When I was in graduate school, One of my philosophy professors, when lecturing on Kant, said something like the following: “In making this argument, Kant is sort of in a tight spot here—between a rock and a hard place. What does Kant do when backed into a corner? Like all philosophers, he makes a distinction.“
I don’t remember what case the professor was talking about, but one can imagine: “Yes, that’s true of hypothetical imperatives, but not categorical ones.” Or, “Yes, this claim is contradictory, but only when we’re talking about phenomena, not noumena.”
Much of what we’re doing here at Culture on the Edge is not theoretically earth shattering. We’re just tracking the distinctions people make—for instance, between religion and politics, between religion and spirituality, between pilgrimage and tourism—and the social work accomplished by such distinctions.
As I discuss in my forthcoming book, Capitalizing Religion, a number of scholars distinguish between institutional religion and individual religion or spirituality; a number of them use the terms normatively, given the latter a positive valuation. Interestingly, they are using practically the same distinction that Ronald Reagan employed to distinguish between communism and democracy. For Reagan, communism is affiliated with totalitarianism, repression, orthodoxy, tyranny, controlling political forces, the subordination of the rights of individuals to the collective, and it stifles human freedom and muzzles self-expression—reasons for which communism is declining—while democracy is affiliated with diversity, tolerance, freedom, choice, self-determination, human rights, and is “responsive to the needs of their people”—reasons for which democracy is growing. Democracy must be helped along, of course, and Reagan recommended that we cultivate as widely as possible the ideology of individual choice. For Reagan, cultivating such an ideology “is not cultural imperialism; it is providing the means for genuine self-determination and protection for diversity” (see Reagan’s “Evil Empire” speech, given to the British House of Commons in 1982). Similarly, Wade Clark Roof, Paul Heelas, and Linda Woodhead—all leading sociologists of religion—affiliate organized religion with obedience, deference to authority, collective conformity, and iron cages, while by contrast they affiliate individual religion or spirituality with openness, freedom, options, individual choice, self-determination, autonomy, independence, and individual rights—reasons for which spirituality is a growing force. The fact that these scholars unwittingly and unreflexively mirror Reagan’s normative vocabulary is revealing; these normative distinctions accomplish social work.
We all use distinctions; which ones are central to your work, and what do they accomplish?