The Limits of Learning: Habermas’ Social Theory and Religion

Habermas’ view that contemporary philosophy and social theory can learn from religious traditions of thinking calls for closer consideration. I accept his claim that religious traditions constitute a reservoir of potentially important meanings and that these meanings can be translated without emptying them of their motivating and inspirational power is granted. I argue, however, that due to two core elements of his conceptual framework, and contrary to what he implies, his theory allows for learning from religion only to a very limited degree. Both elements are key features of his account of postmetaphysical thinking. The first is the requirement of ethical agnosticism; this requires philosophy and social theory to refrain from offering guidance on questions of the good life. The second is his language-immanent conception of practical truth; this follows from his rejection of any source of practical validity beyond human communication. I make the case for a more robust account of learning from religious traditions and metaphysical worldviews in general, arguing that for this purpose Habermas must modify his requirement of ethical agnosticism and relinquish his language-immanent conception of truth. As it stands, the requirement of ethical agnosticism leads to an impoverished conception of learning from metaphysical worldviews and is out of tune with the tone of Habermas’ recent writings. I use a story of an exemplary action to illustrate the complexities of translating the contents of metaphysical worldviews and shows that such translation may involve truth as manifestation, a mode of truth that cannot be accommodated within the language-immanent framework of Habermas’ conception of practical validity. (Cooke)

Maeve Cooke is Professor of Philosophy at University College Dublin, Ireland and a member of the Royal Irish Academy. Her current work focuses on the question of truth (intrinsic value) in social and political theory, with particular attention to debates on religion and politics. Her principal book publications are Language and Reason: A Study of Habermas’s Pragmatics(MIT Press, 1994) and Re-Presenting the Good Society (MIT Press, 2006). She is editor and translator of Habermas: On the Pragmatics of Communication (MIT Press, 1998) and has published numerous articles in scholarly journals and books, mainly in the areas of social and political philosophy. In 2011-12 she is a Fulbright scholar, with appointments at Yale University and University of California, Berkeley.