Friday, April 29, 2016

Transcript of Habermas’s acceptance speech at the Kluge Prize Award Ceremory

A transcript of Jürgen Habermas’s acceptance speech at the Kluge Prize Award Ceremory, the Library of Congress in Washington DC, September 29, 2015


Thank you very much for your very kind laudatio.

Mr. Billington, Ladies and Gentlemen, dear colleagues.

(1) Let me briefly explain the ambivalent feeling of gratitude that I experience on accepting this extraordinary academic award.

It is the first American prize that I get and I am the first German awardee. This reminds me of the large number of impressive scholars who were driven out of Nazi Germany and who were afforded the opportunity by this country’s universities to continue their work and to pass it on to very productive students – some of whom have achieved worldwide renown. Among the illustrious circle of German emigres, let me mention at least a handful of eminent philosophers as respresentative for many other disciplines. Theodor W. Adorno, Hannah Arendt, Rudolf Carnap, Hans Jonas, Aaron Gurvitch, Carl Gustav Hempel, Max Horkheimer, Karl Löwith, Herbert Marcuse, Leo Strauss, and Hans Reichenbach.

I had the good fortune to study with some of them and I have learned from all of them. Their achievements far overshadow those for which I am to be honored tonight.

(2) Now, James Billington’s kind suggestion to me briefly to discuss my present work is too tempting to resist. I am sorry to bother you with some rather philosophical ideas.

If we are to arrive – and that is the leading idea – at the correct secular self-understanding of modern Western philosophy, my suggestion is to take our orientation – not only from Aristotle and Plato (that means from our scientific origins) – but also from those specific insights that Western philosophy has gleaned from the Judea-Christian tradition. I am thus interested in the history of faith and knowledge from the point of view what one side - philosophy - appropriated from the other side. 

Christianity is a late arrival among the major religious and metaphysical worldviews, which include Judaism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism and Platonism. The founders of these teachings came about roughly at the same time - basically around 500 before Christ. As a result, Pauline Christianity was exposed from the outset to a twofold pressure of reflection. It not only had to clarify its relation to Judaism and the Hebrew bible, but also its relation to the Platonism of the educated classes of the Roman Empire.

The Church Fathers, who embraced the legacy of monotheism, had to come to terms at the same time with a highly differentiated worldview that was constructed in a completely different way. Nomos and Cosmos took the place of God. This antithesis then also emerged into two competing routes to salvation. Early Christian Platonism had to balance the tension between a mode of communication with God and a contemplative ascent to the Ideas.

In the beginning, philosophical language was tailored – of course – to the ontological respresentation of the encompassing Cosmos, not to the fateful irruption of a transcendent power into history. The contemplative mode of access of the wise men to the Absolute implies a different epistemic attitude from the communicative mode of access of the believer to the divine Logos. The former encounters the absolute One and All as an object of intuition in the attitude of a third person. What the believer encounters in the performative attitude of a participant in communication is not primarily the world. Instead his encounter is the first person meets the Word of a second person.  

Here I am interested in the purely methodological gain of this shift in perspective. In the encounter with Christianity, philosophy learns to take domains of experience seriously that first have to be disclosed performatively through participation in a practice before they can then be made into an object of investigation. In contrast to the contemplative route of the wise men, the communicative path to salvation by participating in a ritual practice opens up the historical universe of a world-wide community of believers.

This difference in attitude and experience inaugurates a long discussion about faith and knowledge that extends from Augustin through Aquinas, Duns Scotus, William of Ockham, and Martin Luther up to Kant, Hegel and American Transcendentalism.

My thesis is briefly the following: In the course of this lenghty process an osmotic transformation of images and narratives of biblical origins into metaphysical concepts took place and thus profoundly changed philosophy itself.

In the present context I can obviously only mention very briefly three exemplary results of this long discussion about faith and knowledge.

First, the philosophical assimilation of the Christian sense of ”sin” led in the Augustinian tradition to a concept of ”the will”, that - in contrast to natural inclinations - does not strive for attractive goods but instead decides between normative alternatives.

Second, the break with the Aristotelian conception of nature in High Scholasticism was also triggered by religious experience of contingencies – quite different from Greek experiences. The resulting nominalist ontology – as you know – of ordered random events first paved the way for the modern natural sciences.

Finally, the conception of an all-powerful voluntarist deity developed from Duns Scotus to Luther, led to the development of the concepts of subjectivity, freedom and individuality that became the foundations of the modern concept of autonomy.

(3) Kant expressed these motifs of thought in a rather sober post-metaphysical style. Nevertheless, he still wanted to answer the old metaphysical questions: What do I know? What should I do? What may I hope for? And finally: What is man?

Originally the great metaphysical systems and world religions had described the place of human beings within the Cosmos or their position in relation to God with a view to the telos of a liberating, a redemptive form of justice. Thus the path to salvation of one or the other form had provided the authoritative perspective from which then the other major questions of humanity could be resolved of a piece, as it were. However the mass of accumulating knowledge about the world – empirical knowledge – could be integrated with that sacred knowledge in the same theoretical language only as long as the different aspects of being, of the good and the beautiful remained intertwined in fundamental conceptions such as Cosmos, God, Nirvana, Yin/Yang, Logos and so on.

As can be seen from Kant’s careful analytical differentiation of the four major questions, this logical connection has dissolved in modern thought. Kant dispensed basic religious and metaphysical concepts – as you know. As a result, the conceptual link which until then had facilitated a logically inconspicuos transition from descriptive to evaluative and normative statements was now misssing.

At the same time, the question ”What can we hope?” lost the superordinate status. Kant placed it on an equal footing with the other questions. Epistemology provides a satisfying answer to the first question concerning proper knowledge of the world. Moral philosophy is responsible for the second question of what justice demands. And the empirical discipline of anthropology is then able to answer the question of the nature of men.

By contrast the philosophy of religion has to explain why philosophy is no longer in a position to declare one and only one exemplary route to salvation to be binding. All men can hope for is that, by leading a moral life, one at least proves worthy of the happiness that one seeks but cannot claim to deserve.

This thin rational faith is a conclusion that Kant derives from Luther’s definitive decoupling of faith and knowledge. But within the framework of this secularized philosophical thinking, Kant still secures a place for religion in the modern world – not unlike Chuck Taylor who, in his major work on the secular age, defends religious faith – under different premises of course – as one of several reasonable options. You can say that Kant could no longer combine the understanding of oneself seemlessly with an encompassing view of the world as a whole. Nevertheless he did not renounce the commitment of philosophy to clarify our understanding of self and the world. But he paid a price for that by shielding the a priori knowledge of philosophy against objections raised in the light of what we know and come to know ever better about the world.

(4) This brings me now to the final episode in my story. The isolation of the ”buffered self” of transcendental philosophy from empirical knowledge has not withstood the powerful movements of detranscendentalization of the mind. With the rise of humanities and the social sciences at the turn of the 19th century, a new continent of history, culture and society was opened up for philosophical reflections. Hamann, Humboldt, Hegel, Schleiermacher discovered that the achievements of our minds are as much reflected in the cultural forms of (what Hegel has called) ”the objective mind” as the minds of subjects are shaped in turn by those intersubjectively shared symbolic and historical realities of culture and society. 

In the wake of the pragmatist, the historicist and the linguistic turns, the trancendental subject has been stripped of the armor of a priori knowledge. The eyes of the detranscendentalized reason have gradually opened for what it also can learn about itself from the world. Now that all of its assertions have become fallible, philosophical self-reflection also has to take into consideration advances of both sciences and humanities.

(5) What does this mean for the commitment that philosophy shared with religion and shares with religion until now? In what ways can it still contribute to clarifying a joint understanding of us, ourselves and how the world hangs together?

Nowadays a kind of post-metaphysical thinking inspired by Hegel, Marx and pragmatism is confronted with a scientific philosophy for which only strictly scientific propositions are - ultimately at least - capable of truth and falsity. It wishes to answer Kant’s question ”What are men?” exclusively in terms of natural science. However, cognition and self-cognition are not the same thing. A scientifically enlightened self-understanding means that we recognize and re-identify ourselves under improved – empirically improved – descriptions. Advances in empirical knowledge about us as objects should not be confused with the kind of decentering of our understanding of ourselves and the world that is triggered by new scientific knowledge. Scientific statements lend themselves to a critical examination of errors about the world that can lead to an enlightened decentering of an understanding of ourselves in the world, but not to its substitution by natural science.

Scientism denies a presupposition that it at the same time makes at the performative level. I mean that reference to ourselves as socialized subjects who - insofar as we relate to something in the world - always find ourselves already situated within the horizon of a lifeworld. Of course, philosophy can explain this self-reference as well only insofar as it grasps the general structures of the lifeworld in the light of what the human sciences teach us. 

Unlike myths and religions, post-metaphysical thinking no longer has the power to generate worldviews. It navigates between religious traditions and secular views, between natural and human sciences, law, literature and art, in an attempt to eliminate illusions from our self-understanding, and in the process also to explore its own limits. 

Nowadays, philosphy is a – if I may say – parasitic undertaking that lives off learning processes in other spheres. But precisely in the secondary role of a form of reflection that refers to other already existing cultural achievements, philosophy can render what is known and half-known in a society transparent in its interconnections and thus, expose it to critical scrutiny. This is what originally was meant by a critical theory of society.

Thank you very much.

[Source: A text published at the website of the John W. Kluge Center; with my corrections.]

A video of Jürgen Habermas’s acceptance speech is available here.

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