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Philosophizing about Europe's Rebirth

June 3, 2003

Influential German philosopher Jürgen Habermas called for European renewal in an essay published in Germany and France over the weekend, and numerous other prominent European thinkers followed suit.

Jürgen Habermas is one of the most influential contemporary thinkers.Image: AP

Ever since the bitterness surrounding the U.S.-led war in Iraq manifested itself, Europe has been plagued with an identity crisis. U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld only managed to further exacerbate the dilemma when he spoke of an "old" and "new" Europe, separating the continent into the proponents and opponents of the war.

Leading European intellectuals, spear-headed by German philosopher and social theorist Jürgen Habermas and his French colleague Jacques Derrida, joined the bandwagon on Saturday, intimating their thoughts about European identity and the need for a common European foreign policy in newspapers across the continent.

Habermas and Derrida have brought together some of Europe's most distinguished thinkers in an initiative that ensures Europe's intellectuals take part in designing Europe's future. Italian philosopher and novelist Umberto Eco, Swiss author and president of the German Academy of Arts Adolf Muschg, Spanish philosopher Fernando Savater and Italian philosopher Gianni Vattimo have laid out their ideas on the issues. American philosopher Richard Rorty has also provided his two cents in a response to Habermas' article in the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper.

In an essay written by Habermas, co-signed by Derrida and published in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) newspaper on Saturday, the two philosophers called on the "avant-garde" core of European states to return to European enlightenment values.

Habermas and Derrida said their essay was a response to the "Letter of Eight," in which eight European countries, led by Great Britain and Spain, published an open declaration supporting the U.S. stance on Iraq in late January.

"We should not forget two dates," Habermas wrote, "not the day on which the newspapers communicated to their dumbfounded readers the oath of loyalty to Bush that the Spanish prime minister had extended to the pro-war European governments behind the backs of their EU colleagues; but just as little so February 15, 2003, when the demonstrating masses in London and Rome, Madrid and Barcelona, Berlin and Paris reacted to this coup." Habermas said that the European demonstrations against a war in Iraq would go down in history as a "signal for the birth of a European public."

European is…

Habermas identified five attributes he said Europeans share: the neutrality of authority, embodied in the separation of church and state, trust in politics rather than the capitalist market, an ethos of solidarity in the fight for social justice, high esteem for international law and the rights of the individual and support for the organizational and leading role of the state.

Germany's thinker de rigueur wrote that Europe's core states could put an end to Europe's stagnancy, sooner or later drawing in the remaining states which would be unable to resist. Separatism, however, had to be avoided. "The avant-garde core Europe cannot consolidate into a miniature Europe but, as so often, must be the locomotive."

Habermas intends to continue the debate, the FAZ wrote, by provoking other prominent thinkers to take part in the pages of Europe's newspapers.

Germany's intellectual spokesman

The 73-year-old Habermas is one of Germany's most significant and influential contemporary philosophers. He is a leading representative of the "Frankfurt School" that developed at the Institute for Social Research founded in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1923. It introduced a style of analysis known as critical theory, which draws on the ideas of German political philosopher Karl Marx in its studies of the sources of domination and authority in society that restrict human freedom. Habermas' works have been translated into over 20 languages and figure among the classics of contemporary philosophy.

In an essay he published in the FAZ in mid-April, Habermas condemned the war in Iraq, saying it violated international law.

Translations by Nancy Isenson