Adam Seligman

adam_seligmanAdam B. Seligman, Research Associate at ISEC (presently CURA) is also Professor in the Department of Religion. Trained as a sociologist at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem he has lived and taught in Israel, Hungary (where he was Fulbright Fellow from 1990-1992) and the United States. His work has centered on such issues as, 17th century religious history, Civil Society, Trust, Authority, and, more recently, the problem of religious toleration.

He began his work, some eighteen years ago in Jerusalem as essentially an apprentice in sociology with the old question of Werner Sombart: “Why is there no socialism in the U.S.A.?” In the early 1980’s that question maintained the same resonances it had had from the beginning of the century. Today, by century’s end however the very cognitive, moral and social contexts within which the question was posed for nearly one hundred years, no longer make sense. They simply do not exist. So complete was its failure, that few even recall the dream.

It was however in an attempt to answer that question that he began his studies of Puritan thought, searching for the roots of an individualism that, from the perspective of Jerusalem and of the intractable conflict between Jews and Palestinians, appeared so salvific. From the Hebrew University campus on Mount Scopus every Friday in 1989, one could see the Old City enveloped in clouds of tear-gas and hear the wail of the ambulances on their way to the hospitals. From such a Cittie upon a Hill, Samuel Sewall’s ode to Plum Island in his Phenomena quedom Apocalyptica (1697) surely seemed “the Inheritance of the Saints of Light”.

The stone streets of Jerusalem were however replaced by the asphalt freeways of Los Angeles and with them the challenge of understanding just what held such seemingly autonomous selves together at all. How from Puritan selves, albeit highly secular and post-modern ones, was a society nevertheless constituted? Grappling with this question sent him not only to eighteenth century political economy but also to Budapest which, as with many other Eastern European societies in 1990 was struggling with these questions with an urgency and vigor that had intimations of historical greatness (alas unfulfilled).

From these encounters came his work on civil society and with it the realization that the real philosophical problem of civil society is the problem of trust which somehow become ineluctably bound up with The Autobiography of Henry Adams. More than most, Adams understood the modern age and especially the apotheosis of modernity in the United States of America, as well as the transformation of American mores and morals that made modernity possible. Somewhere between the Virgin and the Dynamo the problem of trust emerged and with it the contradictions of individual freedom in the modern world. For trust has to do most of all with human agency and agency stands but darkly between veils of either authority or power.

Hence his most recent book, an attempt to unravel the skeins of agency, which, in its unravelling has laid bare as well the skeletal assumptions of the social sciences tout court. The phenomenology of agency has led beyond modernity, beyond the Puritans to assumptions of self and society that stand in inimicable relation to the whole epistemological edifice of modern social and political thought.

From the problem of Puritan individualism emerged that of the possible forms of solidarity between such individuals (hence the early modern idea of civil society) , and from that to the problem of trust (within societies) and thence to the nature of said individuals, trusting or not. Each answer opened up new questions as a line of thought was (far too un-relentlessly) pursued. And the issue of authority (as a component of individual identities) raises in its turn the necessity to pursue the foundations of tolerance from within the epistemic assumptions of a religious world view rather than from liberal presuppositions, which is his current project.

Seligman’s books include:

  • Modernity’s Wager: Authority, the Self and Transcendence. Forthcoming, Princeton University Press, 2000.
  • The Problem of Trust. Princeton University Press, 1997.
  • The Idea of Civil Society. Princeton University Press, 1995.
  • Innerworldly Individualism: Charismatic Community and its Institutionalization. Transaction Press, 1994.
  • The Transition from Socialism in Eastern Europe: the case of Hungary. (edited). JAI Press, 1994.
  • Order and Transcendence: The Role of UtoDias and thea Civilizations. (edited). E.J. Brill, 1989.

Seligman’s works have been translated into a dozen languages. His current project on religious tolerance is being funded by the Ford Foundation.

The following was written by Adam Seligman:

The Toleration Project

Preliminary Remarks

Increasingly political analysts, policy makers and social scientists have been pointing to the renewed salience of religion in the modern world. Not only in the Muslim Middle East, but in South-East Asia, Latin America and the North Atlantic communities as well, religious themes and consciousness have reappeared as organizing ideologies and agendas for both political elites and their followers. This religious “revival” is however too often marginalized analytically and shunted off under the broad and inexact rubric of fundamentalism, with the inherent anti-modern, totalistic, repressive and authoritarian connotations that fundamentalism has to modern, secular, Western ears.

Similarly and equally unfortunate is the tendency to see this re-emergence of religion as exemplifying particularistic civilizational visions that stand in essential and necessary contradiction to modern (i.e. Western) values of pluralism and of tolerance rooted in the doctrines of the Enlightenment and the Western humanist tradition. Thus for example the analysis of Samuel Huntington or Bernard Barber’s arresting image of Jihad McWorld. In an all too simplified version of the latter, religion is easily assimilated to a host of parochial religious and ethnic allegiances between which no mediation, discourse or rapprochement can be maintained, or even attempted.

As religious dictates are more and more coming to reshape the personal, social and public behavior of men and women throughout the world, so is there increasing concern that these newly emerging (or re-emerging) religious identities will prove barriers to tolerance, understanding and the ability to coexist in mutual respect and recognition.

After all and within the experience of most Western European and North Atlantic societies the development of pluralism, democracy and toleration has been marked by a retreat of religion from the public arena, its privatization and the general growth of secularization as the defining context of public life. Pluralism, when accepted as a value implies the ability to exist together with other, competing visions of society and of the cosmos. It implies tolerance, not solely the toleration of error (what can perhaps be termed tolerance with a small “t”) but tolerance of alternative and competing civilizational visions (tolerance with a capital “T”) with their own claims to the public sphere and the organization of communal life.

In Western Europe the development of this form of tolerance has, as noted, taken a very particular form, that of secularization. That is to say, as society secularized, as religion retreated from the public domain, reduced its claims on the public sphere and became more and more a matter of the congregant’s internal value disposition there developed concomitantly a growing tolerance of other faiths. In fact, so much is the link betweentolerance and secularization the case that we find it almost impossible to conceive of a public religion existing within a pluralistic society. Pluralism and tolerance seem to hold as long as religion is privatized. Any other accommodation seems to us almost inconceivable.

However this is only one historical path. It is the path taken by Western Christianity as it secularized along liberal lines whose hallmarks have been; the principles of privatized religion, the priority of a politics of rights over a politics of the good and, in the broadest of terms a secular, liberal-Protestant vision of selfhood (the sort of Kantian self-actualizing moral agent) together with a secularized public space.

And yet today, the essentially liberal vision of community founded on the radical autonomy of the individual moral agent is currently being questioned from a host of sources and perspectives. In fact, received beliefs in the social good and its relation to individual rights, responsibilities and freedoms seem to be unravelling and, in the process, eroding any commonly held beliefs of what a community itself may mean. The search for new models of the Public Good, for new criteria of communal identity and of trust are all expressions of that crises in models of community and of self that we have come to identify with modernity. Within this search religious forms of identity, meaning, values and commitments have emerged with a surprising consistency.

Given this increasing salience of religious ideas, identities and models of social order in different parts of the world it would seem imperative to explore the potential of the monotheistic religions to reach beyond parochial, ethnic allegiances and exist within and as part of pluralistic societal structures. Too often is the religious identified with authoritarian, fundamental, and particularistic visions between which no mediation, discourse or rapprochement can be maintained or even attempted. We question this all too facile identification of religion with fundamentalism and believe that a more nuanced and sophisticated inquiry into the re-emergent religious consciousness may well lead to a broader understanding of what is one of the most important transnational development of the end of the twentieth century.

Project Background and Perspectives

Two exploratory workshops on just these issues were held, the first in Berlin, in January of 1998 and the second in Vienna in April of 1999. Some one dozen scholars; philosophers, sociologists, theologians and scholars of Islam, Christianity and Judaism met to discuss the feasibility of such a project and the different possible modes of developing toleration from within the assumptions of revealed religion.

We established what we believe to be the tentative beginnings of a language with which to articulate a position of toleration from within religious assumptions. The foundations for such a position would be in the middle ground, between neo-authoritarianism on the one side and cultural relativism on the other. It would begin with the clear realization that religious beliefs in today’s world can no longer be “taken for granted” and that an element of choice exists in religious beliefs, an element that had not existed previously, and this changes the nature of belief, opening it up to a number of possible positions from which tolerance could emerge. Such positions could be broadly characterised as, on the one side, a curiosity towards the other as an ontological position and, on the other, a realization of a certain skepticism, tentativeness, even an “epistemological modesty” existent within the religious traditions which, while acknowledging the existence of binding values nevertheless maintains a certain “modesty” towards the truth-claim the practicioners can themselves make.

At present the papers given at the workshops are being brought together in volume form. In addition to publication in the English language we will also translate and publish the collection in Bosnian and are looking into the possibilities of publishing in the Arab speaking world as well.

In addition the project is orientated towards the educational arena and has begun preliminary work towards establishing frameworks where educators of different religions, from different countries, can meet to develop curricula perspectives that would incorporate the principles of tolerance within their varied educational projects. Thus far a number of educational institutions in Israel and the United States have shown great interest in this project and we are looking forward to developing venues for the sharing of perspectives with educators in Bosnia and Herzegovenia.