Summary and Keywords
Jürgen Habermas is a primary figure in the Frankfurt School of critical theory that emerged in Germany after World War II. He wrote several important works addressing a variety of fields, including legal hermeneutics, to liberal political philosophy, to systems theory, and language analysis. Throughout his research, he has lauded intersubjective “communicative action” as a key paradigm for politics, law, and ethics.
Habermas’s theory of communicative action frames human beings as rational arguers. In his view, communication involves discussants disputing “validity claims” to gain mutual understanding and reach consensus. When he applies this communicative action perspective to culture and society, Habermas diagnoses the pathologies that occur when people coordinate their actions strategically through artificial systems rather than cooperatively through dialogue. When he applies it to ethical theory, he draws out the assumptions interlocutors must make when they argue—they are obliged to attempt to justify claims so that they could be universally accepted by those involved in the discourse.
In addition to theorizing communication, Habermas throughout his work analyzes the structures and systems that enable public communication in civil society. From this perspective, democratic society relies on spaces and institutions that allow for the public to debate matters of common concern, particularly when they involve the state. In his historical account, Habermas argues that the “public sphere” transformed during the Enlightenment to give communicative outlets to an emerging bourgeois class. From a legal and philosophical perspective, he outlines conditions for political and communicative agency in a modern constitutional state.
Communication scholars have had a mixed reaction to Habermas. He offers a vision of critical theory that allows for practical reason, but some assert that his theories are too idealistic and counterfactual to apply to real-life discourse. However, other scholars have nuanced his theory by putting him in dialogue with the rhetorical tradition. Publics and counterpublics especially have become common parlance and have helped explain protest, advocacy, and the constitution of communities in democratic culture.
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