Tuesday, October 05, 2004

Habermas and the universality of Enlightenment (some crucial pointers)

"As is well know, Piaget distinguishes among stages of cognitive development that are characterized not in terms of new contents but in terms of structurally described levels of learning ability. It might be a matter of something similar in the case of the emergence of new structures of worldviews. The caesurae between the mythical, religious-metaphysical, an modern modes of thought are characterized by changes in the system of basic concepts. With the transition to a new stage the interpretations of the superseded stage are, no matter what their content, categorically devalued. It is not this or that reason, but the kind of reason, which is no longer convincing. It is not this or that reason, but the kind of reasons, which is no longer convincing. A devaluation of the explanatory and justificatory potentials of entire traditions took place in the great civilizations with the dissolution of mythological-narrative figures of thought, in the modern age with the dissolution of religious, cosmological, and metaphysical figures of thought. These devolutive shifts appear to be connected with the socio-evolutionary transitions to new levels of learning, with which the conditions of possible learning processes in the dimensions of objectivating thought, moral-practical insight, and aesthetic expressive capacity are altered."

"The Theory of Communicative Action, Volume 1 : Reason and the Rationalization of Society, p. 68

Compare with the following:

"The religious forces of social integration grew weaker in the wake of a process of enlightenment that is just as little susceptible to being revoked as it was arbitrarily brought about in the first place. One of feature of this enlightenment is the irreversibility of learning processes, which is based on the fact that insights cannot be forgotten at will; they can only be repressed or corrected by better insights. Hence, enlightenment can only make good its deficits by radicalised enlightenment . . . ."

"The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity: Twelve Lectures, p. 84

And also note the following:

My thesis is] that anyone who has grown up in a reasonably functional family, who has formed his identity in relations of mutual recognition, who maintains himself in the network of reciprocal expectations and communicative action, cannot fail to have acquired moral intuitions of the kind articulated in propositions such as that of James.* The maxim asserts the reciprocal dependence of socialization and individuation, the interrelation between personal autonomy and social solidarity, that is part of the implicit knowledge of all communicatively acting subjects; it does not merely express a more or less subjective opinion concerning what some person believes is the good life. That proposition articulates an intuition we acquire in various different contexts on the condition that we grow up in surroundings that are not completely undermined by systematically distorted communication."

Justification and Application, p. 114

* The community stagnates without the impulse of the individual, the impulse dies away without the sympathy of the community - William James.


Note in the quote above the presupposition of functional family and also (and more importantly) note an illicit move from "individuation" to "personal autonomy." See further my post on Habermas on Rushdie and Fundamentalism


"I think the crucial point in this debate is whether we must take account of an asymmetry that arises between the interpretive capacities of different cultures in virtue of the fact that some have introduced "second-order concepts" whereas others have not. These second-order concepts fulfil necessary cognitive conditions for a culture's becoming self-reflective, that is, for its members' adopting a hypothetical stance toward their own traditions and on this basis grasping their own cultural relativity. This kind of decentered understanding of the world is characteristic of modern societies. What the argument is about, therefore, is whether such cognitive structures represent a threshold that demands similar processes of learning and adaptation of any culture that crosses it"

Justification and Application, p. 157

This is a crucial passage in understanding Habermas' whole argument about the superiority of modernity over all other systems of thought, so I shall buttress this by two concrete examples Habermas gives.


"Only once did I experience what you could call a barrier among the people I was talking to. A young mullah who graduated in Montreal had traveled from Qom, the old pilgrimage center where the central university for the Shiite clergy is based. He turned up for our meeting with a young son, three fellow-believers -- including one American -- and an interesting question. The latter related to my proposal to translate the semantic content of religious language into a philosophical, also secular language. He said this was all well and good, but would this not cast the world itself in a religious light?

The mild tone of our discussion took a turn when I asked him a question of my own. Why does Islam not rely solely on its own medium of the Word, why doesn't it abandon political means of coercion? The mild, ascetic guest opposite me replied quite brusquely to my request for a religious explanation. It was a moment when the veil appeared to lift for a second, revealing a dogmatic rock of granite. At the end of the discussion, after listening in silence to his pupil, the old ayatollah made an attempt at appeasement by giving me a book -- a textbook he had written that was translated into English by a Center for the Preservation of Ancient Religious Texts in the United States. I later discovered that it really does read like a medieval text."

Unrest is growing

And finally have a look at this:

“As the Rushdie case reminded us, a fundamentalism that leads to a practice of intolerance is incompatible with constitutional democracy. Such a practice is based on religious or historic-philosophical interruptions of the world that claim exclusiveness for a privileged way of life. Such a conceptions lack an awareness of the fallibility of their claims, as well as a respect for the “burden of reason” (Rawls). Of course, religious convictions and global interpretations of the world are not obliged to subscribe to the kind of fallibilism that currently accompanies hypothetical knowledge in the experimental sciences. But fundamentalist worldviews are dogmatic in a different sense: they leave no room for reflection on their relationship with the other worldviews with which they share the same universe of discourse and against whose competing validity claims they can advance their positions on the basis of reasons. They leave no room for “reasonable disagreement.”

Habermas on Rushdie and Fundamentalism


MelbournePhilosopher said...

Perhaps it is more like a rotation. We certainly regard Plato's reasoning as being figorous for some topics, and certainly don't dismiss it like we might dismiss a shamanic argument for weather patterns, for example.

It seems in the U.S. that a more mythological / spiritual argumentative process carries a great deal of weight - they brin issues down to simple issues, prefer to deal with question emotively rather that rationally.

Perhaps evolution in this context means change rather than implying any kind of moral "improvement" in reasoning ability. The devaluation might be actual, but there might not be any kind of semantic "betterness" or "worseness".

Ali Rizvi said...

I fundamentally agree with your perceptive comments. However in order to do justice to you and Habermas I need more time than I have available at the moment. So I shall come back to your comments when I have more time. However for the time being I have added a new post which relates to and develop on some themes in your comments.

Ali Rizvi said...


I have added crucial quotes with some brief comments. At this stage I am deliberately holding myself from forming any definitive judgments.


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