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Holberg Award Comments by Habermas, Nov. 30

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  • Gary E. Davis
    [English grammatical errors in the Holberg site text have been corrected.] Minister Djupedal, Your Excellences, Representatives from the Ludvig Holberg
    Message 1 of 1 , Dec 1, 2005
      [English grammatical errors in the Holberg site text
      have been corrected.]

      Minister Djupedal, Your Excellences, Representatives
      from the Ludvig Holberg Memorial Fund, Ladies and
      Gentlemen.

      Not that I would not have any experience with the rare
      situation of being awarded with a prominent academic
      prize. But the rank, the ambition, and the excellence
      of this award is truly embarrassing for anybody who is
      very well aware of the fact that he is only one among
      many candidates of at least equal standing. I
      gratefully accept this distinction also as an
      expression of recognition of a whole generation of
      German philosophers who, after the end of World War
      II, entered the university and faced the challenge to
      renew the reputation and strength of a tradition, the
      moral backbone of which has been broken during the
      recent past. Of great support was the unbiased
      reception we enjoyed from colleagues in countries like
      Norway, including those who would have had good
      reasons for stronger reservations. I have still vivid
      memories of my first encounters with Knut Erik Tranøy
      and his younger colleagues, when Hans Skervheim
      invited me, in the early '70s, to come to Bergen.

      There are further reasons why I am happy to enjoy the
      privilege of this occasion. It is a pleasure to serve
      the purpose of the Holberg Prize by helping to pull
      the paled face of the humanities out of the shadow of
      those more fortunate disciplines that are used to
      attract more public attention and more financial
      support for their more visible and robust
      achievements. I appreciate the decision of the
      Norwegian government to give with this foundation, for
      the right purpose, the right sign at the right moment.
      Moreover, it could have hardly chosen a more
      convenient patron for this institution than the
      unconventional founding father of modern Norwegian
      scholarship, Ludvig Holberg – an outstanding figure of
      the European enlightenment.

      Far from the awkward role of a dignified and somewhat
      pompous professor, Holberg was a witty person and
      polemical writer, gifted with a broad range of
      talents, widely traveled, well versed in many
      languages and the ways of the world, a public figure,
      involved in quite a few controversies and, as the
      author of so many theater plays, well known to larger
      audiences in various countries. You imagine my
      increasing pleasure while reading the autobiographical
      letters – the *epistolae ad virum perillustrem*, which
      were, by the way, immediately translated from Latin
      into German only two years after its original
      publication. I cannot help mentioning one episode that
      aroused my enthusiasm about Holberg, in his role as a
      philosopher, and let me discover a brother in the
      spirit of postmetaphysical thought.

      Describing the course of his life until the age of 33
      years, Holberg in those letters continues to sing the
      melody of graceful laments about his desperate
      financial situation and his delicate physical
      constitution. But finally, the Danish King liberates
      him from this deplorable state by an appointment to
      the position of a veritable professor of metaphysics.
      Holberg comments on the happy turn in his life with
      self-irony: “I received the office to teach
      metaphysics although that was against my inclination.
      This is why those people, who knew me better,
      predicted the decline of this splendid discipline. And
      they were not mistaken. I honestly confess that
      metaphysics was never in greater danger as under my
      tutelage.” Referring to his inaugural lecture, Holberg
      adds that all true admirers of metaphysics could not
      listen to him without anger since they must have had
      the impression of attending not a eulogy but “a
      funeral address on the occasion of the death of
      metaphysics.” This very phrase was unheard of in those
      days. That happened in 1717, seven years before
      Kant---the “Zermalmer” or great destroyer of
      metaphysics, as he was called---was even borne. The
      intrepid Holberg, I guess, was an early forerunner of
      this first postmetaphysical thinker when he pronounced
      the death of the kind of rationalist metaphysics that
      remained the academic philosophy for almost the whole
      of that century.

      The sympathy I have with the creativity and
      spontaneity of this independent and fearless mind is
      the same feeling which is aroused again and again by
      the civil mentality I encounter when I come to this
      country and meet my distinguished Norwegian
      colleagues. In this respect, the lasting influence of
      Holberg has obviously shaped the spirit of the
      academic community in his homeland until today. I am
      grateful for how I benefited from rich intellectual
      contacts with a whole generation of students and
      academic grandchildren of Arne Næss, and from the
      vivid debates between those parties who leaned more to
      Wittgensteinian arguments, on one side, or more to
      those of my friend Karl-Otto Apel on the other. My
      thanks for the jury’s decision is equally an
      expression of my gratitude for what I learned from
      these exchanges.
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