Book notes on Jurgen Habermas

This is an archive of my notes written over the years on the works of the philosopher Jurgen Habermas.

THE SOCIAL TRANSFORMATION OF THE PUBLIC SPHERE: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society by Jurgen Habermas (1962) translated by Thomas Burger with the assistance of Frederick J. Lawrence (1989)

I read this book as part of an informal seminar organized by my friend Paul Mitacek.  I don’t claim to have fully understood it.  Habermas wrote in a highly abstract style, but his style was not an attempt to obfuscate, but rather to integrate complex ideas.

Jurgen Habermas

Jurgen Habermas

Habermas’s subject was the evolution of what’s considered public and what’s considered private.  His focus was on Germany, France and Britain, which I found interesting because it showed that the changes he described were not specific to the United States.

In the age of absolute monarchs, Habermas wrote, royalty lived their lives as a public spectacle, while the common people lived private lives in obscurity.  What we now think of as the public sphere arose in the mercantile middle class—hence “a category of bourgeois society.”

Merchants organized shared newsletters and foreign correspondents to get accurate information about business conditions.  Out of this evolved the press as we know it, which reported on politics and culture.  Coffee houses in Britain, salons in France and Germany provided means by which middle-class and upper-class people could meet, talk freely and form public opinion, which in the 18th century was a new concept.  There arose an ideal of governance based on free public discussion and exchange of ideas.

Advocates of democracy in the 19th century hoped that the mass of the people could be assimilated to this ideal. Instead the mass media arose, and the mass public became passive consumers of culture.

Ordinary people only to got to choose which newspaper or magazine to read, which political party to vote for and which soft drink to consume, but communication was downward, not upward.

There were eras, such as the New Deal and civil rights eras in the United States, when initiative came from below, but these were exceptions.

Habermas hoped this process can be reversed, and that a truly democratic public opinion can come into existence.  He provided no blueprint as to how this can come about, but the first step in solving any problem is to recognize that it is a problem.

Some good first steps would be more transparency of corporations and governments, more privacy protections for citizens and a clearer recognition of the right of the people to peaceably assemble.  As it is, we in the United States are going in the opposite direction—secrecy by corporate and government elites, surveillance of individuals by these corporate and governmental elites.


LEGITIMATION CRISIS by Jurgen Habermas (1973) translated by Thomas McCarthy

In this book, the German philosopher Jurgen Habermas discussed how a capitalistic democratic society undermines the authority of governing institutions.  His thinking is profound, but highly abstract, and I’m not sure I understand him correctly.

What I get from his book is that in an economic system of free market capitalism, there is a drift to letting the market make the decisions.  You make a decision on whether to sell a house that has been in your family for generations, or whether to relocate a manufacturing plant that has been in your community for generations, on economic considerations alone.  Morality, tradition, personal ties and patriotism are overridden by the law of supply and demand.

The authority of the free market, according to Habermas, is based on its ability to produce prosperity for all, or, if it doesn’t, on people accepting the principles of free market economics as laws of nature.

He said this authority breaks down during period of prolonged economic depression.  People start to notice that the market does not work for their benefit and that certain individuals and groups can milk the system for their own benefit.

People turn to government to redress the balance, but the authority of government under free market capitalism is even more fragile than the authority of the market itself.

Rulers no longer have divine right.  Government, like the market, loses its authority when it fails to produce good results, and when people notice that certain individuals and groups are able to milk the system for their own benefit.

This reasoning reminds me of Friedrich Hayek’s conservative classic The Road to Serfdom.  Once the citizens of a democracy refuse to accept the verdict of the marketplace and turn to government, they become a society of claimants, Hayek wrote.  Government can’t possibly satisfy all the claims, and so there is a gridlock which can be broken only by antidemocratic means.

Habermas’s solution was a broader democracy, in which citizens through discussion can arrive at a consensus on what constitutes the common good.  This consensus would be a source of authority.  I’m not sure his vision is feasible, but I hope it is, and I think it is worth working toward.


THE THEORY OF COMMUNICATIVE ACTION, Volume One: Reason and the Rationalization of Society, by Jurgen Harbermas (1981, translated 1984)

THE THEORY OF COMMUNICATIVE ACTION, Volume Two: Lifeworld and System, A Critique of Functionalist Reason, by Jurgen Habermas (1981, translated 1987)

Jurgen Habermas is a powerful and (for me) somewhat difficult thinker, but I find him to be a kindred spirit.  A lot of things fell into place for me when I read Habermas.

His ideas are grounded in fact and in a commitment to freedom, reason and democracy.  One of his aims in The Theory of Communicative Action is to determine to what degree these values are universal, and to what degree they are merely the ideology of our modern Western capitalistic civilization.

Drawing on the thought of Max Weber, Talcott Parsons and other sociologists, Habermas says the modernization process is differentiation of things once considered part of a seamless unity.

He draws a rough parallel between the development of societies and the moral development of children, as described by Jean Piaget; as children become mature, they are able to distinguish their own thoughts and desires from those of other individuals and the world about them.

In primitive societies, truth is supposedly a unified, unquestioned whole. In the modern world, there are different types of truth which call for different kinds of vertifications.

Scientific-empirical truth is conformity to fact. Aesthetic-expressive truth is conformity to your true feelings. Moral-legal truth is more ambiguous, but rests in part on conformity to social consensus.

You could say the first is truth, the second is truthfulness and the third is justice. Or the first is based on external reality, the second on internal reality and the third on social reality.

Using this division, I would say that the error of the materialist is to reduce morality and art to questions of empirical fact; the error of the dogmatist is to reduce science and art to questions of moral principle; and the error of the postmodernist is to reduce science and morality to questions of subjective feeling.

The moral-legal validity claims are the most difficult.  Things that are taken for granted in other cultures and earlier stages of Western culture are now up for discussion.  For Habermas, the lack of certainty can be a bad thing, but the possibility of arriving, through discussion, at a better code of morality is a good thing.

Habermas distinguishes two levels of ethics – “discourse ethics,” which are what you and I can agree is right and just, and “universal ethics,” which are what all human beings affected by a moral issue could in principle agree on.  The first is what we use while we’re in the process of figuring out the second.

Another differentiation is between “lifeworld” and “system.”  The “lifeworld” would be life as it is experienced by, say, an employee of Wal-Mart, as she goes through a day, dealing with customers and co-workers and then with family and friends.

The “system” would include the “power system,” the Wal-Mart management hierarchy and personnel policies, and the “money system,” the economic system of supply and demand of which the Wal-Mart employee is a part.

The aim of modern society should be to have the “system” governed as much as possible by the “lifeworld” – by human needs and desires – rather than making human life serve the needs of market and administrative efficiency.  Habermas brings in Karl Marx’s theories of alienation here.

Habermas does not attempt to create a zero-based philosophy starting from nothing. Rather he tries to address the problems of the world as he finds them by integrating the findings of social science, psychology, anthropology and academic philosophy.  You could say he takes up where John Dewey left off.


BETWEEN FACTS AND NORMS: Contributions to a Discourse Theory of Law and Democracy by Jürgen Habermas (1992, 1994) translated by William Rehg (1998)

Jürgen Habermas is a philosopher I find difficult to understand both because of his style and his subject matter, but it is worth the effort.

He was originally a follower of the Marxist scholars in the famous Frankfurt School, but then became interested in William James, John Dewey and the American pragmatists.

He came to admire the United States as an example of a free and democratic nation whose national identity is based on citizenship rather than common ancestry.  He hoped this ideal could be transplanted to Germany and then to Europe as a whole.

His book gives equal emphasis to German and American philosophers and to the German and American historical experience.  Other nations are scarcely mentioned.  It is an interesting perspective for me as an American.

The ideals of democracy and the rule of law, as Habermas described them, are paradoxical.  He believed that a free country had to embrace people of diverse religions and beliefs.  He did not believe it is possible to legislate morality.

But democracy and law require a moral basis in order to function.  Governments need to be able to use force to enforce the law and maintain their authority, but if they are based on force and nothing more, they can’t endure.

There has to be a critical mass of people who believe in accepting the results of elections as binding even if they lose, who believe in obeying the law even if they disagree with it, and who respect the human rights of individuals they believe to be in the wrong.

Where does such a belief come from?  Modern people no longer believe in the divine right of kings nor in a natural law that exists independently of human law.

Habermas thought that law and democracy required what he called “discourse” or “communicative action”—discussion among individual citizens and small groups in order to reach a consensus on what constitutes the common good.

This requires more than being able to choose among TV channels or political parties.  It requires people did to be able to think independently, converse meaningfully and exercise self-determination, both as individuals and as a community.


BETWEEN NATURALISM AND RELIGION by Jurgen Habermas (2005)  translated by Cairan Cronin (2008)

I continue to find Jurgen Habermas a philosopher who is hard to understand, but worth trying to understand.  As with Between Facts and Norms and The Theory of Communicative Action, there was much that I just read over without really grasping.

He is hard to understand because he writes on a high level of abstraction, which I probably would find hard to follow in the original German, and because he assumes a level of knowledge that I don’t have. But I think the things he is getting at are real and important.

This is a collection of separate articles and lectures, with a common underlying theme of how to reconcile government based on science and secularism with the rights of a public not only committed to traditional religion, but to political movements based on religion.

His ideal is a liberal government that recognizes the equal rights of all, including the right to religious freedom, but which recognizes this as an individual right rather than a group right.

He is dubious about the U.S. practice of allowing native Americans to govern themselves according to tribal law, when that results in denying rights protected by the U.S. law and Constitution to individual members of the tribe.

The liberal dilemma is that we liberals aspire to be neutral and fair to everyone, but that conservatives do not accept the liberal view as either neutral or fair.

We liberals, for example, believe (my example, not his) that abortion should be the woman’s individual decision, but we  do not believe that child abuse should be the parents’ individual decision.

I am prepared to argue this position, but it is not a neutral above-the-fray position as we liberals like to think.

Habermas’ ideal is communicative action.  His hope is that through full and free discussion, people can reach a mutual understanding and consensus.  He is not a religious believer himself.  He calls himself “post-transcendent.”

He believes that atheists and agnostics should be open to the arguments of religious people, and that religious believers have valuable moral insights and intuitions.  He believes that religious believers are obligated to make arguments that would be acceptable to everyone, whether they share their religious beliefs or not.

T.S. Eliot in The Idea of a Christian Society advocated a society imbued with Christian moral values and Christian culture, but also in non-interference with the private beliefs of Jews, atheists and other non-Christians.

The Habermas ideal is the mirror image of this.  He would allow a role for Christians and other religious believers, but in secular terms.


THE DIALECTICS OF SECULARIZATION: On Reason and Religion, by Jurgen Habermas and Joseph Ratzinger (2005, translation 2006)

AN AWARENESS OF WHAT IS MISSING: Faith and Reason in a Post-Secular Age, by Jurgen Habermas and four Jesuit philosophers (2009, translation 2010)

These two slim books consist of dialogues between Jurgen Habermas and the future Pope Benedict XVI, and between Habermas and four philosophy professors at a Jesuit college, on what secular and religious philosophers can learn from each other.

The fact that such dialogues were held is as interesting to me as the content of what was said, which is on such a high level of generality that it is hard to understand what it would mean in practice.

Habermas is an unbeliever, but he said that religion can supply things that rationalism does not – common moral beliefs that bind a society together, or rites of passage such as funerals.

He said secularists should not dismiss religious beliefs as such, but on the other hand should not be expected to accept religious beliefs unless they can be argued in terms that both believers and unbelievers can accept.

By “post-secular,” Habermas appears to mean that European rationalists can no longer be simply anti-clerical. They must acknowledge that religion is part of the society and religious views can’t be ruled out simply because they have a religious basis. This kind of thinking is more familiar to me as an American than it may be to anti-clerical Europeans.

Ratzinger said the West has two parallel philosophical traditions—Christian philosophy and a secular rationalist philosophy which is independent of revealed religious truths, which is valid but limited.

Later, as Pope, he said in his Regensburg lecture, that Christianity is based both on revealed faith and human reason, and is therefore superior to Islam, based on faith alone, and secularism, based on reason alone.

Habermas’s dialogue with the Jesuits is a reponse to the Regensburg talk.  The Jesuits basically agreed with the Pope.  Habermas said that it is true that secular philosophers lack answers to certain questions, but this does not mean they always will or that the rational project should be abandoned.


EUROPE: The Faltering Project, by Jurgen Habermas (2007, 2008, translated 2008)

This collection of recent essays and lectures has no clever paradoxes nor shockingly provocative aphorisms, just good sense. They deal with varied subjects.

One of Habermas’s concerns is the need for international law and governmental authority, and how such authority – the United Nations, the European Union – can attain the same legitimacy in the eyes of the public as national governments have.

He admires the United States because we have a patriotism based on loyalty to democratic institutions and a Constitution rather than to an ethnic group or ideology.

Habermas thinks legitimacy can be created through discourse – what we Americans might call participatory democracy.  People will regard a government as legitimate when its decisions reflect informed public opinion, arrived at through civil discussion.

 The reason for the rejection of the European Constitution was the elitist way in which it was drafted and handed down, he said; the better way is European integration as a gradual process, as a response to different situations, with different levels of integration for each country.

He does not see democracy as a means by which people exercising their individual rights pursue their self-interest.  Rather discourse should be aimed at achieving consensus on the common good. It binds society together while improving the decision-making process.

He denies this is a utopian ideal. He cites instances in which people with strongly opposed opinions on issues are provided with impartial background information and then brought together for discussion.  Generally they reach some measure of agreement.

A quality press, free of control by government and manipulation by private interests, is essential to democratic discourse.  The ideal is the New York Times as it was in its glory days, or perhaps PBS.  Unfortunately, as Habermas sees it, the press is in decline, and the Internet is too fragmented to be a basis of true community.


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