Habermas and modernity: Intellectual planning for a new Germany

Ahmed Al-Moslemany
Saturday 28 May 2022

Former German minister of foreign affairs Joschka Fischer describes Jürgen Habermas as “the philosopher of the new German Republic.”


According to German television (DW), Habermas is a pioneer of a new critical discourse in philosophy and politics and has been the most prominent voice in the cultural scene in Germany for more than fifty years.

Habermas laid out the intellectual roadmap for Germany after World War II. In my estimation, whatever the efforts of politicians and economists — and the brilliance of great stars at the top of the leadership from Konrad Adenauer to Helmut Kohl to Angela Merkel — they could not have achieved the German miracle had it not been for the idea that preceded the movement and the modernity that preceded politics.

Germany emerged from World War II a divided country with nine million dead that was a complete failure politically and economically. The German philosophers who left for the US and those who returned from it suffered a wave of psychological collapse and intellectual defeat, as they began to attack the philosophy of “modernity”, averring that after the “age of reason” came the “age of Hitler”, in which Germany fell into the abyss. People were eating leaves, and occupiers were living in wrecked cities, and the capital was war-torn. 

This despair could itself have become the roadmap for nihilism to be the intellectual framework of the state, had it not been for a giant philosopher of the weight of Jürgen Habermas, who set the course away from the unreasonable and towards the intellectual re-planning of the country.

The great German philosophers Horkheimer and Adorno, and the great French philosopher Michel Foucault, were preachers of despair and opponents of modernity. Habermas came to overcome these philosophers and rose to the leadership of a wide intellectual campaign to modify the course of Germany and put an end to the state of anger and absurdity.

Philosophy triumphed over philosophy, and reason triumphed over reason. Then, the victorious philosophy was adopted by the political leadership, and the mind returned to its role in creating civilisation.

In 1929, the greatest economic crisis in modern history, which was called the Great Depression, kicked off. The crisis mostly affected developed countries, especially the US and Germany.

The end result of the Great Depression in Germany was the rise of Nazi leader Adolf Hitler to power in January 1933. Hitler was not a German citizen, but an Austrian, and he did not obtain German citizenship until 1932 — one year before he assumed the leadership of Germany.

The intellectual German elite were in total shock; how did this failed demagogue come to lead Germany through democratic elections?

In 1933, when Hitler rose to power, the great German scientist Albert Einstein was visiting the US and preferred to stay in America for fear of the Nazi regime, eventually obtaining American citizenship in 1940.

In the same year, German philosopher Theodor Adorno was celebrating the publication of his book, ‘Construction of the Aesthetic’, while Hitler was starting to build something else. In 1934, Adorno left for his exile in the UK and then later the US, and did not return to Germany until 1951, after seventeen years of exile.

Also in 1933, philosopher Max Horkheimer was president of the prestigious Institute of Social Sciences at the University of Frankfurt, but soon, Hitler’s regime expelled him from the university, and the philosopher left for Switzerland and then America. There, the Institute of Social Sciences was transferred from Frankfurt University to Columbia University, and Horkheimer did not return to Germany until 1950, when he became president of Frankfurt University in 1951.

The left-wing philosopher Herbert Marcuse also left for Switzerland, then to his American exile, where he taught at Harvard and Columbia Universities. In the same way, the philosopher Erich Fromm left for Switzerland and then America.

All of these represent the famous Frankfurt School of philosophy, as Horkheimer, Adorno, Erich Fromm, and Marcuse were its most prominent stars. The school’s intellectual project is manifested in the Social Critical Theory. The Institute for Social Research at the University of Frankfurt, which was closed during the era of Hitler in 1938, was the centre of this great European philosophical school.

These philosophers’ resentment against Hitler was immense, but this resentment turned into a war on German philosophy, which in their opinion had led to Hitler. The Age of Enlightenment and the philosophies of Kant and Hegel eventually led to German Nazism.

These philosophers turned against modernity and began bombing its fortresses from every direction. They put stars of anarchy Niestzsche and Heidegger on a pedestal and suppressed Kant and Hegel — the stars of reason.

Thus, there was talk about the failure of modernity and the necessity of transcending it to post-modernity. The meaning of post-modernity in this specific sense means the failure of reason and the necessity of entering the era of post-reason.

The French philosopher Michel Foucault was an implicit ally of the Frankfurt School, and he was the most famous French philosopher after Sartre. This German-French philosophical alliance was able to defeat the duo Kant and Hegel with Nietzsche and Heidegger.

Part of that philosophical attack on modernity had its justifications, as it led to the era of colonialism abroad and tyranny at home, just as capitalism — the economic wing of modernity — had reached a stage of exploitation and violence, bypassing value and moral frameworks and threatening human security.

The philosophers of Germany — Horkheimer, Adorno, Marcuse, and Erich Fromm — ended up being allies with the philosophers of France — Michel Foucault, Jean-François Lyotard, Jacques Derrida, and Deleuze.

That great philosophical alliance almost ended modernity completely and would have pushed the west towards a long era of a “philosophy of the unreasonable”, had it not been for Habermas, who managed to defeat them all.

The German philosopher Jürgen Habermas was born in Dusseldorf in 1929, when the Great Depression hit. His father was sympathetic with Hitler. Habermas lived sixteen years under Hitler. Thus, he spent his childhood years in the Nazi era, then his awareness of the tragedies that Nazism brought to his country expanded with the years.

The US worked to change German thought after the war, criminalising Nazism in the hearts and minds of the people and holding it responsible for the destruction that afflicted Germany and the world.

This was the opinion of the German elite, both philosophical and scientific. Habermas says of himself: “I am the product of the re-education that German society witnessed, during the systematic application of the policy of eradicating Nazism.”

In 1954, Habermas became one of the young stars of philosophy, obtaining a doctorate from the University of Bonn in the philosophy of Schelling — one of the great German philosophers of the nineteenth century. The title of the thesis was ‘The Absolute and History: The Paradox in Schelling’s Thought.’

Habermas also studied political science at the University of Marburg, and thus the concept of a “political philosopher” was born.

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