Jürgen Habermas

By Peter Gordon
The New Republic, December 2011

Edited by Andy Ross

In October 2001, the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas, then aged 72, started talking about religion. His turn to religion amplifies philosophical and political themes that have preoccupied him for many years.

Habermas was a philosopher in the Hegelian tradition of Western Marxism. He was raised on the insights of the Frankfurt School and his teachers were Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer. But he eventually concluded that his teachers had backed themselves into a corner with their totalizing critique of reason as such. He abandoned their apologetics for Marxism and made his peace with European social democracy.

Habermas was a young man in postwar West Germany. In his magnum opus, The Theory of Communicative Action (1981), Habermas tried to show how the structure of human language promises mutual understanding and a rational consensus that can serve as the basis for a truly democratic polity.

Habermas saw that as reason expands its reach, the contents of our religious heritage must undergo a trial of rationalization. The ideas that were once considered beyond scrutiny must be refashioned into propositional claims that are susceptible to criticism. His new work on religion is built upon the philosophy and sociology of religion.

One month after 9/11, the Bush administration had rushed to a crusading war on terror. Habermas: "If we want to avoid a clash of civilizations, we must keep in mind that the dialectic of our own occidental process of secularization has not yet come to a close."

Some conservatives in Europe continue to believe that Christianity is a necessary component of modern civilization. Many theorists of democracy regard the secular Enlightenment as a precondition for the rise of democratic institutions, but some conservative political theorists blame overzealous secularization for the rise of Nazism as a new kind of paganism.

Habermas disagrees with proponents of thoroughgoing secularization who seem intent upon denying religion any role in politics. He accepts that monotheistic religion may furnish moral insights that can be useful to secular democracies. The West has been shaped by a continuous philosophical appropriation of "semantic contents" from the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Habermas claimed that the authority of the holy could be gradually replaced by the authority of an achieved consensus. The language was rationalist and seemed consonant with the belief that religion was destined to disappear. But now Habermas prefers to speak of translation as the only mode of "nondestructive secularization" whereby modern society might salvage the moral feelings that "only religious language has as yet been able to give a sufficiently differentiated expression".

The idea of translation works well in the context of modern democracy where we need to provide reasons for the policies we advocate. Yet these reasons cannot presuppose that everyone shares the same metaphysical vision of reality. In a multicultural democracy we must submit to a relativization of moral vision. I must be willing to back up my claims with reasons that all other citizens could recognize as at least potentially binding no matter what they may believe. This is the price of democracy.

This requirement seems to place an unequal burden on religious members of a society, but Habermas tries to present the task of translation as a reciprocal learning process in which burdens are symmetrical. He dresses up the unidirectionality of translation to promote a vision of reciprocity.

What Habermas used to call the "linguistification of the sacred" he now calls translation. The theory of translation is essentially a theory of secularization mapped onto democratic discourse. Perhaps there is nothing in religion that requires translation. Habermas acknowledges that religious rituals and practices appear to have no obvious secular counterpart.

Habermas observes that in our ethical reasoning we provide justification in the language of universalistic concepts that presuppose the freedom of the individual. But to act on our insight into the solidarity of the human collective we may need more than good reasons. Habermas says profane reason "loses its grip on the images, preserved by religion, of the moral whole — of the Kingdom of God on Earth — as collectively binding ideals."

Habermas was not endorsing religion and condemning reason. What is missing is the unity of a world reconciled with itself, a world that is rational not merely in promise but also in substance. Habermas meant that reason is too fallible to dismiss the possibility that religious traditions may still be of value.

Habermas suggests that in a democracy one should not exclude from the public sphere any religious culture whose normative insights admit of translation. But religious citizens must submit to the reciprocal game of public critique.

Jürgen Habermas

By Stuart Jeffries
The Guardian, 15 February 2017

Edited by Andy Ross

Jürgen Habermas was a member of the Hitler Youth. Too young to fight and too old to be exempted from war service, he manned Flak defenses. He was shaken by the Nuremberg trials and news about Nazi KZ camps. He became disenchanted with Martin Heidegger and joined the Frankfurt school led by Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno.

Adorno: "Hitler imposes a new categorical imperative on human beings in their condition of unfreedom: to arrange their thought and action so that Auschwitz would not repeat itself."

The Frankfurt school saw that under advanced industrial capitalism, humans were pinned beneath the shadow of the Verblendungszusammenhang (total system of delusion). We are bewitched by our consumer durables, made frivolous by the culture industry, thwarted from using democracy to change an irksome system because it is corrupted by money.

Habermas, 1979: "I do not share the basic premise of critical theory, the premise that instrumental reason has gained such dominance that there is really no way out of a total system of delusion, in which insight is achieved only in flashes by isolated individuals."

Habermas crafted a full response to Adorno's despairing and elitist philosophy in his 1981 two-volume magnum opus Theorie des kommunikativen Handelns (Band 1, Handlungsrationalität und gesellschaftliche Rationalisierung; Band 2, Zur Kritik der funktionalistischen Vernunft).

Habermas, 2005: "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."