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The Politics Outside Public Reason

By September 20, 2023September 25th, 2023No Comments

Author: Benjamin Segovia

Every human drama, every theatrical drama in particular, is founded on the existence of established bonds, ties, pacts. Human beings already have commitments which tie them together, commitments which have determined their places, names, their essences. 

– Lacan (1991, p.197)

The symbolic order, society’s unwritten constitution, is the second nature of every speaking being: it is here, directing and controlling my acts; it is the sea I swim in, yet it remains ultimately impenetrable – I can never put it in front of me and grasp it. It is as if we, subjects of language, talk and interact like puppets, our speech and gestures dictated by some nameless-pervasive agency.

– Žižek (2007, p.8)


Liberal philosophers uphold that in a society both religious and secular groups should provide public arguments to support and commend common goals. A reasonable public argument is a form of justification that aims to legitimise a political value in public debates, such as in the Parliament or in the Supreme Court. They draw on John Rawls’ idea of public reason: the reflective instance justifying and legitimising a political value by making reasonable public arguments, which encompasses all citizens’ welfare (social justice, civil liberties, etc) (Rorty 2003; Waldron 2004; Rawls 2005; Dworkin 2013; Laborde 2017). For instance, to affirm the right of religious freedom or to approve free legal abortion, religious and secular groups[1] must put aside their religious and secular grounds (God’s forbidding abortion in the bible, John Stuart Mill’s utilitarian perspective, etc) to exercise public reason instead of entering into heated conflict. 

In this article, I draw on a post-structuralist perspective to show that the liberal idea of public reason overlooks the ideological construction of public arguments. The arguments put forth in these instances are mostly shaped by political dynamics outside political institutions that revolve around a deeper, often overlooked, ideological symbolic space. It is within this symbolic space that socio-political groups form their deeply religious/political convictions. Post-structuralism is engaged in ideology critique, i.e, the analysis of underlying repressive, but also positively productive, power relations sustained by socio-political structures. 

The article’s structure is as follows. The first section introduces John Rawls’ concept of public reason and some of its limitations. The second presents the post-structuralist approach to elucidate how public arguments are mediated by an ideological discursive field set by socio-political disputes. Section three concludes. 

  1. The Rawlsian public reason

Rawls (2005) proposes the exercise of public reason to facilitate agreement among religious and secular groups. Public reason is based on the exercise of presenting public arguments, without relying on particular arguments, which are mainly derived from any particular comprehensive conception of the good life. Rawls’ requirement stems from the need of finding an agreement “on the way” the basic democratic institutions are arranged because, for centuries, there has been a constant, heated conflict among socio-political groups on how to run institutions smoothly and no will for political cooperation. Public reason instances are best depicted in institutions like Supreme Courts: “[T]he Supreme Court is the branch of government that serves as the exemplar of public reason” (Rawls, 2005, p. 231). The idea of facilitating dialogue, debate and reflection among opposing groups aims to ground the common good of all citizens. Consider the case of education funds by the state in pluralistic societies. For Rawls, a public argument that justifies funding schools should not be found in scriptures or secular books, but in the students’ common good (ensuring that they have access to quality education, a healthy environment at school, etc). This common good is a political conception deliberated and defined in public reason instances. The resulting political notion affirmed by each citizen involved in this process might be, in some cases, the consequence or continuum of a citizen’s notion of good living or a citizen’s acceptable approximation of it.  

Other philosophers have identified limitations of public reason. For the philosopher Jürgen Habermas, Rawls’ approach inadvertently marginalises groups that are unable to formulate their views in an understandable form so as to turn them into public arguments. This may occur because some views are deeply entrenched in their religious/secular world-views or because not all participants posse the ability to develop public arguments effectively. To address this challenge, Habermas’ solution is to provide the translation of unintelligible arguments into deliberative processes (Habermas, 2006). Similarly, and to avoid imposing any burden on some religious or secular citizens to communicate their positions intelligibly, Cécile Laborde suggests that only state officials, judges and civil servants must put forward accessible and understandable arguments based on religious and secular positions as justification for decisions or policies (Laborde 2017). 

In my view, although Rawls’ idea of public reason helps to include both religious and secular groups in democratic political areas as a minimum basis of civic coexistence, he fails to cogently encourage religious and secular citizens to elaborate public arguments without any religious and secular grounds. However, the political dynamics within institutions are commonly affected by the popularity of political bills and their societal acceptance. Public institutions face pressure from interest groups, political parties, demonstrations, and the media. Therefore, it does not seem possible to develop public arguments biases stemming from religious or secular world-views. Indeed, even though reasonable public arguments may be taken into account to ground political values and policies, sometimes participants, who elaborate the arguments, may ignore another factor at stake when making decisions. Socio-political pressure is one factor. Another, more elusive one, is the socio-symbolic place from which participants view and interpret a fact, an event or a problem, and from which they then elaborate reasonable arguments. This is the symbolic space from which people perceive not only their circumstances but also interpret other people’s. This is the non-political institutional part. Let me unpack this in the following section. 

  1. Politics outside formal institutions

The non-political institutional part is the socio-symbolic place from which people perceive and interpret their surroundings. It includes the limits of the set of vocabulary through which people understand the world around them, including their set of beliefs, socio-economic background and inherited cultural elements. In psychoanalysis, the non-political aspect of reality is named symbolic order or big Other, the ideological tissue that structures and regulates human relationships. It revolves around implicit social pacts in every human coexistence. Or, as Lacan put it:  “Every human drama, every theatrical drama in particular, is founded on the existence of established bonds, ties, pacts. Human beings already have commitments which tie them together, commitments which have determined their places, names, their essences.” (Lacan, 1991, p. 197). The symbolic order works at an intersubjective level as a social imaginary among people because it is a shared virtual system of social codes. 

This discursive field also involves linguistic and non-linguistic practices among socio-political groups. For many philosophers, this space has a political character due to the fact it is where societal demands are mainly expressed and where common sense is socially disputed even though it is outside political institutions  (Mouffe 1993; Honig 1993; Žižek, 1999; Badiou 2005; Marchart 2007; Esposito 2012; Laclau and Mouffe 2014). For instance, feminist movements may not only try to influence social policies in formal-political spaces (in Congress, in the supreme court, etc), but also in informal spaces, such as universities, workplaces, and households. This may gradually shift attitudes towards gender roles in the social imaginary of society. 

For Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, this discursive field is formed by a contingent discursive articulation among diverse socio-political struggles (anti-racism, feminism, anti-capitalism, etc.), which gradually permeates political institutions’ workings (Laclau and Mouffe, 2014). This articulation is to forge alliances among diverse, although sometimes opposed, democratic struggles through negotiation or identification with similar purposes over the course of time. It takes the form of a ‘collective will’ cohered by the spreading of a signifier or point de capiton (it could be a leader’s name, a ‘sticky’ catchword, etc). A signifier represents a set of ideas and images across and beyond political institutions. When the scope of a signifier increases, so does the strength of a collective group of democratic movements striving to push their policies and demands within the state apparatus and throughout civil society. Suppose that in a climate change discussion with various groups, differing viewpoints emerge. Private initiative groups might argue that the market’s power can address the environmental situation with profits, while animal rights advocates may propose legal restrictions on certain capitalist corporations (industrial meat, for example) to reduce pollution. The force of the political articulation among animal rights movements, anticapitalist struggles, and progressive environment activist groups, united under the signifier, say, “ecology”, which is spread both in political and non-political institutions, might potentially tip the balance in their favour during the negotiations if the private initiative groups lack coordination with other social groups. In other words, the force of the articulation of groups rather than merely the force of the best reasonable public argument(s)–even by following the Rawlsian logic of public reason–may mark a big difference in the course and in the results of public debates.[2]

Secondly, a predominant signifier has an ideological character. For Slavoj Žižek, ideology, understood as a set of false beliefs and material practices, operates at the level of the unconscious while forming people’s reality (Žižek, 1989, 1994).[3] When a signifier encompasses a plethora of social groups, it ideologically promotes kindred socio-political ideas and practices which influence political decisions. In a public reason-type scenario, where all participants appear to adhere to procedural rules to engage in an appropriate debate, the act of presenting “public arguments” implicitly reflects an overlooked pre-existing discursive field developed by diverse socio-political groups. The common good participants in deliberative processes want to find is already influenced by participants’ unconscious preferences stemming from previous socio-political articulations. Additionally, the force of this ideology may create an uneven playing field for participants because of this articulation. In Žižek’s words:

[F]or Lacan, […] human communication in its most basic constitutive dimension does not involve a space of egalitarian intersubjectivity. It is not ‘balanced’. It does not put the participants in symmetric mutually responsible positions where they all have to follow the same rules. (Žižek, 2008, p.62).  

When a signifier is widely held among the masses or the general population, it becomes challenging to differentiate between proposals based on popularity or based on what is actually right or just in deliberative instances. In Žižek’s approach, ideology strives to be perceived as neutral, devoid of political colours, even if the set of ideas and practices which constitutes ideology often favours dominant social sectors.

In this sense, even though public reason instances encourage citizens to elaborate public arguments, these are mostly formulated in the non-institutional part of human relationships. This does not mean that contenders in a deliberative process participate in an illegitimate or a rigged instance, but the frame of a deliberative process is already mediated by a third entity, the ‘hegemonic discourse’, ‘the ideology’ ––the ‘other scene’ in Freudian terms–– which permeates the process and the results of a deliberation. Therefore, apparently fair, rational debates are influenced by a deeper symbolic space shaped through the course of different, continuous disputes among diverse socio-political groups outside public institutions. This implies that the resulting political conception from public reason instances is simply a blurry yet telling representation that has been galvanising the social imaginary of participants over time because of this symbolic space. 


Ideology critique serves to spot the delineation of power relations, and in this case, to contour the scope of political practices in deliberative public spaces. Although Rawls’ notion of public reason tries to ‘harmonise’ and regulate the social coexistence among numerous secular and religious groups, a different approach is used above to display the limits of the logic of public reason. The unfolding of a public deliberation implicitly obscures symbolic rules, namely, this ideological discursive field, which serves as the ‘backdrop’ of every human relation. The ideologically discursive field, and the common sense in it, is primarily and contingently made by the force of political articulations among many social groups. The appearance of impartial and ruled discussions is influenced by this underlying ideological factor.


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[1] Secular groups refer to world-views or conceptions of good living that are not based on common religious ideas and practices which characterise Christianity, Islam and Judaism. They may involve different ethics (such as stoicism, utilitarianism, Nietzschean perfectionism, existentialism, Kantianism, etc) and particular rituals, such as praising and reciting non-religious books (The Communist Manifesto, Marco Aurelio’s meditations). This distinction between secular y religious groups is attributed to political liberalism. 

[2] The force of articulation should not be taken as “the majority of people joining the same cause” as an aggregation of individual wills, but as a hegemonic “wave” which has a new common sense articulated contingently and discursively by different political forces. Laclau thought of this articulation as a trench war in which political groups dispute different signifiers, like ‘democracy’, ‘liberty’, ‘gender equality’, and the like. 

[3] In classic Marxism, ideology used to be defined as a pejorative concept; as false consciousness or a pair of reality-distorting glasses which hinder people to gain clarity about working-class people’s exploitation and appalling working conditions. In this sense, ideology was thought to be an inherent part of capitalism’s division of labour. However, in post-structuralism, or at least, from Žižek’s and Laclau’s theoretical background, ideology is defined as epistemologically neutral because the dividing frontier between an ideological tissue which constitutes a distorted reality and a non-ideological form which involves the ‘real’ reality is blurred. And, ideology does not seem to be inherently part of or associated with capitalist workings. However, this does not mean that ideology lacks power relations; they may be productive or oppressive, in a sense that it depends on the articulation of different socio-political groups and analysis of the consequences of it. 

About the Author: Benjamin Segovia is a political scientist from Chile. He holds a MA in political science, majoring in International Relations, and a Diploma Certificate in political philosophy, both from the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile. His research focuses on populism, ideology, discourse analysis, and animal studies, primarily within the framework of contemporary political theory. He is also a member of IAPSS and ELA.

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