Futures of Habermas’s Work

By Matthias FritschAugust 11, 2019

Futures of Habermas’s Work
THE 90TH BIRTHDAY of Germany’s most important living philosopher provides a welcome opportunity to reflect on the mark his work will have left. What legacy will his work leave for humanity? What aspects of his immense corpus will endure for future generations? I will single out three areas in response to these questions as we celebrate Habermas’s birthday.

Habermas’s two-volume The Theory of Communicative Action (1984) is already a classic in theoretical sociology due to its masterful re-launching of its predecessors, from Marx and Durkheim to Weber and Parsons. Habermas makes communication the glue of the social web in a way that overcomes the predominant view of society in the social theory of modernity. He criticizes the modern paradigm of what he dubs the “philosophy of the subject” for its stress on the individual, who is portrayed as standing over and against a world of objects and other subjects. This view tends toward social atomism: society is either understood as little more than a collection of isolated individuals, or simply denied — as Margaret Thatcher famously did in 1987. By contrast, Habermas argues that individualization and socialization go hand in hand, for they occur by way communicative action, the attempt to reach understanding with others by means of language. We become our own unique selves only in on-going, communicative relations with others. When the subjectivist paradigm attempts to go beyond atomistic individuals, its limits constrain it to a model of society along the lines of a collective super-subject, sometimes with drastic consequence. Marx’s view, for instance, seemed to call for the creation of a homogenous classless society transparent to itself.

In contrast to this, Habermas’s theory of communicative action conceives of the modern rationalization of society as a differentiated twofold process: the uncoupling of material reproduction in the systems of the market economy and the administrative state apparatus from the symbolic reproduction in what Habermas called the lifeworld, that is, the private arena of family and friends, as well as the public sphere of civil society, where we find discursive deliberation in the media, the universities, and so on. Modernization gradually separates systems from lifeworld, freeing the latter, as the symbolic background to communicative action, for unfolding its full normative-rational potential (more on this below), though at the cost of permitting the dominance of more strategic, instrumental, and utilitarian attitudes in the systems. “Society” is here viewed as resulting from a multiplicity of cooperative acts, some that take place in functional systems, others by means of language in the lifeworld. In the former, cooperation is achieved behind the backs, as it were, of participants, by way of money (in the capitalist economy) or by power (in the state apparatus), mechanisms that link up usually unintended consequences. By contrast, lifeworld cooperation requires communicative action, that is, coming to an understanding and agreement on the basis of language alone, free in principle of the influence of money or power. And it is communicative action alone, Habermas argues, that permits the indispensable symbolic reproduction of the lifeworld — the updating of cultural knowledge, the generation of social cohesion, and the socialization of new members.

This dual view of the rationalization processes (both systemic and communicative) permits Habermas to view modernization as essentially progressive, yet full of inherent dangers and regressive moments. While inspired by Marx, the uncoupling of the capitalist economy from direct control by communicative agreements is for him in principle unproblematic. It promises greater efficiency in material reproduction and frees symbolic reproduction in the lifeworld for its own progressive rationalization, such as the increasing retreat of tradition and religion from determining what is true and what is just. Much of the critical potential of Habermas’s theory relies on the claim that despite their decoupling, these systems require the communicative achievements of the lifeworld, in which they remain largely anchored — and, ideally, constrained and determined — by modern law. The perception of law’s legitimacy, for example, can for Habermas only be generated, at least over the long haul, by linguistic communication. The basic idea here is familiar to most of us: in principle, you cannot force people to actually believe this or that, you can only convince them by means of language and good reasons. Similarly, the trust required for money and for the operation of economic contracts must be provided by the communicative lifeworld, which also socializes new subjects capable of speech and action. Without these, the systems could not function.

Despite this anchoring, that is, despite the need for subjecting the systems to the normative-linguistic demands of the lifeworld, the functional systems are blind to their own effects and “colonize” the lifeworld today, Habermas argues. The private and the public sphere are subjected to the alien influences of money and administrative power. Private citizens are turned first and foremost into consumers, which often fosters an instrumental rather than communicative orientation already at the very beginning of socialization. As we all know, public will formation is heavily influenced by big money and government interference. Instrumentalization and monetarization push us toward identity crises, alienation from society and from autonomous life styles, and, eventually, toward a loss of meaning. Who could deny the pertinence of these critical diagnoses today, when democracies, perhaps especially in the United States, seem increasingly unable to push through even the most common-sensical measures in response to crumbling infrastructure and schools, huge income inequality, gun control, and climate change?


The second way in which I want to address the future of Habermas’s work lies in what we might call dialectical osmosis: How has his work confronted, and how has it been received, by its critics? Has he engaged in debates that have defined or altered a field of investigation, thereby leaving a more or less indirect legacy in those fields? Here I will focus on two of the most well-known French theorists whose work Habermas has confronted in famous and still-relevant debates: Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida.

Habermas agrees with the “postmodern” (i.e., mostly French) critics of modernity that the philosophy of the subject is exhausted. Subjectivity and rationality are situated and particularized in history, embodiment, society, and language. However, for Habermas, this critical insight is still bound to what it rejects if it merely dissolves the human subject into being, history, power, differential structures, or the like. Such a total critique of rationality, as Habermas sees it, undermines reason’s critical normative potential. For Habermas, we can see this tendency in Foucault’s historical genealogies of how power relations came to mold us, and in Derrida’s deconstruction of patriarchal “logocentrism,” the supreme authority granted in the Western tradition to language and reason. For Habermas, the left-leaning critiques of Foucault and Derrida fail to justify their normative sources. In his view, the justification of social critique requires overcoming both the paradigm of the subject and the total rejection of reason. What is needed, in other words, is communicative intersubjectivity and the normative and rational potential inherent in the lifeworld.

In lifeworld communication, we are bound to the inherent norms of language use: whenever we seek to come to an understanding, to convince one another rather than to manipulate or instrumentalize each other, we cannot but promise — if only implicitly — to tell the truth and to assume normatively well-regulated social roles. When challenged on these uncircumventable higher-order norms (“That’s not true!” “You didn’t really mean that!” or “You’re not treating me appropriately!”), we tacitly commit to defending ourselves in what Habermas calls “discourses.” Discourses — which modern, increasingly rationalized lifeworlds institutionalize in academies and universities, in law and ethics boards, in public deliberations in the media and congressional hearings — suspend the quotidian concern for action coordination, and are instead governed by more demanding norms, such as giving everyone affected a chance to speak and not excluding relevant voices. That is why, we may say, those who simply wish to assert their dominance try to avoid sitting down for talks, why they obfuscate the truth and hide what they really mean — why they resort to what has come to be called, following Harry Frankfurt’s term, “bullshitting” instead of merely lying. In moral discourse, for example, we justify norms of justice by seeking the reasoned and ideally power-free consensus of all those affected by those norms — a principle democracy seeks to institutionalize in and through law.

Foucault’s historical accounts of the inevitable intermeshing of power and knowledge, however, disallow this idealized goal of consensus in discourse. What we take to be true knowledge at any given time also depends on inherited frames of understanding and their power-infused, institutionalized applications. While the genealogical attempt to call our attention to, and thus loosen, the grip of inherited but problematic normalizing frames is, grosso modo, welcomed by Habermas — for this could help in making the cultural knowledge and normative web of the lifeworld more rational — he nonetheless wonders about the source of Foucault’s genealogical critique. For Habermas, merely dissolving the subject into power structures leads Foucault to unreflectively shift back and forth between standpoints internal and external to those structures, permitting him no justified critique of them. Accusing Foucault of underhandedly smuggling in normative bases of critique in what amounts to a “crypto-normativism,” Habermas famously asks, “Why fight at all?” While some felt Habermas’s own theory became too preoccupied by questions of justification, to the detriment of substantive social issues, worries about hidden assumptions of value in social theory have led to intensive and welcome research programs in Foucault studies and beyond.

Foucault himself, perhaps at least partly in response to Habermas, associated himself more clearly with the Enlightenment and, in what some have called his “ethical turn,” with the notion of freedom. In his later work, he focused on questions of domination and redeployed the ancient practice of the “care of the self.” Loosening the grip of powerful frames of normalization calls for the ethical obligation to care for oneself. Such care first of all makes of ourselves ethical subjects. Exemplified for Foucault by Socrates, the gadfly of ancient Athens, the care of the self entails coming to know oneself. This calls for parrhesia, or frank and courageous speech: telling the truth about oneself in one’s historical situation, with its contingent constraints and, in doing so, opening possibilities for autonomous ethical relations. Foucault, then, came to understand the truth-telling norms Habermas insisted on not as merely linguistic commitments, but rather as a practice toward the possibility of ethical and political transformation.

After Foucault’s death in 1984, Habermas, too, came to see an “ethics of subjectivity” as necessary for morality and politics. Recognizing the insufficiency of his earlier thesis regarding the gradual disappearance of religion, and thus reconsidering its role in late capitalism, Habermas turned to Kierkegaard’s “leap of faith” to complement his universalist-egalitarian theory of justice. He came to think that his account of post-traditional and post-conventional norms could not prescribe how we were to live our lives, and so lost the motivating force that it expected to come from the domain of ethics, the discourse responsible for exploring who we want to be and how we want to live our lives.

Partly in the wake of the terrorist attacks in September 2001, Habermas began to interpret Western societies as caught between faith and science, between the twin dangers of religious obscurantism or fundamentalism on the one side, and crude naturalism or reductive scientism on the other. The latter, particularly in the form of genetic engineering, undermines the crux of our self-understanding as the authors of our lives and the initiators of our actions, he thought. In the face of liberal practices of eugenic enhancement, Habermas fears that a self that has to think of itself as having been purposefully designed by other human beings cannot understand itself to be free, and hence accountable. To avoid a situation in which a child cannot transform her parents’ designs for her into her own, autonomy must be understood to emerge from an individuating source less universal and abstract than that of communicative rationality. Kierkegaard found that source in God, and Foucault addressed it in the care of the self; without mentioning Foucault in this context, Habermas also called for the care of the self, but supplemented by a more collective “ethics of the human species” that identifies human persons as free and equal, and that may thus prohibit biotechnological enhancements.

The exchange with Derrida followed a similar trajectory of initial, more or less hostile confrontation, followed by a partial (if not explicit) rapprochement, one that may have concealed misunderstandings that could be productively developed only later on. In Derrida’s case, though, the rapprochement actually resulted in some kind of direct collaboration, rather than, as was the case with Foucault, conversations suggested and carried out largely by third parties.

At first, when in the 1980s he defended the “unfinished project of modernity” against what he saw as its postmodern detractors, Habermas also accused Derrida of a totalizing critique of reason, one still beholden to the Cartesian philosophy of the subject. In response, Derrida accused Habermas of hardly reading his texts, thus violating his own ethic of discussion and communicative rationality. Derrida agreed with Habermas that language commits its users to promise to tell the truth, to request trust from interlocutors, and to give reasons for one’s claims. However, Derrida argued that such promises cannot, for conceptual reasons, be fulfilled, at least not fully. For instance, Habermas’s demand that in discourses words be used with the same meaning cannot be made good if those words are subject to constitutive differentiation and processes of alteration. The meaning of words depends on their differential relationship with other words; as a result, their meaning changes, if ever so slightly, with every new context, with every new assemblage of words. If this differentiation and re-contextualization plays an indispensable role in communication, then we cannot assume that the norms of language and of discourse are free from contradictions and interruptions, no matter how idealized the norms may be.

For this reason, Derrida thought that getting closer to the ideal community of discourse that Habermas sees implied in language use could not be a linear path. Derrida not only urged that ideals be understood as having emerged at particular times and in particular social contexts, whose imprint they inevitably bear, but that progress toward ideals be understood as necessarily interrupted by contestations of ideals and by the demands of excluded others. The critique of current injustices is then not so much based on an ideal toward which we are progressively marching, but rather proceeds from an anterior responsibility to those singular voices that are excluded by the present.

In what I would like to think of as the phase of rapprochement between Habermas and Derrida, Habermas became more conciliatory precisely on this subject, i.e., Derrida’s insistence on an unconditional responsibility to singular others. While Derrida noted that Habermas could only find such a concept of responsibility overtaxing, he nonetheless detected elements in Habermas’s writings that were conducive to it. In this context, he gestured toward Habermas’s work on what comes after nation-state sovereignty, his famous “constitutional patriotism” (a postnational patriotism that despite emerging from a particular lifeworld is committed to the universal meaning of constitutional rights), and for forging cosmopolitan solidarities beyond the idea of a world state. It is partly on this basis that the political collaboration between Habermas and Derrida toward the end of the latter’s life may be understood. They agreed to have their responses to the terror attacks of 9/11 published in the same volume, for example, and, also in 2003, they co-signed a longer newspaper article (written by Habermas) which called on the EU to develop a stronger unified role and international policy in the “new world order.”


The topic of European integration brings me to my last speculation concerning the enduring relevance of Habermas’s work in the years and decades to come: namely, how it may address some of the big questions of our time that reach into the future. I will single out the question of justice between present and future generations in the context of the on-going environmental crisis.

Addressing a global problem such as climate change demands some kind of coordination of responses at the international level. Habermas has attempted to reformulate the Kantian cosmopolitan vision of constitutionalizing international law without a world state. This would make possible peaceful global governance beyond the nation-state. But not only the conflicting interests of different states in the present must be overcome. As Stephen Gardiner, who famously dubbed climate change “the perfect moral storm,” has argued, the conflict of interest between different generations may be even more demanding, both morally and politically. Aside from the vexing unpredictability of tipping points, the worst ecological damages will occur at some point in the future, increasing the temptation of “buck-passing” to future generations, both overlapping and more distant.

Why, then, should we in the present take the interests of future people as being equal to ours, and how could we do so? Clearly, future people are heavily affected by current policies and norms, but still, many have thought that discourse ethics is ill equipped to include them into our deliberations. By demanding the actual participation of those affected in discourses, Habermas’s discourse ethics and deliberative democracy have a hard time including people who do not yet exist, let alone have the ability to show any direct concern for the environment.

I think discourse ethics may take up the challenge of future people by focusing on the constitutive embedding of discourses in the lifeworld. Habermas, as we saw, tends to be concerned with the path of normative commitment from lifeworld to discourse — that is, on how and why communicative agents should enter discourses that seek to address disagreements about truth and justice. But for our purposes, the reverse path from discourse to the lifeworld is even more important, for the lifeworld is the social space in which future discourse participants are socialized. Further, newly validated norms and knowledge, but also behavior patterns, personality structures, and social roles, get deposited into the lifeworld that we bequeath to subsequent generations. A consensus that emerges in discourse, for instance, will normally become part of the taken-for-granted background of future interactions.

As a result, discourses of truth and of justice should be concerned with the symbolic reproduction of the lifeworld as this formative passing on of knowledge, norms, and personality structures. Future-oriented concern for the latter is of course most explicit in infant care and youth education in the context of democratic citizenship, and from within Habermas’s work, this attention to socialization, as part of a concern about the lifeworld more generally, is in my view a promising avenue to show its relevance. One may object that this future-directed commitment to enabling responsible interlocutors applies only to overlapping generations, to those children already in our midst. But we should take that commitment to extend much further, namely, transitively by way of intermediate generations. If responsibility for the generation of rational-responsible interlocutors is asymmetrical for a time — educators take that responsibility for children, but not (yet) vice versa — then it also implies an indefinite element that relates to more distant future people not so much directly, but via those with whom at present our lives overlap. We educate our children today so as to be autonomous adults tomorrow, able to assume their responsibilities in the future — but some of those responsibilities will be to enabling their next generation, and so on.

And to enable responsible autonomy that is not yet actual is to assume its responsibilities for the time being, including those transitive, long-term obligations to more distant generations. This transitivity of intergenerational responsibility has implications for such burning issues as climate change: if the presently living are capable of severely hampering, perhaps irretrievably, the means of future citizens to respond to their obligations to their next generation, then mitigation as well as adaptation (if not also compensation in some cases) are demanded by today’s responsibility to enable future adults to handle their duties to yet others.

Given that this responsibility for socialization and responsibilization is inseparable from responsibility for the lifeworld and its symbolic structures, the question arises as to how we can share, across generations, an interconnected web of knowledge, norms, and social roles, one that we usually take for granted but also renew and alter. I suggest we think of ourselves as members of a generation taking our turn in and with the lifeworld. Critical evaluation in the future will judge just how fair our turn with it was. Just as symbolic reproduction is to be seen in its connection with material reproduction, the lifeworld is of course embedded in the globally shared environment. When we discuss long-term policies in discourses, then we ought to be concerned about this commitment to take turns with the lifeworld, as well as with the earth and its climate.

In reflecting on the futures of Habermas’s work, the lifeworld emerged here as a key notion. Its resources are very much needed for stemming the detrimental influence of the capitalist economy on democratic processes, and for grasping these processes as committed to the longer-term horizons required by, for example, the challenges of climate change. Yet crucial questions regarding the lifeworld continue to be relevant for and by the future: for instance, the role of power relations in quotidian and discursive communication, the notion of progress and its necessary interruption, the possible place of singular responsibility in Habermas’s strong universalism, and the role an ethics of the care of the self must play here, especially, but not only, in the face of the increasing possibilities of biotechnological enhancement that threaten to undermine autonomy. On his 90th birthday, we should congratulate Habermas for having crystallized and bequeathed these crucial issues to our common futures.


Matthias Fritsch is professor of Philosophy at Concordia University, Montréal.


Featured image: "Jürgen Habermas, painted portrait" by thierry ehrmann is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

LARB Contributor

Matthias Fritsch is professor of Philosophy at Concordia University, Montréal.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!