Jürgen Habermas


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Jürgen Habermas (b. 1929) has been the most important intellectual in Germany since the early 1960s. A prolific member of the second generation of the Frankfurt School, he has contributed seminally to German public life in fields ranging from sociology to philosophy and political science. From 1949 to 1954 he attended the universities of Göttingen and Bonn, receiving his doctorate in philosophy with a dissertation on F. W. J. Schelling. Although his education was rather traditional, in the mid-1950s he became acquainted with central works in the Marxist tradition. His interest in critical theory led him in 1956 to Frankfurt, where he became an assistant to Theodor W. Adorno at the Institute for Social Research. After teaching in Heidelberg and Frankfurt, he became director of the Max Planck Institute for Research into the Living Conditions of the Scientific-Technical World in 1971. In 1983 he returned to Frankfurt as a professor in the Department of Philosophy.

Habermas`s interdisciplinary research has touched on matters important to students of literature at several points. Perhaps his most influential work for literary studies in Germany was the book Strukturwandel der Öffentlichkeit (1962, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere). The “public sphere” is a realm in which opinions are exchanged between private persons unconstrained (ideally) by external pressures. Theoretically open to all citizens and founded in the family, it is the place where something approaching public opinion is formed. It should be distinguished both from the state, which represents official power, and from the economic structures of civil society as a whole. Its function is actually to mediate between society and state; it is the arena in which the public organizes itself, formulates public opinion, and expresses its desires vis-à-vis the government.

Habermas`s discussion makes clear that the public sphere is not a given for every type of society; nor does it possess a fixed status. The Middle Ages had no public sphere in the sense in which Habermas defines it, but rather a sphere of representation of feudal authority. Only in the eighteenth century, with the breakdown of religious hegemony and the rise of the middle class, does a public sphere emerge. The liberal model of the public sphere, in which private individuals and interests regulate public authority and in which property owners speak for humanity, is eventually transformed during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries into a realm in which the activities of reasoning and the formulation of public opinion are superseded by mass consumption and publicity.

Habermas`s hypothesis of a “literary public sphere” as an anticipation of the political public sphere found tremendous resonance among literary critics in Germany during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Particularly provocative were the notion of the commodification of art in the eighteenth century and the discussion of the various institutions in which art and criticism occurred (coffeehouses, moral weeklies). Habermas also made important observations on the rise of new genres, pointing out that the publication of correspondence as a literary form and the emergence of the psychological novel are reactions to a restructuring of the relationship between author, text, and reader. Intimacy as a matter for public scrutiny in fictional works depends on and fosters the legitimation of the public utterance of private opinions.

Habermas`s debate with the ontological tradition of Hermeneutics, represented by Hans-Georg Gadamer, also has implications for literary theory. Although he agreed with the necessity for historicization, he objected primarily to the political implications contained in Gadamer`s affirmation of “authority,” “tradition,” and “the classical.” Habermas criticizes the conservative nature of Gadamer`s dialogical stance because of its non- reflexive affirmation of tradition. In order for emancipation to occur, we must possess the ability to reflect upon and to reject pernicious or regressive aspects of our heritage. Connected with this, Habermas believes that Gadamer`s hermeneutics excludes precisely the social moment inherent in all linguistic interchange. Although Habermas, unlike Michel Foucault, posits in his later work communication free from domination as a regulative principle, he nonetheless takes Gadamer to task for ignoring the place of power and hegemony in dialogue.

Habermas`s work during the 1980s, in particular Der philosophische Diskurs der Moderne (1985, The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity), thrust him into the center of controversy concerning the concepts of modernity and postmodernity. Opposing Jean-François Lyotard`s notion of the postmodern condition, Habermas contends that modernity poses for us a task that must still be completed. Habermas`s notion of modernity stems from the tradition of German idealism, in particular from G. W. F. Hegel, who posited subjectivity as the key for comprehending the modern world (see also German Theory and Criticism: 1. Sturm und Drang / Weimar Classicism and 2. Romanticism). The constellation between modernity, consciousness, and rationality that crystallized in his philosophy had three distinct fates in post-Hegelian thought. The progressive neo-Hegelians, such as Karl Marx, operating with a more modest notion of reason, continued the project of modernity. The new conservatives, who reduced reason (Vernunft) to understanding (Verstand) and affirmed scientifistic notions of rationality, jettisoned any critical element in the project. The young conservative faction, which draws its inspiration from Friedrich Nietzsche and includes most adherents to poststructuralism, abandons reason altogether and falls into nihilism or anarchy. Habermas`s contention is therefore that those who feel that they have gone beyond the project of modernity are deceiving themselves. There is no escape from the problems raised by subjectivity and enlightenment, only a continuation, a trivialization, or a pseudoradicalization of the initial premises.

Habermas`s own solution to the project of modernity involves a return to a path abandoned early in Hegel`s writings. He posits intersubjectivity as a way to avoid the dilemmas inherent in the “philosophy of consciousness.” Instead of proceeding from the isolated subject confronting the objective world, Habermas opts for a model that considers human beings in dialogue with each other to be the foundation for emancipatory social thought. By differentiating between instrumental reason, which has unfortunately achieved hegemony in the modern world, and communicative reason, which has the potential to transform societies into genuine democracies, Habermas can retain a critical edge to reflections on modernity while explicating a positive program for change. In his magnum opus, Theorie des kommunikativen Handelns (1981, The Theory of Communicative Action), Habermas develops his views on communicative rationality in the endeavor to rethink the original project of critical theory along intersubjective lines. His criticism of postmodernity is thus an outgrowth of a larger philosophical view that affirms the Enlightenment principles of emancipation and progress, while refusing to abandon the critical potential of modernity.

Robert C. Holub

Notes and Bibliography

See also Frankfurt School, German Theory and Criticism: 4. Twentieth Century to 1968 and 5. Contemporary, and Hermeneutics: 2. Twentieth Century.

Karl-Otto Apel et al., Hermeneutik und Ideologiekritik (1971);

Jürgen Habermas, Der philosophische Diskurs der Moderne (1985),

The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity, trans. Frederick Lawrence, (1987),

Strukturwandel der Öffentlichkeit: Untersuchen zu einer Kategorie der bùrgerlichen Gesellschaft (1962), The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society, trans. Thomas Burger, (1989),

Theorie des kommunikativen Handelns (2 vols., 1981, The Theory of Communicative Action, trans. Thomas McCarthy, 1983-87).

Richard J. Bernstein, ed., Habermas and Modernity (1985);

Raymond Guess, The Idea of a Critical Theory: Habermas and the Frankfurt School (1981);

David Held, Introduction to Critical Theory: Horkheimer to Habermas (1980);

Robert C. Holub, Jürgen Habermas: Critic in the Public Sphere (1991);

David Ingram, Habermas and the Dialectic of Reason (1987);

Thomas McCarthy, The Critical Theory of Jürgen Habermas (1978);

David M. Rassmussen, Reading Habermas (1990);

Tom Rockmore, Habermas on Historical Materialism (1989);

Rick Roderick, Habermas and the Foundations of Critical Theory (1986);

John B. Thompson and David Held, eds., Habermas: Critical Debates (1982);

Stephen White, The Recent Work of Jürgen Habermas: Reason, Justice, and Modernity (1988).

critical theory, Enlightenment


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