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Jürgen Habermas is a philosopher and a prominent public intellectual in Germany. He is considered the leading representative of the second generation of the Frankfurt School, whose Critical Theory he has sought to reinvigorate in his sustained reflections on social theory. Habermas, however, diverges from his predecessors in his analysis of the emancipatory promise of the Enlightenment, whose political legacy, he maintains, remains unrealized. Drawing on the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, one of the foundational theoreticians of modernity, Habermas perceives a sublated potential in modernity. He posits the realm of communication as a counterweight to the Frankfurt School’s disillusionment with a modernity corrupted by the destructive ascendancy of instrumental reason.
In his first book, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (1962), Habermas demarcates theoretical concerns with public discourse and reason that would animate much of his later writings. This sociological and historical work examines the emergent bourgeois public sphere in Western Europe in the eighteenth century, tracing its origins as a “sphere of private people come together as a public” (1989, p. 27) and the concomitant transformations in modes of communication that it fostered as the new public deployed reason against the contemporary absolutist political order. As he chronicled the subsequent decline of the public sphere, Geoff Eley notes, Habermas was also criticizing the straitened confines of West Germany’s authoritarian postwar political culture of the 1950s and 1960s (Eley 2002, p. 292). Many scholars have engaged Habermas’s thesis, extending his analysis to other settings while also arguing for greater attention to the exclusionary mechanisms that hinder participation in the public sphere (Calhoun 1992, Gilroy 1993, Landes 1988).
Habermas’s Knowledge and Human Interests (1968) is a critique of positivism elaborated through a comparison of social theory and psychoanalysis. Knowledge and Human Interests represents an early iteration of Habermas’s theory of communication, and prefigures the linguistic turn of his magnum opus, The Theory of Communicative Action (1981). Here Habermas argues that the sphere of the everyday, or the life-world, has been progressively “colonized” by instrumental reason. Habermas asserts that the counterbalance to this process must be found in an intersubjective reciprocity arising in the sphere of language, arguing for a distinct communicative rationality in which language coordinates action among subjects as it socializes them. Habermas’s writings on political theory, such as Legitimation Crisis (1973), Between Facts and Norms (1992), or The Inclusion of the Other (1996), anchor a theory of discursive democracy in his analyses of communicative practice in the public sphere. Critics counter that Habermas’s theory of discourse is totalizing, wrongly assuming that all actors ultimately seek consensus as the outcome of their communicative interventions in the world (Lyotard 1979).
In The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity (1985), Habermas turns to the debates about postmodernism, criticizing Theodor Adorno’s negative dialectics, Michel Foucault’s genealogy, and Jacques Derrida’s deconstruction for providing insufficient grounds for breaking free from the totalizing reason their practitioners’ critique. He holds that the predicament of the transcendental subject that “philosophies of consciousness” pose can only be surpassed in the realm of intersubjectivity.
Habermas has often participated in the public sphere he analyzes in his scholarly writings. He was a leading spokesman for the student movement of the 1960s, and in the 1980s, he intervened in the Historians’ Debate against the attempts of revisionist West German historians to lay the Nazi past to rest. More recently, Habermas has weighed in on issues of European identity and integration.
- Habermas, Jürgen. 1962. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society. Trans. Thomas Burger and Frederick Lawrence. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1989.
- Habermas, Jürgen. 1968. Knowledge and Human Interests. Trans. Jeremy J. Shapiro. Boston: Beacon Press, 1971.
- Habermas, Jürgen. 1973. Legitimation Crisis. Trans. Thomas McCarthy. Boston: Beacon Press, 1975.
- Habermas, Jürgen. 1981. The Theory of Communicative Action. 2 vols. Trans. Thomas McCarthy. Boston: Beacon Press, 1984.
- Habermas, Jürgen. 1985. The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity: Twelve Lectures. Trans. Frederick G. Lawrence. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1987.
- Habermas, Jürgen. 1992. Between Facts and Norms: Contributions to a Discourse Theory of Law and Democracy. Trans. William Rehg. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996.
- Habermas, Jürgen. 1996. The Inclusion of the Other: Studies in Political Theory. Ed. Ciaran Cronin and Pablo De Greiff. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1998.
- Calhoun, Craig, ed. 1992. Habermas and the Public Sphere. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
- Eley, Geoff. 2002. “Politics, Culture, and the Public Sphere: Toward a Postmodern Conception.” positions: east asia cultures critique 10 (1): 219–236.
- Gilroy, Paul. 1993. The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Holub, Robert C. 1991. Jürgen Habermas: Critic in the Public Sphere. New York: Routledge.
- Landes, Joan B. 1988. Women and the Public Sphere in the Age of the French Revolution. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
- Lyotard, Jean-François. 1984 (1979). The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
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