Stanley Fish on Jurgen Habermas

A new opinion piece by Fish on Habermas and the role of religion in his thought. Fish critiques Habermas’s conception of reason, seeing it as more or less instrumentalizing religion while under the guise of reconciling the two. Of course, critiques of Habermas’s work have been prominent in intellectual circles for more than two decades now, and Fish does point out that his new ‘reconciliation’ with religion still doesn’t fit entirely well with his idea of secular public reason.

I think Habermas is on shaky ground about a different point, however. As paraphrased by Fish, Habermas generalizes that the “motivational weakness” the modern Liberal state creates in its citizens (in other words, an overly individualistic attitude that only cares about self-preservation and self-interest) has led to “the massive injustices nations and tribes inflict on one another.” Therefore, Habermas concludes, something more, something transcendent, is needed that can further justify and ground solidarity among people in today’s world. But can’t the reverse be historically just as true? Can’t we convincingly argue that the modern Liberal state and its corresponding institutions emerged precisely as a response to the injustices perpetuated by collectives (nations and tribes) upon other collectives? Here one can recall Hobbes’s argument in the Leviathan, written during the religious wars of the seventeenth century. It’s no small coincidence that one of the founding texts of the modern Liberal state t0ok an atomistic view of the individual as its starting point right when the European continent was embroiled in a sectarian conflict.


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