An Avantgardistic Instinct for Relevances: Intellectuals and their Public

Jürgen Habermas, Goethe University Frankfurt am Main

The roots of the egalitarian self-understanding of intellectuals in Germany extend back to the first generation after Goethe and Hegel. The restive literati and private lecturers from the circle of Young Germany and of the Left Hegelians nurtured both the image of free-floating, spontaneous, intensely polemi­cal, often maudlin, and unpredictable intellectuals and the prejudices against them which persist to this day. It is no accident that the generation of Feuerbach, Heine, and Börne, of Bruno Bauer, Max Stirner, and Julius Fröbel, of Marx, Engels, and Kierkegaard appeared on the scene before 1848, when parliamentarianism and the mass press were emerging under the auspices of early liberalism.

During this incubation period, as the virus of the French Revolution was spreading throughout Europe, the constellation in which the figure of the modern intellec­tual would find its place was already beginning to take shape. When intellectuals influence the formation of opinions through rhetorically pointed arguments, they depend on a responsive, alert, and informed public. They need a more or less liberal-minded public and must rely on a halfway functioning constitutional state, for the simple reason that they appeal to universalistic values in struggles for suppressed truths or withheld rights. They belong to a world in which politics is not synonymous with state action; their world is a political culture of con­testation in which the communicative freedoms of the citizens can be set free and mobilized.

It is easy to sketch the ideal type of an intellectual who seeks out important issues, proposes fruitful hypotheses, and broadens the spectrum of relevant arguments in an attempt to improve the lamentable level of public debates. On the other hand, I should not gloss over the favorite activity of intellectuals, namely their eagerness to join in the ritual lament over the decline of ‘the’ intellectual. I must confess that I am not completely free from this impulse myself.

How we miss the grand performances and manifestos of the Group 47, the interventions of Alexander Mitscherlich and Helmuth Gollwitzer, the political stances of Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and Pierre Bourdieu, the com­bative texts of Erich Fried and Günter Grass! Is it really Grass’s fault that his voice mostly meets with indifference today? Or is our media society once again undergoing a structural transformation of the public sphere which is inimical to intellectuals of the classical type?

On the one hand, the recalibration of communication from print and the press to television and the Internet has led to an unexpected expansion of the public sphere of the media and to an unparalleled expansion of communica­tions networks. The public sphere in which intellectuals moved like fish in water has become more inclusive, and the exchanges more intense than ever before. On the other hand, the intellectuals seem to be choking on this life-sustaining element like on an overdose. The blessing seems to be turning into a curse. In my view this is because the public sphere is becoming more informal and the corre­sponding roles are becoming blurred.

Internet use has led to an expansion and fragmentation of communications networks. Thus, although the Internet has a subversive effect on public spheres under authoritar­ian regimes, at the same time the horizontal and informal networking of communications diminishes the achieve­ments of traditional public spheres. For the latter pool the attention of an anonymous and dispersed public within political communities for selected messages, so that the citizens can address the same critically filtered issues and contributions at the same time. The price for the welcome increase in egalitarianism due to the Internet is a decen­tering of the modes of access to unedited inputs. In this medium, the contributions of intellectuals can no longer constitute a focal point.

However, the assertion that the electronic revolution is destroying the stage for the elitist performances of con­ceited intellectuals would be premature. For, if anything, television, which essentially operates within the national public arenas, has enlarged the stage for the press, maga­zines, and literature. However, television has also trans­formed this stage. It has to present its message in images and has accelerated the ‘iconic turn’ from word to image. This relative demotion also entails a shift in importance between two different functions of the public sphere. Because televi­sion is a medium which makes things visible, it confers celebrity in the form of fame on those who make public appearances. Whatever else they may contribute to the content of the program, those who appear before the camera are also presenting themselves. As a result, in casual encoun­ters the viewers remember that they have seen the face before. Even in the case of programs with a discursive content, television induces the participants to engage in self-promotion, as in the numerous talk shows. This element of self-promotion inevitably transforms the judging public – which takes part, before the television, in debates over issues of general interest – into a viewing public as well.

It is not as though this does not feed the pathological vanity of intellectuals, many of whom have allowed them­selves to be corrupted by the inducement of the medium to self-promotion, at the cost of their reputations. For the good reputation of an intellectual, assuming she has one, is not based primarily on celebrity or fame, but on a stand­ing which has to be acquired in her own field, whether as a writer or as a physicist, at any rate in some specialist field, before she makes a public use of her knowledge and reputation. When she contributes arguments to a debate, she must address a public composed, not of viewers, but of potential speakers and addressees who are able to offer each other justifications. This is, ideally, a matter of exchanging reasons, not of hogging the limelight through a carefully staged performance.

Perhaps this is why the groups of politicians, experts, and journalists invited by one of those fabulous talk-show hostesses do not leave any room to be filled by an intel­lectual. We don’t miss the intellectual because her role is already performed better by the other participants.

The blurring of the boundaries between discourse and self-promotion leads to a loss of differentiation and to an assimilation of the roles which the now old-fashioned intellectual had once to keep apart. She was not supposed to use the influence she had acquired through her words to gain power, and thus to confuse ‘influence’ with ‘power’. But, in the present-day talk-show landscape, what could still set her apart from politicians who have long used the television as a stage for an intellectual contest over the monopoly of influential issues and concepts? The intel­lectual was not in demand as an expert. She was supposed to have the courage to take normative stances and the imagination to adopt novel perspectives without losing an awareness of her own fallibility. But what could still set her apart from the experts, who have learnt long ago how to offer opinionated interpretations of their findings in debates with opposing experts?

What is ultimately supposed to distinguish intellectu­als from clever journalists is less the mode of presentation than the privilege of having to deal with public issues only as a sideline. They are supposed to speak out only when current events are threatening to spin out of control – but then promptly, as an early warning system.

With this we come to the sole ability which could still set intellectuals apart today, namely an avantgardistic instinct for relevances. They have to be able to get worked up about critical developments while others are still absorbed in business as usual. This calls for quite unheroic virtues:

  • a mistrustful sensitivity to damage to the normative infrastructure of the polity;
  • the anxious anticipation of threats to the mental resources of the shared political form of life;
  • the sense for what is lacking and ‘could be otherwise’;
  • a spark of imagination in conceiving of alternatives;
  • and a modicum of the courage required for polarizing, provoking, and pamphleteering.

That is – and always has been – more easily said than done. The intellectual should have the ability to get worked up – and yet should have sufficient political judgment not to overreact. What their critics – from Max Weber and Schumpeter to Gehlen and Schelsky – reproach them with is the persistent accusation of ‘sterile enthusiasm’ and ‘alarmism’. They should not let themselves be intimidated by this reproach.


[This essay is an extract from a longer essay in the author's recently translated volume Europe: The Faltering Project (Polity Press, 2009). The volume originally appeared in German in 2008 (Suhrkamp) and the essay itself in 2006 in the Blätter für deutsche und internationale Politik and, as the first version, in Der Standard. Reprinted with permission by Suhrkamp Verlag.---ed.]

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