What is civil society and why does this matter?

I’m currently finishing a personal essay entitled “In Search of a Middle Style for a Convivial Civil Society.” In it, I’m trying to make sense of how civil society is changing and of how I’m able to make a decent living as a result. I’ve included a small part below on the concept of civil society. From this point, I argue that there is a further entwining of a more intimate public sphere (my philosophy practice participates in even as it helps to establish this) with a more vibrant, more convivial gift economy (ditto).

Civil society connotes the various forms of associations in which individuals exchange goods, services, and ideas outside the direct action of the state and apart from the intimate sphere of the family. According to this definition, civil society is the unique dwelling place both of the public sphere and of the market economy. Some political theorists and social thinkers have sought to restrict civil society too narrowly, holding it to one or the other, but I regard this as a conceptual mistake and this for two distinct reasons.

First of all, two new kinds of social phenomena came into being during the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in Western Europe. Philosophers of the Scottish Enlightenment began to analyze the concept and limits of an emerging market society while German Enlightenment philosophers began to probe, in public, the nature of “the public.” And both investigations were taking place at a time when the legitimate exercise of state power was receding, if ever slowly and not without death pangs, from the total extent of social life. If the market was to be regulated by the state, surely, it was held, not all its operations were to be controlled or managed also by the state. And might intellectual maturity, Kant averred, be the achievement of the public individual who has learned to think for himself (sapere aude) in a language communicable to his fellow men?

Just as commercial life was bustling, so the public sphere was fermenting. Coffee shops, salons, and local pubs became meeting places where citizens could hash out news of the day and matters of common concern. Treatises and pamphlets were circulated, with incendiary ideas and far from modest proposals catching people’s eyes and stirring their hearts and imaginations. How was this new way of communicating to be understood? In Modern Social Imaginaries, the contemporary philosopher Charles Taylor asserts that the three essential features of any public sphere are its extrapoliticality, secularism, and metatopicality. It is extrapolitical insofar as it exists apart from the state yet holds the state in check; secular inasmuch as it is not governed by an official church or a single religious order; and metatopical to the extent that the ideas are of common concern and travel vast distances. As a typical example, take the Greek debt crisis which has been analyzed in world newspapers which are, in turn, read by world citizens and then tweeted to friends and acquaintances and discussed on blogs and in pubs. The strange quality of the public sphere is that it invites conversations that are about some generally shared but impersonal experience of “the we.”

After the eighteenth century, civil society came, in countries that steered their course toward liberal democracy, to demarcate those everyday social activities between strangers and acquaintances that were “warmer” than the functions of the bureaucratic state yet “cooler” than the love professed in the family.

I mentioned “liberal democracy,” and this brings me to my second reason for speaking about the market and the public sphere all in one breath. Civil society becomes a heated topic of debate around about the time that the Soviet Union is collapsing and the Eastern bloc crumbling. This is because the term affords us a way of distinguishing between what state socialism lacks and what liberal democracy possesses. By now, large-scale utopianism, evinced most clearly in all attempts to press social life into one sphere in which conduct is prescribed according to one common norm or standard, has failed, and the general conclusion is that there must therefore be “relatively autonomous” modes of encounter that function in accordance with different sets of guidelines. In an essay written around 1989 entitled “Convoking Civil Society,” Charles Taylor makes the reconciliatory claim that these spheres mustn’t be reified as though they were fully autonomous bodies but instead must be “enmeshed” so that they work with and course through each other.

The dangers, Taylor implies, are two-fold. To begin with, unenmeshed social life would doubtless lead to forms of alienation in which an individual qua family member cannot see himself qua citizen of the modern state or qua member of a business organization. All rampant manifestations of individualism, all skepticism regarding taxes, all nay-saying rejections of legitimate authority can be traced back to a sense of alienation, and its banner would read, “Non servium.” To be enmeshed in all facets is thus to be in, to partake of all facets in however limited an extent and in however lukewarm a fashion. In addition, were we to “unenmesh” ourselves, we would start to conceive of the family, the economy, and the state as agents that all somehow going on “of their own accord,” as if the family were not dependent upon public services but were thoroughly self-governing, as if the economy did not rely on forms of public investment and legal oversight but were entirely self-perpetuating, and as if the state did not require civic participation or the Fourth Estate but were only a bureaucratic machine insulated from the polity yet working on its behalf. In contrast with this dark social vision, an “enmeshed” society promises a mutually dependent, more closely knit modern world.

Further Reading

Jurgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere

Michael Warner, Republic of Letters

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3 thoughts on “What is civil society and why does this matter?

    1. A quick P.S.

      And just to be clear on where I’m headed: In this essay, my concern is not with the public sphere per se; it’s with the rise of what I might term a “lay cloister,” a dwelling place that lies halfway between the family and the public sphere. Halfway between means: neither the erotic two (the couple) or the impersonal we (the public) but the friendly two or the convivial handful all of whom are involved in ascesis with the purpose of metanoia. You can get some sense of the starting point here: https://andrewjtaggart.com/2011/12/05/the-starting-point-of-philosophical-self-reflection/

      Kindly, A

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