Introductory summary by Ted Honderich of Jurgen Habermas’s Royal Institute of Philosophy Annual Lecture



            What is called continental philosophy, which is not all of the philosophy in continental Europe, is often distinguished from philosophy in the English language, often with at least the implication that one is at least superior. Maybe, despite diversity, it is safe to say that against what is called our analytic philosophy, continental philosophy is more concerned with human experience in the sense of lived lives, often more akin to reflective literature, perhaps more informed by both the history of philosophy and several other disciplines, and less affected by physical and other sciences.


            The attention paid to it in American and English universities is one fact that is relevant to the inclusion of Jurgen Habermas in the Royal Institute annual lectures. A larger justification is his achievement, the philosophy written. In terms of his long university life, he is best known for his leading role in an institute at Frankfurt university, an institute in a way Marxist in the past, one that continues to bring together philosophy with sociology, with what is probably better named social theory. In terms of his public life, Habermas is known for his liberal interventions in many German social and political controversies. He has been Germany's most eminent public intellectual.


            The lecture is in part an explanation of how claims to cultural rights have come about, this being their emergence from the history of religious tolerance. But it is in the main an assertion of and argument for these cultural rights, an argument depending on an analysis of their nature. These aims of the lecture are achieved in four stages, discursively and with reprises.


            (1) A distinction having been made between toleration and tolerance, behaviour and legality, consideration is given to Goethe's superiority to toleration on the ground that it involves a line drawn, not only an acceptance of behaviour on one side of the line but also a rejection of behaviour on the other side. A practice of tolerance includes intolerance. One part of Habermas's response is that what tolerance puts on the prohibited side must be defensible in that it is owed to reciprocity in the drawing of the line, not authoritarianism or worse but rather democracy and liberal co-existence.


            (2) Another part of the response to Goethe is the insistence that democracy must defend itself by drawing a line, perhaps including the outlawing of certain political parties. It must also defend against terrorism, now both politically ideological and fundamentalist in religion. But democracy must also pass a litmus test in accepting civil disobedience, and it must remember that 'enemies of the state' may be radical defenders of democracy.


            (3) In reflection on kinds of reasons in this whole area, there is consideration for example of the need not merely not to tolerate racism but to condemn it. There is the necessity of demanding of racists that they give up their racism, give up their their commitment to what is called an ethos and their denial of the liberal ethos.


            (4) Examples are given in a footnote of many claims presumably of cultural rights, claims made and disputed, one concerning Muslim calls to prayer by loudspeaker where churches are allowed to ring their bells. There is further reflection on the necessary neutrality of the state. This and what has gone before issues and culminates in an analysis or theory of the cultural rights we have been considering. They have to do at bottom with the maintaining and protecting of personal identity, and also collective identity. They are to be distinguished from the subject of distributive justice as it can be conceived. This value of identity itself is fundamental to the defence of cultural rights. It is to me a new thought, of great interest.


            Evidently philosophy can come together with other things. The resulting coalitions, no doubt, may make for gains, if gains at a price. Continental philosophy implicitly makes the case for particular wider concentration. The widening in the case of Habermas does indeed include kind of social and political theory, to very good effect.