Modernity's Wager: Authority, the Self, and Transcendenceby Adam B. Seligman
Adam Seligman, one of our most important social thinkers, continues the incisive critique of modernity he began in his previously acclaimed The Idea of Civil Society and The Problem of Trust. In this provocative new work of social philosophy, Seligman evaluates modernity's wager, namely, the gambit to liberate the modern individual from external/i>/i>… See more details below
Adam Seligman, one of our most important social thinkers, continues the incisive critique of modernity he began in his previously acclaimed The Idea of Civil Society and The Problem of Trust. In this provocative new work of social philosophy, Seligman evaluates modernity's wager, namely, the gambit to liberate the modern individual from external social and religious norms by supplanting them with the rational self as its own moral authority. Yet far from ensuring the freedom of the individual, Seligman argues, "the fundamentalist doctrine of enlightened reason has called into being its own nemesis" in the forms of ethnic, racial, and identity politics. Seligman counters that the modern human must recover a notion of authority that is essentially transcendent, but which extends tolerance to those of other--or no--faiths.
Through its denial of an authority rooted in an experience of transcendence, modernity fails to account for individual and collective moral action. First, deprived of a sacred source of the self, depictions of moral action are reduced to motives of self interest. Second, dismissing the sacred leaves the resurgence of religious movements unexplained.
In this rigorous and imaginative study, Seligman seeks to discover a durable source of moral authority in a liberalized world. His study of shame, pride, collective guilt, and collective responsibility demonstrates the mutual relationship between individual responsibility and communal authority. Furthermore, Seligman restores the indispensable role of religious traditions--as well as the features of those traditions that enhance, rather than denigrate, tolerance. Sociologists, political theorists, moral philosophers, and intellectual historians will find Seligman's thesis enlightening, as will anyone concerned with the ethical and religious foundations of a tolerant society.
"This book is an erudite critique of existing traditions of Western thought, especially in sociology. . . . [It] offers an excellent critique of the hole that social science has gotten into in trying to understand a rational yet authoritative social order."Choice
"A very valuable contribution to the sociological study of religion, with strong relevance to philosophy and theology as well. Any work that can connect such diverse domains deserves to be applauded."Steven D. Boyer, Journal of the American Academy of Religion
"This very timely book is about authority and its connection to the constitution of selfhood and to related notions of community and the sacred. Adam Seligman proposes a very bold thesis. . . . He develops it with substantive and nuanced arguments."Thomas A. Byrnes, Journal of Religion
Steven D. Boyer
Thomas A. Byrnes
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Modernity's WagerAuthority, the Self, and Transcendence
By Adam B. Seligman
Princeton University PressCopyright © 2000 Princeton University Press
All right reserved.
IntroductionFROM ANCIENT Babylon to contemporary Indonesia, from China to Canada, and from the Inuit to the Parisian, all peoples and societies have experienced power and its differential distribution. Defined by Max Weber as "the probability that one actor within a social relationship will be in a position to carry out his own will despite resistance," power has been a fact of social life from time out of mind. Like people everywhere and in all ages, most members of modern societies readily understand the workings of power. Power and power differentials are everywhere. We are schooled in its uses and abuses. We ascertain its trappings. We know who wields it and who does not. We are, in this country anyway, concerned about spreading it around more fairly, as can be seen by the pervasive rhetoric of empowerment.
One thing that sets modern society apart from most other peoples and places, however, is the difficulty its members have in appreciating and fully understanding one of power's cognate terms: authority. This book is about authority and the need to sensitize ourselves to its resonances despite our impulses to the contrary. It sets out and develops four major claims about authority and its relation toself-identities, as follows:
1. Modernity, whether in the form of liberal politics, capitalist exchange, or the epistemologies of the social sciences, is inherently hostile to the idea and experience of authority and as a result has difficulty understanding its persistence.
2. Despite this aversion of modern politics and society to authority, any account of the self that does not include an account of authority will ultimately fail to explain human action and experience in the world.
3. We ignore the phenomenon of authority at our peril, for by so doing we fail to recognize the import of the reemergence of ethnic, religious, and primordial identities in today's global culture.
4. By establishing the necessary connection of authority to ideas of selfhood through such phenomena as community and the sacred, this book hopes to resensitize us to this ineliminable aspect of our existence while at the same time maintaining commitments to democracy, pluralism, and tolerance.
The remainder of the introduction is devoted to a preliminary clarification of the above points.
The idea of authority is traditionally defined as legitimate power, that is, as power which is seen as fairly exercised or justly wielded. Authority, then, with its attendant association of legitimacy, stands in contradistinction to power simpliciter. It was Max Weber who offered a succinct and powerful formulation of the two possible foundations of legitimacy.
The first he terms subjective and the second external. Weber posits the three possible bases of the subjective as follows: "1) affectual: resulting from emotional surrender; or 2) value-rational: determined by the belief in the absolute validity of the order as the expression of ultimate values of an ethical or esthetic or of any other type; or 3) religious: determined by the belief that salvation depends upon obedience to the order." The external bases of legitimacy he defines as "guaranteed by the expectation of specific external effects, that is, by interest situations." To a great extent, modern, liberal societies have come to base their legitimacy on the second, external source, upon a politics of interest, as delineated in the writings of Hobbes and Hume. As a result, people living in these societies find it difficult to understand and empathize with the motives and motivations of people for whom the other set of justifying practices-those rooted in ultimate and more usually in sacred values-provides the foundations of legitimacy and hence of authority.
Motives and motivations are central here. For authority to exist, as opposed to power, the legitimacy of its actions must be registered in the subjective experience and consciousness of the actors. Whereas power rests solely on the coercion of the will, authority rests on what Weber has called the "inner justification" of dominion. This inner, subjective experience is at the heart of the phenomenon of authority. In fact, if we can grasp the relevance of Weber's two modes of legitimacy in terms of this subjective experience, we are at least on the way to understanding why most secular liberal members of modern societies have such difficulty understanding authority in other social settings.
We in modern societies accept the existence of power differentials, accept the need to coerce our will, in order to fulfill certain needs or attain certain goals. In the language of social choice theory, we rein in our wills in order to maximize certain utilities. Hence, we obey the doctor's exhortations to refrain from smoking and limit our drinking; we abide the boring professor in order to complete the course and get a high grade; we do not tell our customer what we really think of her because we want her business; and we vote for a candidate whose behavior appalls us, because we believe our interests will be best served by this politician rather than that one. In the specific settings of "authority" relations then-with teachers, politicians, and even business colleagues-we bend our will to theirs not out of belief in the salvation of our souls or in a set of ultimate values. Nor do we accept their dictates out of the "disinterested motives" to which Weber referred in his first "affectual" category of subjective legitimacy. Quite the opposite. We accept the authority of those wielding power because over the long run it is in our interest to do so. Specific instances of such relations may be defined by the workings of pure power. But even when it is not power that is at play but rather some form of the legitimate nature of the exchange, the legitimacy is rooted in interests. Moreover, as Ralf Dahrendorf observed more than a generation ago, most people in modern societies are differentially distributed into different power groupings (what he termed "Imperatively Coordinated Associations," based on Weber's Herrschaftsverbund) so that in some groups we may be near the top of the power pyramid and in others near the bottom. No cosmological significance is attributed to these differences, no weight in terms of ultimate and sacred values. The categories represent only competencies and their social valuation. We are better at some things that society rewards more or less highly, less successful at others, and the differences are mediated by different forms of exchange. Distinctions are, that is, about nothing more than utility functions. And such for most of us is the basis of the social order: not God's will, not the salvation of our souls, not the realization of ultimate values, but simply the satisfaction of interests.
This has been the traditional economistic reading of society and the social order, one that has made quite some headway in the social sciences in the form of social choice and rational choice theory. It is, as Brian Barry put it some thirty years ago, an essentially "Benthamite" understanding of society.
Its most important assumptions are: that men tend to act rationally in the pursuit of their ends; that most men in all societies want power, status and economic goods; and that internalized restraints on the pursuit of these are less significant than sanctions which make use of them (public disapproval, legal punishments etc.). Its characteristic method of proceeding is to work out how men rationally pursuing power, status and economic goods would behave in a certain set-up, and then to suggest that men in the real word behave sufficiently similarly to make the conclusions applicable.
In this understanding we are dealing therefore not with inner restraints but with external coercion of our will, either by the threat of sanctions or the need to fulfill interests. Its opposite number is that other, "innerly justified" disinterested acceptance of authority predicated not on external concerns but on internal ones. This is not a will coerced (from without) but a will subjugated (from within). One would hardly say of the observant Orthodox Jew who refused to eat pork and the observant Muslim who refused to drink wine that they were coerced from without. Rather one would say that they accepted the law's authority and subjugated themselves to it from within. It would in fact be difficult to describe their actions in terms of maximizing utilities or obtaining a set of discrete goods. They were simply being what they are, being themselves. An observant Jew or Muslim could not remain such and at the same time become an eater of pork. If they did, they would become something different. Now moving from being an observant Jew or Muslim to being a nonobservant one is something quite different from changing one's profession from electrician to tennis pro. What makes it different is precisely the acceptance of a certain authority as a critical component of self-identity.
The point here is simple, that ideas of authority and of self are inseparable, as certain understandings of self imply certain understandings of authority. The opposite is of course also the case. Hence when moderns adhere to certain Benthamite ideas of the self, implied as well are certain ideas about authority, as essentially predicated on the fulfillment of interests. Similarly, when we advance or advocate values and beliefs in a more equal distribution of power and eschew any idea of a more innerly justified authority, we also signal certain ideas of the self and of relations between selves. Most broadly put, this modern idea of the self is an autonomous, atomistic, and self-regulating moral agent endowed with rights. And relations between selves are seen in terms of an exchange based on the mutual interests of the contracting parties. These views are held so absolutely that they shackle our imagination and understanding of other notions of selves or of authority, specifically such as are innerly justified.
This state of affairs is unfortunate for at least two reasons. On the purely intellectual side, it makes it difficult for the social sciences and indeed for important parts of philosophy to explain human action in terms of anything but purely calculative, power-oriented acts of utility maximization and corresponding notions of negotiation and exchange. But what of such powerful motivations as shame and pride or collective guilt and responsibility, or even the attempt to rationalize and "tame" luck or fortuna? These, unfortunately, are left under-problematized and misunderstood.
On the more substantive level, the rational choice position leaves us without an explanation for a key cultural component of globalization-the reemergence of salient religious identities and commitments in many parts of the world. Indeed, we find in contemporary India, Israel, Algeria, Turkey, Egypt, the Balkans, Latin America, and Eastern Europe a renewed vigor in many different forms of (mostly) revealed religion that no one would have imagined a generation ago. Moreover, the areas where this revival occurs are also the sites of great conflict and often of war and terrorism. These contemporary developments force us to retreat from the "secularization thesis" of the 1960s, which held that modernization went hand in hand with secularization. Not surprisingly, too, this resurgence of religious identities has been noted in much scholarly literature-from the Fundamentalism Project at the University of Chicago to David Martin's work on evangelical Christianity in Latin America, to the influential works of Samuel Huntington and of Benjamin Barber. These are but some of the more popular and widely disseminated works on the new religious consciousness. What is unquestionable is that one aspect of globalization is the rise of a new religious consciousness that cuts across existing modes of identity, commitment, and senses of national community.
At the same time increasing attention is being paid to issues of collective responsibility as we see in the Truth and Reconciliation Committee in South Africa, the War Crimes Tribunal in the Hague, the lustration process in the former Czechoslovakia, the ongoing concern with responsibility for the crimes of the Holocaust, even the struggle to extradite Pinochet to Spain to stand trial for events of the 1970s in Chile. This is perhaps the defining issue of life in Bosnia and Herzegovina today, though it is equally important in France in the myriad discussions and debates over French responsibility for both Vichy and Algeria. The current academic interest in the problem of evil captures aspects of this problem of individual and collective responsibility as well.
The confluence of all these issues undermines the liberal vision of community founded on the radical autonomy of the individual. Even in the United States the idea of the liberal self is under attack by a host of forces, from the Christian Coalition to the communitarian movement. What is the attraction of these forces in a world that, after all, is more and more identified with pluralistic societal structures, equalitarian ideas of individual rights, and market economies oriented to the choice and actions of individual economic actors? A more nuanced and sophisticated inquiry into the reemergent religious consciousness must thus be offered. Any simple equating of religion with fundamentalism just won't do. Such an inquiry can most usefully be achieved by analyzing the connection between authority and self-identity so commonly found in religion. However, this connection is so inimicable to our modernist, often social scientific understanding that we must begin by addressing the objections raised by that perspective. We must, as it were, clear the way before we can come to appreciate a mode of being and understanding ourselves that has become foreign to many of us.
Let us begin with those ideas of self that lie at the basis of social scientific inquiry, a mode of thought that developed together with modernist (and generally democratic) sensibilities in many parts of the world, for example, in the France of the Third Republic, the Chicago of the Progressive Era, or the Turkey of Ataturk. The debates that today define and shape the disciplines of the social sciences-over structure and agency, rational action, social choice models, and the structure/agency debate-all are refractions of the politics of democratic practice. They inform struggles over entitlements, affirmative action, distributive justice, and the state, as well as over local communities, identities, and commitments.
The assumptions of modern, democratic, and liberal political practice are integral to the social sciences. This is true of the more agent-orientated theoretical assumptions of Mancur Olson or Kenneth Arrow, as well as of the more collectivist and culturalist orientation rooted in the sociologies of Emile Durkheim and Talcott Parsons. In fact, in chapter one I argue that this congruence of political ideology and scientific practice can be found most saliently in the concept of social role. And that once social scientists make use of the concept of social role, which they must, to discuss social structure in any meaningful way, they become locked into a particular epistemology that prejudices their ability to understand the place of authority in constituting individual selves. Even differences between rational choice and more culturalist approaches pale in significance before their more fundamentally shared assumptions on personal identity and selfhood.
This is not to say that such approaches are inherently false. But their assumptions about the nature of the self and its relation with others, rooted as they are in the political assumptions of modernity, are seriously circumscribed and of only limited value when analyzing the "revolt against modernity" characterized by nonmodern modes of action and existence, including those motivated by religious commitments and ethnic, primordial identities. To fathom such identities we need to develop an empathy with a kind of self that is in its essence foreign to us, as citizens and as scholars.
Arising out of a skepticism toward the ethical systems of Aristotelian and neo-Thomistic thought, the modern idea of the self was given its best expression by Bernard de Mandeville at the beginning of the eighteenth century. He wrote: man centers every thing in himself, and neither loves nor hates, but for his own Sake ... Every individual is a little World by itself, and all Creatures, as far as their Understanding and Abilities will let them, endeavor to make that Self happy: This in all of them is the continual Labour, and seems to be the whole Design of Life. Hence it follows, that in the Choice of Things Men must be determined by the Perception they have of Happiness; and no Person can commit or set about an Action, which at that then present time seems not [to] be the best to him.
Excerpted from Modernity's Wager by Adam B. Seligman Copyright © 2000 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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