(Orlando, FL) Matthew G. Specter’s Habermas: An Intellectual Biography (Cambridge, 2010) is not really a biography of the contemporary German philosopher. It doesn’t say where Habermas was born, whether he has a family, what he did in his various jobs, which countries he has visited, or what he experienced in the Hitler Youth in 1944-5. It isn’t even really an intellectual biography, if that implies a comprehensive account of his influences and ideas. We don’t learn much about how or when Habermas encountered American pragmatism, French poststructuralism, or German hermeneutics, let alone what he studied in high school or what works of art he prizes (if any).
But Specter’s book is a sustained and valuable argument for a thesis. Specter shows that Habermas has always been deeply engaged in the most pressing constitutional questions facing the Federal Republic of Germany at each stage of its history.
In the 1950s, a key question was whether the Constitutional Court could safeguard democracy or whether the legislature and people had to be active proponents of democratic values. In the 1960s, the questions included how to come to terms with the suppressed Nazi past and how to deal with student protest—a complex issue for Habermas, who placed himself to the left of the Social Democratic Party but also upheld the constitution. In the 1970s and 1980s, the era of anti-nuclear protest, a pressing issue was civil disobedience: extra-legal activism in a constitutional democracy. After 1989, Habermas’ attention turned to German unification; he argued that the East offered nothing of value in the form of political institutions but that the daily experiences of the GDR’s citizens had to be valued, and the unified state needed a new constitution. Since the Millennium, Habermas has been concerned about the European Union and particularly how it should treat religious minorities.
Specter mixes quotes from Habermas’ editorials and interviews with his more abstract philosophical work. The result is pretty persuasive: Habermas is always a critical friend of the Federal Republic, whether he is analyzing Max Weber or addressing students in a 1960s university cafeteria. He is more politically engaged than his philosophical works suggest if they are read out of context. He is also more specifically German. Of course, he demonstrates an impressive range of reading and deserves credit for bringing Anglophone authors, such as Charles Sanders Pierce, J.L. Austin, and John Rawls, into Continental debates. But Habermas is always interested in improving his own republic. He emerges as a German Ronald Dworkin, addressing jurists and civic leaders as much as philosophical colleagues.