In the past ten to fifteen years, discussions around the contested role of religion in the political public sphere have often centered on Jürgen Habermas and Charles Taylor, for many obvious and legitimate reasons. Not only are the two thinkers some of the most well-established in their fields, but they also share a deep appreciation of one another. Habermas’s reflections have perhaps drawn the bulk of attention and pushback, as religion had previously gone nearly unmentioned in his good half-century of academic work. Taylor also rarely discussed religion explicitly in his early career, but his more recent reflections seem to flow more naturally from his oeuvre, and come as less of a surprise to his readers.
In 2015, Taylor and Habermas were honored together in their shared reception of the Kluge Prize. While the two share significant overlap in their general push for a more accommodating role of religion in secular society, it is still worth taking a closer look at their divergences, particularly with regard to their views of language. Taylor has just released the first installment of what is to be a two-volume series entitled “The Language Animal.” We haven’t heard much from Habermas in recent years, but much of the secondary literature still focuses on his notion of the “post-secular,” mentioned in his 2001 speech in Frankfurt, as well as his 2005 volume Between Naturalism and Religion. His 2012 essay collection, Postmetaphysical Thinking II, has received less attention but shows a slight shift in emphasis. In what follows, I seek to provide an overview of Habermas’s and Taylor’s respective notions of “translation” and “articulacy,” and to accentuate their differences in order to consider where this discourse may go from here.
Habermas on Translation
It is worth recalling Habermas’s use of the phrase “post-secular,” which first occurred in his speech given at the reception of the German book trade prize in 2001, just months after the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York. Much has been made of this term, but as it has largely vanished from Habermas’s own usage, one must wonder how central this term is for Habermas. He indeed employs the term as a title for a section of his 2001 speech, “Secularization in a Post-Secular Society,” but this usage seems rather improvisational—simply denoting a society, “which must adjust to the continued existence of religious communities within a continuously secularizing environment.” A lot can and has been said about what such a usage of the term implies for Habermas’s understanding of secularization, but this seems secondary to why Habermas sees the continued vitality of religious traditions as a challenge to philosophy, or how religion and philosophy share the challenge of shortsighted naturalism.
For Habermas, one guiding question concerns the degree to which modern differentiation of academic disciplines has come to undermine philosophy’s “privileged access to truth”—its role as “first science.” In his account, philosophy’s privileged position retreats as the end of metaphysics manifests itself in modern philosophy. The more central term, and the one that Habermas has stuck to, is that of postmetaphysical fallibilism. In part due to the contingent nature of language, postmetaphysical thinking restricts itself to deriving normativity from reason alone. Whereas religion and philosophy had previously shared an effort at unifying knowledge, philosophy has had to abandon the realm of metaphysics altogether.
This postmetaphysical challenge prompts differing reflective phases from Habermas. In Postmetaphysical Thinking (1992), Habermas still seems to think of religion and philosophy as rather separate phenomena, though he does draw attention to a “curious dependency” of philosophy on religion. Seeing that both philosophy and religion traditionally sought to interpret the extramundane into everyday life, modern philosophy could not dispense with or replace religion, “so long as religious language contained inspiring, even unrelinquishable semantic content.”
More recently, Habermas has examined the connection between religion and philosophy more closely as a shared genealogy, honing in on the notion of a “Versprachlichung des Sakralen” as the shared core of religion and philosophy since the Axial Age. We might translate this as the verbalization or linguification of the sacred, a process whereby meaning is transferred from “sources of sacred communication into everyday language.” Habermas states that “the achievement of mythical, religious, and metaphysical worldviews (Weltbilder) was to release the semantic potential contained within ritual practices into the language of mythical narratives or dogmatically formulated teachings, and to simultaneously transform these into an identity-stabilizing interpretive system . . .” He already hints at this understanding in his first volume on postmetaphysical thinking, but draws this out much more explicitly in the second volume, posing the question of whether such verbalization of the sacred has been completed or not.
It is within this framework of a posited verbalization of the sacred and Habermas’s discourse ethics that we come up against his continued insistence on a need for translation of religious language into a presumably more neutral language. In his 2001 reflections on the continued role of religion in a secular society, Habermas highlights two needs for a functioning (post)secular society: the need to overcome the secularist tendency to treat religious viewpoints as outdated and illegitimate, and the need for religious citizens to translate their religiously expressed viewpoints into a language accessible to all. Both of these needs arise out of the underlying norms that allow our everyday speech to generally work. In their discourse ethics, Habermas and philosopher Karl-Otto Apel outline (1) everyone’s ability to make truth claims in public debate, (2) anyone’s ability to challenge such a claim, (3) the speaker’s truthfulness in making said claim, and (4) the freedom from coercion in making said claims. In official public debate, such as in parliament and courts, the truth claims expressed must furthermore meet a universalizing proviso—they need to be expressed in a language accessible to all those affected by a policy decision. In Habermas’s view, religious language does not fulfill this demand, as it implies an inclusive membership whose flipside is an exclusionary dynamic, thus undermining the ability for widest possible acceptance.
Taylor on Articulation
Despite their considerable agreement in many areas, a disagreement between Habermas and Charles Taylor regarding this notion of translation persists. At a 2009 symposium in New York City, Taylor voiced his dissatisfaction with Habermas’s notion of translation, stating that “you can’t have translations for those kinds of references because they are the references that really touch on certain people’s spiritual lives and not others.” Even this brief remark, which arose spontaneously during a roundtable discussion, touches on the two fundamental projects of Taylor; what might be called a phenomenology of language (along with its epistemological and ethical implications), and a genealogy of contemporary secularism.
Regarding the latter, Taylor’s analysis of our secular age can be seen as a continuation of earlier work put forward in Sources of the Self, retracing underlying notions of the good that have come to shape modern understandings of autonomy and selfhood. Religion thus doesn’t so much enter the scene by surprise, as is the case with Habermas, but already belongs to a prolonged effort at genealogical examination of modern presumptions. Debunking reductionist accounts of secularization, Taylor highlights how substantive moral ontologies constitute our immanent frame, yet often go unarticulated. While Habermas concedes the seeming end of metaphysics, Taylor is hesitant to despair at the contingency of our language and knowledge. Rather than dwelling on language’s imperfections and calling for a translation into a presumably neutral language, Taylor puts forward a more rigorous awareness of and creative engagement with language, thereby tapping more fully into its cognitive capacity.
This robust engagement with language in all its quirkiness is expressed in Taylor’s notion of articulacy, which until quite recently was ironically underarticulated itself. But even in Sources of the Self, Taylor employs the terms “articulation,” “articulacy,” and “to articulate” countless times in describing his own project. In The Language Animal, he has finally come to index these terms in his work, and to explicate this notion. Articulation in a strong sense denotes two phenomena—on the one hand, a communicative act, on the other hand (and closely related), an historical awareness of concepts. As communicative act, articulation entails the transmission of ideas in a broad sense—be they concepts, feelings, arguments or individual words. Articulation thus understood can unfold in many ways: through language, utterances, song, painting, etc. The historical dimension concerns the need for an awareness of conceptual transmission (Überlieferungsgeschehen), which is a pragmatic precondition for any kind of linguistic communication. In order for communication to work at all, an initial recognition of or heeding to a concept’s or word’s historic understanding must be given. In a quick second step, such traditions can be challenged and rearticulated, but the initial nod to the tradition must be given if a language is to maintain some degree of semantic coherency and enable communication across time and space. Taylor emphasizes the challenge and urgency for individuals and collectives in times of strong emotional import to articulate the very sources thereof. By examining underlying concepts, beliefs, assumptions, and frameworks that have shaped our personal understanding of a situation, we begin to critically and creatively play with the language that has fundamentally shaped our worldview and our self-situating within that worldview. The social process of articulating, critiquing, and rearticulating must naturally strive to enable as broad an understanding as possible, but it is not so ambitious as to envision universal consensus, as language games must always remain incomplete and ongoing.
Overlap and Divergence—Translation and Articulacy
So where does the debate between Habermas and Taylor currently stand? Both obviously share a strong desire to overcome highly restrictive understandings of what constitutes knowledge, often driven by reductionist accounts of scientific naturalism. Both recognize that what is central to countering such restrictive accounts is a nuanced account of language’s role in providing meaningful interpretive frameworks for individuals and collectives. Habermas acknowledges that religious language contains a stronger capacity for inspiring semantic content, and he grants that it should be allowed in unofficial public discourse. But he doesn’t go so far as to concede such language a constitutive role in official public deliberation (i.e. in governing bodies, courts). He has yet to back off from the idea that there is a more neutral—areligious, non-metaphysical—language that better enables a strong public consensus on ethical matters.
The notions of translation and articulation overlap in many ways. In an idealized dialog between an atheist and devout religious person, we might well envision the two parties reaching considerable agreement on ethical matters, with a similar sense of legitimate compulsion. By examining their respective underlying notions of the good, by retelling parables in modern, secular contexts, one might classify their achieved consensus either as a successful translation or articulation. However, the Habermasian notion of translation implies a hierarchy of language types, valuing an idealized (arguably fictitious) neutral language higher than any particular language shaped by a contingent worldview. In a sense, it seems that Habermas wants to undercut the very contingency he heeds to in embracing post-metaphysical thought. One passage that stands out as particularly troublesome and unclear can be found in Postmetaphysical Thinking II, in which Habermas highlights that both religious and philosophical languages serve a meaningful interpretive end. But as he tries to argue for their shared capacities, he still accentuates how philosophical language “opens the eyes for radically new worlds.” Recently, Christoph Möllers has drawn attention to just how central St. Paul and early Christianity were for envisioning such radically new worlds, which could be seen as a cautious overturning of Habermas’s envisioned hierarchy when it comes to fostering normative thinking.
We can surmise a correlation between Habermas’s respective views of religious language and the nation state. Regarding the latter, Habermas has long drawn attention to the lacking legitimacy in much of the European Union’s bureaucratic apparatus, a form of legitimacy which arguably must link up with political legitimacy at the national and local levels. Nonetheless, it seems as though Habermas struggles to envision a continuing role for the nation state as such, often dismissing anti-European resentment en gros and seeking ways for EU legitimacy divorced from national legitimacy. In both his notion of religious communities as exclusionary and in neglecting more thorough consideration of the nation state, we can broadly observe something at play like the subtraction narratives that Taylor describes as shaping our secular self-understanding.
It is the insistence on a primacy of neutral language, even if it is restricted to official public discourse, which seems to point towards Taylor’s notion of articulacy as better suited to accommodate the fallibility and contingency of worldviews and languages. Whereas Habermas’s translation proviso entails narrower and stricter requirements for consensus on a given debate, Taylor’s notion of articulation allows for a broader, shallower form of consensus, which may well be sufficient, as any kind of social consensus on normative issues will necessarily remain transient. Articulacy might still run the risk of being too all-encompassing, but Taylor’s recent explication of his understanding thereof certainly begs for more rigorous engagement. One might even consider whether articulacy brings to light additional pragmatic preconditions of language that could be included in Habermas’s and Apel’s notion of discourse ethics, accounting more systematically for linguistic contingency and fallibility.