Mi / 10:00 – 11:30

Jürgen Habermas’ Knowledge and Human Interest (1968) as an Unlikely Bestseller

Morten Paul, KWI

Online (Zoom) & Kulturwissenschaftliches Institut Essen (KWI), Gartensaal, Goethestr. 31, 45128 Essen

Please note: This Colloquium exceptionally takes place in KWI’s Gartensaal. 

Erkenntnis und Interesse [Knowledge and Human Interest] occupies a strange position in the writings of German philosopher Jürgen Habermas. It has the same title as his Frankfurt inaugural lecture from 1965 and as such it makes a programmatic claim. At the same time, it is the book that Habermas himself is particularly ambivalent about. From the perspective of the trajectory of his thought, Knowledge and Human Interest is a work of transition – sitting squarely between the early works influenced by historical materialism and the linguistic-pragmatic turn that followed. However, Knowledge and Human Interest was also a veritable bestseller in the humanities. With regard to this peculiar book, this popularity cannot be taken for granted, even if one assumes that the 1960s were a particularly rewarding time for “difficult” books. The subject of the complex, 360-page volume is the history of epistemology. Although the public discussion of technological progress and its consequences at this time helped a number of books on the history of science to attract a great deal of attention, these generally dealt with the enormous success of the natural sciences and the challenge it poses to philosophical thinking. Habermas’ book, on the other hand, can be understood as a justification and legitimization of the humanities and the social sciences. In a first step, I will therefore situate the genesis of the book within Habermas’ writing and teaching activities of the 1960s: from this perspective it becomes apparent that Knowledge and Human Interest also responds in a specific way to the challenge to critical theory posed by the revolting students. It is thus very much a book of 1968. In a second step, I reconstruct the publication history of the book. For Knowledge and Human Interest is not only the first monograph by Habermas published by the famous Suhrkamp Verlag, it also has a peculiarly doubled publication history: after its first appearance in the academic book series Theorie, co-edited by Habermas, and mediocre sales success, Knowledge and Human Interest became the launch title of the new series suhrkamp taschenbuch wissenschaft just five years later – and along with the series, a runaway success. This shifts the perspective to the important but often underestimated role that publishing houses inhabit in the history of the humanities.