Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

The Dreams of Reason

For reasons only tangentially related to the following discussion, I am reading The Theory of Communicative Action, by Jurgen Habermas. (I'm afraid I don't know how to make the two little dots over the "u".) Habermas's magnum opus was written over several years but published in 1981.

He begins by announcing (not in so many words but this is how I read it) that the triumph of empirical science has killed metaphysics, and that philosophy has essentially collapsed to epistemology. What this means in standard English is that, since we now expect truth claims to be verifiable, it's no use sitting in your study and making up fancy sounding jive about the ultimate nature of reality or the nature of existence. Whatever we may ultimately conclude about that will be figured out by physicists, or remain a mystery. Philosophy still has a role, however, in working through the puzzles of how we decide what is true, and that's called epistemology. We have decided, however, that argument by assertion is not valid, so forget about the Bible or Hegelian mysticism and so on.

Habermas's project is to understand how society produces and maintains itself in the Age of Reason, now that the authority of church and tradition has decayed. He is not a cheerleader for the Enlightenment - it's here, he's part of it, get used to it, but there has been a price. Humanity has lost something in the bureaucratization and commodification of life, and from that observation grows his famous dichotomy of lifeworld and system. Reason does not necessarily produce justice or humaneness or happiness, because it can be used for antithetical purposes, or have unintended consequences. I would say, however, that it's the only weapon we just, humane, and happiness-pursuing people have that's going to get us anywhere.

That said, I expect Habermas is quite surprised by the powerful reaction against reason now occurring, particularly in the United States. Back in 1980, it seemed to most people, me included, that reason was going to march on and conquer, for better or for worse. This may be a temporary setback. It's partly happening because many people are feeling those negative consequences. The economic system is grinding them down and their lifeworlds are impoverished. But, and this is extremely important, the crusade against reason is also being financed and waged by people who perceive that when the masses possess truth and the tools of critical thinking, their own privileges are threatened. They want to keep it all to themselves.

1 comment:

kathy a. said...

agreed, at least the points about how we all thought reason was winning in 1980, and what a surprise that discourse is now fueled by dog-alone knows who, for wtf points about contraception and higher education and women working outside the home, all supposedly undermining society. i feel transported to a sci-fi/horror movie or something.