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Jurgen Habermas

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Created: July 8, 2003
Latest Update: July 8, 2003

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Site Teaching Modules Outhwaite's Introduction to Habermas
through jeanne's perspective

Site Copyright: Jeanne Curran and Susan R. Takata and Individual Authors, July 2003.
"Fair use" encouraged.

  1. Setting the Stage

    This essay and discussion is based on William Outhwaite's Habermas: A Critical Introduction. Stanford University Press. 1994. ISBN: 0-8047-2479-2 (paper).

    In this text, William Outhwaite, Professor of Sociology at the University of Sussex, follows Habermas' train of thought from his first identification with the Frankfurt School, through his interpretation of Marxism, through his concern for scientism, or positivism gone mad, through his theory of communicative action.

    Outhwaite's is a difficult text because he assumes that one is well-read in both Habermas and Habermas' critics. For lots of us here in the U.S. that's not a good assumption. So I struggle with the text, and go out searching for what I haven't read, and try to review it all for you, so you won't have the same struggle. Just remember that I'm not an expert. Too much of my time is devoted to how to give you what I consider a necessary familiarity with Habermas' work. And the YOU here is addressed to all who would try to understand the big issues we of the twenty-first century are facing.

    The big issues, as I see them, include:

    • How do we manage to live together in peace across differences?
    • How is democracy possible without disenfranchising, and consequently dominating and exploiting, the Other?
    • How do we place boundaries on greed for the good of us all, within what has become almost exclusively a capitalist system?

      Having gained as much knowledge as we can about all these questions:

    • How shall we as a nation-state and as a global entity live?
    • How shall I live?

    Socrates is, of course, the source for the last great question. But the others kind of flow naturally in the 21st Century. "How shall I live?" becomes "How shall we live?" for we are all interdependent at this stage of being. Our selection of "Dear Habermas" as the title for this Site was based on our belief that Habermas, in his attempt to salvage what can be salvaged of the enlightenment, while fully understanding that there is a dark side to such enlightenment, but refusing to forfeit what we have learned from modernism, has expressd the kind of hope in learning for the future that we share. So most of the big questions on which our courses turn are covered by Habermas. But they are also covered by many others, some who criticize, some who acknowledge, Habermas.

    Susan and Pat and I, in developing and maintaining this site, are not trying to second-guess Habermas, correcting his path, and deciding the extent to which he is right or wrong. First of all, no one "knows." Scientific American has just published a new theory over which physicists are arguing about frozen stars, whose liquid turns to ice, and which therefore defy many laws of physics, and the problems of spacetime theory and gravity. Compared to this new theory "string theory" looks conservative. So you want us to make fine judgments as to who's right amongst social theorists? Never. We don't have a collective clue, as one physicist put it.

    But that's the extreme postmodernist perspective. We can't know anything for sure, so why even try? Everybody's theory is just as good as everybody else's theory. Whoa! Not so! That relativism foolishness is trying to throw out the baby with the bathwater. And that, to me, in very simplified terms, is what Habermas' argument is about the enlightenment. He understands as well as any of the rest of us that the enlightenment has a dark side, that in the single-minded pursuit of progress and control, humans have killed and enslaved and exploited more other humans than we can calmly contemplate. But that doesn't mean that we haven't learned and still aren't learning from modernism. It just means that the path isn't linear, and it's dangerous.

    By saying the path isn't linear I mean that we can't simply follow instructions from A through E. That's because we're not sure that in A, B, C, D, and E we've found all the significant peprspectives and facts to the extent that we can know them. Sometimes we think we've got it, really got it, only to find that quantum theory doesn't fit with gravity. That's only scary if you've been taught to memorize and/or accept everythiing you've learned. If you've learned to question, you'll discover that both postmodern sociology and posmodern physics are neat sandboxes in which to play. And we're not even sure what it is that we mean by postmodern here, except that we must learn to apply our own critical intelligence and engage in active participation in our communal affairs. Authority must be questioned, for none of us can "know" unequivocally. Ambiguity and ever-changing learning are a part of our human existence.

    I think Habermas reflects that when he suggests that we must have at least a metatheory of critique to guide us in deciding what makes sense, within the limits of our knowledge, and what doesn't. Or, as scientists have often asked, "the social construction of what?" Yes, much of our communal life is socially constructed, but we can't socially construct gravity, not even when it refuses to get along with the newer quatnum theory. Gravity is out there, or has fallen off into the glob, but in any case has interacted with us in the things we can socially construct. So while you may not choose to study frozen stars and all their mysteries, or all the mysteries of string theory, you do need to recognize the importance of staying open to new learning, to recognizing that for too many centuries humans have killed other humans in the interest of what they thought they knew only to discover later that the knowledge they fought for has moved on past them.

    Now, this doesn't mean that I think Habermas is right about our need for a metatheory of critique. How on earth would I know? But I know that Lyotard's concern with throwing out all metatheory leaves me struggling to communicate critique. And if you tentatively side with Lyotard or Luhman, or any of Habermas' other critics, that's OK. Just remember that doesn't mean you don't have to follow both lines of reasoning because nobody really knows. "Knowing" today means having adequate critical understanding to make reasoned choices between alternative perspectives without assuming a certainty of knowledge for which we are willing to kill.

    So why did I pick Habermas as our role model? Because he seems more reasonable than most others who tackle these issues. How, more reasonable? Well, he still argues and takes major stands against some issues, but he gives me theoretical room to maneuver, to search out some system of criticism, even if it turns out not to be "a metatheory," and he has faith that we can overcome the big issues without killing each other. Hey, in the beginning of the 21st Century that's pretty positive. I'm not trying to write the definitive history of humankind. I'm just trying to educate us all to a far more sensitive and critical public sphere of governance. For that, we need to understand at least basically what the great thinkers are arguing, regardless of which we believe is closest to our own inclination.

    Rita likes Bush. I am frenetically opposed to Bush. He opposes the social welfare net I believe needs to be in place; he treats foreign policy like a game where he's got all the bets covered; he fails to see the real importance of the environment in our future; and he doesn't have much of a social conscience. I'm not sure why Rita likes him. She knows him, has met him; so there's a qualitative aspect to her inclination. And since the World Trade Center attack, he has taken a path that the majority of Americans approve. Who's right? Both of us and neither of us. It's not about Bush. It's about how Rita and I come to respect each other through our critical understanding of the underlying issues, the big issues, that we are all facing. We don't have to agree. We have to come to an understanding of our differences, and stop trying to control all those differences.

    Though this brings us down to the trenches of ordinary living, I think Habermas would agree, and would be pleased to know that discussions like this are taking place in our schools and in our communities. I find such discussions essential to representative democracy, for those who are to be represented have only themselves to look to to protect that democracy against greed and exploitation and ultimate implosion of its infrastructure.

    This is how we come to Outhwaite's critical introduction to Jurgen Habermas. One of the social theorists we gotta know about is Habermas.

  2. Notes and Comments on Outhwaite's Introduction
    jeanne's notes and jeanne's comments that express opinions on reading:

    • Habermas' Importance as a thinker

      Outhwaite, at p. 6: "In my view, Habermas is the most important social theorist of the second half of the twentieth century . . ." This opinion is shared by many others. l agree for many of the reasons I state above, even though I have not had the leisure of studying his work in nearly the depth of many of the theorists I'll be quoting. His importance for me lies in the fact that I see in his approach and the thread of his thinking a way to reach my students and the community, and to build the skills in public discourse. jeanne

    • Habermas' Background (Outhwaite, at p. 2):

      • Born in 1929 in Gummersbach, small town 35 east of Cologne, Germany.
      • Father, director of Chamber of Commerce
      • Outhwaite describes the town as giving a superficial sense of normality "which afterwards proved to be an illusion." This refers to the growth of Nazism as Germany progressed towards the invasion of neighboring countries. Although World War II was years away, the atmosphere out of which it grew permeated much that went on in Germany.

    • Habermas' Early Work and 1968 student revolution

      • Outhwaite, at p. 3: "The year 1968 was of course the time of major student-led protest in West Germany as elsewhere." This was the time of the Vietnam War protests.

      • Outhwaite at p. 3: "Habermas participated fully in the movement, welcoming its intellectual and political challenge to the complacency of West German democracy. . ." Marcuse, also of the Frankfurt school, participated in the movement in the US. Angela Davis was his student. Outhwaite notes at p. 3 that Habermas soon parted with the movement because it went "too far for Habermas and in what he considered to be unrealistic directions, dangerous both politically, given the repressive capacities of the state, and intellectually, in its tendency to reject scholarship as bourgeois." There is always such danger with radical movements. They are about action and change, and in such situations, scholarship, particularly of the academy fostered by the state, seems too apologetic to be granted adeqate respect. Today, as we speak out against the War with Iraq, we encounter much of the same concern.

      • Habermas had started as a Professor of Philosophy at Heidelberg, and then went to Frankfurt where he was Professor of Philosophy and Sociology. (Outhwaite, at p.2) US students are often less familiar with the philosophical groundings of sociology. Many of the early sociologists were members of the clergy or sons of members of the clergy. There weren't a lot of female sociologists in those days. The prominence of positivism in the US means that we have placed less and less emphasis on the philosophical and liberal arts underpinnings of sociology.

      • Habermas' first work was on the Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. He had worked on this with Adorno from 1959-61, but Adorno had rejected it. Habermas published it in 1962, and went on to become the leading representative of the Frankfurt School which Adorno and Horkheimer had founded. Let this be a reminder to you to have faith in yourself, even when your teacher disagrees.

        Public sphere and public discourse refer to space and time devoted to the discussion of major issues of governance and value by ordinary folks like you and me. In the eighteenth century this was referred to as the "literate bourgeois public." Outhwaite, at p. 8. The reference to structural transformation draws our attention to the context in which any such discourse would take place, and makes us aware of the increasingly superficial concept of public opinion:

        "'Public opinion' takes on a different meaning depending on whether it is brought into play as a critial authority in connection iwth the normative mandate that the exercise of political and social power be subject to publicity or as the object to be molded in connection with a staged display of, and manipulative propagation of publicity in the service of persons and institutions, consumer goods, and programs."
        Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, at p. 236, as quoted in Outhwaite at p. 7.

        There are several keywords I'd like you to note in this section: public sphere, public discourse, public opinion, critical authority, normative mandate, staged display, and manipulative propagation. As I understand the section, a normative mandate (meaning an order or mandate that reflects what the normative response of the public would be) to stage a display of concern or pride or fear or revenge or whatever would have a major effect on those of the public who were unaware that the display was staged. Habermas appears to me to be expressing a fear of the use of opinion polls or confrontations or stagings of any kind, especially TV with new technology when such events are staged with a persuasion intent for one perspective or another. Habermas' concern about the student left is as great as his concern about the complacent German democracy. So's mine. 'Tis a very fine line we walk to recall that we do not "know," no matter what our perspective. Except in the sense I discussed above of not being able to socially construct some of the infrastructure within which we coexist. And that's what scares me about George Bush. I don't think he gets that. I think he thinks that money can buy "knowing." It can't. jeanne

    • Habermas: Frankfurt to Max Planck Institute to Frankfurt

      Until 1971 Habermas remained at Frankfurt, carrying on as the primary representative of the Frankfurt School, often known in the US as critical theory. Critical theory demands not just the study of society, but also action in the interest of changing that which exploits, dominates, harms people. It fits with that arm of postmodern theory that shows an unwillingness to smash the offending social structure that offends. Some postmodern theory recognizes that changes can be made because the structure and the human group are interdependent. By building our skills at public discourse and building a system of law that creates a space for feedback from those it purports to govern we can change, even the infrastructure, though not gravity, more's the pity. jeanne

      In 1971, Habermas went to the Max Planck Institute for the Conditions of Life in the Scientific-Technical World. There he published the Legitimation Crisis and The Theory of Communicative Action. Then he returned to Frankfurt, where he was Chair in Sociology and Philosophy. Outhwaite, at p. 3.

    • Habermas' Relation to Marx and Weber

      Outhwaite, at p. 3. Up soon. jeanne

      Notes: Giddens said he would give Habermas a B on Weber. See, what do teachers know?

  3. Discussion Questions

    1. Why did it seem silly to us when our students asked what Habermas would think about an issue we were discussing?

      Consider that it took lots of expertise and preparation for Outhwaite to assimilate Habermas' theories and to critique them in light of others' responses and objections. We are primarily teachers with little enough time and support for minimal research. So there's no way we could match Outhwaite's research and writing and still have a life. Nor have I ever met Habermas. How would I know how he would react to newly occurring issues? But the students were right in one sense. I care about Habermas' theories, and am far better acquainted with them than my students, so I can help them gain that knowledge. Then we can all make a better educated guess as to what Habermas might think, so long as we understand it's just an educated guess. Maybe a little better than Dear Abby, but not a scholarly resource.

      That doesn't mean that what students and faculty have to say doesn't count. It does. Because we are able to provide a perspective very different from that of Habermas himself and from scholars like Outhwaite. We can gauge how much discretionary time we and our local community members can and will be willing to free for such exploration of ideas and issues. We also speak your and our language and can put Habermas' theories into language we can all respond to. I am always reminded of the old Black folks who sat on the porch of the general store in Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God. The men on that front porch, and the heroine, were discussing heredity and environment as determinants of behavior. Now, they didn't use those words. But they sure had the idea, and it mattered to them to discuss it. Philosophy. Psychology. Sociology. A literate public doesn't have to speak Habermas; it has to grasp the ideas, just as the men on that General Store porch did. Because when they do grasp the ideas, they will be more sensitive to all perspectives and vote more humanely and intelligently. Oh, yes, now they have the vote. Democracy, remember?

    2. What important school of social theory has Habermas represented throughout his career?

      Consider the Frankfurt School, critical theory, marxism, political philosophy, activity in political issues. More soon. jeanne

    3. What is so important about Habermas' concern with the public sphere?

      Consider the role of public discourse in governance, legitimacy, and social justice. Consider also issues of inclusion and exclusion. More soon. jeanne

    4. Conceptually link the public sphere to:

      • crime and punishment
      • corrections
      • family
      • inclusion and exclusion . . . More soon. jeanne