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Biography Jürgen Habermas

2015 Kluge Prize Winner

Born in Germany in 1929, Jürgen Habermas emerged as the most important German philosopher and socio-political theorist of the second half of the 20th century. He is among the world’s most influential living philosophers. His books, articles, and essays number in the hundreds, and he has been widely read and translated into more than 40 languages, including Arabic, Catalan, Chinese, Danish, English, French, Hungarian, Italian, Japanese, Norwegian, Polish, Portuguese, Spanish, and Swedish. His major contributions encompass the fields of philosophy, sociology, democratic theory, philosophy of religion, jurisprudence, and historical and cultural analysis. He continues to publish actively.

Habermas began his career in the late 1950s as part of the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research, restarted by German-Jewish social thinkers upon their return from exile in the United States. In 1962, his first major work appeared under the title, “The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere.” In it, Habermas took to task pessimistic critiques of modernity and the decline of the public sphere proffered by Max Weber, Martin Heidegger, and Hannah Arendt. Habermas argued that technological transformations had morphed the public sphere for the better into space that encouraged the open exchange of ideas between free and equal citizens. The work helped to usher in a more optimistic tradition of German philosophy.

Habermas continued to take on giants of philosophy and social thought in subsequent works. He refuted the negative perceptions of modernity put forth by the most influential theorist of the sociological tradition, Max Weber. Habermas investigated how language influenced human activity in the world, separating human action into two distinct types: labor and interaction. Human beings were creatures who lived in a linguistic universe permeated with meaning, value, and symbolism. Habermas is perhaps best known for his theory of “communicative action,” which he put forth in “The Theory of Communicative Action” (1981). The central concern of this work is the deepening legitimation crisis of advanced capitalist societies. Habermas probed the question of whether in the modern world citizens believe that the institutions in which they live are just, honest, and capable of serving in their best interest. He presses for what he calls communicative action to restore the legitimacy of social institutions. The books inspired innumerable responses by social theorists and philosophers and was listed by the International Sociological Association as the eighth most important sociological work of the 20th century.

Habermas remained vigilant against the remnants of Germany’s authoritarian past. On May 17, 1985, he authored a provocative article with the title, “Dispensing with the Past,” on the occasion of President Reagan’s visit to the concentration camp of Bergen-Belsen and then to a cemetery for fallen German soldiers. Habermas argued there was a trend among contemporary German historians to present Nazi Socialism as legitimate and to question the uniqueness of the Holocaust. Habermas argued against such a normalization of the German past and asserted a “collective responsibility” that the Germans bore for it.

In the years after the fall of the Berlin wall and the unification of Germany, Habermas focused increasing attention on the creation of the European Union and on issues of economic globalization, the growing multiculturalism of German society, and the consequent debates about citizenship and asylum. His writings in support of the West’s humanitarian interventions in the Balkans gave rise to an enlarged understanding of human rights as transcending the sovereignty of nation states and requiring a “post-national constellation” of global laws and alliances.

In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, the global focus of Habermas’ writing and speaking increased as non-state actors assumed a greater political and military role and as the world’s most compelling issues clearly required transnational cooperation. Now in his 80s, Habermas remains one of the most read, most studied, and most influential European thinkers. His work is wide and deep in scope, and he is himself an exemplar of the public intellectual.

Why Awarded

Jürgen Habermas is one the world’s most important living philosophers. His contributions to philosophy and the social sciences have gained world-wide influence, and for a half-century he has acted as a public conscience of the German nation and Europe as a whole. Translated into more than 40 languages, his work has contributed to epistemology, philosophy of language, philosophy of religion, democratic theory, jurisprudence, and social theory. He has written and co-authored hundreds of books, articles, papers, speeches, and chapters, and is widely read and cited both inside academia and beyond it.

Citation

“Jürgen Habermas is a scholar whose impact cannot be overestimated. In both his magisterial works of theoretical analysis and his influential contributions to social criticism and public debate, he has repeatedly shown that Enlightenment values of justice and freedom, if transmitted through cultures of open communication and dialogue, can sustain social and political systems even through periods of significant transformation.”
—Librarian of Congress James H. Billington

Press

Image of Jürgen Habermas
Jürgen Habermas

The Public Conscience of a Nation

Kluge Prize Recipient 2015

Quick Facts

Born: 
1929, Düsseldorf, Germany

Field: 
Philosophy

Positions:

  • Emeritus Professor of Philosophy, University of Frankfurt
  • Professor of Philosophy, University of Frankfurt
  • Professor of Philosophy, University of Heidelberg

Ceremony Links

Award:
September 29, 2015

Watch:
Acceptance Speech | Full Text

Announcement: 
Press Release (Aug. 11, 2015)

Selected Publications

More

Selected Works at the Library of Congress