“A History of Philosophy, II”: Jürgen Habermas at the Birth of Modernity


The German philosopher Jürgen Habermas, in 2002.

“A History of Philosophy, II. Rational freedom. Traces of discourses on faith and knowledge” (Auch eine Geschichte der Philosophie), by Jürgen Habermas, translated from German by Frédéric Joly, Gallimard, “NRF Essais”, 784 p., €35, digital €25.

For twenty years, Jürgen Habermas has devoted his writings to exploring the “truth content” conveyed, according to him, by the relations of fusion or tension between faith and reason. Hence the exploration carried out in A history of philosophy, whose first volume was published in 2021, and here is the second. After focusing his study on the Axial Age (about 800-200 BC) – a period when the sacred, simultaneously and in several parts of the world, converged with morality (the ten commandments forming the most striking illustration) –, then having taken an interest in medieval thought, the philosopher, in this new volume, analyzes the rupture which, from Martin Luther to the “young Hegelians”, Ludwig Feuerbach, Karl Marx or the Dane Soren Kierkegaard, leads to the constitution of a “right of reason” modern.

This genealogy could offend those who are worried about seeing reinstalled, even by an intellectual who claims his agnosticism, a form of continuity between theology and politics, which philosophy had been able to put at a distance. Thus, Habermas sees in the late works of scholasticism, for example in the work of the Jesuit Francisco Suarez (1548-1617), the beginnings of a democratic thought and of the equality born on the soil of the “natural law” biblical. But he does not call into question the movement of “secularization” with which modernity is identified. “What marks (there) difference (between scholastic tradition and modernity), he writesit is the change of perspective leading from the Covenant concluded by God with his people to a contract of political socialization” between free and equal subjects ” between them “ (and no longer subject to a transcendence).

The possible misunderstandings that assimilate this gigantic enterprise to a quest for traces of the theology in modern thought are perhaps due to the subtlety with which Habermas reads the shifts and reversals of meaning that ended up decoupling the elements that the axial age and medieval thought had merged: law, morality, religion. This leads in particular to reversing the conditions of the face-to-face between sacred sciences and philosophy, the second now having the initiative, as shown by the interest of German theologians of the XXe century for the thought of Martin Heidegger.

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