Habermas, Jürgen (b. 1929)

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German philosopher.

At the turn of the millennium, Jürgen Habermas remained Germany's foremost philosopher, its internationally best-known and most cited thinker, and the archetype in his own country of the publicly engaged intellectual. He had attained this position early, and whether identified as the scion of the famous tradition of "critical theory," as the moral conscience of his nation in its relationship to its past, as a technical philosopher of collective language use, or as an interpreter of the foundations of democracy, he continued to occupy that central place for decades.

Raised in a small town, Habermas vividly recalled the formative experience of the Nazi years, including his military service as a young teenager as part of the last-ditch defense of his homeland in 1945. (His father was a Nazi Party member.) Having been trained in the traditions of German idealism and European phenomenology, however, Habermas quickly became a critic of the anti-Enlightenment tendencies of the recent German past. From very early on, Habermas mastered and joined the neo-Marxist tradition of the "Frankfurt School" and wrote in his most significant early work, Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (1962), that transformations in capitalism and culture threatened to extinguish the originally liberatory thrust of modernity. Close to the Frankfurt philosophers Theodor Adorno (1903–1969) and Max Horkheimer (1895–1973) at the end of their lives (and for a long time the occupant of Horkheimer's Frankfurt philosophy chair), Habermas became their most recognizable successor, furthering their theoretical approach most notably in his Knowledge and Human Interests (1968).

But Habermas soon became best known and most important, in the years his thought assumed classic form, for his innovative fusion of the Continental social theory he inherited with the Anglo-American "analytic" philosophy of language. Habermas's trademark remained the alchemical combination, carried out in forbiddingly dense prose, of diverse intellectual traditions (including linguistics, psychology, and sociology). His construction of systems provoked both awe for his synthetic abilities and worries about the eclecticism of the results. In the imposing tomes of his Theory of Communicative Action (1981), which served as the foundation for his later work, Habermas argued that modernity is best understood as a search for a society of uncoerced linguistic interaction. What he called "communicative reason" is perpetually threatened but never ruled out by the advances of instrumental, or means-ends, rationality. For Habermas, the nature of collective language use provides a discursive ground for intersubjective respect, which speakers, as well the states they form, violate only on pain of self-contradiction.

Habermas turned this social theory against postmodernism in a famous book, The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity (1985), in which he argued that modern philosophy has been continuously haunted by a theoretical solipsism that only his approach had the resources plausibly to overcome and charged that Friedrich Nietzsche and his French followers ignored the commitments to consensual truth and mutual understanding that speech by definition entails. In his later writings on legal and constitutional theory, Habermas extended his conclusions to contemporary democracy, notably arguing that democracy and rights, far from being in tension, are reciprocally necessary and implied.

Although internationally most prominent as a critical theorist, Habermas always counted in Germany as an engaged public intellectual who pondered the meaning and direction of his country's transit from Nazi barbarism through Cold War division to final reunification. Among his most significant contributions in this regard were in the mid-1980s Historikerstreit (Historians' debate), in which he confronted the conservative wish to "normalize" the Nazi past and escape the continuing burden—of which he perpetually reminded his countrymen—of atonement for the unique crimes they or their forebears had committed or allowed. For some, Habermas's restriction of the group identity to "constitutional patriotism," or an allegiance to democratic processes rather than inherited traditions or local specificity, went too far. At the time of German reunification, Habermas publicly worried about the risks of national fusion and expressed his doubts, but these were overtaken by events.

For decades Habermas often figured as a major foil of German conservatives, whether political, historiographical, or philosophical: aside from the Historikerstreit, Habermas also engaged, for example, in a celebrated polemic against the "traditionalism" of Hans-Georg Gadamer's hermeneutic philosophy. Later, along with the charge of eclecticism, Habermas more regularly faced withering skepticism from the Left. Taken to task by some for betraying the emancipatory criticism of society he inherited from the Frankfurt School—by the end of his evolution, his philosophy had come very close to the thought of the American liberal John Rawls in its emphasis on political rights and formal legitimacy—Habermas also found many critics for his stands in day-to-day politics (notably those in favor of America's successive Balkan interventions). The great thinker who achieved lasting renown thanks to his breathtaking range and multiple contributions disapproved of the U.S. invasion of Iraq and remained exploratory late in life, turning his attention to questions of bioethics and religion.

See alsoAdorno, Theodor; Gadamer, Hans-Georg; Modernism.


Bernstein, J. M. Recovering Ethical Life: Jürgen Habermas and the Future of Critical Theory. New York, 1995.

Holub, Robert C. Jürgen Habermas: Critic in the Public Sphere. New York, 1991.

Ingram, David. Habermas and the Dialectic of Reason. New Haven, Conn., 1987.

McCarthy, Thomas. The Critical Theory of Jürgen Habermas. Cambridge, Mass., 1978.

Matuštík, Martin Joseph. Jürgen Habermas: A Philosophical-Political Profile. Lanham, Md., 2001.

Mueller, Jans-Werner. Another Country: German Intellectuals, Unification, and National Identity. New Haven, Conn., 2000.

White, Stephen K., ed. The Cambridge Companion to Habermas. Cambridge, U.K., 1995.

Samuel Moyn