Jurgen habermas: how to write an intellectual biography?

Marc Reichwein

W hen writing an intellectual biography? Stefan Muller-Doohm, emeritus professor in Oldenburg, has specialized in the sociology of intellectuals, and has written, among other things, a standard work on Adorno. His recently published biography of Jurgen Habermas is 750 pages long, a veritable caliber of bricks; but one does not get the impression that its author has set himself more goals as a biographer than the extremely honest one of comprehensively tracing the career, work and life of the person portrayed, i.e., in exhaustive detail.

The reviews, which were published around Habermas’ 85. birthday on 18. June appeared, criticized that restrained enough not to spoil the congratulatory mood. And yet they named a sore point: When the "Suddeutsche Zeitung" criticizes that "Muller-Dohm remains mute as an interpreter of his main figure," that is: as a biographer, he does not take a stance on his object, then it raises a value judgment that would be devastating for any biographer of Bismarck or Hitler.

The life of a citoyen

A good biographer should never just add up the life he describes on the basis of its chronological episodes, he should organize it first and foremost as his own narrative. At times refining, at times delaying, at times anticipating, at times flashing back. Now, one cannot reinvent a Habermas life, nor will one recount it against the grain in terms of its immense importance for the intellectual development of the Federal Republic of Germany.

On the one hand, there is the career of the internationally renowned philosopher: born in Gummersbach in 1929, Habermas studied in Gottingen, Zurich and Bonn. He wrote his doctoral thesis on the dichotomy in Schelling’s thought and became an assistant at the famous, remigrated Frankfurt Institute for Social Research in 1956; he later advanced to become the most important representative of critical theory after Horkheimer and Adorno.

Habermas’s studies, with which he also emancipated himself from the Frankfurt School, have all become proverbial; from "Structural Change in the Public Sphere" (1962) to "Cognition and Interest" (1968) to the "Theory of Communicative Action" (1981), they have written academic history.

On the other hand, this is the life of an intellectual who was involved in all the major debates of both the Bonn and Berlin republics – and continues to get involved to this day. From the confrontation with the Nazi past to the critical accompaniment of the student movement to anti-nationalist constitutional patriotism. In 1986 Habermas took sides in the Historikerstreit, at the end of the nineties he spoke out in the debate about the Holocaust memorial, since 2000 he has been increasingly active as a "European of reason" against the prevailing skepticism about Europe.

Habermas as a motor journalist

One of the merits of Muller-Doohm’s standard work is that it also illuminates less present facets of Habermas’s vita, such as the journalist. Although Habermas had even written this career goal into his curriculum vitae as a high school graduate, he de facto only dabbled in the profession in phases as long as there was no assistant position for him in Bonn after his doctorate.

Very nice is his article about "driving a car. Der Mensch am Lenkrad" (Man at the Steering Wheel) from 1954 – which was written after a personal joyride in an Opel to Portugal – seems almost visionary today, when driverless vehicles are discussed as the next big thing: "But what will happen when our half-automats of the road become more and more automatic," Habermas asks, "when the steering energies are shifted further and further to central instances?"?

With Heidegger against Heidegger

Far more decisive for the beginning of Habermas’ career as a public intellectual was, of course, the article in the "FAZ" of 25. July 1953, in which Habermas is outraged that philosopher Martin Heidegger is unapologetically publishing lectures from 1935:

"Can the planned murder of millions of people, which we all know about today, also be made understandable in terms of his history as a fateful madness? Is it not the noble task of the contemplative to clarify the responsible deeds of the past and to keep the knowledge of them alive?? – Instead, the mass of the population, led by those in charge, past and present, continues to rehabilitate. Instead, Heidegger publishes his words, now eighteen years old, about the greatness and inner truth of National Socialism. It seems time to think with Heidegger against Heidegger."

A Nazi textbook sensitized him early on

It is part of the standard repertoire of every scholar’s biography to mount statements from the writings to fit certain life episodes. Muller-Doohm justifies the Heidegger article with a quotation from Habermas’ writing "Politics, Art, Religion" from 1978: It is the "irritability that turns scholars into intellectuals".

The fact that Habermas, who was born with a cleft palate, was particularly sensitized to the ideology of the Nazi regime, which excluded and destroyed human beings, distinguishes him from his generation colleagues such as Martin Walser. Impressively, Muller-Doohm quotes – unfortunately only in the notes section – a letter from Habermas to Walser, in which Habermas remembers the biology textbook of their high school days at the same time: "In it there were, among other things, three photos that were supposed to vividly illustrate the hereditary diseases incriminated for reasons of public health: In addition to the illustration of a ‘lunatic’ and a clubfoot, that of a ‘wolf’s cleft,’ as cleft palate was called at the time."

Why Peter Handke once beat him

In addition to such passages, which also explain Habermas’s lifelong confrontation with Nazi barbarism in autobiographical terms, there are also almost anecdotal scenes in Muller-Doohm’s book. Peter Handke is said to have asked Habermas at a Suhrkamp reception in the seventies what he, Habermas, thought of the music of the Beatles. Habermas is said to have replied that he did not know the Beatles. Whereupon Handke is said to have maltreated him with punches.

But anecdotes in this book are like oases in the desert. They are rare. Now a scholar’s life per se may be ill-suited to generating cinematic narratives; the plot points of Habermas’ vita as the account of Muller Dohm are, no more, but also no less than his public interventions as citoyen.

Through Habermas’s role as a committed intellectual in the above-mentioned public debates, Muller-Doohm tells the story of the progressive intellectual self-assurance of the Federal Republic of Germany, as it were, across the board. But this achievement of the book is marred because Muller-Doohm lacks the intellectual distance to refrain from the sheer frenzy of detail at times.

If Muller-Doohm lacks the distance to the object?

Perhaps it is too much to ask of a scientist who went through the Frankfurt School, and even studied with Habermas himself, not only to show respect for his biographical object, but also to expose it to surprising or even unfamiliar perspectives. For there were no topics of debate where à la longue even the great thinker was wrong?

For example, what about Habermas’ assessment of the "movement against nuclear energy", which he still scolded as "populist" in 1978, in a conversation with Herbert Marcuse for Edition Suhrkamp?? Today it is German state reason.

Private in the prose of project proposals

One last shortcoming of this book: Muller-Doohm makes such a bookish job of the private sphere that one thinks one is reading about project proposals when Habermas’ partner is mentioned:

"Even during his first semesters at Bonn University, Jurgen Habermas had his am 6. He met his wife Ute, born in Ratingen in February 1930, where she studied history and German studies. They met . in the courses of the historian Richard Nurnberger. Female students were relatively rare at the time.

The male fellow students courted the female student, including Habermas, who invited her to go to the cinema. But it was only during a study trip on the occasion of a nationwide meeting of university theater groups that the two became more intensively friends. They shared an interest in modern art, film and literature and closely followed the political events of the day."

More passionate it may have been, but not for Muller-Doohm. His book offers a compelling citoyen – but unfortunately not a compellingly written biography.

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