The German philosopher and sociologist Jürgen Habermas (born 1929) challenged social science by suggesting that despite appearances to the contrary, human beings are capable of rationality and under some conditions are able to communicate with one another successfully; the barriers preventing the exercise of reason and mutual understanding can be identified, comprehended, and reduced.
Jürgen Habermas was born in Düsseldorf, Germany, on June 18, 1929. He grew up in nearby Gummersbach, where his father was director of the local seminary. He was 16 when World War II ended. At that time he experienced a sense of revulsion with the Germans' "collectively realized inhumanity, " which characterized, he believed, their lack of response to the revelations in the Nürenberg trials about the Nazi death machine. His own very different reaction, one of shock and horror, constituted what he described as "that first rupture, which still gapes."
He entered the University of Bonn in 1946. Here he began to speculate about the meaning of such concepts as reason, freedom, and justice, in part by reading such German philosophers as Hegel and Marx, as well as 20th-century Marxists, particularly the Hungarian Georg Lukács.
The Frankfurt School
Habermas obtained his Ph.D. in 1954 with a dissertation on the philosopher Friedrick von Schelling. Shortly thereafter he moved to the University of Frankfurt where, until 1959, he served as assistant to Professor Theodor Adorno, who was associated with the Institute for Social Research. The Frankfurt Institute, originally established in the 1920s, had resumed its activities there several years earlier after moving to the United States during the Nazi period. The Frankfurt School became famous as a movement of philosophical and social thought. It breached traditional boundaries that separate literary criticism, philosophy, psychoanalysis, and social science and attempted to understand critically the various elements comprising modern society. In time Habermas would become the successor to the tradition of the Frankfurt School.
Even before he came to Frankfurt, Habermas had begun publishing criticism and social commentary which ranged over a variety of areas, from analyses of Konrad Adenauer's postwar Germany to commentaries on Marx. This wide range of topics continued throughout Habermas' career. As he developed more powerful ideas, and as these ideas appeared in books rather than scattered among many periodicals, his impact became widespread. As he once commented, "There has never been any need to complain about lack of attention among the scholarly and political public."
Habermas' overall goal was to construct a social theory that could affect the emancipation of people from arbitrary social constraint. Over the course of his writing (more than 200 articles and books) he pursued this goal in a variety of ways.
During his years as an assistant to Adorno, Habermas collaborated in a survey of the political disposition of Frankfurt University students which resulted in the book Student and Politics. He returned to this subject when he analyzed the student movement of the late 1960s.
He became an important spokesperson for academic reform on the one hand and against militant student behavior on the other. In a famous address at a student congress in 1968 he accused the students of mistaking their agitation for a revolution and, in the process, of threatening democratic processes in Germany. A lively debate ensued, which was published in The Left Answers Jürgen Habermas.
Habermas' early theoretical works examined broad changes in the way Western civilization treats political ideals; in Theory and Practice (1962) he traced the change from the study of Platonic ideas of goodness and decency to the study of effective means for manipulating citizens, as exemplified by modern social science. In Strukturwandlung der öffentlichkeit (1962) he examined changes in concepts of the public and the private spheres. During this period Habermas also engaged in a comprehensive examination of the methods of the social sciences (Die Logik der Sozialwissenschaften, 1967). He considered the differences between natural science research and social science research and reviewed the methods on which historical, sociological, and linguistic work was based. This work was the first which reflected his lifelong preoccupation with the ways in which social scientists study human behavior:the application of scientific measurement to human beings contains contradictions whose implications Habermas continued to explore.
This work was followed by Knowledge and Human Interests (1981), which contains his 1965 inaugural lecture at the University of Frankfurt, where he emphasized the importance of language. "What raises us out of nature, " he stated, "is the only thing whose nature we can know:language. Through its structure autonomy and responsibility are posited for us."
The nature of contemporary society and the way it has been transformed by science and technology were of continuing concern to Habermas. In the early 1970s he examined the ideological roles science and technology play (Toward a Rational Society, 1971) and studied the social and cultural contradictions in modern societies in which the legitimacy of political systems has been increasingly challenged (Legitimation Crisis, 1973).
The Max Planck Institute
Habermas spent most of his work life as a professor in a university setting. However, between 1971 and 1983 he directed the Max Planck Institute for Social Research in Starnberg, near Munich. He assembled a group of young scholars from various disciplines—anthropology, economics, political science, developmental psychology, philosophy, sociology, and linguistics—and embarked upon an ambitious plan to comprehend the basic conditions for modern society. His theoretical perspective became even broader and began to include evolutionary anthropology and linguistic theory, as well as theories of moral development as espoused by Piaget and Kohlberg. From these diverse sources Habermas developed the broad interests that characterized his later studies, processes of what he called "communicative action" and "discourse ethics."
Habermas was often at the center of controversy. In the early 1980s, when he was still directing the Max Planck Institute, either his ideas or his politics were too controversial for the University of Munich to appoint him even as an adjunct professor. On the other hand, he received many prizes, awards, and honors, including the Hegel Prize, the Sigmund Freud Prize, the Adorno Prize, and the Geschwister Scholl Prize. He served as Theodore Heuss Professor at the New School for Social Research in New York, which also awarded him an honorary degree, as did Cambridge University. He was invited to lecture at major universities in Europe, America, and Japan from the mid-1960s on.
Although Jürgen Habermas stated in an interview in the mid-1980s that he had been interested exclusively in problems of theory construction, he in fact continued to involve himself in political questions of the day. In the late 1970s, when the German government was suspending civil liberties in an effort to stop terrorism, he feared that there were threats to democratic institutions and a possible witch hunt of left-wing intellectuals. He sent a circular letter to 50 German critics, writers, and social scientists and asked them to contribute to a book that would express the diversity of concerns about the spiritual situation of the age (Observations on "The Spiritual Situation of the Age," 1979).
In 1981 Habermas published what he called his "magnum opus, " The Theory of Communicative Action. In this book he brought together much of his previous work and developed the concept of rationality; he constructed a concept of society that integrated what he called "the lifeworld paradigm" with a system paradigm; and he elaborated a critical theory of modernity. He carried out "historical reconstructions" of a number of classic and modern writers, such as Max Weber and Emile Durkheim, as well as such 20th-century figures as Adorno and Parsons. The aim was to "excavate and overcome their weaknesses."
When Habermas left the Max Planck Institute in 1983 he returned once again to the University of Frankfurt as professor of philosophy. He was married and had three children.
It was generally agreed that the scope of Habermas' work was encyclopedic. He was called the "leading social thinker in Germany today" and was compared to Hegel and Marx.
Certainly Habermas had close intellectual ties to Marx; however, he objected to the Marxian reduction of history and culture to mere economic processes, and humanized Marxian dialectic through his introduction of his theory of knowledge and ideas which forge historic changes.
With Hegel, Habermas shared the belief in the power of reason and discourse to establish social truths; but he placed greater emphasis on the individual's ability to reason and the social group's ability to reach a consensus of opinion on values and social norms of behavior.
Since his volume Theory of Social Action, (1981), Habermas has published a second volume, The Critique of Functionalist Reason (1984.) In both volumes he sought to integrate the individual's life experience with his total social context, the "system paradigm." He also took to task the views of several historic and contemporary social thinkers, such as Max Weber, Emile Durkheim, Theodor Adorno and Talcott Parsons, pointing out weaknesses in their reasoning and conclusions.
Habermas' 1996 volume in English, Between Facts and Norms:Contributions to a Discourse Theory of Law and Democracy, was reviewed by Cass R. Sunstein in the New York Times Book Review in August, 1996.
Further Reading on Jürgen Habermas
Many of Habermas' books are available in English, through the MIT Press and Beacon Press. A number of his articles have been translated; many appear in the journal Telos. The first volume of his "magnum opus, " The Theory of Communicative Action (1981), is available in English, translated by Thomas McCarthy; the second volume was scheduled to be published in 1987. A convenient place to begin a study of Habermas is with Thomas McCarthy, The Critical Theory of Jürgen Habermas (1978, 1982). This book contains a clear exposition of his ideas, not including the ideas expressed in The Theory of Communicative Action. Also see Rick Roderick, Habermas and the Foundations of Critical Theory (1986). A lively interview with Habermas appears in the May/June 1985 issue of New Left Review. There is no biography of Habermas, but several works are devoted entirely to his ideas and give a good introduction to the wide range of his interests in philosophy and social science. See Richard J. Bernstein, editor, Habermas and Modernity (1985) and J. Thompson and David Held, Habermas:Critical Debates (1982).
More current secondary reading which explicates clearly Habermas' complex philosophy are Stephen K. White's The Cambridge Companion to Habermas, New York:Cambridge University Press, (1995); and Joanna Meehan's (editor) Feminists Reading Habermas:Gendering the Subject of Discourse. (New York:Routledge, 1995), the essays in which consider Habermas' social concepts from a feminist perspective.