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Responsibility: The First Virtue of Innovation? A discussion of some ethical and meta-ethical issues concerning the concept of ‘responsibility’ in technological innovation



John Rawls famously stated that justice is the first virtue of social institutions as truth is of systems of thought (Rawls 1971). In the context of technological innovation, which forms the background of my paper, we could paraphrase Rawls and say that responsibility is the first virtue of innovation as justice is of social institutions. The paraphrase is not supposed to work as a motto for my paper. Rather, it is a problematic statement relating to an empirical fact. A press release issued by the European Commission in November last year may serve as an illustration. The headline of the press release read as follows: ‘EU-wide poll shows public support for responsible research and innovation’. According to the poll, most Europeans (76 percent of the respondents) want science and research to be carried out ‘with due attention to ethical principles’ (European Commission 2013). The overarching principle supposed to ensure this is, as the headline indicates, that of responsibility. This is also indicated by university strategic commitments and large scale funding of research programs for “responsible research and innovation” (RRI) in Europe.

The programmatic stress on responsible (research and) innovation in European institutions, and the widespread use of the concept of responsibility in the formation of public opinion (cf. the EC press release), seems to demand some clarity as to what responsibility as an ethical concept means in this context. However, as we shall see in the following, it is quite unclear what responsibility means and can mean as an ethical concept in this context – and thus how it is supposed to work as a kind of first virtue in the ethics of innovation.

The obscurity of the references to responsibility in this context is problematic. In this paper I want to focus mainly on some suggestions as to what responsibility can mean – on how a philosophically sound concept of responsibility can be conceived of – in this context. The discussion unfolds on the background of Dieter Birnbacher’s distinction between two types of responsibility: 1) ex post responsibility, meaning responsibility ascribed to an agent for an act committed, and 2) ex ante responsibility, which means responsibility ascribed to an agent for the production of a certain state of affairs, with the acts realizing this state of affairs lying in the future (Birnbacher 2001). On the basis of an exposure of the shortcomings of ex post responsibility in the context of innovation, followed by an explication of the necessity of an ex ante concept, I look into different ways of conceiving of a form of ex ante responsibility suitable for our current technological situation. Outlining some criteria for this form of responsibility, I identify two positions with very different approaches to the question of the ethical status of responsibility. One is the position of Hans Jonas, who conceives of responsibility as an ethical principle structuring moral behavior. The other is found in the reflections on Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) by René von Schomberg, who has been an influential figure in the European Commission’s work on the ethical issues of science and technology. Here responsibility is conceived of as a kind of “tool” for responsive communication and collaboration among stakeholders on ethical issues related to research and innovation. As this conception depends on external ethical principles, I argue that it represents a form of demoralization of responsibility, which leaves it standing on a shaky moral ground. Suspending this concept, I argue in favor of a critical rehabilitation of some basic thoughts in the philosophy of Jonas, which I suggest makes better sense of the idea of a responsible subject within the field of innovation. Finally, I suggest taking a step from the Jonasian ethics of responsibility, with its strong Kantian influence, towards the Hegelian concept of Sittlichkeit – a concrete social morality supposed to disentangle responsibility from the paradoxes of subjectivist morality.  



Two problems: the subject and object of responsibility

To get a good grip of what it is that makes it so difficult to conceive of responsibility in the context of technological innovation, let us first have a quick glance at what we may call the classical, juridical concept of responsibility. While the theoretical debate on responsibility can be traced back at least as far as Aristotle’s discussions in the Nicomachean Ethics – and onward through the philosophical and theological debates on free will and determinism by Empiricus, Cicero, Agustine, Erasmus and Luther, leading up to the classical discussions in Hume, Kant and Hegel, among others – the modern meaning of the term, as it develops during the 19th and 20th centuries in particular, is most clearly expressed through its juridical usage. In civil law, responsibility comes to be understood as the obligation to make up or to compensate for the harm one has caused through one’s own fault (which in certain cases is defined by law). In penal law it comes to be understood as the obligation to accept punishment. This way of conceiving of responsibility, i.e. as a retrospective principle evoked after the events have taken place, corresponds to what Dieter Birnbacher (2001) calls ex post responsibility, and can even today be considered to be the standard way of understanding and using the terms “responsibility”, “responsible” etc. in a juridical context.[1]

The first problem this form of ex post responsibility faces in the context of innovation concerns the subject of responsibility. In the classical juridical sense, responsibility is to be ascribed to an agent capable of recognizing himself as the author of the act in question (cf. Kant). If the agent cannot do this, he cannot assume responsibility for the act, and it would therefore be problematic to punish him or make him compensate for it. Conversely, if the agent can recognize himself as the author of the act, he will be able and obligated to assume responsibility for it. In the context of technological innovation, this criterion for ascribing responsibility in the ex post sense faces a series of problems. First of all, the processes of innovation often involve so many people or groups of people that it is impossible to point out a single subject – whether collective or individual – responsible for initiating the action that led to the condemnable consequences. Consider, for example, the famous case of the invention of nuclear science, which finally led to the catastrophes of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Who are we to hold responsible for this catastrophe: the scientists, the developers of the bomb, the politicians and military strategists, the pilot who pushed the button? They all undoubtedly played a role in this catastrophic event. But we would hardly hold the innovators of nuclear science and all the people involved in the development of this science responsible for the catastrophes involved in the use of nuclear weapons. So in what sense can we decide whether their research and innovation entail responsibility or not?

While the problem regarding the subject of responsibility is serious and difficult to solve, it is not principally insoluble within the framework of ex post responsibility, since in theory these agents could all recognize themselves as authors of actions leading to the catastrophic events. A second problem, however, which concerns a displacement of the object of responsibility, tears this framework apart. Within the framework of ex post responsibility, the object of responsibility is the harm caused by the action of an agent. To ascribe responsibility therefore requires a clear view of the action and its (actual or possible) consequences: the agent is declared responsible with reference to the harm his action causes or may cause. In the case of technological innovation, however, we are dealing with possible effects that are largely unknown to us, and that may stretch far into the future. The case of GMOs (genetically modified organisms) may illustrate this point. Currently there exists no scientific certainty about what the impact of GMOs being released into the environment may be, and possible negative effects ­– ecological as well as social and economic ­– may not reveal themselves for generations. The same holds for several other forms of biotechnology and for nanotechnologies. Responsibility in such cases concerns some possible, future state of affairs that may or may not prove harmful to someone. So when we raise the demand that those involved in the development of new technology act responsibly, we do not call on them merely to make up or to compensate for harm done, or to accept punishment for their deeds. On the contrary, we call on them to act responsibly in the sense that their actions do not produce undesirable consequences – so that their actions may not produce a state of affairs causing harm to anyone. We call on the innovators in the field of biotechnology to be careful so that their activities do not alter human beings and their environment in ways that could prove harmful to them; we call on corporations not to use risky technology; we want politicians to regulate and monitor the access and circulation of potentially harmful technology on the market, and so on.

In short, in addition to taking responsibility for one’s actions, responsibility in the context of innovation means acting in such a way that one’s actions do not produce a state of affairs causing harm to any present or future being. And for this purpose, any concept of responsibility that focuses solely on the imputation of an action to an agent, as is the case with the ex post concept, will not suffice.



Reframing responsibility: Hans Jonas vs. the European Commission

Through the explication of the shortcomings of the ex post concept we see the contours of a different form of responsibility, that we with Birnbacher can label ex ante responsibility: A form of prospective responsibility that is to be evoked before the events take place. Rather than focusing mainly on ascription, imputation, accountability etc. – which are all typical focuses for ex post responsibility – the main focus here is on the relation between the agent and the people (present or future) potentially affected by his or her actions.

An interesting question at this point concerns the ethical status of this concept. We can identify two poles in the literature on this topic:

1. On the one side, we have responsibility as an ethical principle, canonized in the philosophy of Hans Jonas (2003).

2. On the other we have the reflections on RRI by René von Schomberg (especially in Schomberg 2011). Here responsibility is thought of as a principle, or rather a kind of tool, supposed to ensure rational communication and collaboration between stakeholders on ethical issues.

In the first case, we are clearly dealing with a moral concept of responsibility; for Jonas, responsibility is a supreme ethical principle imposing on us specific moral obligations (we will return to this below). In the second, however, it seems as if responsibility is in a sense demoralized: Responsibility in von Schomberg’s version of RRI is not a moral concept in itself, but a tool for structuring action according to external ethical principles, as can be seen in his proposed definition of RRI:

Responsible Research and Innovation is a transparent, interactive process by which societal actors and innovators become mutually responsive to each other with a view to the (ethical) acceptability, sustainability and societal desirability of the innovation process and its marketable products (in order to   allow a proper embedding of scientific and technological advances in our society). (Schomberg 2011:9)

The formal character of the procedure seems to suggest that it is in a sense morally neutral. However, as it is developed and initiated out of moral concerns – one of its main aims is to make science and technology compatible with shared moral values – and relies totally on external ethical principles, it is of course embedded in ethics. Resting on a contingent moral ground, however, it stands in danger of becoming just another tool for structuring ethical discourse without any real moral obligation imposed on the parties involved.

At this point we might speak of the adventure of responsibility becoming a misadventure: Devoid of any internal moral value, it ventures into a sort of ethical overinflation where it can mean everything and nothing.

Jonas, on the other hand, promotes responsibility as an ethical principle stating that we are obligated to act in such a way that our actions ensure the continuing existence of human life on earth – which also implies intervening when the risk occurs of endangering humanity in any way and in any prospect of time. This imperative – understood not in the Kantian sense of a principle it would be logically contradictory to go against, but as a kind of “axiom” (Jonas 2003:36), a necessary point of departure of ethics given the situation we are in, with our stage of technological development giving us an unprecedented power to change and control our environment – thus imposes on us a duty to take all measures in answering the “call” of the fragile other (fragility may be considered the primary object of responsibility in Jonas) to take care of it, and to protect it against every possible risk regarding its further existence.

An obvious challenge related to this approach is that the imperative of absolute precaution requires substantial knowledge about possible risks and benefits, knowledge that is often lacking in the complex field of technological innovation. Still, the imperative has a strong appeal, both intellectually (it seems unreasonable to put the future of humanity to risk) and to our feelings of solidarity, compassion with others and so on. The EU-poll referred to earlier, for example, indicates a strong positive evaluation of precautionary concerns in the European population. (At the same time, it is striking that many Europeans seem not to support responsible research and innovation. Here I can only speculate, but one might suspect that some of the skepticism can be due to the dubious status of ethics in this context.) Furthermore, the precautionary principle has a strong position in EU laws on matters of science and technology. However, the precautionary principle as applied in this way is attached to specific areas of innovation. It does not, for example, have a strong position within the field of economic innovation. But does the answer lie in the Jonasian universalization or totalization of responsibility? As Paul Ricoeur (2000:32) observes, the final consequence of a totalization of responsibility may be unlimited responsibility of everyone for everything. Paradoxically, this might lead to a kind of fatalism making the subject truly responsible only for his intentions, not for his actions (I will return to this dilemma, identified by Hegel in his Philosophy of Right, shortly).

Jonas, however, puts a limit to responsibility by way of his principle that knowledge together with power implies responsibility: We are responsible to the degree that we have sufficient knowledge about the actualities and possibilities of the situation coupled with the power to do something about it. (Or applied differently: Knowledge about the destructive powers of our actions obligates us not to proceed with the action.)

This also gives us a clue as to how the subject of (ex ante) responsibility can be conceived of. The subject of this form of responsibility is none other than the subject (individual or collective) possessing knowledge about the risks involved in an action and the powers to either proceed with it or to restrain it.



Responsibility and beyond: A passage to Hegel

We have seen that the shortcomings of the ex post concept of responsibility in the context of innovation requires that we conceive of new ways of thinking about responsibility. For responsibility to work as a first virtue of innovation, as seems to be the ambition of the EU with its programmatic stress on responsible research and innovation, we need a theory of responsibility that clarifies how responsibility can be evoked as an ethical principle before the harmful actions and events take place, while at the same time maintaining the idea of a responsible subject.

I have suggested that this concept of responsibility can be developed on the background of a critical rehabilitation of the Jonasian concept of responsibility: A concept that, through its coupling of the imperative of precaution with the idea of the fragile other as the object of responsibility, speaks both to our intellects and to our moral feelings of solidarity with and compassion for others – and further provides us with an idea of the subject of responsibility as the subject capable of causing harm.

As a final (but none the less, on my behalf, experimental) move, I suggest taking a step beyond the Jonasian ethics, with its Kantian influence, towards the Hegelian concept of Sittlichkeit. In the Philosophy of Right, Hegel places responsibility – in the Kantian sense as the ability of an agent to recognize itself as the author of the act causing the events in question – under the category of Moralität, i.e. the individual’s capacity to make moral decisions or to draw up a moral vision of the world in a kind of social vacuum. It is here that Hegel identifies the “paradox” or dilemma referred to above: Action involves the externalization of subjective will (intention), which means that when one acts in the world, the will, or rather the action constituting the will, is instantly subjected to external necessity, and is therefore brought out of the control of the subject (meaning the subjective will). Eventually we get what might be called “side effects” of the action: effects neither intended nor foreseen by the subject. These effects might be catastrophic, but since they are unintended and unforeseen, they are outside the realm of the subjective will, which means that it cannot recognize itself as their true author and therefore cannot accept being held responsible[2] for them (Hegel 1986:203–292). Still, someone must be held responsible; and who could that be other than the subject initiating the action? But if we really were to hold it responsible, this would mean burdening it with an unlimited responsibility, making it impossible to act at all. This dilemma of the side effects of actions is especially pertinent in the case of technological innovation, where the actual catastrophic effects produced by the use of the technology seldom coincide, and can even be in direct conflict, with the intentions of its innovators. For Hegel, this dilemma cannot be solved within the framework of subjective morality (Moralität), because it is produced by the fact that this framework isolates the subjective will from the (social/objective) sphere in which its actions take place. This in turn necessitates the move from Moralität to Sittlichkeit.[3]

I cannot give a detailed account of Hegel’s theory of Sittlichkeit here, but the point is that responsibility is moved from the sphere of subjective morality to the objective sphere of society. In Sittlichkeit, subjective will is dialectically sublated by the logic of the collective. This means that there are no purely subjective actions, and therefore no purely subjective form of responsibility: The subject is always already a part of (or embedded in) the social sphere – with its objectivity in the form of mores, customs, shared beliefs, laws, institutions and so on – as are its actions and their effects. The actions and their effects are thereby subjected to a necessity not purely external, but constituted by the subject as an integral part of this sphere of necessity, which at the ontological level of Sittlichkeit is the sphere of sociality (which is also the sphere of true freedom, in the Hegelian sense of freedom as constituted by the social/moral-psychological process of recognition, Anerkennung).

This may appear overly abstract, but in fact it is meant to show how morality changes from being expressed in an abstract “ought” (Sollen), drawn from the subject’s relating to itself and its idea of the good, to being played out in the concrete social setting of society (bürgerliche Gesellschaft). From the Hegelian perspective, what is abstract is rather any theory of moral responsibility presenting it as something that can be ascribed to an agent principally existing outside the social sphere of morality – as would be the case in the RRI scheme proposed by von Schomberg, that is based on the metaphysical idea of an agent acting on the world of ethics and morality from the outside. Hegel, on the other hand, places the individual in the social sphere from the beginning, realizing that any concept of a subjective will acting on the world from the outside – or rather, from the inside of its isolated existence – is bound to be contradictory, or at least insufficient, and that the attempts to ascribe responsibility for an action and its effects is absurd within this framework. Instead, we must start from the observation of the subject unfolding in the social sphere, and, according to Hegel at least, base our conception on the dialectic of subjective and objective morality.

In short, the reason why I want to explore this path in my investigations into the concept of responsibility is that I see a clear need to make a move from abstract ethics – with its dualism of the subject of intentions and the external sphere of ethical principles – to a concrete social morality. I would like to see where it leads to when, on the basis of a critique of responsibility in RRI-schemes and moral philosophies of responsibility such as Jonas’s, we pay renewed attention to Hegel’s social theory and philosophy of moral agency; not accepting the whole theory at face value, but concentrating on the sublation of classical (ex post) responsibility into the ethico-institutional realm of Sittlichkeit – a realm where no action is considered purely subjective, but is instead conceived of as the subject’s constitutive self-investing in the (social) world of institutions, laws, mores, customs, shared beliefs etc. – making the consequences of its actions, whether intended or unintended, future or present, intelligible as moral aspects of the actions themselves.



Concluding remarks: Hegel with Jonas?

An important question will be to what extent the ex ante responsible subject can be incorporated into the Hegelian ethics of Sittlichkeit. How would the responsible subject of Jonas’s ethics, for example – making individual moral decisions on the basis of a strict imperative of precaution – fit in with Hegel’s basic thesis of the fundamental social character of moral agency? I suspect that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to make Jonas’s responsible subject fit seamlessly into the Hegelian scheme of ethical life. Jonas’s subject does not make its moral decisions in a social vacuum ­– here he is on a par with Hegel – but the Jonasian “call of the other” does not seem to be conditioned by any form of Sittlichkeit. Rather, this call seems to be the (ontological) source of moral responsibility itself (Jonas 2003, especially pp. 234–240.). Thus, the subject’s morality is not necessarily linked to its belonging to an existing social order, but rather has its origin in singular encounters with fragile others (archetypically exemplified by the encounter with the extreme fragility of the newborn child).

A theoretical affiliation can, however – with some adjustments on both sides – be construed regarding one crucial matter at stake here: the matter of the side effects of actions. Trying to solve the (Hegelian) problem of the side effects of actions, Jonas evokes the idea of (what Ricoeur calls) the succession of generations (Ricoeur 2000:31). The impacts – intended or unintended – of an action (Tat, in Hegel) on future generations are linked to the action – the Handlung manifested by the externalization of subjective will in Hegel’s theory – and thereby to our subjectivity by the way the action (Tat) is carried on into the future by the succession of generations. In other words: The action (Handlung as well as Tat) unfolds, through its effects, as part of an inter-generational chain of being. This makes responsibility a matter more of ethical life as a whole – i.e. as a system irreducible to its (at any time T) existing parts – than of a subjective will acting upon the matter of ethics and morality from the supra-moral standpoint of the “rational agent” or the like – which, as implied above, can be said to be the metaphysical starting point of von Schomberg’s theory of the (co-)responsible subject; a subject that seems stripped bare of any moral capacity besides that of the (displaced?) intention or interest to act according to external ethical principles.

Whether this theoretical affiliation stands the test of philosophical scrutinizing remains to be seen. In any case, the demands for responsibility in our time make urgent the need for further reflection on and clarification of the meaning of the concept – not least if it is to continue functioning as a “first virtue” in the ethics of technology and innovation.



Birnbacher, D. (2001): “Philosophical Foundations of Responsibilty”. In    Responsibility: The Many Faces of a Social Phenomenon. Auhagen, A.E. et al. (eds.). London/NY: Routledge.

European Commission (2013): “Press release 14 November 2013: Eu-wide poll shows public support for responsible research and innovation.”   http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_IP-13-1075_en.htm (accessed 25   November 2013).

—— (2013): Options for Strengthening Responsible Research and Innovation. Report of the Expert Group on the State of Art in Europe on       Responsible Research and Innovationhttp://ec.europa.eu/research/science-society/document_library/pdf_06/options-for-strengthening_en.pdf (accessed 21 July 2014).

Hegel, G.W.F (1986): Grundlinien der Philosophie des Rechts. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag.

Jonas, H. (2003): Das Prinzip Verantwortung. Versuch einer Ethik für die technologische Zivilisation. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag.

Rawls, John (1971): A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP.

Ricoeur, Paul (2000): The Just. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Schomberg, R.v. (2007): From the Ethics of Technology towards an Ethics of Knowledge Policy and Knowledge Assessment. A working document from the European Commission Services, Directorate General for Research, Brussles.

——. (2011): “Prospects for technology assessment in a framework of     responsible research and innovation”. In: Dusseldorp, M., and Beecroft, R.   (eds) Technikfolgen abscätzen lehren. Bildungspotenziale tranzdisiplinäre Methoden, pp. 39–61. Wiesbaden: Vs Verlag.


[1] There are some prominent exceptions, notably: 1) obligations of means (as opposed to obligations of result, cf. in particular French civil and (presumably) penal codes, 2) state responsibility (international law, especially human rights obligations), and 3) duty of care (Anglophone common law, especially English). While responsibility in these cases are revealed in law courts ex post, i.e. in case of a breach of them, they are present in the law in the prospective sense as duties whose fulfillment is expected of the relevant agents (private individuals, corporations or organizations, states). I am indebted to Professor Giorgio Baruchello (University of Akureyri) for this remark.

[2] Hegel does not use the contemporary German word for responsibility, Verantwortung, but uses related terms such as zurechnen (ascribe) (1986:218) and imbutabel (1986:212) where we today would speak of responsibility/Verantwortung.

[3] That is, it does not alone necessitate this move, but is one of the ”contradictions” of subjective morality necessitating it. 



The Wider Impacts of Universities: Habermas on Learning Processes and Universities


It should seem obvious from a European point of view that higher education and research fits tightly together institutionalized in the age old university institutions. It has, however, been observed that research on higher education and research on the research functions of universities are strangely unrelated in the literature.[1] Apart from this separation there can be distinguished between two mayor outcome debates on higher education and universities. [2] The debates on outcomes are firstly the debates on the ends of higher education for the individual and secondly the wider societal benefits of both research and higher education.


Considering the outcomes for the individual the discourse of reform in higher education tends to focus narrowly on employability and the relationship between higher education and the labor market. Considering the wider outcomes of research the dominant discourse is that the end of all knowledge production is that of innovation that privileges technology and applicative fixes of social kinds. Both aspects of the benefits of universities are thus viewed in strictly economic terms – often related to a functionalist interpretation of both the demands of the knowledge economy (not the knowledge society) and of the “outcomes” of higher education and university research. According to many scholars, including Habermas, the functionalist interpretation has proved hard to overcome especially in the field of research in higher education. Since Talcot Parsons and Charles C. Platt wrote their seminal work on the American university functionalist views of higher education has prevailed both in the literature but also in the self-understanding of many university leaders.[3]


The concern of this paper is therefore threefold. Firstly the critique by Habermas of the prevailing functionalism in the view of higher education and research will be outlined. Secondly a brief discussion on the outcomes of research will, thirdly, lead to a discussion of the contributions on both the individual level of higher education as well as the wider societal outcomes. It is the argument here that the two last discussions cannot be taken separately but that they meet in concepts like the public sphere, civil society, citizenship, empowerment, emancipation and wellbeing. It is also the aim here to overarch the current dichotomies of either/or in the discussions on university reform. It is obvious that higher education and research also contribute to the knowledge economy but the argument in this paper is that this role is only one out of multiple social and cultural roles. Instead – this is a discussion on balances.


Habermas – the critique of functionalism


Habermas fights on two fronts in his critique of university reform and reformers.[4] One front consists of the “mandarins” of a conservative outlook that defend the classical idea of a unifying “idea of a university.” As enemies of modernity these reformers seem to cling to outdated views of both society and institutions. This leads Habermas to adhere to some of the functionalist views – in a word he agrees to differentiation as against unity. But he certainly does not agree with the full-blown functionalism that considers both higher education and research as governed by norm free symbolic media in the vein of Niklas Luhmann.


Firstly on the front against conservative reformers like Karl Jaspers and Helmut Schelsky Habermas raises a critique of the idea of a university as a unifying force, which he considers to be based on an idealistic sociology. The university is NOT exemplary of a life form that shall permeate society as a whole. “Organizations no longer embody ideas. Those who would bind organizations to ideas must restrict their operative range to the comparatively narrow horizon of the life world intersubjectively shared by its members.” Adhering to the ideals of Humboldt thus “belongs to those purely defensive minds whose cultural criticism is rooted in hostility to all forms of modernization.”[5] He equates this stand with that of a “mandarin ideology” of the learned classes, a concept coined by the sociologist of education Fritz Ringer.[6]


As to counter this out-dated view the university is initially called a “functionally specific subsystem of a highly differentiated society” and Habermas states “The functional capability of such institutions depends precisely on a detachment of their members motivations from the goals and functions of the organization.” He even states that a functionalist interpretation presents itself as promising:

“A more distanced perspective derived from international comparisons thus yields a picture which practically compels one to adopt a functionalist interpretation.”[7]


Habermas critique of systems theory is well known. The problem he sees in connection to higher education is that systems theory presupposes that all modernized parts of society must take the form of a norm free subsystem of communication and that it a priori supposes that this covers all areas of societal action. This Habermas calls the “system-theoretical overgeneralization.” “The universities (have) by no means out grown the horizon of the life world in the style of, for example capitalist corporations or international agencies.”[8]


In Habermas’ terms a functionalist view entails a perspective where “the universities present themselves as part of a system requiring less and less normative integration in the heads of professors and students the more it becomes regulated by systemic mechanisms with disciplinary production of technically useful information and job qualifications directed at the environments of the economy and the planning administrative bureaucracy”[9]


It is not difficult to see the current discourses on higher education in this quote, in spite of a distance of a quarter of a century. Habermas’ general critique of functionalist sociology is therefore all the more relevant to apply to the present day discussions. Habermas’ insistence on a differentiation between instrumental and communicative action in his interpretation of society as a whole does also find its way into his views of the university. The distinction between life world and system that is basic to his view of society at large is also found within this institution: “Processes of differentiation which have accelerated over the last two decades need not be brought under a single system theoretical description leading to the conclusion that the universities have now completely outgrown the horizon of the life world.”[10]


Hereby Habermas, in my view, delivers a more ecological view of a balance to be found also in university and higher education reform. The view is dismantling the idea of an unproblematic unity of all activities in the university, but is holding on to a view of a multiplicity of interplay between different aspects of the institutional life forms of a modern university.


Before we consider these differentiated aspects of first research and then higher education this part of the paper should state the interesting affinity between traditionalists and functionalists that make Habermas’ two frontal attack feasible. In Habermas critique the functionalism is equated with a neoconservative viewpoint that “only uses traditions as a compensation for the easier flow of information streams between research and the economic-military-administrative complex.”[11] The compensation thesis is thereby seen as a neoconservative strategy to accept modernity as long as this modernity stays in the realm of productive and administrative life, and does not interfere with a compensatory traditionalism of life forms outside this realm.[12]


Habermas on wider outcomes of the research function of universities


Habermas sees the university as the home of research. He does consider the challenges towards this from what now often is termed Mode II knowledge production,[13] but asks polemically if these forms of research will not always be “parasitical.”[14] So research is depending on the specific life forms of the university: “Scientific productivity might well depend upon the university’s form, in particular upon that differentiated complex interplay of research with the training of future students’ preparation for academic careers, the participation in general education, cultural self-understanding and public opinion formation.”[15] He even acknowledges the idea of the university as a norm to govern this life world: “The universities are still rooted in the life world, through this interpenetration of functions. So long as this connection is not completely torn asunder, the idea of the university is still not wholly dead. But the complexity and internal differentiation of this connection shouldn’t be underestimated.”[16]


Before we consider the implications of this complex interplay between research and wider impacts on society let us look to his discussion on research and science (Wissenschaft).


Fistly the idealism of the Humboltian model suggests the “unity of the sciences.” And secondly the Humboldtian model suggests “an oversimplified connection between scientific learning processes and the life forms of modern societies.”[17]


Habermas sees in both these statements a need for differentiation. The unity of sciences needs differentiation because of the internal differentiation between philosophy and the empirical sciences that has proceeded since the middle of the nineteenth century. The connection between science and the life forms of modern society must be differentiated. Because of a “plurality of powers of faith (Glaubensmächten) philosophy lost its monopoly on the interpretation of the cultural whole.”[18] Secondly this unity must be differentiated because science grew into a productive force of industrial society. Especially the natural sciences have been ascribed a technical function as against a world view producer.


But science is still an activity of the life world as it is organized as a communicative activity, which was already the view of Schleiermacher. With direct address against Luhmann, Habermas states: “because the activity of cooperative truth-seeking points to a public argumentation, truth – or let alone the reputation among the community of investigators – can never become a control medium for a self-regulating subsystem.”


These very brief points on research points to the fact that Habermas defends the normative aspirations of a life world of scholars. Faced with developments of neoliberal new public management these considerations become highly relevant. These reforms are exactly directed towards “control media” of a “self-regulating” subsystem of research such as bibliometrics and citation counting.[19] But let us leave the discussion on research seen in its own right to a view of the wider societal impacts of research and higher education.


The crucial argument is the interconnectedness of research and educational processes – that in spite of the differentiation processes of modern society are still valid.



Habermas on the wider impacts of universities


To sum up Habermas sees institutionalized in universities an interplay of research with:


  1. 1)Training of future students preparation for academic careers (Nachwuchs)
  2. 2)Participation in general education (Allgemeinbildung)
  3. 3)Cultural self-understanding
  4. 4)Public opinion formation


What are then the appropriate understandings of these connections?


The Humboldtian idea of a university pointed to three wider impacts of research, in idealist terms coined as “unities”: The unity of science and teaching, the unity of science and general education and the unity of science with enlightenment and emancipation. As stated above Habermas sees a need for differentiation of these unities in view of the modern development.


Firstly the unity of science and teaching needs differentiation because of a differentiated labour market that demands highly skilled employees.


Secondly the unity of science with general education needs differentiation because the institutional structure was built on specialized bureaucratic functions rather than on general education.


Thirdly the unity of science with enlightenment and emancipation needs differentiation because of the social differentiation between academically trained elites and popular education. This means that the general enlightenment and emancipatory claims of the classical idea of the university in Germany were not met.


However, Habermas can now positively list the functions of the university thus: “The university learning processes do not simply stand in an inner connection to the reproductive functions of the life world. Going beyond mere academic career preparation, they contribute to general socialization processes by introducing students to the mode of scientific thinking, i.e. to the adoption of a hypothetical attitude vi-á-vis facts and norms. Going beyond the acquisition of expert knowledge, they contribute to intellectual enlightenment by offering informed interpretations and diagnoses of contemporary events, and by taking concrete political stands. Going beyond mere reflection on methodology and basic theory, they contribute to the self-understanding of the sciences within the whole of culture by supplying theories of science, morality, art and literature.”[20]


As a broad impact on culture Habermas sees the university to have contributed to the development of the freedom and differentiation of research disciplines, and benefitted society with a certain “utopian” ideal of universalistic and individualistic values that has upheld a critical potential. This is seen as a specific trait of the occidental development, but also writers on higher education like Björn Wittrock states universalism and cosmopolitan viewpoints to be typical in the development of universities.[21] This leads to the following conclusion:

“The egalitarian and universalistic content of their forms of argumentation expresses only the norms of scientific discourse, not those of society as a whole. But they share in a pronounced way that communicative rationality, the forms of which modern societies (which are without Leitbilds from the past) must employ to understand themselves.”[22]


A brief turn to Habermas’ theory of communicative action will maybe enlighten these conclusions.[23] In this book Habermas differentiates between three processes of reproduction in the life world: cultural reproduction, social integration and socialization. He states these in relation to culture, society and personality.


Habermas mentions (at least) two concepts concerning the reproduction of the life world highly relevant to this discussion which are 1) the reproduction of valid knowledge (which not least takes place in the universities) 2) the reproduction of personal socialization patterns and educational goals for the individual (which are parts of education as a whole). These can be disturbed which results in 1) loss of meaning and 2) crisis in orientation and education.


Below this discussion will focus mainly on the second point. How can Habermas theory be applied to the discussion on the outcomes of higher education for the individual to counter a crisis in orientation and education?


Habermas related to current issues in the debate on higher education


Looking at the part of the debate on wider outcomes of higher education for the individual the knowledge economy discourse tends to focus on employability, a term that stands central in the Bologna process of the integration of higher education markets in Europe. However, this discourse is by no means specifically European but is global.


The employability discourse is highly market oriented and suggests a one to one fit of transferable skills from the learning situation to the job situation. The discourse is connected to a view of the individual that is reduced to the concept of the effective or competent person – or a highly instrumental view.[24] The construction of the effective person stands in contrast to the reproduction of personality as a life world construction now (maybe) to be found in the literature on empowerment, citizenship and capabilities – and in Habermas. The concepts of skills or competencies are understood as performative and system related whereas early modern German concepts of Bildung and Mündigkeit are what I call personality and life world related with a parallel to ideas of liberal education in the Anglo-Saxon world.


The competing concepts are indicative of views of the self. Gerard Delanty in his book on citizenship addresses the question of the person, or the self, in this way:


“Modernity was a discourse of the emancipation of the self, but the question of the other is being asked only now. The problem with self-determination in postmodern times is that there is no single self but a plurality of selves. In this move beyond the contours of the modern age we have to ask the question of the responsibility of the self for the other. The rethinking of democracy – which is a discourse of self-determination – that this entails will force us to re-establish a link with citizenship – where self and other find a point of reconciliation.”[25]


I share with Delanty the view that a concern for the self as responsible should still, or again, be relevant in present discussions on citizenship and education. Not only postmodern writers but also the now dominant concepts of learning and transferable skills exclude personhood. This implies an amoral idea of the effective and performative individual. Can competencies and skills be other that means? Can skills be ends? Who decides the ends in a world of only means? My reading of this discourse tends to point to the direction of a crudely functionalist notion of usefulness of the individual. When all education is regarded only as learning towards transfer of skills into workplace competencies the reduction is full blown. A maybe too optimistic reading of this dilemma would be that the self (situated in higher education) takes care of itself – sometimes in spite of pressures of economic or systemic performance. But this does not, in my view, exclude the responsibility of educators and leaders of educational institutions to choose a balance between instrumentality and life world concerns.


In the continental debate on the university an oppositional concept to employability is the mentioned concept of Bildung. The concept implies in its neo humanistic version the coming into being of a whole person through activities of scholarly and creative pursuits. It has highly normative connotations as both the goal of and the process of education or life-experience. Habermas critique indicates that Bildung builds on an exaggerated subject philosophical inheritance. But what is Habermas view of the learning subject? And how can we relate his thoughts on higher learning to civil society? Habermas himself in The structural transformation of the public sphere cites numerous connections between Bildung and the creation of a public sphere in early modern Europe. These historical examples both suggest what in the German debate is called the traditional marriage between education and money (Bildung und Besitz), but also points to the creation of a politically respected public sphere being a result of literacy, journal writing and thus education. The book is certainly split in viewing bourgeois culture and education as progressive and emancipatory forces or as simply reproducing class distinctions.[26]


Concluding words


I would suggest that we are now facing a crisis both in the reproduction of meaning, in educational goals and the reproduction of personality as Habermas theory suggests possible. Performative expectations to all knowledge production inhibit the reproduction of valid cultural knowledge. Goals of employability dominate any educational pursuit and the construction of the effective person stands in contrast to the balanced view of the personality as a construction now to be found in the literature on empowerment and citizenship. The concepts of skills or competencies are understood as performative and system related whereas concepts of Bildung and Mündigkeit capture a more balanced view of the relations between the individual and society. These questions need further clarification, but Habermas’ diagnosis can be a path to this investigation.


Concepts of learning and transferable skills distort reproductive processes of the life world. They imply an amoral idea of the effective and performative individual. Social skills are present in the debate on competencies – are these ethical skills? Can skills be other than means? Can skills be ends? Who decides the ends in a world of only means? This seems highly implicative of Habermas’ idea of colonization. Economic man has overpowered all other views of the human kind. The balance between life world reproduction and system reproduction is to be found anew in the discussion on higher education and universities in society.


Especially as concerns the scientification of political life – the bureaucratization and technological approaches to top down social engineering calls for a research near general education that serves critical thinking to prevail in a civil society that must be just as “armed” with research based argumentations as governments and IO’s are. Habermas’ concept is that of a “radical democracy” – and in such a democracy the creative destruction of social capital through higher education is all the more necessary.[27] Higher education thus primarily should arm new generations, and older ones, with antidotes to the prevailing top down tendencies of governments and non-democratic international agencies.




[1] Wittrock, Björn. (1985). Before the Dawn. Humanism and Technocracy in University research Policy. In Björn Wittrock & Aant Elzinga (red.), The University Research System. The Public Policies of the Home of Scientists (s. 1-10). Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell International.

[2] Brennan, John and Rajani Naidoo (2008) ”Higher Education and the Achievement (And/or Prevention) of Equity and Social Justice” in Higher Education Vol 56. No. 3., pp.287-302.

[3] Wittrock, Björn. (1996 (1993)). The modern university: the three transformations. In Björn Wittrock & Sheldon Rothblatt (red.), The European and American University since 1800.Historical and sociological essays (2 ed., s. 303-362). Chippenham, Wiltshire: CambridgeUniversity Press. P.337

[4] Habermas, J. (1986). Die Idee der Universität–Lernprozesse. Zeitschrift für Pädagogik, 32(5), 703-718. (References below are to this version, referred to as “IU”). For an English version see Habermas, J. “The Idea of the University: Learning Processes” in New German Critique No.41 (1987). Habermas’ earlier writings on university reform (from the 1950ties and 1960ties) will not be considered here.

[5] IU p.704

[6] Ringer, F. (1969) ”The Decline of the German Mandarins: The German Academic Community 1890-1933,” Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

[7] IU p.705

[8] IU p.714

[9] IU p.706

[10] IU p.707

[11] IU p.706

[12] For discussions on the compensation thesis see Ritter, Joachim (2003 (1961)). Die Aufgabe der Geisteswissenschaften in der modernen Gesellschaft. In Metaphysik und Politik: Studien zu Aristoteles und Hegel. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp and Herbert Schnädelbach, (1988). Kritik der Kompensation. In Kursbuch 91. Wozu Geisteswissenschaften? (Vol. 91, s. 35-45). Berlin: Kursbuch Verlag.

[13] Gibbons, Michael, Camille Limoges, Helga Nowotny, Simon Schwartzman, Peter Scott, & Martin

Trow (1995). The New Production of Knowledge: The Dynamics of Science and Research

in Contemporary Societies. London: Sage Publications Ltd.

[14] IU p. 714

[15] IU p.707

[16] IU p.707

[17] IU p. 707

[18] IU p. 710

[19] For a discussion of the negative consequences of this development see Aant Elzinga “Evidence-based science policy and the systematic miscounting of performance in the humanities” at the blog: humaniorasociety.wordpress.com

[20] UI p.715

[21] Wittrock op.cit p.360

[22] UI p.717

[23] Habermas, J. (1987) ”The Theory of Communicative Action” Volume 2 “Lifeworld and System: a critique of Functionalist reason” Boston: Beacon Press, pp.142ff

[24] For a debate on this tendency in the Denmark see Laura-Louise Sarauw (2012) “Kur eller kurmageri for humaniora? – konkurrerende forestillinger om fremtidens samfund I den europæiske Bologna-proces.” in J.E.Larsen and M. Wiklund ”Humaniora i kunskapssamhället. En nordisk debattbok” Malmö: NSU-Press.

[25] Delanty, Gerard (2000) ”Citizenship in a global age. Society, culture, politics” Buckingham, Philadelphia: Open University Press, p.3.

[26] Habermas, J. (1962) ”Strukturandel der Öffentlichkeit” Darmstadt : Luchterhand.

[27] For this argument see Fuller, Steve. (2004) “Universities and the future of knowledge governance from the standpoint of social epistemology” in Final plenary address at the UNESCO Forum Colloquium on Research and Higher Education Policy, Paris (Vol. 3).