Navigating the Intricacies of Habermas

Light streaming through a dark forest

The Habermas corpus is vast, like a dark forest with light streaming through, illuminating various pathways. If we take account into account his tremendous output and the seemingly endless secondary works (books and journal articles extending to the heavens), one easily feels overwhelmed.

Habermas’s work is not easy to grasp because he criss-crosses many disciplines and has precipitated influential scholarly thinking in so many different domains of thought (theology, health, education, humanities and social sciences, international relations, philosophy and law). And his language is often dense, some might even say convoluted. If you are unschooled in German Idealist thought, one can very quickly get tangled up in a net of abstruse concepts such as Fichte’s non-ego. His ideas are also constantly evolving in dialogue with others. Yet at its heart lies a simple intuition. Our ability to use language contains the secrets of our freedom.

Jurgen Habermas is the world’s leading philosopher. Born in 1929, he grew up in the Nazi regime, like so many of his generation (like Ralf Dahrendorf and Gunter Grass), joined the Hitler Youth. After completing his doctorate on Schelling, Habermas came to Adorno’s attention and arrived there expectantly in 1956. While at the Institute for Social Research (Frankfurt School), he wrote brilliant essays on Marx and notions of political participation. But, surprising as this may seem, Habermas’s Habilitationsschrift (to gain the rank of Professor in Germany, one needs to do what we would call a “second doctorate”) was rejected by Max Horkheimer. Habermas left the Institute and submitted the dissertation to Wolfgang Abendroth at Marburg University. The rejected text was later published in English in 1989 as The structural transformation of the public sphere.

Although deeply influenced by the great Frankfurt critical theorists, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, he could not accept their pessimistic conclusion that “reason” had been consumed in the flames of the holocaust, and that reason, which held out such promise to “liberate” humankind, had turned into its very opposite—an instrument that sought to exercise control and domination over things and people. Habermas knew bitterly that instrumental reason sought the most efficient means to achieve the evil end of eliminating Jews. Even to this day he refuses to condemn severely the state of Israel’s actions against the Palestinians. This troubles me, but one can understand to some extent the deep wound in the German soul. Although this was a uniquely dark moment in European history, Habermas refused to identify reason with its historic instrumental use in the Nazi period. Human beings could learn lessons from catastrophe; the desire to make sense together—to communicate with each other, to understand what our lives mean, and how we ought to proceed-was irrepressible and ineradicable.

Spirit of engagement

Habermas’s scholarly practice is characterized by a deep respect for his “dialogue partners.” He has embodied the spirit of engagement, openness, and humility so often lacking in our public talk and parliamentary discourse these days. He has been a great “hermeneuticist” in dialogue with Foucault, Derrida, Rawls or Rory and numerous others. His “replies to his critics” could be gathered into many volumes.

Habermas insists that “critical theory” can be used by individuals and collectives for liberation from various forms of domination. But in the quest for enlightenment, there are only participants. Critical theory of various types can provide a repertoire of explanations, understandings, and axioms that actors can draw upon in their moral and ethical decision-making. It cannot legislate the way to live well. Nor can it provide comfort in our loneliness, suffering or alienation. Those resources still reside primarily in the semantic potentials of religious experience and cultic life. Habermas claims he is “religiously unmusical.” But he can deliver a commemoration speech on the great Jewish scholar of the Kabbalah, Gershom Scholem, where he seems have the insider’s view, to have read and understood his
weltonjustmystical texts. He knows his Kantian philosophy of religion backwards and forwards; and knows what is at stake theologically and humanly when he reads Schleiemacher and Kierkegaard. Does it strike you as odd to see a photograph of Habermas and Pope Benedict conversing on a sofa?

Habermas has also demonstrated great courage as an intellectual. He has refused the pessimism of his old Frankfurt teachers on one side, and generalized despair on the other. He raised crucial questions to the German New Left of the 1960s and paid dearly for this. In our disenchanted times, Habermas has persisted in articulating a view of democracy that challenges both the cynicism of contemporary political theorizing and the utopian dream, of creating a totally new world (or one completely governed by communicative action). Habermas combines a restrained utopianism with a realistic sense of our contemporary predicament and possibilities as we enter the second decade of the dreadful twenty-first century.

He does not think that “modernity” should be condemned wholesale and outright. He is very skeptical of the “rage against reason” currently so fashionable in the Academy. As well, he has been active through the years as a “public intellectual”, engaging in many disputations—from the disputation with the “German historians” who tried to revise their history so as to skirt responsibility for the holocaust to his facing-off with grumbling theologians who don’t fancy this fox wandering in their henhouse asking hard questions about what faith can mean in a post-metaphysical world or how secular and religious citizens can translate their ideas into publicly accessible language. Habermas adamantly rejects the daft ideas offered by journalists who think that we face the choice of either confining religion to its private places or watching religion fight for domination over everyone else in the public sphere. Like Schleiemacher (who wrote On religion: addresses to its educated despisers in 1799), Habermas has the guts to critique contemporary despisers who desire its demolition.

From his student days, Habermas has tried to find the solid ground, a way to defend the idea that we can rationally justify universal normative claims. Habermas did not think that Marx had succeeded in this task. Nor did he believe that the idea of the proletariat as an emancipatory collective subject still carried deep and profound motivating power in our post-World I societies. To provide this solid ground, Habermas has pursued vigorously this daunting project by re-working historical materialism as a social evolutionary learning theory, analyzing the fundamental knowledge-interests of our species, developing the philosophical basis for communicative action and devising a theory of society anchored in the different modes of rationality (instrumental, communicative and emancipatory). In his most recent works, Habermas has extended his communicative theory into profound reflections on terrorism, religion and public life, genetics and human nature, and the future of Europe. In a nutshell, he is alarmed at the shredding of the conversable world and the global failure to press to the fulfilment of Kant’s great dream of a peaceful, post-national constellation governed by law and bound resolutely to human solidarity.

To engage the world pre-scientifically

In his early controversial text, Knowledge and human interests (1972), Habermas believed that he could ground a revitalized critical theory for our time in our species’ basic cognitive orientations. To be “deeply human” was to engage the world pre-scientifically in inescapable ways. We were creatures thrown into nature and into association with other beings who had the capacity to understand us. We were creatures who had ineradicable interests in gaining partial mastery over the natural world (through social labour) as well as communicating with each other to establish values, norms and procedures to live with one another in a world full of meaning. We were also creatures who have the intellectual and spiritual capacity to recognize when communication is distorted or coerced. Indeed, Habermas boldly asserted that our first speech utterance presupposed an ideal speech situation of unconstrained understanding. These interests—the technical, the practical and the emancipatory—were fundamental learning relationships; we couldn’t escape from them.

Habermas understands the communicative framework within a dualistic framework—the system and the lifeworld. This is the axial conceptual distinction for making sense of Habermas’s social learning theory. The lifeworld is the taken for granted universe of daily social activity. It consists of knowledge, traditions, and customs that are passed down through generations. In the course of social evolution (see Communication and the evolution of society [1979]) the lifeworld becomes opened up gradually to reflective learning processes. The lifeworld is the realm where humans learn what life means, what binds them together, and what is needed to act as a competent person in the world. Expressed schematically, actions in the lifeworld are communicatively coordinated. In contrast, the system consists of the structural features of life governed by non-linguistic media. Habermas argues that the system is made up of two units—the economy and the state. He uses “money” as the signifier for the economy and “power” as the signifier of the state. He develops these ideas in two fat books, Theory of Communicative Action (1984, 1987).

Thus, the sub-systems of economy and state do not co-ordinate our actions through communicative action. Our actions as workers and citizens are coordinated, fundamentally, without our consent and participation in decision-making. The market and administrative systems operate behind our backs as it were. Of course, those who are running (or is it “ruining”?) the economy or the state apparatus talk and argue with one another (with the occasional turn of the ear to muted voices of the exploited). But their talk takes for granted ends that are seldom questioned (the money code constrains the talk within the economic realm, and the power code constrains talk within the administrative systems).

We can debate how much communicative space might be cracked open within system realms. Habermas argues that civil society (the lifeworld expressed in associational and institutional form) requires communicative interaction oriented to understanding for its reproduction. Habermas’s decisive argument is that relationships within civil society are not governed by an instrumental logic. Of course one could now consider how the system realm could colonize the lifeworld, introducing distorting dynamics into the communication process. Habermas’s accentuation of civil society as the preeminent learning domain staked out a controversial theoretical and political position. Those thinkers who gave precedence to overturning the capitalist economy accused Habermas and his followers of acceding to capitalism and adopting a reformist approach to social change. Thus, orthodox Marxist critics of civil societarians argued that until the economy was socialized, all talk of a vital and exuberant civil society replete with emancipatory potential was futile talk. And feminists have queried idealized versions of civil society that assume that it is a nice place, far removed from the nastiness of violence, sexism and racism.

Indeed, voluntary organizations can engage in disturbingly oppressive practices free from any monitoring attuned to universal principles. As I look at what I have written on civil society and social movements, I would say that I have downplayed the nefarious role that a NGO like The National Endowment for Democracy has played in a country like the Ukraine, where it forsook any commitment to forming critically alert citizens and engaged in activities oriented to overthrowing the government and precipitating war against Russia. Organizations like the Ku Klux Klan or Al-Qaeda also occupy the terrain of “civil society,” and they definitely fall into the category of “bad civil society.” Nonetheless, Habermas’s identification of civil society as the primary site of resistance and emancipation, targeting of social movements as exemplary actors, naming of the public sphere as the salient arenas of action and deliberation as fundamental social learning processes caught the imagination of activists and theorists alike.

Core values for critical adult education practice

I consider myself a critical adult educator. The core value structure of adult education—our affirmation that the lifeworld is the foundation of meaning, social solidarity and stable personality, our commitment to the enlightened, autonomous and reflective learner and to the centrality of social learning processes to the formation of the active citizen, and to the fostering of discussion, debate and dialogue among divergent views—leads us straight to the civil society camp. It is the natural home, I would argue insistently, of critical adult educators and movements for social transformation.

Civil society is the privileged domain for non-instrumental learning processes. It is here, within the network of family, school, association, movement and public life, that citizens are able to raise issues or topics requiring public attention and system-action. Here, for example, associations like trade unions (which bridge the lifeworld and the system) can raise pertinent issues pertaining to the exploitation and oppression within the workplace. Left to their own logic and devices, neither economic nor administrative systems are hospitable to learning new ways of seeing and being. The risks of genetic engineering, ecological threats, global warming, feminism’s plethora of themes, skyrocketing impoverishment of the Third World, the HIV/Aids epidemic in Africa and the madness manifest in world leader’s decisions—these (and other) issues swirl out of learning conversations of radical intellectuals, ordinary suffering citizens and citizen advocates and organizations. The general tendency, therefore, is for learning conversations (with the social media creating endless learning space) to crystallize into publicly persuasive formulations. The huge difficulty an awakened and mobilized civil society faces is how to ensure that these demands migrate into the system realms for attention and action. Thus, there must be fluid gateways constructed between civil society, the economy and the state.

Several axioms pertinent to critical adult education emerge through our engagement with the discourse (and practices) within civil society. Filtered through the learning lens, civil society can be revisioned as society’s essential learning infrastructure. From here, we can then make the following observations. First, it is within the realm of civil society that social capital is produced. Concepts like physical and human capital are well known, social capital less so. Social capital refers to the way the dynamics of associational life produce norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness. We form connections to benefit our own interests (networking or jobs). But social capital also affects the wider community—a well-connected community permits individuals to accrue benefits. Social capital is clearly both a “private good” and a “public good.” Service clubs, for instance, produce friendships and business connections while mobilizing resources to fight disease. If relations of trust and reciprocity are damaged or only thinly present, persons will not be open to each other. Indeed, they may look out for number-one and exclude any willingness to walk down a conversational road.

Second, the scope and vitality of a society’s associational is prerequisite for building a deliberative democracy. We learn to be citizens not by participating in politics first, but in the “free spaces” of school, church, 4-H clubs, and YWCA. Associations carry considerable potential to create opportunities for people to learn to respect and trust others, fulfil social obligations and how to press one’s claims communicatively. Tyrannical and oppressive states understand the potential of civil society associations. They will inevitably move to create elaborate surveillance mechanisms (spies in coffee shops and in etherspace) to spy on citizens and prevent learning from crystallizing into outright opposition.

Third, the new social movements are an integral, if disruptive, part of the civil society infrastructure in late modern societies. New social movements are not perfect place; they are flawed, human, and contentious. However, the movement’s task is to produce a broad shift in public opinion; to alter the parameters of organized will-formation, and to exert pressure on parliaments, courts and administrations in favour of specific policies. Movements may also act defensively to maintain the existing structure of associations and public influence. Certainly there are social movements—like religious fundamentalism—that occupy the terrain of civil society and compete to undermine other’s conceptions of the good or vital democracy. Here, the state’s role is to ensure that rules of tolerance and respect for the other’s viewpoint are adhered to. The new social movements (such as the women’s, peace, and ecology movements) are salient learning spaces within modern societies. They raise issues relevant to the entire society, define new ways approaching problems, propose solutions, supply new information, offer different interpretations of prevalent values, and mobilize good reasons while criticizing bad ones. An awakened civil society may strike fear in the hard hearts of the state. In Canada, PM Harper has made moves in a series of recent bills to make protest against, say, pipelines, illegal. Fear and cynicism make a poisonous cocktail.

Fourth, the creation and maintenance of exuberant public spheres is central to civil societarian adult education. Certainly, the new social movements often serve as public spaces creating learning opportunities (through forums, etc.). But in late modern societies, the public sphere is substantively differentiated. Following Habermas (Between facts and norms: contributions to a discourse theory of law and democracy [1996]), we can talk of popular science and literary publics, religious and artistic publics, feminist and “alternative” publics and publics concerned with health issues, social welfare or environmental policy. We can also differentiate publics in terms of density of communication, organizational complexity and the spatial range.

The media—the complex of information-processors and image creators—play an enormously powerful role in influencing how we see the world. The evidence of the power of the corporate mass media—with its incredible ability to invent false truths to sustain American Imperial power against Russia—shocks us out of lethargy. How do we create an enlightened public who have the capacity to break through the fog of propaganda that envelops us? The central question for civil societarian adult educators and social activists is this: who can place issues on the agenda and determine what direction the lines of communication take?

Despite many troubles, the discourse on civil society and public sphere in the contemporary social sciences and humanities is richly suggestive for adult learning theorists and practicing popular educators who are designing intervention strategies for a just and honest learning society.

Dr. Michael Welton is a professor at Athabasca University. He is the author of Designing the Just Learning Society: a Critical Inquiry.












Michael Welton retired from Athabasca University.  His recent books include Unearthing Canada’s Hidden Past: a Short History of Adult Education and Adult Education a Precarious Age: The Hamburg Declaration revisited.