Habermas, Rationality, and Democracy

29 June 2017

This week we examine the philosophy of the great 20th century German philosopher, social theorist, cultural critic and public intellectual, Jürgen Habermas. We focus on his stirring and hopeful vision of democracy.

Habermas believes that genuine democracy is rooted in the principles of communicative rationality. Though I think it is very much an open question whether rational argument can ever take place in a democracy—especially one like ours that seems very far from what Habermas envisions—I do hold out some hope that we may eventually be able to design a public sphere in which reason regularly wins out over power and propaganda.  

The phrase ‘communicative rationality’ is not one that hears thrown around a lot in ordinary discourse. It’s something of a philosopher’s term. In fact, whenever I hear the phrase, I tend to think of what goes on in a philosophy seminar. In an ideal philosophy seminar, you’ve got a bunch reasonable people sitting around, attentively listening to each other, calmly arguing back and forth, everybody just trying to find the truth. No ego! No power dynamics! No gender biases! Politics isn’t often like that. In fact, most philosophy seminars aren’t either. And I don’t think Habermas intended to model society at large on a philosophy seminar. Still, I don’t think the analogy is completely inapt. And keeping it in mind can help us see what Habermas does have in mind. So with the image of a philosophy seminar sort of in the background, let’s begin by thinking about the nature of a rational conversation, then maybe we can see what that has to do with democracy.

Rational discourse is governed by various norms. Chief among them is the norm that you should only say things that you have good reason to believe. Philosophers tend to think of that norm as fundamental. Habermas might hold that if you violate that norm, you’re not really engaging in rational communicative action at all. Suppose that I’m a shyster, out to deceive and manipulate you. I tell you some BS story. It’s completely false. Plus, I’ve got no reason whatsoever to believe it myself. I’m just trying to pull one over on you. Clearly that makes me a crook, but ask yourself whether that makes me irrational or whether it means I am not communicating with you at all.

The answer is that if I am communicating with you in the imagined scenario I am doing so dishonestly and manipulatively. And though the shyster may be perfectly rational in one sense, but not rational in another, more important sense—at least not according to Habermas. Habermas distinguishes instrumental rationality from communicative rationality. Instrumental rationality is about adjusting means to ends. You want to achieve some goal. You believe doing such and such would be an effective means of achieving that goal. If you’re right, that makes it instrumentally rational to adopt that means. So, even a dishonest and manipulative shyster can be rational in that sense.  

Now instrumental rationality is not a bad thing. In fact, it’s a very important thing. Without it, we could not possibly thrive in the world. But instrumental rationality is not the be all and end all of rationality. It’s certainly not enough to ground democracy. Not according to Habermas, anyway.

And this is where communicative rationality comes in. Think more about how real conversations work—not sham conversations with snake oil merchants—but conversations among people all of whom are trying to get at the truth. Take Philosophy Talk itself, for example. Conversations that aim at truth have their own internal dynamics. When you make an assertion in that context, not only do you represent what you say as true, you hold yourself responsible for defending what you say, if challenged. And though that may sound a little combative, perhaps, but I am not talking about defending your views with the force of arms, but defending them solely with the force of the better reason! Of course, it’s reasonable to ask, “better” by whose lights? And the answer will be better by our collective lights. This is not to deny that we may sometimes disagree. But when we do disagree, if we are being communicatively rational, we will keep on talking until we manage to work it out.

Now we can see why Habermas wouldn’t count conversations with snake-oil merchants as communicatively rational. They might PARADE as communicatively rational. But that’s just a sham. Snake-oil merchants aren’t committed to truth. They are not committed to defending their views with valid arguments. And they are not content to the force of the better reason settle our disputes.  

It would be hard to deny that communicative rationality is a good thing. But it is not obvious what it has to do with democracy, especially not democracy as we find it in the here and now.   For Habermas, democracy is this sprawling conversation, in which all citizens are equal participants and all are committed not to the force of arms, or the power of propaganda, but only to the force of the better reason. That can sound like a hopeless fantasy. In the real world, power talks, not reason. But Habermas himself is fully aware of the many ways in which power distorts communication. To him that just means we have work to do, so that we can design a public sphere where reason rather than power does the talking. Only then can genuine democracy thrive.

Of course, whether we can successfully construct a public sphere in which reason rather than power does the talking is very much an open question.  But what better place to begin to talk about that open question than here on Philosophy Talk.

Comments (6)

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Friday, September 27, 2019 -- 12:35 PM

Have not read much of

Have not read much of Habermas, and was unfamiliar with his distinction regarding instrumental and communicative rationality. The distinction certainly seems apropos to our democracy, and likewise to other extant governmental forms. As you aptly demonstrate, crooks (of whatever stripe) are likely interested more in the instrumental than the communicative. And, in this twenty-first century, the instrumental appears ever-more dominant; shaping all sorts of things from mass/popular culture to the politically correct and/or incorrect. Some philosophers analyze and systematize the world (i.e., Sellars; Searle; etc.). They introduce and define terms, building their own representations of how the world works and why. I once heard Habermas called an obscurantist (this characterization leveled by a man of letters: a friend whom I shall not name without permission). I never bothered to seek a definition for obscurantist because after a failed attempt to get to the heart of Habermas' philosophy, the word, for me, seemed self-explanatory. I have not seen fit to stick my toes into those waters again. Terms are, after all, ways of talking about talking: they have the most specific---the most cogent meanings to those who have introduced them. One representation is as good as another, and, they may either build or demolish a reputation. Philosophers know this. As do Anthropologists, Mathematicians and others.

Particular sorts of things happen, with or without those of us who espouse philosophy and philosophical views. If our influence manages to help things along, it is all good. I am not sure, though, how or even if philosophy is having a useful impact upon upon OUR democracy. If I have missed this, then I suppose I am confused. But, then again, I have never had much use for a philosophy of politics...one appears to negate the other. Jefferson knew this as well as anyone who has ever thought about it.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Friday, November 29, 2019 -- 8:52 AM

Like some other philosophers

Like some other philosophers I have read (eg, Searle; Wilber; Sellars; et. al.) Habermas seems to have his system of distinctions and characterizations. I don't mind that, but cannot follow well what he is trying to say about 'things, in the broadest possible sense of the term, hanging together, in the broadest possible sense of the term'. I've really tried to discern his reasonings, but could not make much sense of it. I think 'the thing' about public intellectuals is that people will either get what they are saying, or will move on to discourses better grounded (or at least better able to be understood). I never quite got why it was that Heidegger's BEING was so glowingly heralded. To me it contained a lot of double-speak regarding DASEIN and what that all meant. In any case, those who get Habermas (or better, even: believe and support his ideas) are welcome to that. It is immaterial to me because there are so many more interesting minds to plumb the depths of. And have been for several centuries now.

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Friday, December 6, 2019 -- 4:05 AM



I am confused or you are confused about Habermas and Sellars and who said what and when.

Things are very much the same between the two however as they are with Heidegger. All three are co-equals in the deep regardless. If we are to pick those bones let us not judge Habermas quite yet... before his finest hour.

I think you would enjoy Christof Koch's book The Feeling of Life Itself. German sensibility is profound in the Dasein we all share.

Best to you as always.

stevegoldfield's picture


Tuesday, December 3, 2019 -- 2:32 PM

I heard an unwarranted

I heard an unwarranted assumption in this show, which is that genuine democracy has ever existed in the USA. Since the founding of the country, the wealthy and powerful have always dominated the government and shaped it in their own interests, even though they are a tiny minority. There are a few exceptions in which massive union organizing during the Great Depression led to the New Deal, the victories won by the Civil Rights movement, and, perhaps, the opposition to the war in Vietnam. But those are definitely exceptions, and those in power have largely defanged them. So, the assumption that we are moving from democracy until less democracy is seriously flawed. Indeed, I confidently assert that real democracy is totally incompatible with capitalism because at its core it engenders the growth of inequality, not only in income and wealth, but also in political rights. If we want any genuine democracy, it will be necessary to totally disassemble the economic and political pillars of our society and replace them with new forms designed to benefit and empower the majority.

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Thursday, December 5, 2019 -- 4:04 PM



The facism that spawned Habermas' Social Democratic thought is clearly alive today. That the founders did not extend rights to slaves, women and the disenfranchised is true. There were some among them who felt otherwise however. Landowners were not the sole voice of the nation even back then. The Pueblo revolt led by Pope against Spanish colonial rule firmly establishes democracy in our country even as slavery was taking hold. It's been a back and forth ever since - strongly favoring the wealthy and powerful as you say.

We won't know about real democracy until we have real communicative rationality. I assert that with equal confidence to your incompatibility of democracy and capitalism. Surely a working fire department and 911 service is capable under any system. Real capitalism is just as rarefied as real democracy when push comes to shove.

I agree with your take in general, the details are tricky. There does seem to be fresh de-fanging of democracy going on in the uprisings in our current world - don't you think?

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Wednesday, December 11, 2019 -- 10:35 AM

Tim: I'll check out the Koch

Tim: I'll check out the Koch book. If it is as profound as it sounds, it has to be good. Thanks for the tip. Oh, and I was merely remarking on systematic and/or analytical philosophers generally, not what any one or more of them have said. As with you, there are some philosophies/philosophers I appreciate more than others---usually the ones whose ideas and delivery are more accessible to me. Habermas and Heidegger have not been among the latter. Rorty, Searle and Ryle are.