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The Life-World and the Two Systems theorized by Habermas

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The Life-World and the Two Systems

Prof. Peter Krey, June 21st, 2002

Juergen Habermas has been called one of the two greatest sociologists in the world today. (The other is the late Pierre Bourdieu.) His theory about the life-world and the two systems is a sophisticated social model, archetype, or construct by which to understand and criticize the present late-stage of capitalistic society today.

To oversimplify what is a very comprehensive and complex theory: Habermas argues that the life-world is based on communication, agreement, and consensus. The economic and political systems require instrumental rationality for the sake of control. His theory posits situations embedded in broader Ahorizons@ that are in turn grounded in the life-world.

From a linguistic angle, “communicative actors always move within the horizon of their life‑world” ‑‑ a life‑world which now can be defined as “a culturally transmitted and a linguistically organized reservoir of meaning patterns.”[1]

The complexity of this definition moves from language through discourse, to culture and values, to society and its institutions, and to persons and their speech-acts. In his words, everyday praxis yields three life‑world spheres: 1/ culture 2/ society 3/ personality.

Where culture denotes a reservoir of shared knowledge and pre‑interpretations, society a fabric of normative rules, and personality a set of faculties or “competences” enabling an individual to speak and to act.[2]

Modernization, roughly, is the replacement of implicit by explicit meaning patterns. (Such a statement seems to be a sociological version of the Freudian teaching that psychoanalysis makes the unconscious conscious.)

Habermas begins to use his model to critique our society when he speaks about the deleterious colonization of the life-world by the systems. Modernization does not entirely coincide with the differentiation of communicative structures or components, for Habermas (I am following to Dallmayr), because material production cannot be discounted. Long range social development involves not only the internal diversification of life‑world components but also the growing segregation of symbolic‑communicative patterns from productive endeavors governed by standards of technical efficiency.This is a process which can be described as an “uncoupling” of the systems and the life‑world, to use Habermasian language. Once systems are no longer merely coordinated with communicative patterns but begin to invade and subdue these communicative patterns of the life-world, then the uncoupling of the systems and life‑world is converted into the direct “colonization of the life‑world.” That means it is subjugated to alien standards of technical control.[3] The life world begins to be eclipsed and absorbed in instrumental rationality, making persons become means to political and economic ends not in their interest, nor under their control. A climate of communal agreement is necessary in the life‑world, whereas systemic imperatives prevail in the systems. In the life- world, force [in the sense of coercion] and discourse cannot be connected. The life-world is at no one’s disposal. As the higher value it needs to be guarded from the systems.[4]

Habermas= theory about the colonization the life-world by the economic system points to the problem of the marketplace colonizing the academy, basic information, and news, entertainment, and government. Why do the corporations control the media, television, and radio, and have the right to brainwash people to become consumers? Does a university turn out products? Is a university the same as a business, a company? Have students become products who have to sell themselves? Have things become ends in themselves, and human beings become disposable?


[1]Fred R. Dallmayr, “Life‑World and Communicative Action,” Working Paper #20 ‑ Scott Mainwaring, editor, (University of Notre Dame, Helen Kellogg Institute, June 1984), p. 14.

[2]Ibid., p. 15.

[3]Ibid., p. 16‑17.

[4]Ibid., p. 15‑17. These short descriptions have been gleaned from the concise pages of E.R. Dallmayr’s study.

See the expanded version of this nutshell version in my new Scholardarity website: Juergen Habermas: the Life-World and the Two Systems

Written by peterkrey

July 27, 2007 at 8:11 pm

Posted in Philosophy

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