Jürgen Habermas is often thought of not only as Germany’s leading philosopher but as quintessentially German. In the sense that few figures in American public life refer as often to the philosophy of Immanuel Kant or the principles of the Enlightenment, that is no doubt true. In fact, the figure he most resembles, both in his conception of what philosophy can do for public life and in his ideas about the role of intellectuals in a democracy, is an American—John Dewey. In 1947, Henry Steele Commager observed, “Until Professor Dewey speaks, America does not know what she thinks.” He exaggerated, but it is easy to see what he meant. Dewey spent a long life thinking for his country, not so much trying to capture his countrymen’s first thoughts as the thoughts they would have once they had thought things through. For four decades Jürgen Habermas has played just that role in Germany.
Like Dewey, he has led a double life: a professor of philosophy and social theory on the one hand and a political controversialist on the other. The similarities go further. Some are superficial but amusing: like Dewey, Habermas addresses his academic peers and their graduate students in clotted, impenetrable prose while writing sharp, clear, and briskly argued polemical essays for a wider public. He is no more compelling a lecturer than was the notoriously low-key Dewey; and it is a small metaphysical joke that Dewey and Habermas insistently emphasize the importance of discussion and deliberation in intellectual and political life while being themselves rather easily inclined to irritation with their critics.
Habermas has always been closer to the center of events than Dewey. Today he is widely seen not quite as the philosopher-king of the government of Gerhard Schröder, but certainly as something like its philosophical conscience. Over the German foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, in particular, Habermas exercises all the influence that a much-admired mentor could. Indeed, in an argument with Fischer over the issue of European federalism a few years back, the French interior minister, Jean-Pierre Chevènement, affected to have confused Fischer with Habermas. Nobody could have mistaken Dean Acheson for John Dewey.
Such influence raises deep questions about the role of intellectuals in a democracy. Intellectuals in a democracy not only cannot be philosopher-kings, they must not want to be. All the same, they must lay claim to some authority, and it is not easy to say what it is—not political in the way the elected politician’s is, but not expert authority either, as it would be if the subject at hand were narrowly “academic.” There have been plenty of critics who have claimed that Habermas’s polemical style—his attacks on German historians who insisted Nazism must be seen in relation to Stalinism, for example—is at odds with his own philosophical doctrines. Philosophically, he is committed to open discussion on the basis that debaters must assume one another’s sincerity. Polemically, he treats his conservative opponents as creatures who have crawled out of the swamps of German irrationalism.
Indeed, Habermas detests and is detested by conservatives of all stripes: he is at odds with nationalists and social conservatives, but he is also hostile to the cultural impact of capitalism and therefore at odds with libertarian conservatives. He is at the same time suspect to many on the left both because of his past hostility to the insurrectionary fantasies of the 1968 student revolutionaries, but today also because of his support for the Gulf War and for NATO’s intervention in Kosovo. Martin Beck Matustík’s odd but engrossing (and mostly admiring) “philosophical-political profile” denounces the 1999 bombing of Serbia as NATO imperialism, and argues that Habermas’s attempts to justify it as the kind of peace-keeping that Immanuel Kant endorsed in Perpetual Peace is bad politics and bad philosophy.
The post-1945 German context in which Habermas has worked is vastly different from Dewey’s early-twentieth- century America. Habermas was born in 1929; he was just old enough to be conscripted at the end of the war as a Flakhelfer, a field nurse in an anti-aircraft unit, but he was too young to carry on his own shoulders any guilt for youthful Nazi indiscretions. He is thus a member of the so-called “skeptical generation,” the young people who were not implicated in Nazism, but who were old enough in the immediate postwar years to develop anxieties about the continuities between Nazi Germany and the Federal Republic.
Habermas has always been personally reticent. He once joked that he might begin to recall his past when he was seventy, but he is now seventy-three and still seems disinclined to autobiographical revelation. He distinguishes with perhaps implausible sharpness between our personal and private feelings that we have no obligation to explain to anyone else and what we are obliged to feel as citizens. His father, Habermas has said, took the Nazi regime for granted—he was head of the local chamber of commerce and a minor figure in the commercial administration in the Rhineland town of Gummersbach—but Habermas has not revealed his personal reactions to that fact. This has not stopped his critics from accusing him of wanting Germans to wallow in endless guilt about Auschwitz—“political masturbation” as the novelist Martin Walser calls it. But it is clear enough that they are just wrong.
He insists that confronting Germany’s Nazi past in the sense in which it concerns him is a civic obligation, not a matter of personal purification. In the same way, when he observed that the German reaction to the Nuremberg Trials was sullen resentment at “victor’s justice,” this was not to complain that individual Germans did not feel badly enough about their Nazi past, but that they did not meet the duty of citizens to work through their past political mistakes and eliminate the danger of repeating them. This concept of “working through” or “working out” the past has been central to many of his recent essays, but for all the psychoanalytic resonances of such ideas, he has yet again insisted that this is a matter not of purging individual guilt but of being a good citizen. It is not obvious that we can detach personal and civic motives in quite this way, however; there surely has to be some individual, personal reason to take the duties of citizenship seriously.
Habermas is mostly known in the United States as a philosopher and political theorist. The connections between his politics and his philosophical ideas are not particularly easy to describe. Martin Beck Matustík’s Jürgen Habermas is too partial in its treatment and too eccentrically organized to do the job satisfactorily. And Matustík’s concern to refight the battles of 1968 distracts him from the task of explaining what Habermas has been thinking since reunification. Jan-Werner Müller’s Another Country, on the other hand, provides a wonderfully lucid account, not only of Habermas’s reactions to the strains of German reunification but of the relation between Habermas’s views and those of his critics and allies. One can hardly complain that in the nature of the case, this leaves it to the reader to work out how the radical thirty-year-old turned into the sixty-year-old defender of constitutional, democratic government.
It is tempting to say that the history of Habermas’s ideas, both politically and philosophically, has amounted to a move away from Marxism and toward American constitutionalism; but it is a temptation to be kept under control. For one thing, Habermas’s first philosophical interests were existentialist rather than Marxist; for another the Marx in whom Habermas was interested was the radical philosopher of the early 1840s, and not the older Marx who thought he had found the “iron law” of capitalist development. And even Habermas’s American affinities are complicated; he has lately become interested in American constitutionalism and the work of John Rawls, but he has also discovered that as long ago as 1962, when he wrote The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, he was thinking along the same lines as Dewey when he wrote The Public and its Problems in 1927.
Nor is the lineage of Habermas’s politics simple. He was first noticed in 1953 when he published a ferocious attack on Heidegger in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. He became one of the intellectual leaders of the German student movement from the late 1950s, but decided in 1967 that the student enragés were in danger of advocating “left fascism.” Those two words caused a breach in relations with his natural followers that took ten years to heal. In 1987, Habermas took up his old role as a controversialist when he set off the so-called Historikerstreit, the battle over the vexed question whether Germany could treat Nazism as largely an exaggerated reaction to Bolshevism and therefore something to be “got over.”
It was the historian Ernst Nolte who had argued this, but the issue had surfaced in 1985 during President Reagan’s ill-judged visit to the SS cemetery at Bitburg, when he and Chancellor Kohl gave the impression that some sort of ceremony of forgiveness was intended. German reunification set off another controversy about the ways in which the “new” Germany should and should not relate to pre-1945 Germany, and Habermas has played a very public role in defending Verfassungspatriotismus, “constitutional patriotism,” as the only basis for a reunited Germany that will not fall back into old, bad habits.
To an American reader, much that Habermas says about constitutional patriotism is unsurprising. With two and a quarter centuries of continental-scale federalism, and 170 years of multi-ethnic immigration behind them, Americans find the idea of a post-ethnic state commonplace, and cannot understand why Europeans are so anxious about the prospect of a federal Europe. But, as Matustík reminds us, Prussia, the Wilhelmine Empire, and the Third Reich weigh heavily on the Berlin republic. Preaching constitutional patriotism in Germany is not preaching platitudes; it is a reminder of the disastrous German past. Habermas’s insistence on “anamnestic solidarity”—on refusing as a matter of political principle to forget the victims of ethnic nationalism and its Nazi excesses—has a particular urgency in Germany.
Habermas has never been wholly at ease in his own country. Almost sixty years after the end of World War II, it is hard to remember how great the contrast was in the 1950s between the wholesale physical destruction of Nazi Germany and the survival in their jobs of most of those who had taught and worked in the pre-war universities, and elsewhere. As a philosophy student in Bonn, Habermas took his first doctorate with two philosophers from the pre-war era—Ernst Rothacker and Oskar Becker; both had been active and enthusiastic Nazis. He disliked the way the Adenauer government and its American backers eroded the denazification program under the pressures of the cold war, but there was little to be done about the fact that almost the only philosophers around were those who had survived the Nazi purges.
His first public protest against attempts to sweep the past under the carpet and resume “normality” was provoked by the republication of Heidegger’s lectures from 1935. Heidegger had praised the “inner greatness” of the Nazi movement, and without the least embarrassment left the phrase untouched on their republication in 1953. The idea that anyone could without apology describe Nazism in this way after Belsen and Auschwitz was outrageous, and Habermas said so. More important, perhaps, was the sharp line he thus drew between writers like Heidegger and Carl Schmitt, who hoped they could just say nothing about their Nazi past, and critics who thought that the new Federal Republic of Germany could not function as the liberal democracy it claimed to be unless there was a public reckoning with the past.
Awarded his doctorate in philosophy in 1956, Habermas went to work with Theodor Adorno at the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt, where he might have expected to flourish. In the early 1930s, the institute had sheltered some particularly interesting social thinkers, led by Max Horkheimer and Adorno; they had gone into exile in the United States, but in 1950 returned to Germany where Horkheimer took up the directorship of the institute. With Herbert Marcuse and others, they had been responsible for the development of so-called Critical Theory—“critical” because it aimed not only to explain how modern mass societies work, but to show the price their operations exacted in human happiness. Critical Theory owed much to Marx in its analysis of social and economic inequality, but owed as much to psychoanalysis in its analysis of the other miseries of life in modern society. Habermas was widely seen as the great hope for a revived Critical Theory.
The combination of Marxian and Freudian themes was potent. Herbert Marcuse’s claim in One-Dimensional Man and Eros and Civilization that the flourishing consumer societies of the West were sustained by novel forms of sexual repression and a diversion of our energies from the search for real human happiness fueled the radicalism of the Sixties. But Marcuse stayed in the United States, and had no great following until the 1960s. Horkheimer, on the other hand, returned from the United States to Germany thoroughly deradicalized, or to put it more kindly, very frightened that he might open the door to radicals on the right if he encouraged radicals on the left.
Habermas was well to Horkheimer’s left. Although he was not tempted by the ecstatic overtones of Mar-cuse’s work, he became a good friend of his and learned a great deal from him. Indeed, Habermas’s most radical thoughts about the connection between philosophical speculation and social emancipation came only a few years later, in Knowledge and Human Interests. In that book he imagined a form of social inquiry whose object was neither the mastery of the world that the physical sciences sought nor the passive understanding sought by some forms of history, but freedom, or emancipation. One model for such an emancipatory science was obviously Freudian psychoanalysis and another was Marxism, suitably understood; but the implications for social science were hard to see, and Habermas never followed them up. Readers who thought Habermas had glimpsed something important but elusive have always been disappointed.
As much as Marcuse, Habermas thought that modern society was irrational. Among its irrationalities was trying to keep the peace with nuclear weapons, and Habermas became a leading figure in the anti-nuclear movement of the late 1950s. This got him into trouble with Horkheimer, who feared his radicalism would bring the institute into disrepute with the Adenauer government. Habermas went to Marburg to work with Wolfgang Abendroth, one of the few professors who had been active in the Resistance. But Habermas was already a rising star, and soon became professor of philosophy, first in Marburg and then in Heidelberg. Two years later, in 1964, Horkheimer retired, and Habermas succeeded him as professor of philosophy and sociology in Frankfurt.
Habermas has been a key figure in two very different epochs—first, in the tumultuous 1960s, and then in the anxious and uncertain decade after German reunification. For five years after his return to Frankfurt, he was the leading thinker of the German student movement. This made him the leading thinker of the extraparliamentary reform movement in West Germany; for when the German Social Democrats renounced their commitment to socialism, the student wing of the party refused to go along and was expelled. It became a loose coalition of the forces of the nonparliamentary left, and the one place where socialists and opponents of a nuclear NATO could act in concert. It was also the nursery of the Red–Green coalition that has governed Germany since 1997, a fact that periodically enrages the conservative opposition and mildly embarrasses the Schröder government.
The targets of the student opposition were those of the student movement everywhere else, but with important local differences—anti-nuclear protests were more urgent in Germany than elsewhere, for obvious reasons; the Vietnam War seemed self-evidently part of an obnoxious American imperialism—but it was the death of Benni Ohnesorg, a student shot by the police during a 1967 demonstration against the Shah of Iran, that lit the fuse of student protest in West Germany. The West German government was no more capable of responding calmly to protest than the Gaullist government in France was, and had already built up a good deal of resentment by its heavy-handed attempts at manipulating news. In German universities a further issue was the students’ sense that their teachers had been acting in bad faith—that their professors knew that the world was the inhuman and oppressive mess that Marx and his successors had described, but were determined not to allow their students to act on that knowledge.
An all-too-familiar sequence of events unfolded. The extremists took over from the radicals, and things got out of hand. Debates turned into sit-ins and occupations, and in the end liberal professors called the police to end student takeovers of university buildings. Habermas took part in the students’ protests against the Vietnam War during 1966, while Horkheimer and Adorno dismissed the protests as mere anti-Americanism. By 1967, the two leading figures among the students were Rudi Dutschke at the Free University of Berlin and Hans-Jürgen Krahl at Frankfurt, and they began to turn the universities into bastions of political protest. Krahl was the student of both Adorno and Habermas. The increasingly fraught relationship between Krahl and his teachers culminated in the occupation of the institute in January 1969, and the clearing of the building by the police.
Whatever it was, it was not a generational conflict. Marcuse was of the same generation as Horkheimer and Adorno; they and he had worked together before the war. Now he sided unhesitatingly with the student enragés. Matustík wonders whether it was Marcuse’s Jewishness that made the difference; having seen how murderous a society could become, he was readier to believe that America and the West more generally were committing something close to genocide in the third world. This suggestion begs too many questions in Marcuse’s favor. One might think, and Marcuse himself later came to think, that protecting universities as places of relatively open discussion was more important than turning every place and every situation into the scene of political confrontation. In that case, one might think his political judgment was as bad as the leaders of the student movement, and that he sided with them for exactly that reason.
There was a real political crux here. Marcuse never—or never quite—said that he was in favor of violent insurrection, let alone that he thought violent insurrection might succeed, in 1968. He said, as anyone might, that there was a great difference between violent resistance to oppression and violent aggression. But he pressed that thought in an unnerving direction when he suggested that the liberal defense of free speech and toleration could itself be oppressive, and drew the inference that silencing the critics of the left was simply resistance to oppression. This was talk that might frighten any teacher; it plainly frightened both Horkheimer and Adorno, and it frightened Habermas.
The crisis in Habermas’s relations with his student followers came early, immediately after the killing of Benni Ohnesorg in June 1967. Ohnesorg was shot in the back as he was running away from a demonstration against the Shah of Iran. The Berlin police tried to cover up what had happened; students erupted in Berlin and Frankfurt. At a conference in Hannover on June 9 Ha-bermas reacted against Rudi Dutschke’s enthusiastic support for a policy of continuous confrontation with all and every manifestation of authority. Habermas said, not especially woundingly, that Dutschke had developed “a voluntarist ideology which in 1848 one would have called utopian socialism,” but fatally added that in 1967 its proper name was “left fascism.”
Whether or not “left fascism” is a contradiction in terms—Marcuse’s view—it was a terminal insult. In Germany, it seemed more unforgivable than elsewhere. It put a lasting chill on Habermas’s relations with the students who had thought of him as their intellectual and political leader. It is, however, impossible to imagine Habermas sharing Marcuse’s view. Habermas was always a defender of Enlightenment ideals of open discussion and constitutional democracy; Marcuse was a revolutionary and a romantic believer in the transformative power of apparently irrational action. To Habermas, that was the first step toward what he attacked as “actionism,” the belief in insurrectionary action for its own sake. To call that “left fascism” was not out of place; as Habermas pointed out, Georges Sorel’s Reflections on Violence—written as a manifesto of early-twentieth-century French syndicalism—was admired by both Mussolini and Lenin.
In Germany, as elsewhere, the revolutionary year of 1968 fizzled out in misery. Adorno was harassed by his students during the first half of 1969 and died of a heart attack in August. Hans-Jürgen Krahl was killed in a car crash in February 1970, while Dutschke had been shot in the head by a would-be assassin in April 1968, and never fully recovered from his injuries. Although the SPD finally formed a government in 1969, and Willy Brandt was a particularly distinguished chancellor, it was a politically inert time. Habermas himself left Frankfurt in 1971 and became the director of the Max Planck Institute at Starnberg; he remained there, working on The Theory of Communicative Action, until he returned for the last time to Frankfurt in 1982, this time remaining until his retirement in 1994.
During the Seventies the ambivalences of German politics were at their clearest: on the one side, there was the institution of the Berufsverbot, the exclusion of “radicals” (anyone who would not pledge allegiance to the basic principles of liberal democracy) from employment in any state position—affecting 20 percent of all employees, from locomotive engineers to professors; on the other side, the beginnings of a thaw in relations between the two Germanies with the Basic Treaty of December 1972.
For Habermas, the most difficult time came in the summer and autumn of 1977, when the Red Army Faction murdered Siegfried Buback, the chief federal prosecutor, Jürgen Ponto, a bank president, and Hanns Martin Schleyer, president of the Federation of German Industries. The Christian Democrats blamed the terrorism of Baader-Meinhof and the Red Army Faction on the Frankfurt School and Critical Theory—seemingly on the strength of Cardinal Ratzinger’s dislike of Critical Theory rather than on any empirical evidence or demonstrable intellectual affiliation. The ailing Rudi Dutschke—who would die in 1979—wrote one refutation of this charge, and Habermas another. Dutschke reiterated the Marxist hostility to violence against individuals; Habermas pointed to the record of the Frankfurt School in the 1960s, and rather weakened his former opposition to “left fascism” by reminding his readers that Dutschke’s friends had thrown tomatoes, not killed anyone.
The underlying issue was deeply serious. No rational person could accuse the Frankfurt School of fostering terrorism; that was a crude smear. But anyone might be fearful that the chronically paranoid German state would erode the democratic gains of the previous thirty years. The specter of Carl Schmitt reared its head again. Schmitt, the Nazi jurist, had always said that politics was all about finding and fighting an enemy; a true state exists in a state of emergency, not bound by the rule of law, but violating the rule of law in order to secure its friends against its enemies. The Red Army Faction gave credence to this view, and in arousing the latent forces of the right, it posed the threat not of left fascism but fascism pure and simple.
What brought Habermas back into the public eye, however, was a renewal of the campaign against nuclear weapons. When the West German government agreed to the stationing of short-range cruise missiles on German territory in 1981, Habermas once again advocated nonviolent resistance to their installation, and again became active in the anti-nuclear movement. Whether this renewed his radical energies is not clear, but there was a seamless transition from the campaign against cruise missiles to Habermas’s complaints about the fiasco of Ronald Reagan’s visit to SS graves in Bitburg, and then his attack on the revisionist historians’ attempts to persuade German opinion to get over the Nazis.
Habermas’ attack on the revisionist historians was savage. It looked needlessly savage from outside Germany; the thought that many of the horrors of Nazism were foreshadowed by the Communists in the Soviet Union is not one that alarms most historians in the West. Nor does the suggestion that if moral evil is measured by the size of the butcher’s bill, Stalinism is even more vile than Nazism. Many of us would think that the argument shows that moral evil cannot be measured by the death toll alone, but outside Germany, notably in the work of such Soviet writers as Valery Grossman, the subject is open to discussion.
It was not quite that Habermas wanted to make the issue undiscussable inside Germany, either. Still, he was emphatic that for German intellectuals to try to make the Nazis into the victims rather than the perpetrators of enormity was politically disgusting. What Habermas feared above all else was Nolte’s appeal to Germans to see themselves as “normal.” To stop feeling guilty about things that had happened before most of them were born was an invitation to recreate the old ethnic nationalism, and to start again down the track that had led to disaster throughout the twentieth century.
This was the fear that animated his response to reunification under the auspices of Helmut Kohl; he feared that at best the new German state would embody not so much liberal and constitutional values as pure commercialism, and at worst it would destabilize Europe. Out of the undergrowth would come all the “intellectual junk” about German specialness on which Nazi theorists had fed. On the other and more optimistic side, he conceded that the Berlin republic offered the chance of a different normality from the normalization that he feared the conservatives were after. Germany could become a normal, modern state.
In reacting so fearfully to reunification, Habermas made one very odd move: he argued that there should be a constitutional referendum in order to put the new republic on a truly legitimate foundation. It was almost as though he had been seized by Rousseau’s wish that a state should begin with a single act of self-legitimation, and had forgotten what a disappointment constitutional referendums almost invariably turn out to be. De Gaulle got his Fifth Republic by a landslide, but the most common result—everywhere in Europe—has been low turnouts and inconclusive majorities. And, as his critics did not fail to notice, for someone on the left to ask for a referendum from a conservative government was to run the risk of a less rather than more liberal constitutional settlement with East Germany.
Habermas’s wish for a “modern” Germany brings us to the point at which his politics and his philosophy meet. Habermas’s philosophical views are, viewed from a sufficient distance, quite simple, though in close-up they are anything but. He is—and this is why the comparison with Dewey is inescapable—a theorist of “modernity”; in shorthand, that means he thinks that the modern social and political world is fated to operate without philosophical or religious reassurance, that there can be no transcendental guarantees that what we take to be true, good, beautiful, and just really are so. To philosophers like Heidegger, the absence of transcendental guarantees was a source of anguish. To Dewey, it was just a fact about the world. Dewey thought that if we made the world a place that we could live in more happily, we would stop fretting about metaphysics; nobody allows metaphysical doubts about the reality of sense perception to get in the way of a good dinner, and a world that was obviously just and rational would be much more robust than any philosophical doubts about its merits. Moreover, it would inspire the kind of affection for and confidence in the world that is the essence of religious faith.
Habermas occupies an intermediate position. He is more anxious about the validity of our moral and political beliefs than Dewey allowed himself to be, but has for the past thirty years devoted himself to supplying a rationalist—or semi-Kantian—basis for them. His two-volume magnum opus, The Theory of Communicative Action, provides a foundation for an immense number of later explorations of particular aspects of morality and politics. The key thought, however, is just this: in the act of speaking, we implicitly commit ourselves to truth, reason, and a form of justice—we present what we say as believable, and hold ourselves out as reliable interlocutors who rely only on evidence and arguments of a kind that anyone and everyone can inspect.
How far such an argument can take us is mysterious. Almost nobody admits to taking truth, justice, and reason anything less than seriously; and where theorists insist that something other than truth, justice, and reason must be the basis of a common culture or provide the ingredients of social solidarity, they think they have reasons for saying so. Neither Heidegger nor Nolte nor Carl Schmitt was short of arguments, any more than Edmund Burke and David Hume were short of arguments; but they have all believed that in moral and political debate certain sorts of argument were ineffective or inappropriate. As a matter of politics, too, Habermas’s apparent belief that some opposed views are simply irrational has the unfortunate effect of enraging his opponents. The doctrine of communicative action itself provides an image of a politics built around discussion focused on getting to a consensus, much like American notions of “deliberative democracy.” But this is not the first time that attempts to explain the rules of political debate have been denounced as attempts to silence one or another group.
What this means in practice is now easier to see than it has been before; not only have we had his reflections on A Berlin Republic in the collection of that name, neatly complemented by his anxieties about what might go wrong in the essays in The Past as Future; but in The Inclusion of the Other six years ago, he collected his thoughts, not only on rationality in ethics and politics, not only on the differences between his views on liberalism and those of John Rawls, but also on the fate of the nation-state, the need for a European constitution, and the missing link in much of this, the need for an international human rights regime that does not look too much like “the West versus the Rest.”
With what authority, then, does he speak, and is it simply that of an intelligent citizen? Habermas’s critics deny it. For them—particularly for Peter Sloterdjik in an acrimonious dispute in 1999—he is an arch-manipulator who organizes his allies and his former students to silence his critics. Although it is, perhaps, true that Habermas’s fear of a resurgent right is so great that he goes out of his way to ensure that no conservative thought goes unrefuted, it is plainly silly to think that he tries to exercise a censorship over competing views. But why do, and why should, his readers take him so seriously? The answer, oddly, is because he so fastidiously insists that the intellectual must not seek power; politicians rightly seek it, and in a democracy they gain it through the ballot box. The intellectual offers instead to assist the public in making up its mind, and particularly by contradicting its first impressions about what it ought to believe and do.
In claiming that the acts of speaking and arguing will result eventually in conclusions people can live with, Habermas never says that such conclusions come easily. If the task is not quite as dangerous as it turned out to be for Socrates, it is essentially the same task: to share the best, most honest insights that the intellectual can reach into what it would be right to do. Not the least of the reasons for Habermas’s astonishing hold on public opinion is the strenuous, patient, impersonal seriousness with which he has taken the obligation to do just this. And, of course, it helps to have an educated public and educated politicians to communicate with, and a press in which serious voices can be heard.
January 16, 2003