Encyclopedia of Teacher Education

Living Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Habermas and Education

  • Claudia Pontón RamosEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-13-1179-6_130-1


The purpose of this entry is to provide a general description of the motives that led to the recovery of an author such as Jürgen Habermas in the analysis of the characteristics of education as a field and object of knowledge. An object that relates to a phenomenon is characterized by the involvement of multiple disciplines and settings – including social, political, economic, philosophical, and cultural – and also responds to a multi-temporality, which confers many views, perspectives, and conflicts of meaning. In the academic sphere, education and training are defined as the main focus of analysis; educability, for its part, is a concept that refers to the viability of the educational process and its inherent formative nature. In this thematic context, retrieving an author such as Habermas is directly related to the influence of philosophical thought and its impact in shaping educational knowledge and human education.

In this respect, two main aspects are recovered: the first is related to the lines of research at the University and Education Research Institute (IISUE) of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), and the second highlights the inclusion of an author such as Habermas in the Latin American setting and, more specifically, Mexico. This work is structured around those two main axes.

Institutional Profiles and Research Trajectory: Historical Background

The University and Education Research Institute (IISUE) is part of the Humanities subsystem of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). The objectives of this subsystem are centered on research that is directed toward proposing solutions to the country’s social problems, including their international dimension. Therefore, its activities – both academic and in institutional management – are directed toward the disclosure of its research and teaching activities in humanities and social sciences. It is formed by 31 university bodies oriented toward the generation of knowledge in the area of humanities and social sciences.

In this contextual framework, it is important to stress that the UNAM is recognized as an important institution in our country, for its historical significance and intellectual legacy. As part of this institutional structure, the IISUE assumes two main responsibilities: the development of research on University and Education and the safekeeping and promotion of the Historical Archive of the UNAM (AHUNAM). Research is centered on the study of University and Education, from inter-, multi-, and transdisciplinary perspectives, supported by diverse approaches: sociological, philosophical, historical, pedagogical, psychological, etc. The contemplated areas of research are curriculum, training and association, sociocultural diversity in education, history of education and culture, education policy, and educational thought and theory.

It is the area of educational thought and theory, formed by a group of researchers with different disciplinary training and academic trajectories, who develop works related to the analysis of concept building in the educational and pedagogical field, their lines of thinking, classical and contemporary authors, currents, and methodological and conceptual approaches of education as an object of study, highlighting its ontological, epistemological, conceptual, cultural-historical, environmental, and even artistic dimensions.

From this joint reflection on the subject, a line of research has been developed under the name of Educational Theory, Genealogy, and Thought, which has given rise to other subthemes that focus their reflection and analysis on four main axes: (a) theoretical issues and delimitations of education in Mexico; (b) philosophy, theory, and field of education; (c) postgraduate training practices and processes at the UNAM; and (d) identity and vocational training of university students. The first two thematic axes are specifically linked to recovering different perspectives, schools of thought, and theoretical tendencies needed to broaden the historical and conceptual debate on education as a field of knowledge.

Through the development of academic projects and the inclusion and consolidation of certain research groups, and an active and permanent participation in conferences on the relationship between theory and education and critical thinking and education, spaces for reflection have been created with a shared objective of generating and developing the study, analysis, and discussion related to current debates on social sciences and humanities and education, as well as reviewing the contributions of different theories and authors related to the field of knowledge of teaching and education. This academic community recognizes that education is located on two parallel levels of analysis: on one hand, regarding its interventionist and practical character and, on the other hand, its theoretical and conceptual scope in social sciences and humanities.

And it is a result of this interest in broadening the epistemic and conceptual dimensions of education that plural and diverse reference frameworks have been identified and recovered, as well as authors who contribute to the outline of viable paths toward a deeper analysis of the historical, conceptual, and methodological settings of this complex and multiferefential field of knowledge. By understanding education as a sociocultural process that is constantly under construction, different benchmarks can be identified, which in turn allow alternative analytical perspectives to be recaptured and articulated for its study.

In this section, it is important to highlight that the connection between the research developed by the area of educational thought and theory at the Institute and the recovery of an author such as Habermas responds in large part to the need to abandon the debate related to the historical and philosophical study associated with theoretical and conceptual issues in the field of teaching and education in Mexico.

Incorporating Jürgen Habermas into the Latin American Setting: Nuances and Alternative Routes in the Analysis of Education

Since the late 1970s, in Latin America generally and Mexico specifically, the Frankfurt School and Habermas have been recovered in very diverse debates related more directly with sociological and philosophical thought; and it is within these disciplinary frameworks that the strengths and limitations of their principles have been identified, but the contributions of relevant authors have also been recognized, such as Levinas, Sartre, Ricoeur, and Otto Apel, among others.

The first approaches to the reflections of Habermas were also seen within the social sciences in the same decade, with the inclusion of the work of the Frankfurt School as reading reference, especially the Critical Theory, which was adopted as an analytical route that made it possible to identify the central issues for thinking about, reflecting on, and analyzing some of the theoretical and conceptual dimensions of education, recognizing it as a wide and open space of knowledge that includes and identifies a large range of discursive register.

At an epistemological level, the efforts of the Critical Theory are directed toward a critique of positivism and a contribution in the support of a methodological platform aimed toward the development of interdisciplinary research. And although its initial intellectual postures were supported by academic sociology and German philosophy, its contributions were also claimed by the postcolonial debate, including postures that result in a critical social science, which together with socio-anthropological views backed by a social theory and political philosophy bring up concerns revolving around the construction of routes of analysis and reflection aimed toward understanding and recognizing different social and educational figures as potential referents in the construction of alternative horizons and ways of thinking of other possible worlds.

For authors such as Basil Bernstein and M. Daiz (1984), for example, educational discourse constitutes a dominant device for the regulation of cultural and educational reproduction; this author stresses that it is within the intellectual scope of education that new relationships have been formed with other fields and regions.

In the literature, it is common to find acknowledgment of the impact and influence of the Frankfurt School and its followers, as part of an intellectual movement characterized by interdisciplinary work, aimed at understanding the development of scientific reason, morality – from a critical perspective – as the conditions that determined contemporary modernity. Habermas, as a representative of the second generation of the Frankfurt School, attempted to reformulate the Critical Theory of society, giving it a theoretical communicative spin, supported by discourse ethics that, associated with the psychological perspective of Piaget and Kohlberg, highlighted the moral-cognitive development of individuals. This paper considers that such conceptual and analytical support provides elements that allow a deeper reflection of human education.

From the early approaches to this perspective, the level of impact and influence can be identified within the social sciences in general, one of the first aspects that attracted attention was that, although this intellectual movement was developed under specific circumstances in the German context, the temporality of its proposals is viable in the analysis of the effects of capitalism in the west in general. In this context, Habermas is recovered as a representative author of rationalism, defender and critic of modernity, understood by him as part of a historical process that characterized the development of European/occidental societies during the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries.

In turn, for his critics, a great weakness in his approaches refers to the lack of accordance between the ideal and reality and between the intentions and their implementation; they consider that his approaches acquire a sense of universalism, characterized largely by deep roots in the period of Enlightenment, which tie him to a formalist and categorical discourse that supports the rational and universal bases of his ethical discourse. Although it is important to analyze these aspects with a sense of self-criticism, Habermas cannot cease to be recognized as a philosopher who has significantly contributed to understanding the modernity project and its forms of rationality, with emphasis on the creation of a political project focused on the constitution of human forms and social coexistence.

This work wishes to highlight that within the educational and pedagogic discourse, the need to build alternative semiotic spaces is more and more evident, spaces which contribute to the formation of individuals who are cognitively, emotionally, and politically connected with the presence and recognition of new collective identities that outline the possibility of diverse forms of life and socialization (in Mexico, e.g., there would be emphasis on the forms of organization of the Zapatista communities in the State of Chiapas).

In a previous work, Pontón (2011), analyzing the aspects of this subject related to conceptual and historical settings in the field of teaching and education in Mexico, put forward that the hermeneutic approach of Habermas represented a viable reference in approaching the analysis of the social phenomena and reality, placing itself as an alternative that questions the positivist perspective, which had a significant presence in the field of knowledge.

In Knowledge and Human Interest, for example, Habermas (1982) developed a critique based on the presence of positivism, placing emphasis on its normative dimension and scientific configuration processes. At first, the inclusion of Habermas specifically represented a viable and coherent possibility to delve deeper into aspects related to the epistemological status of social sciences generally, and pedagogy in particular.

For this purpose, the work resorted to some authors that identified themselves with the development of Western-European philosophy, such as Gadamer, Rorty, Ricoeur, Apel, Derrida, Foucault, and Habermas himself; the latter stood out because of his explicit intention to develop a theory that differed from the objective sciences, based on the Critical Theory, with the objective not only of surpassing the proposals of positivism and limitations of Marxism but also of building the dialogic foundations needed to achieve social transformation. Other important subjects derived from these proposals are related to the debate on modern democracy and the reinforcement of a civil society.

With these initial foundations, an editorial project was defined at the IISUE in 2014, with the title, Cultura, Educación y Hermenéutica: Entramados conceptuales y teóricos (Culture, Education and Hermeneutics: Conceptual and Theoretical Framework), in coordination with Mauricio Beuchot, which recovers the general discussions from a discussion board organized in 2009 by the University and Education Research Institute (IISUE) and the Institute of Philological Research (IIFL) of the UNAM. It was a joint initiative of the Interinstitutional Seminar of Research on Theory and Education of the IISUE and the Hermeneutics Seminar of the IIFL.

In this institutional context, a work was presented that analyzed the relationship between hermeneutics and education, from the perspective of Habermas. Its opening premise stipulated that this author made certain bases explicit which permitted stepping beyond the old lines of reasoning and traditional forms of knowledge and thinking of reality, thus including, in the area of social and general human sciences, new forms of analytical articulation that acknowledged the sociolinguistic and cultural-political implications that come together in this area of knowledge (Pontón 2014).

This work emphasized that the contributions of Habermas were recovered because they are considered to be a theoretical and conceptual platform that highlights the importance of recognizing the analytical rigor of human and social theories, vindicating the historical dimension of knowledge departing from discourse ethics.

Flyubjerg (1999) mentioned, for example, the existence of strong criticism against the universalist sense of this proposal; the author considers that the proximity between Habermas and the discourse of the Enlightenment, derived from Socrates and Plato and through Kant, places him somewhat at a disadvantage compared with other authors such as Foucault, Nietzsche, or Derrida, who considered it impossible to think of communication and rationality in isolation or beyond the margins of power. Another claim of the critics is that Habermas does not demonstrate which of the rational and universal foundations of his ethical discourse are possible.

Although various critiques of Habermas can be identified, and a future work may be centered on them, the recovery of his work responds to the lines of investigation that some of the researchers of the area of educational thought and theory of the IISUE have committed to work on. Within this framework, Habermas is recognized as one of the authors who has contributed to the development of issues that are considered central from the point of view of Philosophy of Education, such as the analysis of education and its formative dimensions, which recovers the matter of the subject and its ethical and political implications. The recovery of the hermeneutic perspective at a point of mediation between its two extremes – scientism and philosophical tradition – makes it a viable option for the analysis of education as an object of study, recognizing its implications in human education.

For Habermas, hermeneutics is a means to explore the values and norms at play in social life and, therefore, an alternative route in the analysis of our reality; the author makes emphasis also in the fact that positivism, in its broadest sense, is a tendency that limits and restricts the realm of rationality, limiting the active role of the subject in the production of knowledge. In counterpart to this, he states the need to recover the active role of the individual in the understanding and construction of knowledge. This allows for a resignification of the problem of the subject as a polyvalent, multiple, and overdetermined aspect.

In this author, we find an approach to the issue of the subject and the production of subjectivities, supported by philosophy, linguistics, legal sciences, and sociology. From the analytical and theoretical perspectives, Habermas highlights the notion of contemplative subjects, limited by classical rational reflection and exposed to a continuous process of self-regulation, in which acting is conditioned by the criteria of universal pragmatism and understanding.

In 2015, another editorial project was defined at the IISUE, with the title Filosofía y Educación: vínculos y desarticulaciones (Philosophy and Education: Connections and Disarticulations), which highlighted the relationship between culture and education with the retrieval of reflections by Habermas. Specifically, the central focus of this paper is the recovery of education as an integral part of cultural reproduction. In this article, it can be seen that the connection school,/society/culture has been expanded upon since the nineteen seventies; and in this triad, from his Critical Theory of society, Habermas has made it explicit that there is a strong questioning of the deterministic approaches of Marxism, providing certain instruments of intelligibility aimed toward building, or at least outlining, the development of reflexive thinking and action, both individually and collectively (Pontón and Valle 2015).

The Critical Theory, as an analytical perspective, incorporated ethics, social philosophy, philosophy of history and culture, collective psychology, and political economy. All these different views established connections through time, and achieved a presence in the intellectual and academic sphere, represented by the different generations of the Frankfurt School. The representatives of this School promoted the opening of a space for interrogations about the sense of history; for acknowledging the drive of interdisciplinary social sciences, they identified the impact of industrialization and its effects on the consolidation of a rationalized system that eliminated the autonomous subject. For Ortíz (2001), for example, the Critical Theory displayed the generalization of the phenomenon of rationalization that envelops the social order as a whole, causing the disappearance of the individual.

Within the area of teaching and education, at least in Mexico, the debate on the subject or individual has acquired particular interest on the part of some academic communities characterized by the construction and promotion of a permanent dialog about the epistemic and theoretical analysis associated with this field of knowledge. For example, authors such as Habermas, and others, have strengthened the conceptual and analytical platform for reflections on the connection between the subject, culture, and education, contributing to building a path that enables a deeper analysis of the concern for the human condition, and its links with the notions of subject and formation, as potential benchmarks for considerations on education as a formative space, and pedagogy as a disciplinary benchmark that has historically undertaken this thematic dimension.

It is important to emphasize that incorporating the perspective of Habermas makes it possible to overcome the marginal and reductionist character that has been attributed to theoretical reflections within the field of education and its different forms of institutionalism. It also makes it possible to emphasize the practical dimension of educational theory, thought of as a Critical Theory of education, by bringing forth and redefining human formation as part of an ethical commitment and a social and political co-responsibility.


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© Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University and Education Research Institute, UNAMMexicoMexico

Section editors and affiliations

  • Ana Valle
    • 1
  1. 1.National Autonomous University of MexicoMexicoMexico