Former Laureates

Jürgen Habermas


With the German scholar Jürgen Habermas (1929), the Praemium Erasmianum Foundation has found a laureate who embodies the theme of the future of democracy par excellence. A tireless champion of a democratic and just society, Jürgen Habermas criticises the political elites for short-term thinking and their failure to create broad, democratic, societal support for Europe. He forcefully argues in favor of a continued political integration of Europe, which he regards as desirable and inevitable.

Jürgen Habermas has built up an enormous oeuvre, in which he has consistently emphasised the importance of dialogue and human dignity. Among his best known books are ‘Zur Strukturwandel der Oeffentlichkeit’ (1962) and ‘Theorie des kommunikativen Handelns’ (1981). The current political and financial-economic crises and the fate of Europe are subjects for his frequent public lectures and are discussed in his more recent essays such as ‘Zur Verfassung Europas’ (2011) and ‘The Crisis of the European Union, a Response’ (2012).

One of the most influential philosophers in the world, Habermas has dealt with so many questions, that a short biography like this can never do justice to the scope and significance of his work. His extensive writings address topics ranging from social-political theory, aesthetics, epistemology, and language to philosophy of religion. His ideas have significantly influenced not only philosophy but also political/legal thought, sociology, communication studies, argumentation theory and rhetoric, theology and developmental psychology. Additionally, Habermas has played an active role in debates on a variety of political and social subjects. His plea for political solidarity and European integration is unabated.

Illustration Jürgen Habermas: Joseph Semah


Article 2 of the Constitution of the Praemium Erasmianum Foundation reads as follows: Within the context of the cultural traditions of Europe in general and the ideas of Erasmus in particular, the aim of the Foundation is to enhance the position of the humanities, social sciences and the arts. The emphasis is on tolerance, cultural pluralism and non-dogmatic, critical thinking. The Foundation tries to achieve this aim through the award of prizes and by other means. A money prize is awarded under the name of Erasmus Prize.

In accordance with this article, the Board of the Praemium Erasmianum Foundation has decided to award the Erasmus Prize for the year 2013 to professor Jürgen Habermas.

The Prize is awarded to him on the following grounds:

Jürgen Habermas’ viewpoints on socio-political events are rooted in his life-long theoretical work on the public sphere and human communication. He asks critical questions, like most philosophers do, but also gives answers. In these answers he has always emphasized the importance of dialogue for a democratic society in which he argues human dignity should be the prime value.

Sharp in his analysis of political events in Europe, Habermas criticizes political elites for their opportunistic thinking. He pleads for political solidarity and long-term thinking, and takes a firm and positive stand in the debate on a more far-reaching European integration.

Jürgen Habermas is one of the most influential scholars and public intellectuals, in areas cutting across sociology, politics and philosophy. Both in writing and in practice, he has demonstrated a worldview, according to which rational debate among equal individuals is the basis for a civilized, humane and democratic world.

He is a cosmopolitan citizen in the true Erasmian sense.


Your Majesties, Your Royal Highnesses, Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,

In August this year the 23rd World Congress of Philosophy was held in Athens. One of the aims of the conference was to discuss the role and responsibilities of philosophers today. Around 3000 philosophers from all over the world came to Athens for this conference. This led a Greek left-liberal daily newspaper to complain that philosophers are too silent in times of crisis:

(quote) "That's the most convincing proof of the academic entrenchment of philosophy and the distortion it is subjected to in a system that serves the interests of pragmatism, utilitarianism and ultimately cynicism. ... After adjusting for so long to the needs of a lucrative model of research and teaching, philosophy has morphed into an autistic, self-serving discipline. It's no coincidence that the social stereotype of the philosopher is that of someone who lives in his own world. More a drop-out than a militant intellectual who asks questions in the name of society and stands up to the powers that be." (05/08/2013) (end of quote)

Perhaps the newspaper journalist had not examined the list of participants carefully enough, for there was at least one, senior German participant who – as the journalists ought to know - was for 100% the opposite of the stereotype of the philosopher who “only lives in his own world.” Speaking to a packed lecture hall at the University of Athens, Jürgen Habermas analysed the European crisis from the perspective of the lack of political solidarity. He argued that instead of expanding democracy and changing how it operated, the EU was more and more becoming a technocracy in which member states participated without involvement from their respective citizens. Criticising the German government, Habermas said that under its guidance, the EU has prioritised the fiscal balance of each member state over anything else in its attempt at resolving the crisis. In Habermas’ view, political solidarity is required to resolve the crisis. He criticises the powerful EU members for short term and opportunistic thinking, for shirking their responsibilities and not explaining to their citizens that without this solidarity, we are going nowhere, and development in the eurozone will be weakened further.

Ladies and gentlemen, the views which Jürgen Habermas has repeatedly put forth with such strength and conviction, are rooted in a long life of dedication to the study of the public sphere.  Major works such as Strukturwandel der Öffentlichkeit in which he defends the view that democracy is a conditio sine qua non for true progress, and Theorie des kommunikativen Handelns have established his authority as one of the great thinkers of our time. Habermas has built up an enormous oeuvre of books and other writings. His work is critical, un-dogmatic and surpasses the usual boundaries of established specialisms. It cuts across a vast area – ethics, science philosophy, language philosophy, political theory, sociology, social philosophy and cultural theory. Besides this, from the 1950s onward he has tirelessly engaged in debates on urgent political issues, such as nuclear armament, the German division, terrorism, the war in Irak and, more recently, the issue of European integration. His interventions were characterised by a high degree of autonomy, a position that often earned him critiques from different sides of the political spectrum. This autonomous and critical stance in the current political debate is a direct consequence of his academic work. If there is one binding motif in all of his activities, it is his endeavour to attain mutual understanding in a reasonable and open dialogue. The connecting thread running through Habermas’ writings is the public use of reason: from the public sphere through communicative action and rationality, to discourse ethics and then, finally, to deliberative democracy. Basically, truth should prevail over power; communication should be based on the equality of participants, in all fields: politics, science, and ethics. These are the basic ingredients of Habermas’ reasoning and key to his perseverance, his engagement and belief in a rational route to emancipation and enlightenment.

The Praemium Erasmianum Foundation has chosen ‘the Future of Democracy’ as the theme for the Erasmus Prize of 2013. To many, the idea of representative, parliamentary democracy is a very attractive model of governance. But democracy is not to be taken for granted. The idea has been embraced by regions and countries that have freed themselves from dictatorship, as in Eastern Europe and South America. Other regions, such as China and Singapore have instead taken economic and social achievements as the basis of organizing society. But also outside these regions, the democratic model is faced with problems of practical feasibility and credibility. Can parliamentary democracy, a model developed on national basis, with its slow procedures of decision making, face up to international challenges such as climate change, financial crises and new communication technologies?  Other challenges are perceived in continuing liberalisation of the global trade. The power of the market: can it be checked by national governments, while staying within the boundaries of the normative, democratic constitutional state?  European integration is another case in point. On the one hand ‘Europe’ is a guarantee for safety, and protects the fundamental rights of the citizen, preventing the system from lapsing back into a dictatorship. On the other hand ‘Europe’ is criticised from the perspective of representative democracy for lack of transparency and a democratic deficit. This is all the more pressing because more and more powers are transferred to supra-national institutions of the EU. Even outspoken proponents of a more centralised European system of governance are facing a problem as long as there is the prevailing suspicion that further European integration interferes with the national democracies. The question is how a useful European integration can be matched by a strengthening of democratic values that in the past always have been associated with the nation state.

Ladies and gentlemen, in the person of professor Jürgen Habermas our Foundation has found a laureate who in writing and in practice embodies this thematic of the Future of Democracy. For more than half a century, Jürgen Habermas has reflected on social-political events in the world. He has witnessed the foundation of the European Union and has been committed to the European project ever since. He believes in a democratic Europe and in his writings presents well-considered perspectives on the future of Europe. Central in his thinking is democracy and the commitment of the people. Habermas makes sharp analyses of globalisation processes and the consequences of liberalisation, while pointing to the problem of democratic control. He is concerned about a possible loss of democratic values in a situation of globalised financial markets but he keeps believing in the debate, in ratio as the source of politics and in the equality of man. He is sharp and critical in his analysis of the political stage and of where things go wrong. At the same time he is optimistic in his expectations, because he hopes for a ‘Wende’ in a rational direction, based on the debate between equals. On the one hand he gives a positive interpretation of the origin of the European Union, the legal discourse between states, and that between states and the European Union. On the other hand he warns for the rise of a technocracy, that breaks away from democratic control if political union should not be achieved. He criticises the political elites for their short-term thinking and their failure to create a broad democratic support for Europe. Yet he regards further political integration of Europe as desirable and inevitable. Habermas is often cited and his publications continue to attract great interest. Leading politicians quote his views with approval. Habermas’ work spans more than five decades and, for the moment, it shows no sign of abating. With good reason he can be called the philosophical conscience of democratic Germany, and as an engaged public intellectual he is also heard and appreciated in the rest of the world. Habermas is the perfect example of a public intellectual, an engaging thinker who stimulates further reflection on topics such as human dialogue, democracy and human dignity. His humanistic views and commitment to the future of Europe make him an example par excellence of the Erasmian values the Foundation holds so dear. On behalf of our Foundation I wish to congratulate you with the Erasmus Prize.

(Presented by Maria Grever, member of the Board of the Praemium Erasmianum Foundation)

Acceptance Speech English

Your Majesties, Your Royal Highnesses, Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,

In the roll call of outstanding individuals who have been awarded this prize, Karl Jaspers has pride of place. In 1946, Jaspers appealed to the conscience of his German fellow citizens with his stirring work on “The Question of German Guilt.” His liberal cast of mind oriented to reason and communication fit with that of the thinker who lent his name to this prize. In calling the prize after Erasmus, its sponsors wanted to give it a twofold orientation: The linkage with the ideas of Erasmus was intended to foster European unification in a spirit of humanistic erudition and culture. I would like to say something about each of these aspects – on the topic of Europe and the future of democracy in Europe, of course, but also on a form of humanism that is not exhausted in a vague spirit of toleration.

Erasmus argued for positions that remain contested to the present day. I refer to one of his most celebrated works, De libero arbitrio, in which he famously defended freedom of the will against Luther's doctrine of predestination. In a certain sense, this conflict within theology recurs in a secularized guise today. As you will recall, Luther followed Augustine in teaching that God has made his judgment from the beginning of time on the salvation or damnation of each individual believer. By invoking the Last Judgment, Erasmus argued against Luther: “[A]re we compelled to be present at the Judgment Seat if nothing has happened through our own will, but all things have been done in us by sheer necessity?” (On the Freedom of the Will in Rupp and Watson (eds.), Luther and Erasmus: Free Will and Salvation (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006), 87).

Luther relied essentially on two arguments. First, he appealed to St. Paul in asserting that the sinful nature of human beings is so profoundly corrupt that our will can accomplish nothing on its own without the grace of an omnipotent God. The other argument was a moral one and can be explained within the historical context of the worldly Roman church of his time. Only if our salvation is predetermined in a way that is inscrutable to us, Luther argued, can the believer’s motives for leading a life pleasing to God remain untarnished by the egocentric intention of promoting his own happiness. In fact, the moral meaning of God’s commandments is upheld only if these are followed for their own sake.

Erasmus shared this criticism of justification by works alone. But, in contrast to Luther, he considered every independently thinking person to be able with the help of God to accept the strictly binding nature of moral imperatives on the basis of rational insight alone. Kant would take up this idea two-and-a-half centuries later and sharpen it into the concept of autonomy: Those individuals are free, he argued, who bind their free choice to general laws that they have given themselves for good reasons – namely, based on insight into what is equally good for all. They cannot in this way earn their happiness but can only show themselves to be worthy of happiness.

Today, this controversy between Erasmus and Luther is being repeated in an ironic way. On Erasmus’s side are those philosophers who insist that the individual can choose autonomously between right and wrong on the basis of good reasons. On the other side are neurologists who declare freedom of will to be an illusion because they consider the strict causal connection between neural states according to natural laws to be an equivalent of Luther’s determinism regarding salvation. And, as if anticipating Erasmus's objection as to why we, as supposedly unfree persons, should still appear before a judge, they push for a reform of criminal law. This example, ladies and gentlemen, demonstrates that humanism remains a vital, combative position.

The other intention for conferring the prize is especially controversial, namely, European unification in the spirit of humanism. This problem had not yet arisen in Erasmus’s time. In spite of the contemporary discovery of America, Europe still represented the world and the Latin-speaking world of scholars knew no boundaries. Although the Roman Catholic ecumene was about to break down, the religious split did not yet amount to a disintegration into nations that demarcated themselves from each other as such. Only much later, after the introduction of compulsory schooling and in the light of their respective national histories, cultures, and languages, did the populations have to acquire an awareness of national belonging, so that they could be drafted and mobilized against each other en masse. Today the end of this nationalism which was interwoven with colonial imperialism lies over a half-century behind us. But we still feel the effects of the stubbornness of national boundaries. The toll barriers disappeared with the Schengen Agreement but they are now being reerected in people’s heads.

The globalization of the economy and society has once again led to reactions of mutual seclusion. There are two specific reasons for this. Under conditions of growing social inequality, our nations are undergoing a painful transformation into postcolonial immigrant societies. As a result of the influx of labor and poverty immigrants and refugees, our comparatively homogeneous majority cultures are facing the challenge of integrating foreign subcultures with different religious forms of life into society. That is the first challenge. The second is posed by the erosion of national democracies. The citizens sense this and are responding by retreating behind their national fences.

Because the political scopes for action of governments are shrinking in an increasingly integrated world society, nation states are being forced to engage in ever closer cooperation within a rapidly growing network of international organizations. As a result, the horizontal interdependencies between governments are simultaneously becoming denser. Thus, based on international treaties, more and more resolutions are being taken that citizens can no longer influence through the democratic means available to them. Public opinion- and will-formation functions for the present only within national borders. But since we are neither able nor wish to reverse the process of globalization, the progressive drying-up of democracy can be halted only by extending the paths of legitimation beyond national boundaries.

The European Union has taken the lead in pursuing such a transnationalization of democracy, something which has been a source of pride for us up to now. But Europe has remained stuck in midstream. The euro zone countries in particular are suffering as a result, because the single currency is in many respects incompatible with the sovereignty of the member states. While the peoples are drifting apart under the pressure of the crisis and are stigmatizing each other within their respective national public arenas, the technocratic interdependence between the governments is marching onwards behind closed doors. And the citizens are paying an increasingly high price for this in the currency of their democratic disempowerment. We can break out of this vicious circle only if the nations open themselves up to one another and stop balking at the prospect of a closer Political Union. What project could be more worthy of the legacy of Erasmus than an energetic attempt to restore the impaired mutual confidence between the European North and the European South?

Acceptance Speech German

In der Reihe der herausragenden Personen, die diesen Preis erhalten haben, ist der erste Karl Jaspers. Er hat 1946 mit seiner aufrüttelnder Publikation über die „Die Schuldfrage“ an das Gewissen seiner deutschen Mitbürger appelliert. Seine liberale, auf Vernunft und Kommunikation ausgerichtete Geistesart trifft sich mit der des Namenspatrons. Dieser gibt dem Preis nach dem Willen seiner Stifter eine doppelte Ausrichtung: Die Anknüpfung an Ideen des Erasmus soll die Einigung Europas im Geiste humanistischer Gelehrsamkeit und Bildung fördern. Ich möchte zu beiden Aspekten etwas sagen - natürlich zum Thema Europa und der Zukunft der Demokratie in Europa; aber auch zur Sache eines Humanismus, der sich nicht in einem vagen Geist der Toleranz erschöpft. Erasmus streitet für Positionen, die bis heute umkämpft sind.

Ich beziehe mich auf eines seiner berühmtesten Werke, De libero arbitrio. Darin verteidigt Erasmus bekanntlich die Willensfreiheit der verantwortlich handelnden Person gegen Luthers Prädestinationslehre. In gewisser Weise kehrt diese innertheologische Frontstellung heute in säkularisierter Gestalt wieder. Wie Sie sich erinnern, hat Luther im Anschluss an Augustin gelehrt, dass Gott von Ewigkeit her sein Urteil über Erlösung oder Verdammung jedes einzelnen Gläubigen gefällt hat. Erasmus erinnert an das Jüngste Gericht und widerspricht Luther mit dem Argument: „Warum müssten wir vor dem Richter stehen, wenn nichts nach unserem Willen, sondern alles nach reiner Notwendigkeit bei uns zugegangen wäre?“ (Vom freien Willen (7. Aufl.), Göttingen 1998, 91)

Luther stützt sich im wesentlichen auf zwei Gründe. Er beruft sich zunächst auf Paulus mit der Aussage, die sündige Natur des Menschen sei so tief korrumpiert, dass unser Wille von sich aus, ohne die Gnade des allmächtigen Gottes, nichts vermag. Der andere Grund ist moralischer Art und erklärt sich aus dem zeitgeschichtlichen Kontext einer verweltlichten römischen Kirche. Nur wenn unser Heilsschicksal auf undurchschaubare Weise vorentschieden ist, können die Motive des Gläubigen für ein gottgefälliges Leben von der egozentrischen Absicht einer Beförderung des eigenen Glücks unberührt bleiben. Tatsächlich bleibt der moralische Sinn von Gottes Geboten nur intakt, wenn diese um ihrer selbst willen befolgt werden.

Erasmus teilt diese Kritik an bloßer Werkgerechtigkeit. Aber anders als Luther traut er jeder selbstständig denkenden Person zu, mit Gottes Hilfe die Verbindlichkeit moralischer Gebote allein aus vernünftiger Einsicht zu akzeptieren. Diesen Gedanken wird Kant zweieinhalb Jahrhunderte später auf den Begriff der Autonomie zuspitzen: Frei ist derjenige, der seine Willkür an allgemeine Gesetze bindet, die er sich selbst aus guten Gründen gegeben hat - nämlich aus Einsicht in das, was gleichermaßen gut ist für alle. Damit kann er sich sein Glück nicht verdienen, er kann sich nur des Glückes würdig erweisen.

Heute wiederholt sich diese Konstellation zwischen Erasmus und Luther auf ironische Weise. Auf der Seite des Erasmus stehen Philosophen, die darauf pochen, dass die Person selbst mit guten Gründen zwischen Gut und Böse entscheidet. Auf der anderen Seite stehen Neurologen, die die Willensfreiheit zur Illusion erklären, weil sie die durchgängige kausale Verknüpfung neuronaler Zustände nach Naturgesetzen als ein Äquivalent für den Lutherschen Heilsdeterminismus betrachten. Und als antizipierten sie den Einwand des Erasmus, warum wir als unfreie Personen überhaupt noch vor einen Richter treten sollten, drängen sie auf eine Reform des Strafrechts. Dieses Beispiel erweist den Humanismus, meine Damen und Herren, als eine vitale, nach wie vor streitbare Position.

Umstritten ist erst recht die andere Intention der Preisverleihung - die Einigung Europas im Geiste des Humanismus. Zur Zeit des Erasmus gab es dieses Problem noch nicht. Trotz der Entdeckung Amerikas bedeutete Europa noch die Welt; und die lateinisch sprechende Welt der Gelehrten war ohne Grenzen. Zwar war die römisch-katholische Ökumene dabei zu zerbrechen, aber die konfessionelle Spaltung bedeutete noch keinen Zerfall in Nationen, die sich als solche voneinander abgrenzten. Die Bevölkerungen mussten ein Bewusstsein nationaler Zusammengehörigkeit erst viel später, nach Einführung der allgemeinen Schulpflicht und im Lichte jeweils eigener nationaler Geschichten, Kulturen und Sprachen erwerben, um als Wehrpflichtige en masse gegeneinander mobilisiert werden zu können. Heute liegt das Ende dieses mit dem kolonialem Imperialismus verwobenen Nationalismus wiederum mehr als ein halbes Jahrhundert hinter uns. Aber immer noch spüren wir die Hartnäckigkeit nationaler Grenzen. Mit dem Schengenabkommen sind die Schlagbäume verschwunden; in den Köpfen werden sie wieder aufgebaut.

Denn die Globalisierung von Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft hat erneut Reaktionen der gegenseitigen Abschottung hervorgerufen, und zwar aus doppeltem Grund. Unter Bedingungen wachsender sozialer Ungleichheit erfahren unsere Nationen den schmerzhaften Prozess einer Umwandlung in postkoloniale Einwanderungsgesellschaften. Vergleichsweise homogene Mehrheitskulturen werden durch den Zustrom von Arbeits-, Armuts- und Flüchtlingsimmigranten mit der Herausforderung konfrontiert, fremde Subkulturen mit anderen religiösen Lebensformen gesellschaftlich zu integrieren. Das ist die eine Herausforderung. Die andere besteht in der Aushöhlung nationalstaatlicher Demokratien. Das spüren die Bürger und reagieren darauf mit dem Rückzug in ihre nationale Wagenburg.

Weil die politischen Handlungsspielräume der Regierungen in einer zusammenwachsenden Weltgesellschaft schrumpfen, werden heute die Nationalstaaten in einem rapide wachsenden Netzwerk internationaler Organisationen zu einer immer engeren Kooperation genötigt. Damit verdichten sich zugleich die horizontalen Abhängigkeiten der Regierungen voneinander. Und so kommen, auf der Grundlage internationaler Vertragsbeziehungen, immer mehr Beschlüsse zustande, auf die die Bürger mit ihren demokratischen Mitteln keinen Einfluss mehr nehmen können. Denn einstweilen funktioniert die öffentliche Meinungs- und Willensbildung nur in den Grenzen des Nationalstaates. Da wir aber den Globalisierungsprozess weder rückgängig machen können noch wollen, kann die schleichende Austrocknung der Demokratie nur durch Verlängerung der Legitimationswege über nationale Grenzen hinaus aufgehalten werden.

Die Europäische Union ist auf dem Wege zu einer solchen Transnationalisierung der Demokratie vorangegangen – bisher zum Stolz ihrer Bürger. Aber Europa ist auf halbem Wege stehen geblieben. Darunter leiden heute insbesondere die Länder der Eurozone, weil sich die gemeinsame Währung mit der Souveränität ihrer Mitgliedstaaten in manchen Hinsichten nicht verträgt. Während die Völker unter dem Druck der Krise auseinanderdriften und sich in ihren jeweils eigenen nationalen Öffentlichkeiten gegenseitig stigmatisieren, schreitet die technokratische Verflechtung der Regierungen hinter verschlossenen Türen voran. Und dafür zahlen die Bürger in der Münze ihrer demokratischer Entmächtigung täglich steigende Preise. Aus diesem fehlerhaften Zirkel können wir nur ausbrechen, wenn sich die Nationen füreinander öffnen und vor einer engeren politischen Union nicht länger zurückschrecken. Welches Projekt könnte dem Vermächtnis des Erasmus würdiger sein, als der energische Versuch, das gestörte gegenseitige Vertrauen zwischen dem europäischen Norden und dem europäischen Süden wieder herzustellen?


Jürgen Habermas, an introduction

Annual Report 2013

Erasmus Prize winner 2013: Jürgen Habermas

Jürgen Habermas has been awarded the Erasmus Prize 2013. The theme of 2013 was 'The Future of Democracy'.

Exhibition ‘Decadence of Dictators’

On the occasion of the Erasmus Prize 2013 the OBA shows the exhibition ‘Decadence of Dictators’.

Erasmus Prize 2013

Jürgen Habermas has been awarded the Erasmus Prize 2013. The theme of 2013 was 'The Future of Democracy'.

Publication 'A Future for Europe'

On the occasion of the Erasmus Prize 2013, BOOM publishes a selection of Jürgen Habermas’ essays on democracy.

Theme Erasmus Prize 2013

The theme of the Erasmus Prize 2013 was ‘The Future of Democracy’.

Award Ceremony Erasmus Prize 2013

His Majesty the King and Jürgen Habermas during the award ceremony of the Erasmus Prize 2013.

Symposium 'The Future of Europe'

Jürgen Habermas with the other speakers and PhD researchers at the symposium 'The Future of Europe'.

Acceptance Speech Jürgen Habermas

Jürgen Habermas during his acceptance speech, upon receiving the Erasmus Prize 2013.

Royal Family and Jürgen Habermas

Members of the Royal Family and Jürgen and Ute Habermas during the Erasmus Prize award ceremony on 6 November 2013.

Erasmus Festival Brabant

The dance performance 'You, what about me?' during the opening night of the Erasmus Festival Brabant 2013.