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Jürgen Habermas - Biography


Jürgen Habermas (1929-   )

Jürgen Habermas was born in Düsseldorf, Germany, in 1929. He was 15 when Germany lost the war to the Allies in 1945. He had served in the Hitler Youth and had been sent to defend the western front during the final months of the war. His father was a passive sympathizer with Nazism. Following the Nuremberg trials and the release of documentary films depicting the activities in the concentration camps, Habermas had a political awakening: "All at once we saw that we had been living in a politically criminal system." This horrific realization was to have a lasting impact on his philosophy, a vigilance against the repeating of such politically criminal behavior.

Habermas' entrance onto the intellectual scene began in the 1950's with an influential critique of Martin Heidegger's philosophy. He studied philosophy at Universities in Göttingen and Bonn, which he followed with studies in philosophy and sociology at the Institute for Social Research under Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno. In the 1960's and 70's he taught at the University of Heidelberg and Frankfurt am Main. He then accepted a directorship at the Max Planck Institute in Starnberg in 1971. In 1980 he won the Adorno Prize, and two years later he took a professorship at the University of Frankfurt, remaining there until his retirement in 1994.

Habermas embraced the critical theory of the Frankfurt School, a position that views contemporary Western society as maintaining a problematic conception of rationality inherently destructive in its impulse toward domination. He cited the domination over nature by science and technology as exemplary in this regard, And though the Frankfurt School included the 18th century Enlightenment in its evaluation of problematic rationalities, Habermas sought to defend aspects of the Enlightenment that he believed to be constructive and even emancipatory; the development of solutions to problems through the use of reason and logic, while breaking from habits, the traditional conventions that include the strict obedience of religion and its prohibitions. Because Modernism took on the Enlightenment project, it often did so by lamenting the loss of a sense of purpose, coherence and social values in modern society. For Habermas, this tendency is ineffectual, and thus he calls for a return to the Enlightenment's privileging of order and reason.

In his work, Towards Reconstructing Historical Materialism, Habermas laid out his primary differences with Marx. He viewed Marx' assessment of human evolution as simply an economic progression as too narrow a definition that leaves out any sense of individual freedom, a critique that Habermas held of modern society as a whole. Habermas divided this notion of economic progression, an evolution of societies, from the process of learning that is assumed by Historical Materialism. Marx viewed progress as linear and deterministic, whereas Habermas argues that the process of learning is dynamic and unpredictable from one epoch to another.

Habermas' primary contribution to philosophy is his development of a theory of rationality. An ongoing element throughout his work is a critique of industrial democracies in the West for the equating humanity with economic efficiency. For Habermas the ability to use logic and analysis, rationality, goes beyond the strategic calculation of how to achieve a chosen goal. There exists a possibility for community, through communicative action that strives for agreement between others — this is rationality itself. Habermas thus stressed the importance for having an "ideal speech situation" in which citizens are able to raise moral and political concerns and defend them by rationality alone.

In 1981 Habermas published The Theory of Communicative Action, in which he develops on the concept of an ideal speech situation and an accompanying ethics of discourse. Working with Frankfurt School colleague Karl-Otto Apel, he proposes a model of communicative rationality that takes into account the effect power has upon the situation of discourse and opposes the traditional idea of an objective and functionalist reason. Within societal interactions is the performance of subjective and intersubjective duties that are determined by other capacities of reasoning. The theory is developed into comprehensive social theory from which an ethics of discourse is derived. As a furthering of the speech-act philosophy of J.L. Austin, along with theories of child development as envisioned by Jean Piaget, Habermas and Apel sought to construct a non-oppressive, inclusive and universalist moral framework for discourse, based on the inherent desire in all speech acts for a mutual understanding.

The theory of communicative action was applied by Habermas to politics and law, advocating a "deliberative democracy" in which governmental institutions and laws would be open to free reflection and discussion by the public. A key obstacle to the institution of this forum of open policy making is the legitimacy of private property, as it divides interests and makes unequal the situations of individuals. Habermas believes that within his form of democracy, men and women aware of their interest in self-governance and responsibility would seek to adhere only to the most rational argument.

Habermas' garnered most respect and a teacher and mentor for many theorists working in political sociology, social theory, and social philosophy. Since his retirement from teaching he has continued to be an active thinker and writer.