‘Postmetaphysical Thinking II’ reviewed by Michael Maidan

Postmetaphysical Thinking II

Translated by Ciaran Cronin, Polity, Cambridge, 2017. 272pp., £17.99 pb
ISBN 9780745682150

Reviewed by Michael Maidan

About the reviewer

Michael Maidan studied philosophy in Buenos Aires, Haifa and Paris-Ouest (Nanterre). He published …


In 1988 Habermas published Postmetaphysical Thinking: Philosophical Essays (PMT). Like the present volume, PMT was a collection of papers and lectures that had been published in different places and contexts. In the preface to PMT II Habermas writes that—as was the case with PMT—this book deals mainly with the problem of the ‘self-confirmation of philosophical thinking’ under the conditions prevailing in our post-metaphysical epoch (vii). Under those conditions, explains Habermas, the philosopher cannot aspire any longer to the position of the seer or the sage. Philosophy needs to coexist with the discourses of the natural and social sciences, as well as with hermeneutical discursive practices, such as art criticism, legal discourse, political and public communication, etc. (vii-viii).

Despite Habermas’ emphasis on the continuity between PMT and PMT II, a brief glance at the table of contents and the short introductory preface reveals important differences. In PMT and in the other works of Habermas from the 80s, religion is practically inexistent, whereas it has an overwhelming presence in PMT II. A second difference between the two books is the adoption of an ‘evolutionary perspective’ (viii). More precisely, the integration into Habermas’ discourse of theories of evolutionary psychology turbocharged with the help of the ‘axial age’ hypothesis of a revolutionary civilizational change that took place in different cultures (China, India, the Middle East, Persia, Greece) in a period of roughly 800 BC to 300 BC. This combination functions in PMT II as a sort of philosophy of history redeemed of the worst excesses of Hegelianism, including its European centrism and Whig historiography.

In PMT II, Habermas engages with religion from two different perspectives. The first, that is internal to the foundations of his own social philosophy, and a second perspective—not wholly separated from the first—that looks at the role of religion in the public sphere. Habermas claims that, developments such as globalization, digital communication, and more concretely, the fact that the largely secularized European society is confronted with religious movements and forms of fundamentalism ‘of undiminished vitality’ (viii) present a double challenge to philosophy. Insofar as philosophy is the heir to European Enlightenment and the guardian of rationality, it is obliged to make sense of the fact that religion is asserting itself “as a contemporary productive intellectual formation” (viii-ix). On the other hand, in its role as a normative political theory, philosophy needs to examine the validity of an interpretation of politics that banishes the religious communities from the public realm and confines them to the private sphere (viii).

The book is divided into three sections. The first, discusses the challenge of the persistence of religion for philosophy. The second section centers on the notion of postmetaphysical thinking and its relationship to religion, while the third and last discusses the consequences of the persistence of religion for a democratic post-secular state.

Section One is composed of three essays. The first, examines the notion of ‘lifeworld’, i.e., the background and unconscious presuppositions of our everyday routines. Lifeworld refers to ‘an horizon of experience’ that is uncircumventable, of whose existence we become aware only in an indirect way, performatively, as experiencing subjects, as socialized persons, and as actors that intervene in the world (4). Modern philosophy, together with science, sidelines the epistemic role of the lifeworld in a process that Weber famously named the ‘disenchantment of the world’. At the same time, philosophy renounces its claims to a metaphysical kind of knowledge. The essay asks ‘how reflection on this repressed background changes the self-understanding of postmetaphysical thinking’ (5). In what way is a philosophy possible that is not totally absorbed in the academic form (what he refers to as ‘an hyphenated philosophy’, e.g., philosophy of science, philosophy of art, etc.) but which is also aware of the impossibility of going back to a speculative position? Such a philosophy needs to compete with the reductionist claims of a narrowly understood natural science, and with the religious-metaphysical claim to unity between world and lifeworld. The last paragraphs of the chapter speculate about the possibility of a ‘natural history of the mind’ which conceives natural evolution as a ‘learning process’ (27), and which is also aware of its own process of emergence.

Chapter 2 attempts to show that ‘the space of symbolically embodied meaning … extends beyond the domain of explicitly accessible reasons’ (42). This excess constitutes the lifeworld. Borrowing from developmental and comparative psychology Habermas presents an account of the development of language that gives to communication temporal precedence over representation. Communicative reasons that are successful in promoting social goals become fixed and embodied in culture, in the psychosocial structure of individuals and materialized in artifacts (40). But reasons also become ‘free floating’ resulting in a sort of dialectics between the codified and the free-floating reasons (this brings to mind Marx’s dialectics between productive forces and forms of production, or Kuhn’s model of scientific revolution, but this is not explored any further). The essay dedicates only a short paragraph to religion, which looks like an afterthought, but is indicative of Habermas’ underlying motives. Habermas differentiates between religions that are reflective and are structured by a theology, and the cultic practices and foundations of beliefs on which even organized religions remain dependent. Habermas speaks of this community of beliefs and cultic acts as a form of access to ‘an archaic source of solidarity to which the agnostic secular society has no direct access’.

Chapter 3 deals with the evolutionary meaning of rites. Habermas first introduces religion in general as beliefs and practices that relate to extraordinary forces of salvation and misfortune, but he is more interested in a particular subset of religions, the ones that are based on founders, and that have canonized scriptural doctrines. These religions trace back, according to Jaspers’ hypothesis to the ‘axial age’. They represent a cognitive breakthrough, having invented the notion of a world, moral universalism and conceptions of salvation and redemptive justice. On the other hand, these teachings also preserve the archaic unity of myth and rite. That explains the resilience of religious thought up to the present. Religions preserve an important archaic experience that is otherwise lost for other aspects of our culture.

Part II opens up with a dialogue between Habermas and Eduardo Mendieta. Mendieta, who is close to the Latin American liberation theology tradition, has been involved in a conversation with Habermas already for almost to three decades. One of the most important aspects of this particular exchange is the reference to Habermas’ work in progress on the subject of religion and postmetaphysical thinking, which Mendieta describes elsewhere as a manuscript of more than 500 pages, aspects of which Habermas presented in his 2008 Yale lectures. Of importance also are passages in which Habermas explains the intent and limits of his current approach to religion. When pressed by Mendieta on the question of a ‘post-secular world society’, Habermas is quick to reply that ‘postmetaphysical thinking as I conceive it also remains secular in a situation depicted as “post-secular”’ (62; emphasis added). Post-secular does not describe a kind of society, but a change in the self-understanding of society, which despite being largely secularized, recognizes the existence of religious groups within itself (63). This recognition leaves open the question whether the forms of religion present in contemporary advanced societies can still be subjected to additional processes of secularization or if such process has exhausted itself (64).

The two remaining essays in this section are Habermas replies to two different seminars on the confluence between his thought and religion. In both cases, Habermas responds to descriptions and criticisms of a project that he himself presents as not yet sufficiently developed. The participants in the first meeting were a group of leading scholars in the humanities and social sciences led by Mendieta, while the second one was a meeting of theologians in Vienna that took place a few years earlier. In this last one, Habermas makes clear to his audience that he is not interested in developing a philosophy of religion but rather on what secular reason can learn about itself from a discussion with religion (123).

Section Three consists of four essays. In ‘The political’ Habermas takes issue with the current fascination with the heritage of Carl Schmidt among European and North American left-leaning intellectuals. The eighth essay comments on a recently discovered work by John Rawls, written as a BA thesis in Princeton in 1942, which presents a religious ethics grounded on a theory of communication forms. Beyond the biographical curiosity, Habermas finds in this early work the first stage of a philosophical reshaping of religious ideas that is comparable to Kant’s (183).

The ninth essay is a contribution to a book which re-enacts Habermas 1995 discussion with Rawls. As in other cases, Habermas summarizes and explains the points of agreement or disagreement with his critics. Only one subsection in this essay has direct bearing to the question of religion. On the question—already addressed elsewhere in the book—if the task of translating semantic potentials from the religious language games that remain inaccessible at their core has been exhausted, Habermas is open to the possibility that such semantic materials remain and that such a philosophical endeavor should be continued: ‘a form of philosophy which has become fallibilistic should adopt a receptive and dialogical attitude towards all religious traditions and should engage in renewed reflection on the position of postmetaphysical thinking between science and religion’ (203).

The tenth and final essay discusses the public role of religion in a post-secular society. While not a summation of Habermas’ position, this essay touches on the main problems that occupy his thought on the matter of religion in the public sphere. Those can be classified under two headings: is the presence of religion in a secular society a danger to its inner cohesion? And what do we mean with the idea of a post-secular society? Habermas adopts in the first part of the chapter a detached point of view as an observer, while in the second he adopts the perspective of a participant, dealing not just with the facts but also with the new normative problems posed by the post-secular society.

The concept of post-secular alludes to societies which were previously secular, and therefore it can only be applied to the affluent societies in Europe and in other countries in the West. In those countries, societies underwent a transformation, first in terms of the ‘disenchantment of the world’, and then with the confinement of religion to the realm of the private and its specialization in administering the means of salvation (211). This process, which Habermas summarizes in a few short paragraphs, was expected to repeat itself in other nations as they assimilated the premises of Western culture. But recent developments seem to point in the opposite direction. Religion is not withering away. Rather, it is becoming more radicalized and fundamentalist, not only in the formerly colonial countries, but also in the presumably secularized ones. The acknowledgment of this fact is what constitutes the post-secular, i.e., not necessarily the transformation of secular societies into believing ones, but the realization by the public at large that religion plays a political role in society. Habermas finds three reasons for this awareness: a) the perception that religion is playing a role in global conflicts undermines the secular belief in the weakening and privatization of religion; b) the growth of religious influence not only abroad but also within secular societies, where they are taking the role of ‘communities of interpretation’ in the political life of secular societies. Habermas refers here to debates on contested issues such as abortion, euthanasia, and bioethics in general. Because of the lack of consensus about those issues, the void has been filled to a large extent by voices coming from organized religion (214); c) This awareness can also be related to the emergence of more organized and vocal voices from the immigrant communities living within the secularized societies of the West.

Adopting now the normative point of view, the question becomes how to preserve pluralism and civility in a post-secular society. Habermas response to this conundrum seems not unlike the one which implicitly emerged with the modern state: ‘As democratic citizens they give themselves laws under which, as private citizens, they can preserve their identity in the context of their own particular culture and worldview and respect each other’ (217). Habermas seems to believe that through mutual recognition we can overcome ‘dissonances’. But he realizes that this is easier said than done (218). He rejects both fundamentalism and multiculturalism, while proposing a long view, in which a learning process, operating both within the side of the religious traditionalist and of the secularist would foster toleration, while preserving the separation of the power of the state from ‘the informal flows of political communication and opinion formation among the broader public of citizens’ (223). Ultimately, democracy requires that even those who cannot adopt a secularist point of view be allowed to express their opinions and to take part in political will-formation. Furthermore, we cannot know if by silencing those voices we are not cutting society off from ‘scant resources for generating meaning and shaping identities’ (223).

As could be expected, Habermas’ forays into religion had been met with a variety of negative responses. Critics from the left condemned the move as a retreat into conservatism and a betrayal of the traditions of critical thinking. Other critics rejected his defense of secular reason as still anchored in a particular and non-universalizable Western experience. Critics from the religious field attempted to coopt and recuperate some of his ideas—occasionally taking them out of context—something about which Habermas has been especially vigilant. And the fact that Habermas has not released so far a complete and comprehensive theory of religion, which still remains as work in progress, contributes to fueling the controversy. This is not necessarily a handicap for Habermas, who is not shy of polemics and flourishes from controversy. Time will tell if Habermas still has the strength in his old age finally to complete his theory of communicative action with a plausible account of the persistence of religion in contemporary advanced society.


14 October 2017

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