April 13, 2010

STUCK ON sTUPID:

Does Reason Know What It Is Missing? (STANLEY FISH, 4/13/10, NY Times)

The German philosopher Jürgen Habermas has long been recognized as the most persistent and influential defender of an Enlightenment rationality that has been attacked both by postmodernism, which derides formal reason’s claims of internal coherence and neutrality, and by various fundamentalisms, which subordinate reason to religious imperatives that sweep everything before them, often not stopping at violence.

In his earlier work, Habermas believed, as many did, that the ambition of religion to provide a foundation of social cohesion and normative guidance could now, in the Modern Age, be fulfilled by the full development of human rational capacities harnessed to a “discourse ethics” that admitted into the conversation only propositions vying for the status of “better reasons,” with “better” being determined by a free and open process rather than by presupposed ideological or religious commitments: “…the authority of the holy,” he once declared, “is gradually replaced by the authority of an achieved consensus.”

In recent years, however, Habermas’s stance toward religion has changed. First, he now believes that religion is not going away and that it will continue to play a large and indispensable part in many societies and social movements. And second, he believes that in a post-secular age — an age that recognizes the inability of the secular to go it alone — some form of interaction with religion is necessary: “Among the modern societies, only those that are able to introduce into the secular domain the essential contents of their religious traditions which point beyond the merely human realm will also be able to rescue the substance of the human.” [...]

The liberal citizen is taught that he is the possessor of rights and that the state exists to protect those rights, chief among which is his right to choose. The content of what he chooses — the direction in which he points his life — is a matter of indifference to the state which guarantees his right to go there just as it guarantees the corresponding rights of his neighbors (“different strokes for different folks”). Enlightenment rational morality, Habermas concludes, “is aimed at the insight of individuals, and does not foster any impulse toward solidarity, that is, toward morally guided collective action.”

The consequences of this “motivational weakness” can be seen all around us in the massive injustices nations and tribes inflict on one another. In the face of these injustices, a reason “decoupled from worldviews” does not, Habermas laments, have “sufficient strength to awaken, and to keep awake, in the minds of secular subjects, an awareness of the violations of solidarity throughout the world, an awareness of what is missing, of what cries out to heaven.”

So what will supply the strength that is missing? The answer is more than implied by the reference to heaven. Religion will supply it. But Habermas does not want to embrace religion wholesale for he does not want to give up the “cognitive achievements of modernity” — which include tolerance, equality, individual freedom, freedom of thought, cosmopolitanism and scientific advancement — and risk surrendering to the fundamentalisms that, he says, willfully “cut themselves off” from everything that is good about the Enlightenment project.


The entire philosophical project consists of nothing but trying to replicate Judeo-Christian morality without grounding it on God. Once you've failed at that you're really just a comedy act.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 13, 2010 6:04 PM
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