Habermas in German, European, North Atlantic, and Global Perspective

By Matthew SpecterAugust 11, 2019

Habermas in German, European, North Atlantic, and Global Perspective
JÜRGEN HABERMAS’S WORK has had an impact truly global in scope. Translated into more than 40 languages, his monographs and collected essays have been debated by academic and intellectual networks around the globe. A philosopher who has always worked in a cosmopolitan spirit became increasingly attuned to what he called the “postnational constellation” of problems associated with the latest period of globalization in the 1990s. Ever since, the project of reformulating the Kantian project of a world republic into adequately differentiated models of global governance has become a leading focus of his work. Even with the revolt against globalization and the disturbing rise of nationalism and xenophobia in Europe and the United States, Habermas still philosophizes with cosmopolitan intent.

Given his cosmopolitan commitments and global reach, it may seem provincializing or deflating to argue for the relevance of Habermas’s European — and specifically German — roots to the assessment of his oeuvre. Does not contextualizing any thinker historically run the risk conflating validity with genesis — reducing validity claims to the contexts that gave rise to them, thus reducing the scope of their relevance? In Habermas’s case, the philosophy is unmistakably stamped by its postwar Atlantic and European contexts, but it remains no less globally relevant for it. Not every technical move Habermas makes in the discourse of philosophy can be contextualized politically or historically. But the presence of Europe and the United States in his work is too important to be treated as an afterthought. Habermas is no cloistered ivory tower philosopher. He is one of the great innovators in the Western Marxist and Critical Theory traditions, and it should come as no surprise that Habermas’s theory has emerged in dialogue with his practice. To use one of the terms that Habermas is most fond of, the “learning process,” which he seeks to cultivate in societies, is also a good way of describing the dialectical relationship of his historical situation and his philosophical project.

Since the early 1950s — that is, for more than 60 years now — Habermas has devoted as much energy and passion to his work as a public intellectual as to his philosophical work. His impassioned engagements within the public sphere — first and foremost the German one, and only much later the European and global ones — were the workshop in which many of his theories were forged. The logical derivation of the principles of Habermas’s discourse ethics exists at a great remove from his reflections on Adenauer, Kohl, or Merkel, but there is a consistency of purpose connecting the work of the philosopher with that of the commentator on public affairs. As he put it 20 years ago, “The conceptual triad of ‘public space’ ‘discourse’ and ‘reason’ in fact, has dominated my works as a scholar and my political life.” [1] There is a unity to Habermas beneath the diversity of his roles.

Postwar Germany was the ethical-political terrain on which Habermas first discovered his moral orientations. His philosophy is a “thrown project” in the Heideggerian sense that all of us are “thrown” into a historical world and take our bearings from it. Is it a coincidence that a philosopher whose work has resonated globally forged his vision and tools in the deepest crisis of European civilization? That the great philosopher of fallibilistic, communicative reason — the unity of reason in the diversity of its voices — lived through the violence of a dictatorship which claimed a monopoly on truth, despised critical reason, and destroyed civil society? Or is it precisely his own biographical experience of participating in the successful transformation of a nation’s political culture that gave Habermas the confidence — increasingly as the years went on — to suggest that history evolves, contingently and always with the possibility of regression, to believe that humanity can develop the species-wide competence to learn from disaster, to posit history as a learning process?

That said, of all the German and European thinkers of the second half of the 20th century, perhaps none has felt more at home in the United States, and with its intellectuals, as Habermas. While German Idealism is the seedbed of his thought, the important roles played by American pragmatism and constitutional law in his work make Habermas, in his formation as much as in his influence, a truly transatlantic thinker. While Habermas’s practical interventions in the affairs of the day have spanned the globe, it is no diminution of his global importance to emphasize the German, European, and North Atlantic contexts in which he worked, wrote, and struggled for justice. Indeed, contextualization of Habermas within the public life of the north Atlantic democracies allows us to appreciate all the more the philosopher’s commitment to the reconstruction of liberal and democratic norms, institutions, and practices. Of these contributions, one must begin with Habermas’s role in West Germany, and, since 1990, in a united Germany.

In the 1980s, Habermas described “the unreserved opening of the Federal Republic to the political culture of the West” as “the great intellectual achievement of the postwar period, of which my generation in particular could be proud.” [2] This generation — neither the founding generation of Adenauer, Schumacher, and Heinrich Böll, nor the rebellious one of Rudi Dutschke, Joschka Fischer, and Rainer Werner Fassbinder — was that of the ’58ers, a generation less self-conscious of itself than their younger peers, the ’68ers, but playing just as important a role in the evolution and maturation of German political culture and institutions after World War II. The “basso continuo” of the 12 volumes of his short political writings written over 45 years was, in his words, “the battle over the normative self-understanding of first the old and then of the expanded Federal Republic.” [3] Like other thinkers of his generation — like his good friend, the historian Hans-Ulrich Wehler, like Ralf Dahrendorf and Kurt Sontheimer — Habermas believed that ending the German Sonderweg, or special, deviant path, which had led to Germany’s failed modernization, including ending the Sonderweg at the level of ideas. For Habermas, it was always important to steer away from the conservative, antidemocratic, and mandarin characteristics of the Weimar philosophers — Heidegger, Schmitt, Gehlen, and Jünger, for example — characteristics that do not exhaust their philosophical significance or theoretical acuity, but which limit their relevance to a democratic public discourse. This is one reason why, in the early 1960s, Habermas found himself drawn to the work of the American pragmatists — to Peirce, James, Dewey, Mead, and Morris — and personally advocated that they be translated into German. As Stefan Müller-Doohm has shown, Habermas was very involved with the publishing house Suhrkamp, and that its publisher Siegfried Unseld “relied almost entirely on the advice of the politically interested and committed philosopher.” [4] While some German critics have bemoaned Suhrkamp’s contributions to the alleged cultural hegemony of the liberal-left, Habermas saw Suhrkamp culture as and achievement worth defending. Habermas was certainly a partisan in West Germany, not a neutral administrator of a this-worldly ideal speech situation. But his partisanship was for ideals and practices that were expansive, generous, and ultimately, democratic, resting on his unshakable conviction in the solidarity of all human beings.

Habermas has described “the development of a democratic political culture in this country” as a process “that has filled the entire history of my adult life.” [5] Building on the Kantian and Weberian notions of Mündigkeit, or “enlightenment as the emergence from self-incurred immaturity,” Habermas unapologetically defends the notion that political cultures can be more or less “mature.” How can such a teleological model of social development be defended? In a series of breakthroughs in the early to mid-1980s, in part stimulated by his reading of the American political philosopher John Rawls, Habermas came to the conclusion that, at least in the German case, a mature political culture was one in which citizens understand and act on their moral intuitions about the legitimacy of the laws. The Rechtsstaat, or constitutional state, must be able to tolerate its rule-breakers, since they, in the end, may turn out to be the “moral pacesetters” of social progress. In other words, a mature polity must tolerate civil disobedience since we moderns are fallible and need to make political judgments in a spirit of humility. Habermas’s commitment to maintaining the tension between legality and legitimacy entailed a refusal to reify and celebrate “the West.” Belonging to the West was a question of belonging, yes, but belonging to an unfinished, open-ended project that could never be prematurely foreclosed.

Developments in the Cold War in the 1980s, which raised urgent questions about West Germany’s relationship to NATO, were a turning point. In joining the massive public demonstrations against the NATO decision to station intermediate-range nuclear missiles on German soil, Habermas sought to redefine Germany’s connection to “the West” as something more than just a security alliance. By positing “constitutional patriotism” as the only appropriate patriotism for Germans today, and civil disobedience as the mark of a mature political culture, Habermas redefined what it meant to belong to “the West.” It meant being part of a forward-looking work in progress, not a closed community. Through interventions in different contexts — from The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity (1985) to the controversy among German historians in 1986–’87 over how to assess the Holocaust (the “Historians’ Debate”), Habermas stressed that “modernity” and the Enlightenment were “unfinished projects.”

When it came to the question of East Germany, and the East more broadly, Habermas could at times be provincially German, even West German, in his outlook. As East-West détente opened a space for groups like the Czech Charter 77 to mobilize, their efforts to forge a civil society, all the while echoing his own insights into the importance of the public sphere, he did not write publicly about these developments. Perhaps these European developments were too remote from Habermas’s immediate situation. At the time he found himself under attack as a representative of “Frankfurt School” Critical Theory. The violent domestic terrorism of the Red Army Faction had roiled German politics since the early 1970s and by 1977 had reached a crescendo of hysteria about “inner enemies.” As he noted much later, in 1994, “If the antiauthoritarian left […] had actually moved towards the course of radical reform which I favored, it would have saved me ten years of not very amusing defamation.” [6] After 1989, Habermas rejected the melancholy mood some leftists adopted toward capitalism’s so-called triumph. The god which failed had never received their endorsement. Indeed, when reunification came, Habermas struggled to determine what, if anything, could be salvaged from the East German political experiment. Aside from some early studies of Marxism in the 1950s, Habermas did not work through the problem of Stalinism. However he did maintain relationships with Eastern Bloc dissidents like Leszek Kołakowski in Poland and Karel Kosík in Czechoslovakia. And, beginning in 1965 and lasting for many years, Habermas participated in discussions with Yugoslav philosopher Gajo Petrović and his circle on the island of Korcula. From the failure of the Prague Spring in 1968 Habermas derived a lesson about the inability of communism to be reformed from within.

Still, Habermas insisted that the accession of East Germany to West Germany’s 1949 constitution was unacceptable from the perspective of republican theory, because it represented an annexation. A new constitutional founding was required. This would be a triumph of principle over preference, for Habermas had devoted much of his life to the maturation of West German democracy, and now all of that was at risk. In the early 1990s, waves of right-wing violence against guest workers and asylum seekers rocked the new Germany, conjuring images of a racist ethnonationalism many considered long gone and buried. With great energy, Habermas set a new course for his political theory: constitutional patriotism would have to redouble its efforts to seek “inclusion of the other,” as one of his works from the mid-1990s is titled.

It was in this context that Habermas’s magnum opus of political theory and legal theory, Between Facts and Norms: Contributions to a Discourse Theory of Democracy, appeared in 1992. Published during a moment of vulnerability in the Western democratic left’s self-image, some readers interpreted its moderate tone, along with its appreciation for thinkers such as Ronald Dworkin and John Rawls, as a sanguine assessment of democracy in the West. As Habermas noted, “Even if readers do not always see the ‘end of critical theory’ in this project, they frequently think it defuses the critique of capitalism and just gives in to political liberalism.” [7] But Between Facts and Norms proffered no end of history and no end of ideology. Recognizing the pre-1989 origins of the work helps rectify this misreading of Habermas’s mature political theory. One can trace a bright line from his 1980s critique of Western social democracy’s “exhaustion of utopian energies” to the preface to Between Facts and Norms: “I have no illusions about the problems that our situation poses and the moods it evokes. But moods — and philosophies in a melancholic mood — do not justify the defeatist surrender of the radical content of democratic ideals.” [8]

The radical content of democratic — and liberal — ideals has been a leitmotif of Habermas’s work since the early 1960s. If there was a turn away from Hegelian Marxism and toward Kant, liberalism, and the constitutional state, it was evident already in The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (1962). Written at a time when Habermas was seen as too radical for the quietist Horkheimer, and under the supervision of West Germany’s sole Marxist in the constitutional law field, Wolfgang Abendroth, the book’s radicalism consists in its immanent critique of liberal constitutional ideals and its effort to rectify a theoretical deficit in Western Marxism: the role of democratic will-formation in the emancipated society. 1989 did not occasion significant theoretical or political shifts in Habermas’s position. As he put it, “I have always been a left-liberal, left of Social Democracy.” [9] His “radical reformism” was always an effort to build bridges from Marx back to Kant.

If there was no “liberal” or “legal” turn in Habermas’s work in the 1990s, what were the true turning points in Habermas’s theoretical or political development? Habermas’s two-volume reconstruction of Western social theory, The Theory of Communicative Action (1981), represents the culmination of a “linguistic turn” that rebuilds familiar normative and social-critical ambitions on new foundations. While the bulk of the work was composed from 1977–’80, major characteristics of the theory are visible as early as 1964–’69, especially in “Technology and Science as 'Ideology’” (1968). But because Habermas left the fractious left scene at the University of Frankfurt in 1970 for the directorship of an institute dedicated purely to research, some have been tempted to describe Habermas’s linguistic turn as a kind of retreat from politics into the ivory tower. In the late 1980s, though, Habermas asserted that his research program had remained the same since about 1970, when he began to explore the formal pragmatics of language and the discourse theory of truth.

But Habermas had been working on linguistic theory long before 1968; already in his inaugural lecture at Frankfurt in 1965, Habermas had argued (as he later paraphrased it) that “in every speech-act the telos of reaching an understanding is already inherent.” [10] Habermas’s adoption of Austin and Searle’s “speech-act theory” constitutes a true linguistic “turn” in his thought, but there is no evidence that the tumult of the years 1967–’69 in Germany — or the global “1968” — contributed substantively to this turn. This is not to say that the legacy of 1968 is not legible in his theoretical work. On the contrary, it is clear that Habermas’s encounters with the student movement were constitutive of his stylization of the tensions between the “system” and the “lifeworld” in the Theory of Communicative Action. Indeed, nourishing Habermas’s investigation of new social movements in the ’70s and ’80s was the “New Sensibility” of the student generation — “its special sensitivity to the untruth of prevailing legitimations” of the social order. [11]

Neither 1989 nor 1968 marked caesurae or significant turning points in Habermas’s thought; certainly the events of neither year were as important as 1945 in shaping his philosophical and political profile. A different turning point — the events of 9/11 and the consequent US decisions to launch the “War on Terror” and invade Iraq — prompted a bigger realignment in Habermas’s thought than any other event in the postwar period. The actions of the Bush administration seem to have complicated his postwar commitment to Westbindung dramatically. It seems that the invasion of Iraq marked the point when the United States and “the West” first diverged in his mind. While had been politicized by the Vietnam War and spent time in the United States during the course of the war, Habermas never concluded that Vietnam revealed the true face of American empire, as some on the New Left had. Rather, Habermas’s appreciative view of mid-20th-century progressivism, of Roosevelt in particular, led him to see the Iraq War as an aberration from a general pattern in US foreign policy, which until then had shown greater respect for multilateralism, for international law, and for the United Nations. It was in this spirit that Habermas wrote the essays collected in his 2004 volume, The Divided West. “When I now assert that the moral authority which the USA derived from its role as an advocate of the global politics of human rights lies in shreds, then I am merely appealing to its own principles, as previously during the protests against the Vietnam War.” [12] In the 2003 essay, “Feb. 15, or What Binds Europeans,” Habermas wrote a piece, co-signed by Jacques Derrida, that anticipates Habermas’s preoccupation with the project of European integration and democratization, which has persisted to this day. But Habermas was not always committed to Europe as a political project. The Iraq War appears to have changed that, galvanizing his commitments to Europe as the true bearer of the cosmopolitan values to which he had always subscribed. “Europe must throw its weight onto the scales at the international level […] to counterbalance the hegemonic unilateralism of the United States.” [13] Whether Europe can fulfill the role of “moral pacesetter” for the global conduct of international relations any better than the United States has remains an open question.

One wonders whether there is a hidden affinity between the deepening of Habermas’s commitments to Europe in the years since 2001 and his concurrent marked reassessment of religion and secularism, what some call his “religious” turn. In the context of a war on “terror,” ethnic minorities long marginalized in Europe were now re-stigmatized as believers in an Islam conceived as unchanging, inherently violent, and pre-modern. Habermas’s revisions of the secularization thesis — central to his understanding of modernity, the Enlightenment, and communicative rationality — may be driven in part by a sense that if the divided West requires a strong Europe, Europe will have to find new ways to stop demonizing the communities it perceives as religiously “other” or culturally antimodern. Rethinking “modernity,” secularism, and the place of the religion in the public sphere might help repair the fissures that today divide Western countries internally, as well as vis-à-vis global religious fundamentalisms. By turning his attention to how Europe communicates with its “others” — both inside and outside of the continent — augurs well for a broader decentering of the West from the position it long held in Habermas’s writings. At 90, Habermas is to be applauded for his willingness to rethink the twin concepts of secularization and modernity on which so much of 20th-century European social theory was built. A theorist long committed to a project of Westbindung and the normative Westernization of German political culture has inaugurated a new chapter in his career by pluralizing the notion of the modern and rethinking the criteria of what counts as a rational argument in the public sphere. The idea of the West served Habermas’s lifelong investment in the remaking of German political culture. Today, it appears to have outlived its usefulness. Rather than assimilating Germany to a Western norm, Habermas interrogates Europe’s peculiar version of modernity. By wrestling with the multifaceted crisis of the West, Habermas makes clearer than ever the global relevance of his cosmopolitan ideals. Ever the rooted cosmopolitan, Habermas continues to branch out.


Matthew Specter is a historian of modern Europe and author of Habermas: An Intellectual Biography(Cambridge, 2010). He teaches in the Global Studies Program and History Department at UC Berkeley, and is associate editor of the journal History and Theory.


[1] Habermas, “Public Space and Political Public Sphere — The Biographical Roots of Two Motifs in My Thought, “ Europe: The Faltering Project, trans. Ciaran Cronin (Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2009), 12.

[2] Habermas, “Apologetische Tendenzen,” in Eine Art Schadensentwicklung (Frankfurt a. M.: Suhrkamp, 1986), TK

[3] Stefan Müller-Doohm, Habermas: A Biography, 413.

[4] Christian Schluter, Frankfurter Rundschau, (June 18, 2009), cited in Müller-Doohm, 402.

[5] Müller-Doohm, Habermas, 311.

[6] From the Habermas Vorlass, cited in Müller-Doohm, Habermas, 306.

[7] Habermas, “Reply to Symposium Participants,” Cardozo Law Review 17:4-5 (1996), 1545.

[8] Habermas,. “Preface,” BFN, trans. William Rehg (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1996), xliii.

[9] Author correspondence with Habermas, June 7, 2005.

[10] Habermas, “Some Difficulties in the Attempt to Link Theory and Practice,” in Theory and Practice, 1971, trans. John Viertel, (Cambridge, UK: Polity, 1971), 17.

[11] Habermas, “Studentenprotest in der Bundesrepublik: Ein Vortrag im New Yorker Goethehaus,”(Nov, 1967), in Protestbewegung und Hochschulreform (Frankfirt: Suhrkamp, 1969), 170.

[12] Habermas, “Core Europe as Counterpower? Follow-Up Questions,” in The Divided West (Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2007), 49-50.

[13] Habermas, “February 15, or: What Binds Europeans” in The Divided West (Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2007), 42.

LARB Contributor

Matthew Specter is a historian of modern Europe and author of Habermas: An Intellectual Biography (Cambridge, 2010). His second book, Atlantic Realisms: Political Thought and Foreign Policy, 1880–1980, is forthcoming from Stanford University Press. He teaches in the Global Studies Program and History Department at UC Berkeley, and is associate editor of the journal History and Theory.


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