Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

2017 Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Habermas and Philosophy of Education

Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-588-4_324



Jürgen Habermas (born 1929, in Düsseldorf, Germany), considered the greatest living German philosopher, of international renown, is also a critical intellectual, attentive to the new flows of argument and problematizations of society that may break down constellations of power and broaden inclusive relations. His main concern, ever since his work when young, has been loss of respect and of the meaning of human life and emancipation. His project intends to deal with this problem and produce a systematic grounding of rationality using a reconstructive analysis of the cognitive and normative contents of our practices. He thus moves away from a substantial indication of what a just society would be to investigate the conditions which make it possible for the subjects to deliberate about their lives through processes of understanding. This is a fascinating object that depends on forms of communication able to promote rational formation of the will. The possibility of communicative rationality is accompanied by a skeptical evaluation of the world situation. In the scenario in which we move, there is a kind of haziness, a narrowing of prospects (die neue Unübersichtlichkeit). Even acknowledging a certain unintelligibility in our time, Habermas does not hurry to reach conclusions. On the contrary, despite the multiple transformations that have occurred in modern societies, he considers that no radical change has occurred in the way of debating our future possibilities, which will lead him to endorse the postmodern movement that occurred at the end of the 1970s. Nor can the project of modernity be taken up again using the same criteria and that is where his effort lies: reconstructing the normative Fundamentals and formulating a critical theory that will include the social pathologies, enabling a new type of rationality to emerge.

Habermas is influenced by the traditions of the enlightenment, idealism, and neo-humanism that wagered on a process of cultural and spiritual formation at the beginning of the nineteenth century, in Germany, on philosophy of language and pragmatism. In his own words, he was influenced “by philosophical principles that highlight the intersubjective constitution of the human spirit, namely: the hermeneutic tradition that goes back to Wilhelm von Humboldt, to the American pragmatism of Charles Sanders Peirce and George Herbert Mead, to the theory of the symbolic forms, to Ernst Cassirer and Ludwig Wittgenstein’s philosophy of language” (Habermas 2005, pp. 17–18).

Communicative Action Theory: Concepts

In 1981, Habermas published his magnum opus “Communicative action theory” (Theorie des kommunikativen Handelns), prepared during over two decades, intending to redimension reason from a communicative perspective, reconstruct a social theory that will articulate the world of the system and the world of life, and restore the normative content of modernity. The central thesis refers to the existence of a télos of understanding in language, namely, as speakers we are already participants in a rational intersubjectivity.

The instrumental, economic, and bureaucratic rationality that pertains to the system world invades the lifeworld, with the consequent loss of meaning and freedom. Communicative action is differentiated from other actions, namely teleologic action, in which the actor chooses means with utilitarian ends; normative action, in which the action is turned to common values and respect for the norms agreed by the social group; and dramaturgic action, which involves the self-representation of the subject when dealing with a public. Different from the others, communicative action refers to the “interaction of at least two subjects, capable of speech and action, who establish an interpersonal relationship” (Habermas 1987a, 1, p. 128). Outstanding in this action is the interpretation and search for understanding with a view to consensus. When we act communicatively, we are prepared to hear what the others have to say, that is, the possibility of challenging the validity of the announcements is accepted.

The validity claims can always be criticized and are the following: claim to truth, which refers to the objective world and is constituted by the theoretical discourses; the claim to rightfulness or justice in which the utterance of the participants must be right according to the prevailing norms; and the claim to truthfulness, which refers to the subjective world and the authenticity of the subject (the express intention of the speaker must coincide which what he thinks). It is necessary to accept these validity claims from a partner in discourse to begin a movement of communicative rationality. The communicative practice has, immanently, the possibility that the participants will enter an argumentative process, present good reasons, and critically examine the truth of the enouncements, the rightfulness of actions and norms, and the authenticity of expressive manifestations. If there is a challenge to them, it is possible to begin the argumentative process anew until consensus is achieved. Since everything that is presented can be criticized, this process allows identifying errors and learning from them. Consensus can only be established because it is supported on the intersubjective recognition of validity claims that can be criticized. According to Habermas:

It must be possible to defend what we consider to be true with convincing reasons, not only in another context, but also in all possible contexts, that is, at any time and against anyone. The discursive theory of truth is inspired by this; in this way an enouncement is true when under the demanding conditions of a rational discourse, it resists all attempts at refuting it. (1999, p. 259)

In this way, in modern societies, individuals can coordinate their interests communicatively. Communicative action has a kind of anchor that feeds the interpretations of the participants in the interaction, called the lifeworld (Lebenswelt), the horizon in which we move. This is a concept from the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl, introduced by Habermas to link social action to the rationalization processes. The actions are understood based on the lifeworld which refers to the pretheoretical, convictions, nonproblematized self-evidence: “this collection of knowledge that provides the participants in communication with non-problematic background convictions, background convictions which they assume are guaranteed” (Habermas 1987b, 2, p. 191). The lifeworld contains an interpretative reserve that makes it possible to anchor our actions in the face of the risk of disagreement that could occur in any process of comprehension. These are cultural contents, values, interpretive patterns that are situated within the sphere of life experiences. The understanding that occurs in the lifeworld establishes the process of education and formation, since “when the child participates in interactions, with reference people that perform concrete actions, it internalizes the evaluative orientations of its social group and acquires generalizing capacities for action” (Habermas 1989, p. 497).

The lifeworld produces and reproduces itself symbolically by means of communicative action and becomes rationalized, producing the basic structures of modern consciousness. In communicative action, the participants say yes or no to the actions of speech, regarding their validity, both when we describe things of the objective world and when we refer to the justice of the norms or express our opinion about our feelings about something. This condition as participants in interactions allow all to question the validity claims. In this way, interaction can continue. Mostly we understand each other based on a set of familiar conviction that constitutes the aforementioned “collection of knowledge.” When these convictions are broken down or stabilized, they are submitted to discussion and are no longer part of the lifeworld. But when they become customary, they return to the lifeworld which is resized and rationalized, constituting the structures of modern consciousness. The rationalized lifeword is differentiated into three structural components: culture, personality, and society. Thus,

communicative action serves tradition and the renewal of cultural knowledge; as to the aspect of action coordination, it serves social integration and the creation of solidarity; finally, as regards the aspect of socialization, it serves to form personal identities. The symbolic structures of the lifeworld are reproduced through continuing the valid knowledge of stabilization of group solidarity and the formation of actors that can respond to their actions. The reproduction process includes the new situations with the already existing states of the world. […] To these processes of cultural reproduction, social integration and socialization correspond the structural component of life that are culture, society and personality. (1987b, 2, pp. 208–209)

As an intellectual, Habermas maintained an open attitude to interlocution with his critics and was attentive to the problems of society. This led him to give new influxes to his philosophical project, with the investigation of the principles of communicative action in the field of ethics, in Moral consciousness and communicative action (Moralbewusstsein und kommunikatives Handeln, 1983, and revised edition in 1984) and Comments on discourse ethics Habermas 1991) and in the field of law, in Law and Democracy (Facticity and Validity) (Faktizität und Geltung, 1996). There are also theoretical deployments of his theses in various works, among which the main ones are The Inclusion of the other: Studies in Political Theory (Habermas 1996), Truth and Justification: philosophical essays (Habermas 1999), between naturalism and religion: philosophical essays (Habermas 2005). He took active part in the debate on contemporary issues and recognizes the force of noninstitutional social networks that express the organization of groups that are not part of political power. In this sense, he participates in the public debates on biotechnology, multiculturalism, religion, inclusion of the other, besides a great number of political essays about globalization processes, the public sphere, democratization, issues of tolerance, terrorism, the role of the State in reducing social inequalities, the Nazi past, among other topics.

Educational Implications

Habermas did not write a treatise on education, but his work supplies significant element to review/recreate the concept of formation insofar as it not only points out the blemishes of an education process caught in the illusions of the theory of subjectivity and the pitfalls of instrumental rationality, it also offers instruments to reinterpret the concept of education emphasizing intersubjectivity. In other words, the very concept of formation may undergo corrections of its idealistic assumptions if it is submitted to a discursive process which leads education to review them and improve the level of public controversies. Through language we could problematize and transform our heritage regarding what is education, in the light of the experiments we perform.

Although the educational processes are not the specific object of his investigation, he concerns himself with the broader social processes of learning, because any significant social action depends on the rational critique and communicative competencies which result from constructive learning processes, as was understood by Jean Piaget (1896–1980). According to Habermas’ interpretation of Piaget’s concept, constructive learning is based on the following supposition: first, the supposition that knowledge, in general, can be analyzed as a product of learning processes; then, that learning is a problem solving process in which the subject who learns is actively involved; and, finally, that the learning process is guided by the discernments of the very subjects directly involved in this process.

In a broad sense, Habermas’ theory is a defense according to which communicative action is a learning of subjects in interaction. Education, on the one hand, must promote the discursive and argumentative capacity, so as to prepare the subjects to meet their demands and become inserted in democratic processes; on the other hand, it must promote public discussion about the rationality criteria underlying the educational actions, and promote the continuity of knowledges and wisdom of the cultural tradition that will ensure the interpretive schemes of the subject and the cultural identity (Hermann Prestes 1996; Hermann 1999).

Educational action is only feasible because we are with others in a common world, in a multiplicity of experiences. In this type of formation, there is an echo of Humboldt’s neo-humanist tradition, according to which education is a work of oneself, in a dialectical opening between experience in the world and project of a world. In Habermas’ words, it is the “intersubjective constitution of the human spirit” (2005, pp. 17–18). Otherwise we would have the wealth of the formative process reduced to a mere preparation of technical competencies, a training, in an irresponsible lack of attention to the competencies that transform man “into a person” (Ibid. p. 17).

And the formation of subjects that are capable of interacting does not occur a posteriori, but from the experience of communicative processes, since “we men learn from each other” (Ibid.). Habermas is conscious of the importance of a formative process for the democratic principles to “take root in the minds and hearts of people” (Ibid. p. 25) and also to establish a space opened by the discursiveness of public opinion. Reason and discourse, formation, and constitution of a new mind set mix in intense reciprocity. It is especially in this aspect that Habermas reveals the influence of the democratic tradition in education. From Dewey’s pragmatism, he inherits the antielitistic and egalitarian attitude, associated with the belief that education is vital to promote humanity.

He wagers on man’s capacity to modify himself and the environment by developing communicative procedures that respect the different life forms and are able to generate the cultural and moral survival itself of the social world. Habermas’ theory is challenging, because his virtualities to establish a foundation for a public sphere instigate the promotion of a rational reconstruction process of education. Therefore, no educational crisis permits abandoning the project; on the contrary, it requires constant argumentative tests, so as to promote a democratic culture. This sets us constant challenges. For this reason, it can be said that reading Habermas provokes a kind of therapeutic shock, namely, the destabilizing confrontation that reading his work brings from the limits of theoretical assumptions that, by tendency, lead education into the pitfalls of idealizations. These limits are not really a novelty but take on their own relevance in the ensemble of the work, since with the same skill as he points them out, Habermas indicates also how not to do away with claims born within this same idealism that, together with our historical consciousness, bring a validity to which we cannot turn our back. His critique, thus, is not immobilizing. On the contrary, it is challenging because it requires very high hermeneutic efforts to reconstruct an educational process that has already diagnosed its pathologies and that now, conscious of the pitfalls of idealism, has to deal with self-responsibility.

Habermas’ theory has an illuminating role for philosophy of education, because it offers very specific criteria to – when facing the “lack of transparency of time,” as Habermas himself called it − point at an education that is more adjusted to the present times, in which we are easily confounded by two problems: the devaluation of a common world that would prepare the existence of the public sphere; and the misleading promise of reducing formation exclusively in favor of developing capacities, especially for the work world, abandoning the tradition of education as a human and ethical formation. Habermas’ theory manages to offer an articulate conceptual analysis that enables viewing these problems more adequately, exposing their tensions and challenges, allowing one to foresee that the projection of possible alternatives requires an interdisciplinary effort to cover the complexity of the issue. Besides, his defense of moral universalism and the possibility of an intercultural dialogue offer theoretical instruments for education to deal with a radically plural world, give new life to processes of opening to the other, and render effective an education sensitive to differences and to multiculturalism.

Habermas adds to the idea of spiritual formation inherited from the tradition of the enlightenment, especially from Hegel, the formation of the political will that is translated by the communicative competence to respond to the demands of the community. The interaction perceived by the communicative action involves everyone’s responsibility in a network of relations – a response to the other. No matter how difficult, formation depends on the patient process of repairing the communicative competency, the effort to open the way for the subjects themselves to find answers to their problems, and this is a responsibility pertaining to everyone, which results from interaction in the lifeworld and not from specialist’s knowledge.


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© Springer Science+Business Media Singapore 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Conselho Nacional de Desenvolvimento Científico e Tecnológico (CNPq)Porto AlegreBrazil