The Importance of Habermas in Making Sense of the World


Jurgen Habermas has contributed at least three ideas:

The public sphere

Distinct from home life, distinct from the church, and distinct from government there arose a place for people to gather and talk about life. Habermas calls this the public sphere, where ideas are examined, talked about, reasoned over The realm of this public sphere has been steadily decreasing under the encroachment of large corporations and vacuous media. An obvious implication is that this is a divide and conquer strategy. An interesting recent event is the rise of the internet as a new public sphere. (see below).

The Reconcilliation of Hermeneutics and Positivism

Roughly: it is clear that there is an objective reality, and that the tools of the natural sciences are well matched to exploring it. It is also clear (to Habermas) that the logic of the natural sciences is not the same logic that applies to the human sciences. Why? Because society and culture are domains structured around symbols; symbols require interpretation. Any methodology that systematically neglects the interpretive schema through which social action occurs is doomed to failure. He goes on to postulate a third realm of distinct logic: that of power and domination, which is to be understood using the logic of critical theory. (Well, perhaps. But this whole theme is devestating for deconstructionisitic critics of science, which is seen to be an application of literay theory outside its realm of competence.)

The Theory of Communicative Action

Habermas argues that anyone that uses language presumes that they can justify four caims to validity: what is said can be shown to be meaningful, truthful, justifed, and sincere. That is, users of language make the following claims: (1) What is said is intelligable; it obeys certain synatic and semantic rules so that there is a `meaning' that can be understood by others (2) That the propositional content of what is said is true (3) That the speaker is is justified in saying it; certain social rights or norms are invoked is the use of language (4) That the speaker is sincere in what is said, not trying to deceive the listener. This is what Habermas calls undistorted communications. When one of the validity claims is violated, say that the speaker is lying, then the communication is distorted. This theory of communication has lots of implications, including a definition of truth that claims to universiality.


Habermas, the coffeehouses and the public sphere

In the Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, Habermas argues that England in the 1700's saw the emergence of a new

'public sphere ... which mediates between society and state, in which the public organises itself as the bearer of public opinion'. The greatest contribution to the development of the public sphere was the emergence of its institutional base, the organisational structures that allowed these 'webs of social development' to exist. It links the growth of an urban culture (metropolitan, provincial, imperial), as the new arena of public life (theatres, museums, opera houses, meeting rooms, coffeehouses), to a new infrastructure for social communication (the press, publishing ventures, circulating libraies, improved trasnportation (canals, carriages), increasing reading public, and centers of sociability like coffeehouses and taverns), and the new philanthropic movement of voluntary association. As Craig Calhoun argues, the model allows of print culture and architecture as well as organisations: but the prime example is the coffeehouse, and stresses how 'the conversation of these little circles branched out into affairs of state administration and politics' (p. 12). In these circles or webs, there were several crucial features, Habermas argues: 'a kind of social intercourse that, far from presupposing equality of status, disregarded status altogether' (Habermas, p. 37). There was also a general trust in discursivity and reason. And the emerging public web was established as inclusive by principle: anyone with access to cultural technology like novels, journals, plays, had the potential to claim the attention of the 'culture-debating public'. 'However exclusive the public might be in any given instance, it could never close itself off entirely and become consolidated as a clique; for it always understood and found itself immersed within a more inclusive public of private people, persons who-insofar as they were propertied and educated-as readers, listeners, and spectators could avail themselves via the market of the objects that were subject to discussion.'
Further reading:
Jurgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a category of bourgeois society (1962), trans Thomas Burger, London: Polity, 1989.

Craig Calhoun, 'Introduction', Habermas and the Public Sphere, ed. Craig Calhoun, Cambridge Mass. and London: MIT Press, 1992.

(Thanks to Markman Ellis http://www.qmw.ac.uk/~english/MEllisHome.html for the coffee-Habermas connection.)


The Draining Away of Deep Loyalty from Modern Governments

Another Habermas derived argument has to do with the current state of disaffected citizens in most Western democracies, even, especially those that have provided wealth to their citizens. It has to do with technocratic problem solving as a form of government...