Intellectuals of Europe, Unite!

Article published on Sept. 16, 2003
community published
Article published on Sept. 16, 2003

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

German philosopher Jürgen Habermas and his intriguing suggestion for a European ‘public space’.

“An attractive, appealing, ‘vision’ for Europe isn’t just going to fall from the sky… If up to now such a theme has yet to grace the agenda, it is because we, the intellectuals, have failed”. At least, that is the opinion of one of the most significant philosophers and social theorists of our time - Jürgen Habermas.

Habermas, however, has consistently endeavoured to counter this failure. The most recent sign of of his ‘europolitical’ engagement is his call – together with longstanding French opponent Jacques Derrida – for European intellectuals to strive to create a European public opinion. The pair advocate a renewal in European foreign policy, for which a culturally attractive vision will be essential. In order to arouse public interest and nurture the necessary discussion, on the 31st of May 2003 the aforementioned call, with the title “After the War: the Rebirth of Europe” (

German), appeared simultaneously in the German FAZ and the French Libération. In addition, the writers Adolf Muschg (Neue Zürcher Zeitung, Schweiz) and Umberto Eco (La Repubblica, Italy), as well as the philosophers Gianni Vattimo (La Stampa, Italy), Fernando Savater (El Pais, Spain) and Richard Rorty (Süddeutsche Zeitung, Germany) expressed their positions on the state of affairs in the continent. Even if the secrecy surrounding the essays and their coordination seem justified in view of their intended element of surprise, their content should nevertheless have been made available to as wide a public as possible. In order to be informed of the views of each contributor, the interested European would have to be ready to subscribe to several of Europe’s largest papers, or pay to view articles at varying prices. Communication - which Habermas prizes so highly as a requirement for a European consciousness - would appear to have its limits.

Communicative Reason – A concept for Europe?

Linguistic communication runs like a thread through the life of Jürgen Habermas. He was born in Düsseldorf in 1929. After studying philosophy, psychology, German literature, history and economics, Habermas began work as a freelance journalist (1954-59), and then from 1956 took up Adorno’s offer to work with him at the newly reopened Institute for Social Research. There were laid the foundations for his disagreement with empirical social research, among other things by a study of the political consciousness of the West German student population. Already at that point, he saw unconstrained decision-making as the kernel of the democratic state. Next followed a Professorship at Heidelberg (1961-64) and then Frankfurt (1964-71); in 1971 he took a position as director of the Max-Planck Institute in Starnberg and from 1980 in Münich, before finally in 1982 (until 1994) he returned once again to the chair of philosophy at Frankfurt.

It is difficult to select isolated examples of Habermas’ work from his countless books, publications and philosophical arguments. Nonetheless, his study on ‘Knowledge and Interests’ (1968) and the two volume ‘Theory of Communcative Action’ (1982) were crucial in securing his international reputation.

A Critical Social Theory in a Practical Perspective

The central tenet of these works is the “critical theory” of the Frankfurt School (Link: english), which Habermas can be said to have both advanced and renewed. As the most widely recognised member of the second generation of the Frankfurt School, Habermas wants to show - in constrast to his predecessors - that the potential for critical thought exists in bourgeois society. Political decisions are, in his opinion, only justifiable for the public realm, if they are capable of being produced from an “ideal speech situation” in which all citizens give their consent. The decisive proposal, to mediate thought and action, that political praxis appears out of a cooperative realisation of reason, advances the Kantian idea of public rational action. From the mid-80s onwards, we can see in Habermas the unity of critical theory (philosophical texts) and practical political recommendations (published contributions). As a political intellectual he comments on neoconservatism, civil disobedience, domestic as well as foreign affairs and not least, especially in recent years, on the role of Europe and progressing European integration.

Europe is more than a marketplace

One of his europolitical demands will soon be back on the political agendas of European heads of state and government: when they meet in Rome for the closing talks regarding the European constitution. Habermas has long fought for such a constitution and stresses its symbolic importance. It is his conviction that “Europe cannot establish itself as a concept in the mind of its citizens on the basis of the Euro alone”. In other words, economic reasons are insufficient motive to drive people towards a European polity - that is, “we have to appeal to people’s hearts as well as their heads”. He nevertheless sees Europe’s greatest scope for action in the realm of economic globalisation. Only a Europe which speaks with one voice will be able to gain greater influence amongst trade and financial organisations, thereby going some way to stemming the trend towards a neoliberal world order.

Comopolitan elites and national publics

One of the main arguments for a European constitution is its role in creating a pan-European “public space”, as it necessitates cross-border communication. Even the constitutional process itself has the potential to become a self-fulfilling prophecy (Habermas 1999) - in the last few months however, only a small number of the many promising “arenas of public communication” to talk about a future constitutional convention have materialized.

Even the few existing “European media” like the Financial Times or the International Herald Tribune are addressed more to the economic and political elite rather than the man on the street. Yet how is it possible to bring about an exchange, or what Habermas calls a “cross–border discourse”, between European societies, and through this process achieve a lasting legitimation and stronger political integration of the European Union?

The Avant-garde Core of Europe

At this point “the intellectuals” (as well as the politicians) come back into focus, for they can bring the European project closer to the homes of their voters by lifting discussion about it from its lofty abstract and heights, down to a more simple, debatable level. Habermas’ unique

intellectual initiative, surely a backlash to the “Letter from the Eight” of the 31st of January (in which, under Britain and Spain’s leadership, eight of the EU states voiced their support for America’s foreign policy), has yet to fulfil its ultimate goal. The reactions from European intellectuals were subdued.

He has attracted criticism from, amongst others, Günther Grass (German writer and holder of a Nobel Prize for Literature), not to mention Harold James (American historian), or Ralf Dahrendorf (German sociologist). For the main part, however, criticism against Habermas’ thesis is to be found within the comment pages of the very broadsheets which published it. They detect “a Euro-nationalism bursting with feelings of superiority”, as well as a “rude handling of Eastern Europe” and a definition of European identity which is somewhat disappointingly built on its differences to the Bush administration. Nonetheless, in spite of all the criticism, one commentator in the German FAZ is forced to conclude that:

“Habermas and Derrida should nevertheless be given an audience for their ideas. What they write should not be read simply as European self-praise looking down on the USA, but as an opportunity, showing how Europeans can be won over by an alternative politics. Making the most of this opportunity will mean getting into a fight - even here, in old Europe”.