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The Theologian of Talk : The Question Is Whether Justice Exists and Reason Can Benefit Society. It's Postmodern To Say No, but Jurgen Habermas, a German Philosopher, Disagrees.

October 23, 1994|Mitchell Stephens | Mitchell Stephens, who has also profiled Jacques Derrida for the magazine, heads the journalism and mass communication program at New York University

A debate has been raging in the world of scholars and intellectuals. On one side are the "postmodernists"--the thinkers whose ideas inspired the playful, hybrid buildings, outfits and artworks that now grace the American landscape; the thinkers who encouraged a generation of graduate students to "deconstruct" such long-treasured notions as "reason" and "justice."

The major figure on the other side of this debate is Jurgen Habermas.

Habermas is a German philosopher--"the leading systematic philosopher of our time," Richard Rorty of the University of Virginia calls him. But Habermas comes to this debate as much more than just a philosopher. "In terms of range and depth there is no one close to him," says Thomas McCarthy, a professor of humanities and philosophy at Northwestern University. "Habermas has been able to go into discussions in political theory, in sociology, in psychology, in legal theory--in a dozen different disciplines--and become one of the dominant voices in each one."

In the academic world nowadays, such range, depth and dominance attract an endless stream of conference invitations. Habermas accepts his share. And sometimes at these conferences, particularly if Americans are in attendance, he'll find himself surrounded by postmodernists. Swords will be raised. The debate will resume. The postmodernists might begin questioning, for example, whether "reason" isn't just the name the powerful give to their rationales for holding power or whether "justice" isn't just an excuse for the majority to impose its morality on the minority. (One such conference was dominated by legal theorists from Harvard Law School.) Habermas, an aficionado of open debate, will fight back, enthusiastically, aggressively.

Whether he has been a voice of reason and justice is disputed in philosophic and political circles, but Habermas certainly has been a staunch advocate of the importance of these principles. He believes we can reason out solutions to our problems, that just institutions can lead to a fairer society. And when irony-wielding postmodernists make light of these possibilities, Habermas responds with formidable barrages of scholarship and logic.

This is high drama, or at least what passes for that in academia. Feet wiggle nervously under chairs. In the audience, students and professors furrow their high brows and jot down each deft riposte.

At stake in these confrontations is a crucial 20th-Century intellectual issue: Are there certain basic standards underlying our behaviors--standards like reason and justice? Or is the world a swampy, relativistic place, where we play our games or seek some power in the muck? For Habermas, something else is at stake here, too: A crucial 20th-Century political issue.

According to a number of those who have watched him at such conferences, Habermas sometimes grows exasperated with his cynical antagonists. When that happens, he might pull a microphone toward himself and suddenly silence the others on the panel by saying something like this: "In the United States, you have a 200-year-old tradition of constitutionalism. You have the luxury of questioning those ideals. Where I come from, we don't."

Where he comes from, Habermas is not just a star academic. For 40 years, he has been in the public arena fighting to keep Germany headed in the direction of reason, justice and other ideals he now hears postmodernists deconstructing. And that fight--a political fight--goes on.

Jurgen Habermas, as often happens when he reads the newspaper, was agitated. It was 1992, and right-wing attacks on immigrants and foreign workers, which had begun in the former East Germany, were continuing. "Every week there were reports about another three or four incidents," Habermas recalls at his home outside Munich. "And as you read the paper every morning, you could not help but get more and more angry--not just at those who did it, but at those who played it down, who turned their backs, who worried that talking about it would hurt Germany's image in the world. And then, when a certain threshold was passed, you couldn't help but write an article."

When Habermas writes such an article for a German newspaper, as he does three or four times a year, it usually causes a stir. "He's a public figure," explains Peter Glotz, a leader of Germany's Social Democratic Party. "His writings don't influence masses of blue-collar workers, but they are read by a lot of German party officials and journalists and so on. In this way he is very influential."

Habermas is, in other words, that rare thing: a public intellectual--"the most visible of his generation," asserts Northwestern's McCarthy. Certainly, no contemporary American scholar has had such impact upon political debates. And Habermas' political significance would be even greater were it not for an odd quirk: He is one of the few public figures today who refuses to go on television.

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