Story of a mesmerizing intellectual


Habermas: A Biography by Stefan Müller-Doohm, Polity, US $39.95, Pp 456, August 2016, ISBN 978-0745689067

Habermas has had a remarkable career. He has established a tremendous national and international reputation as a scholar with his monographs and collected essays, which have been translated into more than forty languages. As an author he found a responsive audience even beyond the academic world. With this in mind, one might conclude that Habermas’s biography is simply the story of his published work. In Habermas, Stefan Müller-Doohm says Habermas’s life is so fascinating precisely because it amounts to more than just a stack of learned books. He is someone who continually leaves the protective space of academia in order to assume the role of a participant in controversial debates and, in this way, seeks to influence the development of the national mentality in his home country. And, we must add, he is a great success in this. In that sense, the retracing of the events that formed Habermas’s life provides only the basso ostinato, so to speak, for what is actually the main interest of this biography: namely, to present a portrait of the entanglement of his main profession with his second occupation, of the interrelations between the development of a philosopher’s thought and the interventions of a public intellectual, as seen against the backdrop of contemporary events.

Habermas was born on June 18, 1929, in a Protestant family. His family was a product of petit bourgeois from his mother’s side and a lineage of civil servants from his father’s, who had climbed up the social ladder. Müller-Doohm shines the spotlight on Habermas’s life and on significant movements in his thought and forgoes the chimera of an authentic representation of the person, as in a portrait. Instead, distinct types of texts are at the center of this biographical study. To put it in simple terms: it is in the first instance about deeds and only in the second instance about the doer. Stefan Müller-Doohm reads the traces left by Habermas as an author in the widest possible sense: as a philosopher and as an example of those intellectuals who, as doers, advance the political process. Müller-Doohm writes, “This biography is structured by the interplay between philosophical reflections and intellectual interventions that characterizes Habermas’s activities. For the most part it avoids focusing exclusively on the individual, and it eschews speculation about what Habermas might have thought or ‘felt’ on this or that occasion. Rather, the aim is to present the interdependency of life and work within the historical context.”

Habermas is a biography of an accomplished living intellectual whose audience is extended much beyond the academic world. Stefan Müller-Doohm is a perfect storyteller and he tells the story of Habermas in such a way that you will not be able to put it down before you finish it. Nobody knows the art of biography better than Müller-Doohm. Reviewed by Kristine Q. Baker