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....