Theory & Science (2003)

ISSN: 1527-5558

The Challenge of Modernity: Habermas and Critical Theory

Jason L. Powell
School of Community, Health Sciences and Social Care
School Director of Admissions
University of Salford

Harry R. Moody
Institute for Human Values in Aging
Hunter College

The theoretical-philosophical work of Jurgen Habermas occupies a significant position in western social and political discourse. Roderick (1986) claims Habermas represents the most important attempt at re-constructing critical theory out of the shadows of Marx. Coupled with this, Habermas uses Kant and Hegel to revitalise Marxism by developing an emancipatory theory of society. In addition, drawing on the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory (Adorno, Horkheimer, Benjamin and Marcuse), Habermas elaborates a far-reaching critique of methods of domination in modern society. Despite this critique, Habermas is more affirmative and keen towards the classical philosophical tradition, particularly the ‘enlightenment’. For the past two decades in particular, Habermas has written on the enlightenment project in a reflexive manner, facing up to enlightenment thought and legacy via a systematic critical analysis of the present: its historiography, pathologies, and future prospects. At the same time, there has been a huge escalation of neo-Nietzschean philosophers under the labels of ‘postmodernist’ and ‘post-structuralist’ who have castigated the enlightenment to the dustbin of the history of ideas, claiming that its metanarratives of ‘progress’ and ‘freedom’ have failed and that western rationality is exhausted.

Habermas (1992) agrees that neo-Nietzschean critiques of enlightenment fail because they lose a sense of direction. In regard to Foucault (1977), Habermas (1992) accuses him of ‘cryptonormativity’ and ‘irrationality’: the former applies because Foucault cannot explain the standards Habermas thinks must be pre-supposed in any condemnation of the present; the latter because of Nietzsche’s affirmation of power over against reason. The somewhat legendary albeit brief dispute between Habermas and Foucault turns on whether Foucault is understood to be criticising modernity from a pre-modern or postmodern view. Habermas is willing to defend his own reconstruction of the modern enlightenment tradition, against those critics of modernity he considers to be anti-modern because of the reactionary implications of their views.

The main assumption for Habermas (1992) is that the project of modernity can be redeemed. The diagnoses of Horkheimer, Adorno, Nietzsche, Heiddeger, Foucault and Derrida are to be refuted. Habermas’s task is to strengthen the ‘project of modernity’ by reconstructing it through his distinctive theory of communication. Hence, the massive task is to overcome the pessimism of late modernity, the indulgence of his predecessors at Frankurt, Adorno and Horkheimer (1949), by resolving the dilemmas of subject-centred reason in the paradigm of communicative action. Not in abstract reason but in shared structures of discourse ethics will we find a common foundation for faith in the human future. In this respect, we shall see, he parts company with the pessimism of the later Frankfurt School and also with the cynical mood inspired by postmodernism.

The next section highlights the significance of communicative action for the manifestation of everyday existence in modern society.

‘Building Block’ of Modernism: Communicative Action

The theory of communication, in the hands of Habermas, serves to disclose a profound continuity between human language and the values embedded in the project of modernity, values which he hopes to vindicate. According to Rasmussen (1990), Ferdinand De Saussure’s (1959) distinction between diachronic and synchronic is fundamental in unravelling Habermas’ thought: diachronic historical-evolutionary schemes for understanding language follow the model of the enlightenment. From this perspective, Habermas’ attempt to reconstitute the project of modernity through language is consistent with diachronic model of understanding language. Language is the vehicle for the most fundamental form of social action, namely his theory of communicative action. Habermas (1981, 44) defines communicative action as:

‘� that form of social interaction in which the plans of action of different actors are co-ordinated through an exchange of communicative acts, that is, through a use of language orientated towards reaching understanding’.

Sociologically, Habermas (1981) fuses micro and macro dimensions: he uses Mead and Durkheim as a theoretical bridge to develop communicative action. While Mead is important because of symbolically mediated interaction, Durkheim is important because of his analysis of the ‘sacred’ and process of secularization of religion. Therefore, Habermas (1981 and 1992) sees the ‘language – communication’ framework as a new way of reaffirming the project of modernity. Habermas wants to show how the transformation from traditional society to modernity involved a progressive secularization of normative behaviour reconstructed through communicative action. Drawing on his assessment of communicative competence of social actors, Habermas (1981) distinguishes between ‘action orientated to success’ and ‘action orientated to understanding’ and also between the social and non-social contexts of action. Action orientated to success is measured by rules of rational choice, while action orientated to understanding takes place through ‘communicative action’. This manifestation of communicative action materialises by mutual and co-operative achievement of understanding amongst collective participants.

Communicative action is linked to reason embodied in universal pragmatics, since it is guided by search for intersubjective recognition of validity claims (truth, rightness and sincerity) although this guidance may be only implicitly present in any particular case of social interaction. Communicative action is based on an analysis of the social use of language oriented to reaching common understanding when action is co-ordinated by the validity claims offered in speech acts (Habermas, 1981). Communicative action is internally linked to communicative rationality which is a central plank for Habermas’ version of idealized communicative action: a condition he terms “unconstrained communication.” This normative claim involves an attempt to characterise universal features of communication in their structure and consolidation, a characterization that remains open to empirical rationality and verification. Similarly, Roderick (1986) interprets communicative rationality as an attempt to identify empirically the historical development of rationality structures as well as an attempt to problematize further rationality to more modern spheres in different spheres of modern life. These different spheres—such as the economy, the political order, and culture—represent distinct domains whose underlying logic demands to be clarified.

Habermas’ (1981) notion of Lebenswelt or ‘lifeworld’ must here be introduced as a contextual marker to link action theory with rationalisation processes. This linkage requires understanding not just of how particular actions may be judged as rational but how rationality remains potential (unfulfilled) throughout separate spheres of life under conditions of modernity. At the same time, a degree of rationality—or better, “rationalisation”—remains embedded in particular actions and thus makes possible rational conduct of everyday life. Thus, human action, qua action, remains intelligible, even where we cannot fully articulate the logic reflected in everyday experience and thus “taken for granted.” In effect, Habermas precisely understands this ‘lifeworld’ as the taken for granted universe of everyday existence. For Habermas (1981) the lifeworld is the saturation of communicative action by tradition and routinized way of doing the things we do in our everyday actions. The lifeworld is a pre-interpreted set of forms of life within which daily conduct materialises. In Habermas’ view the context for the process of evolutionary development of society, culture and individual personality is the articulation of the lifeworld that correlates with an internal system of language. We can see therefore that the lifeworld forms the linguistic context for processes of communication.

Rationality here is the key both to domination and to emancipation. For Habermas (1981) the rationalization of the lifeworld social change is the path by which social change, including emancipatory possibility, is said to occur. Processes of rationalization within the lifeworld are said to occur through communicative action while irrational processes of change occur through strategic action. By extending and amplifying Max Weber’s theory of rationalisation, Habermas claims society can flourish along lines of progressive differentiation and rationalisation. Habermas (1981), forever the eclectic theorist, also draws on notions from Talcott Parsons of ‘social system’ to suggest that as it becomes more differentiated, the lifeworld becomes ever more rationalised. The important point is that the lifeworld and social system become ever more differentiated from each other but as they do each new system developed can further life possibilities (Kellner, 1989) and thus emancipation. The non-realisation of these possibilities leads to counter-emancipation: the taking over of communicative imperatives by strategic imperatives via colonisation of the lifeworld. On this path lies the familiar “iron cage of modernity” invoked by Weber. But Habermas response is that the hopelessness of the “iron cage” is by no means inevitable. By resisting false rationalisation and veiled domination, we hold out hope for alternative aspirations for our collective life, revealed, says Habermas, by certain resistance movements such as Feminism, environmental protest, and defense of the lifeworld against the incursions of the marketplace and bureaucracy.

‘In the Blue and Red Corners’: Lyotard Vs. Habermas

Shortly after the publication of Habermas’ ‘theory of communicative action’, a debate on postmodernism emerged in western social theory. The debate was instigated by Derrida, Baudrillard and Lyotard on the tradition of the modern and calls for breaks within this tradition. For Lyotard (1984), Habermas’ project of modernity has become obsolete and society had entered the ‘postmodern condition’. Lyotard (1984) claims modernity could not think itself or get hold of itself intellectually, without distancing itself historically from its own achieved implementations. For Lyotard (1984, 111): ‘My argument is that the modern project [of realising universality] has not been abandoned or forgotten but destroyed, liquidated’.

Further, Lyotard (1984) is scathing in his critique of how Habermas will:

‘� use the term ‘modern’ to designate any science that legitimates itself with reference to a metadiscourse making an explicit appeal to some grand narrative, such as the dialectics of the Spirit, the hermeneutics of meaning, the emancipation of the rational’.

The very concept of ‘postmodernism’ is defined by Lyotard (1984, 55) as ‘incredulous towards metanarratives’ and asks ‘where after the metanarratives can legitimacy reside’. For Lyotard (1984) what Habermas is offering is one more metanarrative of ‘communicative action’ which is, once again a generalist and abstract narrative of emancipation, now hopelessly outdated, he believes. Lyotard (1984) is against all the language games of metaphysics and philosophy of science. Lyotard (1984) calls for an ‘irreducible plurality’ of language games each with its own ‘local’ rules, legitimations and practices. Postmodernism offers to move beyond Habermas’ modernist narratives and has rapidly gained currency throughout social and human science disciplines into the 21st century (Powell, 2001). There are several themes that are shared in postmodern analysis, which consolidate Lyotard’s (1984) interpretation.

First, there is distrust in the concept of absolute and objective truth. ‘Truth’ is viewed as contextual, situational, and conditional (Biggs and Powell, 2001). Second, emphasis is placed on fragmentation rather than universalism, again pushing away from the general and toward the particular (Powell, 2001). Third, local power is preferred over the centralized power of the nation state, and de centralization, or the process of democratization of power, is a pervasive theme of postmodern narratives (Mestrovic, 1994). Fourth, reality is simulated but is otherwise not held to be a very meaningful concept; reality conceived as a general and universal truth is profoundly doubted (Foucault, 1977). Fifth, we are seeing the rise and consolidation of consumer culture that tends to put ‘power’ in the hands of the consumers, but can also equally manipulate consumers through marketing ploys and interpolating discourses of consumer freedom by dictating costs in global marketplace (Biggs and Powell, 2001). Finally, diversity and difference is emphasized and valued above commonality based on homogeneity (Powell, 2001). Postmodern analysis of culture is no longer a fringe perspective inasmuch as it apparently promotes strategies of individualism and diversity and postmodernism is critical of strategies that devalue individuals because of any characteristic that would control access to knowledge, and could thereby assault identity (Biggs and Powell, 2001). In ethics, as in epistemology, the final result is a kind of relativism.

The wide reception of postmodernist themes has infuriated as many scholars as it has intoxicated. It is no surprise to see Habermas’ reaction in particular as very antagonistic to postmodernism. For him, individuals face a fundamental strategic choice posed in stark terms: ‘hold fast to the intentions of the Enlightenment or give up the project of modernity as lost’ (Habermas, 1984, 35)

Habermas (1984, 34) defends the ‘project of modernity’ from the theoretical schisms of Lyotardian postmodernism which, in Habermas’ view, has failed to recognize:

‘a modernity at variance with itself of its rational content and its perspective on the future’ (Habermas, 1984, 36).

Habermas (1984) in ‘Philosophical Discourses of Modernity’ recognised that theories of postmodernism had their roots in irrational precursory influences such as Heidegger and Nietzsche. Habermas (1984) contends that modernity ‘rebels’ against tradition and has valorised highly charged aesthetic experiences of novelty, dynamism, singularity and intense presence. With increased innovation in technology and science, modernity has itself eroded any strong sense of foundationalism and ontological security for both society and the self. Further, Habermas claims that the project of modernity was ‘unfinished’ and contained unrealised capacity for emancipatory potential. Such potential draws on the specialization of culture for the enrichment of daily life and simultaneously the rational organisation of everyday life and experience. The two need not be opposed. The project of modernity has undiminished potential to increase social rationality, justice and morality. But this potential can be realised only by cognitive progression and support for the moral boundaries of rationality, which remains the task of philosophy and social theory.

From Habermas’ (1984) point of view the defence of the enlightenment is nonetheless qualified. He castigates in sweeping terms the ‘young conservatives’ whom he accuses of setting up ‘false programs of the negation of culture’ which fail to realise any positive contribution to the project of modernity. But he remains fully aware of the precarious condition of the enlightenment heritage in the contemporary world.

Putting Habermas Under the Theoretical Microscope

What are we to make of Habermas’ work and its implications for social theory in the 21st century? Habermas’ work (1981, 1984, and 1992) is exhaustive and complex, with dense theoretical arguments that remain very much open to scrutiny. Habermas’ theoretical archrival Nikolas Luhmann (1982) has dismissively claimed:

‘� there are far too many grounds and arguments� when it has not been very precisely determined in advance what is relevant and what is not � communication can, in actual fact, not lead to anything’ (Luhmann quoted in Brand, 1990, 120).

In addition, Doorne (1985 cited in Brand, 1990) claims that Habermas does not really distinguish between two contexts for analysis: first, formal universal pragmatics; and, second, empirical research. The two domains cannot simply be conflated and Habermas is not always clear about the boundaries. Similarly, Brand (1990) rejects Habermas’ position because of his hostility to empirical research and deductive logic. Coupled with this line of attack, Therborn (1986 cited in Roderick, 1986, 2-3) has castigated Habermas for deviating from ‘the path of true science’ by developing a ‘speculative’ epistemology which rejects key Neo-Marxian concepts. There is merit in this criticism. Yet Habermas has been successful in using empirical research in linguistics and moral development to explicate his social theory. His ‘speculative’ epistemology actually retains strong ties to empirical science, which is one reason he cannot follow a strictly Marxist ideology.

Ironically, there are two modernistic yet sociological grounds that Habermas fails to incorporate or appreciate in his analysis: gender and racial inequality. We may ask: Is Habermas’ theorizing built on a conception of the world in which, surreptitiously, essentialist characteristics (e.g., ‘middle class’ ‘white’ ‘males’) dominate? It is a fact that the entire ‘project of modernity’ and associated discourses of rationality and progress have historically sided with men over women (Stanley and Pateman, 1991). The enlightenment philosophizing was a language-based project that presumed women in an inferior position to that of men. Whilst Stanley and Pateman (1991) do acknowledge that Habermas’ notion of emancipation is influential for feminists seeking a normative theory of consciousness and liberation, they reserve judgement on Habermas’ theory of communicative action. They see it as gender blind, thereby perpetuating an enlightenment tradition of malestreaming mainstream analysis by reconstituting the project of modernity. On the other hand, feminist philosopher Selya Benhabib (1986) has found in Habermas certain valuable elements that can provide the basis for a wide-ranging normative critique of contemporary society

Secondly, to compound the adverse androcentric effects of the ‘project of modernity’, one could raise the question of eurocentricism. According to Gilroy (1992) European culture was heterogeneous during and after the enlightenment. He claims social theory can no longer understand and interpret the project of the enlightenment without understanding the periphery: that is, the world beyond Europe. For example, the legacies of slavery, colonialism and imperialism must serve as a challenge to the over-ambitiousness of universalist hopes and aspirations for social life, including Habermas’ own grand theory.

The central tenets of the ‘project of modernity’ are the ideals of rationality and progress which Habermas (1981) attempts to formalise as practical achievements. Yet these ideals must be put into a darker context, a context expressed by James Joyce’s remark that “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” As the predecessors at the Frankfurt school in 1949 saw, and as Adorno and Horkheimer and Zygmunt Bauman (1989) powerfully narrate, the Holocaust provides a devastating critique of enlightenment legacy and thought and highlights the danger of slipping into a barbarism anticipated by Nietzchean nightmares. For example, on one level, Hitler’s regime in Germany merely refined and perfected 19th century techniques of social discipline. But, on yet another level, Hitler’s regime was a deliberate throwback to an archaic ‘society of blood’, a society of savagery and a society with a lust for domination, control and power; a society which raises further disturbing questions about the enlightenment project. More recently, there have been periodic episodes of inhumanity which have ranged from genocide in Rwanda to ‘ethnic cleansing’ in the former states of Yugoslavia. A spectacular recent example might be the terrorist events of September 11 and their aftermath in Afghanistan and the Middle East. Recent history suggests that it is difficult to implement Habermas’ (1984) universalized narratives of communicative action in a world with so many differences between states, cultures and ideologies. It seems it is difficult to provide a modern solution to characteristically postmodern problems: for example, diversity of fundamentalist beliefs and consequent actions based on impassioned beliefs. Inspired by the dreams of reason, the ideal of communicative action is a slender reed with which to overcome the powerful forces of dehumanisation increasingly evident all around us.

Habermas’ work is a concerned with rethinking the tradition of critical theory and German social philosophy and he has advanced that tradition in distinctive ways. Rationality, freedom and justice are not just theoretical issues to be explored and debated, but for Habermas (1981) they are practical tasks that demand commitment and achievement. Habermas’ entire work aims to defend and continue the enlightenment project against the challenge of Weber (instrumental rationality), Horkheimer and Adorno (earlier Critical Theory) and Nietzscheanism in the forms of post-structuralism (Foucault and Derrida) and postmodernism (Lyotard). There is a nobility to this aim, even if it is not entirely successful. To reconcile the competing claims of reason and the lifeworld, to look realistically yet optimistically at the heritage of modernity, these, in the end, are the great contributions of Habermas to contemporary social theory. His account and his answers are not the final ones, yet they have the merit of raising the most urgent questions without ever losing hope.


Bauman, Z (1989) Modernity and the Holocaust, Cambridge: Polity

Benhabib, S (1986), Critique, Norm, and Utopia: A Study of the Foundations of Critical Theory, New York: Columbia University Press.

Bernstein, R (1985) (Ed.) Habermas and Modernity, Cambridge: Polity

Biggs, S and Powell, J.L (2001) ‘A Foucauldian analysis of old age and the power of social welfare’, Journal of Aging & Social Policy Vol.12, (2), 93-111.

Brand, A (1990) The Force of Reason, London: Allen Unwin

Brenner, W.H (1989) Elements in Modern Philosophy, London: Prentice Hall

Foucault, M (1977) Discipline and Punish, London: Tavistok

Gane, M (1981) Baudrillard, London: Routledge

Gilroy, P (1992) Black Atlantic, London: Hutchinson

Habermas, J (1981) The Theory of Communicative Action, London: Beacon Press

Habermas, J (1984) The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity, Cambridge: Polity

Habermas, J (1992) Postmetaphysical Thinking, Cambridge: Polity

Horkheimer, M and Adorno, T (1949) Dialectic of Enlightenment, Allen Unwin

Kellner, D (1989) Critical Theory, Marxism, and Modernity, Cambridge: Polity

Levin, D (1993) (Ed.) Modernity and Hegemony of Vision, California: University of California Press

Lyotard, J-F (1984) The Postmodern Condition, Manchester: Manchester University Press

McCarthy, T (1978) The Critical Theory of Jurgen Habermas, London: Hutchinson

Mestrovic, S (1993) The Barbarian Temperament, London: Routledge

Powell, J.L (2001) ‘Aging and Social Theory: A Sociological Review’, Social Science Paper Publisher, 4, 2, pp.1-13 (available on-line at

Rasmussen, D (1990) Reading Habermas, London: Blackwell

Roderick, R (1986) Habermas and the Foundations of Critical Theory, London: Macmillan

Stanley, L and Pateman, C (1991) Feminist Interpretations and Political Theory, Cambridge: Polity