March 2013‎ > ‎

6 - Student News: Junior Member Defences


On Dec. 20, ICS PhD candidate Daniel Mullin successfully defended his doctoral dissertation in the Aula of the VU University Amsterdam. Titled Democracy without Secularism: A Pragmatist Critique of Habermas, his dissertation engages in a sustained yet sympathetic critique of Jürgen Habermas’ views concerning the issue of religious voices in the public sphere of pluralistic democratic societies.

Habermas is well known as a contemporary defender of liberal Enlightenment values, including the conviction that the reasons citizens proffer to support particular political positions should in principle be publicly accessible. For much of his career, Habermas accepted the assumption that, unlike secular rationales (which are assumed to be ‘neutral’), religious reasons are not publicly accessible, and as a result, unless they can be translated into secular terms, they must not be admitted into public discussion of particular political issues. Of course, this position has generated controversy among religious thinkers who doubt the neutrality of secular rationales and would also defend the legitimacy of the presence of religious voices in the public sphere.

Mullin’s dissertation deftly wades into these controversial waters, enlisting the support of the pragmatist philosophy of Jeffrey Stout to make a case for the legitimacy of religious voices in public political debate. In so doing, Mullin offers several practical suggestions, concerning how religious voices might play a positive role in future political discussions and also about how liberal politics might remain open to insights from religious quarters.

Interestingly, while defending the legitimacy of religious voices, Mullin maintains that the formal secularity of the political sphere is still a valuable aspect of liberalism. The language of the laws passed by state legislatures ought to be neutral and devoid of sectarian religious language, he argues, even if the reasons put forward for adopting such laws can include untranslated religious reasons. According to Mullin, one can thus affirm such “formal secularity” without adopting what he calls “naive secularism.”

Thus, while remaining sympathetic to Habermas’ criticism of religious dogmatism, Mullin urges Habermas to consider that there are other ways to imagine a public role for religion, including some that are in the spirit of Habermas’ project of redemptive critique (or diagnosing and attempting to heal the various “pathologies” of modernity). Throughout his dissertation, Mullin shares Habermas’ goal of transcending our current antagonistic political discourse. “Although we may never reach an ideal speech situation,” Mullin suggests, “we can learn to negotiate the politics of multiple identities without religious sectarianism or ideological secularism.”

On Dec. 7, Jelle Huisman successfully completed his MA thesis, titled Translations of the Implicit: Tracing How Language Works beyond Gendlin and Derrida. Jelle’s thesis asks how translations can do justice to the implicit side of language, a topic that arises from his work in the field of Bible translation. Lambert Zuidervaart was the thesis supervisor. External examiner Graeme Nicholson, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at the University of Toronto, says the thesis shows a “thorough understanding of many of today’s important philosophers, and a constructive, creative capacity to illuminate a major problem.” Jelle works as a research and technology consultant for Roma Bible Union. He and his family currently reside in the Netherlands, where he plans to enter a PhD program in translation studies.