Apart from a summer semester in Zurich, I studied in Göttingen and Bonn between 1949 and 1954. As far as my areas of study were concerned, there was an almost unbroken continuity of subject-matter and personnel stretching back through the Nazi period to the Weimar Republic. It is not at all the case that the German universities were opened up to outside influences immediately after the War. Thus, from the academic stand-point, I grew up in a provincial German context, in the world of German philosophy, in the form of a declining Neo-Kantianism, of the German Historical School, of phenomenology, and also philosophical anthropology. The most powerful systematic impulse came from the early Heidegger. As students we were familiar with Sartre and French existentialism, perhaps also a few works of American cultural anthropology. While working on my dissertation on Schelling I naturally read the young Marx. Löwith’s From Hegel to Nietzsche encouraged me to read the young Hegelians; Lukács’s History and Class Consciousness also made a strong impression on me. These first intrusions of ‘left-wing literature’ did have the result that I rounded out my dissertation, which was strongly influenced by Heidegger, with an introduction setting late German Idealism in relation to Marx. Directly after my studies I became familiar with industrial sociology. I was then given a grant to do work on the concept of ideology—this gave me the chance to penetrate somewhat deeper into Hegelian Marxism and the sociology of knowledge, and I also read Adorno’s Prisms and the Dialectic of Enlightenment. In Frankfurt, from 1956 in other words, Bloch and Benjamin were added, along with a few articles from the Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung, Marcuse’s books, and a discussion—which was very lively at the time—around the so-called philosophical and anthropological Marx. A little later I tackled Das Kapital seriously, and in this connection I also read Dobb, Sweezy and Baran. I also learned sociology in these early Frankfurt years; above all I read empirical things on mass communications, political socialization, political sociology. At this point I first came into contact with Durkheim, Weber, and very cautiously with Parsons. More important than this were the Freud Lectures in 1956—since hearing the international elite, from Alexander and Spitz to Erikson and Binswanger, I have considered psychoanalysis, despite all the dire predictions, as something to be taken seriously.
During these years as Adorno’s assistant, between 1956 and 1959, there evolved what later crystallized in the empirical investigations of Student und Politik, and in my first two books (Strukturwandel der Öffentlichkeit and Theory and Practice)—the attempt to continue the Hegelian and Weberian Marxism of the nineteen-twenties with other means. All this remained within the context of a very German tradition, or at least of one rooted in Germany—even though at the time, through my contact with Adorno and Horkheimer, and later with Abendroth and Mitscherlich, I lived with a sense of having grown into different, decisively broader horizons of experience, of having been freed from provincial narrowness and a naively idealistic world.
In Heidelberg, from 1961 on, Gadamer’s Truth and Method helped me to find my way back into academic philosophy. Hermeneutics interested me, on the one hand, in connection with questions of the logic of the social sciences, and on the other in comparison with the later philosophy of Wittgenstein. This was the period, therefore, of my first more intensive involvement with linguistic philosophy and analytical philosophy of science. Encouraged by my friend Apel, I also studied Peirce, as well as Mead and Dewey. From the outset I viewed American pragmatism as the third productive reply to Hegel, after Marx and Kierkegaard, as the radical-democratic branch of Young Hegelianism, so to speak. Ever since, I have relied on this American version of the philosophy of praxis when the problem arises of compensating for the weaknesses of Marxism with respect to democratic theory. This inclination was also the basis of my later friendship with Dick Bernstein. In any event, when I returned to Frankfurt to take up Horkheimer’s chair in 1964, I had a firm enough footing in Anglo-Saxon discussions to be able to distance myself from an overstrained concept of theory derived from Hegel.
In the mid-sixties Cicourel and ethnomethodology led me back to Schütz. At that time I viewed social phenomenology as a proto-sociology, carried out in the form of analyses of the life-world. This idea connected up with influences from another direction: I was fascinated both by Chomsky’s programme for a general theory of grammar, and by Austinian speech-act theory, as systematized by Searle. All this suggested the idea of a universal pragmatics, with the aid of which I wanted above all to deal with the awkward fact that the normative foundations of the critical theory of society were entirely unclarified. Having rejected the orthodoxy of the philosophy of history, I had no wish to lapse back either into ethical socialism, or into scientism, or indeed into both at once. This explains why I hardly read Althusser. In the second half of the sixties, thanks to collaboration with accomplished co-workers like Offe and Oevermann, I worked my way into specific areas of sociology, primarily socialization and family research on the one hand, political sociology on the other. In the process I got to know Parsons better. I was already reading Piaget and Kohlberg, but it was only at our Starnberg Institute, that is, after 1971, that I became an adherent of genetic structuralism. It was also here that I first began a more intensive study of Weber.
So you can see that from the outset my theoretical interests have been consistently determined by those philosophical and socio-theoretical problems which arise out of the movement of thought from Kant through to Marx. My intentions and fundamental convictions were given their stamp by Western Marxism in the mid-fifties, through a coming-to-terms with Lukács, Korsch and Bloch, Sartre and Merleau-Ponty, and of course with Horkheimer, Adorno and Marcuse. Everything else which I have made my own has only acquired its significance in connection with the project of a renewal of the theory of society grounded in this tradition.
The books which I published at the beginning of the sixties implicitly express the conviction that the things I wanted to do could be accommodated more or less within the inherited theoretical framework—in this respect I felt a special affinity with the existentialist, i.e. the Marcusean variant of Critical Theory. What is more, Herbert Marcuse, with whom I became friends in the nineteen-sixties, felt the same way. I still remember the day when he dedicated a copy of One Dimensional Man to me with a flattering quote from Benjamin—‘to the hope of those without hope’. However, the engagement with analytical philosophy, and also the positivist dispute, then reinforced my doubts about whether concepts of totality, of truth, and of theory derived from Hegel did not represent too heavy a mortgage for a theory of society which should also satisfy empirical claims. At that time, in Heidelberg and then back in Frankfurt, I believed that this problem was an epistemological one. I wanted to do away with it through a methodological clarification of the status of a doubly reflexive theory (reflexive with respect to its context of emergence and of application). The result was Knowledge and Human Interests, which was written between 1964 and 1968. I still consider the outlines of the argument developed in the book to be correct. But I no longer believe in epistemology as the via regia. The critical theory of society does not have to prove its credentials in the first instance in methodological terms; it needs a substantive foundation, which will lead out of the bottlenecks produced by the conceptual framework of the philosophy of consciousness, and overcome the paradigm of production, without abandoning the intentions of Western Marxism in the process. The result is The Theory of Communicative Action. In a brilliant article soon to be published in Britain,footnote1 Dick Bernstein expounds the particular problems which have forced me immanently to make repeated changes of position—away from ‘knowledge and human interests’ to ‘society and communicative rationality’.
What is your sense of the current intellectual conjuncture in the West? In ‘Does Philosophy Still Have a Purpose?’ you suggested that Germanic philosophical intensity and originality were migrating to the United States, while Europe relapsed into a placid ‘Swissification’.footnote2 Would you still hold to this judgement? More generally, most of your references in recent years have been along a German-American axis of comparison—as lately in your criticism of the different forms of neo-conservatism in the two countries. Is this due to biographical reasons, or does it express an underlying judgement about the predominance and relevance of these two cultures for the West as a whole in the late twentieth century? Would one be right in thinking that France and England, for example—central poles of reference in your treatment of bourgeois civilization in the 18th and 19th centuries in Strukturwandel —have lost salience in your subsequent work?