Jürgen Habermas on "Myth & Religion"

On Wednesday, October 19, Georgetown students and faculty gathered to hear Jürgen Habermas deliver a lecture on myth and ritual. Habermas, who is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the University of Frankfurt, is a world renowned philosopher and social theorist. His most famous works include: The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (1962), The Theory of Communicative Action (1981) and Between Facts and Norms: Contributions to a Discourse Theory of Law and Democracy (1992). While Habermas’s scholarly work is focused on topics such as the mechanisms of integration embedded within modern social orders, the inter-subjective conditions required for successful social co-operation, and the connection between morality and politics as mediated by law. As a public intellectual he has also offered arguments in public debates about the “Historians’ Quarrel” in Germany, the role of religion in public life and the future of European political integration. In his lecture, Habermas offered a sociological account of the origins of ritual practices and their connection to those broader religious or metaphysical worldviews with which they form a sacred complex. He drew upon Emile Durkheim’s understanding of rites as self-referential practices that allow their participants to remind themselves of their collective identities as members of a social order, while at the same time endowing their social relations with particular, normative force. To this observation, Habermas’s added the bold hypothesis that the sacred complex came to perform a specific role in the evolution of the cultural life of a species, homo sapiens, which had crossed a threshold to a “new level of symbolically mediated communication and interaction.” (4) In contrast to primates, for example, human beings experienced an accelerated process of cultural adaptation and cognitive learning. This resulted in their having access to modes of symbolic communication in which things in the world took on an objective meaning that was common among individuated conversation partners. This evolutionary step made possible action oriented toward mutual co-operation and inter-subjective recognition as opposed to action oriented merely toward individual gain (primates, on the other hand, have been unable to break out of their “self-referential shell”). However, unlike more rudimentary forms of symbolic communication, rites did not address things in the world. On the contrary, their referents were located in another dimension, and consequently rites pointed “into the void.” As such they became crucial sources of social solidarity, a scarce resource required by human beings newly confronted by the cognitive and psychological challenges associated with living in a world in which they became conscious of themselves as individual, autonomous agents while at the same time being subject to the pressures, strains and necessity of belonging to an ethical community. Under such conditions, Habermas remarked, “ritual behavior offers itself as a plausible candidate for generating the normative force of solidarity.” (7)


At the conclusion of the lecture, Habermas offered some thoughts on why he had now turned his attention to the origins of ritual practices. His remarks were intriguing. While he continues to think that human rights – which he regards as central to our modern social order - need not depend upon appeals to religious sources for their ultimate justification, Habermas is no longer convinced that the project of modernity itself possesses all of the resources necessary for its own reproduction. In other words, the continued success of modernity - which is usually thought to imply the ascendancy of rationalism, the spread of secularization and the unmooring of claims to political and moral authority from religious or metaphysical bases - may turn out to depend upon sources of social solidarity that are often, paradoxically, regarded as outmoded or obsolete from within the modern worldview (religious rituals are one such source, for example). This is especially troubling in light of the fact that modern social orders rest on a precarious balance of responsibility – “an institutionalized order which imposes and distributes obligations for everybody” (8) – that is destabilized whenever the wellsprings of social solidarity run dry. This would seem to reflect quite a radical shift in Habermas’s thinking. Sadly, there was no time left for him to elaborate upon this arresting idea. Those interested in pursuing these themes further would do well to consult Habermas’s recent dialogue with Pope Benedict XVI in The Dialectics of Secularization: On Reason and Religion (2006).

Note: Page numbers in parentheses refer to the transcript of the lecture provided by Professor Habermas.

Craig French is a Ph.D. candidate in political theory in the Department of Government at Georgetown University.