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  • Talking Peace with GodsSymposium on the Conciliation of Worldviews Part 1
  • Jeffrey M. Perl (bio), Ulrich Beck (bio), Bruno Latour (bio), Eduardo Viveiros de Castro (bio), Jeffrey J. Kripal (bio), and Tobie Nathan (bio)

The introduction to this symposium consists of its first two contributions: a cosmopolitan proposal by Ulrich Beck for negotiating between worldviews, then a warning from Bruno Latour against presuming we know what a conflict of worldviews entails. I would like to point out, as a preface to that introduction, that whereas versions of this discussion used to center on the question of commensurability—are worldviews comparable, let alone reconcilable?—the discussion here centers on problems of commensuration. How is it to be done and who might accomplish it? From commensurability to commensuration is a long trek, and we should feel self-congratulatory at this juncture. Historic events have turned the Linguistic Turn guild from theory toward—if not practice, then at least talk of practice.

The contributors to this first installment of our symposium would have been, let me hazard, Left Kuhnians back when that term meant anything. During the time of dispute over Thomas Kuhn and incommensurability, the Right Kuhnian position was that commensuration between discrete contexts does not occur. Whereas our contributors imply or state that commensuration is the most difficult of all things not impossible (emphasis on both "most" and "not"). Our [End Page 426] contributors, I imagine, regard the Kuhn debate as antique, but it seems to me that its structure is still with us. Richard Rorty wrote in these pages, years ago, that Latour makes even postmodernism appear "vieux jeu." In his response to Beck's peace plan, however, Latour guards the Right flank of the Left Bank. Beck hardly qualifies as a "metaphysical prig" (that's a mean term of Rorty's)—but then neither, let me suggest, does Jürgen Habermas. And Beck here accuses Habermas of more or less what Latour indicts Beck for presupposing. Thus the structure of the old debate holds even when participants are in basic agreement with each other. No one wants to be caught arguing for contextless truth: whoever is closest to the "view from nowhere" is accused of revanchist optimism.

As Latour says, this dispute is among friends. But in "friendly disputes," the emphasis should fall on the adjective and not the noun. It is vital to our moment of self-congratulation to acknowledge that this symposium involves neither, on the one hand, idealist universalism nor, on the other hand, contextualism of the absolute kind. Our contributors stand in the zone between Henry Hardy and Stanley Fish. The assertion Fish makes that "different games are different games" (an assertion made most recently in criticism of Habermas) is not echoed here. Our contributors do not presume, as Fish does, that it is easy to tell what game is being played (J. G. A. Pocock writes, in this issue, about the pains historians take to discriminate among language games). Nor does this symposium rehearse the argument that Fish makes, in a recent critique of Rorty, that giving up "context-transcending norms" will not make you "better, less dogmatic, more open-minded." Fish says of Habermas's ideal of communication that it is "so special as to be impossible"—and of Rorty's connecting postmodernism to humility, Fish rules: "this is just wrong." In the course of issuing these judgments, Fish proves his main point, that "someone who holds pragmatist views... can be as authoritarian as anyone else."

Elsewhere on the spectrum—and (unlike Fish) unaffected by Kuhn—is the enlightened authoritarianism of "we liberals." Recoiling from the hope that "committed believers" in this or that dogma can discuss their differences amicably, Henry Hardy finds optimists guilty of five kinds of sweetness: "homogenized fudge," "illogical fudge," "evolutionary fudge," "evasive fudge," and "euphemistic fudge." Sickened, Hardy concludes:

No amount of sophistry can cloak the propensity of organized religion to sponsor beliefs held with an overweening certainty that is always liable to slide into intolerance or violence. What is needed is not the recalibration of institutional religion, but its demise. The absurd circle-squaring of religious leaders who maintain that everyone can retain their beliefs full...


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pp. 426-429
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