Jürgen Habermas is a social theorist from Germany. He represents the second generation of the Karl Marx-inspired critical theory which was developed by the Frankfurt School beginning in the early 20th century.


Notes on Jürgen's theory:

Jürgen makes a distinction which he traces back to the Aristotelian one between poiesis and praxis, between purposive-rational action (zweckrationales Handeln) and communicative action (kommunikatives Handeln).

  • Purposive-rational action consists of instrumental action and strategic action. Deals with technical problems. Goals (values and maxims) are already given.
    • Instrumental action. The utilization of means to achieve given ends. It is guided by technical rules which are based on empirical knowledge.
    • Strategic action. The selection of appropriate means to achieve given ends. It is guided by strategies which are obtained by deduction from preference structures and decision principles.

    In purposive-rational action, the agent adopts preferences and decision principles "monologically", ie., without consensus among other agents.

  • Communicative action. A symbolically mediated interaction which proceeds "dialogically", ie., on the basis of intersubjectively binding norms. Deals with "practical" problems. Results in the acceptance or rejection of norms, the claims to validity of which we can support or oppose with reasons. Especially norms for action.

For Aristotle, practical knowledge is prudence (phronesis) which is a capacity for rational deliberation concerning what sorts of things are good, not merely for the sake of something else, but for their own sake. Politics is basically in the practical sphere.

Jürgen thinks that modern social science has lost the practical orientation and become merely technical.

  • The technical interest guides the development of empirical-analytic science.
  • The practical interest is constitutive of the hermeneutic disciplines. Hermeneutic disciplines aim to secure interpretations of cultural tradition. Hermeneutics deals with "objects of the type of speaking and acting subjects; here we experience persons, utterances, and conditions which are in principle symbolically structured and understandable."[1] Hermeneutics serves the reaching of consensus concerning norms by providing interpretations of cultural tradition which secure a sense of self for individuals and groups.

Discourse differs from mere symbolic interaction. A smoothly functioning interaction (or "speech act") depends on four criteria, held by poth parties:

  • The speech act is understandable.
  • What it asserts is true.
  • Its performance is right or appropriate (ie., conforms to norm).
  • The speaker is authentic or sincere (wahrhaftig) in performing it.

If one of these criteria fail, specific sorts of proceedures are required to test the claims and therefore restore consensus. Discourse does this. The truth claims of assertions (empirical?) are tested in theoretical discourse. The truth claims of norms are tested in practical discourse. In discourse the only motive of the participants is to cooperate in a search for truth.

While hermeneutics can provide solutions to practical problems, it only does so if the norms it discovers are rationally justifiable norms.

Ideal speech situation:

  • All potential participants in discourse must have the same chance to initiate discourses and to perpetuate them through asking and answering questions, making and replying to objections, etc. This ensures that all opinions and norms are potentially subject to discursive examination.
  • All participants must have the same chances to express their feelings, intentions, attitudes, etc. This ensures the authenticity of the participants: transparency....
  • All participants must have the same chances to give orders, permit, forbid, promise, etc. Excludes privilege.

Institutionally secured deviations from the ideal speech situation produce systematic distortions in communication. If norms are arrived at in this situation, hermeneutics will discover only distorted solutions (non-solutions actually) to practical problems. So Jürgen says that critical theory must be a synthesis of the empirical-analytic and the hermeneutic approaches. Such critical social theory yields "explanatory understanding."

According to Julius Sensat, Junior, the validity of Jürgen's critical theory rests on the validity of the rules for proper communication. Those rules are, according to Jürgen, necessarily true for transcendental reasons. They are assumed even in argumentative attempts to deny them.

Critical theory seeks to locate and explain distortions in communication (and norms) which have arisen under actual historical conditions. It thus explains the distortion while at the same time removing it. This is similar to Freudian psychotherapy, and to Karl Marx's revolutionary endeavor in critiquing bourgeois political economy.

Other works

  • Julius Sensat, Junior, 1979. Habermas and Marxism: An Appraisal
  • Jürgen Habermas, 1973. Theory and Practice, translated by John Viertel from Theorie und Praxis (1971)


  1. Jürgen H., Theory and Practise, p 8. Quoted in Julius S, p22
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