The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse – Ch. 1 “The Way We Talk Now”

Steven D. Smith, 2010

A commitment to reason

But why would someone agree to bracket her most fundamental convictions about what is true in “reasoning” about important public matters? She would do this, Rawls explains, if and because she is “reasonable”– meaning that in a situation of pluralism she understands that no one’s truth is going to prevail over its rivals, and so rather than seeking to ground public decisions in truth she is “ready to propose principles and standards as fair terms of cooperation and to abide by them willingly, given the assurance that others will likewise do so.” Far from being an exercise of Reason, “reasonableness” reflects a willingness, in the interest of civil peace, to rein in that potentially disruptive faculty.

In short, in the eighteenth century, a commitment to reason denoted a willingness to pursue the truth and to follow the argument wherever it leads, with the confidence that reason will ultimately lead people to converge on the truth. In contemporary political liberalism, in stark contrast, “reasonableness” denotes a willingness not to pursue or invoke for vital public purposes what one believes to be the ultimate truth – a willingness based on the judgement that reason will not lead to convergence but will instead subvert a civic peace that can be maintained only if people agree not to make important public decisions on the basis of arguing about what is ultimately true.

Rawls attempts to finesse this daunting problem by simply stipulating that an “essential feature of public reason is that its political conceptions should be complete.” Under this stipulation, “public reason” is by definition adequate to “give a reasonable answer to all, or to nearly all, questions involving constitutional essentials and matters of basic justice”: a discourse lacking such complete-ness, it seems, would not qualify as a form of “public reason.”

Now, though, instead of laying principal blame on poor schools or profit-driven media or evangelical religion, ,we can notice the way in which shallowness in discourse is actually prescribed by some of the most influential political thought of our time (because Rawls was only the most prominent in a whole family of like-minded theorists.) It is hardly an exaggeration to say that the very point of “public reason” is to keep public discourse shallow – to keep it from drowning in the perilous depths of questions about “the nature of the universe,” or the end and the object of life,” or other tenets of our comprehensive doctrines. And that prescription, as we have seen, is in turn the product of a general loss of confidence in the capacity of reason to actually lead people to truth in such matters. “You have your opinions and I have mine,” we are wont to think, “and nothing in our so-called ‘reasoning’ is likely to change our minds.”

Max Weber famously described the change as the “disenchantment of the world”; he sometimes spoke of modernity as an “iron cage,” in which life is lived and discourse is conducted according o the stern constraints of secular rationalism. It is that cage – the cage of secular discourse – within which public conversation and especially judicial and academic discourse occurs today. 

…when we attempt to engage in reasoning about vital normative concerns, our performances turn out to be a pretty shabby and unsatisfactory affair. So unsatisfactory, in fact, that many people eventually conclude that there is little point in pretending to participate in the enterprise at all–an enterprise that often looks like an exercise in inventing, as F.H. Bradley put it, “bad reasons for what [we] believe on instinct.”

Our modern secular vocabulary purports to render inadmissible notions such as those that animated premodern social discourse – notions about a purposive cosmos, or a teleological nature stocked with Aristotelian “final causes,” or a providential design. But if our deepest convictions rely on such notions, and if these convictiosn lose their sense and substance when divorced from such notions, then perhaps we have little choice except to smuggle such notions into the conversation – to introduce them incognito under some sort of secular disguise.

Even so, corruption is still less than ideal. So it in our current circumstances, we have little choice but to put up with smuggling (and, perhaps, to throw our support behind the benign smugglers rather than the malign or misguided ones), we ought at least to retain some awareness of what is going on.

Smuggling implies that an argument is tacitly importing something that is left hidden or unacknowledged– some undisclosed assumption or premise. But relying on an unacknowledged premise of belief is not in itself enough to constitute smuggling, because all discourse does that, and could hardly do otherwise.

That criticism, once again, is that the secular vocabulary within which public discourse is constrained to operate today is insufficient to convey our full set of normative convictions and commitments. We manage to debate normative matters anyway– but only by smuggling in notions that are officially inadmissible, and hence that cannot be openly acknowledged or adverted to. The pervasiveness of smuggling allows our conversation to be less pointless or ineffectual than they might be. But the fact that we must smuggle in, and hence cannot fully own up to, our real commitments– often cannot articulate them even to ourselves — ensures that our discourse will often be barren, unsatisfying, and shallow in ways that critics like Jacoby and Dworkin say it is.


Reflections for paper

Want to be able to break cage of secular discourse when talking about ideas of justice.



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