The concept of the ‘secular’ is a concept that has had a long career in the Western tradition of thought. It has been a subject of study both as a cultural process that began in post-reformation Europe and as a political doctrine that got implicitly formulated at the same time. As the former it went under the name of ‘secularization’, as the latter, ‘secularism’.
The course will begin with a look at the philosophical, political, and sociological, history of both these manifestations of the ‘secular’ over the centuries.
The cultural process of secularization has been understood in two registers and rhetorics --‘the decline of magic’ and the later phenomenon described as the ‘death of God’. The former came about as a result of the rise of modern science, even though a lot of modern science itself emerged out of speculation that involved magic and alchemy. The latter, announced by such figures as Hegel, Nietzsche, and Dostoevsky has been part of an intellectual trajectory in which, as Charles Taylor, the philosopher has put it, belief in God became for the first time an option, even if the option was not always taken. The course will pay some attention to this intellectual history and its fallout in politics and social life, coming at it from different disciplinary angles, philosophical, literary, anthropological, and sociological.
The political doctrine of secularism emerged from notions of tolerance that were first articulated by liberal philosophers in Europe (Locke in England, Spinoza and others in Europe) during a period of exhaustion induced by a very extended period of religious wars. Those doctrines were consolidated by subsequent liberal philosophers from Mill to Rawls in the liberal tradition, but also in a quite different tradition by Marx and his many followers to this day. The practical implementation of some of these ideas took very different forms. They resulted in the codes and constitutions of the nations of Western Europe that emerged from the Westphalian peace in the idea of a liberal polity and a liberal state. The version of secularism that emerged in communist countries was not liberal in form but it was a very deep commitment of the emergent states in these regions. (Turkey and to some extent even France imposed secularism in a form that is not describable as liberal either.) The course will briefly study both the theory and practice of these secular doctrines.
In the last forty years or so, however, the achievements (if achievements are what they are) of this accumulating liberal theory and practice has been confronted by a form of politics we have come to call ‘identity politics’. The term ‘identity’, though it is much in our discourse, has not been analyzed or theorized with much care. Very few convincing treatments of the subject are available. The course hopes to deepen our understanding of this concept as it affects politics, looking at its history first in aspirations of racial and gender equality, which yielded notions of racial and gender identity in order to deal with the inadequacies of liberal societies in achieving these two forms of equality; and then only a little later at the forms of identity that came with a politics based on ethnicities that made claims to nationhood, especially in Eastern and Central Europe; and finally in even more recent years there has been an identity politics based, not on race, or gender, or ethnicity, but based on a revival of religion, whether among Islamic migrant communities in Europe or, more puzzlingly, among revivalist Christian movements, as for instance, in the heartland of America.
The course will examine the rise of such a politics and the relative failures of both liberal and communist secular societies in dealing with them. Why is liberalism so unable to cope with the notion of identity, whether religious, ethnic, or racial? What is the nature of religion in its modern forms that threatens secular commitments of the polity? Is this a debate between tradition and modernity, or a quite distinct internal reconfiguration of distinct tendencies of modernity itself? How do these categories of various forms of identity relate to notions of ‘class’ and more generally the universalist principles of a liberal tradition now under siege from identity politics? Does liberalism need to be replaced by a radically new form of politics that can cope better with notions of identity or does it need merely marginal adjustments of principle and policy? We hope to look at the work of philosophers in different traditions, as well as cultural anthropologists, sociologists, and political theorists, in responding to these challenges.
The course offers 6 ECTS credits. The requirements are active participation followed by a term paper (5-8 pages, double spaced)