In this second instalment of the Critical Questions Series, we ask scholars of religion how they negotiate the difficult line between “politics” and scholarship. The previous responses can be found here, here, here, here and here.
The line between scholarship and politics or, if you like, between theory building and political commitments, is a notoriously difficult one to negotiate. For some, scholarship should only be about describing and explaining, while for others advocacy (i.e., changing the world for the better) is also an important part of what we do in the academy. While making explicit one’s historical and institutional circumstances, along with the logic and process behind one’s methods and theories is an important step in addressing this issue, it still does not answer the question of advocacy—whether or not it should be done or what counts for it in the first place. With reference to your own experience, institutional affiliation and scholarly identity, what are your thoughts on this matter?
“Intellectuals should make public use of the professional knowledge that they possess – for example, as philosophers or writers, social scientists or physicists – on their own initiative, without being commissioned by anyone to do so. They need not be neutral and eschew partisanship but they should be aware of their own fallibility. They should limit themselves to relevant issues, contribute sound information and good arguments; in other words, they should endeavor to improve the deplorable discursive level of public debates.”
– Jürgen Habermas, “Public Space and Political Public Sphere” in Between Naturalism and Religion
The line between theorizing and political commitments is only difficult to negotiate if we are unclear about the difference between first and third person perspectives. Theorizing is built upon observation and objectivating perspectives that can be furnished in the form of propositional truth claims. This should not be confused with objectivism, the ideological tendency to reduce all questions of meaning and validity to a single truth dimension. This tendency is found in the positivistic sciences as well as in recurrent forms of naturalism, and has the dubious distinction of occupying a null-context between language and reality.
Insights garnered from observation and objectivating perspectives can intelligibly be formulated only in the first person, so there is a political dimension to theorizing but perhaps not in the way that might be obvious. The political content of theorizing resides in the only viable means we have for adjudicating theoretical claims: argumentation. Argumentation anticipates the mediation of validity claims in a way that accommodates and creates space for living nonviolently together amidst diversity. The adjudication of theoretical claims is accomplished by means of a procedural rationality, instantiating two universal moral principles: respect and egalitarian reciprocity. The principle of moral respect entails recognizing the universal humanity of a speaker while egalitarian reciprocity entails seeing things from the perspective of others and reason giving that constitutes the means for recognizing individual life histories. As Jürgen Habermas has long argued, these moral principles are instantiated in each and every communicative action. Taken together in the context of a procedure of argumentation, validity claims concerning questions of truth (or rightness) can be resolved impartially without subordinating or placing restrictions on the reasoning processes of participants.
If these conditions are not satisfied then we cannot say that an argument has occurred at all. The failure to satisfy these robust and demanding conditions could be the result of pragmatic constraints or systemic distortions in communication by means of money, labour, or strategic expressions of power. At the very least, these idealizing conditions can (and should) be used as a critical measure of existing communicative shortfalls, coercion, compromise, or any number of social pathologies. Of course when it comes to theoretical discourses only the immediate propositional claims of the theory are up for contestation. Should issues concerning political advocacy arise then the theme of the discourse changes quite dramatically. When this happens, theorizing comes to an end and the communicative community must turn to address issues of inclusion and exclusion. The critical theoretical attitude makes possible the critique of ideology and the diagnosis of social pathologies, but this critique itself is not exempt from being rooted in a particular communicative community.
I reject the notion that scholars of religion have special moral or political obligations. Such a position can only end in fraudulent elitism. As a community of scholars we may, with good reason, see ourselves as having non-binding ethical missions, political projects that we negotiate within our various institutional affiliations and associations: to promote our disciplines, train professionals, conduct fair and honest research, participate in the accumulation and transmission of knowledge, etc. We should be cautious about what this means. Political and ethical considerations within the sphere of academic research concern the redress of conflicts and preservation of academic autonomy as well as the desirability of certain methods of training, professional conduct, and so on. But the moral obligations of scholars are no more or less than those of anyone else. The academic study of religion is, first and foremost, a theoretical vocation.
Certainly the mission statements of most universities or research institutes go beyond this, addressing the enrichment of values, the flourishing of life, and so on. As a scholar of religion, on these issues I have little to say. As a member of a larger academic community, however, there is much to say about the political and ethical role of scholars beyond their immediate theoretical interests (e.g. as advocates of education, cultural literacy, cultural and political criticism, etc.). These larger more general interests are complementary to theorizing but should not be assimilated or placed in a subordinate relation. Our political obligations as a citizens are even more general than those we encounter as a members of academic institutions and no more or less important. Societal differentiation affords us the opportunity to adopt multiple roles without contradiction.
Jürgen Habermas, Between Naturalism and Religion, trans. Ciaran Cronin (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2008).
—, Postmetaphysical Thinking, trans. William Mark Hohengarten (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1992).
Seyla Benhabib, Situating the Self (New York: Routledge, 1992).
Thanks to Warren Goldstein for comments and criticisms of an earlier draft.
Kenneth MacKendrick is an associate professor in the Department of Religion, University of Manitoba. His teaching interests include cognitive theory of religion, contemporary Christianity (fundamentalism and charismatic movements, secularization), evil in world religions, method and theory in the study of religion, and rituals of death and mourning. His current research focuses on the relation between cognition, imagination, and religion. Recent publications include “Evil in the Age of World Religions” (forthcoming), “We have an Imaginary Friend in Jesus” (2012), “The Challenge of Postmetaphysical Thinking and the Nature of Religious Thought” (2010), and “Chuck Palahniuk and the New Journalism Revolution” (2009).