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…
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