Chapter Eight: Thinking with Jürgen Habermas

Jürgen Habermas was born in 1929 in Dusseldorf, Germany. As a teenager, he ‘joined the Hitler youth along with many of his peers’ (Houston, 2009, p 13). His subsequent professional and intellectual career has, however, been rooted in the thematic concerns of the Marxist Left and, more recently, social democracy. Indeed, some argue that the German’s work and public interventions provide the ‘philosophical arguments that might protect democratic societies from his own nation’s past’ (Neilson, 1995, p 809). In terms of his theorisation, Habermas distances himself both from the pessimism of Weber – and his ‘iron cage’ perception of modernity’s dominant rationalising impulse (Roberts, 2004) – and from the Frankfurt’s School’s disdain for popular or mass culture. For him, meaningful communication provides a possible antidote to the damaging and corrosive tendencies associated with modernity. Indeed, his ‘leitmotif ’ is the notion of ‘unconstrained, open debate amongst equals’ (Baert, 2001, p 85). Perhaps paradoxically, he has a ‘dense, heavy and discouraging writing style’ (Scambler, 2001, p 1).

Habermas remained ‘one of the most coherent and persuasive defenders of the project of the Enlightenment’ during a period when postmodernism increasingly became the focal ‘ism’ within academic and cultural settings (Baert, 2001, p 89). However, it ‘seems to be rarely recognized’ that Habermas has also been as ‘damning of the unreconstructed Enlightenment project’ as any postmodernist: whereas postmodernists have ‘judged the Enlightenment project to be flawed beyond redemption, Habermas has committed himself to its necessary and compelling reconstruction’ (Scambler, 2001, p 9, emphasis in original). Since the 1970s, a defence of this reconstructed version of the Enlightenment project, and against those he regards as advocates of counter-Enlightenment, has been increasingly apparent in his work.

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