A provocative post over at the NY Times from Stanley Fish – quickly becoming our favorite contributor over there – discussing Steven Smith’s forthcoming book The Disenchantment Of Secular Discourse. Fish uses the book as an occasion to drill down into the (often false) dichotomy between public/private, secular/religious discourse. Though perhaps not exactly breaking news – the debt to Hume and MacIntyre (and Augustine) is acknowledged – Fish/Smith’s take is still far from an apology for the religious right. A few highlights:
It is not, Smith tells us, that secular reason can’t do the job (of identifying ultimate meanings and values) we need religion to do; it’s worse; secular reason can’t do its own self-assigned job — of describing the world in ways that allow us to move forward in our projects — without importing, but not acknowledging, the very perspectives it pushes away in disdain.
Smith is not in the business of denigrating science and rationalism or minimizing their great achievements. Secular reason — reason cut off from any a priori stipulations of what is good and valuable — can take us a long way. We’ll do fine as long as we only want to find out how many X’s or Y’s there are or investigate their internal structure or discover what happens when they are combined, and so forth. But the next step, the step of going from observation to evaluation and judgment, proves difficult, indeed impossible, says Smith, for the “truncated discursive resources available within the downsized domain of ‘public reason’ are insufficient to yield any definite answer to a difficult issue — abortion, say, or same sex marriage, or the permissibility of torture . . . .” If public reason has “deprived” the natural world of “its normative dimension” by conceiving of it as free-standing and tethered to nothing higher than or prior to itself, how, Smith asks, “could one squeeze moral values or judgments about justice . . . out of brute empirical facts?” No way that is not a sleight of hand.
But no matter who delivers the lesson, its implication is clear. Insofar as modern liberal discourse rests on a distinction between reasons that emerge in the course of disinterested observation — secular reasons — and reasons that flow from a prior metaphysical commitment, it hasn’t got a leg to stand on.