Deep Solidarity: Political Theology, Jewish Thought, and Liberal Commitment in a Secular Age

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Deep Solidarity: Political Theology, Jewish Thought, and Liberal Commitment in a Secular Age

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Title: Deep Solidarity: Political Theology, Jewish Thought, and Liberal Commitment in a Secular Age
Author: Lesch, Charles
Citation: Lesch, Charles. 2016. Deep Solidarity: Political Theology, Jewish Thought, and Liberal Commitment in a Secular Age. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard University, Graduate School of Arts & Sciences.
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Abstract: Solidarity is crucial for liberalism. It helps to stabilize society, realize justice, diminish domination, and cultivate moral personality. Yet the sources of liberal solidarity have received almost no attention in political theory. This dissertation is a study of those sources. It is part original history of European philosophy, part novel moral psychology, and part new normative political theory. I call this theory deep solidarity.

The dissertation is centered around two questions: First, how can liberalism, which valorizes personal freedom, individual dignity, pluralism, and critical reflection, be joined with solidarity, which stresses social unity, visceral attachment, and the subordinating of one’s own interest to a greater good? Second, if it is true, as critics of liberalism like Carl Schmitt have argued, that our commitment to others often has sources transcending reason, by what means can we channel humanity’s non-rational psychology toward liberal values while avoiding jingoism, demagoguery, and fanaticism? To answer these questions, I take up a further challenge from Schmitt: that even our apparently secular ideas about solidarity conceal a critical and ongoing reliance on theology; and, to paraphrase Max Weber, that it is only because of liberalism’s “religious unmusicality” that we overlook this fact.

My aim in this dissertation, therefore, is to retune political theory. Through fresh readings of five central figures in philosophy, and drawing from moral psychology, social theory, anthropology, and religious studies, I unearth, conceptualize, and critically evaluate two distinct approaches for responding to Schmitt’s challenge, one arguing that liberal solidarity can be realized through reason alone, the other accepting the necessity of the non-rational.

I evaluate the first in part one, tracing an original history of European political thought through Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Immanuel Kant, and Jürgen Habermas. By virtue of their far-reaching influence, each of these theorists also offers a prism for evaluating three distinct sub-approaches to liberal solidarity: democratic, ethical, and discursive. Western philosophy’s dominant method for securing solidarity, I show, has been to find ways for grounding our commitment and motivation in reason; yet as I demonstrate further, it has done so, startlingly, by drawing deeply and directly from religious ideas. I call this method solidarity through secularization and argue that it has failed. Each theorist’s attempt at secularizing a religious concept or practice ends up incomplete, leaving behind a remainder that either unleashes political pathologies or undermines its efficacy for solidarity.

In part two I move from history to theory, developing a new normative model for liberal solidarity that I call deep solidarity. I do so by recovering another, enormously rich but neglected tradition for thinking about solidarity and religion that straddles East and West: the modern Jewish thought of Emmanuel Levinas and Martin Buber. I argue that their distinctive strand of religiously-attuned phenomenology, largely overlooked by political theorists, offers a radical new method for assimilating theological ideas that is both uniquely sensitive to the need for non-rational commitment and highly cognizant of its dangers. I call this method solidarity through imitation and draw from it vital normative resources. From Levinas I derive deep solidarity’s underlying moral psychology: solidarity as sacrifice. From Buber I derive its theory of obligation: solidarity as fate and destiny. Deep solidarity, I conclude, answers Schmitt’s challenge, providing a pre-political form of moral commitment and motivation that transcends reason but is compatible with liberalism.
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