Los Angeles Times Magazine

October 23, 1994


LENGTH: 5026 words



BYLINE: By Mitchell Stephens, Mitchell Stephens, who has also profiled Jacques Derrida for the magazine, heads the journalism and mass communication program at New York University.

To contact Mitchell Stephens


A debate has been raging in the world of scholars and intellectuals. On one side are the "postmodernists" -- the thinkers whose ideas inspired the playful, hybrid buildings, outfits and artworks that now grace the American landscape; the thinkers who encouraged a generation of graduate students to "deconstruct" such long-treasured notions as "reason" and "justice."

The major figure on the other side of this debate is Jurgen Habermas.

Habermas is a German philosopher -- "the leading systematic philosopher of our time," Richard Rorty of the University of Virginia calls him. But Habermas comes to this debate as much more than just a philosopher. "In terms of range and depth there is no one close to him," says Thomas McCarthy, a professor of humanities and philosophy at Northwestern University. "Habermas has been able to go into discussions in political theory, in sociology, in psychology, in legal theory -- in a dozen different disciplines -- and become one of the dominant voices in each one."

In the academic world nowadays, such range, depth and dominance attract an endless stream of conference invitations. Habermas accepts his share. And sometimes at these conferences, particularly if Americans are in attendance, he'll find himself surrounded by postmodernists. Swords will be raised. The debate will resume. The postmodernists might begin questioning, for example, whether "reason" isn't just the name the powerful give to their rationales for holding power or whether "justice" isn't just an excuse for the majority to impose its morality on the minority. (One such conference was dominated by legal theorists from Harvard Law School.) Habermas, an aficionado of open debate, will fight back, enthusiastically, aggressively.

Whether he has been a voice of reason and justice is disputed in philosophic and political circles, but Habermas certainly has been a staunch advocate of the importance of these principles. He believes we can reason out solutions to our problems, that just institutions can lead to a fairer society. And when irony-wielding postmodernists make light of these possibilities, Habermas responds with formidable barrages of scholarship and logic.

This is high drama, or at least what passes for that in academia. Feet wiggle nervously under chairs. In the audience, students and professors furrow their high brows and jot down each deft riposte.

At stake in these confrontations is a crucial 20th-Century intellectual issue: Are there certain basic standards underlying our behaviors -- standards like reason and justice? Or is the world a swampy, relativistic place, where we play our games or seek some power in the muck? For Habermas, something else is at stake here, too: A crucial 20th-Century political issue.

According to a number of those who have watched him at such conferences, Habermas sometimes grows exasperated with his cynical antagonists. When that happens, he might pull a microphone toward himself and suddenly silence the others on the panel by saying something like this: "In the United States, you have a 200-year-old tradition of constitutionalism. You have the luxury of questioning those ideals. Where I come from, we don't."

Where he comes from, Habermas is not just a star academic. For 40 years, he has been in the public arena fighting to keep Germany headed in the direction of reason, justice and other ideals he now hears postmodernists deconstructing. And that fight -- a political fight -- goes on.

Jurgen Habermas, as often happens when he reads the newspaper, was agitated. It was 1992, and right-wing attacks on immigrants and foreign workers, which had begun in the former East Germany, were continuing. "Every week there were reports about another three or four incidents," Habermas recalls at his home outside Munich. "And as you read the paper every morning, you could not help but get more and more angry -- not just at those who did it, but at those who played it down, who turned their backs, who worried that talking about it would hurt Germany's image in the world. And then, when a certain threshold was passed, you couldn't help but write an article."

When Habermas writes such an article for a German newspaper, as he does three or four times a year, it usually causes a stir. "He's a public figure," explains Peter Glotz, a leader of Germany's Social Democratic Party. "His writings don't influence masses of blue-collar workers, but they are read by a lot of German party officials and journalists and so on. In this way he is very influential."

Habermas is, in other words, that rare thing: a public intellectual -- "the most visible of his generation," asserts Northwestern's McCarthy. Certainly, no contemporary American scholar has had such impact upon political debates. And Habermas' political significance would be even greater were it not for an odd quirk: He is one of the few public figures today who refuses to go on television.

A cleft palate gives a slightly asymmetric feel to Habermas' square, strong face and has left him with a minor speech impediment. Might this be behind his reluctance to appear before the cameras? "The pragmatic reason why I refuse these requests is that I have to protect the time and rest (I need) for my professional work," he notes. Then Habermas adds, "Maybe there are also reasons of a more personal nature."

Print is Habermas' medium: Books, of course, and he reads and writes a wide variety of them, including many difficult philosophic tomes. But not just books. "I need to read a newspaper each morning to feel that I'm still participating in the world," the philosopher declares. "Reading the newspaper arouses passions." Those passions grow most intense when he sees evidence that Germany is backsliding.

Habermas was 15 when the Allies defeated Germany in 1945. He had been a member of the Hitler Youth and had been sent, during the last months of the war, to "man the western defenses." His bourgeois father had been a "passive sympathizer" with Nazism. Nazi society was the only one the young Habermas had known.

Then the Nuremberg war-crimes trials started, and the first documentary films on the concentration camps appeared. "All at once we saw that we had been living in a politically criminal system," Habermas has explained. His political life began with this awakening. It established what he labels the major "motif" of his politics: a vigilance against any recurrence of such "politically criminal" behavior.

This "motif" was in harmony with the beliefs of the "Frankfurt School," an extraordinarily distinguished collection of leftist, mostly Jewish, philosophers and social thinkers gathered in the Institute of Social Research at the University of Frankfurt. After the war, when most of its members returned from exile, the institute was led by two of the world's foremost intellectuals, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer.

The aggressively interdisciplinary way of thinking that the Frankfurt School developed -- "Critical Theory" it was called -- aimed to put philosophic ideas to the task of diagnosing social problems. There were years when it was difficult to get through college in Europe without being drawn into debates about the success of this project. Habermas became Adorno's assistant in 1956. He was given Horkheimer's chair in 1964. Habermas quickly found his own voice as a theorist, but he has never stopped trying to apply philosophic ideas to social problems. Indeed, he has had as much to say about the perils of intolerance, repression and poverty as any other modern philosopher.

Habermas subsequently became a political figure -- and a target. Student radicals attacked him in 1968 for being insufficiently sympathetic with their tactics. The right derided him and the other members of the Frankfurt School in the 1970s as the "spiritual fathers of the terrorists." Habermas had denounced these young German kidnapers and bombers, but, his critics noted, many of them had read his calls for a more free and equal society.

Habermas continues to get into squabbles -- with those who sped Germany toward reunification (too quickly, in his view); with those who want to take apart his country's ambitious system of social welfare, and with those he believes to be opponents of open debate or proponents of intolerance.

In recent years, his most visible fight has been with German revisionist historians, who attempted, in his words, "to make Auschwitz unexceptional" by connecting it to other 20th-Century massacres. Habermas labeled their arguments "astonishing" and "transparent" as he took them on one by one in a series of newspaper articles. Along the way he reminded his readers of "the obligation incumbent upon us in Germany -- even if no one else were to feel it any longer -- to keep alive, without distortion and not only in an intellectual form, the memory of the sufferings of those who were murdered by German hands."

Anti-Semitism is a subject on which Habermas has been particularly vigilant. "I've never met a non-Jew who is more sensitive to these issues -- intellectually and personally," says his friend Richard J. Bernstein, a philosophy professor at the New School in New York.

The word conscience is used frequently, at least by those on the left half of the political spectrum, in describing Habermas' role in German politics. "He will always stand up and say the right thing at the right moment," asserts Anselm Haverkamp, a literature professor from Germany who now directs the Poetics Institute at New York University. "And he says it without the politicians saying, 'Well, this is just an idealistic philosopher.' No one would say that about Habermas."


Habermas' political ideas, he is happy to acknowledge, are connected to his philosophy. But when he is asked to sum up that philosophy, he grows quiet for some minutes. "I must say that I hate that question," he finally responds, a smile lifting the corners of his wispy mustache. "I hate this idea that you have one great idea, as (the German philosopher Martin) Heidegger always maintained you should."

Of course, Habermas has had a large number of good ideas as he has sailed from one research area to another. But behind his contributions to all these different disciplines there seems to have been one central theme: his theory of "communicative action."

As Seyla Benhabib, a professor of political theory at Harvard, explains: "Habermas believes human social life rests on our capacity to have more or less clear communication with each other." We communicate -- to paraphrase Descartes -- therefore our society exists.

A rather antiquated, idealistic message to be spreading, some might think, in a world of abusive talk-show hosts, misogynistic rap groups and earphone-encased teen-agers. Habermas is, to be sure, as concerned about pop culture as the next philosopher. But he continues to believe that somewhere behind the better of our attempts to communicate with each other, there have to be some shared values, shared respect and acknowledged equality. He sees the participants in conversations, in other words, as playing on the same teams. And as they talk together, Habermas insists, they make an effort to employ reason.

"This may not seem like a big deal," Benhabib acknowledges. "But it has fundamentally changed our way of thinking about society in the last 25 years or so." Habermas' theory, she explains, calls into question a belief that is widely held by cynical and fashionable thinkers on the right and the left: the belief that human behavior should be seen as a battlefield upon which each of us is merely out for our own strategic interests. In our "communicative actions," the right sees selfish individuals struggling to get a leg up on each other; the postmodern left sees the powerful exploiting the powerless; but Habermas sees, of all things, a kind of cooperation. Indeed, he shares with Socrates an almost utopian belief in the wholesomeness of debate and discussion.

His critics find this view a trifle rosy. Habermas persists, for example, in maintaining that "in our everyday knowledge of how language is properly used we find a common ground among all creatures with a human face." That's called "humanism." That's called "universalism." These are beliefs any self-respecting postmodernist rejected decades ago. Moreover, Habermas is convinced -- and this really gets the postmodernists calling for the violins -- that through reasoned communication we humans can get beyond our biases.

Habermas' many acolytes share this faith. They have been pondering the glories of the impulse to communicate in philosophy and exploring the roots of that impulse in developmental psychology. They have been refashioning political theory and social theory -- to make room for more debate and discussion. And, fashionable or not, they have had considerable impact. "Habermas is a world figure, maybe a planetary figure, in social theory," states sociologist Herbert J. Gans of Columbia University.

Habermas' formulations have even made their way into a debate about the U.S. Constitution. The question, as it always is, is should the Constitution referee in tag-team matches between hostile and competing interest groups? Or should this document, and the government it laid out, serving as a facilitator, encourage chummy, reasonable citizens to exchange views and reach a consensus? "Habermas' work has been of use for those of us who are trying to make sense out of the latter view," says Frank Michelman, a professor at Harvard Law School.

Although Habermas bristled at the presumption that he has had "one great idea," the philosopher is willing, after some meditation, to admit to the existence of a "thread" that runs through his work. This is it: "I think that a certain form of unrestrained communication brings to the fore the deepest force of reason, which enables us to overcome egocentric or ethnocentric perspectives and reach an expanded . . . view."

This thread ties in neatly with the values of the Enlightenment. Those of us who have been out of social studies class for a while may need to be reminded that the Enlightenment was a struggle, which began 200 years ago, in the name of reason, against tyranny, superstition and inequity. Voltaire and Thomas Jefferson saw themselves as involved in that struggle. Habermas has contributed to it, too.

The Enlightenment, you see, left open a crucial question: How does reason -- at whose behest so much has been challenged -- justify itself? Reason has undercut our belief in the spiritual, in the traditional. What is to prevent reason from challenging reason? Why, in other words, should we believe in reason? In "communicative action," Habermas thinks he has come up with an answer.

Reason, he maintains, is crucial to clear communication. So, to oversimplify a little, if we believe in the importance of the universal human impulse to communicate, we have to believe in reason. The Enlightenment, Habermas concludes, continues to have "a sound core."


Those looking for a 20th-Century movement in which to pigeonhole Habermas often settle upon "modernism." His sympathy with the travails of reason and his fascination with the Enlightenment support that classification. So does his house.

It stands, rectangular and devoid of decorative flourishes, on a narrow, sharply sloping lot in Starnberg, a small lakeside town outside Munich. Habermas left Frankfurt for Starnberg in 1971 to become co-director of the Max Planck Institute for Research Into Conditions of Living in a Scientific and Technological World. He and his wife, Ute, then built a spectacular, pure-white, Bauhaus-style house, filled with books and light. They were inspired by the great Viennese architect Albert Loos -- the quintessential modernist.

Habermas returned to the University of Frankfurt 12 years later, but between academic sessions, he and Ute, with whom he has reared three children, continue to spend most of their time in Starnberg. "There's no great reason for them to return there," suggests one colleague. "I think they stay there because of that house."

Of course, philosophical fashions, like architectural fashions, have changed in the last decades of this century. The Enlightenment, many contemporary scholars maintain, is over, modernism finished. "Habermas is the leading defender of Enlightenment universalism," comments Rorty, probably the best-known American philosopher. "I find his attempt very impressive. He does it in a way nobody had thought of doing before, but I still don't believe it."

In the postmodern age, of course, humans aren't seen as having universal impulses or sharing a common ground. Postmodernists have no use for such generalizations. Human attitudes, they insist, vary as much as human cultures do. Japanese see things differently than Swedes. Metallica lovers probably see things differently than those who fancy Counting Crows. The world, postmodernists maintain, is full of egocentric and ethnocentric biases, full of complexities. Attempts to squeeze it into smooth, rectangular packages -- in philosophy or in architecture -- are futile and foolish. In the postmodern age, those who create buildings, clothing, novels and world views are encouraged to throw in a little of this and a little of that -- without pretending that this or that, one perspective or another, is somehow correct.

Reason is the tool we use to divine what is correct and construct those out-of-favor generalizations, so in the postmodern age it is particularly suspect. The late French philosopher Michel Foucault derided reason as just another instrument of oppression, just another weapon on the battlefield. Another French philosopher, Jean-Francois Lyotard, who teaches at UC Irvine, has argued that the "triumph of reason," which we tend to credit for science or democracy or MacNeil-Lehrer, is merely a "narrative" we tell ourselves -- a bedtime story for those of us who haven't outgrown the belief in progress.

"At the finish of this century," contends Lyotard, author of the book "The Postmodern Condition," "after the enormous massacres we have experienced, no one can any longer believe in progress, in consensus, in transcendent values. Habermas presupposes such a belief."

Stanley Fish, a professor of English and law at Duke University, has been particularly critical of Habermas' work. Fish scoffs at the notion that we might talk our way past our biases. In order to enter into a conversation in which you might lose your prejudices, he argues, you'd have to begin by putting aside your prejudices. "The trouble with Habermas' way of thinking," Fish asserts, "is that you couldn't possibly take this first step. This first step is in fact the last step.

"I have always been mystified by the attention that Habermas receives," Fish says. "His way of thinking about these matters seems to me to be obviously faulty. The only way I can explain it to myself is that Habermas represents something that a lot of people would like to buy into: He seems to offer a way out of corrosive relativism."

If Habermas' thoughts provide some resistance to the potentially "corrosive" belief that such standards as justice and reason are merely "relative," his ideas do not come from some sort of stainless idealism. His beloved reason is not a magic sword that can instantly slice away all biases. It is, instead, a late-20th-Century reason; that means he sees it as fallible, as merely the product of imperfect human discussion and debate. Habermas doesn't pretend that prejudices can be instantly removed or discarded. He does believe, despite what the postmodernists say, that reasoned communication can, over time, weaken them.

So the battle lines have been drawn. Habermas, says Martin Jay, a history professor at UC Berkeley, is "a bulwark against some of the more problematic strains in postmodern thought." Habermas' book "The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity" defends modernism against the prefix that presumes to outdate it and criticizes various postmodern demigods -- including Foucault and Mr. Deconstruction, Jacques Derrida. Rather than going beyond modernism, he argues, some of them have just wandered off on some of its more "negative" and "empty" byways.

Tough criticism. Before Foucault died, he and Habermas had established a friendship and a dialogue. Habermas had thought he was on his way to building a similar relationship with Derrida. Then he sent him a copy of this book. Habermas received a polite thank-you note and then never heard from Derrida again.

Habermas' unfashionable beliefs, particularly his attachment to reason, probably can be traced to a deep awareness -- where he comes from -- of the horrors of unreason. "When you begin flirting with irrationalism and nihilism," explains his friend Bernstein, "for him it evokes horrible memories. It evokes the Hitler period."

Habermas admits that there is a strong personal element in his thought. "Philosophers live finally from their own intuitions," he suggests. "And those intuitions are not acquired by reading philosophic texts. They are acquired in certain particular individual experiences while growing up -- rather negative experiences of violation, indignation and Krankung." Habermas' English is strong. He has taught at Berkeley, for example, and he is teaching at Northwestern University in Chicago this fall. However, Habermas can't think of an English translation for this German word.

What early experiences might have shaped the philosophy of this man, who grew up sensitive, brainy and with a slight impediment in Nazi Germany? "I wouldn't like to talk about my own intuitions," Habermas says. "I don't like to talk about that." Krankung, a dictionary later reveals, means "insult," "outrage" or "mortification."


Anselm Haverkamp recalls having spent the whole day with Habermas at a conference in Germany. "It was a typical European conference," the New York University professor says. "It began at 9 in the morning and went on for eight or 10 hours." Then there was more talking over dinner. At 2 a.m. Haverkamp, exhausted but jet-lagged and unable to sleep, went downstairs. "And there was Habermas, still talking to a couple of people at the hotel bar. He grabbed my arm and wouldn't let me pass, and for yet another two hours we continued to discuss difficult problems in political philosophy."

Habermas, in other words, not only believes in reasoned communication, he practices it -- eagerly. Not on every subject, of course. Pockets of reticence certainly remain. (Habermas has admitted that he failed to confront his father about his behavior during the Nazi years.) But, for the most part, he throws himself into debate and discussion with passion.

"Habermas is someone who really has to be pulled out of a restaurant at midnight," says Gertrud Koch, a German scholar and film critic who has spent many evenings with him and a group of professors and students at a Greek restaurant in Frankfurt. And the later the hour grows, "the more the discussion turns to politics, and the more lively it gets," reports Hauke Brunkhorst, a philosophy professor who has participated in these sessions. Even the waiters and the restaurant's owner sometimes join in.

"It's true," Habermas admits, "I love it." His wife, he says, often has to remind him that he is teaching the next morning and not to stay too late.

When the discussion does turn to politics, Brunkhorst explains, Habermas stands, "in American terms, somewhere between a radical and a liberal." He votes mostly for Germany's Social Democrats and is sympathetic to the Greens, the environmental party. He supports, what he calls without flinching, the "welfare state," which has come under renewed attack in Germany and elsewhere in Western Europe.

The key word in Habermas' political vocabulary, however, is democracy. He often has in mind a more "radical democracy" than that with which most Americans are familiar. "In the phrase 'government by and for the people,' Habermas places much more emphasis on the 'by' than most of us normally would," McCarthy explains. He wants less unthinking nationalism and more reasoned communication on public issues. He wants more participation by citizens in government processes, in political parties, in economic decisions -- a larger "public sphere" than can be found in any existing society. He wants more debate and discussion.

This prescription, too, sounds naive to many allies of the postmodernist camp. "It's the liberal answer to everything," asserts Fish. "Let's talk it to death. Habermas preaches the theology of talk -- the elevation of philosophy department seminars to a mode of public life."

Conservatives find Habermas' political ideas disturbing for different reasons. "His work is stimulating, intellectually challenging," concedes Wolfgang Pordzik, director of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation in Washington, D.C., which is close to Germany's Christian Democratic Party. "But Habermas is just dead wrong in terms of his political recipe." In the eyes of most of those on the other side of the political spectrum, that "recipe" includes too much "public" -- which they read as "state" -- interference in economic matters. It places too much emphasis on cooperation, not enough on old-fashioned, reliable competition.

Nevertheless, Habermas' strategies for increasing the scope and power of the "public sphere" have had a significant impact. Indeed, they were important to those who were fighting state communism in Eastern Europe before 1989. "In Eastern Europe, the Communists had crushed all public spaces," notes Jean L. Cohen, a political science professor at Columbia University. Habermas demonstrated how important forums for public discussion outside of government were, and his theories helped dissidents imagine how these forums might be used -- as the Solidarity labor movement was used -- to oppose the government.

Adam Michnik, one of the leaders of Solidarity in Poland, had studied Habermas' work while in jail. A large number of Hungarian dissidents were also familiar with it. "Habermas' book 'The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere' played an extremely important political role in Hungary," explains Anna Wessely, a professor of sociology at the Eotvos University in Budapest. "It helped to conceptualize the role of the society against the state."

In at least one Eastern European country, Habermas' impact is spoken of in the present tense. Ivan Vejvoda is one of several members of the Belgrade Circle, a group of anti-war Serbian intellectuals, who say they have been influenced by Habermas' work. "One of the main concerns of the Belgrade Circle," Vejvoda says, "is to try to broaden the scope of free speech, to create a public space out of which we can create the foundation of a democratic culture. Habermas' ideas are absolutely not only useful but important in this process."


Opposite the bookcases in the living room of Habermas' modern house is a wall of windows. It faces west, which is fitting. Over the years, Habermas has had one overriding political interest: not Eastern Europe, despite all the attention his work has received there, but the Federal Republic of Germany. And, over the years, Habermas has given himself to one overriding cause: keeping the Federal Republic oriented toward Enlightenment values, values that have been most at home in the West.

It is not clear to him that the fall of the Berlin Wall, glorious as it was, has helped that cause. Though Habermas is obviously happy for the former East Germans, the new, reunited Germany makes him nervous. "From the first minute, I argued that we should stress republican premises for reunification, not nationalistic premises," he notes. As Bernstein points out, "Any smell of Germany having a special destiny almost viscerally upsets him."

Habermas wanted the East Germans to have more time to discuss their own future. Now he worries about the resentment against immigrants that has been released by the dislocations of reunification. He worries, too, that this larger, potentially more powerful Germany will stray from the confines of the European Union, form separate relationships with its former communist neighbors and assume, once again, the role of leader of Central Europe. He worries, in other words, that the country in which he lives, which so conspicuously lacks a long tradition of constitutionalism, might now turn away from the West. Indeed, Habermas has worried so much, so publicly, that he has been attacked -- unfairly he says -- as a foe of reunification.

The winds shifted in Europe just when Habermas felt that his great cause was going well. "For almost 40 years," he explains, "I struggled against what I thought was the dangerous tendency toward . . . continuations of those anti-Western traditions that prepared the German population for a rather strong support of the Nazis after 1933." But this nightmare did not come true. In the Federal Republic, Enlightenment values seem to have, for the most part, won out. (Habermas believes these values are in some ways now more at home in Germany than in France or America, whose phalanxes of postmodernists delight in deconstructing them.)

"During the postwar period, particularly since the late '60s, the Federal Republic got more and more politically civilized," Habermas observes. "And now I'm defending a continuation of this process rather than hailing the break of 1989."

The Western democracies still have great social and political problems. The danger that the Germany of his childhood might return can never entirely be dismissed. Habermas, undoubtedly, will have no difficulty getting sufficiently agitated to write more newspaper articles. However, an additional benefit of remembering the past is gaining perspective on the present. And from the living room of his modern house in the heart of Bavaria, which is flooded by light from the west, Habermas sees reason, if not having triumphed, at least having made great progress. "Why stop?" he asks. "Why not continue?"