Re: [xmca] Don Quixote meets Reinhold Niebuhr

From: Mike Cole (
Date: Wed Oct 12 2005 - 11:37:33 PDT

The link to issues of multi-cultural tolerance seems a really important
addition, Steve. Thanks

On 10/11/05, steve thorne <> wrote:
> hi mike and all -- the complex and problematic interpenetration of social
> justice and religion has come up recently in the work of Habermas.
> some of you might be interested in this synoptic account that recently
> appeared in the chronical of higher education.
> best,
> steve
> *Jürgen Habermas and Post-Secular Societies
> Among 19th-century thinkers it was an uncontestable commonplace that
> religion's cultural centrality was a thing of the past. For Georg Hegel,
> following in the footsteps of the Enlightenment, religion had been surpassed
> by reason's superior conceptual precision. In* The Essence of Christianity
> * (1841), Ludwig Feuerbach depicted the relationship between man and
> divinity as a zero-sum game. In his view, the stress on godliness merely
> detracted from the sublimity of human ends. In one of his youthful writings,
> Karl Marx, Feuerbach's most influential disciple, famously dismissed
> religion as "the opium of the people." Its abolition, Marx believed, was a
> sine qua non for human betterment. Friedrich Nietzsche got to the heart of
> the matter by having his literary alter ego, the brooding prophet
> Zarathustra, brusquely declaim, "God is dead," thereby pithily summarizing
> what many educated Europeans were thinking but few had the courage actually
> to say. And who can forget Nietzsche's searing characterization of
> Christianity as a "slave morality," a plebeian belief system appropriate for
> timorous conformists but unsuited to the creation of a future race of
> domineering* Übermenschen*? True to character, the only representatives of
> Christianity Nietzsche saw fit to praise were those who could revel in a
> good auto-da-fé -- Inquisition stalwarts like Ignatius Loyola.
> Twentieth-century characterizations of belief were hardly more generous.
> Here, one need look no further than the title of Freud's 1927 treatise on
> religion:* The Future of an Illusion.
> *Today, however, there are omnipresent signs of a radical change in
> mentality. In recent years, in both the United States and the developing
> world, varieties of religious fundamentalism have had a major political
> impact. As Democratic presidential hopefuls Howard Dean and John Kerry
> learned the hard way, politicians who are perceived as faithless risk losing
> touch with broad strata of the electorate.
> Are contemporary philosophers up to the challenge of explaining and
> conceptualizing these striking recent developments? After all, what Freud,
> faithfully reflecting the values of the scientific age, cursorily dismissed
> as illusory seems to have made an unexpected and assertive comeback -- one
> that shows few signs of abating anytime soon.
> Jürgen Habermas may be the living philosopher most likely to succeed where
> angels, and their detractors, fear to tread. Following Jacques Derrida's
> death last October, it would seem that Habermas has justly inherited the
> title of the world's leading philosopher. Last year he won the prestigious
> Kyoto Prize for Arts and Philosophy (previous recipients include Karl Popper
> and Paul Ricoeur), capping an eventful career replete with honors as well as
> a number of high-profile public debates.
> The centerpiece of Habermas's moral philosophy is "discourse ethics,"
> which takes its inspiration from Immanuel Kant's categorical imperative. For
> Kant, to count as moral, actions must pass the test of universality: The
> actor must be able to will that anyone in a similar situation should act in
> the same way. According to Kant, lying and stealing are immoral insofar as
> they fall beneath the universalization threshold; only at the price of grave
> self-contradiction could one will that lying and stealing become universal
> laws. Certainly, we can envisage a number of exceptional situations where we
> could conceivably justify lying or stealing. In Kant's example, at your door
> is a man intent on murdering your loved one and inquiring as to her
> whereabouts. Or what if you were too poor to purchase the medicine needed to
> save your spouse's life?
> In the first case you might well think it would be permissible to lie; and
> in the second case, to steal. Yet on both counts Kant is immovable. An
> appeal to circumstances might well complicate our decision making. It might
> even elicit considerable public sympathy for otherwise objectionable
> conduct. But it can in no way render an immoral action moral. It is with
> good reason that Kant calls his imperative a categorical one, for an
> imperative that admits of exceptions is really no imperative at all.
> Habermas's approach to moral philosophy is Kantian, although he takes
> exception to the solipsistic, egological framework Kant employs. Habermas
> believes that, in order to be convincing, moral reasoning needs a broader,
> public basis. Discourse ethics seeks to offset the limitations of the
> Kantian approach. For Habermas, the give and take of argumentation, as a
> learning process, is indispensable. Through communicative reason we strive
> for mutual understanding and learn to assume the standpoint of the other.
> Thereby we also come to appreciate the narrowness of our own individual
> perspective. Discourse ethics proposes that those actions are moral that
> could be justified in an open-ended and genuine public dialogue. Its formula
> suggests that "only those norms can claim to be valid that meet (or could
> meet) with the appro-val of all affected in their capacity as participants
> in a practical discourse."
> Until recently Habermas was known as a resolutely secular thinker. On
> occasion his writings touched upon religious subjects or themes. But these
> confluences were exceptions that proved the rule.
> Yet a few years ago the tonality of his work began to change ever so
> subtly. In fall 2001 Habermas was awarded the prestigious Peace Prize of the
> German Publishers and Booksellers Association. The title of his acceptance
> speech, "Faith and Knowledge," had a palpably theological ring. The remarks,
> delivered shortly after the September 11 terrorist attacks, stressed the
> importance of mutual toleration between secular and religious approaches to
> life.
> Last year Habermas engaged in a high-profile public dialogue with Cardinal
> Joseph Ratzinger -- who, on April 19, was named as Pope John Paul II's
> successor -- at the cardinal's behest. A number of the philosopher's
> left-wing friends and followers were taken aback by his willingness to have
> a dialogue with one of Europe's most conservative prelates. In 2002 Habermas
> had published* In Defense of Humanity,* an impassioned critique of the
> risks of biological engineering and human cloning. It was this text in
> particular, in which the philosopher provided an eloquent defense of the
> right to a unique human identity -- a right that cloning clearly imperils --
> that seems to have piqued the cardinal's curiosity and interest. Yet if one
> examines the trajectory of Habermas's intellectual development, the
> Ratzinger exchange seems relatively unexceptional.
> Glance back at Habermas's philosophical* chef d'oeuvre,* the two-volume*Theory of Communicative Action
> * (1981), and you'll find that one of his key ideas is the
> "linguistification of the sacred" (*Versprachlichung des Sakrals*). By
> this admittedly cumbersome term, Habermas asserts that modern notions of
> equality and fairness are secular distillations of time-honored
> Judeo-Christian precepts. The "contract theory" of politics, from which our
> modern conception of "government by consent of the governed" derives, would
> be difficult to conceive apart from the Old Testament covenants. Similarly,
> our idea of the intrinsic worth of all persons, which underlies human
> rights, stems directly from the Christian ideal of the equality of all men
> and women in the eyes of God. Were these invaluable religious sources of
> morality and justice to atrophy entirely, it is doubtful whether modern
> societies would be able to sustain this ideal on their own.
> In a recent interview Habermas aptly summarized those insights: "For the
> normative self-understanding of modernity, Christianity has functioned as
> more than just a precursor or a catalyst. Universalistic egalitarianism,
> from which sprang the ideals of freedom and a collective life in solidarity,
> the autonomous conduct of life and emancipation, the individual morality of
> conscience, human rights, and democracy, is the direct legacy of the Judaic
> ethic of justice and the Christian ethic of love."
> Three years ago the MIT Press published* Religion and Rationality: Essays
> on Reason, God, and Modernity,* an illuminating collection of Habermas's
> writings on religious themes. Edited and introduced by the philosopher
> Eduardo Mendieta, of the State University of New York at Stony Brook, the
> anthology concludes with a fascinating interview in which the philosopher
> systematically clarifies his views on a variety of religious areas. (A
> companion volume,* The Frankfurt School on Religion: Key Writings by the
> Major Thinkers,* also edited by Mendieta, was published in 2004 by
> Routledge.)
> On the one hand, religion's return -- Habermas, perhaps with the American
> situation foremost in mind, goes so far as to speak of the emergence of
> "post-secular societies" -- presents us with undeniable dangers and risks.
> While theodicy has traditionally provided men and women with consolation for
> the harsh injustices of fate, it has also frequently taught them to remain
> passively content with their lot. It devalues worldly success and entices
> believers with the promise of eternal bliss in the hereafter. Here the risk
> is that religion may encourage an attitude of social passivity, thereby
> contravening democracy's need for an active and engaged citizenry. To wit,
> the biblical myth of the fall perceives secular history as a story of
> decline or perdition from which little intrinsic good may emerge.
> On the other hand, laissez-faire's success as a universally revered
> economic model means that, today, global capitalism's triumphal march
> encounters few genuine oppositional tendencies. In that regard, religion, as
> a repository of transcendence, has an important role to play. It prevents
> the denizens of the modern secular societies from being overwhelmed by the
> all-encompassing demands of vocational life and worldly success. It offers a
> much-needed dimension of otherness: The religious values of love, community,
> and godliness help to offset the global dominance of competitiveness,
> acquisitiveness, and manipulation that predominate in the vocational sphere.
> Religious convictions encourage people to treat each other as ends in
> themselves rather than as mere means.
> One of Habermas's mentors, the Frankfurt School philosopher Max
> Horkheimer, once observed that "to salvage an unconditional meaning" -- one
> that stood out as an unqualified Good -- "without God is a futile
> undertaking." As a stalwart of the Enlightenment, Habermas himself would be
> unlikely to go that far. But he might consider Horkheimer's adage a timely
> reminder of the risks and temptations of all-embracing secularism. Habermas
> stressed in a recent public lecture "the force of religious traditions to
> articulate moral intuitions with regard to communal forms of a dignified
> human life." As forceful and persuasive as our secular philosophical
> precepts might be -- the idea of human rights, for example -- from time to
> time they benefit from renewed contact with the nimbus of their sacral
> origins.
> Last April Habermas presented a more systematic perspective on religion's
> role in contemporary society at an international conference on "Philosophy
> and Religion" at Poland's Lodz University. One of the novelties of
> Habermas's Lodz presentation, "Religion in the Public Sphere," was the
> commendable idea that "toleration" -- the bedrock of modern democratic
> culture -- is always a two-way street. Not only must believers tolerate
> others' beliefs, including the credos and convictions of nonbelievers; it
> falls due to disbelieving secularists, similarly, to appreciate the
> convictions of religiously motivated fellow citizens. From the standpoint of
> Habermas's "theory of communicative action," this stipulation suggests that
> we assume the standpoint of the other. It would be unrealistic and
> prejudicial to expect that religiously oriented citizens wholly abandon
> their most deeply held convictions upon entering the public sphere where, as
> a rule and justifiably, secular reasoning has become our default discursive
> mode. If we think back, for instance, to the religious idealism that infused
> the civil-rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, we find an admirable
> example of the way in which a biblical sense of justice can be fruitfully
> brought to bear on contemporary social problems.
> The philosopher who addressed these issues most directly and fruitfully in
> recent years was John Rawls. In a spirit of collegial solidarity, Habermas,
> in his Lodz paper, made ample allusion to Rawlsian ideals. Perhaps Rawls's
> most important gloss on religion's role in modern politics is his caveat or
> "proviso" that, to gain a reasonable chance of public acceptance, religious
> reasons must ultimately be capable of being translated into secular forms of
> argumentation. In the case of public officials -- politicians and the
> judiciary, for example -- Rawls raises the secular bar still higher. He
> believes that, in their political language, there is little room for an open
> and direct appeal to nonsecular reasons, which, in light of the manifest
> diversity of religious beliefs, would prove extremely divisive. As Habermas
> affirms, echoing Rawls: "This stringent demand can only be laid at the door
> of politicians, who within state institutions are subject to the obligation
> to remain neutral in the face of competing worldviews." But if that
> stringent demand is on the politician, Habermas argues, "every citizen must
> know that only secular reasons count beyond the institutional threshold that
> divides the informal public sphere from parliaments, courts, ministries, and
> administrations."
> With his broad-minded acknowledgment of religion's special niche in the
> spectrum of public political debate, Habermas has made an indispensable
> stride toward defining an ethos of multicultural tolerance. Without such a
> perspective, prospects for equitable global democracy would seem exceedingly
> dim. The criterion for religious belief systems that wish to have their
> moral recommendations felt and acknowledged is the capacity to take the
> standpoint of the other. Only those religions that retain the capacity to
> bracket or suspend the temptations of theological narcissism -- the
> conviction that my religion alone provides the path to salvation -- are
> suitable players in our rapidly changing, post-secular moral and political
> universe.
> *Richard Wolin is a professor of history, comparative literature, and
> political science at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.
> His books include* The Seduction of Unreason: The Intellectual Romance
> With Fascism From Nietzsche to Postmodernism* (Princeton University Press,
> 2004).
> *
> Section: The Chronicle Review
> Volume 52, Issue 5, Page B16
> >
> > Mike Cole wrote:
> >
> > >While in Spain my wife and I read Don Quixote, well, the first book of
> > Don
> > >Quixote.
> > >It was an odd experience in some ways because at first the novel is
> both
> > >familiar and
> > >alien. We know some of the most outrageous misadventures but not the
> book
> > >from which
> > >they have been abstracted. We know what it means to be quixotic, or at
> > >least, we know
> > >conventional uses of the term.
> > >
> > >But reading an early 16th century novel is not akin to reading John
> > Grisham
> > >or even Saul Bellow.
> > >The form of story telling is archaic with many sidetrips and it takes a
> > long
> > >time (it took me a long time)
> > >to enter the world imagined up by Cervantes, drawing upon his often
> > bitter
> > >experiences.
> > >
> > >Talking about the book yesterday we seemed to converge on the idea that
> > part
> > >of what made the novel
> > >more compelling the more one read, and after one was through reading,
> was
> > >the realization that Don
> > >Quixote, in his manifest madness, humanized the world around him. Not
> > just
> > >in his imagination, but
> > >in the reality as narrated by Cervantes.
> > >
> > >Today, reading the work of a colleague about topics far from xmca
> > discourse,
> > >apparently, I came upon
> > >a quotation from ISCAR or mathematics education. Yet it appears to
> > describe
> > >rather precisely, in the
> > >idiom of religous thought, the foundations for the power of Don Quixote
> > to
> > >humanize his enviroment, and,
> > >oddly enough, the foundations for what I believe to be the efficacy of
> > the
> > >5th Dimension activities I engage
> > >in. Here is what Niebuhr wrote. What do you think?
> > >mike
> > >
> > >>From Moral Man and Immoral Society
> > >Furthermore there must always be a religious element in the hope of a
> > just
> > >society.
> > >Without the ulrarational hopes and passions of religion no society will
> > ever
> > >have the
> > >courage to conquer despair and attempt the impossible; for the vision
> of
> > a
> > >just
> > >society is an impossible one, which can be approximated only by those
> who
> > do
> > >not
> > >regard it as impossible. The truest visions of religion are illusions,
> > which
> > >may be
> > >partially realized by being resolutely believed. For what religion
> > believes
> > >to be true is
> > >not wholly true but ought to be true; and may become true if its faith
> is
> > >not doubted (p. 81)
> > >_______________________________________________
> > >xmca mailing list
> > >
> > >
> > >
> > >
> > >
> > >
> > >
> >
> > --
> > ------------------------------------------------------------------------
> > Ana Marjanovic-Shane
> >
> > 151 W. Tulpehocken St.
> >
> > Philadelphia, PA 19144
> >
> > Home office: (215) 843-2909
> >
> > Mobile: (267) 334-2905
> >
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> _______________________________________________
> xmca mailing list
> --
> Steven L. Thorne
> Assistant Professor of Applied Linguistics
> Linguistics and Applied Language Studies
> Associate Director, Center for Language Acquisition
> Associate Director, Center for Advanced Language Proficiency Education and
> Research
> The Pennsylvania State University
> Interact > 814.863.7036 | |
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