Saturday, June 2, 2018

Interview with Jürgen Habermas: “for God’s sake, spare us governing philosophers!”

Himself the author of important works concerning sociological and political science in the 20th century, Habermas talks to EL PAÍS about the issues that have concerned him for the last 60 years. His posture is rigid, his handshake firm and, despite his grandfatherly aspect emphasized by a mane of white hair, he is angry. “Yes,” he says. “I’m still angry about some of the things that are happening in the world. That’s not a bad thing, is it?”

I am of the antiquated opinion that philosophy should continue to try answering the questions of Kant: What can I know? What should I know? What can I expect? What is it to be human? However, I’m not sure that philosophy as we know it has a future. Currently, it follows the trend of increasing specialization, like all disciplines. And that’s a dead-end street because philosophy should try to explain the whole, to contribute to the rational explanation of our way of understanding ourselves and the world.

Question. There is a lot of talk about the decadence of the committed intellectual. But do you think it’s fair to say that this topic of conversation rarely goes beyond the intellectual sphere?
Answer. Based on the French model – from Zola to Sartre and Bourdieu, the public sphere is crucial to the intellectual, though its fragile structure is undergoing an accelerated process of decay. The nostalgic question, ‘Where have all the intellectuals gone?’ misses the point. You can’t have committed intellectuals if you don’t have the readers to address the ideas to.

Q. Has the internet diluted the public sphere that supported the traditional media, which has, in turn, adversely affected philosophers and thinkers?
A. Yes. Since Heinrich Heine, the figure of the intellectual has gained in status along with the classical configuration of the liberal public sphere. However, that depends on implausible social and cultural assumptions, mainly the existence of alert journalism, with newspapers of reference and mass media capable of directing the interest of the majority toward topics that are relevant to the formation of political opinion; and also the existence of a reading population that is interested in politics, educated, accustomed to the conflictive process of forming opinions, and which takes the time to read quality, independent press.

Nowadays, this infrastructure is no longer intact, although as far as I know it still exists in countries such as Spain, France and Germany. But even there, the splintering effect of internet has changed the role of traditional media, particularly for the younger generations. Even before the centrifugal and atomic tendencies of the new media came into force, the commercialization of public attention had already triggered the disintegration of the public sphere. An example is the US and its exclusive use of private TV channels. Now, new means of communication have a much more insidious model of commercialization in which the goal is not explicitly the consumer’s attention, but the economic exploitation of the user’s private profile. They rob customers’ personal data without their knowledge in order to manipulate them more effectively, at times even with perverse political ends, as in the recent Facebook scandal.

Q. Despite its obvious advantages, do you think the internet is encouraging a new kind of illiteracy?

A. You mean the aggressive controversies, the bubbles and Donald Trump’s lies in his tweets? You can’t even say that this individual is below the political cultural level of his country. Trump is permanently destroying that level. From the time the printed page was invented, turning everyone into a potential reader, it took centuries until the entire population could read. Internet is turning us all into potential authors and it’s only a couple of decades old. Perhaps with time we will learn to manage the social networks in a civilized manner. Internet has already opened up millions of useful niches of subcultures where trustworthy information and sound opinions are being exchanged. – not just the scientific blogs whose academic work is amplified by this means, but also, for example, [forums] for patients who suffer a rare disease and can now get in touch with others in the same situation on another continent to share advice and experience. 

There are undoubtedly great communication benefits and not just for increasing the speed of stock trading and speculation. I am too old to judge the cultural impulse that the new media is giving birth to. But it annoys me that it’s the first media revolution in the history of mankind to first and foremost serve economic as opposed to cultural ends... read more: