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Perhaps the most important fact of Jürgen Habermas's life is that he grew up during the Nazi period. His father was an anti-semite, and Habermas himself was a member of the Hitler youth. After the carnage of World War II and revelations about the Holocaust, Habermas acknowledged his personal guilt and that of his country: "All at once we saw that we had been living in a politically criminal system." As a result of his experience he has spent much of his life trying to construct a philosophical system that would advance democratic values.

Habermas's main intellectual influence was the Frankfurt School, an institute largely comprised of Jewish intellectuals who interpreted history from a neo-Marxist, and in some cases Freudian, perspective. Called Critical Theory, it examined the role of ideology in establishing social dominance. Habermas's mentors at the institute were Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer. In their book Dialectic of Enlightenment, they argued that the ascendance of fascism and Soviet style Marxism undermined conventional Marxist theory; according to this theory, forces within capitalism would keep oppositional groups in check, thereby guaranteeing stability. Instead, when ideologies clashed, resulting in the supremancy of one group, dictatorships were inevitable. The authors saw this as the triumph of irrationality over rationality.

Habermas rejected their pessimism. He thought Marx’s theory of alienation was too economically grounded, too fixated on labor and nineteenth century modes of production; to supplement Marx, Habermas turned to German hermeneutics and American pragmatism, both of which emphasized the importance of everyday life. He also explored how theories of language and of developmental psychology could be effective analytical tools. Chief among these were Austin’s work in speech act theory, Kohlberg’s theory of the moral development of children, and Rawls’s original position. If one were to identify Habermas's major contribution to theory, it might be his concept of communicative rationality, which addresses the norms and procedures essential to political discourse.

Book for Our Meeting

Our text will be Jürgen Habermas on Society and Politics: A Reader. Ed. Steven Seidman. Beacon Press, 1989. Approximately 300 pages, it contains thirteen essays subsumed under three topics: On Critical Theory, Reconstructing Historical Materialism, and The Analysis and Critique of Modern Society. Copies of the book are available from for $16.00 new and from $9.60 used (shipping and handling not included). Numerous used copies are also available for under $15.00 from

Two recommendations: (1) because we are meeting earlier in the month than usual, try to order the book as soon as possible, and (2) Habermas's writing is notoriously difficult; one book that clearly explains his ideas, as well as their historical context, is Habermas: A Very Short Introduction by James Gordon Finlayson. It's about $6.50 and can easily be read in one day. I relied on it heavily when drafting my introduction.

The following resources provide analyses, bibliographies, interviews, lecture notes, and videos:

Wikipedia: “Jürgen Habermas”, "Critical Theory", “Frankfurt School”, “Communicative Rationality”, “Communicative Action”, “Universal Pragmatics, “Discourse Ethics”, “Rational Reconstruction”, "Ideal Speech Situation", “Public Sphere”, “The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere”, “The Theory of Communicative Action”, "Lifeworld", "Marxism", "Speech Act"

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: "Jürgen Habermas", "Critical Theory"

Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: "The Frankfurt School and Critical Theory"

Habermas Forum (contains extensive primary and secondary bibliographies)

Habermas Quotes from The European Graduate School and from Wikiquote

James Gordon Finlayson. "Habermas and Frankfurt School Critical Theory." In Habermas: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press, 2005: 1-15.

P. Sudersan. "Habermas and Critical Social Theory." Indian Philosophical Quarterly 25.2 (April 1998), pp. 253-266.

Jack Mendelson. "The Habermas-Gadamer Debate." New German Critique 18 (Autumn 1979), pp. 44-73.

Thomas McCarthy. "Kantian Constructivism and Reconstructivism: Rawls and Habermas in Dialogue." Ethics 105 (October 1994), pp. 44-63.

Simon Susen. “Critical Notes on Habermas’s Theory of the Public Sphere.” Sociological Analysis 5.1 (Spring 2011), pp. 37-62.

Douglas Kellner. “Habermas, the Public Sphere, and Democracy: A Critical Intervention.” (author is Professor of Philosophy, Columbia University)

Barbara Weber. “J. Habermas and the Art of Dialogue: The Practicability of the Ideal Speech Situation.” Analytic Teaching 28.1 (2008), pp. 1-8.

Joshua Cohen. “Reflections on Habermas on Democracy.” Ratio Juris. 12.4 (December 1999), pp. 385-416.

Jeffrey Flynn. “Communicative Power in Habermas’s Theory of Democracy.” European Journal of Political Theory 3.4 (October 2004), pp. 433-545.

Roger Bolton. “Habermas’s Theory of Communicative Action And the Theory of Social Capital." Paper read at meeting of Association of American Geographers, Denver, Colorado, April 2005.

Steven Levine. “Truth and Moral Validity: on Habermas’ Domesticated Pragmatism” (author is Professor of Philosophy, University of Massachusetts at Boston).

Mitchell Stephens. “Jurgen Habermas: The Theologian of Talk.” Los Angeles Times Magazine (23 October 1994).


"Discourse Theory and International Law: An Interview with Jürgen Habermas." Verfassungsblog (12 May 2013).

"A Postsecular World Society? On the Philosophical Significance of Postsecular Consciousness and the Mulitcultural World Society: An Interview with Jürgen Habermas"(sponsored by Social Science Research Council; date unknown).

"The European Citizen: Just A Myth?" The Global Journal (18 May 2012).

Lecture Notes

"Introduction to Habermas's Discourse Ethics" by Professors Robert Cavalier, Carnegie Mellon and Charles Ess, Drury College. 

“The Discourse Ethics of Jürgen Habermas” by Professor Antje Gimmler, Dept. of Applied Philosophy at Aalborg University (Denmark).

“Notes on Habermas: Lifeworld and System” by Professor Arthur W. Frank, Dept. of Sociology, University of Calvary.


"Jürgen Habermas Interview"

“Rick Roderick on Habermas–The Fragile Dignity of Humanity” (Philosophy professor who has taught at the University of Texas and Duke University)

Join or login to comment.

  • Angie A.

    Great discussions and great subteacher ;)

    1 · December 15, 2013

  • Craig Y.


    1 · December 15, 2013

  • Kacie R.

    Realized in my zest that I don't have enough time to do the necessary reading! Hopefully I'll get into the next meet up :-)

    December 12, 2013

  • Craig Y.

    I will be late about an hour on Saturday and looking forward to your meetup.

    December 12, 2013

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