is not good to be unhappy.
  • All of us should lead happy lives.
  • Friends care for each other.
  • Friends trust and are open to each other.
  • It is not polite to pry into someone else's private lives.

However, Habermas claims that the lifeworld is impenetrable, inaccessible and unknowable because it is essentially pre-reflective and vast with an incalculable web of backgrounded assumptions employed by human agents in moments of communication. Furthermore, these moments of communication seek primarily to satisfy objectives that do not in themselves question these pre-reflective backgrounded assumptions.

In action situations where day-to-day disappointments, contradictions, contingencies and critiques abound, the lifeworld's horizon becomes a little less hazy as a segment of it “comes into view” (Habermas, 1987, p. 132). In situations where we try to resolve day-to-day disappointments, contradictions and contingencies, we begin to see that the lifeworld's knowledge and assumptions may not be accurate, true or dependable. And in situations where goals have to be met and actions taken, “the relevant segment of the lifeworld acquires the status of a contingent reality that could also be interpreted another way” (p. 131). The lifeworld then undergoes what Habermas calls a “symbolic reproduction” where it is continually being renewed and recreated as we involve ourselves in communicative action. When we communicate with each other in action situations, the lifeworld is bound to be created and recreated. It is therefore understandable that Habermas sees the lifeworld as intersubjective—that is, representing a set of shared meanings which make it possible for people to communicate with each other.

In this sense, the lifeworld has an intersubjective feature where human agents engage in communication with each other to gain mutually shared meanings with regard to the means and ends of social actions. It contributes to social integration through consensual coordination of action orientations. The lifeworld can therefore be said to employ communicative action where actors commit and harmonise their plans of action through internal means to pursue their goals only on the condition of an agreement (Habermas, 1990).

As opposed to the lifeworld, the system does not have the features of intersubjectivity. In modern capitalist and bureaucratic societies, the system regulates social relations “only via money and power” (Habermas, 1987, p. 154). The system distinctively employs self-interested strategic action, as opposed to communicative action, where outcomes are reached by influencing the opponents' definition of the situation through external means such as weapons or goods, threats or enticements.

Habermas further argues that, in modern capitalist and bureaucratic societies, the lifeworld has become “colonised” by the system where the system imperatives of money and power have invaded or penetrated the lifeworld and thus become the predominant influence on people's behaviour, morality, ethics and rationality. “Internal colonisation” is said to take place when the “subsystems of the economy and state become more and more complex as a consequence of capitalist growth, and penetrate even deeper into the symbolic reproduction of the lifeworld” (ibid., p. 367). For example, when school teachers' and leaders' individual and collective actions are primarily motivated and determined by the key performance indicators set up by the education ministry along with the benefits or reprisals of the appraisal system, the lifeworld can be said to be colonised by the system. In this case, the school teachers and leaders no longer seek to enter into dialogue or debate and consensual agreement on matters and issues pertaining to the purposes of education and the means of achieving them.

According to Habermas, the colonisation of the lifeworld leads to crises in the system in the form of pathologies, alienation and loss of meaning, which will inadvertently disrupt the successful functioning of the system. In this sense, the lifeworld is said to secure the maintenance of the system. Preserving the lifeworld would therefore mean the need for communicative action where human agents enter into a rationally mutual understanding to reach consensual actions. Habermas thus views the inevitable human orientation towards reaching a rationally mutual understanding as “a universal feature of human communication which is central in overcoming self-interest and the domination of economic and political power in our lives” (1985, p. 286). The promotion and development of this universal feature of communicative action—or better known as “universal pragmatics”—is what Habermas seeks to propose in the theory of communicative action, as well as its relation and contribution to democratic participation and living.

Habermas claims that, in communicative-oriented action, human agents are constantly and inevitably engaged in the assessment or evaluation of validity claims made by participants. These validity claims consist of the following (Habermas, 1973, p. 18):

  1. The comprehensibility of the utterance
    Claim of comprehensibility: claiming that the language used conveys accurately what is to be conveyed
  2. The truth of its propositional component
    Claim of truth: claiming that the content of the language reflects the state of affairs in the wider world
  3. The correctness and appropriateness of its performatory component
    Claim of rightness: claiming that the language is used according to appropriate rules or norms
  4. The authenticity of the speaking subject
    Claim of authenticity: claiming that the content of the language used is sincere in order to generate trust

The capacity and ability to assess, evaluate and critique these claims—and, hence, to reason—is crucial in contributing to not only the preservation of the lifeworld but also of democratic spaces. This ability goes hand in hand with the universal presuppositions which Habermas proposes in his discourse ethics (1995, pp. 88–89), which were drawn from Alexy (1978):

(2.1)Every speaker may assert what he really believes.
(2.2)A person who disputes a proposition or norm under discussion must provide a reason for wanting to do so.
(3.1)Every subject with the competence to speak and act is allowed to take part in a discourse.
  1. Everyone is allowed to question any assertion whatever.
  2. Everyone is allowed to introduce any assertion whatever into the discourse.
  3. Everyone is allowed to express his attitudes, desires and needs.
(3.3)No speaker may be prevented by internal or external coercion, from exercising his rights as laid down in (3.1) and (3.2).

The above encapsulates Habermas' two key principles of discourse ethics: the universality principle U and the discourse principle D. The universality principle U is fulfilled when

all affected can accept the consequences and the side effects its general observance can be anticipated to have for the satisfaction of everyone's interests (and these consequences are preferred to those of known alternative possibilities for regulation) (Habermas, 1995, p. 65).

The discourse principle D is fulfilled when

only those norms can claim to be valid that meet (or could meet) with the approval of all affected in their capacity as participants in a practical discourse (ibid., p. 66).

Furthermore, these two key principles of discourse ethics contribute to the materialisation of Habermas' notion of an “ideal speech situation” and democratic participation where “all motives except that of the cooperative search for truth are excluded” (Habermas, 1975, p. 108). In other words, communicative deliberations ought to be conducted around “a common interest ascertained without deception” where “the constraint-free consensus permits only what all can want” (ibid.). Habermas' theory of communicative action and his discourse ethics thus not only ensure the critique of ideology, but they also result in the formation of unconstrained political or discursive will formation where individuals in a society can engage in political democratic life and, hence, the attainment of human emancipation. This is the crux of Habermas' emancipatory project in modern society.

Implications for Education

The implications of Critical Theory for education are vast and diverse. Owing to space constraints, I will only describe its implications with regard to educational change and reform. Habermas' theory of communicative action and discourse ethics have much potential for guiding both policymakers and practitioners in contributing to the success of educational change and reform projects. One of the key factors that have been identified as hindering successful implementation of educational change and reform is the lack of congruence between the needs of policymakers and those of teachers.

While policymakers' primary concern is the efficient and effective implementation of educational changes and reforms, a primary concern of practitioners at the classroom or school level is the meaning that they derive in implementing these changes and reforms. If teachers perceive the tool of implementation as meaningless, yet they are still constrained to carry out the implementation because of control mechanisms such as an appraisal system or a documentation regime, they may experience a loss of meaning to their calling as teachers, or a loss of meaning as human beings because being able to think and to make decisions are basic conditions of being human persons. This may result in system crises such as resistance to educational change and reform or lack of participation in such efforts, increased applications for medical leave, and increased resignations among teachers. To address these crises, policymakers or leaders in education need to provide spaces where the voices of teachers could be heard and negotiated agreement could be reached so as to minimise the excesses of the system imperatives of power and money. A lack of understanding of the importance of creating democratic spaces may contribute to sustained hidden crises along with their pathologies. Creating spaces for democratic interaction and communication among the stakeholders of education is therefore beneficial to not only policymakers but also practitioners.

Spaces for democratic participation and living can be created in many different educational environments, such as in the classroom setting between teachers and students, in the school setting between senior management and teachers, and in the teacher community setting between teachers. The benefits of these democratic spaces are diverse and have been covered by Habermas and proponents of his theories. These include, among others, fostering the moral development of participants, individual and collective identity formation, positive emotional bonding and thus solidarity, and rational critical thinking in learning.

However, the communicative competencies which Habermas outlines in his theory of communicative action and discourse ethics that are needed for democratic participation and living do not come naturally or automatically by virtue of social interaction and communication per se. Notwithstanding that some cultures and societies are more endowed with these competencies than others, the importance of learning to engage in democratic participation and living cannot be overstated. In fact, Habermas claims that it is only natural and inevitable that humans learn—it is “not learning, but not-learning [which] is the phenomenon that calls for explanation” (Habermas, 1975, p. 15). But this is just another gem of his wide contributions to philosophy and sociology.


Alexy, R. (1978). Eine theorie des praktischen diskurses. In W. Oelmüller (Ed.), Normenbegründung, Normendurchsetzung: Materialien zur Normendiskussion (pp. 22–58). Paderborn: F. Schoningh.

Alway, J. (1995). Critical Theory and Political Possibilities: Conceptions of Emancipatory Politics in the Works of Horkheimer, Adorno, Marcuse, and Habermas. London: Greenwood Press.

Bronner, E. S. (1994). Of Critical Theory and Its Theorists. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell.

Geuss, R. (1981). The Idea of a Critical Theory: Habermas and the Frankfurt School. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Habermas, J. (1971). Knowledge and Human Interests. Translated by J. J. Shapiro. Boston: Beacon Press. (Originally published 1968 in German.)

Habermas, J. (1973). Legitimation Crisis. Boston: Beacon Press.

Habermas, J. (1975). Theory and Practice. Translated by J. Viertel. Boston: Beacon Press.

Habermas, J. (1985). The Theory of Communicative Action. Vol. 1: Reason and the Rationalization of Society. Translated by T. McCarthy. Boston: Beacon Press. (Originally published 1981 in German.)

Habermas, J. (1987). The Theory of Communicative Action. Vol. 2: Lifeworld and System: A Critique of Functionalist Reason. Translated by T. McCarthy. Boston: Beacon Press. (Originally published 1981 in German.)

Habermas, J. (1990). Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action. Translated by C. Lenhardt & S. W. Nicholsen. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Habermas, J. (1992). Between Facts and Norms: Contributions to a Discourse Theory of Law and Democracy. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. (Originally published 1981 in German.)

Habermas, J. (1995). Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Horkheimer, M., & Adorno, T. W. (1976). Dialectic of Enlightenment. Translated by J. Cumming. London: Continuum. (Originally published 1947 in German.)

Kant, I. (1784). An Answer to the Question: What Is Enlightenment? Translated by M. J. Gregor. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Marcuse, H. (1964). One Dimensional Man. Boston: Beacon Press.

Outhwaite, W. (1994). Habermas: A Critical Introduction. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Further Reading

Bronner, E. S. (1994). Of Critical Theory and Its Theorists. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell.

Geuss, R. (1981). The Idea of a Critical Theory: Habermas and the Frankfurt School. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Outhwaite, W. (1994). Habermas: A Critical Introduction. Cambridge: Polity Press.

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The Emancipatory Value of Habermas' Critical Theory to Education

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The Emancipatory Value of Habermas' Critical Theory to Education