Jürgen Habermas

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Habermas, 2008

Jürgen Habermas (born June 18, 1929) is a German philosopher and sociologist in the tradition of critical theory and American pragmatism. He is best known for his work on the concept of the public sphere, which he has based in his theory of communicative action.


  • Subjects who reciprocally recognize each other as such, must consider each other as identical, insofar as they both take up the position of subject; they must at all times subsume themselves and the other under the same category. At the same time, the relation of reciprocity of recognition demands the non-identity of one and the other, both must also maintain their absolute difference, for to be a subject implies the claim of individuation.
    • Habermas (1972) "Sprachspiel, intention und Bedeutung. Zu Motiven bei Sellars und Wittgenstein". In R.W. Wiggerhaus (Ed.) Sprachanalyse and Soziologie. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp). p. 334
    • This is called the paradoxical achievement of intersubjectivity
Horkheimer, Adorno and Habermas is in the background, right, running his hand through his hair, 1964.
  • The speaker must choose a comprehensible [verständlich] expression so that speaker and hearer can understand one another.
    • Habermas (1979) cited in: Werner Ulrich (1983) Critical heuristics of social planning. p. 123
  • I would in fact tend to have more confidence in the outcome of a democratic decision if there was a minority that voted against it, than if it was unanimous… Social psychology has amply shown the strength of this bandwagon effect.
    • Habermas (1993) "Further reflections on the public sphere", in: Craig Calhoun Eds. Habermas and the Public Sphere. MIT Press. p. 441
  • Norms appearing in the form of law entitle actors to exercise their rights or liberties. However, one cannot determine which of these laws are legitimate simply by looking at the form of individual rights. Only by bringing in the discourse principle can one show that each person is owed a right to the greatest possible measure of equal liberties that are mutually compatible.
    • Habermas (1996) Between Facts and Norms. Contributions to a Discourse Theory of Law and Democracy. Translation W. Rehg. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. p. 123
  • The 'state' on the modern conception is a legally defined term which refers, at the level of substance, to a state power that possesses both internal and external sovereignty, at the spatial level over a clearly delimited terrain (the state territory) and at the social level over the totality of members (the body of citizens or the people). State power constitutes itself in the forms of positive law, and the people is the bearer of the legal order whose jurisdiction is restricted to the state territory. In political usage, the concepts 'nation' and 'people' have the same extension. But in addition to its legal definition, the term 'nation' has the connotation of a political community shaped by common descent, or at least by a common language, culture, and history. A people becomes a 'nation' in this historical sense only in the concrete form of a particular form of life.
    • Habermas (1998) The Inclusion of the Other: Studies in Political Theory. Ciaran Cronin and Pablo De Greiff, eds. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
  • As historical and social beings we find ourselves always already in a linguistically structured lifeworld. In the forms of communication through which we reach an understanding with one another about something in the world and about ourselves, we encounter a transcending power. Language is not a kind of private property. No one possesses exclusive rights over the common medium of the communicative practices we must intersubjectively share. No single participant can control the structure, or even the course, of processes of reaching understanding and self-understanding. How speakers and hearers make use of their communicative freedom to take yes- or no-positions is not a matter of their subjective discretion. For they are free only in virtue of the binding force of the justifiable claims they raise towards one another. The logos of language embodies the power of the intersubjective, which precedes and grounds the subjectivity of speakers.
    • Habermas (2003) The Future of Human Nature. p. 10
  • Technically speaking, since our complex societies are highly susceptible to interferences and accidents,they certainly offer ideal opportunities for a prompt disruption of normal activities. These disruptions can, with minimum expense, have considerably destructive consequences. Global terrorism is extreme both in its lack of realistic goals and in its cynical exploitation of the vulnerability of complex systems.
    • Habermas (2004) in: Giovanna Borradori (2004) Philosophy in a Time of Terror: : Dialogues with Jurgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida. p. 34
  • Christianity has functioned for the normative self-understanding of modernity as more than a mere precursor or a catalyst. Egalitarian universalism, from which sprang the ideas of freedom and social solidarity, of an antonomous conduct of life and emancipation, of the individual morality of conscience, human rights, and democracy, is the direct heir to the judaic ethic of justice and the Christian ethic of love. This legacy, substantially unchanged, has been the object of continual critical appropriation and reinterpretation. To this day, there is no alternative to it. And in the light of the current challenges of a postnational constellation, we continue to draw on the substance of this heritage. Everything else is just idle postmodern talk.
    • Habermas (2006) "Conversation about God and the World." Time of transitions. Cambridge: Polity Press, p. 150-151.

The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, 1963/1991[edit]

Habermas (1962/1989) The structural transformation of the public sphere: An inquiry into a category of bourgeois society. Translated by Thomas Burger.

  • This investigation aims to analyze the type "bourgeois public sphere". Its particular approach is required, to begin with, by the difficulties specific to an object whose complexity precludes exclusive reliance on the specialized methods of a single discipline. Rather, the category. "public sphere" must be investigated within the broad field formerly reflected in the perspective of the traditional science of "politics."' When particular social-scientific discipline, this object disintegrates. The problems that result from fusing aspects of sociology and economics, of constitutional law and political science, and of social and intellectual history are obvious: given the present state of differentiation and specialization in the social sciences, scarcely anyone will be able to master several, let alone all, of these disciplines.
    • p.xvii
  • The usage of the words “public" and “public sphere” betrays a multiplicity of concurrent meanings. Their origins go back to various historical phases and, when applied synchronically to the conditions of a bourgeois society that is industrially advanced and constituted as a social-welfare state, they fuse into a clouded amalgam. Yet the very conditions that make the inherited language seem inappropriate appear to require these words, however confused their employment.
    • p. 1 as cited in: Gandy, M (1997) "Ecology, modernity and the intellectual legacy of the Frankfurt School". In: Light, A and Smith, JM, (eds.) Space, Place and Environmental Ethics. p. 240
  • [According to Habermas, the genesis of the bourgeois public sphere resulted from a combination of early capitalist commercial development and the organization of territorial … Representative publicness involved a re-presenting or staging for the purposes of display and acclamation, hence] this publicness (or publicity) of representation was not constituted as a social realm, that is, as a public sphere; rather, it was something like a status attribute, if this term may be permitted.
    • p. 7 as cited in: Benedetto Fontana, Cary J. Nederman, Gary Remer (2004) Talking Democracy: Historical Perspectives on Rhetoric and Democracy. p. 222
  • The bourgeois public sphere may be conceived above all as the sphere of private people come together as a public; they soon claimed the public sphere regulated from above against the public authorities themselves, to engage them in a debate over the general rules governing relations in the basically privatized but publicly relevant sphere of commodity exchange and social labor.
    • p. 27
  • All affected can accept the consequences and the side effects that [the norm's] general observance can be anticipated to have for the satisfaction of everyone's interests, and the consequences are preferred to those of known alternative possibilities for regulation.
    • p. 65
  • Although objectively greater demands are placed on this authority, it operates less as a public opinion giving a rational foundation to the exercise of political and social authority, the more it is generated for the purpose of an abstract vote that amounts to no more than an act of acclamation within a public sphere temporarily manufactured for show or manipulation.
    • p. 222

Knowledge and Human Interests, 1971[edit]

Habermas (1971) Knowledge and Human Interests, translated by J. Schapiro. Boston: Beacon Press.

  • Science can only be comprehended epistemologically, which means as one category of possible knowledge, as long as knowledge is not equated either effusively with the absolute knowledge of a great philosophy or blindly with scientistic self-understanding of the actual business of research.
    • p. 4
  • Philosophy's position with regard to science, which at one time could be designated with the name "theory of knowledge," has been undermined by the movement of philosophical thought itself. Philosophy was dislodged from this position by philosophy.
    • p. 4
  • The interpretation of a case is corroborated only by the successful continuation of a self-formative process, that is by the completion of self-reflection, and not in any unmistakable way by what the patient says or how he behaves
    • p. 266
  • The only knowledge that can truly orient action is knowledge that frees itself from mere human interests and is based in Ideas—in other words knowledge that has taken a theoretical attitude.
    • p. 301
  • [Critical social science attempts] to determine when theoretical statements grasp invariant regularities of social action as such and when they express ideologically frozen relations of dependence that can in principle be transformed.
    • p. 310 as cited in: Dominick LaCapra (1983) Rethinking Intellectual History: Texts, Contexts, Language. p. 170

Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action (1983)[edit]

C. Lenhart and S. Nicholsen, trans. (Cambridge: 1995)

  • What Kant regarded as a unique (Copernican) turn to transcendental reflection becomes in Hegel a general mechanism for turning consciousness back upon itself. This mechanism has been switched on and off time and time again in the development of spirit. As the subject becomes conscious of itself, it destroys one form of consciousness after another. This process epitomizes the subjective experience that what initially appears to the subject as a being in itself can become content only in the forms imparted to it by the subject. The transcendental philosopher’s experience is thus, according to Hegel, reenacted naively whenever an in-itself becomes a for-the-subject. What Hegel calls “Dialectical” is the reconstruction of this recurrent experience and of its assimilation by the subject, which gives rise to ever more complex structures. … Hegel, it should be noted, exposes himself to a criticism. … Reconstructing successive forms of consciousness is one thing. Proving the necessity of their succession is quite another.
    • p. 5
  • If we compare the third-person attitude of someone who simply says how things stand (this is the attitude of the scientist, for example) with the performative attitude of someone who tries to understand what is said to him (this is the attitude of the interpreter, for example), the implications … become clear. … First, interpreters relinquish superiority that observers have by virtue of their privileged position, in that they themselves are drawn, at least potentially, into negotiations about the meaning and validity of utterances. By taking part in communicative action, they accept in principle the same status as those whose utterances they are trying to understand. … It is impossible to decide a priori who is to learn from whom.
    • p. 26

The Theory of Communicative Action, 1987[edit]

  • As medium for reaching understanding, speech acts serve: a) to establish and renew interpersonal relations, whereby the speaker takes up a relation to something in the world of legitimate social orders; b) to represent states and events, whereby the speaker takes up a relation to something in the world of existing states of affairs; c) to manifest experiences that is, to represent oneself- whereby the speaker takes up a relation to something in the subjective world to which he has privileged access.
    • p. 308

On the Pragmatics of Communication, 1998[edit]

Jürgen Habermas & Maeve Cooke eds. (1998) On the Pragmatics of Communication. MIT Press.

  • The task of universal pragmatics is to identify and reconstruct universal conditions of possible mutual understanding.
    • p. 21
  • I shall develop the thesis that anyone acting communicatively must, in performing any speech act, raise universal validity claims and suppose that they can be vindicated.
    • p. 22
  • Reaching and understanding is the process of bringing about an agreement on the presupposed basis of validity claims that are mutually recognized.
    • p. 23

About Habermas[edit]

  • Habermas is wrong to conclude that Adorno's implacable critique of reason (Verstand rather than Vernunft) paints him into the corner of irrationalism and leaves him no implicit recourse but the now familiar poststructural one of l'acéphale, cutting off the intolerable, hyperintellectual head of the formerly rational being. He thinks so only because he cannot himself allow for the possibility or the reality of some new, genuinely dialectical thinking.
  • Jurgen Habermas is widely considered as the most influential thinker in Germany over the past decade. As a philosopher and sociologist he has mastered and creatively articulated an extraordinary range of specialized literature in the social sciences, social theory and the history of ideas in the development of a comprehensive and provocative critical theory of knowledge and human interests. His roots are in the tradition of German thought from Kant to Marx, and he has been associated with the Frankfurt School of critical theorists which pioneered in the study of the relationship of the ideas of Marx and Freud.
    • Jack Mezirow (1981). "A critical theory of adult learning and education". in: Adult Education. Vol 32, nr. 1, p. 3
  • In Europe, you do philosophy by performing discourse on another guy's text, and so Derrida will go over Heidegger, and Habermas will extend Marx's corpus; but in America you could never get away with kinky stuff like that, for you have to generate philosophy from real things—like computers or television. You need to look at Omni magazine to get a feel for this new kind of mail-order, Popular Mechanics science of mind. It's full of articles about meditation helmets and downloading the soul into computers so that when your body wears out you can live forever. What is completely missing in Europe is precisely what you will find in America: namely, an electronic Umwelt in which history is replaced with movies, education is replaced with entertainment, and nature is replaced with technology. This peculiar wedding of low kitsch and high tech generates a posthistoric world that no European literary intellectual can quite fathom.
  • Critical systems thinkers like Gerald Midgley identify three waves of systems thinking over the last 50 years or so. Early systems theorists (e.g. Bertalanffy) described systems in physical terms, resorting to metaphors from electronic computation or biology. This 'hard systems' tradition still has its advocates and practitioners... Subsequently the limits of the physical metaphor... were reached, and the secondwave of systems thinking developed. This 'soft systems thinking' employed social metaphors to develop appropriate systems approaches for human systems. The move to a more phenomenological, interpretative understanding of human systems, where meaning is central and is negotiated intersubjectively, parallels the new paradigm / crisis of social psychology of the 1970s. The Third wave, or critical systems school, in which Midgley locates himself, has drawn on the critical theory of Habermas, particularly in relation to theories of knowledge and of communicative rationality, and on the work of Foucault and followers on the nature of power.
  • *"The strength of a culture depends on its capacity to open itself up to other cultures, to integrate itself into them and to integrate them into it. It doesn't matter how many differences there may be, Habermas pointed out, everyone shares some principles. No culture tolerates the exploitation of human beings. No religion permits the murder of innocent people. No civilisation accepts violence or terror."
  • In such declarations lies the core strategy of Between Facts and Norms. What they trace is the continual movement of a theoretical shuttlecock, from the optative to the indicative and back again, that never comes to ground at either end. If Habermas’s account of law and democracy is taxed with a fundamental abstraction from the empirical realities of a political order in which the formation of a popular will is at best fitful or vestigial, it can refer to its counterfactual vocation. If it is taxed with a complete lack of any specification of a desirable alternative, it can refer to the value of what already exists, in a bedrock of communication that only needs to be fulfilled. The result is a theory that answers to the responsibility neither of an accurate description of the real world, nor of critical proposals for a better one. It operates instead in a no man’s land between the two, in unwitting mimicry of the title of the book – not law as a mediation, but philosophy as a passe-passe between facts and norms. What actual criticisms of the social order issue from the ‘critical standard’ it offers? Where precisely are we to find the ‘efficacity’ of the idealizations it discerns in existing practices, and why are these ‘unavoidable’? Just how ‘partial’ is the inscription of norms in observable conducts, and how ‘distorted’? What proportion of reality do the ‘particles and fragments’ of reason add up to? Such questions are beyond the remit of the theory, which is designed to elude them. Its effect is apologetic. Our societies are better than we know.
    • Perry Anderson, Spectrum (2005), Ch. 5 : Norming Facts: Jürgen Habermas
  • For well over a century, Habermas observes, history rebuffed this prospect. Democratic peoples showed they could be just as bellicose as autocratic princes. Instead of peace-giving trade, there came industrial revolution and class struggle, splitting rather than uniting society. The public sphere became prey to distortion and manipulation with the arrival of modern media. Yet since the close of the Second World War, Kant’s vision has come to life again, as his premises have been fulfilled in altered conditions. Statistical research confirms that democracies do not war with each other. Within the OECD nations have become economically interdependent. The welfare state has pacified class antagonisms. NGOs and global summits on population or environment show that an international public sphere is taking shape.
    But if Kant’s diagnostic has today been vindicated, his institutional scheme for a perpetual peace has proved wanting. For a mere foedus pacificum– conceived by Kant on the model of a treaty between states, from which the partners could voluntarily withdraw – was insufficiently binding. A truly cosmopolitan order required force of law, not mere diplomatic consent. The UN Charter, in banning aggressive wars, and authorizing measures of collective security to protect peace, and the UN Declaration of Rights, laid some of the legal bases for one. But in continuing – inconsistently – to proclaim national sovereignty inviolable, the Charter had not advanced decisively beyond Kant’s original conception. The transformative step still to be taken was for cosmopolitan law to bypass the nation-state and confer justiciable rights on individuals, to which they could appeal against the nation-state. Such a legal order required force: an armed capacity to override, where necessary, the outdated prerogatives of national sovereignty. The Security Council was an imperfect instrument of this imperative, since its composition was open to question and its actions were not always even-handed. It would better if it were closer in model to the Council of Ministers in the European Union, but – in this, unlike the latter – with a military force under its command. Nevertheless, the Gulf War was evidence that the UN was moving in the right direction. The present age should be seen as one of transition between international law of a traditional kind, regulating relations between states, and a cosmopolitan law establishing individuals as the subjects of universally enforceable rights.
    • Perry Anderson, Spectrum: From Right to Left in the World of Ideas (2005), Ch. 7 : Arms and Rights: The Adjustable Centre
  • All that is really postulated by Rawls and Habermas is that once religious beliefs are rendered indistinguishable from ‘public reason’ or ‘secular knowledge’, they can be enlisted like any other platitude as sponsors of whatever conventional wisdom requires. The fact that in the real world, transcendent faiths continue to represent contradictory ethical imperatives, waging ideological or literal war with each other, becomes an irrelevant residue: the domain of a ‘fundamentalism’ that is no longer even quite religion, properly understood.
    In Habermas’s construction, something similar occurs to democracy. Once this is redefined as principally a matter of ‘communication’ and ‘consciousness’, political participation and popular will become residuals that can be bypassed in the design of a cosmopolitan legal order. Here too, the presiding concept assures the desirable outcome – Habermas’s discourse theory functioning, like Rawls’s public reason, to neutralize democracy as once religion. For rather than a critique of the involution of classic democratic ideals in the dispersed and depoliticized political systems of the West today, Habermas furnishes a metaphysical justification of it, in the name of the salutarily impersonal and decentred flux of communicative reason. The result is a political theory tailor-made for the further dissolution of popular sovereignty at a European level, and its vaporization altogether at a putative global level. To his credit, when writing on the actual European Union under his eyes, Habermas has sought to resist the logic of his own weakening of any idea of collective self-determination – calling, indeed, for more powers to the European Parliament and the formation of European parties. But when, untempered by any comparable experience, he envisages a cosmopolitan order to come, the logic of his projection ends in a political wraith: democracy without democracy, shorn even of elections or voters.
    • Perry Anderson, Spectrum: From Right to Left in the World of Ideas (2005), Ch. 7 : Arms and Rights: The Adjustable Centre
  • No single mind can stand, as such, for an outlook. Now laden with as many European prizes as the ribbons of a Brezhnevite general, Habermas is no doubt in part the victim of his own eminence: enclosed, like Rawls before him, in a mental world populated overwhelmingly by admirers and followers, decreasingly able to engage with positions more than a few millimetres away from his own. Often hailed as a contemporary successor to Kant, he risks becoming a modern Leibniz, constructing with imperturbable euphemisms a theodicy in which even the evils of financial deregulation contribute to the blessings of cosmopolitan awakening, while the West sweeps the path of democracy and human rights towards an ultimate Eden of pan-human legitimacy. To that extent Habermas represents a special case, in both his distinction and the corruption of it. But the habit of talking of Europe as a cynosure for the world, without showing much knowledge of the actual cultural or political life within it, has not gone away, and is unlikely to yield just to the tribulations of the common currency.
    • Perry Anderson, "After the Event", New Left Review 73, January-February 2012
  • Jürgen Habermas currently ranks as one of the most influential philosophers in the world. Bridging continental and Anglo-American traditions of thought, he has engaged in debates with thinkers as diverse as Gadamer and Putnam, Foucault and Rawls, Derrida and Brandom. His extensive written work addresses topics stretching from social-political theory to aesthetics, epistemology and language to philosophy of religion, and his ideas have significantly influenced not only philosophy but also political-legal thought, sociology, communication studies, argumentation theory and rhetoric, developmental psychology and theology. Moreover, he has figured prominently in Germany as a public intellectual, commenting on controversial issues of the day in German newspapers such as Die Zeit.
    • James Bohman and William Rehg (2011) "Jürgen Habermas", in: The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Winter 2011 Edition, Edward N. Zalta (ed.)

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