Renowned for his analysis of democracy and rule of law, he is one of the most influential thinkers alive. As he turns 90, Jürgen Habermas is not about to stop getting involved in the big questions of our time.
Jürgen Habermas, who is turning 90 on June 18, is one of the most influential German thinkers of our time. Yet even at his age, he remains incredibly active. Ahead of the recent elections in the EU, Habermas was actively campaigning in Berlin against narrow-minded nationalism. A longtime promoter of the democratization of Europe, the philosopher and author was awarded the German-French Media Prize in July 2018.
His next book, to be titled Auch eine Geschichte der Philosophie (Also a History of Philosophy) is coming out in September. It’s a two-volume work of 1,700 pages, which, according to his publishers, not only covers the development of philosophy since Antiquity, but also reflects on the role it has played in society.
Habermas always goes for the big picture, and he’s always been ready to get involved in major social debates. He is one of Germany’s few public intellectuals to regularly take a stand on political issues.
The creation of a public sphere
Jürgen Habermas was born in Dusseldorf in 1929. Today, he lives in the Bavarian town of Starnberg. His name, however, is most closely associated with the city of Frankfurt — more specifically, with a school of social and critical theory known as the Frankfurt School.
He earned a doctorate in philosophy in Bonn in 1954, with a dissertation on German philosopher Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling (1775-1854). In 1964, he took over the chair of philosophy and sociology from the University of Frankfurt from Max Horkheimer (1895-1973), a position he held until 1971.
His postdoctoral thesis from 1961, Strukturwandel der Öffentlichkeit (published in English translation in 1989 as The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere) remains to this day a groundbreaking work. In it, he explores the notion of the “public sphere” as a historical category. He also looks into the concept of “public opinion,” which he depicts as having emerged in the 17th century in England; it then started spreading as an idea in 18th-century France.
An inspiration for the ’68 generation
His theories on the democratic process are said to have influenced the 1968 student revolts; the students saw Habermas as their spiritual mentor. However, when the protest movement became more radical, the philosopher openly criticized it.
In his chief work from 1981, Theory of Communicative Action, he develops a theoretical action guide for modern society. According to his proposition, the normative foundations of a society lie in language, and as a means of communication, debate enables social action. Habermas looks into the principles of rational argumentation, reflecting on the “ideal speech situation,” in which every participant is free to take part in the democratic discourse.
His works theorizing democratic and communicative ideals are academic standards. Titles like Between Facts and Norms: Contributions to a Discourse Theory of Law and Democracy (1992), The Inclusion of the Other (1996), along with Theory of Communicative Action and The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere are standard works in academia.
His texts showcase his deep thinking and elegant style — one that however requires a certain level of patience to decipher his works. But that’s the way it is: The topics tackled by the political philosopher are not easy ones, and he has always aimed to address them with exactitude.
Like other postwar West German authors and intellectuals, including Martin Walser, Günter Grass and Siegfried Lenz, Habermas grew up in the shadow of National Socialism. This experience left its mark on his life’s work.
Why did Germans choose a raging, vulgar anti-Semite as Reich Chancellor in 1933? What allowed things to go so far? And above all, how could a repetition of such events be prevented? Such questions make up the basis of Habermas’s work. They inspired him to create complex communication models through which members of a society could aim to balance their different interests.
“Consensual” was the name give to those social models, and the term had an exceptional impact on the Federal Republic of Germany’s self-image. Citizens were no longer to receive orders from above; rather, they should be encouraged to intervene in public, to formulate their views openly and include them into a large-scale discussion, in which everyone would be working towards an acceptable compromise.
The concepts developed by Habermas corresponded to West Germany’s commitment to peace after the horrors of National Socialism.
Contributing to the zeitgeist of a country
Would the Federal Republic of Germany have been completely different without Habermas? Probably not. But without his philosophical comments on the emerging German republic, it definitely would have lacked parts of its specific “sound.” And this sound — as abstract, hermetic and inaccessible as it was — echoed society just as profoundly as pop and rock music did in the country in the 1960s.
And that all definitely contributed to shaping a cosmopolitan atmosphere in West Germany.