Some Notes on Habermas and the Public Sphere of Politics.
Habermas draws a distinction between two types of action: communicative action, where the agents base their actions on (and coordinate their interactions by) their mutual recognition of validity-claims; and instrumental/strategic action, where the coordination of actions is linked to the their successful completion. Habermas argues that instrumental and strategic actions are (conceptually and in reality) always parasitic on communicative action. Hence instrumental and strategic actions alone cannot form a stable system of social action.
Habermas’s conceptual distinction between communicative action and instrumental action is paralleled by his distinction between lifeworld and system in his social ontology: his description of the nature of social being. The lifeworld concerns the lived experience of the context of everyday life in which interactions between individuals are coordinated through speech and validity-claims. Systems are real patterns of instrumental action instantiated by money (the capitalist economy) and power (the administrative state).
In his later work, Habermas made a distinction between "lifeworld" and "system." The public sphere is part of the lifeworld; "system" refers to the market economy and the state apparatus. The lifeworld is the immediate milieu of the individual social actor, and Habermas opposed any analysis which uncoupled the interdependence of the lifeworld and the system in the negotiation of political power-it is thus a mistake to see that the system dominates the whole of society. The goal of democratic societies is to "erect a democratic dam against the colonizing encroachment of system imperatives on areas of the lifeworld" (Further Reflections).
Habermas argues that the self-intepretation of the public sphere took shape in the concept of "public opinion", which he considers in the light of the work of Kant, Marx, Hegel, Mill and Tocqueville. The bourgeois public sphere eventually eroded because of economic and structural changes. The boundaries between state and society blurred, leading to what Habermas calls the refeudalization of society. State and society became involved in each other's spheres; the private sphere collapsed into itself. The key feature of the public sphere - rational-critical debate - was replaced by leisure, and private people no longer existed as a public of property owners. Habermas argues that the world of the mass media is cheap and powerful. He says that it attempts to manipulate and create a public where none exists, and to manufacture consensus. This is particularly evident in modern politics, with the rise of new disciplines such as advertising and public relations. These, and large non- governmental organizations, replace the old institutions of the public sphere. The public sphere takes on a feudal aspect again, as politicians and organizations represent themselves before the voters. Public opinion is now manipulative, and, more rarely, still critical. We still need a strong public sphere to check domination by the state and non-governmental organizations. Habermas holds out some hope that power and domination may not be permanent features.
A central issue in Habermas's effort to sustain the Enlightenment project is the problem of relativism. This problem underlies several postmodern critiques of modernity, the Enlightenment, and Habermas, and is thus a useful first path into Habermas's thought.
The Enlightenment project of justifying democratic polity (and thus justifying emancipation from non-democratic polities - e.g., the prevailing monarchies of the time) rests on these key conceptions:
1) however diverse cultures and individuals may vary from one another in terms of religious convictions, traditions, sentiments, etc. - reason (at least in potential - a potential that must be developed by education) stands as a universally shared capacity of humanity;
2) such reason is characterized first of all as an autonomy or freedom - a freedom which, for such central figures as Locke and Kant, is capable of giving itself its own law;
3) just as this reason seems capable of discerning universal laws in the domain of mathematics and the natural sciences (witness the success of the Copernican Revolution and Newton) - so reason, it is hoped, is capable of discerning universal laws and norms in the moral and political domains.
As an example of such a universal norm: if I am to exercise my freedom by choosing my own goals and projects - this freedom requires that others respect these choices by not attempting to override them and make use of me for their own purposes. (In Kantian terms, others must never treat me simply as a means, but always as an end.)
But if I logically require others to respect my freedom as an autonomous rationality, then insofar as I acknowledge others as autonomous rationalities - reciprocity demands that I respect others' freedom as well.
This norm of respect then issues in the political demand for democracy: only democracies, as resting on the [free and rational] consent of the governed, thereby respect and preserve the fundamental humanity of its citizens ( i.e., precisely their central character as rational freedoms). [This argument, initially launched by John Locke, finds its way into Jefferson's Declaration of Independence, and from there into the arguments for women's emancipation in writers such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and the arguments for civil rights as articulated by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in his Letter from the Birmingham Jail.]On The Living Wage/Guaranteed Income
To give this idea a more radical twist, we could endorse a general, state-guaranteed citizen income, as originally proposed by Andre Gorz and now backed by Claus Offe, among others. Severing the link between income and employment would place the current "economic society"--now centered on the traditional role of full-time wage labor-on a new footing and create an equivalent for the disintegrating welfare system. This "basic income" would absorb the capitalist world market's destructive impact on those who slide into the increasingly "superfluous" population. Such a radical redistribution program requires, however, a change in deep-rooted values that will be difficult to orchestrate. Also, under present conditions of global competition, we might wonder how the program could be financed within the budgetary limits of individual nation states, since the target income would have to be above the lowest level of welfare support.
The globalization of the economy ends the history of the welfare-state compromise. While it by no means ideally solved capitalism's inherent problems, this compromise had at least succeeded in keeping social costs within accepted limits. Despite the bureaucratization and "normalization" so convincingly criticized by Michel Foucault, the scale of social disparities under this compromise was limited sufficiently to avoid the manifest repudiation of the normative promises of the democratic and liberal tradition.
Religion in the Public Sphere
What is most surprising in this context is the political revitalization of religion at the heart of
Western society. Though there is statistical evidence for a wave of secularization in almost
all European countries since the end of World War II, in the United States all data show
that the comparatively large proportion of the population made up of devout and religiously
active citizens has remained the same over the last six decades.5 Here, a carefully
planned coalition between the Evangelical and born-again Christians on one side, the
American Catholics on the other side siphons off a political surplus value from the religious
renewal at the heart of Western civilization.6 And it tends to intensify, at the cultural level,
the political division of the West that was prompted by the Iraq War.7 With the abolition of
the death penalty, with liberal regulations on abortion, with setting homosexual
partnerships on a par with heterosexual marriages, with an unconditional rejection of
torture, and generally with the privileging of individual rights versus collective goods, e.g.,
national security, the European states seem now to be moving forward alone down the
path they had trodden side by side with the United States.
Against the background of the rise of religion across the globe, the division of the West is
now perceived as if Europe were isolating itself from the rest of the world. Seen in terms of
world history, Max Weber’s Occidental Rationalism appears to be the actual deviation. The
Occident’s own image of modernity seems, as in a psychological experiment, to undergo a
switchover: what has been the supposedly “normal” model for the future of all other
cultures suddenly changes into a special-case scenario. Even if this suggestive Gestaltswitch
does not quite bear up to sociological scrutiny, and if the contrasting evidence of
what appears as a sweeping desecularization can be brought into line with more
conventional explanations,8 there is no doubting the evidence itself and above all the
symptomatic fact of divisive political moods crystallizing around it. Irrespective of how one
evaluates the facts, there is now a Kulturkampf raging in the United States which forms the
background for an academic debate on the role of religion in the political public sphere.
Faith and Knowledge
First of all, the word "secularization" has a juridical meaning that refers
to the forcible appropriation of church property by the secular state. This
meaning has since been extended to the emergence of cultural and societal
modernism in general. Since then, the word "secularization" has been
associated with both of these opposed judgments, whether it is the
successful taming of ecclesiastical authority by worldly power that is being
emphasized or rather the act of unlawful appropriation.
According to the first interpretation, religious ways of thinking and living
have been replaced by reason-based and consequently superior equivalents.
According to the second, modern modes of thinking and living are to be
regarded as the illegitimate spoils of conquest. The "replacement" model
lends a progressive-optimistic meaning to the act of deconsecration, whereas
the "expropriation" model connotes theoretically-conceived corruption of a
But I think both interpretations make the same mistake. They both consider
secularization as a kind of zero-sum game between, on one hand, the
productive powers of science and technology harnessed by capitalism and, on
the other, the tenacious powers of religion and the church. This image no
longer fits a post-secular society that posits the continued existence of
religious communities within a continually secularizing society. And most
of all, this too-narrow view overlooks the civilizing role of democratically
enlightened common sense, which proceeds along its own track as an equal
third partner amid the murmurs of cultural conflict between science and
>From the standpoint of the liberal state, of course, religious communities
are entitled to be called "reasonable" only if they renounce the use of
violence as a means of propagating the truths of their faith. This
understanding stems from a threefold reflection on the role of the faithful
within a pluralistic society. First of all, the religious conscience must
handle the encounter with other confessions and other religions cognitively.
Second, it must accede to the authority of science, which holds a social
monopoly on knowledge. Finally, it must participate in the premises of a
constitutional state, which is based on a non-sacred concept of morality.
Without this reflective "thrust," monotheisms within ruthlessly modernizing
societies develop a destructive potential. The phrase "reflective thrust,"
of course, can give the false impression of being something that is
one-sided and close-ended. The reality, however, is that this work of
reflection in the face of any newly emerging conflict is a process that runs
its course through the public spaces of democracy.
As soon as an existentially relevant question, such as biotechnology,
becomes part of the political agenda, the citizens, both believers and
non-believers, will press upon each other their ideologically impregnated
world-views and so will stumble upon the harsh reality of ideological
pluralism. If they learn to deal with this reality without violence and
with an acceptance of their own fallibility, they will come to understand
what the secular principles of decision-making written into the Constitution
mean in a post-secular society. In other words, the ideologically neutral
state does not prejudice its political decisions in any way toward either
side of the conflict between the rival claims of science and religious
faith. The political reason of the citizenry follows a dynamic of
secularization only insofar as it maintains in the end product an equal
distance from vital traditions and ideological content. But such a state
retains a capacity to learn only to the extent that it remains osmotically
open, without relinquishing its independence, to both science and religion.
Of course, common sense itself is also full of illusions about the world and
must let itself be enlightened without reservation by the sciences. But the
scientific theories that impinge on the world of life leave the framework of
our everyday knowledge essentially untouched. If we learn something new
about the world and about ourselves as beings in the world, the content of
our self-understanding changes. Copernicus and Darwin revolutionized the
geocentric and anthropocentric worldviews. But the destruction of the
astronomical illusion that the stars revolve around the earth had less
effect on our lives than did the biological disillusionment over the place
of mankind in the natural order. It appears that the closer scientific
knowledge gets to our body, the more it disturbs our self-understanding.
Research on the brain is teaching us about the physiology of our
consciousness. But does this change that intuitive sense of responsibility
and accountability that accompanies all of our actions?
Multiculturalism and the Liberal State
My article, n1 which provides the basis for our discussion, is a response
to my friend Charles Taylor's The Politics of Recognition. n2 The
controversial issue is briefly this: Should citizens' identities as
members of ethnic, cultural, or religious groups publicly matter,
and if so, how can collective identities make a difference within
the frame of a constitutional democracy? Are collective identities
and cultural memberships politically relevant, and if so, how can
they legitimately affect the distribution of rights and the recognition
of legal claims? There are many aspects to multiculturalism, but the
present debate focuses narrowly on normative questions of political
and legal theory. Without any attempt to summarize the arguments of
the book, I would like to remind you of the two opposed answers to
the question at hand - the liberal and the communitarian positions
- and of my own response, which is critical of both. n3
I cannot go into the details of the argumentation here, but it might
help just to mention both the philosophical and the political contexts
in which my response to Taylor was embedded.
As to philosophical themes, those familiar with discussions in political theory will have discovered two controversial issues at stake. First, I am defending liberals against the communitarian critique with regard to the concept of the "self." The individualistic approach to a theory of rights does not necessarily imply an atomistic, disembodied, and desocialized concept of the person. The legal person is, of course, an artificial construct. Modern legal orders presuppose abstract subjects as carriers of those rights of which they are composed. These artificial persons are not identical with natural persons, who are individuated by their unique life histories. But legal persons, too, should and can be constructed as socialized individuals. They are members of a community of legal consociates who are supposed to recognize each other as free and equal. The equal respect required from legal persons pertains, however, also to the context of those intersubjective relationships which are constitutive for their identities as natural persons.
Together with the communitarians I am, on the other hand, critical of the liberal assumption that human rights are prior to popular sovereignty. The addressees of law must be in a position to see themselves at the same time as authors of those laws to which they are subject. Human rights may not just be imposed on popular sovereignty as an external constraint. Of course, popular sovereignty must not be able to arbitrarily dispose of human rights either. The two mutually presuppose each other. The solution to this seeming paradox is that human rights must be conceived in such a way that they are enabling rather than constraining conditions for democratic self-legislation.
Turning to political themes: The idea of a "struggle for recognition" stems from Hegel's Phenomenology. n8 From this perspective, we can discover similarities among different but related phenomena: feminism, nationalism, conflict of cultures, besides the particular issue of multiculturalism. All these phenomena have in common the political struggle for the recognition of suppressed collective identities. This good is different from other collective goods. It cannot be substituted for by generalized social rewards (income, leisure time, working conditions, etc.) which are the objects of the usual distribution conflicts in the welfare state. But those struggles for recognition, fought in various forms of identity politics, are also different in many other respects. One such aspect is law: Since of these groups only women and ethnic minorities have been recognized as objects of constitutional protection, only feminist and mul- [*853] ticulturalist claims can be, at least in principle, settled within the frame of the constitutional state.
Finally, an example. The immediate political context in Germany at the time of my article was the debate on "asylum," which in fact was about immigration. Applying the principles above, one can arrive at the following conclusions: First, there are good legal reasons for defending a right to political asylum. n9 On the other hand, there are only moral reasons, albeit rather strong ones, for establishing a liberal immigration policy. The claim to immigration and citizenship in the receiving country is a moral claim but, unlike political asylum, not a legal right.
Second, immigrants should be obliged to assent to the principles of the constitution as interpreted within the scope of the political culture: that is, the ethical-political self-understanding of the citizenry of the receiving country. Once they become citizens themselves, they in turn get a voice in public debates, which may then shift the established inerpretation of the constitutional principles. The obligation to accept the political culture may not, however, extend to assimilation to the way of life of the majority culture. A legally required political socialization may not have an impact on other aspects of the collective identity of the immigrants' culture of origin.
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