Jürgen Habermas

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Jürgen Habermas (1929–) is a German sociologist. A proponent of critical sociology theory, he gained his education in the Frankfurt School of thought under Theodor Adorno, learning from and working under him for a time, subsequently acquiring his two degrees and succeeding Max Horkheimer as a professor of sociology and philosophy. After 1994, he retired from Germany and moved to the US, where he taught primarily in Illinois but lectured worldwide. Stemming from his time during the Third Reich, he was naturally averse to things looking like fascism and subsequently criticized the possibility of a 'left fascism', and opposed "curbs on civil liberties in antiterrorist legislation". He primarily warned against the destructive secularization and the subsequent religious outrage that might stem from it, and apparent nationalism to potentially cause fascist movements.[1]

The types of rationality[edit]

The first thing to note about Habermas' perspective is that he expands on the idea that different types of rationality are used for different things. However, while Horkheimer spells out subjective reason and objective reason, Habermas instead notes the different purposes for the types of rationality beyond that simple dialectic of two. As such, he describes these three as being their own types of rationality for their own uses, and to understand the types of rationality that people use can help establish what types of discussions and debates exist. This is because we live in a different 'postmetaphysical' world where reason itself is regarded differently.


The first type of rationality, Instrumental, is one at which the directive is to find what is objectively true to the highest caliber of certainty. Falling squarely in the realm of science and experimentation, questions and discussions of this nature are purely in the vein of attempting to shape and define the world around us without interference of opinion or subjectivity. Things in this type of rationality may include frequent experimentation, observation, statistic-gathering and general trial and error. Unconcerned with petty judgment, it only concerns itself with empirically true claims.

It commonly the answers the question, "What is it?"


Moral-practical rationality holds the directive not to find what is experimentally or objectively true, but instead interested in the discussion of right and wrong, the discussion of ought and out-not. Primarily interested in the social aspect of human morality, moral-practical discussions usually revolve around cultural norms and values, including but not limited to cultural standards and the legitimacy of legislation. In essence, one can characterize this type of discussion as the question of 'action', in regards to what actions should take place, or if any actions should take place at all.

It commonly answers the question, "What should we do?"


Aesthetic-expressive morality is primarily interested in the subjective nature of taste and interests. It is wholly unrelated to the question of what in the external world is true, and is wholly unrelated to the social aspects of life, and is instead focused entirely on personal experience and artistic judgment. Examples of such discussions of this nature would be conversations revolving around the legitimacy of a communication derived from a painting or song, or perhaps a personal judgment on a current event happening. It differentiates from morality because morality is the totality of oughts and ought-nots, and expressive rationality is driven towards identifying sincerity and style.

It commonly answers the question, "What do you think about it?"


A fourth and final mode of rationality that Habermas tends to argue for is communicative, which stems not from objectively measurable things like matter existing, or a personal judgment of likes or dislikes, or a drive to do certain things, but as a sort of combination of all three surrounding the aspects of language, and to ensure that the language being used synchronizes amongst all members of the individuals acting within a discussion. When one is able to sufficiently provide enough proof of all of the three previous rationales as according to the members of the discussion, communicative action is therefore achieved, and agreement can be maintained. This particular concept is very important in regards to genuine public opinion, which will be discussed later.

It commonly answers the question, "Do we agree?"[2]

The lifeworld and the system[edit]

In his studies, Habermas identifies the two sections of society that coexist throughout it's entirety of existence. Every society that has ever existed have had some form of these two things, Habermas suggests, and they both have their own roles in what they do. In particular, Habermas discusses the relationship they have and the constantly changing balance between the two areas of society, and how they interact with each other.

The lifeworld[edit]

The lifeworld is the scope of society where symbolic reproduction and distribution is acquired. It includes language, mutually understanding pictures and other individuals, and generally socially defined traditions and norms that are enforced not through laws, regulations or rules, but rather through individual or loose-group enforcement and sanctions. Here, we see people interacting with each other in lieu of systemic enforcement, acting in an organic manner at an individualistic setting. There are two portions of this area of society, one private and one public.

The private section of this part of society lies within the family, an agent of socialization where the people within the family act as an extremely small-scale version of societal enforcement, teaching young children language and meanings, morality and actions, and their own social and personal preferences that the individual can respond to. Within the family, things are administered and self-perpetuated, through objective rules and regulations in a subjectively defined manner that continually shift and change to fit the identities and desires of those instituting said rules and regulations.

The public section of this part of society lies in the public sphere, a place where supposedly civic and rational debate happens. In contrast to the family, a close-knit group of people that have a limited set number of relationships between them, the public sphere is a domain where anyone can enter and create their own interactions or relationships with other members within the public sphere. The public sphere refers to a number of parts of society, including but not limited to: Open debate forums, free for entry. Media outlets that attempt to provide information to the public. Podcasts that host discussion from separate participants about their point of view.

In essence, the point of the lifeworld is where people can communicate and gain mutual understanding through social interaction and organic thought.

The system[edit]

The system, in contrast, holds the necessary role of resource management. Where the lifeworld deals with symbolic reproduction, the system is in charge of the more objective portions of our reality, such as the nature of housing, the nature of food consumption, the nature of fictitious or otherwise entertainment, and others. The system comprises of both the material and resource management of the economy, and also the legislative and criminal justice management of the state. Throughout time, both of these parts of the system constantly evolve and manifest their own set of meta-structures that essentially define how they distribute their resources, such as the difference between democracy and dictatorships, or the difference between communism and feudalism. Importantly, one must make the differentiation between the two and take care not to mix them together, as they use different mediums to maintain their power and perpetuity.

The state maintains its power through the justifications and legitimations stemming from the members of the society it represents, whether it be a few nobles or literally everyone in that society (even illegal immigrants). Through this collective approval, the state is able to therefore use its form of steering media, in the shape of the public opinion such as voting or individuals desires and authority practiced, to maintain the objective rules of society and establish laws that maintain the social order, creating a legislative baseline for how the specific society operates. While mores are organically changing ones over the foundation of legislation, the state itself provides the foundation for these mores, and can only be changed with significant effort, unlike the lifeworld which purely operates symbolically.

The economy maintains its establishment and perpetuity via capital, or 'money' as Habermas puts it. In this context, 'money' refers instead to the overall concept of valuing objects at a certain, measurable amount, and therefore maintaining exchange relations within a society that establish that those things are even valuable in the first place. Legitimized only by the legitimation of owning capital, the economy is a necessary function of everyday life as it is the only other way that food, housing, and other resources can be systematically distributed. Essentially, the economy can only exist under a pretense that money is valuable, and that institutionalized pseudo-private ownership is established and maintained.

In essence, the point of the system is to have a clear boundary as to how resources are made and allocated. [3]

The colonization of the lifeworld[edit]

Habermas's primary point throughout his work is twofold: first, we are moving radically towards instrumental rationality, and ignoring the other types of rationality that are vital for creating mutual understanding with each other, therefore impeding the discussions that we are having and creating perpetual disagreement. Secondly, the system is becoming increasingly vast, encompassing more and more of what the lifeworld originally used to encompass. By presenting moral-practical and aesthetic-expressive rationality as objectively or absolutely true, by being sold as commodities or legislated, we are losing the capability to identify them for what they really are, and answering the questions that are appropriate for them. Thus, discussions get muddled people are forced to mix all three rationales with each other without actually identifying which is which.

The real problem that stems from these two points is that because of this miscommunication, our opinions and definitions of what institutions are legitimate are distorted and no longer reflect our true desires, where we only move along with the systemic domination that exists because it is easier to do so.

The role of the media[edit]

The main topic that Habermas tends to discuss is the role of the media in regards to the roles of the system and the lifeworld. Different from his definition of 'steering media', money and power, which represent the ways that the system maintains its authority, the media he references here refers to the news sources and information gathering and distribution that exists in our society. He recognizes that there are necessary pitfalls that are encountered when the streamlining of media production becomes widespread, as in order to spread a message amongst as many people as possible, one must unfortunately dilute it to a point that everyone can understand it.

However, Habermas notes that this has been warped beyond what is acceptable, and news sources are now instead of trying to present information to support people's viewpoints, they are instead manufacturing their own content, selling that as the only right perspective of the world. The role of the media, in essence, has changed from information presentation to confirmation evaporation. Instead of trying to communicate with others, the primary goal is now to convince those watching that their perspective is the true one, and that they're a reliable source to get information from. Unfortunately, due to the warping and muddling of the types of rationality being used and the omnipresent nature of the system, this information is being diluted to a point where it yields no rational significance, fading in obscurity to a point at which it is meaningless details that cause mass confirmation bias.

'Public' opinion[edit]

In particular, stemming from this view of the shifted role of the media, Habermas notes that 'public' opinion has also been warped. There are shortcomings that stem from the nature of interviews, polling, and simple discussion that is being presented through these mediums. His criticism comes at multiple angles.

One angle is that the people, the 'pundits', if you will, being presented through media and presenting their viewpoints are not being honestly driven. Rather than presenting their ideas in terms of the lifeworld, sharing their reasoning and views in a communicative fashion, they are instead being paid in terms of the system (capital), chosen because they are the ones to push a specific idea or narrative. Specifically, the people chosen to be on these shows espousing their ideas are NOT randomly chosen, but carefully calculated, scheduled and subsequently paid for their appearance. While the 'expert opinion' can be regarded as valuable, interviews surrounding unqualified pundits, paid-for debaters, and people who don't represent the issue that is being talked about (like men talking about women's issues) become lost, and all that remains is baseless drivel.

Another angle is that polling the people themselves, a method supposedly inclusive to attaining the public's legitimate opinion rather than only treating experts as important, is also flawed. When a poll is presented, it encounters a unique diametrical problem: That is, either the questions it supposed are too simple to accurately capture the true opinion of the person being polled, or that the questions are too complicated to acquire enough sufficiently valuable data to make a decision. This necessary limitation of communication undermines the true 'public' opinion that exists, and instead denigrates it and disseminates it to the level of banality. One can also, through this logic, claim that voting in a democracy itself is flawed as well, because a vote for or against a particular person or legislation does not accurately represent the true views of the person voting. While it can be easy to assume that if a person votes for a law, if they say 'yes' in the poll, they approve of it, one assumes too much, and dilutes their position to an answer to a simple question without getting into the 'why' of their action. Without understanding the 'why' of their actions, their decision or vote is essentially meaningless and they become just another number on the voting scale.

Overall, Habermas reflects on the colonization of the lifeworld, and holds a relatively optimistic view of how we can improve the situation. This solution is shown below.[4]

Development of the public sphere[edit]

Habermas' suggested solution to this problem is to redevelop and maintain some sort of organically driven 'public' sphere, a place where all things can be questioned, without judgment, and is nevertheless a place that in it of itself maintained and resistant to removal. Importantly, there are four requirements for something to be an effective public sphere where all actors within the sphere are sufficiently able to discuss the matter at large. They are as follows:

  • The participants in the discussion must be considered non-hierarchal. That is, no person should claim to be an authority over another for the sake of overpowering them in discussion, they must treat each others opinions as hierarchically equivalent
  • The participation into this discussion must be open to any and all willing participants. That is, there should not be some fee to enter, there should not be some set of restrictions for involvement, people should be able to participate as they please without outward enforcement.
  • The participants in the discussion must be acting on their own accord. That is, no person within the discussion can be influenced directly or indirectly by potential funding or otherwise coercion to push a certain viewpoint or idea.
  • The participants should be in unstructured discussion. That is, there is no schedule, or predetermined set of topics that one should speak about at certain times. It is purposefully directionless with the purpose of creating direction.

The purpose of the public sphere isn't to actually solve the problem, but merely to legitimize social problems and to provide a place to sound out problems and inquire whether they are widespread or not. It is a place where solutions can be potentially devised and pushed for systemically. The decisions made prior to potential voting or systemic change are already made, rather than decisions being made ad hoc in response to events or discoveries.

Open and honest debate[edit]

In addition to laying out these criteria for establishing a place for the people to have discussions, Habermas also lays out things that the media itself needs to change to support this version of human discussion. They are as follows:

  • The stories developed should have a focus on the people that are being effected by the social happening, whether it be positive or negative. Notably, it shouldn't place any sort of focus on any individual, and should have instead a broad unbiased viewpoint of the event happening.
  • The stories should clearly identify the issue at hand, and include reporting of the people who have potentially formed and are currently trying to find ways to circumvent or solve the problem. Notably, it shouldn't omit important details from a problem such as the idea that there aren't people trying to solve it when in fact they are.
  • There should be platforms for BOTH politicians(who are in a position of power to drive legislative boundaries to create change) and people who are in charge of causes or interest groups, notably the idea that people who are in charge of these certain organizations related to this issue are being transparent about what they are doing.
  • There should be constant dialogue between diverse groups of people, one important one being a dialogue between the person in power and the person who is at the receiving end of the problem. This specific entailment requires there to be equal participation in perspective gathering. Very importantly, it disregards the faux notion that one persons perspective matters more than the other.
  • There should be a mechanism at which someone can identify the trends of power-exercising that an official has done, a sort of transparency for those individuals.
  • There should be actual tangible incentives for people being involved in social problems, rather than simply sitting back and letting the information wash over them and acting reactionary without ever enacting real social change
  • There should be a solid effort by the media itself to push away corporate and political influence that would try to coerce the media to report certain things to favor them, establishing their independence and their purpose for the common public
  • There should, finally, be a sense of respect for the people viewing the program, a non-condescending or patronizing point of view presented to help people learn about the world around them.

With the combined criteria for the role of the media and how the public sphere should be performed, you have the foundations for a public sphere that can provide a significantly better setting for rational debate that strays away from extremism and radicalization.

Public opinion[edit]

The final reason for why these two parts of the public sphere are fundamentally important for our society is that we are able to reconnect and reevaluate the institutions and systems that work around us, and evaluate the flaws and shortcomings that may affect people on a daily basis. When rational and free debate cannot occur, people are helpless to the system around them, and the institutions continue to exist in the way they are. It essentially undermines our ability for sociopolitical action.

Real, unmanufactured public opinion is not one that is reported by a statistic or poll engine. It comes from the establishment of ideas amongst a group of people who have achieved sufficient communicative action free of outside systemic interference. Habermas believes that his groundwork here will take a step to achieving what we have been severely lacking for quite some time now: a place where people can actually come together and think for themselves and perform on their own prerogative rather than manufactured perspectives thrust upon them. Only then, will we see through the manufactured public opinion and truly become freer in our established society.[5]