Jürgen Habermas was born in Düsseldorf, Germany in 1929. Like many Germans during the 1930s and 1940s, Habermas’ family was pro-Nazi, and toward the end of the Second World War, Habermas joined the Hitler Youth. After the war, Habermas became more fully aware of the brutal nature of Nazism and began his long interest in studying and promoting democracy, the thread that he himself says ties his work together. After the war, Habermas began studying philosophy and obtained a doctorate in 1954. He began studying at the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt in 1956 under Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer. At the Institute for Social Research Habermas began what has been a long dialogue with Kant, Hegel, Marx and Weber, as well as with Adorno and Horkheimer and other critical theorists. Habermas’ work ranges from sociological description, through linguistics,
long-range historical analysis, legal and democratic theorizing, to epistemology and morality. He has also been openly engaged in German and European politics. At risk of mangling his concerns, at the root of Habermas’ work is the desire to promote radical democracy – an inclusive, participatory, informed, and deliberative democratic process. In this way, Habermas’ attention to democracy and what he calls emancipatory knowledge is squarely within the broader tradition of Frankfurt School Critical Theory in which he was trained. His major books include The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (1989), Knowledge and Human Interests (1971), Legitimation Crisis (1975), the two-volume The Theory of Communicative Action (1984 and 1987), and Between Facts and Norms (1996). Habermas has also published numerous essays. Further, he has read widely in post-structuralism, American pragmatism and developmental psychology. In addition to the sheer volume of his work, Habermas is often considered
one of the most diﬃcult to understand of the critical theorists. I will necessarily address only a few of the themes explored in his more than ﬁve-decade career. It must be admitted that the choice of theories to describe has been diﬃcult and is somewhat arbitrary in the sense that although little of his work directly addresses problems of international relations, depending upon their knowledge interests, much of Habermas’ scholarship is relevant to
scholars of world politics. I focus on two related themes of Habermas’ work – his early theorization of democracy and the public sphere and his later theorization of discourse ethics. The themes come together in Between Facts and Norms (1996). Apart from being central concerns for Habermas, these concepts have been of particular interest to scholars of international relations trying to understand the potential for non-coercive dialogue, global social movements, the functions of international institutions, and how deliberative institutions in world politics might become more democratic. Further, it is Habermas’ work on argumentation and discourse ethics that has, so far, most penetrated and informed international relations theory.