The Public Sphere, Secularity, and Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is one of my favorite philosophers. I find his Sources of the Self and volumes of philosophical papers (one, two and three) to be very helpful in understanding the rise of modernity and the transition to postmodernity. I am now working through his latest, Modern Social Imaginaries. My first take on the book is that it is rather rough and probably rushed into print. Much of it is outside my field, so I’m struggling to understand it. The chapter on the invention of the Public Sphere, however, is fascinating and illuminating. Later, when I have the book in front of me (I left it at the office today), I will write more, but now just a brief note.

In his discussion of the Public Sphere, he talks about this as being secular – not primarily in the sense of being non-religious, but in the original sense of being atomistically temporal. All time is the same; there is no time that has any special significance. This illuminates two features of our current reality.

First, one of the major debates on constitutional issues regards the role of original intent. If Taylor is right, it is a central feature of the “new” public sphere that what the public says now is always of the same relevance as what the public said at anytime in the past. Not only is the constitution itself only a purely human creation, on a par with anything produced today, but since the public sphere is always NOW, we are free to change our understanding of the constitution at any time. Sounds like the background to the “constitution as living document” to me. If Taylor is right, it is not surprising that those who argue against Original Intent find it to be such a strange and unbelievable position.

Second, our culture has been marginalizing the place of religion in the larger culture. If religion is taken as historical, with founding documents that say what they say, and are what they are, regardless of what we say today, then it is illegitimate to give it a role in a society dominated by the Public Sphere. Of course, those religionists who follow Lessing and see “true religion” as consisting in “the universal truths of reason” will find less difficulty in allowing a relationship between religion and society – though since the “universal truths of reason” are as changeable as any other aspect of the Public Sphere, this connection tends not to amount to much,

In a recent Tech Central Station Column, Edward Feser writes on “How to Mix Religion and Politics.” He says,

Suppose, however, that someone did defend a view about abortion, same-sex marriage, or some other contentious matter by appealing to religious considerations. Why should this be considered unacceptable? The problem, in the view of many liberals, is that religious considerations are matters of faith, where “faith” connotes in their minds a kind of groundless commitment, a will to believe that for which there is no objective evidence. Opinions on matters of public policy, they would say, can only appropriately be arrived at via methods of argument assessable by all members of the political community, not by reference to the idiosyncratic and subjective feelings of a minority.

If Taylor is correct, not only are faith-based arguments seen as illegitimate for reasons of goundlessness, but are so precisely because they have an illegitimate kind of grounding – in past events and in the founding documents of the tradition. In this kind of religion there is no role for the Public Sphere (as has arisen in modernity).

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