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Eminent Social Theorist Speaks

By Molly Hennessy-fiske, CRIMSON STAFF WRITER

While high-profile politicians such as Jiang Zemin may attract mobs when appearing on campus, philosophers and theorists usually speak in secluded spots.

But when philosopher Jurgen Habermas walks into a room, the crowd parts.

At least, that's what happened when the University of Frankfurt's Professor of Philosophy and Sociology arrived to speak to a select group of about 50 students and Faculty at the Hilles Cinema yesterday afternoon.

"Everyone in the social studies department does see him as such a guru," said social studies concentrator Manisha Bharti '98.

"He has this following," she said. "I don't know if it's because he's alive or because everyone in social studies subscribes to his views."

Seats for the speech were lotteried and 20 students chosen at random to attend.

A native of Dusseldorf, Habermas is known as one of the more prominent second-generation members of the German Frankfurt School of social theory.

His first major work, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, was published in 1962. Since then, Habermas has developed his central theory of communicative action, a theory of social action based on discourse between individuals aiming to achieve a consensus of truth.

"It's always nice--and a bit narcissistic--to be asked about one's own developments," Habermas said after Professor of Government Seyla Benhabib concluded her opening remarks.

Benhabib and Assistant Professor of Government and Social Studies Pratap B. Mehta--who moderated the event--opened discussion with several questions concerning Habermas's theory of communicative action as a cooperative movement in relation to human rights.

"What you have to do is reinterpret the classical principles of human rights and democracy in such a way that they become translatable into empirical terms," Habermas said, explaining that, "this is what [he] wanted to challenge by reforming and debating ideas of democracy."

Although he said he thinks nationalism essentially ended in Western Europe after World War II, he said that some movements, such as the Basque or Irish Republican uprisings, are extremely volatile.

"But there's nothing new about that," Habermas said. "There is economic disaster, a shift in political allegiances and sovereignties maintain order."

Students said they were pleased with the discussion that resulted from the question/answer period that followed Habermas's hour-long talk.

"He's certainly one of the greatest living intellectuals," said Derek G. Herbert '98. "His idea that nationalism is on the decline is something that piqued the interest of a lot of undergrads, especially with Jiang's visit coming up."

After the talk, Habermas attended a lunch hosted by the Committee outside of the Hilles Cinema and then proceeded to a symposium at the Center for European Studies. The symposium, "Dilemmas of European Citizenship in Contemporary Perspective," ran from 2 to 7 p.m.

"It was a little bit unfortunate that all the questions were [asked] by professors or social studies lecturers," Herbert said. "But at the lunch [Habermas] did come sit with us [students] and discuss the points he made in the discussion."

But Bharti praised the Committee for bringing Habermas to campus and encouraged them to sponsor more such talks.

"It's interesting that more speakers are coming. I don't know if it's a reflection of Professor Benhahbib, but the conversations are great," Bharti said.

"Unfortunately, they can't bring Freud back and get him to talk, but the talks are a great idea and they should continue," she added.

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