Strong Hermeneutics: Contingency and Moral Identity

By Nicholas H. Smith | Go to book overview

4

Deep hermeneutics, emancipationand fate

If it is believed that in the course of its enlightenment the human species learns that the order of nature is empty of moral signification, the following question can look compelling: how is moral identity to be grounded if not in the natural order of things? Aware of the threat that the objectivity of modern natural science posed to the identity of the reflective human subject—a reflexivity that is imposed historically with the collapse of the social fabric of religious tradition—Kant sought to bring the intelligibility of a moral identity to clarification in the rationality of free and responsible action. There may not be any ethical substance in the world that can be the object of cognition, but there is a moral law that can be tracked by a free subject acting on universalizable self-willed maxims. In the moral law, the human agent can be reassured that there are reasons for acting that have more than a merely optional, hypothetical, contingent status, since there is a class of actions that humans, qua rational beings, have an unconditional obligation to perform. The moral law, for Kant, puts constraints on matter of fact, empirically motivated action by opposing the universality of the rational, dutiful will to the particularity of sensuous inclination. Now as is well known, Hegel gives an extensive critique of Kant’s way of making sense of moral identity. He argues that by abstracting the rational agent from the historically concrete intersubjective conditions of self-formation, and similarly by idealizing the source of the legitimacy of the moral law as prior to any institutionalized embodiment, the Kantian view disables itself from giving a plausible account of just what is threatened by the objectivating sciences and the fragmented social fabric of religion: a reflectively resilient, motivationally potent, sustainable moral identity. Such an account can only be given, in the view proposed by Hegel in his less well-known early writings, if instead of understanding the contingency-limiting moral order as the categorical determinations of law, we conceive it as an ‘ethical totality’ which exercises its compulsion upon acts that transgress it as a ‘fate’.

Whereas strong hermeneutics sees itself as continuing a tradition set on its way by Hegel’s critique of Kant, Habermas uses the young Hegel’s model of a ‘causality of fate’ as a springboard for leaping beyond hermeneutics.

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Strong Hermeneutics: Contingency and Moral Identity
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • Preface ix
  • Introduction 1
  • 1 - The Variety of Hermeneutics 10
  • 2 - Strong Hermeneutics and the Contingency of Self 35
  • 3 - Interpretation, Practical Reason and Tradition 58
  • 4 - Deep Hermeneutics, Emancipation and Fate 81
  • 5 - Communication and the Contingency of Language 103
  • 6 - Strong Hermeneutics and Discourse Ethics 121
  • 7 - The Ecological Politics of Strong Hermeneutics 148
  • Notes 170
  • Index 193
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