Philosophy 239 - 12.4.3 Jürgen Habermas’s Communicative Action

The Frankfurt School sociologist and philosopher Jürgen Habermas (b. 1929) is the most prolific figure associated with the Frankfurt School, producing work touching on a variety of topics in social life (Bronner 2011). Habermas took Max Horkheimer’s place as the chair in sociology and philosophy at the Institute for Social Research in 1964.

A prized possession of many societies is a democratic right to free speech; this right was championed by Habermas. As articulated by Habermas, the emancipation of a society is fueled by more than the mere act of people saying what they feel. Rather, people must say what they feel in a public forum in which their ideas can be challenged—in a forum through which people debate freely and thus sharpen their ideas. Habermas viewed this sort of open discussion as having the potential to shape and transform how political systems are run. Habermas calls this sort of pressure by dialogue communicative action.

The foundation upon which communicative action rests is the ground of language. Communicative action views language not as an unchanging system that will always produce certain conclusions but as a process of discovery that is most effective when the ideas we hold most dear are put to intense scrutiny. Language becomes the process by which humans create and agree upon the norms that are most important to them (Bronner 2011).

Habermas viewed communicative action as taking place in the public sphere. The public sphere refers both to the spaces in which people discuss the issues of the day and the collective conceptual realm of people involved in such discussions. The public sphere is a realm outside of nation and state politics where people can be persuaded to engage in some sort of political action (Asen 1999). Habermas contrasts the public sphere with the private sphere, which is the realm where the mechanisms that perpetuate society reside, such as the organizations and enterprises responsible for the production of commodities within an economy (Habermas 1989, 30).

Modern-day examples of the public sphere might be social media platforms or coffeehouses. The hip-hop element of rap is another type of public sphere, with rapper Chuck D of Public Enemy famously stating that rap is the “CNN” of Black America. Public sphere theory asserts that the best governments are the ones that take heed of the communicative action that takes place in the public sphere (Benhabib 1992).

The content of this course has been taken from the free Philosophy textbook by Openstax