Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Critiques of Secular Reason in Adorno and Levinas

"Extended it is, for at 760 pages this is a huge study of its own. Its subtitle – Critiques of Secular Reason in Adorno and Levinas – should be taken in its Kantian meaning: what de Vries is after is how Adorno and Levinas (with Habermas and Derrida, each in their own way, functioning as backdrops to the discussion), in the context of the all-too-familiar man-made disasters of the twentieth century, negotiate and articulate a certain theological impulse, a metaphysical desire, without making ontological or onto-theological commitments. The critique is particularly Kantian in that, rather than rejecting this impulse outright, they seek to acknowledge, explore and analyse it with a view to uncovering a dimension that on a legitimate, although not ‘traditional’ or indeed even fully conceptual, basis can be accepted by philosophy.

In some respects, the fact that this book was written in the 1980s can be felt rather strongly, and de Vries would perhaps have written it differently today. It is, for example, caught up in the then virulent debates around discourse ethics, and de Vries spends more time than I imagine he would have today worrying about Habermas’s attributions, in the notoriously im­patient Philosophical Discourse of Modernity (1985), of ‘performative self-contradictions’ to thinkers as distinguished and different from each other as Nietzsche, Heidegger, Adorno, Derrida and Foucault. Habermas’s more direct engagement with religion was in his debate with Joseph Ratzinger (now Bene­dictus XI), which took place more than a decade after the writing of this book and is therefore not discussed (See Haber­mas’s ‘Stellungnahme’ to the issue of ‘Vorpolitische moralische Grundlagen eines freiheitlichen Staates’ in Zur Debatte: Themen der Katholischen Akademie in Bayern 34, 2004; and Religion and Rationality: Essays on Reason, God, and Modernity, ed. Eduardo Mendieta, 2002). However, the more general deficits that de Vries locates in Habermas’s work, and which he discusses in a long warm-up to the analysis of Adorno, are still relevant and important. According to de Vries, Habermas fails to explain adequately how rationality, as embodied in our claims to unconditional validity, can be represented in principles, rules or norms. Indeed, Habermas himself admits that secular moralities stand in need of semantic resources drawn from extra-reflective or extra-philosophical registers – yet these are resources that cannot be accounted for within his own system."

full review here

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