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Between emancipation and domination: Habermasian reflections on the empowerment and disempowerment of the human subject

Warwick University
Publication Date
  • Politics
  • Communication
  • Linguistics


Habermas’s ‘linguistic turn’ can be regarded as a systematic attempt to locate the normative foundations of critical theory in the rational foundations of language. This endeavour is motivated by the insight that any theoretical framework that is committed to the emancipation of the human condition needs to identify the normative grounds on which both its critique of social domination and its pursuit of social liberation can be justified. Just as Habermas’s firm belief in the possibility of human emancipation manifests itself in the concept of the ‘ideal speech situation’, his radical critique of human domination cannot be separated from the concept of ‘systematically distorted communication’. Although the significance of these two concepts for Habermas’s communication-theoretic approach to the social has been widely recognised and extensively debated in the literature, their overall importance for a critical theory of human empowerment and disempowerment has hardly been explored in a satisfying manner. Drawing upon Habermas’s communication-theoretic conception of human coexistence, this paper makes a case for the view that a comprehensive critical theory of society needs to account for both the emancipatory and the repressive potentials of language if it seeks to do justice to both the empowering and the disempowering potentials of the subject.

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