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Positive Thinking’

To the Editors:

Alan Ryan [“The Power of Positive Thinking,” NYR, January 16] draws extensively on my biography of Habermas but ascribes to me three views that I have painstakingly tried to avoid.

Ryan suggests that my work “is too partial in its treatment” of Habermas’s philosophy and politics. I came to study with Habermas in Frankfurt as a Fulbright scholar in the fall of 1989, just as the Berlin Wall crumbled and the Velvet Revolution in my native Czechoslovakia ushered Václav Havel into his presidency. It was the partiality of this moment that allowed me to discover Habermas’s interest in Kierkegaard’s ethics and bring it for the first time into conversation with East-Central European existential philosophy and dissident politics.1

My biography of Habermas is both an existential docudrama to which the reader is a contemporary witness and an intellectual reconstruction of a great twentieth-century journey. Writing a biography against questions of the present age and out of one’s historical context produces engagement, not partisanship. Is Ryan’s positivist ideal of a detached writer desirable when the issue is how to understand the singularity of a human life?

Ryan says that I am too preoccupied with “concern to refight the battles of 1968” to focus on Habermas’s post-1989 thought. Thus he misses my central thesis: Habermas integrates the aspirations of two postwar generations: the constitutional-democratic needs of the ‘45ers and the revolutionary questioning of the ‘68ers. As a member of the skeptical generation, he secures postwar institutional achievements and protests fascist continuities. He neither opposed the student questioning of their parents nor risked postwar democratic institutions. Can we appreciate Habermas’s mature thought without grasping this formative impact of the ‘60s?

Ryan cannot criticize me for being both “mostly admiring” and “partial” when it comes to Habermas’s support for the Persian Gulf War and the NATO bombing of Kosovo and Serbia. Ryan glosses over Habermas’s ambivalence in supporting these wars, something I documented without hiding my own position. If Habermas were unequivocally pro-interventionist, we should expect him to follow this trend after September 11. In his Paulskirche speech2 and a recent interview,3 his suspicion of the authoritarian state motivated his defense of the United Nations against the policy of preemptive war. He has not changed the reasons he gave for supporting the 1991 and 1999 interventions. Yet in his interview he defended US postwar support for the United Nations against the US post-9/11 unilateralism. We meet here the vintage Habermas who in times of crisis speaks truth to power, a public intellectual we have come to respect. Can one not say this admiringly even as one notes that a healthy dose of Marcuse’s critique of empire striving is sorely missing from Habermas’s work?

Martin Beck Matustík

Professor of Philosophy

Purdue University

West Lafayette, Indiana

Alan Ryan replies:

I am sorry that Professor Matustík reads as criticism what was meant only as a description of the scope of his work. I was not complaining that he concentrated his attention on pre-1989 Habermas, not complaining that he thought Habermas was right about many things and wrong about others, and not suggesting that he ought to have written a different book. I was using the word “partial” in the most literal sense, to mean that he (rightly) attended to part of Habermas’s life and work and not to all of it, and not to suggest that he was biased. I am sorry that he has misunderstood me and happy to correct the misunderstanding.

  1. 1

    Martin J. Matustík, Postnational Identity: Critical Theory and Existential Philosophy in Habermas, Kierkegaard, and Havel (Guilford Press, 1993).

  2. 2

    Jürgen Habermas, “Zum Friedenspreis des deutschen Buchhandels: Eine Dankrede,” Süddeutsche Zeitung, October 15, 2001 (“Faith and Knowledge,” Frankfurt speech, October 14, 2001).

  3. 3

    Jürgen Habermas, “Letter to America,” interview by Danny Postel, The Nation, December 16, 2002.

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