Public Discourse and Agonistic Democracy

Cathleen Kaveny has a compelling new book I’m working through called Prophecy without Contempt: Religious Discourse in the Public Sphere. The topic of the book is plain enough in the title.

I’ve read several prominent criticisms of Rawlsian liberal thinking about the need for “public reason” in public discourse. Sandel, for one, argues that the sort of public reason Rawls is after, reason that is divorced from any comprehensive moral doctrine and contains only propositions that can be universally agreed upon, creates a morally vacuous public square. The result, for people like Sandel, is empty proceduralism. Not to mention, some of the most transformative voices in American political history have been intentionally expressive of such comprehensive moral perspectives.

Cathleen Kaveny offers an even more penetrating critique. She sees the necessity for public reason as creating a barrier to authenticity and mutual respect. For her, such reasoning occludes a person’s real reasoning. She explains, “In my view, the best way to foster mutual respect in the public square is by undertakings, and asking others to undertake, the hard work of explaining our viewpoints on matters of public discourse in the terms that we actually believe to justify those viewpoints – whether or not those terms conform to the strictures of public reason.” [1]

I find her argument quite strong, and there’s another side to it. She argues further that making a compelling case to someone about a particular political or policy issue would be far more effective if it addressed people where they were. Kaveny claims, “Respecting our fellow citizens as the actual flesh-and-blood persons they are, in my view, requires us to address the worries they actually have, rather than the worries we think they should have if they are ‘reasonable’ in Rawls’s sense – or for that matter, in our own sense.” [2]

This sort of critique has significant connection to the work of agonistic theorists like Chantal Mouffe. Mouffe, having critiqued Rawls’s attempt to find consensus, helps clarify further some of the difference between Rawls and Kaveny. For one, by regulating public reason Rawls is both attempting to make room for diverse views and also to possibilize consensus. Though Kaveny also wants to respect diverse views, she is after something other than consensus. She’s argues instead for establishing “mutual respect” and the opportunity to convince others of a claim. Such a view recognizes the irreducible otherness/difference of people and embraces it rather than trying to overcome it. Kaveny recognizes this second point, about the irreducibility of people and their positions to public reason, but not the first, that her aim is something other than Rawls’s (at least not explicitly). I see Kaveny as an agonist here.

There is much more to this Kaveny book than the point I’ve laid out here (and I’m not even that far into it – it’s a rich work!), but it’s unfortunate that Kaveny never references the agonistic tradition or the likes of William Connolly, Bonnie Honig, or Chantal Mouffe (or Hannah Arendt or Carl Schmitt, for that matter).



  1. Cathleen Kaveny, Prophecy without Contempt: Religious Discourse in the Public Sphere (Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 2016) 61.
  2. Ibid., 63.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s