Jürgen Habermas (IPA: [ˈjʏʁgən ˈhaːbɐmaːs]; born June 18, 1929 is a German philosopher and sociologist in the tradition of critical theory and American pragmatism. He is perhaps best known for his work on the concept of the
public sphere, the topic (and title) of his first book. His work focused on the foundations of social theory and epistemology, the analysis of advanced capitalistic societies and democracy, the rule of law in a critical social-evolutionary context, and contemporary politics—particularly German politics. Habermas’s theoretical system is devoted to revealing the possibility of reason, emancipation, and rational-critical communication latent in modern institutions and in the human capacity to deliberate and pursue rational interests.
Habermas was born in Düsseldorf, North Rhine-Westphalia. Until his graduation from gymnasium, Habermas lived in Gummersbach, near Cologne. His father, Ernst Habermas, was executive director of the Cologne Chamber of Industry and Commerce, and was described by Habermas as a Nazi sympathizer. He was brought up in a staunchly Protestant milieu, his grandfather being the director of the seminary in Gummersbach. He studied at the universities of Göttingen (1949/50), Zürich (1950/51), and Bonn (1951–54) and earned a doctorate in philosophy from Bonn in 1954 with a dissertation entitled, Das Absolute und die Geschichte. Von der Zwiespältigkeit in Schellings Denken (“The absolute and history: on the contradiction in Schelling’s thought”). His dissertation committee included Erich Rothacker and Oskar Becker.
From 1956 on, he studied philosophy and sociology under the critical theorists Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno at the Institute for Social Research at the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University Frankfurt am Main, but because of a rift between the two over his dissertation—Horkheimer had made unacceptable demands for revision—as well as his own belief that the Frankfurt School had become paralyzed with political skepticism and disdain for modern culture—he finished his habilitation in political science at the University of Marburg under the Marxist Wolfgang Abendroth. His habilitation work was entitled, Strukturwandel der Öffentlichkeit; Untersuchungen zu einer Kategorie der Bürgerlichen Gesellschaft (published in English translation in 1989 as The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: an Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society). In 1961, he became a privatdozent in Marburg, and—in a move that was highly unusual for the German academic scene of that time—he was offered the position of “extraordinary professor” (professor without chair) of philosophy at the University of Heidelberg (at the instigation of Hans-Georg Gadamer and Karl Löwith) in 1962, which he accepted. In 1964, strongly supported by Adorno, Habermas returned to Frankfurt to take over Horkheimer’s chair in philosophy and sociology.
He accepted the position of Director of the Max Planck Institute in Starnberg (near Munich) in 1971, and worked there until 1983, two years after the publication of his magnum opus, The Theory of Communicative Action. Habermas then returned to his chair at Frankfurt and the directorship of the Institute for Social Research. Since retiring from Frankfurt in 1993, Habermas has continued to publish extensively. In 1986, he received the Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Prize of the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, which is the highest honour awarded in German research. He also holds the uncharacteristically postmodern position of “Permanent Visiting” Professor at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, and “Theodor Heuss Professor” at The New School, New York.
Habermas visited the People’s Republic of China in April 2001.The Prince of Asturias Awards in Social Sciences 2003. Habermas was also the 2004 Kyoto Laureate in the Arts and Philosophy section. He traveled to San Diego and on March 5, 2005, as part of the University of San Diego’s Kyoto Symposium, gave a speech entitled The Public Role of Religion in Secular Context, regarding the evolution of separation of Church and State from neutrality to intense secularism. He received the 2005 Holberg International Memorial Prize (about € 520,000).
Habermas was famous as a teacher and mentor. Among his most prominent students were the political sociologist Claus Offe (professor at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin) , the social philosopher Johann Arnason (professor at La Trobe University and chief editor of the journal Thesis Eleven), the sociological theorist Hans Joas (professor at the University of Erfurt and at the University of Chicago), the theorist of societal evolution Klaus Eder, the social philosopher Axel Honneth (the current director of the Institute for Social Research), the American philosopher Thomas McCarthy, the co-creator of mindful inquiry in social research Jeremy J. Shapiro, and the assassinated Serbian prime minister Zoran Đinđić.
Habermas constructed a comprehensive framework of social theory and philosophy drawing on a number of intellectual traditions:
the German philosophical thought of Immanuel Kant, Friedrich Schelling, G. W. F. Hegel, Wilhelm Dilthey, Edmund Husserl, and Hans-Georg Gadamer the Marxian tradition — both the theory of Karl Marx himself as well as the critical neo-Marxian theory of the Frankfurt School, i.e. Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, and Herbert Marcuse the sociological theories of Max Weber, Émile Durkheim, and George Herbert Mead the linguistic philosophy and speech act theories of Ludwig Wittgenstein, J.L. Austin, P. F. Strawson, Stephen Toulmin and John Searle the developmental psychology of Jean Piaget and Lawrence Kohlberg the American pragmatist tradition of Charles Sanders Peirce and John Dewey the sociological social systems theory of Talcott Parsons and Niklas Luhmann Neo-Kantian thought
Jürgen Habermas considered his major achievement to be the development of the concept and theory of communicative reason or communicative rationality, which distinguishes itself from the rationalist tradition by locating rationality in structures of interpersonal linguistic communication rather than in the structure of either thecosmos or the knowing subject. This social theory advances the goals of human emancipation, while maintaining aninclusive universalist moral framework. This framework rests on the argument called universal pragmatics – thatall speech acts have an inherent telos (the Greek word for “end”) — the goal of mutual understanding, and that human beings possess the communicative competence to bring about such understanding. Habermas built the framework out of the speech-act philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein, J. L. Austin, and John Searle, the sociological theory of the interactional constitution of mind and self of George Herbert Mead, the theories of moral development of Jean Piaget and Lawrence Kohlberg, and the discourse ethics of his Heidelberg colleague Karl-Otto Apel.
He carried forward the traditions of Kant and the Enlightenment and of democratic socialism through his emphasis on the potential for transforming the world and arriving at a more humane, just, and egalitarian society through the realization of the human potential for reason, in part through discourse ethics. While Habermas conceded that the Enlightenment is an “unfinished project,” he argued it should be corrected and complemented, not discarded. In this he distanced himself from the Frankfurt School, criticizing it, as well as much of postmodernist thought, for excessive pessimism, misdirected radicalism and exaggerations.
Within sociology, Habermas’s major contribution was the development of a comprehensive theory of societal evolution and modernization focusing on the difference between communicative rationality and rationalization on the one hand and strategic/instrumental rationality and rationalization on the other. This included a critique from a communicative standpoint of the differentiation-based theory of social systems developed by Niklas Luhmann, a student of Talcott Parsons.
His defence of modernity and civil society has been a source of inspiration to others, and is considered a major philosophical alternative to the varieties of poststructuralism. He has also offered an influential analysis of late capitalism.
Habermas saw the rationalization, humanization, and democratization of society in terms of the institutionalization of the potential for rationality that is inherent in the communicative competence that is unique to the human species. Habermas believed communicative competence has developed through the course of evolution, but in contemporary society it is often suppressed or weakened by the way in which major domains of social life, such as the market, the state, and organizations, have been given over to or taken over by strategic/instrumental rationality, so that the logic of the system supplants that of the lifeworld.
Habermas introduces the concept of “reconstructive science” with a double purpose: to place the “general theory of society” between philosophy and social science and re-establish the rift between the “great theorization” and the “empirical research”. The model of “rational reconstructions” represents the main thread of the surveys about the “structures” of the world of life (“culture”, “society” and “personality”) and their respective “functions” (cultural reproductions, social integrations and socialization).
For this propose, the dialectics between “symbolic representation” of “the structures subordinated to all worlds of life” (“internal relationships”) and the “material reproduction” of the social systems in their complex (“external relationships” between social systems and environment) has to be considered. This model finds an application, above all, in the “theory of the social evolution”, starting from the reconstruction of the necessary conditions for a phylogeny of the socio-cultural life forms (the “hominization”) until an analysis of the development of “social formations”, which Habermas subdivides into primitive, traditional, modern and contemporary formations. This paper is an attempt, primarily, to formalize the model of “reconstruction of the logic of development” of “social formations” summed up by Habermas through the differentiation between vital world and social systems (and, within them, through the “rationalization of the world of life” and the “growth in complexity of the social systems”). Secondly, it tries to offer some methodological clarifications about the “explanation of the dynamics” of “historical processes” and, in particular, about the “theoretical meaning” of the evolutional theory’s propositions. Even if the German sociologist considers that the “ex-post rational reconstructions” and “the models system/environment” cannot have a complete “historiographical application”, these certainly act as a general premise in the argumentative structure of the “historical explanation”.
(Abstract of Luca Corchia, Explicative models of complexity. The reconstructions of social evolution for Jürgen Habermas, in S. Balbi – G. Scepi – G. Russolillo – A. Stawinoga (eds.), Book of Short Abstracts, 7th International Conference on Social Science Methodology – RC33 – Logic and Methodology in Sociology, Napoli, Italia, 9.2008, Jovene Editore, 2008.
In The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere Jürgen Habermas developed the influential concept of the public sphere, which emerged in the eighteenth century in Europe as a space of critical discussion, open to all, where private people came together to form a public whose “public reason” would work as a check on state power.
Habermas argued that prior to the 18th century, European culture had been dominated by a “representational” culture, where one party sought to “represent” itself on its audience by overwhelming its subjects. Thus, Habermas argued that Louis XIV’s Palace of Versailles was meant to show the greatness of the French state and its King by overpowering the senses of visitors to the Palace. Habermas identified “representational” culture as corresponding to the feudal stage of development according to Marxist theory, and argued that the coming of the capitalist stage of development marked the appearance of Öffentlichkeit (the public sphere). In the culture characterized by Öffentlichkeit, there occurred a public space outside of the control by the state, where individuals exchanged views and knowledge. In Habermas’s view, the growth in newspapers, journals, reading clubs, Masonic lodges, and coffee-houses in 18th century Europe all in different ways marked the gradual replacement of “representational” culture with Öffentlichkeit culture. Habermas argued that the essential characteristic of the Öffentlichkeit culture was its “critical” nature. Unlike “representational” culture where only one party was active and the other passive, the Öffentlichkeit culture was characterized by a dialogue as individuals either met in conversation, or exchanged views via the print media. Habermas maintained that as Britain was the most liberal country in Europe, the culture of the public sphere emerged there first around 1700, and the growth of Öffentlichkeit culture took place over most of the 18th century in Continental Europe. In his view, the French Revolution was in large part caused by the collapse of “representational” culture, and its replacement by Öffentlichkeit culture. Through Habermas main concern in The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere was to expose what he regarded as the deceptive nature of free institutions in the West, his book had a major impact on the historiography of the French Revolution.
According to Habermas, a variety of factors resulted in the eventual decay of the public sphere, including the growth of a commercial mass media, which turned the critical public into a passive consumer public; and the welfare state, which merged the state with society so thoroughly that the public sphere was squeezed out. It also turned the “public sphere” into a site of self-interested contestation for the resources of the state rather than a space for the development of a public-minded rational consensus.
In his magnum opus Theory of Communicative Action (1981) he criticized the one-sided process of modernization led by forces of economic and administrative rationalization. Habermas traced the growing intervention of formal systems in our everyday lives as parallel to development of the welfare state, corporate capitalism and the culture of mass consumption. These reinforcing trends rationalize widening areas of public life, submitting them to a generalizing logic of efficiency and control. As routinized political parties and interest groups substitute for participatory democracy, society is increasingly administered at a level remote from input of citizens. As a result, boundaries between public and private, the individual and society, the system and the lifeworld are deteriorating. Democratic public life only thrives where institutions enable citizens to debate matters of public importance. He describes an ideal type of “ideal speech situation”, where actors are equally endowed with the capacities of discourse, recognize each other’s basic social equality and speech is undistorted by ideology or misrecognition.
Habermas was optimistic about the possibility of the revival of the public sphere. He saw hope for the future in the new era of political community that transcends the nation-state based on ethnic and cultural likeness for one based on the equal rights and obligations of legally vested citizens. This discursive theory of democracy requires a political community which can collectively define its political will and implement it as policy at the level of the legislative system. This political system requires an activist public sphere, where matters of common interest and political issues can be discussed, and the force of public opinion can influence the decision-making process.
Several noted academics have provided various criticisms of Habermas’s notions regarding the public sphere. John B. Thompson, a Professor of Sociology at the University of Cambridge, has pointed out that Habermas’s notion of the public sphere is antiquated due to the proliferation of mass-media communications. Michael Schudson from the University of California, San Diego argues more generally that a public sphere as a place of purely rational independent debate never existed.
Habermas is famous as a public intellectual as well as a scholar; most notably, in the 1980s he used the popular press to attack the German historians Ernst Nolte, Michael Stürmer, and Andreas Hillgruber. Habermas first expressed his views on the above-mentioned historians in the Die Zeit newspaper on July 11, 1986 in a feuilleton (opinion piece) entitled “A Kind of Settlement of Damages”. Habermas criticized the three historians for “apologistic” history writing in regards to the Nazi era, and for seeking to “close Germany’s opening to the West” that in Habermas’s view had existed since 1945. He argued that they had tried to detach Nazi rule and the Holocaust from the mainstream of German history, explain away Nazism as a reaction to Bolshevism, and partially rehabilitate the reputation of the Wehrmacht (German Army) during World War II. The so-called Historikerstreit (“Historians’ Quarrel”) was not at all one-sided, because Habermas was himself attacked by scholars like Joachim Fest and Klaus Hildebrand.
Habermas and Jacques Derrida engaged in a series of disputes beginning in the 1980s and culminating in a mutual refusal to participate in extended debate and a tendency to talk past one another. Following Habermas’ publication of “Beyond a Temporalized Philosophy of Origins: Derrida” (in The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity), Derrida, citing Habermas as an example, remarked that, “those who have accused me of reducing philosophy to literature or logic to rhetoric … have visibly and carefully avoided reading me” (“Is There a Philosophical Language?” p. 218, in Points…). Others prominent in postmodern thought, notably Jean-François Lyotard, engaged in more extended polemics against Habermas, whereas Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe found these polemics counterproductive. In hindsight, these contentious exchanges contributed to divisions within continental philosophy by focusing too heavily on a purported opposition between modernism and postmodernism — these terms were occasionally elevated to totemic if not cosmological importance in the 1980s, due in no small part to works by Lyotard and Habermas and their often enthusiastic and sometimes incautious reception in American universities. It may be suggested that schematic terminology like “poststructuralism”, trafficked heavily in the United States but virtually unknown in France, found expression in Habermas’ understanding of his French contemporaries, bringing with them the baggage of the “culture wars” raging within American academic circles at the time. In short: although the differences between Habermas and Derrida (if not deconstruction generally) were profound but not necessarily irreconcilable, they were fueled by polemical responses to mischaracterizations of those differences, which in turn sharply inhibited meaningful discussion.
In the aftermath of 9/11, Derrida and Habermas established a limited political solidarity and put their previous disputes behind them in the interest of “friendly and open-minded interchange,” as Habermas put it. After laying out their individual opinions on 9/11 in Giovanna Borradori’s Philosophy in a Time of Terror: Dialogues with Jürgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida, Derrida wrote a foreword expressing his unqualified subscription to Habermas’s declaration, “February 15, or, What Binds Europeans Together: Plea for a Common Foreign Policy, Beginning in Core Europe,” in Old Europe, New Europe, Core Europe (Verso, 2005). Habermas has offered further context for this declaration in an interview. Quite distinct from this, Geoffrey Bennington, a close associate of Derrida’s, has in a further conciliatory gesture offered an account of deconstruction intended to provide some mutual intelligibility. Derrida was already extremely ill by the time the two had begun their new exchange, and the two were not able to develop this such that they could substantially revisit previous disagreements or find more profound terms of discussion before Derrida’s death. Nevertheless, this late collaboration has encouraged some scholars to revisit the positions, recent and past, of both thinkers, vis-a-vis the other.
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