Philosophy Jürgen Habermas
by
Max Cherem
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 November 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0397

Introduction

Jürgen Habermas (b. 1929–) was born outside of Düsseldorf, Germany, and came of age at the tail end of World War II. He is the most prominent philosopher in the second generation of Frankfurt School critical theory, a tradition founded by Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno. However, Habermas rejected Horkheimer and Adorno’s claim that the Enlightenment’s model of rationality—with its focus on the technical control of the world to serve subjective ends—is inherently wedded to domination. From his early career, Habermas has strongly challenged those who would either relativize rationality or dispute its emancipatory potential. Apart from belief in scientific progress, he also believes there are “social learning processes” that yield progress in ethical, political, and legal systems. He has been consistently productive over five decades, articulating philosophical theories of human rationality, linguistic meaning, truth, ethics, deliberative democracy, and legal legitimacy. He is also a prominent public intellectual who weighs in on contested social issues—both in debates with other academics and in op-eds. He has authored several books that have impacted not only philosophy but also the social sciences more broadly as well as political theory. Some of his most notable works include The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere; Theory of Communicative Action (two volumes); Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action; and Between Facts and Norms.

Introductions and General Overviews

Habermas has written a huge amount of wide-ranging scholarship. This makes any introduction to his thought a challenging task. Nevertheless, there are solid introductory texts available in English. Both McCarthy 1978 and White 1988 were authoritative overviews for their time. They are still extremely valuable sources on his early thought up through Habermas 1984 and Habermas 1987 (both cited under Habermas’s Works). Bohman and Rehg 2014 and Cherem 2016 provide recent overviews that are not only thematically organized but also trace the development of Habermas’s thought. Both Finlayson 2005 and Baynes 2015 are very good introductions on the most important themes. Finally, the edited collection Brunkhorst, et al. 2017 is an encyclopedic compilation of articles written by Habermas scholars that focus on specialized topics.

  • Baynes, Kenneth. Habermas. London: Routledge, 2015.

    DOI: 10.4324/9781315696423E-mail Citation »

    This slim volume is a great entry point for students just beginning to delve into Habermas. It canvasses all the major subject areas of his thought and also does a good job of pointing readers toward further resources. Also contains a glossary of some of the more technical terms.

  • Bohman, James, and William Rehg. Jürgen Habermas. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited N. Zalta. Fall 2014.

    E-mail Citation »

    This is a comprehensive overview of Habermas’s thought written by two of the most prominent US-based Habermas scholars. Older (archived) versions of this entry are also very useful insofar as they convey the same content with different emphasis.

  • Brunkhorst, Hauke, Regina Kreide, and Cristina Lafont. The Habermas Handbook. New York: Columbia University Press, 2017.

    DOI: 10.7312/brun16642E-mail Citation »

    This handbook is an excellent collection of specialized essays. It is a very useful reference guide for some of the more technical ideas and concepts used by Habermas, including those of his early career.

  • Cherem, Max. Jürgen Habermas. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2016.

    E-mail Citation »

    A good overview of Habermas’s thought that pays particular attention to how his ideas developed. This is slightly longer than a standard encyclopedia entry and includes some brief conceptual explanations.

  • Finlayson, J. Gordon. Habermas: A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

    DOI: 10.1093/actrade/9780192840950.001.0001E-mail Citation »

    An excellent introduction organized around five research programs that define Habermas’s oeuvre. For those just starting to delve into Habermas, it contains a useful appendix summarizing the basic “questions and answers” for each research program as well as a solid list of further resources to consult.

  • McCarthy, Thomas. The Critical Theory of Jürgen Habermas. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1978.

    E-mail Citation »

    At the time of its publication this was the single best authority on Habermas’s work, and it continues to be the best work on his early career up to Habermas 1984 and Habermas 1987 (both cited under Habermas’s Works). Since McCarthy has long served as Habermas’s main English translator, his conceptual explanations are not only clear but also extremely faithful to the connotations of the original German.

  • White, Stephen K. The Recent Work of Jürgen Habermas. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511598265E-mail Citation »

    A superb overview of Habermas’s thought subdivided into chapters that deal with topics like rationality, action, justice, ethics, modernity, and political theory. It covers Habermas’s mature thought about communicative action and discourse ethics but was written before his comprehensive political theory as laid out in Habermas 1996 (cited under Habermas’s Works). It therefore offers a way of understanding the potential of Habermas’s early and mature thought. This is important for those on the left who are skeptical of Habermas’s turn toward more moderate social democratic politics and away from his early Marxist views.

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