An Introduction to Habermas

Jurgen Habermas is less discussed than he was even a decade ago, but having written of the relevance of his work for health and health care I am still occasionally asked to give talks on applications of his theories to the health domain. Hence this first in a short series of blogs. All I am aiming at here is a positioning and annotated exposition of his contributions. Unless I change my mind – surely a blogger’s right – I will follow-up with a précis on each of the public sphere, legitimation crises and communicative action (I am likely to remain reluctant to track him into considerations of constitutional law and speculations about Europe’s future). These are not blogs for experts.

Habermas walked in the footsteps of the progenitors of critical theory, Horkheimer and Adorno (he was the latter’s assistant during the postwar resettlement in Frankfurt). Yet he was destined to react to and counter the deep pessimism of their ‘Dialectic of Enlightenment’, published in 1947. What these authors anticipated for the post-Holocaust era was decline and decay. This prophecy was rooted in Weber’s earlier analysis of rationality and rationalization. Habermas quickly came to reject their equation of rationality with Weber’s Zweckrationalit, or ‘instrumental rationality’: that form of rationality that governs the choice of means to ends. He made it clear that a Weberian focus on a disenchanted western world ineluctably constrained by an ‘iron cage’ of instrumental rationality was seriously flawed. Instrumental rationality, he argued, takes for granted our ‘background assumptions’ about the world. Moreover it is insufficient on its own to grasp the nature of either ‘cultural evolution’, which is not governed by instrumental reason alone, or even economic and administrative systems, which are too complex to be seen simply as its products.

The first of Habermas’ books to make an impact was ‘The StructuralTransformation of the Public Sphere’, published in 1962 (and arising out of an Habilitation thesis rejected by Adorno but supported subsequently by Abendroth at Marburg). What this contribution did was put what has been called an ‘emancipatory twist’ on ‘Dialectic of Enlightenment’. Habermas traced the notion of public opinion back to its genesis in the bourgeois public sphere emergent in eighteenth-century Europe.  It was at this time, he contended, that the literate bourgeois public began to assume a political role vis-à-vis the state. The clubs, coffee houses and salons that sprang up from the early 1700s, underpinned by an expanding and increasingly free press, provided a critical forum for the gentlemen of the day to turn over the pressing issues of the day, and to do so with a degree equality of engagement. It was, he added, very much in accord with the material interests of the bourgeoisie to monitor and influence state policy at this time. But it is an analysis that, however limited (rather like its bourgeois. Male protagonists), heralded his later preoccupation with the informed, rational discussion of public policy.

Habermas admitted that this European prototype of the public use of reason was compromised from the outset by limitations of class and gender. Furthermore, he went on to chart the rapid commercialization and ‘re-feudalization’ of the public sphere. He linked this to the growth of businesses with long corporate arms on the one hand, and to the expansion of the role of the state (‘welfare statism’) on the other. Modern media no longer mediate the reasoning process of private persons coming together in public spaces: they now dictate this process. In similar vein, he argued that public opinion has been reduced to a social-psychological variable to be manipulated by political party gurus and activists. This does not seem so different from ‘Dialectic of Enlightenment’.

In ‘Theory and Practice’, a series of essays published in 1962, Habermas distinguished between ‘work’ and ‘interaction’. This was key to his appropriation of Marxism. Marx, he maintained, neglected interaction, in effect reducing communicative action to instrumental action. This encourages the interpretation of Marxism as mechanistic and undermines it as explanatory theory and as a theory of human liberation. Liberation from hunger and misery is not the same thing as liberation from servitude and degradation, ‘for there is no automatic developmental relation between labour and interaction’.

This theme is pursued in ‘Towards a Rational Society’, which saw the light of day in Germany in 1968. Here he stressed that student activists might play their part in resisting a progressive rationalization of society linked to the institutionalization of scientific and technological development. He vividly portrayed the ‘scientization of politics’ as a form of depoliticization. ‘Knowledge and Human Interests’, also published in 1968, pulled assorted threads together. There are, he argued, three basic and universal ‘knowledge-constitutive interests’. These are related to work, interaction, and a newcomer, ‘domination’; and they give rise, respectively, to:

  • the natural or empirical-analytical sciences, which are governed by ‘a technical interest in the prediction and control of objectified processes’;
  • the historical-hermeneutic sciences, which are governed by a practical interest in intersubjective understanding; and
  • the critical-dialectical sciences (like psychoanalysis and ideology-critique), which are directed to the emancipation from the domination of ‘ideologically frozen relations of dependence that can in principle be transformed’.

This was an influential formulation that he continued to ponder and work on.

‘Legitimation Crisis’, an analysis of ‘late capitalism’ that I consider a neglected book acutely relevant to a sociology of the present, came out in 1974. Still defining himself as a Marxist, Habermas nevertheless argued against the prepotency of economic crisis, instead discerning a multiplicity of possible crises. The state in late capitalism, he maintained, acts self-consciously to avoid dysfunctions: it engages in ‘reactive crisis avoidance’. In particular it acts to iron out the peaks and troughs of the business cycle and to engineer a ‘partial class compromise’ between wage labour and capital. But the state pays a price: by assuming greater responsibility for the ‘management of the economy it risks a crisis of legitimation.  While accepting the Marxist line that it is capitalism’s contradictions and class structure that stand in the way of authentic legitimation, Habermas insisted that crises now had new and many roots.

Preliminary mention should also be made here of the opening section of ‘Communication and the Evolution of Society’, published in 1976. It amounted to a revision of Marx. Habermas argued that the development of human society can be represented/reconstructed as a learning process. Marx, whose historical materialism remains the best account of this learning process, nevertheless focused too much on work and insufficiently on interaction. Or, to anticipate his two-volume opus, Marx’s preoccupation with strategic action meant he underestimated the salience of communicative action.

This ‘taster’ blog can only touch on the several hundred pages of synthesis in ‘Theory of Communicative Action’, first published in 1981. In point form, it:

  • made a case for ‘reconstructing’ the Enlightenment project that originated in late eighteenth-century Europe;
  • argued that Weber, and Horkheimer and Adorno in his wake, had mistakenly regarded western ‘iron cage’ rationalization, which has indeed occurred (and with a vengeance), as inevitable and irreversible;
  • contended that in our complex and highly differentiated modern societies, the lifeworld (the mundane everyday world of ‘social integration’ divided into private and public spheres) and the system (the world of ‘system integration’ comprising the economy and the state) have become detached or ‘uncoupled’;
  • argued that we have witnessed a de facto ‘colonization’ of the lifeworld by the system, meaning that much of what used to be decided via communicative action oriented to consensus in the lifeworld is now decided – as it were, behind our backs – via strategic action oriented to outcome in the system;
  • expressed differently, the steering media of the economy (money) and the state (power) have come to dominate those of the private sphere (commitment) and the public sphere (influence);
  • stoutly defended the notion that the lifeworld might yet fight back or de-colonize through collective activism arising and exploding in its public sphere.

Hopefully enough has been intimated here: (1) to hint at the continuity in Habermas’ work, and (2) to commend it as relevant to a sociology of financial capitalism. Much has been omitted. The follow-up blogs I have in mind will pick up on his interpretations of the public sphere, legitimation crisis, strategic versus communicative action and, maybe, discourse ethics.


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