Isnin, September 27, 2010

Jurgen Habermas: The Outspoken Public Intellectual

The most important intellectual in the Federal Republic of Germany for the past three decades, Jurgen Habermas has been a seminal contributor to fields ranging from sociology and political science to philosophy and cultural studies. Although he has stood at the centre of concern in his native land, he has been less readily accepted outside Germany, particularly in the humanities.

His theoretical work postulates the centrality of communication and understanding, and as such his strategy of debate is marked by a politically informed unity of theory and practice.

Habermas is famous as an outspoken, public intellectual. Most notably, in the 1980s, he used the popular press to attack historians Ernst Nolte and Andreas Hillgruber, who, arguably, had tried to demarcate Nazi rule and the Holocaust from the mainstream of German history, explaining away Nazism as a reaction to Bolshevism, and partially rehabilitating the reputation of the “Wehrmacht” (German Army) during World War II.

This so-called “Historikerstreit” (Historians’ Quarrel) was not at all one-sided, because Habermas was himself attacked by scholars including Joachim Fest and Klaus Hildebrand. Habermas has continued to be outspoken, as in his opposition to the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Jurgen Habermas wrote extensively on the concept of the “public sphere”, using accounts of dialogue that took place in coffee houses in 18th century England. He distinguished between looking at the public sphere as a concept and as a historical formation.

In his view, the idea of the public sphere involved the notion that private entities would draw together as a public entity and engage in rational deliberation, ultimately making decisions that would influence the state. As a historical formation, the public sphere involved a “space” separated from family life, the business world, and the state.

Habermas argued that it was this public sphere of rational debate on matters of political importance, made possible by the development of the bourgeois culture centered around coffeehouses, intellectual and literary salons, and the print media that helped to make parliamentary democracy possible, and which promoted Enlightenment ideals of equality, human rights, and justice.

The public sphere was guided by a norm of rational argumentation and critical discussion, in which the strength of one’s argument was more important than one’s identity.

Habermas described this sphere in terms of both the actual infrastructure that supported it, and the norms and practices that helped the critical political discourse flourish. He distinguished between looking at the public sphere as a concept and as a historical formation.

In his view, the idea of the public sphere involved the notion that private entities would draw together as a public entity and engage in rational deliberation, ultimately making decisions that would influence the state. As a historical formation, the public sphere involved a “space” separated from family life, the business world, and the state.

According to Habermas, a variety of factors resulted in the eventual decay of the bourgeois public sphere of the Enlightenment. Most importantly, structural forces, particularly the growth of a commercial mass media, resulted in a situation in which the media became more of a commodity - something to be consumed - rather than a tool for public discourse.

In his magnum opus, “Theory of Communicative Action” (1985), 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 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 the input of its citizens. As a result, boundaries between public and private, the individual and society, the system and the life-world deteriorate.

Democratic public life only thrives where institutions enable citizens to debate matters of public importance. He described the “ideal speech situation,” where actors are equally endowed with the capacities of discourse, recognize each other’s basic social equality, and in which their speech is completely undistorted by ideology or misrecognition. Habermas promotes the human ability for “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.”

Habermas, however, remained optimistic about the possibility of the revival of the public sphere. He sees hope for the future in the new era of political community that transcends the national state, based on ethnic and cultural likeness, into one based on the equal rights and obligations of legally vested citizens.

This discoursive 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.

Criticisms of Habermas’ notion regarding the public sphere have been expressed by several noted academics. John Thompson, sociology professor at the University of Cambridge, pointed out that Habermas’ notion of the public sphere is antiquated due to the proliferation of mass media communications.

Michael Schudson, from the University of California in San Diego, argued more generally that a public sphere as a place of purely rational independent debate never existed.

In “The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere”, Habermas showed how modern European salons, cafes, and literary groups contain the resources for democratizing the public sphere. In his 1965 inaugural lecture at Frankfurt University, “Erkenntnis und Interesse” (1965; Knowledge and Human Interests), and in the book of the same title published three years later, Habermas set forth the foundations of a normative version of critical social theory, the Marxist social theory developed by Horkheimer, Adorno, and other members of the Frankfurt Institute from the 1920s onward.

He did this on the basis of a general theory of human interests, according to which different areas of human knowledge and inquiry – such as the physical, biological, and social sciences - are expressions of distinct, but equally basic, human interests.

Habermas was criticized by both the postmodern left and the neo-conservative right for his trust in the power of rational discussion to resolve major domestic and international conflicts. While some critics found his normative critical theory - as applied to areas such as education, morality, and law - to be dangerously Eurocentric, others decried its utopian, radically democratic, or left-liberal character.

He was criticized by Marxists and by feminist and race theorists for abandoning socialism or for allegedly giving up on vigorous criticism of social injustice and oppression.

For some representatives of anti-globalization social movements, even Habermas’s left-leaning political liberalism and deliberative democratic reformism were inadequate to address the cultural, political, and economic distortions evident in existing democratic institutions.

Habermas responded to critics at both ends of the political spectrum by developing a more robust communicative theory of democracy, law, and constitutions in “Faktizität und Geltung” (1992; Between Facts and Norms), “Die Einbeziehung des Anderen” (1996; The Inclusion of the Other), and “Die postnationale Konstellation” (1998; The Post-national Constitution). In “Zeit der Ubergänge” (2001; Time of Transitions), he offered global democratic alternatives to wars that employ terrorism as well as to the “war on terrorism.”

Shortly after the publication of Habermas’ ‘theory of communicative action’, a debate on postmodernism emerged in western social theory. The debate was instigated by Derrida, Baudrillard and Lyotard on the tradition of the modern and calls for breaks within this tradition.

For Lyotard, Habermas’ project of modernity has become obsolete and society had entered the ‘postmodern condition’. Lyotard claims modernity could not think itself or get hold of itself intellectually, without distancing itself historically from its own achieved implementations.

For Lyotard: ‘My argument is that the modern project [of realising universality] has not been abandoned or forgotten but destroyed, liquidated’. Further, Lyotard is scathing in his critique of how Habermas will:

‘… use the term ‘modern’ to designate any science that legitimates itself with reference to a metadiscourse making an explicit appeal to some grand narrative, such as the dialectics of the Spirit, the hermeneutics of meaning, the emancipation of the rational’.

The very concept of ‘postmodernism’ is defined by Lyotard as ‘incredulous towards metanarratives’ and asks ‘where after the metanarratives can legitimacy reside’. For Lyotard, what Habermas is offering is one more metanarrative of ‘communicative action’ which is, once again a generalist and abstract narrative of emancipation, now hopelessly outdated, he believes.

Lyotard is against all the language games of metaphysics and philosophy of science. Lyotard calls for an ‘irreducible plurality’ of language games each with its own ‘local’ rules, legitimations and practices.

Postmodernism offers to move beyond Habermas’ modernist narratives and has rapidly gained currency throughout social and human science disciplines into the 21st century. There are several themes that are shared in postmodern analysis, which consolidate Lyotard’s interpretation.

First, there is distrust in the concept of absolute and objective truth. ‘Truth’ is viewed as contextual, situational, and conditional. Second, emphasis is placed on fragmentation rather than universalism, again pushing away from the general and toward the particular. Third, local power is preferred over the centralized power of the nation state, and de centralization, or the process of democratization of power, is a pervasive theme of postmodern narratives. Fourth, reality is simulated but is otherwise not held to be a very meaningful concept; reality conceived as a general and universal truth is profoundly doubted. Fifth, we are seeing the rise and consolidation of consumer culture that tends to put ‘power’ in the hands of the consumers, but can also equally manipulate consumers through marketing ploys and interpolating discourses of consumer freedom by dictating costs in global marketplace. Finally, diversity and difference is emphasized and valued above commonality based on homogeneity.

Postmodern analysis of culture is no longer a fringe perspective inasmuch as it apparently promotes strategies of individualism and diversity and postmodernism is critical of strategies that devalue individuals because of any characteristic that would control access to knowledge, and could thereby assault identity. In ethics, as in epistemology, the final result is a kind of relativism.

The wide reception of postmodernist themes has infuriated as many scholars as it has intoxicated. It is no surprise to see Habermas’ reaction in particular as very antagonistic to postmodernism. For him, individuals face a fundamental strategic choice posed in stark terms: ‘hold fast to the intentions of the Enlightenment or give up the project of modernity as lost’.

Habermas defends the ‘project of modernity’ from the theoretical schisms of Lyotardian postmodernism which, in Habermas’ view, has failed to recognize:
‘a modernity at variance with itself of its rational content and its perspective on the future’.

Habermas in ‘Philosophical Discourses of Modernity’ recognised that theories of postmodernism had their roots in irrational precursory influences such as Heidegger and Nietzsche. Habermas contends that modernity ‘rebels’ against tradition and has valorised highly charged aesthetic experiences of novelty, dynamism, singularity and intense presence.

With increased innovation in technology and science, modernity has itself eroded any strong sense of foundationalism and ontological security for both society and the self.

Further, Habermas claims that the project of modernity was ‘unfinished’ and contained unrealised capacity for emancipatory potential. Such potential draws on the specialization of culture for the enrichment of daily life and simultaneously the rational organisation of everyday life and experience. The two need not be opposed.

The project of modernity has undiminished potential to increase social rationality, justice and morality. But this potential can be realised only by cognitive progression and support for the moral boundaries of rationality, which remains the task of philosophy and social theory.

It is crucial to note that the central tenets of the ‘project of modernity’ including rationality and progress for which Habermas attempts to formalise as practical achievements, should be put into a dark context. As the predecessors at Frankfurt school in 1949 saw, Adorno and Horkheimer and Zygmunt Bauman powerfully narrates, the Holocaust provides a devastating critique of enlightenment legacy and thought and highlights the slipping into a barbarism of Nietzchean nightmares.

For example, on one level, Hitler’s regime in Germany merely refined and perfected 19th century techniques of social discipline.

But, on yet another level, Hitler’s regime was a deliberate throwback to an archaic ‘society of blood’, a society of savagery and a society with a lust for domination, control and power; a society which raises further questions to the enlightenment project. Coupled with this, there have been periodic episodes of inhumanity which have ranged from genocide in Rwanda in the 1970s onwards, mass genocide and ‘ethnic cleansing’ in former states of Yugoslavia in Kosova in 1999 as one stark example.

The most spectacular recent example was the terrorist attacks on ‘twin towers’ in New York and subsequent ‘war’ in Afghanistan. It is very difficult to implement Habermas’ universalized narratives of communicative action, with so many differences between states, cultures and ideologies.

It seems it is very difficult to provide a modern solution to a postmodern problem: for example, diversity of fundamentalist beliefs and consequent actions (postmodern), communicative action is very brittle in overcoming instabilities of such beliefs (Habermas’ modernism).

From Habermas’ point of view, the defence of the enlightenment is nonetheless qualified. He castigates in sweeping terms the ‘young conservatives’ whom he accuses of setting up ‘false programs of the negation of culture’ which fail to realise any positive contribution to the project of modernity. But he remains fully aware of the precarious condition of the enlightenment heritage in the contemporary world.

In conclusion, Habermas’ work is a concern with rethinking the tradition of critical theory and German social philosophy. Rationality, freedom and justice are not just theoretical issues to be explored and debated, but for Habermas, they are practical tasks that demand commitment and achievement. Habermas’ entire work seems to defend and continue the enlightenment project against the challenge of postmodernism (Lyotard).


David Held Introduction to Critical Theory: Horkheimer to Habermas (Berkeley University of California Press 1980)

David R. Rasmussen, Reading Habermas (Cambridge MA Basil Blackwell 1990)

Douglas Kellner, Critical Theory and the Crisis of Social Theory from Illuminations, accessed on 29 September 2009, available at

Douglas Kellner, Media Culture: Cultural studies, identity and politics between the modern and the postmodern (London and New York Routledge 1995)

Lord Lloyd of Hampstead, Introduction to Jurisprudence (Stevens & Sons London 1972)

J.M. Bernstein, Recovering Ethical Life: Jürgen Habermas and the Future of Critical

Theory (New York Routledge 1995)James Farganis, Readings in Social Theory: The

Classic Tradition to Post-Modernism (New York McGraw-Hill 1996)

Jane Braaten, Habermas’s Critical Theory of Society (Albany State University of New York Press 1991)

J.G. Riddall, Jurisprudence (Butterworths London 1999)

Jurgen Habermas, Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action (Cambridge Massachusetts MIT Press 1991)

Peter Mandaville, Global Political Islam (Routledge New York 2007)

Prof. Dr. Shad Saleem Faruqi’s Lecture Note on Jurisprudence

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