Jürgen Habermas and Charles Taylor will arrive at the Library of Congress next week to receive this year’s Kluge Prize. Dan Turello reflects.
For bibliophiles, meeting a new author on paper is like making a new friend in person. First impressions matter: how do they start a paragraph, is it slow or speedy, are there more words than needed, or fewer and more precise? Once past the initial encounter you begin the process of getting to know them. Here, too, there are similarities to the world off the page. Some authors you like to see every weekend; others less often. Others make a memorable impression, but once the initial conversation is completed, you’ve exhausted your commonalities and you go your separate ways.
Jürgen Habermas and Charles Taylor are most like the friends you want to see on a regular basis. They fit into any context. You can take them to the rowdy football stadium as easily as to the dinner party. You can introduce them to your great aunt from the country-side and to your big-city friends. In each case, you know they will add something appropriate to the dialogue: first and foremost, because they are good listeners; second, because they always contribute something enlightening, something that makes an impression and adds to everyone’s knowledge.
What does this extended metaphor mean in academic terms, in reference to their work and writing? Well, to begin with, it means everyone wants to footnote them. Their writing is unfailingly respectful and temperate, but never bland. And it’s tough to work in nearly any realm of modern intellectual history or political theory without referencing their writing in these areas. Indeed it would be difficult to find a graduate student in any humanities discipline, almost anywhere in the world, who hasn’t at least been exposed to Taylor’s canonical writing on the origins of the modern “self” or to Habermas’ defining lectures on the concept of “Modernity.”
Academia can be a fragmented world. The fact that Taylor and Habermas are quoted with equal gusto by everyone from Marxist literary critics to conservative Catholic theologians says a lot about the kind of equanimity and disinterested curiosity they bring to the philosophical task.
When I heard Charles Taylor and Jürgen Habermas had won the Kluge Prize and would be coming to the Library of Congress to accept the honor, I remarked that for the world of the humanities, this was the equivalent of being in the same room with Bono and Mick Jagger. I wasn’t exaggerating. These two thinkers are philosophy superstars, and it’s a privilege for us to host them next week.