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Home » Content » Jürgen Habermas: the European way to cosmopolitanism
One of the essential philosophers of the 20th and 21st centuries is 90 years old. In his figure survives the critical spirit of the Frankfurt School

Adela Cortina

15 JUN 2019 – 00:13 CEST

Descripción: El filósofo Jürgen Habermas, retratado en 2018 en su casa de Baviera (Alemania).

The philosopher Jürgen Habermas, portrayed in 2018 in his house in Bavaria (Germany). Gorka Lejarcegi

On June 18, 1929, Jürgen Habermas was born in Düsseldorf. The celebrations for its 90th anniversary are many, and not without reason, because he is one of the essential philosophers of the XX and XXI centuries and at the same time an intellectual committed to the task of promoting the use of reason in public space to build open and fair societies. Taking the best of different traditions, he has forged a proposal of great significance, the theory of communicative action, which discovers the dialogic entanglement of human beings and extracts consequences from it to design a polyphonic public sphere in which all voices are heard; a critical theory of society, a communicative ethic, a normative theory of deliberative democracy; a reflection on the democratic State of law, necessary to protect human rights and inevitably post-national; the project of a vigorous Europe, committed to political and social rights unlike China or the United States, and a cosmopolitan future.

In this time in which the debate on the necessity of philosophy to humanize life returns to the fore, thinkers like Habermas show in a clear way that the philosophical task is fertile to provide us with frameworks from which to understand the world, interpret it and transform it towards the best.

Deploying the wealth of the Habermasian contribution in a few lines is impossible, but when celebrating his anniversary, it is worth highlighting some of the essential features recalling his biographical roots as described by the author himself. According to Habermas, there have been two vital roots of his philosophical framework: an operation on the palate suffered as a child and, at the beginning of his academic life, the disappointment caused by German philosophy, marked by the footprint of Heidegger.

According to his story, the surgery condemned him to an isolation that led him to experience the imperative need for communication. Against what any myopic individualism defends, typical of neoliberalism today, people are not isolated individuals, but in a relationship with others, in a basic relationship of reciprocal recognition, interdependence and inter-subjectivity.

His humanism urges to build life from the dialogue between those who recognize themselves as valid interlocutors

This is the key to the theory of communicative action, which allowed Habermas to contribute to the critical theory of the Frankfurt School the path sought by Horkheimer and Adorno from the sixties to finish the empire of instrumental reason. The only human rationality is not that of individuals exploiting each other to maximize their benefits through strategies; there is also that communicative rationality, which urges to build life from the dialogue and mutual understanding of those who recognize themselves as valid interlocutors.

But also the experience of rejection in childhood points to a vigorous ethic, woven of feeling and reason. In the experience of rejection emerges the awareness of vulnerability and injustice, two emotions that open the moral world, because humiliation is unacceptable when I suffer and when I have reasons to defend that no one should suffer. That is why the virtues of communicative ethics are justice and solidarity.

In times when emotivism dominates the public space from hoaxes, post-truth, schematic populisms, demagogic proposals, appeals to corrosive emotions, it is urgent to remember that the demands of justice are moral when they entail reasons that can be made explicit and on which it is possible to deliberate openly. And above all, that the criterion to discern when a demand is fair is not the intensity of the screaming in the street or in the networks, but it consists in checking that it satisfies universalizable interests. That is the best argument, the heart of justice.

The second of the biographical roots is the traumatic experience of the Nuremberg trials and especially the moment when his teacher and friend Karl-Otto Apel put in his hands, in 1953, a copy of Heidegger’s ‘Introduction to Metaphysics’, who was their teacher in the distance. Heidegger justified Nazism as a “destiny of being”, an alibi that exempted any personal responsibility. Habermas publicly asked for explanations, but Heidegger’s silence clearly showed that German philosophy of the time could not provide resources for criticism. Authors such as Heidegger, Schmitt, Jünger or Gehlen despised the masses and exalted the arrogant and extraordinary individual. It was the misery of nationalist supremacism, determined to make language a symbol of exclusive identity, instead of recognizing its role, that of communication between people equal in dignity, reaching to the ends of the human world.


Teoría de la acción comunicativa. Jürgen Habermas. Traducción de Manuel Jiménez Redondo. Trotta. Dos volúmenes. 992 páginas. 59 euros

El discurso filosófico de la modernidad. Jürgen Habermas. Traducción de Manuel Jiménez Redondo. Katz. 418 páginas. 29 euros.

Identidades nacionales postnacionales. Jürgen Habermas. Traducción de Manuel Jiménez Redondo. Tecnos. 128 páginas. 10,50 euros.

It is not strange that in the eighties Habermas took part in the dispute of historians about the National Socialist past, nor that he defended Sternberger’s thesis of constitutional patriotism, which claims the tradition of the French Revolution, not romantic nationalism, addicted to excluding identities. Even recognizing the historical narratives, the only reasonable patriotism is constitutional, which supposes the triumph of the values ​​of a social and democratic State of law, in which power is produced communicatively through citizenship. Today there is no alternative to universalist orientations.

Since the eighties, Habermas continues tirelessly in the task of fostering a polyphonic public sphere from theory and practice and intervenes in debates on civil disobedience, German reunification, the first war in Iraq, the reform of the right of asylum, the unity of Europe, the post-national constellation, religion in public space in societies that are actually post-secular and the future of a Kantian project of cosmopolitan order. In all cases officiating as an intellectual, aware that he must not use his influence to achieve power, because influence and power must not be confused.

Throughout these years he has received an enormous amount of prizes, among them the Prince of Asturias of Social Sciences 2003. The jury minutes place Habermas in the tradition of Kant, Hegel and Marx, but also of Weber, Parsons and Mead; it highlights his contribution to both the understanding of post-industrial societies and the ideological implications of science and the formation of public opinion, and recognizes him “as a classic of the social sciences and philosophy, an example of humanistic and cosmopolitan knowledge and , for that reason, summit of the thought of our time”. Certainly, Habermas is a humanist who dialogues with relevant proposals of philosophy and social sciences, but also with the natural ones in matters such as biotechnologies or the defense of freedom against neuroscientific currents that today resuscitate the positivism of the sixties and bet again on determinism, when freedom is the core of the open society.

From that humanism, the commitment to inclusive cosmopolitanism through the European way is still the great option. In fact, in the speech of reception of the prize, Habermas recalls some words of Krause of 1871: “You must see Europe as your closest and gratest homeland, and every European as your (…) compatriot in the next higher level”. A common project of Europe – Habermas adds on its own – “cannot be overthrown at the last moment by national selfishness”.

And all this, from where? According to Habermas, Marcuse and he wondered how to explain the normative basis of critical theory, but Marcuse did not respond until the last time they met, two days before his death, in the hospital. “See?” He said. “Now I know what our most elementary value judgments are based on: in compassion, in our feeling for the pain of others”.

Adela Cortina is Professor of Ethics and Political Philosophy at the University of Valencia, Member of the Royal Academy of Moral and Political Sciences and Director of the ÉTNOR Foundation. He worked with Jürgen Habermas at the University of Frankfurt.



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