Knowledge and Human Interests

Knowledge and Human Interests
Author Jürgen Habermas
Original title Erkenntnis und Interesse
Translator Jeremy J. Shapiro
Country Germany
Language German
Subject Sociology of knowledge
Publisher Suhrkamp Verlag, Heinemann Educational Books
Publication date
Published in English
Media type Print (Hardcover and Paperback)
Pages 392 (1987 Polity edition)
ISBN 0-7456-0459-5 (Polity edition)

Knowledge and Human Interests (German: Erkenntnis und Interesse) is a 1968 book by the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas, in which the author gives an account of the development of the modern natural and human sciences. He criticizes Sigmund Freud, arguing that psychoanalysis is a branch of the humanities rather than a science, and provides a critique of Friedrich Nietzsche.

Habermas's first major systematic work, Knowledge and Human Interests has been compared to books such as the philosopher Paul Ricœur's Freud and Philosophy (1965). It received positive reviews, which identified it as forming part of an important body of work. However, critics have found Habermas's attempt to discuss the relationship between knowledge and human interests unsatisfactory, and his work obscure in style. Though some commentators have found his discussion of Freud valuable, Habermas's interpretation of Freud has been criticized by the philosopher Adolf Grünbaum in The Foundations of Psychoanalysis (1984).


According to Habermas, he first expounded the views he developed in the book in his Frankfurt inaugural address of June 1965, while his discussion of positivism, pragmatism and historicism had its origins in lectures he delivered in Heidelberg in 1963 and 1964. He expressed his indebtedness to the philosopher Karl-Otto Apel and the psychoanalysts Alexander Mitscherlich and Alfred Lorenzer.[1]


Habermas describes his work as "a historically oriented attempt to reconstruct the prehistory of modern positivism with the systematic intention of analyzing the connections between knowledge and human interests."[2] He argues that the sciences depend on ideological assumptions, and that enlightenment reason has become an instrument of domination.[3] Influenced by both Kantianism and Marxism, Habermas gives an account of the development of the modern natural and human sciences, concluding, on the basis of his inquiry into the social, historical, and epistemological conditions that made them possible, that the natural sciences depend upon the interest in technical control inherent in manual labor. The interaction and communication between human beings makes possible the historical and hermeneutic disciplines.[4][5]

The hermeneutic disciplines are techniques of understanding, and include branches of the humanities such as history, social anthropology, biography and philology. According to Habermas, psychoanalysis is a hermeneutic, and as such a branch of the humanities, rather than a scientific theory of the mind.[5][6] Habermas writes that psychoanalysis occupies an important place as an example within his framework.[7] He finds Freud guilty of "scientistic self-misunderstanding" in thinking that his work is a contribution to science. In his view, psychoanalysis, unlike science, does not aspire to causal knowledge. Instead of attempting to explain human behavior in terms of general causal laws, it aims to dissolve the causal nexus of the natural world: an analytic cure destroys the causal tie between a repression and its neurotic symptom, and thereby rescues the patient from the causal regime of nature.[8]

Habermas also discusses Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Karl Marx, Auguste Comte, Ernst Mach, Charles Sanders Peirce, Wilhelm Dilthey,[9] and provides a critique of Friedrich Nietzsche.[10]

Publication history

Knowledge and Human Interests was first published by Suhrkamp Velag in 1968, with the exception of its appendix, which was first published in Merkur in 1965. In 1972, the book was published in English translation by Heinemann Educational Books. In 1987, an English edition was published by Polity Press in association with Blackwell Publishers.[11]


Mainstream media

Knowledge and Human Interests was reviewed by the philosopher Alan Ryan in The New York Review of Books.[12]

Academic journals

Knowledge and Human Interests received positive reviews from Fred E. Jandt in the Journal of Applied Communications Research,[13] and Thomas B. Farrell in the Quarterly Journal of Speech,[14] and a mixed review from the sociologist Steven Lukes in the British Journal of Sociology.[15] The book was also reviewed by the sociologist David Martin in the Jewish Journal of Sociology,[16] the sociologist Anthony Giddens in the American Journal of Sociology,[17] and Lawrence Hazelrigg in Current Perspectives in Social Theory,[18] and discussed by Paul Ricœur in the Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association,[19] Rainer Nagele, Roland Reinhart, and Roger Blood in New German Critique,[20] Kenneth Colburn Jr. in Sociological Inquiry,[21] Steven Vogel in Praxis International,[22] Richard Tinning in Quest,[23] Ananta Kumar Giri in the European Journal of Social Theory,[24] Jennifer Scuro in The Oral History Review,[25] and Myriam N. Torres and Silvia E. Moraes in the International Journal of Action Research.[26] In Philosophy of the Social Sciences, it received discussions from Stephen D. Parsons and Michael Power.[27][28]

Jandt found the book, and Habermas's work in general, promising, though he wrote that it was not easy to assess it, because of Habermas's competence in fields ranging from the logic of science to the sociology of knowledge.[13] Farrell found the book ambitious in its goals and dispassionate in its approach. He believed that it formed part of a body of work which "comprises a dialectic sufficiently rigorous to indict and perhaps dislodge behavioral and scientistic theories of communication."[14]

Lukes found the book disappointing. He wrote that, "Its style is unnecessarily obscure and high-flown, its lack of fine-grained philosophical analysis disappointing, and its concentration on the exegesis of other thinkers essentially diversionary." He maintained that while Habermas had interesting things to say about several thinkers, especially Freud, most of the exegesis was "familiar", while some of it was "perverse", such as Habermas's "juxtaposition of Comte and Mach under the label of 'positivism'." He credited Habermas with providing a systematic account of his view of his "philosophical ancestors", which he considered valuable since Habermas was an important representative of the Frankfurt School, but believed Habermas failed to provide a satisfactory discussion of critical science or a direct discussion of the connection between knowledge and human interests.[15]

Ricœur endorsed Habermas's view that psychoanalysis misunderstood itself by claiming to be a natural science.[19] Colburn questioned whether Habermas's attempt to demonstrate the connection between knowledge and interest helped him to critique positivism. He argued that while, according to Habermas, "interest would need to be independent of knowledge", such is not the case, and "the distinction between knowledge and interest ... fails to be warranted". He wrote that Habermas, "achieves his definition of knowledge semantically, because he is merely redefining objective knowledge as subjective knowledge."[29] Giri discussed Habermas in relation to the Indian philosopher Sri Aurobindo, attempting to criticize both.[24] Torres and Moraes described Knowledge and Human Interests as a "seminal work", and credited Habermas with providing "the theoretical framework for understanding curriculum and educational research."[30] Power examined and reappraised Habermas's arguments.[28]

Evaluations in books

The philosopher Walter Kaufmann, writing in a 1974 appendix to Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist (first published 1950) criticized Habermas for poor scholarship in his treatment of Nietzsche, noting that he relied on the inadequate edition of Nietzsche's works prepared by Karl Schlechta.[31] The philosopher Adolf Grünbaum, writing in The Foundations of Psychoanalysis (1984), criticized Habermas's discussion of the scientific status of psychoanalysis, arguing that Habermas misunderstands psychoanalysis and is ignorant of science and its practices.[32] The philosopher Jeffrey Abramson, writing in Liberation and Its Limits: The Moral and Political Thought of Freud (1986), compared Knowledge and Human Interests to Herbert Marcuse's Eros and Civilization (1955), Norman O. Brown's Life Against Death (1959), Philip Rieff's Freud: The Mind of the Moralist (1959) and Paul Ricœur's Freud and Philosophy (1965), writing that they jointly placed Freud at the center of moral and philosophical inquiry.[33] The philosopher Tom Rockmore, writing in Habermas on historical materialism (1989), described Knowledge and Human Interests as a "complex study". Writing in 1989, he commented that its status within Habermas's corpus "is at present difficult to determine", since although it was widely discussed when it appeared and was regarded as Habermas's most significant work to date, it is unclear whether the book is more important than Habermas's The Theory of Communicative Action (1981). He suggested that because that subsequent study remains dependent on the analysis in Knowledge and Human Interests, the earlier book may eventually be recognized as Habermas's most significant work. He found Habermas's discussion of Freud valuable, but wrote that by attributing a view of knowledge and interest similar to his to Freud, Habermas "cloaks his own theory in the prestige of Freud's."[34]

The philosopher Jonathan Lear, writing in Love and Its Place in Nature (1990), blamed Knowledge and Human Interests, along with Ricœur's Freud and Philosophy, for convincing some psychoanalysts that reasons cannot be causes, a view Lear considers part of a mistaken philosophical tradition. Lear credited Grünbaum with effectively criticizing Habermas in The Foundations of Psychoanalysis.[35] The historian Paul Robinson found Habermas's thinking about the nature of analytic cures obscure.[8] The critic Frederick Crews, writing in Unauthorized Freud (1998), criticized Habermas for helping to inspire unscientific defenses of Freud and psychoanalysis, and charged him with misunderstanding Freud. Crews endorsed Grünbaum's criticism of Habermas in The Foundations of Psychoanalysis.[36] The philosopher Jon Barwise, writing in The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy (1999), identified Knowledge and Human Interests as Habermas's first major systematic work.[37]



  1. Habermas 1987, pp. vii–viii.
  2. Habermas 1987, p. vii.
  3. Inwood 2005, p. 312.
  4. Norris 2005, p. 356.
  5. 1 2 Mautner 2000, p. 231.
  6. Robertson 1999, p. xxxi.
  7. Habermas 1987, p. viii.
  8. 1 2 Robinson 1993, pp. 188–189.
  9. Habermas 1987, pp. 7–42, 71–79, 81–89, 91–112, 140–160.
  10. Habermas 1987, pp. 290–300.
  11. Habermas 1987, p. iv.
  12. Ryan 2003, p. 43.
  13. 1 2 Jandt 1975, pp. 64–65.
  14. 1 2 Farrell 1977, pp. 102–104.
  15. 1 2 Lukes 1972, pp. 499–500.
  16. Martin 1973, pp. 121–122.
  17. Giddens 1977, pp. 198–212.
  18. Hazelrigg 2009, pp. 189–206.
  19. 1 2 Ricœur 1988, pp. viii, 259, 304.
  20. Nagele, Reinhart & Blood 1981, p. 41.
  21. Colburn 1986, pp. 367–380.
  22. Vogel 1988, pp. 329–349.
  23. Tinning 1992, pp. 1–14.
  24. 1 2 Giri 2004, pp. 85–103.
  25. Scuro 2004, pp. 43–69.
  26. Torres & Moraes 2006, pp. 343–374.
  27. Parsons 1992, p. 218.
  28. 1 2 Power 1993, p. 26.
  29. Colburn 1986, p. 375.
  30. Torres & Moraes 2006, p. 343, 351.
  31. Kaufmann 2013, pp. 452–453.
  32. Grünbaum 1984, pp. 9–43.
  33. Abramson 1986, p. ix.
  34. Rockmore 1989, pp. 49, 66–67.
  35. Lear 1992, p. 49.
  36. Crews 1999, p. xxix.
  37. Barwise 1999, p. 359.



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  • Habermas, Jürgen (1987). Knowledge and Human Interests. Boston: Polity Press. ISBN 0-7456-0459-5. 
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  • Martin, David (1973). "Knowledge and Human Interests (Book)". Jewish Journal of Sociology. 15 (1).    via EBSCO's Academic Search Complete (subscription required)
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  • Ryan, Alan (2003). "The Power of Positive Thinking". The New York Review of Books. 50 (1).    via EBSCO's Academic Search Complete (subscription required)
  • Scuro, Jennifer (2004). "Exploring Personal History: A Case Study of an Italian Immigrant Woman". The Oral History Review. 31 (1).    via EBSCO's Academic Search Complete (subscription required)
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