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Jürgen Habermas’ and Michel Foucault’s Contributions to Social Theory


There has been extensive writings and reviews of the social theory from the classical to the modern days. Classical and contemporary theorists have agreed and differed on the interpretations and the application of the theory. Social theory is defined as the utilization of the theoretical methodologies and frameworks in the understanding of all social related phenomena that play a major role in shaping the human existence. Theorists in this field concern themselves on conflict resolution, behavior modification, political and economic fields (Harrington, 2005, 12). Social theories can be traced back in Greece. Moreover, social theory acquired more applications in life in early 20th century where a paradigm shift to critical rationale was witnessed. This essay will look into compare and contrast the contributions of Jürgen Habermas and Michel Foucault in social theory.

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According to Callinicos (2007), the history of social theory can be explained by looking into the contributions of various theorists. The pre-enlightenment period was inspired by the thoughts of Confucius and Plato who mainly delved on narratives that were aimed at arousing desired emotions in the society. They based their theories on justice and tolerance in the running of society. The enlightenment period witnessed the influence of Rousseau who stressed that men were responsible for their destiny and also came up with the factors that perpetuate inequality in society. He asserted that the liberty to institute changes lay in the hands of men. This view found favor with many rulers in the early 18th century. This was followed by the classical and modern social theories which heralded the invention of a distinct discipline from anthropology and philosophy. The contributions of Michel Foucault and Jürgen Harbemas came into the limelight during the post modernism era in 1970’s (Callinicos, 2007).

Jürgen Harbemas was one of the philosophers who have written widely on pragmatism and also helped in shaping critical theory. The work was mainly based on the understanding of the social theory in the context of the modern political entities. He was influenced by the works of Karl Marx and American structural functionalism.

Michel Foucault is credited for being the founder of post modern social theory through his works on medicine and human sexuality (Calhoun et al, 2006, p. 193). His books on human sciences and psychiatry have received accolade and criticisms in equal measure. The Madness and Civilizations book which presents his case on madness takes an in-depth view on the development of madness from the early days. His other works on Archeology of Knowledge describes the reasons behind utterances and speeches while making references to the society. In this volume, he borrows heavily and delivers critique particularly on the philosophy advocated by the British philosophers. Foucault was influenced by the work of Nietzsche (Craib, 1992).

Comparisons between Foucault and Harbemas works

Foucault and Harbemas have unarguably influenced and shaped the development of modern social theory. Through their respective works and differing ideologies, they have been able to impact on the way people view society while at the same time inspiring other philosophers to develop and improve on the theoretical perspectives. Both believed in the power of reason as the only viable and effective way of introducing universally acceptable values in civilizations. They also believed in the notion that reason is embedded in men and is driven by necessity. This meant that their works recognized the need to understand the whole individual in relation to the social and physical environment. The power of reason was not limited to the technical advancements of modernization but in the cultural and morality development (Elliot, 1999, p. 142-156).

The arguments on democratic discourses are similar since they are one sided. Harbemas admitted that they both lacked to offer a clear critique on the issue. Their arguments were instrumental in offering the basic tenets of democracy and described the processes that lead to the achievement of this discourse (Kelly et al, 1994, p.243).

Rationality and power were symbolic of the modern and postmodern theoretical perspectives. This was driven by the fact that the rise of decentralized and the freedom enjoyed by the people and the media. The two philosophers agreed that misuse of power and rationalization are pertinent problems that plaque the modern society. It is through the understanding of this that they both devised ways of providing solutions to the vices. Although they took different approaches, they actually acknowledged the need to come up with ways to save the masses (Craib, 1992).

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The works of Harbemas and Foucault are continuation of what Immanuel Kant had developed in his critical theory. Both theorists are against domination and subjugation in the society. Their developments take different forms but still borrow from Kant ideologies although at varying extents. Harbemas is overly involved in deciphering ways of helping the society disentangle itself from the problems affecting them by developing better theoretical approaches that will improve their situation. Harbemas argues that it’s the responsibility of humans to come up with solutions to their misgivings. Likewise, Foucault is instrumental in providing the tools that are vital in helping people understand their problems with the motive of synthesizing their own course of action. The response is designed to free the individuals from their problems without necessarily creating new power systems. In fact, Foucault and Harbemas have agreed that ignoring Kant’s work is a prerequisite of becoming irrational. This only serves to show how the Kant work provided the foundation for the two philosophers particularly in the development of critical theory systems (Brocklesby and Cummings, 1996, p.752).

The two authors acknowledged the need for freedom of power. In his Discipline and Punish volume, Foucault demonstrated that power was an intentional act which yielded fruits if the people are given the right to choose the way they want to be led. He argues that power is intended to make people work or behave in a different way from what they would have actually done. Moreover, Foucault stressed that power can be achieved through marketing or duress against the people. Harbemas also stressed the need for the freedom for power through his works on emancipation in modern institutions. He was vocal in the advocating for the freedom of the people to acquire the required resources for them to achieve their rational interests. Both philosophers influenced the role social theory played in agitating for democratic institutions and indirectly encourage the masses to seek for equality and freedom from their power systems (Callinicos, 2007).

Both theorists are evasive in advising on the correct path to be followed by the participants. According to Stone (1998), Harbemas and Foucault can be described as bottom up thinkers for failing to recommend political action to their envisaged problems. Whereas Harbemas would like to describe the procedures to be taken, he is reluctant to inform the participants about the ultimate outcome and its consequences on the society at large (148). On the other hand, Foucault only describes the action without even giving the course of action and the consequences of the outcome (Flyvbjerg, 1998, p.224).

Harbemas and Foucault have contributed greatly on the debate surrounding relativism. While Harbemas dismisses Foucault as a relativistic thinker, later day philosophers have termed Harbemas relativistic due to his inability to universally ground his ideals. This debate led Foucault to research on relativism and foundationalism with the aim of refuting the allegations. The debate made philosophers to start rethinking about the Plato assertion on relativism. Plato had noted that for a person to be non-relativistic, he must be rational in his thinking and universally ground his views. This has resulted in many philosophers to conclude that what Plato envisaged was conceptual and lacked the backing of actual phenomena (Flyvbjerg, 1998, p.221).

The theorists had comparisons in the way they approached and interpreted social theory. They both delved in administrative rationality and its subsequent political implications. The utilization of politics and tension is imperative for the clear understanding of the theories and modernity. The tension is mainly between the normative versus the reality (Cummings, 1998). The tension is a reflection of what the society aspires to receive against what they actually get from the authorities or fellow members at the end of the day. The tension manifested between consensus and the conflicts helps in the contextualization of modern democracy and civil society movement (Craib, 1992).

Contradictions between the Harbemas and Foucault

The theoretical approaches by both philosophers were contradictory to a large extent and stark differences existed between their works. Michel Foucault ideologies were based on power analytics and genealogy of knowledge that borrowed heavily from the views of Nietzsche. Harbemas on the other hand, was a proponent of the communication rationality. Harbemas also used discourse ethics in the explanation of the ethics and democracy in the society. These differences in approach led Harbemas to criticize the theory of power brought forward by Foucault. His argument was that the theory had a generalistic approach and thus dismissed it as untenable (Flyvbjerg, 1998, p.221-226).

Harbemas was a firm believer that morality is always based on consensus while Foucault was a proponent in the description of real history in relation to the impact to the conflict and power. This has led later day philosophers to try to come up with solutions to the problems that inflict much suffering to the humans using these approaches. Harbemas theory stresses the need for a clarification of the presuppositions that make the rationality of the processes responsible for bringing consensus. Harbemas therefore believed in communication driven by consensus that was only achievable through proper understanding and validation of the claims. The claims were mainly the speech acts that the two people exchanged during their communication. The consensus is usually taken to be universal and binding since they are inevitable (Stones, 1998). He also notes that the communicative ability is integrated with human life processes in the society. However, he admits that rationalization and power are the major deterrents in the success of the communicative rationality. On the other hand, Foucault made tremendous steps in showing the role knowledge plays in development of power. He envisaged that power and conflict were intertwined thus bringing into fore the need for consultations and negotiation (Layder, 2006, p. 124). The theoretical approach of discourse and the role it plays in the wider society was influential in the shaping of power relations in modern societies. This has made him one of the most influential philosophers with many later day philosophers using his work as a foundation.

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Harbemas argued that his theory is interested in procedural rationality unlike Foucault which is substantive. Harbemas tried to give explanations towards why people think the way they do. This was contrary to Foucault approach where he attempted to give explanations on why the person thinks what he thinks. According to Layder (2006), communication rationality is inherent in the utilization of knowledge in understanding of how language and action works (p.125). Harbemas was focused in devising ways of addressing the usefulness of claims unlike Foucault who dwelled in understanding the claims themselves. This was evident in his work on power where he analyses the relationship between power and knowledge. This way he was able to develop a clear path that showed how power worked through people. His argument was that power is attained through the realization of the undeniable rights, which become normalized in the individuals, before forms of resistance are witnessed (Ritzier, 2000, p. 46-87).

The major contribution of Harbemas to philosophy was in the understanding of the application of rational and critical communication in modern society. This is achieved through his works on the analysis of the modern political situations particularly in Germany. The critical approach on these societies by use of socio-evolutionary context was a great step in improving the peoples understanding of communication rationality. Through his contributions, he dismissed and identified loopholes in the ideals propagated by Foucault. Foucault argued that reason can only be visualized and achieved abstractly.

Another contradiction between the two philosophers was on social interaction aspect in the development of their theoretical perspectives. While Foucault was more focused on the individuals as pillars to his discussion, Harbemas was more interested in utilizing pragmatic structures in building on his communicative rationality. Harbemas therefore tied rationality in the explanation of its validity in the understanding of speech acts. On the other hand, Foucault used individuals in the development of discourse in society. The individuals find special meaning particularly when it comes to discussing the role of power and its implications to the wider society (Stone, 1998).

Harbemas works in relation to critical theory has elicited much debate thus leading to many reviews and comparative analysis with other philosophers work. Flyvbjerg (1998) noted that Harbemas was too normative and procedural thus leading to his failure to acknowledge the need to discuss the preconditions of achieving a discourse (p. 223). That he failed to expound on how his communication rationality would impact on society has led many philosophers to cast doubt on his ideals. This is opposite to what Foucault envisaged in his political thinking and ideals on power and conflict (Flyvbjerg, 1998, p.223).

The political thinking of the two philosophers had an impact in the acceptability of their views on society. While Harbemas was more concerned with the understanding of political ideals, he failed to integrate his works with the actual political processes. Foucault work is criticized mainly due to its reliance of generalized ideals as its foundation. Foucault has therefore served to expound on Immanuel Kant work. His works has been understood to offer the answers and rejoinders to Kant. This was achieved through understanding the real issues affecting the political scene (Flyvbjerg, 1998, p.18). On the other hand, Harbemas works tend to depart from the works of contemporary philosophers thereby offering a different perspective of rationalism. This departure made Foucault to stress the need for rationalism that appreciated the need for a critique of the rationalities.


Social theory helps in the understanding of behaviors and occurrences in the society. Social theory has played a big role in shaping the society and politics in the last three centuries. During the 18th century the theories were useful in arousing desired political emotions that helped shape the governance issues in Greece and Europe. Harbemas and Foucault have contributed much in the development of the social theory in the last few decades. Their contributions have made them influential philosophers whose works has been reviewed by many philosophers.

Both had similarities and differences in their approach and their works. Both believed in the freedom of power and were relativistic in their works. Harbemas and Foucault are evasive in offering precise direction to the participants through their procedural macro politics and substantive micro politics respectively. Harbemas was a firm believer that morality is always based on consensus while Foucault was a proponent in the description of real history in relation to the impact to the conflict and power. The political thinking of the two philosophers was contradictory with Harbemas more concerned with the understanding of political ideals without considering the actual political processes. On the other hand, Foucault ideas have been criticized for their generalization. Harbemas and Foucault have unarguably contributed to the development of the social theory.


Brocklesby, J. & Cummings, S. 1996. Foucault Plays Harbemas: An Alternative Philosophical Underpinning for Critical Systems Thinking. The Journal of the Operational Research Society, Vol. 47, No. 6, pp. 741-754. Web.

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Calhoun, C. et al., 2006, Contemporary Sociological Theory. London: Blackwell.

Craib, I., 1992, Modern Social Theory. New York: Wheat sheaf.

Elliott, A., 1999, The Blackwell Reader in Contemporary Social Theory. London: Blackwell.

Flyvbjerg, B., 1998, Harbemas and Foucault: thinkers for civil society. British Journal of Society, Vol. 49, No. 2, pp. 211-235.

Harrington, A., 2005, Modern Social Theory: An Introduction. London: Oxford University Press.

Kelly, M., Foucault, M., Habermas, J., Honneth, A., Fraser, H., Bernstein, R. McCarthy, H. Schmidt, J., Wartenberg, T., Deleuze, J. & Sawicki, K., 1994, Critique and power: recasting the Foucault/Harbemas debate. New York: Massacheuts Institute of Technology. Ritzer, G., 2000, Sociological Theory. Fifth Edition. Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill

Stones, R., 1998, Key Sociological Thinkers. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

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StudyCorgi. "Jürgen Habermas’ and Michel Foucault’s Contributions to Social Theory." December 29, 2021.


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