Is Secular Reason Sufficient Ground…

…on which to base societies and social movements?  Jürgen Habermas nowadays thinks not (see here and here, among other places).  This is striking since for many years Habermas was one of the most visible and influential defenders of Enlightenment Rationality.  Still, Stanley Fish, writing not too long ago in the New York Times (hey, the blog didn’t exist in April!), thinks that Habermas has not gone far enough:

it is not clear at the end of a volume chock-full of rigorous and impassioned deliberations that secular reason can be saved. There is still something missing.

If we are to take seriously our most sensitive and perceptive contemporary writers, then we have to agree with both Habermas and Fish that something is missing in the contemporary age.  But we disagree with both of them about what will fill the void.  Neither secular reason nor contemporary monotheistic religion, nor indeed a dialogue between the two, will re-invigorate our secular and technological world.  What we need instead is to bring back to life for our contemporary epoch what is still livable in the various senses of the sacred that animated the history of the West.

That is the project of our book:  to read some of the great works of art from our culture with an eye toward uncovering what they understood, but we have covered up or forgotten, about the sacred and meaningful aspects of existence.  And then to appropriate these for the contemporary world.  We take Melville as our guide in this project:

If hereafter any highly cultured, poetical nation shall lure back to their birthright, the merry May-day gods of old; and livingly enthrone them again in the now egotistical sky; on the now unhaunted hill; then be sure, exalted to Jove’s high seat, the great Sperm Whale shall lord it.[ii]

Ok, so it takes a bit of explaining to say what the Sperm Whale is doing in there.  But we’ll get to it.


[ii] Moby Dick, Norton Critical Edition p. 274.

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About Sean D. Kelly

Sean Dorrance Kelly is the Teresa G. and Ferdinand F. Martignetti Professor of Philosophy at Harvard University. He is also Faculty Dean at Dunster House, one of the twelve undergraduate Houses at Harvard. He served for six years as chair of Harvard's Department of Philosophy. Kelly earned an Sc.B. in Mathematics and Computer Science and an M.S. in Cognitive and Linguistic Sciences from Brown University in 1989. After three years as a Ph.D. student in Logic and Methodology of Science, he received his Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of California at Berkeley in 1998. Before arriving at Harvard in 2006, Kelly taught at Stanford and Princeton, and he was a Visiting Professor at the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris. Sean Kelly's work focuses on various aspects of the philosophical, phenomenological, and cognitive neuroscientific nature of human experience. He is a world authority on 20th century European Philosophy, specializing in the work of Martin Heidegger and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. He has also done influential work in philosophy of mind and philosophy of perception. Kelly has published articles in numerous journals and anthologies and he has received fellowships or awards from the Guggenheim Foundation, the NEH, the NSF and the James S. McDonnell Foundation, among others. Fun fact: He appeared on The Colbert Show in 2011 to talk about All Things Shining. Sean Kelly lives at Dunster House with his wife, the Harvard Philosopher Cheryl Kelly Chen, and their two boys, Benjamin and Nathaniel.
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1 Response to Is Secular Reason Sufficient Ground…

  1. terenceblake says:

    LACK VS ABUNDANCE
    Sean asks if secular reason can ground societies and social movements. He cites recent work by Habermas, who is a strange ally as he is part of the neoconservative reaction against the disclosure of incommensurabilities (as Jean-François Lyotard argued convincingly), to the effect that secular reason is not enough, that our secular epoch lacks something. There is a lack of vitality, a lowering of the vital forces, for the goal is to “re-invigorate our secular and technological world”. According to him neither secular reason nor monotheism nor a dialogue of faith and reason can fill in the void, ground social and political invention, revitalize individual and social movements, re-establish abundance. His solution is pluralist: “bring back to life for our contemporary epoch what is still livable in the various senses of the sacred that animated the history of the West.” This is the meaning of the subtitle “luring back the gods” which points to a pluralist reappropriation of Melville’s transcendentalist reappropriation of polytheism. But now it is Melville who does not go far enough as his formula appeals to nostalgia and the notion of a return. Nietzsche goes further when he speaks of invention in the realm of the divine. We must attract the gods, attract the plurality of gods. But you can’t have it both ways (pluralist and monist). Attracting the gods means also repelling the One God, subtracting the One (a formula shared by Deleuze, who loved Melville, and by Badiou).

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