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  • Print publication year: 2012
  • Online publication date: September 2014

12 - Jürgen Habermas (b. 1929)


Life and Work

Philosopher, sociologist, and political theorist Jürgen Habermas is the most distinguished German intellectual currently alive, and one of the world's leading thinkers. Combining genuine philosophical depth with penetrating social analysis, his work draws inspiration from a wide variety of sources, including Marxism and neo-Marxist kritische Theorie, post-Wittgensteinian linguistic philosophy, and the sociological tradition since Émile Durkheim (1858–1917) and Max Weber (1864–1920).

Habermas was born in Düsseldorf on 18 June 1929 and brought up within a bourgeois Protestant family in Gummersbach, near Cologne, where his father chaired the local Chamber of Commerce. In the phrase of former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl (b. 1930), Habermas enjoyed the “blessing of late birth” (Gnade der späten Geburt), which meant that — unlike the leading German novelist Günter Grass (b. 1927), for example — he was just young enough not to be directly caught up in fighting the Second World War. A member of the boys’ branch of the Hitler Youth, the Jungvolk, from 1939 until 1943, he served for the remainder of the war as a medical orderly so as to escape the Hitler Youth proper. He had no personal experience of the interwar Weimar Republic with its frustrated democratic ambitions, and his formative political experience was the Nuremberg Trials, which confirmed for him the bankruptcy of Nazism and the fragility of liberal democracy. He completed his schooling in 1949, just as the West German state was being founded, and spent the next five years studying at the universities of Göttingen (1949–50), Zurich (1950–51), and finally Bonn (1951–54), the capital of the new Federal Republic. He was awarded his doctorate in philosophy in 1954 with a dissertation on F. W. J. Schelling, Das Absolute und die Geschichte: Von der Zwiespältigkeit in Schellings Denken.