In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Jürgen Habermas

  • Introduction

Literary and Critical Theory Jürgen Habermas
Andrew Edgar
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 July 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190221911-0027


Jürgen Habermas (b. 1929) is a German philosopher and social theorist. Early in his career, he was associated with the Frankfurt School, holding the position of research assistant to T. W. Adorno. Within the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research, he produced sociological works on student political activism and an important theoretical work on the historical development of the public sphere (published in German in 1962). His subsequent work in the 1960s, facilitated in no small part by a long-term cooperation and debate with the philosopher Karl-Otto Apel, may be seen as engaging with and developing the Frankfurt School’s notion of critical theory, and in particular the relationship of critical theory to natural science and to hermeneutics, culminating in Knowledge and Human Interests (1971). At this time, Habermas was articulating critical responses to positivism and to the inappropriate extension of natural scientific thinking into the understanding and organization of society. The 1970s saw a significant development in Habermas’s work, away from the transcendental arguments that had informed Knowledge and Human Interests to research methods modeled on the “reconstructive sciences” (such as Chomsky’s linguistics and Piaget’s cognitive psychology). This led initially to the articulation of a model of late capitalist society in Legitimation Crisis (1976), and increasingly to a recognition of the part played by communicative action in the production and maintenance of society and social relationships. This research culminated in the two volumes of A Theory of Communicative Action (1984–1987). Much of Habermas’s subsequent writing may be seen as working out the implications that this model, and its underlying program of what Habermas called “universal pragmatics,” held both for sociology and for philosophy. The core idea of a discursive rationality (that avoided the pitfalls of both dialectical reason and purely instrumental rationality) grounded the development of a distinctive approach to ethics (1990) and a theory of truth (2003), as well as a philosophy of law (1996). Aside from these works, Habermas published a set of lectures exploring the modernist tradition of Western thought, and thus situated himself as a defender of the unfinished project of modernity, in opposition to postmodernists such as Foucault and Derrida. A brief engagement with the ethical issues of biotechnology (2003) was superseded by the repercussions of 9/11, and the need to address questions of justice, tolerance, and religious belief in an age dominated by the threat of terrorism.

General Overviews

Habermas has stimulated a steady flow of monographs and collections of critical essays surveying his career. This section lists more recent monographs and collections that cover a substantial range of his work. Some other, earlier, monographs are listed in other sections, in the context of the period of Habermas’s career and the themes of his research that they cover in most detail.

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