Social Research Glossary


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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012-20, Social Research Glossary, Quality Research International,

This is a dynamic glossary and the author would welcome any e-mail suggestions for additions or amendments. Page updated 19 December, 2019 , © Lee Harvey 2012–2020.


A fast-paced novel of conjecture and surprises


Habermas, Jürgen

core definition

Jürgen Habermas was influential in the development of critical hermeneutic methodology and critical theory.

explanatory context


Habermas sees hermeneutics as a holistic interpretive process. Individual experiences are located in the wider context in which they occur and the context and the individual interpretation are dialectically linked and mediated by language.


Habermas argued that hermeneutics, ‘grasps individual experience in its entire breadth’, adapting ‘a set of intentions centred round an individual ego to the general categories of language’. The language ‘of the hermeneutic interpreter adapts itself in the course of interpretation to the life expressions concentrated around individual meaning’. It should be possible ‘to explain that feature of the structure of ordinary language’ which makes it able to communicate that which is individual.


Classes of expression 

According to Habermas, hermeneutics takes as its objects three classes of expressions: linguistic expressions, actions and experiential expressions.

1. Linguistic expressions. These may appear in an absolute format that makes their content independent of the situation of communication: they may be monologic (e.g., ‘it is raining’; ‘it is 3.00 p.m.’) or they may have the potentiality to become dialogic. When linguistic expressions are related to a concrete life context then communicative relationships have the potentiality to become dialogic. That they are not necessarily dialogic is due to the exercise of power.

In dialogic relationships, hermeneutics enables that which is alien to be deciphered. Dialogue always expresses conditions of life and owing to their individual meaning, they are incapable of direct communication and must, therefore, be appropriated hermeneutically by the listener as something alien, to be understood through interpretation of the message. For example, ‘I have a migraine’, ‘I am partially sighted’, ‘I am poor’.


The dialogic use of language always requires hermeneutic understanding (the realisation of the discrepancy between life context and linguistic expression).

2. Actions. According to Nietzsche, the discrepancy between life context and linguistic expression exists and cannot be resolved, for any language in use represents the exercise of power of the dominant group. Freire, in The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, agreed with this analysis but Habermas argued that, in principle, the gap between expression and meaning can be closed in the context of ideal communication, namely, the achievement of perfect dialogical communication in communicative competence (see below).

This is the case for communicative action; ‘what was true of linguistic communication is also true of communicative action’. But in neither case can the gap between intention and manifest action be resolved except through the agency of hermeneutics.

So, the achievement of ideal communication presupposes the use of hermeneutics to close the gap between intention and manifest action.

3. Experiential expressions. The final group of actions Habermas considers is the class of experiential expressions. These indicate the role the subjects take, or pretend to take, in any given context of action and dialogue. Thus ‘I feel ill’; ‘I feel happy’; ‘I feel hopeful’ are all examples of experiential expressions indicative of some meaning.

However, for all three classes of expressions the gap between action (expression) and intention is closed, at least in Habermas’s view, by hermeneutic analysis.

The outcome is that these three classes of life experience can be integrated into everyday social life. Communication expresses, and establishes, a reflexivity that enables actions to be described, expressions to be named and to be represented in language. Hermeneutics deciphers this reflexive self-interpretation.


Habermas sees hermeneutic analysis as grounded in a view of the hermeneutic circle in which the reciprocal relation between the interpretation of parts through to a coherent understanding or interpretation of the whole can be achieved.

Habermas quotes Dilthey as follows:

[Hermeneutics is] a quasi-inductive development that ‘starts from the apprehension of indefinite-definite parts and proceeds to the attempt to grasp the meaning of the whole, alternating with the attempt to take this meaning as a basis for defining the parts more clearly. Failure makes itself known when individual parts cannot be understood in this way. This then creates the need to redefine the meaning so that it will take account of these parts. This attempt goes on until the entire meaning has been grasped’ (quoted in Habermas, 1972, p. 170)

According to Habermas this work can be done with ordinary language because the interpreter can rely upon the reflexivity of ordinary language .

The "grammar" of ordinary language does not merely lay down relations internal to language, but regulates the communicative structure of sentences, actions and experiences as a whole—in other words a habitual context of life. For the interpreter the connection between the interpretive scheme and the elements it encompasses presents itself as one that is immanent [sic] in language, which obeys only the rules of grammar. In itself, however, this connection is at the same time the articulation of a life context, which represents an individual meaning which cannot be wholly grasped in general categories. (Habermas, 1972. chapter 8)

What is clear from Habermas is that hermeneutics is available as an analytical resource because of the reflexivity of ordinary language. This reflexivity is effectively self-interpretation. Hermeneutics is an analytical resource that can be applied to the examination of ordinary language.


Habermas’ Critical Theory

Habermas sees critical social theory as the basis for rational change via the self-awareness of people.

Critical social theory goes beyond nomological analytic-empirical knowledge and discovers when theoretical statements grasp ‘invariant regularities of social action as such’ and when they express ‘ideologically frozen relations of dependence’.


That is, in its discovery of which forms of constraint on human freedom are necessary and which specific, critical dialectical knowledge reveals the invariant regularities and the socio-culturally-historically specific and ‘ideological’ aspects of ‘reality’. In so doing it goes beyond the mere analytic-empirical knowledge approach.


The result is a critically mediated knowledge of laws. Hermeneutic and nomological knowledge are combined. This is expressed neatly in the psychoanalytic analogy.

This analogy frames critical knowledge as ‘explanatory understanding’. Habermas argues that by linking the method of Verstehen with the ‘objectivating procedures’ of causal analytic science and by adapting a mutually transcending critique, the dialectical approach overcomes the separation of theory and history.

Habermas’s view of social theory is an evolutionary one, based on Hegel, which sees evolution of the human species as a process of formation or education, operating via certain social ‘media’. These media are language, labour and interaction. (Domination is also an important category for Habermas referring to historical distortions of labour and interaction that arise in the course of social evolution)

For Habermas, labour and interaction are interdependent via social norms and rights of possession (a function of the labour process). An emancipatory interest must take account of this interconnection, thus Habermas legitimates critical social theory, which synthesises practical and technical interests (see below).


The labour process is the paradigm for instrumental action that embodies a strict means-ends relationship. Habermas sees instrumental action as formal in the sense of being calculated action based on preference and decision rules. Alternative choices are considered for action aimed at controlling external reality and this involves problem-solving skills. Such action is seen to involve neutrality, specificity, universalism and performance.

Communicative action, epitomised by social interaction is governed by consensual norms that define reciprocal behaviour expectations. Such norms must be understood and recognised as binding and enforced through the use of sanctions. Intersubjective understanding validates the norms.


Communicative action must be seen from the actor’s perspective and as such is defined in terms of affectivity, diffuseness, particularism and quality. The learning process is the internalisation of motivations. (Failure indicates deviance).


[The implications of instrumental action and communicative action spelled out here, and above, reflect the influence of Parsonian ‘pattern variables’.]


Knowledge constitutive interests



Knowledge constitutive interests are essentially Habermas’s first attempt to achieve some understanding of the nature of truth.

The concept of knowledge constitutive interests is, itself, complex and was initiated by Habermas’s own concern for the limitations imposed upon thought by positivist practice. Habermas was concerned with ‘knowledge that can truly orient action’. In other words Habermas wanted a profound and radical integration of theory and practice. Such knowledge, Habermas argued, is necessarily self-reflective.

Habermas saw the empirical analytic and the historical hermeneutic sciences as structured by theory and espousing a ‘theoretical attitude’, which Horkheimer described as comprising traditional theory. The concept of knowledge-constitutive interests is Habermas’ attempt to resolve the problem of the theoretical attitude identified by Horkheimer but not, in Habermas’s view, satisfactorily resolved by him.

According to John Scott (BJS 1978), Habermas’s metascience attempts a link between the theory of social evolution, knowledge constitutive interests and methodological procedures or rules. This has the effect, for Habermas, of ‘fixing’ epistemology as social theory. Social action and metascience are mediated through knowledge constitutive interests (or cognitive interests). Habermas’s concept of hermeneutics was developed partly as a result of his development of cognitive interests. Cognition is the psychological processes that acquires and understands knowledge, beliefs and attitudes, as well as the basis for decision making and problem solving. For Habermas, all knowledge is constituted through. cognitive interests.

Knowledge constitutive interests are, for Habermas, rooted in the ‘underlying conditions of the evolution of the human species’. Habermas constructs a typology of knowledge constitutive interests that he claims are logically exhaustive.

Knowledge constitutive interests refer to the link between the origin, application and validity of knowledge, a link which is brought about through the necessary embedding of knowledge in experience and action.’ (Scott, 1978, p. 2)

Habermas’s three knowledge constitutive interests are the technical, the practical and the emancipatory.

Technical knowledge constitutive interests refer to those aspects of knowledge concerned with manipulation of the environment, of control over natural objects and events.

Practical knowledge constitutive interests are concerned with the ‘hermeneutic’ task of extending understanding in intersubjective relations. The aim being to achieve consensus, community and mutuality.

Emancipatory knowledge constitutive interests are pitched at a more abstract level and involve liberating people from the specific constraints of their socio-historical moment. This is achieved through ‘self reflection’.

Technical knowledge constitutive interests and practical knowledge constitutive interests are primary whilst emancipatory knowledge constitutive interests are derivative in the sense that they are predicate upon derivative action, viz. exploitation, distorted communication and so on. Emancipatory knowledge constitutive interests relate to non-rational situations.

Technical knowledge constitutive interests and practical knowledge constitutive interests are aspects of social evolution, which concerns the emancipatory struggle of the human species, and are thus aspects of the ‘meta interest of emancipatory reason itself’.

For Habermas, these interests organise the logical and methodological rules of discourse; the determining interests (labour, action and power); the means available to realise the ends; the ends to be realised; the categories of possible knowledge and the constitutive areas of society. The most important realisation is that for each of the particular knowledge constitutive interests the determining interests are interpreted in accordance with the principles appropriate to that interest. The intention, for Habermas, of this analysis is to identify a realisable truth in the form of emancipatory cognitive interests.

Habermas characterises knowledge constitutive interest as invariant, universal and therefore transcendental ‘deep structure rules’ (following Chomsky). As aspects of the ‘deep structure’ of social evolution, the rules make possible the surface features of action and knowledge; they provide the means by which we ‘constitute the world of experience’ and therefore must be reconstructed reflexively. The role of metascience (or of epistemology, as Habermas refers to it) is to reflect on knowledge and action and so provide a rational reconstruction of the underlying rules that are presumed to generate that knowledge and action.


Three types of knowledge

Habermas identifies three types of knowledge and these he links with the three knowledge constitutive interests.

First, is analytic-empirical knowledge as embodied in the natural sciences. Here, theorising consists of the construction of deductive-nomological theories which ‘fit’ data derived from observation. ‘Information’ is generated which is thus ‘explained’. The result is technically utilisable knowledge.

Habermas attacks the positivistic interpretation of analytic-empirical knowledge as providing the paradigm for all knowledge, (he calls this attitude ‘scientism’) and he also argues that analytic-empirical knowledge has limited use for social science because it fails to appreciate its own underlying technical interest. Habermas’s critique, however, is fundamentally that analytic-empirical knowledge is too restrictive because it fails to grasp the social totality. According to Scott, Habermas opposes the empiricism of positivism with a ‘realist’ or ‘essentialist’ position that incorporates a structural/totalistic approach.

The second type of knowledge identified by Habermas is hermeneutic-historical knowledge which operates via the ‘hermeneutic circle’ in which theorising always depends upon a prior understanding of the object of knowledge. Its aim is to relate utterances and social products to the primary milieu in  which they are constructed. Hermeneutic-historical knowledge  yields interpretations via ‘Verstehen’ methodology. It is structured into a process of ‘understanding’. Hermeneutic historical knowledge is practically relevant in as much as it  aids mutual understanding.

The third type of knowledge identified by Habermas is ‘critical-dialectical knowledge’ and is specific to social science. It recognises the limitations of analytic-empirical knowledge and hermeneutic-historical knowledge and reconciles them into a higher synthesis. Habermas suggests that Marx and Freud (psychoanalysis) are examples of this synthetic approach (although arguing that both tended to interpret their works positivistically). [On this, Habermas is misleading because although Marx may have used some positivistic rhetoric his work was fundamentally and explicitly at variance with positivistic scientism].

Critical social theory (the vehicle for critical-dialectical knowledge) has both a philosophical and sociological component. The philosophical component takes the connection between knowledge and interest as its object, whilst the sociological component examines the structures of the various forms of society that have existed in human history. The link between these two aspects is through a view that evolution is a process of historical ‘self formation’.


Keat’s (1981) critique of Habermas’ knowledge constitutive interest thesis

Habermas’s view of knowledge constitutive interests is opposed to a view that science constitutes normally neutral objects that may be appropriated by various interests. On the contrary, Habermas argues that the scientific process is itself encapsulated within knowledge constitutive interests. Practically, then, for Habermas, the interest constitution of knowledge determines the practical application of science.

Keat argued that the knowledge constitutive interest theory should be dispensed with, although accepting that there are different forms of knowledge.

He attacked Habermas via a critique of Fay (1975). Fay argued that nomological deductive knowledge can only be used for controlling natural (and social) processes. This is not incompatible with an ‘interest free’ positivistic view of science, according to Keat. What is at variance with this view is one, proposed by Fay, following Habermas, that this nomological deductive knowledge concept is regarded as the only form of knowledge constitution. Here knowledge interest analysis is vital. However, Keat argued that this view of the positivistic perspective is not accurate.

Fay essentially argued that a positivistic conception of science sees explanation as consisting in predictive power. That is, ‘it is the possibility of predictive use that is definitive, or constitutive of what it is for something to count as explanation’ (Keat, 1981, p. 69). Keat doubts this implication. He argued that just because the same kind of knowledge is required for prediction and for explanation does not mean that explanation consists in the possibility of prediction. Both explanation and prediction consist in the knowledge of laws.

Thus when Fay asks the question, “why is it the case that in science to explain something is to potentially predict it?”, and gives as his answer the constitutive interest doctrine [sic], he ignore the possibility of an alternative answer: that this is because science discovers real relationships between phenomena, that enable us both to predict and explain. (Keat, 1981, p. 70)

Keat summarises Habermas’s theory of knowledge constitutive interests as follows.

First, Habermas accepted Kant’s basic subject-object dichotomy. This he does by postulating an external world (which delimits technical activity). In so doing, Habermas also rejects Hegel’s attempt to transcend the subject-object dichotomy by viewing nature as a mere objection of ‘spirit’ (a supra-human subjectivity).  

The independence of the natural world is manifested in people’s ability to learn to master natural processes. Keat sees Habermas as endorsing Marx’s view that, no matter how far technical control over nature may be extended, nature will always retain a substantial core that does not reveal itself.

Second, similar to Kant, Habermas argued that the externality becomes ‘object’ (of knowledge) when mediated via subjective categories.

However, Habermas denies the Kantian view that the object constituting categories are imposed by a transcendental consciousness.

Instead, Habermas argued that they are imposed by the human species, expressing its fundamental interest in control, in the success of ration ‘feedback-controlled’ instrumental action. This interest is grounded in universal forms of activity, i.e. labour.

For Habermas, Marx had pointed out the role of labour as not only reproducing conditions of social existence but also as the basis for a transcendental apprehension of the world.

Habermas thus replaces Kant’s transcendental deduction of categories by an anthropological thesis of category constitution [viz. ‘deep structures’ of human action.]  

Keat argues that Habermas is not proposing an instrumentalist thesis here as it does not involve a pragmatist theory of truth, nor an operationalist account of the meaning of theoretical terms. Nor does Habermas say that the truth of scientific statements consists in the success of actions based upon them, nor that theories are instruments for making predictions.

Neither is Habermas prepared to adopt a realist position-rejecting any correspondence theory of truth. Habermas adopts a consensus theory of truth (which Keat sees as unnecessary).

Keat argues that the constitutive interest theory must be abandoned because Habermas rejects the possibility of ‘hermeneutics of nature’. Keat’s argument is that knowledge constitutive interests thesis would allow one to ‘choose’ to constitute object domains of nature hermeneutically, i.e. via practical interests, unless one maintained ‘nature’ and ‘humanity’ as ontologically distinct independently of cognitive interest determined frameworks. This ontological position would imply, for Keat, that the application of hermeneutics to nature is objectively mistaken.

[Doesn’t Habermas maintain this ontological distinction? If so, is it at variance with KCI thesis ?]

Habermas claims that the object domains of empirical analytic and hermeneutic historical knowledge are two distinct objectifications of the same reality, which are the result of different interests involving two different ‘interpretations of the same categorical schema’. ‘Nature and ‘social reality’ are different objectifications of the same externality and there is no distinctiveness within that externality that determines the appropriateness of the differing categorical frameworks (Keat, 1981, p.81).

Communicative Competence


Habermas argues that Marx’s contribution to critical social science was to show that all known modes of production were performed under conditions (embodied in commodification) of alienation from its true nature as an expression of species-being. The aim of the critique of political economy, then, is to show that exploitation (any structure that generates alienated labour is exploitative) is a historically specific form of domination that can be dispensed with in a fully rational society.

For Habermas, Marx criticised the form of domination found in systems of exploitation but did little to criticise communicative action-based domination.

Habermas set himself the task, in the development of his theory of communication, therefore, of discussing the forms of communication characteristic of rational society. This involves an ‘ideology critique’, i.e. a critique of ‘systematically distorted communication’


Habermas distinguishes everday communication from discursive communication. Everday communication is common-sense knowledge which is taken-for-granted context for experience and action. Both labour and interaction are rooted in everday communication. Discursive communication is argumentative reasoning taking nothing-for-granted and involving a phenomenological reduction in which everyday life is suspended so knowledge can be investigated. This, argues Habermas, is necessary for a rational, true, consensus.


Analytic-empirical knowledge is rooted in everyday knowledge (according to Habermas) and it involves first order description of sensory experience. Perception and descriptive statement are pitched at a first (common sense) order level. Description enables us to proceed to causal explanation. [See critique of Habermas below].


Hermeneutic-historical knowledge is similarly rooted in common sense knowledge but at a higher order of development as the experiencing of persons and utterances involves a shift in orientation to second-order constructs. First-order meanings derive from participation while its narration is a second-order objectivication of experience. The development of understanding through narrative interpretation is formulated in discursive communication.


Critical social theory with is emancipatory knowledge constitutive interest expresses the relation between self-reflection and rational reconstruction, that is, it comprehends the interdependence between instrumental and communicative experiences on the basis of a theory of society in which analytic-empirical knowledge and hermeneutic-historical knowledge are synthesised. The psychoanalytic analogy illustrates this process.


Tetley (unpublished, 1985) argued that Habermas attempts to identify the basis of emancipatory reason. This leads him to a concern with communicative competence and the legitimation crisis in late capitalism. Both issues reflect the problems he has identified in his examination of the nature of cognitive interests but relate more closely to the substantive concerns of the late sixties and beyond.

Tetley describes Habermas’ view of the nature of communicative competence as follows. Practical-cognitive reason is concerned with language (with action expressed in speech) and the major problem of speech; and language, is how can we guarantee that our communication is understood by others. In formal terms it is the distinction between syntax and semantics and how the one communicates the other. For the content of speech is semantics but is carried in the formal syntax of speech, which is recognised as correct. A major problem for interpretation is therefore the achievement of communicative understanding and this is the problem Habermas addresses in his examination of the nature of communicative competence.

Communication is, in practice, systematically distorted. Interests, awareness, understanding are not symmetrically disposed, with the consequence that the nature of communication, which takes place within domains of syntax and semantics, is not necessarily reciprocally achieved. In principle, as Chomsky points out in his examination of the nature of linguistic competence, human beings are born with an innate capacity for language—namely the innate understanding or the innate potentiality to understand the universals necessary for speech and language.


As John Searle puts it semantics is not syntax and for Chomsky, human beings have a depth structure of semantics and an innate facility for acquiring the rules of syntax appropriate to language use. The point is that competent use of language requires both a facility with syntactical rules, i.e. to speak sentences which conform to the rules of expression (syntax) for that language, and an ability to understand what the words we use mean and what the words used by others mean.


However, this competence in use which is, in principle, accessible and available to all human beings is, in practice, distorted by the various ways in which individuals acquire syntax, semantics and the universals necessary for linguistic expression. Thus gender, class, ethnicity and age operate within society as structures that influence the ways in which human beings acquire the universals necessary for competent speech—namely dialogue constitutive (rules of grammar and semantics); cultural universals; universal cognitive schemes of interpretation and universals of perception and motivation to express sentences that conform to syntactical rules for that language.


Habermas’s concern is to establish the nature of systematically distorted communication and to identify the conditions of the ideal speech situation. He defines this as follows:

Above all communicative competence relates to an ideal speech situation in the same way that linguistic competence relates to the abstract structure of linguistic rules. The dialogue constitutive universals at the same time generate and describe the form of intersubjectivity which makes similarity of understanding possible’.

In a further statement, Habermas writes as follows: 'The ideal speech situation is neither an empirical phenomenon nor a mere construct, but rather an unavoidable supposition reciprocally made in discourse. This supposition can, but need not be, counterfactual...Therefore I prefer to speak of an anticipation of an ideal speech situation..’(Habermas).

Scott (1978) argued that a major problem for Habermas is assessing communicative competence. Habermas criticises Chomsky for separating competence and performance. ‘Competence refers to an abstract system of rules based on an innate language apparatus of linguistic universals; performance refers to the use of language in actual speech and is determined by peripheral psychological and sociological conditions which restrict the application of linguistic competence.’ (Chomsky’s model requires the separation of phonetics, grammar and semantics.)


Habermas argues that, with respect to semantics, not all universal meanings need be regarded as innate. Indeed, for example, universal notions like ‘mother’ and ‘father’ may derive from features specific to culture but be common to all cultures. Habermas argues that: ‘in order to participate in normal discourse, the speaker must have - in addition to his linguistic competence—basic qualifications of speech and of symbolic interaction at his disposal, which we may call communicative competence’ (Habermas, 1970, p. 138) communicative competence is a set of abstract rules that generate an ‘ideal speech community’.


For Habermas, traditional hermeneutics need to be modified to take account of this notion of communicative competence. Hermeneutics must be replaced by ideology-critique where social domination exists.


Habermas sees all communities as plagued by systematically distorted communication and proposes conditions for ‘free communication’.  

These conditions are unrestricted discussion, mutual unimpaired self-representation[linguistically ?] complementary, non-dominating expectations. This will lead to ‘truth’, ‘freedom’ and ‘justice’. [Arguably, this is idealistic; almost utopian]. Habermas argues that the degree of systematic distortion increases (i.e. the more actors are incompetent) with the increase in general repression.]

Legitimation Crisis


According to Tetley (unpublished, 1985) Habermas’s concern with the ideal structure of discourse is concerned with the interaction that takes place between individuals. He is also concerned with the nature of social organisation within society. These issues are addressed in a series of texts including Legitimation Crisis and Evolution of Historical Materialism. Legitimation crises occur, claims Habermas, through the engagement between the principle of organisation within a social formation and the imperatives of social and system integration. The crisis may be externally induced; internally determined or an endogenous system crisis. Briefly, examples of the first are the collapse of societies such as Ethiopia, Chad under the pressure of external agents; examples of the second are the Latin American states such as Brazil, Argentina, Mexico; examples of the third are the problems of industrial societies such as the United Kingdom and United States of America.


As an example, consider the crises of the industrial societies. The fundamental feature of industrial or post-industrial societies such as the United Kingdom or the United States is that the legitimacy of the state depends upon the ability of the state to redeem what Habermas calls ‘legitimate validity claims’. These validity claims are, for example, the ‘right to employment’; the ‘right to liberty’, the ‘right to security in retirement’ and so on. These rights do not exist in a vacuum: they exist in a society where the organic intellectuals of the dominant social group articulate the nature of these rights in the superstructural apparatuses. These functionaries of the dominant group act, in practice, to present the possibility of redeeming the validity claims through a way of life (for example, becoming a loyal worker; becoming a particular sort of worker (such as, accountant, a solicitor)) or by acting in accordance with a given set of instructions (the code of conduct). Legitimation crises arise when the state is unable to redeem the validity claims: when, for example, unemployment rises or when people are retired early without adequate financial arrangements.


As Habermas points out, the crisis tendency has four elements: economic, rationality, legitimation and motivation. There are, however two universal tendencies that may overwhelm us all: the first is the possible ecological catastrophe (external); the second is the anthropological catastrophe (internal). The first is almost self-evident; the second however is not necessarily self-evident: it is the contradiction that occurs when repression for deferred gratification does not achieve gratification.


Habermas constructs a processural view of social evolution from traditional to rational society. Capitalism represents the first stage in the break from traditional society and, as manifested in late capitalism, provides the grounds for a rational society. However, capitalism must be superseded as the full expression of rationalism is incompatible with its ‘breeding’ ground, i.e. capitalism.


Habermas, according to Scott, sees it as necessary to reconstruct the historical materialist account of the stages of social development; such that a classification of stages be dependent on forms of labour and social interaction, hence his distinction between early (liberal) and late capitalism. These differ in their organisational principle, the ‘market’ has been replaced by the ‘state’. The market, via the philosophy of laissez faire exchange (of equivalents) concealed exploitation. Late capitalism with the development of oligopoly and state intervention has seen an end of the free market and legitimation must be sought elsewhere. This, according to Habermas, has led to the legitimation crisis.


Habermas argues that the legitimation crisis can only be resolved via changes in the structure of communicative actions. the principle of rationality, he argues, must be applied to communicative action as well as instrumental action, however this is incompatible with capitalism. The projected ‘ideal speech community’ can coexist with explanation.


Critique of Habermas - John Scott

Scott (1978) argued that Habermas’s endeavour is principally a synthetic undertaking, rooted in Marx’s philosophy, it reconsiders Hegel and incorporates elements of Weber, Gadamer, Schutz, Parsons, Luhmann, ethnomethodology and language analysis.

Principally, it aims to synthesise and go beyond the hermeneutic-positivistic divide.

The aim of critical theory is to restore an awareness that people are active yet historically limited subjects.

In so far as it discovers which form of constraint on human freedom are necessary and which are historically specific, it generates a critique of society: the institutions of society are compared with the objective possibilities of human development, with the idea of rational society. (Scott, 1978, p. D)

Scott argues that Habermas does not fully articulate the connection between theory and practice. Where theory is developed analogously to psychoanalysis (i.e. emancipatory interest) it aims to show particular social groups that critical theory can provide self-knowledge. However, Habermas is ambivalent about who such groups are, as he argues that the exploited/proletarian class is only latent in late capitalism and not manifest in any particular group(s).


Scott’s critique is primarily aimed at Habermas analysis of knowledge and society. First, he argues that Habermas has an inadequate view of methodology of the natural sciences, essentially ignoring the critiques of Kuhn and others, and specifically of Harre, who have formulated a ‘realist’ interpretation of natural science akin to Habermas’s realist interpretation of social science. In short, Scott argues that Habermas retains an outmoded nominalist view of natural science.


[Nominalism-realism: see Lewis and Smith notes plus critiques]


[The realist position appears to raise the problem of the theory-laden nature of observation (see Chalmers and Williams ‘Keywords’) and holds that analytic-empirical knowledge fails to distinguish grounds for expecting, and causal reasons for, the occurrence of an event. Analytic-empirical knowledge constructs facts, they are not given. Hence the realist position attacks analytic-empirical knowledge on its analytic and its empirical element].


Scott is, therefore, sceptical of the possibility of Habermas constructing a body of knowledge concerning real structures, especially given his ‘relativistic and hence nominalist view’ of hermeneutic-historical knowledge. However, Scott does not elaborate this point.


Habermas, further, is faced by a dilemma concerning idealism and materialism.


If he adopts a materialist position he has to accept that social structures (e.g. modes of production) have a material existence. However, the Frankfurt School was trying to avoid this kind of materialism. In similar vein, Habermas too resorted to arguments of German idealism. yet this leads to a view that social structure as an ideal entity (and not an [instrumental] theoretical construct (of an individual theorist)) then it must be imminent in social action although not present in a material sense.


Habermas wanted neither ‘extreme’ and tried to avoid the materialist-idealist debate by basing his argument on structural linguistics. Like the linguist’s reconstruction of rules of grammar (inherent in speech) the critical theorist attempts a reconstruction of the rules of social grammar inherent in social action. However, this is no solution as the rules cannot be seen as nominalist constructions as they are held to be real structures. Conversely, they are not necessary principles of the human mind since it would preclude the discovery of historically specific social grammars. Scott argues that Habermas’s problem is that of all realists.


On ‘utopian rationality’ critical theory aims at a society in which the public as a whole determines its own future in a rational and autonomous [and ahistorical ?] way, in which people make their history, conscious of their capabilities and limitations.
The major distinction between Gadamer and Habermas, Scott argues, is that the latter is concerned with self understanding of social action, the former with self understanding of Being. The latter can be completed without reference to others and in consequence may be introverted and solisistic reflection on the self alone. In contrast Habermas seeks to understand the nature of self-understanding achieved in social relationships. Habermas critiques Gadamer’s acceptance of tradition and culture as self sufficient. Habermas argues that language is a meta institution on which all social relations depend, he stated: ‘it makes good sense to conceive of language as a kind of meta-institution on which all social relations are dependent’.

Critique of Habermas - Misgeld

Habermas’ position is, according to Misgeld (1981), that science (reconstructionist science) is integral with liberal bourgeois democracy: it encapsulates, and is predicate upon, the utopian content of that social milieu. To address this utopian content of he liberal democratic tradition, critical social theory must identify the dialectic progress in the application of (social) science to social life. Critical social theory must identify scientifically (through reconstructionist science) the means by which moral or practical consciousness develops and how this development is connected with the development of modes of production.

If, then, Habermas’s theory is to be more than a mere moral critique of advanced capitalism it ‘must designate the most developed form of moral/practical consciousness as factually attainable stages in the development of individuals and on the level of institutional representation’ (Misgeld, 1981, p. 129).


Misgeld sees the theory of social evolution and the reconstruction of competences and the study of ‘socialization in terms of ego development’ as essential to this enterprise.


However, Misgeld argued that Habermas remains rooted in the liberal democratic tradition in as much as he sees that tradition as having ideals that can be extended and as ultimately still applicable. [see also Scott's critique avove]

The closeness of Habermas’s theory to the liberal democratic tradition is reflected in the significance he attributes to the critical emancipatory potential of social science as a reconstructionist science. In many senses Habermas is a political pragmatist (witness his interest in Dewey) who is a ‘social reformer cum scientist’. However, Habermas does not develop a utopian treatment of liberal democracy, rather his approach is non-utopian, delving (for example) beneath the expression of ideals encapsulated in liberal bourgeois (state) apparatuses, such as constitutions, electoral procedures, etc. Habermas makes moral/practical consciousness (and its values) the topic of theoretical/reconstructionist studies intended to identify a more secure knowledge base than was available in the tradition. The reason for this is to legitimate the values of advanced capitalism with its integral scientistic frame.

Habermas is attempting to develop a critical theory that includes scientific rationality while also transcending it. Misgeld argued that (derived from Habermas) ‘rationalization as such does not amount to emancipation’ and this argument depends on developing the relationship between science and moral or practical consciousness. Conflict, which arises as a consequence of the application of science to practical social life is resolved only through the essential role played by moral or practical consciousness.


The problem is to identify the ideas of practical or political rationality. This cannot be done by hermeneutic processes nor through scientific rationality.

It is the interaction of moral/practical reasoning and scientific/theoretical “reasoning” in Habermas’s theory itself in which the tensions of the liberal democratic tradition are carried out.’ (Misgeld, 1981, p. 130)

Hermeneutics, Misgeld argued, in its attempt to generate a ‘living tradition’ of bourgeois rationalism, may prefer to address institutional practices and interpret this rational ideal through an assessment of how it is visibly made practical, accountable and rational. However, this misses, or deliberately rejects, the essential transcendent element of Habermas’ approach.

Misgeld noted that, for him, hermeneutics

locates itself more fully in the life process of the society through social practice than does Habermas, who cannot accept the location of theorising or reflectiveness in contingent starting points. (Misgeld, 1981, p. 132)

In respect of the issue of emancipation, if one were to address it from the perspective of social movements one would adopt a hermeneutically informed approach—but this would mean accepting a purely practical view of emancipation lacking a secure theoretical base. (In which case existentialist Marxism (Merleau-Ponty), Friere’s pedagogy (Friere, 1970) and ethnomethodology (Smith, D., 1979) can offer a similar rationale for enquiry: see also Misgeld (1980)).

It is important that, in any critique that makes a case for the significance of bourgeois liberal ideals, the integral role of science for bourgeois liberal democracy is acknowledged. Xxxxx
Misgeld, addressing the focus of critical theory, argued that Habermas is mistaken in his assumption that critically enlightened intellectuals (trained in scientific rationality) are the only significant audience. Gadamer proposed a wider audience, those possessing liberal, social and scientific education. However, neither are adequate, argued Misgeld, because both ignore all non-critical receptivity (including that of intellectuals).

Misgeld argues that Habermas’s later work [1975 on] should be regarded as coming from within the liberal democratic tradition as articulating its utopian content. His work is informed by bourgeois liberal ideals, see for example, his self-admitted search for ‘homologies between the structure of the ego and of world views’ and the concomitant attempt to delineate the categories of subjective internal nature and external objective nature as well as the ‘normativity of social reality and the intersubjectivity of linguistic reality’ (Habermas, 1979a, p 106).

Misgeld argues that the notions of criticalness, theoretically informed scientific enquiry and rational autonomy (which are central to the utopian content of the liberal democratic tradition) can be identified, easily, in Habermas’s notion of ego demarcation and world views.

 ‘The liberal democratic tradition and the culture of scientific rationality are present in the very design of a theory of social evolution which undertakes to discover the homologies and discrepancies in the "process of learning ability" in two dimensions: "progress is objectivating knowledge and in moral practical insight".’ (Misgeld, 1981, p. 134)


Essentially, Habermas pursues a conception of self ‘adequate’ for corporate capitalism in which ‘learning’ is regarded as central.

The development of hierarchically organized levels of differentiation in the formation of self(-consciousness), and its capacity for self-objectivation and self demarcation  as topics of analysis make an individual’s cognitive  organization appear to be commensurate to the complexities  of cognitive differentiation demanded by and achieved with the evolution of scientific rationality, systems of public  law and legal-rational political authority. (Misgeld, 1981, p. 134)

Misgeld extends his argument by pointing to the way the notion of categorical demarcations both supports and ‘provides developmental underpinnings’ for scientific objectivity and legal-rational authority as in the separation of self and the norms of social reality and intersubjective linguistic reality. Here, rules of enquiry and social rules are construed as objective and impersonal, to the extent that ‘moral reasoning’ is a state of maturity involving the adoption of impartial third person perspective. In short, Habermas retains Weberian notions of objectivity, impartiality and distance from immediate involvement. Indeed, Habermas goes further in his attempt to integrate ‘the culture of rational-scientific discourse into the practical life of the society.

The development of Habermas’s theory is underpinned by his theory of language and reconstruction of competences as underlying practical consciousness and is further aided by his reconstruction of historical materialism because it aims at a reconstruction of logics of development notably of moral/practical consciousness and of normative structures, the content of which have already been delineated in the liberal democratic tradition. The motive force for this development is the central role of science, and Habermas is concerned to incorporate science, to, the extent that he reflects a notion of critical enquiry IN science. Habermas’s recent theory is about the application of science to social life.

Habermas develops a theory of communicative competence that is essentially idealistic. Its role is to validate rationality. Habermas, in his concern about technocratic trends, specifically the intrusion of technically organised modes of explanation of social action into the social life world exaggerates the possibility of rational discourse by making societal members appear ideally competent to reason. Habermas fails to notice the ‘competence established in daily experience and deliberation. This is unorganised, inarticulate resistance. This is not ideal competence, but it occurs all the time and cannot be separated from action. Misgeld notes that hermeneutics is closer to these experiences.


Summary of Habermas


Habermas’s metascience principally revolves around his reconstruction of social evolution. Knowledge constitutive interests are dependent upon this reconstruction. Epistemology is an aspect of social theory. The cognitive interests relate to the media of evolution, which is the focus of explanation of social theory.


Habermas distinguishes three functions of human knowledge, the instrumental, the hermeneutic and the emancipatory. Knowledge, for Habermas, is more than just an instrument guiding action, it also functions to facilitate greater communication and also makes possible greater freedom. Hermeneutic knowledge, for Habermas, (1968) discloses reality ‘subject to a constitutive interest in the preservation and expansion of the intersubjectivity of possible action-orienting mutual understanding’.


analytical review

Matusik (2015) wrote:

Jürgen Habermas(born June 18, 1929, DüsseldorfGermany), the most important German philosopher of the second half of the 20th century. A highly influential social and political thinker, Habermas was generally identified with the critical social theory developed from the 1920s by the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt am Main, Germany, also known as the Frankfurt School. He belonged to the second generation of the Frankfurt Institute, following first-generation and founding figures such as Max HorkheimerTheodor Adorno, and Herbert Marcuse. Habermas was prominent both outside academic circles for his influential contributions to social criticism and public debate and within them for his voluminous treatises and essays in which he fashioned a comprehensive vision of modern society and the possibility of freedom within it. 

In The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, Habermas showed how modern European salons, cafés, and literary groups contain the resources for democratizing the public sphere. In his 1965 inaugural lecture at Frankfurt University, “Erkenntnis und Interesse” (1965; Knowledge and Human Interests), and in the book of the same title published three years later, Habermas set forth the foundations of a normative version of critical social theory, the Marxist social theory developed by Horkheimer, Adorno, and other members of the Frankfurt Institute from the 1920s onward. He did this on the basis of a general theory of human interests, according to which different areas of human knowledge and inquiry—e.g., the physicalbiological, and social sciences—are expressions of distinct, but equally basic, human interests. These basic interests are in turn unified by reason’s overarching pursuit of its own freedom, which is expressed in scholarly disciplines that are critical of unfree modes of social life. In his rethinking of the foundations of early critical social theory, Habermas sought to unite the philosophical traditions of Karl Marx and German idealism with the psychoanalysis of Sigmund Freud and the pragmatism of the American logician and philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce...

Habermas was criticized by both the postmodern left and the neoconservative right for his trust in the power of rational discussion to resolve major domestic and international conflicts. While some critics found his normative critical theory—as applied to areas such as education, morality, and law—to be dangerously Eurocentric, others decried its utopian, radically democratic, or left-liberal character. He was criticized by Marxists and by feminist and race theorists for abandoning socialism or for allegedly giving up on vigorous criticism of social injustice and oppression. For some representatives of antiglobalization social movements, even Habermas’s left-leaning political liberalism and deliberative democratic reformism were inadequate to address the cultural, political, and economic distortions evident in existing democratic institutions. Habermas responded to critics at both ends of the political spectrum by developing a more robust communicative theory of democracy, law, and constitutions in Faktizität und Geltung(1992; Between Facts and Norms), Die Einbeziehung des Anderen (1996; The Inclusion of the Other), and Die postnationale Konstellation (1998; The Postnational Constitution). In Zeit der Ubergänge (2001; Time of Transitions), he offered global democratic alternatives to wars that employ terrorism as well as to the “war on terrorism.”


Cherem (undated) wrote:

Jürgen Habermas produced a large body of work over more than five decades. His early work was devoted to the public sphere, to modernization, and to critiques of trends in philosophy and politics. He then slowly began to articulate theories of rationality, meaning, and truth. His two-volume Theory of Communicative Action in 1981 revised and systematized many of these ideas, and inaugurated his mature thought. Afterward, he turned his attention to ethics and democratic theory. He linked theory and practice by engaging work in other disciplines and speaking as a public intellectual. Given the wide scope of his work, it is useful to identify a few enduring themes.

Habermas represents the second generation of Frankfurt School Critical Theory. His mature work started a “communicative turn” in Critical Theory. This turn contrasted with the approaches of his mentors, Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, who were among the founders of Critical Theory. Habermas sees this turn as a paradigm shift away from many assumptions within traditional ontological approaches of ancient philosophy as well as what he calls the “philosophy of the subject” that characterized the early modern period. He has instead tried to build a “post-metaphysical” and linguistically oriented approach to philosophical research.

Another contrast with early Critical Theory is that Habermas defends the “unfinished” emancipatory project of the Enlightenment against various critiques. One such critique arose when the moral catastrophe of WWII shattered hopes that modernity’s increasing rationalization and technological innovation would yield human emancipation. Habermas argued that a picture of Enlightenment rationality wedded to domination only arises if we conflate instrumental rationality with rationality as such—if technical control is mistaken for the entirety of communication. He subsequently developed an account of “communicative rationality” oriented around achieving mutual understandings rather than simply success or authenticity.

Another enduring theme in Habermas’ work is his defense of “post-national” structures of political self-determination and transnational governance against more traditional models of the nation-state. He sees traditional notions of national identity as declining in importance; and the world, as faced with problems stemming from interdependency that can no longer be addressed at the national level. Instead of national identity centered on shared historical traditions, ethnic belonging, or national culture, he advocates a “constitutional patriotism” where political commitment, collective identity, and allegiance coalesce around the shared principles and procedures of a liberal democratic constitutionalism facilitating public discourse and self-determination. Habermas also claims that emerging structures of international law and transnational governance represent generally positive achievements moving the global political order in a cosmopolitan direction that better protects human rights and fosters the spread of democratic norms. He sees the emergence of the European Union as paradigmatic in this regard. However, his cosmopolitanism should not be overstated. He does not advocate global democracy in any strong sense, and he is committed to the idea that democratic self-determination requires a measure of localized mutual identification in the form of civic solidarity—a legally mediated solidarity around shared history, institutions, and rooted in some shared “ethical” pattern of life (see Sittlichkeit discussion below) fostering mutual understandings.


associated issues


related areas

See also


critical hermeneutics

critical theory



Researching the Real World Section 5.9


Cherem, M., undated, 'Jürgen Habermas (1929—)', Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, available at, accessed 27 September 2017.

Fay, B.,1975, Social Theory and Political Practice. London, Allen.

Habermas, J., 1968, Knowledge and Human Interest. Cambridge, Polity Press.

Habermas, J., 1972 [1968], Knowledge and Human Interests  [Erkenntnis und Interesse]. London, Heinemann.

Keat, R., 1981, The Politics of Social Theory. Oxford, Blackwell.

Matusik, M.B., 2015, 'Jürgen Habermas: German Philosopher', Encyclopædia Britannica, available at last updated 11 April 2019, 2015 version accessed 26 September 2017. New version accessed 3 June 2019.

Misgeld, D., 1980, 'Ultimate self-responsibility, practical reasoning and practical action: Habermas, Husserl, and ethnomethodology on discourse and action', Human Studies, 3(3), pp. 255–78.

Misgeld, D., 1981, 'Science, hermeneutics, and the utopian content of the Liberal-Democratic tradition', New German Critique 22 (Winter):123–144.

Scott, J., 1978, 'Critical social theory: an introduction and critique', British Journal of Sociology, 29.(1), p. 1–21.

Smith D., 1979, 'A sociology for women' in Sherman, J.A. and Becker, G. (Eds.), 1979, The Prism of Sex, pp. 135–87. Madison, Wisconsin University Press.

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2020


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