Tag Archives: public reason

A Reasoned Feeling, beyond the Contrast between Reason and Emotion

Juliette Grange

University of Tours

A reasoned feeling, beyond the contrast between reason and emotion.


The aims of this paper are 1) to quickly describe and analyze the criticims of rationalism in The Affective Sciences and above all, to formulate the hypothesis of an indirect but undeniable link with populist and neoconservative movements. 2) To clarify the status of republican rationalism. 3) To make a philosophical offer that goes beyond the emotion/reason dualism in the political field. Thus, attention will be paid to define a “reasoned feeling”. Passion towards certain political ideals can, in our opinion, be coupled with the coldness of rationalism, the informed consideration of legal needs or institutional complexities.

“Emotions”,“Populism”,“Illiberal democracy”, “Public reason”, “Republican debate”, “French Republicanism”, “Affective Sciences”, “Philosophy and political capacity”, “Freedom of Opinion”

Our time is marked by two important innovation. The first one concerns the spreading of illiberal democracies which, in many formerly democrat or republican countries (in a continental sense), set up populist leaderships as the United States, Poland, Brazil and Hungary.  United Kingdom and France aren’t definitively spared. In fact, in those countries, democracy is drained of its inner self, without military takeover or electoral manipulation. Political feelings such as virulent hatred for foreigners, enthusiasm for egocrats, rejection of elected representatives, academics and journalists, which characterized extremist or inconspicuous groups, are openly and violently expressed: these feelings are well established. As a result, Public Reason (Habermas), republican debate seems impossible in front of emotional rhetoric.

The second innovation is the enthusiasm for affective science supposed to be initiated in biology and neurology of emotions. A proliferation of philosophical or human sciences books or texts, describing the richness of beliefs and the impossibility to distinguish them from exact knowledge, goes together with direct or indirect questioning of rationalism and modernity. Cognitivism makes a clean sweep of the most classical philosophical references (Descartes, Kant, Hegel, Comte) and this, in part, within the universities themselves.

The affective and emotional Turn

The Director of the “Institute for the Neurological Study of Emotion and Creativity” (California) proclaims the “Descartes’Error”[1]. According to this brain specialist called Damasio, reasoning or thinking are not necessary for an effective action. On the contrary, “it is as if there were a passion founding reason, an impulse that originates from the depths of the brain, creeps into the other levels of the nervous system which finally translates itself into the perception of an emotion or an unconscious influence that is guiding decision making. [2]

Long neglected by Sciences and Philosophy, the new field of Affective Science includes Psychology of Emotions, Social Cognition, Computer Science (which would mould the emotional phenomena). These specialties can be found in many universities, for example in Geneva. “To do quickly, in the current studies, everything seems to begin with the improvement of a thematic field based on wide-ranging institutional and financial investments, as Damien Boquet points out when he contextualizes his EMMA project on its dedicated blog. These investments are based on the notion of “emotion” and not on those of “sensibility”, “affect” or “feelings”. And it is certainly not only a matter of a dominant English language, but also an epistemological matter that deserves attention. Because these enormous investments don’t testify to a new, disinterested taste, but also to a new political will that revives the aim to be able to deal with human subjects. Emotions constitute a strategic applied research field which benefits from war sector resources. Once again, psychological war looks for tools that would allow it’s unravelling the mysteries of “human nature”, in the sense of a human functioning that would not be restricted by cultural and historical determinations, but by anthropological and psychological invariants, a physiology. Thus understanding how human matter is constituted and how it works, in order to understand how to act on it. Actually, the major international institutes work with psychology that is rather close to cognitivism, neuroscience and history of science. There are certainly some means left for some other knowledges, but they are the margins of this renewed curiosity. Heavy investments are on the sides of the sciences that are the least suspected of literary lightness. [3]

It is not about giving a scientific basis to the modern transformation described by Hirschmann in The passions and the Interests[4]. From the 18th century onwards, for Hirschmann, the violence of passions was restricted by soft trade and the utilitarian search of interest. It is not a matter for the political scientist to affirm the existence of natural emotions base, which would be the basis of any action or decision, even in politics. Damasio[5] distinguishes passions, emotions and feelings. Emotions are close to the biological basis of behaviors, they escape from consciousness. Feelings would be subject to socio-historical variations. If it exists, the reasoned choice is always built on an emotional base, there can be choices and opinions that are opaque to any objective approach of legitimization.

Reason and emotions in French republicanism

Republicanism is a rare case in history; a concrete political practice that give way to philosophy[6]. This is not philosophy that would grant itself a political role. There is a role for philosophical ideas, individual reason of each citizen is claimed to be an instrument of decision. Because normative theory can’t establish a republican policy, it is not a question of finding an ultimate political foundation, a truth, nor is it a question of justifying practices (by an ideology), nor of breaking up the contradictions of reality. The role of ideas is specific.

The debate through the expression of opposition from two antagonistic points of view or political model is characteristic of modern political life. If the republic is a parti-pris (Alain), it is a constructed but revisable norm. Revisable because constructed and therefore questionable. Republic is the call for voluntarism through the discussion of an ideal.  If then, the “protest of the intellectual” [7] amplifies the “reign of criticism” inherited from the Enlightenment no longer exists, then consensualism and “emotionalism” testify that we are in the process of forgetting this form of politics that requires sharp divisions, public opposition of points of view, a dynamic emerging from the differences of opinion between citizens and the reasoned political debate that follows. Fear of conflict or the search for unanimity bring populism and violence internally[8], it is undoubtedly appropriate today to repoliticize the public debate and expose divergences and oppositions.

The aim of this debate will be precisely to « […] critically determine the definition and implementation of an idea[9]”. Because republicanism is not a doctrine, it can only find in itself, without transcendence, assumption of a natural right or its founding principles. It is based upon an incessant reasoning concerning the various aporias that it is made of (revolution/institutions, majority/minority, individualism/unitalism). This need for reasoned reflection is precisely due to the fact that the Idea of Republic is never completely and definitively constituted, and as a result is the subject of constant questioning.

Philosophy therefore does not provide a theory for republican practice. It is just one of his instruments. “This circumstance, so new in history, of all the political education of a great people entirely made by literary people was perhaps the most important contribution to the French Revolution, its own genius and to making it what we see […]. When we study the history of our Revolution, we see that it was conducted precisely in the same spirit that led to so many abstract books on government being written. Same attraction for general theories, complete systems of legislation and exact symmetry of laws; same disregard for existing facts, same confidence in theory […][10] ”.

It is therefore necessary to define a form of rationalism that allows a plurality of axiological and social choices, as well as the common space of their confrontation. The reason we are talking about is essentially the one that has the will to judge. “Using reason is always doing the same simple and individual act that we call judging[11]”. Doubt, confrontation, reflexion, dialogue, trial and error are the processes of political, individual and collective (but individual before being collective) reasonableness.

Reason is at the centre of a public space where the various conceptions of Good are not juxtaposed, but where the search for criterion of reasoned decision is staged. Without this rationalism, the idea of an indivisible and secular republic engraved in the 1958 Constitution makes no sense. Republican public opinion will therefore be the one in which public reasoning is engaged. It is mixed with ordinary reason (the one of any educated and autonomous subject in his choices – the one of any citizen) and more specific or learned knowledge. Republicanism is therefore optimistic about the ability of all citizens to make public use of their reason. It is conditioned on the work of instruction that will realize this capacity in everyone. This republican optimism is measured and is not confused with the belief in the spontaneous ability of the people for reasoning or of society to be democratic, nor to express their natural freedom through universal suffrage[12]. There is a tension between political rationalism and the idea of the sovereign will of the people. This tension is irreducible.

Historians of thought see French 19th century republicanism as a mixture of neo-kantism and positivism[13], but what really matter here is less the doctrinal content than the very role of philosophy. A rationalist philosophy, breaking with religion and its philosophical avatars, played an essential role in 1880s France. In the continuity of the philosophies of Condorcet, the “Ideologues”, Auguste Comte, Renouvier’s reading of Kant detached from the metaphysics kantism still contains, the reading of positive philosophy by the republican disciples of Comte, the claim for “reason as foundation of the Republic” (Alain), will serve as philosophical guarantee[14].

It should be noted that there are theories of knowledge and not political philosophies that most often serve as a basis for the indirect political role of philosophy. At that time in France, it was a question of “being a society” other than through Catholic rites and rhythms. If religions are accepted as individual beliefs, public space (the symbolic places of social and political identity) and knowledge in general can no longer proceed from them. Philosophies are therefore called upon as theories of knowledge or philosophy of science, less in their own content than as a vehicle for a possible social rupture, that of mentalities.

“French Republic ensures freedom of conscience. It guarantees the free exercise of worship under the sole restrictions set out below in the interest of public order[15]“. Pluralism of beliefs, religious or not, is thus legally guaranteed. Neither society nor institutions can refer to a single value system without debate. Reasoning and dissent require a specific use of convictions, (religious ones included) a use that relativizes them because they require confrontation on a background of neutrality. Neuter: ” Neither one nor the other “.

Public space is not the place where points of view are juxtaposed, nor is it the place of the absolute convictions clashing, but the place where individual points of view are confronted in order to reach a temporary agreement. Strictly speaking, this is a question of laicity (french version for secularism). Laos in Greek means “undivided population”. “Is secular, in this sense, what concerns all the people, regardless of the various beliefs that divide them” reminds us opportunely Henri Pena-Ruiz[16]. “Human diversity and the unity of the political and legal community, which makes it possible to ensure their coexistence, must be reconciled[17]“. Laicity concerns the very definition of public life, this balance between unitism and the expression of divergences. It should therefore not be considered only as just freedom of conscience or the separation between public and private.

It is important to consider that it is not a question of tolerance, in the sense of allowing private convictions to be expressed, but rather ensuring public confrontation of points of view, whether religious or not (there are idolatries other than religious). The despotism that republicanism fights is due to the absence of public relativization of convictions (whether they are theocracies or neo-liberalism, for instance). Therefore, strictly speaking, a secular education doesn’t promise any conviction, it exercises the necessary reasoning practices to confront points of view. Secular neutrality will therefore be the political guarantee for this space of confrontation of absolute convictions, which are thus obliged to change, to tend to relativize their positions. It can deal with the expression of convictions of any kind, because it is the acceptance of this public confrontation, the exercise of relativization of values and beliefs that constitutes laicity. This space must be politically and legally guaranteed even if it also has a social meaning.

This space of reasoned confrontation of opinions and convictions is an ideal, it is impossible because we are not a people of gods. It is possible as the ideal of reason, the political and spiritual ideal of peaceful intersubjectivity. It is an everyday plebiscite, a controlled conviction, a spiritual principle that leans on knowledge. “On what principles, especially since the Revolution, modern political societies have been founded, on what principles France rely on in particular rests, whose peril, as has often been said, but whose greatness it is to have, by its logical and intrepid spirit, pushed the very idea of Revolution to the extreme consequences? The idea, the principle of life which can be seen at work in modern societies, and in all institutions, is the act of faith in the moral and social efficiency of reason, in the value of the reasonable and teachable human person. [18]

Secularism therefore has to do with science, but in a particular way: “I do not want to speak of science as an institution, not only because it has public laboratories, but because it has such a profound impact on the children to whom it provides common data, and on the very course of social life, that it has indeed the value of an institution, an autonomous institution, an independent institution[19]“.

Neutrality (neither one nor the other), the recognition of diversity of convictions and dissensus do not lead to relativism (tolerance in the weak sense of the term). At the same time, secular Republic affirms the unity of the people despite the diversity of beliefs and convictions: the public space of their conciliation/confrontation. The existence of a regulator who is not attached to any conviction is also asserted: Sciences. While there are many convictions and beliefs, personal points of view and critical arguments, there is also a different kind of knowledge: scientific knowledge. By their questionable and collective nature, these don’t offer dogmas but verifiable certainties, although they are limited and temporary.

Republicanism is also linked to Human Sciences because it requires a renouncement of the absolute, not building castles in the air, avoiding partisan rhetoric, taking reality into account (and not from natural or divine norms or laws), an external referent, a social order already there which is somehow the material of politics: a system of opinion, an organization of production, techniques and a state of morals. This does not mean changing politics into a physics-style science, but simply involves giving up utopia and metaphysical idealism in order to confront ideas and social realities. It is not about giving power to scientists, but about basing political actions on precise knowledges. Scientists and philosophers exercise spiritual power in the manner in which, in the name of knowledge, they guarantee that plurality and complexity of social and political reality are taken into account. It is clearly about considering basic and applied research policy as an instrument for political decision-making.

The idea of founding a new city, according to a rational plan, is therefore not republican. Only utopians, revolutionaries, dreamers, philosophers, metaphysicians who despise or neglect the complexity of reality, especially in politics, could have this illusion. Everyone cannot in some way “rebuild the political world”, offer the fancy of his dreams to his fellow citizens. Republicanism, which is based on history and Human Sciences, provides the opportunity to draw on knowledge of the reality of the elements of political decision-making. But it is philosophy, not science, that is essential for republicanism: it is about will and judgment rather than knowledge, as said before. It is the bet of the possibility of individual autonomy, it is the bet of public freedom.

Republicanism therefore does not give on philosophy the leading role: it does not inform the political field. Its role is therefore more indirect and more essential: it creates the ability for autonomous judgment, it moulds the public mind. It does not transmit knowledge, therefore, it does not provide references, it does nor enlightens by the content of its proposals of its warnings. It makes the space for confrontations: between individual beliefs, between political ideals, between human sciences and hard sciences. Autonomy, the will to judge, the discipline of questioning, the consideration of divergent points of view, the courage to use one’s understanding essentially results from this.

An individual exercise towards the universal: is it therefore the discernment of individuals in facing error of the masses and crowds that is at stake? The role of intellectuals[20]? Republicanism stands on the following ground, which can be said to be both nuanced and precise: Democracy, which implies the search for collective judgment emerging from the addition of individual wills, is blinded by optimism. The tension mentioned above between the expectation of the gradual establishment of enlightened public opinion and the recognition of the population’s weak autonomy is specific to republicanism, which is both pessimistic about the people’s ability for discernment and optimistic on this point on principle. This tension leads to caution. Hope measured in the possibility of establishing peaceful relationships between men, ordered by greater equity, based on hope, which is also measured in fear and political capacity.

Freedom of opinion is the major political good, but the instrument for the existence of reasonable public opinion lays in the formation of individual judgments, a task that is never definitively accomplished. “In tendency, the republic allows the free game of reason. As a foundation, it feeds on it: it therefore produces its own basis in a virtuous circularity. Because it is the rule of reason, it allows reasons to be expressed, because it allows reasons to be expressed, it can be the rule of reason. From this point of view, the republic is justified less as a political “in itself”, than as a meeting place for a reasonable “in itself[21] ”

Social order can be changed by the will of the people and not by the one of the State. Secular neutrality is the common space of autonomous wills on which they depend in order to have the use of this autonomy of judgment. It is based on the desire to effectively consolidate political modernity which has seen the end of “the terrible absolute domination that man was able to exercise upon man during the childhood of humanity, in the name of unlimited power, applied to interests whose preponderance tended to prohibit any deliberation, is fortunately forever extinguished […][22] ”.

The power of public opinion itself will not be unlimited. Freed from traditions, modern opinion has a relative authority over individuals. “Public opinion generates itself. Individuals agree by noting the agreement of their inclinations[23]”. A civil religion of free examination and the critical use of knowledge does not leave individuals in the loneliness of a free will or judgment.

Is it a form of rationality developed in a « communicative” way? Nothing could be less certain. Rational deliberation is certainly particularly required in the republican system. “Wondering why I’m myself a Republican, isn’t it already being one yourself? Isn’t it in fact admitting that the form of power can be the object of a deliberate choice on the part of the citizen, that the community is therefore not imposed on man […][24] .”. However, information empowerment technologies, in their current dematerialized and global version, are transforming what can be called communication in its relationship to civic deliberation to such an extent that it requires consideration. The emotional aspect passions and instant representation seem more present than the courage to know and the individual exercise of reason towards the universal.

Political reason will therefore be the one which is slowly being formed through instruction and teaching (and more specifically through philosophy – which should be renewed and extended to all upper secondary school cycles – but also history, Human Sciences as a whole and the courses in popular universities). Civic behaviour can’t be prescribed, we can hope for its strengthening by the diffusion of knowledge, of a culture, in the classical acceptation of the definition of culture[25].

Republic is an Idea, an ability to propose and bring about, a secular faith. Marc Bloch, once again, puts it brilliantly: reality, not intellectual nuances (which inevitably lead to a questioning of one’s abilities) leads us to this bet, this bias for reason. “Deliberately – read Mein Kampf and the conversations with Rauschung – Hitlerism denies its crowds any access to the truth. It replaces persuasion by emotional suggestion. For us, a choice has to be made: on one hand, turn our people into a blindly vibrating keyboard with the magnetism of a few leaders (but which ones? Those of the present time lack waves), on the other hand, train them to be the conscious collaborator of the representatives they have chosen themselves. In the current disorder of our civilizations this dilemma no longer bears medium term plans. The masses no longer obey. They follow, because they have been put in a trance, or because they know[26].”

However, two forms of renouncement of knowledge and rationality can be identified. The one Marc Bloch refers to (single mass party, ethnic state, leader’s plebiscite, theocracy) seems to be replaced or synthesized with another more insidious form of despotism (the one of renouncement to reason through peaceful indifference to politics, that of conformist attachment to private happiness and consumer comfort). This synthesis takes place in the field of mass communication. It is this synthesis that the republican challenge must be confronted to by an active policy of education and culture.

In the republican context, ideas finally seem more likely to create dissensus than to aim for or foresee consensus. Social and political life remains unsteady, inalienable, oscillating from caution to criticism. This double regime (of questioning and/or approval) expresses the institutionalizing and revolutionary nature of the republican regime. The exercise of philosophy, if we understand it as the implementation of critical intelligence, therefore seems central and necessary. “French democracy has lost its luggage. She needs to rethink her whole set of ideas. [27] “. There Republicanism finds its revolutionary aim again and struggles to come will be difficult.

Sovereignty and political will do not depend on circumstances, organizations or incitements: they are acts. They are guided by an idea, but are not its strict and simple application. Sovereignty and political will overthrow the state of affairs, the state of fact, they are resistance to the facts, to the supposed naturalness, to the ineluctability of the state of affairs, to the constituted authorities, to the most anchored traditions.

What is a political idea? “Reason harbours in itself the principle of Ideas: by this I mean necessary concepts even though the object cannot be given in any experience[28] ”. Any idea thus understood is not immanent in any reality but is a pure possibility, it moves in an unconditioned field that does not refer to any fact or experience. Republic is a simple idea, it is not applicable in itself, it is a norm of action, an indication of a direction, a condition of possibility.

We cannot help but notice the convergence of antirationalism (and “affective sciences”), the philosophical focus on “Emotions”, with populisms. In this setting, citizens can vote and act against their interests, contest or ignore the most proven facts or knowledge. Authorities (lawyers, journalists, intellectuals), likely to provide elements of reasoning, obedient to the law of proof or contradictory debate, are delegitimized. Emotion, moral panic, real or supposed insecurity overwhelm all reasoning.

Illiberal democracy implies that leaders are elected by universal suffrage, but that individuals no longer benefit from fundamental civil rights (mainly freedom of speech, opinion, association, and privacy). The media and independent judges who are supposed to be the vectors of “political correctness” are excluded. Traditional values or national identity are emotionally promoted as the norms of a single fate, that disregards according to higher law, or pluralism of opinion. A substantial conception of the Political Good is promoted in a form that Claude Lefort describes as opposed to democracy: “the phantasm of the People as One, the quest for a substantial identity, a social body united by an embodiment of power, a state delivered from division. [29] »

Jozsef Szajer, Hungarian MEP, explains Fidesz’s strategy as such: “We are developing emotional politics. Politics goes hand in hand with the emotions that keep members of society together. It is in this prospect that we must understand our return to religion. In Europe as in Hungary, today, political parties are becoming too rational. They put emotions aside. They no longer talk about the nationality of their voters. However, it is not a policy of social redistribution that people identify with, but with the history of their country! »


[1] L’Erreur de Descartes, trad. Fr de Descartes’ error. Emotion, reason and the human brain, 1994.

[2] Op cit, 2010, p. 331.

[3] Sophie Wahnich, “Émotions et ambition démocratique : la contribution de l’approche historique”, in La politique à l’épreuve des émotions, s/d Alain Faure et Emmanuel Négrier, Presses universitaires de Rennes, 2017, p. 251-252.Our translation.

[4] A. O. Hirschman, Princeton University Press, 1st ed., 1977.

[5] Looking for Spinoza:Joy,Sorrow and the feeling brain. 2003.

[6] The teaching of philosophy in French high schools is a survival of republicanism and the current crisis in this teaching expresses the lack of republican voluntarism in political institutions. The opponents of republicanism perceived this well. The character of the professor of philosophy, a Kantian rationalist in Maurice Barrès’ novel Roman de l’énergie nationale, (published in 1900), a professor who diverts young Lorrains from their family traditions and regional roots, is an anti-republican charge.

[7] The term is the one of Maurice Barrès and refers to the list of the first signatories who, on 14 January 1898, requested a review of the trial of Captain Dreyfus in the newspaper L’Aurore.

[8] Alain-Gérard Slama, “La peur du conflit” in Le Siècle de Monsieur Pétain, Perrin, 2005 about unrealistic procedures (concealment of reality).

[9] Umberto Eco, Cinq leçons de morale. Grasset, 2002.

[10] Tocqueville, L’Ancien Régime et la Révolution, , livre III, chap. 1.

[11] Alain, « Le culte de la Raison comme fondement de la République », Revue de métaphysique et de morale, 1901, pp. 111-118.

[12] This point is insufficiently established in Pierre Rosanvalon’s work, as for example in the conclusion “Un universalisme singulier” of  the Sacre du citoyen, Gallimard, 1992, pp. 447 et seq., a text in which he is surprised: “There is in France a problem of epistemology of democracy. Since good government can only proceed on the basis of reason, it is indeed difficult to make the sovereignty of numbers a condition for political progress.” (p. 449).

[13] Sudhir Hazareesingh, Intellectual Founders of the Republic. Oxford Un. Press, 2002.

[14] Marie-Claude Blais, Au Principe de la République. Gallimard, 2001 pp. 395ff.

[15] Loi de 1905.

[16] H. Pena-Ruiz, Histoire de la laïcité, genèse d’un idéal. Gallimard, 2005, pp.16-17. “The secular school will therefore be for all the people, through its audience but also through the content of the teaching.”

[17] Ibid.

[18] J. Jaurès, “Pour la laïque”, in L’esprit du socialisme. Denoël, 1964, pp. 127-128.

[19]  J. Jaurès, Pour la laïque, op. cit., pp. 130-131.

[20] The neologism of “intellectual” that emerged in the context of the Dreyfus Affair has since been misused: it is less a question of calling for universal principles in the face of the established order and accepting the consequences of this commitment, than of showing off one’s personal capacity to have an opinion on everything. The right denunciation of the media swelling of supposed intellectuals is unfortunately mixed with the desire to put an end to the public space and the reign of criticism, an obstacle to neo-liberal omnipotence.

[21] Thierry Leterne, La Raison politique, Alain et la démocratie. PUF, 2000, p. 156.

[22] Auguste Comte, Cours de philosophie positive, VI, p. 505.

[23] Stoetzel, Théorie des opinions. PUF, 1943, p.155.

[24] Marc Bloch, “Pourquoi je suis républicain”, Les cahiers politiques, Comité général d’études de la Résistance, n°2, juillet 1943. En exergue de L’Étrange défaite, ed. folio. Gallimard, 1990.

[25] “Culture, taken as a whole, can be seen as the process of man’s progressive liberation of himself. Language, art, religion, science are the various moments of trial. In each of them, man discovers and possesses a new power – the power to build his own world, an ‘ideal’ world”. Cassirer, Essai sur l’homme. Trad. Fr. Minuit, 1975, p. 317.

[26] Marc Bloch, L’Étrange défaite, op. cit., p.178. Author’s translation.

[27] Edgar Quinet, La Révolution, tome 1, p. 11, ed. 1868.

[28] Kant, Prolégomènes à toute métaphysique future qui pourra se présenter comme science, Vrin, 1986, p. 102.  “It is”[…] the State in general, that is, a State according to the Idea, as it is conceived to be, according to the pure principles of right, and it is this Idea which serves as a directive for any real association aimed at forming a State.”Our translation. Kant, Doctrine du droit, Vrin, p. 195. Author’s translation.

[29]“La question de la démocratie”, in Essai sur le politique. Seuil 1986, p. 31.

Cultural Diversity and the Shared Premises Requirement


The shared premises requirement for political debates becomes challenging when citizens of diverse cultural backgrounds, religious faiths and political convictions come to live together. Since citizens would naturally rely on all their dearly held views, beliefs and values, the shared premises requirement might be seen as a considerable burden under the condition of pluralism. The danger is that not only cultural minorities, but also persons of faith might feel alienated by such a requirement for political debates in a liberal polity.

In what follows, we would like to go back to an early stage of the debate on the shared premises requirement and reconsider an objection against it as formulated by Michael J. Perry. Perry, in an article from 1989 and a book from 1991, criticizes the requirement as elaborated in the work of Bruce Ackerman and Thomas Nagel, two prominent liberal proponents of the requirement. Even though Perry has published extensively on this and related topics, and his views have developed and changed over the years1, the formulation of his critique seems as poignant and engaging as ever, and highlights some crucial problems regarding the requirement. It therefore seems worthwhile to get back to this early stage of the debate and reconsider Perry’s forceful critique. We will try to show why Perry’s critique is problematic, and why some qualified form of the shared premises requirement in political debate does not overly burden cultural minorities or people of faith, and thus helps to reach a legitimate and stable polity.

Perry’s rejection of the shared premises requirement

Bruce Ackerman, in his article “Why Dialogue?” from 19892, introduces a principle of conversational restraint in his attempt to conceptualize neutral and fair political justification. (Ackerman 1989, 16-17) According to Ackerman, in a political conversation or dialogue, citizens should avoid normative premises that are not shared, and instead search for reasons that all sides find acceptable. Leaving aside the moral ideals we disagree about, we can focus instead on political grounds that all participants find acceptable. This requirement, as Ackerman points out, does not apply to the questions citizens may ask – since this would merely foreclose the search for commonly acceptable political solutions – but only to the answers they may legitimately give to each others’ questions. (Ackerman 1989, 17-18)

In his article “Moral Conflict and Political Legitimacy” (1987), Thomas Nagel proposes conditions that political justification must satisfy in order to be impartial and fair. To reach impartial political justification, reasons should only be offered and rejected on the basis of “common critical rationality” and “considerations of evidence that can be shared” (Nagel 1987, 232). In other words, “it must be possible to present to others the basis of your own beliefs, so that once you have done so, they have what you have, and can arrive at a judgment on the same basis” (ibid., emphasis in the original). This excludes our personal faith or revelations as reasons in political justification, since they do not give to others what we have. Instead, what is needed for others to arrive at what we have are evidence or arguments. (Ibid.)

Against both Ackerman’s and Nagel’s version of the shared premises requirement, Perry holds that they have overly demanding consequences for religious persons. This is so because a religious person cannot refer to her most dearly held religious beliefs in a political debate with a non-religious person. Since this might severely affect the religious person’s moral and political integrity, this objections can be dubbed integrity objection. Note, furthermore, that by the notion of religious beliefs we do not mean to imply any epistemological view on what beliefs – and more specifically religious beliefs – are, or whether there are such things as beliefs in the first place. Neither is it necessary to ascribe any such epistemological view to Perry himself regarding his critique of Ackerman and Perry, or so it seems. By a person’s reference to religious beliefs in political debate we, and arguably Perry as well, simply mean her use of religious language in such debates. Regarding Christians and other theists this would, for instance, concern God-talk and references to the holy scriptures.

Perry’s critique is most strikingly formulated in an imagined political debate between himself, a religious person, and Ackerman, a non-religious person. In a political debate between Perry and Ackerman, the proportion of Ackerman’s relevant beliefs that Perry would share would be larger than the proportion of Perry’s relevant beliefs that Ackerman would share. In other words, Ackerman would be able to rely on a larger part of his web of beliefs in a political debate, whereas Perry would be able to rely merely on some strands of his web. This is the case because Perry’s relevant beliefs include all his religious beliefs – beliefs that his non-religious counterpart does not have. These religious beliefs are, according to Perry, relevant to most of his views on fundamental political-moral issues. This situation would, therefore, leave him at a serious disadvantage in a discussion with Ackerman, because Ackerman could rely on most of his relevant beliefs, whereas he could rely merely on some of his relevant beliefs. (Perry 1989, 484; Perry 1990, 10)

Furthermore, Perry is disadvantaged because Ackerman might get to rely on his most important relevant beliefs, whereas Perry would not be able to rely on his most important relevant beliefs: his religious ones. This is necessarily so because religious beliefs cannot be shared between a religious and a non-religious person. In the political debate with Ackerman, Perry is thus forced – following the shared premises requirement – to leave his most dearly held beliefs aside and to rely only on those strands of his web of beliefs “approved (‘shared’) by Ackerman” (Perry 1989, 484; Perry 1990, 10). Perry’s integrity in political debate is thus violated in a second way, because he is forced to bracket his most important beliefs.

Perry criticizes Nagel’s implicit version of the shared premises requirement on the same ground. By confining political justification to “common critical rationality” (Nagel 1987, 232), i.e. to whatever beliefs are commonly accepted, Nagel’s view also privileges some beliefs over others, namely those shared and accepted as authoritative. (Perry 1989, 487; Perry 1990, 14) In a debate with Perry, Nagel’s non-religious beliefs would therefore be privileged over Perry’s religious beliefs because, again, religious beliefs cannot possibly be shared between Perry and Nagel. When debating with Nagel, Perry would get to rely merely on some of his relevant beliefs – not including the most important ones – whereas Nagel might rely on most of his relevant beliefs – including the most important ones. (Perry 1989, 487; Perry 1990, 14-15)

To make things even grimmer, and to cast a different light on Perry’s critique, let us briefly consider Steven D. Smith’s rejection of the shared premises requirement. In his words, the “common denominator ploy” is fraudulent. He asks us to suppose that a father and his daughter are discussing what to have for dinner. The daughter prefers having just dessert, while her father suggests that it would be better to have a full meal, and then dessert. The daughter reasons as follows: “We disagree about a lot of things. But there is one thing we agree on. We both want dessert. So let’s have just dessert.” According to Smith, the shared premises requirement works in a similar fashion, and is thus as unpersuasive as the daughter’s reasoning. (Smith 1989)

Objections against Perry’s view

1. However, Perry’s argument is problematic, or so we will argue. Let us first consider Perry’s critique that a religious person will be able to rely on merely some of her relevant beliefs, while a non-religious person can rely on most of her relevant beliefs. This seems to be a consequence of the requirement because the religious person’s web of beliefs contains strands that the non-religious person does not have. In presenting the case as he does, however, Perry seems to suggest that it is mainly or even only religious beliefs that are disadvantaged.

But what is about Ackerman’s and Nagel’s views that are not shared? After all, we might think of relevant beliefs of a non-religious person that can never be shared with a religious person too. Consider, for instance, the Marxist and secular view that religion is the opiate of the masses. This belief could not possibly be shared by a religious person, just as the belief “God exists” could not possibly be shared by a true Marxist. Marxists, just as religious persons, could more often than not – when discussing with religious persons, capitalists, libertarians etc. – rely only on some of their relevant beliefs.

Perry seems to base his argument on inadequate assumptions about secular webs of beliefs. These inadequate assumptions lead to an inadequate view on the shared premises requirement. Thus, it is not biased against religious beliefs in particular, but against controversial views in general, as the debate between the Marxist and the religious person indicates. The requirement does not favor secular views over religious ones, but uncontroversial over controversial ones.

Thus, if we interpret Perry’s claim as holding that secular views are privileged over religious ones, then Perry’s view is inadequate. However, Perry might still hold on to the weaker claim that, even if the shared premises requirement is not discriminating against religious views in particular, the fact that noncontroversial views are favored over controversial ones has still disadvantageous consequences for religious views. The disadvantageous consequences are due to the fact that religious views necessarily are controversial in a plural society, whereas a secular citizens’ political views may more easily and fully be founded on shared, uncontroversial beliefs.

According to this weaker claim, shared values such as peace, liberty, security or human well-being may be sufficient to ground many of a non-religious person’s political-normative views. A religious person’s political-normative views, on the other hand, will also be grounded on her religious beliefs. The shared premises requirement seems to bear the consequence that the religious person’s political-normative views, along with the religious beliefs on which they are based, are excluded from political debate. We therefore still face the objection that the shared premises requirement has overly burdensome consequences for religious persons, but not for secular ones. The same might hold for members of a cultural minority that base their political-normative views on their cultural traditions.

The weaker claim assumes, however, that normative views based on religious beliefs, or cultural traditions, are not overdetermined. That is, it assumes that normative views of a religious person are uniquely based on religious beliefs, and that there is no possibility to reach similar normative views on different paths or grounds. As the parable of the good Samaritan indicates, this is an inadequate assumption about the nature of normative views. The biblical story of the Samaritan might ground the normative belief of a religious person that we should help those in need, even if they are strangers and we do not like them. This normative belief, however, is not only acceptable to the religious person. The moral point of the biblical story can be translated in non-religious terms, and will also appeal to non-religious persons. This is so precisely because the moral point of the biblical story about the Samaritan, as arguably many other religious normative beliefs, is overdetermined and also reachable on other than religious grounds.

This view suggests that a religious and non-religious person might often have more in common than it seems at first glance. It also suggests that the shared premises requirement does not hinder religious persons to draw on their religious normative views – as long as these religious normative views also have grounds that are accessible and acceptable to non-religious persons. Thus, if we assume that much religious normative views are overdetermined, then the shared premises requirement does not preclude religious persons from drawing on much of their normative beliefs, and it would not have the overly burdensome consequences that Perry suggests.

In a response to Smith’s critique of the shared premises requirement, we might rely on a similar line of argument. Thus, the shared premises requirement cannot be rejected on the same grounds as the daughter’s reasoning in Smith’s dinner story. The daughter assumes that if her father wants to have both a full meal and a dessert, then he wants, firstly, a full meal and, secondly, a dessert. But this is a mistake. The dessert is valuable for the father only if he gets the full meal.3 In other words, the daughter makes the mistake to assume that if the dessert is part of the meal, then when the father values the meal, he also must value the dessert independent of the meal. However, the father only values the dessert insofar as it is part of the meal.4 The case of the shared premises requirement is different. Reconsider briefly the Samaritan example. It is a mistake to assume that if a non-religious person values the belief that we should help those in need, then she also should value the Samaritan story. The acceptance of the belief that we should help those in need simply does not depend on the acceptance of the Samaritan story. This is so because the belief that we should help those in need is overdetermined, and accessible and acceptable on religious as well as non-religious grounds. It is quite plausible that people’s shared beliefs are valuable for them even when the beliefs are not presented together with their personal, for instance religious, normative views.

The shared premises requirement in a political debate only becomes relevant when religious normative views cannot be understood and accepted by the non-religious person, or when there are beliefs that are not overdetermined. In the first case, further deliberation might help to sort out the common normative grounds. In the second case, both sides would indeed have to accept that the beliefs in question – whether religious or not – are controversial and should therefore be excluded from political debate.

2. Let us now consider the second line of Perry’s critique, namely that the shared premises requirement might impose to a religious person to bracket her religious beliefs that are most important to her, and maybe even constitutive of her identity. Such an imposition would still have overly demanding consequences for religious persons. To meet this objection, consider an inclusive5 or wide6 reading of the shared premises requirement, according to which a religious person is free to refer to her most important religious beliefs as long as she supports her arguments also with largely shared premises.

Consider the shared view among a religious and non-religious person that the state should support the poor. For the religious person this belief is linked to, or based on, another belief that is most important to her, namely that charity through state institutions is good because a divine spirit, through a holy scripture, says so. The non-religious person believes that the state should help the poor because of her most important belief that all persons have a basic right to welfare, a right that imposes certain duties on states. In a discussion between the religious and non-religious person, they would agree on the shared premise that the state should support the poor, but would have most different reasons why they accept this shared belief. According to the inclusive reading of the shared premises requirement, both persons could fully rely on their most important beliefs, since they also present the shared premise that the state should help the poor.

What if the interpretation of the shared belief by the religious person is colored by a controversial religious belief, for instance when for the religious person “poor” means “deserving poor” on scriptural grounds? Given the shared belief “the state should help the poor”, the shared premises requirement would still allow both persons to present their controversial stories behind the shared belief – no matter how controversial they are. Even though such a scenario might seem strange, they are very well imaginable and practicable, as political alliances between parties of the far right and the far left on certain topics, such as anti-globalization, indicate.

3. Finally, let us consider why not even an exclusive interpretation of the shared premises requirement – i.e. the view that persons engaging in political debates should refer only to normative premises that are widely shared – is overly burdening regarding religious persons. First of all, and as indicated earlier, all kinds of arguments that are based on contestable normative premises, not just religious ones, would be banned.7 Indeed, the only group that would not have to exclude certain views from political debate would consist of persons whose most important beliefs are shared by all others. It is therefore hard to see why religious persons would be especially burdened even in the exclusive reading of the shared premises requirement.

Another reason why the shared premises requirement is not especially burdening regarding religious persons even in an exclusive reading is that religious beliefs might not be that relevant in many political debates as critics of the shared premises requirement seem to suggest. If religious beliefs are irrelevant, a civic duty not to use religious premises has no practical relevance, and therefore does not disadvantage religious persons. This is the case in a least some political debates, for instance regarding details of state budget or regarding legal technicalities in many other political issues.


The view that the shared premises requirement disadvantages especially religious persons – and in a similar fashion possibly also cultural or political minorities – is unconvincing because of the following reasons. First of all, the requirement does not disadvantage religious beliefs in particular, but controversial views in general. Furthermore, the requirement does not have disadvantageous consequences for religious persons because religious persons are allowed to draw on their religious normative views in political debate – given that these views are overdetermined and translatable in non-religious language. Second, according to the inclusive reading of the requirement, religious persons are allowed to refer to all of their most important controversial beliefs, provided that they support their arguments also with largely shared premises. Finally, even an exclusive reading of the requirement does not necessarily disadvantage religious persons, since it only applies where religious beliefs become relevant in political debate.


Ackerman, Bruce, Social Justice in the Liberal State, New Haven 1980

– Why Dialogue?, in: Journal of Philosophy, 86 1989, 5-22

Nagel, Thomas, Moral conflict and political legitimacy, in: Philosophy and Public Affairs, 16 1987, p. 215-240

Perry, Michael J., Politics, Morality, and Law. A Bicentennial Essay, New York/Oxford 1988

– Neutral Politics?, in: The Review of Politics, 51 1989, 479-509

– Love and Power. The Role of Religion and Morality in American Politics, Oxford 1991

– Religion in Politics. Constitutional and Moral Perspectives, Oxford 1997

– Why Political Reliance on Religiously Grounded Morality Is Not Illegitimate in a Liberal Democracy, in: Wake Forest Law Review, 36 2001, 217-249

– Under God? Religious Faith and Liberal Democracy, Cambridge 2003

– The Political Morality of Liberal Democracy, Cambridge 2009

Rawls, John, The Domain of the Political and Overlapping Consensus, in: New York University Law Review, 64 1989, 233-255

– Reply to Habermas, in: The Journal of Philosophy, 92 1995, 132-180

– The Law of Peoples. With “The Idea of Public Reason Revisited”, Cambridge/MA 1999

Smith, Steven D., Separation and the Secular, in: Texas Law Review, 67 1989, 955-1032

Solum, Lawrence B., Inclusive Public Reason, in: Pacific Philosophical Quarterly, 75 1994, 217-231


1 Just consider Perry’s many books on this and similar issues (Perry 1991, Perry 1997, Perry 2003, Perry 2009). For a statement on the development and change in Perry’s view, see Perry 2001, 221 (footnote 14): “Although I have addressed this issue [the proper role of religiously grounded morality in the politics and law of the United States] in two books, (…) my thinking has continued to develop and to change.”

2 As John Rawls points out, Bruce Ackerman treats important political liberal themes already in his book Social Justice in the Liberal State (Ackerman 1980), where he “defends the relative autonomy of political discussion governed by his principle of neutrality and […] considers various ways of arriving at this idea of political discourse” (Rawls 1995, 133).

3 To be a bit more technical about this point, it is not always the case that desiring A and B implies that I want A independent of B. Thus, it is not necessarily the case that IF d(A&B) THEN d(A) & d(B). Someone who desires a white coffee does not desire, firstly, milk and, secondly, coffee. She desires coffee with milk (in a specific combination).

4 To be again a bit more technical, the daughter assumes that if x is a subset of Z and S wants Z, then S want x as well, which is not always true, as the example with the white coffee in the note above indicates.

5 As Lawrence Solum puts it, “we should adhere to an ideal of public reason that is inclusive”, that is, an ideal “that requires citizens to advance public reasons in public debates on political questions, but that does not require them to exclude supporting non-public reasons from such debate” (Solum 1994, 218-219).

6 Regarding his “wide view of public political culture and discussion”, John Rawls holds that “reasonable comprehensive doctrines, religious or nonreligious, may be introduced in public political discussion at any time, provided that in due course proper political reasons – and not reasons given solely by comprehensive doctrines – are presented that are sufficient to support whatever the comprehensive doctrines are said to support” (Rawls 1999, 152). Rawls calls this “the proviso” (ibid., emphasis in the original).

7 Note that premises might be shared even though it is contested that they are shared. Thus, the shared premises requirement is different, and more plausible, than a non-controversial premises requirement. A condition for reasons not to be controversial would be too strong and would reduce political discussion to the exchange of platitudes.