Habermas, Jürgen Essay

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Jürgen Habermas (1929 – ), a German social philosopher and critical social theorist, is considered one of the founders of modern discourse ethics. He proposed an influential theory of communicative action in the humanities and social sciences, namely in his two volume The Theory of Communicative Action (1981).

Communicative Theory

Habermas develops his concept of communicative action in the context of a renewal of critical social theory. The project of a critical social theory is to develop an analysis of the social conditions for moral and cognitive values such as autonomy, freedom, and equality. The first generation of the Frankfurt School in Germany (the group of philosophers and critical social theorists that Habermas studied under early in his academic career) sought to combine a Marxian analysis of capitalist society with a Freudian account of the human psyche to determine the extent to which such values and capacities can be realized in advanced Western societies. Initially in the late 1920s and early 1930s the outlook was open and more optimistic, but with the advancement of German and European fascism, Stalinism, and American-style political domination, the circle around Frankfurt School social philosopher Max Horkheimer, including Theodor W. Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, Walter Benjamin, Leo Loewenthal, and others became increasingly pessimistic. Adorno and Horkheimer’s The Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944) marked the turn toward a totalizing critique of Western rationality as fully defined by instrumental reason. The exploitation and utilization of nature, both inner and outer, for the ultimate purpose of survival became the sole motive of all history, including advanced capitalism. Proponents of this view also argued that the ultimate motive of capitalist’s untamable quest for profit and expansion merely expresses human rationality, which is intrinsically instrumental and means-oriented.

Habermas’s concept of communicative action is the attempt to correct this one-sided view of human reason. If critical theory engages in a paradigm shift toward the linguistic turn, the richness and dialectical feature of human reason can come to light. For Habermas, human reason is ultimately grounded not in a feature or capacity of a singular human subject, but can only be detected as a feature of the socially situated human agent. Human agency depends essentially on language as a mediation of its existence, as much as societies as such can only exist via the cooperation of humans toward a shared purpose. Societies are based on human cooperation. But human cooperation is ultimately based on language as a medium for such cooperative activity. This medium not only shapes the “nature” of the human agent, but also structures the cooperative process in such a way that certain features of rationality are embedded in it. Habermas’s theory of communicative action reconstructs the formal structures of communication that make social cooperation possible.

Building on speech act theory, Habermas then goes on to analyze in detail how human agents cooperate, or as he puts it, how speech and action-capable subjects are coordinating their actions via the medium of language. Agents intuitively relate to one another and cooperate against the background of traditionally shared meanings and values, which Habermas (borrowing from philosopher Edmund Husserl and sociologist Alfred Schutz) calls the “life-world.” The life-world provides the taken-for-granted background against which agents as speakers can make sense. Once something becomes problematic, agents can then articulate the reasons that prompted them to hold a view or endorse a value in the first place.

Once they do that, they have entered into discourse, which can either be theoretical, if what is at stake is a fact about the world, or practical, if a norm is to be considered in its universal validity. Thus, communicative action can be become a reflective orientation at those validity claims (which include the authentic claim to mean what one says, to be sincere). Communicative action is to be distinguished from strategic action. In the latter form of intentional action, an agent utilizes the trust of other agents, that is, their intuitive belief that others act communicatively, in order to deceive the other (or even oneself). In this form, one’s motives of acting are oriented toward the causal effect to influence the behavior of others, and not toward reaching an agreement, a consensus, in the context of cooperating with others as equal and rational cosubjects.

Discourse Ethics

Discourse ethics is the attempt to develop a full-blown ethical theory out of this philosophical basis. The basic idea is that moral theory should not by itself determine which norms are to be considered valid. Rather, discourse ethics reconstructs the grounds on which competent agents can themselves determine which norms to adopt and which ones to reject. The reconstruction of such a ground implies that it must specify the conditions that must be given such that a norm that would be agreed upon can be considered valid. Here Habermas’s famous “ideal speech situation” comes into play. It articulates precisely those conditions that must be given such that a norm can be rationally accepted. They include—the highly idealized—conditions of having all relevant information available, allowing access to discourse for all those who are affected by the consequences of the norm, to give equal time and resources to all those who speak, and giving equal weight to all views that are heard. If any of those conditions is violated, the norm cannot be considered valid. So, whatever this model may show, it may be used to criticize any social state or context in which such idealized conditions are not realized. Such a context would, according to communicative reason, be irrational and most likely be determined by power or economic profit, and not by the inherent standards of communicative reason.

Habermas’s work in discourse ethics is a project of his philosophy that reconstructs certain themes of philosopher Immanuel Kant’s deontological ethics, namely its moral claims of universality and obligation. Habermas is motivated by the attempt to explain how such Kantian universal and obligatory claims of morality function among communicative structures in the everyday world of modern society and subjects such claims to the rigor of analysis in that context. One of the goals of Habermas’s philosophical projects is to account for communicative rationality on grounds of morality and validity themselves. In his work in this area, he has often attempted to explain the normative implications of this communicative action, which is presupposed by the presence of the theory of communicative rationality.

Habermas’s discourse ethics reconfigures philosophical notions of autonomy and practical reason. Habermas distinguishes between communicative action and discourse proper. For Habermas, as is the case for Kant’s deontological ethics and its categorical imperative, the goal of moral theory is to establish a basic principle of moral deliberation and judgment in terms of which the validity of moral norms can be decided. Discourse ethics’ grounding structure, one that is intended to resemble the form of dialogue, imposes specific constraints on this moral principle. Unlike Kant’s categorical imperative, Habermas’s goal of ethical theory cannot take the form of a principle of private moral deliberation. Instead, his goal of morality functions as a bridging principle in practical argumentation, one that permits participants to reach consensus on the validity of normative arrangements. Habermas intentionally constructs his moral principle to account for implications surrounding the satisfaction of the needs and interests of all those potentially affected by such normative arrangements.

Applications to Criminology, Criminal Justice Ethics, and Law

Critical criminologists tend to argue against articles of law and the linguistic justification of rights as ideologically founded. These individuals often disregard law as a product of the capitalist superstructure that 19th-century philosopher Karl Marx derived; but they take the protective side of criminal justice to the point where they fail to see a shared normative synthesis of the dialectical process entailing argumentation and deliberation in such a program as Habermas’s communicative rationality. The legal rationale of such argumentation is what Habermas theorizes as a counterfactual character. Such a concept that Habermas presents is intended to refer to the continual dialectical relationship between empirical reality and normative presuppositions. Habermas developed this theory of counterfactuality to interpret the role of claims to validity for ideal communication. The counterfactual elements of law embody an institutionalization of morally informed and practical-based notions of rationality as a driving force for social change, and it does so in such fashion that legal principles play a mediating role in the interpretive practice of law enforcement.

Habermas’s communicative action in the everyday world has the capacity to “decolonize” the life-world from a criminal justice system that has spiraled out of control and morphed into an instrumental medium. Habermas argues against the degeneration of criminal justice into an instrument of governance that can control crime in a manner in which critical notions of power in its grounding structure are ignored. Along with forming a rejection of such a prescriptive legal medium that tends to colonize the life-world, Habermas’s social theories have led to an alternative vision of law as an institution of procedurally assured dispute settlement, which has only advanced communicative action within the life world itself. Habermas distinguishes between law as an institution, which forms a necessary bridge between the life-world and various social systems by institutionalizing practical-based moral rationality, and law as a medium, which actually produces and legitimizes moral foundations for various social systems (colonizing the life-world). Habermas finds that the legitimacy of law cannot be guaranteed by a formal procedural rationale alone, but the procedural aspect is an important means of rationalizing and institutionalizing legal discourse.


  1. Arrigo, Bruce A., Social Justice/Criminal Justice: The Maturation of Critical Theory in Law, Crime, and Deviance. Belmont, CA: West/Wadsworth, 1999.
  2. Groves, W. Byron and Robert J. Sampson. “Critical Theory and Criminology.” Social Problems, v.33/6 (1986).
  3. Habermas, Jürgen. Between Facts and Norms: Contributions to a Discourse Theory of Law and Democracy. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1998.
  4. Habermas, Jürgen. Communication and the Evolution of Society. Boston: Beacon Press, 1979.
  5. Habermas, Jürgen. “Discourse Ethics: Notes on a Program of Philosophical Justification.” In Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1990.
  6. Habermas, Jürgen. Justification and Application: Remarks on Discourse Ethics. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1994.
  7. Habermas, Jürgen. On the Pragmatics of Communication. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2000.
  8. Habermas, Jürgen. On the Pragmatics of Social Interaction: Preliminary Studies in the Theory of Communicative Action. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002.
  9. Habermas, Jürgen. The Theory of Communicative Action, 2 vols. Boston: Beacon Press, 1984.
  10. Rehg, William. Insight and Solidarity: A Study in the Discourse Ethics of Jürgen Habermas. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.
  11. Swaaningen, Rene van. Critical Criminology: Visions From Europe. London: Sage, 1997.

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