Richard Beringer, Exhibition Poster

Jürgen Habermas: Legitimation Crisis

This is an online course (Eastern Time)

Today, Jürgen Habermas is known as one of the foremost public intellectuals of Europe. His scholarly corpus stretches from classical philosophy to sociology, linguistics to psychology, systems theory to religion, Critical Theory to pragmatism, alongside an equally vast body of public writings on politics, society, current events, and beyond. However, it was Habermas’ relatively early 1973 work Legitimation Crisis that introduced his thought to many political theorists and scientists. The idea of a “legitimation crisis”—which has seen a massive resurgence of interest in the context of recent political, social, and economic upheavals—attempts to recast Marxian crisis theory in the context of Keynesian state-managed capitalism. In the attempt to manage endemic capitalist economic crises, crises are not resolved per se but shifted or displaced onto other sites: political, social, cultural, or even ecological. A legitimation crisis describes a situation in which even proper systemic management (that is, rational capitalist management) falls short of mass expectations—expectations set, in part, by the very ideals that its functioning promises. In other words, political structures are no longer seen as performing the roles for which they were instituted. “The penalty for this failure is withdrawal of legitimation.” Or, put simply, the result is mass disillusionment (and potentially much more). What can Legitimation Crisis teach us about Habermas’s thought and the world today? How and why do the ideas and analyses of Legitimation Crisis—forged in the manifold crises of the 1970s—speak to contemporary conditions in the 21st century?

In this class, we will take up these and related questions by reading Legitimation Crisis alongside more current writings which take up, critique, and recast this work for the present day. What is legitimacy and why does it matter? Can a Habermasian notion of legitimacy be in productive conversation or contrast with the Gramscian notion of hegemony? How can these frameworks help us understand capitalism, society, and states?  How is Legitimation Crisis simultaneously one of Habermas’ most Marxist texts and one that advances some of his most transcendental, idealist postulates like the “ideal speech situation” and theory of “communicative action”? How and why does the text take up seemingly classic Critical Theoretical arguments in its analytic frameworks, while embracing liberal norms that, as Deborah Cook notes, a thinker like Adorno thought useful only in the immanent critique of society, long since bereft of the possibility “to motivate truly radical and transformative protest movements.” Some of Legitimation Crisis’ best criticslike Nancy Frasersee considerable value in its frameworks despite identifying many lacunae and shortcomings. How can we understand the economic and social crises of the early ’70s alongside the political activities mounted by the New Left and the anti-imperial and anti-colonial movements of that era? How do these speak to or differ from conditions today, so far from the discrete, state-centered world of Habermas’s theory? How can we understand crisis itself? In addition to Legitimation Crisis, we will study texts and ideas from Nancy Fraser, Albena Azmanova, Raymond Geuss, Claus Offe, Michael Dawson, Max Weber, Karl Marx, and others as we grapple with Legitimation Crisis in its own terms and in some of its myriad responses and reincarnations.

Course Schedule

Tuesday, 6:30-9:30pm EST
March 08 — March 29, 2022
4 weeks


Registration Open