Habermas: Up from Heidegger

I MET JÜRGEN HABERMAS once. It was long ago, when I was an undergraduate. One of my teachers had studied with him and, in an effort to enliven the intellectual environment of the small, out-of-the-way liberal arts university I was then attending, somehow convinced the most famous critical theorist of the day to come to San Francisco. I seem to recall the promise of opera tickets somehow sweetening the deal. Whatever it took, it was worth it. My classmates and I, along with a whole lot of other people, got to see one of the most important philosophers in recent memory alive and in person — not only that, I got his autograph. It’s a funny story.


Some background first. It was the ’90s and hopes were high, in those post–Berlin Wall days, that the arrival of a new humanitarian internationalism was just around the corner. It was the decade of human rights. [1] Despite the violence in the Balkans, despite the genocide in Rwanda, despite seemingly intractable animosities in the Middle East, many thought that the more or less peaceful resolution of the Cold War was a hallmark of better things to come. This, in fact, was the essence of the lecture Habermas delivered to a packed audience atop Lone Mountain, at the University of San Francisco. I don’t think I fully grasped just how optimistic — cautiously optimistic, perhaps — Habermas’s outlook was (there was a lot I missed back then, being young and naïve and in San Francisco). He admitted that “[t]his century has ‘produced’ more victims, more dead soldiers, more murdered citizens, more killed civilians and displaced minorities, more dead by torture, maltreatment, hunger, and cold, more political prisoners and refugees than previously were even imaginable,” but he still had hope. “Could it be,” he asked his audience, “that we have learned something after all from the disasters of the first half of the century?” [2]

The Cold War’s “spiral of an armaments race” was terrifying, Habermas admitted, but at least it prevented “the outbreak of a hot war.” [3] Of course, this downplayed the fact that, when viewed from the perspective of the Global South — from Latin America, Africa, and Southeast Asia — the Cold War was in fact very, very hot. It was brutal, bloody, and intractable. It was also connected to decolonization in ways that Habermas seemed unwilling to recognize. But both of these developments — the “peaceful” resolution of the Cold War and the emergence of new, sovereign nation-states out of old colonial empires — took a back seat to the phenomenon in which Habermas was most interested that day, namely the rise of the welfare state, the institution that, “for the first time, permitted fundamental social rights to be effectively realized” — at least in the “prosperous and peaceful democracies of Western Europe — and, to a lesser degree, in the USA, Japan, and some other countries.” [4] If we learned anything from the horrors of the 20th century, he suggested, it was that the welfare state’s commitment to some basic level of social justice was our first line of defense in guarding against their return.

Habermas knew that the future prospects of the welfare state were precarious at best. Already in the 1970s he noticed that it was under attack. [5] By the mid-1980s, he would interpret the “crisis of the welfare state” as a crisis of confidence in the historical mission of the West, as an “exhaustion of utopian energies.” That he would use these very same phrases again over a decade later in San Francisco shows just how little things had improved in the ensuing years. [6] Sounding alarms that he had already sounded — and forcefully at that — he warned us that “[t]he end of the century is marked by the structural menace to the welfarist domestication of capitalism and by the revival of a neoliberalism unhampered by considerations of social justice.” He noted the growing “economic disparities between the North and the South,” as well as the “risks of ecological imbalance.” [7] Nevertheless, he still had hope. Habermas pointed to the “pacifist consciousness” that had taken root in places like Western Europe. He highlighted the efforts to transform the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights from a document of meaningless good intentions into a “normative binding force.” These were signs that achieving a “cosmopolitan solidarity” was still possible, though it would entail a great deal of work toward fostering “informed political opinion and will-formation.” [8] In other words, more talking, more thinking, and more collective social action was necessary.

Looking back at that late ’90s moment, when I first came into contact with the ideas of discourse ethics and communicative rationality, with the hopes and aspirations of welfare-state-supporting, cosmopolitan-solidarity-seeking (and newly translated) books such as Between Facts and Norms: Contributions to a Discourse Theory of Law and Democracy, which a handful of us tried to master ahead of Habermas’s visit, I now realize how almost utopian all of it was. “Through communicative action the rationality potential of language for functions of social integration,” Habermas wrote, “is tapped, mobilized, and unleashed in the course of social evolution.” [9] Would that it were so, the skeptic might say today. The horizons of truth and justice have retreated dramatically since those days, like shrinking polar ice caps or melting glaciers. We finally recognize the reality of global warming, but who among us believes in social integration, let alone social evolution, these days? The proliferation of ominous acronyms and euphemisms in these first decades of the new century — from the WTO and the GWOT, to enhanced interrogation techniques, climate change, alternative facts, and America First — suggests a very different story line, one that demonstrates just how susceptible discourse is to the seductions of power, paranoia, and xenophobia. Is will-formation on the basis of “informed political opinion” even possible anymore? Was the “ideal speech situation,” on which so much of Habermas’s grand theory of communicative action was based, anything other than academic thought experiment? [10] Do people still even talk to each other in coffeehouses, those indispensable incubators of the bourgeois public sphere according to Habermas’s historical analyses, or do they sit isolated and alone, staring into their respective cell phones and laptops? [11] Do Twitter and Facebook represent an extension of the public sphere, or rather its colonization by business interests? The idea that a democratic convergence of interests and arguments might lead to genuine social progress seems pretty far-fetched. I recall the American intellectual historian Jack Diggins, some of whose seminars I attended in graduate school, dismissing it all with just one maybe not so rhetorical question: “Has Habermas ever been inside an Irish pub?” A few people around the table nodded their heads in agreement, even though we were in an Irish pub, not a coffeehouse, at the time. [12]

The belief that public discourse could be rational and uncoerced, or that the best argument always wins, never got much traction with Jack. Truth be told, it has taken me a long time to come around to it myself. Despite reading huge chunks of Between Facts and Norms; despite learning about Karl-Otto Apel and the German reception of American pragmatism, both of which proved indispensable for the creation of the theory of communicative action; despite delving into the histories and theories of the Frankfurt School, which has had so many various afterlives; I spent most of my schooldays entranced by the very kind of philosophy — in fact the very philosopher — Habermas has spent so much of his career arguing against: Martin Heidegger.

In San Francisco, I had fallen under the spell of the Seinsfrage. Everything revolved around it. Heidegger seemed to be lurking somewhere in all of my classes: history, philosophy, even theology. From him, I learned about ontology, about the essence of technology, and about the seemingly omnipresent dangers of metaphysics and rationality. From my teachers, I learned about Heidegger the existentialist, Heidegger the phenomenologist, and, naturally, Heidegger the National Socialist. There were so many different Heideggers too choose from, but even then, in those post-Farías but pre–Black Notebooks days, it was pretty clear that Heidegger was no ally of what Habermas came to call “the unfinished project of modernity.” [13] Whether or not Habermas is really “the last great rationalist,” as Thomas A. McCarthy, the translator of Habermas’s The Theory of Communicative Action, once claimed, his faith in “the rationality potential of language” is pretty much the opposite of Heidegger’s belief that “reason, glorified for centuries, is the most stiff-necked adversary of thought.” [14]

The mysterious question of Being was just so much more captivating than the fate of the welfare state. So when my teacher introduced me to Habermas — I was hoping to get my copy of Between Facts and Norms signed — as “our most devoted Heideggerian,” it was only partly in jest. But there is truth in comedy, and Habermas’s response to this introduction, which I still recall, illustrated as much. “Don’t worry,” he said, “we were all Heideggerians once.” It was as if he knew I would grow out of it eventually. But of course he did, because he had. He was once a “thoroughgoing Heideggerian” himself. [15] I didn’t know it at the time, but I would later learn that Habermas’s first foray into the public sphere came in the form of a stinging rebuke to Heidegger, who in 1953 had decided to publish a series of lectures from 1935 without excising or even attempting to explain, in a transparent way, remarks he had made about “the inner truth and greatness” of National Socialism. [16] If anything, he tried to obscure them. In a critical review of the publication, which appeared in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung when Habermas wasn’t much older than I was the day that I met him, over four decades later in San Francisco, he asked: “Can the planned murder of millions of human beings, which we all know about today, also be made understandable in terms of the history of Being as a fateful going astray? Is this murder not the actual crime of those who, with full accountability, committed it?” It was “time,” he concluded, “to think with Heidegger against Heidegger.” [17]

In a postwar context, in a divided Germany just beginning to work through its totalitarian past, Heidegger’s decision to let talk of the “inner truth and greatness” of National Socialism stand was intellectually irresponsible and morally reprehensible. Habermas has spent decades since then criticizing the “unwillingness and the inability” of Heidegger, even “after the Nazi regime, to admit his error with so much as one sentence.” (This he said in The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity, a book that chronicled the “exhaustion of utopian energies,” which seemed to correspond, Habermas observed, with Heidegger’s increasing popularity overseas.) [18]

Habermas never dismissed Heidegger, or Heidegger’s intellectual legacy, out of hand. In fact, he even penned a brief profile of him — albeit in 1959 — titled “Martin Heidegger: The Great Influence.” “The story of Heidegger’s influence is great, and most would call his work itself great,” he wrote, but this did not change the fact that it was far removed from any consideration of “social practice.” [19] In this regard, if not also others, Heidegger’s later thought had an escapist, otherworldly quality. It was not of much use for people interested in making the world a better place, for fostering solidarity — that indispensable resource, as Habermas has described it, for keeping the forces of money and power in check. [20] In an essay written around the time of the so-called Farías Affair in the late ’80s (one of the many, recurring “Heidegger Scandals” to have punctuated recent intellectual history), Habermas suggested that Heidegger’s chief concern was “to show that man is the ‘neighbor of Being’ — not the neighbor of man.” [21] Even as late as that Lone Mountain lecture I attended, Habermas could still invoke the “originality” and “long-term impact” of Heidegger’s work, which was rivaled in the 20th century only by Wittgenstein’s, but it was clear that when it came to matters of pressing concern, such as the tenuous prospects of the welfare state and social democracy, it was of little help. [22]

The idea of communicative action was born not in the philosophy seminar — nor, for that matter, in an Irish pub — but in the contentious public sphere of a fragile, postwar democracy on a fractured continent. It was forged — and continues to be forged — by legal rulings, political debates, and social movements. [23] Habermas has been there for all of it. Whether the issue was the necessity of “working through the past,” of confronting the legacies of totalitarianism and total war, or the formation of the European Union, or fundamentalism, or terrorism, Habermas has been an inspiring presence — not simply extolling communicative action, but performing it. [24] Whereas Heidegger sought to avoid taking responsibility for his words and deeds in the public sphere — retreating from the modern world to his mountaintop hut, from whence he dispensed increasingly oracular, poetic pronouncements about the fate of Being — Habermas has done the opposite. He has shouldered the responsibilities of being a public intellectual while also working to broaden our definition of just what philosophy can and should do in society. Habermas puts philosophy into productive conversation with the work of historians and sociologists, scholars of jurisprudence and political theory; he has pioneered and modeled the kind of wide-ranging interdisciplinary work that is so often preached in the contemporary academy but so rarely practiced — the kind of work that the social democratic welfare state, that most precarious of utopias, needs now more than ever before.


One of the books for which Jack Diggins was most well known was Up from Communism, a group portrait of four American intellectuals — Max Eastman, John Dos Passos, James Burnham, and Will Herberg — who over time traded their youthful flirtations with leftist radicalism for supposedly more sober forms of conservatism. First published in 1975, the book was, in its own way, an account of the “exhaustion of utopian energies.” It was about thinkers for whom “the problem with utopia” became “not how to realize it but how to prevent its realization.” [25] In other words, up from communism meant down with utopia.

I have often thought Up from Heidegger would be a great title for a similar kind of work. There would be plenty of fascinating potential protagonists to choose from, for Habermas is by no means the only thinker to have charted an intellectual path away from Heidegger. [26] (In the vast archive of Richard Rorty’s papers at the University of California, Irvine, for example, is a 1985 letter to Habermas, in which he says, “Someday I’ll get Heidegger off my chest and then settle down to a full-fledged Dewey book.” [27] I’m sure it must have come as a relief to Habermas, who tried for years to get his friend to join the ranks of the former Heideggerians.) But my story line would be different from Jack’s: it would document not the exhaustion of utopian energies, but rather a continual, dedicated struggle for their renewal. Habermas would be the hero of the book, naturally. His contributions to the “unfinished project” of modernity would provide the dominant narrative arc. In turning away from Heidegger, in channeling the legacy of the Frankfurt School in new directions, in never shying away from public debate and exchange, Habermas has opposed valiantly the forces of what he once called “the new obscurity” — a term that seems to describe only too perfectly our current situation, marked as it is by the forces of social media disinformation, political polarization, and xenophobia. If only in a modest sense, Habermas has kept utopia alive. [28] Invoking the work of John Rawls, he has gone so far as to defend “the realistic utopia of human rights.” [29] It is something, even if it is not, as some scholars have suggested, everything. [30]

Gone are the days when philosophers could retreat from the world, avoid taking responsibility for their ideas, and get away with it — maybe that is what the thesis of Up from Heidegger would be. It is a lesson Habermas learned, at least in part, from one of his Frankfurt School predecessors, Herbert Marcuse, who also charted an intellectual path away from Heidegger and toward utopia. “Marcuse was never afraid of being outspoken and for taking responsibility for what he said,” Habermas once told an academic audience at the University of California, San Diego. Marcuse also demonstrated the importance of keeping a “utopian horizon” in our sights — as well as in our hearts, in the form of “compassion, in our sense for the suffering of others.” [31]

The unraveling of the welfare state today suggests deficit of compassion not only in our hearts, but also in our public discourse. It reinforces the importance, the necessity, of actively working for change. “As utopian oases dry up,” Habermas once said, “a desert of banality and bewilderment spreads.” [32] It certainly seems as if we are wandering in that desert now. Where shall we go? What lessons from our past will we take with us? We may never actually learn by disaster, but in this era of economic inequality, mass incarceration, and environmental degradation, giving up on the imperfect, precarious utopia of the welfare state, and the cosmopolitan, social justice-seeking solidarity — if not compassion — it represents, might be one of them.

It has been years now since I last dipped into any of my Heidegger books, most of which are in boxes anyhow. But there is a shelf full of Habermas titles right here next to my desk. They remind me of what is important, and what still needs to be done. Books like Between Facts and Norms may never inspire students the way the Seinsfrage does, or the way Marcuse’s speeches to packed houses once did, but they will continue to inspire educators and reformers — those perpetual students among us who do the most to keep utopia viable in a dystopian era.

Speaking of educators: That teacher who introduced me to Habermas all those years ago in San Francisco? His name is Eduardo Mendieta, and he deserves credit not just for organizing this dossier, but also for guiding so many of us to, and through, Habermas’s work. For that — and for so many other things — I will always be grateful, because Habermas is a thinker from whom we still have so much to learn, even and especially in these increasingly dark times.


Martin Woessner is associate professor of History & Society at The City College of New York’s Center for Worker Education. He is the author of Heidegger in America (Cambridge University Press, 2011) and is currently writing a book about the philosophical films of Terrence Malick.


[1] For their comments and suggestions on previous versions of this essay, I am indebted to Eduardo Mendieta, Joel Isaac, Matthew Cotter, and Arne De Boever. See Stefan Ludwig-Hoffmann, “Human Rights and History,” Past and Present 232 (August 2016): 279-310.

[2] Jürgen Habermas, “Learning by Disaster: A Short Look Back on the Short 20th Century,” trans. Hella Beister, Constellations 5:3 (September 1998), 311, 312.

[3] Ibid., 313.

[4] Ibid.

[5] See Habermas, Legitimation Crisis, trans. Thomas McCarthy (Boston: Beacon Press, 1975).

[6] Habermas, “Learning by Disaster,” 318. See Habermas, “The New Obscurity: The Crisis of the Welfare State and the Exhaustion of Utopian Energies,” in The New Conservatism: Cultural Criticism and the Historian’s Debate, edited and translated by Shierry Weber Nicholsen, introduction by Richard Wolin (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 1989), 48-70.

[7] Ibid., 314.

[8] Ibid., 319, 317.

[9] Jürgen Habermas, Between Facts and Norms: Contributions to a Discourse Theory of Law and Democracy, trans. William Rehg (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 1996), 42.

[10] See Habermas, The Theory of Communicative Action, Volume One: Reason and the Rationalization of Society, trans. Thomas McCarthy (Boston: Beacon Press, 1984), 25.

[11] See Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society, trans. Thomas Burger with the assistance of Frederick Lawrence (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 1989).

[12] This was Jack’s standard line when it came to all things Habermassian. See John Patrick Diggins, “Pragmatism and the Historians,” Intellectual History Newsletter 17 (1995): 25–30.

[13] See Jürgen Habermas, “Modernity: An Unfinished Project,” in Maurizio Passerin d’Entrèves and Seyla Benhabib, eds., Habermas and the Unfinished Project of Modernity: Critical Essays on The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 1997), 38-55.

[14] See McCarthy, “Translator’s Introduction,” in Habermas, The Theory of Communicative Reason, Volume One, viii; and Martin Heidegger, “The Word of Nietzsche: ‘God is Dead’,” The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, trans. with an introduction by William Lovitt (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1977), 112.

[15] Jürgen Habermas, Autonomy and Solidarity: Interviews with Jürgen Habermas, edited by Peter Dews (London: Verso, 1992), 189.

[16] Martin Heidegger, An Introduction to Metaphysics, trans. Ralph Manheim (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1959), 199. A newer, expanded translation has been made by Gregory Fried and Richard Polt as Introduction to Metaphysics, Second Edition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014). Habermas’s review can be found—as “Martin Heidegger: On the Publication of the Lectures of 1935”—in Richard Wolin, ed., The Heidegger Controversy: A Critical Reader (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 1993), 186-197. A more detailed account of Habermas’s 1953 break from Heidegger can be found in Martin Beck Matuštík, Jürgen Habermas: A Philosophical-Political Profile (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001), 12-17; and, more recently, Stefan Müller-Doohm, Habermas: A Biography, trans. Daniel Steuer (Malden, Massachusetts: Polity Press, 2016), 60-66. Habermas also revisited the event in his own essay “Work and Weltanschauung: The Heidegger Controversy from a German Perspective,” The New Conservatism: Cultural Criticism and the Historian’s Debate, edited and translated by Shierry Weber Nicholsen (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 1989), 161–163.

[17] Habermas, “Martin Heidegger: On the Publication of the Lectures of 1935,” 197.

[18] Jürgen Habermas, The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity, trans. Frederick G. Lawrence (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 1987), 155.

[19] Jürgen Habermas, “Martin Heidegger: The Great Influence,” Philosophical-Political Profiles, trans. Frederick G. Lawrence (Cambridge, Massachsuetts: The MIT Press, 1985), 62; The New Conservatism, op. cit.;

[20] See Habermas, “The New Obscurity,” 65.

[21] Jürgen Habermas, “Work and Weltanschauung: The Heidegger Controversy from a German Perspective,” 160.

[22] Habermas, “Learning by Disaster,” 313.

[23] On Habermas’s connection to law, especially, see Matthew G. Specter, Habermas: An Intellectual Biography (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).

[24] See, for instance, just a handful of examples: Habermas, ed., Observations on “The Spiritual Situation of the Age,trans. Andrew Buchwalter (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 1984); Habermas, The New Conservatism, op. cit.; Habermas, The Postnational Constellation: Political Essays, translated, edited, and with an introduction by Max Pensky (Malden, Massachusetts: Polity Press, 2001); Giovanna Borradori, Philosophy in a Time of Terror: Dialogues with Jürgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003); and Habermas, Between Naturalism and Religion: Philosophical Essays, trans. Ciaran Cronin (Malden, Massachusetts: Polity, 2008).

[25] John P. Diggins, Up from Communism: Conservative Ideas in American Intellectual Development (1975; New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), 270.

[26] See, for instance, Richard Wolin, Heidegger’s Children: Hannah Arendt, Karl Löwith, Hans Jonas, and Herbert Marcuse (2001; Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015).

[27] Rorty to Habermas, April 29, 1985, Richard Rorty Papers, University of California, Irvine, Special Collections, Box 27 Folder 4.

[28] For more on Habermas and utopia, see Loren Goldman, “Utopia.”

[29] Jürgen Habermas, “The Concept of Human Dignity and the Realistic Utopia of Human Rights,” Metaphilosophy 41:4 (July 2010): 464-480.

[30] See, for instance, Samuel Moyn, The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard Belknap, 2010) and Not Enough: Human Rights in an Unequal World (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard Belknap, 2018).

[31] Jürgen Habermas, “Psychic Thermidor and the Rebirth of Rebellious Subjectivity,” in Robert Pippin, Andrew Feenberg, Charles P. Webel and contributors, Marcuse: Critical Theory and the Promise of Utopia (South Hadley, Massachusetts: Bergin & Garvey, 1988), 5, 9, 11. On Marcuse’s connection to Heidegger, see Marcuse, Heideggerian Marxism, ed. Richard Wolin and John Abromeit (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2005).

[32] Habermas, “The New Obscurity,” 68.