Jurgen Habermas: Biography and Contributions

Jurgen Habermas was a German philosopher who played a phenomenal role in sociology. He was an avid writer and philosopher. His main area of study was a branch of philosophy called pragmatics that studies language. He is known for his idea of the public sphere, which is where people gather to share ideas, thoughts, etc. This is important to the development of a civil society where people have a voice and are able to participate in government. Public forums are also very important because they give people the opportunity to express themselves. Habermas hoped that this would be the foundation for democracy.

Jugerman Habermas: Early life

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Habermas started his academic career at the University of Marburg where he received his doctorate in philosophy, writing his dissertation on Hegel’s theory of statehood. Born in Dusseldorf, Germany in 1929, his father was also named Jurgen Habermas and worked as a gymnasium teacher. His mother was a Christian conservative. He was the eldest son of his parents and with two younger brothers: Friedrich and Hans Joachim. He obtained his school education from Gummersbach and then went to study at Tübingen where he completed his University entrance qualification which took place s in the year 1948.

Between the ages of three and six, he travelled a lot because his father was an executive in the chemical industry. When he was only 11 years old he witnessed how fascism took over Germany. He was being drawn into nationalist youth organizations and joined a catholic youth association. Although religious life played an important part in his early years, he was never really a religious man. In 1938 both his parents committed suicide to protest against Hitler.

During his childhood, he studied at the Dusseldorf Gymnasium and after that, he went to study philosophy and sociology at the University of Bonn. After he obtained his doctorate in 1951, he went to study for a few more years at Goettingen University where he got his second degree in philosophy, and then Habermas did some of the most important works of his career at Frankfurt University, first as an Assistant Professor at Frankfurt’s Institute for Social Research, later as Professor. In his youth, Jurgen Habermas spent time with children of other wealthy families but he suffered from severe mood swings and changed schools frequently.

Habermas’s theories

Habermas belonged to the second generation of the Frankfurt school and strongly identified with a critical social theory which was influenced by Marxian ideology. Habermas’ ideas were highly influenced by Karl Marx’s theories about capitalism, although Habermas was not entirely convinced by Marx’s ideas about communism. The first generation of thinkers from the Frankfurt school focused on scientifically exposing the irrationality of the status quo through dialectics and the tensions in modernity like that between authoritarian personality and enlightenment. (Corchia,2015).

However, after world war II, the focus of the second-generation sociologists shifted to a conservative more anti-modernist approach. When Habermas joined the Frankfurt school he was exposed to an academic world that was heavily impacted by the post-world-war and ruins of Nazi Germany. He was a prominent speaker in major intellectual and political debates in Post world war Germany. For his doctorate dissertation, Habermas chose to focus on Hegel because he believed he could critically analyze and reconstruct the philosophical foundations that existed within German idealism. In this paper, Habermas discussed the relationship between the state and civil society and the issue of democracy that was prevalent in Germany at that time. He argued that democracy should not only be limited to the democratic process but that it also requires political participation by all citizens.

Habermas went on to write many other papers and is regarded as one of the most important figures in contemporary social philosophy. He published several books including Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (1962), Theory and Practice (1967), Knowledge and Human Interests (1968), Toward a Rational Society: Student Protest, Science, and Politics (1970), Theory of Communicative Action (1981), The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity, (1985) and The New Conservatism: Cultural Criticism and the Historians’ Debate (1988).

Theory of Communicative Action

His book The Theory of Communicative Action is based on the idea that there are four main societal pillars: any society with humans will have these four elements.

The four pillars are:

1. Production – This is where goods and services are produced for use by people, in order to survive.

2. Reproduction – This is when knowledge, values, beliefs, and norms are passed on from generation to generation.

3. Interaction – This is when people come together to form a society; it’s the socializing process in which individuals learn to live as members of society and share knowledge through dialogue and discussion.

4. Distinction – This is where we create social hierarchies between individuals and groups of people, such as race, gender, or age groups.

His theory of communicative action, which he developed in response to the shortcomings of two other sociological theories: structural functionalism and psychoanalysis. In this theory, Habermas argues that rational communication can be used to overcome issues caused by the lack of understanding between individuals. In essence, he is saying that rational communication is what makes human beings unique and that we can use it to improve the world around us.

The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere

An important contribution he made was his book called The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society published in 1962, where he discusses the idea that there has been a change from a feudal society to modern society and how this change took place. It had a significant effect on the usage of the term public sphere and how it applied to modern society. He showed an interest in communicative ideals as a core normative standard for his socio-political theory. Habermas focused on the role of salons in exchanging ideas, a space for engaging in critical discussion free of any social or economic pressures. However in the 19th century, there was a change in the trend of communication, information and ideas were commodities exchanged in the form of mass media, no longer free of socio-economic or political pressure. To this Habermas responded by theorizing a new socio-institutionally feasible concept of sharing and forming public opinions. He stated that such a new sphere can only exist with the structural transformation of the public sphere and its development He concluded his theory in a two-level model mentioned in his 1996 work Between Facts and Norms.

New Concept of Social Order

Another notable work is Habermas’s discourse theory. As a descendent from the Frankfurt school, Habermaus refuted the post-structural view of the social order. However he agreed with the post-structuralist view that there is no absolute truth, he developed a notion that truth is rooted in successful social communication. He believed the socio-normative ethical notions of right and wrong are heavily based on presuppositions of the truth. He proposed a different theory of discourse ethics in an attempt to identify the conditions of presuppositions of truth or socially accepted truth that were based on non-factual-based agreements. In his book ‘Discourse Ethics: Notes on a Program of Justification(1990) he stated that only the norms that meet the approval of all members of a society or those who it concerns with can be considered a socially acceptable norms, otherwise it is simply a non-factual based presupposition that is submissively accepted by members in a society. In his later work Between Facts and Norms: Contributions to a Discourse Theory of Law and Democracy (1992), he explored the role of universal agreement in social norms and how it should form the basis for justifying ethical principles in contemporary liberal democracy.

Jurgen Habermas’ work on the public sphere is immensely influential in the field of media and communication studies. His ideas have been adapted and modified throughout the years due to newcomers who have different insights. The literature has used the works of Habermas to examine various aspects of mass media and social structures, identity, culture, and politics in society. The model that he proposed is a great tool for analyzing the social exchange of ideas in the formation of the society in terms of political institutions like a state’s democracy as well as social institutions like culture. He also emphasized the need for this social exchange of ideas to exist without any political or economic influence, to allow all concerned members to freely exchange ideas and naturally come to conclusions as to what can be accepted by all.


Habermas, J. (1973). Wahrheitstheorien. In H. Fahrenbach (Ed.), Wirklichkeit und Reflection. Festschrift für Walter Schulz (pp. 211–263). Frankfurt: Suhrkamp.

Habermas, J. (1998). Between facts and norms. Contributions to a discourse theory of law and democracy. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Habermas, J. (1990). Discourse ethics: Notes on a program of philosophical justification. In Moral consciousness and communicative action (pp. 43–115). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Habermas, J. (1990 [1983]). Moral consciousness and communicative action (trans: Lenhardt, C., & Weber Nicholsen, S.). Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Habermas, J. (1990 [1983]). Moral consciousness and communicative action (trans: Lenhardt, C., & Weber Nicholsen, S.). Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

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Schmidt, J. (1989). Habermas and the Discourse of Modernity. Political Theory, 17(2), 315-320. doi: 10.1177/0090591789017002010

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