Jurgen Habermas

Major works:



Key figures:


Knowledge and Human interests, Philosophical discourse of modernity, Theory of communicative action

Communicative action, instrumental reason, life-world, ideal-speech situation, validity claims, communication theory, legitimation

Kant, Fichte, Horkheimer/ Adorno, Mead,

Frankfurt School, social democrat.

Habermas is interested in a critique of positivism, a concern shared by critical theory and critical realism. According to Martin Jay (Marxism & Totality 1985), Habermas considers his project as a reinvention of Marxist holism aiming to work with the insights of critical theory but taking them out of their malaise and reworks a new formulation that captures synthetically the whole of human reality.

In post-war Germany socialism was identified with Stalinism so only with the emergence of the New Left in the 1960s was Habermas able to develop a more positive stance (Toward a Rational Society: Student Protest, Science and Politics 1970) Here socialism ought not to view itself as an idea opposed to actuality, but a critique grounded in reality. Habermas's doctoral dissertation was on Schelling. He fell out with Heideggerian ideas in the 50s dismayed that they could be republished without any mention of the war. The publication of the Dialectic of Enlightenment had a massive impact, like on so many other students of that age.

Habermas rejects the labour theory of Value (which he sees as implicitly accepted by Frankfurt School)- see Knowledge and Human interests. Argument = Marx is a positivist in sense that labour as constitutive activity is read as natural history. Critique of instrumental action, favouring communicative action. The point here is that Marx uncritically replaces labour or production for the category of reflection in Hegel's phenomenology. Hence the self-actualisation of the species, and the natural laws of its development (the positivist overtones in Marx's prefaces to Capital etc), excludes other aspects of the human condition. But this represents more than an attack on the productivism of Marx and more than saying there is more to life than work.

N.B. Interesting use in the knowledge and human interests article of the Grundrisse. This is interesting, the year 1968, when Negri and the productivist language of the social workers were talking about the new form of the mode of production, that they directly experienced � Habermas is debating the positivism of Marx. These two things are clearly connected. It would be interesting to draw a comparison between Habermas and Negri. This might entail:

a) The autonomy of the political. (Is Habermas a liberal? Darrow Schecter in Sovereign States or Political communities would argue that he is?)

b) Modernity/Postmodernity debate � Modernity, for Habermas the modern day enlightenment figure is an unfinished project. For Negri postmodernity is coincident and directly related to the political crisis of modernity. (see Politics of Subversion)

c) The critique of instrumental action. Negri seems to respond positively to the idea of communicative action, but he sees this as an aspect of postmodernism (EE notes on Negri and postmodernism). But Negri�s expressivist ontology and workerism might seem as evidence to Habermas of positivist residue of Marx.

 �With his positivist demand for a natural science of the social, Comte merely needed to take Marx, or at least the intention that Marx believed himself to be pursuing, at his word. Positivism turned its back to the theory of knowledge, whose philosophical self-liquidation had been carried on by Hegel and Marx, who were of one mind in this regard. In so doing, positivism regressed behind the level of reflection once attained by Kant. In continuity with pre-critical traditions, however, it successfully set about the task, which epistemology had abandoned and from which Hegel and Marx believed themselves exempted, of elaborating a methodology of the sciences.� (Knowledge and human interests)

Habermas has this irritating manner of debate, which in the line of the Philosophical discourse of modernity always goes, Marx should have said this etc. It is all about a path that could have been taken but wasn�t because the particular individuals could not live up to the retrospective expectation imposed by Habermas. The stuff on positivism is a slur on sophisticated dialectical reason trapped in a world whose acceptance of epistemological reason was restricted by their need to reinforce political power. How peculiar is must have been for Marx to be forced to promote science when the common understanding of it was of a technique of domination, or a spectral quality of productive power apparently inhering in capital. This is not Bourgeois consciousness, it is less Romantic anguish, it is absolutely a question of political consciousness assimilated and acted back upon with a calculated response. The idea of Habermas that there could have been another path taken, is to fall foul of the historicity of science, and its sociality � (would be interesting to look at Popper again on the socially? objective world of concepts.)

�However, the ironic circumstances that Marx should still offer us the quotation that most aptly describes the situation in which capital scrambles into markets corroded by state socialism, in search of investment oppurtunities, is just as thought- provoking as the fact that Marx�s doubts have themselves been incorporated into the structures of the most advanced capitalist societies [i.e. welfare state]� Habermas pp 10 NLR 183

On Totality

Jay (1985) Bourgeois constitutional State is historical achievement and the Bourgeois public sphere serves as a model for a normative basis of totality (466-467). Early work of Habermas clearly indebted to Lukacsian totality which understands the Hegelian idea at the root of Marx, "Habermas was clearly endorsing an essentially expressive view of totality as the objectification of a meta-subject." However this is qualified, it appears that Habermas echoing Merleau-Ponty and Josef Revai's critique of Lukacs (huh? Check these). The subject is not there from the beginning of history, but as the proletariat appears as a later development. Thus the expressive totality is a kind of fiction or myth to be realised as truth.

Theory of communicative action

Again partly devised as a response to positivism in Marx, the idea of iron laws of development that precluded determinative action and behalf of the agents involved, the theory of communicative action aims at a way of explaining actions meanings and intentions that can incorporate the �reflexivity� of the agents involved.. This involves an ideal speech situation: most statements and propositions contain validity claims; not necessarily explicitly geared to the truth, the claims can be evaluated through critical discourse, assuming each participant has an equal access to resources to test that validity claim.According to Habermas knowledge can take three diffenet forms. The first involves interchanges with nature, generically termed �labour� by Habermas. The second is �symbolic interaction� which represents communication between individuals. The third involves domination and power and is connected to emanicaption and autonomy of action. (See Giddens in Skinner ed. The return of Grand theory to the human sciences p. 127)

Explicit reference to truth in propositions is normally the result of interaction and contention when one calim is contested by another. Hence truth is a discursive entity, the result of critical discussion.

Other concerns

Denigration of politics away from competing value claims to technocracy. Politics becomes the art of administering policies etc for the functioning of capitalism. Hence government typically experiences crises of legitimacy (legitimation (sic)), new social movements etc question the right and power of technocratic government to order their lives.

Evolutionist view of modernisation, developing technological and scientific basis to productive forces, drawn from Piaget (who viewed child development), but also connected to Weber.


On this site

On other sites


Toward a Rational Society: Student Protest, Science and Politics (1970)

Postmetaphysical thinking (1988)

Philosophical discourse of modernity

Legitimation Crisis Theory of communicative action 

The Idea of the Theory of Knowledge as Social Theory from Knowledge and Human Interests by J�rgen Habermas (1968) 

Loads of Habermas texts (a lot in German) @

Habermas on Simmel

Some stuff on Habermas and Public Sphere in context of mass media

Dear Habermas