Sunday, April 20, 2008

Habermas and the Enlightenment

I have long suspected that the Enlightenment, that great rational awakening of Western society, is largely an exercise in public relations. Jürgen Habermas, in his remarkable work, Theory of Communicative Action, talked at various levels about distinctions between pre and post Enlightenment societies. Habermas suggests that while certain kind of fundamental beliefs where more or less set in stone in pre-Enlightenment societies, modern societies were more malleable. This change, according to Habermas, derives from certain changes in processes of communication. Members of modern societies, contends Habermas, recognize a series of competing beliefs in a kind of market-place of ideas (a phrase that I am using for convenience but one that Habermas, I believe, does not use). According to this theory of communication action what makes we ‘moderns’ different from members of a pre-Enlightenment society is that we can make claims about our factual, normative, or personal beliefs that we can, if called upon, discursively redeem. In short, we can say things that we believe are true, that others may not, and we can defend what we say in conversation. Now, it has been many years since I have read Habermas, but if I recall correctly he uses certain fundamental beliefs in pre-Enlightenment societies, such as religious beliefs to point out the ways in which members of non-modern societies take certain values, philosophies, or attitudes as read and simply could not recognize as meaningful any discourse concerning their legitimacy. So, to take an example of my own creation, if you met a 12th century Aztec and suggested to him or her that the sun was not a god at all but a simple ball of fire spinning in the sky, that member of the ancient Aztec race could not engage in a meaningful discussion about what you have said because he or she could not see such non-belief as meaningful in anyway. The Aztec would simply believe you to be mad or lacking coherence. Habermas wants to contend that members of ‘modern’ societies are in no such quandary because we can listen to the truth claims of others and engage in a process of discursive interchange in order to attempt to substantiate those claims. This is one of the fundamental ways in which a philosopher like Habermas defines and defends what we commonly call the Enlightenment. However, this is exactly what appears to me to be an exercise in public relations, because on close examination what Habermas is claiming here simply does not appear to be the case. I think one does not have to look to closely at our society to find types of beliefs that people would not recognize as open for discussion. If you were to bring together an average cross-section of people in North America and attempt to open a discourse by claiming that competition is unhealthy, or that capitalism is fundamentally evil, or even that the big-bang theory is a modern creationist myth not unlike the Christian or Hindu view of the beginning of the universe, you would have a great deal of difficulty engaging in a meaningful discourse on any of these subjects because the vast majority of people are largely unable to see these beliefs as questionable in any way. Most people would just pass you over as crazy and leave it at that. As much as Habermas would like to believe that we live in a society in which all beliefs are open to discursive redemption, we are subject to the same kind of biases and prejudices to which pre-Enlightenment individuals were subject. We may have a greater number of things which are subject to discussion and we may have a greater ability to engage in redemptive discourse, but basically we rely on certain myths in order to maintain our social order. And just like so-called pre-Enlightenment societies, those myths serve, for the most part, the ideology of the wealthy and powerful in our culture. The biggest difference between pre-Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment societies is, I believe, not that we have reached a place beyond myth but that we have convinced ourselves that we have reached a point beyond myth. This would make Jürgen Habermas one of the great myth-makers of our age.

There is a post-script to this posting: Just over ten years ago I was making these very same claims to Professor William Outhwaite, professor of sociology at the University of Sussex who, I believe, knows Habermas personally. Mr. Outhwaite, a proper Englishman if ever there was one, was somewhat aghast at my suggestions. But I contended that it was from the safety of the university that he and Habermas could maintain that they live in a new age of open discourse. I offered him the challenge of going into one of the rougher pubs of London on the day of an important football match and tell a few drunken hooligans that their obsessive enjoyment of football was really just a twisted militarist fantasy driven by over active production of testosterone and see if he could start up a enlightened, open discourse about the possibility. Needless to say, he declined the challenge.

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