Habermas’ Contentious Concept: the Linguistification of the Sacred

The concept of the linguistification of the sacred has certainly got Habermas into a lot of hot water. On the surface, it does look like Habermas has pronounced the obsolescence of religion in the West’s jagged and bloodied travels to the Land of Modernity. There is a deep ambivalence inscribed into the concept of the linguistification of the sacred.

With the emergence of monotheism, the Creator is imagined as radically apart from his creation. Nature gods and spirits vanish into thin air. We are left alone, standing like Giacometti’s forlorn sculptures, facing away from each other as we gaze into empty space. And in the aftermath of the Protestant Reformation—as we will see with Habermas’ engagement with Weber’s classic theme of the “disenchantment of the world”—the “Protestant ethic” turns to purposive rational and calculating work (which successfully manifests in wealth accumulation) as an ironic sign of God’s grace.

But Habermas’s motivation is not in the tradition of God’s debunkers. Rather, the concept of the linguistification of the sacred is used to examine our journey to modernity—to the world of the primacy of communicative action—from another angle. Habermas is not making an anti-religious form of argument.

He is interested in the learning process whereby the “socially integrative and expressive functions that were at first fulfilled by ritual practice pass over to communicative action; the authority of the holy is gradually replaced by the authority of an achieved consensus” (Habermas, 1987, p. 77). Here we are talking about social evolutionary, historically grounded processes having to do with the function that religion plays in modernity. This, to reiterate, is not an anti-religious argument as such.

If religion is rendered obsolete, it is more in the function it now plays in a social order where the state has separated itself from church, a legal and normative system has created its own rules, churches mainly do pastoral and charitable care and social integration is mediated through communicative action. Mosques, churches and synagogues still operate and religious participants craft forms of piety and observance to sustain their faith commitments; and they do participate sporadically in the public square. But there can be no doubt that the “authority of the holy” is, at best, a faint halo around the contemporary system and lifeworlds of human beings in the West.

What does the “linguistification of the sacred” mean?

The “disenchantment and disempowering of the domain of the sacred” had to clear the way for a “linguistification of the ritually secured, basic normative agreement; going along with this is a release of the rationality potential in communicative action” (Habermas, 1987, p. 77). Like a new creature cracking through an egg-shell, communicative action is released from its captivity to the sacred.

“The aura of rapture and terror that emanates from the sacred, the spellbinding power of the holy, is sublimated into the binding/bonding force of criticisable validity claims and at the same time turned into an everyday occurrence” (ibid.). Drawing from Durkheim, Habermas chooses legal development as powerfully compelling evidence of the way the “sacred foundation of law” (p. 80) has disappeared. Durkheim, as is well-known, believed that religion, or the holy, symbolized the collective interest of the society. No longer does the law proceed downward from the high mountain or the threatening oracle; it is not divinely commanded.

The only thing that will hold the new creature released from captivity will be the “common will, communicatively shaped and discursively clarified on the political public sphere” (p. 81). Humankind is on its own, its wobbly legs revealed, its way forward resolutely set out on the horizontal plane with the ground shaking under foot.

Habermas exclaims: “To the degree that the basic religious consensus gets dissolved and the power of the state loses its sacred supports, the unity of the collective can be established and maintained only as the unity of a communicative community, that is to say, only by way of a consensus arrived at communicatively in the public sphere” (p. 82).

The phrase the “linguistification of the sacred,” Habermas argues, captures the important learning process propelling the movement from ritually formalized contracts to bourgeois private law. In the former, the sacred speaks for itself; in the latter, a “communication community of citizens” uses its “own words” to bring “about the binding consensus” (p. 82).

For his part, Durkheim observes that the “evolution of law” registers “change in the form of social integration affecting society as a whole” (p. 82). This now classic idea—of the shift from organic to mechanical forms of solidarity—was accompanied by a gradual “shrinking down [of] the domain of the sacred” which left “behind a nature bereft of gods” (p. 83). Habermas insists that only when the new creature’s “structures of action oriented to reaching understanding become effective does a linguistification of the sacred arise, determining the logic of the changing form of social integration as described by Durkheim” (p. 88).

Now, with the domains of the cognitive-instrumental, moral-normative and aesthetic-expressive differentiated from each other (each with its own validity claims), under the conditions of the linguistification of the sacred theologians must process the streams of knowledge that flow in from these domains. Religion becomes a “cultural tradition in need of being communicatively continued” (ibid.). It is forced, so to speak, to give reasons for its faith affirmations and learn to dwell with others, secular and religious, hostile and friendly.

Thus, the “conversion of society” occurring over many centuries leaves the “communities of faith” with a range and variety of problem-situations: ontological, epistemological, political and the delicate task of discerning the nature of religious experience in the post-Kantian world. Habermas makes the exceedingly important argument that “neither science nor art can inherit the mantle of religion; only a morality, set communicatively a flow and developed into a discourse ethics, can replace the authority of the sacred in this respect”(p. 92).

But the aura of the sacred lingers on. It is as if modernity has not only freed itself to walk on its own two feet, but also released the sacred to wander around, searching for a place to return (often with vengeance).

Habermas engages Weber to search out the relationship between religion and rationalization

Habermas, the consummate social evolutionary learning theorist, finds in Max Weber a deep well of concepts to understand the relationship between religion and rationalization. He states: “Max Weber’s theory of rationalization extends, on the one side, to the structural changes in religious worldviews and the cognitive potential of the differentiated value spheres of science, morality, and art, and, on the other side, to the selective pattern of capitalist rationalization” (Habermas, 1984, p. 141).

In “Science as a vocation,” Weber (1918-1919) writes: “The fate of our times is characterized by rationalization and intellectualization and, above all, by the ‘disenchantment of the world’” (p. 155). Although the Habermasian concept of linguistification of the sacred holds within itself the notion of a disenchanted world, Weber’s famous aphorism seems to be more than a mere dispassionate social scientific axiom. Indeed, darkness and fatalism hover melancholically around his apocalyptic image of the “iron cage”—our ironic fate as moderns.

“No one knows who will live in this cage (Gehause) in the future, or whether at the end of this tremendous development entirely new prophets will arise, or there will be a great rebirth of old ideas and ideals, or, if neither, mechanized petrification, embellished in a sort of convulsive self-importance. For the ‘last men’ (Letzen Menschen) of this cultural development, it might will be truly said: ‘Specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart; this nullity imagines that it has attained a level of humanity (Menschentums) never before achieved’” (Weber, 1904-5/1992, p. 182). Weber and Adorno dwell disconsolately in the same barred cage. Instrumental rationality triumphant! Humanity emptied of spirit! Weber’s dystopia manifest fully in neo-liberal rationality!

The momentous journey to modernity

One of Habermas’ intellectual tasks in The Theory of Communicative Action (1984) will be to offer us an alternative way of thinking about the rationalization of society. But before he attempts to find the key to unlock the iron cage, Habermas, typically, scouts through Weber’s work to gather necessary insights on the momentous journey to modernity. Habermas discovers that Weber interprets the rationalization process as a social learning process: this means that the differentiated “cultural spheres of value” (science and technology, art and literature, law and morality) emerge through reflective learning and become institutionalized in “cultural systems of action” (scientific enterprises, artistic institutes, legal systems and religious congregations).

To oversimplify, Habermas accentuates Weber’s central theme: “Occidental rationalism is preceded by religious rationalization” (p. 167). This means that the cultural rationalization process is the pacemaker of modernity—the expunging of the magical enchantment of nature, with its roots in the Judeo-Christian worldview, frees the natural world for the calculating mentality.

In fact, theological and scientific disputes in the seventeenth century indicate that economic interests pressed the idea (often associated with Spinoza and Toland) that God indwelt nature to the sidelines in favour of a distant Deist God-in-exile who was external to nature. Nature was now freed to be a brute thing easily exploited once de-spirited. Habermas knows, as Weber does, that ideas (residing in culturally stored knowledge) must have interests propelling them to transpose into the “life conduct of individuals and groups and into social forms of life” (p. 187).

Habermas (1984) argues brilliantly that for societal rationalization to occur, “cultural rationalization” must be released into profane domains. That is, there must be social carriers (or pedagogical forms). Habermas illustrates the way the “social carriers of those strands of tradition that were combined, amazingly, in modern science—the Scholastics, the Humanists, and above all the engineers and artists of the Renaissance—played a role in releasing for purposes of research practice the potential stored in cognitively rationalized worldviews—a role similar to that played by the Protestant sects in transposing ethically rationalized worldviews into everyday practice” (p. 215). He adds that the “cognitive potential” was “set free only in modern societies; and this process of implementation meant the modernization of society” (p. 216).

It is in this context of understanding that the process of modernization is not just about changing beliefs; rather, structures of consciousness require “motivational anchoring and embodiment” (ibid.) as men and women struggle with the demands of economic reproduction and for political power. That is, cognitive potential must “become operative at the societal level” (ibid.).

Habermas admits that there are different pathways for the transference of “understanding of the world from cultural tradition to level of institutionalized social action” (p. 207). To illustrate, by the “eighteenth century there had arisen a scientific enterprise organized into academic disciplines, a university-based jurisprudence, and an informal legal public, as well as an artistic enterprise organized through the market. At the same time, the church lost its global responsibility for the interpretation of the world; along with its diaconal functions, it maintained a partial responsibility for moral-practical questions, in competition with secular authorities” (p. 217).

Habermas and the Protestant ethic under scrutiny

But Weber directs specific attention to his now famous theory of the “Protestant ethic.” For Weber, attention was directed to the “royal road of rationalization: between the sixteenth and the eighteenth centuries [where] there arose in Europe a broadly effective institutionalization of purposive-rational action with structural effects on society as a whole” (ibid.). Both Weber and the Frankfurt School critical theorists acknowledge that: “From an organizational point of view, what is characteristic of both capitalist enterprise and modern state administration is ‘the concentration of the material means of operation’ in the hands of the rationally calculating entrepreneur or leader” (ibid.). What is the origin of this calculating mentality? Weber locates the origin in Protestant vocational culture and the modern legal system.

The Reformed Protestant idea of the calling had ironic consequences for the Christian presence in the world. Habermas provides his paraphrasal explication of Weber. According to “Calvinist doctrine successful activity in one’s calling does not count directly as a means for attaining salvation but as an outward sign for ascertaining a state of grace that is in principle uncertain. By means of this ideological connecting link, Weber explains the functional significance that Calvinism gained for the spread of inner-worldly-ascetic attitudes, but especially for an objectified, systematized conduct of life centered around purposive-rational activity in one’s calling” (p. 223).

Thus, the methodical conduct of life has broken out of intellectual and institutional cloisters. “In the life of religious congregations, which also served as an inspiration to family upbringing, he [Weber] finds the institution that saw to the influence of those teachings or socialization in the carrier strata of early capitalism” (ibid.). The Protestant ethic, then, did not compel its adherents to flee from the world; indeed, the world was there for transformative action upon it.

Habermas offers this great comment. “The systematic character of life conduct that comes about because the layman, unable to rely on priestly sacramental grace or on the assistance of an official establishment for dispensing grace—and this means, unable to divide up his lifeworld into those spheres of life relevant to salvation and those not—regulates his life autonomously according to principles of a post-conventional morality” (p. 224). This is powerful spiritual commitment: one’s labour and life activity is “ethically charged and dramatized” (p. 225).

Weber and Habermas both observe that the Protestant culture of vocation and calling lived before the face of God creates a severe tension. On the one hand, the Christian entrepreneurs are driven by a purposive-rationality that accentuates “egocentric foreshortening” (p. 228); on the other hand, their “ethic of brotherliness” clashes with the unbrotherliness of the capitalist mode of production. Habermas does not think that Weber pursues the theme of the “regression of the ascetic of vocation” which drops the Christian community behind the “communicatively developed ethic of brotherliness” (ibid.).

Thus: “The Protestant ethic of the calling fulfills necessary conditions for the emergence of a motivational basis for purposive-rational action in the sphere of social labor with the value-rational anchoring of purposive-rational orientations, it satisfies, to be sure, only the starting conditions of capitalist society; it gets capitalism underway, without, however, being able to secure the conditions for its own stabilization” (p. 228).

The Christian faith-community, then, sets in motion a process that is “destructive of the Protestant ethic in the long run” (p. 228). Habermas, as we shall see, will try to rescue the “religiously grounded” ethic of brotherliness through articulating the theory of communicative action against Weber’s pessimistic idea that this form of ethics can thrive only in the religious context.

“According to Weber’s diagnosis,” Habermas laments, “the foundation of the vocational orientation in an ethic of conviction is washed away in favor of an instrumental attitude toward work interpreted in utilitarian terms” (p. 241). Habermas will go on panning to recover the gold of communicative action.

Michael Welton retired from Athabasca University.  His recent books include Unearthing Canada’s Hidden Past: a Short History of Adult Education and Adult Education a Precarious Age: The Hamburg Declaration revisited.