‘Between Naturalism and Religion: Philosophical Essays’ reviewed by Paula Cerni

Between Naturalism and Religion: Philosophical Essays

Translated by Ciaran Cronin. Polity Press, Cambridge, 2008. 361pp., £18.99 pb
ISBN 9780745638256

Reviewed by Paula Cerni

About the reviewer

Paula Cerni MPhil is an independent writer. For a list of publications, please visit …


Guided by his well-known thesis of communicative rationality, Habermas in this book steers a course between scientism and religious intransigence, two polarizing currents, he believes, that are threatening to scupper civic cohesion. But as the Introduction warns, the book’s chapters have been written for different occasions and do not form a systematic whole. Without containing any major theoretical breakthroughs, they leave it to the reader to piece together Habermas’s still-evolving views against a background of contemporary issues, from multiculturalism through to the boundary between faith and knowledge and the development of international law. While the volume will be of interest to all students of social, moral and political philosophy as well as philosophy of religion and philosophy of science, it is best suited to those who are already familiar with the author and wish to see his latest thinking in action.

Readers should also be warned that the book is written in a cumbersome style, with the biographical Chapter 1 a welcome exception. As Habermas tells it, his early life was marked by a cleft palate that forced him to undergo surgery, made it difficult and frustrating to communicate, and led to some humiliation. These experiences awoke in him a sense of the importance of connecting with others and respecting differences, so that ‘the social nature of human beings later became the starting point for my philosophical reflections’ (13).

But as a child Habermas also lived through WWII, and in his youth he witnessed the fall of the Nazi regime in his native Germany and the painful efforts to return the country to a working democracy. Habermas confesses that up to the 1980s he lived in fear of a relapse. The publication in 1953 of Heidegger’s 1935 lectures (An Introduction to Metaphysics) without any editing, and so implicitly without a renunciation of its pro-Nazi views, was a powerful reminder of ‘the oppressive political heritage that persisted even in German philosophy’ (20). And yet the eventual success of post-war Germany seems to have instilled in Habermas some confidence that formal democracy and the intervention of the ‘international community’ can bring about political stability. As a consequence, and in spite of his connections to Marxism via the Frankfurt School, and of his left-leaning activism over the years on issues ranging from nuclear weapons to asylum laws, Habermas’s main concern appears to be that of forging a political consensus above society’s fundamental divisions.

All the same, Habermas’s faith in practical bourgeois democracy sets him apart from the cynical thinking of many of his contemporaries, most notably those ‘critiques that destroy reason through its abstract negation, such as Foucault’s objectivating analysis or Derrida’s use of paradox’ (25). In chapters 2 and 3 he situates his own thought within an alternative tradition, one that includes Hegel and Marx and reclaims reason as pragmatic and historical, as reason ‘in the world’. But over the course of his long career Habermas has come to locate the foundations of this detranscendentalized or postmetaphysical reason in the inter-subjective constitution of the human mind, and to anchor his philosophy less on historical materialism than, among other influences, on the hermeneutic or interpretative tradition initiated by Wilhelm von Humboldt, on American pragmatism, on analytic philosophy of language, and on Kant.

The result is a formal and universalist pragmatics that hinges on the concept of discourse, the procedure by which arguments are subject to public testing. Rational discourse, argues Habermas, ‘presents itself as the appropriate procedure for resolving conflicts because it ensures the inclusion of all those affected and the equal consideration of all the interests concerned’ (48). But, of course, equal consideration does not equalize the divided interests out of which conflicts arise in the first place. Habermas is aware of this, yet places little hope on the ‘strategic rationality’ that would be required to overcome social divisions. He seems to believe that the formal features of argumentation are the only commonality left to ‘the sons and daughters of “homeless” modernity’ (87), but surely this cannot be correct, because even in our modern times conflict usually occurs within and between communities of interest – in societies made up of mutually dependent individuals, between social classes, etc. Humanity is not as homeless as Habermas assumes, and if it was argumentation would be quite pointless.

The Habermasian emphasis on communication is part of the broader turn from epistemology to language characteristic of twentieth-century philosophy, a turn that highlighted an important aspect of human agency, but, since language by itself is not emancipative, any more than knowledge by itself is, did not represent a significant advance for philosophy. Habermas senses that communication cannot carry the full burden of social consensus, and so, in Chapter 4, as part of a discussion with then Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) he takes up the question whether constitutional democracy relies on pre-political forces such as religion. No, he answers, because ‘legitimacy is generated from legality’ (104), but nevertheless it is ‘in the interest of the constitutional state to conserve all cultural sources that nurture citizens’ solidarity and their normative awareness’ (111). That organized religion might also be damaging to human relations – as illustrated by the child-abuse scandal now rocking the Catholic Church and even the Pope himself – is not an argument that figures in this book. Implicit in its so-called ‘postsecular’ understanding of the role of religion in modern society is a bargain whereby religion is recognized by the state in exchange for its contribution to maintaining social order and motivating believers to participate in political life. Against Habermas’s own formal pragmatics, this bargain represents an admission that modern politics ultimately depends on the interest-driven participation of civil society.

Habermas’s concern with the terms of such participation leads him to engage, in Chapter 5, with the important debate about religious expression in a democratic polity. Treading a careful line between John Rawls and his critics, he concludes that the state must justify its political positions in a secular language, but cannot demand individual citizens do the same. It’s a sensible conclusion, though the need for a secular state does not follow, as Habermas believes, from the Rawlsian ‘fact of pluralism’, but from the very character of democracy as rule according to the will of the people instead of the will of God. As such it would apply also in conditions of religious homogeneity.

In the next two chapters Habermas responds to the renewed controversy over freedom and determination that has resulted from recent advances in the natural sciences, particularly genetics and neurobiology. Wanting to challenge the anti-mentalist slant of modern science, he reclaims Wilfrid Sellars’ ‘space of reasons’. For Habermas this space is above all cultural and inter-subjective, so that freedom of action belongs ‘to the dimension of objective mind’ (173), that is to say, to ‘mind as symbolically embodied in signs, practices and objects’ (174), rather than to our capacity to join causes with reasons by shaping the objective world according to our subjective purposes.

In the absence of a dialectical materialist concept of freedom and of the projects of large-scale social transformation that could follow from it, Habermas in Chapter 8 turns to Kant’s philosophy of religion to argue for a secular appropriation of the semantic content of religious traditions. More accurately, however, such appropriation is really a re-appropriation, since, in order to be translatable into secular terms, religious contents must be, in Habermas’s own formulation, ‘profane truths’ in the first place – that is to say, secular contents in disguise.

But Habermas’s wish to save such contents contradicts his own rejection of a rationalist critique of religion in favor of a ‘dialogical’ approach that does not presume to ‘decide what is true or false in religion’ (245). For how can we identify any profane truths in religion to begin with? This is a question Habermas does not ask, though he evidently has his own method for amending Kant’s translation of the idea of the kingdom of God into a universal ethical community. The universalism that Habermas wants is not to be realized in a future society where human beings no longer use and exploit each other, but in the current political procedures whereby citizens and groups negotiate their cultural identities. Hence he argues, against Kant, that ‘we must first affirm that conceptions of the kingdom of God and of an “ethical community” are inherently plural’ (239). But pluralism is only a necessary democratic means to create and sustain a public sphere in the face of social and religious conflict; it is far less ambitious than the abolition of such conflict envisioned by Kant, Marx, and many religious doctrines.

Chapters 9 and 10 deal with the politics of tolerance. While Habermas argues for sensitivity to cultural differences, he places strict limits on political tolerance. A democratic state such as Germany’s ‘must resort to intolerance toward enemies of the constitution, either by employing the mechanisms of political criminal law or by prohibiting particular political parties (Article 21.2 of the German Basic Law) and suspending basic rights (Article 18 and Article 9.2 of the same)’ (255). The enemies he has in mind include ‘the political ideologist who combats the liberal state’ as well as ‘the fundamentalist who violently attacks the modern way of life as such’ (255). Habermas does see the threat of authoritarianism here, reminding us that those ‘who are suspected of being “enemies of the state” may very well turn out to be radical defenders of democracy’ (255). But exploring the contradictions between the modern state and democracy would require him to investigate the class foundations of that state, which is precisely what his proceduralist approach does not do. Clearly, his illiberal attitude towards the enemies of liberal democracy is informed by the experience of a Nazi regime that came to power with the backing of the masses, but surely that same experience shows also the dangers of intolerant regimes.

In the closing chapter Habermas asserts his support for Kantian cosmopolitanism, but simultaneously dismisses as utopian Kant’s dream of a world republic. Instead, he puts forward proposals that include UN reform as a mechanism to build a more solid supranational structure of constitution-like norms; the formation of strong regional and continental alliances; and a continuation of the system of nations, with the monopoly on force being retained by each state. Altogether, these proposals are fraught with dangers and contradictions that Habermas does not begin to perceive, partly because, at the time of writing, his analysis was still dominated by the concern with neo-liberalism that prevailed on the left before the present economic downturn. If short-term events have already rendered this final chapter out of date, from a longer-term perspective its dramatic scaling-down of Kantian cosmopolitanism illustrates as well as anything else in this book how spent the once-revolutionary spirit of bourgeois philosophy has become. Which of course is no reflection on the personal and intellectual character of its author, but on the times we are all living through.

28 May 2010

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