Normativity, Religion and Modernity in Habermas’ Thought: Comments in the Wake of Nicholas Adams’ Habermas and Theology

Jonathan Trejo-Mathys
Boston College


Before I go on to the more constructive part of my engagement with Nicholas Adams’ deeply interesting book, I want to clear away some of the misunderstandings that I believe stand in the way of a productive engagement with the themes of normativity and modernity in light of Habermas’ work. Adams adopts a now-standard criticism of the absolutist or foundationalist pretensions of philosophy in general, and the transcendental philosophy of Kant and German Idealism in particular. Adams rightly notes that Hegelian and Kantian figures of thought appear in Habermas’ work and claims, further, that a ‘Schellingian’ critique applies to his Hegelianism and a ‘Hegelian’ critique applies to his Kantianism. The implication is that Habermas is caught on the horns of a dilemma: if he embraces his Hegelian side, he falls to Schellingian arguments against the possibility of any theoretical grasp of the absolute or the unconditioned; if he embraces his Kantian side, he falls to Hegelian arguments against the ’empty formalism’ of a transcendental reflection on abstract principles of theoretical and practical reason that forgets the intertwinement of form and content in both the practice of judgment and the ‘thick’ weave of historically developing ethical life; if he embraces neither, then I suppose it is not clear what the status of his theory is. It seems to me that Adams relies too much on the work of Andrew Bowie and Jay Bernstein here and becomes hostage to an unfortunate (rather German?) Big Name view of philosophy that leads to anachronistic modes of comprehension and criticism, as if our only options were Kant, Hegel, or “the precariousness of trying to sit between Kant and Hegel on matters of ethical life” (221).

The book adopts two basic objections Bowie articulates to Habermas’ theory. According to the first, Habermas attempts to ‘circumscribe the absolute’, something Spinoza, Kant and Hegel did before him, and Jacobi and Schelling ultimately saw as a futile and even self-destructive undertaking. This involves the assumption that “the theory which attempts to resolve difference into identity, in consensus, can rely on a basis which the theory itself can circumscribe” (Bowie 1993: 188; cited in Adams, 97). The operation of ‘circumscribing’ here is a bit underdescribed, so the objection isn’t as clear as it could be, but as Adams understands it, it seems clear to me that Habermas simply isn’t touched by it. Just after quoting Bowie, Adams writes, “In other words, Habermas is right to ground his theory of communicative action in a reconstruction of already-existing practices, but he is wrong to think that his theory can establish that there are, or should be, such practices” (97); and on the next page, “the problem with his solution in a theory of communicative action is that he is not content with the ‘fact’ of communication and desires to ground it in some further way” – in other words, he fails to show “the reserve that philosophy must exercise in its attempts to enquire into the bases of human action”, for these are “the condition for such enquiry” and thus cannot be used as “explanatory principles” (98). [1] Habermas’ mistake thus lies in “trying to use the fact of communicative action as an explanatory principle”, or alternatively, in making an “attempt to ground reason in communicative action” (ibid.). The fact of the matter is that Habermas is not attempting any such grounding and is not using communicative action as an explanation of anything (apart from particular sociological theses of his social theory). So when Adams says that “theories like Habermas’ cannot circumscribe (i.e. fully conceptualize and account for) the basis of communication; they can only respond to their prior existence”, and that this response will involve “‘intuitive’ and ‘interpretative’ aspects” (97), it seems to me that Habermas can simply deny that his theory tries to ‘circumscribe’ in this way and emphasize that it precisely requires such ‘intuitive’ and ‘interpretative’ aspects. [2] As a ‘reconstructive’ theory, formal pragmatics attempts to provide an explicit account (read: ‘interpretation’) of the implicit “know-how” (read: ‘intuitions’) of “subjects who are capable of speech and action, who are credited with the capacity to produce valid utterances, and who consider themselves capable of distinguishing, at least intuitively, between valid and invalid expressions” (Habermas 1990, 31). Its ability to serve both constructive and critical roles is thus pre-given in a human practice and rests on “weakly” transcendental forms of justification that assert that the reconstructed presuppositions are “inescapable”, that is, that “they cannot be cast aside” (ibid., 32), or, even weaker, have no (known) “functional equivalents” (ibid., 83). However, like all types of knowledge, such a reconstruction has only a hypothetical status: it can be disconfirmed by showing, inter alia, that they rest upon a false choice of examples, that they obscure or distort intuitions, or, as happens more often, that they overgeneralize individual cases (ibid., 32). [3]

One remaining strategy would be to deny the general plausibility of any form of transcendental argument, however ‘weak’ it is intended to be. This would involve demonstrating that arguments of the following general form are invalid: If a science or practice P exists or is valid, then necessarily Q must exist or be held valid as well. P exists or is valid. Therefore, the same is or must be held to be (necessarily) true of Q. I have left it undecided whether the argument is given an ontological (‘exists’) or conceptual (‘valid’ or ‘held true’) form. The crux of the matter is the necessity claim in the consequent of the conditional. It is the establishment of such a strong claim that has always been seen as the Achilles’ heel of transcendental arguments. It is not always clear exactly what reading Habermas intends us to have of his own version of a ‘weak’ transcendental argument. Sometimes he speaks of the “transcendental necessity” (Habermas 1987b: 325) or of “transcendental connections” between categorial schemata and action (Habermas 1973: 396; cf. McCarthy 291-297). More often however he deploys the notion of ‘conceptual necessity’ (Habermas 1984: 42). These are indeed contentious moves. However, given the fallibilist, reconstructive stance of Habermas’ formal pragmatics, unless one has a cogent general critique of transcendental arguments, or decisive objections to Habermas’ particular ‘weak’ or ‘conceptual’ version of a transcendental argument, the only way to defeat his proposals is to come up with better alternative proposals for the reconstruction of the pragmatic linguistic intuitions of socialized human beings capable of speaking a natural language.

The second objection drawn from Bowie (and in this case also from Bernstein) is the objection that boundaries are overdrawn or false separations are established between different forms of discourse, value-spheres, or types of reason. As Bowie states this objection: “Habermas tends to overplay the extent to which the spheres are inherently separate forms of communicative action. Much more scientific practice than he supposes is, for example, reliant on the characteristics of judgment seen in aesthetic judgment, as Kant’s account in [the Critique of Judgment ] suggested. Habermas’ aim is to find new forms of orientation which would re-integrate these differing spheres of modernity, rather than allowing a means-end rationality to dominate. But this aim leads to ideas that contradict the notion that they constitute separate spheres in the first place” (1990: 125-6). Leaving aside the intimation of a well-considered (see below) pragmatist-style criticism of the razor-sharp analytical distinctions Habermas makes between different validity-claims, [4] this objection seems to confuse sociological and normative levels of analysis. When these are kept consistently apart, the ‘contradiction’ reveals itself to be more of a tension that is characteristic of what Habermas (1997) calls the “unfinished project” of modernity. The thesis of the differentiation of the ‘value-spheres’ of (1) science and technology, (2) law and morality, and (3) art is rooted in an interpretation of Max Weber’s sociological analysis of long-term tendencies observed in the development of European societies. [5] To the extent that these moments of communicative rationality become truly sundered from each other and isolated in the expert cultures of social institutions that are detached from the public sphere and from each other, the society in question must inevitably suffer from specific forms of ‘irrationality’ or ‘pathology’, in particular when seen from a normative point of view. It is from this point of view that a subtle mediation between the differentiated value-spheres becomes a ‘categorical imperative’ of modern life.

The task of promoting the interplay and intercommunication between these different spheres of culture and society is a practical task that must be carried out by experts in the respective spheres, ‘public’ intellectuals serving as go-betweens for expert cultures and the public, and members of the public themselves seeking out contact with such go-between intellectuals or expert cultures on their own as they maneuver in and through a mass-mediated public sphere. [6] That Habermas responds to this rather normative and social or practical demand is not at all a ‘contradiction’ of the sociological thesis of differentiation, a thesis which, when paired with the imperative of mediating the separated spheres of rational activity, becomes a diagnosis of social pathologies. On the contrary, it is precisely the empirical soundness of the sociological observation that gives the normative diagnosis its point. The ‘tension’ here is the tension that has always reappeared when reason has sought to reestablish a unity or synthesis at a ‘higher’ level, in the face of further differentiations or insights, or newly advanced theories. This process of reunification or reconnection is always, as pragmatists were perhaps the first to sufficiently emphasize, in statu nascendi.

Nevertheless, I agree with Adams and various critics that the razor-sharp analytical distinctions between various ‘value-spheres’ (sociology), validity-claims (formal pragmatics), worldviews (theory of social evolution) and types of justification (discourse theories of truth, law and morality), however much Habermas allows that they are fused together in everyday practice, cannot be maintained in the form Habermas desires because he roots them in a problematic version of a theory of the “universal pragmatic presuppositions of communication and argumentation” (1987: 408). This transforms the socio-historical phenomena of institutional differentiation that serve as evidence for the sociological thesis of differentiation into a universal-historical expression of essential structures of human rationality, such that any change in the basic view of such essential structures alters the significance of the socio-historical phenomena which are viewed as a grand articulation of them. There are good reasons to think, however, that a main thesis of formal pragmatics, according to which every genuine communicative act oriented towards mutual understanding implies three validity-claims that correspond to three ‘formal’ world-concepts, is untenable. Though I cannot lay out the case for this claim here, I believe that the validity-claims of normative rightness (‘social world’) and subjective truthfulness (‘subjective world’) are dependent upon the claim of truth (supposedly limited to the ‘objective world’) in such a way that all claims of rightness and truthfulness can be translated into truth claims pure and simple. [7]

This is also suggested by the following fact. While Habermas asserts that validity is a “wider” predicate than truth, all of the supposedly distinct types of validity-claim are explicated on the model of truth-claims: normative rightness and subjective truthfulness are always to begin with described as “truth-analogous” (Habermas 1984). It is unclear why this would be so if validity were genuinely the wider concept. The sense of ‘validity’ that Habermas has in mind seems to be dependent entirely upon the intuitive understanding of ‘validity’ we acknowledge well-justified claims to truth to have. If we simply acknowledge with the pragmatists (among whom Habermas in many ways places himself) that truth is a concept used in a number of different ways in human thought, discourse and action, we can see that it can play the role of a highly flexible ‘validity’ concept. This would relieve Habermas (and us as well) of the need to artificially invent new types of ‘validity-claim’ every time we realize that our typology leaves out something about which they care so much they will attempt to argumentatively defend claims they make concerning it. An example of this is Habermas’ apparent consideration of a new, previously unheard-of validity claim of ‘aesthetic harmony’ in response to Wellmer’s critique of Habermas’ allotment of aesthetic judgment to the validity-claim of subjective truthfulness (Habermas 1987b: 314).

In a rather astonishing passage written in 1981, Habermas writes that

Albrecht Wellmer has pointed out to me that an aesthetic experience which is not primarily translated [ umgesetzt ] into judgments of taste actually changes its functional character. For when it is related to problems of life or used in an exploratory fashion to illuminate a life-historical situation, it enters a language game which is no longer that of art criticism proper. In this case aesthetic experience not only revitalizes those need interpretations in the light of which we perceive our world, but also influences our cognitive interpretations and our normative expectations, and thus alters the way in which all these moments refer back and forth to one another (1997: 51).

Habermas is referring to an essay by Wellmer in which Wellmer defends the claim that while artworks do not directly present us with a truth-claim, they indirectly disclose “potential truths” to us: in our experience of them there lies a “truth-potential” (Wahrheitspotential) (Wellmer 36-7). They can “open our eyes” to aspects of our experience of ourselves and of reality to which we had previously been blind or deaf (34), and this occurs simultaneously in all three of the pragmatic dimensions of truth or validity. The experience of art affects the way we see and feel towards ourselves, the world, and others, and its contributions to each of these ranges cannot be neatly separated out from each other: “we can only grasp the truth- claim of art if we start out from the complex interdependence of the different truth-dimensions in aesthetic discourse and argumentation […] about the truth and falsehood of aesthetic works [ Gebilde ], which are at the same time arguments about their aesthetic harmony [ Stimmigkeit ]” (35). These arguments require arguers to bring into play their own experience. Thus it follows that “the truth- potential and truth- claim of art can both only be explained with recourse to the complex interdependence of the different truth-dimensions [truth, moral rightness, and truthfulness] in life-historical experience or, alternatively, the formation and alteration of attitudes, modes of perception and interpretations” (35). [8] In addition, art does not simply ‘uncover’, ‘make visible’ or ‘show’ a reality that was not previously known or noticed (33), it also transforms our perception of that which is familiar and thus in some sense already known (34). Put otherwise, “uncomprehended experience is illuminated, in that it condenses itself into an experience of the second-order: experience itself becomes experienceable” (34).

If such an account of art as a symbolic form can be made plausible, can an analogous type of claim be made for religion as a symbolic form? Would religion and religious experience then (if we suspend for the moment the earlier criticism of this type of move) require their own type of validity-claim, or perhaps their own “indirect” relation to the three pragmatic dimensions of truth, such that they have “truth- relevant effects” or a “truth-disclosing potential” (32)? As we shall see, Habermas has himself recently made a movement in this direction that, given the socio-evolutionary account of societal rationalization via the transition from mythic to religious to modern worldviews he gave in The Theory of Communicative Action, is rather surprising.


It is in this general area of interest that Adams’ book makes its most interesting contributions to contemporary debates. As Adams rightly points out, the social-evolutionary narrative Habermas elaborates in The Theory of Communicative Action – both in the cognitive-evolutionary story about a logic of development for worldviews (from mythic to religious-metaphysical to modern) that is developed from Weber’s premises in the first volume, and in the normative-evolutionary story about the ‘linguistification’ of ‘the sacred’in the transition from the mechanical solidarity of archaic societies to the organic society of complex modern societies that is developed from Durkheim’s premises in the second – is extremely schematic and supported by little in the way of empirical evidence or concrete historical investigations (Adams 152-3). [9] I also find Adams’ assessment of why this is so convincing (ibid., 152): namely, that Habermas really isn’t interested in the “decline” of religious-metaphysical worldviews or in secularization, but rather a generalized account of rationalization processes that will back up his critical diagnosis of the one-sidedness of the technological, economic and administrative rationalization of Western modernity as a social pathology and the corresponding social-theoretical thesis of the colonization of the lifeworld by “functionalist reason”.

With regard to the contemporary social and political situation, however, Habermas still “hits the problem’s nail on the head: social relations have changed, and no theology from a single tradition can by itself provide the resources for coordinating argument and disagreement in the public sphere” (115). What he fails to see is that “members of traditions might bring their theologies together in a coordinated but non-unified way” (ibid.), where “non-unified” apparently means (roughly) ‘not guaranteed by universal structures of human rationality’. Adams suggests that Habermas fails to see this because he is still searching for “theory which grounds practice” (234; cf. 201) and doesn’t see that “it is enough to acknowledge the ‘fact’ that certain contingent practices happen to arise, and that the role of theory is restricted to interpreting them” (104). Habermas, however, is fully aware that a theoretical intention such as his will be “suspected of having fallen into the snares of foundationalism”, and insists upon the differences between formal pragmatics and “classical transcendental philosophy”, emphasizing the fact that rational reconstructions of the “internal structure of action oriented to reaching understanding” would be impossible “if we did not already have before us…existing forms of a reason that has to rely on being symbolically embodied and historically situated” (1984: xliii). The existence of animals capable of speech and action as well as the “practice” of communicating in a natural language and the sociocultural forms of life made possible by it are all contingent phenomena that, as Adams puts it, happen to arise—Habermas at no point in his career has ever claimed otherwise. [10] In addition, the fact that it is possible for us to reflect upon ‘lifeworlds’ as a general phenomenon is itself likely a contingency that arises from our particular social and historical circumstances. This is part of what Habermas means when he writes that, “a theory that wants to ascertain general structures of the lifeworld cannot adopt a transcendental approach; it can only hope to be equal to the ratio essendi of its object when there are grounds for assuming that the objective context of life in which the theoretician finds himself is opening up to him its ratio cognoscendi ” (1987b: 401), and when he concludes his major theoretical work with the suggestion that it is the “provocative threat” of the overdominance of the systemic imperatives of the private market economy and the administrative state that “places the symbolic structures of the lifeworld as a whole in question, [and] account[s] for why they have become accessible to us” (ibid., 403). The reason why the objective crisis tendencies of modernity are required to make the background certainties of lifeworlds as a whole questionable is, according to Habermas, in the end the same reason for which pragmatism and hermeneutics saw any purely methodical or theoretical Cartesian universal doubt as chimerical—doubts too must be justified and the greater the scale of the doubt, the greater its need of a strong justification. In other words it is, in good Deweyan fashion, the ‘problematical situation’ of modern societies that places sociocultural forms of life in question and gives rise to ‘critical theories’ of society, and not the overweening transcendental and foundationalist ambitions of an ultimately reactionary attempt to breathe new life into the worn-out husk of German idealism.

Nor does it seem fair to me to repeatedly claim that Habermas is attempting to provide a “ground” for the practice of communication. [11] Of course, it depends on what counts as a “ground”. Adams repeatedly suggests that the objectionable understanding of “ground” is related to giving inappropriate forms of explanation, or to giving explanations of things that for some reason can’t be explained (181, 234). [12] In both of the contexts cited, what is involved are comparative understandings of different traditions, different philosophical frameworks for interpreting religious texts, or communication between traditions. Adams says that we neither need a theory of “rationality” to explain points of contact (181), nor even can have an explanation of the possibility of such contact or communication. But it is a mistake to think that Habermas is seeking to provide an explanation, in this sense, of how these things are possible. He is rather providing an explication of, so to speak, what we are doing when we (intelligibly) do the things we do—and by now we ought to be comfortable with the idea that we often aren’t reflectively aware of all of the things we are doing (feeling)(thinking)(etc.). Bringing these elements (“presuppositions”) out into a more explicit, articulated and reflective awareness doesn’t have to mean giving a “ground” to their more implicit, unarticulated, and less reflective forms in any objectionable sense. As Habermas puts it, rational reconstructions aim at “heightening consciousness” of action-competences and rules embedded in them, not at making metaphysically conceived totalities like the world, God, the soul, society, and so on “transparent” (1987b: 300). Rational reconstructions continue the Socratic-Platonic, dialogical practice of “conceptual analysis by means of anamnestic procedures” and aim to further unfold “pretheoretical common sense knowledge” (2003a: 286). When Adams states his own theoretical assumptions late in the book – for instance, that “action precedes reflection”, that we must rely on an “uncontrollable” (Bowie) fact of always already being engaged in interpretation and understanding, and that “we need an already-existing practice over which its participants neither have nor seek control, and which can serve as an example on which to reflect” (239) – he could not sound more genuinely Habermassian.

If I am at pains to reiterate again that several of these charges seem based on misunderstandings, it precisely because I share Adams’ convictions that practices such as Scriptural Reasoning, where members of different faith traditions come together to read each other’s scriptures, can be “genuinely modern practices for healing divisions in the world” (105) and that “the level of argumentation in the public sphere on matters of religious belief and practice is dangerously low” (201). In addition, his argument that the category of the sacred is more of a sociological than a religious one, and in particular, of little intrinsic interest to the theology of any particular faith tradition, seems sound to me (Adams, ch. 4). [13] Adams’ position as a theologian and believing member of a faith community sensitizes him to weaknesses in Habermas’ account that philosophers and social scientists may tend to miss, for instance, the possible effect upon Habermas’ thesis of the linguistification of the authority of the sacred of attention to modern religious education or catechism, or more broadly, the ways in which modern religious believers are socialized into the religious life of their religious community in modern societies (81). In addition, he asks the important question as to why a form of life might not combine both ritual and argumentation without necessarily suffering from irrationality or a learning disability (for instance, with reference to the Patristic writers, in argumentation about ritual) – and then shrewdly (and mischievously) remarks that this might explain the ritualistic quality of argumentation in so many academic seminars (78).

This lack of attention to the sociology of the current educational and life practices of religious believers is also relevant to the assessment of another thesis Habermas forwards in his account of societal rationalization: the claim that in the course of social evolution entire ‘types’ of reasons cease to be convincing when a transition is made from a lower to a higher stage of worldview-rationality. Given Habermas’ admittedly schematic progression of mythicreligious-metaphysical modern, it isn’t entirely clear how to cash this out. Perhaps we can say that, for instance, the famous triad of philosophical arguments for the existence of God, the ontological, the cosmological and the physico-teleological, together constitute a ‘type’ of reason that is (was?) generally convincing during the religious-metaphysical stage of social evolution. In this case, Adams’ criticism of Habermas’ apparent assumption (as suggested by the very label ‘religious-metaphysical’) that religion is per definitionem metaphysical is sound. All that can be established is that “the metaphysicality of religion happens to be the case in certain common circumstances” (238). In fact few religious believers, even sophisticated philosophers such as William Alston or Nicholas Rescher, are (as one says) ‘persons of faith’ because of these sorts of well-laid out arguments. I have personally never met, nor read, nor even heard of such a person. Adams gives us no reason to believe that any scriptural reasoners were motivated to read religious texts with each other in a spirit of friendship by any of these metaphysical hobby-horses. That’s a good thing too given the problems of ‘transition’ that Adams astutely points out between the conclusions of these arguments (e.g., ‘There is a necessary being, first cause, etc.’) and the object of religious faith and worship (‘God’, ‘Allah’, etc.) (187-8, 194). [14] All of this implies that being religious may mean different things in different historical and social contexts (alternatively, the extension of the concept or predicate ‘is religious’ may vary historically). Therefore the generalizations concerning a set of things called “religious worldviews” in The Theory of Communicative Action may very well apply only to a subset of a wider class of sociohistorical phenomena that one could call ‘religious thought, belief and practice’. Habermas’ theory is in fact quite compatible with this claim and could be adjusted to accommodate it by further specifying the set of historical and social realities which it simply refers to as “religious worldviews” to take these points into account: then it would be even clearer that, as Adams says, Habermas is really interested per se in rationalization, and not the decline of religion. Under these premises, then, it may be both irrational in modern conditions to subscribe to a “religious-metaphysical worldview” and nevertheless rational (or at least not necessarily irrational) to “be religious”.

This of course leaves wide open what kinds of reason count as good reasons for religious belief and practice (in which I include Scriptural Reasoning) in modern, ‘post-metaphysical’ conditions. Here I think Adams may prematurely foreclose some possibilities, but I am not sure since his remarks on this topic are self-confessedly sketchy, and since I have nothing more than hunches on the matter anyway. For instance, when Adams says that the texts chosen from different scriptures are not chosen because there are good reasons to choose them but rather simply because it is obvious (makes sense) for Muslims, Christians and Jews to read these texts (241), I don’t understand why this isn’t a good reason for members of Abrahamic faith traditions to read Abrahamic scriptures, or rather, why their belonging itself does not generate this reason. [15]

Scriptural Reasoning is “the practice, by members of different traditions, of reading and interpreting scripture together”, during which “texts from at least two traditions are chosen” (239-40). Beyond this minimal description, there is nothing in the way of rigid prescriptions. The prerequisities and motives for this practice can be many, but predominant among them are membership of one tradition, and the desire to understand how members of other traditions understand their scriptures as well as how they understand one’s own scripture (241). It is perhaps this particular aspect of the motivation of persons who engage in this practice and the solidary bonds that are formed by this particular form of communication that are most remarkable in Adams’ description. In an arresting formulation, he writes that, “the striking thing about the context of scriptural reasoning is not consensus, but friendship” (243). (I can’t help but note that Adams, perhaps incautiously after having spent so much time belaboring the impossibility of providing a “ground” for practice, says later on the same page that, “Friendship is nonetheless the true ground of scriptural reasoning”.)

While the texts, interpretations, and even legal or doctrinal norms arising therefrom are generally narrative, there is at every “stage” of reading continual argumentation (245), and in this way Scriptural Reasoning attempts to repair the “damaged relationships between members of the traditions of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity”, or put otherwise, “the narrative form of scripture and the narrative form of scriptural reason are aspects of a profound problem-solving practice” (244). Thus, participation and reflection on Scriptural Reasoning reveals that “scripture is read as world-disclosive…and as a resource for problem-solving at the same time ” (244). I agree with Adams that such phenomena suggest the need to tone down the distinction between these various functions of linguistically-mediated understanding with respect to the communicative praxis of everyday life, i.e., the “reading” of the “text” of the lifeworld.

In addition, the practice of Scriptural Reasoning is an illustration of a further important point: there is no need for a ‘formal’ presupposition of an objective world on the part of all participants in communication, only a sufficient overlap of belief, disposition, and commitment. The superfluousness of a formal conception of a shared objective world can also be seen when we notice that communication would also become impossible between parties that shared no common substantive beliefs (or perceptions) whatsoever, regardless of whether these beliefs or perceptions are (or ever have been) explicitly formulated in linguistic propositions or utterances. I add the term “substantive” only by way of contrast with the “formal” concept of an objective world. Should we therefore simply add another universal and necessary presupposition to the list and say that all participants in communication must presuppose that there is a sufficient set of beliefs common to all participants? I don’t see why, given that the ‘formal presupposition’ of a shared world would be an enabling condition for precisely nothing in the absence of a sufficient set of shared ‘substantive’ beliefs. I think we should instead follow more ‘pragmatist’ instincts and simply let go of the idea that the purely formal presupposition of a shared objective world (along the rest of the baroque architecture of formal world-concepts) is a necessary condition of communication. In a situation in which no (or not enough) common beliefs exist between interlocutors, we may be like Austin standing before a cat that suddenly stands up and delivers a philippic, not knowing whether to call it a cat anymore: words may simply fail us. Where this happens, formal presuppositions will not save the day. And insofar as the belief (or the complex mental state amounting to the belief) that we share a world does help us here, it is definitely not because this takes the shape of a ‘formal presupposition’, but because of the very thick weave of concrete contents involved that are (hopefully) shared amongst the interlocutors.

What are the consequences of these modifications to a Habermassian framework, or perhaps more importantly, what can critical reflection on current affairs with a practical intent gain from attention to the practice to which Adams has called our attention? Habermas has in recent writings stressed that the normativity of modernity (and perhaps its ‘secularization’) has its historical roots in sources that are broadly religious, reaching back into the breakthrough in human consciousness of the ‘Axial Age’ (Jaspers) that led to the world religions and Greek philosophy. [16] Further, and this is the surprising move I mentioned earlier given the narrative of rationalization found in The Theory of Communicative Action, a narrative that suggests that things ‘religious-metaphysical’ have been left behind in modernity, Habermas says that “indispensable potentials for meaning are preserved in religious language, potentials that philosophy has not yet fully exhausted, has not yet translated into the language of public, that is, of presumptively generally convincing, reasons” (2002: 162). Or as he puts it in another by now rather well-known passage, “Philosophy, even in its postmetaphysical form, will be able neither to replace the bearer [i.e. religious discourse] of a semantic content that is inspiring and even indispensable, for this content eludes (for the time being?) the explanatory force of philosophical language and continues to resist translation into reasoning discourses” (1992: 51). One may wonder exactly how long this translation process is supposed to take, given that even the Abrahamic cultures have arguably been at work on this task, though sometimes with interruptions, for some 1500 years, at least from the time that the kerygmatic contents of all these religions were confronted with the logos of Greek philosophy. Is there something that Augustine, Anselm, Maimonides, Ibn-Rushd (Averroes), Aquinas, Hobbes, Locke, Spinoza, Leibnitz, Kant, Hegel, and Feuerbach have missed? Perhaps the ‘semantic potentials’ have already been as actualized as they are going to be. Only time will tell of course. Habermas is attempting to cleave a very fine path between the autonomy of religious discourse and its defenders on the one hand, and the entirely agnostic, ‘religiously unmusical’ or anti-religious on the other. These latter may wonder whether there is anything worth translating from religious traditions that is not easily to be found in the Golden Rule and the admonition to love one’s fellow humans (or at least to treat them with respect). What exactly are we missing in the public sphere besides genuine convictions like these and motivations to act upon them? I believe it is this problem of motivating the “normative content of modernity” (1987b: ch. 12), of inspiring belief in the idea that “cultural modernity’s specific dignity” really lies in “the differentiation of value spheres in accord with their own logics” (ibid., 112). Politically the problem appears in Habermas’ little-noticed side-stepping of what has been seen by many in the Western tradition as the central question of political philosophy: namely, the problem of political obligation or the authority of particular political forms such as modern liberal democracy. In Between Facts and Norms, Habermas repeatedly recurs to a remarkable if-then statement. In the form of a question, it runs, “What rights must citizens mutually grant one another if they decide to constitutve themselves as a voluntary association of legal consociaties and legitimately to regulate their living together by means of positive law?” (1996: 543; my emphasis). In other places it is put assertively: the system of rights “should contain precisely the basic rights that citizens must mutually grant one another if they want to legitimately regulate their life in common by means of positive law” (1996: 118; my emphasis; cf. ibid., 122, 125). AltThough I don’t have the space to argue this here, I suggest that this motivation problem – motivation for the project of realizing the normative promise of constitutional democracy in conditions of modern and global complexity – lies behind Habermas’ desire to search for energies in the ‘semantic potentials’ of Abrahamic religious discourse. [17]

Adams has shown, however, that Scriptural Reasoning is a practice that seems to bear the mark of a reasoning discourse, and yet it is not aimed at translating the ‘semantic content’ of religious discourse into anything else, but rather aims at mutual understanding between different faith traditions (mainly Abrahamic ones). So it is not directly serviceable for this political task. It is certainly indirectly relevant, however, for any example of the possibilities of understanding between the estranged traditions of the Abrahamic family helps to exemplify the possibility of non-violent co-existence and the avoidability of the abomination of ‘holy wars’ and ‘crusades’. For religious and political reasons, then, its continuation and spread is deeply to be wished for and encouraged.

It is indeed true that “even if someone were clever enough to construct a good theory, it could never substitute for the already learned commitments within any one tradition” (Adams 249), but the Theory of Communicative Action and the discourse theory of morality and law never intended to provide such a substitute, for the insistence that there can be no such substitute is part of their very point in the first place. If this leaves us with unresolved problems, they are practical problems of a moral, political, and, as it increasingly seems, however ambivalently, also religious nature as well. Adams has done us all a service by making a signal contribution to the search for ways to repair these most recent manifestations of damaged life.


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[1] This charge holds perhaps for the theory of anthropologically deep-seated and knowledge-constitutive interests that Habermas developed in Knowledge and Human Interests, but, as we shall see, not for the later theories of formal pragmatics or discourse ethics.
[2] There are also various ways one can understand the “basis of communication” that is supposedly being ‘circumscribed’ here. Certainly formal pragmatics as a research program does not include a natural-historical account of the evolution of animals with the capacity to speak. It does not attempt to lay bare the biological or neuro-physiological enabling conditions of human communication. If that is what circumscribing the basis of communication is, then Habermas is innocent of the charges. It doesn’t attempt to provide a Platonic metaphysics of ‘meanings’ or ‘propositions’ (as Frege and Husserl did) in order to ‘explain’ how communication is possible. It makes the weaker and more defensible claim that certain presuppositions, in particular the presupposition of a single world shared by all interlocutors and the presupposition that similar terms will be used with similar meanings barring relevant changes in context or intention, are necessary if communication or argumentation is to be possible. Most emphatically, it does not attempt to wrap up all these ways of ‘circumscribing’ the basis of communication in a total account of the sort that philosophers such as Thomas, Spinoza, or Leibnitz attempted to give, one that could, say, ground the teleology of evolution and the Platonism of meaning in an ontological or cosmological proof of God reinforced by the principle of sufficient reason. This chastened spirit is expressed in Habermas’ assertation that while “we can certainly engage in moves toward transcending our epistemic contexts from within…there is no context of all contexts that we would actually be able to survey”, and that therefore, “nothing entitles us to have the final word” (2003a: 202).
[3] I believe that Habermas’ own proposal for a formal pragmatics may suffer precisely from this last sort of flaw in that it overgeneralizes a set of differentiations that are ultimately rooted in the social and institutional development of European civilization. This overgeneralization leads him to the rather forced and artificial elaboration of various ‘truth-analogous’ validity-claims, each of which have natural social homes in institutional settings or networks that are specialized upon one of them, e.g., science for truth, legal systems and parliamentary bodies for moral rightness, and art for truthfulness or authentic self-expression. This is an elegant social theory, but in fact each ‘truth-analogous’ validity-claim depends on the validity-claim of truth, even in the ‘intuitive’ understanding of socialized subjects, though of course I cannot make the case for either this claim or the former over-generalization claim here.
[4] For some articulations of this form of criticism besides the one I will shortly adumbrate below, see Seel 1986, Alexander 1986, and Shusterman 2002.
[5] For Habermas’ purposes, the United States, Canada and Australia count as ‘European’ societies. For the detailed presentation of the differentiation thesis see Habermas 1984, ch. 2, 143-273. For a generous selection of the original source material in Weber, see Weber 2002: 557-653. As a simple observation, Adams too grants this claim: “modern societies do encourage specialization by professionals in these areas, and this has both costs and benefits” (127).
[6] Adams does not do justice to the sociological complexity of this situation when he implies that the function of theologians and philosophers is to translate their own “expert discourses” into everyday contexts (197). Habermas means, however, that these intellectuals, as well as other types of intellectual (in no small part well-informed journalists) or activists, help to translate various other expert discourses into their own and vice versa, and particularly into a common language usable in the public sphere. The ‘mediation’ and ‘translation’ here moves in all directions – this is part of what Habermas means by speaking of the ‘de-centered’ nature of society-wide processes of communication.
[7] The arguments for this claim, drawing on the pragmatist insights of Hilary Putnam’s philosophies of science and language, are laid out in Cristina Lafont 1998 and 2002. Habermas’ (in my view unsatisfactory) response can be found in Habermas 2003b. A significant implication of this claim would be the abandonment of the architecture of formal world-concepts altogether (and thus also of the exclusive assignment of ‘truth’ to an abstract notion of the ‘objective world’), a move that would be, I take it, congenial to the pragmatist readers of this journal.
[8] My translations throughout.
[9] Both Durkheim’s sociology of religion and Weber’s Protestant ethic thesis have been criticized on this score as well. See Hamilton (1995: 103-8, 152-6).
[10] The tension between this non-necessitarian and broadly naturalist metaphysical stance and the stronger transcendental claims concerning knowledge-constitutive interests of Habermas’ early work, Knowledge and Human Interests, is clearly presented and discussed in McCarthy, 91-125.
[11] It is also wrong to attribute to suggest that Habermas believes that people might become better at arguing or communicating by studying the theory of communicative action (Adams 202). That would be as stupid absurdmisplaced as the belief Hegel lampooned in the Phenomenology according to which one would have to study physiology before one could digest one’s food: I leave the implications of this line of reasoning for the project of epistemology to the reader. Suffice it to say that Habermas, as I read him, is entirely in agreement with Hegel. Communicating, acting, and knowing subjects do not need to engage in epistemology, learn linguistics, or know by heart the theory of communication action before they can go about doing what they do. On the contrary, these theories live only in reflection upon and reconstruction of prior experience and activity.
[12] For reasons of space I can only say something briefly about the problematic character of Adams’ claims that it is in principle impossible to give explanations of this or that (234), or that one can demonstrate that something exists but be unable to say what that something is (201). Regarding the first: it is difficult to see how one can make ‘in principle’ impossibility arguments without very strong metaphysical assumptions of the sort that Adams elsewhere seems to eschew. Without such assumptions, one can only legitimately claim that no explanations given so far of this or that are adequate, and assess each new proposed explanation as it arises. Regarding the second claim: if one accepts that existence is not a predicate, it actually follows that this claim entails the emptiness of any attempt to satisfy it. For any claim of the form “X exists & one cannot say anything else about X” then suggests the following problems. How does (can) one even know that X exists? Surely it must be because of certain properties X has such that, given certain other circumstances, facts or truths, it can be inferred that X exists. But ex hypothesi we can’t know about any such properties of X. Yet if existence is not a predicate (i.e., not a genuine property of anything), then we are effectively predicating nothing of X at all. We are simply mouthing the uninterpreted term, “X”, or the phrase, “X exists”, upon, it seems, no basis at all. Substituting a proper noun such as “God” or “ground of communication” for “X” doesn’t change the situation. So at worst we are saying nothing, and at best we’re saying it about something we can’t know anything about at all. This is, I suppose, a Hegelian critique of the Schellingian critique.
[13] It is no coincidence that the main sources of the great currency of the sacred/profane distinction in contemporary academic discourse are sociologists such as Durkheim and comparative anthropologists such as Eliade (himself inspired by the psychoanalytical theories of Carl Jung), not theologians.
[14] Weaknesses also diagnosed by Habermas (2002, ch. 5).
[15] There are in addition strong political reasons why greater understanding of these texts and between members of these traditions is greatly desirable, and since both of these are promoted by Scriptural Reasoning, this is itself a rational support here. Granted, many atheists or agnostics might not see these as good reasons. If you think there is no God and there is nothing authoritative or holy or divine at all about the various Abrahamic scriptures, then a fortiori you won’t see belonging to a group of people that believe such falsehoods as generating any good reason to act upon those falsehoods. But here of course we are in the familiar territory of arguments for and against belief in God, for and against the rationality of belonging to scriptural religions, etc., and these are clearly a different matter. The purpose of a Scriptural Reasoning meeting is clearly not to hash out these by now themselves ritualistic battles between Faith and Enlightenment. For the classical treatment of this central conflict in European culture, see Hegel 1977: 328-355.
[16] Many writers from various disciplines have postulated such a link between the content of the Christian tradition and the secularization process that is seemingly inseparable from the development of modernity. See Cox 1965: ch. 1, Berger 1973: 116, Bellah 2002 and Taylor 2007.
[17] See Brunkhorst (2005) for an elucidating and brilliant account of the roots of modern forms of solidarity (or social integration) in the Greek political-philosophical tradition on the one hand, and the Jewish and Christian religious traditions on the other. Habermas, I suggest, is seeking to mine these latter traditions as a support for his discourse-theoretical social and political reworking of the former.