Autobiographical Roots of Habermas’ Thought

Photograph Source: thierry ehrmann – CC BY 2.0

Habermas is reticent to talk about his childhood trauma of being born with a cleft palate, which had a decisive and lasting impact both on his own sense of himself and the deep-seated intuitions underpinning his thought. In a commemorative lecture, “Public space and political public sphere –the biographical roots of two motifs in my thought,” delivered in Kyoto, November 11, 2004, Habermas was invited to offer insights into his path of life. He was not used to doing this; he has been addressed most often as an “author, teacher and intellectual who is accustomed to communicate with readers, students and listeners” (p. 1).

Usually, he admitted, when we study Aristotle or Kant we restrict ourselves to mentioning “only bare biographical facts—when these thinkers were born, lived, and died” (ibid.). On the occasion of his 70th birthday, Habermas’s students offered him a Festschrift that bore the title of his speech. He thought the title was not a bad choice: the “public sphere as the space for reasoned communication exchange is the issue that has concerned me all my life. The conceptual triad of ‘public space,’ ‘discourse’ and ‘reason’ has, in fact, dominated my work as a scholar and my political life” (p. 2).

These obsessions, he stated self-deprecatingly, have to have biographical roots. He selects four experiences that have bearing on his theoretical interests. Two are rooted in his childhood. First, he was exposed to the “traumatic experience of surgery.” Second, he had trouble communicating to his classmates. Third, the “historical caesura of the year 1945” shaped his generation’s experiences profoundly; and fourth, Habermas has been troubled by the “repeatedly endangered liberalization of German post-War society and culture” (p. 2).

Reflecting on his childhood experience, Habermas states that, while the traumatic surgery did not damage his trust in the world around him irrevocably, his sense of “dependence and vulnerability” was strengthened. Here, we can visualize how the magnificent Theory of communicative action was grounded in Habermas’s sense of the “very social nature of human beings” (p. 2). “We humans learn from one another. And that is only possible in the public space of a culturally stimulating milieu” (p. 3). A second operation on his cleft palate when he was five deepened his “awareness of how one person always depends on others undoubtedly became more acute” (ibid.). Later, in mature life Habermas would develop in philosophical language ideas pertaining to the “intersubjective structure of the human mind” (ibid.) and led him to investigate the hermeneutical tradition. “This image of man’s position in the world expresses the intuitive sense of the deep-rooted reciprocal dependence of the one person on the other” (ibid.)

In a beautiful passage, Habermas says that what he is getting at is “an image of subjectivity which you may imagine as a glove turned inside out to discern the structure of its fabric, a glove woven from the strands of intersubjectivity. Inside each individual person we find a reflection of the outside social world. For the mind of the subject is imbued with meaning content locking into the ‘objective’ mind of what is intersubjectively shared by socialized individuals” (ibid.). Thus, the “process of growing up, the child is able to form the interior of a consciously experienced life only though simultaneous externalization vis-à-vis other participants in communication and interaction. Even in expressions of the most personal feelings and most intimate excitations, an ostensibly private consciousness thrives on the electricity with which it is charged by the cultural network of public, symbolically expressed and intersubjectively shared categories, thoughts, and meanings” (p. 4). The difficulties Habermas experienced in failing to communicate as a child taught him that: “Only in a failing performance does the linguistic communication emerge as a shared stratum without which we could not exist as individuals, either. We always find ourselves existing in the element of language. Only those who talk can be silent. Only because we are by our nature linked to one another can we feel lonely or isolated” (ibid.).

Personal motifs stemming from Habermas’s childhood surely opened his eyes to the “fragility of he intersubjective constitution of the human mind and the social core of our subjectivity, as well as to the fragility of communicative life forms and the fact that socialized individuals are in need of peculiar protection” (p. 6). But what really turned the tables for Habermas’s life choice to be a philosopher and critical theorist was the shattering realization that his “halfway normal everyday life” occurred within a regime that was “pathological and criminal” (ibid.). From that moment on, Habermas sought to understand and confront the residues of Germany’s Nazi past in post-World War II thought. Now, Habermas and his generation had to come face-to-face a “rupture in civilization” (ibid.). All us, in fact, must face this rupture which disintegrated the moral and ethical foundation of Western societies. We are now, T.S. Eliot said so famously, the “hollow men.”

For Habermas, he shone the cold light of day on the thought of Martin Heidegger, Carl Schmitt, Ernst Junger and Arnold Gehlen. “They all joined in despising the masses and the average, on the one hand, and in celebrating the peremptory individual, the chosen one, the extraordinary person, on the other—with a concomitant rejection of idle talk, the public sphere and what they termed the inauthentic. They emphasized silence instead of conversation, the chain of commands and obedience instead of equality and self-determination. It was in these terms that young conservative thought defined itself, setting itself off sharply from the democratic impulse that had driven us forward since 1945” (p. 8). After working as Adorno’s research assistant at the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research, Habermas states that Critical Theory opened a new perspective on democracy. “Only a vibrant and, wherever possible, discursive type of public opinion-formation could function as the engine of such a process” (p. 9).

All of the majestic themes in his work were present in embryonic form in his formative days as an intellectual. His awakening, so to speak, led him to perceive in simple interactions the “general phenomenon of a ‘public space’” (p. 9). One particular social space (or “learning site”), namely the “political public sphere of a democratic community, plays an especially important role in the integration of citizens” (ibid.). This is so because the “process of public opinion and will formation can function to reproduce a brittle form of collective identity” (ibid.).

Professor Habermas concludes his autobiographical speech by affirming that scholars are also “participating citizens” (p. 10). In the 1950s he joined the “Easter Marches” to protest against nuclear weapons. He took a public stand on the student protest movement of the 1960s, engaged in the public debates on coming to grips with the Nazi past, on Germany’s unification and the Gulf War. He comments: “And since the invasion of Iraq—an action contrary to international law—I have been concerned more generally with the post-national constellation and the future of the Kantian project of establishing a cosmopolitan order” (p. 10). As intellectuals, Habermas says that he and his colleagues cannot ever become cynical.

Michael Welton retired from Athabasca University.  His recent books include Unearthing Canada’s Hidden Past: a Short History of Adult Education and Adult Education a Precarious Age: The Hamburg Declaration revisited.