Rethinking secularism:

The philosopher-citizen

posted by Charles Taylor

habermasJürgen Habermas is one of the most prominent philosophers on the global scene of the last half century. His work is of an impressive range and depth. It would be impossible to sum it up in a short essay, but I shall try to single out three facets of his extraordinary achievement which help throw light on his deserved fame and influence.

Jürgen Habermas is known in the world of analytic philosophy primarily as a moral and political philosopher. He has striven against a slide which has often seemed plausible and tempting for modern thinkers, that towards a certain relativism or subjectivism in morals. The difficulty of establishing firm ethical conclusions in the midst of vigorous debate among rival doctrines, particularly when these disputes are contrasted to those among natural scientists can all too easily push us to the conclusion that there is no fact of the matter here, that ethical doctrines are not a matter of knowledge, but only of emotional reaction or subjective projection, that the issues here are not cognitive.

Habermas from the very beginning set his face against these non-cognitivist views. There can be ethical knowledge.  But he wished also to break with a long-hallowed notion of what this knowledge must consist in, that which we find in the traditions which go back to Plato and Aristotle. According to these, ethical knowledge has for its object human nature, or the nature of things. In other words, it is grounded in some normative picture of what humans are like, or else of their place in the universe. According to Habermas, it was the discredit of these “metaphysical” views which gave colour to non-cognitivism in the first place. In order to refute subjectivism, morality needs another kind of rational basis.

The alternative route which he explored was that which makes the rationality of ethical conclusions a function of the rationality of the deliberation which produces them. A deliberation is rational if it meets certain formal requirements. This is, of course, the route which was pioneered by Kant. But Habermas made a revolutionary change in this tradition. Whereas for Kant the principal criterion of a rational and therefore defensible deliberation was that it was sought universalizable maxims, for Habermas the very notion of deliberation is transformed. Following Kant a lone reasoner can work out what maxims can be the objects of a universal will.  But Habermas introduces the dialogical dimension. The ultimately acceptable norms are those which can pass the test of acceptance by all those who would be affected by them.

In other words, for Habermas, ethical deliberation is primarily social, dialogical; it is worked out between agents. Of course, in a secondary way, we can and often do deliberate on our own, but the shape of our ethical world is dialogically elaborated, and this conditions all our moral thinking, even when we want to rebel against the morality of our community.

In proposing this transformed model of ethical reasoning, Habermas was articulating two profound changes in the consciousness of the later 20th Century, one philosophical, the other in our political culture. The philosophical change was the dialogical turn itself, which we see in a host of places: in the critique of monological Cartesian foundationalism by figures like Wittgenstein and the phenomenological writers, in the sociological literature which began to stress the dialogical nature of identity-formation, as we see with George Herbert Mead. One could prolong the list almost indefinitely.

The second big change, in the political culture, also gave a new importance to dialogue. The political identities of democratic societies were no longer seen as defined once and for all by some founding principles or acts. The combined impact of feminism, of multiculturalism, of the battles over identity and recognition, of the gay movement, and so on, brought to the fore how much traditional modes of understanding were based on silent exclusion of minorities. Redefining, renegotiating the political contract came to be seen as an important, often urgent task; and this could only be carried out dialogically.

Habermas’s philosophical articulation of the dialogical turn was not the only one. There are rival attempts  which many (including this writer) would find more convincing, but his was an extremely important and influential one, and this is one of the sources of his deserved prominence.

Moreover, Habermas’s dialogical moral theory was much broader and deeper than that of most analytical philosophers, because it has been worked out against a background of social thought, and above all of a theory of the development of modernity. In this respect, that is, in the scope of his interests, he is more of a “continental” philosopher, for all of his affinities with certain analytical thinkers. This is the  second important aspect which I would like to take up.

Drawing on the work of Weber, Habermas sees modernity as having brought about a transformation in our understanding of reason. There have been a number of formulations of this idea in his work, but I’ll deal here with the one he offered in his immensely influential Theorie des kommunikativen Handelns of 1981. For Plato and much of the Western tradition, reason is a single faculty or power which can strive to define not only the True, but also the Good and the Beautiful. That is, the same reason can establish the shape of all the important dimensions of human life: establishing what really is, deciding what we ought to do, and determining what is truly beautiful. We might speak of the scientific, the moral and the aesthetic dimensions of human life.

What Habermas proposes in the place of this is not, as we have seen, a restriction of reason to the scientific domain, and a relegation of morals and aesthetics to the arbitration of emotion or subjective taste. Rather it is a diversification of the very procedures of reason. Scientific reason tries to map the real; but moral reason, as we saw above doesn’t try to map some other domain, say, of human nature. Rather the whole notion of rationality here doesn’t rely on the idea that valid ethical norms correspond to some domain of fact. Rather the justified conclusion is designated as such by its emerging from a certain form of dialogical deliberation. Being right here has a quite different shape than it does in the factual or scientific domain. And an analogous point is made for the aesthetic sphere.

For Habermas a key feature of modernity is this differentiation of spheres, whereby rational validity ceases to mean a single thing, and to have a similar shape in the different domains. This is the shift which underlies the use of the term “post-metaphysical” applied to ethics and political theory, and which occurs frequently in Habermas’s writings. The morally justified acts or norms are no longer such because they correspond to or correctly map some metaphysical reality.

It is clear that we have here not simply a moral theory but a theory of history, and indeed, a philosophical anthropology of uncommon scope and depth, and this has been another contributing factor to Habermas’ global reputation.

But these two factors would not have had the impact that they have were it not for a third feature: that Jürgen Habermas is an exemplary public intellectual. He has never been content simply with writing, teaching, and discussing philosophy. Unremittingly and with great courage he has intervened in the important debates of our time, for instance in the Historikerstreit within Germany, and more recently in issues to do with the “war on terror,” as well as the future of Europe. One might almost say that theory and practice are organically linked in the thought of Habermas: as a theorist of democracy and of open, undistorted communication, he cannot but intervene when these crucial vales are suppressed or denied, without being untrue to himself.

Or in any case, that is the way he lives his philosophy, with a kind of passionate integrity. And it is this courageous and consistent stance which has made a deep impression on thinkers and citizens, not only in Germany, not only in Europe, but world-wide.

In our time, we can almost fear that the public intellectual is an endangered species. On the one hand, the role can be trivialized by the proliferation of collective petitions for fashionable causes which it is very easy to sign. On the other, in the making of policy the intellectual is often replaced by the expert, master of some narrow field, who is rarely asked to decide on the use to be made of his expertise. In this world, Jürgen Habermas stands out as a shining example of the philosopher-citizen, two roles indissolubly linked in a figure of great depth and integrity. We, in democratic countries and beyond, are all in his debt, and that more than anything else accounts for his unparalleled prominence. He is an inspiration to us all.

A version of this text originally appeared in German earlier this year, in honor of Jürgen Habermas’s eightieth birthday. Later this week, Jürgen Habermas and Charles Taylor will join Judith Butler and Cornel West for a dialogue on the “power of religion in the public sphere,” in an event cosponsored by the SSRC, New York University’s Institute for Public Knowledge, and Stony Brook University.—ed.

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3 Responses to “The philosopher-citizen”

  1. avatar Lucas H. Harriman says:

    Professor Taylor, thank you for this admirably concise and cogent synopsis of the career of one of our most important public intellectuals. The voice of Habermas continues to make itself heard on some of the most crucial issues of our day, and this is no doubt due to the strength and integrity of his long career. I am disappointed that I won’t be able to attend the event on Thursday which, I am positive, will be a memorable night for everyone in attendance.

    I would especially like to see the interaction between Habermas and Judith Butler, whose work has gone quite far in pointing out weaknesses in his theorization of the democratizing public sphere. One of her recent publications, Giving an Account of Oneself, brings into question the very difficulty of dialogue. As you mention above, Habermas seems to revise Kant on an important point:

    “Following Kant a lone reasoner can work out what maxims can be the objects of a universal will. But Habermas introduces the dialogical dimension. The ultimately acceptable norms are those which can pass the test of acceptance by all those who would be affected by them.”

    However, this “test of acceptance” is precisely the possibility Butler problematizes in her book. The idea that we can “bring everyone to the table” — or at least everyone “who would be affected by [our ethical decisions]” assumes quite a lot, including the ability of each entity to fully and persuasively articulate its demands.

    I would be interested to hear what the panel on Thursday evening would say about the role religion can play in either enabling such necessary articulations or obfuscating them. Many political commentators on the left lament the way religion supposedly causes people to “vote against their demands.” I’m certain that each of you would be have an insightful and provocative answer to such a query. I just regret that I won’t be able to ask it in person!

    Best of luck.

  2. avatar David E. Cooper says:

    I gave Habermas’s theory of discourse ethics center stage in my book Ethics for Professionals in a Multicultural World precisely because I think he does such as good job of applying Kant’s major insights to law and policy. The issue that Butler and other critics marginalize, is that Habermas’s principle of discourse ethics is a normative vision, not a social science description of what does or can happen in all places. It guides us like any great principle by motivating us to make the world a better place by striving to implement the ideals that create the vision enunciated in the principle.

    Of course, it is not the case that everyone affected can “be brought to the table” every time policy decisions are being discussed and made, there are empirical limitations. And of course, Habermas does not assume that every “entity [can] fully and persuasively articulate its demands”. For example, young children are not yet morally autonomous and can not fully articulate their demands, even to themselves (although if you pay attention they have a lot to say). The point of the principle is that their demands would be the proper guides for how to treat them if those demands had been shaped by “deliberative dialogue” (vs. just any old demands that “entities” are apt to make), and because of that, those with power should strive to enunciate those demands for them and take them seriously by giving them equal weight.

    Since it is not possible for everyone to be at the table and many people affected have not yet developed the virtues that would allow them to sit at the table, it is the people who are at the actual table who have to take the principle seriously (informed consent theory). They have the moral obligation to make sure they are representing the rational demands of the people of the world who should be at the table. Evil happens when those at the table only give weight to their own special interests, even if the cause is Arendt’s “banality of evil” it is still evil.

    It is possible to take this obligation to represent everyone’s interests seriously, which means the normative ought ‘can” be done if people choose to be guided by the principle. Responsible parents who respect that their child is a member of Kant’s vision of “humanity as an end unto itself” do it every day when they decide for their children based on awareness that humans are a work in progress who will actively develop the virtue of moral autonomy if given a chance. So they ask, “What would my child choose if she could rationally decide for herself now, knowing that she will either grow up to live in this community or will grow up to also want the opportunity to choose her own version of the community?” Of course this is an instance of paternalism, but framing the question in this way shows moral sensitivity to the fact the child should be participating in the decision making, and will one day be able to do so.

    For those unfortunates (like the mentally handicapped) who will never develop the emancipatory virtues that allow most of us to become choosers rather than merely reactors to external events, those who decide for the unfortunates have the duty to ask: “Would this policy or norm meet with their consent if they could give rational consent?”

    Pearl S. Buck, in her book about her daughter (The Child Who Never Grew), tells the tale about the state hospital for the “retarded” that was a horror when she visited it. All the rules were designed for the convenience of the staff, e.g. cement floors that were easy to hose down after the mostly naked kids defecated on the floor, etc. About 10 years later, she revisited the place and it was wonderful by state hospital standards. There were rugs, and toys, and flowers and curtains and the kids had clean cloths and were laughing and playing games with the staff. She asked the new director how they had managed to turn things around, did they have new kids there now? He said “No these are the same kids. But, every day, we begin staff meetings by asking, “What would we want if we were going to be one of the patients tomorrow? We also ask would the kids give their consent to this or that policy or rule if they were capable of giving their consent? [i.e. if they could be at the table?] Our deliberations in trying to answer these questions guide us.”

    What people who are “ends unto themselves” want is to give consent, and they want it to be “informed consent,” so they also want dialogue. When a policy affects more than one, then it must be shared consent (ideally consensus) which is the basis for community and democracy. In my opinion this is natural to the human species in the sense that it is an emergent property that always develops when oppression goes away. But those who want power over others (for what ever reason) always try to subvert developments that will lead in the direction of making shared consent possible. They try to indoctrinate not educate. They subvert dialogue rather than take steps to see that it emerges. This vision of shared consent after dialogue is a fragile ideal that has enemies in many places of privilege, so yes, Habermas’sKantian vision will not be easily attained. But no vision is easy to achieve, which is why it is up to those of us who are decision makers to allow the moral vision to motivate us, rather than to simply complain that the moral road is long and hard or even claim that it is impossible.

  3. avatar Tony Stigliano says:

    Juergen Habermas has articulated the minimal normative structure for rational political and moral discourse. In doing so, he provides the basis for a critique of power not possible for relativism. Hence, his critique extends beyond the irrational opposition to social democracy. His argument that “post-modern” thinkers (like Foucault, Lyotard and others) are conservative thinkers is important as a defense of Enlightenment philosophy and science. One can see his immediate relevance as a counter to the destructive forces of contemporary American politics. Fox News, Glen Beck, the “teabaggers” represent the kind of discourse permitted by the post-modernist rejection of objectivity and argument. He also provides a needed antidote to Leo Strauss’s claims that Enlightenment reason leads to relativism. Nevertheless, Habermas has argued in a self-critique that his discourse ethics remains detached from concrete historical realities. He has tempered the abstract universal thinking of his work with that of George Herbert Mead and Max Weber, but the problem of an abstract, theoretical point of view remains a serious stumbling block. His discourse ethics may evoke principles that enable one to judge contemporary politics, but the utopian presumption of that discourse endangers Habermas’ relevance. Rational ethics, which would include everyone affected by any decision in deliberations, cannot provide a substantive good. The demands of the American Right are for a way of life based on faith has stymied meaningful political deliberation. Attempts to counter such faith-based politics with facts and reasoned argument has only exacerbated the situation. One move is to find common ground with religion that can provide a compelling bond for a dispersed and fragmented social order. But, religion is an uneasy partner for Habermas’s “pure” ethical principles. Without it, Habermas remains more academic than pragmatic. The Christian basis for the American Right has given it a psychological persuasiveness because it provides an experiential, communitarian basis for action that is sorely lacking in any universal ethical system. Moreover, what makes the post-modernists compelling in many ways is the non-rational nature of human action and life. Myth and ideology reject rationality, but they are compelling for people to live a certain way of life. Rational thought does not provide an alternative to these non-rational forms of life. We can know what is right, but we act against (not all the time) that right out of an embodied sense of history and identity. The Enlightenment’s project was to dispel myth and superstition, but it only created the conditions for the return of myth and supersititon. One of those conditions is nihilism. Science negates the comforting stories of the Bible and Qur’an, but it cannot provide a substitute for them. The Death of God may not be liberating because the vacuum created requires a new god, not a rational theory of discourse, no matter how sophisticated. We must applaud Habermas’s brilliance, but we also must realize the implications of an abstract theory.

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