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? John 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.
Matthew Specter, Professor of History, Central Connecticut State University

Bonus Content

YOUR QUESTION: Habermas and Factions


Research By

Truman Chen

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