Habermas, Jürgen (1929–)

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Jürgen Habermas, the German philosopher and leading representative of the Frankfurt school of critical theory, was born in Düsseldorf. After World War II he studied in Göttingen, Zürich, and Bonn, where he submitted a dissertation on Friedrich von Schelling in 1954. From 1955 to 1959 he was Theodor Adorno's assistant at the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt. After habilitating at Marburg University in 1961, he taught philosophy and sociology at the universities of Heidelberg and Frankfurt before becoming codirector of the Max Planck Institute in Starnberg. In 1983 he returned to the University of Frankfurt, where he was professor of philosophy until his retirement in 1994.

Habermas's life and work have remained deeply influenced by the traumatic events of his youth under National Socialism. From the time of his involvement with the German student movement in the 1960s he has been one of Germany's most prominent public intellectuals, speaking out on a wide array of issues, from violations of civil liberties and the attempted "historicizing" of the Holocaust to immigration policy and the manner of German reunification.

Habermas's scholarly work, which aspires to a comprehensive critical theory of contemporary society, ranges across many of the humanities and social sciences. His early and influential Strukturwandel der Öffentlichkeit (1962) was a historical, sociological, and philosophical account of the emergence and transformation of the liberal public sphere as a forum for critical public discussion of matters of general concern. While the historical structures of that sphere reflected the particular constellations of interests that gave rise to it, the idea it claimed to embody, the idea of legitimating political authority through rational discussion and reasoned agreement, remains central to democratic theory. Habermas returned to these themes three decades later in Faktizität und Geltung (1992), where he applied the idea of justification by appeal to generally acceptable reasons to the deliberations of free and equal citizens in a constitutional democracy. The primary function of the system of basic rights, he argued, is to secure personal and political autonomy; and the key to the latter is the institutionalization of the public use of reason in the legal-political domain.

One might read Habermas's extensive writings in the intervening decades as a protracted examination of the cultural, psychological, and social preconditions of and barriers to accomplishing this. The essays of the early 1960s, a number of which were collected in Theorie und Praxis (1963), introduced the idea of studying society as a historically developing whole for purposes of enlightening political consciousness and guiding political practice. The methodology and epistemology behind this approach were elaborated in the later 1960s in Zur Logik der Sozialwissenschaften (1967) and Erkenntnis und Interesse (1968). A principal target in both books was the neopositivist thesis of the unity of scientific method, particularly the claim that the logic of inquiry in the human sciences is basically the same as in the natural sciences. The former work started from an examination of the nature and role of Verstehen in social inquiry and argued that access to symbolically prestructured object domains calls for interpretive procedures designed to grasp the meanings on which social interactions turn. Intersubjective meanings constitutive of sociocultural lifeworlds can neither be wholly objectified, as positivism supposes, nor simply reappropriated, as hermeneutics proposes. Psychoanalysis suggests an alternative approach, in which explanatory and interpretive procedures are combined with a critique of ideology in a historically oriented theory with practical intent.

In Erkenntnis und Interesse Habermas undertook a historical and systematic study of "the prehistory of modern positivism" in an attempt to free the ideas of reason and rationality from what he regarded as a "scientistic misunderstanding." Tracing the development of the critique of knowledge from Immanuel Kant through German idealism to Karl Marx, and its transformation into the methodology of science in early positivism, he elaborated his own position in critical encounters with three classic but flawed attempts to overcome positivism from within methodology: Charles Sanders Peirce's reflections on natural science, Wilhelm Dilthey's on cultural inquiry, and Sigmund Freud's on self-reflection. In each case he examined the roots of cognition in life and argued for an internal connection of knowledge with "anthropologically deep-seated" human interests. A key feature of this "quasi-transcendental" theory of cognitive interests was the basic distinction between the interest in prediction and control of objectified processes and the interests in mutual understanding and distortion-free communication with speaking and acting subjects.

There followed a series of studies of basic structures of communication, organized as a three-tiered research program. The ground level consisted of a general theory of communication in natural languages, a "universal pragmatics," as Habermas called it. This served as the foundation for a general theory of socialization in the form of a developmental account of the acquisition of communicative competence. Building on both of these, Habermas sketched a theory of sociocultural evolution as the historical development of forms of communicative interaction and mutual understanding. These accounts of communication, socialization, and social evolution enabled him to anchor moral theory in the theory of social action. Arguing that our basic moral intuitions spring from something deeper and more universal than contingent features of particular traditions, his discourse ethics sought to reconstruct the intuitive grasp of the normative presuppositions of social interaction possessed by competent social actors generally.

The work of the 1960s and 1970s culminated in the monumental Theorie des kommunikativen Handelns (1981), in which Habermas developed a concept of communicative rationality freed from the subjectivistic and individualistic premises of modern social and political theory, together with a two-level concept of society that integrated the competing paradigms of "lifeworld" and "system." On this basis he then sketched a critical theory of modern society that focused on "the colonization of the lifeworld" by forces arising from the economy and the state: systemic mechanisms such as money and power drive processes of social integration and symbolic reproduction out of domains in which they cannot be replaced. The phenomena that Max Weber pointed to in his vision of an "iron cage" and that Marxists have dealt with in terms of "reification" arises from an ever-increasing "monetarization" and "bureaucratization" of lifeworld relations. This relentless attack on the communicative infrastructures of society can be contained, he argued, only by a countervailing expansion of the areas of life coordinated via communication, and in particular by the subordination of economic and administrative subsystems to decisions arrived at in open and critical public debate. Thus, the antidote to colonization is democratization, and the key to the latter is an effectively functioning cultural and political public sphere. What distinguishes this critique of modernity from the welter of counterenlightenment critiques during the last two centuries is Habermas's unflinching defense of enlightenment rationalitya defense, to be sure, that is itself informed by the critique of rationalism and that emphasizes the ongoing, unfinished character of the project of enlightenment.

See also Adorno, Theodor; Critical Theory; Democracy; Dilthey, Wilhelm; Discourse Ethics; Enlightenment; Freud, Sigmund; Hermeneutics; Holocaust; Kant, Immanuel; Marx, Karl; Peirce, Charles Sanders; Positivism; Rationalism; Reason; Rights; Weber, Max.


works by habermas

Knowledge and Human Interests. Translated by J. Shapiro. Boston: Beacon Press, 1971.

Theory and Practice. Translated by J. Viertel. Boston: Beacon Press, 1973.

Communication and the Evolution of Society. Translated by T. McCarthy. Boston: Beacon Press, 1979.

The Theory of Communicative Action. 2 vols. Translated by T. McCarthy. Boston: Beacon Press, 1984, 1987.

Autonomy and Solidarity: Interviews with Jürgen Habermas. Edited by Peter Dews. London, 1986.

The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. Translated by T. Burger and F. Lawrence. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1989.

Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action. Translated by C. Lenhardt and S. Nicholsen. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1990.

Between Facts and Norms: Contributions to a Discourse Theory of Law and Democracy. Translated by W. Rehg. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1995.

works on habermas

Bernstein, R., ed. Habermas and Modernity. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1985.

McCarthy, T. The Critical Theory of Jürgen Habermas. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1978.

Rehg, W. Insight and Solidarity: The Discourse Ethics of Jürgen Habermas. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.

White, S., ed. The Cambridge Companion to Habermas. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Thomas McCarthy(1996)