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Four philosophers on the notion of the public: Locke, Arendt, Maritain, Dooyeweerd

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goodIn the complexities of the postmodern era, governments founded on the idea of legally-guaranteed rights must deal with societal tensions between the claims raised over these rights by the individual and by the group (or the community) in the public realm. The usual strategy is an appeal to a balancing act, but almost always, a resolution that is satisfactory, in terms of the avowed aim to consider both sides of the tension is not achieved, precisely because the issue is cast in an either-or divide.

Too, often un-stated assumptions about the nature of society direct or influence public policy. Issues of welfare for instance, are to a large extent shaped by how policy makers approach the relations between individuals and various institutions and communities in society. Conservatives bewail the erosion of public norms and the corresponding decline in the vitality of public life; yet for the most part, the alternatives they proffer also leaves much to be desired, inasmuch as these somehow gloss over individual freedoms in the name of loyalty, allegiance or patriotism, or state power above all else. It is therefore important which theory of society does justice to the reality of the diversity of societal communities, institutions and relations. It goes a long way to properly addressing societal issues and concerns.

Locke and Arendt: individualism

In varying ways, Locke and Arendt are representatives of philosophies that treat of society as constituted by autonomous individuals. Of course, in much of the literature, Lockean thought is considered as the root of contemporary liberal democratic philosophy. As the key inspiration of laissez-faire economics, Lockean conceptions of the public as a social contract of autonomous individuals presents a very thin conception of public commitments as no more than a common-wealth intended for property preservation.

Ultimately, it is a selfish conception of civic-mindedness that will simply fail to “awaken…public spiritedness,” to borrow from Dooyeweerd. It does not account for the other non-state institutions and communities (read: civil society) and what they can contribute to the promotion and preservation of the vitality of public life. It is however, a conception of politics as very friendly to business and will therefore sit well with capitalist interests. In the United States, the economic depression caused by the 1929 stock crash showed that such a business-friendly, hands-off policy in the long run will not augur well for any viable notion of the public interest. Contemporary economics however is dominated by this trajectory of thinking, one that has little regard for small communities and poor countries and is consumed by nothing more than a concern for greater efficiency in the quest for greater profits.

We are not unmindful of the alternative proposals for reading Arendt that ascribes to her system a stress on meaningful interaction of members of the body politic on the basis of a certain commonality. However, even on this basis, she fails to fully give integrity to the given-ness of the pluriformity of organizations and social relations in society.

And like Locke, Arendt simply does not account for the fact that citizenship involves more than seeking public approbation; it also involves the deepest commitments that in one way or another invoke a longing for transcendence, for a certain moral vision of society. While Locke pays full attention to the formal mechanisms of government as constitutive of the body politic (albeit a representative one), Arendt simply elides the issue, or contemptuously treats of government as nothing more than mere administration. The private is also given short shrift in her system. At least in Locke, work, family and other natural relationships are given due regard as realms of the private, and not necessarily lower in value or worth.

There is no social contract in Arendt but a cosmopolitanism of free and equal individuals who seek to better or outdo one another by their action and speech in their common quest for earthly immortality, or excellence. As earlier noted, she offers very little comfort to those who would want a deeper, moral account of living together, of learning to care for one another, and to help one another.

Her differing conceptions of labor, work and initiative (although the latter is theologically-informed, by way of Augustine), runs counter to the reformational spirit that imbued sanctity in ordinary life (an idea that the philosopher Charles Taylor considers as having much to commend itself to the attention of many). But Arendt certainly anticipated the erosion of the public in contemporary society in quite another way; she will certainly not be happy that in today’s age of the YouTube, Facebook  and Skype, excellence has been reduced to nothing more than who has made the downloadable video that catches the attention of as many consumers – the postmodern version of Arendt’s “public” – or perhaps, who has come up with the zaniest internet-based business venture that the big companies will snatch up with billion-dollar offers.

And in this scheme of things, it certainly does not matter whether these consumers are one’s equals or inferiors. Publicity, or technological-savvy that brings in the money, takes over public recognition. Alas, technology has collapsed the private and the public in a totally radical way – first radio, then television, and finally the internet – so that what used to be considered as matters intimate enough as to be confined to the bedroom, are now broadcast for all who can download videos.

For Arendt, goodness as a Christian concept is opposed to the public realm, because it seeks to be hidden, not to be announced. This is simply a gross misunderstanding of the Christian theology of good works, if not a result of wooden hermeneutics (in which case hers is no different from most fundamentalist hermeneutics); The reformational critique of creation, fall and redemption advances an altogether different conception of working for the good of society; it is one in which Christians are called to work not for a total transformation of society but for a radical one (in the words of Geertsema’s piece on Christian higher education as service to the King).

Two ways of conceiving the “third way”

Maritain and Dooyeweerd treat of social theory from a normative standpoint. Indeed, there are interesting parallels in their systems, as both treat of the plurality that exist in society, and distinguishes between and among the different groups, communities, institutions and relations that obtain there. Both also recognize that public life, or issues of the common good and the public interest involve something deeper and thicker than the social contract, that in fact, these matters spring from a “covenantal ethics” – of the common life as given by God to be cultivated responsibly in its sheer diversity.

Both assert that the state is for man, not man for the state; both assert that no community or relation exhausts what the individual is. Both agree that the state must have a monopoly of violence if it must effectively discharge of its task and purpose. Maritain’s notion of the common good as the ultimate end of the state finds a parallel in Dooyeweerd’s notion of public justice as the state’s leading function (with some distinct nuances, of course). For this reason both are highly suspicious of high notions of state sovereignty.

Yet there are also significant differences that spring from the fundamental philosophical or pre-theoretical commitments that inform their respective political theories.

Dooyeweerd, as a representative of the Althusian tradition, will strongly critique Maritain’s natural law-based “nature and grace” distinctions between the temporal and the eternal as ultimately, unbiblical. Such a dual sense of the telos of institutions lends itself to a hierarchy that appears in Dooyeweerd as a horizontal relation between and among different relations and institutions.

This is one of the discontents of the Catholic view of subsidiarity of the different communities and relations in society: there is a real danger of imposing a directive from the top, despite disavowals that the state may be at the topmost of the pyramid but it is delimited by the notion of the distinct competencies of each relation or institution (which is parallel to the reformational notion of “sphere sovereignty”). Maritain would have been more consistent had he conceived of his system as a horizontal one, in which all components stand on the same level in relation to one another, as Dooyeweerd had conceived his. In any case, it would not have been possible, considering the metaphysical assumptions that underlie his thought; i.e., the nature-and-grace groundmotif, in Dooyeweerdian terms.

Dooyeweerd’s notion of the public is also more nuanced and more developed as compared to Maritain’s more general conception of it. The reformational philosopher is in this sense more modern than Maritain; the former specifically treats of the state as the result of the destruction of undifferentiated institutions that restrict human freedom. The state is the result of the process of unfolding, of opening up of society into differentiated spheres (without necessarily denigrating the sphere of the natural).

For Dooyeweerd, it is also quite possible for one state to intersect more than one nation and yet draw these nations into a single public-legal community. In Maritain, the body politic cannot exist without a nation singularly conceived. It can thus be seen that Dooyeweerdian thought has certain advantages over Thomistic thought as embodied in Maritain’s political philosophy.

From the public to the public domain?

As a last note, it is sometimes asked why Dooyeweerd restricts the notion of the public to the notion of the legal; Spijker for instance, attempts to broaden Dooyeweerd’s original notion of the public, noting that it is very limited when conceived of strictly in terms of legal integration. He cites for instance, Stafleu’s argument about a larger public domain forming a set of intersubjective networks. For Stafleu, there are different kinds of networks of public relations, in which individuals and associations partake, such as public opinion and churches and political parties (which make propaganda in public), markets and financial networks (which have an economic public character where the government raises taxes). He also adds that the state agencies themselves – the cities and provinces as well as their respective local governments – form a public political network as are the courts, which form a network of public justice (sustained by the state).

There are also the communitarians who emphasize the necessity of a common ethos in the public sphere and defend the idea that in a community some fundamental values and convictions should be shared and that the government should play an active role in promoting morality and solidarity in society.

The public as a convergence of spaces of public interest

In my view, it cannot be otherwise. It springs from the state’s qualifying or leading function, which is to protect, support, nurture and uphold public justice. Chaplin speaks in the singular when he refers to the public as a space where individuals, communities, organizations and institutions enter apart from their own spheres. Such a space, he says, embody rights that require public legal protection whose task it is for the state to provide. In my view, properly speaking, the public is constituted not by one space, but by many spaces, at various meeting points of interlacements or enkaptic bindings between the state on one side, and the various social relations on the other. Sometimes, they all converge at one point, but at other times, they exist as multiple points of contact with the state that all embody in varying ways the public interest.

The diversity of associational spheres itself calls for this characterization of the public as consisting of various spaces where the public interest converges. It is in this sense that what Griffioen and Mouw says of the public domain as “all that pertains to the common good, from public services rendered by the government to many activities associated with universities, corporations, churches, charitable foundations, and the like” may be understood. In Griffioen’s words (also quoted by Chaplin), the public is “the free citizenry of a state conceived in their independence from any other community.” Indeed, the public consists of differentiated spaces. And so the public that Dooyeweerd speaks of is not as limited as it may seem, contrary to the observation by Spijker.

Hence the direction or task of the state, on account of these variegated spaces of the “public interest,” will necessarily take different forms in the act of positivation, but always, always, it means the state exercising a legal power defined or guided by the norm of public justice.

It is also here where Griffieon and Mouw’s characterization of the private-public continuum can be properly understood: sometimes, state intervention requires the full and formal procedures of the law (for example, the matter of fair trade on the international level, where citizens would require the formal legal intervention of the state on their behalf); at other times however, on account of the more nuanced context of the public space concerned, it may only need to provide the organizing legal framework and allow the other spheres of society to take over the helm, or at least become its full independent partners (as for example, exemplified in faith-based initiatives to address social welfare concerns).

As Chaplin has argued, the public realm embodies legitimate juridical interest. This view, as a “third way”, avoids the tug-of-war between individualism and universalism in positing that such claims of juridical interest cannot be reduced to a commonality of interests attaching to private persons and structures, nor should it be interpreted as by right preeminent over them.

Of course, the state can learn a thing or two from the communitarians in this respect: what are the practices that best promote citizenship, in other words, the vitality of public norms, of the public interest? What are the practices that develop a new habitus – to borrow from Bourdieu – where the diversity of institutions, communities and relations in society find their proper place and are properly recognized as having their distinct contributions to public life and public norms? These are some of the key questions that policy makers ought to seriously consider when they address the problem of bridging the gap between the state and the various communities and relations that make up society in their common task of making public life work for the public interest.


Written by Romel

October 16, 2014 at 10:44 am

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