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What’s So Post about the Post-Secular?
Mark Redhead
California State University, Fullerton
Over the past decade a number of Western based social theorists have repeatedly called
on their colleagues to open their eyes to the fact that religion is not leaving the public sphere. In
fact the opposite is occurring. Religious groups and concerns are once again (as if they ever
were not) playing central roles in the public sphere. One of these thinkers is Jurgen Habermas
who has recently sought to conceptualize our age as a post-secular one.
The term post-secular
is a bit of red herring as even a largely sympathetic reader like Craig Calhoun will admit.
Habermas is not defending religious ideas nor is he arguing against the relevance of secular
forms of public reasoning. Rather, Calhoun points out, with the term post-secular Habermas is
suggesting that liberal political thought needs to realize that faith discourses and those of public
reason cannot be as clearly distinguished as many liberal democratic political theorists have
assumed. Arguing that religious forms of reasoning should be left out of public discourse might
be a theoretically impoverished position.1
Habermas’ work on the supposedly post-secular is interesting not because of the accuracy
of its sociological account of our age but for the problematics of public reasoning that it raises
and doesn’t quite resolve. Habermas’s work is still vulnerable to much of the criticisms a wide
variety of theistic and non-theistic thinkers have made of neo-Kantian models of public
reasoning in general that they are unable to respond to the legitimate concerns of theistic citizens
even though he has partly tried to modify his thinking in response to these critiques. The
particular problematics that still afflict his work belie deeper issues about the various ways in
which a secularist social imaginary is experienced and what public reasoning under it entails.2
These issues include the asymmetrical obligations placed on theistic as opposed to non-theistic
Craig Calhoun, “Secularism, Citizenship and the Public Sphere” in Craig Calhoun, Mark Juergensmeyer and
Jonathan VanAntwerpen eds. Rethinking Secularism (Oxford, Oxford Univ. Press, 2011) p. 79.
By a social imaginary I mean, to paraphrase Charles Taylor, a common or background set of understandings which
makes possible a society’s common practices of politics, morality, religion and economics as well provide a widely
shared sense of the legitimacy (or lack thereof) of these practices.
citizens, the limits of translatability of religious reasons into secular reasons and the limited
sense of “learning” on behalf secular citizens.
I will argue these specific concerns call forth a more general lesson that public reasoning
in whatever secular age (post or non-post) Western democracies reside within calls for processes
of reasoning through rather than independently of the cultural and ethical forces that make
subjects what they are. To make this argument I will first work through Habermas’ ideal of the
post-secular (I) and the problems that befall it (II). I will then (III) introduce the concept of
reasoning through baggage as well as highlight some of its virtues. In order to illuminate these
traits I will (IV) briefly chronicle some practices of reasoning through baggage developed by
William Connolly and Charles Taylor that are prominent in their own conceptualizations of
contemporary secularity as well as the spiritual visions they advance in light of it. Through this
discussion of the strengths and limits of their work I will show how a democratic project like
Habermas’ can advance its noble aims via incorporating practices of reasoning through baggage.
I. Democracy, (Post?) Secularity and All That
Habermas’s musings on the post secular is tied up with his work on global governance or
what he has referred to as a global domestic politics, a politics that might serve as a counterweight to a global politics primarily driven by the dictates of neo-liberalism. So far he has
developed two dimensions to his analysis; a focus on the post-secular as the site of the interrelationship of religion and democratic politics and a focus on the post-secular as the problem of
how to include members of various religious faiths within necessarily secular acts of public
In regards to the first, Habermas confronts head on the worry that today many subjects
experience collective life through a social imaginary in which “the political” “has been
transformed into the code of a self-maintaining administrative subsystem, so that democracy is in
danger of becoming a mere façade, which the executive turn toward their helpless clients.”
Systemic integration via the functionalist imperatives of neo-liberalism proceeds apace while
social integration becomes “a far too cumbersome mechanism. Because the latter still proceeds
via the minds of actors, its operation would have to rely upon the normative structures of
lifeworlds that are, however, more and more marginalized.” Given the onslaught of neoliberalism, individuals retreat more and more into their private lives, making collective action
harder and reinforcing an already existent skepticism with regard to the virtues of the
enlightenment and modernity. The perceived danger that democracy is becoming an obsolete
model “is the challenge that lends the apparently antiquated concept of ‘the political’ new
topicality.”3 Thus the contemporary infatuation with Carl Schmitt’s brand of political theology.
Habermas agrees with Schmitt that religion owes its legitimizing force to the fact that its
power to convince comes from “its own roots” which are independent of the political. “The
political” itself originally “means the symbolic representation and collective self-understanding
of a community that differs from tribal societies through a reflexive turn to a conscious rather
than spontaneous form of social integration. In the self-understanding of this kind of polity the
locus of control shifts toward collective action. However, ‘the political’ as such could not
become a topic of discourse as long as mythic narratives remained the sole means of symbolic
representation.” 4 Religion with its reference to a divinity outside the world allowed intellectual
elites to transcend the events of the moment and make politics subject to critique and discourse.
In this Roman through Medieval European assemblage, “the religiously backed belief in
legitimacy can well be manipulated; it is never totally at the disposition of the ruler.” Here “‘the
political’ had a clear meaning, namely; the symbolic order of the collective self-representation
of political communities in the mirror image of rulers whose authority is legitimated by some
sacred power.”5 All this has been lost, as Schmitt was well aware but for him the concept could
be renewed under the form of an authoritarian mass democracy.
Jurgen Habermas, “The Political: The Rational Meaning of a Questionable Inheritance of Political Theology” in
Eduardo Mendieta and Jonathan Vanantwerpen eds. The Power of Religion in the Public Sphere (New York:
Columbia Univ. Press, 2011) p. 16.
Ibid p. 19.
Habermas finds Schmitt mistaken in attributing the breakdown of the amalgamation of
religion and the political to the rise of secularist modern states like the USA and France.
Habermas further adds:
As to secularization, it is not only the challenge of the confessional split and the fact of
pluralism that called for a secular state authority capable of treating the claims of all
religious communities impartially; apart from that, democratic self-empowerment of
citizens already strips the legitimation of political power of its metasocial character, in
other words, of the reference to the warrant of a transcendent authority operating beyond
society. This break with the traditional pattern of legitimation, in fact, raises the question
of whether a justification of constitutional essentials in the secular terms of popular
power and human rights closes off the dimension of ‘the political,’ thereby rendering the
concept of ‘the political’ with its religious connotations obsolete. Or does the locus of
‘the political’ merely shift from the level of the state to the democratic opinion- and willformation of citizens within civil society? Against Carl Schmitt, we might ask: why
shouldn’t the political find an impersonal embodiment in the normative dimension of a
democratic constitution? And what would this alternative mean for the relation between
religion and politics like ours?”6
Habermas says yes to the second question while developing his account of the postsecular in response to the third. Against the “clericofascism” of Schmitt and Damasio Cortes
with his “dictatorship of the sword” Habermas tries to develop his own liberal account of a
religiously engaged concept of the political. He first finds that “as long as religious communities
play a vital role in civil society and the public sphere, deliberative politics is as much a product
of the public use of reason on the part of religious citizens as on that of nonreligious citizens.”7
Rawls offers “with his idea of the ‘public use of reason’ an important but limited starting
point for explaining how the proper role of religion in the public sphere contributes to a rational
interpretation of what we still might call ‘the political’ as distinct from politics and policies.”8
After duly signing on to the now frequent criticism that Rawls’ proviso cannot satisfactorily
account for religious citizens who are unable to generate good secularist reasons for their politics
and that his theory is much more demanding of theistic than nontheistic citizens, Habermas
comes up with his own “translation proviso.” According to this proposal religious languages are
Ibid p. 21.
Ibid p. 24.
Ibid p. 25.
fine for public discourse so long as those who use them accept that their potential truth contents
must be translated into a generally “accessible language” before they can find their way on the
agenda of formal public bodies.9 Such a neutral, impersonal language could serve as a basis for
an institutional filter between the informal and formal public spheres. This translation “proposal
achieves the liberal goal of ensuring that all legally enforceable and publically sanctioned
decisions can be formulated and justified in a universally accessible language without having to
restrict the polyphonic diversity of voices at its very source.”10 The ideal of an impersonal
democratic process has become the new modern form of the political, an ideal in which, like the
original versions of the political, religion still has a place. A democratic process is at its core,
Habermas maintains, a mutual learning process on behalf of citizens:
One often blocked by a deficient sense of what is lacking and what is still possible. Any
democratic constitution is and remains a project: Within the framework of the nationstate, it is oriented to the ever more thorough exhaustion of the normative substance of
constitutional principles under changing historic conditions. And, at the global level, the
universalistic meaning of human rights reminds us of the need to develop a constitutional
frame for an emerging multicultural society.11
Habermas has devoted considerable effort to spelling out some of the features of such a
global constitutional frame that can vindicate his own democratic project. This work is driven by
his ideal of a global domestic policy built upon a “compulsory cosmopolitan solidarity” that can
mitigate the functionalist and instrumentalist imperatives of neo-liberal economics so as to
achieve a “renewed closure of an economically unmastered world society.”12 Like David Held,
Mary Caldor and others Habermas promotes a global politics that draws upon a multileveled
system of local, national and supranational governing institutions as well as “a world
organization with the power to impose peace and implement human rights.” The phenomena of
international terrorism for example, can only be dealt with first through the effective
coordination of “intelligence services, police forces, and criminal justice procedures… These
Ibid p. 25.
Ibid p. 26
Ibid p. 27.
Jurgen Habermas, “The Postnational Constellation and the Future of Democracy” The Postnational
Constellation: Political Essays (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001) p.111-12.
means are more readily available to a horizontally juridified international community that is
legally obligated to cooperate than to the unilateralism of a major power that disregards
international law.” The ideal of an international community underlying a global domestic
politics stands in stark contrast to Kant’s original notion of a world republic in which the
constitutional features of a nation-state are projected on to a global scale. 13 The former though
can, Habermas maintains, embody the Kantian ideal of a cosmopolitan condition as Kant
articulated in “Perpetual Peace” as the participants in a global domestic politics are supposed to
think from the perspective of the universal condition of humankind.
Promoting a global domestic politics sufficient to respond to global level
dysfunctionalities entails fostering mutual learning processes built on acts of public reasoning
within global public spheres if democratic counter-weights to neo-liberalism are to be cultivated.
As for institutionalizing this emerging cosmopolitan order much turns on the question of whether
“global communication in an informal public, without constitutionally institutionalized paths for
translating communicative influence into political power, can secure a sufficient degree of
integration for global society and whether it can confer a sufficient level of legitimacy on the
decisions of the world organization.”14 Integration into a global society and the legitimacy of the
actions of supranational institutions are both dependent on the generation of norms that take their
bearings from an overlapping consensus of shared understandings cultivated by acts of
communicative reasoning. From what contemporary moral sources can these shared
understanding be drawn from?
This is where the second dimension of Habermas’ work on the post-secular comes to the
fore – thinking through how theistic and non-theistic selves deliberate with each other within
contemporary public spheres. Like Alasdair Macintyre, Charles Taylor, Talal Asad, William
Connolly and numerous others Habermas is keenly aware of the limited appeal of secular
Jurgen Habermas “Does the Constitutionalization of International Law Still Have a Chance?” in The Divided
West (London: Polity, 2006) p. 136-37.
Jurgen Habermas, “Religion in the Public Sphere: Cognitive Presuppositions for the Public Use of Reason by
Religious and Secular Citizens” in Between Naturalism and Religion (London: Polity Press, 2008) p. 142.
thinking even in supposed secular Western secular democracies. Globally, Habermas claims,
“three overlapping phenomena, more than anything else, converge to create the impression of a
worldwide ‘resurgence of religion’: (a) the missionary expansion of the major world religions;
(b) their fundamentalist radicalization; and (c) the political instrumentalization of their inherent
potential for violence.”15 Many European states like Habermas’ native Germany are increasingly
becoming post-secular in that they have had to adjust themselves to the continued existence of
religious communities in increasingly secularized environments.16 This generates a new question
for citizens of states like Germany: “How should we understand ourselves as members of a postsecular society, and what must we expect from one another if we want to ensure that social
relations in firmly entrenched nation-states remain civil in spite of the growth of cultural and
religious pluralism?”17
Habermas’ approach to his post-secular question initially took its bearings from Kant’s
philosophy of religion which he praises for not only clarifying the division of labor between
theology and practical reason but also distinguishing the justified uses of the latter “from
excessive metaphysical claims to knowledge, on the one hand, and from supersensible religious
truths of faith, on the other.”18 Kant’s philosophy of religion can be read as a warning against
“religious philosophy,” or a brand of secular reasoning that fails to learn from other forms of
thought.19 Despite these insights Kant’s legacy in this area is flawed. Besides their inability to
takes seriously the concerns of religious citizens, a second short coming Habermas finds with
neo-Kantian models like Rawls is that they cannot cultivate the slender bonds of solidarity a
global domestic politics relies upon since they do not have the “sufficient strength to awaken,
and to keep awake, in the minds of secular subjects, an awareness of the violations of solidarity
Jurgen Habermas, “What is Meant by a Post-Secular Society? A Discussion on Islam in Europe” in Jurgen
Habermas, Europe: The Faltering Project translated by Ciaran Cronin (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2009) p. 61.
Ibid p. 63.
Ibid p. 65.
Jurgen Habermas, “The Boundary between Faith and Knowledge: On the Reception and Contemporary
Importance of Kant’s Philosophy of Religion,” in Between Naturalism and Religion (op.cit) p. 242-43.
Ibid p. 247.
throughout the world, an awareness of what is missing, of what cries out to heaven.”20
Habermas is aware that there must be a change in mentality on the part of both religious and nonreligious individuals so that both types can become reflexive enough to engage in
complementary learning processes, something Rawlsians and many other Kantian (and Lockean)
inspired liberals do not account for in their approaches to religious pluralism.21 Habermas hopes
that an “alternate perspective on the genealogy of reason” one aware of the shared origin of
philosophy and religion in the revolution of worldviews of the Axial Age,” in particular the two
traditions based “respectively in Jerusalem and Athens,” can point towards a way out of this
Working down this alternative path Habermas casts a receptive eye upon theistic thinkers
like Aquinas whom Habermas follows Macintyre in regarding as an authentic intellectual voice
whose absence today “is simply a fact. In a homogenizing media society, everything loses its
seriousness- perhaps even institutionalized Christianity itself.”23 Habermas is not a cheerleader
for Thomism. Rather he understands “cultural and societal secularization as a double learning
process that compels both the traditions of the Enlightenment and the religious doctrines to
reflect on their own respective limits.”24 Habermas sees modern forms of faith, while not
relativizing the specific articles of faith themselves, as reflexive acts that can only stabilize
[themselves] through self-critical awareness of the status that they assume “within a universe of
discourse restricted by secular knowledge and shared with other religions.”25 In our secular age,
tolerance demands that believers and unbelievers alike must expect to go on encountering dissent
from their views. Without this reasonable expectation of disagreement between theists and
Jurgen Habermas, “An Awareness of What is Missing” in Jurgen Habermas et al An Awareness of What is
Missing: Faith and Reason in a Post-Secular Age translated by Ciaran Cronin (London: Polity Press, 2010) p. 19.
“Religion in the Public Sphere: Cognitive Presuppositions for the Public Use of Reason by Religious and Secular
Citizens” p. 143.
“An Awareness of What is Missing” p. 17
Jurgen Habermas, “A Conversation about God and the World” [1999]. Reprinted in Time of Transitions edited
and translated by Ciaran Cronin and Max Pensky (London: Polity, 2006) p. 154.
Jurgen Habermas, “Pre-Political Foundations of the Democratic Constitutional State?” in Jurgen Habermas and
Joseph Ratzinger, The Dialectics of Secularization (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2006) p. 23.
“A Conversation about God and the World” p. 152.
secularists neither can engage in public reasoning in the sense that both camps try to translate
morally compelling intuitions into a generally acceptable language.26
Crucial here is the self-realization on the part of secular citizens of the limits of rationally
comprehending religious experience. “Faith,” Habermas points out “remains opaque for
knowledge in a way which may neither be denied nor simply accepted. This reflects the
inconclusive nature of the confrontation between a self-critical reason which is willing to learn
and contemporary religious convictions. This confrontation can sharpen post-secular society’s
awareness of the unexhausted force of religious traditions,” while devotees of the latter can come
to experience secularization as a “transformer which redirects the flow of tradition” in a manner
that makes a given tradition accessible to non-devotees.27 Habermas notes that for unbelievers
this means that they too must acknowledge that there can be linkages between faith and
knowledge that are not exclusively irrational.28 Habermas distinguishes between the secular and
the secularist. The former adopts an agnostic stance towards religious claims while the latter
“adopt a polemical stance towards religious doctrines which retain a certain public influence
even though their claims cannot be scientifically justified. Today secularism often appeals to a
‘hard’, that is, scientifically grounded, version of naturalism.”29 A liberal secular state can
potentially become a secularist oriented one when it fails to realize that in its’ attempts to protect
all citizens freedom of belief and conscience it may “not demand anything of its religious
citizens which cannot be reconciled with a life that is led authentically ‘from faith.’”30
At the same time, Habermas points out, a liberal state can guarantee equal freedom of
religion to its citizens “only under the proviso that they do not barricade themselves within the
self-enclosed lifeworlds of their religious communities and seal themselves off from each
“Religion in the Public Sphere: Cognitive Presuppositions for the Public Use of Reason by Religious and Secular
Citizens” p. 139-40.
“An Awareness of What is Missing,” p. 18. See also “Religion in the Public Sphere: Cognitive Presuppositions
for the Public Use of Reason by Religious and Secular Citizens” p. 143.
“Pre-Political Foundations of the Democratic Constitutional State?” p. 50-51. See also “An Awareness of What is
Missing” p. 22.
“What is Meant by a Post-Secular Society? A Discussion on Islam in Europe” p. 74.
“An Awareness of What is Missing” p. 21.
other.”31 All groups need to loosen their holds on individuals so that the latter can recognize
others as citizens and as members of the same democratic political community. As members of a
democratic state they collectively give themselves laws and rights which enable each and all, as
private individuals, to uphold the collective practices which define their personal identity.
Religious consciousness be it in the form expressed by the American evangelical or the Muslim
immigrant to Europe must become reflexive “when confronted with the necessity of relating its
articles of faith to competing systems of belief and to the scientific monopoly on the production
of factual knowledge.”32 From this imperative it follows that religious citizens who regard
themselves as loyal members of a constitutional democracy must accept the translation proviso
as the price to be paid for the neutrality of the state and authority toward competing worldviews.
For secular citizens, the same ethics of citizenship entails a complementary burden. By
the duty of reciprocal accountability toward all citizens, including religious ones, they are
“obliged not to publicly dismiss religious contributions to political opinion and will formation as
mere noise, or even nonsense, from the start. Secular and religious citizens must meet in their
public use of reason at eye level. For a democratic process the contributions of one side are no
less important than those of the other side.”33 Hence, the liberal state must “expect its secular
citizens, in exercising their role as citizens, not to treat religious expressions as simply
irrational.” The imperative is not easy to follow given the pervasiveness of a “naïve faith in
science” amongst secularists as well as the fact that the imperative forces secular citizens to
practically resolve the “question of how modern reason, which has turned its back on
metaphysics, should understand its relation to religion. Of course, the expectation that theology
should engage seriously with postmetaphysical thinking is by no means trivial either.”34 Both
expectations appear even more demanding when one considers that the changes in mentality
“What is Meant by a Post-Secular Society? A Discussion on Islam in Europe” p. 68.
“An Awareness of What is Missing” p. 21.
“The Political: The Rational Meaning of a Questionable Inheritance of Political Theology” p. 26.
“An Awareness of What is Missing” p. 22.
“What is Meant by a Post-Secular Society? A Discussion on Islam in Europe” p. 75. “Religion in the Public
Sphere: Cognitive Presuppositions for the Public Use of Reason by Religious and Secular Citizens” p. 139-40.
needed to foster the forms of solidarity Habermas’ democratic vision depends on have to be
produced by deliberations that appear as learning processes and not simply as changes in point of
view only from the perspective of a “secular self-understanding of modernity.” These changes in
orientation on behalf of theistic and non theistic selves “cannot be prescribed,” nor can they “be
politically manipulated or forced through law… With the cognitive preconditions of an ethics of
democratic citizenship we run up against the limits of a normative political theory which can
justify only rights and duties. Learning processes can be fostered, but they cannot be morally or
legally ordered.”35
II. Who is Learning Here?
It’s quite unclear, especially in the case of non-theistic citizens. At the end of the day,
Habermas, despite his attempts to moderately distance himself from Rawls and his brand of neoKantian pubic reason, does seem, like the frequent criticism of the former, to place a heavier
burden on theistic citizens then on non-theists. Secularists of all stripes recognize “the need for
including all citizens as equals in civil society.” However, Habermas tells us “because a
democratic order cannot simply be imposed on its authors, the constitutional state confronts its
citizens with the expectations of an ethics of citizenship that reaches beyond mere obedience to
the law. Religious citizens and communities must do more than merely conform to the
constitutional order in a superficial way. They must appropriate the secular legitimation of
constitutional principles under the premises of their own faith.” 36 Secular citizens simply need
to merely open themselves up to the possibility that religious citizens might have something
important to say while religious citizens must not only recognize that secularists might indeed be
reasonable but they must also try to find within their own faith, analogues to secular forms of
political theorizing. Habermas seems to be merely stating Rawls’ proviso in his own words.
“What is Meant by a Post-Secular Society? A Discussion on Islam in Europe” p. 75. “Religion in the Public
Sphere: Cognitive Presuppositions for the Public Use of Reason by Religious and Secular Citizens” p. 139-40.
“What is Meant by a Post-Secular Society? A Discussion on Islam in Europe” p. 75.
Perhaps the problem here is that Habermas seems to be implicitly viewing religious
citizens as having a more challenging set of citizenship requirements because they are
purportedly immersed in a thicker ethical lifeworld. This is the kernel of the charitable version
of critical flax Habermas runs into here from readers like Craig Calhoun who notes that:
For purposes of public discourse in a plural society, Habermas demands that the religious
person consider his or her own faith reflexively, see it from the point of view of others,
and relate it to secular views. Although this requires a cognitive capacity that not all
religious people have, it is not intrinsically contrary to religion, and equivalent demands
are placed on all citizens by the ethics of public discourse. Interestingly, Habermas does
not think the same demand will be equally challenging to the nonreligious. This seems to
be because he does not believe that they have deep, orienting value commitments not
readily articulated as moral reasons. That is, Habermas seems to believe that in addition
to their judgments of the issues at hand, and perhaps on a different level, religious people
make a prior and less rational prejudgment but that the nonreligious are at least
potentially free of such prejudgments, making only a variety of judgments. This seems a
mistake. Both religious orientations to the world and secular, ‘Enlightenment’
orientations depend on strong epistemic and moral commitments made at least partially
Charles Taylor offers up a less generous critique. Taylor agrees with Habermas that the
state should use a neutral language such as the language of official legislation and court
judgments. The neutrality of the secular state in the formal public sphere is a response to
diversity not the threat of religion which is why the “the state can be neither Christian nor
Muslim nor Jewish, but by the same token it should also be neither Marxist nor Kantian nor
Utilitarian.”38 The state should be a locus for free flowing discourses on values, identities and
common goods that arise for genuine acts of reciprocal position taking among all sections of the
populace which means that equally stringent demands of critical reflexivity should be made on
all citizens. Hence Habermas’ asymmetrical demands are unwarranted.
The asymmetrical demands Habermas places on theistic citizens vis-à-vis non-theists
brings to the fore the unjustified role played by secular reason or reason alone as Taylor defines
it in Habermas’ account of the post-secular. Habermas’ admission that his post-secular forms of
Craig Calhoun, “Secularism, Citizenship and the Public Sphere” p. 83.
Charles Taylor “What Does Secularism Mean?” in Charles Taylor, Dilemmas and Connections (Cambridge, MA:
Belknap Press, 2011) p. 321.
dialogue only count as learning processes from a secular understanding of modernity exemplifies
this point. At play in such an understanding is a latent myth that the Enlightenment’s celebration
of reason was an unmitigated cultural gain. This is true in both Rawls and Habermas in that
both subscribe to a nonreligiously informed reason (or reason alone), that purportedly can
“resolve certain moral-political issues (a) in a way which can legitimately satisfy any honest,
unconfused thinker, and (b) where religiously based conclusions will always be dubious, and in
the end only convincing to people who have already accepted the dogmas in question.”39 Taylor
finds the distinction in rational credibility between religious and nonreligious discourses here to
be “utterly without foundation. It may turn out at the end of the day that religion is founded on
illusion, and hence that what is derived from it is less credible. But until we actually reach that
place, there is no a priori reason for greater suspicion being directed at it.”40
Secular reasoning is also defended because it is supposedly universal while religious
forms of reasoning are unduly parochial. According to Habermas, “secular reasons do not
expand the perspective of one’s own community, but push for mutual perspective taking so that
different communities can develop a more inclusive perspective by transcending their own
universe of discourse.”41 Rawls and Habermas indeed tread on a distinction between secular
reason “which everyone can use and reach conclusions by- conclusions, that is, with which
everyone can agree. Then there are special languages, which introduce extra assumptions, which
might even contradict those of ordinary secular reason. These are much more epistemically
fragile; in fact you won’t be convinced by them unless you already hold them.”42 According to
Habermas, “by using any kind of religious reasons, you are implicitly appealing to membership
in a corresponding religious community. Only if one is a member and can speak in the first
Ibid p. 323.
Ibid. See also Charles Taylor, “Why We Need a Radical Redefinition of Secularism” in Eduardo Mendieta and
Jonathan Vanantwerpen eds. The Power of Religion in the Public Sphere (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 2011)
p. 53.
“Dialogue: Jurgen Habermas and Charles Taylor” in Eduardo Mendieta and Jonathan Vanantwerpen eds. The
Power of Religion in the Public Sphere (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 2011) p. 66.
“What Does Secularism Mean?” p. 320. See also “Die Blosse Vernunft (“Reason Alone”)” in Charles Taylor,
Dilemmas and Connections (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2011) p. 344.
person from within a particular religious tradition does one share a specific kind of experience on
which religious convictions and reasons depend.”43 Hence religious forms of reasoning can
either come to the same conclusions (ala Rawls’ proviso) making them superfluous or they can
come to different ones making them dangerous. However, Taylor justifiably counters, “How can
you discriminate discourses on the basis of the deep psychological background? I could make
another story about the psychological background that Kantians have, and so on, and why they
get excited by certain things which don’t excite me. But what that got to do with the discourse
out there? Can people not understand it? Why discriminate on those grounds?”44 Far from
promoting a form of public reasoning that promotes mutual perspective taking, the purportedly
post-metaphysical thinking underlying Habermas’ post-secular musings seems to be built upon a
not quite defended inequality vis-à-vis the reasonableness of non-theistic versus theistic
Moreover, in the case of Habermas’ own translation principle it becomes quite unclear
whether translation means simply assimilation of a religious perspective to a secular one or
something else. Though generally a sympathetic reader of Habermas Friedo Reiken still asks,
“What means does postmetaphysical reason have at its disposal if it is to perform a translation
rather than an assimilation, a translation in which parts of the religious traditions are transposed
into another language without detriment to their semantic content?”45 Habermas doesn’t seem to
have an answer here and thus it seems as if translation exercises on some level preclude a
critically reflexive look at the ethical biases that frame a non-theistic viewpoint. The non-theist
is never asked to think through, in its own manner, some of the distinctly non-secular concerns of
theistic citizens. Like undergraduate students who dismiss ideas from Plato or Aquinas simply
because they seem foreign to their contemporary historical milieu, the secularist is only
“Dialogue: Jurgen Habermas and Charles Taylor” p. 61.
Ibid p. 63.
Friedo Ricken, “Postmetaphysical Reason and Religion” in Jurgen Habermas et al An Awareness of What is
Missing: Faith and Reason in a Post-Secular Age translated by Ciaran Cronin (London: Polity Press, 2010) p. 57.
compelled to engage theistic iterations of viewpoints they hold but not think through how they
could learn from ideas that might come from foreign metaphysical and ethical sources.
Habermas tells us that his brand of post-metaphysical thinking “is prepared learn from
religion while at the same time remaining agnostic.” It abandons the rationalist presumption that
it itself can differentiate the rational from non-rational elements of faith while simultaneously
insisting on the difference between “the certainties of faith and publicly criticizable validity
claims.” In translating the elements of a religious doctrine into a public criticizable validity claim
the contents of such translation “must not be lost for faith.” However it’s not imperative for a
non theist to actually engage (and thus learn) about the deeper ethical forces that drive the now
translated validity claims put forth by their fellow theistic citizens since:
Providing an apology for faith employing philosophical means is not a task for
philosophy proper. At best, philosophy circumscribes the opaque core of religious
experience when it reflects on the specific character of religious language and on the
intrinsic meaning of faith. This core remains as profoundly alien to discursive thought as
the hermetic core of aesthetic experience, which likewise can be at best circumscribed,
but not penetrated, by philosophical reflection.46
It is interesting to note here how Habermas presupposes a binary between philosophy and
religion in which philosophy only circumscribes but does not penetrate the latter’s alien core.
This begs the question of what goes on then in profoundly theistic yet secular thinkers like
Macintyre and Taylor? Certainly their philosophical work is deeply informed by their theistic
commitments and likewise their own faith practices draw sustenance from their careers as
professional philosophers. Philosophy as they practice it does not simply circumscribe the core
of their religious experience but is indeed driven and framed in many respects by it. From
Taylor’s vantage point, positions like Habermas’ exemplify modern liberal philosophy’s
enduring exclusive focus on the horizontal dimension of ethical thinking, our moral relations
with other humans rather than also the vertical dimension of man’s relationship to some higher
calling, purpose or sense of order. They exemplify the blindness thinkers like Habermas still
Jurgen Habermas, “Religion in the Public Sphere: Cognitive Presuppositions for the Public Use of Reason by
Religious and Secular Citizens” in Between Naturalism and Religion (London: Polity Press, 2008) p. 143.
maintain to this important dimension of ethical experience and thus betray the limits of such
secular thinking to grasp the ethical imaginaries through which many theistic individuals engage
in acts of public reasoning. Moreover such nomolatarist thinking makes us unaware of “what it
takes to change ourselves” and of how today there can be vastly different modes of life as say
celibate priests and noncelibate believers that are “equally important and valid, equally
Habermasian secularists are also limited in their ability to learn from religion exactly why
theists should see that it is in their theistic –not necessarily practical – interests to become
reflexive? Isn’t it often the case, as Colin Jager argues against Habermas, that such epistemic
ability for reflection “only follows if we think that the task at hand is the strictly analytical one of
sorting out the relevant confusions, difficulties, and tensions entailed by the relationship between
‘religion’ and the ‘public sphere’ and that thought is in turn based on a tendency to treat
historically contingent definitions of religion (as centered on belief and epistemology) as the
truth of ‘religion’ per se.”48 Habermas doesn’t seem to be aware of this point or at least doesn’t
seem to be bothered by it. While acknowledging that secular citizens should tolerate dissenting
religious views and seeing the interrelationships between “Jerusalem and Athens,” he doesn’t
press the point further by thinking through how a secular citizen can reason through their own
baggage so as to be a critically receptive citizen vis-à-vis others. Habermas fails to think through
what happens when this historically contingent framing of the problem of religious life in a postsecular society is set aside. What about other questions that might drive theistic citizens and
which they themselves might call on secularists to be reflective on? These could include,
continuing with Jager’s critique, how “did the relevant question come to be that of the
relationship between religion and the public sphere? Why do we find ourselves thinking in these
Charles Taylor, “Perils of Moralism” in Charles Taylor, Dilemmas and Connections (Cambridge, MA: Belknap
Press, 2011) p. 364.
Colin Jager, “This Detail, This History: Charles Taylor’s Romanticism” in Varieties of Secularism in a Secular
Age edited by Michael Warner, Jonathan VanAntwerpen and Craig Calhoun (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press,
2010) p. 171.
terms and not others? Do we all think in these terms? Are there alternatives? Do they matter?”49
Critically reflective citizens of all theistic and agnostic stripes should at least be able to engage
these questions and many in fact do so within the post-secular public spheres of today. Good
political theory though should not only, like Habermas, point out the need for a mutual learning
process but should be aware of the various historical, social and other forces that frame how such
processes transpire.
The brief proceeding set of criticisms attests to the point that Habermas’ account of the
post secular seems more akin to a secular attempt to incorporate non-secular voices within its
orbit rather than his intended goal of promoting a model of public reasoning built upon mutual
learning processes between all reasonable voices. At best Habermas’ post-secularism like
Rawls’ “ideal of public reason” accommodates but doesn’t critically engage reasonable theistic
positions. Given that one large grouping of citizens will at best feel that they are being
accommodated in a world fundamentally defined by the orientations of another large grouping
but not themselves being equal partners in the creation of some shared understandings, it is hard
to see what forms of durable solidarity can arise from the deliberative exercises Habermas builds
his vision around.
Why though does it seem so hard for liberal political philosophy to engage non-secular
positions? Why do thinkers like Habermas and Rawls before him, ended up being vulnerable to
the charge of not quite upholding their shared liberal value of reciprocity in this area despite their
best intentions of doing so? My hunch is that an effective response to these shortcomings can be
developed by reconceiving how the subjects involved in these processes of shared deliberation
actually go about deliberating. Liberal political theory be it of a post-secular or non-post secular
kind privileges forms of public reasoning built upon reasoning apart from or independently of
one’s deepest ethical commitments. I propose that a more fruitful approach is to think through
how subjects can critically reflect upon these commitments as they deliberate with others. I call
such a means of public reasoning, reasoning through baggage.
III. Reasoning Through Baggage
By reasoning through baggage, I mean wrestling with the tension that the political
deliberator be it a fellow citizen, judge, activist or a political theorist, is at once above the fray
attempting to come up with the best account of reality but always doing so from a certain
position informed by ethical and political biases that they variously seek to articulate, defend and
promote. If she deliberates sincerely then she tries to work from some objective or, more
accurately stated, objectivating position. However this position is itself always an interested one,
always rooted in the particular articulate and inarticulate prejudices of the deliberator.
Reasoning through baggage has two senses: We reason through our baggage in an ontological
sense when we attempt to diagnose how some of our baggage always frames how we reason
(how we articulate the claims of others, the language through which we recognize others, what
ends we advance, what ends we don’t even consider, etc…).50 We can also reason through
baggage in a moral sense when, in attempting to deliberate sincerely with others, we try to tell
the truths of ourselves, the standpoint we are reasoning from, while appreciating the fact that we
can never do so in a completely ‘free’ manner.
There is a large and eclectic array of voices from those firmly outside to those somewhat
within the liberal tradition of political theory who have devoted considerable efforts towards
conceptualizing practices of reasoning through baggage and have produced a plethora of often
One everyday manifestation of the ontological dimension of reasoning through baggage is the inability to
recognize an other solely through one’s own eyes, the languages and norms we use to offer recognition end up
constituting us the recognizer as much as they facilitate our communication with the recognizee. As Judith Butler
nicely puts it. “the moment I realize that the terms by which I confer recognition are not mine alone, that I did not
single-handedly devise or craft them, I am, as it were, dispossessed by the language that I offer. In a sense, I submit
to a norm of recognition when I offer recognition to you, which means that the ‘I’ is not offering this recognition
from its own private resources. Indeed, it seems that the ‘I’ is subjected to the norm at the moment it makes such an
offering, so that the ‘I’ becomes an instrument of that norm’s agency. Thus the ‘I’ seems invariably used by the
norm to the degree that the ‘I’ tries to use the norm. Though I thought I was having a relation to ‘you,’ I find that I
am caught up in a struggle with norms.” Judith Butler, Giving an Account of Oneself (New York: Fordham Univ.
Press, 2005) p. 26.
conflicting practices for reasoning through baggage.51 These practices range from hermeneutical
forms of self-understanding such as Charles Taylor’s doctrine of strong evaluation, Aristotelian
models of practical reasoning like Alasdair Macintyre’s tradition constituted inquiry to various
Kantian inspired forms of representative thinking and Parrhesiastic attempts at problematizing
who we are and what we have become.
Despite their profound differences, practices of reasoning through baggage share some
common attributes. For starters they all point to the centrality of truth to public reason. Yet the
issue is not truth per se but how participants articulate the truth claims that they seek to advance.
For example, to think through the problems of tolerance discourses in a post-secular setting,
involves articulating the myriad of forces at play in the secular social imaginary under which
public deliberations about such issues transpire. It is to see the highly contingent nature not only
of tolerance discourses but also of the comprehensive visions subjects come to these discourses
from. Reasoning through baggage compels individuals to make contingent or at least
problematize many of their beliefs that they took to be foundational. It asks participants to; for
example, think through how such a discourse might be framed otherwise? Why should certain
cultural forces and certain specific viewpoints play the role that they play? Practices of
reasoning through baggage provide dynamic means of engaging both liberal and not-so-liberal
voices. They allow one to ask both sets of voices to self-consciously identify the comprehensive
visions and other social, historical and/or culturally generated baggage that they bring with them
as potential participants within a given act or acts of public reasoning. They can then asks them
to show: First, how specific elements of these visions shape the moral parameters through which
adherents deliberate with others and hence put forth an argument for why and how others might
learn from those who adopt what might initially appear to be an unduly limited moral horizon.
Second, why are the holds that given social forces have on a given participant taken to be
legitimate? Third, how and to what extent should others be tolerant of the optics and with that
The set that I focus on in my current research endeavors includes Charles Taylor, Alasdair Macintyre, Hannah
Arendt, Seyla Benhabib, Michel Foucault and William Connolly.
the parameters for engagement that they place on a given interlocutor? In compelling
interlocutors to speak as best they can the truth of themselves these practices force interlocutors
to open themselves up to potential sources of learning about themselves and others.
Seeing the interrelationships between the truths one speaks and the constitution of the self
that engages in given exercises of truth telling can help individuals better appreciate the
contingent natures of who they and what their fellow interlocutors have each become. Not only
does this allow us, as Foucault hoped, to loosen and strengthen the holds certain practices have
on our individual identities as we work on our limits.52 It can also allow for both a strengthening
and loosening of allegiances to certain moral and ethical truth claims advanced by oneself and
others, thereby opening oneself and others up to the possibility of finding new and not-sopredictable points of accord. Post-secular public reasoning can become the mutually learning
enterprise Habermas yearns for it to be as it becomes a more contestatory and multifaceted one.
In the process of critically reflecting on practices of truth telling, individuals, transgressing
momentarily the boundaries of their perceived moral horizon, open themselves up to ideas and
ethical sources previously considered off limits. At the same time, they become critically
receptive to other’s moral horizons potentially providing contestatory arguments that force others
to re-appraise their own moral and ethical allegiances. We thus have forms of deliberation based
on engagement with comprehensive visions rather than ones in which access to comprehensive
doctrines is limited.
These deliberations in turn can produce agreements about truths regarding human
existence which can help to promote the moments of democratic solidarity Habermas tasked
post-secularist thinking with producing. Rather than accommodating theistic perspectives secular
deliberators, in opening themselves up to the possibility of finding other powerful ethical sources
of moral motivation, can possibly engage in a more sincere form of mutual learning with their
fellow theistic citizens, while the latter in attempting as best they can to think through the
Michel Foucault, "What is Enlightenment" [1984] translated by Catherine Porter in Paul Rabinow ed. The
Foucault Reader (New York: Pantheon, 1985) pp. 48-49.
contestatory from the non-contestatory features of their faith can do likewise. The realization of
these moments of sincerity in the eyes of their fellow citizens can then go a long way to creating
sensations of respect and trust necessary for citizens to recognize each other as respectful
participants in a common endeavor of democratic self-governance.
By way of example let me briefly turn to Taylor’s own efforts at reasoning through his
baggage as a committed theist and his practice of other understanding as well as the recent work
of William Connolly, a committed non-theist and his inter-related practices of and critical
responsiveness and the micro politics of techniques like bicameralism and dwelling.
IV. Living in a Catholic Modernity Situated Within a World of Becoming
Taylor and Connolly both agree the salient feature of Western secularity is not the decline
of religious faith but the awareness of the varieties of spiritual devotions, theistic or non-theistic,
that thrive today.53 In many Western countries secularism has moved from an initial stage where
it represented a significant achievement of overcoming some measure of religious hegemony to a
stage where there is such high levels of diversity of fundamental theistic and non-theistic beliefs
that the “the need to balance freedom of conscience and equality of respect” has become
paramount. “Otherwise we risk needlessly limiting the religious freedom of immigrant
minorities, on the strength of our historic institutional arrangements, while sending a message to
these same minorities that they by no means enjoy equal status with the long-established
Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 2007) p. 595. Connolly articulates this
phenomenon under a broader one of a general minoritzation of many 21 st century identities. By minoritization of the
world Connolly means, “in some cases, the more rapid introduction of minorities of multiple types – including
religious, spiritual, ethnic, racial, gender practice, and sensual disposition – on the same territorial space. In other
cases it means intense pressures to counteract or avoid this result through extreme action, such as building walls
between countries, ethnic cleansing, fundamentalization of religious faith, or legal repression of gays. This means
that within and across countries, constituencies of diverse sorts regularly rub against each other in churches, schools,
neighborhoods, families, cyberspace, the news media, TV comedies, film dramas, political campaigns, military
organizations, and the courts, and they encounter the construction of new impediments to such intimacies.” William
E. Connolly, A World of Becoming (Durham, NC: Duke Univ. Press, 2011) p. 60.
“Why We Need a Radical Redefinition of Secularism” p. 48.
In this reality all believers theistic or otherwise are increasingly aware that other contexts
for determining what are and are not reasonable spiritual, moral and political positions exist,
causing them to experience doubt about their own ethical standpoint. “The existence of an
alternative makes each context fragile, that is, makes its sense of the thinkable/unthinkable
uncertain and wavering.”55 Living under the modern social imaginary, it is impossible “to be a
Christian, atheist, or anything else, without a degree of doubt,” given the current range of
mutually incompatible understandings of the modern social imaginary and modern man’s
plight.56 For theists like Taylor this fragility is central to the experience of their faith as this
experience brings forth a tension between acknowledging the fallibility of their own faith and the
extra-rational pull that faith has on any believer:
For what believer doesn’t have the sense that her view of God is too simple, too
anthropocentric, and too indulgent? We all lie to some extent ‘cowering’ under the
‘agnostic vetoes upon faith as something weak and shameful.’ On the other side, the call
to faith is still there as an understood temptation. Even if we think that it no longer
applies to us, we see it as drawing others. Otherwise the ethics of belief would be
Living in light of a plethora of fragile theistic, anti-theistic or a-theistic world views is
central to Taylor’s understanding of living in a secular age. Given this fragility many nourish
their faith on deprecatory stories of other faiths (like Macintyre appears to do in certain valences)
that re-affirms one’s own beliefs as they denigrate others. This is true of both theists and nontheists who often use models of public reasoning like Rawls’ and Habermas’ to justify such tales.
Yet deprecatory stories of others are counterproductive as a faith will soon wither. One’s faith
A Secular Age. p. 47.
Philippe de Laura, “From Philosophical Anthropology to the Politics of Recognition: An Interview with Charles
Taylor” Thesis Eleven No. 52 (February 1998) p. 111.
Varieties of Religion Today p. 57. Alasdair Macintyre point out that this dilemma can only be avoided at the cost
of living either a divided life or a life in denial. As he puts it, theistic belief has a “double aspect, at once
problematic and unproblematic. As the former, it invites ruthless and systematic questioning. As the latter, it
requires devoted and unquestioning obedience. Theists, who recognize one of these aspects of theism, but not the
other, have an imperfect understanding of their own beliefs. Yet it seems impossible to acknowledge both aspects
without tension and conflict. So theists have, it seems, a dilemma. Either they must willfully ignore some aspect of
their own beliefs or they must live as divided selves, agonizing over the incompatible attitudes to which their beliefs
give rise.” Alasdair Macintyre, God, Philosophy, Universities: A Selective History of the Catholic Philosophical
Tradition (Lanham, MD: Rowan & Littlefield, 2009) p. 8.
has a better chance of flourishing if it can incorporate insights from other traditions through
one’s own critical engagement with them.58 This maxim compels us to realize that no theistic
world view or secular ethos “is capable of a knockout blow against all the others.” Modern
western subjects will never experience the kind of unanimity about the underlying
[metaphysical] order of their world and lives that existed in pre-Enlightenment Europe. “And any
attempt to impose such unanimity, whether of an atheist or a theist kind,” will fail.59
Taylor and Connolly are comfortable with deep disagreements between practitioners of
diverse faiths or comprehensive doctrines within public discourses. Moreover, as Connolly has
always been aware, it is often the case that deep disagreements transpire in light of partial
agreements on some common ideals or principles that allow one to actually engage in
deliberation.60 Yet unlike analytical Kantians and others who might charge them with
incoherence the focus of pluralist political thought is not on these agreements but on the quality
of critical responsiveness deployed by individuals and communities as they express their diverse
faiths and negotiate general norms in light of them.61 This strategy stands in stark contrast to
projects like Habermas’ that, on Connolly’s reading, strive to create a secular public forum
(sphere) “above faith through which to regulate diverse faiths. If the nobility of secularism
resides in its quest to enable multiple faiths to coexist on the same public space, its shallowness
resides in the hubris of its distinction between private faith and public reason.”62 Connolly and
Taylor, on the other hand, enjoins us to “transfigure the drive to reach consensus on justice above
contending faiths into the effort to negotiate a positive ethos of engagement between the multiple
constituencies who bring chunks and pieces of their faiths with then into the public realm.”63 .
Charles Taylor, “Comparison, History, Truth” in Philosophical Arguments (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ.
Press, 1995) p. 164.
Bruce Ellis Benson, “What it Means to be Secular: A Conversation with Charles Taylor” Books & Culture Vol. 8,
no.4 (July/August 2002) p. 36.
William E. Connolly, The Terms of Political Discourse (Lexington, MA: DC Heath & Co, 1974) p. 173.
William Connolly, Pluralism (Durham, NC: Duke Univ. Press, 2005) p. 48.
Ibid p. 59.
Ibid p. 60.
Connolly’s preferred method for engaging the chunks and pieces constituencies bring
with them into the public realm is his ethos and practice of critical responsiveness. Critical
responsiveness is a fragile yet indispensable element in a pluralist democracy for it is what
allows members to create an expanding or rhizomatic cultural space in which new identities and
with that new possibilities for individual and collective being can potentially be developed.64
Critical responsiveness is a practice by which subjects open themselves up to new social
movements and identities in a manner that critically engages these identities rather than simply
tolerating them on the one hand or accommodating them only to the degree that they conform to
one’s own moral horizon on the other. A critically responsive agent “does not reduce the other
to what some ‘we’ already is.” Rather through their critical engagement with an other they seek
to open up “cultural space through which the other might consolidate itself into something that is
unafflicted by negative cultural markings.” 65
Critical responsiveness entails altering one’s recognition of difference which means
revising one’s own terms of self-recognition as they go about recognizing others. Yet to redefine
one’s relationship with difference one has to redefine one’s own identity as well. Critical
responsiveness thus involves not only a micro politics of thinking in regards to difference but a
subsequent macro politics of identity transformation.66
Critical responsiveness is stimulated in a variety of ways. One vibrant manner Connolly
emphasizes is acknowledging certain features of the other as differences one engages in the
process of becoming what they are, “recognizing thereby a certain affinity with the other” one
“resists or engages across the space of difference.”67 Once this affinity is attained, one can then
enter into political relationships of agonistic respect with others as one responds to their varied
political appeals. In this sense critical responsiveness acts as a midwife, helping groups and
movements cross a critical threshold of legitimacy that transforms them from a marginal, deviant
William Connolly, Ethos of Pluralization (Minneapolis, MN: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1995) p. 180.
Ibid. p. xvii.
Ibid. p. xvi.
Ibid. p. xviii.
and irrelevant other into an entity with legitimate concerns and/or grievances that need to be
addressed by the larger polity. 68
Cultivation of critical responsiveness, then, is a prerequisite for the successful mediation
of justice claims. Theories of public reasoning like those offered by Rawls and Habermas that
don’t account for it are inadequate.69 Connolly even claims that an ethos of critical
responsiveness, built on the centrality of the practice of critical responsiveness
Is more fundamental than justice partly because its very shape calls into question the
quest to find a solid ground of morality or justice. For critical responsiveness may flow
from a care for the diversity of being irreducible to any more basic principle established
by a contract, transcendental deduction, or rational consensus. If critical responsiveness
exceeds the codes of justice nourished by it, it may be drawn from sources that escape the
sort of solid, universal ground conventional theorists of justice often demand.70
Critical responsiveness is an exercise in what Arendt calls “thinking without banisters” as
there are no fixed procedures for opening oneself up to and then critically evaluating the
viewpoints of not quite consolidated identities.71 How and to what degree one is critically
responsive to an other can never be a priori determined by some fixed analytical, transcendental
or theistically informed criteria.72 Being both a practice and the source of an ethos, critical
responsiveness, like all ethical perspectives, invokes something like a conversion experience on
all who practice it. Through their critical receptivity of others, practioners experience a selfperceived “awakening” of their identity, powers of perception, judgment and often faith.73
Critical responsiveness though begs a practice central to Taylor’s work, what one can call
his practice of other-understanding, if a practioner is to engage an other in a manner that is
somewhat free of “negative cultural markings.” This ethos is heavily indebted to Gadamer. One
Ibid. p. 184.
William Connolly, Why I am Not a Secularist (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1999) p. 68-69.
For an earlier and similar critique of Habermasian Discourse Ethics and the ideal of an Ideal Speech Situation see
William Connolly, “Review of Thomas McCarthy, The Critical Theory of Jurgen Habermas” History and Theory
Vol. 18, No. 3 (October, 1979) p. 417.
Ethos of Pluralization p. 187-188. See also p. 58-59.
Hannah Arendt, “On Hannah Arendt” in Melvyn A. Hill ed. Hannah Arendt, the Recovery of the Public World
(New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1979) p. 336.
The Ethos of Pluralization p. 27.
William Connolly, The Augustinian Imperative (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Press, 1993) p. 56.
of the many hermeneutic themes that Gadamer brilliantly elucidates in Truth and Method is that
different cultural optics generate different questions and different issues which yield different
understandings and judgments of not only the good or healthy human but also elements of the
past as well. What the lessons of the American Civil War are to 21st century Californians will be
dramatically different then what they will be to 22nd century Chinese.74 The significance of this
point is that the challenge to understanding “the other” comes “not from their place within our
identity, but precisely from their challenge to it. They present us with different and often
disconcerting ways of being human. The challenge is to be able to acknowledge the humanity of
their way, while still being able to live ours.”75 This problem arises because every time citizens
try comprehend the ethical vantage points of other citizens they always draw on certain
unquestioned culturally specific prejudices (such as the life goods that power what Taylor calls
the modern social imaginary) about what it is to be human and to lead a good life even as we
reflect upon these same prejudices.76 “The more we think we have sidelined it or neutralized it,
as in the natural-science model, the more it works unconsciously and hence all the more
powerfully to ethnocentric effect.”77 The “other,” as many who have been on the less powerful
side of European colonialism know quite well, has often been understood in a vocabulary (and
hence in accordance with criteria built upon prejudices) incommensurable with their own,
thereby creating the problem of distorted understanding.78 Habermas, as his comments on
philosophy’s inability to penetrate the opaque core of religion testifies to, is well aware of this
point. Yet he is perhaps too cautious because of it.
Distorted understanding is an intractable problem because reason itself imposes certain
demands upon us. When arguing with others, or when others press claims of distorted
understandings upon us, claims about the reasonableness of each other’s arguments are always
Charles Taylor, “Understanding the Other: A Gadamerian View of Conceptual Schemes” in Jeff Malpas, Ulrich
Arnswald and Jens Kertscher Eds. Gadamer’s Century: Essays in Honor of Hans-Georg Gadamer (Cambridge,
MA: MIT Press, 2002) p. 288.
Ibid p. 296.
Ibid p. 284.
“Comparison, History, Truth” p. 150.
“Understanding the Other” p. 295.
invoked. We can’t treat the distinction reasonable/less reasonable “as a nonhierarchical one,
because it defines how we ought to think.” 79 Nevertheless, we can make distinctions between
better and worse social practices in various cultures and faith just like we can see how historical
narratives like the rise of secularism itself can reflect moments of loss as well as moments of
progress.80 In other words, “we should be able to think about the conflicts between the
requirements of incompatible cultures on analogy to the way we think about conflicts between
nonjointly realizable goods in our lives.”81 We can learn what about us is amenable to change
and reconciliation with others and what is not by generating a “broader” understanding of both
ourselves and the other. For Taylor this is what mutual learning Habermasian style is primarily
about and it is something that is forestalled by the asymmetrical requirements of his model. The
crucial element is comparison. Other understanding is always comparative as the contrasts that
we perceive between oneselves and others in many respects precede the devising of any language
of qualitative contrasts. “We have a feel for the contrasts long before we think we understand, or
have developed a language of contrast. In that sense, too, comparison seems basic to
understanding.”82 The most effective contrasts are ones that simply let the other be. Doing so in
practice is quite hard and here again Taylor turns to Gadamer.
Letting the other be involves substantial work on ourselves, what Connolly refers to as
micro politics of the self, as we try to discern how our implicit understandings of others distorts
their realities.83 This only happens by allowing ourselves to be challenged by what is different in
their lives, in what we have to let be in order to let them be. Doing this effectively can result in
two interdependent moments of clarity: first we can see our own particularity by seeing how
features of our self are, for others, culturally unique and not indicative of some general sense of
“Comparison, History, Truth” p. 156.
Charles Taylor, “The Future of the Religious Past” in Charles Taylor, Dilemmas and Connections (Cambridge,
MA: Belknap Press, 2011) p. 286.
“Comparison, History, Truth” p. 162.
Ibid p. 152.
As Taylor nicely puts it, “If understanding the other is to be construed as fusion of horizons and not as possessing
a science of the object, then the slogan might be: no understanding the other without a changed understanding of
self.” “Remembering Gadadmer” p. 13.
human nature. Second, in becoming aware of our own partiality of perspective we can perceive
the corresponding attribute of the other in a less distorted manner.84 In Habermas’ case this is
already done by moderate theists that wish to partake of public reason and who confront the
partiality of their perspective via devices like the translation proviso and the realization that they
live in a secular world in which their perspective is in some sense non-majoritarian. For nontheists who don’t have the burden of a translation proviso and for whom learning is synonymous
with an “evolutionary social theory” this clarity is more elusive. For them it is often hard to see
the singularity and historical contingency of their world views unless they, like Taylor, undertake
their own critical reflections on the historical and cultural forces that have made their social
imaginary what it is. They easily find themselves plagued by the problem of always attempting
to understand the theist in a vocabulary foreign to the theist and thus on some level
fundamentally misrecognizing the theistic perspective.
One means of being challenged by the other so as to let them be is granting the other a
presumption of equal worth. "As a presumption, the claim is that all human cultures that have
animated whole societies over some considerable stretch of time have something important to
say to all human beings."85 Exactly what is important and of value is something to be
determined by engaging in what Gadamer calls a "fusion of horizons." In order to grant a given
culture a presumption of equal worth one must put - again using Gadamer's terminology - the
validity of their own cultural horizon of prejudices "at risk" by giving "full play", or attempting
to take as valid as possible, the self-understandings of the moral sources of others.86 By being
able to put one's cultural horizon at risk, like many believers such as Taylor do on a routine
basis, one can enlarge their self-understanding of what precisely are or should be one's moral
prejudices as well as determining what is and isn't worth attempting to appropriate from the
cultures and faiths of others. Mutual learning proceeds as all parties learn to:
Ibid p. 12.
Charles Taylor, "The Politics of Recognition" in Multiculturalism: Examining the Politics of Recognition ed. by
Amy Gutmann (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1994) p. 67.
See H.G. Gadamer Truth and Method second edition (New York: Crossroads, 1988) p. 269-271.
move in a broader horizon, within which what we have formerly taken for granted as the
background to valuation can be situated as one possibility alongside the different
background of the formerly unfamiliar culture. The fusion of horizons operates through
our developing new vocabularies of comparison by means of which we can articulate
these contrasts. So that if and when we ultimately find substantive support for our initial
presumption , it is on the basis of an understanding of what constitutes worth that we
couldn't possibly have had at the beginning. We have reached the judgment partly through
transforming our standards.87
The process of "other-understanding" allows participants in to use Habermas’ language,
“a discourse oriented towards mutual understanding,” to enhance their self understanding of
one's values as well as the norms by which one critiques others while attempting to determine
and then appropriate what one takes to be of worth in other cultures. Participants both expand
their own "contexts of choice" as well transforms their perspectives through which they will then
encounter future others. As Taylor rightly notes, learning about oneself and the other through
comparison with others will become an “increasingly valuable” dimension of public reasoning as
humanity leads an increasingly interconnected, pluralist and “post-secular” existence.88 Without
sincere attempts to have such hermeneutic experiences the gaps in intuition will only grow and
acts of public reasoning or mutual learning Habermasian style will increasingly become
justifiably viewed by those adversely affected as exclusionary and thus will be fragmenting
rather than the solidarity building exercises Habermas yearns for.
Connolly and Taylor are well aware, as Habermas was in his earlier exchanges with
Gadamer, that whatever new understandings of selves and others that can emerge via an ethos of
other understanding deployed in a critically receptive manner will be problematic. Both practices
are fraught with risk and can produce outcomes that might be counter-progressive. In the case
of critical responsiveness, “since it is neither entirely reducible to a preexisting moral code nor
(uncontestably) derivable from a transcendental command or contract, it challenges some
"The Politics of Recognition" p. 67
“Comparison, History, Truth” p. 164.
popular conceptions of what morality must look like… An ethos of critical responsiveness must
run this risk, up to a point.”89
Moreover, one can never definitively say that they are actually encountering the voice of
the other and not merely their own distorted sounds of them leaving one constantly vulnerable to
charges of ethnocentrism and misrecognition. In practicing critical receptivity and an ethos of
other-understanding, lacks an independent perspective from which to determine whether this new
perspective has simply changed the way one views the world or indeed “reflects a new truth
opened by it.”90 Often one might simply be expressing the same biases, prejudices and the like
in a different manner rather than actually cultivating an expanded horizon or an enlarged
mentality. There is no way to avoid such charges. All one can do, Taylor reasons is not to refine
the analytical features of ideal discourse but “to apply, that is, further doses of the same
medicine… Of course, in each case, something is gained; some narrowness is overcome. But
this still leaves other narrowness’s still unovercome,”91 which calls for deeper, more microanalytical practices of reasoning through baggage to complement a process of otherunderstanding. This is where Connolly’s micro politics can be especially helpful.
Micro politics refers to techniques of self-sculpting that are modest, experimental and
vary with the context in which they are practiced. Their common goal is simply to “work
demurely on a relational self that has already been formed, recrafting vengeful, anxious, or
stingy contingencies that have become entrenched and forging them into a distinctive form you
can admire without having to treat it as a true copy of a universal model.” 92 Doing so to make
one more open to responsive engagement with other particularly new and unpredictable
“movements in the politics of becoming without encasing them immediately in present
judgments that sanctify the universality or naturalness of what you already are.”93 Technique
stands in contrast to larger “consummate narratives” like Taylor’s accounts of modernity which
The Augustinian Imperative p. xvii
“Politics of Recognition” p. 57.
“Comparison, History, Truth” p. 150-51.
Why I am Not a Secularist p. 146.
mute the power of technique and “close down experimentation with new possibilities of being
and action before the experiments have a chance to get off the ground… The importance of
technique to perception, thinking, judgment, and action becomes accentuated if we acknowledge
that we still don’t know with assurance everything we can do or become.”94 Like Foucault,
Connolly sees techniques as partly practiced to subvert the demand that everyone should be like
themselves. These techniques supplement practices like critical responsive as well as “work in
tandem with political mobilizations to modify racial, religious, gender, sexual, national, or ethnic
identities that punish difference in the pursuit of wholeness.”95
Connolly thinks through a number of micropolitical techniques for engaging the deeply
pluralistic dimensions of contemporary life. Two of his favorites are the inter-related ones of
bicameralism and dwelling. Dividing the thinking self into two chambers, a bicameralist allows
one chamber to display a passionate commitment to fight for and advance one’s deepest beliefs
while another shows an appreciation of the fallibility of these beliefs as well as an appreciation
of the insights that can be gleamed through a critical engagement with the equally cherished
beliefs of others.
Central to this bicameral orientation is dwelling. Dwelling in Connolly’s - as opposed to
Heidegger’s well known understanding which focuses on how human experience the earth, the
cosmos, the divine and their own mortality as they essentially are - is a temporally conceived
practice of experiencing reality.96 Dwelling is a technique made possible through a double entry
understanding of time; punctual sedate time and time out of joint or duration time. In the former
orientation, one in which there is a sedate politics of being, one works with their conventional
understandings of justice, legitimacy, freedom and the like. Yet when time is out of joint, “you
seek to activate sensitivities appropriate to an unfolding situation, acknowledging the extent to
William Connolly, Neuropolitics: Thinking, Culture, Speed (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press,
2002) p. 16.
Why I am Not a Secularist p. 153.
Heidegger’s understanding of dwelling is outlined in his essay “Building, Dwelling, Thinking.” See Martin
Heidegger, “Building, Dwelling, Thinking” in Martin Heidegger, Basic Writings Edited David F. Krell (San
Francisco: Harper Collins, 1977).
which a rapid shift in events has thrown into doubt some dimension in the undergrowth which
gives density and specificity to established principles.”97 Mystical moments in thought,
epiphanies, are at the core of time as duration, they are folds in time in which affect in the form
of a premonition or the like comes to the center of thinking and ethics. Every serious social
theorist makes room somewhere for the force of mystical experiences upon thought. The key is
not to eliminate or bracket out these dissonant moments, as neo-Kantians like Habermas are
wont to sometimes do for fear of creating models of practical and public reasoning that are
decidingly non-universalizable, but to go about effectively modulating and expressing them as
they are central to our changing understandings of who we are and what we believe.98 To dwell
within time out of joint is to open oneself up to these moments, moments that “cannot be known
or represented before it appears, because it did not possess the shape of the representable before
the passage began.”99
Moreover, the cognitive experience of dwelling within the duration of rifts in linear time
exposes the individual to the complexity of thinking, of how experience is understood and stored
as memory. These acts of dwelling can enhance one’s appreciation of the contingency of the
experience of the identities formed from it which in turn can “expand the connections you pursue
with others across cultural distance as you glimpse some forks in your own past.”100 Dwelling
facilitates one’s receptivity to new truths. Experiences of dwelling in time as duration show
moments when subconsciously one has put their horizon at risk. Awakening our sensitivity to
such moments can then make a subject potentially more conscious of how it too can become
receptive to ethical sources of other citizens that might initially seem off limits. Dwelling thus
allows one to adapt to new realities by opening oneself up to the incorporation of new currents of
thought and ethical habits derived from interaction with others.101
Pluralism p. 129.
Ibid. p. 119.
William Connolly “Belief, Spirituality and Time” in Varieties of Secularism in a Secular Age edited by Michael
Warner, Jonathan VanAntwerpen and Craig Calhoun (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 2010) p. 132.
Pluralism. p. 166.
Ibid p. 130.
Critical Responsiveness and micro-political techniques as well as other-understanding are
central to how Connolly and Taylor each partake of their respective faiths. In the case of Taylor
his modern Catholicism is built on a bicameralist orientation that recognizes the manners in
which secular liberal democracies are able to embrace such supposedly "Christian" values as
tolerance and mutual respect in a more universal manner than any theorcratically Christian
society could.102 In fact, Taylor asserts that Christendom was attacked and dethroned from
within Christendom in the name of Christian values like human rights. This development is both
humbling and liberating to Christians. Humbling because the break with Christendom lead to
many good things such as the rise of unconditional human rights discourse in the West.
Liberating because the detachment of Christianity from the organization of modern western
societies allows Christians to live the gospel in a "purer" way and thus maintain the critical
perspective upon modernity that other theists like Macintyre prize. As a modern Catholic,
Taylor, exemplifying other-understanding, responds that one can do "for our time and place what
Mateo Ricci was striving to do four centuries ago in China;" to act as an outsider, providing a
spiritual message couched within the values and customs of the foreign civilization.103
An ethos of critical responsiveness is pivotal to Connolly’s own imminently naturalist
faith, one that celebrates a world of becoming, in which “the universe is not dependent on a
higher power. It is reducible neither to mechanistic materialism, dualism, theo-teleology, nor the
absent God of minimal theology.”104 An immanent naturalist though “does not repudiate the
transcendental.” Instead it incorporates transcendent proclivities “into an immanent field that
mixes nature and culture. To immanent naturalism, consciousness emerges as a layer of
thinking, feeling, and judgment bound to complex crunching operations that enable and exceed
it.”105 An immanent naturalist promotes a nontheistic “attachment to the Earth and care for a
Charles Taylor “A Catholic Modernity?” in James L. Heft ed A Catholic Modernity?: Charles Taylor’s
Marianist Award Lecture (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1999). p. 10.
Ibid. p. 15.
A World of Becoming p.43.
Ibid p. 86. Connolly recently clarified immanent naturalism’s relation to transcendent moral sources by
distinguishing radical from mundane transcendence and emphasizing immanent naturalism’s tolerance of the former
and its sporadic encounters with the latter. By radical transcendence I mean a God who creates, informs, governs, or
protean diversity of being that is never actualized completely in any particular cultural
setting.”106 Here, gratitude is “linked to the gift of being as a protean set of energies, that enable
various identities and exceed the existing pool of identities; it gives priority to a sensibility that
affirms this world” while making “contact with some mystical traditions within religions of the
Book.” The use of the term nontheistic as an “adjective rather than noun points beyond atheism
as the mere denial of belief in God, as that term has traditionally been understood in
Christendom” for life itself becomes the object of faith.107 As a lived ethos immanent naturalism
eschews rationalist questions of why be moral and theological questions of what is the ultimate
ethical source for moral sources in favor of the critically responsive edict of “how to cultivate
presumptive responsiveness and generosity in a pluralistic culture?” 108 An immanent naturalist
emulates theists like Taylor by cultivating an “existential affirmation of the world as we confess
it to be, so that the insidious force of resentiment does not seep into the inner core of our being,
dividing us too profoundly against ourselves.”109
Taylor’s and Connolly’s spiritual positions do generate their fair share of problems vis-àvis public reason. Taylor is acutely aware that his own work is caught in a tension between his
ethical life as a Catholic and his scholarly commitments to putting forth the best possible account
of the Western moral horizon which is why he has the following double stance towards his work:
I’m a Catholic Christian with a strong theistic outlook, and although I recognize that it’s
pretty clear that when you come from somewhere you get certain ideas that you don’t
when you come from somewhere else – in that sense my work reflects my standpoint – I
nevertheless think that we can and ought to reason with each other… That means that I
have a double stance to what I write, on the one hand I’m offering a description I think
inspires activity in the mundane world while also exceeding the awareness of its participants. By mundane
transcendence I mean any activity outside conscious awareness that crosses into actuality, making a difference to
what the latter becomes or interacting with it in fecund ways, again without being susceptible to full representation.
I do not confess radical transcendence, though I have not disproved it. I confess radical immanence replete with
fugitive encounters with mundane transcendence. Now a specific field of immanence periodically encounters an
outside that makes a difference to it.” “Belief, Spirituality and Time” p. 131.
William Connolly, “Speed, Concentric Cultures and Cosmopolitanism” Political Theory, Vol. 28, no.8 (2000) p.
Neuropolitics: Thinking, Culture, Speed p. 73.
Ibid p. 105.
“Belief, Spirituality and Time” p. 136.
other people from other standpoints ought to accept, on the other hand, I evaluate the
whole thing in a certain way too. So I think that there is an important loss here.110
The "loss" Taylor is referring to involves the following aporia one afflicting both the
story he told in Sources of the Self and his recent work on secularity: In describing the modern
social imaginary the way he does, Taylor not only offers a self-consciously partial view of what
this social imaginary is and what the moral conflicts that transpire under it are, but also implicitly
lays out a self-serving criterion for determining a successful resolution of these conflicts; a
criterion which is prejudiced towards the values embedded in the set of theistic competitors that
Taylor’s work is situated within.
In the case of Connolly while so much of his thought is built upon celebrating the
ambiguous and contingent features of human existence his work also presupposes a self that is
readily pliable through voluntary and reflective activities done by the same sovereign self upon
it, a self whose baggage is relatively light. Hence while Connolly is respectful of the mysterious
holds faith can have on people his self-centered practices of reasoning through baggage do seem
to unduly privilege the actions of selves who might not be afflicted by such impediments to the
voluntary acts of self-sculpting Foucault and himself admire. This raises a number of thorny
issues as to how the former, less self-pliable subjects who make up the overwhelming majority of
most democratic polities today are to be included in a deeply pluralistic polity and deeply
pluralist acts of public reasoning. For example, Connolly declares that he embraces “a story of
becoming linked to experimental intervention in a world that exceeds human powers of
attunement, explanation, prediction, mastery, or control. And to invite you to do the same,
without contending that I can drag you there by the force of argument alone. Participation in a
world of becoming teaches modesty about the powers of argument even while appreciating its
pertinence.”111 Connolly is clearly correct here. However the point is what are the limits of
argument and how might one become critically responsive to the reasoned political positions of
Alex Klaushofer, "Charles Taylor Interviewed" TPM Online p. 2.
A World of Becoming p. 10.
those who might be resistant to such a narrative. What might one potentially learn from them
even as one extends such an ethical invitation? These questions are not quite answered by
The problems that beset these spiritual positions are actually informative for our
Habermasian purposes. The limits of Connolly’s spiritual musings present a different version of
the problems with Habermas’ asymetricality and that is the issue of engaging those voices who
have good reasons for not submitting their thoughts to the dictates of a translation proviso. In the
post-secular polities of the 21st century there are many voices for whom a translation proviso
seems akin to, as Habermas himself puts it a “hostile takeover” of the non-secular core of the
moral theorizing. Habermas exerts some effort to telling us why this fear is unwarranted. This
might very well be true. But the key is to think through how to initially engage those who might
carry such a fear, not to simply argue that “the second-person stance of a philosophy which
adopts a stance towards religion which is at once agnostic and willing to learn cannot be
reconciled with the instrumental stance towards the target of a hostile takeover.”112 How to
possibly engage those who fear such a takeover? The limits of Taylor’s spiritual musings can be
instructive here.
The aporias that befall Taylor’s model dramatizes the limits to mutual learning and of the
enduring partiality of any critically reflective position. Taylor has always been aware that works
like Sources of the Self and A Secular Age lay out, “unashamedly, a master narrative. The
adverb bespeaks the view I hold, that we can’t avoid such narratives. The attempt to escape
them only means that we can’t operate by an unacknowledged, hence unexamined and
uncriticized, narrative. That’s because we (modern Westerners) can’t help understanding
ourselves in these terms.”113 What’s important then about the narrative as problematic as its
details might be is the hold that it has on subjects living under the social imaginary whose
Jurgen Habermas, “Reply” in Jurgen Habermas et al An Awareness of What is Missing: Faith and Reason in a
Post-Secular Age translated by Ciaran Cronin (London: Polity Press, 2010) p. 77.
Charles Taylor, “Afterword: Apologia pro Libro suo” in Varieties of Secularism in a Secular Age edited by
Michael Warner, Jonathan VanAntwerpen and Craig Calhoun (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 2010) p. 300.
growth the narrative charts. Taylor’s plea with Sources of the Self and A Secular Age, “is that
we all finally put our ontologies where our (rhetorical) mouths are."114
This is especially pertinent for supposedly critically minded secularists who are
frequently unaware of their own “master narratives” and ontologies at play in the background of
their acts of public reasoning, even when (and especially when) they attempt to reason in manner
free of such baggage. Jager is correct to criticize Habermas earlier for his blindness to the
historically contingent nature in which secular discourses arise the way they do for secularists
like himself but not necessarily for theists. This is because Habermas lacks a narrative like those
Taylor articulates even though these narratives are necessarily distortive in some sense. The
challenge that Taylor’s thought creates here is for all to at least become cognizant of what these
narratives might be so as to think through not only how they inform the manners in which we are
receptive to and engage other public reasoners but through doing so appreciate the obstacles that
lie in one’s way towards telling non-deprecatory stories of the perspectives in light of which their
fellow interlocutors reason from. And, to revisit Jager’s concerns, to learn why a believer might
see it in their theistic interests to engage in critical reflection. This can allow for a more nuanced
understanding of exactly how some changes in ones understanding of who they as a modern
subject are can transpire as well as how a discourse in which others can feel as though they are
respected participants in a discussion oriented towards mutual understanding, a virtue necessary
towards the creation of the democratic forms of solidarity Habermas craves.
V. Conclusion
Habermas admits that today
Not only is the political will to work towards the institutions and procedures of a
reformed global order missing, but even the aspiration to a pacified global domestic
politics. I suspect that nothing will change the parameters of public discussion and in the
decisions of the politically empowered actors without the emergence of a social
movement which fosters a complete shift in political mentality. The tendencies towards a
Charles Taylor, "Reply to Baybrooke and DeSousa" Dialogue (Winter 1994) p. 131.
breakdown in solidarity in everyday life do not exactly render such a mobilization within
western civil societies probable.115
It is hard to argue with Habermas here. However if any social movement capable of
fostering a dynamic collective mental shift is to emerge it will be one that challenges how people
experience the necessarily secular social imaginary they live under with citizens of other varied
theistic and non-theistic moral orientations.
The virtues of reasoning through baggage approaches to secularity promoted by Connolly
and Taylor is that they push subjects to distinguish between what is and isn’t necessary to their
faith and to the identity they try to derive from it. This is a task that Habermas would put under
the rubric of post-conventional. Yet the ideal of a post-conventional subject is both chimerical
and limiting. Chimerical in that one always reasons from somewhere, from within some tradition
of practical and public reasoning that itself circumvents much of what can be put up for critique
and discussion. Limiting in that many insightful actors today, actors that can be at the center of
progressive solidarity fostering social movements Habermas years for, draw sustenance from
their ability to be distinctly non-post-conventional, to reason through the baggage that flows
throughout the theistic and non-theistic traditions they are inspired by from rather than vainly
trying to reason apart from it. “Too many secularists” which Habermas in his post-conventional
valence exemplifies, “slide over or denigrate,” Connolly notes, “those culturally mediated layers
of unconscious corporeality that flow into consciousness without being under its complete
guidance. For to embrace pluralism is to tap into depths beyond the shallow waters of secular
Moreover, given the varied features of the spiritual positions at play in contemporary life,
whatever moments of solidarity these social movements of the future can potentially foster will
always be fragile ones. To embrace pluralism as Connolly and Taylor are well aware is to make
peace with incommensurability. We have to live with incommensurability while realizing that it
is precisely through the mutual interchange of ideas by adherents of incommensurable traditions,
“Reply” p. 74.
Neuropolitics: Thinking, Culture, Speed p. 170.
adherents reflexive enough to learn from others, that the profound moments of overlapping
consensus thinkers like Rawls and Habermas rightly yearn to cultivate can develop, fragile as
they may be. To reason through the baggage of other non-Western traditions will involve this
acceptance of the fact that people can indeed grow and learn from each other while doing so
according to profoundly different criterias for “growth.” Habermas is right, telling us that “those
changes in mentality count as complementary ‘learning processes’ only from the perspective of a
specific normative self-understanding of modernity.” For him such an understanding will build
upon an evolutionary social theory.117 Yet for others, others whose voices must be heard if a
truly democratic moment of global domestic policy formation is to achieved, and not one that
unduly marginalizes many who might reasonably dissent from adhering to a neo-Kantian ethical
framework, their self-understanding might and probably will be driven by different criteria of
personal and collective growth.
In this paper I have briefly sketched out some other possible modes for mutual learning
that can engage some of those citizens who might have a rather different narrative of self-growth
and moral progress and, by working through the public reasoning elements Habermas’ model of
a global domestic politics, tried to show the important role not so epistemologically liberal
practices of reasoning through baggage can play in an influential form of early 21st century
liberal political theory. Reasoning through baggage can play a crucial role in refashioning many
other strands of early 21st century liberal democratic theory, and help to keep it relevant in an age
in which many of its foundations are increasingly seeming provincial, if those who see their
identification with this tradition as partly involving deprecating the work of authors like
Connolly, Taylor and others like them would shed such insular and parochial baggage and see
how such voices can be sources for intellectual nourishment rather than targets for predictable
and sterile polemics. Proving this point though would require considerably more space than one
conference paper.
“Religion in the Public Sphere: Cognitive Presuppositions for the Public Use of Reason by Religious and Secular
Citizens” p. 144.