Beyond the Objectivist Conception of Civil Society: Social Actors, Civility and Self-Limitation

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Abstract

What I would like to do in this article is threefold. First, I would like to sketch the anatomy of the dominant perspective on civil society (which I call ‘objectivist’) by discussing its basic postulates. Second, I would like to highlight the main problems that are immanent to this conception. I will try to demonstrate the presence of certain blind spots, erasures and contradictions which are constitutive of this dominant understanding. I will argue for the need not so much to reject it outright but to try to transcend it by incorporating it in a wider and more encompassing framework. The attempt to achieve this constitutes the third part of the article where I propose an alternative conception of civil society that is based upon the orientations of social actors. My argument is that an alternative to the objectivist understanding involves treating civility and toleration as not simply being incidental but rather essential aspects of a proper understanding of civil society. The current literature's focus on non-state organizational capacity needs to be complemented by an analysis of the normative orientations of social actors along five distinct yet interrelated dimensions of civility. The perspective outlined here attempts to combine the ontological parameters of the dominant understanding of civil society with the normative criteria that usually get overlooked. It will be argued that, rather than being occasionally and unsystematically alluded to in passing, the specifically ‘civil’ property of social interactions should be recognized as the formative principle of civil society.

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