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.
And while the problems besetting American democracy today are terrible, were there a strong Europe—a Europe of Schumans and Monnets and Brandts—or a strong anywhere else, our world would not be in the dire condition in which we find it. But no such leaders are currently visible—even if Angela Merkel fitfully aspires to be one—and no polities seem disposed to elect them if they appear. And the fundamental theorist of this democratic crisis is, again, Habermas. Even the crises of rising ethno-nationalism and various other forms of exclusivist particularism seem to call for his thought. The earnest urgency of his voice used to embarrass us. Now, it might shame us. He has turned out to be our Cassandra. What insight can we gain from his life for our present situation?
Stefan Müller-Doohm’s Habermas: A Biography thus serves a useful purpose. That said, the book itself is not a thing of beauty. It reads as something more compiled than written, with the basic instrument of Forschung, “research,” used like a bulldozer. This is too bad, because one occasionally glimpses, behind the clank and belch of the steam-shovel prose, an astute awareness of fundamental themes in Habermas’s oeuvre that remains sadly under-developed. Had Müller-Doohm exercised more authorial sovereignty, wrestled more with the meaning of his subject’s life, the book could have been half as long and twice as interesting. Still, once the dust cloud of detail settles, you begin to grasp the interesting underlying structure that connects the moments that compose Habermas’s life and make it illustrative and exemplary for today.
For all Habermas’s pan-Europeanism, he is a profoundly German thinker, particularly in his early work, which was heavily devoted to critiquing classic German social theory’s ambition to be “value-free.” This critique built on that of the first generation of the Frankfurt School, but sought to avoid the latter’s utopian revolutionism, which was itself a kind of positivism once removed. Habermas’s early years as an academic were foundational here: His dissertation on Schelling reveals his interest, from the beginning, in the relationship of reason and reality, mind and world. As a young man, he was, like almost all in his generation, deeply impressed by that most darkly chthonic anti-rationalist of twentieth-century German thinkers, Martin Heidegger, though he quickly saw through the apolitical veneer that Heidegger tried to hide behind.
It is worth pausing over Habermas’s remarkably courageous critique of Heidegger. He published it in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung in 1953, when he was all of twenty-four, still working on his doctorate. Most of the Nazis had been rehabilitated in West Germany, thanks to the amnesia that accompanied the foundation of the Federal Republic, and Heidegger was still one of the more powerful intellectual presences in the land. The critique made Habermas’s name, but he did not do it for careerist reasons: Young German scholars simply did not denounce the greatest living German philosopher of the century, and certainly not in a major newspaper. The brashness of the move was just as remarkable as the indisputable truth of his claims.
After publicly rejecting Heidegger and the Romantic anti-rationalism that he represented, Habermas sought another critical idiom, and he found it in the Frankfurt School, where he worked as Theodor Adorno’s assistant for the better part of a decade (much to Max Horkheimer’s hidden displeasure, the biography interestingly notes). But Habermas was never content to follow in others’ footsteps. Adorno was surely the most powerful Marxist critic of rationalism in the German philosophical tradition, and while Habermas shared with his colleagues a radical impatience with the morally compromised complacency of the Federal Republic, he remained committed to the bourgeois public sphere that they disdained. His first major work, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (1962), was a defense of bourgeois democracy as an actually existing context of social change, against the spectral hopes for a more theoretically pure revolutionary option. Even as he was sharpening and deepening his critique of capitalism’s effects on democracy, he never jettisoned his faith in the idea of democracy itself. When Max Horkheimer retired from his chair at Frankfurt in 1964, Habermas took his place. By the time he was thirty-five, Habermas had found, in the capitalist bustle of Frankfurt, the base from which his future forays would be launched.
What those forays would amount to, of course, was then still to be determined. And it remained unclear for quite some time. He has had almost two separate careers—one as a social-political analyst and polemicist, and the other as a methodical philosopher working out of a post-metaphysical Kantian-pragmatist social theory. The biography suggests that Habermas was uncomfortable in the yoke of two careers, but it may have been his saving grace. As one of his friends once said, he is a philosopher who has a system without the system having him. Indeed, this is truer than Habermas might himself have wanted. While he is recognized as a major thinker of our era, hardly anybody accepts the thesis of—or even reads—his self-proclaimed magnum opus, The Theory of Communicative Action (1981). While today his near-contemporaries are known by their durably major works—Hans-Georg Gadamer’s masterpiece Truth and Method (1960), for instance, or John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice (1971)—Habermas is not. Why is that?
I think there are two reasons. First, The Theory of Communicative Action was not his ultimate credo. The ethical ambition of the book was not realized; Habermas failed in his determination to provide a revision of Kant’s second Critique. His later tacit self-critique of the approach that The Theory of Communicative Action took moved his position more fully from a neo-Kantian critical epistemology to a pragmatic approach, even more visibly and precariously contingent. His restless mind kept rearranging his vision of the world, refining and reforming his vision of the problems.
In part this was due to Habermas’s changing friendships: While his early and mid-career work bears the powerful mark of the (seriously underappreciated) German philosopher Karl-Otto Apel, from 1980 on Habermas became much less centrally German in his thinking. His deepening engagement with American thinkers, especially Richard Rorty and Rawls, and his fruitful relationship with the Canadian Charles Taylor, have opened his work up in powerful ways to larger conversations beyond the German social-philosophical tradition. Furthermore, there is the slightest suggestion in the biography of another important figure, namely, Michel Foucault. One can read Habermas’s turn away from “system” after The Theory of Communicative Action (and his rather cranky anti-postmodern polemic, The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity, 1985) as a partial concession to Foucault, following the latter’s untimely death in 1984. But the full story of the conversation between these two intellectual titans still awaits its chronicler.
There is a second reason why Habermas is more than, and perhaps other than, his Theory of Communicative Action. I think the completion of the project broke a spell on him, an enchantment. He realized that he was less committed to developing beyond Kant than in going back behind Kant, as it were, and affirming the energies Kant himself apotheosized. At its best, Habermas’s later project rivals not Kant’s magisterial Critiques but rather the latter’s witty, programmatic (almost epigrammatic) and visionary smaller pieces, most notably “Perpetual Peace.” Habermas’s deepest drives thus reveal themselves to be in the service of redeeming the emancipatory promise of the Enlightenment as a political project, more deeply than a moral one. Habermas is a political thinker who for a while thought he should be a moral philosopher.
There is some irony here. Isaiah Berlin once famously said that Tolstoy was a fox who wanted to be a hedgehog, and something similar can be said about Habermas. He, too, wanted to be a hedgehog but tried to be a hedgehog about the wrong thing, about morality. Ultimately, he turned out to be a hedgehog, but one who found himself on terrain more suited to the fox: namely, the shifting, slippery ground of politics.
For durability, for scope, and for acuity, Habermas’s analysis of our political situation is unmatched. This is especially so for the last four-and-a-half decades—roughly since the “thirty glorious years” of the flush postwar era were brought to an end by the oil shock of 1973. In that year, he coined the phrase “legitimation crisis,” and he soon began worrying about “the colonization of the lifeworld” by economic forces. Even in his late work on the question of “post-apocalyptic” versus “post-utopian” thinking, Habermas has continued to develop a critical idiom for bringing into view the challenges of our late-modern political situation in a way that few others even appreciate. He has done so by combining resources others would not have dared to combine. Philosophically, his concern with the reduction of the human to purely econometric reasoning is rooted in Marx but draws powerfully on Heidegger. Methodologically, he has continued straddling the ever-widening fault line between empirical research and normative theory, allowing him to talk simultaneously about the crisis of the welfare state and the exhaustion of utopia. His ongoing insistence on the “remnant of utopia,” the democratically legitimated political community, is haunted by an Adornian concern about the pathologies of our current sociocultural context. But he still affirms a fundamentally Deweyan faith that the solution to the problems of democracy is, after all, more democracy.
This capacity to think beyond any one idiom and to fashion an amalgam that draws on multiple critical languages is what makes his project so unique, so truly cosmopolitan, and so essential. At its heart is a profoundly unfashionable commitment to—or what Kant would call a “practical faith” in—the liberal-bourgeois institutions of the present world as the only viable or plausible institutional framework within which we may reasonably hope. His concern with the “exhaustion of utopian energies,” a phrase he uses repeatedly, does not entail for him the collapse of moral absolutes. Even if no ideal world is realistic today, we may still operate with ideals. He is aware of critics, including Reinhold Niebuhr in an earlier generation, who have warned that faith in adjustment qua adjustment is inevitably technocratic and finally sterile and will exhaust itself over time. The fact that, in Germany, such criticisms seem more often launched from the right than from the left has inclined Habermas to take them less seriously than he might have. Nonetheless, he has recognized their bite. So where can hope for such ideals, and their nourishment, be found?
In the past decade and a half, Habermas has suggested religion can provide moral sources for civic action, but his thinking on religion has changed as slowly as a supertanker changes course to avoid an iceberg—which is to say, not very fast and perhaps not fast enough. For a very long time, in Deweyan fashion, he invested hope in education, especially secondary education, seeing it as the only institution in a post-utopian world capable of fostering the moral energies needed to sustain democratic society. But is education enough? Perhaps Habermas is better, in the end, at identifying problems than at offering solutions to them.
Still, that is quite an accomplishment. Perhaps it is unfair to complain that Habermas does not deliver to us a ready-to-wear utopia. Perhaps our disappointment with him is actually our coming, at last, to share in his own disappointment with the world. For today, many self-proclaimed avant-garde intellectuals like me—the ones who fawned over Foucault and scorned Habermas—are experiencing a crisis about critique. Many of us feel critique has run out of steam, and seek some way beyond a purely negative critical standpoint, to some utopian uplands beyond the black forest of negative dialectics. Habermas has been on this journey for half a century and more, since his time with Adorno. While he has been worried about the “exhaustion of utopias” for a long time—much longer than many today seem to realize—he has also always cared about that “remnant of utopia” that is liberal democracy itself.
That some such utopia is needed, there can be little doubt; and that it needs more advocates, there is even less reason to question, because others do continue to imagine utopias—just not very palatable ones. ISIS expresses one such utopia. The nostalgia-driven hate-filled politics of the extreme right is another. Techno-libertarians in Silicon Valley fund “thought-leaders” dreaming of still others. Culture, like nature, abhors a vacuum, and the attractive power of such utopias seems directly proportionate to the absence of other visions more fully inhabitable by the full range of humanity. All of this suggests that the defenders of liberal societies must work even harder to rekindle a passion for a democratic politics of the possible. And in that work, we may find ourselves apprenticed to Habermas after all.