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Up from Zero Hour

Jürgen Habermas ranks today as the single most important public intellectual in all of Continental Europe. But he is also a formidable philosopher whose major contributions to social and political theory, constitutional law, historical sociology, the history of philosophy, and the philosophy of language (to name only the fields he revisits with greatest frequency) are pitched at such air-gasping heights of difficulty and place such merciless demands upon the reader as to turn away all but the most fearless. This twofold persona—technical philosopher and public controversialist—does not strike most Europeans as unfamiliar. Sartre was such a creature, too. But in the Anglophone world it is a species that remains exotic. John Rawls, to whom Habermas is often compared, is justly remembered as the major Anglophone political philosopher of the twentieth century, but beyond the university walls his public presence was minimal. You have to go back to the early twentieth century—maybe to Bertrand Russell—to find a philosopher who achieved a similar prestige for both his technical philosophical achievements and his interventions on the public stage.

What is perhaps most striking about the case of Habermas is the way he has managed to sustain a graceful balance between these roles. His major contributions to social and political theory display a depth of erudition and insight that is really stunning. But as a public intellectual he is a muscular critic who is unafraid of polemic. How has he simultaneously managed both roles?

As the intellectual historian Matthew Specter shows in his informative new study, the answer may have something to do with the special burdens of history that have afflicted German intellectuals in the post-war era. During its early years of reconstruction, the Federal Republic labored under a constant suspicion that its democratic institutions rested upon dangerously thin supports. A cottage industry of liberal historians (many of them refugees from the Third Reich) produced innumerable volumes that set out to show how Germany’s intellectual tradition diverged from the democratic West. Allied programs for de-Nazification added further credence to the notion that the future of democracy for Germany required a break from its undemocratic past. An historical consensus began to emerge that traced the Central European catastrophe back to something deep and intractable in German culture: the peculiarity of a “Germanic ideology” or a “German idea of freedom.” 

A half-century on, this genre of intellectual and political history now finds few champions. Following the withering revisionist critique laid out cooperatively by the historians David Blackbourn and Geoff Eley, most historians tend to regard the notion of Germany’s Sonderweg or “special path” as merely a convenient prop that buttressed the ideological consensus of the Cold War: liberal capitalism stood as the norm against which all other polities (especially the Soviet Union) were judged defective. But in the early years of the FRG, German citizens were understandably eager to put all the peculiarities of the past behind them once and for all. According to the standard phrase, 1945 was a Stunde null or “zero hour”—a slogan that captured both the nation’s desire to forget and its longing to rush forward, unburdened by guilt, toward the economic transformations of the 1950s.

But for the younger generation of West German intellectuals who came of age in that era—Specter calls them the “’58ers”—the idea of a complete rupture with the past proved highly ambivalent. Like Habermas (who was born in 1929), they had witnessed just enough of the Third Reich to know that they had to remain forever on the watch for its ideological reprisal. The zeal with which Habermas has battled the intellectual and political forces of German conservatism over the last fifty years is a symptom of how keenly he has felt the burdens of German’s past. He is a philosopher who wishes to embrace, with full conviction, all of the promises of political modernity. But the idea of a zero-hour also left Habermas and his generation with a major dilemma. If the German political and philosophical tradition was corrupt to its core, then how was the fledgling West German democracy to survive, and upon what ideological foundations? 

For pragmatic conservatives who were ready to embrace Germany’s subordinate role in the Cold War alongside the United States, the thought that the FRG could simply acquire its democratic ideology from abroad presented little cause for concern. If one could successfully import Woolworth’s five-and-dime convenience stores, one could also import an ideology to unleash the fullest energies of market capitalism. For hard conservatives such as Carl Schmitt and Ernst Jünger, the importation of the Anglo-American model was seen as tragic, and it provoked a stream of resentful (and sometimes anti-Semitic) diatribes lamenting the rise of “technological” liberalism while mourning the loss of “the political.” But earnest young intellectuals on the left found themselves in a more serious quandary. Rejecting West Germany’s official policy of uncritical alliance with the United States, they also stood apart from the postwar consensus that celebrated Anglo-American style bourgeois capitalism as the only valid model for the future. Were there in fact no native resources in the canons of German philosophy to which the younger generation might appeal?

It is only as a response to this dilemma that one can understand the tireless devotion Habermas has brought to the task of refashioning modern social theory. The labor, as he knew early on, would not be easy. The project would demand that Habermas reconsider the major philosophers of world-rationalization—Kant, Hegel, Weber—to wrest from their theories all that might enrich a new model of truly human freedom while dispensing with their impoverished conception of reason as a mere instrument for the mastery of nature. Unlike his teachers Horkheimer and Adorno, the returned émigrés who presided over the new generation from their posts at the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt, Habermas was unwilling to concede that the Enlightenment itself was caught in a bad dialectic that sabotaged the human bid for emancipation. But to demonstrate what was mistaken in that grim narrative would demand that the entire edifice of Enlightenment rationality be rebuilt from the ground up. The very armature of the Enlightenment tradition had to be excavated and reset, like a bone that had once broken and never properly healed.

Seen in this light, one can perhaps understand how the two roles that Habermas has played throughout his life are parts of a single calling. The public intellectual who advocated for greater democracy and transparency in contemporary Germany could only succeed if he also plunged deep into the philosophical tradition, in which he could discover the conceptual resources for grounding his own practice of public criticism.

Specter’s book helps us to appreciate how much of what Habermas has written as a philosopher first took shape in the rough-and-tumble context of post-war West German ideological and legal debate. It is worth noting that the book does not fulfill its title’s promise of an “intellectual biography.” The earlier work by Martin Beck Matustík, Jürgen Habermas: A Philosophical-Political Profile, which appeared a decade ago, comes somewhat closer to the mark. But it is perhaps an elusive goal. Especially while the protagonist is still very much alive, it is unlikely that anyone could succeed in creating a fully satisfying inventory of all that Habermas has managed to achieve.

The goal that Specter set for himself is rather more modest. He has reconstructed some of the key debates in postwar German legal theory, and he has shown—efficiently and with strong evidence—how Habermas both criticized and incorporated the central themes of those debates into his work. What most distinguishes Specter’s book is a methodological commitment to the principle that there is no real divide between Habermas the philosopher and Habermas the engagé critic. In demonstrating the close connection between these two facets of his protagonist’s career, Specter has succeeded very well.

Habermas first emerged on the German political scene in the late 1950s. This defines his membership in the “’58er” generation—Specter’s term for a group that also includes many of the key political figures of the FRG such as the former chancellor Helmut Kohl (b. 1930), the conservative philosopher Hermann Lübbe (1926), the historian Hans Mommsen (1930) and the theologian Johann Baptist Metz (1928). The ’58ers were united by what Kohl once famously called the “blessing of late birth”: Too young to feel themselves politically compromised by the events of the Third Reich, they were nonetheless old enough to remember both its rise and its collapse.

This set them apart from the “’68ers”—the younger generation that rushed into the streets in May 1968, for whom Nazism was not so much a specific memory as a term of general abuse. Too mature to participate with full enthusiasm in the street demonstrations and the intoxicating spirit of the ’60s counterculture, Habermas, like many of his generation, looked upon the ’68ers with cautious admiration. He lauded their anti-authoritarianism but rebuked them when they succumbed to the romantic (and potentially violent) cult of “immediacy.” He criticized the Red Army Faction for embracing what he called “left fascism”—a razor-sharp phrase that he later came to regret.

Specter is especially good at discerning how even the more technical facets of Habermas’s thinking took shape in critical dialogue with contemporary political events. This is true most of all for Specter’s account of the genesis of Habermas’s most recent contribution to political and legal theory, Between Facts and Norms, published in Germany in 1992, the work to which Specter devotes deepest attention in his book’s closing chapter, almost as if it were the culmination of Habermas’s career. One of Specter’s major aims is to push back against critics (such as the left-Schmittian Chantal Mouffe) who have read Between Facts and Norms as Habermas’s farewell to his earlier mode of Marxist-inspired critical theory and, more dramatically, as a capitulation to neo-liberalism. More moderate readers have seen the book as setting out on a new path, marking a “legal turn” or “liberal turn” in Habermas’s thought.

Specter, rather boldly, rejects all these interpretations. He insists instead that the work should be read as “a kind of fragmented intellectual biography,” such that we may better discern development where others have identified a volte face. “The thesis of a legal or liberal turn,” Specter claims, “obscures a significant continuity in Habermas’s work” that stretches all the way back to his thesis, in 1962, on the genesis of the bourgeois public sphere. It springs from “Habermas’s lifelong commitment to a radical reform of liberal constitutionalism.” Seen in this broader historical perspective, Between Facts and Norms is, Specter claims, not a work of political resignation at all. It recasts rather than abandons the “utopian longing of the German Left.” 

Whether this argument for strong continuity is plausible remains open for further debate. To settle the issue would obviously require a complete and rigorous stocktaking of Habermas’s work from beginning to end. So Specter provides more of a suggestion than a definitive answer. His book starts out slowly, documenting major lines of ideological fracture in German political and constitutional thought from the 1950s to the ’80s. The book was originally a dissertation, and it bears all of the marks of the scrupulous empiricism of graduate studenthood: its author has burrowed deep in the archives for nearly all of the dramatis personae of postwar German politics and political theory—Willy Brandt, Helmut Schmidt, Wolfgang Abendroth, Max Horkheimer, Alexander Mitscherlich, Herbert Marcuse, Max Horkheimer, and Carl Schmitt. Specter has also conducted interviews with the living, including Habermas himself.

Those who are inclined to see Habermas chiefly as a philosopher in the grand tradition of post-Kantian German rationalism are likely to miss the more worldly factors that have conditioned his career. But as Specter shows, debate in post-war West Germany concerning the constitutional limits upon oppositional parties and free speech proved to be a major influence for Habermas’s emergent theories of democracy. Consider the Nordrhein-Westfalen case in 1959, in which the state legislature attempted to block editors and publishers from distributing literature that promoted “socialism, militarism, totalitarianism, or racial discrimination.” The Federal Constitutional Court found that this effort violated Article 5 of Germany’s Basic Law, which established the rights of a free press. But the Court also found that the effort interfered with the high court’s own proper right to censorship as outlined in the Basic Law’s Articles 18 and 21, the relevant passages stating that political parties who seek “by reason of their aims or … behavior to endanger the existence of the Federal Republic of Germany shall be unconstitutional.” The Federal Constitutional Court interpreted this as authorizing the high court to protect the state against its most dangerous political opponents. Their reasoning harkened back to the idea of “militant democracy” (developed in the 1930s by the exiled political scientist Karl Loewenstein), according to which a democracy cannot survive if it does not set limits upon speech that seeks to destroy democratic institutions. 

In its original context, this principle had an urgent significance: it was a warning against permitting the National Socialists to participate in parliamentary democracy when it was obvious that once they achieved a majority they would slam the door behind them, destroying the institutions that had brought them to power. But in the postwar context Habermas could read the court’s decision rather differently, as an affirmation that the state had a positiveduty to guarantee free speech. As Specter notes, Habermas actually refers to the Nordrhein-Westfalen case in a footnote to The Structural Transformation of the Bourgeois Public Sphere, from 1962,where he interprets the court’s finding as a signal that it will safeguard “equal access to the public sphere.” Readers typically inattentive to such details should be grateful to Specter for alerting us to the political context in which Habermas developed his theories.

At times, however, it is hard not to feel frustrated that Specter’s attention is drawn so swiftly toward events in German political and legal history, and that he does not grapple in a more sustained way with the philosophical issues that have preoccupied Habermas throughout his career. For a book that is advertised as an intellectual biography, one learns less than one would like about such all-consuming themes. Isolating any predominant leitmotif within such a complex body of thought involves considerable risk; but the central theme that unites Habermas’s work from beginning to end is, one might argue, the idea of “post-metaphysical thinking”—the notion that modernity must forgo all appeals to transcendent norms to build its principles in a purely immanent fashion, working with nothing more substantial than its own procedures of rational discussion.

Early in his philosophical training, Habermas came to the conclusion that critical reason would have to cast aside its illusory transcendence from history and society to become unapologetically “post-metaphysical.” This, of course, is an idea that has many sources and strands. But without some understanding of its underlying philosophical motives, one feels hard-pressed to make much sense of the high investment that Habermas has placed upon rational and democratic deliberation. It is an idea that springs from Habermas’s deepest ruminations upon both the strengths and the deficiencies of the modern philosophical tradition from Kant to the early Frankfurt School. 

Further inspiration came also from a rather different and more ambivalent source: Martin Heidegger, the philosopher whose works both inspired the young Habermas but also brought the first great disillusionment of his early years. When Heidegger edited An Introduction to Metaphysics for publication in 1953, Habermas recognized that the older philosopher did not even try to explain the notorious pre-war passagewhere he had extolled the “inner truth and greatness” of National Socialism. Heidegger’s apparent indifference to the political significance of this remark came as a “crushing realization,” according to Specter. But it did not prompt Habermas to discard wholesale all that he had learned from Heidegger’s works. The very effort to develop a species of reason after the collapse of metaphysics seems necessary only if one has absorbed the Heideggerian lesson that metaphysics is no longer a possibility. The model of so-called “communicative reason” that Habermas laid out in mature form in 1981 in his two-volume work The Theory of Communicative Action looks like an attempt to salvage for modern democracy a post-metaphysical conception of reason while resisting Heidegger’s irrationalist and anti-modernist conclusions.

Such deeper themes—motifs and patterns of argumentation that have nourished the very roots of Habermas’s philosophy—receive too little attention in Specter’s book, perhaps because its author does not wish to dwell on matters that have no immediate political reference. It is surely right to portray Habermas as a philosopher who retains an acute sensitivity for the fortunes of postwar European democracy, and what Specter has revealed will greatly enrich the way we understand Habermas’s motives. But there is a risk of reductionism in seeing so much of Habermas’s philosophical writing as a political seismograph for its times. At one revealing moment in the book, we are suddenly treated to a dispute that recalls the famous scene from Annie Hall where Woody Allen yanks Marshall McLuhan on camera: Specter offers a (very plausible) interpretation of what he calls a “coded” political reference in one of Habermas’s speeches from 1980. But in a private letter the philosopher rejected Specter’s reading: “No,” Habermas writes, “I consider it impossible to map theoretical positions directly onto party-political ones.” 

To his credit, Specter records this objection. But he will not back down: “in the absence of an alternative account, this one seems to do it justice.” Specter’s interpretation is credible. But his insistence is still a little perplexing. Why does he deem it necessary to read Habermas’s philosophical lecture as containing a coded reference? Is something gained in this discovery? Why should a philosopher’s thoughts be tied in such an immediate fashion to contemporary political events? Habermas the public intellectual and Habermas the philosopher may be inseparable, but there are perhaps more subtle­ ways of establishing their connection, without making the philosophical work appear as if it were chiefly code for the more accessible interventions of the public man.

Still, this is otherwise an illuminating and immensely informative book. Specter is a skilful historian of ideas and he uses his talents with sensitivity and precision to sound the multiple resonances in Habermas’s work. With his guidance, we are now poised to better understand how Jürgen Habermas has distinguished himself as one of the great public intellectuals of our time.

Peter E. Gordon is a professor of history at Harvard University.