Sociology 319 – Contemporary Social Theories

February 1, 2006

Jürgen Habermas


Reading on Habermas – CST, pp. 76-87 and “What is Discourse Ethics,” from Habermas (1991), pp. 196-203.


Next class.  Read CST, pp. 104-110.  From the handout, read Erik Olin Wright, Classes, pp. 122-132 and study the diagrams and tables. 


a. Background


Jürgen Habermas was born in Dusseldorf, Germany in 1929 and studied at universities in Gottingen, Zurich, and Bonn.  He became assistant to Theodor Adorno at the Institute for Social Research in 1959 and later was a professor at Heidelberg and Frankfurt, retiring in 1994.  His writings represent a contemporary approach to critical theory and these writings are supradisciplinary in that they combine philosophy and sociology with other forms of social theory.  His analysis builds on the ideas of earlier social theorists and philosophers, including Kant, Hegel, Marx, and Weber; the earlier critical theorists; along with North American theorists such as Mead and Parsons.  His most important work may be The Theory of Communicative Action (1981), where he presents the theories of “the theory of communicative rationality and the theory of societal rationalization” (Braaten, p. 2). 


The central concerns of Habermas are modernity, rationality, autonomy, freedom, and human happiness, and how these are connected as societies change.  These concerns are similar to the focus of earlier critical theorists.  Habermas develops a comprehensive social theory with an analysis of the individual and interaction, social institutions and structures, and forces of change and development in societies.  This provides a link between agency (individual) and structure (society), and he combines these in a theory of historical change and evolution. 


Like earlier critical theorists, Habermas combines ideas and concepts from the emancipatory side of Marx with the more constraining forces of rationalization from Weber.  While the forces of rationality, instrumental reason, and the administered society may appear to be most powerful, Habermas considers it possible for democracy to maintain itself and develop in new forms.  Discussion, debate, and communication in the public sphere provide a way to develop and extend democratic aspects of society.  These can lead toward social progress, addressing the problems of modern society, and can create the possibility of greater reason, justice, and human freedom.  As a result, the analysis of Habermas leads in a potentially more positive direction than that of Horkheimer, Adorno, and Marcuse.  For Habermas, increased and improved forms of public discourse and new social movements can help society out of the trap of modern forms of rationalization and administration and lead toward a better society.


b. Early Work of Habermas


Habermas began by attempting to develop critical theory, but making it more politically connected and significant.  This early work of Habermas may have been more consistent with early critical theory than with the pessimistic and one-dimensional vision that AH and Marcuse had developed by the 1950s and 1960s (Calhoun, pp. 526-30).  He connects theory and practice with the aim of (i) developing a critical social science, and (ii) providing a critique of actual historical institutions, with a view to examining political aspects.  This early work was concerned with ideology and consciousness, with an analysis of how human consciousness became false consciousness, and with “the development of a broader sense of political practice as the constitution of ways of living together that enabled the full realization of human potential” (Calhoun, p. 516). 


In terms of critical social science, Habermas used the approach of Freud and Marx, and compared critical theory to psychoanalysis – helping society develop a more critical approach.  This was necessary because “human capacities were repressed without recognition and could be liberated with movement towards fuller and free communication” (Calhoun, p. 527).  This form of analysis extended earlier critical theory by arguing that social science and ideology were one-sided and constraining, limiting the creative potential of humans.  This approach extends the analysis of Marx, Freud, and earlier critical theory (AH and Marcuse).  To this, Habermas emphasizes the importance of communication, and this becomes a major theme of his later analytical work.


The second part of his early work, Habermas developed an historical critique of the institutions of bourgeois, liberal, and nominally democractic society.  He argued that, since the Enlightenment or the early stages of modernity, the public sphere had traditionally been characterized by relatively free and open debate – although often only among elites [and, one might add, mostly among European men].   Participants in these discussions were well informed and each sector of society entered into debate, thus characterized by a form of rational discussion.  The public sphere of civil society, including coffeehouses, meetings, books, and the press, provided a forum within which real debate could occur so that rational-critical discourse could take place.  For Habermas, this “offered a model of public communication which could potentially realize the rational guidance of society” (Calhoun, p. 527).   


Habermas argues that the situation began to change in the twentieth century.  While democracy was extended to include more parts of the population [non-property owners, women, all citizens], the new public was not always prepared for such debate.  He argues that the mass media distorted and debased discussion, and discourse generally degenerated.  In addition, the boundary between the state and civil society collapsed, with the development of a larger state, intervening in areas of society such as the economic and social welfare.  Experts, representatives of interest groups, and bureaucrats took over and developed discourse in forms that were consistent with and accommodated an administered society (bureaucracies, organizations, propaganda, media). 


While it is relatively easy to find examples of these tendencies, Habermas recognized this as a somewhat elitist analysis that idealized a traditional form of society and social discourse where most people were not allowed to participate.  Women were certainly ignored in these earlier debates and many other parts of society were unrepresented.  While Habermas decided to change course in his analysis, this early analysis demonstrates his concern with discussion, debate, and communication as an underlying aspect of democracy and creativity.


c. Communicative action  (CST, p. 77)


By the 1980s, the analysis of Habermas moved beyond that of earlier critical theory, while maintaining many aims and methods of earlier critical theory – to be critical of social theory and the modern world, attempting to point toward human freedom and emancipation.  Habermas developed a theory of communicative action, and this has made a major contribution to contemporary social theory.  While communication was an important part of George Herbert Mead’s approach, Habermas moves communicative action to a more central position in his theory of social action.  The basic idea of this approach is that “it is through the action of communicating … that society actually operates and evolves; this process is encompassed and structured by the actors’ lifeworlds” (Wallace and Wolf, p. 175).  That is, Habermas looks on communication among people, interaction through communication, and the results of this as ways in which the social world operates.  He argues that communicative action:

is not only a process of reaching understanding; … actors are at the same time taking part in interactions through which they develop, confirm, and renew their memberships in social groups and their own identities.  Communicative actions are not only processes of interpretation in which cultural knowledge is “tested against the world”; they are at the same time processes of social integration and of socialization.  (Wallace and Wolf, p.175, quoting from Habermas, Theory of Communicative Action).

Whether or not the theory of communicative action ultimately provides the key to developing an overall understanding of the social world is not clear.  But there is no doubt that the approach Habermas has developed has led social theorists to pay more attention to language and communication.  In some ways this is reminiscent of Mead and symbolic interactionists, although Habermas develops it in a different direction.  There are several aspects to this approach, and some of its features are discussed in this section. 


i. Distorted and undistorted communication.  Communication among individuals is an essential feature of human interaction, from birth, through socialization, and in social interactions and relationships.  Given this, it is important for society to provide a means whereby there can be undistorted or authentic communication among members of society.  Habermas’s view of undistorted communication is where the force of argument or reason prevails in discussion.  This occurs only when there is some ability for all affected to be participants in communication, when participants are able to develop some common understandings, and when there is a willingness of participants to listen to ideas and arguments presented.  In these situations, it is not ideology, status of participant, or force or threat of force, that affects the outcome of discussion but the rational and reasoned arguments about the validity of a particular claims.      


Adams and Sydie state that it is the “conditions under which social goals and values can be discussed on a rational, egalitarian basis so that a consensus can be reached on the ends and values to be pursued” (p. 77). 


In contrast, distorted communication occurs when these conditions are not met, when there is psychological repression, social power, and ideological domination (Elliott, pp. 140-142).  Adams and Sydie identify distorted communication with false consciousness (p. 77).  While this is a form of distorted communication, it seems unlikely it can all be categorized as this.  In any case, false consciousness is a concept that is often poorly understood and applied.  


Examples of limited, biased, or one-sided forms of distorted communication where those of different status in society are in discussions: deference of subordinates to those with greater power or status, unwillingness of an employer to present arguments in negotiations between a union and an employer, and employee-employer relations.   In each of these cases, the force of argument may be insufficient to change the views or actions of those with greater status or power.  Means of doing this may be associated with those in a superior position ignoring issues raised, denying evidence, asserting positions and arguments which a subordinate may not understand or be unable to verify, or commanding the subordinate to act in a particular way.  While a form of communication, these latter circumstances are distorted by unequal social relationships, where dominant has greater influence on the outcome, not by reason of being correct or having a better argument, but because of their power, status, or position.


Like Marcuse and earlier critical theorists, Habermas agrees that modernity and the forces of the administered society have dominated society and social relations and even the inner self, limiting imagination and options for people.  Even “desire and passion are increasingly structured by the social system itself” (Elliott, p. 141).  Habermas refers to this process as excommunication, that is, repressive forces take communication away from the individual, social processes, and public life.  Certain forms of communication are excluded or prohibited, thus intersubjective relations are privatized and deformed.  In order to overcome this “Habermas argues that emancipation entails the elimination of unconscious distortions of communication in order to secure the self-reflective movement toward political autonomy” (Elliott, p. 142). 


Adams and Sydie state that psychoanalysis is the model for undistorted communication (p. 77).  “The development of social organization and productive economic forces has required a certain amount of psychological repression” (Elliott, p. 141) but in the current era there is a possibility of transforming or overcoming this.  “Habermas argues for the possibility of emancipation through the recovery of the repressed unconscious” (Elliott, p. 141) with the less conscious or unconscious being recoverable and made conscious through speech.  This is not limited to individual or personal speech and the individual unconscious, but to the public sphere and public discussion.  He links “the overcoming of social repression to transformations in structures of public communication” (Elliott, p. 141). 


While the study of the psyche and repression, the conscious and the unconscious, and language and linguistics is beyond the scope of this course, these arguments of Habermas make a certain amount of sociological sense at the level of interaction of individuals and at the institutional and structural level.  Following the sociological analysis of Mead, Simmel, and symbolic interactionists, communication can be considered as being central to social interaction.  If overpowering social forces limit the range and forms of interpersonal communication, this limits and distorts social interaction.  Since the mind and self develop socially, this excommunication limits the development of the social self or turns it in particular directions that may limit the development and operation of the social self.  [Later in the semester, we will see in the reading from Giddens, “Dilemmas of the Self” some examples of the forms and consequences of this.]  Modernity can distort and limit public discussion, or example, allowing for only a narrow range of debate on public issues (Calhoun, chapter 15).  As a result, this appears to be a useful way to interpret some of the psychoanalytic analyses of social life.


ii. Language and Work.  In the early 1970s, Habermas developed a critique of Marxian analysis, claiming that Marx identified human creativity with work and labour (Ritzer, p. 292).  While he does not entirely reject this claim of Marx, Habermas argues that Marx’s analysis was one-sided and misleading.  In contrast, Habermas considers human creativity, the essence of humanity or species-being, has a two-fold character.  In the area of production and reproduction human work or labour represents one side of human creativity. At the same time, social action and interaction, communication, and language are essential aspects of human existence and creativity.  Without considering both work and language, any analysis of the human condition, the social world, and how to improve society is incomplete.  


For Marx, an analysis of work and labour formed the basis for examining and understanding systems of production, exploitation, social class, and the forces of history.  In this approach, humans are limited by nature and by the forces and relations of production (technology, class structures), and these structures and forces have resulted in alienation and limits on human creativity.  At the same time, Marx looked on work and labour as potentially freeing humanity from nature.  As the productive forces developed and society became capable of producing sufficient goods and services for all to live comfortably (as noted in the readings from Marcuse), the working class would be the social agent for creating a free and just society (socialism and communism). 


Habermas argues that this Marxian analysis captures only one aspect of human potential and creativity.  Perhaps more basic is human social interaction, communication, and language.  Rather than work and labour as the essence of humanity, language and speech may constitute the basis for human creativity and potential.  For Habermas, it is communication and communicative action that allow social interaction to take place.  Just as work and labour were limited and distorted for Marx (alienation and exploitation as distortions of creative human work and potential), for Habermas modernity distorts communication and social interaction.  The institutions and social structures that develop in modernity constrain communicative action, thereby limiting social interaction and bending it in particular undesirable directions.  By analogy to Marx, Habermas argues that these limits can be overcome, not just by ending private property, alienation, and exploitation, but by ending the distortions of communication.  “Whereas for Marx the goal was a communist society in which undistorted work (species-being) would exist or the first time, for Habermas the political goal is a society of undistorted communication (communicative action)” whereby there would be the “elimination of barriers to free communication” (Ritzer, p. 293).  


This comparison shows that Habermas has attempted to develop an overall social theory that in some ways is similar to that of Marx, but takes language and communication as the underlying concepts on which the theory is to be built. 


iii. Reason and Action.  Closely connected to the analysis of work and language are  arguments of Habermas concerning reason, action, and knowledge.  Weber identified various types of rationality, and earlier critical theorists argued that modern rationality was associated with instrumental forms of reason and purposive-rational action.  That is, the modern era was associated with great development of purposive, instrumental forms of reason and action, whereby the administered society developed more efficient means of meeting specific ends.  Critical reason and value-rational aspects of reason generally were downgraded or eliminated, according to earlier critical theorists.  Evidence for this is the triumph of science and technology, whereby “science becomes a means for the manipulation of both the natural and social world in the interest of technical rather than social progress” (CST, p. 78).   Marcuse’s analysis provides strong evidence that this has happened. 


Habermas distinguishes instrumental reason or purposive-rational action from communicative action or communicative forms of reason.  The emphasis on instrumental reason has led to a great development of productive forces, technology, bureaucracy, and administration, with theories of these being well developed by Marx, Weber, and their followers.  However, this is not the only form that rationality can take, so that earlier critiques of rationality, even by critical theorists (probably including Marcuse), were often partial.  For Habermas a rational society is one with rationalization of communicative action, that is, communication free from domination, so that it can be open and free communication (Ritzer, p. 294).  Ideology and systems of legitimating the existing systems, deriving perhaps from instrumental reason, interfere with this and limit the development of communicative action.  In contrast, pursuit of a more inclusive form of rationality could lead not only to “the removal of the barriers that distort communication, but more generally it means a communication system in which ideas are openly presented and defended against criticism” (Ritzer, p. 294). 


Habermas’s theory of universal pragmatics begins with a “primordial split between communicative and instrumental reason, and even within communication between speech oriented to understanding itself and speech oriented to practical effects” (Calhoun, p. 529).  While the development of instrumental reason led to alienation and social disasters (concentration camps, wars, ecological destruction), development of communicative action and reason could lead to a better society.  In this sense, Habermas is committed to modernity and the project of the Enlightenment, thus distinguishing him from earlier critical theorists and postmodernists.  That is, there is still potential in modernity, by developing communication and discourse in the public sphere.


Through his emphasis on authentic and undistorted communication, and communicative action, Habermas constructs a new theory of rationality.  This approach builds on the analysis of rationality of Weber, Marx, and earlier critical theorists but also extends it into the sphere of communication.  Since communicative action is the action associated with social interaction, Habermas is able to integrate ideas and approaches from the symbolic interaction perspective (later in the semester) into this social theory.  That is, he sees the forms of social interaction as another type of rationality.


iv.  Ideal Speech (CST, p 78).  Habermas grounds his arguments in the concept of ideal speech and the ideal speech situation – “a situation in which everyone would have an equal chance to argue and question, without those who are more powerful, confident, or prestigious having and unequal say.  True positions would prevail under these circumstances because they are more rational” (Wallace and Wolf, p. 178).  The ideal speech situation is one in which the participants are oriented toward developing a mutual understanding, and not just to achieving some specific purposive result through the interaction.  This model takes a different direction than the purposive models of action of Weber and Parsons, or the focused, instrumental approach of rational choice theory (later in the semester).  These other approaches tend to be more focused on individual action and how the individual contemplates a course of action and then pursues that course.  Of course, norms and structures guide the individual in action, but these tend to be more impersonal and over-riding forces.  For Habermas, it is rather the development of common understandings that guide social action.  He states:

the goal of coming to an understanding is to bring about an agreement that terminates in the intersubjective mutuality of reciprocal understanding, shared knowledge, mutual trust, and accord with one another.  Agreement is based on recognition of the corresponding validity claims of comprehensibility, truth, truthfulness, and rightness.  (Wallace and Wolf, p. 178, from Habermas “What is Universal Pragmatics?”)

This ideal speech situation is thus oriented toward developing an understanding, and when agreement is reached, this is the knowledge and truth of the situation.


Several principles of the ideal speech situation are as follows (adapted from Ritzer, p. 295; see also Calhoun, p. 529).

·        Mutual understanding.  For ideal speech, what a speaker says must be understandable and comprehensible by others.  This includes speaking is the same language as understood by others; phrases and structures being understandable; and others involved in conversation comprehend the topics and claims of the speaker, so that they make sense to all involved.

·        Truthful. The speaker provides reliable knowledge in the sense that the propositions stated by the speaker are true (or at least believed to be true).  When specific facts and statements concerning the natural or social world are made, the speaker provides statements that he or she understands to be correct.  That is, the speaker does not deliberately misrepresent the situation or the facts and attempts to ensure that he or she is truthful.

·        Sincere expression. The speaker is sincere or reliable in the sense that the speaker is truthful and believable.   When opinions, attitudes, views, and interpretations are being provided, the speaker attempts to be sincere and not deliberately mislead. 

·        Right to speak.  The speaker has the right to speak and it is proper for the speaker to speak.  Individuals who have a statement to make should be allowed to do so, and their view should be listened to and seriously considered.  Some analysts also argue that this includes the right to be considered and heard, although Habermas may not include this in his writings.

·        Social order.  Speech acts take a position with respect to the normative or legitimate social order (see the reading on discourse ethics).  This may be connected to the first item, that the speech acts relate in some way to the social order of which one is part, so that a mutual understanding is possible and can develop.


These are five validity claims that Habermas argues must be associated with conversation and communication in order to for communication to be developed and maintained and for construction of common understandings.  For social interaction through communication to occur, each of these validity claims or conditions must be met.  If one of them breaks down or is violated, then this distorts or limits the interactive process, thus preventing consensus from emerging.  This could be at the individual level, where one or more parties to a conversation do not abide by these, or where there is an unequal power situation leading to one party violating one or more of these claims.   At the level of institutions and structures, where power is routinely exercised in a hierarchical manner, many of these conditions may be violated (workplaces, bureaucracies, patriarchy).   Social organization developed on the basis of these ideal speech assumptions is likely to be associated with a number of positive features – openness, fairness, democracy, and consensus.  Note the relevance of these conditions for public discourse.  It is often minority groups, women, and the disadvantaged or powerless who are left out in discussion.  The conditions of Habermas would require their inclusion in discussion and debate.  Later in the semester we will see how Fraser and Honneth address these issues – while they do not work explicitly in the framework of Habermas, they emphasize the importance of recognition and participation. 


Habermas argues that communicatively competent individuals are committed to reaching understanding and a consensus.  “The theory of communicative competence holds that there is at least one end (mutuality) to which we are committed in virtue of being capable of communication and that this end is prior to personal ends” (Braaten, p. 64).  While we each may have personal ends in mind, an encounter through communication is in some senses prior to this theoretically, in that we are committed to the communicative principles first.  Habermas develops this view partly from Mead and partly by analyzing the structure of speech and communication. 


At one level, the conditions associated with ideal speech can be considered utopian.  That is, if each of these conditions is met, there could be true discussion or discourse among those involved.  There would not be power imbalances and this would provide a way of developing consensus.  At the same time, the ideal speech situation can be regarded as a Weberian ideal type – a useful analytical tool for considering how social interaction at the individual, small group, and societal level can and does take place, while setting standards for how it might occur differently.  Further, these conditions can be regarded as the basic set of assumptions and concepts for the communicative action theory of Habermas, perhaps in with the same sort of role that the commodity and exchange plays in Marxian theory or the unit act, chains of action, and norms and  in Parsonian theory.  That is, from this basic concept of ideal speech, Habermas is able to build a comprehensive theory of social interaction, life-world, system, and public discourse. 


d.  Notes on “Discourse Ethics”


All references in this section are to “Morality and Ethical Life: Does Hegel’s Critique of Kant Apply to Discourse Ethics?” pp. 195-215 in Habermas, 1991.


There are several major issues that Habermas addresses in this selection.  While he sets this within a philosophical framework, he employs ideas and approaches from sociology and develops sociologically relevant implications.  The major issues appear to be:


i. Valid Norms.  Pages 196 and 197 deal primarily with philosophic concerns.  The issue that Habermas addresses is what are valid norms.  While individuals may act according to norms developed by society, there is a multiplicity of possible norms.  Which ones are truthful or valid?  And a related concern is which ones are associated with a just ourcome.  Recall that this was also a problem in the model of Parsons – ultimate ends and the means of achieving these are structured by norms, but how are these norms determined and what is their effect.   


Habermas mentions Kant’s rule to act only according to what should become a universal law.  The golden rule of do unto others as you would have them do unto you is a similar sort of rule.  Habermas’s discourse ethics uses the principle of moral argumentation (p. 197, middle) “Only those norms may claim to be valid that could meet with the consent of all affected in their role as participants in a practical discourse.”   In society there are various norms – for example, in our society there are norms against theft, for mobility rights, and for rights to vote.  While these are generally regarded as valid in our society, they might not be in other societies, or the consequences for violation of these might be treated quite differently.  The criterion Habermas uses to consider whether these are valid in any society or group is based on what all those affected by such norms would say if they were involved in a practical discourse, that is a discourse where everyone could participate and where the result would be decided by force of discussion and argument.  If all consented, following such discussion, then this would be a valid norm.  The universal principle (U) is that all the consequences and side effects of a particular norm “must be acceptable to all.”   Note that while norms such as voting rights are generally accepted by all in Canada, norms concerning proper religious practices or sexuality are not universal.  However, the norms of allowing religious freedom and a variety of sexualities are generally, although not universally, agreed upon.


ii. Universal.  A norm might not be universal beyond the group or society that developed it.  That is, within a particular group, it might be acceptable to all, but those in other groups, cultures, or societies might not consent to this norm.  Here Habermas notes that there is a danger or fallacy in applying a particular norm developed in one society to other groups or societies.  This is because the norm might reflect the interests or prejudices of a particular or powerful group.   For example, upper class, white, well-educated males may be agreed on the norm, but others might not. 


iii. Practical Discourse.   Habermas’s criteria and procedures for a practical discourse differ from some other well-known approaches.  Rawls uses the criterion of contract and a “veil of ignorance” (p. 198, bottom) associated with a contract.  That is, the agreement built into a contract should not be structured by knowledge of the social position or status of the other party to the contract, but should be based on rationality and equality (p. 198, middle).


More relevant for this sociology course is a comparison with George Herbert Mead’s concept of “ideal role taking.”  For Mead, an individual puts himself or herself in the position of others who would be affected by an action, and on this basis determine whether the action is appropriate.  Habermas develops this criterion from Mead’s view that social action involves consideration of the possible responses of others, and adjusting one’s behaviour accordingly.  In this case, it would be the effect on and responses of all other individuals who would be affected by an action.


The principle of communicative action developed by Habermas is argumentation, discussion, and discourse, where “all concerned take part, freely and equally, in a cooperative search for truth, where noting coerces anyone except the force of a better argument” (p. 198, middle).  While Habermas notes that this is a demanding condition, it is a reasonable one, and one we often attempt to use in practice.  There may be some problematic assumptions built into this, but perhaps no more so than the other criteria.


Habermas also argues that this connects the private action of individuals with the public sphere.  That is, to practice this form of communicative action, all must participate, so what may initially seem to be an individual social action really is something “practiced intersubjectively by all” (p. 198, last line).  This means common understandings and free and equal participation by all involved.


iv. Procedure or Substance.  The issue Habermas addresses on p. 199 is that norms and morality are substantive matters, so how are these related to or derived from procedural rules concerning communication.  A norm is a statement that a certain type of action is acceptable or desirable, while other types of action might not be acceptable.   A similar case exists with values, where some values might be considered appropriate and others inappropriate.   These norms may not be explicit statements of what is acceptable or unacceptable but, in a group or society, may be commonly understood principles that guide social action.  Norms are matters of substance, not procedural rules, so how can norms, values, and moral intuitions develop from the procedural processes of communication?  


In the section beginning “The basic facts are the following” (p. 199, line 11), Habermas outlines his approach to socialization, social relationships, and social organization.  People are socialized as individuals into a “intersubjectively shared lifeworld” (p. 199, middle) – the society in which each individual is raised.  This society continues and is reproduced as individuals communicate with each other – the communicative actions of the members of society. 


Social interaction means use of language and this is the means by which people become individuals.  This has certain parallels to Simmel, who notes the need for people to develop a certain individuality within the modern, urban setting.  Also note that the webs of relationships and the growth of the autonomous individual are connected, connecting the two sides of modernity noted by Simmel. 


At the same time, this language is the way that the shared social world exists and is reproduced.  Habermas integrates agency and structure, arguing that the individual and the collectivity are integrated through the use of language and communication, and each is necessary to the other.   Like Mead, Habermas argues that personal identity cannot be formed without interpersonal relations, so that society and the individual are intimately connected.  “The identity of the individual and that of the collectivity are interdependent” (p. 199, middle).  Parallel to the argument presented by Durkheim that development of individual interests binds people together through mutual needs, Habermas argues that there is “simultaneous growth of the autonomous individual subject and his dependence on interpersonal relationships and social ties” (p. 199, 10 lines from bottom).


v. Insecurity, Fragility, and Mutual Consideration.  Because the individual is so social and must participate in language and interpersonal communication in order to develop and maintain his or her identity, there is individuals are insecure and personal identity is fragile (p. 199, bottom).  Habermas argues that this created a need for mutual consideration among participants in society and in social interaction.  This mutual consideration maintains the integrity of the individual and preserves the social ties which simultaneously create interaction and identity.  “No one can preserve this identity by himself” (p. 200, lines 7-8).  The symbolic interaction approach of Goffman includes an argument that the self is given to an individual by society, but it can just as easily be taken away by society.   Habermas’s approach has another similarity to that of Goffman’s approach in that he emphasizes an analysis of procedures as a basis for social interaction.  For Goffman, there are procedures to save face, maintain face, and assist others in doing so. 


He also makes reference to suicide, Durkheim’s famous analysis.  Suicide is not solely an individual act, but is a result of tenuous tied to society.  Both the individual and society are affected by the suicide. 


vi. Morality.  Habermas argues that morality assists in dealing with this problem.  That is, individuals learn society’s moral values through socialization, and these moral values simultaneously protect the individual and society.  On the one side, they provide justice by “postulating equal respect for the dignity of each individual” (p. 200, middle).  At the same time, moralities are associated with principles of solidarity, thus protecting “the web of intersubjective relations of mutual recognition by which these individuals survive as members of a community” (p. 200, middle).  The norms noted above would appear to do each of these.  Norms such as rights to property, mobility, and voting and norms disapproving of theft promote both the ability of the individual to be independent and the ability of social relations to operate so that mutual recognition and intersubjective understanding can exist. 


Habermas argues that the principle of equal respect and rights on the one hand, and the principle of empathy and concern on the other, together act to promote justice and solidarity.  He argues that these emerge from the “same root: the specific vulnerability of the human species, with individuates itself through sociation” (p. 200, 5th and 6th last lines).  He then connects these moralities to “linguistically mediated interaction” (p. 201, 2/3 down).  This form of communicative action, essential to social interaction among individuals provides the “key resource” for individuals in interaction, but is also the source of “vulnerability of socialized individuals.”  For moralities, “the common core” is the “reciprocal imputations and shared presuppositions actors make when they seek understanding in everyday situations” (p. 201, 5th and 6th lines from bottom). 


vii. Communicative Action.  Habermas argues that the principles of equal respect, solidarity, and mutual respect may operate in localized settings and everyday situations.  In these situations, where there are common understandings, these principles provide a basis for morality.  Applying these principles more generally, through discourse ethics, may create a possibility for moving beyond particular situations (p. 202, top).  What Habermas may have in mind here is the possibility of using discourse ethics and procedures of communicative action for the public sphere and discourse among those of different groups and societies.  That is, he anticipates the possibility of a more “universalistic morality from the general presuppositions of argumentation” (p. 202, lines 3-4).  Habermas further explores this connection of morality to communicative action and his principles of ideal speech, whereby the relations of symmetry and reciprocity are presupposed (p. 202).  That is, people are sincere and truthful and respect the right of others to speak.  While those principles can be considered to be procedures for communication, built into them are the principles of justice and solidarity. 


Habermas argues that the right to say yes or no is an “individual’s inalienable right” and essential to preserving the “autonomy of inalienable individuals” (p. 202, near bottom).  Further, there needs to be “equal consideration…given to the interests of every individual in defining the general interest” (p. 203, top).  At the same time, this is not the only aspect of communicative action and would be one-sided and incomplete without “empathetic sensitivity by each person to everyone else” (p. 202, bottom).  It is the latter aspect that preserves social solidarity and mutual recognition allows autonomous individuals to participate in ongoing social relationships. 


viii.  Summary.  From a set of procedural rules concerning discourse and communicative action (mostly the ideal speech conditions) Habermas argues that a system of ethics and morality can be built.  Not only can this result in undistorted communication, it also

provides the means for maintaining individual autonomy, socialization, interpersonal social relationships, and social solidarity.   These latter aspects are interdependent, in that autonomy cannot be separated from mutual respect and individuals being embedded in webs of social relationships.  Further, Habermas argues that there is the possibility of this forming a basis, if not for a universalistic morality, at least a more general one that can apply to more than specific, localized situations, institutions, and relationships. 


In this reading, he does not address whether it can form the basis for undistorted communication in the public sphere and politics, so that structural inequalities and hierarchical power can be reduced.   He does indicate though that discourse ethics may be a “promising strategy” to pursue (p. 202, top).   Adams and Sydie touch on this in the section on “Communication and Change” (p. 83) where they note that social movements and social change can emerge from the ideal speech situation.  They make reference to movements associated with environmental issue, peace, gay rights, and feminism as “sources for emancipatory transformation” (CST, p. 83).  They note that these movements can challenge the domination of capital and state power and also “develop alternative practices to the reationalized, technological world ruled by money and power” (CST, p. 83).  The analyses of Fraser and Honneth address a similar set of issues.


e. System and Life-World


Habermas has developed an elaborate theoretical social system, perhaps with Parsons as a model.  While much of this is complex, one part of this approach is that of system and life-world, and colonization of the life-world by the system.  This is analogous to the dominance of commodity exchange of Marx or to Weber’s rationalization, but provides a new way of integrating agency and structure.  Ritzer notes that

the system is the domain of formal rationality, while the life-world is the site of substantive rationality.  The colonization of the life-world, therefore, involves a restatement of the Weberian thesis that in the modern world, formal rationality is triumphing over substantive rationality and coming to dominate areas that were formally defined by substantive rationality.  (Ritzer, p. 549). 

The life-world is the area of communicative action, where active subjects are, and where social interaction and communication take place.  This site is where daily activities occur, in families, in peer groups, and in informal discussions and meeting places.  Here “speaker and hearer meet, where they reciprocally raise claims that their utterances fit the world … and where they can criticize and confirm those validity claims, settle their disagreements, and arrive at agreements” (Habermas, quoted in Ritzer, p. 549).  It is practical and substantive rationality – organized to meet practical ends and being related to values that characterizes the actions of people in the lifeworld.  In this sphere, it is important for communication to be free and open, and rationality here means listening and debating, so that “understanding, or a rational method of achieving consensus, is based ultimately on the authority of the better argument” (Ritzer, p. 550). 


The system is the set of institutions that exist that are based not so much on the viewpoint and experiences of acting subjects, but on the perspective of others.  These involve the growth of institutions and structures, economy and exchange, and formal rationality.  These are the realm of power, whereby some are able to develop means of exercising power over others and dominating them.  Educational institutions, workplaces, and political institutions are part of the system. 


Initially, in traditional societies, life-world and system may be identical

in which the taken-for-granted lifeworld is highly encompassing.  People mix only with others who share the same lifeworld, so they are always able to communicate with each other and have no reason to become self-conscious about the structure of shared experience.  (Wallace and Wolf, p. 175).

This is similar to Simmel’s traditional society or Durkheim’s society with mechanical solidarity.  For Habermas, two developments take place over time.  First, the various parts of the life-world become more differentiated, so that the culture, social, and personality patterns and relationships become separated.  Ritzer notes that “engaging in communicative action and achieving understanding in each of these themes leads to the reproduction of the life-world through the reinforcement of culture, the integration of society, and the formation of personality” (Ritzer, p. 550).  This aspect of Habermas is very much like the theory of Parsons, with Habermas using much the same systems as does Parsons.


Second, the system, or these systems increasingly become detached from the life-world as the cultural and social structures become more distant from people.  These structural patterns increasingly come to dominate people and in the language of Habermas “they exercise more steering capacity over the life-world” (Ritzer, p. 550).  Instead of consensus achieved through substantively rational communication and discussion, these structures develop a formal rationality which may not be based on common understandings.  This one-sided rationality develops a logic of its own and the systems become increasingly separated from the life-world of people.  Note the similarities here to Weber’s view of rationalization, Durkheim’s anomie, or Marx’s alienation.


The result of this is that the system colonizes the life-world.  While both life-world and system are essential parts of society, the detachment of the two is associated with domination of the system over the life-world.  Language and communication is required to maintain social interaction, and this becomes the primary basis on which consensus is reached in modern societies.  The difficulty is that it becomes difficult to carry this on in a complex and highly differentiated society.  As a result, economic and political systems emerge which provide a means of communication, but through exchange and money in the case of the economy, and power in the case of politics.  The requirements associated with such systems tend to be those of formal rationality, and these come to determine the dynamics of the system.  The result is a deforming of the life-world as the system increasingly colonizes more and more aspects of the life-world.  “Communication becomes increasingly rigidified, impoverished, and fragmented, and the life-world itself seems poised on the brink of dissolution"”(Ritzer, p. 553). 


The solution to these problems is to end the colonization and the detachment of the two.  This is where communication, consensus, and social movements can play a role. 


f.  Conclusion to Habermas


·        communication as a basis for society and social interaction

·        integrates agency and structure through language and communicative action

·        equality, symmetry, reciprocity assumptions ideal and utopian

·        system and lifeworld – similar to earlier critical theory approaches

·        incorporates north american pragmatic concepts with european theoretical systems

·        too difficult to read but useful ideas

·        political program to achieve a better society

·        little attention to gender, minorities, etc.



Braaten, Jane. 1991. Habermas’s Critical Theory of Society.  Albany: State University of New York Press.

Calhoun, Craig.  2000.  “Social Theory and the Public Sphere,” in Bryan S. Turner, The Blackwell Companion to Social Theory, second edition.  Oxford, Blackwell Publishers.

Elliott, Anthony.  2000.   “Psychoanalysis and Social Theory,” in Bryan S. Turner, The Blackwell Companion to Social Theory,” second edition.  Malden, Massachusetts, Blackwell Publishers.

Farganis, James. 1996. Readings in Social Theory: The Classic Tradition to Post-Modernism. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Habermas, Jürgen. 1991. Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.

Kellner, Douglas. 1989. Critical Theory, Marxism and Modernity. Oxford: Polity Press.

Kellner, Douglas. 1990?. Critical Theory and the Crisis of Social Theory.  from Illuminations,

Kellner, Douglas. 1995. Media Culture: Cultural studies, identity and politics between the modern and the postmodern. London and New York: Routledge.

Ritzer, George. 1996. Sociological Theory, fourth edition.  New York: McGraw-Hill.

Turner, Bryan S.  1996.  The Blackwell Companion to Social Theory.  Oxford, Blackwell Publishers.

Wallace, Ruth A. and Alison Wolf. 1999. Contemporary Sociological Theory: Expanding the Classical Tradition, fourth edition.  Upper Saddle River, N. J.: Prentice Hall.


Last edited February 3, 2006