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Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Who Wants to Read About Habermas?

Sorry, I can’t help it, even though I know from experience how my readership plummets whenever philosophy shows its stern face. But it’s part of my life, and part of who I am, and that’s that. You are forewarned! Actually--please give this a chance, because my conclusion is that philosophy should be part of everyone's lives, and if it isn't, it's philosophy's fault. There--conclusion first, now back to the beginning.

Recently one of my old graduate school friends made a reference on Facebook to a Habermas essay, “An Awareness of What Is Missing.” The essay begins with a reflection on a friend’s memorial service, held in a church but with no religious expression—no prayers, no blessing, no liturgy--so the first natural interpretation of the title is that religious content is what’s missing from a memorial service. But this is Habermas, and he has another point to make, more distant and complicated. His concern is not with funerals but with the chasm between science and religion.

Across this chasm, he notes, as have many of us, there is little communication or respect. Tolerance, or the politically guaranteed freedom of noncoercion that we enjoy in the West, is an insufficient support for meaningful dialogue, and thus freedom itself lacks solidarity. In a different tradition of discourse, one might identify the lack of solidarity as the contradiction to be resolved if freedom is to survive.

Habermas says explicitly that “what is missing” is a common normative foundation shared by both science and religion. A positive foundation? (Noncoercion is negative, an absence.) A substantive foundation? What would it look like? What would be involved?

Here are the moves I see in the brief essay:

(1)      It is not enough for the liberal state to be neutral (noncoercive) toward science and religion.
(2)      Legal protection of different views is not enough.
(3)      The legitimacy of the liberal state itself demands normative foundations justifiable by various world-views within a pluralistic society, from within those world-views.
(4)      Both religion and science, therefore, must “open up” to recognition, for reasons of their own, to equal freedom for the other.
(5)      Neither religion nor science should be claiming an exclusive rational or revelatory perspective.

As far as I can see, that does not answer but brings us back to the question of what normative foundation the liberal state can and should provide as common ground for opposing points of view. The essay hints at a Kantian solution, with each participant acknowledging the equality and rationality of every other.

The very large question is important, as is, for many of us, the small, original question of how to pay recognition to the ending of an individual life. And yet—I am so unsatisfied with the essay. When philosophy (much poetry condemns itself to the same fate and in the same way) sidelines itself, relegates itself to academic-only arenas, what contribution does it make to the rest of the world? Very little that I can see.

I am not asking for a “dumbing-down” of the conversation, but I don’t see any reason why it cannot be conducted in ordinary language, either. Rene Descartes, David Hume, and Henri Bergson (Bergson in the 20th century!) spoke to everyone, not simply to lecture halls of academics. (Bergson spoke in lecture halls, but when he lectured the hall was crammed to overflowing with non-academic crowds.) For me, this is what is missing. What is missing is language that speaks directly and comprehensibly so that nonphilosophers will listen and read and feel welcome in the conversation. When philosophy sits on its academic “high horse,” neither theologians nor scientists, neither people of faith nor atheists give it two seconds’ attention.

Is it any wonder that the most vibrant philosophical activity these days is taking place in the intersection of ethics, economics, and psychology? Writers at that intersection speak to us where we live.

Not long ago—perhaps in the New Yorker—I read an article about women on opposite sides of the legality of abortion question coming together in an exchange of views and a search for mutual understanding. As I recall the story, the women quickly put aside epithets when they met face to face. Speaking together, they came to respect one another. A fascinating outcome of the conversations was that very few of them changed their opinions: most, in fact, were more firmly convinced after the encounter of their original positions. Organizers, however, regarded the entire event as a success, since the aim was not to win converts to one side or the other but to find understanding and common ground. It seems...that the common ground the women discovered was mutual respect and humanity.

So might it be that mutual respect is an outcome of conversation rather than a necessary condition for the beginning of conversation? Or is neither a “beginning”? Perhaps, like thought and language, the two co-evolve?

If anyone has read to the end of this post, I would be delighted to have partners in this conversation. And please note that today's offering has not been proof-read for error. My battery recharging problem was not solved by a new power unit....


Anonymous said...

My "cynical" observation is as follows:

Generally speaking, while people may be able to share mutual respect in some spaces and situations, there are a host of spaces in which solidarity is found only by "othering" dissenting views. For instance, people choose a news source that reinforces their views and find it reinforces their views specificially because it defines their views against viewpoints of other, opposing views.

Furhermore, within these spaces there are people with a stake in their existence (media conglomerates e.g.) who would be quite done in by an emergent culture based on mutual respect. Now when one asks the question, "what are the motives at play when person x wrote this, spoke this, etc.", one realizes that he in many cases that the article, news story, etc. was written for profit (only one example) and can then decided whether to still "buy" the information.

Yet of course in our day to day dealings with people, we must respect people with different political and religious views - we simply would not be able to get along in life if we didn't! And not only do we do so, we don't entirely seem to mind it. So, one might ask, "why do we spend much of our time rationalizing against the views of others, when we seem to have no problem maintaining friendships with them?" Well, perhaps as in the case with the women engaged in the abortion debate, it isn't necessarily other people that we can't stand, it's their ideologies which necessarily stand in contrast to our own. Yet when we do the work of getting to know these people and find that they are just as human and "rational" (people of one political viewpoint often find the viewpoints of others to be irrational or crazy) as we are, we sort of betray our ideology for a time.

I could go on but to sum, the point I want to make is that we should choose our spaces wisely and understand that that as we spend time in a partisan space we risk eroding our values systems, which must be rebuilt every so often, and this goes for just about everyone.

Gerry said...

I always read your philosophy posts but commenting is something else again. Ah well.

It's certainly true that everyone must agree to stop shouting in order to have a conversation at all. Once a real conversation is underway and people begin to listen to each other, it is possible to develop mutual respect. That process is at the heart of true mediation, and a skilled mediator is often able to help the parties come to a resolution of a difficult problem.

I don't buy the division of thought into "science" and "religion." I'm pretty sure that's one of those false dichotomies. I think there are thoughtful people in the world who try to convey what their own life experience has taught them to other thoughtful people. I think there are cynical people who build structures of lies and misinformation having nothing whatsoever to do with anything they "believe" or have concluded based on their life experience. I think there are people who cling to an idea or a position that their own experience tells them is not tenable. I think in different times and circumstances most of us could fall into any of these categories as well as others I haven't even thought of.

There are as many ways of clarifying or obfuscating who we are as there are human beings. We are an endlessly inventive species, not always to our own benefit.

Dawn said...

I was hoping this post was still up tonight, when I had time to read it. Not that I understand it all...but then again I'm a business major and when have business and philosophy ever mixed? Oh wait...that's your point isn't it? Or one of them? That philosophy should be a part of all aspects of our life, not just the intellectual part?

And I have to say I hate hate hate those weekend political shows where panels of people talk over each other to make their points, none of which I can hear because they're all shouting. Especially hate election years when it's all talk and no action and no one listens to anyone else. (I think I"m out of space! LOL!)

BB-Idaho said...

Blame Pierre-Simon LaPlace. Developed the Method of least squares (common in rocket energy
calculations) and predicted black holes resulting from gravitational
collapse about 110 years back.
When he presented Napoleon with
his tome on astrophysical mechanics, Napoleon needled him
by observing he had not mentioned a creator, LaPlace replied, "Je n'avais pas besoin de cette hypothèse-là." ..and on it goes.

P. J. Grath said...

Cynicism, my view, is as serious a mistake as disdain for the views of others. No, let me start again and be kinder--. Cynicism is an easy conclusion to reach when one looks at the whole human race at once. It’s like looking at an enormous, back-breaking, impossibly large job of physical work and being overwhelmed with hopelessness. “It will take forever! I’m not strong enough!” But we owe life more than that. We owe ourselves more than that. No, we will never put the whole world right, but we need to try to put ourselves right and to reach out to others, one at a time, on days when we are feeling strong enough to do so. IMO.

Matthew, thank you for the reminder about choosing company wisely. Gerry, I don’t buy the dichotomy, either, but many on both sides do! Dawn, I think philosophy and poetry should not be exclusively academic pursuits. BB, thank you for giving us all a laugh!

Thank you ALL for reading my thoughts on Habermas!