Germany's most important living philosopher issues an urgent call to restore democracy (2022)

Tall and elegant in a dark, perfectly tailored suit, Jurgen Habermas entered the lecture hall of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities in Jerusalem. Prof. Habermas is one of the most important philosophers of the 20th century and the most important thinker in Germany today.

At the age of 83, his stride remains as light and erect as his thought is lucid. He was in Israel in May of this year to deliver the academy’s first annual Martin Buber lecture, named for the institution’s first president, the father of dialogic philosophy that Habermas espouses. The hall was packed with professors, students and others, many of whom had come to Jerusalem especially for the event. A student of Theodor Adorno (1903-1969) and Max Horkheimer (1895-1973), and the contemporary and philosophical adversary of Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida, Habermas is also a survivor of the generation of great thinkers whose voices breached the boundaries of academe at critical moments of their time.

Probably it was more than an interest in hearing what Habermas had to say about Buber that drew the crowd. An equally potent reason was the feeling that this would likely be the final opportunity to encounter in person a towering thinker, a star in the philosophical firmament who has wielded tremendous influence in academe and, indeed, across the gamut of Western thought.

Clearly, though, this point eluded Habermas, when he offered a similarly dramatic description of the only time that he, as Adorno’s young assistant, met Martin Buber. The meeting took place in the University of Bonn. It was the first time Buber had returned to Germany since fleeing his native land in 1938.

“Over and over, we recalled, my wife and I, that unforgettable evening. Time and again my wife and I have recalled this memorable evening in Lecture Theater number 10,” Habermas told the Jerusalem audience. “We did not remember the content of the lecture as much as the impression created by the act of his appearance, when the tumult in the packed auditorium suddenly fell silent. The entire auditorium stood in respect as the president of the Federal Republic, Theodor Heuss, accompanied in silence the relatively small figure of the bearded, elderly, white-haired guest, ‘the wise man from Israel.’ Through the prism of memory the whole evening is channeled into that honorable moment, less so the content of the lecture than the act of appearance when the clamor in the overflowing auditorium suddenly fell still. The entire auditorium rose to its feet in awe when the Federal President Theodor Heuss solemnly escorted, as if to underline the extraordinary nature of the visit, the comparatively small figure of the white-haired and bearded old man, the sage from Israel, on the long passage leading from the row of windows to the podium. Seen through the lens of memory, the entire evening becomes focused on this single dignified moment.”

Being taught, not teaching

Habermas speaks English in a heavy German accent, and a speech impediment caused by a cleft lip makes it even more difficult to understand his words when he lectures. During his talk, in a characteristic example of comic relief that accompanies every solemn event in Israel, a telephone suddenly rings in an adjacent room. In the context of a philosopher whose principal occupation is rational communication, the two elements the speech impediment and the ringing of the phone seem to offer a living example of “communicative action,” one of his basic concepts.

However, in a face-to-face meeting at the Dan Panorama Hotel in Tel Aviv, in preparation for an interview that he chooses to conduct via email, he is perfectly clear and lucid. In the conversation, he turns out to be very sociable, friendly and utterly lacking in haughtiness; an alert, sharp, quick-thinking and inquisitive interlocutor. Before replying to my questions, he assumes the interviewer role in expressing a great thirst to learn about life in Israel. Even though he has visited the country several times in the past and has many friends in the Israeli academic world, he is determined to learn about the country’s present condition, with all its variegated complexities. For his part, he tells about conversations he held with young people in Israel, both secular and religiously traditional, and also with taxi drivers.

For Habermas, such intersubjective conversations, aimed at understanding and learning about people who are not part of his milieu, are more than a matter of personal preference. This type of communication lies at the very heart of his philosophy and, as will become apparent, is the source of his optimism about the alienated age in which we live.

Every time he is asked for his opinion about local politics, Habermas reiterates his wish to be taught about Israel, not to teach. Like his philosophy, he is cautious and responsible and does not want to falter in his speech. Only three times during the interview did he respond to issues relevant to Israel: about the controversial poem by the Nobel Prize laureate Gunter Grass, on Israel and Iran; about the asylum-seeking refugees and the labor migrants; and about his general approach which he emphasizes is not aimed specifically at Israel concerning the resolution of ethno-national conflicts by dividing a state.

Concerning Grass’s poem, according to which Israel’s nuclear power is endangering world peace, Habermas replies that he does not understand what made Grass write it. “I have nothing special to say about Gunter Grass’ uninformed, unbalanced and provocative statement,” he says. “I do not see any reasonable excuse for having published such a thing. For me the most disquieting aspect of the affair is the fact that the gates for the muddy flood of the usual prejudices have been opened for the first time by somebody of his stature and political record: There is not the slightest doubt that Gunter Grass is not an anti-Semite, but there are things that Germans of our generation should not say.”

Europe has been coping for years with an issue that has only recently become acutely relevant to Israel: refugees seeking political asylum and Third World migrants in search of work. The Israeli government does not issue work permits to refugees or migrants and is actively locking them up and deporting them. How would you advise Israel to act?

“I do not know the local circumstances, but it is a thorny issue anyway. And Israel is, once again, in a particular situation. When I read about the issue, how could I escape the thought that the Israelis cannot but remember the fate of their families when fleeing from the Nazis? But political asylum is obviously the minor part of the story. No developed country will be spared the worldwide waves of emigration from the poorest regions of the world. The real scandal is the outrageous stratification of living conditions and life expectations across the globe.

“By liberal standards, the parochial and nationalist reactions of our postcolonial European societies to postwar immigration have been disturbing, particularly under economic pressures and corresponding anxieties of loss of status. In Germany, the counterfactual slogan of our conservative parties ‘We are not a country of immigration’ survived far into the 1990s.

“What to do? National legislation should first distinguish clearly but carefully between political asylum seekers and economic refugees, and secondly set up an immigration policy that does not sort out people exclusively according to the expectation of how they can benefit the interests of the receiving country.”

In general, what do you think about solving national conflicts by dividing a state so that each nationality has its own state?

“As a general issue in political theory, the ‘right’ of a nation to have a state of its own is rather controversial. This principle was proclaimed by U.S. President Wilson and it more or less determined the Paris peace treaties at the end of the First World War. The historical result was disastrous, because the invention of new states or new borders in accordance with this nationalist principle meant creating many new minorities and minority conflicts. Borders almost always result from historical contingencies.

“Therefore, in the abstract and on normative grounds only, maintaining an existing multinational or multiethnic state appears as the better solution and at the same time to insist on, or work for, appropriate minority rights or, more generally, for cultural rights to supplement equal civil rights. There were Zionist political groups before 1948 with similar views in this country, too. Most of their leading members, of whom Martin Buber was one, came before and after 1933, from Germany, from the Austro-Hungarian Empire and from Central and Eastern Europe.

“However, from this type of reasoning you should not conclude that there were not overwhelming reasons for the founding of the State of Israel in 1948; and today, the political right of Israel’s existence is, for the best available normative reasons, beyond doubt. Of course, the present situation and the policies of the present Israeli government require a different, political kind of evaluation that’s not the business of a private German citizen of my generation.”

The public sphere and its enemies

Habermas is an extremely fecund thinker. He has published dozens of books and articles, and he has another work scheduled for publication this October: “Nachmetaphysisches Denken II” (“Postmetaphysical Thinking II”). Some of his works have been translated into Hebrew, but his most important books among them “The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere” (1962), “The Theory of Communicative Action” (1981) and “Between Facts and Norms” (1992) do not exist in Hebrew translation (they are available in English).

Jurgen Habermas was born in 1929 near Dusseldorf, grew up in Germany of the Third Reich and came of age in the postwar period. He was 15 when his country surrendered to the Allies. Earlier, he joined Hitler Youth, as did the great majority of his contemporaries, and was sent to defend the Western Front in the war’s final months. Until he graduated from high school, Habermas lived in a town near Cologne with his family: his parents, Greta and Ernst, the latter the executive director of the Cologne Chamber of Industry and Commerce and described by his son as a Nazi sympathizer; and an older brother and younger sister. The domestic environment was strictly Protestant: Habermas’ grandfather was the director of the local seminary. However, the Nuremberg Trials and films he saw of the concentration camps after the war were a formative conceptual element that made Habermas realize the scale of the moral and political failure of National Socialist Germany and the impotence of German philosophy of the period. These insights were a driving force in his ongoi ng occupation with democracy and rationalism and in promoting the public sphere and public discourse.

In 1954, following studies at the universities of Goettingen and Zurich, he obtained a Ph.D. from the University of Bonn with a dissertation on Friedrich Schelling. At the outset of his philosophical path, Habermas immersed himself in the German intellectual tradition, reading Kant and Hegel as well as Marx and his interpreters. Subsequently, his research developed thanks to his acquaintance with the thinkers of the critical theory of society, Adorno and Horkheimer, the members of the Frankfurt School of neo-Marxism, the work of the sociologist Max Weber, and afterward with the thinkers of the Anglo-American pragmatist tradition. However, in our conversation he notes that even now the two philosophers he reads most of all are the two great fathers of German philosophy.

“Kant is, among the great philosophers, the only impeccable German thinker without the slightest moral flaw,” he says, adding, “and if there is a second one, Hegel. I myself keep going to and fro, from Kant to Marx, via Schelling and Hegel, and back again.”

Habermas first gained significant recognition (at least in Germany) in 1962 with the publication of “The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere,” a detailed social-historical study of a central category of modernity – the bourgeois public sphere. He traces its development from its origins in 18th-century salons through its transformation through the influence of capital-driven mass media. According to Habermas, in the 20th century the promising public and rational thrust of the salons deteriorated into a false and vacuous charade of pseudo-democracy. Bourgeois life, which pursued a social and legal system that promises the continued accumulation of wealth by individuals, stood in complete contrast to the principles of true democratic discourse. The idea he developed in his 1962 book, and which has remained the underlying foundation of his thought, despite its magnificently ramified development, revolves around an attempt to recreate rational communication – human discourse freed of constraints and extraneous considerations.

Blaming politics

Amid these intellectual pursuits, it is also crucial to understand the philosopher’s involvement in life outside the academic bubble. In 2004, in his commemorative lecture upon being awarded the Kyoto Prize, which honors individuals “who have contributed significantly to the scientific, cultural, and spiritual betterment of mankind,” Habermas stated, “Intellectuals should make public use of the professional knowledge that they possess, and should do so of their own initiative, in other words without being commissioned to do so by anyone else. They need not be neutral and eschew partisanship, but they should make a statement only in full awareness of their own fallibility; they should limit themselves to relevant issues, contributing information and good arguments; in other words, they should endeavor to improve the deplorable discursive level of public debates.”

Habermas himself has always made a point of being involved in ensuring Germany’s return to the proper path; that is, to the path he believes is proper, which is Western-oriented, based on rationality. He spoke out publicly during the students’ uprising at the end of the 1960s; during the vitriolic “historians’ quarrel” in 1986, which focused on Germany’s attitude toward its Nazi past; after Germany’s reunification in 1990; and during the invasion of Iraq. More recently, his voice has been heard again, angry and admonishing, in regard to the economic crisis of 2008 and its ruinous consequences for the European Union. From his perspective, the crisis was only one more disastrous result of the main pathology of modernity: the dominance of “instrumental rationality,” which perceives the world in terms of profit and loss (and contrasts with “communicative rationality”), over human thought and the “life-world,” a term Habermas frequently invokes.

As a consequence of the crisis, Habermas told Die Zeit in 2008, “The agenda which recklessly prioritizes shareholder interests and is indifferent to increasing social inequality, to the emergence of an underclass, to child poverty, a low wage sector, and so on has been discredited. With its mania for privatization, this agenda hollows out the core functions of the state, it sells off the remnants of a deliberating public sphere to profit-maximizing financial investors, and subordinates culture and education to the interests and moods of sponsors who are dependent on market cycles.”

He added that “certain vulnerable areas of life should not be exposed to the risks of stock market speculation.” There are some “public goods” in democracies, such as “undistorted political communication, which cannot be tailored to the profit expectations of financial investors; the citizens’ need for information cannot be satisfied by the culture of easily digestible sound bites that flourishes in a media landscape dominated by commercial television.”

In the wake of the crisis, is capitalism still legitimate, and if not, is there an alternative?

“Questions of legitimacy can be raised with regard to regimes, governments and policies, and to the disastrous effects that politically uncontrolled markets can and do have on the society at large. Today, it is the United States and the United Kingdom in the first place that are blocking a required regulation of global financial markets. If the worldwide neoliberal regime continues to dismantle the welfare state and to widen the existing gap between the many poor and the few super-rich, the legitimization problems will become more and more serious even in those Western democracies that have so far served as the model.”

What do you predict for the European Union and what do you hope for?

“I cannot predict anything in such an unstable situation. The basic problem is that there are economic imbalances within the Eurozone the differences in level of development and international competitiveness between national economies are too great for a common currency without a common economic government. We need courageous steps toward further integration, at least in core-Europe. But the political fragmentation will probably not be overcome in time because of national egoisms and lack of political leadership.”

In a 1998 essay, “The Postnational Constellation” (published in a collection of essays with that title by MIT Press, 2001), Habermas analyzed the enfeeblement of the nation-state in the face of globalization and the strengthening of the conglomerates. Among the elements that were debilitating the nation-state, he noted: the moving of entire factories and production lines to the Third World in order to minimize work expenses; international financial transactions in which the state and its institutions become bystanders while places of employment in the state are reduced; the widening of social disparities owing to unemployment, even as the profits of business giants, to which the obligations of taxation do not apply, soar; and the state’s remaining without sufficient means to ensure the welfare of its citizens and the reduction of social disparities.

Seeming to predict the disorder that reigns today in Europe, he writes in that essay, “As nation-states are increasingly overwhelmed by the global economy, one clear alternative emerges, even if somewhat abstractly and viewed, so to speak, from the academic ivory tower: transferring functions that social welfare states had previously exercised at the national level onto supra-national authorities.”

Habermas supports a solution based on supra-national bodies, but the currently existing institutions, such as the G8 (Group of Eight, a forum for the governments of eight of the world’s largest economies) or the European Commission (the EU’s executive body), leave him unsatisfied. He considers the G8 an exclusive club in which the issues are not discussed in a sufficiently binding way and which produces results that are relatively subpar compared to the expectations. His criticism of the European Commission is sharper and more detailed. Recently he published a booklet entitled “On Europe’s Constitution” in which he describes how the essence of democracy was transformed under the pressure of the economic crisis and the market madness. Habermas argues that power has slipped from the hands of people and now lies with bodies whose legitimacy is in doubt, such as the European Council, which consists of the heads of state of the EU. The technocrats have staged a coup, he concludes.

In the booklet Habermas expresses concern over the transfer of powers from the European governments to the council. “On July 22, 2011, [German Chancellor] Angela Merkel and [French President] Nicolas Sarkozy agreed to a vague compromise which is certainly open to interpretation between German economic liberalism and French etatism,” he writes. “All signs indicate that they would both like to transform the executive federalism enshrined in the Lisbon Treaty into an intergovernmental supremacy of the European Council that runs contrary to the spirit of the agreement” (source: Der Spiegel Online International).

Habermas is truly irked by the behavior of the EU leaders. But even when he is angry, his style remains decorous in both his speech and his writing one of the reasons, perhaps, that he is considered less glamorous than his postmodernist colleagues Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida. He does not put on shows like the Slovenian-born cultural critic Slavoj Zizek, does not indulge in bursts of anger or launch vicious ad hominem attacks. Habermas was always on the left, always opposed violence and espoused a constitution and legal procedures. He believes in democracy, believes in human rationality, in open discourse and in the public sphere as a conduit to improve the social order.

“Post-democracy” is Habermas’ take on the system that Merkel and Sarkozy fashioned during the economic crisis. The central place accorded the European Commission is an “anomaly,” he told Der Spiegel last November, and the European Council is “a governmental body that engages in politics without being authorized to do so.” In that interview, part of an article titled “A Philosopher’s Mission to Save the EU,” he described a market-driven Europe and an EU that has massively influenced the formation of new governments in Italy and Greece.

“For the first time in the history of the EU,” he said, “we are actually experiencing a dismantling of democracy. I didn’t think this was possible. We’ve reached a crossroads ... The political elite have actually no interest in explaining to the people that important decisions are made in Strasbourg; they are only afraid of losing their own power.” He views the EU not as a commonwealth of nations or a federation but as something new: a legal structure agreed upon by the people of Europe as citizens of Europe, not the governments. Here the media needs to play a role in helping people grasp the vast influence the EU has on their lives. In short, the EU needs to undergo democratization.

The only genius

In the 1960s, Habermas was close to the thinkers of the Frankfurt School, after having been the assistant to the Jewish philosopher and sociologist Theodor Adorno in 1956. The return of Adorno and Max Horkheimer to Frankfurt from the United States, to which they had fled before the war, fired the thought of the young intellectual. He has said more than once that their writings helped him dare to read Marx and his commentators, particularly Georg Lukacs (1885-1971). This was the period in which he began to formulate his doctrine. However, the hundred years that separate Marx and Habermas had their effect.

As the historian Prof. Peter Gordon explained in an article in The New Republic last December, Habermas, having come of age after the appropriation of Marxism by Stalin’s Russia, had to forsake revolutionary ambitions. He developed a practical politics that came to terms with the European, democratic welfare state and accepted the existence of both private property and “the inevitable diversity of interest group factionalism in the parliamentary system.” This was also his bone of contention with the student movement, which at first he ardently supported.

“The student movement was a liberating force in all Western countries,” Habermas says in the interview with Haaretz, “and I kept supporting the original political intentions of the German movement in the broader public, and I still defend the healthy impact on the German political culture it in fact has had.

“The difference between the student movement and me was about the use of force. Growing up during the Nazi period until the age of 15, I had memories different from theirs. In 1967, I was a young professor with whom the movement had entertained a close relationship for years; this is why I also felt a special responsibility for what I perceived as their political mistakes. During the period of discussions on the claimed legitimacy of violent means, I remember the scene when I told a mass of students that the Federal Republic of Germany, in spite of all its flaws, was still one of the five or seven most liberal states in the world and that we should rather insist on every violated letter of the constitution and fight for the realization of its normative potential. You can imagine how my left-of-social-democracy attitude clashed with their revolutionary fervor.”

What nevertheless remained of Marxism for Habermas stemmed from the fact that his thinking was forged in the Frankfurt School. For Adorno and Horkheimer, Marxism was not another theory of revolution; it was a “critical theory” whose aim was to uncover the irrationality and imperfection of this world. In the interview he recalls the impression his mentors made on him: “Adorno was a revelation for me when I became, rather by accident, his first personal assistant. He is the only genius I have ever met in his case this problematic term applies. He was an absolutely present and focused mind, facing you sharp and attentive, with deep brown, vulnerable eyes. Adorno was really autonomous only in academic discussion and at his desk while thinking and writing, but rather helpless in any institutional contexts.

“He was a master in the lecture hall, not capable of speaking for a minute or for an hour sentences that would not have been immediately ripe for print. Whereas his best students remained uneasily dependent on him all their life, he became for me a teacher fortunately only two years after having finished my Ph.D. elsewhere so I was lucky to maintain, as it were, a close but ‘grown up’ relationship with him until he died in 1969.”

In the case of Horkheimer, with whom his relations were more strained (Horkheimer’s demands for revision were the reason that Habermas did not complete his advanced degree, on the “habilitation,” at the Frankfurt am Main Institute of Social Research, but at the University of Marburg), he speaks more distantly. He notes that Horkheimer was already close to retirement when he entered the institute in 1956.

“He was anxious and distrusted me because of what he perceived as my left radical leanings. But in retrospect I admire both his great essays and his unwavering sense for political situations. He was the one in that famous group who rightly anticipated what happened in 1933, and who after his return from the U.S. in 1949 also had the clearest observations of the overwhelming National Socialist continuities in the political attitudes and mentalities of the broader population during the whole of the Adenauer period,” Habermas says, referring to Konrad Adenauer, chancellor of West Germany from 1949 to 1963.

As he says of himself, Habermas developed thought that was independent of his teachers. He believed they were too pessimistic in regard to the possibility of enlightenment and progress. Their critique of the Enlightenment, the disillusionment with the Age of Reason which ended with Auschwitz left no room for hope and did not allow them to salvage the rationality that constituted the underpinning of their critical efforts. Habermas, taking a more practical approach, sought a critical theory that would allow the Enlightenment to be saved from itself by reconstituting it. Part of the problem Habermas identified in the critical theory of the Frankfurt School lay in its overly narrow conception of human relations. These were considered to be based on the consciousness of the individual, ignoring the intersubjective dimension. Similarly, human rationality was viewed through too narrow a prism as being purely instrumental.

The result of the identification of this missing dimension was Habermas’ “linguistic turn,” which came to fruition only in the 1980s, in his two-volume magnum opus of more than 1,000 pages, “The Theory of Communicative Action.” The primary challenge in that work was to show that inherent in the structure of human language itself is a promise of mutual understanding and rational consensus, an ideal capable of serving as the foundation for true democracy.

To that end, Habermas draws on the tools of Anglo-American philosophy, a philosophical tradition considered separate and remote from the European tradition in which he was educated. Some view the synthesis that Habermas forges between the two great rival traditions of modern Western philosophy as his greatest philosophical accomplishment. As the contemporary of the postmodernists, he shares in the European disillusionment with the Enlightenment despite its underlying ideals of reason and education that ultimately led Europe to the wrongs of colonialism and the horrors of the Holocaust. At the same time, while other philosophers concluded that the Enlightenment itself was unacceptable as a worldview and that the violence it brought about derives from its structure, which sanctifies reason and rationality while scorning tradition, Habermas remains faithful to its basic values.

In his decades-long project, Habermas is out to show that there is also a different form of rationality, which is not posited on relations between means and ends. Thus, his idea of communicative action seeks understanding and agreement on a basis of grounded arguments. This is rational communication, which cannot exist by coercion or be vitiated by the intervention of alien considerations such as money or power. The goal is not to increase the profits of one individual or another, but to increase the mutual capital of all the participants in the discourse, expressed in growing understanding and agreement in ever more areas of dialogue. “We always find ourselves existing in the element of language,” Habermas said in his Kyoto Prize lecture in 2004. “Only those who talk can be silent. Only because we are by our nature linked to one another can we feel lonely or isolated ... Today, globalization, mass tourism, worldwide migration, in fact the growing pluralism of world views and cultural life forms, have familiarized all of us with the experiences of exclusion and marginalization of outsiders and minorities. Each of us can now imagine what it means to be a foreigner in a foreign country, to be an other to others or different from them. Such situations kindle our moral susceptibilities. For morality is a device woven with the threads of communication to shield the peculiar vulnerability of socialized individuals.”

Habermas is not naive. He knows that his vision of Enlightenment is an ideal that will never be fully realized. But the sentiment that best characterizes him as a philosopher and as a public figure is optimism. He believes in human rationality, he believes that we are constantly approaching the ideal of Enlightenment, even if there are regressions along the way, and he believes that this is our only opening to hope.

Translating religion

Habermas’ philosophical project is based on belief in human rationality and in the possibility of salvaging the Enlightenment. In addition, because his education is grounded in the leftist Hegelian tradition of Marxism, which viewed religion as an illusion that diverts people from the problems of this world, the expectation is that religious belief will be excluded from Habermas’ doctrine. However, in January 2004, in a public discussion on “The pre-political moral foundations of the free state,” held between Habermas and Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI), what stood out was the tone of conciliation between the two.

In his article for The New Republic, Gordon maintains that for most of his life as a thinker, Habermas barely touched on the subject of religion, and when he did so it was from a sociological perspective, which viewed it as an archaic form of social integration. Gordon cites Habermas’ speech upon being awarded the Peace Prize at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2001 as the turning point in terms of his attention to themes of religious belief. Since then he has published “Religion and Rationality” (2002), “The Frankfurt School on Religion” (2004), “The Dialectics of Secularization: On Reason and Religion” (2007, the transcript of his discussion with Ratzinger) and “Between Naturalism and Religion” (2008). In 2010, the transcript was published of a dialogue he held in Munich with a group of Jesuit theologians, titled “An Awareness of What Is Missing: Faith and Reason in a Post-Secular Age,” and more recently he met in New York with three philosophers (Judith Butler, Charles Taylor and Cornel West) in a public colloquium, which produced a volume titled “The Power of Religion in the Public Sphere.”

The gist of the controversy with the future pope revolved around the possibility of justifying constitutional democracy. Ratzinger held that because history has proved that lawfulness is not always a guarantee of justice, the standards for the moral bases of Western political culture lie in the Judeo-Christian tradition. In his view, religion and secularity, which up to a certain degree share a common rationality, can balance and “purify” each other.

Habermas, in contrast, believes that in terms of the normative justification of its existence, the constitutional democratic state is sufficient unto itself. Its democratic constitution creates its own legitimacy and its underpinnings are postmetaphysical. What the state nevertheless needs is the ability found in religion to forge the solidarity necessary to bring about the involvement of the citizenry in creating the law and participating in a discourse on the general good.

In your conversation with Ratzinger, you treat religious communities with great respect and say that they have “preserved intact something which has elsewhere been lost.”

Habermas: “I am talking about the present offshoots of the great world-religions that came about in the Axial Age [roughly around 500 B.C.] and have, in the course of modernization, developed a reflexive self-understanding that allows them to incorporate the principles of the constitutional state, to relate peacefully to competing religions and to respect the monopoly of institutionalized science with regard to controversies on mundane knowledge.

“They can well make specific contributions to public political discourses on the most controversial issues, e.g. in bioethics by appealing to convincing moral intuitions. All of these religions are book-religions; all of them continue more than a thousand and two thousand years of interpretation and administrate the cultic practice of communities. This cult keeps an archaic type of solidarity alive.

“These religions also articulate those moral intuitions that are more and more repressed in our kind of societies, where purely utilitarian criteria and behavioral patterns of rational choice and instrumental rationality spread from their proper place through the most violable spheres of life and come to dominate practices and issues that require and deserve a purely normative kind of orientation and reasoning. Look at secular communitarian writers like Bob Bellah or Avishai Margalit who address buried moral feelings, which they all borrow from religious traditions. This process of translation is even more conspicuous with modern religious writers of the type I was talking about the other week in Jerusalem.”

You describe “translation” from religious speech into the public sphere as a reciprocal learning process in which burdens of religious and secular interlocutors are symmetrical. But how can that be if the religious interlocutors are asked to translate their policy claims into secular terms?

“It is required from any state which is both secular and democratic that all enforceable norms must be expressed and justifiable in a language that is equally accessible to all its citizens. Thus, religious language is banned from legislation, adjudication and public administration. But in the public discourse of civil society this ban should be lifted so that the full semantic flavor of religious vocabularies, stories and metaphors can develop its literary strength to articulate and to elicit moral intuitions that might stretch far beyond the religious community.

“It is a burden for religious people to know that their utterances can affect the legislative agendas only in translated form. But the political ethos of a democracy provides no less a burden for secular citizens when they are asked not to shut their ears to a potential truth content (not truth) of religious contributions and eventually even participate in a ‘translation’ which for them at best resembles the archaeological excavation of a hidden treasure.”

Was there a specific point at which you changed your mind about religion and its role in public discourse?

“I once shared the assumption of mainstream sociology that religion would go away in the course of social modernization. That prediction turned out to be wrong. But I always thought, like Adorno, that there is something in religion that must be saved: the hope for betterment, even in face of the contrary.”

Jurgen Habermas.Credit: Getty Images

Social protest in Spain. Habermas still hopes for a better world.Credit: Reuters

German author Gunter Grass.Credit: AP

Martin Buber. The packed auditorium suddenly fell silent.Credit: Getty Images

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