Critique and communication: Philosophy’s missions

A conversation with Jürgen Habermas

Decades after first encountering Anglo-Saxon perspectives on democracy in occupied postwar Germany, Jürgen Habermas still stands by his commitment to a critical social theory that advances the cause of human emancipation. This follows a lifetime of philosophical dialogue.

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Michaël Foessel: It has become commonplace to link your work to the enterprise that the Frankfurt School initiated in the 1930s: the elaboration of a critical theory of society capable of breathing new life into the project of emancipation in a world shaped by technocapitalism. When you began your university studies after World War II, a different image of philosophy was prevalent in Germany: the less heroic image of an impotent philosophy compromised by National Socialism. What motivated you to choose this discipline? Did the pessimistic judgement on reason expressed in Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment play a role in your initial choices in philosophy (the study of Schelling)?

Jürgen Habermas: No, that’s not how it happened. I didn’t go to Frankfurt until 1956, two years after the completion in Bonn of my doctoral thesis on Schelling. In order to explain how I came across critical theory, I’ll have to go into a bit more detail. At German universities between 1949 and 1954 it was in general only possible to study with professors who had either been Nazis themselves or had conformed. From a political and moral standpoint, German universities were corrupted. There was, therefore, an odd divide between my philosophy studies and the left-wing convictions that had developed in discussions night after night about contemporary literature, the important theatrical productions, and film, which was dominated at that time above all by France and Italy. As early as my last years at the gymnasium, however, I’d obtained the works of Marx and Engels and addressed the subject of historical materialism. In view of these interests, the obvious choice of study would have been sociology, but this subject was not yet taught at my universities in Göttingen and Bonn. After my studies, I was granted a scholarship for an examination of the “concept of ideology”. During this time, I familiarized myself with the theoretical literature on Marxism from the 1920s and above all with the Hegelian-Marxist tradition – and I was then electrified when Adorno published Prisms in 1955. I already knew the Dialectic of Enlightenment by Horkheimer and Adorno, but the tenor of this thoroughly “dark” theory did not correspond to the attitude towards life of young people, who finally wanted to do everything better.

But Prisms made a completely different impression on me. It was a collection of Adorno’s great essays from the 1940s and early 1950s on Oswald Spengler, Karl Mannheim, Thorston Veblen, etc. Today, it’s no longer possible to imagine the contradiction between these sparkling texts and the mixed-up, clotted climate of the Adenauer era. The start of the Cold War was characterized in Germany by an anti-Communism that fostered the forced suppression of the perceptibly hushed up Nazi era. Into this ambiguous silence burst the sharply articulated words of a brilliant mind, who – undeterred by the anti-Communist zeitgeist – captured the mood of the day in dusted-off Marxist categories. The radical terminology and the complexity of the dark style pierced the fog of the early German Federal Republic. It was also the gesture of “absolute modernity” that hooked me. But in Adorno’s essays I was confronted above all by someone who overturned the historical distance – which up to that point had been taken for granted – between the ongoing Cold War and the Marxist social theory of the 1920s, because he dealt with these categories in a very current, very contemporary way! If you recall: even Jean-Paul Sartre, who dominated the post-war stages with his theatrical plays, was at that time not yet really political as a philosopher. For us students, The Second Sex by Simone de Bouvoir struck a political chord far more than Sartre’s Being and Nothingness.

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