Translating Truth
Maeve Cooke, University College Dublin 9 April 2013

Can we learn from our encounters with other cultures? And, if so, are religions ‘cultures’ from which non-believers can learn? The question of learning from other cultures is one of the key issues in the debates between Jürgen Habermas and Richard Rorty. Rorty disputes the possibility of intercultural learning; he holds that we can test the validity of alien conceptions of normativity, such as truth or moral rightness, only in light of standards internal to our own culture.[1] In his view, conceptions of normativity are culturally determined to such a degree that intercultural engagement of a cognitively productive kind is not possible. Habermas, by contrast, defends culture-transcending, universalist conceptions of truth and moral rightness.[2] This enables him to interpret even profound intercultural disagreements as contexts of possible mutual learning. Drawing on Hans Georg Gadamer’s idea of the fusion of interpretive horizons,[3] he sees intercultural understanding not as an assimilation, but as a convergence of perspectives, in which it is necessary for each of the disagreeing parties to attempt to grasp things from the perspective of the other.[4] Moreover, he holds that even competing forms of life share an orientation towards culture-transcending ideas of truth and morality; this allows individuals and groups with opposing conceptions of the good to enter into unrestricted dialogue with one another, instead of persisting in their claims to exclusive validity in a fundamentalist way.[5]

In his writings in the 1980s Habermas was concerned primarily with the possibility of intercultural learning – with the possible merging of cultural perspectives.[6] Since then, however, he has turned his attention increasingly to the question of conflict between religious and secular citizens, and the possibilities for mutual learning inherent in such encounters.[7] From a Rortyian point of view, there is no difference in principle between confrontations between religious and secular citizens and confrontations between the inhabitants of different cultures; in both cases, we have to do with a collision of rival ‘vocabularies’, understood as the contingent and mutable set of words all human beings employ to justify their actions, their beliefs, and their lives.[8] However, for Habermas, religions are not just particular ‘vocabularies’; there is something special about them that marks them off from other kinds of linguistic community. What makes them distinctive is the experience of revelation at the core of the religious conception of truth.[9] The revelatory moment he imputes to religious truth means that such truth resists capture by argumentative discourse and, hence, cannot be made sense of within the purely language-immanent frame of a postmetaphysically conceived idea of transcendent validity.[10] In Habermas’ view, postmetaphysical thinking is one of the most important impulses of twentieth century philosophy.[11] For our present purposes, its noteworthy feature is its assertion of a conception of transcendent validity that makes no reference to anything beyond human practices of linguistic communication and is, in consequence, in principle entirely accessible to discursive reasoning.[12] This radical difference between religious truth claims and those congruent with postmetaphysical thinking means that neither secular citizens not postmetaphysical philosophy can engage critically with the truth claims of religion, at least in their unmediated form; this implies in turn that they cannot expect to learn something when confronted with truth claims articulated in religious terms and must remain agnostic with regard to their validity.[13]

At the same time Habermas asserts that postmetaphysical philosophy, and the secular citizens who embrace it, can learn from religion, even while they must remain agnostic vis-à-vis its truth claims.[14] This seems to be at odds with his earlier account of intercultural learning, in which the possibility of learning was explained in terms of an exchange of perspectives, enabled by a shared orientation towards culture-transcending ideas of truth and moral rightness, which are sufficiently similar to permit the prospect of a rational consensus. But in the case of encounters between religious believers and postmetaphysical thinkers, there is no such shared orientation: the former seek a truth that lies beyond human practices of communication, whereas the latter seek a truth that is immanent to such practices. How then can we make sense of Habermas’ claim that postmetaphysical thinkers can learn from religion? As we shall see, one part of the answer involves the translation of religious contents into a secular, publicly accessible language.

I follow Habermas in his view that translations can transpose religious contents in a way that facilitates learning, indeed, learning that is in principle mutual. However, he doesn’t tell us how translations succeed in doing so. Below I take some steps towards answering this question. My most important claim is that an adequate account of the envisaged kind of translation requires us to keep sight of the question of truth. In attempting to throw light on what is involved in a successful translation, I focus on inspirational stories of exemplary figures and acts. My thesis is that in such cases, translations retain the power of the original to inspire thought and action insofar as they succeed in making truth appear anew. As in the case of learning from alien cultures, it is the central role of truth in translation that permits us to speak of learning from the inspirational messages of religion. By highlighting this point of continuity between intercultural learning and learning from religion, my discussion provides support for the thesis that encounters between religious and secular citizens are a subset of intercultural encounters and, as such, contexts of possible mutual learning.


How can secular citizens who embrace postmetaphysical thinking learn from religion? The first part of Habermas’ answer is that their encounter with religion promotes self-reflexivity. It does so in two closely related respects. To begin with, it can lead to a self-conscious awareness that postmetaphysical thinking has its historical roots in religious beliefs and traditions, reminding its proponents that, historically, religion has been a force for world-disclosure and semantic renewal and, today, retains an inspirational power for some people. This not only helps in a general way to promote the kind of self-reflexive attitude that Habermas regards as one of the achievements of modernity; it helps to avoid the kind of arrogant and dismissive attitude towards religion that he calls ‘secularist’ – an attitude that is often accompanied by a reductive naturalism.[15] By the latter he means a naturalistic worldview that reduces human knowledge to the sum total of statements that represent the current state of science; insofar as such a naturalist view attaches a cognitive content only to statements based on empirical observations, nomological theses and causal explanations, it devalues moral, legal, and evaluative statements just as much as religious ones.[16]

It is easy to see, however, that this kind of learning from religion is quite different from the mutual learning Habermas earlier envisaged in the case of intercultural encounters. In contrast to the latter, it is not a relationship of mutual exchange. As we have seen, in intercultural encounters both parties may learn something through their interrelationship, specifically through their exchange of perspectives; in the encounter between religious believers and secular citizens, by contrast, learning takes place only in one direction: what secular citizens learn about themselves and the world is logically independent of any learning that takes place by religious citizens. The same holds for encounters between postmetaphysical thinking and religion. To be sure, Habermas also calls for hermeneutic self-reflection on the part of religious citizens and the religious consciousness in general. His normative vision of law and democracy presupposes the ‘modernization’ of religious consciousness, which he understands as a process of learning in three respects: citizens who are religious believers must come to terms with the fact of religious pluralism, with the emergence of modern science and with the spread of positive law and secular morality.[17] But to all appearances, this work of hermeneutic self-reflection runs parallel to the corresponding work required of secular citizens. What Habermas envisages seems less a Gadamerian fusion of horizons than two complementary processes of learning, which run on separate tracks.

However, there is a second part to Habermas’ answer to the question of the possibility of mutual learning between religious citizens and secular citizens. This involves translation. As already indicated, in intercultural encounters, each party engages critically with the validity of the other party’s contributions, testing that party’s claims to truth and moral rightness from the point of view of its own normative conceptions and revising these as necessary. Importantly, the precondition for the process of testing and revising claims is a common reference point: culture-transcending ideas of truth and moral rightness that make possible a rational consensus with regard to their validity. As we have seen, this precondition is not met when postmetaphysical thinking confronts the truth claims of religion; in consequence, there can be no expectation of rationally motivated agreement,[18] and it must remain agnostic regarding the validity of religious truth claims. This is one reason why in his recent writings on religion, Habermas calls for the translation of religious contributions: religious and secular citizens are supposed to work together to reformulate the contents of religious beliefs and traditions in a secular, generally accessible language.[19] In his account of religion in the democratic public sphere, he makes this kind of translation a prerequisite for the discursive assessment of religious contributions to formal processes of legislation and decision-making. His justification for this ‘translation proviso’[20] is the essential resistance of religious truth claims to argumentative interrogation, due to the ‘inviolable core of infallible revealed truths’[21] on which they rest, which in his view makes them a threat to democratic legitimacy when admitted into formal processes of democratic deliberation.[22]

Presumably, translations enable critical engagement with the truth contents of religion and, hence, the kind of mutual learning between secular and religious citizens that Habermas allows for in the case of intercultural encounters. We must assume, therefore, that translation transposes the revelation-based truth claims of religion into a vocabulary that is intelligible to persons whose conception of truth is purely language-immanent. In his discussion of translation Habermas does not have much to say in this regard. This is probably because his emphasis is not on truth-oriented, critical engagement, but on inspiration: he seems less concerned with the new possibilities for critical engagement that arise from the translation of religious contents into a secular language than with the motivating force of the translated contents, as well as with their contribution to societal processes of semantic renewal.[23] This concern is evident in a number of passages, where he describes religious traditions as possible reservoirs of meaning that are capable of exercising an inspirational force on society as a whole, as soon as they divulge their profane truth contents.[24] He criticizes Kant for according a purely instrumental function to positive religion and ecclesiastical faith, proposing instead that religious traditions, with their striking models, their vivid exemplary figures, their inspirational stories of the lives of the saints and prophets, their promises, their miracles, their suggestive images, and edifying narratives, can stimulate the imagination of secular as well as religious citizens, motivating them, for instance, to work collectively towards realising on earth a secular version of the promised kingdom of God.[25] As he sees it, secular translations of such projections of successful forms of life can continue to inspire and encourage us to make tentative efforts at co-operation with a view to bringing about social change for the better, even without the certainty of divine assistance.[26] What are required are translations that salvage the substance of a term without deflating or exhausting it.[27] Examples include the translation of the concept of ‘man [made] in the image of God’ into that of the identical dignity of all men, which deserves unconditional respect,[28] Walter Benjamin’s idea of anamnetic solidarity with past injustice, which Habermas describes as a concept ‘manifestly trying to fill the gap left by the lost hope in a Last Judgment’,[29] and Marx’s idea of the emancipated society, which he sees as a secular version of the kingdom of God.[30]

However, it would be too hasty to conclude from such passages that truth is not at stake in this kind of translation. Indeed, if truth were not involved, Habermas would be unlikely to speak of ‘learning’, which he conceives of as a cognitive advance in the direction of truth or moral rightness. We must assume, therefore, that truth plays a central role in the inspirational capacity he attributes both to religion and to secular translations of its contents. If this is so, then translations fulfil two important functions, connected by the concept of truth: by virtue of their re-presentation of the truth contents of religion, they enable critical engagement with these truth contents and, in addition, serve motivational purposes, for example, inspiring collective action aimed at furthering justice and solidarity in the world.[31]

Habermas’ translation proviso has a number of questionable aspects.[32] Nonetheless, it seems to me that he is right to emphasize the importance of translation. Indeed, I think it could usefully be made part of his account of intercultural learning, which could in turn be developed to encompass learning between religious and secular citizens. But translation is a much more complex matter than he suggests in his recent writings. Whatever about the translation of religious propositions such as ‘man is made in the image of God’ into secular moral precepts (for instance, ‘all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights’[33]), the translation of inspirational religious contents is certainly not straightforward. Given Habermas’ emphasis on rescuing the inspirational power of religious contents for purposes of motivation and semantic renewal – on salvaging the profane truth contents of stories of the lives of the saints, miracles, exemplary figures and the like – I concentrate on translation of inspirational messages in the following. My focus is exemplary figures and acts.


Although I doubt that translation of religious contents into a secular idiom is ever simple, translation of inspirational contents is especially complex. Consider, for instance, the translation of biblical stories of exemplary figures and acts.[34] We might wonder whether it is at all possible to translate stories of such figures and acts in a way that does not deflate them or empty them of their truth content. Take, for example, the story of Abraham’s willingness unconditionally to obey God’s command to sacrifice his beloved son, Isaac.[35] Abraham is clearly intended as an exemplary figure, but it is not at all clear that everyone who hears or reads the story experiences him as such; or, when they do, that they experience him as exemplary to the same degree or for the same reasons. The meaning of exemplary figures and acts has an irreducible experiential dimension that is contextually and subjectively contingent. In other words, understanding exemplarity depends on a subjective response that has an affective as well as intellectual element and is, in turn, dependent on multiple factors relating to the historically specific, socio-cultural context in which the subjects addressed find themselves, as well as to the biography of these subjects. This experiential component complicates the translation exercise. There is an added complication connected with it: at any given time, in any given context, the subjects experiencing a figure or act as exemplary may not be able to fully articulate this experience linguistically, because the terms in which they might do so are not yet part of the ‘vocabulary’ they inhabit.[36]

Their experiential component is one aspect of the meaning of exemplary figures and acts. Paul Ricoeur’s analyses of the logics of religious meanings casts further lights on what is involved in understanding them.[37] For our present purposes, two points are especially relevant. First, the meaning of exemplary figures or acts cannot be understood in isolation from the multiple other modes of articulation with which the stories of their exemplarity interact. Ricoeur offers an illuminating account of how religious meanings emerge from a web of modes of articulation that interplay in complex ways, sometimes in tension with and sometimes complementing one another: each mode of articulation produces a particular content in interaction with other modes; thus the meaning of a religious work has a global shape that is engendered by the interplay between the multiple modes of articulation that produce it: the meaning of the Christian New Testament, for example, emerges by way of a complex interaction between modes of articulation such as parables, proverbs, wise sayings and so on, each of which has its own distinctive features. Second, truth is always mediated truth, even when it is conceived of as manifestation: as something that is shown to us in particular situations.[38] Ricoeur is alert to the dangers of any position that grants human beings direct knowledge of truth, unmediated by their interpretations. His account of the logic of religious meanings makes clear that even manifested truth is articulated truth, appearing to us in a mediated way.

Not all exemplary figures and acts are religious. A more general characterization is provided by Alessandro Ferrara in his book The Force of the Example.[39] This, too, can help our discussion.

Ferrara introduces the quality of exemplarity by way of a distinction between three forces: the force of what is, the force of what should be and the force of what is as it should be. It is the latter – third – force that is the force of the example.[40] His reference point here is Kant’s 1790 work, The Critique of the Power of Judgment, which he sees as inaugurating a new paradigm for thinking about validity and normativity: the paradigm of reflective judgment.[41] In contrast to determinant judgment, which subsumes the particular under a general rule or principle (e.g. when I say ‘the tree in the garden next door is an apple tree’ or ‘taking an apple from that tree without asking is stealing ’), in reflective judgment only the particular is given, for which the universal has to be found. Ferrara sees this kind of judgment as appropriate to the normativity of the example. For our present purposes, it is crucial to see that reflective judgment understands truth in a different way to determinant judgment. In his writings so far, Ferrara has had little to say about the differences between the conceptions of truth involved in each case. In my view, there is at least one significant difference. Drawing on Ricoeur, I would say that in determinant judgment, truth is construed as adequation, in reflective judgment it is construed as manifestation. The example imaginatively opens up a space in which truth appears. Implicit acknowledgment that truth appears in the example may be behind Ferrara’s repeated insistence that the normativity of the example requires no translation.[42] But does it permit translation (in a way that preserves its normativity)? While Habermas, as we have seen, regards translation as both possible and necessary, Ferrara does not address this question either. Nonetheless, it seems to me that both Habermas and Ferrara have something important to contribute to our discussion. Habermas is right to think that translation is possible and necessary.[43] Ferrara’s insights into exemplary validity enable us to see that Habermas underplays the difficulties involved in translating inspirational religious contents such as exemplary figures and acts. For, if the truth made manifest in exemplary figures and acts depends on experiences that are contextually and subjectively contingent, and moreover not always capable of being articulated adequately in language, translation has to be understood as more than just rephrasing propositional contents in a different idiom. Any successful translation of exemplarity will have to re-articulate the example in a way that produces subjective experiences in which truth is manifested to the subjects concerned. But Ferrara’s statement that the normativity of the example requires no translation is too strong; it passes too quickly over the ways in which truth is mediated by a complex web of interpretations of self, world, and that which is transcendent of self and world, and by the interplay of linguistic expressions and modes of articulation in historically specific, socio-cultural contexts. The following examples illustrate, in particular, the mediation of truth by contexts of interpretation.

The first is taken from Orhan Pamuk’s novel, My Name is Red, which is set in Istanbul in the 1590s.[44] The practice of manuscript illumination is at the centre of the book.[45] One of the main characters is Master Osman, the master illuminator in charge of the workshop in which miniaturists are trained to illuminate manuscripts for the Sultan’s palace in Istanbul. Like the most gifted miniaturists that he has trained, Master Osman is inspired by stories of the great master illuminators who have preceded him in the tradition, in particular by the master illuminators who produce their best work when blind, guiding their brushes from memories acquired after years of thought, contemplation, and reflection. Some of these masters went blind as a result of the fervour of their work, but some of them are supposed to have blinded themselves voluntarily.[46] Part of the plot of the novel entails Master Osman being granted access to the Sultan’s otherwise locked and closely guarded treasury, where he is free to examine the most precious manuscripts of the greatest master illuminators. One of these is the Great Master Bihzad, who was reputedly blind in the last years of his life. Master Osman is convinced that the Great Master Bihzad blinded himself deliberately.[47] When examining one of the manuscripts in the treasury, Master Osman finds a reference to the ‘turquoise- and mother-of-pearl-handled golden plume needle which […] Master of Master Illuminators, Bihzad, used in the act of blinding his exalted self’.[48] Master Osman finds that very needle in the treasury and uses it to blind himself, smiling as he presses the needle into the pupil of first his right eye and then his left.[49]

The Great Master Bihzad’s act of blinding himself has exemplary validity for Master Osman. But does it have it for us? If it does not, Ferrara would seem to be wrong when he attributes universality to the force of the example. Could Master Bihzad’s act of self-blinding be translated in a way that would make it an exemplary act for us? This is the challenge facing Habermas. Before returning to these questions, it may help to contrast the Bihzad case with a second example. Unlike the first exemplary act, it is not fictional but taken from real life. Unlike the first one, moreover, it is taken from a context with which we are all likely to be familiar: a contemporary liberal democratic European state in which there are laws about drinking and driving.

On Saturday 20 February 2010, Margot Käßmann, Bishop of Hannover and presiding bishop of the German Protestant church, broke a red light when driving home from a social occasion. No-one was injured in the incident. However, Bishop Käßmann was stopped by a policeman, asked to blow into a bag and, when it transpired that the alcohol in her blood was well over the legal limit, taken to the police station. The incident made the headlines in many parts of the world, not just because she was a bishop but also because she was a woman bishop (and, indeed, a divorced mother of four children whose rise to the elevated position of presiding bishop of the German Protestant church was quite extraordinary). Bishop Käßmann resigned as bishop the following Wednesday. An article published shortly thereafter in the German magazine, Der Spiegel, described her act of resignation as exemplary, mentioning in particular, its decisiveness, its promptness, and the absence of self-justification and complaint with which she did it.[50] The authors of the article contrasted Käßmann’s readiness to take responsibility for her actions with bankers who make no move to resign despite having been involved in morally dubious transactions; it is easy to extend their point to the numerous politicians today and in the past who continue to hold office despite being found legally guilty of offences. Do we share the journalists’ view that her resignation was exemplary? If not, could it be translated in a way that would make it exemplary for us?

I can only speculate as to how readers will respond to these questions about the exemplary validity of Great Master Bihzad and Bishop Käßmann. Certainly, it is unlikely that there will be a uniform answer in either case. However, I assume that most readers presented with my examples will share the Der Spiegel journalists’ view that the Käßmann act was exemplary, at least to some degree, and suspect that many will not feel the ‘force of the example’ as immediately in the Bihzad case, or, perhaps, not feel it at all. The difference clearly has something to do with context. Here we should remember Ricoeur’s account of the logics of religious meanings, which draws attention to the ways in which truth as manifestation is always also mediated truth. To feel the full force of the example in the Bihzad case, we would have to inhabit a complex interpretative framework in which the purpose of illumination is to evoke and honour the divine, in which the hand of the master illuminator is merely a vehicle for the divine, in which blindness is a gift of God bestowed on those masters who, by arduous discipline and training, come so close to the divine that they no longer need physical eyesight for their works of illumination, and so on. If we feel the full force of the example in the Käßmann case, it is because we already inhabit the complex interpretative framework in which her act is embedded and are familiar with the linguistic expressions and modes of articulation whose interplay mediates the exemplarity of her act. More specifically, it is because we have internalised key elements of this interpretative framework, such as the Kantian idea that human beings are morally autonomous agents who freely subject themselves to the moral laws that bind them.

The contrast between the two examples draws attention to the impact of context on exemplary validity. However, I wish to make two qualifying observations. First, contexts of interpretation, expression, and articulation are rarely so alien to us that we are unable to gain any imaginative access to them whatsoever. That is to say: truth’s mediations are rarely completely unfamiliar to us; some points of connection are almost always available. In the Bihzad case, we may be able to gain imaginative access to the space in which truth appears by connecting, for instance, with the idea that vision is not just a matter of eyesight but a function of bodily memory as a whole and/or with the idea that the love of beauty can inspire us to act courageously and/or the idea that the excellence we gain through self-discipline and training brings us to a higher level of consciousness, perhaps even that it brings us closer to God. In other words, the force of the example can be experienced more or less immediately, but is rarely completely inaccessible to us. It is perhaps the desire to feel its full force, to experience it in its immediacy, that is the subjective motivation for the kind of translation called for by Habermas.

Second, a powerful – poetically gifted – writer/translator can enable readers to recognize exemplary acts even in contexts that are not readily accessible to them. It testifies to Pamuk’s poetic talent as a writer of stories that his readers are likely to find Master Osman’s emulation of Great Master Bihzad’s act of self-blinding plausible; Pamuk invites us in to an interpretative context that is alien to us in many respects; yet he succeeds in making us feel sufficiently at home there to be able to experience the exemplarity of the figure of Bihzad, perhaps not with full force but at least to some degree. In using the word ‘powerful’ I do not want to give the impression that I see the writer/translator as determining or controlling the transfer of meaning; rather, the genius of the writer/translator consists in her role as facilitator.[51] Indeed, I wish to emphasize that the activity of re-articulation depends crucially on the subjective activity of the readers or, more generally, receiving subjects. In other words, the writer as translator facilitates the recreation of cultural contexts by her receiving subjects in a process that involves active engagement of their subjectivity.

What are the implications of this for Habermas’ translation thesis and, more generally, for the question of mutual learning between religious citizens and secular citizens? I will conclude with a few observations.

One implication is that in the case of inspirational stories of exemplary figures and acts, translation is not simply a matter of rephrasing certain contents; rather, it has to be understood as a matter of creatively re-articulating the inspirational contents in a way that produces subjective experiences in which truth is manifested anew. My hunch is that an adequate account would show that a successful translation does at least three things. It re-presents the truth of the original, it resonates with the subjectivity of its addressees and it opens their eyes to new ways of seeing themselves, the world, and that which is transcendent of self and world (I have not said anything about the third task here). Translation of this kind is an aesthetic activity in the Kantian sense of the term: it involves opening up new spaces of the imagination in which truth can appear in a new time.[52] The space it opens is one in which by way of new interpretations of self, world, and that which is transcendent of self and world, and by way of a new interplay of linguistic expressions and modes of articulation, truth is re-presented: it appears to us anew.

A second implication is that in the case of such translations, the term ‘secular’ is not well-advised, particularly when it is given the postmetaphysical sense that Habermas attaches to it. Focusing on exemplary figures and acts, I have suggested that translation of inspirational messages is a matter of re-articulation of contents in a way that allows truth to appear anew. The primary aspect of truth involved in such translation is manifestation, whereby truth appears to specific addressees in specific historical and socio-cultural contexts. Although I have not been able to deal adequately with this question here, it seems to me that truth as manifestation is not just a culture-transcending, but also a language-transcending idea of validity, which cannot be made sense of within the language-immanent terms of postmetaphysical thinking.[53] For this reason alone the term ‘secular’ is misleading. In any case, and perhaps more importantly for our present purposes, Habermas’ emphasis on the secularity of the required translations distracts attention from the real issues that are at stake. The key challenge for citizens engaged in co-operative practices of translation (and also for the philosophical translator) is not to divest the exemplary figures and acts they find in religious traditions of their reference to God; the challenge, rather, is to re-articulate these exemplary figures and acts so that they possess the power to let truth appear anew. This challenge faces translators in all contexts of translation in which truth as manifestation is at play, irrespective of whether or not the contents to be translated are embedded in a religious setting.

Finally, on the account of translation that I have outlined, a culture-transcending idea of truth is centrally involved: what is manifested to the subjects addressed by the translation of an exemplary act is a re-presentation of truth as it appeared to the inhabitants of the socio-cultural context in which the act was articulated originally. Thus, even in the case of inspirational contents, subjective responses to translations are always also responses to the claims to validity they raise. I see no reason to think that inspirational contents of a religious kind are any different in this regard.[54] It seems to me, therefore, that translations of the contents of religious beliefs and traditions enable the kind of critical engagement with validity claims that takes place in intercultural encounters, according to Habermas’ Gadamerian view of them. This implies, in turn, that encounters between religious and secular citizens are a subset of what he describes as intercultural encounters and, as such, contexts of possible mutual learning.[55]

A version of this article was presented at the Reset-Dialogues Istanbul Seminars 2010 that took place at Istanbul Bilgi University from May 19-24, 2010.

The final/definitive version of Maeve Cooke’s essay was published in Philosophy&Social Criticism, vol 37 number 4 May 2011, SAGE Publications Ltd, (LA, London, New Delhi, Singapore and Washington DC), all rights reserved, p. 479-491, Special Issue: “Realigning Liberalism: Pluralism, Integration, Identities”, Reset-Dialogues on Civilizations Istanbul Seminars 2010, Edited by: Alessandro Ferrara, Volker Kaul and David Rasmussen. Link to the issue


[1]R. Rorty, ‘Solidarity or Objectivity’. In J. Rajchman and C. West (eds), Post-Analytic Philosophy, New York: Columbia University Press (1985). See my discussion of Rorty in M. Cooke, Re-Presenting the Good Society, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press (2006), chapter 2.

[2]Accordingly, Habermas criticizes Rorty for construing the process of intercultural understanding as each party’s assimilation of what is alien into their respective interpretive horizons. See J. Habermas, ‘The Unity of Reason in the Diversity of Its Voices’. In his Postmetaphysical Thinking, trans. W. M. Hohengarten, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press (1992).

[3]H.-G. Gadamer, Truth and Method, trans. G. Barden and J. Cumming, New York: Crossroad (1985).

[4]As he puts it: ‘[…] learning itself belongs neither to us nor to them; both sides are caught up in it in this same way. Even in the most difficult processes of reaching understanding, all parties appeal to the common reference point of a possible consensus […]. For, although they may be interpreted in various ways and applied according to different criteria, concepts like truth, rationality, or justification play the same grammatical role in every linguistic community.’ Habermas, ‘The Unity of Reason in the Diversity of Its Voices’, p. 138.

[5]J. Habermas, ‘Remarks on Discourse Ethics’. In his Justification and Application, trans. C. Cronin, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press (1993), p. 105.

[6]To be sure, intercultural learning emerges from intercultural conflicts, which typically involve religion; however, up to the end of the 1980s Habermas did not address the question of learning from religion at all.

[7]In this context, when referring to ‘secular’ citizens, Habermas generally means those who have no religious beliefs.

[8]R. Rorty, Contingency, Irony, Solidarity, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (1989).

[9]J. Habermas, ‘Transcendence from within, Transcendence in this World’. In his Religion and Rationality: Essays on Reason, God and Modernity, trans. E. Crump and P. Kenny, edited by E. Mendieta, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press (2002), pp. 72-5. Cf. J. Habermas, ‘Religion in the Public Sphere: Cognitive Presuppositions in the “Public Use of Reason” by Religious and Secular Citizens’. In his Between Naturalism and Religion, trans. C. Cronin, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press (2005), p. 129; J. Habermas, Dialectics of Secularization. On Reason and Religion, trans. B. McNeil, edited by F. Schuller, San Francisco: Ignatius Press (2006), p. 42. It should be noted that Habermas does not distinguish between religions, apparently attributing a fundamental dependence on revelation to all of them.

[10]He writes: ‘[the] core [of religious faith] remains as profoundly alien to discursive thought as the hermeneutic core of aesthetic experience, which likewise can be at best circumscribed, but not penetrated, by philosophical reflection.’ Habermas, ‘Religion in the Public Sphere’, p. 143. See also Habermas, ‘Transcendence from Within’, pp. 72-5.

[11]J. Habermas, ‘A Return to Metaphysics’. In his Postmetaphysical Thinking, pp. 28-53.

[12]J. Habermas, ‘Are there Postmetaphysical Answers to the Question: What is the “Good Life”?’ In his The Future of Human Nature, trans. W. Rehg, M. Pensky and H. Beister, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press (2003), pp. 1-15.

[13]J. Habermas, ‘Religion in the Public Sphere’, pp. 141-3.

[14]Ibid., p. 131, p. 143.

[15]Ibid., p. 138.

[16]Ibid., p. 141.

[17]In each case they must do so without jeopardizing either the truth claims they make as adherents of a particular religion or the articles of faith and the ethical attitudes and practices they embrace as members of a particular religious community. Habermas, Ibid., pp. 136-8.

[18]Ibid., p. 139.

[19]Ibid., pp. 130-2.

[20]Ibid., pp. 131-2. Habermas’ ‘translation proviso’ is clearly intended as a successor to the ‘proviso’ stipulated by John Rawls in his revised account of public reason: J. Rawls, ‘The Idea of Public Reason Revisited’. In S. Freeman (ed), John Rawls, Collected Papers, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press (1999).

[21]Habermas, ‘Religion in the Public Sphere’, p. 129.

[22]Ibid., pp. 133-5. I discuss various aspects of Habermas’ position in M. Cooke, ‘A Secular State for a Postsecular Society? Postmetaphysical Political Theory and the Place of Religion’, Constellations, vol. 14, no. 2 (2007): 224-38 and in M. Cooke, Violating Neutrality? Religious Validity Claims and Democratic Legitimacy’. In C. Calhoun, E. Mendieta, and J. VanAntwerpen (eds), Habermas and Religion, Cambridge: Polity Press (2011).

[23]See M. Cooke, ‘Salvaging and Secularizing the Semantic Contents of Religion. The Limitations of Habermas’s Postmetaphysical Approach, International Journal for Philosophy of Religion, vol. 60, nos. 1-3 (2006).

[24]See, for instance, Habermas, ‘Religion in the Public Sphere’, p. 142.

[25]J. Habermas, ‘The Boundary Between Faith and Knowledge: On the Reception and Contemporary Importance of Kant’s Philosophy of Religion’. In his Between Naturalism and Religion, esp. pp. 223-47.

[26]Habermas, ‘The Boundary Between Faith and Knowledge’, p. 227. Cf. J. Habermas, An Awareness of What is Missing: Faith and Reason in a Post-Secular Age, Cambridge: Polity Press (2010), pp. 18-19.

[27]Habermas, Dialectics of Secularization, p. 45


[29]Habermas, ‘The Boundary Between Faith and Knowledge’, p. 241.

[30]Ibid., p. 231. He also mentions a host of clusters of normative ideas such as ‘responsibility, autonomy and justification’, ‘history and remembering’, ‘new beginning, innovation and return’, ‘emancipation and fulfilment’, expropriation, internalization and embodiment’ and ‘individuality and fellowship’. Habermas, Dialectics of Secularization, p. 44.

[31]As already indicated, they also contribute to societal processes of semantic renewal.

[32]Elsewhere I question his insistence on the general accessibility of the translated contents of religion (see Cooke, ‘A Secular State for a Postsecular Society’) as well as his demarcation of religious validity claims from other kinds of claims in the domain of practical reason on grounds of their dogmatic and authoritarian character and the revealed truths at their core (see Cooke, ‘Violating Neutrality?’). See also note 43 below.

[33]The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, article 1.

[34]In the following, I pass over the specific difficulties involved in translating stories of exemplary figures and acts. In my view, every articulation of exemplarity is a re-presentation, in which truth contents are mediated in a particular way. In each case, the experiential component of exemplarity complicates translation. Stories are one mode of articulation (re-presentation). The distinctive difficulties they pose for translation are not relevant for our present purposes.

[35]Book of Genesis, 22, 1-19. I read Søren Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling as an attempt to offer a non-deflationary translation of this story. See S. Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, Radford, VA: A & D Publishing (2008).

[36]At any given time in any given socio-cultural context, the linguistic resources for articulating certain sorts of experience may not be available. See Cooke, Re-Presenting the Good Society, pp. 158-9. See also Cooke, ‘Violating Neutrality?’

[37]P. Ricoeur, Figuring the Sacred, trans. D. Pellauer, edited by M. I. Wallace, Minneapolis: Fortress Press (1995), pp. 35-47.

[38]Cf. Ricoeur, Ibid., 48-67.

[39]A. Ferrera, The Force of the Example, New York: Columbia University Press (2008).

[40]He writes: ‘an exemplary figure or act has the ‘quality of bringing reality and normativity, facts and norm […] to an enduring, nearly complete and rare fusion. Ibid., p. 3.

[41]I. Kant, The Critique of the Power of Judgment, trans. P. Guyer and E. Matthews, edited by P. Guyer, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (2001).

[42]See, for example, Ferrara, The Force of the Example, pp. 21-2.

[43]However, there are problems with his postmetaphysical interpretation of translation (see Cooke, ‘Salvaging and Secularizing the Semantic Contents of Religion’) and he is wrong to imply that religious contents always require translation (see Cooke, ‘Violating Neutrality?’).

[44]O. Pamuk, My Name is Red, trans. E. Göknar, London: Faber and Faber (2001).

[45]The book raises a number of interesting questions about portrait painting as an art form and about representational art in general, which I leave aside in the following.

[46]Ibid., p. 393.

[47]Ibid., p. 391.

[48]Ibid., p. 392.

[49]Ibid., pp. 393-4.

[50]J. Fleischhauer, M. Hujer, K. Kullman, et al, ‘Aufstieg einer Sünderin’, Der Spiegel, no. 9, 1 March 2010, pp. 66-74.

[51]Walter Benjamin’s remarks on the task of the translator are relevant here. See W. Benjamin, ‘The Task of the Translator’, in Illuminations, trans. H. Zorn, edited by H. Arendt, London: Pimlico (1999).

[52]See Ricoeur, Figuring the Sacred, p. 50.

[53]In Cooke, ‘Violating Neutrality?’ I take issue with Habermas’ language-immanent conception of practical truth from the point of view of democratic legitimacy.

[54]In general I am sceptical with regard to Habermas’ demarcation of religious claims from other kinds of practical validity claims and, in particular, with regard to his view that they are set apart by virtue of their revelatory moment. See note 32 above.

[55]I am grateful to Brian O’Connor for comments on an earlier version of this paper.



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