My Heroes – Contemporary Philosophy: Jürgen Habermas

My hero in the category contemporary philosophy definitely had the largest number of competitors. Apparently, for me, this is the most important field of human activity. There is no human progress without the great philosophical thinkers. I employ a rather wide definition of who counts as a philosopher: those who contributed significantly to the larger picture of society and individual in terms of ontology, epistemology and ethics (the three core fields of philosophical inquiry). Same as in the music field, I have many idols and sources of inspiration, all of which could be candidates for the “my hero” award:

  • Among the famous “classical” philosophers: Arthur Schopenhauer and Friedrich Nietzsche, because their thinking is original and insightful. Interestingly, both were inspired by Eastern philosophy like Buddhism, and the attentive reader of their works will notice that!
  • The phenomenologists Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger, because they contributed significantly to the foundations of my favourite philosophical position, constructivism.
  • The great American pragmatist and constructivist John Dewey, probably the best that ever came out of USA.
  • Ludwig Wittgenstein for his clarifications on language and how it impacts our life.
  • Psychologist, philosopher and member of the Frankfurt school Erich Fromm, because his well-founded social criticism as expressed in “Having or Being” convinced me as a teenager and increased my interest in social philosophy and socio-cultural anthropology (here, I don’t mean the biological-archaeological direction of it).
  • Sociologist Niklas Luhmann, because he did ground-breaking work in the field of social theory.
  • John Rawls (after Dewey the second great US-American) for his incredibly convincing theory of justice with its veil of ignorance as the major tool in contractualism as an ethical theory.
  • Vienna-based philosopher Friedrich Wallner for his Constructive Realism as an epistemological model and “middle way” between scientific realism and relativistic empiricism.

Now, what happens when we take all these loose ends and tie them together in one philosophical figure? We end up at Jürgen Habermas!

juergen-habermas

Born in 1929 in Düsseldorf, Germany, he became one of the most influential philosophers of our time, mostly known and awarded for his contributions to critical theory and pragmatism. His academic interests and fields of inquiry cover a wide range. Anyhow, two major strands can be identified: socio-political issues (deliberative democracy, social theory), and elaborations on rationality, communication and knowledge. In the former field, his system-lifeworld distinction serves as a theoretical framework for constructive realism, and he added many missing links to Luhmann’s theory. More importantly (for me), in the latter field, he explicated the concept of communicative rationality in great detail so that it could serve as a basis for discourse ethics as an own-standing ethical theory (together with, but more convincing than, Karl-Otto Apel). It is certainly not an exaggeration to state that his ideas advanced my own academic field – technology assessment and S&T ethics – significantly. When today we have established efficient arenas of pragmatic discourse on scientific and technological progress as constructive input for S&T governance and policy-making, it is mostly thanks to Habermas’ achievements concerning ideal discourse, deliberative and participative democracy and a much clearer view on the relation between social systems and the cultural lifeworlds they are embedded in.

Jürgen Habermas is still active as a public commenter and intellectual mastermind. Find a list of his major works and a summary of his achievements and insights in this article by James Bohman and William Rehg on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, and a list of his awards and prizes on Wikipedia.

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My Heroes – Politics: Nelson Mandela

Apparently, this “my heroes” thing is a series of posts. To disclose the secret: It will be seven, altogether. There won’t be a category “sports”, because I am not much interested in sports. For the same reason, there won’t be actors, cartoon characters or PC and smartphone inventors. I am also not much interested in politics. However, when reflecting on who impressed me positively and who is an outstanding historical figure with inspiring and idol-like vita, the name Nelson Mandela always comes to my mind.

Nelson Mandela

I believe there is no need to introduce him. He might be one of the most famous political leaders in contemporary history. After years in prison, as president of South Africa, he contributed a lot to overcoming the long grown hatred and racism (“Apartheid”) that split the population. Awarded with a Nobel Prize of Peace in 1993, internationally respected and admired, he was honoured with very special tributes after his death in 2013. If you want to learn more about him, watch the movie “Invictus“.

What makes him so special? I believe it is, above all, two things: His impressive capability of forgiveness, and his farsightedness in overcoming hatred and ideological division. They are best captured in a statement made by him on his release from prison:

As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.

He would have had many reasons to hate his suppressors, tormentors and humiliators. But he didn’t! His only concern was “to build the nation” (of South Africa). To realise this vision, as he knew, it would be absolutely crucial to break the vicious cycle of hatred, resentments and revenge. He embodied many characteristic virtues of Buddhism, I think: Forgiveness, not being attached to the past, not giving in to “the dark side” of aggression and bitterness. He famously cited William Ernest Henley’s poem “Invictus”: “I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul!”. This also became one of my mottos. We become who we cultivate ourselves to be. We create karmic potential with everything we do, so we better reflect mindfully on what we do, what effect it would have and which of the options we may choose from is best in line with our values and visions. Mandela was a very wise man! He knew that his goal of a unified nation would only be realisable when the circle would be broken. By this, he mastered his fate, and – at least for his era – the fate of his nation.