Key Theories of Jürgen Habermas

Jurgen Habermas (b. 1929) is the most renowned member of the second generation of the Frankfurt School of Social Research. Born in 1929 in Dusseldorf, Habermas wrote his Ph.D dissertation (published in 1954) on the conflict between the Absolute and history in Schelling’s thought. Between 1956 and 1959, he was assistant to Theodor Adorno in Frankfurt. He has subsequently been professor of philosophy and the director of the Max Planck Institute in Starberg.

Like other members of the Frankfurt School, Habermas has been strongly influenced by the writings of Hegel and Marx, as well as American pragmatism (Dewey) and systems theory (Parsons and Luhmann).

Unlike Adorno and Horkheimer, Habermas rejects Marx’s theory of value, as well as the cultural pessimism of the first generation of the School. As with Weber, Habermas also believes that the first generation of the Frankfurt School erred in confusing ‘system rationality’ and ‘action rationality’, a confusion which parallels another: the ‘uncoupling of system and life world’ (Habermas 1987a: 333. For a general discussion of this, see Habermas 1987a: 153–97). The result, says Habermas, is that the system (e.g. the economy) is seen to dominate the whole of society at the expense of what Habermas, after Husserl and Schutz, calls the ‘lifeworld’, which is the immediate milieu of the individual social actor.

On the other hand, like the early Frankfurt School, Habermas’s writing also bears the marks of Hegel’s abiding influence. Thus, in the mid-1980s, he began his lectures on modernity by arguing that, philosophically at least, modernity begins with Hegel: ‘Hegel was the first philosopher to develop a clear concept of modernity,’ Habermas claims (Habermas 1987b: 41). Although these lectures subsequently treat the work of thinkers like Bataille, Derrida and Foucault – that is, thinkers whose work has posed questions for Marx and Hegel’s social theory – the theorist of communicative action shows his allegiance to the tradition that he has always held dear by using it to point out the inadequacies of the so-called ‘radical critique of reason’ found in the thought of ‘postmodern’ thinkers, the point where the ‘irrational’, supposedly dominant in Bataille’s thought, begins to hold sway. Such claims, with regard to deconstruction, led, in the 1980s, to an acrimonious dispute with Jacques Derrida, subsequently put in limited abeyance in a show of solidarity in the aftermath of 9/11.



Characteristic of Habermas’s work in the 1960s was its anti-positivism. In particular, he rejected the positivism of Marx’s later writings and sought to turn the early work into a more effective springboard of an immanent critique of capitalist society by emphasising Marx’s hermeneutic aspect. This critique had the following features. First of all, Habermas argued that science, and even aspects of philosophy, had ceased to have a critical role in determining the worth of the ends to be pursued, and had instead become the slave of ‘instrumental’, or ‘purposive’ rationality (Weber’s zweckrationalitat). Science thus contributed to the technical rationality which enabled capitalism to develop more diverse and complex commodity forms, as well as sophisticated weaponry; it was, however, incapable of producing a creditable justification of the capitalist system itself. In short, the technical understanding of science was positivistic, and therefore ultimately ideological. For it denied the hermeneutic component in science as it was practised. As a result, Habermas saw science and rationality in the capitalist era being turned against human beings – impoverishing their cultural lives, and exacerbating pathological forms – instead of being used for them. Critical theory was needed to combat this negative form of positivistic science and turn it into an emancipatory activity concerned with political and social reform.

In contrast to Adorno and Horkheimer’s pessimistic account of reason in the Dialectic of Enlightenment, Habermas seeks to turn the tide against such a negative conception and works to ‘complete the project of modernity’ begun in the Enlightenment. Again, this goal necessitates a critique of the purely instrumentalist view of science dominant in post-war capitalism.


From top left to right: Erich Fromm, Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Leo Löwenthal, Friedrich Pollock, Franz Leopold Neumann, Herbert Marcuse, Walter Benjamin.

The State and Critique

Habermas’s early work also aimed to show how the modern state was an outcome of, and contributed to, capitalism’s very survival. At one point in the 1970s, Habermas argued – in light of the work of certain political economists – that the state would not be able to cushion people from the worst excesses of the crises in the capitalist economy because its capacity to collect the revenue necessary to support welfare programmes was limited. This, according to Habermas, entailed a limit to the state’s legitimacy. For the more it became incapable of protecting people from economic crises, the less its legitimacy could be guaranteed.

In keeping with the German idealist tradition, Habermas uses Marx to develop a strategy of critique which would be, as he sees it, essentially emancipatory. Thus while Marx emphasised the selfformative role of practical labour, Habermas, with a nod to Hegel, sees labour as critique – one particularly aimed against the numbing force of instrumental reason. By showing what had been achieved in a practical sense by the German hermeneutic tradition – in which Habermas includes Freud – the way is opened for a much greater emphasis to be placed on symbolic forms of interaction than Marx had ever envisaged.

Theory of Communication

In this vein, the early 1970s sees Habermas formulating the first elements of a theory of language, communication and the evolution of society intended to provide the basis of a normative framework within which an emancipatory interest could be realised. This work culminated in the massive volumes of The Theory of Communicative Action, first published in Germany in 1981. From this we can note that while Habermas never gives up the impetus for emancipation found in Marx, he is not prepared to accept either a revolutionary or a positivistic means of achieving it. Capitalism ushers in a class society, Habermas agrees, and bureaucratic, or purposive rationality has an ever-increasing hold over individual lives, but it is important not to equate the ‘self-regulating system whose imperatives override the consciousness of the members integrated into them’ (Habermas 1987a: 333) with the ‘lifeworld’: the world of consciousness and communicative action. The greater part of Habermas’s later work centres around an exploration of the structures (particularly language and communicative action, and moral consciousness) of the lifeworld. The lifeworld is founded on an interest in emancipation; only a distorted use of reason and language makes this difficult to appreciate. In effect, emancipation is the very basis of social (thus human) life. The task is, therefore, to provide a theory which will make universal lucidity possible on this point.

Lifeworld and Communicative Action

Specifically, Habermas begins a discussion of the notion of lifeworld in the early 1980s by returning to Durkheim and the phenomenological sociology of Mead and Schutz. For Schutz, the lifeworld was the world of everyday life, the total sphere of an individual’s previous experiences; it is the biographically determined situation into which the individual is inserted, willy-nilly. This is ‘the world as taken for granted’ in which individuals seek to realise pragmatic objectives. For Habermas, the lifeworld is a horizon of consciousness which includes both the public and private spheres. It is the sphere of identity formation and communicative action. By the latter, Habermas means action which ‘relies on a cooperative process of interpretation in which participants relate simultaneously to something in the objective, the social, and the subjective worlds, even when they thematically stress only one of the three components in their utterances’ (Habermas 1987a: 120, Habermas’s emphasis). Communication is, for Habermas, the most important aspect of all the activities in the lifeworld because it is here that, ideally, individuals can gain recognition for the validity of their utterances, as it is here also in which the structures of the lifeworld in general can be modified. These modifications are supposed to react back on to the broader social system, thereby stemming the growth of instrumental rationality.

Concomitant with his investigation of the lifeworld in light of Talcott Parsons’s theory of society as a social system, Habermas engages to write a theory of both the evolution of society and of the evolution of the individual within it, particularly as these emerge within specific norms and symbolic forms. Relying on the work of Kolberg and Piaget to develop a theory of moral competence, and on the work of Chomsky for a theory of linguistic competence, Habermas endeavours to show that there must be a normative element dominant in human interaction, as well as a purely instrumental one concerned with the satisfaction of needs. Mistaken, according to Habermas, are those who argue with Weber that a purposive, technical science of action alone is possible, with issues of morals and even true understanding being a matter of personal choice. Norms and values have to be the object of rigorous critical reflection, if only because the very distinction between ‘technical’ and ‘normative’ itself depends on a prior distinction of a normative kind. Thus even an ostensibly technical, or strategic, interest cannot be seen in isolation from an interest in an ethically-informed set of universal principles.

Intersubjective Recognition

As a result it becomes crucially important to know what the basic needs of human beings are, just as the nature of undistorted and free communication must be revealed. Always on the look-out for immanent features of the social situation which will give force to his interest in the normative aspects of society, Habermas finds that the very nature of language as communication means that both the speaker and the hearer of speech have an a priori interest in understanding each other. Understanding means participants reach agreement; agreement entails the ‘intersubjective recognition’ of the validity of the other’s utterance. In this process each participant will be drawn into reflecting upon their own position in the communicative process. For Habermas, this means that the structure of language is fundamentally hermeneutic: it calls for participants to engage in interpretation at all levels, thus heightening the degree of each person’s self-understanding as this derives from his or her interaction with others. This, Habermas believes, is the very telos of language. Consequently, language must be understood according to a consensus model of rules. One way or another, the proper function of language is to allow communication to take place; where communication fails systematically, there is a pathological form of language use.

Moral Consciousness

With regard to ‘moral consciousness’, Habermas seeks to ground what he accepts (from Kohlberg, Piaget, Mead and others) as moral stages in a ‘logic of development’. He aims to show how the moral point of view is grounded in an original element in the structure of human life experience. ‘What moral theory can do and should be trusted to do is to clarify the universal core of our moral intuitions and thereby refute value scepticism’ (Habermas 1990: 211). Although Habermas denies that this means laying claim to any moral truth, it is difficult to see how ‘value scepticism’ can escape a substantive claim about what constitutes a moral issue.

Even more problematic than the claim that a substantive moral position is derived from a ‘universal core’ of morality is Habermas’s concern to pick out the pathologies and disequilibria in modern capitalism. The cultural impoverishment brought about by an excessive emphasis on technical, purposive rationality at the level of the system would thus be an example of a pathological social form. Generally speaking, a pathological situation emerges for Habermas when a disequilibrium – i.e. a fundamental disturbance – occurs in society. Modernity, as a socio-cultural, as well as an economic, form runs the risk of degenerating into a totally pathological state. Correctives found in the modern tradition itself – correctives going back to the use of reason inaugurated by the Enlightenment – must be brought into play if serious consequences are to be avoided. Because correctives are needed, it is imperative that the normative basis of the lifeworld be revealed with all possible clarity. Habermas sees himself as engaged in this process; while others have wondered how Habermas’s rather turgid style has contributed to the clarity he seeks to achieve.

Discourse of Modernity

From another angle, Habermas analyses what he calls the ‘philosophical discourse of modernity’ by examining how various thinkers – recalcitrant to the tradition of modernity, as Habermas outlines it – exact ‘a high price for taking leave of modernity’. What bothers Habermas about Adorno, Bataille, Foucault and Derrida in particular is their apparent refusal to accept that reason must have its rights, and that, in any case, to mount a radical critique of reason, as Habermas believes is the case, is, without knowing it, still to be beholden to reason. Most of all, Habermas claims, the critics of modernity ‘blunt’ the distinction between alienation and emancipation; they refuse, in short, to tell us (we, who must be told!) where the road to freedom lies. Here, Habermas is particularly upset by claims – echoing those of Adorno and Horkheimer – that modern reason and enlightenment have participated in political repression of the very worst kind.

Clearly, we are dealing here with an extremely contentious point. And much has been written about the way Habermas’s views have been rejected or ignored by key French thinkers. Whatever one thinks about the merits of one side of the debate or the other, a number of basic differences between Habermas and thought inspired by post-structuralism need elaboration. Some of these differences are described in the following section.

Difficulties with Habermas’s Approach

First, few can accept in isolation, as Habermas seems to, the totalising effect of Hegel’s philosophical system, or the idea that modernity begins with Hegel rather than with other claimants for the mantle, such as Rousseau, Descartes – or Columbus, for that matter. Similarly, Marx’s claims about labour and revolution are, in isolation, becoming more redundant by the hour. As the core of Habermas’s thought seems to rely on these two thinkers, even though, it is true, he claims to have introduced fundamental modifications to their philosophies, it is to be wondered how a concern for the universal can be reconciled with the maintenance of what is rapidly becoming an idiosyncratic intellectual baggage.

Second, Habermas has an outdated view of modern science which fails to see that – after Einstein, Heisenberg and Go¨del – science is no longer easily reduced to a purely technical interest, one justified in positivist terms. Given his concern with norms and the pathological, Habermas could have profited from a reading of works like Georges Canguilhem‘s On the Normal and the Pathological (1978). There, we see how the history of science can be concerned with the normative dimension of human life.

Third, despite his efforts to constitute a general theory of linguistic competence and undistorted communication at the level of the lifeworld, his approach to language is based on a number of presuppositions that have been exhaustively questioned in linguistics and semiotics. While a number of commentators have pointed out that poetic language is excluded from Habermas’s theory, the more striking thing is that, in his own terms, Habermas insists on giving what amounts to an instrumental interpretation of language by reducing it to a means of communication. And even if he were to reply that this is an unintended result of his theory and can, in principle, be incorporated into it, the difficulty is that Habermas analyses language by way of an ideal model based on a hypothetical sender and receiver of a message. For instance, in The Theory of Communicative Action, Habermas speaks of ‘what it means for a speaker, in performing one of the standard speech acts, to take up a pragmatic relation’ to something in the objective, social or subjective ‘actor-worlds’ (Habermas 1987a: 120, emphasis added). Habermas works with a model of an ideal speaker and hearer of language so that the speaker–hearer couple is effectively prior to language, whereas this couple (if it be only a couple and not a triad) is arguably constituted by language itself. Language thus speaks in its users as much as they speak language. Unlike Julia Kristeva’s notion of the subject-in-process, the ideal model based on a standard speech is – even if not fully realised – static, and potentially closed. The point is to work for the openness that ‘process’ implies.

Hence, even though communication does break down, transparency, for Habermas, is nevertheless language’s telos. Clearly, one can note that literary and fictional works of all kinds are also embodiments of language in action; they are rarely entirely transparent in principle – Finnegans Wake being a case in point – but are part of language for all that. Opaque works are often instances of language in the process of formation – or deformation in the case of Finnegans Wake.

Finally, one of the major difficulties in accepting much of what Habermas writes stems from his insistence on assuming that there can be a relatively fixed universal subject, identical with itself. The existence of this subject is confirmed by the emphasis Habermas – after phenomenology – places on consciousness in the lifeworld to the exclusion of the unconscious and symptomatic conduct. This is not only a philosophical objection: it arises as a specific problem in some kinds of statements. Thus in speaking of modernity, largely under the influence of Hegel, Habermas writes: ‘Modernity sees itself cast back upon itself without any possibility of escape. This explains the sensitiveness of its self-understanding, the dynamism of the attempt, carried forward incessantly down to our time, to ‘‘pin itself down’’’ (Habermas 1987b: 7). Here, the whole of modernity is psychologised as though it were a homogeneous, perfectly lucid identity. In this regard, it is not a question of insisting that Habermas accept the notion of the radically de-centred subject he opposes, but rather one of suggesting that to rid modernity – or language, or science, or the subject – of the complexity of its mode of unity is surely inadequate. From a more directly political perspective, Habermas’s laudable call for a revival of the public sphere suffers from being based on a very modernist and thus slightly antiquated model of politics as an endless discussion of ideas. As has been frequently said, the development and subsequent domination of a mediatised ‘society of the spectacle’ has entirely transformed the nature and relation between public and private in the twenty-first century. There is no public sphere any more in the eighteenth-century Enlightenment sense. In the end, then, Habermas raises pertinent questions regarding politics and society, but these cannot be answered within the philosophical and epistemological framework to which he subscribes.


1 The lectures on the philosophical underpinnings of modernity were given in Paris, Frankfurt, New York and Boston in 1983–84.

Canguilhem, Georges (1978 [1943, 1966]), On The Normal and the Pathological, trans. Carolyn R. Fawcett, Dordrecht, Holland: Reidel Publishing Company.
Habermas, Ju¨rgen (1987a), The Theory of Communicative Action Volume 2. Lifeworld and System: A Critique of Functionalist Reason, trans. Thomas McCarthy, Boston: Beacon Press.
—— (1987b), The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity, trans. Frederick Lawrence, Cambridge: Polity Press in association with Basil Blackwell.
—— (1990), Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action, trans. Christian Lenhardt and Shierry Weber Nicholsen, Cambridge: Polity Press in association with Basil Blackwell.

Habermas’s Major Writings
(1989 [1962]) The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society, trans. Thomas Burger with the assistance of Frederick Lawrence, Cambridge: Polity Press.
(1988 [1970]) On the Logic of the Social Sciences, trans. Shierry W. Nicholsen and Jerry Stark, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
(1987 [1981]) The Theory of Communicative Action Volume 2. Lifeworld and System: A Critique of Functionalist Reason, trans. Thomas McCarthy, Boston: Beacon Press.
(1985 [1987]) The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity, trans. Frederick Lawrence, Cambridge: Polity Press.
(1981 [1984]) The Theory of Communicative Action. Volume 1. Reason and Rationalization on Society, trans. Thomas McCarthy, Boston: Beacon Press.
(1979 [1976]) Communication and the Evolution of Society, trans. Thomas McCarthy, London: Heinemann.
(1975 [1973]) Legitimation Crisis, trans. Thomas McCarthy, Boston: Beacon Press.
(1973 [1963]) Theory and Practice, trans. John Viertel, Boston: Beacon Press.
(1971 [1968]) Knowledge and Human Interests, trans. Jeremy J. Shapiro, Boston: Beacon Press.
(1970 [1968–69]) Toward a Rational Society: Student Protest, Science and Politics, trans. Jeremy J. Shapiro, Boston: Beacon Press.

Further Reading
Aboulatia, Mitchell; Bookman, Myra and Kemp, Cathy, eds (2002), Habermas and Pragmatism, London and New York: Routledge.
Edgar, Andrew (2006), Habermas: The Key Concepts, London and New York: Routledge.
Finlayson, James Gordon (2005), Habermas: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Johnson, Pauline (2006), Habermas: Rescuing the Public Sphere, London and, New York: Routledge.
Rasmussen, David; Swindal, James, eds (2002), Ju¨rgen Habermas, London and Thousand Oaks: Sage.
Fifty Key Contemporary Thinkers From Structuralism To Post-Humanismm Second Edition  John Lechte Routledge 2008

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