Dear Habermas Logo and Link to Index A Jeanne Site

Who Is Habermas? Why Habermas?

California State University, Dominguez Hills
University of Wisconsin, Parkside
Created: August 3, 1999
Latest update: July 10, 2003. Curran or Takata

Summer 2003: Outhwaite's Critical Introduction to Habermas Link added July 10, 2003.

Spring 2002:

  • "Postmodernity and the Politics of Multiculturalism: The Lyotard-Habermas Debate Over Social Theory" by Mark Poster; MODERN FICTION STUDIES, Vol. 28, No. 3, Autumn 1992, pp. 567-580

  • Jewish Thought and Critical Theory Brief essay drawing connections between individual life experience, cultural historical experience, and concept formation. On relatiionship between conceptual linking and cultural formation. Keywords: self-understanding, conceptual linking, dialectical formation. Link added March 20, 2002.

  • Luhmann, Habermas, and the Theory of Communication By Loet Leydesdorff, University of Amsterdam. backup

Fall 2001 Additions

  • Jurgen Habermas: Luddite Dragon or Defender of the Weak? Effects of Intertextuality on Meaning in Jurgen Habermas' Toward a Rational Society TyAnna Herrington Lambert. Texas Tech University. Presented Thursday, March 23, 1995, CCCC, Washington, DC (Panel Presentation)

  • Einführung in die feministische Philosophie: Von der Vernunftkritik zur feministischen Erkenntnistheorie Antje Gimmler (Philosophie) Link added March 11, 2002.


  • The Critical Theory of Jurgen Habermas Link added March 11, 2002.

  • MIT Press Booklist for Habermas

    Summer 2001 Additions

    Spring 2001 Additions

    • The Critical Theory of Jurgen Habermas by Dan MacIsaac, 1996. Link added January 11, 2001. backup
    • The Idea of the Theory of Knowledge as Social Theory from Knowledge and Human Interests by Jürgen Habermas (1968). Link added January 11, 2001
    • Luhmann, Habermas, and the Theory of Communication Loet Leydesdorff, Science & Technology Dynamics, Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences. Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Link added January 11, 2001
    • Jurgen Habermas on Society and Politics Case Western University
    • The Frankfurt School: IntroductionCase Western University

      Essays by Curran and Takata

      Habermas: Thinking Beyond and Through Privileged Categories
      Who Is Habermas? Why Habermas?
      Why Dear Habermas?
      On Habermas and Postmodernism
      On Choosing the Academy as a Laboratory for Research on Public Discourse
      On the Academy as a Non-Learning Auto-Poietic System
      Habermas/ Foucault Comparisons, Contrasts
      Beginning of Process Text. Link added April 2, 1999.

      Reviews by Curran and Takata of Works Not Online

      Habermas and Lyotard on postmodernity
      Review of essay by Richard Rorty in Essays on
      Heidegger and Others

      Link added July 24, 1999.

      Online Works

      Links and Resources

      The Critical Theory of Jurgen Habermas Includes comparison of Marx, Habermas, Freire. November 21, 2001.
      The Jurgen Habermas Web Resource
      Ridener Syllabus on Social Theory
      Includes Habermas' on the legitimation crisis, to which there is a link on online work.
      Link added July 25, 1999.

      Who Is Habermas? Why Habermas?

      by Jeanne Curran and Susan R. Takata
      Part of the Series on Discovering Discourse in the Academy
      Copyright: July 1999. "Fair Use" encouraged.

      Jurgen Habermas is arguably one of the greatest thinkers of the 20th Century. Anthony Giddens, a highly respected sociologist, says so (the reference is somewhere in Jeanne's library), so we figure we're safe with the academic authorities on that one.

      But why would we, especially sociologists, choose to establish our journal on the foundations of Habermasian theory?

      • Because he recognizes the need for communication.

      • Because he believes there is hope.

      • Because he believes that we can achieve legitimacy by including all our citizens in a legal system which learns from the feedback of its citizens.

      • Because he recognizes the eternal tension between the freedom of the individual and the needs of the community.

      • Because in 1996, Habermas, who is also a sociologist, published Between Facts and Norms describing what he believes is the greatest hope we have: a system of law that can potentially overcome the special interests that run our other social systems and establish legitimacy for all.

      We chose to teach with Habermas because faculty on the site teach sociology of law, theory, and methods from a reflexive and critical perspective. We liked his understanding of the multiple tensions that tear at us, between facts and norms, between the individual and the community, among validity claims that reflect the differences that can no longer be denied in our local, national, and global communities.

      This journal is designed to introduce on the site many of the issues that Habermas addresses, and many more that underlie in a practical sense the philosophical questions Habermas poses. Habermas is a great thinker. He may or may not be right. In either case it is the ordinary citizen who must decide to participate in good faith in discourse, if discourse is to work. This journal is dedicated to asking the questions and exploring the means, within the academy and its outreach, that may empower us to realize some of Habermas' ideas.

      Big Confession Time

      Faculty on this Site are sociologists. We are critical theorists with a primary emphasis on an application of sociological concepts to the real world of ordinary people. Giddens once wrote that the role of sociology is to help people understand the social system so that they can function more effectively within it. And he noted that, understanding it better, they do function better, which proceeds to change the system, so that sociologists have to study the newly evolving system so that we can help people understand it better . . . Nice job if you can get it, and we figure that we got it.

      So where's the big confession? Well, every time we talk about the issues of difference, even as Habermas handles them, people smile knowingly and say, "Ah, yes. Postmodernism." That's been fine with us. We called this a Journal of Postmodern Thought. But I'm not sure I've done justice to Habermas. Craig Calhoun puts our dilemma very well. He speaks of the haunting issue of universality versus difference. He notes that many poststructuralists and postmodernists claim one extreme of "absolute otherness" which leaves us with no community, nowhere to stake foundations from which we can collectively change the system we're caught in, except as against the "others." At the other extreme are the modernists who still hope that there can be some overriding enlightenment, who still hope for foundations through which we can achieve communication, and community. Calhoun adds that Habermas "is most prominent" amongst this latter group. (1)

      We often express the concern Calhoun expresses with the possibilities of attaining rational discourse such as Habermas and Gadamer describe. I've been known to howl at my students that I never said Habermas was right. None of us have ever seen it work. That's what we're trying to do here. See if it will work. But we are practitioners, looking to make it work. Calhoun reminds me that we take indiscriminately whatever source we can find that gives us hope and let's us try to make it work. We draw continuously on Skolimowski, who believes that grand theory matters, for it is the cognitive framework through which we understand. We draw on Gregory Jones' theological analyses of forgiveness, for without forgiveness we cannot establish the good faith we need right here to make this journal and our discourse work. Yes, we draw on Rorty's "necessary theoretical indeterminacy."(2) We draw even more on Martha Minow's Making All the Difference (3), but not in the sense that deconstructionists take difference as splintering our understanding hopelessly. And we rely on Lewis R. Gordon's deconstructionist Bad Faith and AntiBlack Racism(4). We have taken a path, much like that Calhoun describes for himself (which may be why we keep citing him), a path between "Habermas' Scylla" and "Derrida's Charybdis."(5)

      CONFESSION: We don't know where this puts us on that continuum of theory. Certainly close to Rorty, reliant on Habermas' hope, and delighted with the guidance offered by Calhoun. We CONFESS. But we like the path we're on. We see it working. We see the journal happening. We see discourse beginning. We're not "happy relativists. . . playful before the intellectual abyss." (6) We're concerned relativists, trying to listen in good faith to the many validity claims on who and what WE are.

      Reasons for Choosing the Academy

      • The Academy is the forum for teaching and for socialization into leadership.
      • The Academy is hierarchical and traditionally attached to that hierarchy.
      • The Academy, in its failure to adequately educate the general population, including the urban and rural poor, presents a laboratory of need in which we can begin to explore the public discourse Habermas envisions as possible.
      • The Academy, if it is to meet its role in the 21st Century, must educate all its citizens and must look to a very different legitimacy from that of the past. It must now look to a legitimacy grounded in difference, that can guide us in balancing the tensions Habermas so vividly portrays in Between Facts and Norms.
      • The Academy comes with a built in tradition that listens with varying degrees of good faith to the feedback of several groups of citizens because of their differences:
        • Students, especially poor or somehow disadvantaged students, who must balance conflicting claims on their energy and time.
        • Faculty , especially where professional "adminstrators" privilege administrative subjectivity, as is likely in an "administered" society.(7)
        • Various levels of community in the academy's service area.

        To bring these disparate elements together in public discourse is to add to our hope that discourse and legitimacy are possible, is to confirm that there really is hope. To do so within the very walls of the academy is to begin to train those who will go forth to build on what we learn.

        Why Dear Habermas?

        by Jeanne Curran and Susan R. Takata
        Part of the Series on Discovering Discourse in the Academy
        Copyright: July 1999. "Fair Use" encouraged.

        Dear Habermas originated in a Sociology of Law class, in which undergraduate students were struggling with Between Facts and Norms in 1996. For most of them, this was a first encounter with Habermas, with philosophy, and with theory at this level. We had already given them our Handbook, with questions and answers we thought would help. But this was new territory for all of us.

        We tried two things to make the task seem "do"able.

        • Distraction of the Gaze

          We offered our students oil pastels and good drawing paper, and encouraged them to draw as we held our discussions. We had learned this from an alternative high school program, in which students who appeared to be engaged in other tasks, like painting and Web surfing, popped up to join in our discussions when we least expected it, and when we thought they weren't even paying attention.

          Lesson learned. There is tension in facing down metanarratives, engaging in critical theory, and welcoming the diverse perspectives of the postmodern. The traditional "eyes forward, alert attention, contribute meaningfully to discussion" can feel very threatening. The oil pastels offered release from the traditional academy requirements of baring one's intellectual self to the gaze of all, and produced some delightful paintings as well. Habermas never said there was anything wrong with eliminating some of the understandable stress of discourse. (Well, if he did, we missed it.) The activity caused some problems for the teacher, who was used to having the students' focused attention. But the students, reared with the new media, found very little discomfort with the distractions.

        • Interactive Learning Exchange

          We didn't have the Internet in 1996. We had to get a special grant to have enough money to xerox. But we knew already that interactive exchange mattered. So we took every question that came to us, in class, written in with an exercise, on the phone, and tried dutifully to answer them. We soon discovered, though, that the questions came in a standard form: "What would Habermas say about . . .?" How on earth would we know?

          At first we giggled. Then we realized that we really had decided ourselves to "play with" Habermas, and that our students were simply following our lead. In law class, we would have applauded them for coming up with so many hypotheticals. So we didn't want to discourage the framework that grew naturally from our exchanges. Instead, we decided to play "Dear Habermas." The students really didn't care very much what we thought. They wanted us to reread Habermas and think about what he was saying, and then help them think that through. Even show them where in Between Facts and Norms he said what we were relying on for our answers. Good framework for learning, for all of us.

          And so, Dear Habermas became a tradition, which the following year, with some new equipment, Richard Moncure turned into a Web page. Thus Dear Habermas was born. By 1999 we had moved Dear Habermas exclusively to the Web, and there was no longer any hardcopy exchange. Along the way, we discovered that we had created a virtual community in the academy, and we began to self-reflect on how that happened and what it meant. In the Summer of 1999 Dear Habermas has continued to keep up very nearly the same volume of traffic we have during the school year, while we catch up on restructuring the site and writing. Amazing. A laboratory for understanding how public discourse can happen.

        On Habermas and Postmodernism

        by Jeanne Curran and Susan R. Takata
        Part of the Series on Discovering Discourse in the Academy
        Copyright: July 1999. "Fair Use" encouraged.

        This tidbit is in response to Shannon's question at CSUDH (Juvenile Delinquency Class) on why Dear Habermas considers Habermas post-modern. Good question. We hope the answer is clear. Invitation to question us further where it is not. We mostly think about these things when you ask us. So you're welcome to ask.

        At the risk of sounding heretical and eclectic, both of which seem to be academy sins, we want to explain what post-modern means for us. In the modern age the world changed, from one we could encompass with our minds, to one that holds us all at bay with a need to tolerate ambiguity, to know that we can never "know," for knowledge never ceases to grow and change. In the summer of 1998 we added the knowledge that neutrinos have mass, but we have yet to "know" whether they account for the "dark matter" of our universe.

        If we "know" so little about our physical world, then how much more difficult to "know" precisely about our selves and our stories and our relationships with each other, and with the universe. We do not wish to join philosophers in deciding whether philosophy is dead, whether there is or is not a Heaven or a Hell or a Future, other than the ones we seem to so readily create for ourselves.

        We do not need definitive answers. The answers that science could provide were the gift of modernism, the wonders we discovered and invented throughout the 20th Century. We do not know, nor do we need to know, whether there will be an ultimate "enlightenment," brought by either human understanding or God. "Enlightenment" was what the modern age sought, through its god of science and objectivity.

        Post-modernism, post-whatever, has taken the position that the Modernists over-reached. That "man" is not to know. Much energy was spent on epistemology, on the science of how we know, and how we can know that we know. But in the end, there are limits to human knowledge. There are certainly limits to the human capacity for establishing and maintaining a tiny piece of the universe that will sustain our humanity and our children into the future.

        The French school of post-modernists tends to be pessimistic, totally out of sorts with the corporate world of the turn of the century, for the corporate world is very certain that it knows what it knows. Sartre would call that ignorant bad faith, the sort of bad faith of someone who never learned to tell belief from knowledge. I believe because I believe because I believe . . .

        Habermas, a German thinker, tends to be more optimistic. He believes that the system of law holds the ultimate possibility for us to hear and respect each other and to establish a system of governance that can sustain both peace and a future. He counts on public discourse, our ability to reason with one another. His hope that there is any "ultimate" anything may mark him as modern. But he clearly recognizes the irreversible growth to a global world in which there can be no single perspective privileged above all others. He seeks "legitimacy," which many would again claim, does not and cannot exist because of its tendency again to the "ultimate."

        In Habermas' appeal to a good faith hearing for every validity claim, where every citizen has the right to voice that claim, he is post-modern. We make no pretense of being right, or having the authority to classify a thinker like Habermas. But we do claim to know that Habermas offers hope, hope that we can accomplish both peace and a future, and we find that that is enough for us to pass on that hope to our students, for we cannot teach despair.

        I do not and cannot know if there is a "right" path, for that is belief, and as an educator I am to pass on knowledge, not belief. I do not and cannot know if Habermas is right. Nor can Habermas. But I can and do assure you that to the extent that humanity is going to continue well into the next century, we can and must not kill one another or the atmosphere in which we live, for we cannot know where such terror will lead . One way to maintain an earth on which humans can continue to live is to begin to hear one another in good faith. Habermas says this in far more complex terms than I can manage. But because he says it, I believe he fits my definition of post-modern.

        Auto-Poietic Non-Learning Subsystem

        For now, in the hectic days of early January, 1999, you will have to be satisfied with my definition or go to Habermas' Between Facts and Norms. As I understand and use the term, "auto-poietic non-learning subsystem," it means a sytem, particularly within the legal system, about which Habermas was writing, which runs efficiently on its own. It runs on feedback. It has procedures and rules. It has means of enforcing those procedures and rules. That makes it auto-poietic. But then Habermas goes on to complain of Luhmann's reliance on auto-poietic systems that then build in a process for making new rules, since all systems encounter the need to adapt over time. Luhmann describes this as effective. Habermas disagrees. For he calls such a system "non-learning." Habermas means by that, I think, that a system which can make up new rules over time and take in feedback on the basis of which it re-adjusts itself over time, becomes non-reflexive. The feedback it relies on depends on its original system rules. There is no room for the system to hear that its rules are crushing the very people it is ruling over. It is non-learning. That violates Habermas' conception of legitimacy, for a system can only be legitimate in when every citizen in that system has an opportunity to be heard in good faith whenever he makes a validity claim.

        Now, if you don't believe in legitimacy, which some philosophers do not, then you'll need to rethink the importance of the "learning" quality of the system. I believe in legitimacy or some alternative that is reasonably like legitimacy. I will entertain discussions of this aspect of the problem in process texts. For now, though, that's the definition.


        1. Craig Calhoun, Critical Social Theory: Culture, History, and the Challenge of Difference. Blackwell, Oxford, UK. 1995. At p. xi. See also Habermas, passim.

        2. Calhoun, op. cit., at p. 100.

        3. Martha Minow, Making All the Difference: Inclusion, Exclusion, and American Law Cornell University Press, Ithaca and London, 1990.

        4. Lewis R. Gordon,Bad Faith and AntiBlack Racism, Humanities Press, New Jersey, 1996.

        5. Calhoun, op.cit., at p. xi.

        6. ibid., at p. 97.

        7. ibid., at p. 31.