Habermas @ Leuven: the EU as enormous labor union?


None other than Jürgen Habermas has come to speak at Leuven, and about nothing less than the future of the European Union – to be precise, “Solidarity, Democracy, and the European Union”. God bless him, Habermas is nigh unintelligible when he speaks (fortunately, the university distributed copies of his lecture), but no one can question that his heart is in the right place. The question is whether his heart possesses the best possible argument; that seems doubtful to me.

Arguably, Habermas is famous among philosophers, social scientists, and activists for making a Golden Age out of the Enlightenment era, and drawing abstract models therefrom. The best example is his famous description of how the public sphere and liberal democracy came to emerge. Historically, a crucial institution was the coffeehouse, which philosophically becomes liberal democracy in ideal form: a common, agreed-upon space wherein interlocutors agree to rationally and coolheadedly debate an issue to a consensus. Elections, in their best form, resemble such a debate; so, too, legislative discussions.

With respect to the European Union’s present troubles and its future solution, the historical model for Habermas, at least as I understand him, appears to be the late-nineteenth century labor union, which philosophically becomes supranational democracy in ideal form. This time, the idea is of forging a cohesive fraternity with a democratic (i.e., rational, deliberative) but still collective decision-making process with a wealth-sharing agenda. I presume that because everyone is acting and thinking in solidarity, and because the European Union’s various institutions are driven to work for the best interests of this collective, the notorious “democracy deficit” that besets the Union today would evaporate. So too would disappear the clash of national self-interests that are threatening, says Habermas (and we all sort of feel it), to rend asunder the northern and southern economies.

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Journalism as sacred dialogue

Today marks my third year as a member of the Baha’i Faith. To commemorate, I would like to explore something which I hope might be a positive theoretical contribution to my religious community: exploring and engaging in journalism as a fundamentally religious endeavor which, in its highest expression, constitutes a sacred dialogue. To develop this, I first need to take some time to explore the ways in which journalism, often rightly recognized as a scientific-like activity, nonetheless has, as it were, a religious soul.

The spiritual principle of detachment dictates that one give and then let go, so what follows herein is something that I am attempting to work out in such a spirit. It is also as much good spirituality as it is good academic etiquette to give credit where credit’s due: the phrase, “journalism as a sacred dialogue”, actually comes from one of my professors, Bart Pattyn, in response to my blog post, “Transcendental Journalism?”, wherein I describe my original intuition. The notion of “journalism with the soul of religion” is also inspired by recent work, as-yet unreleased, of my friend Ben Schewel into the notion of “religion with the soul of science”.

So, to get to the point: my essential thesis is that the journalist is a breed of philosopher as described by Edmund Husserl. As such, he or she can be understood as engaging in an activity that is quite surprisingly spiritual, to the point that it might even be described as in some sense mystical.

By claiming that the journalist is a Husserlian philosopher I mean that the journalist is a phenomenologist. Alternatively, my claim here can be understood that all critical intellectuals are phenomenologists when they are engaged in the study of experience, a definition that encompasses many of the “erudite” professions, from anthropologists to artists. In my view, the journalist and the philosopher are among those who are the most routinely engaged in such a study.  Either way, the journalist and the philosopher are blood siblings, although it is hard to see this from outward appearances — ironically, we must be phenomenologists to understand the deep family resemblance between them.

Without intending to do injustice to the complexity of Husserl’s thought, as I understand him, a phenomenologist is a person who “takes a step back” (“epoché“) from experience by assuming the stance of a “transcendental subject” in order to examine and report upon the former. Husserl could just as well have been describing the journalist. Now, in my experience, many secular Western journalists would prefer terminology like “neutral observer” or “spectator”, but my Islamic colleagues would agree with a Husserlian description of their work. That is because in traditional Islamic thought, going back to al-Ghazzali (“occasionalism“), there really is no such thing as a “neutral observer”; rather, there is the divine subjectivity that holds everything together and that only appears as a neutral observer because it is the perspective that bedrocks all perspectives:

“No vision can grasp Him, but His grasp is over all vision. God is above all comprehension, yet is acquainted with all things” — Qur’an 6:103

I think it noteworthy that Husserl himself has described the “step back” with spiritual terminology: “resolved to understand the world out of the spirit”, “spiritual movement”, “religious conversion”, “fundamental transformation”, “ground experience”, “un-humanize”, and “meditation”. He probably means this in the Buddhistic sense of stilling the mind, but this terminology brings with it a contemplative connotation, namely, that the stance of spectator requires a stepping outside of one’s perspective so as to examine oneself and the world more surgically and meaningfully.

We may ask: “who” is the transcendental subject? Husserl probably has in mind the Cartesian cogito (“I think, therefore I am”), which isn’t necessarily either the “I” we individually associate with, opening the possibility that it is God. I don’t know whether Husserl himself intended this (and if one reads Descartes very closely, he’s actually quite fuzzy about the relationship between the cogito and the divine), but I think the Islamic tradition makes a good case that the transcendental subject is the divine, if not the divine essence, then that aspect of the divine which is the “grasp over all vision”.

What this means, then, is that the phenomenologist — and by extension, the journalist and the philosopher — has a hugely important element of the mystical in the Heschelian or Avempacean sense of them aspiring to unite with the transcendental and absolute, thereby achieving the divine perspective, a.k.a., “objectivity” and “neutrality”. Whether they are successful and how we could assess this is an entirely different matter; what interests me here is this fundamental religiosity at the core of journalistic and philosophical work (ironically, even if the specific journalist or philosopher is a staunch atheist and opponent of religion).

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