Tag Archives: Habermas

Critique of War Reason. A Perspective on Self-referential Systems, 11th-21st Centuries

This paper is a summary of my 700-page very academic thesis, in Danish, to be published by Aarhus University Press (AUP). A shorter booklet based on it was published by AUP too (November 2014, 250 pages) and so were a number of shorter articles in English, French and German. In Luhmann’s systems theory and in sociology at large there is a missing link consisting in the lack of a sociology of war. A number of German systems theoreticians use Luhmann’s theory to fill that gap. Yet Luhmann (born 1927), who was a soldier and a prisoner of war from age 15-17, would not write a “Der Krieg der Gesellschaft”. The attempt to narrow this lacuna is indeed a heavy burden and a difficult task, in which it is decisive firstly to get the basic distinctions right about a second order observation of war as a conflict system – to be distinct from a military organisational system. This, I do by beginning with a reconceptualization of Carl von Clausewitz’ form analysis and self-description of war from Vom Kriege (1832). The central point is to observe the self-reference of war, or how war became war about war. Conflict is basically a problem of essentially contested communication. Once this historical self-reference established around the 17th century was in place, war became delimited by its structural couplings to religion, mass media (propaganda), finance, welfare for victims and veterans, law, politics and other functional systems. The costs of war increased, reconstituted and transformed modern society in a way that has formed a range of risks and – of course – neglected blind spots.

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Francesco Giacomantonio, Sociologia dell’agire politico (Rome: Studium, 2014)


In his recently published Sociologia dell’agire politico (Sociology of Political Action) Francesco Giacomantonio focuses on the material and cultural conditions that are adversely affecting the possibility for effective political action, where the latter is broadly understood as “the set of all the activities that influence politics or have political repercussions” (16). Notwithstanding the book’s title, in fact, its main concern does not appear to be the study of political action itself, but rather a reflection on the nature and causes of its current crisis.

Giacomantonio understands the analysis undertaken in the book as an exercise in “theoretical sociology”, meaning by this that he does not engage directly with the sociological facts at stake, but tries instead to reconstruct the conceptual coordinates through which such phenomena can be understood and analysed. The central part of the book is devoted to the reconstruction of three leading paradigms that have had an enormous influence on the debate about the sociological conditions in which political action takes place in our societies, as they are expounded in the works of Zygmunt Bauman, Jürgen Habermas and Slavoj Žižek.


Bauman’s account is presented by Giacomantonio as the most “apocalyptic” of the three; its dismal description of the “liquid society” cannot be redeemed by the counter-measures Bauman advocates, such as the appeal to personal responsibility and the re-establishment of a public agora, which appear to be vacuous and unfeasible. A more optimistic outlook, Giacomantonio points out, is the one proposed by Habermas. Even if Habermas insists on the depoliticization of the public sphere brought about by late capitalism and on the technocratic turn of the liberal state, his theory of democracy also points to the communicative resources that can still be mobilized in our societies. Giacomantonio also pauses to consider how Habermas tackles the challenge of multiculturalism and the role of religion in the public sphere. Žižek’s position, finally, is presented as a bold call for radical social change and the re-thinking of the very conceptual landscape on which our politics is taking place. Giacomantonio stresses the importance of Zizek’s reflection on the subject, his appeal to the re-politicization of the economic sphere, and his critique of the neo-liberal order.


In the final part of the book the author draws from the works of the authors discussed in the previous chapters in order to summarize the major sources of the crisis of political action in our societies. The main focus, here, is on the erosion of a shared social space, and of the common meanings and practices that are needed for individual action to have content and purpose, thus creating a world of “freedom without autonomy” (89). The erosion of a shared social space is connected to the privatization of the public sphere, which leaves individuals isolated, vulnerable, and voiceless, as public intellectuals are relinquishing their role and the leading cultural trends promote what Marcuse would have called a “closing of the universe of discourse” (94). Giacomantonio does not seem to have any ready solutions to this predicament; however, he suggests that a good starting point might consist in the rejection of radical individualism, by “freeing ourselves from egocentrism and utilitarianism” and learning “to be better rather than to have the best” (102). The closing pages of the book also remind us of the importance of imagination in politics, because only through imagination we can open the door to moral, cultural and social progress.


Giacomantonio’s reconstruction of the thought of Bauman’s, Hayek’s and Žižek is clear and accurate (only a couple of reservations might be raised, about the idea that Žižek can be taken as “last true heir” of the tradition of the Frankfurt School (84), and what I believe to be an overstatement of the role of religion in Habermas’s account of cohesion in contemporary societies (61-2)). Moreover, Giacomantonio’s choice of Habermas, Žižek and Bauman as guiding references for the critical analysis developed in the book is considered and fruitful; there is no doubt that these three authors deserve attention by whoever wants to reflect on the sociological conditions in which political action takes place in our societies.


Still, Giacomantonio’s way of tackling the issue of political agency seems to be somehow off-target. His analysis throughout the book focuses on the social processes that are depriving members of contemporary societies of the psychological and social resources that are needed for individual action to be meaningful, effective and genuinely free. There is no doubt that the erosion of these preconditions for successful individual action is also affecting the chances for constructive political engagement. However, in democratic politics – and indeed, we might argue with Arendt and other eminent thinkers of our tradition, in any kind of politics – political action is always and essentially the product of joint or collective action, rather than individual action. The crisis of politics in our time concerns above all the constitution and the operation of collective political subjects, and focusing on the sociology of individual action, like Giacomantonio does, tends to obscure this important fact about the ontology and the sociology of politics.


Giacomantonio’s discussion, then, should be taken as a useful – indeed, necessary – preliminary analysis of the sociological conditions that we need to consider when thinking on the possibility of political action. The study of the modes and sources of present and future political action needs to come next, and should have in view collective action as an essential element of politics.

Transnational Discourses between Facts and Norms. Toward a Two-Track Model of the Public Sphere


There is no contradiction, however, between being realistic about the way things are and determined to try to improve those realities. (Yiris Marion Young, Global Challenges)


One of the most pressing tasks of political theory and philosophy today consists in the discussion about global matters. Debates of this sort are exciting as well as demanding for they can no more rely on widely shared assumptions and univocal conceptual tools. Discourses about democracy, law and justice have entered an «abnormal» phase, as Nancy Fraser (2008: 49) puts it quoting Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Traditional categories and paradigms of political theorization are being deeply challenged by phenomena such as state sovereignty dilemmas, globalizing movements of capital supported by neoliberal ideologies, ongoing human rights violations, intercultural hybridations, religious identity conflicts and the list goes on. This constellation of tendencies keeps pace with the emergence of new forms of discursive arenas that by means of new Internet-based communication forms constantly cross national borders. In this article, I will focus on the emerging forms of transnational publics from a normative point of view, whose functions, ideals, conditions, limitations are still controversial and contested in present debates.

As a starting point of my analysis, I will take into account the so-called deliberative model of public sphere outlined by Jürgen Habermas and developed further by some of his scholars. Such a model claims to contribute both to constructivist and critical theories of democracy. To begin with, although it might seem to be basically coined by a Westphalian or national, political imaginary, I would like to investigate into how and to what extent the Habermasian idea of public sphere can be translated into a transnational context (1). Furthermore, I aim at briefly unraveling the main skeptical remarks that could be raised against a transnationalizing redraft of the national public. I also argue that, within these discussions, the critical potential of global arenas is wrongly addressed (2). Finally, I will propose a conceptual framework for a transnational critical praxis by sketching out a two-track model of public sphere, whereby its ideal and normative aspects are interwoven with the factual and non-ideal ones.


1. In Between Facts and Norms, Habermas defines «publicity» as «the social space generated in communicative action» (Habermas 1996: 360). A public sphere can be seen as a discursive space in which speakers exchange not simply opinions but opinions that are drawn upon reasons, and are oriented toward rational agreements.

The public sphere is a space that lies between a civil society, which is characterized by free and spontaneous communicative flows, and a political central infrastructure, in which deliberations and decisions take effectively place. The public discursive activity connects these poles in two ways: Firstly, it discerns social problems by filtering the communicative flows of civil society into parliamentary will-formation processes; secondly, it informs civil society of the parliament’s deliberative outcomes and promotes discussions about them. The deliberative practice of political self-determination can develop legitimately only in the interplay between these two poles, the informal public pole and the formal institutional one (Habermas 1996: 275).

One can introduce a further specification by tracing out two different versions of such “bipolarity” that have inspired Habermas’ account of the democratic system: The first one refers to the so called «strong publics/weak publics» model conceived by Nancy Fraser (1993) and the second one to the «center/periphery» model outlined by Bernhard Peters (1993: 340 ff.). According to Fraser, both democratic institutions as well as civil society and public sphere(s) rely on deliberative procedures, that is, on intersubjective communicative practices. The difference between them is that the institutional – «strong» – political deliberation is seen as strongly oriented towards an agreement that leads immediately to practical decisions, whereas the «weak» publics are defined as «wild», «anarchic» and «unrestricted» and don’t have any specific goal. Because of their political responsibility, deliberative institutions are structured according to juridical normative bounds that discipline, direct and limit conversations. The informal deliberation of the weak public sphere, on the contrary, does not know of any limitation, and is always able to spontaneously exercise its pressure and influence on the institutional strong public. As you can see, this model grants much confidence to the real effectiveness of communicative power (Habermas 1996: 307-308).

In Peters’s model, the socio-political system appears as more deeply split between a communicative sphere (periphery) and a not-communicative one (administrative center). In order to be effective in making decisions and politically act, the political «center» has to shorten and cut communicative processes and restrict itself to functional imperatives. According to this model, the political system works mainly within this core area, through the activity of institutional complexes of administration (including the Government), parliamentary bodies, judicial system, party system and so on. The «periphery» is basically composed of two layers: an «inner» periphery, which is located at the edges of the administrative center (universities, public insurance systems, professional agencies and associations, foundations, etc.) and an «outer» periphery, which branches into «customers» and «suppliers» (public agencies and private organizations, business associations, interest groups, charitable organizations, cultural establishments). While the institutions belonging to inner periphery are equipped with rights of self-governance and with various kinds of legislative functions delegated by the state, the outer periphery fulfills various coordination functions on the one hand and voices social problems making broad demands and articulating public interests and needs on the other (Habermas 1996: 354-355). Only this second function of the “offshoot” periphery belongs properly to «the civil-social infrastructure of a public sphere», which works through communicative practices «dominated by mass media»: on the whole, the effect of communicative power is rather modest in Peters’s model (cf. Schuermann: 1999).

Now, in order to keep the communicative normativity of the political system alive, both versions of public sphere must presuppose some idealized conditions. They can be summed up in the following way: a) infinite audience: nobody can be excluded from public discussion; b) no thematic selection: no relevant topic can be excluded; c) freedom from ideology and from power: public discussion must be free of distortions or restrictions in communication; d) negativity: the public sphere is assumed to exert negative, critical tasks as, for example, challenging and undermining crude appeals to prejudices, exposing and contesting every kind of coercion and will manipulation, disclosing and preventing exclusionary mechanisms (cf. Bohman & Rehg 2002: 46-47; Bohman 2004: 133-134).

With regard to Habermas’ general discourse theory, one can point out that these conditions of the public sphere actually match the idealized conditions that are implicit in everyday communicative action and are made partially explicit in the argumentative discourse (Diskurs), especially in moral discourses (Habermas 1999: 43-116). According to the sociological approach that Habermas has developed in his major work, Theory of Communicative Action, the paradigmatic social space for communicative action, the life-world (Lebenswelt), is assumed to be to a great extent free from economic and political domination. In Between Facts and Norms and Habermas’ following political writings, the concept of life-world is, at least partially, translated into that of civil society, while the public sphere can be seen, to put it roughly, as the paradigmatic social space for argumentative discourses about matters of general interest. It is through the mediation of the discursive activity of the public sphere that the spontaneous communicative potential of civil society is able to influence the bargaining and strategic activity of central political institutions. This process is ensured and stabilized by formal juridical procedures that are both factually effective, mainly because of their coercive potential, and normatively legitimating, as they preserve an internal connection with communicative reason.

As Nancy Fraser has lately pointed out in an influential work, such a model of public sphere is shaped, more or less explicitly, by a Westphalian-national framing. According to this account, public opinion would address a national state, which is supposed to be capable of regulating its citizens’ affairs; participants in public discussions are conceived of as fellow members of a bounded political community and the principal topics of discussions would refer to its organization (Fraser 2008: 79-80).

However, as an increasing body of political empirical inquiries shows, the present reality of the public sphere contradicts such Westphalian-national image: Current mobilizations of public opinion seldom stop at the borders of state’s territory, speakers and interlocutors do not constitute a “demos” or a political citizenry and the problems deliberated are frequently inherently trans-territorial and can be neither located nor resolved within national spaces. Moreover, the existence of post-national governance and government forms, international institutions, intergovernmental networks and non-governmental organizations has deeply challenged the sovereignty of the national state.

A normative model of the public sphere should therefore take these factual transformations into account, trying to draw on the emancipatory and critical possibilities of the present constellation. In this regard, Fraser’s specific contribution consists in the reconstruction of the normative conditions of a legitimate and politically efficacious public sphere on a global scale. Briefly stated, such a reconstruction aims at transnationalizing subjects, topics, spaces and modes of public communicative practices (Fraser 2008: 92-96).

It seems to me that Fraser’s position does not represent a criticism of Habermas’ paradigm as robust as she tends to insinuate. Rather, her project can be seen as an attempt to make explicit the global range of the normative conditions implicit in the Habermasian model of the public sphere. As a matter of fact, the concept of public discussion that has been outlined in this model cannot be considered per se as a nationally bounded sphere (cf. Bohman 1998: 205). As I have already suggested, since the peculiarity of the Habermasian idea of publicity is that of being a social space for exchanging and mutually criticizing reasons, this can be seen as the space where the argumentative Diskurse can be concretely realized.

Discourses about moral questions, in particular, have to deal with claims about the universal validity of norms of general concern. These norms seek to be investigated and maintained beyond each particular context and therefore require the broadest possible audience discussing, agreeing or rejecting their context transcending validity. As Habermas had argued in Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action, such a cooperative evaluation of controversial moral claims cannot be decided in a restricted or exclusive circle, like a philosophical or theoretical one, but it is supposed to take place in a «real» process of argumentation that can rely on the «actual» participation (Habermas 1999: 67) of all possibly affected persons.

It seems therefore plausible that these argumentative dynamics can be realized to the highest level of approximation within public spaces that are also not restricted to territorial boundaries. In a recent essay, Habermas explicitly says that communicative flows are inherently characterized by delimiting dynamics (entgrenzende Dynamik), applying also on territorial or national boundaries (Habermas 2007: 436). Such a conception of publicity can be also conveyed by the Habermasian idea of a «subjectless form of communication» (Habermas 1996: 486), namely by a communication that is not performed by a national or territorial subjectivity.


2. Some skeptical remarks might, nevertheless, be raised, and have actually been, against a transnational public sphere paradigm. I propose to simplify the possible different objections by singling out two main types. Let me call the first critical approach realistic skepticism and the second one, legitimacy reductionism.

The realistic skepticism is influenced by the classical approach of international relations (IR) studies, according to which, briefly stated, the global dimension has to be envisioned as a Hobbesian state of nature between Westphalian-national entities. In such a warlike realm all binding commitments to agreement, mutual recognition or responsibility cannot find any fertile ground; peaceful coexistence can only be achieved through an interaction logic based on strategic bargaining, and the only meaningful orienting principle is raison d’état. This implies that global spaces are devoid of any universal shared horizons relying on communicative and discursive integration forms (like a life-world or a civil society) that might ground argumentative and critical publicities. For a realistic skeptical approach, the discursive practices of international arenas cannot be but the result of strategic activities that reflect asymmetries, unbalances and hegemonic conflicts between national and supranational powers.

Since couple of decades, many political theorists have started to challenge the realistic IR paradigm, also prominently relying on Habermasian categories. To begin with, Andrew Linklater revised the young early Habermas’ theory of knowledge, as mainly presented in Knowledge and Human Interests (1968), with the aim of illustrating forms of interaction on the international level not only relying on a «technical», instrumental and strategic interest, but also on a practical and critical one. This second “alternative” kind of interest enables international learning processes that result in diplomatic rules for peaceful cohabitation and, more demanding, universal norms orienting the progress of just global orders (Linklater 1990). Moreover, in his most influential book (cf. Linklater 1998), Linklater develops a critical theoretical framework composed of three dimensions: Firstly, a normative dimension, committed to the justification of «not arbitrary principles» that function as criteria for criticism; secondly, a sociological one, committed to the empirical analysis of exclusionary mechanisms and orders of privileges both on domestic and global levels; and finally, a practical dimension, aimed at reconstructing social emancipatory potentials («moral capitals»).

In the wake of the path opened by Linklater, Harald Müller introduced the Habermasian category of «communicative action» within the IR research field, giving birth to a debate about the conditions of possibility, on the postnational level, for communicative interaction oriented towards agreement (Müller 1994). Without being able to reconstruct this debate here (known as ZIB-Debatte, as it was hosted by the journal called Zeitschrift für Internationale Beziehungen), I would like briefly to mention one objection that may be raised against the possibility of internationalizing the category of communicative action: this way of challenging the realistic IR paradigm may indeed run the risk of projecting the normative idealized stance implied in Habermas discourse theory on an empirical subject-matter (Herborth 2007: 167-168). That is the risk of metaphysically and dogmatically assuming, on the global scale, a factual empirical presence of communicative spaces.

In his attempt of sketching out the basic features of a discursive theory of post-national political and juridical institutions, Habermas seems to be aware of this difficulty. The Habermasian model for a future international order has the main purpose of giving an answer to the question of how to conceive a «global domestic politics without world government». In this regard, Habermas is seeking an intermediary way between an institutional cosmopolitanism that would link the possibility of implementing a global politics with the existence of a world government and the anti-cosmopolitan view of the international order as strictly limited to the recognition of multilateral treaties among fully sovereign states. As a third way, he proposes a multilevel and «heterarchical» account of the global order (cf. Lafont 2008), which consists of three levels: First of all, a «supranational level», which fulfills the vital but circumscribed functions of securing peace and promoting human rights set by the UN Charter; secondly, a «transnational level», where the major powers address global economic and ecological problems within the framework of permanent conferences and negotiation systems[1]; and finally, the already established national level (cf. Habermas 2008b: 312 ff.). The example of the European Union enriches and further complicates the frame (cf. Habermas 2012: 1-70).

In this context, Habermas acknowledges that the transition from classical international law to a post-national “semi-cosmopolitan” order is «plunged in communicative-strategic twilight», that is to say, communicative actions cannot be easily told apart from strategic ones. More explicitly, Habermas states that, in contrast to life-world practices, communicative processes on the post-national level are noticeably «controlled by power» (machtgesteuert) (Habermas 2007: 420). This means that tentative global learning processes, «anticipatory law constructions» (vorgreifende Rechtskonstruktionen) and prudentially and normatively curbed assessments of power are confined to the edges of an «imperialistic politics of power»[2].

Such Habermasian caution in maintaining the effectiveness of a communicative power that transcends national boundaries entitles one to introduce the second kind of skepticism against a transnational public sphere, which is based on what I have previously mentioned as “legitimacy reductionism”. This perspective has been mainly developed by Habermasian scholars and, in contrast to the realistic one, does not a priori bypass the possibility of communication forms that cross boundaries and hypothetically enable overcoming the international state of nature. On the contrary, this kind of skepticism laments rather the factual lack of global (cosmopolitan, supranational, transnational or the like) adequate juridical democratic institutions. According to this position, one can argue that, since the emerging forms of global communication cannot find support in democratic institutions yet, they constitute merely sporadic and aggregative forms of publicity, rather than spaces of mutual accountability, responsiveness, argumentation and critique (Bohman 1998: 212).

This kind of skepticism may be called “legitimacy reductionism” for it seems to take for granted that the most important function of global public spheres actually consists in a contribution to the legitimation process of deliberative democracy. As previously presented within the national frame, the legitimacy-bound role of publicity consists in a mediating and translating activity between civil society and central political institutions. On the global level, this function is assumed not to change: Public spheres have to legitimate political global orders by transforming global public opinion into global democratic decision-making. Nancy Fraser, for instance, asserts the need of constructing


new addresses for public opinion, in the sense of new, transnational public powers that possess the administrative capacity to solve transnational problems. The challenge, accordingly, is twofold: on the one hand, to create new, transnational public powers; on the other, to make them accountable to new, transnational public spheres (Fraser 2008: 98; on the same vein cf. also Bohman 1998: 197; Bohman 2004: 148; Nanz & Steffek 2007: 92-94).


In a recent article, Habermas places himself on this wake, arguing that successful global democratic institutions have to be rooted in some kind of solidarity between citizens. Solidarity would results from learning processes relying on «appropriately extended communicative processes» that «can take on concrete form only as the national public spheres gradually open themselves up to each other» (Habermas 2012: 48).

The condition of possibility of a well-functioning transnational public sphere appears to be thus deeply tied to the condition of the possibility of establishing well-functioning democratic orders above and beyond nation states. This perspective tends to focus only on the transformation of global public opinion into legislative and executive processes, thus underestimating, unfortunately, the negative, critical side of the public sphere. To put it with the categories previously introduced by Fraser, the «anarchic» and «wild» communicative flows of the «weak publics» can play a role within transnational contexts only as they are viewed as resources for the «strong publics», where institutional deliberations take place.

The legitimating function of public deliberation does, however, in a certain sense include the critical function: the legitimacy of norms, institutions and political orders depends, from the normative point of view, on the fact that they are able to shoulder criticism. Correspondingly, if these norms, institutions and orders are to prove their legitimacy, they must stay open to any possible further critique. This ought not to lead us, however, to the equation or confusion of such positive legitimating function of publicity with its negative and critical task. Transnational critical practices do, namely, not necessarily coincide with transnational democratizing processes, both on the domestic and the post-national level. While from the legitimating perspective, the activity of the public sphere aims at achieving a democratic order that should be considered in some way legitimated, the purpose of a critical publicity is that of critically inquiring and problematizing already given, more or less democratic post-national structures.


3. In order to rehabilitate the negative, critical function of publicity, I’m now going to sketch out a two-track model of the public sphere, which is largely inspired by the “dialectical” approach of Habermas’ first major work The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (1991). The two-track model I am proposing aims at integrating both the descriptive and diagnostic features of the realistic perspective on international relationships and the normative and counterfactual potential of the communicative paradigm that Habermas and his scholars have been developing since the eighties, on a domestic as well as on a global scale.

In his first important research, Habermas provides an account of the public sphere that intends to closely combine the normative perspective with a historical and diagnostic one. More precisely, the public sphere is here defined both as a normative resource for critique of ideology and as an ideological issue itself subjected to critical analysis. He traces the historical roots of the idea of Öffentlichkeit back to the 18th and 19th century, where, especially in France and England, the emerging bourgeoisie was struggling to impose itself as the hegemonic social class against the aristocracy and the church. The bourgeois public gathered at first in coffee houses and saloons, discussing matters of «common concern» and taking position against the political power of the absolutistic state. It was precisely in this social and cultural milieu that, according to Habermas, the idea of a close link between power and reason, or law and truth, began to make its way into political discourses (Habermas 1991: 53). Habermas identified the presupposition of the rational critical function fulfilled by these public discourses in the idea of equality between peers. The participants in the public spheres were in fact all regarded as equal, that is, as private citizens, property owners and cultivated individuals: «The bourgeois public’s critical public debate took place in principle without regard to all preexisting social and political rank and in accord with universal rules» (Habermas 1991: 54). Alone on this basis, the «authority of the better argument could assert itself against that of hierarchy» (Habermas 1991: 36).

Differently than in other works, in The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere Habermas makes explicit that the normative contents of his conception of publicity (equality of the participants, universality claim, freedom from power, critical rationality) are rooted in and simultaneously ideologically distorted by a particular historical context that is interwoven by power struggles and by the interests of a particular social group involved in such a struggle. The ideological component of the public sphere can be unraveled as following: A public that denies access to all those who do not share the bourgeois marks – those that do not have any private property, any culture and are not (white) males – cannot properly realize its own concept, that pivots on the intent of a rational and universal critique of power.

This intrinsic contradiction defining the conception of a (bourgeois) public sphere has not failed to disappoint some critical theorists. As some of them have remarked, the overlapping of the normative and the historical level either attributes a normative universal status to historically constituted ideals or seeks ontologically to ground these ideals in the nature of social life. In both cases, this framework weakens the critical approach to historical social relationships, while uncritically accepting its normative stance (Postone 1993: 167-168; Fraser 1993).

I think, on the contrary, that Habermas was well aware of the consequences implied in the two-track structure, both normative and factual, of its public sphere account. In his first work, he emphasizes that the normative critical role of publicity «can be grasped only in relation to that specific phase in the developmental history of civil society as a whole in which commodity exchange and social labor became largely emancipated from governmental directives». He states that «the social precondition for this “developed” bourgeois public sphere was a market that, tending to be liberalized, made affairs in the sphere of social reproduction as much as possible a matter of private people left to themselves and so finally completed the privatization of civil society» (Habermas 1991: 74). The thesis that can be formulated at this point reads as follows: The condition for the public sphere to exercise its critique against one form of power (that of the absolute state and its leading classes) is to be found within another form of power (that of the emerging liberal capitalism).

This structure does not question the normativity of the idea of publicity though. If it is true that the bourgeois public sphere was an ideological construction, it was «more than mere ideology» as well. Ideologies «are not only manifestations of the socially necessary consciousness in its essential falsity», but also «there is an aspect to them that can lay a claim to truth inasmuch as it transcends the status quo in utopian fashion» (Habermas 1991: 88).

In order to maintain the critical potential of a public sphere, whose ideological shape can transcends itself and push reality to change and transformation, I would suggest to combine both the normative and the factual dimensions also on the transnational level. To be sure, the later Habermas also maintains this two-track structure (cf. Habermas 2008a: 168; 179-184), even though he prefers to underline how the empirical and factual world does comply (entgegenkommen) with the ideal normative level (Habermas 2008b: 332). This later outlook fails thus to properly develop the critical side of the public sphere, which mainly just consists in unraveling the disconnection between the factual and the normative side. The purpose of the two-track model that I would like to propose is twofold: Firstly, it aims at sketching out the basic features of a normative frame as enabling condition for transnational critical praxis and, secondly, it aims at re-establishing the historical perspective as a descriptive and diagnostic one.

As normative framing, the transnational public sphere displays more or less the same idealizing conditions previously mentioned in (1): Nobody and no argument can be excluded from public discussion; discussion must be exempt from any form of coercion and manipulation; every participant must be able to take a critical stance toward the statements of other participants. There are also a few other normative conditions that are not given in the traditional Habermasian model but that turn out to be indispensable on the more complex global level. To begin with, Fraser’s plea for a plurality of competing different publics (Fraser 1993: 122-126) assumes now a fundamental weight, since the question of cultural, political and also economic diversity appears as extremely urgent on the transnational level. That is to say, transnational publicity is not to be viewed just as one all-including public sphere, that «can generate a critical vantage point from which to scrutinize civil society» (Held 2010: 41); it must be rather figured out as composed by a multiplicity of diverse specific, contextual (not necessarily national) arenas that stay open to each other. Only an ongoing interpenetration of different publics may facilitate the inclusion of marginal and not-hegemonic voices, thus fostering mutual learning and criticizing processes.

Furthermore, discussions connecting such dispersed and decentered forms of publicity ought to be conceived as not exempt from conflicts. Critical and problematizing practices imply a negativity that cannot be tamed: as Peters states, «the idea of public deliberation is that of reaching an agreement passing through disagreement» (Peters 2001: 665). This agonistic understanding of the public sphere does not deny the possibility of communication oriented towards agreement; it does not share with contemporary realist theorists (e.g. Mouffe) the strong ontological assumption according to which political antagonisms and exclusionary mechanisms are unavoidable and constitutive for political praxis both on the domestic and the international level. Stressing the negative, conflictual element within the rational praxis of communicative and discursive agency makes explicit the condition under which anarchic, untamed publicities maintain a strong critical potential by questioning any (ideological) crystallization of dominant opinions and world-views (cf. Habermas 1996: 308; 357).

After having argued about the critical potential of the public sphere, now the question arises: What is the main target of critical public sphere? I would like to suggest that the very target of the critical praxis is to be understood as the public sphere itself. As historically constituted spaces, transnational forms of publicity have to be described as spaces emerging from a context made of social and political relations of power and domination, asymmetries, hegemony conflicts, hierarchies, struggles for achieving recognition or imposing one’s own interest etc. From a factual perspective, transnational discursive public practices mirror and reproduce these relations.

I would now, finally, like to briefly not that, from this perspective, the two-track account of transnational publicities can reintegrate the realistic approach previously mentioned, yet turning the skepticism into a strong critical negative stance. Critical diagnoses may investigate, for example, how, why and by whom a specific stretch of the transnational public sphere is manipulated; which are the hegemonic (super)-powers and the imposing interests at stake; how real-existing global organizations and institutions that belong both to the global civil society and to transnational political orders (UN or EU entities, CSOs, international courts) are influenced by, or influence such a publicity. A critical conception of the public sphere, to put it with the words of Robert Cox, «does not take institutions and social and power relations for granted but calls them into question by concerning itself with their origins and how and whatever they might be in the process of changing. It is directed toward an appraisal of the very framework for action, or problematic» (Cox 1981: 208). «Critical theory, in my mind, does not propound remedies or make predictions about the emerging shape of things, world order for example. It attempts rather, by analysis of forces and trends, to discern possible futures and to point to the conflicts and contradictions in the existing world order that could move things towards one or other of the possible futures» (Cox 2010).

Thus recapping, a two-track conception of public sphere puts two virtues forward: First, it outlines a normative framework that would enable a transnational critical praxis; second, it prevents the risk of leading overall to a too sanguine view of global affairs by unmasking transnational domination structures that reproduce themselves through discursive public practices.





Bohman, James, 1998, “The Globalization of the Public Sphere. Cosmopolitan Publicity and the Problem of Cultural Pluralism”, in: Philosophy and Social Criticism, vol. 24 No. 2/3.


Bohman, James, 2004, “Expanding Dialogue: The Internet, the Public Sphere and Prospects for Transnational Democracy”, in Crossley, Nick & Roberts, John Michael (ed.), 2004, After Habermas. New Perspectives on the Public Sphere, Oxford: Blackwell.


Bohman, James & Rehg, William, 2002, “Discourse and Democracy: The Formal and Informal Bases of Legitimacy in Between Facts and Norms”, in: Baynes, Kenneth & Schomberg, von René (ed.), 2002, Discourse and Democracy. Essays on Habermas’s Between Facts and Norms, New York: State University of New York Press.



Cox, Robert, 1981, “Social Forces, States and World Orders. Beyond International Relations Theory”, in: Keohane, Robert O. (ed.), 1986, Neorealism and its Critics, New York: Columbia University Press.


Cox, Robert, 2010, “On World Orders, Historical Change, and the Purpose of Theory in International Relations”, in Theory Talks, 37, http://www.theory-talks.org/2010/03/theory-talk-37.html.



Fraser, Nancy, 1993, “Rethinking the Public Sphere: a Contribution to a Critique of Actually Existing Democracy”, in: C. Calhoun (ed.), 1993, Habermas and the Public Sphere, The MIT Press.


Fraser, Nancy, 2008, Scales of Justice. Reimagining Political Space in a Globalizing World, Cambridge: Polity Press.



Habermas, Jürgen, 1991, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society (1962), The MIT Press.


Habermas, Jürgen, 1996, Between Facts and Norms (1992), Cambridge: Polity Press.


Habermas, Jürgen, 1999, Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action (1983), The MIT Press.


Habermas, Jürgen, 2007, “Kommunikative Rationalität und grenzüberschreitende Politik”, in: Niesen, Peter & Herborth, Benjamin (ed.), 2007, Anarchie der kommunikativen Freiheit. Jürgen Habermas und die Theorie der internationalen Politik, Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp.


Habermas, Jürgen, 2008a, “Hat die Demokratie noch eine epistemische Dimension? Empirische Forschung und normative Theorie”, in: Habermas, Jürgen, 2008, Ach, Europa. Kleine Politische Schriften XI, Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp.


Habermas, Jürgen, 2008b, Between Naturalism and Religion (2005), Cambridge: Polity Press.


Habermas, Jürgen, 2012, The Crisis of the European Union. A Response (2011), Cambridge: Polity Press.



Held, David, 2010, Cosmopolitanism. Ideals and Realities, Cambridge: Polity Press.



Herborth, Benjamin, 2007, Verständigung verstehen. Anmerkungen zur ZIB-Debatte”, in: Niesen, Peter & Herborth, Benjamin (ed.), 2007, Anarchie der kommunikativen Freiheit. Jürgen Habermas und die Theorie der internationalen Politik, Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp.



Lafont, Cristina, 2008, “Alternative visions of a new global order: what should cosmopolitans hope for?”, in Ethics and Global Politics, (http://journals.sfu.ca/coaction/index.php/egp/article/view/1813/1780).



Linklater, Andrew, 1990 Beyond Realism and Marxism, London: Macmillan.


Linklater, Andrew, 1998, The Transformation of Political Community: Ethical Foundations of the Post-Westphalian Era, Columbia: University of South Carolina Press.



Müller, Herbarth, 1994, “Internationale Beziehungen als kommunikatives Handeln. Zur Kritik der utilitarischen Handlungstheorien”, in: Zeitschrift für Internationale Beziehungen (ZIB) 1/1994.



Nanz, Patrizia & Steffek, Jens, 2007, “Zivilgesellschaftliche Partizipation und die Demokratisierung internationalen Regierens”, in: Niesen, Peter & Herborth, Benjamin (ed.), 2007, Anarchie der kommunikativen Freiheit. Jürgen Habermas und die Theorie der internationalen Politik, Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp.



Peters, Bernhard, 1993, Die Integration moderner Gesellschaft, Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp.


Peters, Bernhard, 2001, “Deliberative Öffentlichkeit”, in: Wingert, Lutz & Günther, Klaus (ed.), 2001, Die Öffentlichkeit der Vernunft und die Vernunft der Öffentlichkeit. Festschrift für Jürgen Habermas, Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp.



Postone, Moshe, “Political Theory and Historical Analysis”, in: C. Calhoun (ed.), 1993, Habermas and the Public Sphere, The MIT Press.



Scheuerman, William, 1999, “Between Radicalism and Resignation: Democratic Theory in Habermas’ Between Facts and Norms”, in: P. Dews (ed.), 1999, Habermas. A Critical Reader, Oxford: Blackwell.














[1] Institutions that belong to this level are, inter alia, WHO, ILO, UNHCR, UNESCO, WTO, IMF, World Bank, G8 and G20, etc.

[2] Habermas is here referring to USA foreign politics after 11th September 2001.

Praxis, Sittlichkeit and Communicative Action. On the connection between praxis, Sittlichkeit and communicative action in Aristotle, Hegel, Habermas and Honneth

The concept of praxis is one of the most fundamental concepts in the history of political philosophy from classical antiquity to our time and it is still used as a fundamental concept in contemporary political philosophy. Politics is fundamentally concerned with praxis. The most famous example may be Marx’s statement in the eleventh thesis on Feuerbach, that the philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways, but the point is to change it (Marx 1968: 341). However, in Marx’s theses on Feurbach and in the later use of the concept of praxis in political philosophy, the close relation between praxis and polis, which was grounded in Aristotle’s political philosophy, is ignored. This close relation was dissolved with the breakdown of the autonomy of the Greek city states around the end of the 4th century BCE. Following this event, the concept of praxis is not used in political philosophy in the same way for a very long time. We have to move forward to Hegel to find a new corresponding political philosophical concept in the history of ideas. Hegel uses his concept of Sittlichkeit as corresponding to the ancient concept of praxis.


The German word Sittlichkeit has no immediate correspondent in English. Sittlichkeit has the same connotation as the Greek word ????, ?thos, but Sittlichkeit has in addition a strong subjective dimension or maybe first of all a subjective dimension. This is the reason why it normally can be translated with the English term ‘Ethical Life’. However, this translation has also the deficit that it is bound to the philosophical concept of ethics, whereas Sittlichkeit, according to Hegel, is bound to general society as well. A possible translation could also be ‘decent life’, ‘social ethics’, ‘societal ethics’ or simply ‘normativity’, but in the following paragraphs the term Sittlichkeit will be used as such.


Hegel’s concept of Sittlichkeit has been central in later political philosophy, but at the same time it has become a difficult concept because Sittlichkeit is no longer understood in the same spontaneous way as it was understood in early 19th century Germany. Therefore it is necessary to complement Sittlichkeit with a new interpretation of the concept of praxis. 


I would like to illuminate this problem by considering Habermas’ and Honneth’s discussion of the concepts of praxis and Sittlichkeit. Both of them take their point of departure in the young Hegel’s essay to formulate a concept of Sittlichkeit, but they reach very different conclusions. Honneth sees, following the young Hegel, that the concept of praxis cannot stand alone, but he is not able to create a new mediation between praxis and Sittlichkeit. The two concepts stand separated by Honneth. Habermas takes his point of departure from the young Hegel as well, but succeeds in reconstructing a concept corresponding to Aristotle’s antique concept of praxis through a new concept of communicative action. Habermas is able to unfold this new concept of praxis with the same complexity and differentiation as was the case for Hegel’s concept of Sittlichkeit. Yet, opposite to Hegel, Habermas’s new concept of praxis calls attention to democracy as the ground for modern Sittlichkeit.



Aristotle’s practical philosophy

The word ‘praxis’ has its origin in the ancient Greek language: ??????, (praxis) refers to performing an action, such as a passing a way, traversing a distance, causing or bringing about an operation. When a project has been fulfilled, it is called ‘well done’, ?? ???????? (eu prattein). It is from this point that Socrates, among others, takes the step to the moral evaluation of life as praxis. According to Xenophon, Socrates speaks about eu prattein as a learning process with reference to realizing the good, eu, and herewith the good life, eudaimonia (Xenophon 1979: I, VI ff.). Herewith has the moral and political significance of the concept of praxis been thematized.


The word ‘praxis’ was later on taken over in classical Latin as a Greek word denoting an act, a deed. It is through Latin and French that the word practizare has been imported into English as the verb ‘to practice’ and the noun ‘practisant’, referring mostly to an instrumental act such as exercising a profession, for example practizare in medicina, to practice medicine (OED: practice). Practice can be used in relation to political, moral, and religious values as well.


There is not a substantial difference between ‘practice’ and ‘praxis’. In English the Greek-rooted ‘praxis’ could even be regarded as subordinated to the Latin-rooted ‘practice’ and the two words can be used as synonymous. However, inspired by the 1960s translation into English of Marx’s early writings (i.e. prior to 1849), ‘praxis’ became a concept to emphasize the moral and political dimension in practice and that is the reason why this concept is used in this paper. Still, it would not change much to use the broader word ‘practice’ (OED: practice; OED: practise, OED: praxis).


In Plato we do not find a systematic development of the concept of praxis. The explanation is that Plato emphasizes reason, logos, and insight, gnosis, as the essential, in opposition to praxis, which is not regarded to have any value in itself. For example, Plato’s Republic (Plato 199; 1965) makes it clear that the fundamental political problem is how the class of leaders of the state can attain the right insight. Correspondingly, the two other classes, the guardians and the craftsmen, are described as practicing in a condition of intellectual blindness. From this perspective, it would simply be without any interest to develop a philosophy of praxis in the political sense. Plato’s concern is first of all insight; praxis is secondary.


Aristotle turns this perspective around. It is Aristotle that systematically develops a concept of praxis as a central concept in his philosophy. Upon the background of Aristotle’s philosophy it is possible to establish a diaeretic schema for praxis that includes the praxis of Gods, plants, animals and human beings, such that they have all their specific form of praxis. According to Aristotle, the concept of praxis becomes one of the grounding concepts for the determination of the human being. It implies both theoretical praxis, the?ria, and practical praxis that can be devised in praxis, concerned with ethical and political action as an aim in itself, and poi?sis, a technical-instrumental action concerned with an external telos or aim.


In the first sentence of The Nicomachean Ethics it is said that praxis strives for a good, although Aristotle makes it clear that praxis cannot be bound to an external absolute idea (Aristotle 1982: I, vi, 13) and therefore should be bound to itself (Aristotle 1982: I, i, 1 ff.). Practical philosophy becomes herewith a separate part of philosophy where the task is to determine praxis as good both in the ethics in relation to the individual person and in the political philosophy in relation to the political community (koin?nia politik?) in the state (polis) (Aristotle 1977:1253a)


For Aristotle there should be an inner connection between the ethical perspective of the single person’s praxis and the political perspective of the person’s praxis in the political community in the polis. The single person cannot govern himself alone by his own reason. It is necessary for him to act upon a higher explicit reason, embedded in the law, and grounded in both phronesis (phron?sis) and reason (nous) (Aristotle 1982: X, ix, 12). In Aristotle’s Politics it is even said that the polis is the ground for the single house (oikos) and the single person (Aristotle 1977: 1253a19 ff.). Praxis as ?thos, ???? can therefore only be realized in the polis. For Aristotle this is a prerequisite and therefore it is also said in the end of the Nicomachean Ethics, as a form of introduction to the Politics, that the polis is prior to the household (oikos) and the single person (ekastos h?m?n) (Aristotle 1977: 1253a19). This unity in the concept of praxis between ?thos and polis is, for Aristotle, self-evident, and this is the reason why he does not invent a special concept like Sittlichkeit to express the inner relation between ethics and the political community in the polis that beforehand and in itself represents ?thos and herewith Sittlichkeit. Praxis is for Aristotle the same as to practice in accordance with ?thos in the polis, the city-state.



The historical dissolution of the relation between praxis, ?thos and polis

From the perspective of the history of ideas, the close relation between praxis, ?thos and polis is dissolved with the breakdown of the autonomy of the Greek city-states in the end of 4th century.


In the Hellenistic and Roman civilisations of the Mediterranean world this relation disappears. The concept of praxis becomes reduced to a concept about personal ethics that only concerns the individual person’s conduct in life, without this being necessarily related to a larger societal context (e.g. the Stoic philosophy of life). The Greek concept of polis acquires a new meaning as well with its translation into Latin. Seneca translates Aristotle’s passage in Politics about the human being as a political being, a z?on politikon (Aristotle 1977: 1253a3), into animalis socialis, a societal animal which implicates that polis is substituted by societas, society, and common ethics (?thos) with individual morals (moralis) (Arendt 1958: 23).


The same is the case in the early Christian theology as can be seen by Augustine, who created a political philosophy in The City of God in which it is a central point that the inner relation between common ethics and society, moralis et societas, understood as the Roman state, has been broken (Augustine 1998). According to Augustine, the common ethics, moralis, has its ground in God’s state and not in the earthly state.


This problematic is taken up anew by Thomas Aquinas in the Middle Ages in his Summa Theologica (St. Thomas 1988) with his introduction of Aristotle’s political philosophy to Christian theology. Thomas Aquinas tries to revive Aristotle’s praxis concept as a unity of ethics (moralis) and society (societas). However, Aquinas’s praxis concept is in the end hold up by a theological metaphysical concept of God and the divine world order. This theological metaphysical construction could not stand against the increasing individualization and secularization of the European society from the Renaissance through the Reformation, where the political and the economic changes posit a totally new agenda and where individualization becomes the new ground for the constitution of the new liberal political philosophy of Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Adam Smith and Kant.



Hegel – Praxis as Sittlichkeit

It is upon this background that Hegel takes Aristotle’s problem about the connection between ?thos and polis up to discussion, not least in his Philosophy of Right (Hegel 1955). Hegel’s Philosophy of Right is one of the most interesting political philosophical treatises about modern society. It presents in the most concentrated form the unity of all the many contradictions of modern society as one expression and concept that, according to Hegel, is the state, ‘der Staat’.


Hegel’s Philosophy of Right is a combination of Plato’s Republic (Plato 1999; 1956) and Aristotle’s Politics (Aristotle 1977). It comprises both a strong Platonic idealism and a form of Aristotelian pragmatic phenomenology. According to Hegel, from a philosophical perspective all contradictions are elevated (aufgehoben) into the unity of state. The state is from a philosophical perspective the precondition for the dynamic development of the contradictions in the institutions of civil society and herewith the upholding of society in a certain balance – at the same time as this development from a genealogical perspective leads socially to the concrete historically existing state (Hegel 1955: §256). This is similar to what we are reading in Aristotle’s Politics when he writes that the city-state (polis) is by nature (physis) before the house (oikos) and any individuality (ekastos h?m?n) (Aristotle 1977: 1253a19).


Hegel summarizes the essential in modern political philosophy, Hobbes, Adam Smith, Rousseau and Kant, and gives them their full place at the same time as they become subordinated to his own political philosophical perspective. 


Behind it all, we find Hegel’s attempt to present a new modern edition of Plato’s Republic. Hegel’s  introduction to the Philosophy of Right is first of all Platonist. As it is explained in the introduction, due to his idealism, Plato has on the one hand presented the Greek ?thos, the Greek Sittlichkeit, as an empty ideal of the Greek nature of ethics (Hegel 1955: 14). On the other hand, according to Hegel, Plato was aware of the fact that his own time was penetrated of a new deeper principle, which Hegel calls ”die freie unendliche Persönlichkeit”, i.e. the free boundless personality, that later on should be brought into history by Christianity, as Hegel has described it in many places (Hegel 1955: 14). It is in connection with this presentation in the introduction that Hegel writes his maybe most discussed and maybe most conservative political philosophical statement as well:


Was vernünftig ist, das ist wirklich;

und was wirklich ist, das ist vernünftig“ (Hegel 1955:14).


This passage could be translated as follows:

“What is reasonable is what real exists,

And what real exists is what is reasonable”


The statement is very conservative because it seems, on the spontaneous level, to identify what is factually given in a society, the facticity, with what is reasonable or maybe even rational. However, if one does only see the conservative political philosophical statement, although this is also the case, one misses the determinate point in Hegel’s presentation that is the idea. The rational is synonymous with the idea (Hegel 1955: 14). The essential point is that Hegel wishes to present the idea in the modern state in a Platonic sense; he wishes to present as well the reason in the modern state, which in an Aristotelian sense contains and mediates the free boundless personality, the family, the institutions of civil society, the concrete state with its different forms of institutions, etc. This is the essential grip of Hegel’s Philosophy of RightIn a paradoxical way, we have to do with an idealistic and at the same time pragmatic form of phenomenology such as it has been described shortly by Hegel himself in the introduction to the Philosophy of Right, where he writes that the essential concern is in the temporal and passing to realize the substantial and immanent (Hegel 1955: 14 – 15).


What Hegel wants to do is to establish a “Staatswissenschaft” or a combination of political philosophy and political science. Herewith Hegel means to understand and describe the state as both reasonable and  ideal (Hegel 1955: 15). In contrast, Hegel abstains from saying anything about how the state ought to be, or how it could be. Hegel’s concern is not to instruct the state but on the contrary to realize ”das Sittliche Universum”, the ethical universe that the state is (Hegel 1955: 16).


It is evident that this project resembles Aristotle’s project. However, for Hegel, it is essential that Christianity stands as the determinate historical event between antiquity and modern times, in the sense that it is with Christianity that the subjective freedom or the free boundless personality comes into history. This is followed up by the individualization, secularization and historical change that have been thematized above.


The consequence is that all the ‘Staatslehre’, all the theory of the state, should be turned around in comparison with the way in which it is presented by Aristotle in the Nicomachean Ethics and Politics. Both treatises open by saying that all is striving towards a good and in Politics it is subsequently said that the highest aim (telos) for the political community is polis, the city-state. Opposite to this is Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, introduced by a determination of the individuality and the free will (Hegel 1955: § 4). Whereas the city-state for Aristotle represents fundamentally the Sittlichkeit, the task for Hegel is to construct and reconstruct the ?thos in the state with a departure in the free will of the individual.


Aristotle can immediately transfer his ethics to the city-state because the city-state is constituted fundamentally after the same model, namely a striving towards the good. In contrast, the situation is totally different for Hegel, because he cannot transfer his original Kantian ethics without mediation to the state. Hegel’s theory is a praxis-oriented conflict theory where the fundamental problem is to describe how the subjective freedom, the free boundless personality, can find itself as a mediated relation at a certain historical moment to a historically determined state. As Hegel states:


“To comprehend what is is the task of philosophy, for what is is reason. As far as the individual is concerned, each individual is in any case a child of his time; thus philosophy, too, is its own time comprehended in thought (Hegel 1955: 16; Hegel 1991: 21).


Hegel’s Philosophy of Right is fascinating because Hegel accomplishes this project about the modern state as a concept about ‘praxis as Sittlichkeit’ in civil society within the state. Hegel’s Philosophy of Right is a new interpretation of the unity between the idealism in Plato’s Republic and the pragmatism in Aristotle’s Politics


Hegel sets with his concept of ‘praxis as Sittlichkeit’ a new agenda for ethics and political philosophy that extends to our time. It is also in Hegel’s spirit (Hegel 1955: 13 – 14) to ask anew whether society has been changed in such a way that his concept of ‘praxis as Sittlichkeit’ has become irrelevant or whether it is still relevant but should be modified and, if so, to what extent.



Honneth – From praxis as a struggle for recognition to post-traditional Sittlichkeit

One of the latest major interpretations of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right is offered in Axel Honneth’s Recht der Freiheit (Honneth 2011). Honneth’s treatise can be seen as an essay developing a new edition of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right for our time, where the concepts of praxis and Sittlichkeit are very central. Therefore it can be interesting to look at how Honneth solves the thematized relation between praxis and Sittlichkeit.


In the introduction, entitled ‘the theory of justice as societal analysis’, Honneth tackles also the afore-mentioned question about the relevance of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. On the one hand, Honneth emphasizes Hegel’s project about presenting the reasonable in the institutions of his time and to call attention to the fact that Sittlichkeit was already realized in the central institutions of society (Honneth 2011: 16 – 17). On the other hand, Honneth emphasizes that it is not only society, but also the philosophical way of arguing that has changed significantly since Hegel’s time. The normative stability that was found at Hegel’s time has changed towards a greater reflexivity and henceforth greater uncertainty about applicable norms (Honneth: 2011: 17). In addition, the experience of the Holocaust has, according to Honneth, dampened the imagination that there should be a continuous development of reason in society.


It is difficult to see the validity of the latter argument by Honneth. After the major upheaval of the French Revolution and the ensuing Napoleonic wars, it is difficult to see that the normative standards would have appeared more stable at Hegel’s time. The Holocaust may seem to be a trump card, but it might have been used too much. vHowever, Honneth uses this argument as a point of departure for his critique of the fundamental idealistic principle of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right when he writes:


“For us, the children of a materialistic enlightened age, Hegel’s idealistic monism as a precondition for the spirit is not really imaginable. Therefore Hegel’s idea of an objective spirit realized in the social institutions must be grounded in another way” (Honneth 2012: 17).


It is in this formulation that we should find the turning point in Honneth’s presentation of his project in relation to Hegel’s Philosophy of RightIt is not difficult to understand that Honneth could wish to reject Hegel’s central perspective, which he calls “idealistic monism”, and Hegel’s idea about the objective spirit realizing itself in the institutions. Idealistic monism and objective spirit are totally strange concepts for our time. However, the problem is that the interesting thing about the Philosophy of Right is exactly that Hegel, by means of this strange philosophical grip, is able to give a concentrated presentation of modern society that has not its equal in the history of philosophy.


It can be questioned as well whether Honneth escapes from Hegel’s idealism when he introduces the idea of freedom (die Idee der Freiheit) as ground for his theory of justice (Honneth 2011: 18), immediately after having rejected Hegel’s metaphysical ground. It is not so easy to be post metaphysical! 


In our time, we are maybe not able to give a presentation like Hegel’s, but the challenge in Hegel’s presentation is his “idealistic monism”, supported by his idea of “the objective spirit”. In so far as we find Hegel’s monistic one-sided and extreme concentrated presentation interesting, at the same time as we are not able to sustain his metaphysical perspective or simply his idealistic perspective, we are still intellectually challenged to try to find a an acceptable interpretation for our time that, from a philosophical perspective, can compete with Hegel’s presentation. The question is therefore whether it is possible to formulate one sustainable principle for our time that can match Hegel’s metaphysics. 


For Honneth, that is not possible. Honneth’s philosophical interpretation of Hegel declines to a form of sociological oriented societal analysis, i.e. ”Gesellschaftsanalyse” (Honneth 2011: 31), which can be interesting and informative, but lacks the philosophical grip, the philosophical concept’s one-sidedness, that can turn all the perspectives around, and herewith form the ground for the formulation of new concepts of praxis and Sittlichkeit that can be relevant for our time.


Honneth has a concept of praxis as a ‘struggle for recognition’ that he retrieves from the young Hegel and that he develops in his treatise Kampf um Anerkennung (Honneth 1992). The struggle for recognition is a differentiated concept of action that includes love, rights and solidarity (Honneth 1992: 148 ff.) and that has its counterpoint in violence (Vergewaltigung), loss of rights (Entrechtung) and disrespect (Missachtung) (Honneth 212 ff.). Honneth realizes in the end of Kampf um Anerkennung that it is necessary to offer a mediation of a concept of Sittlichkeit that he can thematize formally and shortly (Honneth 1992: 274 ff.). However, in Kampf um Anerkennung, Honneth presents only a formal concept of Sittlichkeit without any substantial or institutional differentiated content. It is this project that Honneth takes up in Das Recht der Freiheit, in which he formulates four premises for his development of a concept of Sittlichkeit.


The first premise is that every society is bound to a common orientation that is grounded in ideals and values. There is therefore always, according to Honneth, a common legitimization problem with respect to justifying values in every society (Honneth 2011: 18). 

The second premise is that justice is not an independent objective standard. It must, according to Honneth, be determined by historical and social standards of value that are indispensable for the reproduction of social values. Honneth speaks in this context about a reconstruction of values and about the necessity to focus on values that are indispensable for the reproduction of a society (Honneth 2011: 20).

The third premise is concerned with the method for such a normative reconstruction. To this end, according to Honneth, Hegel’s concept of Sittlichkeit and Aristotle’s notion of praxis should be recovered as an intersubjective habitual practice and not as predetermined convictions (Honneth 2011: 24).

Finally, there is the fourth premise, namely that it should be possible to criticize values in society mediated through a concept of Sittlichkeit (Honneth 2011: 28). Honneth, for the sake of example, mentions Hegel’s concept of corporations as a platform for critique of the labor market (Hegel 1955: § 250 – § 256).


Honneth’s final conclusion is that such a theory about justice understood as an analysis of society, or Gesellschaftsanalyse, is totally dependent upon the way in which a critical interpretation of social norms in the institutions is done. Such a critical interpretation should make it possible to reconstruct a concept of praxis as a form of “post-traditional Sittlichkeit” (Honneth 2011: 31). 


Honneth’s treatise is formally built up like Hegel’s Philosophy of Right: it comprises parts A, B and C, where part C, like Hegel’s own, produces a great analysis of praxis or Sittlichkeit in the institutions (Honneth 2011: 219 ff.). Hegel’s own presentation in part C is a systematic and dialectic presentation of the dynamic and contradictory constitution of the modern state and civil society. Family and the institutions in civil society form, according to Hegel, a special unity in the state, which is presented both from an actor perspective and a social systemic perspective. In contrast, in Honneth’s work we do not find such a developed unity in the state. Honneth is giving a side-ordered action-oriented presentation of three themes concerning social freedom, namely: personal practice in relation to friendship and family; business practice; and finally political practice with democratic will formation, public sphere, and democratic society based on the rule of law and political culture.


Compared to Hegel, Honneth has an extreme concept of praxis, in so far as all sociality is seen as one-sided, i.e. from an actor perspective. Honneth has no form of social systemic perspective. There is even no economic system, for the economy is only seen under the sociological actor perspective (Honneth 2011: 317 ff.).


Honneth is not able to transform his concept of praxis into a concept of Sittlichkeit. Aristotle’s concept of praxis and Hegel’s concept of ‘praxis as Sittlichkeit’, although in different manners, are essentially related through a series of mediations to polis and state. The consequence of Honneth’s sociologically oriented philosophical perspective is that Honneth has no concept about the state. It is not thematized in a philosophical sense, but only factually, in a sociological and social historic sense. The consequence is that Honneth is not able to thematize  in a philosophical sense ‘praxis as Sittlichkeit’. The paradox here is that Honneth, with his extreme one-sided concept of action, is not able to transform this concept of praxis into a concept of Sittlichkeit. To conclude, Honneth lacks the unifying idea or another form of unifying transmission principle that can mediate the transition from praxis to Sittlichkeit.



Habermas – Praxis as communicative action

It is such a transmission principle that Habermas is able to construct in his theory of communicative action (Habermas 1981). Habermas develops the general cultural historical and cultural political ground for this theory in his cultural-philosophical treatise about the creation and decline of the public sphere, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (Habermas 1962). Habermas develops the more specific philosophical perspective with an initial reference to Hegel’s Jena lectures about the phenomenology of the spirit, 1803-1806 (Habermas 1968: 9). Hegel’s lectures are connected to his fragmentarily developed 1802 System of Sittlichkeit (Hegel 1923b) that, according to Habermas, is influenced by the political economy of the time and is normally seen as a preliminary study to Hegel’s Phenomenology of the Spirit (Hegel 1952), not least in the Marxist tradition (Lukács 1968: 398 ff.).


According to Habermas, Hegel is concerned with a special type of formation (Bildung) of the spirit that later on disappears in his Phenomenology of the Spirit. The spirit’s absolute reflection of itself, subordinated in relation to language, work and Sittlichkeit, is not regarded as essential. On the contrary, according to Habermas, Hegel’s perspective is here that it is the dialectical relation between linguistic symbolization, work and interaction that constitutes the concept of the spirit (Habermas 1968: 10). Thus, it is the three dialectical patterns, linguistic symbolization, work and interaction, which together constitute and penetrate the spirit in its specific forms for the existing consciousness.


With this hermeneutical maneuver Habermas succeeds, following the young Hegel’s Jena lectures, to ground a new concept of praxis that can match Aristotle’s concept of praxis as an all-encompassing concept of action. This concept of praxis is differentiated, like the one by Aristotle, between, on the one hand, interpersonal and social communication and praxis (logos and praxis), and, on the other hand, a teleological doing and technical instrumental action (poi?sis and techn?).


Habermas grounds here his concept of praxis as communicative action, which he develops later in different fields such as ethics, politics, philosophy of law and critical theory. For Habermas it is a central perspective to focus on praxis as Sittlichkeit mediated through communicative action in the institutions of society under a democratic government. Under this perspective, Habermas could be called the philosopher of democracy.


According to Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, the state precedes the family and civil society from a philosophical perspective, whilst the state follows after the family and civil society from a genealogical perspective, and it should finally have a hereditary monarchy that could be able to secure the decisive monological procedures of decision (Hegel 1955: § 281). In contrast, according to Habermas, the state should have a democratic government that not only shall ensure dialogical procedures of decision in the state, but also shall ensure praxis as dialogue and communication as the fundamental relation in the family and institutions of civil society.




In conclusion it can be said that Aristotle grounds a concept of praxis that becomes one of the fundamental concepts in the history of modern political philosophy. Hegel leads this concept further with his concept of praxis as Sittlichkeit. Honneth and Habermas are both grounded in the young Hegel’s writings when they try to extrapolate what is essential in Hegel’s concept of praxis and generate a new concept, which may be valid for our time. Honneth is standing by Hegel’s concept of recognition, which he is subsequently forced to leave many years later when rediscovering Hegel’s concept of Sittlichkeit. However, Honneth fails to reconcile praxis and Sittlichkeit. In contrast, Habermas sets language in a hermeneutic maneuver as a substitute for Hegel’s concept of spirit. With this new, effectively metaphysical concept, he is able to formulate a practical philosophy in which both praxis and Sittlichkeit are summarized in communicative action. Habermas’s practical philosophy follows Hegel’s and extends its roots into the history of ideas, back to Aristotle’s foundation of the concept of praxis and, in a broader sense, to the antique democracy of Athens.



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Habermas, Jürgen (1968), ‘Arbeit und Interaktion. Bemerkungen zu Hegels Jenenser ‘Philosophie des Geistes’, i: Jürgen Habermas (1968), Technik und Wissenschaft als ‘Ideologie’, Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt am Main, s. 9 – 47.

Habermas, Jürgen (1981), Theorie des kommunikativen Handelns, bind I-II, Frankfurt am Main, Suhrkamp Verlag.

Hansmann, Otto (1992), Moralität und Sittlichkeit, Weinheim, Deutscher Studien Verlag.

Hegel. G. W. F. (1923a), Schriften zur Politik und Rechtphilosophie, Georg Lasson (Hrsg.), Sämtliche Werke band VII, Leipzig, Verlag von Felix Meiner.

Hegel. G. W. F. (1923b), ‘System der Sittlichkeit‘, in Hegel. G. W. F. (1923a), Schriften zur Politik und Rechtphilosophie, Georg Lasson (Hrsg.), Sämtliche Werke band VII, Leipzig, Verlag von Felix Meiner, s. 414 -499.

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Hegel, G. W. F. (1955), Grundlinien der Philosophie des Rechts, Hamburg, Felix Meiner Verlag.

Hegel, G. W. F. (1991), Elements of the Philosophy of Right, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Honneth, Axel (1992), Kampf um Anerkennung – Zur Moralischen Grammatik sozialer Konflikte, Frankfurt am Main, Suhrkamp.

Honneth, Axel (2011), Das Recht der Freiheit; Frankfurt am Main, Suhrkamp Verlag.

Lukács, Georg (1981), Der junge Hegel, 3. Au?age, 1968, Neuwied und Berlin, Hermann Luchterhand Verlag.

Marx, Karl (1968), „Thesen über Feurbach“ i Karl Marx, Die Frühschriften, Stuttgart, Alfred Kröner Verlag, s. 339 – 341.

OED – Oxford English Dictionary: practice, noun, Third edition, December 2006; online version June 2012. <http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/149226>; accessed 10 July 2012. An entry for this word was first included in New English Dictionary, 1907

OED – Oxford English Dictionary: practise | practice, verb, Third edition, December 2006; online version June 2012. <http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/149234>; accessed 10 July 2012. An entry for this word was first included in New English Dictionary, 1907.

OED – Oxford English Dictionary: praxis: praxis, noun, Third edition, March 2007; online version June 2012. <http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/149425>;; accessed 10 July 2012. An entry for this word was first included in New English Dictionary, 1907.

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St. Thomas Aquinas – On Politics and Ethics (1988), Paul Sigmund (red.), New York London, W. W. Norton & Company.

Xenophon (1979), Memorabilia, i: Xenophon in Seven Volumes IV, Memorabilia and Oeconomicus, Symposium and Apology, The Loeb Classical Library 168, Cambridge Massachusetts and London, Harvard University Press.



Ingerid S Straume and J F Humphrey (eds.), Depoliticization: The Political Imaginary of Global Capitalism (Malmö: NSU Press, 2011)

This split, so the thesis goes, aims to stifle any truly creative political critique of our institutions, thereby avoiding genuine structural changes that might hurt private capital’s interests. In this view, ‘depoliticization’ is the diminishing of any public capacity to imagine, create or deploy new forms, such that the depoliticizing political-economy split is an inherently anti-democratic defence of capitalism.

For example, discussion on who should bear the cost of the economic crisis is depoliticised. In business, transnational corporations wriggle out of any democratic scrutiny exercised in national interests. In law, institutions and rights become fixed in a way that can tend to immobilise political thought and action. In the symbolic field, undermining everything, the capacity to think or posit new institutional forms is deadened by fear and indifference.

In this way, runs the thesis, global capitalism feeds on depoliticization, so capitalists promulgate it until the freedom and autonomy of a political life is no longer possible. This authoritarian state is, the book suggests, the inevitable and imminent outcome. However, this is not so much a warning about fascism’s resurgence. Rather it is an intricate, provocative and mostly quite convincing theoretical elucidation of the subtle, sub-conscious architecture on which the current drift towards authoritarianism is constructed. The benefit of this work lies in the way it points out opportunities for a redesign: reconnecting politics with economy – politicising the debate, imagining and implementing new forms – becomes a key objective with a new and significant value.

Depoliticization assembles its tally of authors from five countries, representing over a dozen disciplines spanning economics, history and philosophy as well as political and social theory. There is a preponderance of Scandinavian contributors, but nevertheless the stated intention is to urge more transnational debate on our (perhaps Western) political fate and legacy.

In accordance with its central theme, the essays are organised in two parts: Economy and Politics. Opening with Straume’s more in-depth look at how the depoliticizing political-economy split leads to personal suffering (principally, it detaches us from reality and creativity), part one goes on to dissect capitalism’s ‘economic logic’. Arnason cites Baechler, Wallerstein, Boltanski and Chiapello to expose not only the irrational ‘spirit’ that underpins its multiple manifestations, but also and critically, the social-historical context that spawns it all. D T Cochrane’s ‘power theory’ harmonises Thorstein Veblen and Castoriadis in order to critique Marx’s Labour Theory of Value and pin down capitalism as ‘the valuation of control’. According to Lundkvist, this control commodity is used unaccountably by an oligarchy of transnational corporations to choke off market competition. Their strategically managed alliances and mergers give the lie to any notion of a ‘global free market’. Instead they spiral inexorably towards a ‘capitalist planned economy’. J F Humphrey rounds off part one by connecting the discussion to the current economic crisis. He draws out from Marx how money transforms from a means of exchange to become the ultimate commodity: production determines distribution, exchange and consumption, such that what is produced has no (social) value other than to satisfy the need for accumulation; or as Cochrane might say, control.

Blinkenberg builds on this in part two, working from Jacques Rancière’s argument that money as power requires the exclusion of ‘virtue’ (or perhaps ‘social value’). Rather, an ‘authoritative allocation of values’ ascribes virtue in order to legitimise acceptable political actors. Here depoliticization is a method of ‘value-neutral’ policing that safeguards the hierarchical distribution of power against democratic egalitarianism. Changing the hierarchy’s regimes for ‘truth-production’ by disclosing the function of truth, is what Foucault sees as the purpose of intellectual and political action, according to Jacobsen. Yet relativism, Foucault’s ‘tyranny of perspectives’, means that any claim to objective truth always proceeds from an infinite regression of fundamental hegemonic discourses, dissolving objectivity. Such impotence is perhaps made manifest in Europe’s Kafkaesque language shift from ‘pedagogy’ and ‘education’ to ‘learning’, as argued by Straume. Commodified and assessed by endlessly uncertain tribunals, ‘learning’ comes packed with a capitalist payload of quantitative, computable subtexts: competition, employment, product and again control are deemed virtuous for the ‘entrepreneurial citizen’. The lost ethos of autonomous critique, inspired by love in Castoriadis’ pedagogic scheme, is de-valued, de-personalised and effectively de-commissioned. Finally, Nilsen’s analysis of Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut illustrates the outcome of extreme wealth inequality and a switch from ‘productive capitalism’ (growth) to ‘finance capitalism’ (no growth). This is demonstrably a grand repetition of deteriorating trust, consciousness and intelligence that sets up the apparently imminent, unavoidable descent into despotism and dictatorship.

But democracy’s shallow grave may not be dug yet. If you’re prepared to bury your head in the text and not the ground, you can find some genuinely useful arguments here.  For example, Cochrane’s frankly excellent reading of capitalism as ‘the valuation of control’ provides a strong theoretical case for competing to command assets socially. Similarly Straume’s first essay shows that depoliticization rests on the inability to provide ‘sufficiently robust meaning’, such that teaching critical thinking to every citizen becomes a political as well as an educational mission.

‘Depoliticization’ is not directly addressed in every essay; for some it remains at the side. However, the papers overlap each other well enough to be stitched together with a good narrative, and so the eight authors cover the theme well. Collectively, they delve deep into capitalism’s depoliticizing traits, often working at the level of language and meaning. There are some quite fascinating technical constructions offered in explanation of unconscious or unobvious shifts, such as: controlled ‘free markets’; consumption determined by production; or money, power and control commodified for accumulation. There are also references to more popular economics (Stiglitz and Soros for example) and the odd graph (not listed in the contents) to explain relevant numeric data.

Given their intensity and density, some of the essays are wonderfully clear although in at least two, the author’s purpose or line of thought becomes obscured; whether by poor writing or poor translation is unclear. More of a practical problem was the lack of an index; while the use of footnotes rather than endnotes means locating a cited source requires endless flicking.

But the only real issue was in terms of a personal take on ideas. For me the capitalist paradigm of ‘growth’ appears to be accepted without question, despite its physical impossibility. Moreover, there was a tendency to dismiss ‘logic’ or ‘evidence’ too readily, while quantity always seemed subordinate to quality. I would have liked to have seen these points more clearly and fully discussed, not lost in the background as ‘value-neutral’ givens. But then, this is not so much a criticism of the work as a rejoinder to the discussion; which the authors would surely welcome.

Die Versprachlichung des Sakralen: The Transformation of the Authority of the Sacred into Secular Political Deliberation in Habermas’ Theory of Communicative Action

Taking Weber’s thesis in consideration, it seems difficult to uphold Habermas’ thesis about a happy transformation of the sacred into deliberation. The consequence is that morality can only be successful in so far as the validity claims of communicative ethics can be institutionalized in modern society without any reference to holiness. This seems also to be the general conclusion in Habermas’ work – ironically apart from his theory of secularization.

Cornelius Castoriadis’ theory of the imaginary institution and Claude Lefort’s theory of the empty place of the political as a new insecure moral ground for modern society are presented together as an alternative theory of secularization which can serve as a new framework for Habermas’ theory of communicative ethics and deliberative politics in modern society.


  • Die Versprachlichung des Sakralen 

It has been astonishing to observe over the last decade a growing interest for religion not only in more or less premodern societies around the world, but also in the western world. The many theories about secularization seem to have been shocked by this reappearance of religion and this can give a good reason to reconsider what could be a common ground for a modern secular society. Here I find the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas’ thesis about die Versprachlichung des Sakralen, the linguistification of the sacred, especially interesting, because Habermas has formulated an optimistic theory about how the sacred could be safeguarded in a harmonious transformation into deliberation in modern society. By discussing this theory the aim should be to try to understand why secular society has not been safeguarded from discussions of religion such as has been the case in the last decade.

In connection with his development of the theory of communicative action, Habermas claims that the sacred is transformed in a positive way and can take the form of free deliberation in society (Habermas 1981, II: 118 ff.; Habermas 1989, II, 77 ff.). Habermas speaks in this connection about die Versprachlichung des Sakralen. The thesis is that the authority which could be found in religion, and which is of fundamental significance for the integration of pre-modern societies, is taken over by modern society in forms of deliberation.

Habermas develops this thesis in a discussion of Durkheim’s religious-sociological considerations about the transformation from mechanical to organic solidarity. Durkheim indicates this transformation of the authority of law from unconditional, which is exercised through punishment, to contractual, which is exercised through debate, proceedings and compromise. Habermas interprets this transformation of law in saying that the contract represents a linguistic transformation of law that has similarities with the linguistic transformation of the authoritative character of religions in modern society. But so far as I can see, this argument is not valid because we cannot compare religion and civil law in this way. Law can be compared to religion because law in different ways has its origin in religion. But this argument cannot be turned around. Religion cannot be explained by law. I should like to add that, in my opinion, Durkheim is not the most interesting of the classical sociologists with regard to religious-sociological considerations, because he is mostly occupied with primitive religions, which is the case in his main work, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (Durkheim 1960: 67 ff.; Durkheim 1995: 45 ff.).

Habermas would not have been able to make the same analysis if he had taken his point of departure in Max Weber’s religious-sociological investigations, Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Religionssoziologie, which in my opinion are much more qualified and differentiated than Durkheim’s sociology of religion (Weber 1988). Weber studied most forms of religions to find out what significance they have had for the integration of different societies. Weber’s conclusion is that the essential significance of religion in society is to give an explanation of how the divine, and in that sense God’s world, can be just when at the same time injustice is dominant in society (Weber 1988a: 242; 571 – 573.). Religion has had the significance to give a solution to this problem of theodicy in all forms of society so that social injustice did not disrupt social integration. The Judaic and Christian religions have here a special status compared to other religions, because the theodicy problem in these traditions is displaced into a demand for a realization of justice in society. This religious claim of social justice is later secularized and integrated in the European tradition of jurisprudence.

  • Weber’s theory of secularization

Weber discusses the question of secularization in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (Weber 1988b; Weber 1995). He shows in this analysis that the sacred, the absolute authority of religion, is dissolved in the secularization of European culture and that we therefore have lost the relation to religious authority. This is a much more interesting thesis than Durkheim’s thesis. It is also this thesis of Weber which is the real challenge for Habermas and which he discusses throughout his theory of communicative action. Therefore, we also find later on in Habermas’ analysis of the linguistic transformation of the sacred a discussion where Habermas relates directly to Weber’s theory of secularization, rationalization and differentiation of the occidental culture (Habermas 1981, II: 140; Habermas 1989, II, 92). Here Habermas, in the spirit of Weber, points out that neither occidental science nor art can be the heir of religion. The occidental science is founded upon the criteria of objectivity and art is founded upon the criteria of subjective taste.

According to Habermas, it is only communicative-oriented morals that are able to replace the authority of religion (Habermas 1981, II: 140; Habermas 1989, II, 92). However, this is not valid from Weber’s religious-sociological perspective. According to Weber, the authority of the sacred is dissolved through the secularization of modern society. This is the reason why Weber, in the end of The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, concludes that we in the occidental culture are dominated by the technical-instrumental rationality because we no longer have a reference to the sacred, which at the end is necessary to uphold morality in any society (Weber 1988b: 202 ff.; Weber 1995: 180 ff..). The paradox is that Habermas follows Weber in this thesis, although he does not follow Weber in his analysis where he, as mentioned, tries to rescue the authority of the sacred in a new secularized form through his reading of Durkheim’s religious-sociological work.

With this background, I will try to sum up my own interpretation. Habermas’ first critique of Weber, which formed the starting point for all of Habermas’ analyses in his theory of communicative action, was that Weber had too narrow an understanding of the rationalization of the occidental culture, because he confounded the potentials of the cultural rationalization with the technical-instrumental rationalization that has taken place historically. I do not only follow Habermas in this critique of Weber; I try to strengthen it because I think that the occidental culture has also been historically rationalized in a communicative direction through historical events such as the Renaissance, the Protestant reformations in their various forms, and through political reformations and revolutions such as the British Glorious Revolution and the French Revolution. Weber does not take these forms of communicative rationalization into regard in his understanding of occidental culture; he is only concerned with the technical-instrumental rationalization. On this point, I think Habermas is right in his critique of Weber. However, I follow Weber in his theory of rationalization of the occidental culture in the sense that I think Weber is right in pointing out that the authority of the sacred is dissolved in this process of rationalization, which could also be called a process of secularization. The question is now what the consequences are for the understanding of the authority and validity of communicative ethics.

The question of the validity of communicative ethics depends on the rational communication in which there can be given good reasons for a specific moral opinion. This is a philosophical problem that Habermas to my mind has treated in a persuasive way. However, the problem is that good reasons are not enough. Habermas sees correctly that in moral questions there is also a problem of authority and he tries to solve this problem through his reading of Durkheim’s religious sociology. But if we follow Weber, the question is whether communicative ethics can acquire an authority in modern society that corresponds to the authority that religions have in pre-modern societies. In this connection, I think Habermas has too widespread an understanding of religion in pre-modern society. Habermas has the understanding that religion in general could give an immediate authority in pre-modern society. But to my mind this is not the case. We have to take into consideration that the authority of religion in pre-modern society was not a free-floating authority. On the contrary, it was mediated through the practice in religious institutions, first of all through cult and worship and secondly through theology in higher forms of religion. Therefore, the authority of religion was not free-floating but bound to institutions in pre-modern society. In the spirit of Durkheim we could even say that it is the institution that gives the authority to religion.

The consequence of this is that communicative action and communicative ethics should be seen in relation to institutions in the same way. From a sociological perspective the decisive point is whether communicative ethics can be institutionalized in modern society, which means the same as whether the institutions of modern society can take such a form that they can mediate communicative ethics in practice.

  • A tragic theory of secularization

The validity of communicative ethics depends upon a philosophical point of view on the tenability of the validity claims. But from a sociological perspective, this is not sufficient. Here the question is whether communicative ethics can be institutionalized in the same way as the authority of the sacred became institutionalized in religion in pre-modern societies. So far as I can see, this is also the line Habermas follows and which he tries to develop in the continuation of his theory of communicative action. But if we do not accept Habermas’ linguistic transformation of the sacred, which I, as previously mentioned, do not, then the consequence for the sociological understanding of communicative ethics is that the claim of its institutionalization is radicalized. Modernity has only a linguistic reference to itself; there are no other references. This internal self-reference can only be upheld if the philosophical validity claims can find their place in practice in the institutions of society.

Habermas presents his thesis about the linguistic transformation of the sacred as a harmonious theory of secularization and therefore it has been an easy target for his critics. However, if we follow Weber in his religious-sociological considerations of modernity, we reach a tragic theory of secularization that poses the real problem that the social ethical challenge consists in securing the institutionalization of the validity claims of communicative ethics in modern society.

The consequence is that Habermas’ theory of die Versprachlichung des Sakralen should be placed in an alternative theoretical framework. In this context, it can be fruitful to look at the philosophers Cornelius Castoriadis and Claude Lefort who have pointed at an alternative theory of secularization where they emphasize the imaginary of the political as an alternative to the imaginary of the sacred as the normative ground for modern democratic society.

  • Castoriadis – The imaginary institution of society

Cornelius Castoriadis developed the concept of the imaginary in his major work The Imaginary Institution of Society (Castoriadis 1975; 1987). Castoriadis defines the concept of the imaginary in this way:

The imaginary of which I am speaking is not an image of. It is the unceasing and essentially undetermined (social-historical and psychical) creation of figures/forms/images, on the basis of which alone there can ever be a question of ‘something’. What we call ‘reality’ and ‘rationality’ is its works. …… What I term elucidations is the labor by means of which individuals attempt to think about what they do and to know what they think. This, too, is a social-historical creation. The Aristotelian division into theoria, praxis and poiesis is derivative and secondary. History is essentially poiesis, not imitative poetry, but creation and ontological genesis in and through individuals’ doing and representing/saying. This doing and this representing/saying are also instituted historically, at a given moment, as thoughtful doing or as thought in the making (Castoriadis 1975: 7–8; Castoriadis 1987: 3 – 4).

According to Castoriadis, society is not only in a permanent historical creation but also in a permanent historical creation of imagination, which forms the ground for a following possibility of creation of objectivity, meaning, etc. that have to be interpreted. Castoriadis speaks of elucidations (élucidation), an enlightenment that must be understood in a hermeneutical sense, which harmonizes well with the fact that he takes his phenomenological approach to the interpretation of history from Heidegger. Thus, the imaginary is a critical hermeneutical interpretation of the social, an interpretation (une élucidation) that takes place ultimately in the political as a project (un projet politique). According to Castoriadis, the political is the ultimate horizon of interpretation for the social and societal.

The important thing is that Castoriadis’ definition of the imaginary can be understood as something historically created, which is to be interpreted through critical hermeneutics. The political forms the general horizon of understanding for hermeneutics. Thus, the political becomes an approach to the interpretation of the social and, secondarily, forms the basis for the interpretation of political institutions in a larger interpretation of social life.

In French, there is a clear linguistic distinction between the political (le politique) and politics (la politique), which is a limited form of action within particular institutions and systems in society (Interview with Marcel Gauchet, Philosophie Magazine N°7). In modern Anglo-American political science, this distinction is, for the most part, lost or maintained as a distinction between political philosophy and empirical political science. The problem with this approach is that the political then loses its meaning as a social fact that is generally determinative for politics, and that political science then loses its relation to the determinative horizon of understanding within the political.

The central point is that Castoriadis’ understanding of the creation of the imaginary in the form of the political can be seen as a competing concept to Weber’s concept of the sacred. In this connection it should be emphasized that according to Castoriadis, it is only in the Antique democratic city-state and later on in the modern democratic state that politics is conceptualized and, therefore, it is in the Antique democratic city-state that the political historically first is constituted. This coincides with the fact that it is only the democratic city-state and later on modern democracies that have freedom as the central focal point. In Castoriadis’ perspective history has mostly been dominated by totalitarian states and societies.

  • Lefort – … from the speech of power to the power of speech

This is also the premise of Claude Lefort’s analysis that most societies in history are of a totalitarian character and that the democratic city-states in antiquity and the democratic states in modern times form an exception or a breach with the dominance of totalitarianism. Lefort develops his ideas in a critique of the totalitarian Eastern European societies and states, and he uses the French Revolution as an important historical example of the transition from a totalitarian society to a free society.

What is important in Lefort’s analysis of the French Revolution is that the prince as the incarnation of the totalitarian state is replaced through the revolution by “un lieu vide”, an empty place (Lefort 1986b: 27; Lefort 1988b: 17 f.). Whereas power in the totalitarian state is substantial as an incarnation in the prince, it can only be representative and symbolic in the democratic state, because this lieu vide cannot be occupied substantially. In this way, a new symbolic order is constituted in which democratic society is instituted as a society without a body (sans corps), in which the organic totality in the form of the prince is brought to an end (Lefort 1986b: 28; Lefort 1988b: 18). Democratic society thus becomes a society that, from a philosophical point of view, is in permanent incertitude, because it can never have any real substantial definition. Any definition can only stand as long as it is not made problematic.

This is especially clarified in Lefort’s analysis in the essay ‘Interpreting Revolution within the French Revolution’, that the empty place, le lieu vide, presents the fundamental change in the imaginary of society from the regime of the powers word to the spoken words power, or with Lefort’s word: “But whereas it was once the speech of power which ruled, it is now the power of speech” (Lefort 1986c: 134; Lefort 1988c: 110).

It is this idea that provides the foundation for the understanding that language is the ground of democracy, insofar as it is the essence of language that any statement can only acquire validity by being made problematic. We can say that Habermas develops the idea in Lefort’s political philosophy in a differentiated way including the whole problem of practice and institutions in a modern democratic society. It is Lefort’s paradoxical political-philosophical thesis on permanent incertitude as the cohesive binding in modern society that makes it clear that it is only the possibility of criticism that can lead to the constitution of a morally founded order in modern society. The moral order in modern society is paradoxical; it cannot have a substantial character relating to the sacred or something similar as the moral order has been understood throughout most of history, including our own time. This moral order can only exist in modern society through the possibility for criticism – thus, the moral order cannot ultimately be defined but must be kept open in the sense that it always is in the process of being defined.

It is this abstract definition that we see play out in modern democratic society. Governments are changed regularly, presidents only hold office for limited periods and laws are reformulated when necessary. From a substantive moral and political point of view, this must all seem irrational and reprehensible. But the rationality consists of the fact that le lieu vide has replaced the substantive and, therefore, it would be irrational and totalitarian from this point of view to refer to a positive substantive morality. Norms are constituted by raising questions as to their validity.

  • The union of ethics and politics

Here we find the mediation between Lefort and Habermas. The central point in Habermas’ work is similar to Lefort’s, namely that language is constituting society and in that sense is its fundamental institution. Society has to be understood through language. This is the way whereby Habermas gives the key to understanding the mediation between ethics and politics. Ethics and politics become the two sides of one and the same matter.

Communicative ethics is a Kantian form of language-ethics in which it is possible in positive terms to determine the criteria for action. But Habermas goes beyond Kant’s ethics in three ways. Firstly, in Kant’s ethics, there is an impassable distinction between, on the one hand, the intelligible world, in which the free will and duty in the categorical imperative is found; and, on the other hand, the phenomenal world, which is dominated by desire, subjective motives and institutions (Habermas 1991: 20 f). In communicative ethics, this distinction is mediated through the common use of language. Secondly, communicative ethics transgresses through the public discussion the inner Kantian monologue about the maxims for action. Thirdly, the Kantian problem of the reasonable justification of ethics is transformed into a problem of universal argumentation in dialogue with the other.

The central thing is that discourse ethics is consolidated in the immediate use of language, and that it is not possible to transcend this usage because language is the fundamental instance which is simultaneously used in an immediate sense.

This leads us to the discussion of politics, which according to Habermas is also based on the immediate linguistic practice in the public sphere. This understanding represents a discourse-theoretical transformation of the Kantian understanding of politics. There is in this understanding of politics a moral dimension insofar as the ethical maxims should provide the basis for the general law. However, whereas Kant’s morals are bound to individual reason, morals in discourse ethics are bound to public deliberation where maxims are determined, which should be the basis for common law. In this way the same problems in Kant’s understanding of politics find their solution as in his understanding of ethics. These are the contradiction between the idealistic and the phenomenological perspective, the transgression of the monologue and finally the problem of the justification of norms. Following this, politics can, according to Habermas, be determined as a public deliberation between the implicated parties about problems which concern them all, and as a determination of the maxims which should be the basis for determination of the common law. There is in this way an inner connection between ethics and politics that makes them into the two sides of one and the same matter. On the one hand, ethics cannot be sustained without politics because ethical deliberation must take place between people in the public sphere, and this is also the determination of politics. On the other hand, politics can only be sustained on the background of the discussion of the maxims that underlie the common law, and this is also the determination of ethics. The public sphere is the common meeting place for ethics and politics because both ethics and politics demand the possibility of public deliberation.

  • Bifurcation – negation – validity claims

The public sphere is constituted through the immediate and free public dialogue between people. It is the use of language that constitutes the public sphere, and there is no public sphere except through the use of language. However, the public sphere can be institutionalized. That means that a possibility can be secured for a public dialogue in advance. This is the precondition for politics and political institutions in modern society insofar as there could not be any politics without a public sphere. This is an abstract ideal type in the Weberian sense, which can be further developed in a philosophical, sociological, political-scientific and historical perspective.

The essential matter is to maintain the fundamental unity between ethics and politics, which in principle cannot be divided. This is the positive Kantian perspective. This is broken up in practice, when we take the Hegelian perspective. Modern society, according to Hegel, is bifurcated (Entzweiung), which has the consequence that moral unity cannot be sustained. However, this principle does not abolish the close connection between ethics and politics but it makes the connection more differentiated and complicated. The public sphere can no longer be sustained in the singular. In practice, it takes the form of a plurality of voices that cannot form a harmonious symphony and where it is not consensus but dissent that dominates. Therefore, the public sphere and critical discussion should be viewed as existing together in modern society.

Habermas himself is aware of this and speaks in several works about das Nein-sagen-Können, i.e. about the possibility to negate, the determinate negation, and try out the validity of a proposition (Habermas 1981, II, 113 ff.; Habermas 1989, II, 73 ff.; Habermas 1992: 394, 515; Habermas 1996: 324; 427). However, the principle of negation does not suspend the Hegelian bifurcation. The consequence is that it is not possible from a sociological and a political-scientific perspective to retain the thought of consensus as the fundamental condition for politics in modern society. However, this is not the essential point. The essential point is that politics has its centre in the dialogues taking place in the many public spheres and that it is possible from a philosophical perspective to test the validity of a statement. This represents a negative reading of Kant and Habermas, which aims at retaining the validity claims that are the fundamental crux of the matter in their political philosophies. This negative reading of Kant’s and Habermas’ political philosophies is not in principle suspended by the reality principle, such as it is represented in the traditions of sociology and political sciences. In these traditions, politics must be regarded by necessity as a positive concrete matter, which is subject to the reality principle insofar as praxis is bound to positive action. Nevertheless, the validity claims are not sustained by the reality principle. They constitute the instance that makes it possible to justify human action in the perspective of the reality principle.

In this way we reach an understanding of politics that contains both a reality principle, in the form of the linguistic praxis under the conditions that are given in modern society, and a philosophical principle, which concerns the questioning of the validity of this praxis. The concept of praxis must by necessity be a positive determination; the concept of validity must by necessity be a negative determination. Therefore, there must by necessity be a contradiction in politics between the positive and the negative determinations, which neither can nor should be dissolved. It is fatal only to regard politics under the perspective of the reality principle, and it is an illusion only to regard politics under the perspective of negation, without any relation to the reality principle. It is necessary all the time to take both perspectives into consideration when we deliberate about politics. We have to have both a Kantian and a Hegelian perspective on politics all the time. This is possible in Habermas’ political philosophy.

  • Civil society

Habermas’ political philosophy is fundamentally a Kantian political philosophy, insofar as his fundamental problem is to discuss the possibility to raise the validity claims for moral and political action, which he imagines can be done through free deliberation between the implicated parties. The great problem arises when the Hegelian perspective is introduced, where Habermas has to explain how such a deliberation can take place in modern society. It could be said that Habermas introduces a communicative transformation of the Hegelian perspective. Habermas points, like Hegel, at the decisive significance of civil society for moral order in modern society. In civil society the citizens can form associations in which they can discuss their common business. Hegel relates civil society to these associations, whereas Habermas has a much broader concept of civil society, which contains many different forms of associations, societies, unions, organizations, and so on. However, at the same time he also restricts the concept of civil society, insofar as he has a tendency to regard state and economic reproduction of society from a pure systemic perspective, as he describes in his theory of communicative action.

It is not appropriate to restrict the concept of civil society in this way, because a large part of the interaction in modern society, in which state and economics have a great influence, is excluded. This concept of civil society excludes the many institutions in a modern welfare society such as schools, health care, childcare, care of the elderly, and so on, which are organized by states and municipalities, and economic institutions that also have a central role in this connection. Therefore, I work with the broadest possible concept of civil society, which not only contains the institutions that are organized immediately by citizens, but also institutions that are mediated through the state and economy insofar as they are related to the immediate life of the citizens. This concept can be claimed when we, in accordance with Habermas, focus on the public sphere as the centre of civil society, in that it is more the form of communication than the function that is essential for the determination of the institutions in civil society.

Civil society is characterized by a plurality of communication in a plurality of public spheres which all relate to the immediate life of the citizens. This interaction includes not only social movements and associations of citizens, but also state-organized institutions and corporations, insofar as they all play their role in the citizens’ communication in the public sphere. Herewith is raised the old Hegelian problem of whether it could be possible to sum up this variety of communications in the many public spheres in a common morality.

Hegel tried to solve the problem by saying that it should be the state that mediates the contradictions in civil society. The state was therefore seen as being prior to civil society. However, this had the consequence that there could be a tendency in Hegel’s concept of the state to disregard the interaction between state and civil society, and to focus instead on the sovereignty of the state in relation to civil society. This is the reason why Hegel’s concept of the state has often been regarded as a totalitarian concept. However, Hegel is right in saying that the state is prior to civil society in the sense that there could not be a civil society without a state. The problem is whether it could be possible to create mediation between civil society and state.

According to Habermas, it is through the political institutions of democratic society that the many discussions in the public spheres of civil society can be mediated to political decisions. Habermas speaks in his chief work concerning legal philosophy, Between Facts and Norms, about ‘sluices’ through which the deliberations in civil society can be mediated and transformed to decisions in the political institutions (Habermas 1992: 431 ff; Habermas 1996: 356). However, Habermas is not able to give a conclusive solution to the Hegelian problem of meditation between civil society and the state. On the one hand, the deliberations in civil society should only seek to influence the political institutions. In that sense, Habermas’ understanding of civil society relates very much to Hegel’s. But there is no necessity in this influence. On the other hand, the political institutions can only be representative through procedures which are acceptable to all parties in society (Habermas 1992: 449 ff.; Habermas 1996: 371 ff.). Finally, it seems that we are confronted with the same bifurcation as was thematized by Hegel. Therefore, it is not possible to say that there should be any necessary positive mediation of moral discourses that can constitute a real substantial social morality in civil society.

  • Testing deliberation as the form of morality in modern society

The question now is what the consequence of this could be. This is the central problem in the discussion of social morality and the solution, as mentioned, cannot be a positive substantial social morality. We here come back to the problem of how we should interpret Kant’s ethics. One way is to interpret it in positive terms as an attempt to constitute positive norms. However, it seems as if this way is not passable. The other possibility is to read Kant’s ethics in negative terms as a critical ethics, where the crux of the matter is the possibility to test the normative validity of the maxims of an action. This is in my opinion the right way to read Kant, and it is the same way that we should consider Habermas’ communicative ethics. This should also be read critically as the possibility to test the validity of the normative maxims for an action. The consequence is that it is decisive that the institutions of civil society and the political institutions take such a form that it is possible in praxis to have a testing deliberation about the normative maxims for an action. In this connection it becomes decisive that there are public spheres in each institution where such critical deliberations can be raised. It is not possible to constitute a positive substantial moral in society. But it should be possible under the aforementioned conditions to test critically the validity of the normative maxims, if there is sufficient freedom in the public spheres of the institutions to raise the validity claims in relation to dominant discourses and preconceived opinions. For this reason ethics in society can only be secured indirectly by the constitution of the conditions which are necessary for the critical test of the validity claims.

On the immediate level, we can here refer to Kant, who ascribes the individual with the capability to ask the reasons for the validity which lie at the root of the determination of social norms. We have to start here, because this is the precondition for posing the question of validity. On the next level there is the possibility that more people can question the validity of the maxims, which form the basis for common action. However, here we are still at a level that does not necessarily have any influence on the public discussions in society. The problem is whether these deliberations can become public and take their place in the political institutions in democratic society.

It is evident that the form that politics and political institutions take should be understood positively at first. The social must always be understood in a positive way. But the characteristic of the political institutions and the political system is that they cannot only be understood in a positive way, because they have to be legitimized. The question of legitimization always concerns the validity of the political action in the institutions. Here, we come back to the problem of a critical reading of Kant. According to Kant, political institutions are legitimate insofar as there is a fair chance to participate. This does not necessarily mean that political interaction in the institutions takes an ethical form. According to Kant, we have to make a distinction between ethics and politics (Kant 1966: RL § 43 – §49, p. 311 – 318). Therefore it is not possible to claim that there should be a necessary positive connection between ethics and politics. The consequence is that ethics cannot be directly secured in a positive way in the political institutions. This does not mean that it should not be possible to sustain ethics in the political institutions; but there is not necessarily an internal positive connection between ethics and politics. The connection between ethics and politics can only be created indirectly through the possibility of questioning political action from an ethical point of view. However, this demands that there is a real possibility of raising such a question. According to Kant, this should be possible, and Habermas is of the same opinion. However, we have to take into regard that this is a political and philosophical claim that cannot necessarily be argued from the perspective of political science and sociology. In reality, politics takes its own institutional forms, where it is not deliberation but power which is in the centre. This is the general opinion in political science and sociology. The discussion is whether legal order can be understood by itself or whether it necessarily implies a form of legitimization. As long as we regard the political institutions from a positive perspective, they can be regarded as a part of the legal order, which can be seen as a self-sustaining institutional arrangement without need of further legitimization. This is Hegel’s and Weber’s perspective. But when conflicts arise, this perspective becomes insufficient. It becomes necessary to question the legitimacy and thereby the validity of the political order. This is Kant’s and Habermas’ perspective. Such a questioning does not only concern the political order but also the ethical validity of political action.

  • The open society and the totalitarian temptation

Herewith we return to the problem of whether a critical ethics can be institutionalized. So far as I can see, this is not possible insofar as this would mean the same as that critical ethics could be regarded as a pre-given substantial ethics, which could be determined in positive terms. However, this does not have the consequence that the critical ethical investigation is excluded from the political institutions. On the contrary, it is part of the understanding of the political institutions in a democratic society that they should be a constituent part of the public sphere. This gives the possibility to formalize the rights to question the political institutions, and this is the case in a modern democratic constitutional state. However, we again have to take into regard that such rights are formal rights and therefore do not necessarily say anything about how they function in practice. In this connection Kant would say that it is not possible to go further from a philosophical point of view. In Habermas’ perspective, things are different because he takes Hegel’s perspective, in which the political culture is essential for the understanding of the political institutions in society.

The conclusion is that there should be a close relationship between ethics and politics in modern society. However, this connection can only be secured indirectly through the formalization of civil rights to take part in political deliberation and through the cultivation of these rights in the public spheres of society. Therefore, a philosophical discussion of the relation between ethics and politics is insufficient; at the same time we have to introduce the empirical perspective of political sciences and sociology. It is not enough to have the correct Kantian idea; we must conclude with Hegel that ideas have to be well-founded in social and institutional practice in society. Habermas has created this mediation between Kant’s and Hegel’s perspectives, which should be interpreted critically.

Here we meet the difficult problem which can contribute to explain why religion anew has become a central topic in the discussion of moral norms in modern society. In modern society, it is not possible to present the positive mediation of norms that could give a justification of positive substantial norms. Therefore one could say that there is a fundamental normative insecurity in modern society, or along Claude Lefort’s understanding, an insecure ground of an empty normative space, that can be upheld only as empty so long a time as there is in praxis a living that does not end discussion about norms and their justification, and concerns all forms of normative problems in democratic society. In praxis, it can be difficult to fulfil such a living discussion in a modern democratic society and therefore there can always be a temptation to revitalize substantial norms grounded in tradition and religion. From a modern perspective, this represents what Lefort would describe as an attempt to reinstall a totalitarian formation of society, which falls behind the French Revolution.


Castoriadis, Cornelius (1975), L’institution imaginaire de la société, Édition du Seul, Paris.

Castoriadis, Cornelius (1987), The Imaginary Institution of Society, Polity Press, Cambridge.

Durkheim, Émile (1995), The elementary forms of religious life, The Free Press, New York.

Durkeim, Émile (1960), Les formes élémentaires de la vie religieuse, Presses Universitaire de France, Paris.

Habermas, Jürgen (1981), Theorie des kommunikativen Handelns, Volume I-II, Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt am Main.

Gauchet, Marcel, Interview: ‘Le politique permet à la société de tenir ensemble’, Propos recueillis par Martin Legros et Nicolas Truong, in: Philosophie Magazine N°7, philomag.com.

Habermas, Jürgen (1984), The Theory of Communicative Action, Volume I, Heinemann, London.

Habermas, Jürgen (1989), The Theory of Communicative Action, Volume II, Polity Press, Cambridge.

Habermas, Jürgen (1992), Faktizität und Geltung – Beiträge zur Diskurstheorie des Rechts und des demokratischen Rechtsstaats, Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt am Main.

Habermas, Jürgen (1996), Between Facts and Norms – Contribution to a Discourse Theory of Law and Democracy, Polity Press, Cambridge.

Lefort, Claude (1986a), Essais sur le politique (XIXe-XXe siècle), Éditions du Seuil, Paris.

Lefort, Claude (1986b), ‘La question de la démocratie,’ in: Claude Lefort (1986a), Essais sur le politique (XIXe-XXe siècle), Éditions du Seuil, Paris.

Lefort, Claude (1986c), ‘Penser la révolution dans la Révolution française’,” in: Claude Lefort (1986a), Essais sur le politique (XIXe-XXe siècle), Éditions du Seuil, Paris.

Lefort, Claude (1988a), Democracy and Political Theory, Polity Press, Cambridge.

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Weber, Max (1988a), Die Wirtschaftethik der Weltreligionen, in: Weber, Max (1988), Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Religionssoziologie I, 1. Auflage 1920, 9. Auflage, J.C.B. Mohr (Paul Siebeck), Tübingen.

Weber, Max (1988b), Die protestantische Ethik und der Geist des Kapitalismus, in: Weber, Max (1988), Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Religionssoziologie I – III, 1. Auflage 1920, 9. Auflage, J.C.B. Mohr (Paul Siebeck), Tübingen.

Weber, Max (1995), The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Routledge, London.

Enhancing Social Responsibility within Global Supply Chains: Is Legal Regulation the Optimal Solution?


The global development described above has led to a situation where companies that are rooted in the social values and ethics of western society, often do not require the same social standards to be followed at the remote end of their operations, namely in the developing world. While pursuing the main goal of business – high profit – they do not respect the values they are based upon domestically.

This situation has become unsustainable. Consumers as well as governments and non-governmental organizations have started to criticize this behavior as they have learnt about it from media. The public has clearly expressed its concerns about breaching the accepted social rules, although in a distant country, where social ethics may be however substantially different. This has created a new pressure on the business community. Suddenly, companies were expected to ensure respect for their social values also within the international supply chain in order to satisfy consumers’ and the society’s expectations. In other words they were asked, even though they had no formal legal responsibility to do so[1], to act as international regulators and in this function replace states that have no available legal means to internationally enforce social and environmental concerns.

First, this paper examines the voluntary (ethical) v. mandatory (legal) basis of corporate social responsibility (CSR). Second, it examines the relationship between CSR, law and business ethics. Third, it tries to answer the question if there is a need for a hard[2] legal regulation of CSR within international supply relationships or if ethical norms, e.g. expressed in the form of self-regulation, may better serve the purpose. And finally, it suggests possible ways for the future development of suitable regulatory methods for enhancing social standards within international supply chains. The questions are approached solely from the perspectives of legal theory and socio-legal analysis.

Voluntary v. mandatory character of CSR

The corporate social responsibility is usually characterized as a set of voluntary measures of companies under which they accept the effects that their behavior has on the environment and society. This approach, however, has been stated to be inaccurate and even deceptive[3]. The discussion whether CSR is of voluntary or mandatory character has divided both the public and the academia[4]. Advocates of voluntary based CSR claim that a descriptive regulation would hinder the wide stakeholder dialogue as a base for this concept and would erase innovation forced by the competition within this area. On the other hand, mandatory based CSR is supported by those claiming that competition and business driven CSR is not sufficient and does not ensure an adequate protection to the relevant social values[5]. They are concerned that the voluntary approach would allow the business community to dictate CSR standards instead of responding to stakeholders’ needs. In order to take a position in the discussion over the binding power of CSR, it is necessary to delimitate what the term covers.

It is often suggested, that CSR includes only behavior beyond the law. If this is the truth then the voluntary v. mandatory discussion is pointless, since every activity would be either a mandatory legal obligation (law) or a voluntary action (CSR). Hence the question would not be whether CSR is voluntary or mandatory, but rather what issues are so crucial that they should be excluded from the CSR concept and regulated by law[6]. This position would make it even more difficult to speak about CSR on the international level, since the scope of CSR would differ in each jurisdiction.

The approach that CSR covers only non-legal activities is certainly not a general standpoint. The summary of the EU Green paper on corporate social responsibility, for example, states: “Being socially responsible means not only fulfilling the applicable legal obligations, but also going beyond compliance …[7]. Another example may be found in companies’ codes of conduct where legal compliance is usually in the first place among the CSR requirements. Based on these and other similar examples, it may be argued that the CSR concept includes not only behavior beyond the law but also the relevant legal obligations, primarily within the area of labor and environmental law. In such case, the CSR activities are of a mixed character, partly voluntary and partly mandatory. This drives me to the conclusion that law and CSR are interconnected[8] and cannot be separated; in other words, the law influences voluntary CSR initiatives and vice versa[9]. CSR is founded in both legal (mandatory) and ethical (voluntary) rules.

But this is not the only argument to claim that the discussion over the voluntary v. mandatory character of CSR is unnecessary and incorrect. The discussion further overlooks the fact that except for direct legal liability, the obligation to socially responsible behavior is often derived from indirect legal obligations and economic and social drivers which lead companies to act against their primary short-term objective, i.e. striving for the highest possible profit[10]. An example of an indirect legal regulation is an obligation of selected type of companies to report on their CSR activities in certain jurisdictions[11] and the threat of listing their name in a list of poor performers[12]. The economic drivers include for example conditioned export credit guarantees[13] by compliance with social and/or environmental standards[14], the development of the socially responsible investment strategy, or the increasing number of institutional investors claiming CSR in target companies. The social drivers are primarily represented by the pressure of consumers, NGOs, media and national governments, who themselves, unable and/or unwilling to interfere, use their power to at least influence corporate behavior.

Given the partly legally based and partly economically and socially driven nature of CSR, companies are in fact forced to adopt environmentally and socially oriented procedures into their operation. Thus, it seems rather illusory to speak about CSR as a merely voluntary concept.


Relation between CSR, law[15] and ethics

As it was argued above, law is an inherent part of CSR. CSR and its regulation emerge from ethical norms of society[16] and a common understanding of morality[17]. As the theory of integrative social contract[18] asserts, consent without coercion is the determining factor to claim that a norm or a value is universal. But is it possible to delimitate the content of a common morality in the contemporary international society? Globalization, on the one hand, enables frequent and intensive international business interaction. On the other hand, the new pluralistic society faces uncertainty regarding the consensus over the fundamental business related ethical norms[19]. The cultural and geographical variety of the globalized society makes it difficult, if not impossible, to agree on the common underlying moral values. The conflicting and constantly changing social values in pluralistic society thus hinder development of an operational definition of the CSR concept[20]. The ethical ambiguity may be overruled by means of positive law[21]. But here a question arises, i.e. if using law to delimit ethics is the right way to go. And is it possible to develop a universally applicable and observed legal regulation of CSR without agreement on the underlying values?

To summarize this part, CSR, law and ethics are tightly interrelated. Even though ethical and legal norms are not the same, these two normative systems are inseparable in the CSR area. Ethics serve as a source of law, especially in “soft” fields as CSR, and as a ground for its legality and normative force[22]. There is no clear distinction between law and ethics within the CSR concept and its regulation. The ethical foundation is called upon constantly and referred to by all kinds of legal regulations. The legal regulation has mostly form of a soft law instrument; there is almost no hard regulation of sustainability concerns within supply chains[23]. The state is not relied upon in case of breach, sanctions are based in the ethical values of society and take usually form of a public damnation. From these facts it can be concluded that CSR regulation behaves as an informal law[24]. But does this situation, which is mixing ethical and legal norms, ensure efficient safeguarding of social concerns?


Effectiveness of legal and ethical normative systems in regulating CSR among supply chains

Although CSR is to a certain extent governed by law and, as argued before, is further enforced by non-legal measures of governments, society and investors, some claim that it is not sufficient. Several NGOs have called for stricter legal regulation and enforcement of CSR activities within international supply chains. But more regulation can be justified only if it actually brings wider observance and protection of social standards.

There are several arguments for leaving the area of CSR to be governed solely by business ethics. The already mentioned promotion of innovation and competition is one of them. However, as practice shows, ethics have failed to ensure that businesses will live up to their moral undertakings, especially in host states[25]. The reason may be sought in the vagueness of ethical rules[26] without possibility to gain an authoritative interpretation and without institutionalized ways of their enforcement. Even though legal rules may be formulated imprecisely, there is always higher certainty regarding their content and possibility to eventually ask a court or another competent body to give an authoritative interpretation. Given the failure of ethical rules, the morality argument underlying the CSR concept that the benefits of globalization are not fairly distributed among society, in other words that the western society benefits to the prejudice of the developing countries[27], now becomes a ground for legal regulation of the responsibility of businesses for the cross-border effects of their environmental and social performance. Further, the vagueness of ethical rules may cause companies to be reluctant in going beyond legal requirements[28], because they may fear the litigious risks of their CSR statements[29].

Another argument for enacting CSR obligations is the claim that positive law has transformed into the ethical standard of the contemporary society[30]. It is difficult to support this view in general, but easier to agree that this claim may be valid in relation to the business community. It is the nature of business existence to strive for profit in the framework given by the legal order. Any action going beyond legal requirements is usually costly and as such must be justified to the shareholders of a company. In case that such an action does not bring profit, e.g. as a good name or competitive advantage, it is not natural for a business to perform it. The positive law thus serves as the ethical ceiling of business operations. In such a situation, institutionalization of the obligation by law supplements the motivational force of the underlying moral norm[31] and serves as an explanation to the shareholders.

The third argument states that the legal form of obligation supports acceptance of its underlying value. Although this may be true, it does not ensure wider observance of the rule. On the opposite, as it was noted by some academics[32], highly regulated areas often experience high levels of infringement[33]. In this relation the threat of creative compliance in connection with CSR regulation should be mentioned[34]. Companies search ways of circumventing the objective of a certain law, without technically breaching it. It is thus important to foster compliance in line with the spirit of the laws instead of the mere letter of law.

The failure of ethical norms in effective regulation of CSR, the positive law being the ceiling of business ethics rather than the floor, and the wider acceptance of moral value when enacted may, even though with the mentioned reservations, speak for legal regulation of the corporate responsibility.

To the contrary, the danger of over-regulation supports the thought of minimal governmental regulatory intervention expressed in libertarian legal theory[35]. The tendency to regulate all aspects of companies’ behavior goes hand in hand with the transformation of positive law into the “ethical ceiling” of business[36]. The endeavor to govern all business activities by specific rules raises the possibility of creative compliance. Possibility of circumvention may be decreased by enacting principle-based regulation[37]. But rules based on principles do not constitute an optimal solution either, especially when being criticized for legal uncertainty and for offering too broad a space for interpretation.

A shift in the attention from the underlying moral objective to the process of how to achieve it may be another argument against broad legislation within CSR[38]. An example can be found in reporting obligations. Companies seem to concentrate more on the procedure of reporting than on the subject of it.

On the one hand, the practice has shown that a merely ethical normative system is not able to secure business compliance with social and ethical standards, especially in foreign countries. On the other hand, broad legal regulation does not seem to solve the situation either. Therefore, there is a need to develop new regulatory forms and their combinations that will establish a balance between the ethical and the legal foundation of CSR.


Outline for future use and development of suitable regulation

Experiencing the failure of ethical rules proved that a legal regulation is to a certain level necessary. But threats connected with overregulation and preclusion of innovation by strict limits given to the business behavior lead to a development of new regulatory techniques in the area of CSR. Regulation is understood in a broader sense than as a prescriptive hard law. The following definition used by Zerk seems appropriate: “regulation…encompasses any form of social control or influence, regardless of its source…”[39]. Regulatory techniques vary from hard legal regulation of “command and control” nature on one side of the spectrum, through soft-law and economic and legislative incentives, such as guidelines of international organizations, model regulations or tax reliefs, in the middle, to diverse means of self-regulation, in the form of codes of conduct and contract regulation, on the other side of the spectrum. Further, under the broad understanding of regulation the notion of law has undergone a substantial shift. It is difficult to classify regulatory types that are mutually overlapping without having distinctive borders. A soft-law may have effects of a hard-law if enforced by a court or if compliance is demanded by a state-made legal regulation[40]. Also, state-made legal regulation can become looser and principle-based, so its hard legal effects are limited. Thus the borders of law are unclear and subject to continuous change. Although all regulatory forms are having partly useful effects in international matters, the problem resides in uncertainty about their mutual relation, lack of international obligatory force, and thus difficulties with their cross-border enforcement.

Academic literature has touched upon this issue and offered some solutions. The often suggested model is a wider use of so-called meta-regulation. The objective of meta-regulation in the CSR area is forming corporate conscience; to motivate companies to do what they ought to do under ethical rules[41]. Meta-regulation is therefore not a direct regulatory means; it rather motivates than prescribes responsible corporate behavior. The motivation usually takes the form of a financial or market-based incentive. The US Foreign Corrupt Practice Act may serve as an example; assuring lower fines when a corruption practice is found in a company that has a code of conduct and anti-corruption procedures in place. But also this approach is criticized for possible misunderstanding between regulators and regulated persons about the objective of such a norm, and for its concentration on procedures rather than the substance of social concerns.

However, we may find positives and negatives in each regulatory form. What seems more important now is the ability of a norm to actually influence corporate behavior. The observance ratio is usually higher, if the regulated subjects’ values identify with the underlying moral imperative of the norm. The identification is then higher if the regulated subjects take part in the norm’s creation. This leads us to the possible application of the theory of discourse ethics as developed by Jürgen Habermas to the rule-making process[42]. The drawbacks of the application of discourse ethics in the area of CSR lie in the power imbalance between the stakeholders and the lack of procedural rules for conducting a discourse among them[43].

Given that there is currently no global understanding of substantive content of the CSR concept, there is a plurality in regulatory techniques on global, local as well as corporate levels, and given that externally imposed obligations do not support wider adoption of the social responsible behavior among businesses, a solution may be sought in developing hard law procedural norms on conducting discourse among stakeholders which would allow adopting specified legal or extra-legal norms on global (e.g. global private initiatives), local (e.g. national laws) and corporate level (e.g. codes of conduct or business contracts). This idea needs to be examined and tested by future research.



From the previous discussion it is obvious that the question is not whether the regulation of CSR so far is binding or not, but rather what type of regulation can best influence the actual behavior of companies within their supply chains.

Neither ethical rules nor hard legal rules seem to be satisfactory when being the only regulatory force. Thus, new types of regulation and their combination must be discovered and tested.

A solution to the problem of low compliance and problems with enforcement of CSR rules in cross-border relationships may be found by developing regulation while using the process described in the theory of discourse ethics. However, given frequent power imbalances, strict procedural rules would be needed to ensure contemplated effects. Further, the differences in perception of social ethics based on a geographic location make it necessary to conduct discourse separately on the global, local and corporate levels, in order to ensure that the differences will be reflected in the final substantive rules.

[1] Buhmann, Corporate Governance: The International Journal of Effective Board Performance 2006, p. 190.

[2] For the purpose of this paper, the definition of hard law introduced by Abbott and Snidal is adopted. Under this definition “hard” law “refers to legally binding obligations that are precise (or can be made precise through adjudication or the issuance of detailed regulations) and that delegate authority for interpreting and implementing the law.”Abbott og Snidal, International Organization 2000, p. 421.. For further discussion on definition of hard and soft law and their relation see Shaffer og Pollack, Minnesota Law Review 2010, p. 706-799..

[3]McBarnet, Doreen, “Corporate Social Responsibility Beyond Law, Through Law, for Law” in McBarnet; Voiculescu ogCampbell, The new corporate accountability: Corporate social responsibility and the law, p. 585., Ward, Legal Issues in Corporate Citizenship, , Sobczak, Business Ethics Quarterly 2006, p. 168.

[4] Zerk, Multinationals and corporate social responsibility: limitations and opportunities in international law, p. 32 et seq.

[5] The advocates of mandatory approach to CSR are led by NGOs and other human rights and environmental groups and trade unions. For example in UK these subjects have joined in the Corporate Responsibility (CORE) Coalition, fighting for changes in law and judicial practice to enhance higher responsibility of UK business for their activities abroad. For further information about CORE see http://corporate-responsibility.org/. Some of their proposals on changes in law may be found in Watson, 18 June 2007,. The governmental interference into regulation of CSR within supply chains was supported also by UN Special Representative for Business and Human Rights, John Ruggie, see Ruggie,.

[6] Monaghan, Accountability Quarterly 2003, p. 1.

[7] Green Paper – Promoting a European framework for Corporate Social Responsibility, COM(2001) 366 – Summary, available at http://europa.eu/legislation_summaries/employment_and_social_policy/employment_rights_and_work_organisation/n26039_en.htm; highlighting added

[8] Zerk, Multinationals and corporate social responsibility: limitations and opportunities in international law, p. 35.

[9] Ward, Legal Issues in Corporate Citizenship, p. 5.

[10] McBarnet, Doreen, “Corporate Social Responsibility Beyond Law, Through Law, for Law”, p. 4, in McBarnet; Voiculescu ogCampbell, The new corporate accountability: Corporate social responsibility and the law, p. 585.; It must be stated that acting in socially responsible way leads arguably to long-term and more sustainable profits.

[11] E.g. France and Denmark.

[12] E.G. UK Environmental Agency.

[13] Financial guarantee provided by a government or a financial institution enabling companies to export goods and services in situations where payment for them may be delayed or subject to risk.

[14] Applicable e.g. in the Netherlands and Sweden.

[15] Wherever the term “law” or “legal” is used in this section, it refers to hard law or hard legal regulation. When other types of legal regulation are used, the terms are specified: “soft law”, “self-regulation” etc.

[16] Ruud og Ruud, Proceedings of the Business, Society & Government Consortium of the Midwest Business Administration Association 2010, p. 52.

[17] Frederiksen, J, Bus, Ethics 2010, p. 369.

[18] Integrative Social Contracts Theory is a theory of business ethics developed by Thomas Donaldson and Thomas Dunfee. It is based on the theory of social contract of political philosophers including Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Rawls. The Integrative Social Contracts Theory provides a framework under which business decisions are made with respect to their effects on the relevant communities and taking into account the ethical norms and universal moral standards.

[19] Gilbert og Rasche, Business Ethics Quarterly 2007, p. 190.Human Rights Council, Clarifying the Concepts of “Sphere of influence” and “Complicity”.

[20] Ruud og Ruud, Proceedings of the Business, Society & Government Consortium of the Midwest Business Administration Association 2010, p. 52.

[21] Fisher, J, Bus, Ethics 2000, p. 115.

[22] McCarty, J, Bus, Ethics 1988, p. 886.

[23] California Transparency in Supply Chains Act coming into effect on January 1, 2012 is one of the few. http://info.sen.ca.gov/pub/09-10/bill/sen/sb_0651-0700/sb_657_bill_20100930_chaptered.html

[24] Buhmann, Corporate Governance: The International Journal of Effective Board Performance 2006, p. 190.. ”Informal law is a set of normative ideas and patterns of behavior and action that are not based on sharp distinction between law and morals, or between law and fact. It is not formulated by a central, state or national authority. …Its sanctions are of a moral or practical character.”

[25] Constantly growing number of companies named in relation to insufficient protection of their employees and environment is a proof of that. For some examples see e.g. http://www.laborrights.org/creating-a-sweatfree-world/sweatshops/resources/12211.

[26] Michael, Corporate Social Responsibility Initiative Working Parer No. 19. Cambridge MA: John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. 2006, p. 24.

[27] Zerk, Multinationals and corporate social responsibility: limitations and opportunities in international law, p. 46, 47.

[28] Monaghan, Accountability Quarterly 2003, p. 8.

[29] Example of litigation based on CSR statements is US case Nike v. Kasky.

[30] Fisher, J, Bus, Ethics 2000, p. 115-127.. Di Lorenzo, J, Bus, Ethics 2007, p. 275-299..

[31] Apel, American Journal of Economics & Sociology 2007, p. 54.

[32] Stuntz, Harvard Law Review 2003, p. 1701-1747.. “One might suppose that where law is largely absent, behavior is pretty bad. Yet it turns out to be nearly the other way around. The two areas where law is arguably the largest presence in ordinary life – driving cars and paying taxes – are probably the two areas where there is the largest amount of self-conscious cheating.”

[33] This concern shall be related and considered in the area of CSR reporting.

[34] McBarnet, After Enron, Corporate Governance, Creative compliance and the uses of Corporate Social Responsibility, 2005.

[35] Represented e.g. by Friedrich Hayek.

[36] Fisher, Bus, Horiz, 1990, p. 30.

[37]McBarnet, Doreen, “Corporate Social Responsibility Beyond Law, Through Law, for Law” in McBarnet; Voiculescu ogCampbell, The new corporate accountability: Corporate social responsibility and the law, p. 585.

[38] Michael, Corporate Social Responsibility Initiative Working Parer No. 19. Cambridge MA: John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. 2006, p. 12.

[39] Zerk, Multinationals and corporate social responsibility: limitations and opportunities in international law, p. 42.

[40] An example may be found in the section 1 of the Danish Marketing Practices Act. “Section 1. Traders subject to this Act shall exercise good marketing practice with reference to consumers, other traders and public interests.” If non-complying, companies risk the possibility to be fined.

[41] Parker, Christine, “Meta-Regulation: Legal Accountability for Corporate Social Responsibility?”, in McBarnet; Voiculescu ogCampbell, The new corporate accountability: Corporate social responsibility and the law, p. 585..

[42] Gilbert og Rasche, Business Ethics Quarterly 2007, p. 187-216.; Apel, American Journal of Economics & Sociology 2007, p. 49-70.; Unerman og Bennett, Accounting, Organizations & Society 2004, p. 685-707.

[43] Gilbert og Rasche, Business Ethics Quarterly 2007, p. 202.

Francesco Giacomantonio, Introduzione al pensiero politico di Habermas. Il dialogo della ragione dilagante (Milano-Udine: Mimesis, 2010)

Our age of crisis has taken many more forms than just the widespread rejection of Enlightenment ideals. Possibly, its most visible contemporary manifestations are: (a) the devastation of the planet’s “ecological equilibrium” (25); (b) the consistent anthropological impoverishment and individualistic atomisation of human societies (e.g. “social conflicts” read as individual “psychic problems” [26]; “anomie” [31]; “confusion between… [individual] success and… [collective] understanding” [32]); and (c) the undiminished international instability (e.g. religion’s “self-destructive forms” [63]; “Western military interventions in various areas of the planet” [77] ).

Patiently and laboriously, Habermas has addressed in his complex oeuvre all of the aforementioned forms of crisis of our age. It is Giacomantonio’s task to survey Habermas’ accounts in this slender book (99 pages).

Specifically, Giacomantonio praises the erudite, articulate and abstract “theoretical wealth” of leading German sociologist and philosopher Jürgen Habermas (b. 1929) as a rare exception to current scholarly and scientific trends (78). Avoiding academic partisanships and specialist parochialisms, Habermas is said to have scrutinised and engaged with an “ample spectrum of stances” in the attempt to provide a reasoned, synthetic as well as analytical understanding of the enduring age of crisis (77). Swimming against the current, Habermas believes the Enlightenment project—modernity itself—to have to be brought to completion, not discarded.

Habermas’ first major intellectual accomplishments are claimed to be his 1960s and 1970s studies in the economic and administrative structures of late-modern Western industrial societies. Then, Habermas focused primarily upon the legitimisation of such structures via political procedures of mass participation, as well as upon the growing class fluidity, which Giacomantonio describes as the “dissolution” and “fragmentation” of traditional class consciousness and discourses (25).

According to Habermas, the post-war decades had seen capitalist societies benefiting from large-scale entrepreneurial pursuits, under the cooperative scrutiny and sophisticated direction of the State, which allowed these pursuits to serve vastly accepted inclusive social aims (e.g. “urban and regional planning”, “research and development”, “unemployment benefits”, “public welfare”; 25). These aims facilitated the legitimisation of the pursuits themselves, as well as the State’s own authority. Then, this virtuous circularity ended. For Habermas, the 1970s mark the beginning of the age of crisis.

The 1970s “late” or “mature” capitalism (23) continued to display massive State intervention in the economy. Yet, an increasing outgrowth of private interests started to escape from State control, leading to “systemic” failures (24) and to a generalised loss of faith in the State. This reduction of legitimacy was indicated by declining political participation, which was due too to the opacity of class consciousness in now tertiary-dominated economies. A variety of rescue plans were implemented by national governments, often via ever-increasing State intervention and techno-scientific legitimisation thereof. Regularly, these plans proved of little success, at least as the previous inclusive social aims were concerned.

Rather, the recurring reliance upon science and technology as grounds for political action induced considerable “de-politicisation” (28) of collective life and institutional decision-making. Within this novel frame of reference, whereby political issues were turned into “technical problems”(28), the public opinion was morphed into a passive spectator or sheer recipient of the diktats of a self-enclosed—and often self-serving—“expert” bureaucracy. In any case, the vastly accepted inclusive social aims of the post-war decades started to wane, becoming a more and more remote memory of better, foregone times.

It is Habermas’ opinion that the highly educated “expert” bureaucrats of recent decades have failed consistently to perceive the unavoidable connection between factual scientific investigation and value-driven technical application. To counter this phenomenon, Habermas has recommended the establishment of a more open critical exchange amongst experts and between experts and the public at large. In this perspective, communication should serve as an antidote to the former’s intellectual insularity and to the latter’s political disaffection.

Concerned with the de-politicisation of socio-political phenomena and populations of democratic countries, Habermas began to explore the socio-political relevance of “communication and linguistic dimensions” that were to become the hallmark of his later intellectual production (31). Indeed, the 1980s witnessed a vast output of studies by Habermas on the deeper structures of anthropological impoverishment and atomisation in modern nations. In them, Habermas came to conceive of “society” as comprising: (a) the “system” of professional, formal networks of “strategic behaviour”; and (b) the personal, informal “life-world” of existentially meaningful behaviour (“Lebenswelt”; 31). On the one hand, human activity was being described by Habermas as the “success” or “influence” of the competitive individual; whilst on the other stood the truly life-defining, cooperative linguistic (“communicative”) praxes seeking mutual “understanding” and engendering shared “identities” (32).

Initiating the age of crisis, the former dimension had been invading the latter by using communication instrumentally, i.e. the shared linguistic means for genuine self-expression and social cohesion were turned into sheer means of self-maximisation. To respond to this invasion, Habermas has recommended the overcoming of national barriers and the creation of a “cosmopolitan… deliberative democracy” centred upon ethical and normative issues and aims (35). Roughly speaking, more conversation about justice, the common good and the like–as already anticipated in his reflections on science and technology of the 1970s–would mean more democracy; more democracy would mean more legitimacy; more legitimacy more effective laws; and more effective laws more social and socially acceptable results. All of this, however, should be taking place on a global scale.

Habermas’ reflections on democracy became even more relevant in the 1990s. Then, in the face of an even faster-paced post-Cold-War economic and cultural globalisation, it was the very cradle of modern democracy that was to experience its deepest crisis, i.e. the nation State as such. Apart from intensifying the problems that Habermas had already tackled in the 1970s and 1980s, fin-de-siècle globalisation further deprived States of the crucial means of control over the “economic dimension” (40). In particular, free capital trade robbed the State of those vital “fiscal” resources that were needed for its administrative functions (44). Weaker States became even less credible to the populations, whose interests they were still expected to serve. The legitimacy of their power and even their own raison d’être became shakier. In the process, the vastly accepted inclusive social aims of the post-war decadeswere even openly rejected by leading parties and statesmen, who engaged actively in the persistent reduction of the public sphere. Deprived of the State’s support, larger and larger sectors of the population found themselves poorer, marginalised, and more vulnerable.

In the final decade of the 20th century, Habermas stressed further his commitment to a “cosmopolitan” solution of the ongoing crisis (43). In his view, a global economy needs a global deliberative democracy. This is not the same thing as to say that the world needs a world State. Rather, the world needs actual world politics and actual world policies. International organisations are already in place (e.g. the “United Nations”, the “World Trade Organisation”, the “International Monetary Fund” [46]). What is missing is the democratic appropriation of those institutions as positive means for global governance.

Interestingly, the “European Union” has been described by Habermas as an example of existing trans-national coordination and a possible force for progress, which he understands as the generation of a new political community reflecting truly democratic values and substantial ethico-political aims, such as solidarity and social inclusion (45). As an opposite model of global governance, Habermas has often highlighted the “hegemonic unilateralism” of the United States of America, which has accompanied throughout an economic globalisation capable of producing a “more unjust… more insecure” world and a threat to our “survival” as a species (48).

In particular, Habermas has stressed of late the centrality of the rule of law for the proper functioning of any complex social arrangement. As opposed to the brutal force exemplified by military intervention, a binding legal framework springing from democratic deliberation would constitute in his view a powerful means to a noble, desirable end: “to include the other without assimilating him” (50).

As further explained and substantiated in Habermas’ works of the 2000s, democracy should be thought of as much more than just a set of public institutions and formal procedures, for it is also an array of informal social praxes and individual forms of conduct. Within his deliberative and cosmopolitan model of democratic rule, Habermas has ended up combining the “liberty of the ancients” with the “liberty of the moderns” (51). In other words, both republican active participation and liberal individual-rights-protecting public guarantees are embraced as important components of actual democracy. Societies need both enduring compromises amongst rights-endowed self-interested individuals and the formation and expression of collective will via societal “self-clarification” (37).

Habermas resolves in an analogous manner the tension between liberals and communitarians on the much-debated issues of multiculturalism (51-6) and religious tolerance (61-8). Both universal, trans-cultural principles and cultural rights are said to be important for the socially inclusive survival of democratic States in a more and more inter-connected international reality. Disagreements and problems are bound to arise; still, what matters most is to have enough institutional and conceptual resources as to be able to tackle such disagreements and problems without falling into either coercion or social disintegration, which destroy genuine social cohesion and solidarity (54-6).

This, albeit sketchy, is the overview of Habermas’ intellectual production that Francesco Giacomantonio offers in his new book. It is indeed a clear and effective account of Habermas’ nearly unique oeuvre, as the author of the Introduction to the Political Thought of Habermas cites Touraine and Castoriadis as the only other equally daring grand theorists of recent times (80). The book comprises six chapters, an introduction, some final considerations and an appendix by another author. The presentation waves between a thematic subdivision and a chronological organisation of the material. Either way, the book addresses all the essential aspects of Habermas’ vast production. By this feat alone, it deserves much praise.

If any criticism is to be passed on it, then it must be pointed out that the book could be even more slender: the appendix by Angelo Chielli is redundant and unnecessary (83-90); whilst the 6th chapter, which deals with Habermas’ relevance to contemporary academic pursuits (69-75), could have been reduced to, and included with, the author’s final considerations (77-81). Also, the book would benefit from an analytical index of cited topics and authors.