‘Jürgen Habermas: Key Concepts’, ‘Habermas: Introduction and Analysis’, ‘Habermas: A Guide for the Perplexed’ reviewed by Michael Reno

Jürgen Habermas: Key Concepts

Acumen, Durham, 2011. 264pp., £14.99 pb
ISBN 9781844652372

Habermas: Introduction and Analysis

Cornell University Press, Ithaca and London, 2010. 360pp., £16.50 pb
ISBN 9780801476013

Habermas: A Guide for the Perplexed

Continuum, London, 2010. 182pp., £14.99 pb
ISBN 9780826487667

Reviewed by Michael Reno

About the reviewer

Michael Reno recently finished a dissertation on Adorno and is a Visiting Instructor in the …


With a good part of the world in the throes of economic and political crises—particularly relevant for Habermas are the economic crises in the eurozone and the political situation in Greece, which threatens the unity of the eurozone—the publication of several books attempting to synthesize and present Habermas’s oeuvre is timely. For, Habermas is the most influential social theorist of the last half-century. And, given his recent attempts to prod Europeans toward democratic political integration as the solution to economic crisis and anti-democratic centralization on the part of European elites, especially those in Berlin and Paris, it is worthwhile to consider the theoretical basis for his calls to double down on the project of European unification.

Whatever one may think about the rash of introductory volumes on important thinkers over the last decade, the synthesis and simplified presentation of Habermas’s thought is no enviable task. The sheer number of other thinkers digested into Habermas’s system presents a challenge to the would-be summarizer. In addition, Habermas is no dilettante; he assumes his readers already possess more than a basic understanding of the thinkers integrated into his system. Each of the volumes begins with mention of this difficulty, but has differing strategies for dealing with it.

Thomassen’s strategy is perhaps dictated by his writing as part of the `A Guide for the Perplexed’ series. The series is clearly targeted at intermediate to advanced university students for whom the primary texts are simply too difficult to tackle without help. Thus, in the main, Thomassen limits himself to an overview of Habermas’s ideas, stripped of much their historical relation to other thinkers. After a fairly brief biographical introduction, Thomassen orients his presentation around the notion of the public use of reason, which, as he notes several times in the introduction, “runs like a red thread through Habermas’s work” (14). In the context of the European response to the global economic crisis, this is particularly apt. After adequately summarizing Habermas’s version of Adorno and Horkheimer, more generally situating Habermas in the critical theory tradition (chapter 1), and offering an account of Habermas’s changing conceptualization of the public sphere (chapter 2), Thomassen presents two key aspects of Theory of Communicative Action: formal pragmatics and the colonisation thesis (chapter 3). Thomassen’s effort is admirable for the way it clearly and concisely spells out the evolving characterizations of the relationships between system and lifeworld in Habermas’s work (chapter 5). In the earlier works, up through Theory of Communicative Action the solution to the system’s colonisation of the lifeworld is to “build a bulwark around the lifeworld, protecting it against the system” (118). While the more nuanced approach of the later works—Between Facts and Norms, particularly—invokes the notion of sluices or censors through which the system imperatives of the state and economy can be mediated by democratic engagement and lifeworld concerns. The communicative power of weak publics can be brought to bear on administrative power through the strong public of the legislature. Chapter 5 on deliberative democracy captures Habermas’s attempts to mediate several dichotomies in legal theory: natural law and positivism, liberalism and republicanism, constitutionalism and democracy, and shows the tensions in this attempt brought to the fore through civil disobedience. The last chapter (chapter 6), too, in presenting Habermas’s cosmopolitanism in relation to his public stance on the European polity and the NATO bombing of Serbia in response to conflict in Kosovo, offers a way into Habermas’s most recent public pronouncements regarding Europe. At least in the abstract then, Habermas’s calls for engagement on the part of European publics as well as the protests sweeping Greece and the rest of Europe can be understood in the Habermas presented by Thomassen. It is to the book’s credit that despite its brevity, even the uninitiated reader is given some conceptual tools with which to address contemporary economic and political conflict.

Ingram’s ability to review the entirety of Habermas’s corpus shows up the constraints of attempting an introduction to a key thinker from within one of the already existing series dedicated to this goal. Like Thomassen’s work, Ingram first offers a biographical introduction coupled with a philosophical contextualisation. Following this, he, alone among the volumes under review, devotes an entire chapter to Knowledge and Human Interests (chapter 2). Ingram’s account provides its best insights in the nuanced presentation of the complicated relations between state, economy, and lifeworld; Ingram spends four of the book’s eleven chapters (chapters 6-9) detailing the conflicts between law and democracy, an additional chapter on the social pathologies of late capitalism (chapter 10), four of the six appendices on aspects of social theory, and the last chapter (chapter 11) of the book re-contextualising Habermas’s understanding of social development and conflict within Marxist and critical theory traditions.

Ingram’s piece is a complicated attempt to not only present Habermas’s philosophy and social theory in an accessible way, but also an interpretative claim about Habermas’s solutions to the problems of modernity and thus his relationship to Marx, Weber, and the earlier generation of Frankfurt School thinkers. This is an asset for understanding the current economic crisis and the political crises that have followed in its wake. Ingram’s summation of Habermas’s tri-level model of global governance in the penultimate chapter paired with the account of social learning given in the last chapter, Postsecular Postscript, at least makes it plausible why one would turn to Habermas in order to understand contemporary events, rather than, say, merely turning to Marx. These chapters especially show that Habermas not only offers a way to understand class conflict in the mediated terms of social pathologies that emerge in response to system imperatives finding their way into the lifeworld and/or the uneven cultivation of rationalization complexes (319), but also makes clear why global governance with actual democratic input from the people is required to solve system crises that inevitably emerge in the globalized economy. Indeed, Ingram focuses on the current economic crisis as a test case for Habermas’s theory of global governance, pointing out that “Habermas may have underestimated the extent to which the new global economy breaks with the older form of welfare capitalism and its state-centered presuppositions” (303).

Jürgen Habermas: Key Concepts, approaches the difficult problem of synthesis through a division of labour among specialists in crucial areas of Habermas’s thought. So, it more effectively handles the way in which Habermas draws from and alters other thinker’s insights than Thomassen’s piece. The thinkers brought together by Fultner are among the best of the current crop of scholars seriously engaged with Habermas and teaching at North American institutions; several of the authors have also translated important works by Habermas into English. After Fultner’s introduction, Max Pensky gives an intellectual biography, which, in Habermasian fashion situates the philosopher between immanence and transcendence.

Those interested in an introduction to Habermas’s theory of language, especially those coming to Habermas via analytic approaches to philosophy of language will be best served by Habermas: Key Concepts. As Ingram admits in his third chapter, The Linguistic Turn, he barely gives “Habermas’s theory of language the attention it deserves” (87), though it is more extensive than the account in Thomassen’s work. Though Ingram offers an appendix on Brandom, and his chapter on language is adequate as far as it goes, Barbara Fultner’s chapter (chapter 3) on Habermas’s formal pragmatics along with Melissa Yates’s on the meaning of post-metaphysical thinking (chapter 2) better situate Habermas’s appropriation of speech act theory and his formal pragmatics in relation to the key analytic philosophers of language. Particularly useful in this regard are Fultner’s endnotes, which list the key Habermas texts addressing these analytic thinkers.

This is not to deny the quality of the contributions relevant to understanding social crisis. Joseph Heath’s presentation in “System and Lifeworld” (chapter 4) in Key Concepts is a model of clarity. And it is alone in adequately situating the colonisation thesis in terms of Parsons’s account of social subsystems. Haysom’s contribution (chapter 9), one of the most critical, provides an account of the changing place of social conflict in Habermas’s system. In summarizing the role of social movements in the mature account of Between Facts and Norms, Haysom notes, “Habermas’s account allows for the fact that in the normal course of events, initiative lies not with civil society, nor even with parliaments or legislatures, but with senior members of government and administrative bureaucracy” (191). This critical stance is echoed by Cronin’s account of cosmopolitan democracy (chapter 10), in which she wonders “what is left of popular sovereignty” in an international system which depends on governmental and media elites for legitimacy (218). This tension between the social integrative role of law in contemporary societies and the anti-democratic aspects of Habermas’ theory of law are nicely highlighted in Zurn’s piece on the discourse theory of law (chapter 8). These critical accounts are balanced by Olsen’s chapter on deliberative democracy (chapter 7), in which he notes the above problems regarding the potential inability of democratic will-formation to be appropriately taken up in the strong public of the legislature. But concludes that this “problem awaits further discussion between Habermas and his critics” (150).

Habermas’s discourse ethics are taken up by Ingram in chapter 5 and William Rehg’s contribution to Key Concepts (chapter 6). Rehg’s work on Habermas is indispensable, as evidenced by Ingram’s repeated citation of him in his own chapter. But, by offering short summaries of meta-ethical positions (to which the universalization principle answers) and normative ethical positions (to which the “discourse principle” answers) and Piaget and Kohlberg’s developmental theories, Ingram’s chapter better situates discourse ethics in the context of moral philosophy and developmental psychology. Rehg does, in articulating the assumptions of the universalization principle, connect Habermas to the Kantian moral tradition. His account is concerned to articulate the theory to the uninitiated and show the plausibility of discourse ethics for dealing with real moral conflicts, both public and private, rather than the more philosophic ethical concerns of Ingram’s account. In these aims, Rehg’s account succeeds, but also points out the motivation problem in post-conventional accounts of ethics, offering the theory, in the end as conditional upon both the internal structure of moral discourse and the nature of the society in which the discourse occurs (137). Rehg’s account thus characterizes Habermas’s ethics as answering to the modern problems of both autonomy and solidarity.

The questions of personal and political identity are also addressed in both Ingram’s work and Joel Anderson’s contribution (chapter 5) to Key Concepts. Anderson attempts an abstract reconstruction of intersubjective concepts of autonomy and authenticity. Ingram argues that Habermas understands feminism and multiculturalism as struggles against exclusion from equal citizenship. Ingram’s account concludes with an embrace of the gestures toward the aesthetic cultivation of self that are sprinkled through Habermas’s work—despite the emphasis on intersubjectivity and reason, we remain embedded in the search for identity that marks modern subjects. This is similar to the account Mendieta (chapter 11) offers of Habermas’s evolving views on religion, secularization, and rationalization. Religion takes up an inspirational role whose semantic content cannot be reduced to reason or philosophy. Given Habermas’s dismissal of his predecessors in the Frankfurt School, who took alienation and anomie as serious problems of capitalist development, I find these recent moves less than compelling.

Thomassen’s volume will be useful for those completely unfamiliar with Habermas’s work. The other two works are useful not only for a more advanced reading of Habermas, but for offering tools for understanding our current economic crises and the political responses to those crises. They both give the sense that the current crises are tests of Habermas’s system. The prospect of the failure of the European Union rightly concerns Habermas, as this seems to be where he has placed his bets as a public intellectual. And, indeed, since his theory of a democratic international politics, as well as his theory of national law argue that the subsystems of government and market are necessary to deal with the complexities of contemporary societies, the current crises provide a test case not just for Habermas’ social theory, but his unflagging optimism.

3 July 2012

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