A LESSON FROM HABERMAS

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Garske 3Mr. Joseph P Garske is a retired private investor. He is an invited contributing writer to the www.BusinessThinker.com He holds a bachelor degree in history from Harvard.

 

One of the most important public figures in our world today is Jurgen Habermas of the Frankfurt School in Germany. Though perhaps little known in the United States he wields immense influence in the affairs of Europe as well as around the world at-large.

In popular terms he would be called a philosopher, a kind of German counterpart to the late Michael Foucault of France. He continues to be one of the leading contributors in a realm of ideas where topics of law, politics and society converge.

In such a role, of course, there are differing opinions about the conclusions Dr. Habermas sets forth. Yet, all agree he is one of the most acute observers of our world as its makes a transition from the international to the global and from the modern to the postmodern.

Of particular relevance for Americans is his idea about the role of what he calls the public sphere and how the important influence of that sphere came to virtually disappear over time. More than that, he asserts that the absence of its influence amounts to a fundamental crisis in our era of democratic values.

Habermas introduces his notion of the public sphere as something that first arose within the coffee houses and fraternal lodges, the clubs and salons of eighteenth century Europe. In that type of hospitable atmosphere, which combined conviviality with privacy, important conversations concerning affairs of government took place.

Moreover, those discussions involved a true cross-section of life in both town and country.  There were farmers and merchants, lawyers, and doctors. There were stable pillars of the community and idealistic dreamers, the callow and the wise, the established and the aspiring.

In the custom of the time, however, questions of religion and politics were left outside the door. Those topics were viewed as being colored by personal bias, as giving rise to heated emotion, as being potentially fatal to friendship, and in any case by their very nature, irresolvable.

Instead, what was discussed were topics of more fundamental and more timeless importance: Should there be a government? If so, what type should it be? What role can the public play, and who will be excluded? Who should decide such questions?

This type of exchange often led to even deeper queries, for example, regarding the makeup of human nature, its capacity for reason—and susceptibility to passion. Should there be an overriding principle for human society, some larger purpose? Can religion play this role, or are its effects too divisive?  These topics were explored, not in partisan debate nor with academic detachment, but with a common desire to enlarge and to understand.

The tenor of such conversations and the atmosphere in which they occurred should not seem foreign or strange to Americans. After all, it was this very type of circumstance and deliberation that gave rise to their own government during that period. It was in such an atmosphere that the men we now call Founding Fathers were able to lay the foundation for a new nation.

Habermas says, however, that after the eighteenth century this public sphere, as he calls it, began to decline. By the end of the nineteenth century any such opportunity for community leaders and community members to engage in such discussions openly, safely and out of public scrutiny had almost disappeared.

The reasons for this decline were various and although the pattern in Europe was somewhat different from that in America, there were close parallels, as well. Most important was the rise of an intrusive and rapacious press. It posed a threat because of its need for controversy and sensation to satisfy commercial necessity.

A second problem seen by Habermas was the institutionalization of learning, especially in the modern university beginning in the nineteenth century. More and more the large human questions became obscured as they were parceled and divided into technical questions accessible only to professional scholars. Specialized language and theoretical constructions made those topics seem hopelessly opaque to persons outside that protected enclave.

Finally, in America, the isolation of the study of law formed another obstacle to civic discourse. The fundamental framework of the American system was a legal one, yet that topic had become inaccessible to outside scrutiny. Although the law school had come to be located on the university campus, it was exempt from the usual interplay between disciplines and free from normal standards of academic accountability.

In pointing out this declining influence of the public sphere Habermas was not proposing a return to the past, a return to the coffee house and fraternal order, the reading club and salon.  Nor was he advocating a bridle on the press and its capacity to probe and expose important issues. As an academic trained in both social theory and law, he did not oppose the mission of the university.

Nonetheless, he observed what he considered to be a serious challenge to the viability of modern democratic institutions. For him, the concern was whether answers to the underlying problems facing government today can be found in the glare and excitement of the popular media or in the divisive exchange of oppositional politics. He thought it may be necessary to step outside that loud and contentious arena to have a different kind of conversation, a reassessment.

For Americans there are fundamental questions about the condition of their government, questions that run deeper than the usual matter of candidates and elections. Those questions concern whether the structure of government has been rendered ineffectual. There are apprehensions about the very nature of the political process itself: Has the notion of the public good become an empty platitude? Has the thought of selfless public service become an unrealistic ideal?

There may be some comfort in the fact that Habermas found these problems to be not just  American or European, but endemic to the institutions that now exist in most democratic countries. Also, many have disagreed with his rather pessimistic appraisal of political conditions around the world.

But at least credit him and the Europeans. Over time they created a public venue and have encouraged wide participation in discussing such important topics. One result is that much of the world looks to Europe for new developments, new solutions to the fundamental problems of governance in a global and postmodern age.

In fact, similar questions are being addressed in America on a very high level in academic and legal forums. But the narrow range of participants and views may actually be symptomatic of the problem. Perhaps it is time to advance a new atmosphere in this country where many points of view can be offered by the wider public—not merely about candidates and issues, but to revisit those questions raised by the Founders. Perhaps it is time to re-establish the public sphere.

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