If you happened to read The New York Times Opinionator blog this week, you may have seen literary scholar Stanley Fish’s critique of German philosopher Jürgen Habermas’ latest religious turn, in an article entitled “Does Reason Know What It Is Missing?”
Some brief back story: Habermas is a philosopher in the Enlightenment mold whose contributions to understanding how disparate groups communicate in the public sphere have been hugely influential. I studied his theory of communicative rationality in grad school and it had a big effect on me, but his work is so expansive that doing it justice in this space would be impossible (a Habermas scholar I am not).
The important thing to know is that in the last 10 years or so, Habermas has been slowly coming around to greater recognition of religion’s role in public discourse. While formerly focusing on the efficacy of reason, he evidently now believes that reason isn’t a sufficient tool to motivate the public sphere. So he wants to “instrumentalize” religion—which is another way of saying that religion should be viewed as a necessary tool in the dialogue toolbox—and proponents of both reason and religion must find common ground to make things work.
In the process, Habermas subtly chastises proponents of the reason-is-sufficient position (namely, humanists) as myopic, but is careful to couch his endorsement of religion in very non-religious terms. The takeaway is that he sees religion as a pragmatic good that should not be left out of the conversation, mainly because people feel like they need it; therefore, they need it.
Stanley Fish, the one-time ferocious deconstructionist from Duke (now a professor of law in Miami), is critical of Habermas’ argument, not because of the German philosopher’s tacit endorsement of religion, but because he doesn’t think Habermas goes far enough.
The back story where Fish is concerned has a lot to do with the walls of postmodernism crashing down onto themselves, and its motley crew of mouthpieces scattering to the four corners. Postmodernism, as you may know, is critical of both religious fundamentalism and of Enlightenment thinking that elevates reason to the level of secular deity.
For a long time, postmodernists snubbed anyone who said, “Well, if not religion, and not reason…what then?” But when the vacuum opened by relativistic dismissal became too big to ignore, the crew without a captain fled the ship. And the funny thing is that a handful of them suddenly became quite non-relativistic, quasi-conservatives; which, if I’m reading Fish correctly, is what happened to him.
So Daddy Fish has a brand new bag, and in his blog he hit Jürgen Habermas over the head with it. Habermas, he says, wants religion to make massive concessions to reason so they can play nice together, but in return the only thing reason has to do is tolerate religion. Religion must honor the rules of reason to participate in the dialogue, but reason simply needs to give religion a folding chair at the corner of the table. Fish ends his article with this biting statement:
The borrowings and one-way concessions Habermas urges seem insufficient to effect a true and fruitful rapprochment. Nothing he proposes would remove the deficiency he acknowledges when he says that the “humanist self-confidence of a philosophical reason which thinks that it is capable of determining what is true and false” has been “shaken” by “the catastrophes of the twentieth century.” The edifice is not going to be propped up and made strong by something so weak as a reminder, and it is not clear at the end of a volume chock-full of rigorous and impassioned deliberations that secular reason can be saved. There is still something missing.
I read some of Fish’s essays back when he was a deconstructionist and always thought he was brilliantly slippery. That hasn’t changed. Nailing him to a position isn’t a challenge worth taking, especially when he was (as a deconstructionist) making statements designed to unravel when touched.
But in this latest article, I think he has exposed himself to serious questions about where he’s coming from. He criticizes Habermas for not giving religion a level of deference that Fish evidently believes it deserves, which is a perfectly fine criticism to make, but we never hear from Fish what he thinks the role of religion should be. He says only that the remedy Habermas offers won’t work because it still doesn’t really address the deficiencies of reason (“There is still something missing”)—and leaves it at that.
What troubles me about the argument Fish is making (and he’s not alone) is that it allows him to stand back in the shadows of ambiguous belief while throwing Molotov cocktails at those on either side of the debate. He can blow a hole in the side of Habermas’ project without ever giving us alternatives, simply because providing alternatives requires taking a position–or at least embodying one long enough to defend it. If you’re going to tell me what a good project looks like, the platform you’re standing on should be sound, or else why should I listen to you?
We might reasonably ask Fish, for instance, what specific religious position does he think Habermas is neglecting? In previous writings, Habermas has been very deferential, even complimentary, to Judeo Christianity—so, Mr. Fish, is this where Habermas is now falling down, because he’s not going whole hog Christian? Should Habermas (and will you) endorse the Christian salvation narrative soup to nuts, from the garden to the cross? Can we count on you in a future article to provide a moving apologia for the Holy Trinity?
Fish’s gadfly-in-the-margins persona won’t provide answers to those or related questions. He’d rather point to cracks in the levee without sticking his finger in one.
Habermas’ argument may indeed be flawed, and Fish may be right about why the philosopher’s project won’t work, but ultimately all we have from Fish is a retrofitted form of postmodern argument that originates from the void and disappears back into it. That might make for good ink, but it does little to move the substantive discussion forward—you know, the one that involves real people.