By Thomas Assheuer
No contemporary German philosopher attracts as much worldwide attention as Jürgen Habermas. A portrait on his 80th birthday
In the late 1960s you read Jürgen Habermas’s books secretly, under your school desk, and made sure you weren’t caught by your teacher. Today, Habermas’s texts are compulsory reading. If you are not familiar with his key concepts, make sure you aren’t caught, because its author has become a classic in his own lifetime and is as famous as a professor of philosophy can possibly be. This is not a good sign, because the rule for classics is that, although everybody knows their formulae, we have forgotten their philosophical motifs, where the heart of their thoughts beats.
The basic motif in Jürgen Habermas’s thought is there for everyone to see, yet it is difficult for readers to find. Sometimes it is well camouflaged in grey-suited academic objectivity; sometimes it disappears beneath towers of explanations. Yet it has been clearly visible from the outset, even in his first works as a student. Greatly simplified, the motif runs as follows: anyone who looks back over the history of humankind sees a litany of horror, a scandalous history of violence and repeated violence. And yet – there is undeniable progress; despite all the setbacks there is such a thing as social “evolution” and with it a chance to civilize power and violence and perhaps, one day, to abolish it altogether. The medium of self-civilization is human language, because all speaking implies a goal, the “telos of understanding”. Communication interrupts the world’s state of war.
If you suspect a powerful idealistic heritage in this thought, you are initially right. In his reading of the idealist philosopher Schelling, Habermas, then a student in his early twenties, had come across a wonderful but extremely speculative thought which fascinates him to this day. “God the Father”, according to Schelling, had withdrawn from creation and left it to humankind. However, he went on, these creatures with the talent of freedom had an obligation to make proper use of their freedom. With the help of their language, they had to create the same relationship of respect among themselves as God had maintained with them when he gave them the gift of autonomy. Anyone violating this covenant with God was again committing an “original sin”.
Habermas, who was strongly influenced by the existentialist philosopher Heidegger and the anthropologist Gehlen, wrote his doctoral dissertation on Schelling and gave his interpretation an astonishing turn. He proposed a bridge to the early writings of Marx, because the latter’s social criticism enabled him to understand Schelling’s talk of sin in a very clear, very materialistic way. It is a sin when power relationships prevail over language relationships – when the “freedmen and women of creation” choose not understanding, but, as so often in history, violence.
Now philosophers are not writers of fiction and poetry, so they have to thoroughly sober up the motifs with which they are “infected”, cleanse them from speculative waste products and make them understandable to the enlightened public using clear concepts. It is precisely this that Habermas elevated to his programme. Using the cold cutlery of science, he wanted to prove that language is not merely a weapon in the Babylonian civil war of society, a mask of power. His counter-formula was: if you hold the fabric of language up against the light for long enough, investigate its laws ardently enough – you will recognize that it contains a normativity, a claim to truth that we might disregard but cannot fundamentally eliminate. You can lie and exercise power with words; but a language built entirely on lies and deceit cannot exist. “The sting of claims to truth can be found even in pathologically distorted communications.”
We can imagine the explosive impact on the theory-hungry intellectuals of the 1960s that was exerted by a communication philosophy which started with Schelling, was fortified with Marx, and then hardened using the means of linguistics. They read Habermas in exactly the way he meant it: as a call for radical democracy and radical criticism. Democracy is damaged where the “public” are controlled by opinion monopolies, manipulated by lobbyists and patronized by politicians. And democracies are flawed if they abandon themselves blindly to the automatism of progress, to “science and technology as an ideology” (quote from a study written in 1968), without developing informed opinions.
At that time there was much talk of “freedom from domination”; in his writing, Habermas even claimed to see an “objective interest” in emancipation. What strikes one today, by contrast, is a different characteristic of these books, a cultural conservatism or, to phrase it more cautiously, a deep ambivalence. On the one hand, Habermas admires modern societies because – for the first time in history – they establish democratic processes and expand the discursive “scope” of communicative rationality. On the other hand, however, modern societies are to feared because their functional systems develop excessive power. The capitalistic constraints of the market collide with democratic self-determination.
The threads of these thoughts run together to form a monumental knot in the two-volume Theory of Communicative Action (1981). This principal work has been rightly celebrated as a departure from the pessimistic thinking of the “Frankfurt School”. Yet the same conflict is still to be found within its covers. The breathtaking dynamics of capitalism, as well as science and technology, drive society forward, but at the same time these complex “systems” pose an invisible threat. They lay siege to the citizen’s vulnerable “living environment” – their benefit calculations infiltrate the old, “unconsciously known” traditions and take root in the pre-political, private and family spheres. In a word, there is a contradiction lurking in modernity. Although its systems provide relief from material poverty, they are almost impossible to explain in terms of people’s everyday lives, or else they penetrate like “colonial masters” into the “pores” of evolved ways of living and infiltrate them through commercialization, bureaucratization and scientification.
Translated to today’s conditions, this means that demanding that society be organized as a profit centre from the cradle to the grave entails a form of economic “colonialization”. The same applies to the ruthless drive to make universities “efficient”. And if the biosciences were to succeed in genetically manipulating “old subjects” and have them line up in the park like Lego figures – this would be a victory of scientific logic over the living environment.
His work contains a brightly shining promise of freedom
Perhaps it is this refracted view of the present shadowed by scepticism that explains Jürgen Habermas’s academic career and global impact. He devotes himself unconditionally to the spirit of modernity; his works contain a brightly shining promise of freedom and promote the rule of law and democracy with emotional eloquence. At the same time, they draw on a romantic motif, namely reconciliation and understanding. His works thus remain sensitive to the coercions of a market-shaped world redemption, to a rationality without happiness, to the drabness of empty freedom and meaningless progress.
In the 1980s, Habermas’s saving formula was “reconciliation of self-decaying modernity”, which was why capitalism and democracy, sciences and art were to be rebalanced as in a hanging mobile. For the radical left the project was too pious; the conservatives pursued the self-professed left-wing intellectual with open hatred and denounced Habermas as a intellectual mentor of terrorism. These are the battles of yesterday. When you read today the argumentative force with which a conservative like Ernst-Wolfgang Böckenförde settles old scores with neo-liberalism and the dominance of the market over legitimate democracy, you wonder what all the passionate and hurtful disputes were about for so many years. It’s almost as though Habermas had welded the republic together with the quarrel he triggered – and in the process changed both his own arguments and those of his opponents. He was epoch-making in terms of collective consciousness; no other shaped the intellectual physiognomy of the Federal Republic like he did, and he made a crucial contribution to its moral new beginning.
Jürgen Habermas: Biography
Jürgen Habermas, born in Düsseldorf on 18 June 1929, studied philosophy, psychology, economics, and German language and literature in Göttingen, Zürich and Bonn. In 1956 Habermas became a research assistant at the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt am Main. After writing his postdoctoral thesis under Wolfgang Abendroth in Marburg, Hans-Georg Gadamer brought him to Heidelberg. In 1964 Habermas became Professor of Philosophy and Sociology in Frankfurt am Main. Left-wing students were soon celebrating the rising academic star as their intellectual mentor. Between 1971 and 1980 he was Director of the Starnberg Max Planck Institute for Research on Conditions of Life in a Scientific-Technical World. Habermas’s speech on being awarded the Adorno Prize in 1980 on “Modernity: An Incomplete Project” provoked a long-lasting dispute on post-modernism and post-structuralism. His intervention against the historical revisionism of historian Ernst Nolte in 1985 sparked off the Historikerstreit (Historians’ Dispute), a controversy over how to deal with the German past.