No intellectual of our time has generated as many productive controversies as the leading figure of the second generation of the Frankfurt School, Jurgen Habermas. Embodying in his own practice the principles of communicative rationality he so avidly defends on the level of theory, Habermas has responded to an extraordinary number of interlocutors, and in so doing raised the level of intellectual discourse in several different contexts.
"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."
Habermas was a student of Theodor Adorno, and a member of the Frankfurt School of critical theory. He is perhaps the last major thinker to embrace the basic project of the enlightenment, a project for which he is often attacked. When compositionists and rhetoricians pay attention to Habermas, it is usually to pair him in a theoretical debate over issues surrounding postmodernism.
Habermas's main contribution to communication theory is the elaborate theoretical apparatus he described in the two volumes of The Theory of Communicative Action, published in 1981. Power is a key concept in Habermas's conception of communicative rationality. Axel Honneth and Hans Joas note that the publication of this work, "brought to a provisional conclusion the intellectual efforts of twenty years of reflection and research."
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.
Habermas’s contributions to philosophy and social theory will endure, but from the mid-1950s to the mid-1990s, he was also a great reformer of German political culture. Habermas’s work on German social, political, and legal theory and his grappling in particular with its concepts of state, constitution, and law helped to anchor West Germany in the West.
Looking back in the mid-1980s, Habermas wrote: “The unreserved opening of the Federal Republic to the political culture of the West is the great intellectual achievement of the postwar period, of which my generation in particular can be proud."
He attempted to develop his own reconstruction of historical materialism a critical theory of society and a philosophical theory rooted in analyses of communicative action. During much of this period, since 1971, Habermas was director of the Max Planck Institute in Starnberg where he involved himself in various research projects and was in close touch with developments in the social sciences.
A man of the left who rose from the ruins of Nazi Germany and attempted to reconstruct Marxism on a reasoned and liberal basis, he was never sentimental about communism. Nor did he fall into the trap of thinking that the cold war was a plot perpetrated malevolently and unilaterally by the U.S.
Having written elaborate treatises on philosophy, social theory and the nature of communication--even his dissertation on the rise of "the public sphere" transformed media studies into a hardheaded discipline--he regularly takes to European Op-Ed pages with lucidity and passion.