Modernity: Vernunftspaltung

By Ruthrof, Horst | Philosophy Today, Fall 2006 | Go to article overview

Modernity: Vernunftspaltung


Ruthrof, Horst, Philosophy Today


To Dietmar, Who Never Lost Faith ...

In an essay entitled "The Unity of Reason in the Diversity of Its Voices" Jiirgen Habermas returns to a phrase by Parmenides, to hen pania, the one and the many, to argue for the non-metaphysical notion of an overarching concept of reason as a source of the multitude of its derivations in order to avoid the "negative" metaphysics of radical contingency.1

I will not deal with the specifics of his argument in this essay. Suffice it here to take his position as a point of departure for arguing the concept of Vernunftspaltung, the splitting of reason as a fundamental mechanism in the evolution of cultures and as a frame for a theoretical engagement with the philosophical discourse of modernity.

As a counter concept we can stipulate unitary reason, a form of rationalisation that tends to subsume human practice, as well as all non-human events, under the one umbrella of a summum ens. In the history of metaphysics, Hegel could be regarded as the philosopher, as he has been by Heidegger, who has collapsed all metaphysical schemes into the singularity of logos and so performed the final reductio ad absurdum for the discipline. Religions, too require unitary reason to maintain their metaphysical edifices. In the Judaic-Christian-Islamic traditions this is achieved by a process of mythical as well as historical elimination of counter reasons, from the archangel Satan to present day heretics. It is by no means an accident that most of the maligned terms in this tradition have to do with Vernunftspaltung: splitting, separation, and opposition. Satan is derived from the Hebrew verb satan, to oppose; the word of God is juxtaposed to hissing, the sibilant voice of the serpent, still used as a sound of opprobrium; the word sin has to do with separation, and so distance from God; devil is related to tiufal in Old High German, translated into Greek as diabolos, the accuser, from dia for across and balle in to throw; schism, from Greek schisma split, rent, cleft, and heresy, from the Greek aireisthai to choose, indicate the illegitimate challenge of the unity of theo-logos. And while theology has its own rich history of Vernunftspaltung in many cultures, theo-logos, by definition, remains subservient to and subsumed under the singularity of the highest good. The worst sin in the Judaic traditions is the sin of the intellect, the splitting of reason in opposition to God. To protect themselves from events of splitting, the religions that have emerged from the Judaic-Greek heritage base themselves on an initiatory gesture of binding. The Greek term theos can be traced back to relate to deon, to bind, while the signifier religion collapses ligare, to bind, with re-, to indicate the believer's future ob-ligations. From cosmological mythology to fascism, unitary reason, this essay suggests, occupies a position of power; subjugates all other reasoning processes; assumes the rung of a highest generality; subsumes all other forms of reason; formalizes hierarchical differences; perpetuates its position in time; absorbs redefinitions of and within the hierarchy; ritualizes relations within the hierarchy; opposes competing hierarchies; and imposes sanctions for violations of relations within its order.

Vernunftspaltung is defined for the purposes of this essay as the splitting and diversification of reason and is thus fundamentally centri-fugal. Unitary reason, by contrast, retards and subordinates the process of Vernunftspaltung to the singularity of its metaphysics. In this, unitary reason is fundamentally centri-petal. Central-petal and centri-fugal forms of reason can be set up as oppositional background dynamics of human social evolution. Thus I suggest the hypothesis that to be human is fundamentally to split reason or, expressed in Heideggerian terms, if not in the spirit of his writing, the Being of being human is Vernunftspaltung. Rather than offering a qualitative assessment, I want to present the splitting of reason as a process which we can observe throughout history, with moments of acceleration and deceleration of Vernunftspaltung.

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