The Critical Theory of Jurgen Habermas

Jurgen Habermas is widely considered as the most influential thinker in Germany over the past decade [1970-80]. As a philosopher and sociologist he has mastered and creatively articulated an extraordinary range of specialized literature in the social sciences, social theory and the history of ideas in the provocative critical theory of knowledge and human interests. His roots are in the tradition of German thought from Kant to Marx, and he has been associated with the Frankfurt School of critical theorists which pioneered in the study of the relationship of the ideas of Marx and Freud.' (Mezirow, 1981)

Habermas' Three Generic Domains of Human Interest

Habermas differentiates three primary generic cognitive areas in which human interest generates knowledge. These areas determine categories relevant to what we interpret as knowledge. That is, they are termed 'knowledge constitutive' -- they determine the mode of discovering knowledge and whether knowledge claims can be warranted. These areas define cognitive interests or learning domains, and are grounded in different aspects of social existence -- work, interaction and power.

Work Knowledge

Work broadly refers to the way one controls and manipulates one's environment. This is commonly known as instrumental action -- knowledge is based upon empirical investigation and governed by technical rules. The criterion of effective control of reality direct what is or is not appropriate action. The empirical-analytic sciences using hypothetical-deductive theories characterize this domain. Much of what we consider 'scientific' research domains -- e.g. Physics, Chemistry and Biology are classified by Habermas as belonging to the domain of Work.

Practical Knowledge

The Practical domain identifies human social interaction or 'communicative action'. Social knowledge is governed by binding consensual norms, which define reciprocal expectations about behaviour between individuals. Social norms can be related to empirical or analytical propositions, but their validity is grounded 'only in the intersubjectivity of the mutual understanding of intentions'. The criterion of clarification of conditions for communication and intersubjectivity (the understanding of meaning rather than causality) is used to determine what is appropriate action. Much of the historical-hermeneutic disciplines -- descriptive social science, history, aesthetics, legal, ethnographic literary and so forth are classified by Habermas as belonging to the domain of the Practical.

Emancipatory Knowledge

The Emancipatory domain identifies 'self-knowledge' or self-reflection. This involves 'interest in the way one's history and biography has expressed itself in the way one sees oneself, one's roles and social expectations. Emancipation is from libidinal, institutional or environmental forces which limit our options and rational control over our lives but have been taken for granted as beyond human control (a.k.a. 'reification'). Insights gained through critical self-awareness are emancipatory in the sense that at least one can recognize the correct reasons for his or her problems.' Knowledge is gained by self-emancipation through reflection leading to a transformed consciousness or 'perspective transformation'. Examples of critical sciences include feminist theory, psychoanalysis and the critique of ideology, according to Habermas.

Figure 1. Habermas' Three Domains of Knowledge (after Tinning, 1992)

Habermas' Critical Theory compared to that of Marx and Freire

Critical Theory agrees with that of Karl Marx in that ' must become conscious of how an ideology reflects and distorts ... reality ... and what factors ... influence and sustain the false consciousness which it represents -- especially reified powers of domination.' Habermas' 'perspective transformation' or transformed consciousness is similar to that of Marx and is akin to that experienced by research into the way that 'sexual, racial, religious, educational, occupational, political economic and technological' ideologies create or contribute to our dependency on 'reified powers'. Habermas differs from Marx in that Marx revised Hegelian thought to claim that a transformed consciousness should lead to a predictable form of action -- for example (Marx & Engels, 1969), the abolition of private property (p 96). Habermas posits no predictable outcomes (Mezirow, 1981).

Paulo Freire's 'pedagogy of the oppressed' (1970) is also centred upon such a transformed consciousness, but is devoted to empowering the oppressed (impoverished Central American peons) by a variety of methods including self-directed, appropriate education. He also refers to the false consciousness of the oppressor, and emphasizes the need to lead the oppressor to see how 'reification' dehumanizes the oppressor as well as the oppressed. Freire's principal concern lies with the social transformation of Central American political oligarchies by educating both the oppressors and the oppressed through critical self-reflection ('conscientisation').

Habermas and Action Research

It is important to note that the educational action research movement predates Habermas considerably. Action research can readily be traced back to the end of World War II in the US when social psychologist Kurt Lewin (1946) developed the methodology. Some even surmise action research dates back to the ideas of John Dewey (1929):
'The answer is that (1) educational practises provide the data, the subject-matter, which form the problems of inquiry... These educational practises are also (2) the final test of value of the conclusions of all researches... Actual activities in education test the worth of scientific results... They may be scientific in some other field, but not in education until they serve educational purposes, and whether they really serve or not can be found out only in practise.' (p. 33)
Habermas has provided a theoretical background to the methodologies advocated by action research advocates (Kemmis & McTaggert, 1990), not vice-versa. Kemmis (1990) states that there is considerable '...debate about the extent to which action research is a research methodology or technique on one hand or a broad approach to social research and reform on the other'. Kemmis also raises the issue of where action research should be located, either as '...part of the wider field of social theory or in the narrower focus of education and the development of educational theory.' This can be readily seen by the different schools of action research, where some are concerned with '...the development of teacher's (or others') theories of education and society versus questions of social and educational change -- improvement, reform and innovation'.

Dan MacIsaac, 1996 (

Bibliography and Resources

Bruner, Jerome (1957). The relevance of education. N.Y.: W.W. Norton.

Dewey, John (1929). The sources of a science of education. N.Y.:Liveright.

Freire, Paulo (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed. N.Y.:Herter and Herter.

Gortzen, Rene & van Gelder, Frederik (1970). Jurgen Habermas: The complete oeuvre. A bibliography of primarly literature, translations and reviews. Human Studies 2, 285-300.

Kemmis, S. & McTaggart, R. (Eds.). (1990). The action research planner. Victoria: Deakin University.

Lewin, Kurt (1946). Action research and minority problems. Journal of Social Issues, 2(4), 34-46.

Marx, Karl & Engels, Friedrich (1969). The communist manifesto (Trans. unknown) (Introd. by A. J. P. Taylor). Baltimore: Penguin. (Original work published in 1848).

McCarthy, Thomas A. (1979). The critical theory of Jurgen Habermas. Cambridge: M.I.T. Press.

Mezirow, Jack (1981). An critical theory of adult learning and education. Adult Education (32) 3-24.

Roderick, Rick (1986). Habermas and the foundations of critical theory. N.Y.: St. Martin's.

Sabia, Daniel R. & Wallulis, Jerald (Eds.). (1983). Changing social science : Critical theory and other critical perspectives. Albany N.Y.: State University of New York.

Schon, Donald A. (1983). The reflective practitioner : How professionals think in action. New York: Basic Books

Schroyer, Trent (1973). The critique of domination: The origins and development of critical theory. Boston: Beacon Press.

Young, Robert E. (1990). A critical theory of education : Habermas and our children's future. N.Y.: Teachers' College Press.