U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Habermas’ Legitimation Crisis and Critical Intellectual History

[A guest post-inquiry from Neil B. Miller, Ph.D., Independent Scholar]

I am in the middle of reading the English language translation of Jürgen Habermas’ early work, Legitimation Crisis, for theoretical insights applicable to my current research into the transformations of New England print culture and the public sphere associated with the first Unitarian Controversy, an early 19th-century theological and ideological dispute between orthodox or moderate Calvinist ministers like Jedidiah Morse and Lyman Beecher, and Boston Liberals or Unitarians like William Ellery Channing and Andrews Norton. The connection between Boston’s Harvard-educated Unitarian ministry and the city’s oligarchy of intermarried mercantile and business elites is well documented, as is the Unitarians’ social, philanthropic, and political conservatism. Less well known, and the subject of my research, is a contestation between the moderate Calvinists and Unitiarians, that occurred within New England Federalism, over the social role of the press, the involvement of ordinary citizens in public discourse, and the cultural authority of public opinion, as well as over a corporatist versus a liberal capitalist understanding of the print marketplace. My hypothesis, which so far seems supported by the text, is that this aspect of the controversy can be understood as a legitimation crisis of established social norms related to New England’s economic transformation to a liberal capitalist society.

My reading of the text, however, has produced numerous questions. First, it is not clear to me on a first reading whether Habermas is seeking fundamentally to discredit structural-functionalism and systems theory, or whether he also is relying in part on structural-functionalism and/or systems theory to develop his ideas about communicative rationality. I am similarly unclear whether there is a positivistic element or ambivalence in Habermas’ writing, as he seems to criticize positivism while relying on a progressive theory of social evolution that moves from primitive to traditional, liberal capitalist and advanced capitalist societies. This is also an early work in Habermas’ enormous corpus, so it would be helpful to know if Habermas substantially revises any of the ideas developed in Legitimation Crisis in later writings, or if any other social philosophers or theorists have criticized Habermas’ analysis of legitimation crises, especially if they deal specifically with crises within traditional or liberal capitalist societies.

Second, I can think of few recent examples in which American intellectual historians specifically, or Americanists generally, have made use of Habermas’ writings, other than of his earliest work The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. I would be very appreciative if members of the USIH community would provide references to essays or texts in which intellectual historians or historians working in other fields (as opposed to non-historians like Seyla Benhabib working in the field of communicative ethics), have incorporated Habermas’ ideas into their research, especially his ideas about legitimation crises. More broadly, I would welcome comments on why Habermas’ writings seem largely to have been ignored by American historians. In light of the nation’s current economic crisis, both his sophisticated critical theorizing on the crises of advanced capitalist societies and his commitment to social science as a radical emancipatory project, seem deserving of greater consideration.


Neil Miller

3 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Welcome Neil. In his “The Letters of the Republic,” Michael Warner uses Habermas to give an unusual take on the creation of the US Constitution. I haven’t read the book since early graduate school, so I’m a little fuzzy on the details. But if I remember correctly, Warner argues, in similar fashion to Habermas (in “The Transformation of the Public Sphere”) that the founders formed the republican sphere in opposition to the state–specifically, in opposition to the British imperial state. But, unlike Habermas, Warner does not idealize the public sphere. Rather, he thinks of it as specific to that historical moment–specific to the social formation of the early Republic. To this extent, he thinks of the Constitution as rooted in social formation and seeks to unmask the myth of both those who celebrate the genius of the framers (Gordon Wood) and those who demonize them as anticipating the robber barons (Charles Beard). Come to think of it, Warner is more into Foucault and Althusser. But he co-opts the language and concepts of Habermas. Don’t ask me to judge the quality of Warner’s argument. It’s out of my realm. I know I enjoyed reading the book in graduate school for its provocativeness. Good luck on what sounds like a great research project. Cheers. AH

  2. Andrew, thank you. The Republic of Letters was also a key text in my graduate studies. Your comments led me to take down my copy of The Letters of the Republic, and I had forgotten that Warner references Knowledge and Human Interests and The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity in his footnotes. Your comment also led me to recall that John Brooke discusses Habermas’ more recent text, Between Facts and Norms, in an essay he published a couple of years ago in the Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society. Generally speaking, however, both Warner and Brooke, like most Americanists I am familiar with, have focused on Habermas’ writings on the public sphere, rather than on his other writings.

  3. I should have read your post more carefully, especially when you asked for suggestions on the use of Habermas “other than of his earliest work The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere.” Oops. It looks like you’ll have to break new ground by using some of Habermas’s other works as a theoretical frame, which is not a bad thing.

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