Jürgen Habermas (born 1929 in Germany) is one of the leading philosophers of the second half of the twentieth century. He has had and continues to have a decisive influence on communication theory and research internationally through his work on the public sphere and his theory of communicative action, as well as his theory of deliberative democracy and public deliberation.
In his book on The structural transformation of the public sphere (originally published in German in 1962, but available in English only in 1989, several years after his Theory of communicative action appeared in English, in two volumes, 1984 and 1987), Habermas describes, in an ideal-typical fashion, the emergence of a bourgeois public sphere in Europe in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The bourgeois public sphere opened a space for rational-critical discussion between private individuals about matters of common concern and thus constituted a social sphere separate from self-interested interaction in the marketplace, on the one hand, and the authority of the state, on the other. Habermas portrayed the development of public communication since the midnineteenth century as a process of increasing commercialization of the mass media and a growing tendency toward publicity aimed at securing mass loyalty rather than critical debate (a process he called “refeudalization” of the public sphere).
This conception of the public sphere was criticized on several grounds (for an overview, see Calhoun 1992). Some questioned the historical accuracy of the account, some objected to the neglect of non-bourgeois (plebeian) public spheres, others questioned the very demarcation of the public as opposed to the private and the subsequent confinement of the conjugal family to the private sphere, or rejected what they saw as an overly rationalist conception of public communication. In response to such criticism, Habermas (1992) made some revisions of his original account and further elaborated his normative conception of the public sphere in the context of an overarching theory of deliberative democracy (Habermas 1996). He now acknowledges a more ambivalent role for mass-mediated public communication in democratic politics by stressing the capacity of civil society to procure and withdraw political legitimacy at least in exceptional phases of heightened political conflict. He sees the public sphere as a “highly complex network that branches out into a multitude of overlapping international, national, regional, local, and subcultural arenas” (Habermas 1996, 372). And he emphasizes the importance of informal public opinions rooted in the life-world functioning as an antidote to what he sees as the colonization of the life-world by the systems of money and administrative power (economy and politics).
More fundamentally, Habermas has turned away from concrete historical instantiations of the public sphere (i.e., its bourgeois type) as a source of normative potential and has developed a normative model of rational-critical discourse that is rooted in a reconstruction of the implicit presuppositions that humans make in everyday communication. According to Habermas’s “theory of communicative action” (1984, 1987), speakers implicitly follow the rules of an ideal speech situation by counterfactually presupposing that contributions in discourse are comprehensible, true, sincere, and morally right. Even though these rules are violated all the time, they serve to normatively regulate communicative behavior by privileging communicative action, i.e., “action oriented to reaching understanding,” over “action oriented to success” (Habermas 1984, 285). Violations of the rules of discourse can be addressed in different types of discourses in which the respective validity claims are problematized and discussed – a process that creates procedural rationality. And Habermas insists that it is this procedural rationality created in discourse (rather than some dubious kind of alleged substantive rationality) that confers legitimacy upon political decisions, actors, and institutions, and that facilitates societal learning processes (Habermas 2006). Public deliberation, therefore, is vital for democratic politics, and cannot be substituted by success-oriented strategies of public relations. Habermas’s writings on the public sphere and public deliberation continue to inspire both theoretical reflection and empirical investigation, particularly in the field of political communication but also beyond (see Butsch 2007; Peters in press). In addition to his theoretical work, Habermas has also emerged as one of Germany’s most prominent public intellectuals and a well-known international figure – raising his voice and triggering public debate about a wide range of issues including, for example, revisionist accounts of the Hitler regime, the ethical implications of genetic engineering, or the value of a Constitution for the European Union.
- Butsch, R. (ed.) (2007). Media and public spheres. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
- Calhoun, C. (ed.) (1992). Habermas and the public sphere. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
- Habermas, J. (1984). The theory of communicative action, vol. 1: Reason and the rationalization of society. Boston, MA: Beacon Press. (Original work published in German 1981).
- Habermas, J. (1987). The theory of communicative action, vol. 2: Lifeworld and system: A critique of functionalist reason. Boston, MA: Beacon Press. (Original work published in German 1981).
- Habermas, J. (1989). The structural transformation of the public sphere: An inquiry into a category of bourgeois society. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. (Original work published in German 1962).
- Habermas, J. (1992). Further reflections on the public sphere. In C. Calhoun (ed.), Habermas and the public sphere. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, pp. 421– 461.
- Habermas, J. (1996). Between facts and norms: Contributions to a discourse theory of law and democracy. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. (Original work published in German 1992).
- Habermas, J. (2006). Political communication in media society: Does democracy still enjoy an epistemic dimension? The impact of normative theory on empirical research. Communication Theory, 16(4), 411– 426.
- Peters, B. (in press). Public deliberation and public culture (ed. H. Wessler, pref. J. Habermas). Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
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