Europe: The Faltering Project

Habermas, Jürgen
Polity Press, Cambridge
9780745646497 (pb)

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Cover of book Jürgen Habermas's latest offering has come in the form of a collection of papers and conference talks compiled over the last decade, combined with a rather helpful insight to the application of his theory to the potential future of Europe.

The book begins with the pleasant, although perhaps off-topic, collection of presentation papers on subjects including Richard Rorty and democracy, Jacques Derrida and religion, and Ronald Dworkin and Justice. An unusual introduction that leads the reader to think that perhaps these pieces, as interesting and insightful as they may be, have been published here for the sake of convenience. Whilst these chapters may seem off-topic, they do provide some interesting reading for those of us with an interest in Habermas's work. The piece on Rorty in particular includes, in some detail, an overview of the distinct similarities and differences between the two, all within a glowing and rather touching tribute to Rorty's contributions to social theory. The book then turns to politics and the range of specific hurdles that stand in the way of the development of the European Union. The three chapters in this section provide a detailed overview of the greatest challenges standing before Europe today. Through the analysis of several topical debates around Islam, secularism and class difference, the theme of communication in the public sphere is never far away. For readers who are interested in Habermas's now widely read and hugely influential work on communicative action, reason and the public sphere, but who never found a 'way in' to see the practical implications of his theories, this section provides a valuable insight to both Habermas and the project of a European Union and the constitutionalization of international law. These chapters clearly show the depth of Habermas's background in political and economic studies as he positions himself as more of a public intellectual than a social theorist. This justifies his seemingly radical recommendations for the dramatic restructuring of both the United Nations and European international relations.

It is in the final section of the book on reason and the public sphere, where Habermas begins to make his contribution to the subject matter. For both the informed follower of Habermas as well as the reader who was put off by the density of his earlier works, it is this section of the book that becomes engaging. The argument, simply put is that Europe can only advance towards some kind of constitution through the engagement and dedication to communication in the public sphere. Modern media is well placed to fulfil this role, but Habermas is sceptical of the extent to which individuals can effectively respond to the popular discourse of the media, even with the nature of the Internet. For Habermas, much of the polarisation of views regarding the nature and construction of a European constitution can be resolved through communicative action in the public sphere through the process of minimising the distorted meanings present in language. This must occur through the creation of a European public sphere that is linked by the breakdown of nations as separate entities rather than the creation of a new 'higher level' sphere that attempts to override existing spheres. At the core of this movement would be the ongoing participation of individuals in public discourse, and this should serve as the foundation of structural change. It is therefore, according to Habermas, up to individuals to make Europe into a continent capable of leading the world toward a better future.

Despite the strength of this final section, there is a noticeable lack of flow as the book jumps from an accessible and page turning discussion, to dense political theory, from chapter to chapter. Perhaps the greatest flaw of this book is the lack of a clear target audience. There is no one voice that consistently engages with the issues of the subject from beginning to end. Rather, there are likely to be a number of chapters that appeal to each individual reader, whilst the others may seem out of place. Despite this, Habermas has managed to provide an engaging discussion on the future of Europe, whilst evaluating his own concepts in a way that can appeal to both the novice and the experienced Habermas reader. In doing so, Europe: The Faltering Project has the potential to spark considerable debate on the subject and this certainly seems to be a part of Habermas's intention here.

Jordan McKenzie
Flinders University