Friday, December 07, 2007

Does Habermas break his own rule?

For the normative self-understanding of modernity, Christianity has functioned as more than just a precursor or a catalyst. Universalistic egalitarianism, from which sprang the ideals of freedom and a collective life in solidarity, the autonomous conduct of life and emancipation, the individual morality of conscience, human rights and democracy, is the direct legacy of the Judaic ethic of justice and the Christian ethic of love. This legacy, substantially unchanged, has been the object of a continual critical reappropriation and reinterpretation. Up to this very day there is no alternative to it. And in light of the current challenges of a post-national constellation, we must draw sustenance now, as in the past, from this substance. Everything else is idle postmodern talk. (Habermas, 2002: 149, quoted in Harrington, Habermas and the 'Post-Secular Society,' pp. 554-55.)

Harrington's comments on the above passage:

What is troubling in this passage is that after having first stated a rule about the irrelevance of moments of ‘cultural’ particularism to structures of ‘societal’ universality, Habermas appears to break his own rule. Having first stated that‘cultural’ moments such as religious history and tradition are not relevant in principle to the formation of universally valid societal structures, he also argues that it is the Judaeo-Christian civilization of the West, with its ethos of rational conduct of life and drive towards universal rationalization of all spheres of life, that has not only created de facto the modern world system but also creates the law for all legitimate global societal interaction in the present. (p. 555).

Brief comments on Harrington:

I think Harrington gets it slightly wrong here, because he doesn't differentiate between the sociological project of Habermas and his philosophical project. Philosophically speaking, the justification for the ideas of freedom, equality, and justice must be provided based on reasons which are not particularistic. However, from the sociological point of view, from the point of the socialisation, a reference back to the particular background is important. The philosophical project presupposes a prior socialisation and individuation which naturally can only occur within the context of particularistic background. What's universal for Habermas is the philosophical project and the socialisation background can and should vary from time to time and place to place. Habermas brings this out clearly in his critique of current American project of the democratisation of Iraq. The basis of the critique is that a generality (in this case constitutional democracy) must emerge from within a particularity (in this case Iraq), i.e. from within Iraqi culture, from within its own history:

“When thousands of Shiites in Nasiriya demonstrate against both Saddam and the American occupation, they express the fact that non-Western cultures must appropriate the universalistic content of human rights with their own resources and in their own interpretations, one that establishes a convincing connection to local experiences and interests.” (TDW: 35)

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