of Humanist Ethics. A Historical Perspective
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Jurgen Habermas: A Practical Sense Sociologist and a Kantian Moralist
in a Nutshell
Post World War II Germany was facing enormous problems caused by its immediate
past: psychological, economical, social, political, moral. In addition
it had to deal with an awkward situation of the country being split artificially
into two diametrically different republics. It had to cope with its heritage
and recent past and find a way out of the impasse to be able to function
in the modern and increasingly integrated world. Habermas’s intellectual
career reflects these problems, political climate, and tensions; his own
views are a testimony to how people can seek various solutions to intricate
issues. In fact he became an intellectual conscience of Germany. He wrote
prolifically on almost every aspect of public life and inspired the democratic
Habermas was born in 1929 in Düsserldorf in a German family that
uncritically accepted the Nazi reality without actively participating
in the political process. He joined in 1945, as many other German youths,
the Hitler jugend, the Nazi youth movement. After the war he became completely
disillusioned with the Nazi past when he learned the extent of moral catastrophe
perpetrated by the Nazis, especially by their attempt at eliminating ethnic
and social groups they considered undesirable. Habermas studied philosophy
in Göttingen, Zurich, and Bonn and obtained his doctoral degree in
1954 for his studies on the German idealist philosopher Friedrich Schelling.
He joined the Institute for Social Research at Frankfurt where he became
a research assistant to Theodore W. Adorno (1903-1969). He was influenced
by Adorno and by Max Horkheimer (1895-1973), both of whom were of Jewish
origin. In such a context Habermas discovered his own identity as belonging
to German tradition viewed, however, from a critical distance. He was,
for example enthusiastic about Martin Heidegger, but quickly turned away
from him as well as from Konrad Adenauer’s regime which, according
to him, did not acknowledge the break with the German immediate past.
Habermas developed a certain sympathetic attitude toward Marx and the
Marxist movement and because of it he was forced to leave the Frankfurt
Institute and move to the University of Marburg where he received his
habilitation in 1961. Since 1964 he worked as a professor of philosophy
and sociology at the University of Frankfurt until his retirement in 1994
with a break between 1971 and 1983 when he became a director of the Max
Planck Institute in Stanberg.
Habermas was always responding to the pressing current issues of society.
In the 1960’s he initially supported the student movement, but quickly
became disappointed by their radical policies. After the fall of the Berlin
Wall in 1989 and the reunification of Germany he criticized the way the
process was done. In the 1990’s he studied American democracy and
American liberal constitutional traditions and valued the appropriation
of the Western democratic traditions by Germany, though he remains in
his methodological approach a strong critic of both capitalism and liberalism.
On the political level he advocated a “constitutional patriotism”
as a form of identification with one’s now traditions:
The political culture of a country crystallizes around its constitution.
Each national culture develops a distinctive interpretation of those constitutional
principles… such as popular sovereignty and human rights –
in the light of its own national history. A “constitutional patriotism”
based on these interpretations can take the place originally occupied
Habermas belongs to the second generation of the Frankfurt School of theorists
and follows the pragmatic American tradition of Charles Sanders Peirce
(1839-1914) and John Dewey (1859-1952).
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