Habermas and Taylor, Part 1: Political Theology and the Public Sphere

This is part of my blogathon for SSA Week. Donate, and suggest topics for me, here!

As I mentioned briefly before, I am a philosophy and art history major at DePaul University in Chicago when I’m not being the president of DAFT. Thought I’m constantly questioning these two life choices in terms of future career (especially when Richard Carrier posts things like this), I think there is a lot to be gained from the perspective of a philosopher. Yes, certainly, that isn’t true for all, but at least in my training thus far, I have learned an immense amount on not only how to write or argue, but on how to think; I now devour books in a completely different way than I used to. For instance, I can’t read anything any more without a pen in my hand to underline and annotate. Particularly if it’s something I’m going to be referring back to.

In any case, it has been my intention for a long time to write more philosophically on this blog, largely inspired by Dan Fincke of Camels With Hammers, who somehow manages to write long posts with very sophisticated but clear arguments damned near every day when he isn’t grading. I don’t want superpowers, I just want to be able to do that.

So, here’s my first musing of the day.

I’ve recently been reading quite a lot of theory on secularism and religion in preparation for writing my undergraduate thesis next year, which will be on the topic of apathy and political engagement in a contemporary context, namely in the fact that I think there is an essential dearth of action inherent in liberal secular democracies that allows those in power to continue to rule, even through the tenures of many “elected” officials; I refer to the “smoke-filled room” types, corporate bosses and bankers et al., that seem to be the ones really making the decisions.

In this paper, I want to formulate an argument towards regaining a spirit of activism in the modern world; one of the points of this will be an extended analysis of religious and secular worldviews as motivators. In this post, via Jurgen Habermas and Charles Taylor, I want to take my first step in defining the kind of secularism I think will be needed to make this happen.

The encompassing concept that seems to be defining current debates on secularism and religion in philosophical circles is that of “political theology,” or the concept that postulates that religious ways of thinking are prevalent throughout political, social, and economic theories. The classic example of this is Carl Schmitt, who wrote an entire book on the topic: he argued that all political theories relate to government in the same way that theology relates to religion, and particularly used the concept of Original Sin, our old friend, to argue for authoritarianism.

The premise we have here is that politics is propped up in the same way that religion is; through dogmatic ways of thinking that exist to maintain order. Nationalism in particular comes to mind here as a notion of the political acting like the religious.

Contra this, Habermas, one of the more prominent political philosophers of the past few decades, makes the case that the revival of political theology and this notion of “the political” is to attempt to make the state out to be a totality, a historical notion of the nation-state not terribly dissimilar from a Rousseauian social contract, where all citizens of the nation buy into a narrative of power that is based on smoke and legend; such a conception, Habermas contends, has been rendered obsolete by the revelation of state power through what he terms “the public sphere.”

Now, however, in a society where the capitalist economic “juggernaut” reigns more than any political philosophy, he sees the resurgence of political theology as an attempt to return the control over these forces to “human agents.” This, he argues, is just more smoke and mirrors, and so a new, “postsecular” stance is required, one which has a handle on the continued vitality of religion in public life; it has not gone away, and shows little sign of doing so in a global sense. In a turn that reminds one of Quine, he says that religion is part of the bond of society, but that its language must be secularized into a “universally accessible language,” understandable by all, not just the religious or the secular.

In my next post, I will turn to Charles Taylor’s critique of Habermas, and offer my own analysis.

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