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Angela Merkel and Jürgen Habermas: Philosophy in Germany is Popular in Public
The German people are hearing from philosophers in the pupular media. Wow. Some history of social critical theory, Adorno, and current thought leaders. In U.S.A. politicians want to keep people stupid
By Stuart Jeffries
Editor's Note: Over at Foreign Policy magazine there is an article discussing how philosophers are appearing in popular television programs and otherwise making a name for themselves in public in Germany. It may not be the best thing, says the author; it may demean the importance of philosophy. But philosophy has played an important public role in France for decades. Not this country, though. The corporate media keeps up a steady diet of mostly feel good or emotionally gripping dramas rather than serious thinking about things (C-span and public television provide some good content from time to time). For those not watching television, there are drugs, drugs of many types, it seems millions of people are literally zoning out of reality and libertarian Republican politicians appreciate that; there are fewer citizens using their minds to think about the stupid stuff those politicians are doing. The fewer voting citizens the better, especially the fewer thinking citizens the better.
So, it was interesting to read how in Germany philosophers themselves are going public. The article even discusses the social critical theorists whom I began to read years ago because many of them were Jewish and I wanted to get a Jewish perspective on what Hitler had done to Jews. It is the people on the underside of power who know best how power operates, who know the "truth" of power.
One of those critical theorists was Theodore Adorno. The article says that "After the Holocaust, moreover, Adorno became something like the conscience of a nation.... It was Adorno who, in "Negative Dialectics", wrote: 'A new categorical imperative has been imposed by Hitler upon unfree mankind: to arrange their thoughts and actions so that Auschwitz will not repeat itself, so that nothing similar will happen.' Here was the German philosopher speaking to Germans about their moral duties and expecting to be listened to."
Adorno was the teacher of Jürgen Habermas, who has since become such a major figure not only in Germany but across the world. His writings maintained hope for adequate forms of communication in liberal democracy. And he is mentioned in this Foreign Policy article. That small portion is copied below.
I was struck with the proposition at the end that a popular "philosopher" would be said to have had such an influence on a political leader. Who do suppose Donald Trump says is his favorite author? The Russian Atheist novelist, Ayn Rand. More and more, Americans seem to be becoming not only uneducated, but uncivilized. But that would be called, of course, an elitist comment by the Republican right, which cares nothing for serious philosophical thought. They want to defund public schools, colleges, universities. The U.S. today is way behind other nations in the quality of education offered to its people. But, take a look at what German people are reading.
To understand what happened to German philosophy since Adorno’s death — and what eventually led to its new media-friendly enfants terribles — we need to consider the grand old man of German intellectual life, the 88-year-old Jürgen Habermas. It was Habermas, a repentant Hitler Youth who became Adorno’s assistant and, in the early 1970s, his anointed successor as head of the Frankfurt School, who would change the direction of German philosophy.
He did so in a kind of Oedipal rebellion against his intellectual father figure. “I do not share the basic premise of critical theory, the premise that instrumental reason has gained such dominance that there is really no way out of a total system of delusion, in which insight is achieved only in flashes by isolated individuals,” Habermas said in a 1979 interview. For him, that kind of insight was limited — both elitist and hopeless.
Instead, Habermas has spent his career building an intellectual system that, spanning philosophy, political theory, sociology, and legal theory, is infused with the optimistic hope that humans can thrive under market capitalism with something like autonomy and self-mastery — precisely what Adorno and the earlier Frankfurt School had denied was possible. In Habermas’s culminating work The Theory of Communicative Action, published in 1981, he envisioned an “unlimited communication community” in which people, through discourse and argument, would learn from one another as well as from themselves and question beliefs typically taken for granted.
Essentially, Habermas’s work became the bridge between Adorno’s pessimistic, elitist style of philosophy and the new consumerist revival of the discipline. Instead of despairing about the fate of humanity, the discourse now theorized on how to change its course. And though Habermas didn’t attempt to obliterate Adorno’s leading injunction — avoiding forever another Hitler — his more optimistic philosophy was premised on trying to theorize ways to prevent Auschwitz from occurring again. And to do so, Habermas believed philosophers like himself had to work on improving the conditions in which life is lived rather than issuing, as Adorno tended to do, despairing jeremiads about the fate of human beings. That’s to say, he took his mentor’s leading injunction more seriously than Adorno did.
But what also made Habermas revolutionary is how he has dared to look beyond it to the hitherto anathematized thinking of American and British philosophers. For Adorno, Anglophone philosophy was a mere handmaiden to technocratic capitalism, when he, and the rest of the neo-Marxist Frankfurt School, thought philosophy should be critiquing the powers that be rather than providing their intellectual justification. Instead, Habermas found inspiration in the writings of American pragmatist George Mead, Harvard justice theorist John Rawls, and Oxford’s J.L. Austin, as much as with Kant, Hegel, and Marx. Though Adorno spent years at Oxford and more than a decade in the United States, he never treated the philosophers of Britain or America with anything other than contempt. And with this radical shift, Habermas opened up an intellectual pathway that today’s young guns of German philosophy have eagerly followed. Indeed, current stars like Precht and Gabriel also took Habermas’s lead when it came to operating in the wilds of the media. Habermas was a tireless fighter in the 1980s op-ed feuds known as Historikerstreit (“historians’ conflict”). Time after time he took to the pages of German newspapers to lambaste revisionist German historians who sought to exculpate the Nazis for the singular evil of the Holocaust. In 1999, Peter Sloterdijk, known as something of a one-man philosophical provocation, stirred a scandalous controversy when he broke a taboo that had existed in German intellectual life since the end of the Third Reich. During a speech, Sloterdijk invoked the word Selektion rather than the more contemporary word Auswahl to suggest how human procreation by means of genetic reproduction might be not just possible but defensible.
An outraged Habermas promptly wrote an editorial in which he called Sloterdijk a fascist. Habermas’s role in this quarrel was resonant. Here was a German philosopher compelling his countrymen and women to engage with their nation’s shameful past and thereby revolutionizing their sensibilities. A reflection of that transformation can be seen in the moral leadership of the current chancellor, Angela Merkel, who just a couple of years ago made Germany, above all other countries in the world, welcoming to refugees.
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