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Compiled by Anthony Harrison-Barbet


(b. 1929)



Jürgen Habermas was born in Düsseldorf and studied philosophy at the universities of Göttingen and Bonn. After a short time as an assistant to Theodor Adorno (a founder of the so-called Frankfurt school and Director of the Institute for Social Research there) he became Professor of Philosophy at Heidelberg and then, in 1964, at Frankfurt as Professor of Philosophy and Sociology. In 1971 he was appointed joint director of the Max-Planck Institute for the Study of the Conditions of Life in the Scientific-Technical World, before returning to Frankfurt in 1982.



[1] Habermas may perhaps be regarded as the leading representative of the 'second generation' or new Frankfurt School. The founders of this movement were concerned essentially to return to a more 'philosophical' or Hegelian Marx. Habermas sets out to develop a new concept of rationality and incorporate it within a neo-Marxist framework undistorted by positivistic excesses. Although generally sympathetic to the modern hermeneutic view that the possibilities of reason and interpretation are both constrained by and dependent on the cultural and historical context within which we act and communicate, Habermas believes it is possible to transcend such limits and still sees reason as having a central role to play. (He sees Gadamer as being too ready to submit to the authority of tradition and also argues that his notion of interpretive horizons is methodologically limited.) Indeed, he regards it as the primary function of philosophy to act as a "guardian of reason" — not least because it is exhibited in and underpins human autonomy and freedom and underlies critiques of all forms of authority and dogma. However, he rejects the search for ultimate epistemological foundations or any attempt to build a 'first philosophy'. Instead he sets out to cooperate with the 'reconstructive' human sciences, which are concerned to discover and make explicit the intuitive human capacities underlying speech, judgement, and action. He also regards philosophy as having a role to play as mediator between the various spheres of culture [a] — the natural sciences, the arts, law, ethics, and so on, each of which has its own 'logic' or methodology. Philosophy itself thus becomes a human science, making its own contribution to other cultural modes as a 'placeholder' (Statt-, Platzhalter) to keep open questions that they have 'closed off'. But it also acts as an intermediary between and interpreter of the cultural modes constituting the 'lifeworld'.

[2] In his early work [Knowledge and Human Interests] Habermas examines the various kinds of sciences with a view to uncovering their presuppositions and epistemological bases. He sees each science as associated with its own type of human knowledge interest. By 'interest' he is referring to what he sees as aspects of man's relationship to the natural and social environment and the way that relationship has developed historically. (1) In the context of his critique of what he sees as the limitations and 'objectivist' claims of positivism Habermas argues that in the empirical-analytic natural sciences, which utilize general laws and predictions, the interest should be technical with a view to determining the limits of applicability of these sciences and facilitating purposive rational action. It is only in such a context that the methodological procedures of the natural sciences can be properly exercised. This rational action corresponds to Marx's concept of labour. Rationality is 'instrumental' in so far as we are seeking the means to bring about control or domination of nature [a]. (2) The pursuit of the empirical sciences is essentially a communal enterprise. A communicative dimension is therefore required — and this, Habermas says, cannot be reduced to instrumental action. We thus have a second knowledge-constitutive 'interest', which is practical and concerned with communication — the domain of the historical-communicative sciences [b]. Action is now not labour but interaction with other people. This involves 'substantive rationality' — a concern with the validity or correctness of the norms and values binding on the group (as a result of consensus), which is to be distinguished from the more manipulative and instrumental rationality into which the Enlightenment ideal of reason had degenerated. The historical-communicative sciences set out to analyse the agent's self-understanding and the rules guiding communicative action through examination of texts and human behaviour. (3) Language as a prerequisite for communicative action is subject to distortion. A third 'interest' must therefore be 'emancipation', with a view to achieving a true and rational consensus by discovering the forces and hidden motivations, implicit in ideologies and power groupings, which 'distort' communication [see sec. 3]. The function of the critical sciences can be seen in both Habermas's critique of ideology and his appeal to psychoanalysis. With respect to the former he criticizes in particular Marx for (1) describing historical change as a function of the forces of production, and (2) for singling out labour as the basic category and motivating force in the evolution of society. Marx, he says, has ignored the role of language and social interaction between people [c]. His aim therefore is to 'reconstruct' the presuppositions of communication and to understand the validity claims of utterances (comprehensibility, truth, intentional truthfulness, appropriateness in a normative context) in the context of of language conceived as a unity as opposed to a fragmented, pluralistic view of language divorced from cultural tradition. In the event of dispute these claims can be examined at the 'meta-communicative' levels of theoretical and practical discourse. At the theoretical level the requirements for achieving a rational consensus can be identified; while at the practical level of discourse the concern is with interests which can be 'universalized'. This forms the basis of his theory of 'communicative ethics' [d]. As for psychoanalysis, the significance for Habermas lies in the duality of its methodology. On one level, in seeking to identify and explain 'distortions' originating in the unconscious it utilizes methods akin to those employed in the emprical-analytic sciences. Yet if the therapist is to assist the patient to understand and eliminate, say, neurotic symptoms, a degree of understanding or 'interpretation' is required in so far as the symptoms originate in repressions which are as it were 'hidden' causes, distinguishable from the observable causes which constitute the basic data of nomological theorists. Psychoanalysis is thus paradigmatic for the critical social sciences. The investigator must employ the methods of the natural sciences to discover the causes of linguistic and social 'distortions', and yet must engage in interpretation with a view to an emancipatory resolution. In this way Habermas makes his contribution to the ongoing debate concerning the relationship between explanation and understanding [see especially On the Logic of the Social Sciences] [e].

[3] Habermas examines his own ideas critically and develops them further, utilizing the insights of analytic philosophy [see Theory of Communicative Action]. He is now concerned especially with the epistemological problem of how human knowledge relates both to external nature and 'inner' human nature; with the problem of assessing the respective claims to validity of the three different methods of enquiry; and with the view that human action is an area for study sui generis, requiring specifically hermeneutic understanding on the part of the investigator.

Both communicative (symbolic) action and purposive rational action (labour) are exercised in a social context — respectively in 'institutions' which in effect determine the standards or norms for interaction and in those systems of production and coordination through which materials are transformed by labour in accordance with what are perceived as 'appropriate' rules. Those processes in society which make both these kinds of action possible Habermas calls 'rationalization'. In both types of action — relating to 'external' and 'internal' nature — the norms or rules are articulated through language. In communicative action in our daily lives we use language to exchange information about the world and our experiences. We engage in discourse when we put forward arguments to justify validity claims. Habermas identifies four such cases: (1) expressions must be comprehensive; (2) propositional content must be true; (3) the speaker has to express his intentions truthfully; and (4) the utterances the user selects have to be right, that is, correct in the context of existing norms and values. These claims, Habermas says, are essential to the fundamental ideals of truth, freedom, and justice — a grasp of which he sees as presuppositions of 'communicative competence' [a]. What account is to be given of these fundamental regulative norms? He argues that they are consensual in the sense that they define what people expect of each other's behaviour and presupose the intersubjectively agreed validity claims involved in ordinary linguistic (symbolic) communication. Truth, for Habermas, belongs to statements not utterances, and to say that a statement is true is to make a validity claim utilizing constative speech-acts, not to appeal to some sort of correspondence to an 'objective' or 'transcendental' fact. Truth, he says, "means the promise to attain a rational consensus" [Theory of Truth]. Similarly, he rejects the views (a) that normative ideals are true or false in some absolute 'objective' sense, or (b) that they cannot be validated at all, are to be understood as expressions of feelings, are 'prescriptive', and so on [b]. It follows that rationalization of communicative action depends on the sincerity of the agent's intentions (as expressed in action) and also on the actual validity of the claims. Given this, communicative action can facilitate both self-formation (development of psychological identity) and social integration.

As the unavoidable "reciprocal presuppositions of discourse" Habermas postulates the "ideal speech situation". This is characterized by two factors: (1) the absence of external constraints so that all participants in a dialogue have the same opportunity to apply speech-acts; (2) the obtaining of conditions in which rational motivation is allowed to determine the conclusions of discourse [c]. The ideal speech situation will then facilitate the individual's freedom in action and discourse, allow for revision or replacement of linguistic systems and the theoretical reformulation of the key concepts truth, freedom, and justice. By contrast, communication can be systematically distorted. This is exhibited in a variety of ways. An individual may follow rules which deviate from standard conventional models of usage; or may engage in inflexible and repetitious patterns of behaviour. There may also be different levels of communication — revealed, as we have seen, through psychoanalysis — between our public persona or ego and our repressed unconscious, or between our inner undisclosed motivation and our intuitions which can be identified and expressed through language. And of course there is the systematic distortion of communication in ideologies as a result of the deliberate deception perpetrated by those exercising power through propaganda, social control, and so on, which hides the mechanisms of repression and rejects or disregards validity claims. As for purposive-rational action, we do not acquire norms or rules through social interaction but through a learning process. Rationalization is effected under two aspects or practices: instrumental action, which appeals to a successful application of empirical knowledge in accordance with technical rules, and rational choice, which appeals to rules of strategy. Rationalization in the latter case would thus seem to presuppose the validity claims implicit in ordinary linguistic communication.

[4] In later writings [for example, Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action and The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity) Habermas attempts a more thorough working out of the connections between our knowledge-constitutive interests and theoretical and practical discourse so that multiple translations can be effected between the two realms of linguistic assertions and action-related experience respectively [a]. In this way purposive-rational action (to which the empirical sciences apply) can be related to statements about natural events and things, and communicative action (the concern of the hermeneutical sciences) can be related to statements about persons and their utterances; while as a result of a process of abstraction everyday experience can both ground statements about scientific data and provide a basis for discursive argument. [Habermas traces the development of the relationship between theory and praxis in his Theory and Practice.]

In general we can say there are three main conclusions Habermas comes to. (1) It is possible to transcend the constraints imposed by traditional hermeneutics through a 'reconstruction' of the conditions and presuppositions of theoretical and practical discourse, and more specifically of communication aimed at understanding. (2) He thinks a theory of communicative ethics can be based on a 'universal pragmatics' which appeals to a rational consensus to determine and validate human needs and interests. (3) To overcome the apparent divide between theory and praxis and provide a rational basis for political action he recommends the reconstruction of a 'logic of social evolution' structured along the lines of a scientific theory of genetics.



Habermas is an eclectic philosopher who has produced an original and wide-ranging synthesis of German social philosophy, hermeneutics, aspects of analytic philosophy, and pragmatism. But, as with so many continental philosophers, his dense writing style and complex terminology do not facilitate a ready understanding of his thought. He rejects epistemological absolutism yet seeks to preserve reason as an idealized possibility in the face of cultural relativism by developing his 'critical' theory. He sees all sciences as functions of human interests. Rejecting the narrow positivist account of meaning, he advocates a 'reconstructive' critique of the sciences, which will allow for their self-reflection and verification through consequences.

Habermas's view that through, for example, psychoanalysis and liberation from ideology it will be possible to achieve a normative intersubjective consensus, leading to a universal pragmatic of communicative ethics and political action, is arguably optimistic. Having rejected both any 'substantive' notion of moral rationality (such as Kant's) and formal rules for grounding morality, he yet assumes uncritically that removal of ideological distortion will lead to such a rational consensus and thence to a universal ethic. This is questionable. Habermas claims that it is possible to develop a self-reflective methodology which will enable 'pre-judices' to be overcome and which will provide the basis for a (pragmatically) objective social science. But against this Gadamer argues that Habermas is resorting to a traditional and unattainable objectivism [a]. This debate has continued. However, more recently Habermas and Gadamer seem to have achieved some measure of reconciliation in their views of this issue.

He also regards the consequences of his instrumentalist critical theory both as part of the theory and yet as confirming it. It is debatable whether this 'pragmatic' approach is adequate to support his claim that the cultural-historical dimension is — at least partially — transcended. What criterion of success is offered?



Habermas: [of many works] Theorie und Praxis (1963) (Theory and Practice, trans. J. Viertel); Erkenntnis und Interesse (1968) (Knowledge and Human Interests, trans. J. J. Shapiro); Zur Logik der Sozialwissenschaften (1971) (On the Logic of the Social Sciences, trans. S. W. Nicholsen & J. A. Stark); Theorie des kommunikativen Handelns, 2 vols (1981) (The Theory of Communicative Action, trans. T. McCarthy); Moralbewufltsein und kommunikativen Handelns (1983) ([Moral]Consciousness and Communicative Action, trans. C. Lenhart & S. W. Nicholsen) (his essay 'Philosophie als Platzhalter und Interpret', which is in this volume, is reprinted as 'Philosophy as Stand-In and Interpreter' in After Philosophy, eds K. Baynes et al.); Der Philosophische Diskurs der Moderne (1985) (The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity, trans. F. G. Lawrence). (An excellent anthology of Habermas's works is The Habermas Reader, ed. W. Outhwaite.



J. G. Finlayson, Habermas: A Very Short Introduction.


E. O. Eriksen and J. Wiegard, Understanding Habermas: Communicative Action and Deliberative Democracy

[concerned particularly with Habermas's later work].

D. Ingram, Habermas and the Dialectic of Reason.

T. McCarthy, The Critical Theory of Jürgen Habermas [relating to Habermas's early work].

W. Outhwaite, Habermas: A Critical Introduction.

J. Thompson, Critical Hermeneutics: A Study in the Thought of P. Ricoeur and J. Habermas.

Collection of essays

S. White (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Habermas.






Note: Through the founding philosophers of the Frankfurt School a major influence on Habermas was the sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920) — particular with reference to his concept of the 'substantive' rationalization of society.


[1a] Reason and interpretation constrained by culture/ history but can be transcended; philosophy has mediating role as 'guardian of reason'






  Human 'knowledge interests':    
[2a] (i) technical-empirical/ analytic natural sciences to gain control over nature but in context of purposive-rational action (= labour)





[1b 2a]

[1c 2a]



[2b] (ii) historical-hermeneutic (cultural) sciences — interest practical, concerned with communicative action (not reducible to instrumental action)



[2a 3a]


[2c; cf. 2e] (iii) 'critical sciences' — interest as emancipation, to overcome distortion; critique of Marxism — historical change in terms of forces of production, labour as basic category (ignores language and social interaction)


   [psychoanalysis, e.g.,

   Freud: cf. Ricoeur]

[2b d]




[2d 3a] Language as prerequisite for 'communicative ethics'; non-pluralisitc view of language in context of cultural tradition; 'rationalization' as making possible communicative and purposive-rational action; communicative competence requires validation of regulative norms (truth, freedom, justice) articulated in language





[1d 2a]

[10h i]


[2e] Explanation versus understanding — methods of psychoanalysis as paradigmatic




[3a CSa]

[2b d 3a]



[3b] Truth (of statements) and norms in terms of rational consensuality; utilization of constative speech-acts









[1d 1e]

[10h i]

[2b d]

[1c e]




[3c] Aim is elimination of distortion and achievement of 'ideal speech situation Gadamer [CSa]


[4a] Relationship between theory and 'praxis'



   [representative of


[sec. 20]







[CSa] Debate with Gadamer concerning assumptions and feasability of hermeneutics & communicative rationality, and tradition




[3a 10i]