Good afternoon. I'll speak without a mic, but I hope and trust you will be able to hear me.
So good afternoon. My name is Hent de Vries, and it is my great pleasure and distinct honor to introduce to you our second public speaker this week, namely, Peter Gordon. Peter Gordon is the Amabel B. James Professor of History at Harvard University and Harvard College Professor, a [INAUDIBLE] title that is awarded to faculty for excellence in teaching.
He's also an affiliate at the Minda de Gunzburg Center for European Studies, an affiliate of the Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures, the faculty affiliate of the Department of Philosophy, and he has a permanent seat on the Standing Committee for Degrees in Social Studies.
Professor Gordon pursued his studies at the University of Chicago and Reed College, and received his PhD in modern European intellectual history from the University of California at Berkeley in 1997. From 1998 to 2000, he was a member of the Society of Fellows in the liberal arts at Princeton University. He joined the faculty at Harvard University in 2000, and was appointed to a position on the [INAUDIBLE] permanent faculty in 2005.
Professor Gordon, as many of you know, specializes in modern European intellectual history from the late eighteenth to the late [? twentieth ?] century. He works chiefly on themes in continental philosophy and social reform in Germany and France in the modern period, with an emphasis on critical theory, Western Marxism, the Franklin School, phenomenology, and existentialism. More specifically, he has written extensively on theories of secularization, historical epistemology, and modern Jewish thought.
He's the author of numerous works of which I will mention Rosenzweig and Heidegger, Between Judaism and German Philosophy published by University of California Press in 2003, a book which was awarded four distinguished prizes for Best Book in Intellectual History and in Jewish [INAUDIBLE].
He's also the author of Continental Divide, Heidegger, Cassirer, Davos, published by Harvard University Press in 2010, which was the recipient of the Jacques Barzun prize, voted by the United Philosophical Society, and which is now forthcoming in a Japanese translation.
While the first book detailed a virtual dialogue between two important thinkers, one of whom, namely, Rosenzweig, stood [INAUDIBLE] at the margin of, quote, "the larger drama of continental philosophy in the periphery of main action," as Professor Gordon puts it. The second book turns its attention to things that played out at center stage by highlighting the dispute in 1929 between the neo-Kantian philosopher Ernst Cassirer, and the fundamental ontologist and phenomenologist Martin Heidegger, a dispute whose importance Franz Rosenzweig had himself already recognized and commented about.
Gordon investigates the state of philosophical debates, in whose shadows we still very much stand. The confrontation between Cassier and Heidegger was one between generations, to be sure. But has also served, as Gordon notes, as, quote, "a philosophical allegory, a dramatization of all manner of concerns, not only philosophical, but also cultural, and perhaps most of all, political," end of quote.
Indeed, as Gordon continues, and I quote again, "It is frequently the debate between Cassier and Heidegger taken to civilize various dualistic struggles, reason versus unreason, [? key ?] histomology versus metaphysics, liberalism versus facism, enlightenment versus anti-enlightenment," end of quote. In Heidegger's, and via him, Plato's own earlier works, taken here from the 1927 magnum opus Sein und Zeit, Being and Time, it was nothing short of a [NON-ENGLISH LANGUAGE], the giant and divine struggle about the very meaning of being and of human existence.
At the same time, Professor Gordon leaves no doubt that in the before-mentioned comparative philosophical studies, which offer, as many prisms, on our own times as well. He, [INAUDIBLE], has little patience with the assumption that one party must have ultimately 'won' the debate, whereas the other, consequently, lost. Gordon's remarkable combination of historical narrative, and philosophical reconstruction is not only expository and critical, but betrays an intellectual temperament, and I quote, "that is disinclined to believe that philosophical arguments are ever settled once and for all. If they were, the history of ideas would have come to end a long time ago," end quote.
Professor Gordon's newest book, entitled Adorno and Existence is based upon five lectures that he recently gave at the prestigious Ecole Normale Superieure [INAUDIBLE] in Paris, and will be published by Harvard University Press in the Spring of 2016. He is currently working on a new book on secularization and social thought in the 20th century that we are all eagerly awaiting, and that is entitled, Metaphysics in the Moment of Its Fall, a topic about which we will hear the significant summary segments today. Its title, as we will no doubt also be told in a moment, is a loving and programmatic quote from one of Theodor Adorno's most dense and most accomplished chapters.
Each of Professor Gordon's [INAUDIBLE] studies done serves as much more than an allegory of intellectual history, a field, I should note, that with a few others-- I'm thinking of Warren Breckman, Samuel [INAUDIBLE], and among the younger generation, Stefanos [INAUDIBLE] and [INAUDIBLE], Professor Gordon has given new life. That is to say, a new coherence, agenda, and prominence and rigor, beyond the demise of its older precursors, such as that of [INAUDIBLE], which itself, followed in the wake of [INAUDIBLE], philosophy of spirit, [? acknowledging ?] of spirit, and beyond that of the history of ideas, intent on finding cross-temporal [INAUDIBLE] ideas, Art O. Lovejoy once [INAUDIBLE].
Gordon also sharply differentiates between his and his colleague's conceptional intellectual history, and, say, cultural history, sociology for the history of political thought. Indeed, for Professor Gordon, intellectual history promotes, and I quote, "the attitude that intellectual life is valuable for its own sake," end of quote. It remains that [INAUDIBLE] and I quote again, [? "array ?] of methodologies and argumentative strategies that encourage us to regard ideas as nothing more than ideological weapons or instruments of social power," end of quote.
To be sure, Gordon goes on to note, and I quote, "Ideas also have an instrumental character. To deny this would be naive, but also makes a claim upon us, which remains irreducible to its instrumental function," end quote. And here, of course, it reveals close similarities, intellectual history as he conceives it, that is, with the fuel and discipline and matters of philosophy first of all, although the important and subtle distinctions remain nonetheless somehow intact.
Described as the most gifted historian of modern European thought to emerge in a generation or more, Professor Gordon strikes a remarkable balance between philosophical death, and historical contextualization, writing with analytical force, expository clarity, and, as you may have noticed, great elegance. His voice is always measured, his judgment always wise.
A recent review in the New York Review of Books on Heidegger's so-called schwarze hefte, or black notebooks, aptly and irreverently characterized by my good friend [INAUDIBLE] as Heidegger's [INAUDIBLE]-- Heidegger, being a [INAUDIBLE] as it were, is a case in point. There's neither hype nor forgiveness in what Professor Gordon has to say on this [INAUDIBLE].
Professor Gordon is the co-editor of several volumes. The Cambridge Companion to Modern Jewish Philosophy in 2007, The Modernist Imagination: Intellectual History and Critical Theory in 2001. Weimar Thought: A Contested Legacy, published by Princeton in 2013. The Trace of God: Derrida and Religion, published by Fordham in 2014. And with Warren Breckman, he is currently co-editing two planned volumes of the Cambridge history of modern European thought. He also serves on the editorial boards for Modern Intellectual History, The Journal of the History of Ideas, and New German Critique, and he's the regular contributor of book reviews to the New Republic.
He is the co-editor of the series Intellectual History of the Modern Age, a book series published by the University of Pennsylvania Press. Among his many distinctions, I'll just mention here in concluding that he has been named a finalist twice for the Levinson Award for undergraduate teaching, and in 2005 received the Phi Beta Kappa Award for excellence in teaching. He has been the recipient of several fellowships from Princeton University, and, as I noted earlier, he has been a visiting professor at the Ecole Normale Superieure.
And needless to say, we are extremely happy to have him now at our very own school of criticism and theory. His title this afternoon will be Metaphysics at the Moment of its Fall, or Notes on the Political-Theological Motif in Critical Theory. Please join me in welcoming Professor Gordon.
PETER GORDON: Thank you very much, Hent, for that wonderful introduction. It's a great honor to be here. If you do have a cell phone, although I won't be singing this, and this isn't the opera, please do turn it off. I just made sure mine's off here.
Well, I should maybe begin just with an apology. I guess this is my way to always apologize. Although the title Metaphysics at the Moment of its Fall alludes to that famous closing phrase from Adorno's 1966 Negative Dialectics, I won't be speaking directly on negative dialectics today, although I will be speaking about Adorno at some length.
Am I too loud? I have this-- OK. It's an uncanny experience to speak so quietly and to be broadcast so dramatically through a hall like this. Anyways, I'll try to get over that uncanny feeling.
In 1963, toward the end of his life, Theodor Adorno gave an address in Berlin on the subject of Schoenberg's unfinished opera, Moses und Aron. Dedicated to the great historian of Jewish mysticism Gershom Scholem, and published under the title Sacred Fragment in the collection "Quasi una Fantasia." Adorno's text serves in the first instance as a musicological comment on Schoenberg's operatic setting of the exodus story.
The narrative is well-known. Moses encounters the burning bush and receives divine instruction that he should lead the Hebrew slaves out from bondage. But the God who reveals himself to Moses exceeds the epistemic categories of human perception to such a degree that he is [NON-ENGLISH], or unrepresentable. Schoenberg dramatizes the anti-sensual character of the new faith by robbing the character Moses of any musicality.
Unlike the other performers in the opera, Moses only speaks his lines in what Schoenberg calls [NON-ENGLISH LANGUAGE]. In the initial scene of the first act, Moses then calls out to God-- and he does not sing, so you can be grateful that I won't-- [NON-ENGLISH LANGUAGE], unique, infinite, omnipresent, invisible, and unrepresentable God.
The organizing conceit of the opera is that this new faith demands the impossible. The God of the Israelites is to be worshipped, despite the fact that he remains unknown. Others live within a people, Moses says, [NON-ENGLISH LANGUAGE], only in the imagination. But even if the new deity exceeds the imagination, this only intensifies the need to find some mode of transmission, a path by which transcendence can enter the space of human discursivity.
Moses grasps this challenge, but despairs all the more his incapacity with speech. My tongue, he says, is not flexible. My [NON-ENGLISH LANGUAGE], I can think but not speak. He appeals to his brother Aron, who is keen to translate the stringent themes of the new monotheism into a more demotic and sensuous idiom. While Moses ascends the mountain, Aron pacifies the bewildered masses with the cult of the golden calf.
Upon his return, Moses is seized with anger, but Aron insists that their faith must make some allowance for popular need. Moses objects. [NON-ENGLISH LANGUAGE], he asks, should I falsify the idea? Aron, offers a pragmatic response. [NON-ENGLISH LANGUAGE], I bow to necessity.
Aron then points to the fiery pillar that will guide the people through the desert, though Moses condemns even this as another mythic image that violates the stricture against representation. In his closing line, Moses confirms that his faith resists all communication. [NON-ENGLISH LANGUAGE]. oh word, oh word that I lack. And as the curtain falls, a final stage note indicates that Moses falls to the ground in despair.
Schoenberg's opera first took shape in the early 1920s with the composer's attempt to diagnose anti-Semitism as a kind of populist idolatry. But it's biblical contest between sensuous myth and anti-sensuous monotheism also served as an allegory for the composer's efforts to break free of tonal convention into the new and more stringent rules of serial composition.
For Adorno, however, despite his own musical gifts as a student of the second Vienna school, the significance of the opera extends well beyond musicology. In his 1963 essay, he characterizes the opera as a paradoxical work, one that bids to represent in musical form the struggle against representation. Now, that it does so in the late bourgeois mode of an artwork means that it partakes of the rationalized instruments of composition that have developed in historical tandem with the rationalization of religion itself.
The artwork only succeeds in so far as it sustains the aura, the unique structure of social autonomy and compositional unity that represents a secular analog to the vanishing religious cult. But this means that the artwork is profane and signifies, as a purely human creation, the dissolution of cultic practices, those cultic practices from which it once emerged.
It's here that Adorno locates the paradoxical force and the failure of Schoenberg's opera. "Indeed, any artwork," he says, "that draws narrative substance from archaic religious sources must ultimately come into conflict with the social historical trial of rationalization." For as Adorno explains, quote, "The principal of the music drama cuts across the overall plan of the work. The Wagnerian pattern and identity of the musical language is sustained throughout the work by the method of construction. But it cannot accommodate what the subject matter requires above all, namely," he continues, "the strict separation of Moses's monotheism from the realm of myth."
To Adorno, this implies that the opera is nothing less than a meditation on its own impossibility. The failure lies not only with Moses. It is also the failure of Schoenberg himself, since he aims to resurrect a musical drama whose meaning cannot be recuperated without deploying the sensual techniques of the bourgeois cult of art that are denounced in the operatic narrative.
The unfinished masterpiece of Moses und Aron thus raises the question as to whether its unfinished quality was perhaps a necessity, and whether sacred music itself is still possible in a profane world. "How," Adorno asks, "is cultic music possible in the absence of a cult?" For Adorno the answer is clear. We might still consider the opera a masterpiece, but like Beethoven's "Missa Solemnis," it remains alienated from its time and bears witness to what Adorno calls "the a priori impossibility of sacred art today."
In the correspondence with Gershom Scholem, to whom Adorno had dedicated the essay on Schoenberg's opera, it's precisely this claim regarding the impossibility of sacred art in the modern age that awakens Scholem's skepticism. "Whether you can really deny the possibility of such music," Scholem writes, "I do not know, for indeed it cannot be foreseen in what form in our world the tradition of the sacred can find expression. That it is a priori impossible," Scholem concludes, "is something I would not wish to admit."
Now, that exchange between Adorno and Scholem, which you can read in the recently published, absolutely beautiful volume of correspondence between Adorno and Scholem, is instructive. Not least because it casts in relief the stark differences between the two intellectuals who were bound in friendship by the shared experience of mourning their late friend Walter Benjamin. The disagreement between Adorno and Scholem over the status of Schoenberg's biblical opera marks and irreducible distance, no less significant than the distance between Moses and Aron, themselves.
Those who have spent some time with Scholem's work know him to be a scholar of unsurpassed erudition and sobriety. And yet, animating his entire career was a near romantic fascination with the explosive and subterranean energies of qabalistic irrationalism within which he found resources to sustain his own nationalist passion for Zion. In his opinion, the creation of a Jewish nation state could not help but awaken the slumbering powers of Jewish myth. If the state is an artifice, and therefore, a work of art, Zionism itself demonstrates both the possibility but also the danger of a sacred artwork in a secular age.
Now, against Scholem, Adorno regards any and all such efforts of atavistic rebirth with greatest skepticism. As a philosopher whose defining gesture was to a certain negativity against any premature reconciliation, he resisted all political and nationalist identification as evidence of a jargon of authenticity. That is, a kitsch bid to resurrect forms of mythic unreason that would consume the energies of rational critique.
For Adorno, Schoenberg's opera thus remains not just incomplete as a matter of fact, but as a matter of principle. Its impossibility stood as a warning against any efforts to reawaken the sacred within modern art, as in modern politics. Adorno, like Moses, looked with despair on all such efforts to bridge the gap between transcendence and eminence in which he saw only a kind of sacrilege, betraying both sacred and profane alike.
So as a long preface to my talk, it seemed right to begin with that debate between Scholem and Adorno in so far as it illustrates a controversy that remains alive within critical theory. Those of us who still cleave to the tradition of the Frankfurt School, in what one might call its classical phase, often find ourselves astonished by the vigor of the rival movement known as political theology. The tension between these two theoretical formations should not be minimized.
On the one hand, political theology insists on the proposition that the rational structures of social organization are not truly rational, but only rationalized. For Carl Schmidt, for example, the modern state was a mere machine. That, when confronted with existential crisis, could not sustain its functionality without appealing to the extra systemic power of a charismatic sovereign, whose decisionistic intrusion into the political apparatus was analogous, he thought, to a divine intervention.
Political theology today is metamorphosed almost beyond recognition, and it appears not just on the right, but also on the political left, as articulated by theorists such as Chantal Mouffe, among others. Still, despite its protean history, political theology still carries within itself a certain irrationalist resentment against the cognitive achievements of the natural sciences, and the wounded historical memory of religious collectives whose political privileges were broken with the rise of the liberal secular state.
Now, on the other hand, critical theory takes its cue from a materialist critique of Bourgeois society as an order that survives only thanks to the continued mystification of power. Sustaining its bond to the Enlightenment, critical theory in the tradition of the Frankfurt School contests the Schmittian conceit that society requires a quasi theological moment of irrationalist decision. The dielectric of enlightenment, arguably the definitive work by Adorno and Horkheimer together, aim to show that the Enlightenments' lapse into mythic unreason was not a normative ideal, something to be embraced, but, in fact, a betrayal of reasons' true promise.
Even if this lapse appeared to some later readers as an historical inevitability in their argument, this still would not license for them a retreat into uncritical acceptance of mystified power, which lies at the furthest remove from everything the Frankfurt School wish to promote. In their innermost principles then, one has to conclude that the relation between critical theory and political theology remains one of irreconcilable opposition.
And yet, the apparent disagreement between these two bodies of theory should not be overstated. The fact is that critical theory from Adorno to Habermas has never remained indifferent to the powers of religion, and we often find in their work consuming interest in the possibility that the normative insights of religion might be somehow harnessed for profane life.
Now, that interest, as many scholars in this room know far better than me, burned with special intensity, of course, in the works of Walter Benjamin who drew instruction from his friend Gershom Scholem, and whose early fascination with religion and the theological political fragment or the critique of violence persisted all the way to the late essay on the concept of history that so inspired Horkheimer and Adorno. And yet, we can't ignore the fact that Benjamin remained always an enigmatic thinker on the margins of critical theory. Scholem even believed that his friend was at heart a theologian whose ideas could not be harmonized with Marxian dialectics.
And, indeed, when one reads the correspondence between Scholem and Adorno, it's immediately clear that however much these two friends shared in grief for their lost friend, they remained estranged by Scholem's overt and strongly stated, candid hostility to the core principles of critical theory. We would do an injustice to Benjamin's memory, I think, if we were to assign him a canonical status within the history of the Frankfurt School. For the sake of clarity, in my presentation I'll reserve that canonical status only to Adorno and to his student Habermas.
Hereto, even at the philosophical core of critical theory during the last half century, we find a strong interest in religion that has occasioned much insightful theoretical speculation from a great many scholars, including Eduardo Mendieta and Maeve Cooke, Cristina Lafont, and I should mention Max Pensky, who I think is here. Hi. OK, very good. And also, our own host here at the School of Criticism and Theory, Hent de Vries.
Now, in the time I'm permitted, I can hardly hope to improve upon their work, but I'll try, nonetheless, to condense many of the concerns that have been raised on this theme with the following question. To what degree can critical theory embrace the normative contents that are preserved in religious tradition, without succumbing to the irrationalist and anti-modernist tendencies that have defined political theology?
Now, for those of us who have trained in the stables of critical theory and still trust in its teachings, this remains an urgent question that today surpasses, perhaps, any other. It's especially pressing for the self-evident reason that the global order now confronts, in nearly every point of political contestation, the possibility of violent fracture over the increasingly polarized ideologies of secularism and militant religion in every form and every faith.
The obvious and deeply painful point that secularism can, itself, serve as an instrument of domination and exclusion has even become something like a new orthodoxy on the left. Which helps to explain why last winter's public gestures of sincere solidarity with the murdered journalists in Paris under the slogan "Je suis Charlie" confronted no less sincere gestures of dissent under the slogan [FRENCH PHRASE].
All too often, theoretical discourse seems content to recapitulate such unhelpful polarities, rather than attending to their mutual blindness and entanglement. Though I'll say more about such debates at the end of my talk, for now I just wish to keep my focus on the canons of critical theory itself, as I hope to explain there is some cause for concern. That in his most recent work, Habermas has taken one step too many toward a rapprochement with religion to a degree that may arguably compromise his status as a theorist of secular modernity, And may signal a surprising rapprochement with political theology.
To suggest this point, I must offer a provisional definition. Political theology, as I understand it, articulates a two-fold claim. First, that modernity suffers from a fatal deficit in normative substance such that it cannot establish moral and political grounding on its own. Modernity suffers from a fatal deficit in normative substance such that it cannot establish moral and political grounding on its own. And second, to compensate for this normative deficit, it must appeal to religion as the singular and privileged resource of moral political instruction without which the social order cannot cohere.
The first thesis concerns what I call the normative deficit of modernity, and it promotes a generalized skepticism about rationalized society. The second thesis appears as a remedy to the first. What we might call religions' normative plentitude ascribes to religion alone, the power to address the troubles of a disenchanted age. Taken together, these two themes solidify into a thoroughgoing critique of modernity that urges us to see in religion the singular and authoritative force of normative instruction.
I define that critical orientation as the distinguishing motif of political theology, at least as I'm using it in this talk. And my assumption here is that that motif cannot be reconciled with critical theory. Let me first turn to Adorno whose philosophical temperament clearly bespeaks a persistent fascination with religion that spanned his career, from the early habilitation on Kierkegaard, where paradoxically, Kierkegaard's religiosity is not mentioned, and Kierkegaard is interrogated in terms of his aesthetics, primarily. To late work such as the Sacred Fragment on Schoenberg with which I began. And the much overlooked, but still fascinating, reappraisal of Kierkegaard from 1963, the same year.
For our purposes today we can focus on a single essay, "Vernunft und Offenbarung, Reason and Revelation," first presented in conversation with Eugen Kogon on West German radio in November of 1957, and later published in the Frankfurter Hefte in 1958.
Now, Adorno's interlocutor, the political scientist and journalist Eugen Kogon was at that time a figure of considerable authority. Born to a Russian-Jewish mother, Kogon was raised as a foster child in the Catholic fold and identified with anti-fascist elements in Christianity. Imprisoned at Buchenwald for his political views, he spent the post-war years documenting the crimes of the Third Reich, and gained prestige after the war as the founder of the left-Catholic Frankfurter Hefte, and in campaigns for Christian socialism, and eventually European integration.
The public interview with Kogon merits our attention because Adorno resists the appeals to religion and public life that were so pervasive in the conservative political culture of the post-war German Federal Republic. Adorno, in fact, begins with a forthright rejoinder to what he calls the revival of revelation, and he readily identifies himself as a critic who does not wish to become its victim.
He further entertains the troubling thought that anyone who articulates a critique of religion today might find himself accused of, quote, "old-fashioned rationalism." And more intriguing, perhaps, he recalls the opening image from Benjamin's essay on history, which contains, in Adorno's phrase, "the infinitely ironic description of theology as an ugly creature who must now keep out of sight." An infinitely ironic description.
Now, the image in question here is, of course, that of the mechanical chess player who wins without fail, only because of the dwarf who is hidden within. We should not miss the fact that in reading this passage as ironic, Adorno offers an anticipatory rejoinder to later readings of this text, including Scholem's 1975 comment in Story of a Friendship, where Benjamin would be redescribed as a theologian of the deepest sincerity.
For Adorno, however, the true significance of this image lies in the fact that the chess games are won by what appears to all spectators to be a mere automaton, a figure of instrumental reason. The image, therefore, lends itself to the status of an allegory for the fate of religion in rationalized modernity. Religion can survive only if its movements are translated into the gestures of a seemingly lifeless amanuensis, a body that obeys the commands of spirit.
But Adorno construes this allegory in a surprising way, as a demand that religions submit itself to the trials of rationalization without which, he says, "nothing could possibly remain." This argument culminates in a phrase that recurs with some frequency whenever critical theorists fasten their attention on religion. "Nothing," Adorno writes, "nothing of theological content will persist without being transformed. Every content will have to put itself to the test of migrating into the realm of the secular, the profane."
It should not escape our notice that Adorno describes this trial of religious transformation as a migration into the profane. As a student of historical sociology, Adorno can't have been indifferent to the painful experience of dislocation for immigrants who longed for civic inclusion but found that legal recognition would require a drastic reshaping of identity. This was no less true in the 18th and 19th century debates over Jewish emancipation than in current controversies that we know so well today over the rights of Muslim immigrants within the member states of the EU.
It's, therefore, all the more striking that Adorno does not moderate his claim that sacred values must undergo a test of secularizing reason if they are to be admitted into profane society. At issue for Adorno is a basic philosophical and political commitment to rationality as the only truly universal medium within which difference can persist, and mystified authority can be subjected to demystifying scrutiny. In the radio address, one can discern Adorno's chagrin that that underlying commitment to profane reason has been suppressed. He even complains that dialectic of enlightenment, the work he co-authored with Horkheimer, had been misunderstood at that time as a totalizing critique that might somehow license a restoration of theological substance.
The following passage from the address wards off this misunderstanding and it deserves to be quoted in full. So this is Adorno. "Because too much thinking and unwavering autonomy hinders the conformity to the administered world and causes suffering, countless people project this suffering imposed on them by society onto reason as such. According to them it is reason that has brought suffering and disaster into the world."
"The dielectric of enlightenment which, in fact, must also name the price of progress, all of the ruin wrought by rationality in the form of the increasing domination of nature, is, as it were, broken off too early, following the model of a condition that is blindly self-enclosed, and, hence, appears to block the exit. Convulsively, deliberately, one ignores the fact that the excess of rationality about which the educated class especially complains, and which it registers in concepts like mechanization, atomization, and even de-individualization is a lack of rationality. Namely, the increase of all apparatuses and means of quantifiable domination at the cost of the goal, the rational organization of mankind, which is left abandoned to the unreason of mere constellations of power."
"And unreason that consciousness, dulled by constantly having to consider the existing positive relations and conditions, no longer dares rise to engage at all." "Certainly," Adorno admits, "a ratio that does not wantonly absolutize itself as a rigid means of domination requires self-reflection, some of which is expressed in the need for religion today."
"But this self-reflection cannot stop at the mere negation of thought by thought itself, a kind of mythical sacrifice. And cannot realize itself through a leap that would all too closely resemble a politics of catastrophe." "On the contrary," Adorno concludes, "reason must attempt to define rationality itself, not as an absolute regardless of whether it is then posited or negated, but rather as a moment within the totality. Rationality must become cognizant of its own natural essence," end quote.
Now, that passage-- I hope you'll forgive me for reading something so extensive-- merits our attention for the simple fact that it contests any reading of Adorno as a crypto irrationalist, or a fatalistic aesthete who was content somehow to contemplate the catastrophe of modernity from the luxurious refuge of pessimism, that [INAUDIBLE] Glucotch once spitefully called the Grand Hotel abyss. It's a great phrase, but I don't buy it.
On the contrary, in this passage Adorno reconfirms the materialist lesson that religious perfection does not license social imperfection. And the correlative principle that the only way to expose social imperfection is to cleave to the promise of emancipatory criticism, even if that promise has been betrayed by the arrogance of an enlightenment that stopped half way.
Dialectic of enlightenment, he says, was work with a two-fold task. First to show that reason had devolved into an instrument for the domination of nature. And second, to call reason back to its own higher task of critical emancipation so as to effect a genuine reconciliation with nature. This second task points not backward into a regressive and undifferentiated unity, but forward to a humanity that can be harmonized with itself, and where reason is not imagined as some alienated and coercive force external to human agency.
For Adorno, the discursive capacities of the intellect do not exist in some precinct transcendent to nature. The fantasy that they exist elsewhere than this world is the same fantasy, he says, that prompts critics of reason to embrace religion as its mirror image. The task of recalling the nature within reason was later summarized in a memorable phrase from his 1966 masterpiece, Negative Dialectics, where Adorno called for the secularization of the concept.
Anticipating a critique of the modern social imaginary that I think is, you could say, directed very well against Charles Taylor's recent book A Secular Age, Adorno also rejects the widespread opinion that modern society can simply resurrect religion as a repository of absolute and unblemished truth or normativity. Too many of us, Adorno says, imagine modern life as an experience of pure eminence, or, quote, "as a kind of glass case through whose walls one can gaze upon the eternally immutable ontological stock of philosophia or religio [? parenes," ?] end quote.
For Adorno, the critique of social eminence splits off religion as a transcendence, whose one-sided perfection is no less false than the fallen realm to which it offers a compensatory salvation. The artificial divide between social eminence and religious utopia nourishes the artificial hope that, in Adorno's words, "by means of a resolute decision alone, one could breathe back meaning into the disenchanted world," end quote.
Now, in this critique of political theological decisionism, Adorno does not name Carl Schmidt, even though Schmidt is clearly an intended target. But he does name Kierkegaard, who inspired Schmidt, and the dialectical theologians who shared Schmidt's fascination with the Kierkegaardian dualism between public reason and revealed but subjective truth.
Ultimately, he worries-- Adorno worries-- that even those on the left, as well as the right who readily invoke revelation for healing the wounds of modern society fail to note the rupture between religious teachings of the past and the problems that now afflict our world. "The great religions," Adorno notes, "were modeled on the transparent religions of a primary community, or at most, the simple economy of goods." "The concept of daily bread," he continues, cannot simply be translated into the world of bread factories and surplus production. Nor can the ethics of brotherly love heal the social conflicts of today." He continues, "the concept of the neighbor refers to communities where people know each other face-to-face." Anticipating, you might say, a loving [INAUDIBLE] view that Adorno seems to reject here.
"Helping one's neighbors, no matter how urgently this remains in a world developed by those natural catastrophes produced by society is insignificant," he says, "in comparison with a praxis that extends beyond every mere immediacy of human relationships," end quote.
For Adorno, the only honest conclusion must be that religious normativity admits of no adequate translation, and that there can be perhaps no migration into the profane. But Adorno ends his address on an ironic note, with the recommendation that modern society must practice what he calls an extreme askesis toward any type of revealed faith." "Although precisely this is askesis," he continues, "might be taken as a sign of extreme loyalty to the prohibition of images far beyond what this prohibition once originally meant."
So in a dialectical reversal, Adorno casts himself as Moses, the critic of all partisans of political theology who would bring the heavens down to Earth. He denies the possibility of any modern appeal to religion for social praxis, but then he makes this very denial, a sign of religious truth.
Now, if my reconstruction is correct, then we can see in Adorno a theorist who remains loyal to the mosaic prohibition, but for that very reason, a fierce critic of the defining motif of political theology. The question I'd like to pose for the remainder of my time is whether the same can also be said of Jurgen Habermas? This question may strike us as surprising, since its answer would seems so self-evident, so why ask the question.
Habermas enjoys a reputation, both amongst his champions and his critics, as their unreconstructed advocate of enlightenment reason. And many theorists to his left now dismiss him for what they consider his regrettable compromises with the mainstream of Anglo-American liberal political theory, as represented chiefly by John Rawls.
However, I think we might best understand Habermas's own recent work on religion by noting the ways he has actually dissented from Rawls, by relaxing the standard of public reason Rawls had introduced in his model of political liberalism. Habermas has elaborated his objections to Rawls in the essay, Religion in the Public Sphere, which was originally published in the German edition of Between Naturalism and Religion in 2005, that is, just three years after his American interlocutor had died.
In this essay, Habermas embraces a key theme that had appeared in Rawls' Political Liberalism where Rawls wished to explain how a democratic order can accommodate citizens of diverse and distinctive cultural and religious commitments. Rawls referred to this diversity as the fact of pluralism. This fact poses a special challenge for democratic deliberation, in so far as citizens must come to recognize the process of deliberation as one that commits them to a medium of shared reasoning that they can all accept, not withstanding the fact that they may not necessarily share metaphysical commitments or comprehensive world views with all the other citizens in their polity.
For Rawls, this challenge motivates a conception of public reason as a medium that must remain neutral with respect to all world views. To sustain such a medium, however, citizens must give reasons that others of divergent commitments would recognize as reasons. They are permitted to share their political views in public deliberation provided they translate their normative claims into terms other citizens could accept.
That Rawlsian idea of a translation proviso is not entirely new. It conveys, in revised form, a well-known conceit of liberal-democratic theory born from the violence of the 17th century wars of religion. The claim that we must sustain a wall of separation between faith and political debate, though it allows religious normativity to permeate this barrier, if and only if it adapts itself to the neutral language of a pluralistic public sphere.
This allowance recapitulates in some ways what Adorno called 'the test' whereby religious concepts can migrate into the profane. Habermas, however, has introduced a considerable modification into this theme of secularizing translation, even though he quotes precisely that idea of migration from Adorno. And so Habermas's changes his modification warrants a closer inspection.
On the one hand, Habermas agreed with Rawls, that the proviso should be retained within the bounds of formal democratic institutions, like parliament, since public servants, quote, "have a duty to remain neutral among competing world views," end quote. But he disagrees that the proviso should apply to all citizens even within the more informal or non-institutional setting of the political public sphere.
To impose such a constraint, Habermas claims, would only impoverish a public discourse. Democratic deliberations should remain free, he argues, to draw upon a broad range of insights, including the redemptive teachings of the many world religions, which long ago shed their merely local validity and assumed a post-axial or quasi-transcendental perspective with norms of potentially universalizing application. Modern philosophy, Habermas claims, must resist the arrogance of a secularist ideology, and must instead adopt a stance that remains cognitively open to learning from all citizens, including citizens who still subscribe to the various religious traditions that modern philosophy long ago sublated into its own critical practice.
Such openness is an urgent matter, Habermas claims, since, quote, "religious traditions have a special power to articulate moral intuitions, especially with regard to vulnerable forms of communal life." A liberal theory of democratic deliberation that announces itself as merely political rather than metaphysical must not deny the possibility that it could take up such intuitions to the benefit of our shared political existence.
Consider, for example, the following passage from Habermas. "The liberal state," he writes, "has an interest in unleashing religious voices in the political public sphere and in the political participation of religious organizations as well. It must not discourage religious persons and communities from also expressing themselves politically as such, for it cannot know whether secular society would not otherwise cut itself off from key resources for the creation of meaning and identity," end quote.
As that passage shows, Habermas endorses the rudimentary framework of the Rawlsian proviso. But his new argument for the inclusion of religious citizenry in public debate prompts him to revise the proviso in significant ways. The crucial difference lies in Habermas's notion that there may be something unique and perhaps irreplaceable about religion in particular that distinguishes it from all other comprehensive doctrines in so far as it carries within itself a normative force that modernity may not be able to generate on its own.
Now, that notion makes its debut only in writings that followed the theory of communicative action. For example, the 1993 essay, Themes and Post-Metaphysical Thinking contains the following passage. "Philosophy," Habermas writes, "philosophy, even in its post-metaphysical form, will be able neither to replace nor to repress religion, as long as religious language is the bearer of a semantic content that is inspiring and even indispensable, for this content eludes," parenthesis, "for the time being?" question mark, "the explanatory force of philosophical language, and continues to resist translation into reasoning discourses."
It's a very tricky passage. Habermas has always been a careful theorist, moderate in his claims, and deliberate in his use of modal terms of possibility and necessity, especially when entertaining the future consequences of unforeseen historical events. If the theory of communicative action still cleaved to a robust model of secularization, more recent statements such as this one suggests a readiness to admit that the process of secularization may never end, and that religion may even serve as a permanent, or what Habermas calls, an indispensable resource for even the most rationalized societies. And perhaps especially for those societies whose systematic rationalization has drained them of invaluable normative substance.
This new openness to religion is especially evident in the second volume of "Nachmetaphysisches Denken" [INAUDIBLE], "Post-Metaphysical Thinking II," which appeared in 2012. In this collection of his most recent essays, Habermas now lays greatest stress on a solidaristic experience of religious ritual. And appealing to Karl Jaspers' idea of an axial turn in the history of religion, he credits the ancient world religions for their role in generating a transcendent stance of ethical universalization that now informs post-conventional normativities. And it's a very, very interesting argument. It complicates, in some ways, the arguments that he's been making that are available in English. So Polity Press will come out with a translation very soon.
But for my purposes today, I'm going to focus only on the well-known October 2001 address that Habermas delivered upon receiving the Peace Prize of the Frankfurt Booksellers Association. This address carried a title, "Glauben und Wissen," or "Faith and Knowledge" that was no less paradigmatic and dualistic than Adorno's radio address on "Reason and Revelation" more than 40 years before.
But in stark contrast to his teacher, Habermas seemed ready to rescind the mosaic prohibition. Since Habermas discerned in the ancient teachings a certain stock of what he called moral feelings, which, quote, "only religious language has as yet been able to give a sufficiently differentiated expression." In more recent works, similar formulaic recur with great regularity. In a 2009 essay on the "Nature of Post-secular Society," he observed that, quote, "Especially regarding vulnerable domains of social life, religious traditions have the power to provide convincing articulations of moral sensitivities and solidaristic intuitions," end quote.
Such remarks would appear to suggest that Habermas now accepts what Jose Casanova has called the re-normativization thesis-- re-normativization thesis-- according to which religion plays a special, and perhaps even unique role in generating and preserving the normative insights that secular society otherwise lacks. In this key respect, Habermas differs from Rawls, since Habermas assigns to religion alone, a privileged place among the various comprehensive doctrines or world views that citizens may profess.
For those who are familiar with Habermas's path of development as a social theorist, that special dispensation for religion should come as a surprise. In his 1981 study, The Theory of Communicative Action, Habermas embraced the classical theory of secularization without significant quarrel. In a social historical process that he called the linguistification of the sacred, he argued in a Kantian mode that society would emerge from the immaturity of religious tutelage to develop its own practices of secular reason.
The transcendent grounding of religious normativity would yield to the intersubjective validation of social norms. And the binding and bonding character of the sacred, he wrote, would be sublimated into the argumentative force of the better argument. Now, it's crucial to note that Habermas presumed this process would follow a logic of replacement, which is to say that under ideal conditions, the shift from sacred to secular obligation would be complete. It shouldn't be missed that in the key passage on linguistifying the sacred, Habermas used the word [NON-ENGLISH] to replace or substitute. The discursive practices of secular modernity would leave religion behind and assume a free-standing status, that is, one independent of all prior metaphysical foundations.
In his most recent work, however, Habermas has introduced a serious modification into that socio-historical argument. He now suggests that, "In the present state of cultural and religious pluralism, the arrogance of a secularist ideology and its logic of normative substitution must be abandoned. Instead, we must allow for the possibility that religion will persist, and we must make room in public discourse for the participation of religious citizens of diverse identities and origins whose contributions may prove indispensable to the survival of democracy itself. The liberal state should, therefore, permit religious discourse within the bounds of the political public sphere." And here's the crucial point. "It must do so for the sake of liberal democracy itself."
It should be noted that Habermas develops this claim chiefly because he believes that the liberal state is obliged to permit such discourse as a matter of fairness to its religious fellow citizens. Pursuing a line of argument first developed by North American critics such as Nicholas Wolterstorff and Paul Weitzman, Habermas has argued that the Rawlsian proviso imposes an unfair and asymmetrical duty on religious citizens, since it asks that they alone bear the burden of making their convictions intelligible within the secular language of public reason. As a remedy for this unfair requirement, Habermas has proposed that the cognitive burden of public discourse be shared in common by secular and religious citizens alike.
But there's a second major feature of this argument that distinguishes Habermas from his American interlocutor. Unlike Rawls, for whom the cry of religious belief was only one amongst the many voices in a crowded public sphere, Habermas ascribes to religious believers alone, a privileged role in the maintenance of social normativity. He's, therefore, eager, especially eager, to provide them with a dispensation to articulate their moral and political intuitions in the religious language they prefer.
And here's a quote from him. "On the one hand, those who are neither willing or able to separate their moral convictions and vocabulary into profane and religious strands must be permitted to participate in political will formation, even if they use religious language. On the other, the democratic state should not over-hastily reduce the polyphonic complexity of the range of public voices, for it cannot be sure whether in doing so it would not cut society off from scarce resources for generating meanings and shaping identities," end quote.
In this way, Habermas hopes that religious citizens will understand themselves to be genuine partners in the face-to-face process of rational deliberation, not mere objects of secularist condescension. Meanwhile, he asks that secular citizens likewise share in the burden of public deliberation with their religious co-citizens. They must, accordingly-- the secularists-- must accordingly overcome the self-satisfaction of a secularist ideology that sees freedom of religion only as the cultural equivalent of the conservation of species threatened with extinction.
Such an attitude, he says, dismisses religious contributions to public debate and does not allow for the possibility that such contributions may, in fact, bear valuable insights. Instead, secular citizens must accept that they belong to a society that remains, he says, epistemically attuned to the continued existence of religious communities, and receptive to the potential force of their normative claims. Habermas believes that that requirement is, quote, "no less cognitively exacting for the secular citizens than the requirement of translation is for religious citizens. In so far as the secularist derives a certain self-esteem from the [INAUDIBLE] idea that modern political principles have no grounding other than reason alone, the shift to a post-secular stance of metaphysical agnosticism is, indeed, a challenge for them as well."
But whether Habermas has, thereby, resolved the dilemmas of the Rawlsian proviso remains unclear. The major difficulty is that he must presuppose that all citizens commit themselves in advance to the fallibilistic procedures of democratic deliberation, even if those procedures result in political decisions that some of the citizens find unacceptable.
Now, for those secular and religious citizens who are ready to adopt a post-metaphysical mode of public argumentation, which is fallibilistic and open-ended, and doesn't permit us to stop conversation with a metaphysical claim, such a commitment is, perhaps, not hard to imagine. But for those who continue to ground their beliefs in a non-fallibilistic metaphysics that remains impervious to rational modification-- think, for example, of the religious right in this country-- the prospect that they will commit themselves to the same rules of deliberation seems improbable.
Although Habermas is well aware of this dilemma, his only response so far has been to stipulate a basic precondition. Participation in modern democracy simply requires that all citizens make the epistemic and metaphysical shift to a species of relativism. In his October 2001 Frankfurt address he detailed three specific requirements. Religious consciousness, he wrote, must first come to terms with the cognitive dissonance of encountering other denominations and religions. And it must, second, adapt to the authority of the sciences which hold the societal monopoly on secular knowledge. And it must, lastly, agree to the premises of a constitutional state, grounded in a profane morality.
These requirements, however, merely stipulate, without explaining the most momentous religious question of our time. How can potential participants in a modern democracy be brought to accept such a dramatic modification of world views and metaphysical commitments? Habermas does not answer that question. He merely specifies the above conditions as prerequisites for any workable partnership between religious and non-religious co-citizens.
In the autumn of 2001, speaking only a month after the terrorist attacks of September 11th, he underscored the urgency of that cognitive shift. Quote, "Without this thrust of reflection," he warned, "monotheisms and relentlessly modernized societies unleash a destructive potential," end quote. The transformation of religious consciousness in the direction of fallibilism and pluralism may prove vital to the longevity of democratic societies across the globe.
But regarding the crucial matter as to how this transformation might come about, Habermas, like Rawls, prefers no obvious solution. Instead he merely shifts the burden from his own theoretical discourse, and from political discourse, to the anonymous work of what he calls a collective learning process that equips religion over time with precisely the species of non-dogmatic self-reflexivity that democracy seems to demand. Whether history can be relied upon to generate such a consciousness remains, as Habermas admits, an empirical question only. As such, it's one, he says, that political philosophy cannot be expected to answer.
But since it's precisely this question that most arouses the anxieties and even the chauvinisms of democratic states, even prompting xenophobic backlash, the aporia in Habermas's argument at this point leaves us with a feeling of deepest dissatisfaction.
Now, at the beginning of my remarks, I suggested that political theology brings together two claims. The first concern, what I call, the normative deficit of modernity. The thought here is that any social order that undergoes the trial of rationalization will eventually suffer what Max Weber once diagnosed as the loss of meaning. For Weber, the emergence of modernity brought an inevitable differentiation of value spheres, a rationalization of practical conduct, and the consequent disenchantment of the world.
The classical paradigm of secularization articulated in Weber's sociology presupposed that the comprehensive metaphysical and normative authority of religion could not survive once it stood exposed to the dis-articulating processes of instrumental reason. Magic and miracle would yield to mundane procedure. Charisma would dissolve into bureaucratic routine. And the social whole would shatter into a new polytheism, an agonistic disarray of incommensurable value spheres.
Traditional religion, Weber said, would thereby suffer a terrific demotion in prestige. Having abandoned its sovereign role as the organizing scheme of the social whole, it would retreat from public life into the interior sphere of mysticism and mere affect.
Now, for Weber, the consequence of this social historical transformation would be a modern polity drained of any higher purpose. The very idea of meaning, he feared, would die out at its very roots. It is this theme, then, that I'm calling the normative deficit. And this Weberian picture of our predicament prompted Carl Schmitt to draw the natural inference that, if the modern world is not to ossify into a truly lifeless bureaucracy, it simply cannot permit religions' withdrawal from public life. It must, instead, retain for politics, the singular and authoritarian force of religion or at least some analog thereof.
This explains the second claim of political theology, which alerts us to the unique and perhaps inexhaustible plenitude of religious tradition as the privileged source of normativity. The normative deficit of modernity can be remedied if we hold ourselves enthralled to a principle that bears the absolutistic and incorrigible form of the divine. The classical version of this thesis was given by Schmitt himself, who believed that no political order could survive without the authoritarian decision that intrudes into the lifeless mechanism of the state, like a miracle, infusing the polity with a higher purpose and a normativity it would otherwise lack.
Much of the theoretical and sociological work on the place of religion in modern society appears now ready to take on board that basic motif of political theology, even when its authoritarian edge is blunted until it sounds like an unacceptable concession to religious inclusion. In his 1994 book, Public Religions in the Modern World, the sociologist Jose Casanova, who I mentioned before, recapitulates that motif with his claim that an overzealous rationalization has impoverished the social order, and that the walls of secularism should be breached so that religion might offer, what he calls, a renormativization of public life. That this rather modest argument retains its bond to political theology should, I think, be clear in so far as it repeats the two original claims, albeit in blunted form. That modernity first suffers a specific deficit of normativity. That second, only religion can redress.
Such argumentation thus contributes to a basic mood of skepticism regarding secular ideals, a skepticism that now pervades so much of our theoretical discourse on the left and the right. Such skepticism is also a noteworthy effect, it seems to me, of the new genre of disenchanting genealogy inspired by powerful theorists such as Talal Asad and Joan Scott, who wish to show that secularism is nothing more than an ideological formation that functions both to control and to exclude religious minorities from the oppressive and homogenizing power of the neoliberal state.
Now, many are persuaded that this genealogical critique of secularism is more or less correct. But the unfortunate effect of this critique is to blur the distinction between fact and norm, such that the unmasking genealogy of secularism as an historical force for exclusion leaves unanswered the normative question as to how pluralistic societies are supposed to cohere, without erecting new forms of authoritarianism or exclusion. Which is to say it leaves unanswered precisely the question that Habermas left unanswered in his most recent work. That liberal structures of governance can produce distortive and oppressive effects on religious communities is altogether obvious.
But recognizing this fact does not suffice to answer the question as to how diverse populations can reach even the minimal threshold of a modus vivendi. This is because the new critique of liberal reason contents itself with the task of unmasking secularist domination, and resists the symmetrical critique of domination found in religious communities, too. A geneological critique that aims to expose patterns of injustice does crucial work, but only if it retains at least one implicit criterion by which injustice can be measured. An exhaustive genealogy of secularism fails if it doesn't explain what shared rules of fair play would actually permit, the non-violent coexistence of multiple cultures and faiths.
Now, this was an insight that Adorno grasped far better than the genealogists of reason who came after him. The dielectric of enlightenment does not license a wholesale revolt against universal norms as norms that are merely oppressive in their effects. But it instead exposes reasons, failure, to achieve its own promise by confronting it with the embarrassment of its ideological compromise.
This critique only succeeds, however, because it can hold up the historical catastrophe to a normative ideal of freedom that has been violated. Without that distinction between fact and norm, the argument would lose its force as an exercise in critique. And then we have to ask, well, what is the critical purpose of such an unmasking at all?
Adorno, in other words, never wholly abandoned his commitment to the standard of profane reason. Unlike the Sacred Fragment of Moses and Aron, the philosophical fragments co-authored by Adorno with Horkheimer, under the title of Dialectical of Enlightenment, never allowed the exercise in a genealogy of instrumental reason to consume the disenchanting and emancipatory power of critique itself.
The implication of my remarks today is that critical theory, at least in its classical phase, remained immune to the temptations of political theology precisely because it practiced what Adorno called an extreme askesis regarding the powers of revelation. No doubt some will continue to praise Adorno for his fidelity to the enlightenment, and others will fault him for an unyielding kind of enlightenment fundamentalism.
But those who would abandon the standard of profane reason should at least note the irony that for Adorno it is monotheism itself that demands our vigilance, lest we substitute for God the irrational pleasures of the golden calf. Such a substitution, he thought, is at risk whenever the political theological argument takes hold and we turn to religion as a balm for our secular despair.
In his recent work, Habermas appears to have slackened the strictures of mosaic asceticism that Adorno upheld. With the truly surprising consequence that Habermas bears some resemblance to Aron, the breaker of secrets, and the hero of populist religion. In recent years, it is Habermas who defends the rights of the post-secular against fundamentalists on both the left and the right.
For critical theory, however, this post-secular demarche has ambivalent effects. In moderating the authority of the secularist prohibition, it allows, admittedly, greater latitude for the varieties of religious consciousness with the truly salutary effect of democratic inclusion for religious minorities. And that should not be gainsaid or minimized. But in naming religion the singular force of normative instruction, it joins hands with an anti-modernist discourse of political theology that never cared for the protection of minorities in the first place.
Most surprising of all, it echoes the political theological thought that only religion preserves the normativity that rationalized modernity has otherwise forgotten. And it's this thesis in particular, I think, that distinguishes too sharply between profane reason and its religious other. It grants reason too little, and religion too much.
Most recently, Habermas has defended himself against such criticism by specifying that religious traditions can respond to two distinct deficiencies in secular political life. First, it responds to what he calls a motivational deficit that has afflicted secular ethics ever since Kant, who placed too much confidence in the volitional power of good reasons alone and did not find a way to anchor such motives in the human heart. Second, Habermas says, it responds to the political deficit of a secular individualism that seems unable to sustain an experience of transpersonal solidarity.
Both of these defects, Habermas says, may find guidance in the motivational and solidaristic experience of religious rituals and practices. Such arguments draw Habermas into the unlikely company of conservatives and communitarian critics of modern individualism, such as MacIntyre and Sandel. Perhaps Habermas is right that religion is one source of such experience. What's remarkable, however, is that he should present religion as the single remedy. Despite my own admiration for the moral political vision bequeathed to us in many religious traditions, I can't see why that strong view of religion as the privileged resource would merit our assent.
Adorno, by contrast, recognized different profane sources of motivation and solidarity. In, for example, the auratic power of profane art, and in the creaturely experiences of love and natural embodiment that lay, he thought, at the very core of being human. Habermas, it should be noted, has remained throughout his career philosophically unresponsive to those sources of normative experience. Perhaps because they resist the discursive translation into validity claims that his theory demands. Ironically then, it may be Habermas's own fidelity to an overly constrained conception of reason that has prompted his recourse to religion.
By way of a conclusion, let me say that the survival of a political theological motif and critical theory needn't prompt an allergic response, provided we sustain translation practices whereby the authoritarian gestures of religious tradition are held in check. Moreover, Habermas is largely correct when he observes that secularism need not be secularist. The proviso that religious discourse passed through a filter of translation doesn't deny apriori the possible validity of metaphysical insights. It means only to guard against the danger that such insights would be imposed unilaterally on co-citizens who may not share them.
Nor is secularism equivalent to [FRENCH] in the French sense. As a normative ideal it expresses the Westphalian ideal of any modern social order that aims to construct a common and mutually tolerable framework for the coexistence of multiple faiths. To be sure, such a coexistence presents formidable challenges, both cognitive and political, that political theologians continue to resist. Those who cleave to a profound and deeply felt religiosity may well despair, like Moses, that there are no words that do not betray the true faith.
It would be dismissive, I think, to say that such despair is simply the price one has to pay for living with heterogeneity. One could instead hope for an increase in what you could call epistemic modesty for an awakening to the relativity of metaphysical claims and sacred practices that ground our, now intermingled, communities. And perhaps that epistemic modesty is, itself, a kind of reflection late in our modern age of the original experience of awe embodied in religious tradition.
And yet, the greater risk, I would suggest, comes from those children of Aron who would build for themselves a theologically-grounded polity. For anyone who resents the intrusive heterogeneity catalyzed by both de-colonization and global capitalism, political theology remains an eternal temptation in its zeal to reverse the process of emancipatory disenchantment, it would banish from the sacred community that enduring, if fragile, medium of critical reason, which remains the common endowment of all human beings, religious and irreligious alike.
So how do we- so I just field my questions?
HENT DE VRIES: Peter, thank you very much. [INAUDIBLE] a few questions.
PETER GORDON: Probably a good idea since I saw it-- did I see your hand raised in the second row in the back there? No, you were stretching. Someone in the middle? No. Sir. Yes, you.
SPEAKER 3: Thank you very much [INAUDIBLE]. And so my question is, is that the symbol [INAUDIBLE]? What's the [INAUDIBLE] definition [INAUDIBLE] or [INAUDIBLE] using [INAUDIBLE] between religion and secular thining? I ask it particularly because [INAUDIBLE] discourse. So I'm wondering what can and cannot [INAUDIBLE] a religion [INAUDIBLE]?
PETER GORDON: An extraordinarily challenging question. I think the important thing I want to say in response to that question is that those two terms aren't, as it were, mirror images of one another, or they're not symmetrical in the sense that one-- they are both responding to the same problem, but on two different sides of a divide.
The way I'm using it here, or the way I understand Adorno to be using it, secular discourse, or what remains after translation is a set of argumentative claims, normative claims, claims that are made upon each and every one of us and that are presumed to be intelligible to all. In so far as they are intelligible to all, that is all that we mean by secular discourse. And they can take all sorts of different forms.
It's not that they don't make reference to religion in particular. It's that they don't make reference to untranslatable experiences that belong to specific kinds of irreducibly local identity, or, let's say, apriori metaphysical commitments. And there are all sorts of things that have that form. I mean if we go back and read Rawls' Political Liberalism-- and Rawls isn't really part of the discourse here-- but if we go back to Political Liberalism, Rawls was very clear that those comprehensive doctrines needn't be religious in the conventional sense. He thought religion was only one form of comprehensive doctrine.
So the phrase secular discourse here is maybe misleading because it's too narrow. I mean the thought here is that there's a kind of-- there's a space of mutual intelligibility. Which is, of course, as a matter of fact, always being distorted by power, always being distorted by different historical experiences, by various asymmetries, by experience of, say, racial or religious exclusion. But we're always making an appeal to that space when we have arguments. Otherwise, don't talk. And it's a terribly painful matter to always confront the fact that that ideal is being betrayed.
And I would say it's almost-- we could put it in this way, it's always already being betrayed. But that doesn't deny the ideal. And what these philosophers, it seems to me, are modeling is that idea of a translation where that translation remains in place as the ideal, in so far as abandoning it is abandoning ourselves to a kind of metaphysical balkanization. We might as well give up in advance any desire to talk to one another, and we might as well give up in advance any need for criticizing the power differentials we consider obnoxious. Why do that if we're going to be living within separate communities?
And it's too late to have that hope anyways, because, as a matter of fact, none of us anymore lives in a separate community. That was sort of a very oblique way of getting around to answering your question.
SPEAKER 4: Well, as you might imagine, I'm on the opposite side of almost every issue you raised.
PETER GORDON: Yeah.
SPEAKER 4: Except [INAUDIBLE] how Habermas has taken this turn. And then tried to come back by returning to some idea of religion-- after a while coming back to the [INAUDIBLE] or something like that.
Some of you may know that for a long time, the second most read book in the Christian world was John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Promise. And in the first pages of the Pilgrim's Promise there's a scene in which the hero, Christian, who has discovered that he has a burden on his back, which the margin identifies, probably needlessly, as original sin, is looking for a way to have it removed.
And he goes around asking people the obvious question, what can I do? What can I do? And he gets very interdeterminate answers, except for someone who says, do you see that yonder shining light? And he says, no, I don't. And the response to that is go toward that light. In other words, he's being told to go toward the light that he cannot see.
And so he begins to run through the town on his way out of the town toward that light. And as he runs, his wife and children come out of the house and begin to call upon him to come back. His neighbors begin to jeer at him. And then Bunyan writes, and this is as near a quote as I can manage with my memory. "But the man put his fingers in his ears and ran on, crying life, life, eternal life." That's the religious moment, the moment in which all claims, however acknowledged they might be in ordinary circumstances.
I set aside in favor of this logic claim which is exerted by something that Christian cannot see. Nevertheless, he chooses it.
Now, I would say, and I don't think that you would disagree, that that form of religious commitment cannot be either conquered by or accommodated within any other discourse. however liberal and generous. As I'm sure you know in a very influential essay, Tom [INAUDIBLE] said that the problem that we have as royalty and liberals, with respect to religious persons, is how to speak to them. And he then said, we must find a way to give reasons to the devout. We must find a way to give reasons to the devout.
But there are no reasons I would say that you could give to the devout that would be persuasive, unless they were reasons that the devout already recognized, which would be the reasons that Christian is recognizing as he runs past his wife and children.
So that I would say, and again, you might not disagree, that the answer to the question Rawls poses I think in the [INAUDIBLE] paperback edition of Political Liberalism, how is it that we can devise a society which is made up of citizens who are family and equally treated? How can we reconcile this with the religious impulse? And the answer that I would give, not the answer that Rawls would give, is you cannot.
There's no way ever to bring these two views into reconciliation, except as you, yourself, describe it, the condescending demand that religious persons transfer their views into utterances that would be, if not acceptable, at least intelligible to others. That's not gonna happen. It's never gonna happen. So that the old Habermasian ideal of everyone just sitting around and exchanging only the better reasons, as if those reasons could be somehow recognized [INAUDIBLE]. It's never gonna work with respect to religious discourse. So he's not putting himself, I think, in a no-man's land.
PETER GORDON: That's a very interesting view. I think it's not an unfamiliar view, because lots of conservative critics of secular reason say take John Milbank, for example, expressed the same kind of robust skepticism, and very proudly so. Basically saying that religious discourse need not bend before the authority of profane rationality and criticism.
SPEAKER 4: [INAUDIBLE] assuming what it is.
PETER GORDON: Yeah. I think that's right. And it's a very powerful conservative critique of modernity. I see it as, forgive me, a unrealistic one that simply runs the other way from the factual experience of global pluralism, and societal pluralism that we confront every day.
If we want to say that, it may sound rather-- I don't know-- bold. There's always a kind of appeal to radical skepticism, but I don't see that it's going to help us solve the problem. And I think the problem's got to be how people of different sorts of commitments live together. And if they are going to just stop talking because talking is impossible, well, then we have no good argument against their just taking up weapons.
And I think that Mike Huckabee would, in a way, be very happy with that kind of argument, as would Clarence Thomas.
SPEAKER 4: [INAUDIBLE].
SPEAKER 5: I could go back [INAUDIBLE].
PETER GORDON: My point is that this kind of argument I think does need to be-- we do need to keep some concrete reference in mind here, and the reference are not just ones that are happening elsewhere than the United States. They're all around us in every sort of confrontation or potential conversation. So yeah, I don't agree with that.
The point I want to make is a point I thought that Adorno makes rather elegantly, which is that in a strange way, his resistance to the idea of translation, his attempt to defend the profane is, he thinks, a way of paying homage to the mosaic prohibition. Now, we can say that that's just a marvelous little rhetorical feat toward the end of his essay, but I think it's a very powerful one. It's a way of saying that the political theological motif has always been about, not obeying, but betraying a sense of the divine.
And that seems to me a very, very interesting warning against what you might call any premature efforts at translation. And an attempt to sustain the space of profane reason on its own, but in the name of religion.
SPEAKER 6: When I was reading these, they seem so completely opposed to each other, but by the end, I thought there does seem to be a way in which one might achieve [INAUDIBLE]. Adorno and Habermas [INAUDIBLE] base of discussion because Adorno, at the end, is talking about religion has its-- you can sacrifice the mind. The [INAUDIBLE] knew that he was willing to sacrifice reason itself, and that justified his position.
And with Habermas, there's a sense-- both of them have a sense that you have a mimetic relationship with God, and for Adorno, if somebody's willing to sacrifice reason, that justifies a mimetic relation with God. And with Habermas, there's this idea at the end when he's talking about religious ideas about reproductive epics, but you can take on a role of God, too. So both are talking about a mimetic relation to God. And so it may be that-- to my mind, what was between them, [INAUDIBLE] neither mentioned it, is specifically this idea of sacrifice. And Adorno says faith has its value, if its intention with knowledge.
And so if you could have a public discussion over the nature of sacrifice, are you wiling to sacrifice for the [INAUDIBLE], or are you willing to sacrifice, or what are you willing to sacrifice for your values? That if you think it's not necessarily a dialectic, but at least there's someplace where you can have a discussion over things that are of genuine meaning to people.
PETER GORDON: That's very interesting. So I'll pick up on a few threads. This is a very interesting thought. One difference between Adorno and Habermas lies precisely in their responses to Kierkegaard, and the theme of sacrifice is at the core of this because of fear and trembling.
As many of you know, Adorno wrote his habilitation under Paul Tillich on Kierkegaard. And revisited Kierkegaard at several stages throughout his life until this late work, "Kierkegaard [GERMAN SPEECH], Kierkegaard Once Again" in 1963. And Adorno always felt a-- so he started out being very critical of Kierkegaard. His habilitation is a strongly materialist, and some would say, mean-spirited, reductive reading of Kierkegaard on the aesthetic.
But over time, Adorno warmed to Kierkegaard so that by the end of his life, he sees Kierkegaard's attempt to preserve that idea of the non-identity of the subject in relation to the social totality as a kind of redemptive feature in Kierkegaard's work that was an early, you might say, anticipatory protest against the false totalization of modern instrumental reason and modern society, which is very, very interesting.
Now, if we compare that to Habermas, Habermas is very resistant to Kierkegaardian resonances in modern philosophy. For Habermas, the main person who appropriates Kierkegaard in modernity is Schmitt. He sees Schmitt as a kind of child of Kierkegaardian decisionism.
Well, I have an essay on a little-- which touches on this a little bit about the differences between Habermas and Derrida. You know, for Habermas the problem is, OK, so you have that moment of incommensurability, and the subject's experience of the vertical, of the relation to God, which cannot be harmonized with social reason. And then that voice speaks to you and tells you to do something truly inhuman.
And what should be the response? The response should be to try to appeal to criteria that break out of social isolation, that are socially shared criteria that are good reasons. And for Habermas this is simply what you have to do in response to any kind of sacral event. You need, in other words, a medium of translation that opens it up to critical scrutiny and potential resistance.
The Kierkegaardian and Schmittian inheritance doesn't invoke such criteria at all, and, therefore, it leaves you with this very puzzling thought which is say your revealed tradition, or your interpretation of your revealed tradition commands that, say, the territories of Judea and Samaria are yours for all time. Well, that's simply an incorrigible revelation. It's not available for discursive scrutiny. That doesn't sound like a way for us all to get along.
That's a beginning of an answer to some further things that you were saying, but I think it's-- probably will stop it.
SPEAKER 7: [INAUDIBLE].
PETER GORDON: Sure.
SPEAKER 7: [INAUDIBLE]. Habermas [INAUDIBLE] and sometimes theological [INAUDIBLE]. And you said Adorno finds it in-- you said in different places, in various places. And [INAUDIBLE]. And I guess presumably one of the places would be music, and Moses and Aron. And what do you think of those, and what does Adorno think of those as sources of [INAUDIBLE], specifically?
PETER GORDON: That's a great question. I'd love to be able to give you an adequate account of this, and there are other people in this room who can help. It seems to me that Adorno's aesthetic theory is partly addressed to exactly this question, which is what is the normative and critical relation between the aesthetic and society? And parenthetically, I think it's clear, as I said in my essay, that for Adorno it's not the aesthetic in particular or alone which has that complicated normative and critical relation to society.
Adorno's-- he's a less systematic thinker than Habermas. And Adorno sort of looks around and he sees redemptive fragments to borrow [INAUDIBLE] imagery everywhere in modern experience. It's found in the aesthetic, but Adorno also says it's found simply in our corporeal experience, that kind of animal warmth that we all crave that seems to furnish, for Adorno, the categorical imperative of modernity, which is no suffering, never again Auschwitz, right?
So there are lots of things in Adorno's work. They're sedimented into modern social experience in all different sorts of ways. But it is true, it seems to me, that the aesthetic remains of profound importance for Adorno in a way that it just doesn't show up in Habermas's work. Habermas can't conceive of the possibility of some kind of redeeming translation of aesthetic experience into terms that would be somehow valuable for the public sphere.
Habermas seems to look at that kind of claim and he says well, this is just a retreat into aestheticism. So if you've read The Philosophical Discourse in Modernity, the essay on Dialectic of Enlightenment ends with this very nasty rejection of what Adorno finds in aesthetics. And Habermas can't wrap his mind around that thought.
And I think there's some interesting reasons why. I'll just end with this in response to your question. Which is that Habermas is so faithful to the possibility of democracy in post-war Germany, and so suspicious of any survivals of charismatic authority, that when someone talks about the erratic quality of aesthetic artwork, and its productive possibilities for public life, all Habermas can think of is the way that awe manifested itself in the 1930s.
So there's no room in Habermas's thinking for awe. And somehow, Adorno-- for Adorno, it's not awe-- so the auratic is not necessarily authoritarian awe. The auratic can have a critical function that has some kind of normative weight to it. I don't know why. I mean that's a very, very interesting difference. But I don't have an answer to why.
SPEAKER 8: So I want to follow up from that question, because once you turn to other resources like the aesthetic or like the nirvanic for Adorno, then what becomes of the very clean distinction that you grew between Moses and Aron, for example? And what becomes of Adorno being a symbol for mosaic prohibition, and Aron being the Habermas [INAUDIBLE], the children of Aron being the normative supplement for religious kind of irrationalism.
Because it seems to me that once you talk about aesthetics, you're talking about representation. Once you talk about [INAUDIBLE], you're talking about [INAUDIBLE] reality and substance. The lines get a little bit fuzzier.
PETER GORDON: Yeah. That's a great thought. I mean I thought about this, and I think I tried to seed into the paper one phrase about this, which is there's a crucial difference. So the religion that Adorno places on one side and insists needs to migrate into the profane, the religion has a metaphysical character. It's construed as something that comes from outside the space of human agency.
Well, that's not true of art. And artwork is, after all, humanly created. It's wholly compatible with our sense of a profane metaphysics. And the same is indubitably true for Adorno of the sensuous character of human life, our own animal feeling. That is, the side of the creature leaf for Adorno, even when it has an erratic character and aesthetics, is on the side of things that are purely human, made by humans and experienced by humans as against the experience of the divine.
So that, for me, seems like a very strong distinction between those two.
SPEAKER 9: Thanks for-- I think it's really very, very-- it's not unclear, but it's full of things to discuss. I want to pick up on one thing which I see how you get there, but I think it's a problem in kind of continuity in a [INAUDIBLE]. And that is that there seems to be no room for the term I want to put on the table because it's important [INAUDIBLE]. And I think with reason. The reason.
And that is theology. For you there's religion and secularism, but there's no theology. There's political theology, which you see in a very specific [INAUDIBLE] as well. But I wanted to, for instance, go to some other [INAUDIBLE] like that, [? Lindsay ?] Smith who says, the word religion becomes the way 19th century Europeans talked about the desire for a secular society. That it's actually, he says, invention of the 19th century. And he would say no, you can find it [INAUDIBLE]. But he says, in its modern use, which is as comparing religions. That is, there is no one right truth. We're now just making the empirical [INAUDIBLE].
So I have trouble with the canonical school, which you so well have given us. Because it [INAUDIBLE] theological. Theology to me is precisely not an identifiable religion. Theologians can discuss transcended problematics across multiple divides. And it seems to me that on one level in the translation essay, and transformation's a word you like a lot and you use a lot.
[INAUDIBLE] translation would be impossible without theological truth, let's say, or some sort of transcended. It would be impossible to do. We couldn't translate. Because how is it if I only believe what I believe, that I would even think about translating it. Unless you really, really want to say that if certain kind of reason that has no substance, but is purely logical is what's going to allow for us to make rational arguments with each other. And obviously, that's not what any of the people you've talked about are saying.
So I just want to kind of throw this term theology. Not political theology Schmitt, But theology as something that is closer to philosophy, perhaps. And I think is much closer to what you're identifying in Adorno. No, I would put it this way. I think people make religion. I think [INAUDIBLE] people make religion. I think they [INAUDIBLE] these people make religion.
But then there's nothing theological in art, that it's all just a human construct? I don't see that in Adorno because I don't see how it can give the space for precisely what you point to, and then came back to at the end. [INAUDIBLE], but you came back with at the end. I don't see how you can do it without, or I think that you could do it perhaps even more fully if you allowed that into the conversation, that term theology.
PETER GORDON: OK, that's very interesting. I think I'm a little perplexed by this, because to me, the word theology reminds us that religious traditions have always become highly articulate and intermingled with philosophies, cultural traditions, but particularly, grand metaphysical traditions, such that there's a form of Aristotelian that underwrites medieval Catholic theology. Or one finds neoplatonist motifs, say, in medieval Islamic theology or medieval Jewish theology.
And so to me, theology is evidence of the way that you might call the primal datum of the sacred gets articulated, or becomes philosophically articulate, and gets folded into a set of ongoing discursive constructs, whether they're aesthetic, or philosophical, metaphysical. And at least, Habermas is very aware of that. And in what he seems to be writing now, he's very aware of this because of his appeals to the [INAUDIBLE]. He thinks that the axial turn happened not just in the Abrahamic religions, but also in the east. But he says also in, say, Plato.
So for me, that's what the term theology invokes. But I do think that the major problem that political philosophers are now trying to address is not the problem of how people with highly erudite philosophical systems come to agree upon a mode of political life, but how people come to agree upon a shared form of non-violent experience when they have the potential to invoke that primal datum, that primal non-articulated sense of obligation, which feels to them incorrigible. And it's that point where they're not going to budge. It's what Richard Rorti called the conversation stopper.
And to me, that's the difference between the terms of theology and religion. So to me, that's the question of what-- there are all sorts of normative insights that Habermas thinks permit of translation. But those normative insights come, presumably, from already linguistified religious experience. Whether that primal sense of obligation can actually survive linguistification, I don't know.
I think that's all I can offer by way of a beginning to answer your question. But let me point out, if anybody hasn't read those essays, I mean the Habermas essay also makes reference to ongoing debates in Germany about genetic engineering, about the possibility of manipulating the human embryo. And Peter Sloterdijk authored this very provocative essay on "Rules for the Human Zoo" where he invoked a kind of Nietzschean idea of the training, the eugenic perfection of the human being. And Habermas responded with great allergy to that idea.
And part what his turn to religion seems to be that he thinks that the religious idea of human dignity being in the mirror image of God is one of the places we can find a survival in modern culture of something that will resist interfering with the embryo. Which I think it's a very interesting thought.
But again, I want to say-- I mean I want to push back against Habermas and say, well, so what if religious traditions say it? There are all kinds of things that various past traditions say. The question is, why should we be enthralled to them? And then I think one needs something that's not a translation. You need an independent or free-standing argument. Because some people will just say, well, I don't happen to subscribe to that religious tradition. I don't understand how that gets [INAUDIBLE].
SPEAKER 10: Thanks. That was [INAUDIBLE], and I think you put your finger on many great problems. And I must say that I did feel that in spelling out the theological/political agenda, especially when you're characterizing and set your premise, you left out an option that I always felt was important to Adorno [INAUDIBLE] to Habermas.
So the premise that the theological/political argument appeals to preparing the normative deficit [INAUDIBLE] by putting religion as the [INAUDIBLE] and privileged discourse for normative intuitions, and as a key resource [INAUDIBLE] and what have you.
But now it strikes me that when Habermas makes his post-second return, he does not become, let's say, [INAUDIBLE] in rediscovering aggregious apriori. Nor does he adopt a debateable sociological viewpoint that we're all [INAUDIBLE]. So he gives [INAUDIBLE] for the mental preparedness, [INAUDIBLE].
There's lots of stuff in the religious traditions that lo and behold [INAUDIBLE] have not let themselves be privatized [INAUDIBLE] a public and a political and global factor of importance. And the [INAUDIBLE] of validity would be to [INAUDIBLE] the wrong tree, and then wish that this will all go away. Proceed to the authorities, [INAUDIBLE]. Just don't discuss it. It's an embarassment, it will disappear, or we are in big trouble or to wager.
But actually, there are some [INAUDIBLE] in that repository, in that [INAUDIBLE] that might be surprisingly usual. So I see Habermas as responding almost the way Scholem did to Adorno by saying, well, don't say that there's an apriori impossibility for the sacred to play a role in [INAUDIBLE], for example, [INAUDIBLE]. But let's see.
And then the question is, well, sure, there needs to be linguisitification of the sacred, of religion, of theology into different [INAUDIBLE]. But no one [INAUDIBLE] Habermas knows that that's linguistification or that making explicit has a principle and irresolvable residues. And that's nothing new [INAUDIBLE].
If you look at the theory of communicative actions, [INAUDIBLE] as a foil for [INAUDIBLE] Habermas's work. It's crystal clear that there's a lifeworld, and that's where most of the stuff is. Most of our intuitions, normative and [INAUDIBLE] are and be [INAUDIBLE]. And there's just a tiny little bit of that that becomes explicit in our formalizing concepts of objective rule, of [INAUDIBLE], of us as subjects, and what have you.
But that there is this level of implicitness that is out there in the lifeworld was always considered by his very enlightened mode of re-thinking what rationality means philosophically, sociologically, politically, and what have you. So I don't see that much of a change of mind for even a [? privileging ?] of religion per say. There's almost a wager pragmatically that as long as it provides interesting arguments or counterpoints that people have not yet found good reasons for it, or it will bring up other ones. One could not simply dismiss it.
SPEAKER 2: Thank you. That's very helpful. So my responses are two-fold. One about the-- well, the Lebenswelt, I'll take that on first, and then I'll address your question about the pragmatic character of his argument.
So about the lifeworld, Lebenswelt in theory of communicative action, absolutely Habermas does say that we always find ourselves drawing upon normative resources, all sorts of sedimented cultural experiences that are in the background of our experience. In the lifeworld, we bring those forward. We bring them forward a little bit at a time, like [INAUDIBLE] because we live from them all the time in modern society, and then we can call them up and rationally scrutinize them and try to give reasons as to why we should recommend one for a center for living by it. And others are always in the background.
And it's impossible for that stock of sedimented cultural commitments to be drained. It's impossible because it simply constitutes us. I mean this is a kind of the hermeneutic moment, if you like, in the theory of communicative action. We're always drawing upon that because we are that culture. We live in that lifeworld. I think that's entirely right.
What one I think does not see in the theory of communicative action is the thought that the lifeworld as a set of sedimented meanings is distinguished by the priority of one set of meanings over another. In other words, there's this kind of general claim about the lifeworld and the cultural stock that we are living from and that we live in. And there's very little effort to, say, differentiate amongst the different items in our cultural suitcase. The Lebenswelt is simply what's constituting us no matter where we are and it's a very formal definition, if you like.
Now, that brings me, if you like, to the second question, which has to do with this claim in his recent work that religion enjoys a kind of privileged status as the normative resource from which we are living. Two points here.
One is the lifeworld is only sometimes normative. Religion, when Habermas turns to it, is only of interest to him in so far as it can be translated normatively. So there's an interesting narrowing of his focus there.
But the second important point is that question as to whether he really is now saying that religion is special, that it's the only thing that remains in the lifeworld that has a distinctly normative character that can instruct us. Now, and here I'm really interested in what you say because I hesitate about this, and some of my language in the paper hesitates about this, too.
There are moments in Habermas's recent work where he makes the claim in a pragmatic mode exactly the way you suggest. And those are the moments I can get on board with him to some degree when he speaks this way. He says, religion may be the bearer of semantic potentials and normativities that survive, question mark, for the time being. And it may be a scarce, perhaps indispensable resource for modern society.
His language is very-- I would say conflicted, almost anguished about exactly this question. And I suppose I'm interested in putting a lot of pressure on the modal language there. Because the minute it slips from a pragmatic and empirical question about whether religion is with us for the long term or forever, the minute it slips from a pragmatic thought that it might be, to the concession that it must be, I'm not on board with him anymore. And it seems to me that he slips.
And you read him as-- you read him more generously as always making the pragmatist claim, which is, I think, a much more acceptable one which looks immune to the political/theological charge that I'm seeing there. But I see him as, let's say, trying very hard to walk the line between those two claims without committing himself either way.
I think that's a very, very interesting thing about his recent work. It's a very interesting thing about his attempt to enter into dialogue with people of faith. He's trying, I think, very hard to be as generous to them as possible. And the mark of his generosity is when he slips from the pragmatism into the [INAUDIBLE].
HENT DE VRIES: One last question, if there is one.
SPEAKER 11: I just wanted to point out that the phrase you just referenced, the question you just referenced [INAUDIBLE], is religion special, that is the question, and it's the question that animates religion [INAUDIBLE] in the United States, and has [INAUDIBLE] the religion clause. [INAUDIBLE] singles out religion as a special case.
And yet the document in which the First Amendment appears is the document absolutely dedicated for the ration of liberal [INAUDIBLE] that we've been talking about. And so religion [INAUDIBLE] goes back and forth between the pull of considering religion, especially [INAUDIBLE] discourse [INAUDIBLE] to especially to be feared, and especially to be [INAUDIBLE], or just one more discourse from which we might learn something.
So that whole dialectic that you've been explaining so well just from the context of the [INAUDIBLE] that you examined is also working itself out every day right now in the history of the [INAUDIBLE]. We've gone over in the direction of religion being special. And therefore, we have decisions, like that Hobby Lobby decision, or the decision two years ago where anti-discrimination laws were declared to be void in relation to the right of religion to do whatever it wants with its employees or parishioners.
So now we're going that way in a direction that might, I think, not please [INAUDIBLE].
PETER GORDON: Thank you. You know I was thinking, the one book that's I think of relevance here is the one by-- and I'm forgetting his name-- ran the Philosophical Gourmet for a long time.
SPEAKER 12: Leiter.
PETER GORDON: Yeah. Right. Thank you. Brian Leiter in his book on should religion be given a pass, which is really about this question. This is an old question that, for example, has haunted debates over conscientious objection, where conscientious objection in the United States was only possible if you could demonstrate fervent religious commitment. For example, membership in the Quakers, for example. And it was extraordinarily different for people that didn't have religious commitments.
SPEAKER 11: It's also the tenet of the Supreme Being.
PETER GORDON: Yes. Which is really fascinating. And a biographical note, since we're in ending here. When I was a teenager and under the Reagan administration they imposed the draft as a requirement for college student loans, and I was applying to college. I had to apply and fill out a draft card. And I considered myself at that time-- I don't anymore-- I considered myself at that time a pacifist, but I could not appeal to specific faith commitments to justify my pacifism. Although I had faith commitments, I couldn't use them to justify pacifism. I was extraordinarily angry about that.
I mean I think this remains a serious problem in the special status that's afforded religion today. And as one last note, at my own institution there is now, for the first time, a humanist chaplain, which is a very interesting idea.
SPEAKER 12: [INAUDIBLE].
PETER GORDON: As it were, yeah. Anyway, I'll end there.
SPEAKER 12: [INAUDIBLE].
PETER GORDON: Thanks, everybody.
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Peter E. Gordon, Amabel B. James Professor of History at Harvard University, spoke at Cornell on June 15, 2015, as part of the School of Criticism and Theory public lecture series.