Habermas and Democracy

Sunday, December 1, 2019
First Aired: 
Sunday, June 25, 2017

What Is It

Jürgen Habermas is regarded as one of the last great public intellectuals of Europe and a major contributor to the philosophy of democracy. A member of the Frankfurt School, Habermas argues that humans can have rational communication that will lead to the democratization of society and consensus. But should we be so optimistic? Why does Habermas have faith in our ability to establish this so-called rational communication and to reach consensus? And how should we reform our liberal democracies to make them more democratic? Ray and Ken reach for consensus with Matthew Specter from Central Connecticut State University, author of Habermas: An Intellectual Biography.

Listening Notes

Is rational argument the key to democracy? Can reason win over propaganda? Habermas thinks that democracy is grounded in communicative rationality; however, Ray wants to interrogate the nature of communication. For example, what are the norms that govern rational discourse? 

Ray and Ken are joined by Matthew Specter, author of Habermas: An Intellectual Biography and Associate Professor of History at Central Connecticut State University. Against the arguments that Habermas’s framework is too optimistic in our current political climate, Matthew offers one clarification: Habermas’s theory is actually modest. According to Matthew, Habermas is not positing a static, utopian ideal for us to measure against the present. Rather, he is explicating the extant, normative core of our democracy, which is to elucidate already existing logics and practices of our discourse. Habermas does not have much hope about a better argument winning a debate or of people broadening their points of view. Instead, what is more important for Habermas is that we write the laws that govern us. The downside, however, is that there are no guarantees that democratic discourse will produce the most just or best laws.

What reforms do we need to enact in our public sphere? For starters, Habermas advises for material equality that would form the basis of social solidarity. Without this, there is no equal participation in the public sphere. But is this ideal too idealistic to be pragmatic? Habermas sees some progress in the Internet as a return to egalitarian communication. One wonders, however, how one could be optimistic on Habermas’ behalf in the age of Brexit and Donald Trump's isolationist policies. Matthew responds that, for Habermas, these cases do not falsify his theory but are instances that support his theory, for they result from the conditions that he argues have yet to be realized today.

  • Roving Philosophical Reporter (Seek to 5:34): Fake news has undermined our hope in democracy and reason. James Fishkin, a professor at Stanford University, says that the public is easy to manipulate because citizens have their own lives to lead and therefore do not have nuanced positions on public policy. But how do people’s opinions change if they consult experts and think about important issues more often? 
  • Sixty-Second Philosopher (Seek to 45:00) Ian Shoales looks at how innovation is making us dumber and how the Internet has turned into a forum for echo chambers.


Comments (7)

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Friday, November 29, 2019 -- 8:54 AM

See my remarks regarding the

See my remarks regarding the June, 2017 blog.

rlaggren's picture


Tuesday, December 3, 2019 -- 1:29 PM

Best PT show I've heard in 5

Best PT show I've heard in 5 years. Because interviewers and the guest were clearly wrestling the concepts and applying some real time thought. Yeah!

But may I suggest you egg heads try to apply too high a bar in seeking the total, full, encompassing everything, theory. Habermas, as presented by your guest, puts forth the most sensible view of democracy I have heard. Some of your callers seemed concerned that the theory allowed there to exist unfairness. Well, yes. Duh! It's a big world out there and in here and no theory is going to put it all in it's place - or avoid being impacted by things not present inside the bubble of the theory. But as an aid and tool in understanding and making decisions about democracy, Habermas's theory seems one of the best. We must, I believe, allow the individual units making up a democracy to assume some risk and responsibility for themselves. With that allowance comes the distinct possibility of failure and of unplanned pain, anguish and death. Unfair death, even.

A social structure and belief system does not mean we all bliss out all the time. One of the big disappointments resulting from 9/11 was the complete failure of our leaders and people to maintain faith in our values and legal system. Noooo. We had to go extra judicial and invade and trash another sovereign country against all morality and law. We decided that because our values and laws and institutions had allowed 5000 people to die, we had just better put those values and laws and institutions aside and put our faith in violence. Like the attackers did. So now we have become a lot like our attackers, having made the choice that our values, laws and institutions were not up to what we felt like doing at the moment. Bin Laden has won - he destroyed a value system.

How does that relate to Habermas? You are trying to get his system to stroke your prejudices and when it doesn't promise to do that for all time every time (like our legal system and values didn't immediately salve the pain and anguish after 9/11)... You appear ready to dump it as inadequate, not relevant to what's important to you - that being the perfect universal Solution.

Do you want God to give you the Answer? Or the Question? If the latter I think most people will piss and moan for and Answer. That appears to be what the interviewers want. I'm glad to say they seemed to be having a little trouble in that way....


Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Friday, December 6, 2019 -- 4:51 AM



This is well said, and I wish the show had gotten to this. Was that your take when you heard this the first time in 2017? It's a slightly rougher world don't you think - today? Certainly conversations with communicative rationality are the bread and butter of democratic hope. To that, I too say yeah!

I'm no egg head, but I've had a few falls in my life. All the king's men would have a day putting my head back to where it was in my ideological youth.

I do think, at show's end where Matt says that Habermas' better angels are at work to fix Brexit and the corruption that is Washington, this is the answer that Ken and Ray would explore to justify democratic governance. It's a good theory but I would argue not a complete one. I will have to think about this a little more.

Not all our eggs are in that basket.

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Thursday, December 5, 2019 -- 3:17 PM

Why am I crying?

Why am I crying?

I've spent a great portion of my night reading. Now I've made the coffee and would listen to some PT while I drink it. I've held off on listening to this show because it is a repeat and life is busy. I'm happy I did and sad. This is the first PT I've had since learning of Ken's death and it is weighing heavily on me.

Matthew is an Historian, an Intellectual Historian to be precise, which gives him cred to talk about a living philosopher. The irony of hearing Ken tease this out of him makes me ... cry. I've learned so much from Ken. This is heart wrenching to hear his erudition, his focus, his self effacing honest yet extremely deep philosophical focus of conversation. One thing I missed in this show was the pat back and forth intro and glove dropping opinionating that John and Ken have done since first starting PT to close shows prior to the 60sec take. I would hear what Ken has to say about Habermas post discussion. As both Ray and Ken said... it was just getting good when it all came to an end. Again... irony.

I have listened to PT since it started having bumped into it early... came back to it and have since listened to every show. This is one of my favorite podcasts and even blogs - though I am a sometimes poster there. If you have done the same... you are my tribe and people. Undoubtedly you share my sadness.

If not, if you are not my people... well then... let's do a little communicative rationalization and be done with this.

As I write, the impeachment articles are being prepared for our President. If this is not Habermasian learning by disaster then nothing is. We are not rearticulating Habermas' ideas in this process as Matt might say. I wonder if he or Jurgen would say that today. Jurgen most certainly would. That is a confused twist of thought but such is the world at the moment.

One more homage to Ken then let me finish this feedback. When Phillip from San Francisco calls in and asks about value exchange, a better example of Ken at his best could not be found. That this show was sitting here for me to ruminate over my coffee on the day after his death it is proof of grace in life. Matthew doesn't understand Phillip’s question only to have Ken succinctly rephrase it in terms of equality. How often have I not understood the question, only to have Ken explain it to me without questioning my intelligence.

A great man has past and left us this show and blog. My heart which springs from my mind and not my chest, is beaming with the path Habermas would have us lead. That path leads through philosophy and all who practice it in their daily lives.

Thanks for this show. Thank you Ken, wherever you are I would listen to you and all my fellow humans with communicative rationality.

Ok… so… now that - that - is over… that was actually my instrumental rationality trying to get us all to contribute to PT.

I don’t know where it goes from here, but I will be there with you.

Alexander Kurz's picture

Alexander Kurz

Wednesday, June 10, 2020 -- 4:18 PM

Apologies for a trivial

Apologies for a trivial question. I am new to this. I found the "Listen" button on the top of the page, but there does not seem to be a way to wind back and to listen again (or to jump ahead, for that matter). I am on Firefox in case this matters. Any help appreciated.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Sunday, September 4, 2022 -- 9:26 AM

A good friend once

A good friend once characterized Habermas as obscurantist. Looked it up. So, was he?

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