Young Habermas: An Interview with Roman Yos

by contributing editor Jonas Knatz

by Jonas Knatz

Roman Yos is a researcher at the Institute of Philosophy at the University of Potsdam. His research focuses on the history of German Philosophy in the early and mid-20th century. In 2017, he co-edited Mensch und Gesellschaft zwischen Natur und Geschichte, a volume that investigates the relationship between Philosophical Anthropology and Critical Theory. Contributing editor Jonas Knatz spoke with him about his new book Der junge Habermas (Suhrkamp, 2019), an intellectual biography of German philosopher and sociologist Jürgen Habermas.


Jonas Knatz (JK): In the introduction to Young Habermas: An Intellectual History of His Early Thought, 1952-1962, you note that Jürgen Habermas’ work has not been as formative for the theory-hungry students of the 1970s as for example Michel Foucault’s or Theodor W. Adorno’s books. Despite his status as a ‘classic’ in social philosophy and the  numerous introductions to his work, you also point out, Habermas’ oeuvre has neither sparked the emergence of rivaling interpretative schools fighting over the correct reading of his philosophy nor a historiography of his ideas. How do you explain this (lack of) reception of Habermas’ work, and what motivated you to make Habermas’ early years the subject of your book?

Roman Yos (RY): In Young Habermas, my aim was to map out the full spectrum of intellectual influences on Habermas’ early work. So, I largely set the fundamental question of how to classify his work aside. I primarily wanted to examine the contemporary reception of Habermas’ essays and books and, of course, the texts themselves. Which intellectual currents did they engage with? This approach illustrated that the names of Adorno and Horkheimer were far less present in Habermas’ early work than one would initially assume. Even in the early 1950s, during his student days, Habermas was an independent thinker defining his own philosophical problems and developing his own ideas—this is evident, for example, from the numerous newspaper articles he authored during this period. I wanted to recover the lesser-known, often underappreciated intellectual impulses on Habermas’ early work, including  his reception of literature and political events, to present a more accurate picture of his formative years. In my opinion, considering these early influences reveals why Habermas cannot simply be considered an epigone of the founders of the Frankfurt school. Now, for the classification of Habermas’ work, you have to keep in mind that the German-speaking reception of Habermas’s oeuvre was politiciced by the revolting “sixty-eighters.” Arguments about legitimate discipleship, or rivalries between incompatible receptions, opposing approaches, etc., are an integral part of the daily business in philosophy and the social sciences. Not infrequently, however, they are also the product of a subsequently politicized reception. If I am not mistaken, one can also observe a similar politicization in the Anglo-American reception of Habermas, which began at the end of the 1960s and in which the New Left played a decisive role. In the US, the idea of a generational succession of Frankfurt School Critical Theorists, who continue what Horkheimer and co. had set out to do in the mid-1930s, was omnipresent from the start. Understandably, this initially led to the classification of Habermas’s work as “Critical Theory.” The ongoing controversy about the reception of Habermas’ work and about “Critical Theory” more generally, and the fact that Habermas still takes a stand as a critical commentator on contemporary issues, may be reason enough for some to consider him a contender for the status of a “classic.”

Roman Yos, (c) Roman Yos

In other parts of the world that were less influenced by “Western Marxism,” I see less debate about this question. In general, however, it is quite conceivable that the “hunger for theory” of the new generations of students will be satisfied by catchier authors (such as Adorno or Foucault). And admittedly: neither Theory of Communicative Action nor the even more extensive This Too a History of Philosophy are easy to quote or come as transportable paperbacks. In my opinion, it is currently difficult to assess in which direction the reception will develop in the long run: whether Habermas’ role as a political intellectual, his philosophical oeuvre, individual books or even just his most memorable terms will be remembered.

JK: Your intellectual history of Habermas pursues two interconnected critical goals: to caution against a synthesizing retrospective that glosses over the ambivalences, turns, and contradictions in his early work, and against a reading that associates his philosophy too readily with the Critical Theory of Theodor W. Adorno, Max Horkheimer, and Herbert Marcuse. Habermas’ philosophically formative years in Bonn seem to substantiate both claims: he was a student of Erich Rothacker and Oskar Becker, who both had been supportive of National Socialism and whose philosophy was very different from the Critical Theory that the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research is known for. How would you describe their influence on Habermas’ early work?

RY: When in 1956, after five years in Bonn, Habermas began working as Adorno’s research assistant at the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research, he came into contact with intellectual traditions that were hardly present in postwar Germany as a result of forced emigration. Neo-Kantianism, Logical Positivism, Psychoanalysis, or social-philosophical Marxism, for example, had no significant foothold at the university in Bonn. In a certain sense, his two most influential academic teachers there, Erich Rothacker and Oskar Becker, are emblematic for the somewhat outdated theoretical horizon that one encountered in Bonn at the time: they clinged to psychology without Psychoanalysis, Phenomenology without the Sociology of Knowledge, to name just two examples that illustrate the Nazi-induced loss in the intellectual professions. In addition, a few years earlier, Rothacker and Becker had been suspended from academic positions due to their prior commitment to National Socialism. When Habermas became a student in Bonn, the period of institutional denazification had already ended, though it was not peculiar to Bonn that professors who had taught during National Socialism continued to teach after the war. Critical voices therefore used the catchphrase “restoration” to refer to the first years of the Federal Republic. But, in the 1950s, you didn’t talk to professors about politics, and about culture only if you showed an interest in Geistesgeschichte (cultural and intellectual history). And intellectually, Rothacker must have been impressive for Habermas. He had a deep and far-reaching knowledge of Geistesgeschichte and was an expert on the philosophical strands that had been popular in the 1920s. As a psychologist, he could also draw on his expertise in empirical cultural and experimental behavioral research. And he was open to support the next generation: Karl-Otto Apel, Otto Pöggeler, Hermann Schmitz, and others took his seminars. For some time, Habermas tried to formulate a culture-critical approach that was based on Rothacker’s concept of “style” (who himself drew on Heinrich Wölfflin) and meant to express a critical Haltung [attitude, posture] towards the cultural sphere—and this  positive reception of Rothacker is still present in Habermas’ first article for Merkur from 1954. Titled “Dialectic of Rationalization,” this brilliant text still conjures up associations with Adorno’s and Horkheimer’s “Dialectic of Enlightenment,” a misleading trace as I try to show in the book.

The Dialectic of Rationalization (Merkur, 1954)

In a seminar of Becker, a former student of Husserl and an admirer of Heidegger, Habermas decided to engage more extensively with Schelling about whom he eventually also wrote his dissertation, The Absolute and History. Becker, who was an experienced logician and mathematician and who, via Paul Lorenzen, also influenced the Erlangen School of Epistemological Constructivism, was a very reserved personality compared to Rothacker. Presumably hardly anyone knew his race-theoretical texts from a few years earlier. Although Habermas only made very scattered remarks about both philosophers, they certainly had some influence on his philosophical thinking. In retrospect, I would say that he emancipated himself from their influence over the course of the 1950s, similar to his emancipation from Heidegger’s influence at the same time.

JK: Given Habermas’ often polemical attacks against Martin Heidegger, it is surprising to see how much he initially relied on a vocabulary associated with Heidegger’s philosophy. In his first articles for the feuilleton of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Habermas even adopted Heidegger’s apologetic arguments for Vernehmung [apprehension] as the correct, passive philosophical posture for the postwar period and also joins the Freiburg philosopher in his criticism of the alienation caused by technological development. An important turning point in this relationship seems to be 1953, when Habermas read Heidegger’s Introduction to Metaphysics, which contained the latter’s critique of “what is peddled about nowadays as the philosophy of National Socialism, but which has not the least to do with the inner truth and greatness of this movement.” You argue that this reading experience initiated a process through which Habermas gained political distance from Heidegger, but that he initially did not fully break with the latter’s philosophy. How would you describe Habermas’ early critique of Heidegger, and how central was Heidegger’s conceptual apparatus for his early philosophy?

RY: Formulas such as Schellings “submission to the higher” or even “attitude/posture of apprehension,” which clearly refered to Heidegger, contain motifs that gave Habermas a certain orientation. These formulas, which Habermas drew not only from Heidegger but from a wide array of thinkers and political movements, helped him to diagnostically process the political present in the postwar period. Some of them can only be found in his journalistic work or completely disappear in his later work, while others were merely replaced or reformulated in new theoretical approaches. But some phrases have remained decisive to this day: the “broken attitude” towards national traditions, for example. The slogan “Ohne mich” [“Without me”], which in the early 1950s expressed a commitment against the rearmement of the Federal Republic, offered him such an orientation as well. It constituted a way to situate oneself in the contemporary intellectual discourse. “Ohne mich” was part of a political habitus, similar to “Me Too” or “Fridays for Future” today.

In contrast to today, though, the West German postwar situation was much more marked by an awareness of its potentially provisional status. Democracy was still young and, given the recent past, fears about its future were not entirely baseless. At first glance, Heidegger’s “attitude of apprehension” seemed to express an opposition to his own political activism of the early 1930s. And Habermas initially interpreted Heidegger’s plea for “serenity” as a fundamental reservation with regard to current political events, which he himself also only followed from critical distance. At the beginning, he was probably convinced that adapting Heidegger’s terms—similar to Rothacker’s concept of “style”—would be useful in sharpening his own criticism of the cultural zeitgeist.

This changed, however, when Habermas realized that Heidegger’s new perspective was a personal exoneration in disguise: his interpretation of the Nazi movement as a symptom of an age of “planetary technology” leveled the differences between National Socialism and the postwar order. Later, Habermas called this (self-)exonerating turn in Heidegger an “abstraction via essentialization.” I interpret Habermas’ critical reflections on Heidegger, which began in 1953 with the controversy about the latter’s Introduction to Metaphysics, as the inception of a long-lasting process of detachment. This process began with taking note of the relevant passage you quoted—but it did not end there. In my book, I characterize this phase of Habermas’ Heidegger reception as tentative. Only in 1957, while immersed in Marx’s writings and contemporary Marxism, Habermas fully explored to what extent an “attitude of apprehension,” is connected to a logic of the absolute as a metahistorical process. For even if there actually were meaning in history, it could not be intercepted in the form of a “history of being,” but would have to be justified and at the same time realized by practical reason. So, one could say that this was the moment when Habermas began thinking with Kant and Marx and against Heidegger, which is fundamentally different from thinking “with Heidegger against Heidegger.”

JK: In 1956, Habermas joined the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research and became Adorno’s personal assistant. Yet, your book cautions against considering Habermas too readily a, as you  put it, “epigone” of the founding generation of this institute. In what ways then did Habermas’ personal philosophy differ from the particular strand developed at the institute during his initial stint as Adorno’s assistant, and why is he commonly understood as the Frankfurt School’s philosophical heir?

RY: It is difficult to say whether Habermas had his own fully-fledged philosophy at this early stage. In his position at the Institute for Social Research in the late 1950s, he was mainly concerned with questions of empirical sociology and, to a lesser extent, with university politics. On the side, he wrote his first book, The Structural Transformation of Public Sphere, about which one could argue whether it contains a philosophy in nuce. Irrespective of the outcome of this discussion, it is clear that, even before he moved to Frankfurt, Habermas began to autonomously identify philosophical problems and ways to solve them. Hans Paeschke (co-editor of Merkur), for example, already noticed this about Habermas in early 1954 when he edited the aforementioned essay. There is a letter in which he admiringly prophesied that Habermas would later found a philosophy.

During this time, Habermas thought about possibilities to contain both technical and economic rationalization—something that he tried getting at with the term “social rationalization.” At the same time, however, he insisted that the bond between progress and reason must not be broken. “Social rationalization” is initially a problematic concept, just like “communicative action” a little later, which Habermas introduced in the mid-1960s long before he worked out the Theory of Communicative Action. Habermas’ more recent considerations in This Too A History of Philosophy also touch on this systematic connection, which is inconceivable without a comprehensive concept of reason. So, one could say that the endeavor to get social dynamics under control even where they seeminly elide human grasp is one of Habermas’ earliest intellectual efforts. From a systematic point of view, this is still central todayincluding the democratic-theoretical implications that it entails.

It should also be mentioned, however, that Habermas developed his concept of communicative reason, which he believes has the aforementioned complexity, over a long period of time by way of dealing with classic sociological issues, i.e. outside of philosophy. This can be seen in the first volume of the Theory of Communicative Action, which in the German original bears the subtitle “The Rationality of Action and the Rationalization of Society.” Its synthesizing effort is based on a post-metaphysical understanding of what is meant by rationality. According to Habermas, it is only possible to orientate oneself in action or engange in rational praxis if the normative starting point can be traced back to inner-worldly foundations. The philosophical fundament for this argument can be found both in the writings of the late 1950s and in his early works. But if you consider that behind all of this—in contrast to systems theory, for example—there is still the therapeutic aim to keep a world which “is out of joint” open to corrective interventions despite its constant increase in complexity, then we touch upon a level of philosophical thinking that connects Habermas with Adorno.

JK: In 1981, Habermas said in an interview for Ästhetik und Kommunikation (English translation in Telos) that one of the fundamental weaknesses of Critical Theory was that “on the level of political theory, the old Frankfurt School never took bourgeois democracy very seriously.” (8) You argue that finding a normative foundation for democracy is the gravitational center of Habermas oeuvre and thus also provides the motivational background of The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. However, precisely this book is often read as an attempt to provide historical and sociological support for Adorno’s and Horkheimer’s cultural critique. In contrast, and in line with your larger argument that Habermas’ philosophy has a trajectory that is independent from the history of the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research, you warn against this reading on the basis that Habermas differed from them in his understanding of democracy. Would it be fair to say, then, that Horkheimer’s critique of Habermas’ philosophy as an attempt to rationalize Herrschaft [domination] but not to abolish it contains in nuce the difference between his philosophy and Critical Theory? 

RY: This question is suggestive. But yes, if you restrict this question to political philosophy, then one could answer exactly as you suggest. In terms of its approach, the abolition of domination is different from the rationalization of domination. But this says nothing about the implementation of these goals, and the goals themselves also remain vague at this theoretical level of abstraction. What exactly should the political community look like? It is moot to speculate whether Horkheimer and Habermas could have agreed, for example, on the abolition of private ownership of the means of production at various stages in their lives. And don’t we have to consider what this meant for different generations? Horkheimer’s understanding of critical theory also constituted a reaction to different historical contexts: The German Empire, the Weimar Republic, National Socialism, exile, the Federal Republic—his thought confronted very specific experiences. But where does the focus of a theory lie? If you consistently historicize, you quickly lose track of what you might consider to be the theoretical core of this or that theory. What is Critical Theory? Even the question about its spelling (with a capital or small “c”) harbors some tensions in the German-speaking discourse. The idea of a generational succession, which is much more prevalent in the English-language discourse, tempts one to slip over it without further ado (“first, second, third generation of Critical Theory” etc.). But I don’t see a political philosophy in the narrower sense of the word in Horkheimer. If I’m not mistaken, he didn’t publish anything in this direction after his return to the Federal Republic. Of course, he had very understandable reasons for this. One of Habermas’ earlier works (the introduction to Student and Politics) that Horkheimer disliked bears the telling title “On the concept of political participation.” In this text, Habermas investigates, among other things, whether and how one could transform the democratic into a social constitutional state. Even if Horkheimer sensed Marxist revolutionary theory, it was rather radical reformism that motivated Habermas’ question.

JK: The philosophical distance between Habermas and the Institute for Social Research is also evinced by Habermas’ concept of ‘human action’ that draws from philosophical sources that are usually not associated with Frankfurt Critical Theory. You explicitly mention Hannah Arendt’s distinction between work, production, and action, Arnold Gehlen’s concept of action, and Karl Jaspers’ notion of existential communication as inspirations for Habermas’ concept of ‘communicative action.’ Specifically, Jaspers seems to have been an important influence on Habermas’ theory of communication. Could you elaborate on this?

RY: These, too, are—each in and of themselves—complicated relations. Regarding the concept of communicative action, Arendt and Jaspers as well as Gehlen provided important impulses for Habermas. In terms of its conceptual prehistory, one has to keep in mind that at the end of the 1950s Habermas was concerned with finding a “world concept” of philosophy, as outlined in Kant: a world concept [conceptus cosmicus] “which necessarily interests everyone.” This early attempt to tease out philosophy’s practical relation to the world takes the form of a concern with the “worldly relations of action.” In this early attempt, the collective singulars “man” and “history” form the central reference for a practical conception of reason in which the world is from the outset considered a Mitwelt [shared world]. With regard to Habermas’ concept of reason, the Kantian legacy is obvious and  further demonstrated in The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, where Publizität [publicity] expresses the public character of reason.

German (Suhrkamp, 1962) and English edition (MIT Press, 1989) of
The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere

In Jaspers, whose own efforts in the postwar period make strong references to Kant, there is a form of intersubjectivism that is still metaphysically contained, because communication only takes place indirectly via the medium of das Umgreifende [the Encompassing] that guarantees the connection between those communicating. According to Jaspers, reason only exists in communication. It is not surprising that he is considered as having oriented himself toward “communicative truth” in the postwar period. He was one of the few who thought about the role of philosophy in postwar West Germany. That alone separated him from many of his philosophical colleagues, who preferred to devote themselves to the philological exegesis of ancient or classical German philosophy. Jaspers’ philosophical work met with little approval in its time. However, he was known as the author of The Question of German Guilt, a small volume in which he emphasized the difference between collective guilt and collective liability, which was of eminent importance for the German postwar situation. As a tireless admonisher, he was a public figure that constantly provoked discussions, for example by pointing out the danger of the atomic bomb or by radically condemning the statute of limitations for the crimes of National Socialism. It is not entirely absurd to compare Jaspers’ role as a political intellectual at the time with that of Habermas today. In the book, I also try to show that Jaspers’ interpretation of Schelling was important for Habermas in his revision of his previous,  Heideggerian reading of Schelling that is still present in his dissertation.

Regarding Habermas’ reception of Arendt, it is her emphasis on the cooperative nature of action as the power which regulates the fate and history of humanity that is important. Joint action in public—that is what grounds Arendt’s concept of communicative power. The similarity to Habermas’ concept of the public sphere should be relatively evident. Arnold Gehlen, finally, approaches the problem of action in a sober and rather direct manner. That made him interesting for Habermas. However, his empirical approach to philosophy came with a blatant deficit in meaning. From Habermas’ point of view, Gehlen lacked the intersubjective component that was present in Jaspers and Arendt. Habermas vehemently denied that Gehlen’s ideas about an externally guided subject (David Riesman) could be expedient in normative terms. This is reflected in a number of sharp remarks about Gehlen, for example in Habermas’ 1956 review of his book Urmensch und Spätkultur (Primitive Man and Late Culture).

JK: At the occasion of Habermas’ 90th birthday last year, Raymond Geuss used a contemporary democratic decision, the British referendum on Brexit, to attack the German philosopher’s concept of communication and, by extension, intersubjective rationality. This attack provoked responses by a host of thinkers such as Seyla Benhabib, Martin Jay, and Michael J. Quirk, who all pointed out that Habermas’ work is key to understanding the current historical moment. Did you follow this debate? What can Habermas’ early thought offer to better understand our current historical situation?

RY: Geuss’ polemical comment is basically not worth mentioning. After all, his article was not so much about Habermas; I read his contribution more as failed comment on the Brexit vote and its aftermath than as a statement on the latter’s work. Geuss certainly also criticizes liberalism. But does it make sense to associate Habermas with a policy that can be described as liberal on both sides of the English Channel? I do not think so. Let’s just take Geuss’ clueless assertion that the integration of the Federal Republic into the West formed the appropriate historical framework for The Theory of Communicative Action. This is an untenable statement, considering both Germany’s and the book’s history. Anyone who is even a little familiar with the history of the Federal Republic knows that Geuss is trying to fit a square peg into a round hole here.

In the end, there is not much left to discuss. Geuss plays into the well-known reflexes of a cynicism that heralds the end of the era of liberal politics for the umpteenth time, and Brexit offers him a pretense to do so. Geuss’ conflation of an imperative rigorism with Habermas’ understanding of communication and discourse is a common mistake. It does not seem to matter to him at all that the discursive element in Habermas’ political theory differs from what Kant calls an insight based on the “fact of reason.” In fact, the achievement of the discourse-ethical approach actually lies in an intersubjective extension of Kant’s categorical imperative—which, despite the trans-subjective outline of the problem, is suffering from its own solipsistic narrowness. Of course, Geuss only criticizes what he considers to be Habermas’ core idea about communication. His reservations are based on the misleading assumption that Habermas’ concept of communication is more or less a product of empty ought. A scientific discussion or well-founded criticism would be something else. Geuss is probably aware that he isn’t on solid ground anymore. How else could one explain that he does not provide comprehensible evidence for any of his idiosyncratic interpretations? Like countless others before him, Geuss dwells on the concepts of “discourse without domination” and the “ideal speech situation” without bothering with the context of these terms. (Martin Jay and Seyla Benhabib have already said a lot about this.) Geuss dedicated a large part of his life to philosophy and wrote a book that also deals with Habermas some decades ago. One is inclined to ask, then, whether all his efforts have been in vain. If you don’t want to be completely naive, you have to assume that he was trying to bring someone out of their shell. Such attempts are frequent in the German feuilleton. Clever professors comment on Habermas’ lack of political and philosophical success, only to then admit at the next best opportunity that he, of course, plays in the highest philosophical league.

Jonas Knatz is a PhD Candidate at New York University’s History Department. He works on a conceptual history of the automation of work and Modern European Intellectual History more generally.

Featured Image: Jürgen Habermas, 1956 (c) Jürgen Habermas

Leave a Reply