Can we make space for reasoned deliberation?

The University of Wisconsin Press is pleased to release REASON AFTER ITS ECLIPSE in paperback. In this post, historian Martin Jay suggests that, if reason is to thrive in a pluralistic, even fractured world, it can only do so when some space is cleared—that is, institutions and practices are nurtured—in which deliberation can thrive.

Recently reading the stimulating collection of Raymond Geuss’s essays titled A World Without Why, I was stopped short by a casual reference to the distinguished British philosopher Bernard Williams. Williams had been a much- valued colleague of mine at the University of California, Berkeley in the 1990s.

“Williams,” Geuss wrote, “took an extremely dim view of the powers of reason to persuade. He once told me that he had only one time in his life seen a case of a person convinced to give up a deeply held belief by the force of rational argumentation.”

Williams was universally acclaimed as himself a reasoner of uncommon brilliance, whose career had been built on his ability to demolish the arguments of his opponents, so his skepticism about rational justification as a means of persuasion was particularly sobering. It was made even more so against the backdrop of the episode that gave Geuss’s collection its name: the chilling passage in Primo Levi’s memoir of his time in Auschwitz in which an SS officer capriciously ripped a thirst-quenching icicle from his lips, with the cruel anti-explanation explanation “Hier gibt es kein ‘Warum’” (here there is no “why.”)

If the philosophy seminar is the quintessential space of reasons, the concentration camp is its exact opposite: a… Click To Tweet

If the philosophy seminar is the quintessential “space of reasons,” to cite Wilfred Sellars’ famous phrase, the concentration camp is its exact opposite: a space where no justification needs to be given, pure coercion trumps any attempt to persuade, and the better argument is never allowed to be voiced, let alone win.

In a way, the background of the story I tell in Reason After Its Eclipse is the still potent tension between these two models of human interaction. That is, the first generation of the Frankfurt School had fled from a world in which the concentration camp threatened to banish any vestige of reason, save its debased instrumental variant, from the world. The second generation, exemplified by Habermas, sought to rescue reason by identifying it with its intersubjective role in communication. No longer able to believe in an emphatic notion of objective reason, which had motivated many thinkers in the Enlightenment Age of Reason, they fell back on a more modest faith in the power of giving reasons to justify decisions, which had its political correlate in deliberative democracy. It was this hope for an expanded “space of reasons” that Williams’ remark explicitly deflated.

There can, of course, be no questioning of the resilience of deeply held beliefs, such as religious convictions or political allegiances. But in many other cases, beliefs are held more tentatively, a learning process is not impossible, and minds can be changed. Communicative rationality does not assume that all beliefs can be justified rationally to the satisfaction of adversaries in an argument. Nor does it believe that an ideal speech situation can ever be achieved in which asymmetries of power, expertise, eloquence, and so forth are completely effaced. But it does hold out hope that, if reason is to thrive in a pluralistic, even fractured world, it can only do so when some space is cleared—that is, institutions and practices are nurtured—in which deliberation can thrive.

Reason Today

That such a hope is not entirely utopian became clear to me a few years ago when I served on a jury deliberating a case of alleged drunk driving. Initially, we deadlocked six to six. I joined the vote for guilty. But, after several days of deliberation, we concluded that there was not really enough evidence to convict “beyond a reasonable doubt.” What struck me most about how we reached this consensus was that the most powerful arguments made for acquittal were advanced by a juror who was a postal carrier, someone whose station in life might have led one to believe he would be no match for a professor with experience in the often disputatious world of academic discourse. But as the model of the public sphere advanced by Habermas suggested, station meant nothing and the power of the better argument was able to win out. Our ultimate verdict was reinforced when we had a chance to conduct exit interviews with the two competing lawyers. The prosecuting attorney admitted that he had been dealt a weak hand and doubted he could get a guilty verdict. I ended up feeling far more encouraged by the process than disappointed by losing the argument.

Now, of course, it should be conceded that I really had no long-held belief in the guilt of the accused party, nor any interest in the outcome besides a desire to see justice done. But the point is simply that, to a still significant extent, we live in a world in which “why?” needs to be answered and justificatory reasoning can provide at least some guidance for how we should act. The eclipse of reason, in short, is not total, and some light manages to shine through.

Martin Jay is the Sidney Hellman Ehrman Professor of History at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of fourteen previous books, including The Dialectical Imagination: A History of the Frankfurt School and the Institute of Social Research, 1923–50, which has been translated into thirteen languages; Marxism and Totality: The Adventures of a Concept from Lukács to HabermasAdornoPermanent Exiles: Essays on the Intellectual Migration from Germany to AmericaDowncast Eyes: The Denigration of Vision in Twentieth- Century French ThoughtSongs of Experience: Modern European and American Variations on a Universal Theme; and The Virtues of Mendacity: On Lying in Politics.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *