Monday, Apr. 26, 2004

Jürgen Habermas

His rationalist system of social thought is the most elaborate and methodical in the contemporary world, which is why he is often cited as a sage by people who would rather chew glass than read his lumbering prose. But it is the awesome yet careful architecture of Jürgen Habermas' lifetime of scholarship that undergirds his reputation as an independent commentator on most of the ills of the contemporary world. Reason, for this 74-year-old German philosopher-sociologist, is practical, and reason is rooted in the ability to communicate clearly with one another. When people of different cultures come together to speak and listen on an equal footing, they can — and must — formulate a consensus. Constitutions help. So does the law. On such grounds, Habermas has for years argued against the trendier (in the U.S., anyway) French postmodernists.

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. 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.

In recent years, he has become a sort of European uncle watching America with hope, alarm and clarity, consistently arguing against knee-jerk anti-Americanism. In the 1990s, he defended Operation Desert Storm and supported the U.S. interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo on human-rights grounds. But Habermas' carefully grounded tribute to international law also gives weight to his critiques of the Bush doctrine and the war in Iraq. For Habermas, it is the "morality of international law" that refutes Washington's "revolutionary perspective." In this collision of ideas about America's role in the world, Habermas emerges as the genuine conservative.

Gitlin is a professor of Journalism and Sociology at Columbia University