The form of the argumentThe essay is divided up into sections designated by Roman Numerals. The first two consist largely of stage setting. The real action begins with section III.
The most important part of the stage setting for our purposes is his claim, I would argue correct claim, that a ritual does not depend on an antecedent meaning. You do not need to have a pre-existing mythical narrative in order to explain a rite. (There might be such a mythical narrative; the point is that there doesn't have to be one.) Habermas rejects the dichotomy that myths are representation and rites are performative. Rather there is a sacred compound of meaning and action that exists in the performing of the rite.
Rites seem to do two things for Habermas. They reassure us as to things that we feel vulnerable in the face of such as, "Will the sunshine return after solstice?" "Will there be spring this year?" "Rain?" Secondly, they reassure as to our collective identity.
It is this second purpose, not surprisingly, that most interests Habermas. His hypothesis is that in the genesis of our collective modes of life and associated forms of communication out of an egocentric, or self-referential understanding, ritual fills a blank space. That is to say we are naturally “narcissistic” [see note marked with * below] as it were, we treat our world as something to be manipulated to achieve our ends. Consequently, our understanding of language is self-referential. What is this thing to me? What is needed is a move that gets us from that to a position where I can talk to someone else about something that is not defined as how it figures according to my purposes but rather that has a meaning apart from me that I must recognize. Not just recognize as a definition but recognize in terms that impose standards on me.
Ritual, he will argue, plays a unique role in achieving this transition. It is important, I think, to understand the kind of argument he is making. He does not go so far as to say that, for example, it was logically required to bridge this gap the way that a cosmologist would say that certain highly unstable Helium molecules must exist because that is the only way Carbon could be formed. Nor does he agree that there is or could be empirical evidence such as archeological findings that ritual did play this role as a matter of historical fact. Rather he rather tentatively suggests that it could fill the gap and that there are no alternatives.
I would argue that the argument he does make is comparable to the argument for evolution. Evolution predicts but not in a testable way because there is no non-trivial difference between the survival of the fittest and the survival of the survivors. Why do I believe that evolution is true then? Because there is no alternative explanation that is even remotely credible.
To return to the text
Beginning at section III, Habermas argues, following Durkheim, that a ritual such as a dance or an exchange of gifts does not require an antecedent mythology. We do not have to imagine these behaviours as, for example, appeasing spirits or gods. All the meaning necessary is inherent in the practice. And there exists in these rites the potential for normative standards. This is how you do the dance.
If I might digress, this points to a deep problem in Liberalism. Anyone who has bashed their way through Leviathan will remember the interminable section where Hobbes tries to come up with a rational reason to surrender their weapons and enter into a social contract. I think every child reproduces that step: Two children agree to put down their water ballons. Then one says to the other, “You first!.” On the one hand, it is in boh heir interest not to ge wet. On the other hand, if one child can fool he oher ino puting down their wtare ballon firts hey can soak he oher wih impunity.
Arguing on the base of self-interest, which is Hobbes’s goal, never gets off the ground. In 2011 Habermas presented this paper at Georgetown University and in an aside he made a similar comparison with Rousseau. In order to enter into the Social Contract, Rousseau’s free individuals must renounce themselves.
In line with this, Habermas cites the issue of adopting a new status. He draws on Arnold van Gennep for this as he drew on Durkheim for the previous bit. He gives the example of a child going through a rite of passage boyhood to manliness. Figuratively speaking, the boy must die to one status before adopting the other. There is an odd limbo where he exists in a kind of no-man’s land where he cannot draw on his old identity and where he cannot yet begin to assume the new one. The rite, whatever it, Bar Mitzvah for example, must be gone through. That, and only that, gets the person out of his status-less state and beginning the development of his new life as adult. Habermas gives this a sort of metaphor for the socialization process. There has to be a self-renunciation and, although he doesn’t put it in these terms, that will put the person making any such transition in a very vulnerable position. Then, there needs to be a rite that establishes the new identity, the new status.
That metaphor established, he moves to an extended discussion of primates versus humans. Primates he argues are trapped in a self-referential viewpoint, an egocentric position. To move beyond this human beings need to be able to achieve two types of intentional relations.
The first he classifies as horizontal: two people who reciprocally take the perspective of the other. He doesn’t use this example but we can play a role-playing game with children with dolls. An adult acts out a drama where one doll hides something in a trunk while another doll is out of the room. The second doll is brought back and the child is asked to role play the second doll looking for the hidden object. The doll that was out of the room cannot know that he object is in the trunk and must therefore look around. To have the doll go directly to the trunk and pull it out is to fail the test. The vast majority of five-year olds figure this out and do the role play correctly. They will also pass a battery of similar tests. Neither Washo the signing chimp nor Koko the signing gorilla could do anything like that.
The second intentional relation Habermas classifies as an intentional attitude towards something in the world. The ability to believe that the yogurt I left in the fridge when I left home this morning will still be there barring some unusual circumstance such as someone else eating it before I get home. Again animals cannot do this with any consistency.
The ability to do these two things requires us to make a cognitive leap that is not explainable in terms of simple evolutionary adaptiveness. Human beings have a monopoly on this.
Interestingly, a mastery of language is not necessary to do these things.
At the same time, other requirements are fairly stringent. It wouldn’t be enough, in Habermas’s terms, for us only to figure out how to operate in cooperation based on symbolic mediation. That wouldn’t explain the deontic normativity that grows out of ritual. I can break off a game at relatively little cost. To break off a normative ritual in which the entire community is united is another thing altogether. That sense of duty is what meets the horizontal requirement.
The vertical requirement is met by the nature of ritual as well. If we are all making abeyance to the sacred microphone in the middle of this room it requires our all accepting something about the microphone that cannot be seen, that is its sacredness. But nothing that you can see about the sacred microphone distinguishes it from other microphones. I once saw women at a bachelorette party make reverence towards the plastic phallus. I doubt any of them thought the phallus was sacred. It was a bit of acting out, binding blasphemy. They recognized the importance of something they were transgression against and they implicitly agreed it was a real something even they could not see it. All they could see was a plastic novelty item. No one needed to tell the others not to go home and tell their grandmothers or their boyfriends about this. (You can't be blasphemous unless you recognize sacredness.)
I don’t think, as I note above, that Habermas makes a strong claim of proof. Ritual practice offers itself as a plausible candidate for this normativity and there isn’t any readily available plausible alternative. [I might mention Gadamer in Truth and Method and the connection between word and meaning. The only possible explanation is convention but Gadamer has set the matter up such that he needs something stronger. The meanings cannot be endlessly malleable. ]
There is, of course, a tension in any society between the meaning my momentary self-interest attaches to something and societal cohesion. "Yes, that really is my friend's donut but he’s not here and I’m hungry." I don’t think Habermas is claiming that ritual establishes a fixed set of normative standards that can never change. This is not his terminology but there is a degree of stickiness obtained through shared ritual that mere self-interested cooperation such as game playing could not achieve.
He goes on to say, and this I will conclude on, that in modernity many people live such that they do not make recourse to ritual. As a consequence, religious people have access to a kind of experience that others do not. He doesn’t quite come down and say it is a necessary experience but it is something that secular society simply does not have.
* Habermas does not use the term "narcissistic". That is my choice. He might object to it.