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Best Wishes to Professor Habermas

Tom Jacobson's picture

I am asked by the CommGAP team if I would be willing to post a note on the occasion of Jürgen Habermas's 80th birthday. I am grateful for being asked, and especially pleased at the moment of reflection on a remarkable life that this requires.  

Of course, his work on the relationship between communication and democratization is widely celebrated. Somewhat ruefully for some of us, since it always seems that one has just finished struggling through an engagement with his latest work when he produces yet another, often in a different field of scholarship: first the public sphere, then reason, then ethics, then law, and most recently religion. But, not to complain. These efforts are all connected together in a system of thought that has the subject of deliberative democracy at its core.

That is what makes the work valuable to the CommGAP program. It provides a justification for the program's overall mission, which is to promote the use of communication in governance reform programs and support the building of democratic public spheres.  It also provides a set of tools for analyzing at least some of the kinds of challenges facing those who work in service of this mission.  

So, as a friend of CommGAP it is easy indeed to be grateful for his contributions to the scholarship of communication, justice, and democracy. It is only icing on the cake that Habermas is the kind of individual that he is. A short video available on YouTube shows an interview that Habermas gave after receiving the Holberg Prize in 2005. Through funding from the Norwegian Parliament, the Holberg prize is awarded annually for outstanding scholarly work in the fields of the arts and humanities, social sciences, law and theology.  The video is handy because it captures Habermas explaining some of his key ideas in an accessible way.  It is rather more notable, I think, for what it shows about the man. At the end of the interview he is invited to reflect on the significance of having received the award.  His answer is characteristically both clever and modest. He attributes 'whatever he has managed to become' to the cohort of philosophers and sociologists surrounding him in Germany over the period of his career.

In other words, such work requires a discursive community.  It is always enjoyable to see such a clever performance. But it is the modesty in his deflection of the credit, which is genuine, that makes it so easy to celebrate Professor Habermas on the date of his birthday. Best wishes, Professor, and many more!


...but never had the forum! When I realized it was Jürgen Habermas' 80th birthday, I thought about what I could say about his work and its meaning for my own. I realized that I haven't yet moved beyond awe and belief, which some might call naïve. Coming out of university and realizing that Habermas actually matters beyond the ivory tower, matters in CommGAP's daily work on communication and development, hasn't helped. I take this opportunity to make two observations, just because. There has been a huge amount of literature produced first in Germany, then in the U.S. with a time lag of about 20 years, that takes up small sections of Habermas' work and tries to prove that he is wrong, because some arguments could be countered. His exclusion of marginal groups from the public sphere is one example, another is the accuracy of his historical analysis in "The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere." There are many other bones that have been picked. I see Habermas' work as a general model of society, as a theory of ideal types that of course do not always correspond to reality. That's why it's normative. I find it much more important to acknowledge that the product of Habermas' lifework is one of the most comprehensive, coherent, and consistent theories of society that we know of. All his works together tell us so much more about society than splitting theoretical hairs could ever do. Another issue: I fear that at least in the English speaking world, Habermas may be somewhat misunderstood due to problems in translation. His original texts are incredibly complex and many ideas depend very much on the context they're placed in. Context changes easily when translated into a language that has a different level of precision. One example, again from "The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere:" The German term "Öffentlichkeit" means both "public sphere" and "the public." I believe that it is extraordinarily difficult to consistently translate this term with the correct meaning, since again, so much depends on minutiae in language. On the other hand, it's incredibly important to keep both terms apart because they make a significant difference in terms of understanding Habermas' theory. Just because. Happy Birthday, Jürgen Habermas!

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