The pensive man with the snow-white hair was the philosopher and social theorist Jürgen Habermas, who for more than six decades has played the part of gadfly in modern Germany, just as Socrates did in ancient Athens. Even at his ripe age—he is now 87—Habermas’s passion remains undiminished. As a public intellectual, however, he may seem an unlikely hero. We live in an age when what some of us still fondly call “the public sphere” has grown thick with personalities who prefer the TED Talk to the printed word and the tweet to the rigors of rational argument. For Habermas, it’s clear that without the constant exercise of public deliberation, democracy will collapse, and this means that citizens must be ready to submit their arguments to the acid bath of rational criticism. The debates that preceded the construction of the Holocaust Memorial brought bitter memories to the surface—the novelist Martin Walser complained of “a monumentalization of our disgrace”—but for Habermas, a willingness to engage productively in self-criticism is a prerequisite for democratic consciousness. National pride in the conventional sense leaves him cold: In an essay for Die Zeit, he responded to Walser, emphasizing that “anyone who views Auschwitz as ‘our shame’ is more interested in the image others have of us than in the image German citizens retrospectively form of themselves in view of the breakdown of civilization, in order to be able to look each other in the face and show each other respect.” Habermas argues instead for “constitutional patriotism,” a sense of loyalty to the principles and procedures of the modern democratic state.
The ideal that most animates Habermas is a belief in the possibility of a genuinely critical and self-reflexive form of modern consciousness that can serve as the groundwork for politics.