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Jürgen Habermas and Communication Studies

Summary and Keywords

Jürgen Habermas is a primary figure in the Frankfurt School of critical theory that emerged in Germany after World War II. He wrote several important works addressing a variety of fields, including legal hermeneutics, to liberal political philosophy, to systems theory, and language analysis. Throughout his research, he has lauded intersubjective “communicative action” as a key paradigm for politics, law, and ethics.

Habermas’s theory of communicative action frames human beings as rational arguers. In his view, communication involves discussants disputing “validity claims” to gain mutual understanding and reach consensus. When he applies this communicative action perspective to culture and society, Habermas diagnoses the pathologies that occur when people coordinate their actions strategically through artificial systems rather than cooperatively through dialogue. When he applies it to ethical theory, he draws out the assumptions interlocutors must make when they argue—they are obliged to attempt to justify claims so that they could be universally accepted by those involved in the discourse.

In addition to theorizing communication, Habermas throughout his work analyzes the structures and systems that enable public communication in civil society. From this perspective, democratic society relies on spaces and institutions that allow for the public to debate matters of common concern, particularly when they involve the state. In his historical account, Habermas argues that the “public sphere” transformed during the Enlightenment to give communicative outlets to an emerging bourgeois class. From a legal and philosophical perspective, he outlines conditions for political and communicative agency in a modern constitutional state.

Communication scholars have had a mixed reaction to Habermas. He offers a vision of critical theory that allows for practical reason, but some assert that his theories are too idealistic and counterfactual to apply to real-life discourse. However, other scholars have nuanced his theory by putting him in dialogue with the rhetorical tradition. Publics and counterpublics especially have become common parlance and have helped explain protest, advocacy, and the constitution of communities in democratic culture.

Keywords: Jürgen Habermas, communicative action, public sphere, rhetoric, civil society, discourse ethics, system, lifeworld, communication and critical studies

Introduction

Jürgen Habermas is best known as a central figure of the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory, joining the ranks of Max Horkheimer, Theodore Adorno, and Herbert Marcuse. He has produced a large corpus that covers everything from legal and political philosophy to communication theory and even religious dialogue. Despite his eclectic scholarship, Habermas concerns himself throughout all of his work with how people can cope with the problems that modern, late capitalist society brings, including ever-more complex administrative states, the rise of mass media, and the threats of fascism.

Habermas was born in Düsseldorf, Germany, in 1929, just before the rise of Nazism, and much of his research program can be understood as a response to these formative years (Bronner, 2011, p. 28). He was recruited into the Hitler Youth in 1944 and sent to help as a first aider in a noncombat position at the Western Front (Müller-Doohm, 2016, p. 24). After the Second World War ended, Habermas listened intently to the Nuremberg trials on the radio, and he then learned about the Holocaust and the mass atrocities his country committed against the Jewish citizenry (Specter, 2010, pp. 4–6). These experiences of Habermas’s youth foreshadowed his later commitment to human rights, democratic sovereignty, and rational dialogue, and they also explain his passion for the denazification of the academy and government. He was also born with a cleft palate and speech defect, a disability that he has admitted helped him realize the importance of communication and of taking an intersubjective perspective to human beings (Habermas, 2005/2008, p. 14). Habermas became Theodor Adorno’s research assistant at the Institute of Social Research at the Frankfurt School in 1956 (Wiggershaus & Robertson, 1995, p. 537). Despite a brief falling out he had with the Institute when both Adorno and Horkheimer refused to sponsor his research, Habermas later returned to and has long been associated with the Frankfurt School throughout his many decades of thinking and writing.

Because Habermas’s work is too voluminous to effectively review in one article, this article focuses in particular on his work that intersects with communication studies. It will first overview his most abstract theories of communication that he developed in The Theory of Communicative Action and Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action before turning to his work on democracy, law, and the public sphere as represented in The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere and Between Facts and Norms. And the end of the article summarizes how communication scholars have received and responded to his work.

Theories of Communication

Throughout his work, Habermas develops and relies on abstract theories of communication that are of central concern to communication scholars. He most fully articulates these theories in his two-volume Theory of Communicative Action (1981/1984, 1981/1987). In this book, Habermas aims to develop a sound theoretical basis for reasonable argument and a rational society in the contemporary world, particularly after the postmodern turn in the academy has written out anything resembling a transcendent perspective. After the pessimism of Adorno, Habermas wants to know if there is a basis for any sort of critique of the problems of society.

The Theory of Communicative Action is a massive work that runs through every major theorist of society that Habermas can hope to engage with, including Karl Marx, Max Weber, Stephen Toulmin, and Talcott Parsons. This is his most thorough attempt to craft a theory of action that allows for society-wide critique, and he attempts to base this theory in everyday practices of communication. The result is a very long set of abstract reflections and theoretical distinctions about communication. The most important distinctions are those he makes between different orientations that people can adopt toward each other on both a micro and a macro level in society.

In order to make distinctions between different communicative orientations, Habermas relies on the speech act theory of J. L. Austin and John Searle. Speech act theorists look at language not merely as representational, in that it constructs or describes reality, but also as a form of action. When I use language, I not only say something but also do something. From this theory, we can talk about three different types of action a person can perform with speech: locutionary, illocutionary, and perlocutionary acts. A locutionary act describes something in the world, an illocutionary act refers to what we do when we speak, and a perlocutionary act refers to the effects of our speech (Habermas, 1981/1984, pp. 288–295). Take an example: If I politely tell a friend “you need to find a job,” then I am operating on several levels of action at once. As a locutionary act, I have explained that I believe the other person needs to find employment. From an illocutionary perspective, I have performed an action that could be labeled “advising” and is mutually understandable as a type of act by both me and my friend. The perlocutionary effects of my act may be that my friend decides based on my advice to go search for work. Conversely, maybe my friend decides that I am pushy and avoids frequent contact. Either way, this part of the act is an effect that my speech act produced.

Habermas leverages the distinction between illocutionary and perlocutionary acts to help define two different methods of engaging other people in society: strategic action and communicative action. A person acts strategically when she acts toward the world as though it were a world of things. Action is a means of controlling nature and controlling outcomes, and it tends to see people instrumentally rather than as equal rational actors. For Habermas, this is what happens when people only focus on perlocutionary acts as the effects they want to achieve. Instead of perlocutionary effects, Habermas insists that we should focus on illocutionary aims. Specifically, in communicative action, we should have the illocutionary aim of mutual understanding, which recognizes the other as a person and thus engages in an intersubjective conception of the world (1981/1984, p. 295). Communicative action involves establishing a common interpretive world with one’s fellows and allows social actors to establish normative judgments rather than merely achieve instrumental ends (p. 285).

The distinction between communicative action and strategic action may seem nonexistent in the real world, but Habermas is not necessarily worried that they are counterfactual. What is more important to him is that they inform an ideal outlook that people should have when interacting with other people. Implicit in communicative action, as opposed to strategic action, is an intersubjective mode of reasoning that takes the other into account. In other words, one has to account for themselves to another person and should ideally have to forward validity claims based on common ground. Communicative action suggests a mode of reasoning that relies on consensus and a concern for other people.

From a macro perspective, the strategic/communicative action framework parallels what Habermas calls the system and lifeworld. The lifeworld, on the one hand, involves a set of assumptions and competencies that hang in the background of a community. He refers to it as “the totality of interpretations presupposed by the members [in communication] as background knowledge” (1981/1984, p. 13). Habermas subdivides the lifeworld into three aspects: culture, society, and personality (p. 138). Culture is the “stock of knowledge” that individuals within the community use as a resource to understand the world. Society is the set of norms that govern action within the community, and personality is an individual’s competence to use the type of communicative action sanctioned by the community. Thus, communication creates and sustains the lifeworld, as the lifeworld presupposes people in a community coming together to build common understanding. Systems, on the other hand, are formal structures that develop out of the lifeworld. These structures govern community behavior and do not necessarily rely on actors communicating with one another. Systems are necessary as the lifeworld becomes more complex and background consensus cannot be assumed in day-to-day interactions. It is also not practical to hash out every norm through communication repeatedly, so systems allow actors in the lifeworld to interact with each other strategically rather than communicatively.

Habermas argues in volume 2 that the system has “colonized” the lifeworld in modern society. He asserts that societies become so complex that they rely more and more on systems to perform the functions of social integration. Systems come with their own imperatives that may not have been thinkable during their creation (often but not always amid the intersubjective reason giving of the lifeworld). He describes the colonization of the lifeworld as the system imperatives overrunning the lifeworld rationality:

In place of “false consciousness” we today have a “fragmented consciousness” that blocks enlightenment by the mechanism of reification. It is only with this that the conditions for a colonization of the lifeworld are met. When stripped of their ideological veils, the imperatives of autonomous subsystems make their way into the lifeworld—like colonial masters coming into a tribal society—and force a process of assimilation upon it. The diffused perspectives of the local culture cannot be sufficiently coordinated to permit the play of the metropolis and the world market to be grasped from the periphery. (1981/1987, p. 355)

Throughout both volumes of The Theory of Communicative Action, Habermas builds on the theories of “reification” from Marx and Georg Lukács. In this context, reification is a process by which human relations are transformed into relations among human-made things (see Jütten, 2011; Lukács, 1923, pp. 83–110). For Habermas, the colonization of the lifeworld is a type of reification and one of the central pathologies of modern life. Financial and media systems, for example, can invade lifeworld practices and circumvent the possibilities for mutual consensus and understanding. These systems already possess modes of integration that do not require reflection or reason giving. The rules of the system drive action without that sort of reflection, thus the legitimation of societal integration achieved through communicative action can be overridden by system imperatives. This “colonization thesis” extends Habermas’s previous work in Legitimation Crisis (1973/1975). He argues that advanced capitalist societies are susceptible to legitimation crises because states increasingly intervene into the economy without sufficient support by lifeworld consensus. The understood values undergirding liberal capitalist economies, values such as fairness and competition, are undermined by the necessity of state intervention to mitigate the negative effects of the market.

Furthermore, Habermas argues that the theory of communicative action can ground ethical theory and effectively counter moral relativism. He presents his “discourse ethics” in Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action (1983/1995) as a revision to Kantian ethics. Discourse ethics proposes that ethical values are built into the very processes of communication that people regularly engage in; whenever someone invokes a moral norm or suggests an action, they presuppose baseline norms that are crucial for moral argumentation. Most importantly, whenever interlocutors discuss ethical actions, there always remains the possibility that one person will reject that something was right or good. This act of rejection calls upon those forwarding the ethical claim to offer reasons in its defense, reasons that could presumably be accepted by other interlocutors in the exchange. Habermas pulls from this effort to find acceptable reasons a “discourse principle (D)” of moral argumentation that requires valid norms rely on the “approval of all affected in their capacity as participants in a practical discourse” (p. 66). Habermas keeps the desire in Kant for universal ethical commands, but the discourse principle distinguishes itself from the categorical imperative because it relies on intersubjective communicative processes that build consensus rather than individual thought experiments in formulating universal laws. In other words, in discourse ethics other people have to assent.

From the discourse principle, Habermas derives several process-based principles for ethical argumentation, such as the requirement that all capable actors be permitted to participate in the discourse, that any assertion is fair game in the discussion, or that any claim can be questioned (1983/1995, p. 89). These principles create an idealized argumentation procedure from which to judge actual practice, but the actual substance of ethical norms is intentionally undetermined in Habermas’s formulation. Habermas makes this point clear because his is an ethics for a pluralistic society that presupposes no single moral authority.

Democracy, Deliberation, and Legitimate Law

As a second major strain in his work, Habermas concerns himself with the processes by which states gain legitimacy. In this respect, he aligns himself well with classic political theory going back to Thomas Hobbes and even Niccolò Machiavelli. Particularly important are the conditions that allow the public to assert its own sovereignty and capacity for self-determination in light of current legal orders. Habermas offers accounts of these conditions in The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (1962/1989) and Between Facts and Norms (1992/1996). I will trace here his evolving theory of deliberative democracy as a solution for governmental legitimacy, particularly as it plays out through his understanding of the public sphere.

In Structural Transformation, Habermas works as both historian and social critic. As a historian, he traces changing notions of publicity throughout Europe in the Middle Ages through to the Enlightenment. Publicity, he argues, is a central category for modern theorists, and it is useful to understand its origins and to gain “a systematic comprehension of our own society from the perspective of one of its central categories” (1962/1989, p. 5). If modern governments rest their claims to legitimacy on the public will and public opinion, then it is worthwhile to understand where this public opinion comes about. That is, Habermas wants to leverage this notion of “publicity” to understand political and social changes that occurred in Europe, and he is particularly interested in how a new type of publicity created conditions for the critique of government.

Just as John Dewey (1927) warned about the public’s “eclipse,” Structural Transformation provides a similar rise and fall narrative of public consciousness and thus sovereignty over its own governance. Habermas starts with early forms of publicity. In the High Middle Ages in Europe, there was no public sphere that was separate from the state, no space that private individuals could step into in order to speak to the public. Instead, publicity was a “status attribute” that resided in persons rather than places (1962/1989, p. 7). A member of the nobility, such as a lord, would enact what Habermas terms “representative publicity,” where they would serve as the embodiment of the state to the people. Importantly, they did not pretend to be representatives of the people, as we might expect in democratic systems, but instead they were the government themselves, representing it “‘before’ the people” (p. 8).

This system of representative publicity lasted until the 18th century, at which point “publicity” emerged in separate spaces from just the state. The emergence of new forms of capitalism fostered a merchant class, a class that not only traded commodities but also traded news (1962/1989, p. 15). At first, this was simply functional, as merchants relied on news in order to enhance capital. However, the traffic of news eventually evolved into the press, which reported on all sorts of information and news itself became a commodity (p. 21). Accompanying the rise in news was the rise of the bourgeois class that had power independent of the state. The bourgeois’s independence and interest in public affairs helped constitute an emergent public sphere in civil society that was separate from the state. A literary public sphere emerged first through a “world of letters” that served as a training ground for critical public debate. Soon, new physical spaces in civil society, such as the salons, theaters, coffee houses, and clubs, fostered this growth of an independent public sphere that exercised its collective judgment on matters of common importance (pp. 21–23).

For Habermas, this new sphere of social relations allowed for the entrance of private subjects into a public space while not necessarily becoming public subjects, as with representative publicity of the monarchs who embodied publicity: “With the background experience of a private sphere that had become interiorized human closeness it challenged the established authority of the monarch; in this sense its character was from the beginning both private and polemical at once” (p. 52). This new public sphere fostered the development of a political consciousness that saw public opinion as source of legitimacy for law, rather than princely authority. To offer some evidence for these broad claims about the evolution of society, Habermas offers a historical account of the development of civil society in Britain, France, and Germany in the late 18th century and early 19th century.

Although Habermas seems to romanticize about this moment in the Enlightenment, he concedes that the public sphere that arose in the High Middle Ages was a restrictive space that excluded most people. He explains that the “private people” that were given access to the public sphere were actually a minority, even if access was expanded significantly from previous time periods. This was, after all, a bourgeois public sphere that arose, and the majority of the public was still excluded as “common people” (1962/1989, p. 84). However, Habermas sees in the development of the public sphere an “organizational principle” that would sow the seeds of class destruction:

On the basis of the continuing domination of one class over another, the dominant class nevertheless developed political institutions which credibly embodied as their objective meaning the idea of their own abolition: veritas non auctoritas facit legem, the idea of the dissolution of domination into that easygoing constraint that prevailed on no other ground than the compelling insight of public opinion. (p. 88)

In other words, the new bourgeois public sphere shifted the prevailing ideology to one where government is accountable to the public. This new ideology contradicts the denial of equal access and could eventually be used as a justification to end class domination and a privileged public sphere.

The public sphere turns into a “fall” narrative when Habermas gets to contemporary society. Several socioeconomic factors led to the collapse of the bourgeois public sphere. He warns of a “refeudalization” of society, which involves the gradual reintegration of state and civil society. The rise of huge corporations concentrated power within economic markets, which destroys “even the flimsiest pretense of being a sphere in which the influence of power was suspended” (p. 144). Simultaneously, disempowered actors in the economic market leveraged the political power of the state to try and even the playing field, which led to more state intervention in the economy. This reintegration matters to Habermas because separate spheres allow a standpoint for one to critique the other. Additionally, new mass media technologies began changing the disposition of private persons in the public sphere away from using critical reason to form public judgments. Instead, the public began a consuming public that was characterized by its “abstinence from literary and political debate” (p. 163). Habermas laments that these aforementioned forces have “shattered” the public use of reason (p. 175).

Habermas argues that two problems need to be fixed in order for the democratic public to once again be a check on the governance of society. First, the masses need to find new ways into the discourses on governance, particularly when the government is run by technocrats within the bureaucracy of the state. Second, the pluralistic publics existing in society would have to find some sort of common grounding for judgment. There must, in other words, be a “standard of a universal interest” that different parties in society need to meet; otherwise, politics is reduced to the mere play of power and the basis for critique is gone (1962/1989, p. 233).

Thus, Habermas’s early work on the public sphere shows his initial interest in isolating the conditions for the legitimacy of government, but his ideas are not fully fleshed out for the solution to contemporary problems. Structural Transformation is more diagnosis than cure in this respect, as Habermas does not fully explain his ideas for how to justify and create a legitimate governmental order until his magnum opus of legal and political theory came out in 1992, Between Facts and Norms.

In Between Facts and Norms, Habermas continues his work on the public sphere from the perspective of political and legal theory. His methods are different and his ideas more sophisticated, but his goal is still the same: Understand the conditions for a legitimate state, especially in the context of democracy. He names the book after a central tension he sees in the law that may threaten the legitimacy of the government. The tension between “facts” and “norms” demarcates the tension between the existing law, which is coercive and realized; and the validity the law lays claim to, the idealized norms wrought in the democratic lifeworld. Put another way, the law makes two claims on democratic citizens. The first is a coercive claim—if we break the law, we will be punished. However, there is an important second claim that is often overlooked, the claim to legitimacy. The law asks citizens not just to obey because of the threat of punishment but also to obey because the citizen sees it as a law that should be followed, because the law is understood to be backed by valid reasons. The first could be called fear of the law, while the second could be characterized by respect for the law (1992/1996, p. 46).

Habermas’s main argument in Between Facts and Norms is that there is a direct, internal relationship between the rule of law and democracy (1992/1996, p. 449). His theories of communication are difficult to separate out here, particularly because Habermas wants to use this book to show that the theory of communicative action can be applied in a more concrete setting. They are also difficult to separate because Habermas, much like in his Theory of Communicative Action, is searching for a postmodern conception of legitimacy that does not rest on the authority of higher moral order, such as religious beliefs. Instead, he argues that law presupposes deliberative democracy as an internal method of justification. As I will explain below, he further insists that democracy implies a system of rights to protect citizens’ private and public autonomy as co-conditions of deliberation.

Along the way, Habermas attempts to mediate between two key binaries that have plagued legal and political theory for centuries. The first binary occurs between natural law and systems accounts of the law, and this binary is reminiscent of Habermas’s distinction between system and lifeworld. A systems theorist would view the law as a set of social “facts” that actors engage with pragmatically. This is the bad man’s approach to the law—I will not run the stop sign because I believe there is a police officer watching, not because I value the rule behind it. Niklas Luhmann represents this perspective with his legal theory because he understands the law to stabilize behavioral expectations rather than offer any normative validity. For Habermas, this theory of law means that the law is seen as “autopoietic,” as self-sustaining and not reliant on its connection to other “action systems” (1992/1996, pp. 49–50). Thus, Luhmann’s approach also strips the law of its claim to validity: “Described as an autopoietic system, a narcissistically marginalized law can react only to its own problems, problems that are at most externally occasioned or induce” (p. 51). The loss of validity is unacceptable for Habermas, who is attempting to establish how legal orders can gain legitimacy. If legal positivism lacks normative teeth, then the natural law tradition would seem like a good alternative. However, the modern natural law tradition, as represented by John Rawls’s theory of justice, lacks an acceptable account of the institutionalization of moral norms. Habermas warns that “without the view of law as an empirical action system, philosophical concepts remain empty” (p. 66). There is no compelling force that deals with people who break the law, nor is there any account of how the specificities of the law are mediated.

The second binary arises between conceptions of democracy invoked by civic republicanism and liberalism. Habermas traces civic republicanism back to Aristotle, where liberty meant the freedom to participate in popular will formation through a (limited) democratic process. Classic liberalism, by contrast, goes back to John Locke, and it centers on the protection of private human rights against the potential encroachments of the majority (1992/1996, p. 454).

In order to achieve the conditions for legitimate lawmaking, a society must provide for both individual and collective autonomy, as represented by the debate over private rights versus democratic participation. Habermas outlines five main categories of rights that serve as a co-condition to allow for private and political autonomy:

  1. 1. Rights to equal individual liberties (e.g., freedom of speech);

  2. 2. Rights to free association with various groups, particularly membership in political organizations;

  3. 3. Rights to fair legal processes (e.g., due process, the right to a jury of one’s peers);

  4. 4. Rights to participate in process of public opinion and will formation by which law is legitimated;

  5. 5. Basic social and economic rights that ensure the protections of life (1992/1996, pp. 155–156).

However, as Habermas articulated in both Structural Transformation and The Theory of Communicative Action, no legitimate state is complete without an arena of public discourse to legitimate it. Habermas’s conception of rights could be understood as a response to the many critiques that have been leveled against his idealized account of the public sphere—namely that it brackets power differences without actually taking away the influence of power in public deliberations. The system of rights provides baseline conditions for citizens to be autonomous and allows the force of the better argument to prevail. However, he is also clear that the system of rights is not a pre-condition to democracy but rather that democracy and rights mutually imply each other and are “co-original” (p. 155).

Thus, the argument comes full circle back to Habermas’s original conception of the public sphere as the space for legitimation of the state. Only this time Habermas offers a more nuanced understanding of the relationship between civil society and the state where different spaces of discourse interact based on different communities that they serve. Rather than separate out the space of legitimation from the state, Habermas grants that the institutionalized spaces for deliberation orchestrated by the state can also provide legitimation. He adopts the terms “weak” and “strong” publics from Nancy Fraser, whose critique I will discuss in more detail below. A strong public is one that can directly make policy decisions, whereas a weak public can join the conversation and help form public opinion but cannot directly legislate on policy (1992/1996, p. 334). The two types of publics are separate but still interconnected in the complex process of deliberation in modern society.

Habermas’s Reception in Communication Studies

Communication scholars have not thoroughly incorporated most of Habermas’s work into conversations over rhetorical theory. However, rhetoricians have been deeply interested in his historical account of the conditions for democratic legitimation. In this section, I will first explain the mixed reception to his more abstract theories of communication, and then I will analyze the way that communication scholarship has engaged with his account of the public sphere, particularly in Structural Transformation.

Rhetoricians will likely find that Habermas’s distinctions between strategic and communicative action do not respect the complexity of rhetoric or the plurality of speaking situations. Rhetoric is deeply embedded in specific contexts and Habermas tries to generalize about a type of universal audience, subject, and public sphere. John Louis Lucaites (1987) points this out in his review of the first volume of The Theory of Communicative Action, insisting that “Habermas neither demonstrates the empirical relevance of this argument in Volume One, nor elaborates its specific implications for the rational reconstruction of a viable public sphere” (p. 137). Further, Habermas leaves little room for rhetoric when he separates illocutionary from perlocutionary acts and valorizes the former to the detriment of the latter. Thomas Farrell (1993) laments that this separation dismisses rhetoric and persuasion as “immature” and “a flawed, transitory stage in human nature—hardly the sort of thing to write a book about” (p. 194). However, Farrell aims for revision, not dismissal; he advocates for a rapprochement between Habermas and the Aristotelian tradition of rhetoric, a tradition that Farrell argues can ground Habermas’s universal pragmatics in real-world communicative practices (see also Goodnight, 2008).

Others in the rhetorical tradition have critiqued the theory of communicative action for not recognizing the different needs of publics, particularly those who have been disempowered by a political system that strives for unity. Danielle Allen (2004) critiques Habermas’s theory of communicative action for his inattention to different audiences and for his focus on an equal, consensus-driven process over the imperfect products it creates. Specifically, Habermas highlights illocutionary aims in communication without giving enough credence to the perlocutionary effects of deliberative encounters. If he did, Allen suggests he would see how an orientation toward consensus does not necessarily produce consensus and how in any given policy decision, some group must lose out. She argues that a good theory of deliberation should also have to account for “disagreement, disappointment, resentment, and all the other byproducts of political loss” (p. 63). In many cases, the losers of an idealized consensus-driven deliberation are the same parties over and over again, like the African American community in the United States. This consistent loss produces distrust and a lack of faith in communal deliberation.

A number of communication scholars, and especially rhetoricians, have appreciated Habermas’s critique of systematically distorted communication and the articulation of criteria for a democratic public sphere. Indeed, Alan Gross (2006, 2010) builds productively on Habermas’s theory of communicative action. He refines the concept of “systematically distorted communication” by revisiting Habermas’s corpus and testing the concept’s applicability in the case of Nazi, sexist, and drug promotion language. Gross argues that systematically distorted communication occurs when ideology infuses language and deceives interlocutors into thinking they are communicating free from the constraints of power. Gross further contends that a combination of “therapeutic” critique and rhetorical proofs can help emancipate people from systematically distorted communication.

Compared to the Theory of Communicative Action, The Structural Transformation was widely discussed by rhetorical scholars when it was finally translated into English in 1989. Three key circumstances primed communication scholars to engage with this particular work. First, a small group of scholars were already discussing Habermas’s later works on communicative action and legitimate state power, so another new Habermas translation was going to have some readership in communication studies. Farrell reviewed three of Habermas’s books—Legitimation Crisis, Theory and Practice, and Knowledge and Human Interests—in the Quarterly Journal of Speech as early as 1977. Several reviews of Habermas’s works appeared in major communication journals over the next few years, particularly of his Communication and the Evolution of Society and the Theory of Communicative Action (Hawes, 1983; Heeney, 1980; Lucaites, 1987). There was even a special issue of the Journal of the American Forensic Association in 1979 to discuss Habermas’s theories of communication and their connection to speech rhetoric. When Structural Transformation finally arrived, these scholars brought the work to the attention of the discipline.

Second, communication scholars were already invested in studying the decline of public deliberation in specific contexts. G. Thomas Goodnight published an influential essay in 1982 in which he discussed three “spheres of argument” and their relation to public deliberation. Influenced by John Dewey’s theories of the public, Goodnight warned that the growing complexity of the policy issues would shut out the lay public from important governing decisions. He also warned that the mass media, which could be an arbiter for national public debate, was only concerned with stimulating the public. He lamented that “thus is deliberation replaced by consumption” (p. 207). Goodnight and others were working at the time against other theoretical trends in the field wrought by the postmodern turn, particularly those of Michael Calvin McGee (1980). It is no wonder, then, why a subtle swipe at McGee’s theory of the “ideograph” made it into the final article:

Given the increasing tendency of political rhetoricians to produce strings of “ideographs,” untrammeled by warrants or inferences, and given the tendency of government to proceed by relying on the dictates of instrumental reason, the realm of public knowledge, identified by Dewey and later addressed by Bitzer, may be disappearing.

(Goodnight, 1982, p. 206)

“Untrammeled by warrants or inferences,” he saw scholars in this theoretical camp as toothless to offer a critique of public deliberation’s decline. In this way, Goodnight reflected a search for a more amenable critical theory that fit with their commitment to argumentation. As Robert Asen (2015) explains, scholars began to take up Goodnight’s framework of public, personal, and technical spheres to see how citizens engaged in deliberation dominated by technocrats. By the time Structural Transformation was translated in 1989, the “public sphere” was common disciplinary parlance for this critical conversation.

A final significant catalyst for English readers of Habermas came in 1992 with the publication of Habermas and the Public Sphere. In 1989, Craig Calhoun orchestrated an interdisciplinary conference to discuss the English translation of Structural Transformation, and several essays from the conference were published in this collection. Given the interdisciplinary nature of the conference and subsequent book, scholars in this collection add a lot to facilitate interest in Habermas’s book. No summary can do justice to all of the excellent essays in this collection, but a few key themes are worth noting here.

Several contributors question whether Habermas’s philosophic and historical conception of the public sphere is too narrow and idealistic. Thomas McCarthy and Seyla Benhabib affirm the goal of a public sphere as a democratic, communicative space while simultaneously insisting that Habermas’s conception of its argumentation too limited, either by his insistence on rational consensus or by his inattention to power relations in the private sphere. Many critical-historical analyses are conducted by Michael Schudson, Moishe Postone, Keith Michael Baker, David Zaret, Lloyd Kramer, Mary P. Ryan, Geoff Eley, and Harry C. Boyte. In considering Habermas’s historical narrative in Structural Transformation, these analyses refine the narrative by drawing out more nuanced accounts of how they functioned in France and Britain, extend the narrative to see how it plays out in other contexts, and at times challenge his narrative of decline as negligent of other places where the public spheres arose (such as social movements).

Critiques of access pervade the Calhoun collection and reveal exclusions based on gender, class, and race from the Enlightenment public sphere. Nancy Fraser argues that a more productive conception of the public sphere should attend to difference and exclusion by theorizing a plurality of publics, not a singular public sphere. From a rhetorical perspective, Michael Warner claims that the bourgeois public sphere was tied to communicative markers of masculinity in print culture, specifically, the ability to self-abstract and speak from the position of a “utopian universalism.” Self-abstraction was not an option for those who were marked as different, which means that domination was structured into a public sphere that purportedly “bracketed” power differences.

Even as they offered criticisms and amendments, many of the scholars in this collection still wanted to reaffirm Habermas’s project in Structural Transformation. Benhabib insists that the discursive model of the public sphere is the strongest one upon which to build and incorporate feminist perspectives (p. 95). Mary Ryan explains that Habermas’s concept of the public sphere was a fruitful conceptual resource for feminists in the 1960s that separated democratic politics “from the iron grasp of the state” (p. 261). Even Fraser, who is so often cited as a counterpoint to Habermas, affirms the value of the Habermasian public sphere. She states that something akin to Habermas’s concept of the public sphere is “indispensable to critical social theory and democratic political practice” because it distinguishes democratic practice from both the state and economic markets (p. 111).

The strain between the public sphere’s empirical and ideal dimensions within Structural Transformation has drawn significant attention. Keith Michael Baker (1992) calls this tension a “profound ambiguity” in the book because Habermas simultaneously posits both “the emergence of a normative ideal of rational public discussion from within the distinctive social formation of bourgeois civil society and [the] realization, or rather the fleeting, partial realization, of this ideal within that society” (p. 183). After all, Habermas warned not to allow the public sphere theory developed in Structural Transformation to be “abstracted from the unique developmental history of that ‘civil society’ (bürgerliche Gesellschaft) originating in the European High Middle Ages” (1962/1989, p. xvii). As a descriptive project, the public sphere denotes a historically specific moment whereby the bourgeois class in Europe emerged as a separate power to the state. Habermas seems to have ignored his own warnings, however, about turning the empirical historiography into a theoretical norm in Between Facts and Norms. For Habermas, the public sphere quickly became detached from any specific historiography.

Rhetoricians work on the periphery between the descriptive and normative conceptions of the public sphere. There’s an empirical impulse to use case studies to ground public sphere theory in specific contexts and actual discourse events. For example, Rosa Eberly (2000) looks at several case studies of literary public spheres. Specifically, she shows how cultural texts in several controversies play a role in fostering “citizen critics” who engage in debate in the public sphere. Robert Asen has also written extensively on policy debates and how various publics in the public sphere create opportunities and constraints on legislative debates, such as the debate over the privatization of social security (see Asen, 2009).

Kevin Michael DeLuca and Jennifer Peeples (2002) attempt to modify the overarching empirical theory of the public sphere. Speaking on the same grand scale as Habermas, they argue that we have entered a mass communication age that public sphere theory cannot well account for. They remind readers that Habermas’s public sphere was itself historically situated and thus that a public sphere model may not work well for the modern era. As a historically situated concept, the bourgeois public sphere in Habermas privileges “dialogue” as its operative mode of oral communication, whereas the “New World Order,” as DeLuca and Peeples put it, forwards “dissemination” as the preeminent method of communication. In other words, today’s publics are more likely to see something on television, in the newspaper, or on the Internet than to discuss issues in a salon or town meeting. However, DeLuca and Peeples are careful not to say that the public sphere is dead, but rather, that it is eclipsed by the modern media landscape: “The latter [public screen] neither succeeds the former [public sphere] nor are they utterly distinct arenas. Rather, the public screen and the public sphere exist in a dialectic of remediation. To herald the emergence of the public screen is not to announce the death of the public sphere, though it may suggest its eclipse” (p. 132). DeLuca later changes his mind on this point, admonishing his fellow scholars that a Habermasian public sphere never existed and that “proselytizing” for it legitimizes systemic violence against oppressed populations (2013, pp. 230–231). Deliberative ideals, so the story goes, delegitimize dissent.

Similar to DeLuca and Peeples, Cara Finnegan and Jiyeon Kang (2004) argue that public sphere theory, derived from Habermas, should more deliberately incorporate visuality. They worry about attempts to do this that only respond to the “gross iconoclasm” in Habermas’s or John Dewey’s work. That is, they are concerned that scholars may only respond to the moments where Habermas is obviously anti-image (as in Structural Transformation). A reading of Habermas’s later work reveals more complexity through, as they note, a “subtle iconoclasm” that allows for images but still reproduces linguistic models of communicative rationality.

When rhetorical scholars do explicitly take up a normative project on the public sphere, they usually critique the exclusionary aspects of Habermas’s bourgeois public sphere. Frequently cited alongside Structural Transformation is Nancy Fraser’s (1990) aforementioned critique of Habermas’s work. Fraser attacks Habermas’s account of the public sphere on several fronts, but two particular critiques have endured. First, she argues that any conception of the public sphere that claims to “bracket” social inequalities is naïve. She questions whether it is ever possible for people to ignore their status differences in any concrete rhetorical arena, and Habermas’s account threatens to pretend those status differences do not exist. On Fraser’s account, critical theory must “render visible the ways in which societal inequality infects formally inclusive existing public spheres and taints discursive interaction within them” (p. 121). Second, it is less useful to consider a singular public sphere as it is to consider a plurality of publics and public spheres. In conjunction with her point about equality, she coins the term “subaltern counterpublics” to refer to groups that have been routinely disenfranchised and have historically found spaces to communicate outside of any hegemonic power structures of civil society (p. 123). Her point is similar to Gerard Hauser (1999), who argues that a rhetorical conception of the public sphere must account for multiple, discursively formed publics within a “reticulate public sphere” (p. 12).

Once one grants that there is a multiple public sphere, as both Hauser and Fraser articulate, then it makes sense to look for ways that publics interact with one another. Counterpublics scholarship attends to the power relationships that are negotiated in the multiple public sphere, thus the “counter” in counterpublics retains the critical edge of public sphere theory (Brouwer, 2006). Robert Asen (2000) argues that scholars should “seek the counter of counterpublics” by revealing exclusionary practices of mainstream public spheres and by highlighting alternative spaces, practices, and norms that offer a critical alternative. However, he also warns against reductionism—counterpublics should not be simplified to groups, places, or topics but should rather be understood as a fluid, constructed relationship. Indeed, Michael Warner’s (2002) theorization of publics and counterpublics emphasizes the fluidity and discursive construction of counterpublics. Like publics, counterpublics exist “by virtue of being addressed” in discourse (p. 413), but they differ from publics in that the discourse recognizes its status as in some way subordinate to the power of a dominant public. Warner explains that this “counter” discourse does not just exist in policy matters but in ways of speaking and modes of address: “The discourse that constitutes it is not merely a different or alternative idiom but one that in other contexts would be regarded with hostility, or with a sense of indecorousness” (p. 424).

Given the multiplicity of publics, rhetoricians have also provided new models for different kinds of publics and how they operate in the public sphere. Catherine Squires (2002) offers a more complex vocabulary to avoid the vagueness of “counterpublic” and instead offers a typology based on three different responses that subordinated publics can have to societal exigencies. Enclaved publics hide from view to help members survive, counterpublics engage in debate with wider publics, and satellite publics seek separation for reasons other than oppression. Rosa Eberly (2000) introduces the term “protopublic” to describe classroom spaces focused on building habits of critical publicity. These are spaces that are institutionally constrained from becoming fully public, but they can foster public-oriented subjectivities for students to prepare for democratic life.

It would be a mistake to view counterpublics theory as a repudiation or a replacement to Habermas’s public sphere theory. Melanie Loehwing and Jeff Motter (2009) make this caution to rhetorical scholars not to think that Habermas’s work in Structural Transformation has been overwritten by counterpublics scholarship. They argue that Habermas’s insight was not merely to discover the bourgeois public sphere; rather, his book examined “transformed publicity as a key force in the reinvention of political power” (p. 224). Though Habermas does not talk about “rhetoric” per se, he still reveals the capacity for a rhetorical culture to shift the nature of political power. Alan Gross (2012) also warns that rhetorical scholars risk missing the point of Habermas’s public sphere work if they do not address the larger structural contexts that have eroded rational debate in the public sphere. Specifically, Gross states that violence or visual representations should not be incorporated into the public sphere—they should be recognized as part of the decline of argument through discourse.

For better or worse, Habermas’s writings on the public sphere have found an avid audience in communication studies whereas the theory of communicative action has gotten far less attention. Publics theory attempts to map the structural and rhetorical conditions by which people can constitute themselves as communities, can challenge power, and can think critically about the problems facing society. Because rhetoricians root their work deeply in specific cases and because rhetoricians are quick to critique power, Habermas’s work in Structural Transformation, and to a lesser extent Between Facts and Norms, fits well within current conversations in rhetorical theory and criticism.

The Promise of Habermas

Overall, Habermas is a prolific and creative thinker worthy of the attention of rhetorical scholars. Although his writing demands a lot of readers, he offers much in return. He reads widely and draws many different conversations in sociology, philosophy, and law into dialogue with communication theory. Perhaps most importantly, he theorizes the conditions for communication in a democratic society. Amid a lineup of postmodern philosophers who have given up on a rational society, Habermas stands out as a true Enlightenment thinker who thinks legitimate government and emancipation from the pathologies of modern society are still possible.

Further Reading

Asen, R. (2000). Seeking the “counter” in counterpublics. Communication Theory, 10(4), 424–446.Find this resource:

    Asen, R. (2015). Critical engagement through public sphere scholarship. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 101(1), 132–144.Find this resource:

      Asen, R., & Brouwer, D. C. (Eds.). (2001). Counterpublics and the state. Albany: State University of New York Press.Find this resource:

        Brouwer, D. (2006). Communication as counterpublic. In G. J. Shepherd, J. St. John, & T. Striphas (Eds.), Communication as… perspectives on theory (pp. 195–208). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.Find this resource:

          Calhoun, C. (Ed.). (1992). Habermas and the public sphere. Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press.Find this resource:

            Finnegan, C. A., & Kang, J. (2004). “Sighting” the public: Iconoclasm and public sphere theory. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 90(4), 377–402.Find this resource:

              Goodnight, G. T. (1982). The personal, technical, and public spheres of argument: A speculative inquiry into the art of public deliberation. Journal of the American Forensic Association, 18, 214–227.Find this resource:

                Goodnight, G. T. (2008). Rhetoric, reflection, and emancipation: Farrell and Habermas on the critical studies of communication. Philosophy & Rhetoric, 41(4), 421–439.Find this resource:

                  Gross, A. G. (2006). Habermas, systematically distorted communication, and the public sphere. Rhetoric Society Quarterly, 36(3), 309–330.Find this resource:

                    Gross, A. G. (2010). Systematically distorted communication: An impediment to social and political change. Informal Logic, 30(4), 336–360.Find this resource:

                      Habermas, J. (1973/1975). Legitimation crisis. T. McCarthy (Trans.). Boston, MA: Beacon Press.Find this resource:

                        Habermas, J. (1981/1984). The theory of communicative action, volume one: Reason and the rationalization of society. T. McCarthy (Trans.). Boston, MA: Beacon Press.Find this resource:

                          Habermas, J. (1981/1987). The theory of communicative action, volume two: Lifeworld and system: A critique of functionalist reason. T. McCarthy (Trans.). Boston, MA: Beacon Press.Find this resource:

                            Habermas, J. (1962/1989). The structural transformation of the public sphere: An inquiry into a category of bourgeois society. T. Burger (Trans.). Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press.Find this resource:

                              Habermas, J. (1983/1995). Moral consciousness and communicative action. C. Lenhardt & S. W. Nicholsen (Trans.). Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press.Find this resource:

                                Habermas, J. (1992/1996). Between facts and norms: Contributions to a discourse theory of law and democracy. W. Rehg (Trans.). Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press.Find this resource:

                                  Hauser, G. A. (1999). Vernacular voices: The rhetoric of publics and public spheres. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press.Find this resource:

                                    Loehwing, M., & Motter, J. (2009). Publics, counterpublics, and the promise of democracy. Philosophy & Rhetoric, 42(3), 220–241.Find this resource:

                                      McCarthy, T. (1978). The critical theory of Jürgen Habermas. Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press.Find this resource:

                                        Specter, M. G. (2010). Habermas: An intellectual biography. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.Find this resource:

                                          Warner, M. (2005). Publics and counterpublics. New York, NY: Zone Books.Find this resource:

                                            References

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                                              Asen, R. (2000). Seeking the “counter” in counterpublics. Communication Theory, 10(4), 424–446.Find this resource:

                                                Asen, R. (2009). Invoking the invisible hand: Social security and the privatization debates. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press.Find this resource:

                                                  Asen, R. (2015). Critical engagement through public sphere scholarship. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 101(1), 132–144.Find this resource:

                                                    Asen, R., & Brouwer, D. C. (Eds.). (2001). Counterpublics and the state. Albany: State University of New York Press.Find this resource:

                                                      Baker, K. M. (1992). Defining the public sphere in eighteenth-century France: Variations on a theme by Habermas. In C. Calhoun (Ed.), Habermas and the public sphere (pp. 181–212). Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press.Find this resource:

                                                        Benhabib, S. (1992). Models of public space: Hannah Arendt, the liberal tradition, and Jürgen Habermas. In C. Calhoun (Ed.), Habermas and the public sphere (pp. 73–98). Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press.Find this resource:

                                                          Boyte, H. C. (1992). The pragmatic ends of popular politics. In C. Calhoun (Ed.), Habermas and the public sphere (pp. 340–358). Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press.Find this resource:

                                                            Bronner, S. E. (2011). Critical theory: A very short introduction. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

                                                              Brouwer, D. (2006). Communication as counterpublic. In G. J. Shepherd, J. St. John, & T. Striphas (Eds.), Communication as… perspectives on theory (pp. 195–208). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.Find this resource:

                                                                DeLuca, K. M. (2013). Practicing rhetoric beyond the dangerous dreams of deliberative democracy: Engaging a world of violence and public screens. Argumentation and Advocacy, 49(3), 230–231.Find this resource:

                                                                  DeLuca, K. M., & Peeples, J. (2002). From public sphere to public screen: Democracy, activism, and the “violence” of Seattle. Critical Studies in Media Communication, 19(2), 125–151.Find this resource:

                                                                    Dewey, J. (1927). The public and its problems. Athens: Ohio State University Press.Find this resource:

                                                                      Eberly, R. (2000). Citizen critics: Literary public spheres. Chicago: University of Illinois Press.Find this resource:

                                                                        Eley, G. (1992). Nations, publics, and political cultures: Placing Habermas in the nineteenth century. In C. Calhoun (Ed.), Habermas and the public sphere (pp. 289–339). Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press.Find this resource:

                                                                          Farrell, T. (1993). Norms of rhetorical culture. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.Find this resource:

                                                                            Finnegan, C. A., & Kang, J. (2004). “Sighting” the public: Iconoclasm and public sphere theory. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 90(4), 377–402.Find this resource:

                                                                              Fraser, N. (1990). Rethinking the public sphere: A contribution to the critique of actually existing democracy. Social Text, 25/26, 56–80.Find this resource:

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                                                                                  Goodnight, G. T. (1982). The personal, technical, and public spheres of argument: A speculative inquiry into the art of public deliberation. Journal of the American Forensic Association, 18, 214–227.Find this resource:

                                                                                    Goodnight, G. T. (2008). Rhetoric, reflection, and emancipation: Farrell and Habermas on the critical studies of communication. Philosophy & Rhetoric, 41(4), 421–439.Find this resource:

                                                                                      Gross, A. G. (2006). Habermas, systematically distorted communication, and the public sphere. Rhetoric Society Quarterly, 36(3), 309–330.Find this resource:

                                                                                        Gross, A. G. (2010). Systematically distorted communication: An impediment to social and political change. Informal Logic, 30(4), 336–360.Find this resource:

                                                                                          Gross, A. G. (2012). The public sphere and rhetorical criticism: A cautionary tale. Argumentation and Advocacy, 49(4), 140–143.Find this resource:

                                                                                            Habermas, J. (1973/1975). Legitimation crisis. T. McCarthy (Trans.). Boston, MA: Beacon Press.Find this resource:

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                                                                                                Habermas, J. (1981/1987). The theory of communicative action, volume two: Lifeworld and system: A critique of functionalist reason. T. McCarthy (Trans.). Boston, MA: Beacon Press.Find this resource:

                                                                                                  Habermas, J. (1962/1989). The structural transformation of the public sphere: An inquiry into a category of bourgeois society. T. Burger (Trans.). Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press.Find this resource:

                                                                                                    Habermas, J. (1983/1995). Moral consciousness and communicative action. C. Lenhardt & S. W. Nicholsen (Trans.). Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press.Find this resource:

                                                                                                      Habermas, J. (1992/1996). Between facts and norms: Contributions to a discourse theory of law and democracy. W. Rehg (Trans.). Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press.Find this resource:

                                                                                                        Habermas, J. (2005/2008). Between naturalism and religion: Philosophical essays. C. Cronin (Trans.). Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.Find this resource:

                                                                                                          Hauser, G. A. (1999). Vernacular voices: The rhetoric of publics and public spheres. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press.Find this resource:

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                                                                                                                  Kramer, L. (1992). Habermas, history, and critical theory. In C. Calhoun (Ed.), Habermas and the public sphere (pp. 236–258). Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                    Loehwing, M., & Motter, J. (2009). Publics, counterpublics, and the promise of democracy. Philosophy & Rhetoric, 42(3), 220–241.Find this resource:

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                                                                                                                                Postone, M. (1992). Political theory and historical analysis. In C. Calhoun (Ed.), Habermas and the public sphere (pp. 164–180). Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press.Find this resource:

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                                                                                                                                    Schudson, M. (1992). Was there ever a public sphere? If so, when? Reflections on the American case. In C. Calhoun (Ed.), Habermas and the public sphere (pp. 143–163). Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                                      Specter, M. G. (2010). Habermas: An intellectual biography. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.Find this resource:

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                                                                                                                                                  Zaret, D. (1992). Religion, science, and printing in the public spheres in seventeenth-century England. In C. Calhoun (Ed.), Habermas and the public sphere (pp. 212–235). Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press.Find this resource: