Jurgen Habermas, the 81 year-old German thinker, has dedicated his academic life to the pursuit of a philosophical project aimed at clarifying and furthering the ideas of the Enlightenment, against the sceptical and critical views of postmodern critics. As a philosophy student in post-war Germany, Habermas first fell under the spell of Heidegger’s Greek-inspired ontology before becoming the assistant of the Frankfurt social critic, Theodor Adorno and gradually developing his personal re-interpretation of human nature, from the early days of the newly-founded Federal Republic to the still growing spread of globalization.
Habermas writes in the shadow of pre-1945 Germany history and his approach to inter-personal relations is haunted by his experience of the absence of any ‘public sphere’ in Nazi-dominated Germany. It is not enough to assume that, following Kant, every rational being expressing his views publicly will treat his opponent with the dignity and respect owed to every human being. Habermas is more suspicious of human nature than Kant, and his philosophy of ‘communicative rationality’ aims at setting specific norms and procedures which underpin any potential dialogical activity. In other words, Kant’s philosophy of good intentions must be buttressed and guaranteed by rules of discursive engagement which will ensure the fair representation of each side of a discussed issue.
Habermas’ philosophy of communication has naturally evolved over the last forty years but his fundamental belief in the self-corrective nature of successful democratic societies has remained the bedrock of his thought as the much respected German philosopher has recently turned his attention to the role of the European Union in a fast-changing global world as well as the place of religious belief in the public sphere. No course about contemporary issues can ignore nor neglect the extraordinarily rich and challenging views of the German social theorist.