Jürgen Habermas is a German philosopher and social theorist, a leading representative of the Frankfurt School. This school of thought developed at the Institute for Social Research founded in Frankfurt, Germany, and it introduced a style of analysis known as critical theory. Critical theory draws on the ideas of German political philosopher Karl Marx in its studies of the sources of domination and authority in society that restrict human freedom.
In his later work Habermas turned his theory of communicative action to the domains of politics and law. He became an advocate of “deliberative democracy,” in which a government’s laws and institutions would be a reflection of free and open public discussion. Habermas assumes that many Western beliefs—for example, the legitimacy of private property—would have to be revised if they were subject to uncoerced and unlimited discussion by free and equal human beings. In the democracy he envisions, men and women, aware of their interest in autonomy (self-governance) and responsibility, would agree to adhere only to the better-reasoned argument.
As Seyla Benhabib, a professor of political theory at Harvard, explains: "Habermas believes human social life rests on our capacity to have more or less clear communication with each other." We communicate—to paraphrase Descartes—therefore our society exists.
A rather antiquated, idealistic message to be spreading, some might think, in a world of abusive talk-show hosts, misogynistic rap groups and earphone-encased teen-agers. Habermas is, to be sure, as concerned about pop culture as the next philosopher. But he continues to believe that somewhere behind the better of our attempts to communicate with each other, there have to be some shared values, shared respect and acknowledged equality. He sees the participants in conversations, in other words, as playing on the same teams. And as they talk together, Habermas insists, they make an effort to employ reason.
Habermas' theory, she explains, calls into question a belief that is widely held by cynical and fashionable thinkers on the right and the left: the belief that human behaviour should be seen as a battlefield upon which each of us is merely out for our own strategic interests. In our "communicative actions," the right sees selfish individuals struggling to get a leg up on each other; the postmodern left sees the powerful exploiting the powerless; but Habermas sees, of all things, a kind of cooperation. Indeed, he shares with Socrates an almost utopian belief in the wholesomeness of debate and discussion.
Habermas is perhaps the last major thinker to embrace the basic project of the Enlightenment, a project for which he is often attacked. This suggests that the Enlightenment was a struggle, which began 200 years ago, in the name of reason, against tyranny, superstition and inequity. Voltaire and Thomas Jefferson saw themselves as involved in that struggle. Kant also developed these thoughts and Habermas has contributed to it, too.
But the Enlightenment, you see, left open a crucial question: How does reason -- at whose behest so much has been challenged -- justify itself? Reason has undercut our belief in the spiritual, in the traditional. What is to prevent reason from challenging the reason of the Modern era? When the media pay attention to Habermas, it is usually to pair him in this theoretical debate over issues surrounding postmodernism. By defending Reason and progress and that real truth can be found through 'communicative action', Habermas usually in the minority in the contemporary philosophical conference circuit.
Foucault, Gadamer, Lyotard, Derrida, etc. are often set up as his opponents who suggest that in the postmodern age humans aren't seen as having universal impulses or sharing a common ground. Postmodernists have no use for such generalizations. Human attitudes, they insist, vary as much as human cultures do. Japanese see things differently than Swedes. Metallica lovers probably see things differently than those who fancy Counting Crows. The world, postmodernists maintain, is full of egocentric and ethnocentric biases, full of complexities. Attempts to squeeze it into smooth, rectangular packages—in philosophy or in architecture—are futile and foolish.
Habermas' / The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society - summary
Get some books: