Habermas was never content to follow in others’ footsteps.
If you had told me ten years ago that I would one day read a biography of Jürgen Habermas and find it both strangely gripping and also useful in thinking about the problems of our time, I would have been very surprised. I had read his work, but the verb tense is key here: I had read him in the way that people talk about a phase they went through some years back, when they did Rolfing or the Macarena. Since 1989, it is not Habermas but Michel Foucault who has gained preeminence in academia and “advanced” intellectual circles. Habermas has long seemed too square, too earnest, a throwback to a time when unsmiling Germans could utter apparent profundities about ideal speech contexts and send flustered American graduate students racing to their dictionaries.
But I have learned, or at least changed. The past ten years have shown repeatedly that the wicked problems the world now faces are ones that have agitated Habermas throughout his career. Today, American democracy is paralyzed by a polarization that is itself fueled by increasing inequality, economic precarity, and a nationalist insecurity sometimes fueled by racism. All of this makes Habermas’s vigorous affirmation of concepts like “constitutional patriotism” and decency in “discourse ethics” seem less like silly and bland platitudes and more like vital reminders of what we should jealously guard, and what we stand, always too easily, to lose.