There has been an abiding rift between Anglo-American philosophy and what is all too broadly referred to as Continental philosophy. The sources are many and will not surrender to tidy summaries. Philosophy in the English-speaking world, with its emphasis on linguistic and conceptual analysis, has resisted the well-known European penchant for grand and global theories of human nature, the world, man’s place in the world, etc. A heavy price is always exacted, however, against those who place a higher premium on clarity than inventiveness. For many, “analytic philosophy” seems to be little more then linguistic fiddling even as Rome and the rest of the world burn down. Though disappointing, it is not at all surprising that students approach works by Marx, Adorno, Nietzsche, Freud, and their disciples with great eagerness, even devotion. And how disappointed they are when philosophers of analytical persuasion urge them to calm down long enough to determine whether the works in question are offering anything that might be settled at the level of fact or even meaning.
For many years Jurgen Habermas has enjoyed a large and devoted readership. His credentials as a European intellectual are flawless. His early years found him steeped in Marxist wisdom. His teachers included both Horkheimer and Adorno, with Habermas recording his independence by refusing to alter his dissertation for Horkheimer — whose Chair he would come to occupy in 1964. As for the dissertation itself, the very title summons a reader to the heady dialectics of neo-Marxist reflections on the lives we so innocently enjoy living: The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: an Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society. Inevitably he accepted a celebrity’s reception by the People’s Republic of China.
It was in 1981 that Habermas’s scholarly standing was secured by the publication of his two-volume The Theory of Communicative Action. In this work he developed — with sufficient repetition to warrant two volumes — a defense of the thesis that the realm of rationality is found within social and cultural contexts rather than in the allegedly inaccessible reaches of the individual mind. Thus, he stands as one of the pillars of social constructionism. What the ‘ism’ rejects are all forms of essentialism by which the human condition is understood in terms of what is essentially human, and this at the level of the individual person. To use just the sort of plain talk that Continental philosophers regard as philistinism, I would put the case this way: An essentialist knows that some cultures prefer cheesecake to bread and honey. Cuisine is surely a cultural construct. But that human beings metabolize carbohydrates according to the principles of the Krebs cycle is understood to be an essential feature of human glycolytic metabolism. Alas, so too is the aspiration to freedom and self perfection. To wait for some sort of “discourse” to bring this about is to come too late to the party.
Habermas writes of something he calls “Core Europe”. He sees it as the Europe of the Enlightenment, with its café metaphysics and voluble savants of the salon. Their defining marks include a strident secularism, resistance to the authority of rank, and confidence that pragmatic and informed human beings — as with Wittgenstein’s lucky fly — might find their way out of the bottle.
But they didn’t. First they found their way to Robespierre and the Terror. They followed this with bloody, unsuccessful, and wretchedly loquacious revolutions. And, of course, for an epilog, they gave us two world wars, each of them powered by just those grand theories to which the European mind seems addicted.
Meanwhile, the young United States limped along with its reformed and modest Calvinism, it’s firm Christian foundations, a Constitution unencumbered by inflated estimations of human nature and richly informed by the mixed and worrisome history in which that nature had repeatedly expressed itself. For every Jefferson who found secular France so wonderfully liberated, there was a wise and sober John Adams wondering how a nation could be governed by 20 million atheists.
There is much to be said for Continental philosophy, particularly its emphasis on the historical and cultural contexts generative of perspectives, initiatives, even cognition. Owing to this, it has the resources to lift itself, however belatedly, out of some of the deeper holes it digs for itself. This talent is now on display in the most recent insight of Jurgen Habermas. Here it is, believe it or not:
“Christianity, and nothing else, is the ultimate foundation of liberty, conscience, human rights, and democracy, the benchmarks of Western civilization. To this day, we have no other options… We continue to nourish ourselves from this source. Everything else is postmodern chatter.”
I am reminded of Evelyn Waugh’s reception into the Roman Catholic Church in the Fall of 1930. It caused quite a stir. He was charged with having been “captivated by the ritual”. But listen to what Waugh had to say:
“It seems to me that in the present phase of European history the essential issue is no longer between Catholicism, on one side, and Protestantism, on the other, but between Christianity and chaos. Civilization — and by this I do not mean talking cinemas and tinned food, nor even surgery and hygienic houses, but the whole moral and artistic organization of Europe — has not in itself the power of survival. It came into being through Christianity, and without it has no significance or power to command allegiance.” (In Joseph Pearse, Literary Converts, page 166)
Is it too early to wish Jurgen a Happy Easter?