The Uses of Philosophy


The symbolism of 9-11 extends to the date itself. Now we have a day whose very name is a distress call. Part of the horror is that those we expected to answer our emergency calls responded—but went to their doom with so many other victims. The towers still fell. “9-11” is still calling. Who will answer?

For Vassar professor Giovanna Borradori, who lived through 9-11 at her East Side apartment, that call goes out to philosophy. Her admirable response to her own grief and confusion was to interview two of Europe’s foremost philosophers, Jürgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida.

The thinker on the horizon of both interviews is Immanuel Kant, who suggested that history may be moving toward the elimination of war, and that we should do everything in our power to aid this progress. This meant developing a world federation of republics, tied by international law, but not by a world government, which he saw as a tyrannical threat. Habermas and Derrida agree in spirit with Kant; they both see something positive in globalization, despite its many negative aspects, but each sees different challenges as well.

For Habermas, 9-11 is the result of a fundamentalism born of the clash of pre-modern and modern societies. Pre-modern societies ground their way of life in a faith or tradition whose coherence depends on core beliefs that remains unquestioned. Modernity rejects tradition in favor of reason to make sense of the natural world and human society. The pluralism of views unleashed by modernity need not result in chaos, according to Habermas, so long as we remain committed to one another as rational beings engaged in a constitutional process designed for the structured resolution of differences. But some traditionalists may reject the modern world, and potentially violent fundamentalist countermovements may result.

Habermas emphasizes that the modern-pre-modern conflict happens at any point in history in which reason seriously threatens tradition, although he acknowledges that globalization has radically exacerbated the modern-pre-modern divide and that between a callously prosperous West and a desperately poor and disenfranchised third world. A modernist himself, Habermas believes these problems to be soluble, but only through a global commitment to international institutions such as the UN, a will to repair gross economic inequalities, and a willingness to intervene in the internal affairs of sovereign nations.

Derrida’s most striking claim is that 9-11 is the result of an autoimmune disorder. For Derrida, there are three aspects to the West’s self-destruction. First, in fighting the Cold War, we trained the Islamic militants who later turned against us. Second, we now face a situation even worse than the Cold War; for then, at least, a balance of terror between two superpowers held in check the dangers of modern arms. Now apocalyptic weapons may be dispersed to suicidal enemies. And finally, in our repression of such enemies, we merely replicate and multiply them. 9-11 was a double suicide—of both attackers and their victims. We are suffering from a metaphysical AIDS.

The second of Derrida’s points is the most disturbing: the specter of terror and trauma lies not in a date in the past, 9-11, but in an incomprehensible future intimated by that event. Every technological advance in weapons systems, in medicine, in informatics—indeed in any field—may turn against us in some unpredictably devastating manner. The optimistic dream of modernity was that reason and technology would save us from all threats, both natural and human. 9-11 evokes the nightmare of a future in which the promise of salvation has itself become the threat of annihilation. If airplanes can be turned against us, why not biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons, or even more insidiously, the forces of information systems and the emerging nanotechnology, in which machines the size of molecules might be harnessed to destroy living organisms?

Both Habermas and Derrida remain heirs to the Kantian project of strengthening our international institutions and enlarging the spheres of human rights and economic equality. And so both—even Derrida—remain moderns. We may still be able to save ourselves, not by relying on the crutch of science, but by reinvigorating the political universalism of the Enlightenment and by radically rethinking the limits of law, nationality, and international relations.

There are grave obstacles to such an endeavor, and while Habermas and Derrida note some potential challenges, they sometimes seem smug in the view that Europe or the UN is somehow better adapted to global responsibility than the arrogant United States. For example, why should the U.S., or any nation, give up any of its sovereignty in favor of a UN that failed so dismally to protect the Tutsis of Rwanda or the Bosnian Muslims of Srebrenica? And wouldn’t a more muscular UN risk becoming a planetary dictatorship? And doesn’t a stronger system of international laws imply a far more aggressive, and thereby potentially imperialistic, mandate to interfere in the domestic affairs of wayward nations?

If you want final answers, Borradori’s interviews will be a disappointment. But the book reminds us that the most constructive response to 9-11 may simply be to recognize the event as an opportunity to ask the decisive questions about ourselves and our place in the world. We may also need action, but surely any political or military response must join with robust reflection to have any hope of lasting success. Such is the useful uselessness of philosophy.

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