Habermas, Jürgen

Habermas, Jürgen

(yûr`gən hä`bûrmäs), 1929–, German philosopher. He is a professor at the Univ. of Frankfurt (emeritus since 1994) and is the best-known contemporary proponent of critical theory, which is a social theory with Marxist roots developed in the 1930s by the Frankfurt SchoolFrankfurt School,
a group of researchers associated with the Institut für Sozialforschung (Institute of Social Research), founded in 1923 as an autonomous division of the Univ. of Frankfurt.
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. In the spirit of his Frankfurt School predecessors, Habermas has criticized modern industrial societies for excessive emphasis on instrumental action, i.e., on doing whatever is necessary to attain given ends. This emphasis, he argues, has prevented them from appreciating the importance of communicative action, which is understanding and coming to agreement with others. Habermas has also constructed a theory of "discourse ethics" according to which moral judgments would have validity if agreed to by agents in an ideal speech situation. His works include Knowledge and Human Interests (1968, tr. 1971), Theory of Communicative Action (2 vol. 1981, tr. 1981–84), and Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action (1983, tr. 1989).


See M. G. Specter, Habermas: An Intellectual Biography (2010); D. Rasmussen, Reading Habermas (1990); G. Finlayson, Habermas: A Very Short Introduction (2005); D. Ingram, Habermas: Introduction and Analysis (2010).

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Habermas, Jürgen

(1929-) German social theorist and leading living exponent of a style of radical social theorizing originating with the FRANKFURT SCHOOL OF CRITICAL THEORY. The range of Habermas's theorizing is extraordinary. He deals with most of the broad themes developed by earlier critical theorists, including epistemological questions and debate about the fundamental dynamics of advanced capitalist societies. In addition, he has sought to achieve a thoroughgoing synthesis of developments in social science and philosophy – including analytical philosophy, the philosophy of science, linguistics, political science and systems theory – that are of relevance in exploring the basis for a rational reconstruction of society on socialist lines. With the starting point of a critique of the ‘scientization of politics’, Habermas has endeavoured to re-establish social scientific and political debate as an arena of ‘open discourse’. Whereas historically, reason and science had been directed against ignorance and oppression, in Habermas’ view in modern societies science and technical rationality now often function as ideologies, preventing the raising of fundamental questions about human ends. In Knowledge and Human Interests (1972, German original 1968), Habermas seeks to identify the proper spheres of three forms of scientific knowledge:
  1. ‘empirical-analytical ’ enquiry, concerned with establishing causal relations and grounded, above all, in an interest in controlling nature;
  2. ‘hermeneutic enquiry, based on MEANINGFUL UNDERSTANDING and arising from the human need for mutual communication;
  3. ‘critical’ and ‘emancipatory’ forms of knowledge, seen as transcending the limits of the other two.

The terms in which Habermas elucidates the character of the third form of knowledge, (c), involve the formulation of a ‘universal pragmatics’, i.e. an account of the normative presuppositions ideally underlying all forms of human communication (Habermas, 1970a & b). All genuine attempts at communication have implicit in them claims to validity (truth, appropriateness and sincerity) (see also COMMUNICATIVE COMPETENCE). True rationality can be seen to be achieved only when this emerges from conditions which correspond to an ideal speech situation, in which all parties have equal opportunities to engage in dialogue, without undue domination by one party without restriction and without ideological distortion. This model states the conditions for a critical and truly ‘emancipatory’ social science. Even if there are difficulties in realizing the model, it establishes a bench mark in terms of which the ideological distortions involved in existing forms of social science can be gauged.

In Legitimation Crisis (1975, original German edition 1973), Habermas turned his attention to an examination of tendencies to crisis in advanced capitalist societies. He portrays these societies as characterized by continued economic and class contradictions, and by a new politicization of administrative decisions as a result of increasing state intervention made necessary by economic contradictions, as well as by the new contradictions which these political interventions introduce. A tendency to ‘legitimation crisis’ is seen as occurring under these circumstances, especially in a situation in which previous bases of legitimacy (e.g. DEFERENCE) are not being renewed and where new social orientations (e.g. new welfare professionalism) are beginning to act as ‘foreign bodies’ within capitalism, producing a more critical political culture, potentially challenging to capitalism. Habermas acknowledges that tendencies to crisis in capitalist societies might be successfully managed, and that there are no guarantees that capitalism will be replaced. Nonetheless, he insists that the presence of economic and class contradictions and distorted rationality within capitalist societies are apparent once the procedures of critical theory are brought into play

An aspect of Habermas's thinking which has perhaps been subject to most criticism is his use of SYSTEMS THEORY and evolutionary models of social development. On the former, Habermas now distinguishes between ‘system integration’ and ‘social integration’, the one concerned with material reproduction, the other a matter of cultural integration and socialization. It is the latter for which a systems analysis remains most appropriate. With regard to Habermas's use of EVOLUTIONARY THEORY a distinction is sometimes drawn between theories which emphasize ADAPTATION and Darwinian selection and those based on the notion of an ‘unfolding’ development. According to Outhwaite (1994), Habermas's use is closer to the latter, but his theorizing is ‘reconstructive’ (of the underlying developmental logic of a sequence) rather than deterministic or predictive. Evolution is then the ‘ordered sequence of structural possibilities’; the models involved are of ‘societal learning’. Actual, real historical changes are CONTINGENT, involving economic and cultural strands that are not jointly determined. For all this, a ‘reconstructed historical materialism’ is still seen by Habermas as remaining the best model of development, even if there must now be far less emphasis on ‘labour’ in any narrow sense and much more emphasis on family structures, culture, law, processes of democratization, and on the ‘abstract principles’ underlying ‘new levels of societal learning’. The ‘bearers of evolution’ are societies and active subjects. Both system evolution and cognitive development are central.

Critics have sometimes regarded Habermas's overall theory as over-abstract, containing too little detailed history, and giving too little indication of a realizable, real-world political programme. However, if these are weaknesses, rather than an old style PHILOSOPHY OF HISTORY, Habermas's theory remains, as Outhwaite states, one intended to be ‘tested in the discussive mode’. Demonstrating this, Habermas has shown a remarkable capacity to embrace the theories of others, making his the most comprehensive theoretical synthesis in contemporary sociology

Habermas's combination of critical exegesis of the work of others with an elaboration of his own systematic theory has been immensely influential. The volume and complexity of his writing means that it is impossible to indicate all its ramifications in a relatively brief compass. In addition to the works noted, other main works by Habermas (English translations) include: Theory and Practice (1974), Towards a Rational Society (1970), Communication and the Evolution of Society (1979), The Theory of Communicative Competence (2 vols., 1984 and 1988), The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (1989) and On the Logic of the Social Services (1990). Summary and evaluation of his work is provided by McCarthy (1978), R. Bernstein (1976), and W. Outhwaite (1994).

Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Habermas, Jürgen


Born June 18, 1929, in Düsseldorf. German philosopher and sociologist (Federal Republic of Germany).

From 1964, Habermas was a professor in Frankfurt am Main. In 1970 he became codirector, with C. von Weizsäcker, of the Institute on the Preconditions of Human Life in the Modern World, located in Starnberg. Habermas started out as a follower of M. Horkheimer and T. Adorno; he is the most prominent member of the “second generation” of theoreticians of the Frankfurt school.

While he was one of the ideologists of the student movement of the mid-1960’s, Habermas drew away from the student demonstrations of 1968, moving toward moderate bourgeois liberal positions. Overall, the program of studies that he instituted during the 1970’s coincides with the general direction of the Social Democratic Party of Germany—that is, with the ideology of reformism; Habermas seeks to “correct” this ideology in the spirit of enlightened early-bourgeois ideals of emancipation, equality, and a politically active literary community. Combining the Frankfurt school’s traditional critique of bourgeois culture and society with attempts to “stabilize” capitalism, Habermas places particular emphasis on the development of the “lawful” bourgeois state.

Habermas holds revisionist positions with respect to Marxism. In his view, the social structure of modern capitalism is based on “class compromise,” and he posits as major goals the “neutralization” of antagonistic contradictions through public discussion and the gradual “liquidation” of ideology. This, according to Habermas, should facilitate the establishment in society of “communications free from constraints” within the framework of a “general social consensus.” He has frequently spoken out as an opponent of positivism in the social sciences and against the technocratic point of view. The basic components of Habermas’ eclectic philosophy are L. Wittgenstein’s theory of linguistic games, the principle of “mutual recognition” underlying the Hegelian conception of morality, the hermeneutics of the German philosopher H. G. Gadamer, and the psychoanalysis of S. Freud.


Theorie und Praxis, 2nd ed. Neuwied am Rhein-Berlin, 1967.
Erkenntnis und Interesse. Frankfurt am Main, 1968.
Strukturwandel der Õffentlichkeit, 5th ed. Neuwied am Rhein-Berlin, 1971.
Technik und Wissenschaft als “Ideologie,” 5th ed. Frankfurt am Main, 1971.
Fur Logik der Sozialwissenschaften, 2nd ed. Frankfurt am Main, 1971.
Theorie der Gesellschaft oder Sozialtechnologie—was leistet die Systemforschung? Frankfurt am Main, 1971. (With N. Luhmann.)
Legitimationsprobleme im Spätkapitalismus. Frankfurt am Main. 1973.


Tavrizian. G. M. “’Aktual’nyi’ variant ’kriticheskoi teorii obshchestva’.” Voprosy filosofu, 1976, no. 3.
Die Linke antwortet J. Habermas. Frankfurt am Main, 1969.
Rohrmoser, G. Das Elend der kritischen Théorie. Freiburg im Breisgau, 1970.
Glaser, W. R. Soziales und instrumentales Handeln: Probleme derTechnologie bei Arnold Gehlen und Jürgen Habermas. Stuttgart, 1972.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.