Habermas: Religion in the Public Sphere – 27/06/2016


A Pluralist Democracy

Here are two assumptions we’ll accept for the sake of argument:

  1. We live in a democracy (or in a state that strives to be a democracy, or at least pretends to be one, however much of a mess they make of it in practice).
  2. The citizenry of that democracy is characterised by religious plurality: various religious and non-religious worldviews and ways of life co-exist, and (importantly) this is likely to remain this way.

Democracies occur in many forms, historically, but all have in common that they ought to be an expression of the Democratic Principle: those who are subject to the law, should be able to view themselves as co-authors of that law.

Of course, the way in which citizens can contribute to law-making can take many forms: electing representatives, voting in a referendum, starting and signing petitions, but also contributing to public debate through open, public forums, which require some basic democratic rights, such as freedom of press, freedom of expression, the right to a defense in court and the right to education (this is not an exclusive list).

An often-made mistake is to equate democracy with simple majoritarianism. Majoritarianism is ‘doing what the majority wants’, which can easily be established by a vote. This system is certainly a useful decision making tool, and can at times be applied in a democracy, but it is not the same as a democracy, since it can run against the Democratic Principle. The problem with majoritarianism is that it can lead to what is known as ‘the tyranny of the majority’. A majority can vote to unjustly oppress a minority, so in a majoritarian system, minority rights are in danger. A majority vote in favour of prosecuting homosexuals is a case in point. The problem with this is that the homosexuals in question would be subject to that decision, but they can hardly view themselves as co-authors of it. A democracy requires that all those who are subject to binding decisions should be able to have access to a justification they could come to accept as reasonable, and they should be able to influence that decision by offering a justification of their own. In short: in a democracy citizens owe one another reasons for laws, a vote alone won’t do.

A democracy, therefore, consists of a wide variety of social rights and institutions. We live in a democracy all the time, not only on election day.

Religion in the Public Sphere

So in a democracy, the public sphere is one of these important institutions. German philosopher Jürgen Habermas has written a lot about the public sphere, ever since the seventies. The public sphere is the domain in which citizens of a democracy discuss matters of public concern with each other. This can be online and offline, in the media, in the pub, in the bus, in the classroom. Habermas divides the public sphere in two tiers: the informal public sphere and the formal, political public sphere. The informal public sphere is the domain where ordinary citizens discuss matters of public concern, and the political public sphere is the domain where policy makers and other public official formulate and finalise laws: parliament and the court of law are examples.

Democratic deliberation takes place in these two tiers of the public sphere. Citizens contribute justifications to the informal public sphere that public officials pick up, and public officials justify the laws they make in the formal public sphere.

In the past two decades, the following question has been a topic of hot debate:

In a democracy, can religious justifications count as legitimate justifications for laws, or should laws be supported by secular reasons only?

One of the basic rights essential for a democracy is freedom of religion. Freedom of religion consists of a negative and a positive freedom. The negative freedom entails the right to be free from the religion of others, so others are prevented from imposing their religion on you, even if that were the religion of the majority. The positive freedom entails the right to exercise one’s religion as one sees fit, which enables you to build churches and temples, dress in certain ways or observe certain diets or celebrate certain religious holidays. Each society can negotiate these two freedoms in various ways, but what is important is that both are respected. Habermas explicitly states that he is committed to both the negative and the positive freedom of religion.

So, at face value, this poses a problem. On the one hand, the positive freedom of religion protects the freedom of religion citizens to use their religious views in the public sphere, including in discussions about laws that apply to all. On the other hand, the negative freedom of religion protects the non-religious citizens, or citizens who adhere to minority religions, from having the religion of others imposed on them, which might happen if a law is supported solely with a religious justification. How to solve this problem?

American philosopher John Rawls suggests that citizens can use religious reasons in discussions in the public sphere, but “in due course”, when the law is finally made, the law should be supported by sufficient “public reason”. By “public reason”, Rawls means reasons that every reasonable citizen could reasonably come to accept. For instance, when a religious citizen goes to the polling station, they ought to be able to justify their vote with sufficient reason, even if their own reasons for casting that vote is religiously motivated.

Another philosopher, Nicholas Wolterstorff, however, argues that what Rawls demands of religious citizens is (a) too demanding, and (b) goes against the positive freedom of religion. He argues that many religious citizens are unable to make a “split” in their reasoning between religious and secular reasons, without having to be disingenuous or threatening their own integrity. It is, as it were, part and parcel of their religious commitment that they base their political actions on those religious views. This objection of Wolterstorff against Rawls is called the Integrity Objection. This threat to the internal integrity of religious citizens is particularly a problem because that burden is not asked of non-religious citizens, which poses an unjustified unfairness.

Habermas takes Wolterstorff’s objection seriously and has an alternative to Rawls: he calls it the translation proviso: citizens can use religious justifications for laws in the informal public sphere, even without offering additional secular reasons in support of their proposal. However, in the formal, political public sphere, officials must use secular justifications alone to justify the laws they make. To avoid simply ignoring the religious contributions to public debate, it is essential that religious reasons be translated to secular reasons. This job of translation, according to Habermas, is a responsibility religious and non-religious citizens carry together, as a co-operative task. This means that both religious and non-religious citizens must engage in a mutual learning process: religious citizens must learn to accept that their religious doctrines don’t have a privileged appeal to truth, and that there are rivaling religious and secular doctrines that deserve to be treated with equal respect. Non-religious citizens must learn that religious worldviews are not simply relics of an archaic past, bound to disappear, but that instead religious reasons are vehicles of relevant content that can shine new light on issues of public concern. In the process of translation, Habermas believes that this relevant content can be distilled from religious justifications and reformulated in secular terms.

For Habermas. Secular language differs from religious language in that it is “equally acceptable to all”, whereas religious language is only accessible to those who already adhere to that religion. That is the reason why, in Habermas’ view, at the end of the day, only secular reasons are able to meet the requirements of the democratic principle. His translation proviso, he argues, thus protects both the negative and the positive parts of the freedom of religion.


Habermas, Jurgen. “Religion in the Public Sphere: Cognitive Presuppositions for the Public Use of Reason by Religious and Secular Citizens.” In Between Naturalism and Religion: Political Essays, by JurgenHabermas, 114 – 48. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2008
Rawls, John. “The Idea of Public Reason Revisited.” University of Chicago Law Review 64, no. 3 (1997):765 – 807
Wolterstorff, Nicholas. “The Role of Religion in Decision and Discussion of Political Issues.” In Religion inthe Public Square: The Place of Religious Convictions in Political Debate, by Robert Audi and Nicholas Wolterstorff. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 1996
If you’re on Academia.edu, you could read this conference paper I delivered a few years ago (I am somewhat critical of Habermas, although I admire very much his position on the whole).
Here’s a brief excerpt of a lecture Habermas gave in 2011. Habermas is perhaps difficult to understand (he was born with a speech impediment and, of course, a German accent), but just watch this and pray you’ll be lecturing like that when you’re in your eighties.



Davidson – On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme 30/05/16

Donald Davidson (1917 – 2003) was a very influential philosopher of the second half of the twentieth century. One of the fields he contributed to was the philosophy of language. Among other questions, the philosophy of language concerns itself with questions like: where does language get its meaning from? and, how does language relate to our mind, the world, or our community?

One reason why philosophy became interested in language was the surge in scientific progress in early modern times. With a more sophisticated science, we needed to think about the requirements of a language suitable for speaking about reality in such an objective and sophisticated way. One of the philosophers who influenced Davidson was Quine, who was indeed concerned with the philosophy of science. Quine proposed that all science aimed to form a coherent theory of reality. This, then, needs to be formulated in language. Each sentence in any language, then, formulates a theorem of this over-arching holistic theory. Sentences, then, acquire their meaning from the role they play in the totality of all true sentences in that language.

Kuhn, another philosopher of science, then proposed that it is possible to have quite different coherent holistic theories of reality. Indeed, he famously offered the idea of a paradigm shift: grand discoveries in science cause a radical change of meaning in a language. In the Ptolemaic world view, for instance, concepts like “star” and “planet” just had entirely different meanings than after the Copernican Turn. Thus, the Ptolemaic language and the Copernican language are so different in terms of meaning, that one can’t compare them with each other, even if they use the same words and grammar. They are incommensurable.

From this idea of language as a way to describe reality in different ways, it is only a small step to the following thesis, which is widely accepted today, among philosophers and non-philosophers alike. It’s called the “incommensurability thesis”, and applies Quine’s and Kuhn’s idea to all natural languages (or families of languages):

  1. All languages (or families of languages) are conceptual schemes; they are ways in which we organise reality (or our experience thereof).
  2. Different languages (or families of languages) organise reality in different ways.
  3. Therefore, languages are  not intertranslateable; conceptual schemes are incommensurable.

Davidson rejects this thesis in his seminal paper On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme. He does not argue that languages all are or represent the same conceptual scheme (just in different words), but he argues that the very idea of a conceptual scheme, language as a scheme with which we categorise unorganised content, is unintelligible.

How would a conceptual scheme work? Well, there are four possibilities:

conceptual scheme

Davidson proceeds to reject them one by one.

Firstly, “we cannot attach a clear meaning to the notion of organising a single object (the world, nature etc.) unless that object is understood to contain or consist in other objects. Someone who sets out to organize a closet arranges the things in it. If you are told not to organize the shoes and shirts, but the closet itself, you would be bewildered.” (p.14)

Secondly, with regards to organising our experience of reality instead of reality itself: “Much the same difficulties recur. The notion of organization applies only to pluralities. … Experience makes another and more obvious trouble for the organizing idea. For how could something count as a language that organized only experiences, sensations, surface irritations or sense data? Surely knives and forks, railroads and mountains, cabbages and kingdoms also need organizing.” (p.15)

Finally, Davidson argues, saying that language fits reality or fits our experience of reality is just a complicated way of saying it is true. But since we’re all sharing the same reality, if all languages just combine true sentences about reality, all languages must share the same meaning.

A truth-conditional theory of meaning

Davidson uses Alfred Tarski’s Convention T to arrive at his truth-conditional theory of meaning:

“according to Tarski’s Convention T, a satisfactory theory of truth for a language L must entail, for every sentence s of L, a theorem of the form “s is true if and only if p” where “s” is replaced by a description of s and “p” by s itself if L is English, and by a translation of s into English if L is not English.” P. 16

Example: “Sneeuw is wit” is true if and only if snow is white.

Since for every language we can determine which conditions in reality must obtain for each sentence to be true, we can then find a sentence in any other language that has very similar truth conditions: a sentence that would be true in the same circumstances. If that sentence is found, then we have a translation.

If languages would indeed not be about the same reality at all, then it is hard to see how we could recognise them as languages at all, rather than mere noise. Principle of charity: interpretation or translation depends on our assuming a great deal of agreement, until disagreements surface. It is then much simpler to explain difficulties in translation as differences in belief about reality, rather than as differences in conceptual schemes.



Hilary Putnam’s Semantic Externalism – 11/04/2016

Philosopher Hilary Putnam (1926-2016) passed away last month. Not only did he contribute to many debates in analytical philosophy, but he was also known to exhibit a great philosophical virtue: he was his own fiercest critic. He subjected his own positions to thorough scrutiny and was never too proud to reject earlier positions, when he had exposed their flaws, and change his mind in favour of another view.

In his honour, we will discuss one of Putnam’s arguments: his argument for semantic externalism. Crudely put, semantic externalism is the view that words and sentences only have meaning when there is an external world they can refer to. Putnam’s argument in favour of this view also serves to dismiss Cartesian scepticism. I will start from this vantage point to explain Putnam’s view.

Scepticism: Are we a brain in a vat?

Imagine you are, without knowing it, no more than a brain floating around in a vat of nutrient fluids. The brain is connected to a computer which stimulates the brain in such a way that it gives you the experience of an external world – you see trees, apples, other people, you smell flowers, you feel the fur of the cat and everything else you normally experience. These computer generated experiences are, to you, indistinguishable from experiences of real trees, apples, people, flowers and cats. You have been a brain in a vat from the beginning of your existence, and you have never known that you are a brain in a vat, because the computer has generated a whole life full of experiences for you. Therefore, you think that you see apples and feel the cat, but you are mistaken, because there are no apples and cats; there are only brains, vats, and computers (of which you have no experience). A bit like in the film The Matrix. If you’ve attended the class on Descartes, you’ll recognise his idea of a mind that is deceived by an evil demon. The brain-in-vat thought experiment is based on that idea.

This thought experiment aims to show that scepticism, the view that we can’t know anything about the world, is true. The argument goes as follows: if we know something about the world, then we can thereby also know that we are not brains in vats; but there is no way of knowing whether we are brains in vats, so we don’t know that we are not brains in vats; since we don’t know that we are not brains in vats, we must conclude that we don’t know anything about the world. (The logic applied here is a modus tollens: 1. if p then q, 2. not q, therefore not p.)

Putnam’s refutation

A friend of my housemate says that his worst fear is that we are indeed brains in vats, without ever knowing it. Luckily, Putnam has good news for him: we can know that we are not brains in vats. That’s a relief! But how does Putnam know? Putnam’s argument runs as follows:

Imagine a world in which the only existing things are brains, vats with nutrient liquids, and computers that stimulate the brains. Nothing else. Quite like the scenario outlined above. In this scenario, you are a brain in a vat (henceforth BIV) who has experiences as if you see trees, apples and cats, even though there aren’t any. You think you speak English, but this too is an illusion; you don’t speak at all (because you have no mouth or vocal cords, only a brain), it’s just the computer giving you the experience as if you speak English, you don’t actually speak. Hold that image for a minute. Let’s call this world the BIV-world.

Now imagine another world where you are not a brain in a vat. You are a human being in a natural environment, exactly as you experience it. You see trees, apples and cats and they are indeed really there. There are also other people who experience these same things, and such day-to-day experiences of the environment are not illusions. In this world, you also think you speak English, but this time, that is not a mistake: you do indeed speak English. In this world, when you use the word “tree”, the meaning of that word is, according to Putnam, caused by real trees in the world. The word “tree” refers to a tree, and that’s why it is a meaningful word in the English language. Let’s call this world the natural world.

Back to the BIV-world. In your mind, you’re speaking English. You use words like “tree”, “apple” and “cat”. But what do these words mean? There are no trees, apples or cats that can give these words meaning, because there are only brains, vats and computers. What the word “tree” actually refers to, in this case, is merely a set of electrical impulses generated by the computer. So the word “tree” in the BIV-world in BIV-English means something else than the word “tree” in English in the natural world.

So in the BIV-world, the words “brain” and “vat” refer, just like “tree” and “apple” to particular sets of electrical impulses, and not to the actual brain nor the vat it’s floating in in the BIV-world. So, paradoxically, even if you were a brain in a vat, your sentence “I am a brain in a vat” would be false, since “brain” and “vat” in that sentence don’t refer to your BIV-situation, but to illusory brains and illusory vats in your illusory environment.

I understand if your brain hurts a bit after reading this. Here’s the argument again, but this time in a schematic form. Concepts, references and words referring to objects in the BIV-world are indicated with an *:

  1. Either I am a BIV (speaking vat-English*) or I am a non-BIV (speaking English).
  2. If I am a BIV (speaking vat-English*), then my utterances of ‘I am a BIV’ are true if and only if (iff) I am a brain* in a vat*.
  3. If I am a BIV (speaking vat-English*), then I am not a brain* in a vat*.
  4. If I am a BIV (speaking vat-English*), then my utterances of ‘I am a BIV*’ are false.
  5. If I am a non-BIV (speaking English), then my utterances of ‘I am a BIV’ are true iff I am a BIV.
  6. If I am a non-BIV (speaking English), then my utterances of ‘I am a BIV’ are false.
  7. My utterances of ‘I am a BIV’ are false in either case.
  8. My utterances of ‘I am not a BIV’ are true.
  9. My utterances of ‘I am not a BIV’ are true iff I am not a BIV.
  10. Conclusion: I am not a BIV

If this hurts your brain even more, I understand. It’s all very technical. That’s the thing with analytical philosophers. They tend to do that. But the bottom line of Putnam’s argument is understandable enough: the brain-in-vat hypothesis mixes two worlds of reference, which messes with the meaning of what we talk about when we say “I am a brain in a vat”. If it were true that I am a brain in a vat, it would be meaningless because the concepts I use to talk about that situation don’t take their meaning from the BIV-world, but from the world I experience. Hence, the world I experience is the only world I can talk about, and in that world I am not a brain in a vat.

The Twin Earth thought experiment

Putnam makes the same point using a different thought experiment.

Imagine that somewhere far, far away in the universe, there is a planet that is an exact copy of Earth. Let’s call it Twin Earth. On Twin Earth, there is a twin of every person on Earth. So let’s say that Tony lives on Earth, and Twin Tony lives on Twin Earth. There is only one difference between Earth and Twin Earth: there is no water on Twin Earth. Instead, there is another substance with the exact same qualities as water, except that its chemical composition is not H2O, but XYZ (elements that don’t exist on Earth) Twin Tony, who speaks Twin English, calls this substance “water”. Now let’s go back a few hundred years in time, when nobody knew about the chemical elements and the composition of water. Would we say that Tony and Twin Tony mean the same thing when they say “water”? Putnam would say “no”, because Tony means H2O when he says “water” and Twin Tony means XYZ. The stuff they refer to is different stuff, even if it has the same function and Tony and Twin Tony have the same concept in mind. It is the actual things in the world that words refer to that give those words their meaning; language on its own, isolated from a world of reference, is meaningless, according to Putnam. In his own words: “‘Meanings’ just ain’t in the head”.

Of course, Putnam wouldn’t be Putnam if he hadn’t revised his position since. He later agreed with Tyler Burge that Tony and Twin Tony wouldn’t in fact have the same mental state when they talk about “water” (Tony has the concept of H2O and Twin Tony the concept of XYZ).