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Jurgen Habermas


Jurgen Habermas (born June 18, 1929) is a German philosopher and sociologist in the tradition of critical theory and American pragmatism. He is perhaps best known for his work on the concept of the public sphere, the topic (and title) of his first book. His work focused on the foundations of social theory and epistemology, the analysis of advanced capitalistic societies and democracy, the rule of law in a critical social-evolutionary context, and contemporary politics—particularly German politics. Habermas's theoretical system is devoted to revealing the possibility of reason, emancipation, and rational-critical communication latent in modern institutions and in the human capacity to deliberate and pursue rational interests.

Habermas constructed a comprehensive framework of social theory and philosophy drawing on a number of intellectual traditions. Jurgen Habermas considered his major achievement to be the development of the concept and theory of communicative reason or communicative rationality, which distinguishes itself from the rationalist tradition by locating rationality in structures of interpersonal linguistic communication rather than in the structure of either the cosmos or the knowing subject. This social theory advances the goals of human emancipation, while maintaining an inclusive universalist moral framework. This framework rests on the argument called universal pragmatics - that all speech acts have an inherent telos (the Greek word for "end") — the goal of mutual understanding, and that human beings possess the communicative competence to bring about such understanding.

He carried forward the traditions of Kant and the Enlightenment and of democratic socialism through his emphasis on the potential for transforming the world and arriving at a more humane, just, and egalitarian society through the realization of the human potential for reason, in part through discourse ethics. While Habermas conceded that the Enlightenment is an "unfinished project," he argued it should be corrected and complemented, not discarded. In this he distanced himself from the Frankfurt School, criticizing it, as well as much of postmodernist thought, for excessive pessimism, misdirected radicalism and exaggerations.

Within sociology, Habermas's major contribution was the development of a comprehensive theory of societal evolution and modernization focusing on the difference between communicative rationality and rationalization on the one hand and strategic/instrumental rationality and rationalization on the other. His defence of modernity and civil society has been a source of inspiration to others, and is considered a major philosophical alternative to the varieties of poststructuralism. He has also offered an influential analysis of late capitalism.

Habermas saw the rationalization, humanization, and democratization of society in terms of the institutionalization of the potential for rationality that is inherent in the communicative competence that is unique to the human species. Habermas believed communicative competence has developed through the course of evolution, but in contemporary society it is often suppressed or weakened by the way in which major domains of social life, such as the market, the state, and organizations, have been given over to or taken over by strategic/instrumental rationality, so that the logic of the system supplants that of the lifeworld.



Reconstructive science

Habermas introduces the concept of “reconstructive science” with a double purpose: to place the “general theory of society” between philosophy and social science and re-establish the rift between the “great theorization” and the “empirical research”. The model of “rational reconstructions” represents the main thread of the surveys about the “structures” of the world of life (“culture”, “society” and “personality”) and their respective “functions” (cultural reproductions, social integrations and socialization). For this purpose, the dialectics between “symbolic representation” of “the structures subordinated to all worlds of life” (“internal relationships”) and the “material reproduction” of the social systems in their complex (“external relationships” between social systems and environment) has to be considered. This model finds an application, above all, in the “theory of the social evolution”, starting from the reconstruction of the necessary conditions for a phylogeny of the socio-cultural life forms (the “hominization”) until an analysis of the development of “social formations”, which Habermas subdivides into primitive, traditional, modern and contemporary formations. This paper is an attempt, primarily, to formalize the model of “reconstruction of the logic of development” of “social formations” summed up by Habermas through the differentiation between vital world and social systems (and, within them, through the “rationalization of the world of life” and the “growth in complexity of the social systems”). Secondly, it tries to offer some methodological clarifications about the “explanation of the dynamics” of “historical processes” and, in particular, about the “theoretical meaning” of the evolutional theory’s propositions. Even if the German sociologist considers that the “ex-post rational reconstructions” and “the models system/environment” cannot have a complete “historiographical application”, these certainly act as a general premise in the argumentative structure of the “historical explanation”.

The public sphere

In The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere Jurgen Habermas developed the influential concept of the public sphere, which emerged in the eighteenth century in Europe as a space of critical discussion, open to all, where private people came together to form a public whose "public reason" would work as a check on state power. Habermas argued that prior to the 18th century, European culture had been dominated by a "representational" culture, where one party sought to "represent" itself on its audience by overwhelming its subjects.  Thus, Habermas argued that Louis XIV's Palace of Versailles was meant to show the greatness of the French state and its King by overpowering the senses of visitors to the Palace.  Habermas identified "representational" culture as corresponding to the feudal stage of development according to Marxist theory, and argued that the coming of the capitalist stage of development marked the appearance of Öffentlichkeit (the public sphere). In the culture characterized by Öffentlichkeit, there occurred a public space outside of the control by the state, where individuals exchanged views and knowledge.  In Habermas's view, the growth in newspapers, journals, reading clubs, Masonic lodges, and coffee-houses in 18th century Europe all in different ways marked the gradual replacement of "representational" culture with Öffentlichkeit culture.  Habermas argued that the essential characteristic of the Öffentlichkeit culture was its "critical" nature. Unlike "representational" culture where only one party was active and the other passive, the Öffentlichkeit culture was characterized by a dialogue as individuals either met in conversation, or exchanged views via the print media.  Habermas maintained that as Britain was the most liberal country in Europe, the culture of the public sphere emerged there first around 1700, and the growth of Öffentlichkeit culture took place over most of the 18th century in Continental Europe.  In his view, the French Revolution was in large part caused by the collapse of "representational" culture, and its replacement by Öffentlichkeit culture.  Though Habermas' main concern in The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere was to expose what he regarded as the deceptive nature of free institutions in the West, his book had a major impact on the historiography of the French Revolution.

According to Habermas, a variety of factors resulted in the eventual decay of the public sphere, including the growth of a commercial mass media, which turned the critical public into a passive consumer public; and the welfare state, which merged the state with society so thoroughly that the public sphere was squeezed out. It also turned the "public sphere" into a site of self-interested contestation for the resources of the state rather than a space for the development of a public-minded rational consensus.

In his magnum opus Theory of Communicative Action, 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 a 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 input of citizens. As a result, boundaries between public and private, the individual and society, the system and the lifeworld are deteriorating. Democratic public life only thrives where institutions enable citizens to debate matters of public importance. He describes an ideal type of "ideal speech situation", where actors are equally endowed with the capacities of discourse, recognize each other's basic social equality and speech is undistorted by ideology or misrecognition. In this version of the consensus theory of truth Habermas maintains that truth is what would be agreed upon in an ideal speech situation.

Habermas was optimistic about the possibility of the revival of the public sphere. He saw hope for the future in the new era of political community that transcends the nation-state based on ethnic and cultural likeness for one based on the equal rights and obligations of legally vested citizens. This discursive 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.

Several noted academics have provided various criticisms of Habermas's notions regarding the public sphere. John B. Thompson, a Professor of Sociology at the University of Cambridge, has pointed out that Habermas's notion of the public sphere is antiquated due to the proliferation of mass-media communications. Michael Schudson from the University of California, San Diego argues more generally that a public sphere as a place of purely rational independent debate never existed.