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Jürgen Habermas (born 1929)


Jürgen Habermas was born in Dusseldorf, Western Germany, the son of a successful business-man. After studying at the universities of Gottingen and Zurich, he was awarded a doctorate in philosophy in 1954 from the University of Bonn. In 1956 he transferred to the Institute for Social Research at the University of Frankfurt, best known for the development of “critical theory” derived from Karl Marx’s ideas (for analysis in the context of International Relations, see pages 319–321, Chapter 16). At Frankfurt he worked closely with Theodor Adorno, whose work concentrated on the role of culture in sustaining capitalist societies. Although Habermas held other appointments, Frankfurt would be his main base until his retirement in 1993; for the last ten years of his teaching career, he was Director of the Institute of Social Research. After leaving the Institute Habermas continued to contribute to public discussion, notably through interviews.


Habermas is best known for his theory of “communicative action,” expounded in a 1981 book of that name. Rather than Marx, it could be argued that the main influence for Habermas’s thought is Max Weber, with extra ingredients taken from Hegel and others. His main objective is to criticize not the capitalist system as such, but rather to oppose the operations of what Weber denounced as the “iron cage” of rationality. On this view, in advanced capitalist systems like West Germany, the bureaucratic discourse of “efficiency” was stifling genuine democratic debate.

Like the great liberal thinkers such as John Stuart Mill, Habermas pinned his faith on the liberating potential of public discourse. The fulcrum of his work is the rational individual, capable of participating in what he described as an “ideal speech situation.” In this scenario, debate on public issues is conducted by eloquent people who meet as equals, regardless of their social status or nationality. These ideas have helped to inspire the concept of “deliberative democracy” (see pages 70–71, Chapter 3), which urges that political decisions should not be made until the issues have been fully debated by ordinary citizens as well as professional politicians. Habermas’s work even opens the possibility of a worldwide community of active citizenship—an outcome that was given added plausibility by the development of the Internet after the appearance of his most famous book. Thus he has also been an inspirational figure for those who hold “cosmopolitan democracy” as their ideal (see page 399–400, Chapter 19).

In its assertion of the potential power of impartial debate, Habermas’s argument is vulnerable to the Marxist charge that economic inequalities associated with the capitalist system will always prevent the emergence of an “ideal speech situation.” Like John Rawls he implies that a liberal order could be made to live up to its ideals through the unassisted ability of reasonable people to reach a consensus that embodies a form of truth. Habermas’s (qualified) acceptance of modernity and the values of the eighteenth century “Enlightenment” also led to disputes with postmodernists, especially Jacques Derrida.

After the downfall of Communism in Eastern Europe, though, Habermas’s ideas seemed to have been vindicated by events. Above all, Habermas can be seen as a staunch believer in the importance of civil society (see Chapter 12), and the revolutions that displaced entrenched totalitarian regimes mostly originated in that arena. Since the early 1990s, however, initial optimism about a morally and rationally defensible world order has been eroded; and in the West political apathy has become widespread, especially in the case of the European Union (EU) which Habermas saw as a potential starting-point for cosmopolitan democracy. In his 1975 book Legitimation Crisis, Habermas had identified such problems as a feature of advanced capitalist societies. Some of these difficulties—like the tendency of political parties to make grandiose and unrealizable promises to the electorate, and constant attempts to manipulate the public through advertising—suggest that democratic institutions have an inherent tendency to alienate the most intelligent citizens. Yet these are the very people whose constructive contributions would be essential to the creation of an “ideal speech situation.” Habermas’s work implies that democracy in its current, unsatisfactory form can be transcended by the exercise of reason, rather than being overthrown by the violent revolution envisaged by Marx. A charitable view would be that Habermas performed a necessary service to intellectual life by speaking out on behalf of Enlightenment values at a time when they were under attack from more than one flank, even if his work was likely to appeal most strongly to middle-class intellectuals rather than policy-makers or voters.

Next: Georg W.F. Hegel