Internet and Public Sphere
What the Web Can’t Do
Jürgen Habermas interviewed by Markus Schwering 24 July 2014

M.S. Mr. Habermas, have celebrated  your eighty-fifth birthday. At your age, what does “living the present” mean? What thread connects you to the world of your children and grandchildren?

J.H. Are you thinking of any “passion for the present”? Yes, I always follow political developments passionately. On the other hand, seeing one’s own generation crushed on the past has a similar effect to a “flaying”. Yesterday, I received the first copy my biographies written by Stefan Müller-Doohm [1]. Although the author, for whom I have the upmost esteem, would never give me a reason to be, I am quite scared of facing this book. As for my sons, who are already grown, I get the impression that on the whole they share the same political and intellectual ideas as their parents. But my grandchildren already seem to be living in another era…

M.S. In retrospect, what have been the most important experiences to guide you on the intellectual and practical spheres?

J.H. The intellectual experiences can easily be led back to specific people. I met my first philosopher in the figure of Karl-Otto Apel, who was my mentor at first and then a friend. The extraordinary privilege of working with Adorno enabled me to glimpse a way of thinking that is at once enlightening and fascinating. Both Wolfgang Abendroth and Hans-Georg Gadamer have also been kind of like ultimate academic masters. After that, I was able to learn from a whole generation of “peers” on this side and that side of the Atlantic. Most of all, I had the fortune of meeting brilliant collaborators who assisted me along the way and through all of the twists and turns of my thinking. All summed up these have been my intellectual stimuli. Yet, you also ask me about my experiences on a more “practical level”. Anyone with children who has been married for sixty years, knows that there are much more important things than intellectual stimuli.

M.S. You became instantly famous with your licentiate text Strukturwandel der Öffentlichkeit (1961)[2]. The empirical frame of reference has changed dramatically today. The public sphere has been radically transformed by new mass-media. How would you set up this task today? How could we apply that emphatic and normatively impregnated concept of a democratic “public sphere” to current circumstances, a concept to which you never ceased to remain faithful to?

J.H. Today we see how, even in the West, democratic procedures and institutions can reduce themselves to empty facades if they lose a functional public sphere. Inversely, the functioning of public spheres always presupposes demanding normative conditions. In fact, public communication circuits shouldn’t be cut out of actual decision-making processes. In Europe, even the political crisis of recent years has taught us a lot about these two aspects of the problem.

M.S. Is internet beneficial or unbeneficial for democracy?

J.H. It is neither one nor the other. After the inventions of writing and printing, digital communication represents the third great innovation on the media plane. With their introduction, these three media forms have enabled an ever growing number of people to access an ever growing mass of information. These are made to be increasingly lasting, more easily. With the last step represented by Internet we are confronted with a sort of “activation” in which readers themselves become authors. Yet, this in itself does not automatically result in progress on the level of the public sphere. Throughout the nineteenth-century – with the aid of books and mass newspapers – we witnessed the birth of national public spheres where the attention of an undefined number of people could simultaneously apply itself to the same identical problems. This however, did not depend on the technical level with which facts were multiplied, accelerated, rendered lasting. At heart, these are the same centrifugal movements that still occur today in the web. Rather, the classical public sphere stemmed from the fact that the attention of an anonymous public was “concentrated” on a few politically important questions that had to be regulated. This is what the web does not know how to produce. On the contrary, the web actually distracts and dispels. Think about, for example, the thousand portals that are born every day: for stamp collectors, for scholars of European constitutional law, for support groups of ex-alcoholics. In the mare magnum of digital noises these communicative communities are like dispersed archipelagos: there are billions of them. What these communicative spaces (closed in themselves) are lacking is an inclusive bind, the inclusive force of a public sphere highlighting what things are actually important. In order to create this “concentration”, it is first necessary to know how to choose – know and comment on – relevant contributions, information and issues. In short, even in the mare magnum of digital noise, the skills of good old journalism – as necessary today as they were yesterday – should not be lost.

M.S. With Zwischen Faktizität und Geltung (1992)[3] you provided the liberal-democratic state with a massive base of legitimacy. How would you respond if somebody brought it to your attention that: Thanks to Habermas democracy has won on the plane of ideas, but the problem of it winning in reality still remains?

J.H. I would say: a slogan poisoned in a friendly way. I simply illustrated one of the possible models of democracy and I did so in a purely reconstructive sense, without having to sound the trumpet of utopianism. My reconstruction is based on pragmatic premises that citizens inevitably adhere to every time they a) go to vote, b) bring a case to court, c) oppose themselves to the dismantling of the welfare state. When these normative premises (again: that every vote in the ballot box is equal in worth, that judges are impartial, that governments carry through programmes for which they were elected) are systematically violated, then the practices which rely on them collapse. Or, such practices are emptied from within via the cynical approach of those in government and/or by the silent apathy of citizens.

M.S. In some recent critiques, directed more towards Hannah Arendt than Carl Schmitt, it was also argued that your deliberative model – channelled in a discursive sense – misses its objective to the extent that it strives to reconstruct the Political as an abstract scientific-knowledge process, where this is actually more like a violent fight to obtain and maintain power. What is your response to these critiques?

J.H. In a pluralistic society the democratic process is the only source to produce decisions, which are recognised as legitimate. On the one hand, this process ensures inclusion (that is to say the participation of all citizens), on the other, deliberation (for example election campaigns and parliamentary debates, on the basis of what the electorate and legislators decide to choose). Specifically due to this element of public debate – a debate that has to occur before going to vote – the result of political elections (dividing power between rival parties) is something different from mere opinion polls. This does not have much to do with processes of scientific knowledge, as it does with the expectation that political problems can be met with the most rational solution possible. This “expectation of rationality” actually requires that – in formulating significant proposals – reliable information and good reasons are publically laid down on the table. In this process, normative reasons frequently play a more important role than actual empirical data, or, expert analyses. In any case they always have to be reasons that are capable of “quantifying”. This cognitive dimension of the formation of will (both of citizens and of politicians[4]) assumes an even greater importance when the horizon of uncertainty, in which we have to make decisions, grows.

M.S. A big theme you are passionate about is Europe and its democratic unification. At a seminar in Princeton [5], you recently proposed modifying the European constitution in the direction of transforming the Council of Ministers into a representation of single states, thus making it a second legislative “leg” alongside the European parliament. It was instantly objected that the European project seeks to overcome old statist divisions and therefore shouldn’t solidify or fix their survival in a “house of states”, an organ of legislative power. How do you respond to this critique?

J.H. This critique does not take the current political situation into consideration. Even the conflict on Juncker’s nomination demonstrated where the real problem actually lies. In Europe today, heads of government have the same semi constitutional role, once carried out by the sovereign of the old German Reich. It is necessary to identify what quota of power heads of government should transfer to parliament, so as to reduce that democratic deficit that is screaming for revenge. Compared to a transnational democracy, without any characteristic of statehood, the U.S. Federal system is not what we have to imitate. Rather, the Parliament should be equated to a Council intended as the place of state representation. In order to harmonise these two legislative institutions it is necessary to institute procedures. The clash to install the President of the Commission underlines how, an organic party system is still lacking at the European level, where – in putting forth their candidates – the latter can move in line with the Council from the onset.

M.S. Let’s move on to separatist tendencies in Ukraine, Scotland, Belgium etc. Why have you bitterly criticised this separatism on several occasions? Czechia and Slovakia both demonstrate that it is possible to separate without too much difficulty. From a historical perspective, secession is only a different form of nation-building. Why should we exclude it from the normative point of view?

J.H. The nation intended as a sacred principle was definitively overcome at Versailles at the end of the First World War. Instead of promoting peace it has always stirred up new conflicts. The reason for this is obvious: no population is ethnically homogeneous. Tracing new borders, simply means, reproducing relations of majority and minority in an inverse fashion. When Genscher recognised Croatia as a new sovereign state, thereby contributing to the disintegration of former Yugoslavia, he did nothing more than open the door to the most ferocious massacres in Europe after the Second World War. The same mistake was repeated with Kosovo. This is a result of the long shadow that nineteenth-century nationalism has cast on the twentieth-century. And, now we are witnessing the resurgence of nationalistic spectres in the heart of the European Union, which is not even capable of putting a halt on the Hungarian authoritarianism of an Orban.

M.S. In your book published last year, In the Riptide of Technocracy, you severely attacked Merkel’s European policy. Thus, in your work, you envisaged aiding the SPD’s election campaign. Now, however, with the Socialists in government, German policy with regards to Europe continues more or less as before. Have you changed your opinion? Do you feel disappointed?

J.H. The SPD let itself be dragged into the coalition. It never wanted to contradict Merkel on this issue. Now, however it will be forced to do so, if it doesn’t want to betray its European candidate Martin Schulz.

M.S. In the meantime many debtor states are about to leave the umbrella of protection. Perhaps Merkel’s policy was not actually as bad as it was made out to be?

J.H. In reality, structural imbalances of national economies are continuing to grow in the Eurozone. Nor can we continue with that policy of “internal devaluation” which, in countries hit by the recession, was paid off by sacrificing the most disadvantaged groups: young generations, social welfare benefits and infrastructure. If we were to continue to do so, right-wing populism would get stronger, conflicts between populations would become more radical, anti-German sentiment would grow. Merkel is scared of speaking this simple truth to her electors, and therefore gives them watered-down wine. The error of founding a monetary community without political control was a mistake made in “several liability” by all of the States involved. Now, us Germans would like to protect ourselves from the obligation of dealing with the consequences.

M.S. What gives you the strength to not react to what your teacher Adorno called “the bad course of the world” in a defeatist manner?

J.H. Hegel put absolute spirit on the table against the bad course of the world, there where Adorno contrasted desperation by seeking recourse with a messianic light – in a counterfactual way. In fact, he could only denounce the negativity of existence from within the cone of this illumination. I feel quite close to Kant’s position, to whom Adorno rightly attributed the motive entitled “inconceivability of desperation”.

M.S. It has been rumoured that you are working on a grand work on philosophy of religion, of which the prolegomenons have already appeared [6]. What is your new interest in religion due to? Is it perhaps the irritating experience for which, against all expectations, not only has religion not been neutralised by secularisation of modernity, but actually appears to be reviving in new and often worrying forms?

J.H. If we place the adoption of language – as a mechanism of communication – at the centre of evolution, it becomes likely to assume that processes of socialisation, for a constitutively antisocial species should be passed through a strong tension between spirit and motivation. It is apparent that the “religious complex” was what kept together and stabilised first communities, shielding them from inner tensions. From the start, classics of Sociology identified the source of normative conscience and social solidarity in myths and rituals. I am currently linking this interest of sociologists to the Hegelian premise according to which, many concepts of practical philosophy – despite having Greek names – are substantially the fruit of a secular process of assimilation and semantic translation born from the Judeo-Christian tradition. If we think of writers such as Bloch and Benjamin, Buber, Levinas and Derrida, we can see that this assimilation is not yet complete. For a post-metaphysical line of thought concerning itself with normative resources in a global society derailed by capitalism, all of this could be an occasion to finally embark on a change in perspective. Instead of exclusively focusing on the sciences, philosophy should be able to put itself in relation with religious traditions that remain crucial. However, I do not want to be misunderstood. I am by no means proposing that post-metaphysical thought should renounce its secular self-understanding, but rather, extend this self-understanding in a bifocal direction.

M.S. What is your judgement on the state of philosophy today? In Germany what was once called popular philosophy – talk-show philosophy – is ever more fashionable. I am thinking of personalities such as Safranski, Sloterdijk, and Precht. Is this a good or bad thing?

J.H. Well, the names you cited are not the real representatives of German philosophy. Today, philosophy is an academic-scientific profession like all others. It only distinguishes itself from other disciplines in that, as unattached thought, it does not have a “method” nor an “object” that can be predefined a priori. Personally, I am too old to attempt to give a comprehensive judgement on the current state of the discipline. I can, however, tell you what has been my experience. My generation was able to instil interest and gain recognition from American, French, and even English colleagues only in the measure that – in dealing with several issues – we were capable of highlighting the strength of our tradition. This was done by analytically and systemically adhering to sources such as Kant, Hegel and Marx. I am daring to make this recommendation with the hope of not exposing myself to accusations of provincialism.

M.S. You always drew from ancient philosophers who went to the agora and exercised the public use of reason. On the other hand, you also have a reputation for being a complex philosopher, and your texts are difficult to the extent that they cannot be easily understood. Is there a contradiction here?

J.H. Okay. Readers of this interview will agree with you instantly. But you see, reaching a wider public was never an objective for me. I don’t even go on television. My world is that of the university. It is true that I give too many interviews and I write newspaper articles, but editors should be primarily blamed for these weaknesses of mine. What I aim for is not to have a vast readership but to circulate specific ideas.

M.S. A personal question: has it ever happened to you – as Eduard Mörike wrote in Wintermorgens vor Sonnenaufgang – to wake up in the morning and suddenly think, as it were a nightmare, that all you have thought or written so far has been wrong? If you have really experienced something similar, how do you deal with this existential insecurity?

J.H. Es ist ein Augenblick/ Und alles wird verwehen. [“In an instant/ Everything seems to disappear”]. As you can see, I went looking for poem and verse, which you are referring to. Alas, I must disappoint you. Before the last awakening I don’t slip into the fantastical and charming world that Mörike describes. Rather, I fall into a vortex of anxious thoughts. Therefore my insecurity could be much deeper. If, however, we want to give your question a less dramatic meaning, and simply put it in relation to my academic work, then I will give you a pragmatic answer. It is natural that every single statement that I have written down could be wrong. Yet, in reality you say: “all that you have ever thought or written”. Thus, you refer to the summation of all underlying certainties. Indeed, as philosophers, we always think within a unifying backdrop and context that supports us. Fortunately, this context can always reveal itself as wrong when we make a particular element stand out. Like scree, this intuitively present background slides and moves with us whenever we correct ourselves or go through learning processes. However, this aggregate of underlying certainties can never be considered wrong, in that it can never be made the subject of falsifiable statements, as a whole.

Interview published in the “Feuilleton” of the “Frankfurter Rundschau” of 14/15 June 2014. Questions by Markus Schwerin. Original title: “Im Sog der Gedanken”[7].

English translation by Maria Bottigliero.


[1][S. Müller-Doohm, Jürgen Habermas. Eine Biografie, Berlin 2014 – out in June for the philosopher’s 85th birthday, translator’s note].

[2][ Storia e critica dell’opinione pubblica, Roma-Bari 2002, translator’s note.].

[3][ Fatti e norme, Milano 1996, new edition Roma-Bari 2013, translator’s note].

[4][ Far from being subjective preferences and prejudicial options, for Habermas even normative reasons and decisions have a fundamental cognitive value, translator’s note].

[5][Habermas’s American conference was translated with the title, “For a transnational democracy”, on Micromega 3/2014, pp. 12-27; on reactions to this conference in America cf. Patrick Bahners, “Demokratie kommt ohne Völker aus”, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung of 7 May 2014. Translator’s note].

[6][On the big unpublished work, cf. E. Mendieta, Religion in Habermas’s Work, in C. Calhoun, E. Mendieta, J. VanAntwerpen, a Ed., Habermas and Religion, Polity Press, Cambridge UK, pp. 405-406. The above cited prolegomenons are collected essays in Habermas’s last great work Nachmetaphysisches Denken II, Suhrkamp, Berlin 2012 (currently being translated by Laterza), translator’s note].

[7][Allusion to the title of Habermas’s last work: In the Riptide of Technocracy, Roma-Bari 2014, translator’s note].



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