A Final Word or Two From the Wise Old Philosopher

Accomplished and much-published American Critical Theorists Thomas McCarthy and Peter Gordon have read Auch eine Geschichte der Philosophie (vols. 1 and 2). Berlin, Germany: Suhrkamp Verlag (cited in text as AGP). They won’t have been able to rush their reading; it totals 1,700 pages. I want to see how they assess this luminous text (drawing on their articles in Constellations, May 2021). Each scholar highlights key ideas in AGP and puts the spotlight on areas of worry and concern.

A professor of history and faculty affiliate in the philosophy department at Harvard University, Peter Gordon is dazzled by Jurgen Habermas’s “brilliant and highly illuminating history of philosophy that spans the millennia, Achsenzeit to the modern era.” Famous philosophers like to toss in some German words: achsenzeit means Axial Age (think Axial Age, think Karl Jaspers). The first big insight Gordon offers us is that the famous philosopher aims to “self-consciously vindicate postmetaphysical thinking as the telos of our spiritual history.” Postmetaphysical thinking has to do with moving beyond “absolute knowing” onto a horizontal plane of partiality and fragmented forms of knowing.

Basically, during the Axial Age (800-300 BCE) some break-through thinkers (like Isaiah or Buddha) oriented us toward a “new, transcendent principle (God, Logos, Nirvana) that was the telos of human life. We might say, then, that they all had in common a certain affirmation of metaphysics.” The idea of history having (or carrying an inherent purpose (or direction) is immensely controversial in theological and philosophical thought. For strong-minded secularists, teleological thinking reeks of Christian ideas of a providential God working out his purposes in history behind our backs. Secularists do not like the idea of providence; and they sense that a philosopher like Kant sneaks a “weak form of providence” into his writings.

What Habermas does, however, is a touch amazing. One must listen closely. He argues that the “metaphysical inheritance of the axial religions could become available, through a rationalizing process of translation, for a new mode of philosophical reflection that has left metaphysics behind.” Wow — let’s think about Professor Gordon’s observation. A “critical perspective” was born in the Axial Age. Urged to “stand back and reflect,” we could ask moral and ethical questions about the social order. Using fancy terms like aufgehoben (sublation), Gordon states that it is not that the notion of “vertical transcendence” is dissolved; rather, it becomes incorporated into “mundane or quasi-transcendental reasoning.” This is not easy to grasp. Religion occupies the transcendent realm within our Western imaginations, and Habermas is not calling humanity to abandon religion as part of humankind’s early floundering, and now surpassed, attempts to answer the eternal questions of origins, meaning and purpose. Rather, he is pressing us to understand that a hidden motor moves through philosophical thought, learning, rethinking, reconstituting, that which has been received through revelation and transformed.

Gordon argues, powerfully, that Habermas’s task in AGP is to “demonstrate how postmetaphysical thinking has emerged from the historical dialogue with religion. This is meant to be a genuine dialogue and not a mere clash of opposites, because religion in its discursive forms is a source of semantic insights and normative potentials that have been, and still are, available for rational recuperation even by those of us who are the ‘unbelieving sons and daughters of modernity.’” Members of Christian faith-communities don’t use the language of “semantic insights” in their existential religious life as lived through ritual practice, worship and ethical actions in the world. We also must ask if the lessons learned from Revelation, operating as divine instructor to humankind, are terrific for philosophy, a deep loss for Christianity.

But Christians might take some comfort from Habermas’s thought that “half-remembered but vital resources that are contained in religion and still remain valuable as resources for philosophical thinking even today.” Faith-communities as “communities of interpretation” may sense where these resources are embodied in the way Western liberal democracies embrace human rights, egalitarian treatment of all persons and compassionate care for the vulnerable among us. Still, Christians may feel that, even though Christian ideas and teachings are “valuable resources” for philosophical thinking, they sense that a secularized Christianity (the social order is Christianized) threatens their collective, embodied identity in the troubled world that provides little assurance that people love their enemies.

Let’s dig more deeply into this problem. Gordon tells us that Habermas bursts free of “Hegel’s subjective-philosophical paradigm.” History moves forward: but “all of this,” says Gordon, “is described as a learning process (Lemprozess) that takes up the different insights of religion and philosophy and demonstrates their importance for the emergence of postmetaphysical thinking.” Reading Habermas’s thoughts about a philosophical learning process calls to Gordon’s mind a statement by Gotthold Lessing in 1780: “Education is Revelation, which occurs to the individual human being: and Revelation is Education, which has occurred to the human race, and occurs still.” To be sure, Habermas does not embrace Lessing’s “strongly teleological necessity that Lessing saw in our species-inclusive education.” But Habermas does argue, does he not, that “philosophy receives the ‘lessons’ of religious revelation from various world traditions.” This is exciting analysis: reason is becoming conscious of itself through history’s unfolding. He even calls the Bible a “padagogisches Vehikel” (AGP, II, p. 325). Christians (there are many different colours and currents within this great and controversial tradition) might be startled reading this statement pertaining to the relationship between faith and knowledge. “Religion appears as a kind of teacher to the secular world. This pedagogical relationship is not merely historical; it is also an ongoing feature of our contemporary life.”

Now comes Gordon’s punch. This “model of revelation-as-pedagogy introduces a certain asymmetry into the relationship between faith and knowledge: faith is the teacher and knowledge is the student.” However, Gordon says that this idea appears to compromise the “ideal of rational enlightenment as maturity (Mundigkeit) or the courage to use one’s own reason.” Lessing, though, asserts that reason has its own “sources of instruction.” He wants to hold two seemingly contradictory things together: reason receives instruction from revelation and can derive all contents from reason itself.

With Habermas, however, the “pedagogical relationship between faith and knowledge appears in Habermas’s book chiefly (though not exclusively) from one direction.” Philosophy learns from religious sources, even though it can only accept those insights of religious tradition that survive rational scrutiny.” Gordon thinks that this unidirectionality of the learning process introduces concern about asymmetry. I agree: Gordon says that over the “course of more than 1700 pages, Habermas has demonstrated with astonishing insight and precision just how this process of secularization has informed the development of postmetaphysical reason. But, second and more importantly, this process takes a form that is unidirectional. The premise would seem to be that religion precedes and furnishes normative insights that are then available for a secularizing and rationalization inheritance.”

Gordon is very uneasy with the idea of “historical precedence” of religion because, for one thing, the ancient cosmogonic narratives of Sumeria and Israel “lost their validity with the rise of a fallibilistic and empirically based mode of inquiry. By the 17th and 18th centuries, the world religions had surrendered any claim that they may have once enjoyed in this domain.” But Habermas appears to argue that religion is a distinctive “form of spirit.” Gordon protests loudly: religion simply makes this claim for itself. That is, its authority is grounded in a metaphysical assumption that it is essentially distinct from mundane reason. Not only distinct – but for Habermas religious experience will persist as a “thorn in the flesh of a modern age insofar as it sustains the idea of a “power that breaks into the world.”

Many Christians, particularly those ascribing to the liberation theology stream within global Christianity, would insist that the Christian message does carry a prophetic thorn to prick us into turning our gaze to the most vulnerable and wretched of the earth in our age of mammoth inequities of wealth distribution, class strife and rampant materialism. Be this as it may, Gordon states emphatically: “Religion and secular modernity thus appear as not only distinct but also unequal partners in contemporary dialogue, and religion is assigned not only historical precedence but a certain metaphysical authority as the only contemporary domain that preserves an experience that has otherwise been lost.” Thus – for Habermas religion’s role as teacher is an enduring one.

This perhaps surprising viewpoint from the old master intellectual makes Gordon rather uncomfortable. He doesn’t like the fact that reason is dependent; and argues that, if religion and reason are both “forms of spirit,” then they are subjected to fallibilism. They can make errors; they both are open to rational scrutiny. This means that claims, be they religious or secular, could be abandoned or revised. But Gordon seriously doubts “whether religion can fully embrace the same species of fallibilism. Religion continues to thrive even today under social conditions of increased ethnoreligious pluralism, and such conditions strike deep into the dogmatic core of any faith community…” Gordon asserts that religion considers itself the guardian of revealed truth. It is immune to relativization or refutation. If it loses guardianship, its voice stills. The complementarity of learning processes between secular reason and religious faith falters and sputters to its closing.

Thomas McCarthy, now Emeritus Professor at Northwestern University, knows Habermas’s writings, sensibility, limitations and weak spots better than any contemporary scholar. In my comments I can only highlight several of his sobering (even melancholic) insights into AGP. He wants to know what the status of this interest in hope is. Habermas knows well that his social theory tracks the “rational potentials of social learning processes and identifies powers of resistance and transformation in such lifeworld resources as group solidarities and social movements provides an opening for a glimmer of hope; however weak” (AGP, II, p. 802). The words “glimmer” and “weak” signal troubles for the Critical Theory Project. But Habermas displays considerable confidence that his genealogy of postmetaphysical thought successfully demonstrates that theological ideas have “immigrated” – now available in the “form of a philosophically reconstructible learning process.” That is, our “reasonable freedom” is available for use in moral and political contexts.

McCarthy informs us that the idea of a “reasonable freedom” is “derived from Kant’s ideas of practical reason and rational autonomy by way of an incisive, point by point detranscendentalization. And it is this concept that is central to Habermas’ statement of his hopes for the future of constitutional democracy.” McCarthy, however, queries the possible difficulties confronting his turn in an ethical-existential direction. “Without the religious sacralization of morality, redemptive justice, and divine authority, the source of categorial ‘oughts’ and ‘absolute’ duties becomes problematic. The binding of choice (Willkur) to the insights of moral-practical reason can, he writes, now be regarded only as a self-binding keyed to the weaker form of good reasons (ibid., p. 803f). We are swimming in deep waters with strong and dangerous currents. Habermas admits that “even after the detranscendentalization of reason, the unreasonable demand (Zumutung) that we understand ourselves as autonomous rational beings remains an unreasonable demand… nothing and no one forces us [to do so] (ibid., p. 805f).

One raises one’s eyebrows — nothing forces us, but there are a variety of factors — biological, ethnic, psychological, political, cultural or religious — that may move us away from autonomous rational actions. “Good reasons” are, indeed, weak as forces in our Neo-liberal world, be they climate catastrophes or Neo-liberal corporate power, bind us to systems imposed upon us. McCarthy observes that we need to consider another factor that could appreciably complicate “reasonable freedom”: the “very old saw of the ‘problem of evil.’”

For Kant, as may be well-known, the problem of evil was understood as a “propensity to subordinate moral motivation to selfish motives in the general forms of self-interest and self-conceit.” Kant imagined that “where such a law-governed social order is characterized as a ‘glittering misery,’ ever at risk of collapsing from within, without a ‘conversion of hearts’ that could only be brought about by the workings of a universal moral religion.”

What’s McCarthy getting at? Well, Habermas was aware of Hegel’s understanding of history as a “slaughter block” – the happiness of peoples was sacrificed for the development of Reason. Basically, McCarthy argues that Habermas’s “communication-theoretic account of human nature and conduct that he eventually proposed in their [pessimistic anthropologies] stead, despite the magnificence of its construction, has not, in [his] view, adequately theorized our natural tendencies toward ‘evil’ or the ‘slaughter block’ aspects of our past and present. In an approach to history meant to encourage social movements and political actors to try to realize the rational potentials that social learning processes have built up, it would seem very important also to analyze systematically the types and sources of counter forces that have historically blocked, delayed, and distorted such attempts. The histories of establishing religious tolerance, democratic government, emancipation of slaves, liberation from colonial rule, and the like are as bloody as the rest.”

To conclude, McCarthy considers that the “immigration” of theological ideas into postmetaphysical thought cannot be “complete without a secular translation of the Christian notion of our fallen nature, which has been a dominant theme at least since Augustine.” I think McCarthy is correct to point out that one of the most serious lingering problems in Critical Theory as Emancipatory Project has to do with the “types of motivation” required for the “sorts of transformations Habermas has in mind.”

Speaking rather tenderly, McCarthy insists that it is not enough to imagine the possibility of favorable outcomes. This is akin to living in Kierkegaard’s doghouse next door to the palace. Political actors must be concerned with their probability or at the very least their feasibility. In other words, the realization of rational potentials requires an empirical grasp of how great our chances of failure are, how high are the costs of acting here and now, and so on. We must come to terms with the way our motivations are shot through with the interests, passions and conceits that Kant and Hegel stressed.

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.