An Introduction to J. Habermas

by Steve Stickle, presented in English 510
Oral Report: Jürgen Habermas
by Steve Stickle

Jürgen Habermas (b. 1929) is the leading scholar of the second generation of the Frankfurt School, a group of philosophers, cultural critics and social scientists associated with the Institute for Social Research, founded in Frankfurt in 1929. The figures most commonly associated with the school are Horkheimer, Adorno, Marcuse, Fromm and Habermas. Walter Benjamin was also loosely affiliated. The Frankfurt School is best known for its program of developing a "critical theory of society". "Critical theory is primarily a way of doing philosophy, integrating the normative aspects of philosophical reflection with the explanatory achievements of the social sciences. The ultimate goal of its program is to link theory and practice, to provide insight, and to empower subjects to change their oppressive circumstances and achieve human emancipation, a rational society that satisfies human needs and powers....Habermas' analysis of communication seeks to provide norms for non-dominating relations to others and a broader notion of reason." [Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, pp. 278-79]
Habermas was a student of Adorno, becoming his assistant in 1956. He first taught philosophy at Heidelberg before becoming a professor of philosophy and sociology at the University of Frankfurt. In 1972, he moved to the Max-Planck Institute in Starnberg, but in the mid-1980s, he returned to his post at Frankfurt.

Habermas's Intellectual Predecessors/Influences

In one sense, almost every thinker of significance in Western culture might be seen as having been a predecessor to or influence on Habermas. In many of his works, he draws together a broad range of thinkers to explicate his theses. These thinkers include (among many others): Kant, Fichte, Hegel, Wittgenstein, Popper, Pierce, Marx, Comte, Freud, Dilthey, Gadamer, Dewey, (G.H.) Mead, Parsons, Hempel, Luhmann, Weber, (E.) Burke, Lukacs, Ayer, Dahrendorf, Merton, Pierce, Nagel, Mills, Whorf, Godelier, Kuhn, Parsons, Durkheim, Garfinkel, Schutz, Piaget, Goffman, Lévi-Strauss, Husserl, and Hobbes, in addition to those associated with the Frankfurt School, such as Adorno, Horkheimer, Marcuse, Fromm and Benjamin.

Marx, Weber and Hegel

In spite of his attention to a wide variety of thinkers, Habermas's closest intellectual ties connect to Marx, Weber and Hegel. Habermas's reconstruction of Marx can be seen as more humanistic, more philosophical and less positivist in orientation than other strands of neo-Marxism. Habermas diverges from Marx in that Habermas objects to Marx's construct of human history as the product of five economically determined stages of history (hunter/gatherer; asiatic; feudal; capitalist; communist). Habermas wants to introduce into Marxism the importance of knowledge and ideas in the shaping/development of history and a theory of culture that cannot be reduced to economic processes alone. Marx's influence on Habermas can also be seen in the totality of his intellectual projects. Like Marx, Habermas wants to fuse the insights of social science with the moral philosophy of the German tradition.
Habermas's Weberian influences can primarily be seen in his emphasis on culture as action. Thus, we see in the synopsis/abstract of the Habermas article in Professing the New Rhetorics that "Habermas regards rhetoric as doing (symbolic interaction) rather than creating 'truth'". In the first volume of The Theory of Communicative Action, he also wants to take three Weberian ideas and connect them in a way in which Weber had not: Weber's conceptions of (a) social action, (b) rationality and (c) rationalization.

Hegel's dialectic theory of history basically held that historically each form of society has had internal contradictions which were eventually transcended by new forms of society that then had new contradictions to transcend. Habermas wants to move the Frankfurt School/critical tradition away from its heavy ties to Hegel's dialectic view of history. Habermas is critical of the Hegelian notion of truth as too limited in light of modern empirical social and natural science. Habermas was also critical of Hegel's negative dialectics and its inability to provide positive standards for critique within the framework of critical theory.

Habermas's Overall Intellectual Project


According to Pusey (22-23), Habermas has 3 primary aims:
(1) "...[K]nowledge is necessarily defined both by the objects of experience and by a priori categories and concepts that the knowing subject brings to every act of thought and perception. Even 'space' and 'time', the basic notions of such rigorous sciences as physics, are not supplied by experience alone...they make no sense without concepts, ideas, that are given a priori , independently of all experience. [Ideas and concepts] are given in the categories and forms that the subject brings to the act of perception."

(2) He also wants "to show that the knowing subject is also secure the foundations of sociology and to show that there is no knower without culture, and that all knowledge is mediated by social experience. The knower is, of course, not surrendered to the empiricist prejudice that...the imprints of the object world that form it only 'from the outside in'. On the contrary,the subject still brings its own categories and 'faculties of reason' to the constitution of the object and thus to the formative moment of knowledge....[For Habermas, the processes of knowing and understanding are the patterns of ordinary language usage that we share in everyday communicative interaction."

(3) Finally, Habermas wants to establish the "validity of reflection". For example, Descartes, in his Meditations on the First Philosophy , sought to find a source of knowledge that would ground the knowledge that he had doubted. Similarly, Habermas wants to establish such a foundation, although he does not turn to God for his basis. Instead, "Habermas's aim is to show that the power of reason is grounded in the process of reflection." Habermas believes that "bad science" has its root "in the 'cognitive attitude' of scientistic (positivist) science." The very culture of modern science, rooted as it is in positivism, cannot bring itself to be reflective, as Habermas demands, without abandoning the ideology of "objectivity".
Furthermore, Habermas sees critical theory as a way to recognize the telos of society and to normatively evaluate society's current state as it relates to the fulfillment of that telos. "For Habermas, this telos is the end of coercion and the attainment of autonomy through reason, the end of alienation through a consensual harmony of interests, and the end of injustice and poverty through the rational administration of justice." [Braaten 111]

Habermas's Specific Contributions to Rhetoric

Two Key Concepts -- "Ideal Speech Situation" and "Communicative Competence"

Like Kenneth Burke and many others, Habermas places importance on the concept of man as a "symbol-using animal." "What raises us out of nature is the only thing whose nature we can know: language. Through its structure, autonomy and responsibility are posited for us. Our first sentence expresses unequivocally the intention of universal and unconstrained consensus." [Habermas, Knowledge and Human Interests

The first key concept for Habermas's thoughts on rhetoric is the idea of the 'ideal speech situation'. The 'ideal speech situation' requires what we would think of as "fair play" in dialogue. All participants must have equal opportunity to participate. They must have the right to assert, defend or question any factual or normative claim. This interaction also must not be constrained by activated role or status differences or "one-sidedly binding norms". And, very importantly, "the participants in an ideal speech situation [must] be motivated solely by the desire to reach a consensus about the truth of statements and the validity of norms." [Bernstein 50-51] However, an "ideal speech situation", by itself, does not lead to free and open discourse. Free and open discourse requires a variety of other antecedents ranging from considerations of cultural traditions to the distribution of material resources. [Held 396]

If "ideal speech situations" are to be realized, the participants must also have "communicative competence," the second of Habermas's key concepts for rhetoric. "Communicative competence" involves communicating in accordance with "that fundamental system of rules that adult subjects master to the extent that they can fulfil the conditions for a happy employment of sentences in utterances, no matter to which individual language the sentences may belong and in which accidental contexts the utterances may be embedded." [Habermas, "What Is Universal Pragmatics"] This competence is more than just a basic mastery of a particular language's grammar or vocabulary. This competence centers on the aspect of language that allows us to differentiate between three domains of reference: the subjective, the inter-subjective, and the objective. These domains of reference are related to different types of action. From Table 2 on page 213 of Professing the New Rhetorics, one can see how the objective domain of reference is related to strategic action and conversation while the intersubjective is related to normatively regulated action and the subjective to dramaturgical action. With each of the domains of reference and its corresponding action(s), the standard for assessing the validity of claims is different, but each still is subject to rationality.


Habermas's epistemology then becomes grounded in the discourse that transpires in ideal speech situations. Here, the fundamental faith in the power of reason, which can be found in Hegel and others, becomes the central tenet of establishing truth claims. When all of the ordinary constraints on the free exchange of ideas (such as differences in status, power, authority, and ethos ) are lifted, Habermas believes that good faith discourse between individuals will allow them to reach a consensus about truth and the validity of norms. Thus, truth does not reside 'out there', but instead resides within the community.

Criticisms of Habermas

Habermas is thoroughly a modernist committed to the ideals of the Enlightenment. Not surprisingly, he has many critics.

Foucault saw knowledge and power as being inextricably linked. "[T]he formation of power and the formation of knowledge compose an indissoluble unity." [Foucault quoted in Habermas, Philosophical Discourses of Modernity, 272] This thought can also be seen in Nietzsche's critique of reason as the will to instrumental power.

Habermas is also criticized that although he recognizes the plurality of modern society, he nevertheless sees the ideal speech situation as ultimately requiring a consensus for epistemic justification.

Braaten criticizes Habermas's apparent conception that "justification is the foundation of all forms and dimensions of relationship." [Braaten in Meehan, Feminists Read Habermas, 149] She asserts that, "mimesis, sympathy, and affection have at least as much claim to this status." [Ibid.]

Georgia Warnke presents the case of the enforcement of surrogacy contracts as an issue that problematizes Habermas's theory. The case brings to bear issues of freedom and human rights at the abstract level, which Habermas asserts we can come to agreement on. In fact, we do generally hold as a culture that one's freedoms should be maximized whenever they do no begin to usurp those of others, in the interest of equality. When this principle, based on reasoned discourse in Habermas's view, is put into practice, problems arise as considerations of whose rights to freedom take precedence. Do individuals have the right to contact freely and therefore contract surrogacy is perfectly justifiable? What if the surrogate mother enters into the contract out of economic need, and thus perhaps not entirely freely contracting her services? What does this debate say about society when these issues don't even arise when a man sells his sperm? [Warnke in Meehan, Feminists Read Habermas, 251]

Habermas's Major Works in English

Knowledge and Human Interests (Boston: Beacon Press, 1971)

Toward a Rational Society (Boston: Beacon Press, 1971)

Theory and Practice (Boston: Beacon Press, 1973)

Communication and the Evolution of Society (London: Heinemann, 1975)

Legitimation Crisis (Boston: Beacon Press, 1975)

Justification and Application: Remarks on Discourse Ethics (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1983)

Philosophical-Political Profiles (London: Heinemann, 1983)

The Theory of Communicate Action, Volume One: Reason and the Rationalization of Society (Boston: Beacon Press, 1984)

Autonomy and Solidarity (London: Verso, 1986)

The Theory of Communicate Action, Volume Two: The Critique of Functionalist Reason (Boston: Beacon Press, 1987)

The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1987)

On the Logic of the Social Sciences (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1988)

The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1989)

Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1990)

Postmetaphysical Thinking: Philosophical Essays (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1992)

For an extensive bibliography on the secondary literature about Habermas, consult: David Rasmussen's Reading Habermas (Cambridge, MA: Basil Blackwell, 1990), pp. 117-140.
References on Habermas Used

Audi, Robert. The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Bernstein, J.M. Recovering Ethical Life: Jürgen Habermas and the Future of Critical Theory. New York: Routledge, 1995.

Bottomore, Tom. The Frankfurt School. Key Sociologists Series. New York: Routledge, 1984.

Braaten, Jane. Habermas's Critical Theory of Society. Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1991.

Cooke, Maeve. Language and Reason: A Study of Habermas's Pragmatics. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1994.

Held, David. Introduction to Critical Theory: Horkheimer to Habermas. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980.

Honderich, Ted. The Oxford Companion to Philosophy. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Honneth, Axel. "Critical Theory" in Anthony Giddens & Jonathan Turner, eds., Social Theory Today. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1987.

Marshall, Gordon, Ed. The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Sociology. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

McCarthy, Thomas. The Critical Theory of Jürgen Habermas . London: Hutchinson, 1978.

Meehan, Joanna, Ed. Feminists Reading Habermas: Gendering the Subject of Discourse. New York: Routledge, 1995.

Pusey, Michael. Jürgen Habermas. Key Sociologists Series. New York: Routledge, 1987.

Rasmussen, David R. Reading Habermas. Cambridge, MA:Basil Blackwell, 1990.

Rehg, William. Insight and Solidarity: A Study in the Discourse Ethics of Jürgen Habermas. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.

Roderick, Rick. Habermas and the Foundations of Critical Theory. Theoretical Traditions in the Social Sciences (series). New York: St. Martin's Press, 1986.

Thompson, John B. and David Held, Eds. Habermas: Critical Debates. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1982.

White, Stephen K., Ed. The Cambridge Companion to Habermas. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995.