Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The Story So Far, from Juergen Habermas

There I was, chuntering along happily reading Between Facts and Norms by German sociologist and philosopher Jürgen Habermas, when I came to a dead stop.

"Excursus!" said Jugi.

And then he proceeded to tell the "story so far" according to Jürgen Habermas, the narrative of how we advanced lefty westerners got to where we are from where we were. So let's take a look at "3.1.3 Excursus." We might learn something.

Our modern society is based on the "two ideas of human rights and popular sovereignty." Under the notion of natural law that comes down to us from Aristotle through St. Thomas Aquinas, these two ideas are just given, because "tradition and settled ethical conventions."

But under the process that Habermas calls "the rationalization of the lifeworld" these received notions have "come under the pressure of reflection." In Aristotle "ethics" requires only analysis; it amounts to "exemplary instructions on the virtuous life and recommended models of the good life". But with the modern era, with confessional self-examinations from people like Rousseau, Kierkegaard, and Sartre
one finds a increasingly pronounced, abstract demand for a conscious, self-critical appropriation, the demand that one responsibly take possession of one's own individual, irreplaceable, and contingent life.
In other words, the modern does not just pick up a set of life rules; he must ponder over these things in his heart, like the Virgin Mary.

Another thing is that self-understanding today issues not just from "religious and metaphysical self-interpretations" but from history and from the stories of nations. But even dogmatic national narratives are disintegrating, and so "ethical-political discourses that reach into the depths have become both possible and unavoidable" not just for individuals but for societies.

But how is this discourse into moral and political questions to be done without "the backing of religious or metaphysical world-views that are immune to criticism"? Answer: they can only be conducted in "rational discourse... from the reflexive forms of communicative action itself."

Which is what Jugi wrote The Theory of Communicative Action to define: discourse that was discourse, not domination.

What on earth does all that mean? Well, for Habermas, as I describe it in "A Critique of Social Mechanics," we
live in a community immersed in a cultural tradition, a lifeworld that “appears as a reservoir of taken-for-granteds, of unshaken convictions that participants in communication draw upon in cooperative processes of interpretations” that is “always already” familiar. 
When we talk about the "rationalization of the lifeworld" we are talking about people bringing the "always already" familiar into question. It is this process that brought the modern individualist agenda to dominance: self-expression, freedom, economic opportunity; and also the social agenda: utopias of solidarity, a society that operates in the interests of all and distributes social wealth justly. Today, the lifeworld of the always already familiar is different from the lifeworld of 200 years ago, and it was the "rational discourse" that changed it.

But with the world "robbed of its sacred foundation" of the taken-for-granted the legal system must bear a bigger burden of "fulfilling the integrative functions for society as a whole." Law cannot just be a world, a self-satisfied system unto itself; it must blend with modern ideas of justice and solidarity and the self-conscious life -- post Rousseau, post Kierkegaard -- of personal responsibility.

That is a big challenge, and that is why Jugi wrote his book.

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