Public Intellectuals: Jürgen Habermas | Cassandra Voices

Public Intellectuals: Jürgen Habermas


It came as a surprise when the editor of Cassandra Voices divulged recently that he had never read any works by Jürgen Habermas (1929 – ), who I regard as a strong contender to be the greatest living public intellectual. I put this down to limitations inherent in his generation, so I felt compelled to expand on the wisdom and complexity of this towering figure – among the last in the line of transcendent, rigorous intellectuals of the Old Left.

It is perhaps a partial Germanic background that predisposes my appreciation of Habermas, and I frequently reference his work. Clearly not to everyone’s taste, a technical, and at times dense prose writer, he is not a model stylist. The salient points he makes are, however, of substance, lying as they do in an embrace of communality, anti-extremism and moderation.

Habermas’s intellectual origins are in Critical Theory and he was, as we shall see, at one time an adherent of the Frankfurt School, and a committed Marxist (he remains Marxist in orientation, but his intellectual voyage has taken him a long way clear). Having definitively broken from the Frankfurt School, he became a firm defender of rationality and Enlightenment Values, the very antithesis of the Designer Marxism of the Sorbonne that spawned this Post-Truth zeitgeist that I have previously written about.

In essence, Habermas recovers the substantive aspects of rationality, and puts forward a theory of practical reasoning and political deliberation. He regards reason as emancipatory and an antidote to dogmatism, compulsion, and domination. The substance of law is particularly important to him – indeed he has expressed regret that he did not study law – and much of his writings are legal in character.

Part of the Habermas project is to elevate the space of public deliberation and the Rule of Law above Postmodern scepticism. Arguably, embracing legal philosophy compelled him to focus on the particular rather than the general – empiricism rather than Continental philosophy.


As a member of the Flakhelfer generation who came of age during the final phase of Wold War II, Habermas was tremendously influenced by the horrors of the Holocaust, which he first encountered in cinematic reels after the war.

In response, he venerates the Rule of Law as a counterweight to the horrors of Nazism. Moreover, though at times he is withering in his assessment of the post-war West Germany state (‘the FDR’), his criticism remained constructive and democratic in orientation, anticipating a Third Way between conservatism and doctrinaire Marxism, while bypassing the Critical Theory festering in academia.

In his early writings Habermas was anxious to depart from influential intellectuals such as Carl Schmitt, tainted by association with Nazism. He opposed veneration of the state, emphasising instead the importance of civil society.

In contrast to Marxists – many of whom dismissed this as a form of bourgeois fetishization – Habermas emphasised the value of legality. He does not, however, endorse law uncritically. Thus he was sceptical initially of the role of the German Constitutional Court, which developed fundamental rights in a largely progressive fashion. Habermas regarded such judge-led laws as paternalistic. As indicated, he emphasised the importance of civil society engaging in rational discourse rather than a scheme of state-driven rights recognition.

Furthermore, Habermas sought to reconcile legitimacy with legality. He puts significant store in constitutionalism and a right to civil disobedience, reviving a liberal-socialist argument against the unbending Postmodernists. Habermas argues for a structural transformation and reinvention of the public sphere.

In his early writings Habermas was also anxious to promote a positive conception of democracy, based on principles of legality and popular sovereignty. He identified an eclipse in the public sphere in the FDR during 1950s, and argued that in place of reasoning and decision-making propaganda and acclamation held sway.

Natural Law

Habermas has been deeply critical of an idea of politics as a technical affair, emphasising instead the importance of plebiscite or Direct Democracy. He is critical of a growing tendency to devolve power to technocrats and administrators, seeing the legislative branch of government as the real guardian of constitutionality. He argues that negative liberties could be reinvented only as positive guarantees of participation within a unified state society.

In his earlier writings he was also sceptical of civil and political rights and these negative liberties. However, from 1961 we see a shift in his writing, as he became more positive about rights. In particular he is influenced by a series of Federal Constitutional Court decisions, including the Luth/Harlan case, which reinforced positive liberties and had a radiating effect on private law. He commends the court for applying rights in a horizontal fashion, against private parties and for recognising a positive obligation to protect speech.

Nonetheless, throughout his intellectual life he has remained sceptical of court-imposed solutions, and, unlike the American philosopher Dworkin, judges themselves.

It should be stressed that Habermas has been opposed to the Natural Law orientation of the Federal Constitutional Court, and has always sedulously opposed Natural Law. As he put it ‘Natural Law is devoid of any and every convincing philosophical justification,’[i] a point I endorse.

Democratic Deficits

Between 1961 and 1964 Habermas railed against democratic deficits in the FDR, a state which he believed had been handed over to technocrats. Inherent was a distrust of scientization and its fundamental incapacity to grapple with ethical questions, applying to the pursuit of the ‘good life’. He argued that the normative considerations essential to a democracy were being occluded.

In a prescient remark, anticipating our present commodification of human life he writes:

In modelling itself on the natural sciences, a science of politics risks treating the human being more as an object than a subject of historical processes.[ii]

Habermas coined the term decisionist, meaning political decisions taken in a technical fashion unharnessed to ethical considerations. To counter this he emphasised the importance of reason, arguing against the scientization of politics and suggesting that unless technical knowledge was translated into practical knowledge political power would remain substantively irrational. The public sphere was the only place for that translation and that act of translation is the only way to make ‘a scientized society, a rational one.’[iii]

Habermas thus argues that technocratic thought distorts the proper relationship between science and politics, and that citizens of the state need to be included in the translation between science and politics; in other words democracy needs to be inclusive and direct, as a technocratic consciousness excludes practical ethical questions from public deliberation.

Habermas suggests that ruling elites in reducing practical questions about the good life to mere technical problems, undermined public, rational democratic discussion of values by the public. This had the effect of masking the value-laden character of government decisions, generally in the service of ascendant capitalism.

Today’s fumbling bureaucrats and trickle-down-austerity-merchants are the semi-educated heirs of Habermas’s technocratic elite, devoted to growth-without-end, while ignoring externalities such as ecological and environmental meltdown.

Alas his countrywoman Angela Merkel and her Eurocrat friends succeeded, by proxy, in destroying the social fabric and human structure of Ireland and Greece through adherence to a savage doctrine of austerity. The imposition of technical solutions (‘reducing the deficit’) negated the moral dimension of their actions, upholding a value-laden ideology that worked to the benefit of a shrinking economic elite who prospered after ‘weathering the storm’, at the expense of the preponderance of the population who were left on the scrapheap.

Herbert Marcuse

Habermas distinguished himself from his friend and former Frankfurt school colleague Marcuse in his attitude towards technology.

First, unlike Marcuse, he saw technology as a permanent fixture of the human condition. Secondly, while Marcuse leaned towards the idea of a technological Utopia, wherein emancipatory machines would free workers from of work, Habermas emphasised the importance of the institutional framework of choice, decision and practical deliberation, seeing the permanence of technology without its liberating consequences. Thus, he steered a middle course between the technocratic right and the Marxist left:

today better utilisation of an unrealised potential leads to an improvement of the economic industrial apparatus but no longer eo ipso to a transformation of the institutional framework with emancipatory consequences.[iv]

He would surely despair at the mass surveillance of the internet, social media and automation, including a reconstitution of human identity through information technology. These are far from emancipatory consequences of technology. Automation and robotic capitalism will not award people more time to achieve leisure and growth.

Communicative Action

In 1968 Habermas introduces his key theory of Communicative Action, where he lays out his contention that the Left had incorrectly assumed that a change in the mode of production would automatically result in desirable changes in the relations of production. He argued that the technocratic approach of the Right and this Left utopianism converged in that each viewed politics as no longer requiring legitimation.

In place of these, Habermas proposes a shift from a technocratic politics to concepts of work-interaction and communicative action:

I suspect that the general relation of institutional framework (interaction) and subsystems of purposive rational action (work in the broad sense of instrumental and strategic action) is more suited than historic materialism to reconstructing the sociocultural phases of the history of mankind.[v]

He further argues that:

It becomes clear that two concepts of rationalisation must be distinguished. rationalisation at the level of the institutional framework can occur only in the medium of interaction itself, that is by removing restrictions on communication.[vi]

Habermas also distinguished between technical reason and substantive or communicative reason, which he argued was vitally important: ‘The institutional organisation of society continues to be a problem of practice related to communication, not one of technology, no matter how scientifically guided.’[vii]

Habermas argued thus for a domination-free communication, and that ideology systematically distorted communication. His argument is for universal pragmatics:

By reconstructing the conditions of possible communication Habermas hoped to identify the elements necessarily presupposed in the successful exchange of speech acts and thereby to uncover the universal validity basis of speech.[viii]

Habermas asserted that through language, speakers adopt a practical stance oriented toward ‘reaching understanding,’ which he regards as an ‘inherent telos’ of speech. When individuals address each other in this manner, they engage in what Habermas calls ‘communicative action,’ which he distinguishes from strategic forms of social action

In communicative action:

speakers coordinate their action and pursuit of individual (or joint) goals on the basis of a shared understanding that the goals are inherently reasonable or merit-worthy. Whereas strategic action succeeds insofar as the actors achieve their individual goals, communicative action succeeds insofar as the actors freely agree that their goal (or goals) is reasonable, that it merits cooperative behavior. Communicative action is thus an inherently consensual form of social coordination in which actors “mobilize the potential for rationality” given with ordinary language and its telos of rationally motivated agreement.[ix]

speech acts

Over the course of a decade the theory of universal pragmatics culminated in a theory of justice as fairness of communication. In this Habermas was influenced by the English positivist John Austin and his idea of ideal speech, arguing with respect to speech acts that:

In uttering a speech act, the speaker unavoidably raises validity claims which can only be redeemed in a discourse having the structure of an ideal speech situation. However, distorted the actual conditions of communication may be, every competent speaker possesses the means of the construction of a speech situation which would be free from domination and in which disputes concerning the truth of statements or the correctness of norms could be rationally resolved.[x]

In his recent writings he has amplified on speech acts and identifies four ‘pragmatic presuppositions’ essential, he argues, to communicative rationality:

  • no one capable of making a relevant contribution has been excluded,
  • participants have equal voice,
  • they are internally free to speak their honest opinion without deception or self-deception, and
  • there are no sources of coercion built into the process and procedures of discourse.[xi]

The essence of all of this is the idea of inclusive critical discussion, free of social and economic pressures, in which all involved treat each other as equals in a cooperative attempt to reach an understanding on matters of common concern.

In this context Habermas harks back to the salons of the Enlightenment, and claimed that as mass societies emerged over the course of the 19th century, ideas became commodities, assimilated to the economics of mass media consumption.

Habermas sought to revive this tradition of free-ranging thought in attempting to re-install public reason, and calls for a socio-institutionally feasible concept of public opinion-formation that is historically meaningful, and which normatively meets the requirements of the social-welfare state, and which is theoretically clear and empirically identifiable. He argues that this: ‘can be grounded only in the structural transformation of the public sphere itself and in the dimension of its development.’[xii]

During this period, Habermas also evaluated the German Sociologist Max Weber seeing in his compatriot’s thought an iron cage of modernity, assigning law and morality to different spheres of rationality. Law required, Habermas argued, a rational justification in contrast to Weber’s positivism equating legality with legitimacy.

Habermas asserted a need for the law to be justified not simply in technocratic terms, but also in terms of principle or practical moral justification. Law, he argued, was intimately linked to morality and politics and to the constitutional organisation of political power.

Civil Disobedience

Habermas was a man of his time, and like Albert Camus, engaged with its controversies. Thus from 1978-87 he turned to the question of civil disobedience in response to what was happening in Germany, especially in response to protests against the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

Habermas defended civil disobedience and endorsed John Rawls view that this was a morally grounded act, which must appeal to publicly recognised principles. He argued that state legitimacy was intimately connected to the normative quality of the state in arguing for a representative democracy that held a place for civil disobedience.

Habermas saw civil disobedience of a peaceful nature as a revitalising force, and rejected the authoritarian legalism of Conservatives. Instead he placed faith in dissenting citizen, and saw the German state as a self-revitalising project animated by a noninstitutionalised mistrust of itself.

At this time Habermas set his sights on Postmodernism. In fact, he called young conservatives antimodernists, old conservatives premodernisms and neo-conservatives postmodernist (such as the Green party who, in a quasi-Luddite way, argued against aspects of modernity) and rejected all three.

Instead Habermas placed his faith in a concept of communicative rationality with reason centre stage. He would be in his element attacking the way in which post-modernist relativistic nonsense has been co-opted by the Alt-Right and the Neoconservatives.

More recently, Habermas has emphasised the values of law, politics and the Rule of Law. In fact, he argues that democracy and the Rule of Law are co-original and presuppose each other. He argues for popular sovereignty in conjunction with human rights as the legitimacy of laws; prioritising popular sovereignty and a proceduralist theory as an alternative to ideology. He puts his trust in the productive forces of communication.

Habermas argues that breaking up legislative power into institutionalised and noninstitutionalised spaces – the parliament and the plurality of public spheres – was the best way to achieve the democratic ideal of self-determination. He saw the noninstitutionalised distrust of the citizen, reflected in civil disobedience, as central to a democracy.

He explained that the ideal speech situation created the necessary formal or procedural framework within which the public could deliberate and fill in the picture of a good society. Within such a framework participants could decide the concrete possibilities of social organisation they desired.

His position is summarised thus:

Habermas dubs his position an “epistemic proceduralism.” The position is proceduralist because collective reasonableness emerges from the operation of the democratic process; it is epistemic insofar as that process results in collective learning. The latter presupposes a fruitful interplay of three major discursive arenas: the dispersed communication of citizens in civil society; the “media-based mass communication” in the political public sphere; and the institutionalized discourse of lawmakers. When these arenas work well together, civil society and the public sphere generate a set of considered public opinions that then influence the deliberation of lawmakers.[xiii]

In conclusion

Habermas saw German constitutionalism as an unfinished project and sought to offer a Third Way of democratic discussion between formalistic positivism and moralistic natural law. He is critical of the foisting of human rights on us by judges –  and was critical of the Dworkinean prioritising of the judiciary – placing faith instead in in popular sovereignty.

He argues, nonetheless, that a system of rights constitutes a minimum set of normative institutional conditions for any legitimate modern political order, but that further institutional mechanisms such as legislatures and other branches of government must operate as an open society of interpreters of the constitution.

These are the important values espoused by Habermas:

1: The rule of law and legalism.

2: Speech and communication untainted by ideology.

3: The voyage of social passage from post-modernist nonsense to Enlightenment values.

Interestingly, both Habermas and Noam Chomsky are of a similar vintage, and are perhaps the residues, or remnants, of a tradition of learning and rigour, which is now largely marginalised and ignored. Though he is often difficult to read in a stilted Germanic style derived from Kant through Heidegger and even Thomas Mann, his ideas are of vital relevance. The great challenge is to impart these, and gain an audience.

A dialogue between secular non-extremist humanism and Christian non-extreme humanism.

The following is a codicil to a recent piece I wrote on Jurgen Habermas as part of the Public Intellectuals series.

I list ten crucial lessons and interpretations from the man I regard as the leading public intellectual of our time who bridges schools of thought in a way similar to Edmund Burke, and with more rigour. Habermas was scorned by the agitprop leftists in Germany after he spoke out against a growing extremism as he read it.

  1. Habermas was correct to abandon postmodernism such as that identified by the Frankfurt School, and replace it with rationalist ideology whether Christian or secularist. We need to reunite through reason against the dark forces in the world.
  2. His crucial idea of communicative action and ideal speech invites us to talk in neutral conditions purged of ideology. This has led me to advocate for a world council composed of non-corporate, non-business, apolitical leaders apart from those who are properly rational, which includes Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin. Independent think tanks. Let us talk and argue but not fall out and scream at each other any longer.
  3. Accept religion from an atheist perspective, all to their own. Spirtuality is not to be despised, and we need a communication about ethics and morality. A common ground.
  4. Avoid all extremism. It is counter-productive, whether leftist or rightist. That includes religious fundamentalists and atheist bashers of religion. An interdisciplinary dialogue between faith and reason, a reasoned faith, is needed to confront the problems of the world.
  5. Society should run using technocratic methods with ethical and moral components. Vorsprung durch technik, Germany works but has inflicted its model work practices to liquidate much of Europe. Merkel is not Helmut Schmidt.
  6. Embrace the intellectual tradition and raise our civilisation. Nuance is key.
  7. Democracy is enriched by dissidence, protest and a sense of community beyond parties. but not agitprop doomsday cults.
  8. In certain jurisdictions judicial and other elites cannot be trusted. Too many are now compromised. We need fresh ideas and perspectives.
  9. The United States is on the brink and should not be deferred to. The global challenge of silicon valley needs to be challenged, just as we should be challenging the encroachment of China.
  10. Continue to resist the intellectual and political legacies of both Nazism and Marxist-Leninism.

[i] Jürgen Habermas: Natural Law and Revolution (1963), p. 113

[ii] Matthew Specter: Habermas: An Intellectual Biography, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, p.93

[iii] Ibid, p. 97

[iv] Habermas: Technik und Disenchant ales Ideologies (1968) p99.

[v] Ibid, p.92.

[vi] Ibid, p.98.

[vii] Ibid, pp.78-79

[viii] Specter, p.???

[ix] Habermas: Stanford Internet Encyclopedia.

[x] John B. Thompson and David Helds: Habermas: Critical Debates, M.I.T Press., Cambridge,  pp.8-9

[xi] Habermas: Stanford Internet Encyclopedia.

[xii] Jürgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, (translated by Thomas Burger and Frederick Lawrence), M.I.T. Press, 1989,  p.244.

[xiii] Habermas: Stanford Internet Encyclopedia,


About Author

David Langwallner is a human rights lawyer and founder of the Innocence Project in Ireland. He was previously Dean of Law at Griffith College. He was made Pro Bono & Public Interest Team/Lawyer of the Year at the AIB Private Banking Irish Law Awards 2015.

Comments are closed.