Monday, June 08, 2009

A misquote about Habermas and Christianity

A serious misquote is circulating on the internet about Jürgen Habermas and Christianity. On a very large number of web sites you can read the following "quotation" of Jürgen Habermas:


"Christianity, and nothing else, is the ultimate foundation of liberty, conscience, human rights, and democracy, the benchmarks of western civilization. To this day, we have no other options [to Christianity]. We continue to nourish ourselves from this source. Everything else is postmodern chatter."


The "quotation" has appeared in Foreign Policy ("Europe's Christian Comeback"), Wall Street Journal ("In Europe, God Is (Not) Dead") and in Christian Science Monitor ("Germans reconsider religion"), and you can find it on a large number of blogs in America on Christianity.


But this is a misquotation! The right quotation is this:


"Universalistic egalitarianism, from which sprang the ideals of freedom and a collective life in solidarity, the autonomous conduct of life and emancipation, the individual morality of conscience, human rights and democracy, is the direct legacy of the Judaic ethic of justice and the Christian ethic of love. This legacy, substantially unchanged, has been the object of continual critical appropriation and reinterpretation. To this day, there is no alternative to it. And in light of the current challenges of a postnational constellation, we continue to draw on the substance of this heritage. Everything else is just idle postmodern talk." (Jürgen Habermas - "Time of Transitions", Polity Press, 2006, pp. 150-151, translation of an interview from 1999).


The misquote rewrites Habermas's statement and changes its meaning:

(1) Habermas talks about the historical origin of universalistic egalitarianism - not the foundation of human rights today.

(2) Habermas mentions both Judaism and Christianity - not only Christianity.

(3) Habermas says that there is no alternative to this legacy ("Erbe" in German) - not that we have no alternative to Christianity.

For a detailed comment on the misquote and its history on the internet see my contribution here.

8 comments:

douglas said...

I think perhaps a little more research needs be done before making a conclusive claim that this is a misquote. On youtube there is an audio clip of Habermas speaking, apparently at Yale, and he is asked about the quote. Unfortunately, Mr. Habermas is not the clearest speaker, and the recording is at a very low volume, but when asked, he refers to the source of the quote, points out that the source is from an interview with Mr. Mendieta and indicates that he is sitting in the front row. He then goes on to talk about what he meant by it, but does not being, or in the first couple of sentences declare it a misquote, or even a poor translation. Why not? I admit, I cannot make out enough of the rest of the discussion (I had to listen to the first couple of minutes of his answer several times even to be able to make this comment) to be definitive on how he clarifies what he meant, but it seems odd if it were a misquote, that he would not start by indicating such.

Also, you indicate in the updates at the Habermas forum site that the origin of the 'misquote' is from an article by Sandro Magister (which you do link at your post at Habermas Forum) where you indicate that he is paraphrasing- however, that is only partially accurate. There is a paraphrase of the beginning and he concludes with a quote of the last three sentences:

But to read his most recent essay translated in Italy, "A Time of Transition," published by Feltrinelli and available in bookstores since mid-November, Christianity, and nothing else, is the ultimate foundation of liberty, conscience, human rights, and democracy, the benchmarks of Western civilization:

"To this day, we have no other options. We continue to nourish ourselves from this source. Everything else is postmodern chatter."


I'm also a little puzzled by your notice of the apparent restating there as Chistianity what is in the translation as Judaism and Christianity- Most Christians would assume that to declare the roots of something being in Christianity, they would therefore be also in Judaism. You may be technically correct, but why is it a significant point?

I am really just hoping that someone can listen to that tape and perhaps make a transcript, as I simply cannot, and settle the matter straight from the horses mouth. Either way, it's a very interesting quote.

douglas said...

May I also point out that your 'correct' quote differs from the one (currently) on wikipedia (which you remark on). It indicates the same source, so someone is incorrect. Is there a posting of the text online somewhere other than wikipedia?

Thanks.

Thomas Gregersen said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Thomas Gregersen said...

To Douglas,

Thanks for your comments.

I agree that the misquote is a combination of Magister's comment on Habermas (the first sentence) and Magister's correct citation of Habermas. I have clearly written that in my statement at www.habermasforum.dk., where I point out that the first sentence is not a quotation of Habermas. Unfortunately, it also changes the meaning of the second sentence, because Habermas talks about Judaism and Christianity as our heritage/legacy - not as "foundation" for human rights today.

I also agree that in the audio clip Habermas does not call it a misquote. But does it make the quotation correct? As I have stated there are three major substantial differences between the misquote and what Habermas said in the interview in 1999.

To your last comment: As I have stated on my website www.habermasforum.dk there are some minor differences between the two alternative English translations of the 1999 interview "Ein Gespäch über Gott und die Welt", but nothing substantial and nothing that is of relevance for the discussion about the misquote. You can compare them here:

(1) Translation by Max Pensky in Habermas's "Religion and Rationality, (p. 149):
"Universalistic egalitarianism, from which sprang the ideals of freedom and a collective life in solidarity, the autonomous conduct of life and emancipation, the individual morality of conscience, human rights and democracy, is the direct legacy of the Judaic ethic of justice and the Christian ethic of love. This legacy, substantially unchanged, has been the object of continual critical appropriation and reinterpretation. To this day, there is no alternative to it. And in light of the current challenges of a postnational constellation, we continue to draw on the substance of this heritage. Everything else is just idle postmodern talk."

(2) Translation by Ciaran Cronin and Max Pensky in Habermas's "Time of Transitions", (p. 150f):
"Egalitarian universalism, from which sprang the ideas of freedom and social solidarity, of an auonomous conduct of life and emancipation, of the individual morality of conscience, human rights and democracy, is the direct heir of the Judaic ethic of justice and the Christian ethic of love. This legacy, substantially unchanged, has been the object of continual critical appropriation and reinterpretation. To this day, there is no alternative to it. And in light of the current challenges of a postnational constellation, we continue to draw on the substance of this heritage. Everything else is just idle postmodern talk."

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Mary Poplin from the Claremont Graduate School used this misquote last night at the University of Waterloo and refused to retract it.

http://recursed.blogspot.com/2011/02/pascal-lecture-another-year-another.html

Anonymous said...

Hi! You say:
“(1) Habermas talks about the historical origin of universalistic egalitarianism - not the foundation of human rights today.”
….Then what do his particular words mean: (asterisks mine)
“**...is the direct legacy** of the Judaic ethic of justice and the Christian ethic of love.**This legacy**, substantially unchanged, has been the object of a continual critical reappropriation and reinterpretation. Up to this very day there is no alternative to it. And in light of the current challenges of a post-national constellation, **we must draw sustenance now, as in the past, from this substance.**”

Thomas Gregersen said...

To "anonymous"

In the first sentence, Habermas talks about egalitarianism as "the direct legacy". So when he starts his next sentence with "this legacy" he is still referring to egalitarianism which is also the "substance" in his last sentence.

Anonymous said...

I appreciate this clarification! It remembers us to always check our sources!! (I looked it up in Google books.)