Reconstructing Civic Culture
Philosophy and Civil Society
The rhetorical turn in the reconstruction of liberal political philosophy addresses the issue of the intelligibility of liberal doctrine and of liberal democratic citizenship itself. This rhetorical turn -- the move from a metaphysical to a political interpretation of liberal doctrine -- calls for a rethinking of the discursive form or cognitive status of liberal political ideas. But it also requires a certain reversal in our understanding of the relationship between the public sphere and the private sphere.
According to Rawls, a political or rhetorical version of liberal doctrine presents liberalism as a doctrine that is partial rather than comprehensive in scope. But I think we must take this conception of the partial character of liberal doctrine one step further. To conceive of liberalism now as a doctrine pertaining only to the part rather than to the whole of life is to do more than merely introduce into our view of liberalism the idea of its limitation in scope.
Rather, and far more, it is to assign to liberal doctrine, within the context of a postmodern civic culture, a new rhetorical function. To the extent that modernist liberal political theory represented liberalism as a comprehensive or totalizing doctrine, a political or rhetorical conception of liberal doctrine must actively undo this totalization. It must reverse the effects of the modernist representation of liberal moral and political ideals as elements of a totalizing world view.
One particular area in which this reversal must be accomplished concerns our understanding of the relative cultural standing and significance of the public and private spheres. The direction of this reversal is indicated in Rawls's conception of an overlapping consensus. According to Rawls, a political conception of justice, i.e., one that fully acknowledges and affirms its own restricted scope, cannot provide a basis for social unity and stability. Social unity and stability can be provided only by an overlapping consensus in support of liberal moral ideals and political arrangements among members of diverse cultural communities.
This means that the liberal conception of justice that governs political arrangements and provides order to the public sphere must be defined and presented in such a way that it is capable of gaining the support of the diverse cultural communities subject to it. Rawls himself does not emphasize it, but this view of the role of an overlapping consensus definitely constitutes a reversal in our understanding of a certain aspect of the relationship between the public and private spheres in a liberal democracy.
It is this reversal that must not only be observed, but also pursued actively as one piece of the postmodern reconstruction of liberalism and liberal democratic civic culture. This reversal concerns the relative dependence and independence of the cultural perspectives proper to the public and private spheres. The reversal is due to the demise of modernist liberal conceptions of liberalism as a comprehensive doctrine.
When conceived as a comprehensive doctrine or totalizing world view, liberalism seemed capable of providing the basis of social unity and stability. For modernist liberalism, the totalizing cultural standpoint proper to the liberal democratic public sphere was capable by itself of providing norms and justifying political arrangements, independently of the diverse cultural world views proper to particular ethnic, class, and religious communities.
But now, with the abandonment of totalizing modernist conceptions of liberal doctrine, the tables must be turned. The relationship of dependence must be reversed. Liberalism, as a doctrine pertaining only to the part and not to the whole of life, can no longer, using its own resources alone, provide a cultural basis for social stability and unity. That cultural basis must be supplied by a consensus among members of the diverse cultural communities that make up any particular liberal democracy. It is this reversal that I have in mind when I speak of the de-totalization of the public sphere.
The cultural primacy of the public sphere in modernist liberalism
What I want to do here is to explore briefly a few of the implications of this reversal. But first let us make sure that we clearly understand the nature of the reversal itself.
What I have called the de-totalization of the public sphere is a project that is part of a general reorientation of liberal political philosophy. This project aims at replacing the modernist conception of liberal doctrine as one sufficient by itself to provide the cultural basis of the unity and stability of society with a political or rhetorical conception of liberal doctrine, one that views the stability and unity of society as dependent upon the development of an overlapping cultural consensus supportive of liberal moral ideals and political arrangements.
Liberal moral ideals and political arrangements define the public sphere of a liberal democracy. The public sphere is the realm of speech and action within which the issues pertaining to the basic institutional structure of society are addressed and within which citizens address and behave toward one another explicitly as citizens, i.e., as free and equal individuals. Modernist liberal political theory conceived of the public sphere in a way that represented it as culturally self-sufficient, as sufficient to provide a cultural basis for the unity and stability of society. It interpreted those ideas and ideals as components of a comprehensive or totalizing world view, a world view capable of addressing satisfactorily all the basic issues of human life.
Let us recall briefly how this cultural totalization of the public sphere was represented by modernist liberal civic culture. As we noted earlier, modernist liberal political theory identified the normative standpoint of citizenship -- the standpoint of free and equal individuality -- as the universal and essential standpoint of humanity as such. If the public sphere of a liberal democracy is the field of activity wherein citizens assume the standpoint of free and equal individuality and if the standpoint of free and equal individuality is identified as the universal and essential standpoint of humanity as such, then, in this interpretation, the liberal democratic public sphere assumes a profound moral and metaphysical significance. It becomes the primary locus or encompassing setting within which the metaphysical drama of human life is played out. It is in the liberal democratic public sphere that the metaphysically defining traits of human beings -- the basis for conceptions of universal human rights -- are either given their full weight or denied.
Interpreted in this way, the public sphere could not be viewed simply as one contingent field of activity and aspiration among others. The properties attributed to human beings as members of particularistic cultural communities are not metaphysically indelible. As persons alter their ethnic, class, and religious identifications and affiliations, old descriptions are replaced by new. But, through all such changes, a person's underlying, metaphysically permanent identity -- that of a free and equal individual -- remains.
This way of representing the relationship between civic identity and communitarian identity was the basis for the modernist liberal interpretation of the public sphere as the culturally basic and all-encompassing field of activity and aspiration. Thus interpreted, the public sphere could easily be represented as culturally self-sufficient -- i.e., as containing within itself all the cultural resources necessary to provide a cultural basis for the unity and stability of society.
The modernist liberal assault on the cognitive and moral authority of communitarian cultures
We must keep in mind, of course, that we are now speaking only of the way in which the public sphere was represented by the form of civic culture shaped in its content specifically by the ideas of modernist liberal political theory. Further, we must keep in mind that this attribution of metaphysical significance and priority to the public sphere affected only the beliefs of those citizens actually influenced by modernist civic culture -- i.e., the citizens most politically active and self-consciously liberal.
Needless to say, large numbers of nominal citizens in every liberal democracy develop the moral and linguistic capacities of citizenship either only partially or not at all. Such nominal citizens either marginalize themselves to some degree politically and culturally -- at the extreme, for example, think of the Amish or the Lubavitcher sects -- or participate in reactionary cultural and political movements actively hostile to the values of the liberal democratic public sphere.
Among such nominal citizens, the totalizing culture of the public sphere generally had little positive impact. But where modernist liberal civic culture did take hold and create citizens, the totalizing culture of the public sphere did influence beliefs. From the standpoint of this totalizing culture, there was no question as to the proper rank and cultural significance to be assigned to the public sphere. The cultural worlds inhabited by particularistic ethnic, class, and religious communities were seen as having a clearly secondary and subordinate status.
In the norms proper to those cultural worlds, the metaphysically defining traits of humanity at large are not at issue. At issue in those particularistic cultural worlds are merely the arbitrary projects fostered by the accidental historical conditions of local community life. Thus, among citizens actually influenced by the totalizing culture of the modernist liberal public sphere, the consequence of affirming the cultural self-sufficiency of the public sphere was a certain diminution of the cognitive and moral authority of particularistic cultural beliefs and life ideals. Since it was above all the particularistic cultural beliefs and life ideals of religious communities that were diminished in moral authority by the modernist liberal totalization of the public sphere, let us refer to this general consequence as the process of secularization.
Modernist liberal political theory represented the liberal democratic public sphere as containing within itself the cultural resources necessary to provide a cultural basis for the unity and stability of society. The unity and stability of society was an interest common to all citizens. A good citizen is one whose beliefs as well as actions are consistent with the goal of maintaining a united and stable society. When the public sphere is represented as containing within itself the cultural resources necessary for social unity and stability, the natural presumption is that the cultural resources offered by the public sphere are alone consistent with good citizenship.
To the extent that this sort of presumption made itself felt, the cognitive and moral requirements of good citizenship seemed to be in direct conflict with the cognitive and moral requirements imposed by adherence to particularistic cultural world views, especially religious world views. The totalizing culture of the liberal public sphere offered moral ideals that were incompatible with those identified with particular ethnic, class, and religious communities. Two of these liberal moral ideals, what I have called the civic ethics of authenticity and the civic ethics of autonomy, were particularly hostile to religious values and beliefs. Yet, from the standpoint of modernist liberal civic culture, it seemed that the unity and stability of society could be guaranteed only by widespread, if not exclusive, adherence to these liberal moral ideals.
Beyond the secularization imperative
Thus, the totalization of the public sphere by modernist liberalism seemed to impose on society as a whole a process of cultural secularization -- i.e., a process mandating, in the name of good citizenship and the unity and stability of society, acceptance of a totalizing cultural world view that diminished the authority of beliefs and values held by particular ethnic, class, and religious communities. The totalization of the public sphere in modernist liberal civic culture produced in this way something like an informally established, state-sponsored secular "religion" -- i.e., a totalizing cultural world view whose acceptance was tacitly required as a condition for full cultural citizenship.
Fundamentalist Christian critics of liberalism, critics whose entire point of view has been largely determined by their reaction against this secular "religion," have given it the name of "secular humanism." If nothing else, their campaign against what they call secular humanism demonstrates their acute awareness of the cultural forces arrayed against them (and against all other religious persons inclined toward orthodoxy) in modernist civic culture. It also points to a problem that any political or rhetorical conception of liberal doctrine must address.
Metaphysical liberalism asserted the cultural independence and self-sufficiency of the public realm in a way that set it in opposition to the moral ideals and world views of particularistic cultural communities. The totalizing culture of the modernist liberal public sphere defined the public sphere in a way that was in principle and always potentially totalitarian -- joining the liberal democratic public sphere with a cultural world view claiming inclusive and exclusive dominion.
Rawls's conception of an overlapping cultural consensus addresses this problem. With the demise of Enlightenment conceptions of reason and knowledge, the world view that provided the cultural resources supporting the cultural independence of the public sphere has collapsed. This fact alone renders obsolete the modernist liberal representation of the political sphere as culturally self-sufficient.
A post-Enlightenment political or rhetorical conception of liberal doctrine is one that acknowledges and embraces its restricted cognitive and moral scope. For such a conception of liberal doctrine, the public sphere cannot supply the cultural resources necessary to provide a cultural basis for the unity and stability of society. This cultural basis must be supplied by an overlapping consensus among the particularistic cultural communities that make up any given liberal democracy. This does not mean that the public sphere by itself cannot offer some cultural perspectives supportive of social unity and stability.
What it means is that the liberal moral ideals and political arrangements defining the public sphere must be supported primarily by cultural resources drawn from particularistic ethnic, class and religious world views. It also means that, in order to secure this support, liberal doctrine must not be formulated or understood in such a way as to conflict gratuitously with beliefs and moral ideals sponsored by particularistic cultural communities -- it must be conceived explicitly as a doctrine pertaining only to a part and not to the whole of life, one that leaves plenty of room for orthodoxies of all kinds.
This is the nature of that reversal in our understanding of the relationship between the public and private spheres that is announced in Rawls's conception of an overlapping cultural consensus. The philosophical project of carrying through this reversal systematically I have called the de-totalization of the public sphere. Once the nature and goals of this project have been roughly defined, the next step is to begin the process of rethinking liberalism in a way that no longer represents the liberal democratic public sphere as culturally self-sufficient. One of the primary tasks of a political or rhetorical conception of liberalism is to establish clearly the cultural limits of the public sphere. If liberalism is a moral doctrine pertaining only to the part and not to the whole of life, the next task must be to define that part. If liberal moral ideals and political arrangements apply to only limited range of life issues, then just what is their specific range of application?
Page last edited: February 04, 2002
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