Decades after first encountering Anglo-Saxon perspectives on democracy in occupied postwar Germany, Jürgen Habermas still stands by his commitment to a critical social theory that advances the cause of human emancipation. This follows a lifetime of philosophical dialogue.
Michaël Foessel: It has become commonplace to link your work to the enterprise that the Frankfurt School initiated in the 1930s: the elaboration of a critical theory of society capable of breathing new life into the project of emancipation in a world shaped by technocapitalism. When you began your university studies after World War II, a different image of philosophy was prevalent in Germany: the less heroic image of an impotent philosophy compromised by National Socialism. What motivated you to choose this discipline? Did the pessimistic judgement on reason expressed in Horkheimer and Adorno's Dialectic of Enlightenment play a role in your initial choices in philosophy (the study of Schelling)?
Jürgen Habermas: No, that's not how it happened. I didn't go to Frankfurt until 1956, two years after the completion in Bonn of my doctoral thesis on Schelling. In order to explain how I came across critical theory, I'll have to go into a bit more detail. At German universities between 1949 and 1954 it was in general only possible to study with professors who had either been Nazis themselves or had conformed. From a political and moral standpoint, German universities were corrupted. There was, therefore, an odd divide between my philosophy studies and the left-wing convictions that had developed in discussions night after night about contemporary literature, the important theatrical productions, and film, which was dominated at that time above all by France and Italy. As early as my last years at the gymnasium, however, I'd obtained the works of Marx and Engels and addressed the subject of historical materialism. In view of these interests, the obvious choice of study would have been sociology, but this subject was not yet taught at my universities in Göttingen and Bonn. After my studies, I was granted a scholarship for an examination of the “concept of ideology”.