On Pragmatism, Liberalism, Secularism and the Exigence to Move Beyond the ‘State of Nature’

April 9, 2016 § Leave a comment


In Jeffrey Stout’s “Rorty on Religion and Politics,”[1] Stout takes a more inclusive approach regarding theists in “the public square” than Rorty took in his famous 1994 essay, “Religion As a Conversation-stopper.”[2] Stout note’s that by 2010 Rorty’s views had changed a little bit; however, Stout is still more willing than Rorty to engage people with faith-based positions in public dialogue. For me, the either / or approach to so-called secularism and religion has been made sufficiently moot by both the emergence of the analytic concept of the postsecular employed by liberal thinkers like Habermas and – entirely more compellingly – by Spinoza’s Theological-Political Treatise.[3] The problem, however, is that liberalism includes a quality analogous to being dipped in the waters of Lethe. The aletheia of liberal truth-seeking is underwritten by the hubris of the Enlightenment, an unveiling of a return to a zero degree that is a cipher which, no matter how one multiplies it, gives the same result: the state of nature. In other words, liberals in the late twentieth and early twentieth centuries are often forgetful of the roots of discussions between religion and the public sphere addressed by liberalism’s early thinkers, most notably Spinoza and Machiavelli, neither of whom eliminated religion from the “public square.” In regard to critique of liberalism, I am aligning myself here with Leo Strauss’s critiques of Carl Schmitt. But “why the state of nature?” one might say. I will address this briefly here.

In what I call the ‘European Imaginary,’ there is a long and well-known relation of the state of nature to social contract theory by which the term ‘state of nature’ becomes heuristic. Europeans and Euro-Americans have a long history of a fantasy-structure that sees civilization as arising from a “state of nature” that, even in its virtual forms such as a in “veil of ignorance” or Agamben’s “state of exception,” which he says is “in truth” a state of nature.[4] In A Theory of Justice, Rawls describes his “original state” as like the state of nature and even claims that, “[c]ontract theory agrees, then, with utilitarianism in holding that the fundamental principles of justice quite properly depend upon the natural facts about men in society. This dependence is made explicit by the description of the original position.”[5] The “original position” / “state of nature” always performs a kind of leveling to theoretically proceed from a more equitable base. In that sense, it often acts as a fictional tabula rasa. The empty center of liberal sovereignty was thoroughly described by Walter Benjamin in On the Origins of German Tragic Drama in which he footnotes his appreciation for legal theorist Carl Schmitt’s book, Political Theology, saying that Schmitt’s thinking was essential in forming Benjamin’s aesthetic theory. This exchange between a would-be Nazi and a Jew who died trying to escape Nazis is taken up in Schmitt’s Hamlet or Hecuba during the late 1950s. The two thinkers importantly part ways in their conceptions of sovereignty.   For Schmitt, Hamlet accents his nostalgia for a strong monarchy that gives way to the rise of parliamentary democracy and liberalism; for Benjamin, Hamlet is the ‘Ur-text’ for the German Trauerspiel or mourning play. In Benjamin’s conception this marks an important entrance of historicism. Leo Strauss, who critiqued Schmitt and others for relying too heavily on the idea of modernity, turned to readings of Spinoza to articulate important points concerning the question: Is theology necessary for the state? Spinoza’s answer, as interpreted by Leo Strauss[6] is that the necessity of dramatization through history is the acting out of theology – and insofar as theology is not always rational, the drama moves us toward the rational when our own rationality is insufficient. Machiavelli too (who was also important for Strauss) saw a place for religion in society. Victoria Kahn, in “Political Theology and Liberal Culture” has noted this, as well as the shared critiques of liberalism between Schmitt. She argues that “Spinoza can provide a map for those of us seeking a critique of political theology that also preserves an Enlightenment idea of culture.”[7] American pragmatists such as Rorty and Stout would do well to consider the broader historical perspective that thinkers like Kahn offer instead of relying on the “Jeffersonian compromise” that roots them in a nationalistic political foundation myth. In the twenty-first century, the discussion of liberalism in tension with theological attitudes is a global problem that cannot be reduced to reactions of extremism among Islamic militants or the Hate speech of the Christian Right.

I tend to agree with Kahn that part of the answer to liberalism’s crisis with respect to the theological must attend to the idea of poiesis. However, I am also unwilling to give up critiquing liberalism because I feel forced into the political category of ‘liberal subject’ as a citizen residing in the United States. I am compelled to a certain extent by the critiques of liberalism by thinkers such as Alain Badiou, and I’m heartened by his attempt to maintain focus on the necessity for thinking in terms of the subject as a political entity. I am also intrigued by Carl Raschke’s call for ‘Christian militants’ informed by Badiou’s notion of militancy, which is importantly not a call for Christian exclusivity, in his recent book, Force of God. While I land in an optimism for aesthetic solutions to liberal crises, I believe we must go beyond both the avowedly secular and atheistic aesthetics presented by Kahn and Badiou, as well as the political theological aesthetics presented by Raschke and others such as Agamben in his “archaeology of glory.” I find some hope in enchanting the poetic structure of international ‘soft law.’[8] By ‘enchanting’ I mean to counter Max Weber’s claims to modern disenchantment by invoking concepts such as ‘reincarnation’ in terms of thinking about legal structures that govern human lives. These legal structures are poetic in the sense of being made and in the sense that Kahn has articulated in her defense of secular liberalism, but they require that aesthetics and the Arts be regarded more seriously than they currently are in United States liberal culture. Because of that we need the kinds of critiques Badiou makes in his allegiance to certain forms of non-totalitarian Marxism, which he has defended in his conversations with Marcel Gauchet, a defender of liberal democracy.[9] Raschke’s project, while not meant to defend any kind of liberalism, helps bring into focus a postsecular view that goes beyond simply defending secularization or the Enlightenment. In that way he gets us beyond the didacticism present in pragmatists like Stout and Rorty. Transcending the utopianism among pragmatists, secularists, and adherents of political theology must be done by an overhauling of the European Imaginary’s reliance on ‘the state of nature’ as a ‘state of exception,’ which informs the flattening and one-dimensional tendencies of global capitalism. And the way to do this, I believe, is to give much needed attention to deconstructing Euro Christian colonialism, as is being done by Native American scholars such as George “Tink” Tinker, Glenn Morris, and Steven Newcomb with his Indigenous Law Institute.

In particular, Newcomb’s work on the Doctrine of Discovery in papal bulls and their presence as a shadow text in American law ever since the 1823 Johnson vs. M’Intosh U.S. Supreme Court decision. In Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery, Newcomb relies on cognitive legal studies and theories advanced by thinkers such as George Lakoff, Mark Johnson, and Steven Winter to unpack generations of genocidal tendencies in both U.S. law and European colonial culture which relegates indigenous populations to the fictive status of existing in a state of nature. Because indigenous people have been legally defined as existing in a “state of nature” they have been seen as incapable of holding land or sovereignty, but because thinkers From Hobbes to Rousseau to Rawls admit the heuristic status of the concept actual people’s lives have been made the status of fiction and become the screens for the projections of European and Euro-American fantasy structures and desires. I believe there is no single generational answer to this injustice; rather, a transgenerational method of justice must be developed as a poetic structure in international soft law in a way that can be invoked in the “hard law” of national legal decisions. Soft law exists in theory but since the 1940s has been invoked more and more through institutions like the International Criminal Court. Importantly, however, the United Nations’ conception of Human Rights and the institution of the U.N. itself needs to be rethought through the lens of deconstructing the Doctrine of Discovery. To do this, we need to move beyond the puerile, either / or thinking that creates a binaries between “theological and secular,” “spiritual and religious” or that argues for the existence or no-existence of God(s).

Doctrine of Discovery Flyer3


[1] Jeffrey Stout’s “Rorty on Religion and Politics,” The Philosophy of Richard Rorty, Ed. Randall E. Auxier and Lewis Edwin Hahn, (Chicago: Open Court, 2010), 523-545.


[2] Richard Rorty, “Religion As a Conversation-stopper,” Philosophy and Social Hope, (New York: Penguin, 1999). 168-174.


[3] For my reading of Spinoza’s Treastise see my essay, “The State of Exception as Apocalyptic Desire” https://thoughtsandmusic.wordpress.com/2016/03/20/the-state-of-exception-as-apocalyptic-desire-overcoming-a-persecuting-society/


[4] Giorgio Agamben, Homo sacer. Stanford: Stanford UP, 109.


[5] John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, Oxford: Belknap, 2005, 159.


[6] Leo Strauss, Spinoza’s Critique of Religion, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965).


[7] Victoria Kahn, “Political Theology and Liberal Culture,” Political Theology and Early Modernity, Ed. Graham Hammill and Julia Lupton, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012), 43.

[8] For a more developed description see my essay, “Concerning Reincarnation and the ‘Human’ in Human Rights Beyond Being-Toward-Death” https://thoughtsandmusic.wordpress.com/2016/03/27/concerning-reincarnation-and-the-human-in-human-rights-beyond-being-toward-death/


[9] See Alain Badiou and Marcel Gauchet, What is to Be Done? A Dialogue on Communism, Capitalism, and the Future of Democracy, Trans. Susan Spitzer, (Cambridge: polity, 2016).


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