The Unfinished Project of the Enlightenment: Jürgen Habermas at 90

By Eduardo MendietaAugust 11, 2019

The Unfinished Project of the Enlightenment: Jürgen Habermas at 90
JÜRGEN HABERMAS WAS BORN on June 18, 1929, in the German city of Düsseldorf. This means he turned 90 this summer, but nothing is slowing him down. The day after his birthday, Habermas delivered a public lecture in the main lecture hall of the Goethe University in Frankfurt am Main, where he began and ended his teaching career. (He officially retired in 1994, but continued to teach on a visiting basis in the United States for many years afterward.) The lecture was titled “Yet Again: On the Relationship between Morality and Ethical Life.” It was a major occasion celebrating one of Germany’s most famous thinkers and undoubtedly the most influential public intellectual of Europe and the world today. I was fortunate to be in the audience, since I had been invited to attend a two-day conference the following day to celebrate Habermas’s intellectual achievements and to jump-start the critical reception of his next major book, a massive two-volume work, scheduled to appear the fall of 2019.

More than 3,000 people showed up for Habermas’s lecture, representing several generations of scholars from around the world. The entire building was packed, as were five overflow lecture halls connected by live feed. At some point, somebody pulled a fire alarm. The German media could not restrain itself from commenting comically on the unfolding of events. Two of my favorite headlines captured the drama and spectacle of the day: “The Fire Alarm came between Hegel and Marx” and “In Flip-Flops to Habermas.” But nobody left. Most of the 3,000 people either stayed put or returned to the lecture halls to continue listening to Habermas explain why a confrontation between Kant and Hegel, mediated by the Marx, remains relevant to us today. He explained why he has tried to reconcile them in his own work since the 1950s, when he began his philosophical career. It was fitting that one of the greatest moral thinkers would close more than a half a century of public intellectual life with a return to his roots, with yet another reflection on Kant, Hegel, and Marx. After nearly two hours — including the interruption — Habermas received a standing ovation, which went on for what seemed like nearly a quarter of an hour. As one of the newspaper articles put it: it was as if people had gathered to hear a rock legend. But this was better than any rock concert. The standing ovation was much more than just the recognition of a good performance: the applause felt like a tender hug and a heartfelt “Thank You” to Professor Habermas for all he has given us over the years. Here, in the United States, it may be difficult to imagine a philosopher receiving a standing ovation, being shown such admiration, appreciation, and devotion; but on that night no aging rock star, no famous movie actor, no amazing athlete, could have been fêted with such sincere and profound gratitude.

Habermas entered the German public sphere in 1953 when he published a critical review of republished lectures by Martin Heidegger from 1935, in which Heidegger spoke of the “inner truth and greatness” of the National Socialist movement. Habermas called out Heidegger’s moral turpitude and callousness. With this critical rejection of Heidegger, the most well-known German philosopher of the day, Habermas implored Germans to come to terms with their historical responsibility for the Nazi past. Ever since then, he has remained at the center of every major debate and polemic in the German and European public spheres. His influence can be traced both within the academy and well beyond it. In the ’60s and ’70s, for example, he helped to shape the development of the social sciences with interventions in a series of important theoretical debates. He engaged critical rationalists like Karl Popper and Hans Albert in the so-called Positivism Debate; he questioned Hans-Georg Gadamer about the limits of hermeneutics and its claim to universality; and he took on Niklas Luhmann’s notion of systems theory, raising flags about its conservative and anti-humanist tendencies. In the ’80s, Habermas tangled with German historians about emerging apologetic tendencies in the historiography of the Holocaust, which sought to assimilate it to other atrocities of the early 20th century, thus downplaying its significance. For Habermas, Germany had to carry on the work of coming to terms with — or working on (Vergangenheitsbewältigung) — the past, lest the developmental project of democracy slide back into authoritarianism. The future is shaped by those who determine how the past is interpreted, and Habermas knew that a democratic, morally self-reflexive Germany could not afford to downplay its genocidal past.

Habermas has been in dialogue with the most important intellectuals of recent memory. In the late ’80s, he entered into major debates with deconstructionist, poststructuralist, and postmodern thinkers, represented by figures such as Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida. And then in the ’90s, with the publication of Between Facts and Norms (1992), Habermas entered into another important series of debates, this time focused on such topics as law and politics, national sovereignty and citizenship, human rights and global justice. While he had been studying and appropriating work published in the United States since his still indispensable Knowledge and Human Interests (1968), it was in Between Facts and Norms that Habermas began to engage the most formidable American legal, political, and moral scholars, ranging from John Rawls and Ronald Dworkin to Catharine MacKinnon, Nancy Fraser, and Seyla Benhabib.

Famously, Habermas also has intervened on pressing matters of European politics. He thought through the issue of German reunification, for example, as well as the emergence of the European Union, not to mention the many crises it has faced over the last two decades. Not a year has passed when Habermas has not appeared in the media, addressing the dominant issues of the day. As his Goethe University lecture demonstrated, Habermas remains the most vigorous, eloquent, respectful, and reliable voice of public reason in our ever fragmented and cacophonous global public sphere. It is for this reason that he is without question the most honored living philosopher. He has received over 21 awards, from those awarded in Germany, such as the Hegel, Adorno, and Leibniz prizes, to those granted by other countries, such the Prince of Asturias Foundation (Spain), the Kyoto Prize in Arts and Philosophy (Japan), the Holberg International Memorial Prize (Norway), and the Ulysses Medal (Ireland), to mention just a few. Habermas has also been named — three times — as one of the most influential thinkers by Foreign Policy. In 2004, Time Magazine named him one of the top 100 most influential thinkers. The brief citation accompanying the honor, penned by Todd Gitlin, carried an all too appropriate title: “The Sage of Reason.”

While Habermas, as a public intellectual, has been tirelessly engaging Germans, Europeans, and global citizens over the last two decades, he also has displayed an unwavering and undiminished intellectual productivity. He has published some of the most important works in social, political, legal, and moral philosophy and theory in the past half century. His bibliography is astonishing, running from The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere(1962), through what many take to be his magnum opus, The Theory of Communicative Action (1981), and its companion volume The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity (1985), to Between Facts and Norms (1992). Several cutting-edge works on moral philosophy and political theory emerged in between, along with what now amounts to be 12 volumes of his so-called Kleine Politische Schriften (Small Political Writings), which are anything but “small.” Soon to appear is Auch eine Geschichte der Philosophie (Also a History of Philosophy). It will be in two volumes, amounting to 1,700 pages.

A global network of scholars is trying desperately to keep up with Habermas’s many achievements. Around the time that his two-volume History of Philosophy will be published, outlining what I would call Habermas’s philosophy of religion, Habermas’s biographer Stefan Müller-Doohm, along with Luca Corchia and William Outhwaite, has edited a massive 800-page book titled Habermas Global, which has 32 chapters, written by 40 contributors. It covers Habermas’s reception in Germany, England, the United States, Latin America, Spain, Scandinavia, Asia, Portugal, and Brazil. (Full disclosure: I co-authored two of the entries for this impressive book.) In addition to this, my colleague Amy Allen and I edited The Cambridge Habermas Lexicon, which aims to provide a comprehensive bibliographical resource for both newcomers to and experts on Habermas’s expansive body of work. Our Lexicon has 205 entries, written by 100 contributors, covering everything from basic concepts to figures who have been central to the evolution of Habermas’s work.

Habermas has been, and will always be, connected to the intellectual tradition known as Critical Theory. During the ’50s, Habermas was Adorno’s assistant, and the influence of the Frankfurt School philosopher can be seen in his work to this day. In a small text from the early ’30s, titled “Theses on the Language of the Philosopher” Adorno speaks of how “history shares in truth through language, and words are never mere signs of what is thought in them, but rather history erupts in them conferring their character of truth.” This relationship between history, truth, and language, especially as they converge in the work of the philosopher, became the central theme of Adorno’s 1962–’63 lecture course, Philosophische Terminologie (Philosophical Terminology), which was subtitled, “Introduction to Philosophy.” In these lectures, Adorno shows how the language of philosophy is extracted from the vernaculars of everyday speakers, then transformed into technical and rarified terminologies. Philosophical writing, in other words, is a form of alienation. But Adorno, dialectical thinker that he was, also shows how the opposite is also true: namely, how philosophical language filters back into the quotidian language of speakers, transforming what can be said — and how it can be said — in common vernacular.

Working on the Cambridge Habermas Lexicon has converted an intuition I always had about Habermas’s work into a philosophical conviction. Habermas’s language is the stylization of everyday language into a formidable philosophical vocabulary, but by the same token his language has filtered back into our vernaculars. This has allowed us to proffer reasons and justifications that were unthinkable and unsayable before he undertook his transformative work particularly in philosophy and more broadly in social theory. The Cambridge Habermas Lexicon is, I would like to think, a testament to Habermas’s impact across many disciplines, but also, and more importantly, on the everyday language we use to weave the fabric of our social existence. In his “Theses on the Language of the Philosopher,” Adorno discusses the “the unbreakable dignity of words.” Words embody the dignity of those who speak them, but they also can confer dignity on those who adopt them. Habermas’s language has contributed, indelibly and lastingly, to the “unbreakable dignity of words.” His work dignifies us: it invites us to construct and deploy ever more inclusive, democratic, and enlightened public languages. Like every major thinker before him, Habermas has taught us to think differently, to philosophize anew, in radically generative ways; but he has also given us a vocabulary in which the promises of dignity, autonomy, and emancipation are kept alive and true.

Already Habermas has left us a monumental oeuvre, which towers over anything produced by either his predecessors or his contemporaries. I have tried to imagine what his Gesamtausgabe (Complete Works) might look like and I lost count at 20 volumes. His work spans every major discipline in the social and humanistic sciences. Like no other thinker in the past or the present, he seems to have read every significant figure of any relevance and creativity in the extant literature. Additionally — and again singularly — his work is an improbable feat of synthesis: he absorbs and reorients other paradigms into one continuous project that is distinctly, undeniably Habermasian. His work is encyclopedic, yet also driven by a series of key theses and intuitions: that reason is communicative; that reason is expressed in and through our use of language; that language socializes us into a moral world we all share by virtue of our linguistic capacities. Most important of all is Habermas’s idea that the public use of reason, in which communicative reason is most visibly embodied, is a collective project of political development and maturation.

For Habermas, it is in and through language that moral and political autonomy are postulated as imperatives. In his view, reason appears not as an inevitable consequence of either natural or social evolution, but rather as the accomplishment of humanity’s communicative interactions. Reason requires ongoing struggle. We must endeavor to retrospectively capture and reconstruct our pedagogical accomplishments, lest they dissolve under the pressures of the ceaseless catastrophes generated by history. For Habermas, reason is like a mole digging through the debris of history, trying to discern what we have learned, collectively, about being both morally and politically autonomous. The supreme task of philosophy, then, is to work through the past so as to bring about both the political and moral enlightenment of individuals and social groups alike. It is a big task, of course, but a necessary one — as the current state of the world seems to demonstrate on a daily basis.

The career of every major thinker, especially those who have given us an expansive corpus of texts, invites the questions: What in their intellectual bequest will survive the test of time? What will not be eclipsed by the emergence of new theories, new paradigms? With these questions in mind, I asked a group of colleagues to reflect on Habermas’s massive oeuvre. I asked them to comment on what aspects of Habermas’s life and work they felt would remain relevant for future generations. What will Habermas’s example mean for scholars and thinkers to come?

The essays collected here, written by experts in a number of fields, cover a wide range of issues, and they demonstrate just how generative Habermas’s ideas continue to be across the humanities and the social sciences. Martin Jay’s essay “Habermas and the Light of Reason: On Late Critical Theory” is without question one of the best overviews of Habermas’s idea of postmetaphysical thinking. Jay, the premier intellectual historian of the Frankfurt School, examines Habermas’s reconstruction of rationality after its so-called eclipse in the early decades of the 20th century and shows how it kept reason alive even during dark times. Matthew Specter, the author of an important intellectual biography of Habermas, shows, in “Habermas in German, European, North Atlantic, and Global Perspective,” how Habermas has managed to work as a rooted intellectual addressing specifically German debates while also attending to global, cosmopolitan concerns. In her contribution, “The Public Sphere in Dark Times” philosopher Noëlle McAfee focuses on the radical impetus behind Habermas’s conception of the public sphere, which remains a useful model, she argues, of political contestation and public deliberation today. For McAfee, a Habermasian understanding of the public sphere may give us some tools to make ourselves both “Bullshit”- and “Fake News”–resistant. In “Habermas’s Concept of the Public Sphere and the New Feminist Agenda,” philosopher María Pía Lara gives us yet another reason to revisit Habermas’s conception of the public sphere, suggesting its relevance to the tasks ahead for feminism. For Pía Lara, feminism remains an unfinished project, one that might transform the public sphere to unmask the daily violence and symbolic degradation to which women are so frequently submitted. Addressing another pressing concern, philosopher Matthias Fritsch reconstructs the debate between Habermas, Derrida, and, by proxy, Foucault, to address the ethical ramifications of looming environmental disaster. In “Futures of Habermas’s Work,” he argues that Habermas’s discourse ethics — or what he calls his linguistified Kantianism — offers guidance for an ecological thinking that takes the concerns of future generations into consideration. Habermas’s discourse ethics, Fritsch suggests, shows us how to consider those who are to come, even if they are not yet here among us. And finally, in a personal essay, “Habermas: Up from Heidegger,” intellectual historian Martin Woessner reflects on how American students once seduced by Heidegger have turned to Habermas to build the house of democracy and labor on the construction of a truly cosmopolitan moral consciousness.

Collectively, the essays in this dossier show us not only how Habermas has engaged with North American thought over the many years of his illustrious career, but also how he has been adopted by a wide range of North Americans, pursuing a wide variety of ethical, political, and social projects. In this regard, these essays might be thought of as a continuation of that heartfelt standing ovation Habermas received in Frankfurt on the occasion of his birthday. May the applause continue for a long time to come.


Eduardo Mendieta is professor of philosophy, associate director of the Rock Ethics Institute, affiliated faculty at the School of International Affairs, and the Bioethics Program at Penn State University. He is the author of The Adventures of Transcendental Philosophy (Rowman & Littlefield, 2002) and Global Fragments: Globalizations, Latinamericanisms, and Critical Theory (SUNY Press, 2007). 

LARB Contributor

Eduardo Mendieta is professor of philosophy, associate director of the Rock Ethics Institute, affiliated faculty at the School of International Affairs, and the Bioethics Program at Penn State University. He is the author of The Adventures of Transcendental Philosophy (Rowman & Littlefield, 2002) and Global Fragments: Globalizations, Latinamericanisms, and Critical Theory (SUNY Press, 2007). He is also co-editor with Jonathan VanAntwerpen of The Power of Religion in the Public Sphere (Columbia University Press, 2011), and with Craig Calhoun and Jonathan VanAntwerpen of Habermas and Religion (Polity, 2013), and with Amy Allen, From Alienation to Forms of Life: The Critical Theory of Rahel Jaeggi (Penn State University Press, 2018), The Cambridge Habermas Lexicon (Cambridge University Press, 2019), and Justification and Emancipation: The Critical Theory of Rainer Forst (Penn State University Press, 2019). He is the 2017 the recipient of the Frantz Fanon Outstanding Achievements Award.


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