No easy way in

Understanding Habermas
February 24, 2006

Students do not much like Jürgen Habermas. He is an awkward thinker whose writing is abstract and abstruse and is presented in most cumbersome sentences. His work also constitutes an integrated whole such that to appreciate him fully one needs to come to terms with the range of his oeuvre . It demands concentrated and sustained attention, something that does not come readily to those who think education should be delivered in entertaining, easily absorbed, bite-sized gobbets.

There was a time when one might have encouraged undergraduates to spend the long vacation coming to grips with the likes of Habermas. For today's students, such recommendation is risible. They need not Habermas, but a crammer that provides easy and immediate answers.

I am pleased to say that Erik Oddvar Eriksen and Jarle Weigard do not provide this. They start from an appreciative and impressive understanding of Habermas's attempt to present a rigorous and comprehensive general social theory. This mammoth achievement reaches across the philosophy of language expounded by Ludwig Wittgenstein and John Searle, the corpus of Western Marxism from Georg Luk cs to Herbert Marcuse, American pragmatism from Charles Peirce to George Herbert Mead, the sociology of Max Weber, Durkheimian functionalism, thinking on rights from Kant to Carl Schmitt, to political theorists John Rawls and Ronald Dworkin. Habermas constructed his notion of communicative action in debate with these and other major schools of thought. It is a great virtue of Eriksen and Weigard that they insist that readers are made aware of this, refusing to provide bits of Habermas divorced from the overall project.

Understanding Habermas , produced by these two sympathetic Norwegian scholars, is well composed, though not an easy read. It does provide explanations of key concepts and antecedents in the text, but it takes no shortcuts. It will be especially useful for the second or third-year student willing to make the effort of engaging with the most important Western philosopher of the past 50 years.

Frank Webster is professor of sociology, City University.

Understanding Habermas: Communicative Action and Deliberative Democracy. First Edition

Author - Erik Oddvar Eriksen and Jarle Weigard
Publisher - Continuum
Pages - 292
Price - £75.00 and £25.00
ISBN - 0 8264 6064 X and 7179 X

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