The Jürgen Habermas Web Resource


by Steve Robinson, Professor Dean Rehberger
English 980: Studies in Rhetoric. Michigan State University Web Resource

This hypertext project began as a class project on the rhetorical theory of Jürgen Habermas for my English 980: Studies in Rhetoric class at Michigan State University. This web site was a class project during my doctoral studies, and has not been updated for a few years. Please direct comments or questions to

I am often asked how to contact Professor Habermas. Unfortunately, I do not have his e-mail address or contact information.

Sources for Habermas and His Work
Habermas was a student of Theodor Adorno, and a member of the Frankfurt School of critical theory. He is perhaps the last major thinker to embrace the basic project of the enlightenment, a project for which he is often attacked. When compositionists and rhetoricians pay attention to Habermas, it is usually to pair him in a theoretical debate over issues surrounding postmodernism. Foucault, Gadamer, Lyotard, etc. are often set up as his opponents. Yet the debate always seems to be a racasting of the debate between Kant and Hegel. Habermas is decidedly Kantian in his dedication to reason, ethics, and moral philosophy.

At the center of Habermas’s controversial project, as it is outlined in his written work, are the contested and problematic areas of universality and rationality. Of his theoreitcal intent and his debt to important German sociologists like Marx and Weber, Jefferey Alexander notes:

To restore universality to critical rationality and to cleanse the critical tradition from its elitism, Habermas seeks to return to key concepts of Marx’s original strategy (“Habermas and Critical Theory” 50).

In many ways, Habermas is engaged in the restoration of philosophical and sociological work which has been descredited or harshly criticised. Among these are theorists such as Karl Marx, Max Weber, Wilhelm Dilthey, Georg Lukacs, Sigmund Freud, G. H. Mead, and Talcott Parsons (Foss, et. al. 241) as well as contemporary critics such as Stephen Toulmin and Jean Piaget.

Habermas has no shortage of critics. His work is routinely criticized by postmodernists, poststructuralists, and feminists. A particularly damning dismissal of the political nature of contemporary critical theory is given by Edward Said, who uses Habermas as a spokesman for theory’s anti-political stance.

Habermas and the Public Sphere
Habermas’s most complete exploration of the notion of the public sphere is found in The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society. (1989). Central to many theorists in the area of print culture, the public sphere is further elaborated by Habermas in Volume Two of The Theory of Communicative Action as he discusses the distinction between lifeworld and system. As Johanna Mehan notes:

This distinction between public and private parallels, but is not identical to, the distinction he draws between system and lifeworld. On the one hand, action in the modern world is coordinated by sytems which function according to means-end rationality; the market is a paradigmatic example of such a system… On the other hand, actions are coordinated primarily by communicatively mediated norms and values, and by the socially defined ends and meanings which constitute the fabric of the lifeworld (6-7).

Mehan further states that Habermas sees the differentiation and structure of the public and private spheres as “essential to the character of modernity” (Femnists Read Habermas 6).

Habermas and Communication Theory
Habermas’s main contribution to communication theory is the elaborate theoretical apparatus he described in the two volumes of The Theory of Communicative Action, published in 1981. Power is a key concept in Habermas’s conception of communicative rationality. Axel Honneth and Hans Joas note that the publication of this work, “brought to a provisional conclusion the intellectual efforts of twenty years of reflection and research.” They see the large work by Habermas as adressing the following four general themes:

  • a meaningful concept of the rationality of actions
  • the problem of an appropriate theory of action
  • a concept of social order
  • the diagnosis of contemporary society

Honneth and Joas argue that the basic idea behind the two volume treatise is “that an indestructable moment of communicative rationality is anchored in the social form of human life.” This thesis “is defended in this book by means of a contemporary philosophy of language and science, and is used as as the foundation for a comprehensive social theory” (Communicative Action: Essays on J宠Habermas’s The Theory of Communicative Action).

In Moral Consciousness and Communicatative Action Habermas defines the concept of communicative action:
Communicative action can be understood as a circular process in which the actor is two things in one: an initiator, who masters situations through actions for which he is accountable, and a product of the transitions surrounding him, of groups whose cohesion is based on solidarity to which he belongs, and of processes of socialization in which he is reared (135).

Central to this social notion of language and human reason is the concept that Habermas terms validity claims, the idea by which he connects speech acts to the idea of rationality.

Discourse Ethics
Habermas defines discourse ethics as a “scaled down” version of Kant’s categorical imperative–a kind of moral argumentation. Discourse ethics is built from Habermas’s understanding of constructivist models of learning. He remarks that discourse ethics is:

  • deontological
  • cognitivist
  • formalist
  • universalist

The primary sticking point for all of us in this class will be the last category, the univeral or what Habermas refers to as U. Central to his concept of discourse ethics is the domain Habermas terms practical discourse, which owes much to the work of Stephen Toulmin and the “informal logic” movement in philosophy.

The Debate over Modernity
When he was awarded the Adorno Prize in 1980, Habermas wrote his important essay “Modernity–An Incomplete Project.” In his introduction to the essay, Thomas Docherty notes:
The occasion of the essay aligns Habermas with Adorno; yet the content of the lecture aligns him with precicely that rationalist tradition in Enlghtenment of which Adorno was enormously sceptical. Here, as in his later work of the 1980s, Habermas sees the possibility of salvaging Enlightenment rationality. The project of modernity done by eighteenth-century philosophers ‘consisted of their efforts to develop objective science, universal morality and law, and autonomous art according to their inner logic’, their aim being, according to Habermas here, ‘the rational organization of everyday social life.’ (Postmodernism 95).

Habermas appears to be the only contemporary theorist willing to defend the tradition of modernity, and he is frequently called to do so in debates with theorists like Lyotard, Gadamer, and Foucault. As Victor Vitanza’s English 5352 syllabus demonstrates, rhetoricians often cast Habermas as the modernist in a debate over modernity. His course, entitled “Major Figures in Rhetoric: Habermas, Lyotard, and the problem of the Ethical Subject,” explores the problems of ethics and postmodernism.

Return to Steve Robinson’s English 980 page.

The Frankfurt School
In an online book review of The Frankfurt School: Its History, Theories, and Political Significance by Rolf Wiggershaus, David Weininger gives the following description of the Franfurt School:

the “Frankfurt School” produced a body of work which was haunted by exactly such issues. Most of its names have by now become familiar to the academic community: Theodor W. Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Herbert Marcuse, Walter Benjamin, Erich Fromm. While they engaged a dazzlingly diverse group of intellectual disciplines and theoretical approaches, the guiding thread of all of their analyses was the diagnosis of the ruined, pathological world of the early 20th century. Under the triumphant twin shadows of full-blown industrial capitalism and National Socialism, the Frankfurt School asked two familiar questions: How did we get here? and Where does salvation lie? What was so tremendously original about their collective responses was that the answers lay not in political activism or in a revolutionary labor movement, but in such abstruse phenomena as avant-garde art, psychoanalysis, dialectical philosophy, and a messianic religious faith. Their studies-which go under the general name of “Critical Theory”-were among the first which can be properly labeled interdisciplinary, encompassing insights from so many different areas. By the time of their mature works-most notably Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment-the members of the Frankfurt School no longer referred to their work as philosophy, sociology, aesthetics or psychology; it was, simply, “Theory.”

The Debate with Michel Foucault
I am interested in what Habermas is doing. I know he does not agree with what I say–I am a little more in agreement with him…

Habermas and Foucault never had the kind of debate that Habermas and Gadamer engaged in over modernity. Yet, in a book Critique and Power: Recasting the Foucault/Habermas Debate, editor Michael Kelly attempts to piece together a debate that was planned between Habermas and Foucault over the subject of modernity. Because of Foucault’s untimely death in 1984, the debate never took place, but it was proposed by Foucault that the two thinkers engage in a discussion of Kant’s 1794 essay “What is Enlightenment?” As Kelly notes:

Michel Foucault is credited with welcoming the concept of power into the contemporary philophical landscape. Jürgen Habermas is critical of Foucault for doing so, not because power is incongruous ion that landscape, but because Foucault’s conception of it inflicts environmental damage for which he can be held philosophically accountable (1)

The book is made up of a series of essays on the subject of modernity, as well as secondary material from contemparary scholars like Thomas McCarthy (noted translater of Habermas), Gilles Deleuze, Jana Sawicki, Nancy Frazer, and Axel Honneth.

Major Works of Habermas 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 Communicative Action, Volume One: Reason and the Rationalization of Society (Boston: Beacon Press, 1984)

Autonomy and Solidarity (London: Verso, 1986)

The Theory of Communicative 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)

Secondary Material on Habermas

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.

Feminism and Habermasian Theory
Some of the most interesting and satisfying critiques of Habermas have come from feminists, who share his commitment to the explication of power, knowledge, and morality, but differ (in varing degrees) with him on the issues of universal pragmatics, and Enlightenment-inspired modernity. In her introduction ot Feminists Read Habermas: Gendering the Subject of Discourse, Johanna Meehan notes:
Habermasian theory stands squarely in a tradition of Englightenment-inspired political theory and deontological ethics which many feminists have thoroughly rejected.

The critics represented in the volume resist much of Habermas’s restoration of Engligtenment philosophy, at the same time amplifying much of his program concerning ethics, morality, and discursive norms. Other feminist responses to this project take a similar direction. While she does not address Habermas directly, feminist and psychoanalyst Jane Flax outlines the central critique of Enlightenment from a feminist perspective:

A central promise of Enlightenment and Western modernity is that conflicts between knowledge and power can be overcome by grounding claims to and the exercise of authority in reason. Reason both represents and embodies truth. It partakes of universality in two additional ways: it operates identically in each subject and it can grasp laws that are objectively true; that is, are equally knowable and binding on every person. This set of beliefs generates one of the foundational antinomies in Enlightenment thinking–superstition/domination verus knowledge/freedom (emancipation). (“The End of Innocence,” Feminists Theorize the Political 447).

Edward Said’s Critique of the Frankfurt School
In his important books Culture and Imperialism, Edward W. Said explores the nature of imperialism, and–among other things–the lack of action taken by cultural criticism and critical theory against domination and oppression. In a particulalry damning passage, Said implicates the Frankfurt School, citing Habermas as an example:

Much of Western Marxism, in its aesthetic an cultural departments, is similarly blinded to the matter of imperialsim. Frankfurt School crtiical theory, despite its seminal insights into the relationship between domination, modern society, and the opportunities for redemptionthrough art as critique, is stunningly silent on racist theory, anti-imperialist resistance, and oppositional practice in the empire. And lest that silence be interpreted as an oversight, we have today’s leading Frankfurt theorist, Jürgen Habermas, explaining in an interview (originally published in the New Left Review) that the silence is deliberate abstention: no, he syas, we have nothing to say to “ant-imperialist and anti-capitalist struggles in the Third World,” even if, he adds, “I am aware of the fact that this is a eurocentrically limited view.”
This statement from Habermas was quoted from Autonomy and Solidarity: Interviews, ed. Peter Dews (London: Verson, 1986), p. 187.


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